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The end of summer means the beginning of autumn. This is a time of change. Write a poem about the changes occurring in your life. Choose powerful verbs. Focus on the feelings of expectation, fear, and relief that come with change. Use vivid imagery. It is during change that we are often the most alive.

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings & Workshops program is co-sponsoring the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction. This blog is a continuation of last week’s Two Truths and a Lie post.

One of the drawbacks of writing autobiographical fiction is that the people in your head are not imaginary. They’re real. They’re the people you love the most and are most afraid of losing. In the workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction, we spend time working through these fears. I wanted to share some tips for overcoming them.

Thinking Is Not Writing

You can end up using your imagination to create all the scenarios in which your mother is hurling platters, your father is explosively silent, and you are left out of all future family holidays until your little nieces and nephews, who once had gathered up in your lap, no longer know your name. All of this might happen, but you can spend so much time worrying about these possibilities that you may never get to the writing.

The truth is you don’t know the shape your work will take until it is written. Yes, you may feel a burning anger in the beginning, but when you write the story, you might be surprised by the gentle and compassionate portrayals you create. The very writing of the narrative will transform you and your memories.

Writing Is Not Publishing

Sometimes it takes years to find the right publisher. It took me six to find one I love, Sibling Rivalry Press. But those years were necessary, not only for the growth of the book, but for my own readiness to present my work to the world. So, write! You don’t know who you will be by the time you find a publisher. You never even have to publish. I trick myself every time by saying I won’t. It’s one way I’ve learned to be honest in my writing--by lying to myself.

Listen To Dorothy Allison

Allison, author of the unforgettable Bastard out of Carolina, was asked how she could create such brutally honest portrayals of the people in her life. She said you had to tell all you could about your characters, create three-dimensional portraits, so the reader could come to understand and even love them. She said, “If you tell enough … even if you use a character based on people you know, you don't create an act of betrayal. It is when you use characters in small ways that you betray them.”

To tell enough, you may have to dig deeper into your memories, read old letters and diaries, really remember--but isn’t this why you’re writing autobiographical fiction in the first place?

What a Coincidence That Everyone in This Class Is Innocent!

Allison also said, “I don't believe you can be any good as a writer if you're trying to hide yourself.” You can’t be like the preacher who only points out the sins of others. In your writing, you have to reveal your own sins as well.

I Don’t Make You Look Bad. You Make You Look Bad.

Let’s say you are innocent, but others have accidentally or purposefully hurt you. This is when I remember this advice from one of my favorite writers, Ed Lin. His words hit the bull’s eye in my mind. When people get upset about your writing, they’re upset that a certain truth, crime, or terrible memory has been brought out into the light. The writing is an explosion, but it gives the opportunity of transformation by forest fire, rather than slow suffocation. Most likely these truths have been stifling the relationship for years. In our writing we have the conversations with people we never have in real life. Sometimes with the writing, the conversations begin.

Lay Your Body Down on the Train Tracks

When I was younger, I spent all my free time in the library. The world I wanted to live in was the world of books, but every door I opened led to a room that wasn’t my own. I now know why. Not only is it difficult to find a publisher who wants to present the story of a Pakistan-American woman who is not oppressed, it’s difficult for us to overcome the family and community taboos of writing our own stories.

But for those of us who are called to this craft, we know we must write. Because it’s true, your mother, father, brother, sister or cat could end up hating you, but if you don’t write, you’ll end up hating yourself. Ultimately, we write not for the world but for our own souls.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from theNew York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Readings/Workshops (West) associate director Jamie FitzGerald reports on a visit to the P&W–supported EngAGE senior writing workshop, taught by Hannah R. Menkin. Menkin is an educator, poet, and visual artist, who uses an integrative approach to help adults, older adults, and veterans discover their own voice through oral history, memoir, storytelling, and the creative/expressive arts.

Members of the EngAGE writing workshop“What is a poem?” asked Hannah Menkin, facilitator of the P&W–supported poetry workshop for residents of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony. The participants answered: “expressive,” “cathartic,” “a tiny soliloquy that comes from a deep well,” “a mirror of what you hold onto inside,” revealing in these answers their special relationship with the art form.

Over the past five years, this Poetry Toolbox class of older adults has become close, defining itself as a women’s writing group. Participants regularly refer to each other as sisters, including new member Sharon Yofan, who commented: “I love poetry, but was absolutely blocked. I couldn’t write on demand. There’s magic in this space, and I’ve been writing ever since. I feel so connected to our sisters here. It’s food for body, mind, and spirit.”

Last fall, we reported on one of their Poetry & Tea events, which reaffirmed for us the transformative power of writing; this year’s event was no less inspiring. It was devoted to honoring women poets. Each participant spoke about what the workshop meant to her, read a favorite poem by a female poet, and then some of their own work.

Dolly BrittanDolly Brittan, who lived in South Africa for seventy-two years before moving to Burbank, described how the class has given her “permission to be.” She brought in a tribute poem to Nelson Mandela by a poet named cheryl irene and read her own poem about her pet tortoise, Honkytonk. Felicia Soissons-Segal read a persona poem in which the speaker was an umbrella. Abigail Howard’s poem “Jacaranda Oleander” left us chanting “jacaranda oleander, jacaranda oleander.” Another member of the group, Ayn Phillips, read a poem titled “Finding Poetry” that began with the words “Dam bursts…,” a phenomenon that appears to happen regularly in this class.

Also celebrated were Lucille Clifton, Linda Hogan, Emily Dickinson’s poem number 465, and Anne Sexton’s “The Bells.” At each turn, we discussed our interpretations of the poems.

The conversation turned to perceptions of older adults. After the passing of her husband of fifty-two years, Brittan is in a new relationship—“and at my age!” she exclaimed. Kit Harper was also trying bold new things, in the literary realm.

About submitting her poetry to literary magazines, Harper said: “Doing is a lot more fun than thinking about it. It’s a lot more invigorating.”

There seemed to be consensus with Menkin’s opinion that “The image of older people needs to change. Positive stereotypes are needed, not negative ones. I don’t like the word ‘seniors.’ I like the words ‘elders,’ ‘older adults,’ ‘wisdom people.’”

Maureen Kellen-Taylor, chief operating officer of the workshop’s sponsoring organization EngAGE, told a story about an older artist who said that “when she’s acting or writing or painting, she feels ageless.”

But the perils of age do surface at times. Due to a fall, workshop member Karolyn Merson was hospitalized and unable to attend the day’s event (but is now back and writing with the group). Now in her nineties, Merson is beloved for her wit and admired for publishing a book of her haiku. The class has coined the term “Karolysms” in her honor. Merson had wanted to read “A Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. In her stead, Menkin read the poem, which ends with the lines:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

These wisdom people know.

Photo 1: Members of the Poetry Toolbox workshop (from left to right): Sharon Yofan, Kit Harper, facilitator Hannah Menkin, Dolly Brittan, Felicia Soissons-Segal, and Abigail Howard. Photo 2: Dolly Brittan with a paper horse used in a writing exercise. Photo 3: A haiku-like poem/Karolysm by Karolyn Merson. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Creative nonfiction isn’t only about the past. History is always happening. Right now, at this very instant, your life is passing. What is happening in your life? What are your worries? Your problems? Your fears and loves? Imagine yourself eleven years from now, and imagine what your perspective might be on your current situation. Write about your life from the year 2024. Time may heal all wounds, but now is the best time to document your bleeding.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist's desires; this is where the story begins.

The Table 4 Writers Foundation, established in honor of New York City restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, is currently accepting submissions to its second annual writing competition, which offers five grants of $2,500 each to fiction and nonfiction writers.

Kaufman, who ran the celebrated Elaine’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for more than forty-seven years, was known for nurturing writers and other creative people inside her restaurant—and in particular at Table 4, where, according to the foundation’s website, she “offered writers just what they needed: sometimes a kick in the pants, an introduction to a fellow writer or agent, but always a directive to order something to eat.” She died in December 2010.

To apply for the grants, writers may submit four copies of a short story, an essay, or a novel excerpt of up to ten pages (or between 1,000 and 2,500 words), along with the required entry form and a $10 entry fee, by October 20. Submissions are accepted by postal mail only. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Works by the inaugural winners, who were announced and honored at a ceremony in New York City this past March, were chosen by a panel of publishing professionals and members of the Table 4 Foundation board. Each writer received $2,000.

“I’m pleased that in our second year we’re able to increase the amounts that we award our winners,” said Jenine Lepera Izzi, the foundation’s chair. “We hope that the prizes will help them focus on their work and also bring attention to their writing.”

The Table 4 Writers Foundation was founded on February 10, 2012—a date that would have been Kaufman’s eighty-third birthday—in order “to help struggling and promising writers, just as Elaine had for nearly fifty years.”

The center of our families, our homes, and our most treasured conversations occur at the kitchen table. We discuss the vibrant color of sautéed asparagus, the deep laugh of a deceased grandfather, or sit quietly, alone, worrying about our children at 3am. Write a poem about your kitchen table, and the food, voices, and thoughts it has experienced over the years.

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings /Workshops Program co-funded the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction.

The first question people always ask me about my novel Corona is if it’s true. Yes, like me the character is a Pakistani who grew up in Corona, Queens, worked as a Puritan in a living history museum, and hitchhiked up and down the East Coast in her twenties, but to say Razia’s life is my life is somehow still not true. Razia is Bushra 2.0: stronger, faster, smarter, quicker. She says all the things I wish I’d said. She doesn’t take as much bull crap. She’s me without the endless hours of agonizing, worrying, and being depressed. Also, most of the events in the book didn’t really happen.

Corona is a work of autobiographical fiction. It lives in that slippery place between memoir and fantasy. Autobiographical fiction skims the fat off the truth and then uses it to create rich buttery deserts for the reader’s pleasure. It recognizes that our lives are too fascinating not to write about and our imaginations too strong to ignore. Autobiographical fiction is an endless source of confusion for readers who want to know what really happened.

I’ll never forget the moment on Fresh Air, when Adrienne Rich schooled Terry Gross for asking the “biography question.” I sympathized with Gross because Rich had scolded me once, also with good reason, and it was scary. Rich, as always, was eloquent on the matter. She explained why the question upset her. Much of current literary criticism, she said, has devolved into a strange case of connect-the-dots between the writer’s life and work. The understanding of craft, of the writer’s use of language, is lost in these conversations.

I understood what Rich was saying. There’s an implication that autobiographical work is simply an advanced form of journaling. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When sharing a hilarious, creepy, or life-altering story, which might have really happened, the writer can’t stop halfway and say, “You just had to be there.” She must use all her skills to make readers feel they were there. Even more difficult, the writer must live the life first, a life of imagination, a life worthy of fiction.

As a Pakistani-American, the question of autobiography becomes more loaded. There are so few narratives available that readers grasp for straws. All too often, I’ve had people tell me that they just read a novel about a Pakistani woman who was forced into an arranged marriage or kidnapped by bandits and they think this is how all of our lives pan out. So I always add in my interviews that Corona is a work of fiction and not meant to represent the lives of all Pakistani women. All of us don’t dress up in Puritan costumes and work in recreated seventeenth century villages in Salem, Massachusetts.

This burden of representation, plus the fear of hurting our friends and family and adding to the racism in this country by airing our community’s dirty laundry, scares many writers of color away from writing their stories. For this reason, I developed the workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction." Last winter, the Readings/Workshop Program co-sponsored this class with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Tune in next week to read some of the tips I shared with my students to help them overcome their fears and write inspired by both the truth and lies of their lives.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

A threadbare T-shirt. A stained cookbook. A folded 1989 Yankees ticket. We all refuse to part with items that hold sentimental value. Write about something you own that would be trash to another person. Delve beyond mere memories and explore what—the time, the people, the circumstances—that item represents. Write five hundred words.  

Human beings are unpredictable. We can snap, betraying decades of impeccable behavior and moral living. A devoted wife cheats with her son’s tennis coach. A respected policeman steals M&Ms from a convenience store. A shy boy kicks a cup from the hands of a homeless woman. Human frailty is an important part of humanity, and our characters. Our attempts to hide indiscretions often lead to unfathomable tragedy. Write a scene where your protagonist snaps. Show, don’t tell.

After announcing earlier this month that Wendell Berry would receive the annual Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation announced yesterday the finalists for the 2013 Peace Prizes in fiction and nonfiction, given annually for books published in the previous year.

The fiction finalists are:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Random House)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain (HarperCollins)
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)
The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore (Random House)
The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown)
Ben Fountain's debut novel won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The nonfiction finalists are:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House)
Pax Ethnica by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac (Public Affairs Books)
Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan (Graywolf Press)
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Viking)
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (HarperCollins)
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon (Scribner)


Louise Erdrich's The Round House won a National Book Award.

"This year’s finalists examine conflict and the need for tolerance across the spectrum of relationships, from family members to diverse groups within communities to citizens of a country at war," said Sharon Rab, chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. “Each work reminds us that our lives are filled with moral dilemmas every day, and each work offers an inspiring model to look to as we strive to resolve the conflicts such dilemmas bring.”


Katherine Boo's debut won a National Book Award for nonfiction.

A winner and runner-up in fiction and nonfiction will be announced on September 24. Winners receive $10,000 each and runners-up receive $1,000. They will be honored at a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, November 3rd.

Inspired by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize was established in 2006 to honor writers “whose work uses the power of literature to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding.” The awards are given for books published in the previous year.

Windows, like frames for photos and paintings, provide a context to the vast world around us. Sit by your favorite window and write a poem about life beyond the glass: diaphanous oak leaves spangled in sunlight, fatigued men hanging from a garbage truck, chirping songbirds flitting through summer rain, a hunched elderly woman who feels forgotten. Remember: This is your window as defined by your life. Give yourself thirty minutes. 

In August 2013, P&W-funded writer Bushra Rehman released--eleven weeks after the birth of her daughter--Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press), a dark comedy about being South Asian in the United States. Rehman has been supported by the Readings/Workshops Program for her writing workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction." Her novel, Corona, was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Summer Fiction.

I just gave birth to a book and a baby. It turns out that in the time it took from the acceptance of my manuscript to the moment of its publication, I could create a small human being in my body. I’d never thought I’d give birth, but I’d dreamed of my book launch like other women (at least according to bad television) dream of their wedding days. I used to think motherhood would make it impossible to write. I didn’t know my daughter would change my entire approach to the writing life.

To Become a Better Writer, Become a Marathon Runner or Get Knocked Up

In What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami makes a case for staying in optimum health. He says the body needs to be cared for like any essential in a writer’s toolbox. I finally understood what he meant. Although I’d spent almost a decade working on my novel, in the light of my vitamin-pumped, fruit-and-vegetable-filled, caffeine-alcohol-and-smoke-free body, I suddenly saw structural flaws I was able to fix in the knick of time. It was as if my daughter was the messenger carrying the results of the soil test in Pisa, reaching the architects before the first piece of marble was laid.

Like Babies Through the Hourglass, So Are the Days of Our Lives

A newborn will show the passage of time like nobody’s business. Did she just have a growth spurt and burst out of that onesie while I was changing her diaper? Yes, she did! I know if I want to finish my next book, I better get to it before I’m attending her graduation wearing Depends. (This last detail might only apply to older parents like me.) I no longer make excuses or wait for long stretches of time to work. Whether it is at 4 a.m. or 10 p.m., if I have five minutes, I write.

Take the Red Pill and Leave the Matrix

The first time I heard Hanif Kureishi speak, an audience member asked him how he found the discipline to sit in a room every day and work. His answer was: “How do you leave the room?” I know what he meant. I too had become chained to my laptop. With my daughter, I had to unplug. At first I was resistant… Must check Facebook... But then I began to wonder: What is she looking at? Oh, wow, it’s a... cloud… it’s a geometrically surreal pattern on my pillowcase that’s pretty trippy. Following her line of vision, I was amazed by each tiny miracle strewn throughout my world and was reminded it was this poetic eye that had brought me to writing in the first place.

I have a body. My baby has a body, and guess what, everyone in the world has a body, including my characters.

Giving birth forced me to realize I wasn’t just a floating head in space. Not only did I experience a form of pain that burned away a layer of my soul, I suddenly saw the world of my characters as a world filled with fleshy beings. I could see their bodies like I could see my baby’s goofy-sweet smile and light-filled eyes.

Yes, my baby is the best audience in the world. She laughs at everything I read, but before you run out and get pregnant, you should know taking care of a newborn is hard, harder than you would ever believe! You don’t have to be pregnant or give birth to benefit from these thoughts. Try it for nine months: Live as if you were growing a human being inside you, unplug, re-enter your physical body and world. See what it does for your writing. If you do it without a newborn, you might even get some sleep.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

PEN American Center, the New York City–based branch of the world’s leading literary and human rights organization, has announced the winners of the 2013 PEN literary awards. 

First-time novelist Sergio De La Pava received the organization’s most lucrative award, the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, given annually for a debut work of fiction. A Naked Singularity, De La Pava’s novel about the son of Columbian immigrants, was originally self-published in 2008 before being picked up by the University of Chicago Press.

Katherine Boo won the $10,000 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House), which won the National Book Award in nonfiction last year. Robert Hass received the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his collection What Light Can Do (Ecco). The awards are given to writers of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as translators, playwrights, young adult authors, and editors.

“Every year PEN’s literary awards recognize the brightest lights in literary fiction and nonfiction and honor the sustained careers of writers who are distinguished in their fields, raising awareness for a diverse array of outstanding books,” said PEN President Peter Godwin. “These awards represent the best of PEN’s work in defense of free expression throughout the world—fighting censorship, promoting translations into English, and honoring both the new and well-known authors who make up the core of PEN as an organization. Their voices amplify our advocacy work.”

The winners and finalists will be honored at a ceremony at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on October 21. Visit the PEN American website for more information on the annual awards program.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Rhino, [PANK], The Bakery, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, Delirious Hem, the Los Angeles Review, and South Loop Review. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. This past spring, she participated in a P&W–supported reading with poet Heather Tosteson at the Dekalb Public Library in Atlanta.

Jenny Sadre-OrafaiWhat opportunities are there for younger writers such as yourself to build a literary life/livelihood?
The internet and social networking sites are wonderful resources for those who, like me, might be shier than others. They serve as great tools to be in conversation with other writers.

There is also much to be said for writers’ conferences and being in that kind of environment. There’s a sense of camaraderie and mentorship that is difficult to find once you leave college (if you attend college).

It’s really important that younger writers are proactive and seek out living the literary life if that’s what they truly want. Being passive isn’t really an option when it comes to being a writer, not for me at least.

Does your bicultural background (Mexican and Iranian) play a significant role in your writing?
So much of what I write about is who I am and who I came from. What Her Hair Says About Her, my second chapbook, is largely about having dark hair and wanting blonde hair, and then wanting my dark hair back. I associate my hair color with where I come from.

My fourth chapbook, Avoid Disaster, is based on my research of different superstitions from around the world. Those poems were written because I am an extremely superstitious human and because of the superstitions that were a part of my life growing up.

Can you describe a memorable moment from an event you’ve been part of?
After a recent reading, some people came up to tell me that they really enjoyed my poems about my grandmother and how she read coffee cups. That compliment led to a discussion about superstitions—which animals come for the dead in different cultures (a fox in Iran and a hummingbird in Mexico). By the end of the exchange, the group had almost tripled in size.

I always assumed that people would be leery of superstitions, but I’ve learned that most people are not only intrigued by them, they also don’t find them terribly difficult to believe. The conversations that happen after readings—and the listening I get to practice—are what makes them even more rewarding.

What are your reading dos?
I try to always be prepared with poems I think work well together and have a nice momentum, but I’m also ready to change things up depending on how the reading is going. I'm more aware of breathing and grateful for the opportunity to be heard. Perhaps what’s most important is that I take my time when I read, so I’m there in that moment with everyone else.

…and your reading don’ts?
I avoid long-winded explanations. A little background information here and there allows the reading to be more of a conversation, but I try to limit how much I talk between or about poems since I think the audience is there to hear the poems.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
It’s such an extraordinary thing to be able to meet other people who write or love to read and listen to literature. These programs serve as important reminders that even though writing and reading are mostly solitary acts, we are not so alone.

Photo: Jenny Sadre-Orafai. Credit: Stephanie Sadre-Orafai.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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