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"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.

Sounds are filled with meaning. Poets can use sounds not only to create wonderful and complex worlds through words, but also to create a rhythm and flow that gives life to the wind, the footsteps, and closing doors around us. Sit quietly somewhere with colorful and unique sounds: an art museum, a lonely riverbank, or a bustling subway station. Write a poem about the sounds you hear. Focus on the poetry and music of the sounds, and how the sounds put everything else—nature, life, and death—into context.

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.


Workshops can be fantastic tools for writers: They can facilitate new writing, help with honing a current project, and provide forums for professional advice and opportunities for networking.

For many writers workshops can also feel disappointing or desperate, even subtly (or not-so-subtly) savage. Informal editing or writing groups formed independently by a few folks who know each other can be fantastic, but even these ventures can begin with high energy that ultimately fizzles due to mismatched expectations about goals, commitments, and organizational styles.

When looking for a workshop or retreat, new writers may find the scope of options intimidating. Should you spend a lot of money? Do you choose a program based on location and potential inspiration, or aim for a particular aesthetic or pedigree?

Fortunately, anyone can survey hundreds of options for free via online resources at Poets & Writers, Newpages, and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. There are also regional listings, such as Poetix and Independent Writers of Southern California. Probably nothing beats word-of-mouth testimony. However, you’ve got to tap into workshop and readings circuits in order to hear those words. You’ve got to put yourself into the mix, and then see where you want to go. This means taking some risks.

It helps to refrain from idealizing any one workshop session, series, program, or facilitator as the solution to all your writing needs. It also helps to avoid believing in an unrealistic outcome as the measure of value of a particular workshop (“If I serve the right tables at Breadloaf, I’ll get published in the New Yorker!” or “Just meeting with X will get me a job!”). Investing too heavily in a narrow outcome can distract from the focus of one’s goals—to keep writing, to get better, to fail better—and wastes valuable time and creative energy.

Remember that even great workshops can have “off” seasons, and facilitators are human beings, not magicians or saviors. Some workshop experiences are simply unpredictable. For example, I had the chance to work as an undergraduate in a college composition course at USC with Sandra Tsing Loh, who was a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the time. She continues to be a transformative influence on me and my writing, but being in her class was an accident.

I met poet Jack Grapes when, on a fluke, I attended the fantastic Conference of the Living Tree at Ojai as a first-year English teacher in 1992. Afterwards, I attended Jack’s The Deep Voice process workshops for nearly a decade. I drove my Nissan from Riverside out to Jack’s house in Los Angeles’ Wilshire District after a full day of working with fifteen-year-olds. I loved every minute of the trip. In Jack's workshops, I met writers who also had day jobs and were looking to cultivate literary spaces: Larry Colker (founder of Redondo Poets), Chiwan Choi (founder of Writ Large Press), and Mifanwy Kaiser (founder of Tebot Bach Books).

You get the idea: those unplanned, wonderful experiences were the result of my commitment to one central goal: to learn and absorb as much as possible. Attending workshops shouldn't be a passive exercise.

Of course, when researching workshops there are practical and philosophical questions everyone has to consider. First the practical ones: Are you looking mostly to generate new work, or to revise longer writing? Are you interested in genre experimentation, or do you want to hunker down with short stories or poems or memoir work exclusively? Do you want to compete for a place in the workshop based on a writing sample, and is there a fee to enter the competition? How far are you willing to travel? How many sessions do you want, and how much time and money can you budget? If you’re considering an online option, how much do you know about the structure regarding participation and feedback?

The philosophical questions may be even more important: Do you have any “hot spots” or “triggers” when it comes to receiving or providing feedback? If so, can you identify them so that they don’t impede your ability to participate openly? Are you willing to collaborate with people who may have vastly different levels of skill, or would you rather work in a more homogenous group? How important to you are the history of the workshop and/or the creative output of instructors or former students? How willing are you to risk and to fail in this workshop alongside other people—or is your main goal to get some basic human affirmation?

Ultimately, no workshop can substitute for reading and writing as much as possible. And the best measure of value for any workshop may not be whether you received praise from a mentor or an “A” in the course—or even whether you publish the piece over which you agonized so much. If the experience leads to more writing, a wider understanding of the marketplace, more endurance for challenges and a more focused understanding about what you’re doing and/or why you bother, that’s the long game. That’s always a win.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

PEN American Center has extended the deadline for the 2014 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a biennial award of $25,000 given for an unpublished novel that “addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” The new deadline is January 15.

U.S. writers who have had at least four publications (including single short stories or essays) are eligible. If a writer has previously published a book, it must not have sold more than 10,000 copies. Using the online submission system, writers may submit a manuscript of at least 80,000 words with a résumé or curriculum vitae and a $25 entry fee. Eligible manuscripts may not be under consideration by a publisher.

Sponsored by the New York City–based literary advocacy and social justice organization PEN American Center, the Bellwether Prize was established in 2000 by novelist, essayist, and poet Barbara Kingsolver, who also funds the prize. Kingsolver is the author of fourteen books, including The Poisonwood Bible (Harper, 1998) and most recently, Flight Behavior (HarperCollins, 2012). In addition to the cash prize, the winner of the Bellwether Prize also receives a publishing contract with Algonquin Books. The winning manuscript will be chosen by a panel of three judges, including one editor representing Algonquin and two distinguished literary authors selected by PEN’s Literary Awards Committee in consultation with Barbara Kingsolver. The prize will be presented at PEN’s annual Literary Awards Ceremony in New York City in the fall of 2014.

Past Winners of the prize include Donna Gershten in 2000 for Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins), Gayle Brandeis in 2002 for The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), Marjorie Kowalski Cole in 2004 for Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins), Hillary Jordan in 2006 for Mudbound (Algonquin Books), Heidi W. Durrow in 2008 for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), Naomi Benaron in 2010 for Running the Rift (Algonquin Books), and Susan Nussbaum in 2012 for Good Kings Bad Kings (Algonquin Books).

Visit the PEN American Center website for complete guidelines.

Photo credit: David Wood

Conveying how people communicate is a formidable challenge for the creative nonfiction writer because technology has changed—and continues to change—the very fundamentals of human interaction. Describing a series of e-mails or texts relates far less emotional information than depicting a verbal conversation in which a writer can chronicle facial expressions, voice inflections, and other physical details that inform the exchange between characters. But this is our modern reality. Write about an occasion in your life that exemplifies the shortcomings of communicating in the digital age. Capture the sensations of frustration, humor, and confusion that often dramatize miscommunication.

Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.

The Chicago–based Poetry Foundation has established a new annual award for poetry criticism. The $7,500 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism will honor book-length works of criticism published in the previous year, including biographies, essay collections, and critical works that consider the subject of poetry or poets.

Submissions are currently open for the 2014 prize, which will be given for a work published in 2013. Publishers may submit books for consideration by February 1. There is no entry fee.

“This must be one of the great historical moments for poetry, as there are so many thriving poetry presses, reading series, and astonishing new poems,” said Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito in a press release. “The Poetry Foundation supports poets through Poetry magazine, our website, and a Chicago reading series, among numerous other ways, both public and behind-the-scenes. But we also are deeply engaged by conversations about poetry, and this award for an outstanding critical book is an exciting addition to our roster of poetry prizes.”  

Books may be submitted for consideration using the online submission form, and must include the author name, title, publisher, and publication date. Two copies of the final book should be mailed to the Poetry Foundation, Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism, 61 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654.

The winner of the inaugural prize will be celebrated at an awards ceremony on June 9, 2014, in Chicago.

The Poetry Foundation’s annual poetry awards include the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is given to honor a living U.S. poet for lifetime achievement; and the newly expanded Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships, which recognize the work of five young poets.

Poetry has very powerful redemptive and healing capacities. The mere process of writing and reading poetry forces us to connect with life on a meaningful, meditative level. Poetry requires a deliberate and calm contemplation that creates spaces for forgiveness, understanding, and self-awareness. Write a poem about a recent disappointment in your life. Be honest about your feelings. The power of your poetry begins with your truths.

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

What average community college students may lack in literary experience, they more than make up for in curiosity and unpretentiousness. They’re less likely to know who is "famous" (and therefore supposedly more worthy of their attention). They’re less entrenched in parochial notions about genre and form, and are more likely to ask questions that are really on their minds.

In the arts, there tends to be a confusing barrier between community and academic programs. We also often make erroneous assumptions about what kinds of students should, or could possibly, be interested in literary events—as if they are the exclusive domain of English majors, professors, and MFA students.

In the past four years, more than twenty writers have visited Riverside City College for a series of readings and workshops. I’ve seen students connect with living writers for the first time—for various reasons, and with wide-ranging levels of understanding and appreciation.

Visitors have included poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Among our guests were Lloyd Aquino, John Brantingham, Billy Burgos, Ana Maria Spagna, Donna Hilbert, Juan Felipe Herrera, Judy Kronenfeld, Larry Colker, and James Brown. We’ve sought to mix new and emerging voices, nationally known and regional personalities, genre traditionalists and experimenters.

Our “Stay Classy” creative writing club and MUSE literary journal now coordinate readings in conjunction with creative writing and composition—and, at times, literature or screenwriting—courses. As a rule, our students have taken the lead to interview guests and prepare introductions delivered at events. Behind the scenes, they have prepared and circulated flyers, handled book sales, guided foot traffic, and prepared modest thank you gifts for writers. They have also learned how to compose press releases and advocate for funding.

For me, the most delightful impact of these events occurs when “basic writing” students—those students not yet enrolled in college-level classes—attend an event, ask questions, meet an author, and return to their normal routine stunned to be a excited about reading. In a noisy culture, no matter who you are, it is exciting to see how books are actually made by real life people who struggle over words and ideas. Students connect with that struggle.

There was the American veteran who talked with Tom Zoellner about how some people build their own firearms to outwit limits on high-capacity magazines.

There were the two girls who asked Stephanie Hammer if she had ADD or ADHD, with no offense intended or taken.

There was the student who waited at the end of the book-signing line because she wanted to give Gayle Brandeis a hug after her reading about her mother’s suicide.

And in the front row, two young guys who couldn’t stop peppering P&W-funded Chiwan Choi with questions: How could you afford to travel to Spain? What’s a ghostwriter, anyway?

Community colleges have a reputation as a sitcom punch line and a temporary stop along a student’s educational pathway. I love that our work to bring writers here for them flies in the face of these clichés.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In November, P&W and the Inlandia Institute co-sponsored a day of workshops and readings at California’s Salton Sea, led by Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan. P&W’s California office director Cheryl Klein blogs about the event.

Brandon Cesmat leads the prose workshop.The shores of California’s Salton Sea—a vast lake created when the Colorado River flooded salt mines in the Imperial Valley a hundred years ago—are littered with fish carcasses. Small as a child’s fist or large as a dinner plate, still shimmering with scales or dried to Halloweenish skeletons by the desert sun, they are a reminder of how delicate ecosystems are. The Salton Sea was a thriving resort community in the 1950s and ‘60s, but because it lacks a natural outlet, fertilizer runoff from nearby farms makes the water increasingly inhospitable.

The future of the Salton Sea is the subject of much debate, but it’s fair to say that on November 2—the Day of the Dead—the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was incredibly fertile, at least from a creative standpoint. Four writers with a passion for the desert—Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan—gathered with roughly two dozen participants for a day of writing, reading, and camping.

Tilapia head at the Salton Sea.It all began when Brandi M. Spaethe, an intern in P&W’s California office, took a road trip and fell in love with the odd, harsh beauty of the Salton Sea. She began wondering if other writers would be similarly inspired, and if locals might benefit from a literary event in an area that was hardly on many publishers’ book tours. She teamed up with Nolan, editor of the desert anthology No Place for a Puritan, from Heyday Books, and the Riverside-based Inlandia Institute. Sal y Muerte was born.

Nolan started the day with a quick tour of the grounds and visitors’ center, where participants learned about the lake’s history, dating back to the time when the indigenous Cahuilla made arrow weed huts in the basin. The group broke into two camps, poetry and prose, each co-taught by a pair of writers. In the prose workshop, Cesmat asked participants to use terms like “Pleistocene damn” and “step-over fault” in unpredictable ways as part of a “scaffolding” exercise. In the poetry workshop, Alcosser encouraged her students to consider the mysteries linked to the place and day.

As the sun turned the valley pink-gold, attendees clamored to explore the lake before dark. They took photos of the rotting tilapia and crunched bits of shell and bone—which look like sand only from a distance—beneath their feet.

The group reconvened around a campfire (the more outdoors-savvy among them had thought to bring wood and matches) and feasted on strawberries, sandwich rolls, musubi, and pan de muerto. Each of the featured writers took turns donning one participant’s headlamp and reading his or her work (except for Alcosser, who’d memorized several poems). Participants shared work too; three young students from the tiny nearby town of Mecca impressed the thirty-and-over crowd with their love of spoken word. But the evening didn’t feel like a featured poet/open mic formula so much as old-style entertainment: people gathered around a fire, exchanging words and rhythm.

Photos: Top: Brandon Cesmat (right, standing) leads the prose workshop. Bottom: a tilapia head on the salton seashore. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The National Poetry Series (NPS), the Princeton, New Jersey–based nonprofit organization that has helped publish early books by poets such as Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, and Terrance Hayes, may be at risk of closing.

Daniel Halpern, the NPS’s founding director, reports that because the organization has been unable to meet its annual fundraising goal, whether or not it will be able to continue programming into next year is uncertain.

Established in 1978, the National Poetry Series sponsors the publication of five poetry collections by emerging writers each year. The annual NPS literary awards program accepts unsolicited manuscript submissions through its open competition, and a panel of established poets selects five winning books to be published by participating presses. Recent judges have included John Ashbery, Nikky Finney, Campbell McGrath, D. Nurkse, D. A. Powell, Patricia Smith, and Dean Young. The NPS subsidizes the publication of each title, and pays each winning author a stipend of $1,000. Despite the tenuous state of the organization, submissions for the 2014 series are still open and will be accepted until January 1. Complete submission guidelines can be found on the NPS website.

Participating publishers have included those both large and small, including Akashic Books, Coffee House Press, Fence Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Milkweed Editions, Penguin Books, and the University of Georgia Press.

In a letter sent to supporters, Halpern says that a total of $25,000 is needed by the end of December to pay staff salaries and rent. He writes that the organization, which operates on an annual budget of less than $100,000, has been unable for several months to pay either the rent of its office or the salaries of its two employees.

Contributions to support the National Poetry Series can be sent by mail to National Poetry Series, 57 Mountain Avenue, Princeton, NJ 08540. Visit the website for more information.

You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.

“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.

Like snowflakes, every family is unique. From quirky aunts and greedy uncles to gracious moms and despicable cousins, every family is peculiar in some meaningful way. Write a poem about your family. Focus on the people who create the love, the pain, and the dynamics that define your family. Be honest. Be courageous. Be open.

The Stacy Doris Memorial Poetry Award, a new prize established by the San Francisco State University–based Fourteen Hills Press, will be given for a poem with a “truly inventive spirit.” The winner will receive five hundred dollars and publication in Fourteen Hills. The deadline is January 1.

Using the online submission system, poets may submit one poem of up to ten pages in length. The winning poem will be published in the Spring 2014 issue of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review. Students currently enrolled at San Francisco State University are ineligible. All entries will be considered for publication. There is no entry fee.

The award was founded in honor of poet and translator Stacy Doris, who died in 2012 after a battle with cancer, and whose “inventive spirit is legendary,” the Fourteen Hills editors write. “Every book she wrote created a new poetic world with unexpected poetics.” The award will be given for a poem that posseses Doris’s “spirit of creative invention and inventive creation; engaging wit and ingenious playfulness; discovery in construction; and radical appropriations based on classical forms.” Chet Wiener will judge. 

Established in 1994, Fourteen Hills Press publishes two volumes of its literary journal each year, as well as the annual winner of the Michael Rubin Book Award, a first-book prize given each year in alternating genres. General journal submissions of poetry, fiction, and art are open until January 1.

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