Write about something that has been passed down through your family for generations. It can be anything from an appreciation for music to a healthy appetite, or even a political bias. Explore both the positive and negative implications, exploring how this inheritance has shaped you.
Write an essay about your memories of Thanksgivings past, how your family celebrated the holiday and what it means to you now and why.
Last night at the National Book Foundation gala in New York City, novelist Louise Erdrich was named the recipient of the 2012 National Book Award in fiction. Erdrich, whose latest novel is The Round House (Harper, 2012), will receive $10,000.
This is the first National Book Award for Erdrich, 58, who over the past thirty years has authored fourteen novels and a short story collection, three books of nonfiction, and three poetry collections. The Round House, the second installment in a trilogy, follows an Ojibwe boy as he seeks to avenge his mother's rape. Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, dedicated her award last night to "the grace and endurance of native people."
"This is a book about a huge case of injustice ongoing on reservations," she added. "Thank you for giving it a wider audience."
In nonfiction, Katherine Boo took the prize for her debut, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). David Ferry, whose latest collection is Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012), won the award in poetry. William Alexander won in the young people’s literature category for his young adult novel Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry, 2012). Each winner receives $10,000.
The awards were given amid recent discussions among publishers and the National Book Foundation that the annual award—one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States, second perhaps only to the Pulitzer—had become too insular, and was in need of expanding its image and scope. Finalists in fiction included such names as Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz; the finalists in nonfiction included Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson series and the late Anthony Shadid's lauded memoir House of Stone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Honorary prizes were also given to author Elmore Leonard and longtime New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
Established in 1950, the National Book Awards are given annually for works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published in the previous year. For more information, visit the National Book Foundation website.
Write an essay about your relationship to food. Consider the following questions: Do you see food as merely sustenance or as emotional comfort? What is your favorite meal and why? Were you a picky eater as a kid? Which foods do you detest and why?
Write an essay about the five things that scare you the most. Structure it with numbered section headings that include each thing, such as 1. Fire, 2. Death, 3. Failure, etc.
The Whiting Foundation recently announced the winners of its 2012 literary awards, which offer ten grants of $50,000 to emerging poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and playwrights.
The 2012 Whiting Award recipients include nonfiction writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts of New York City, whose first book, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown, 2011), was among the 100 Notable Books of 2011 by the New York Times Book Review and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; poet Ciaran Berry of Hartford, Connecticut, whose first full-length collection, The Sphere of Birds, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition in 2007; poet Atsuro Riley of San Francisco, whose first book, Romey’s Order (University of Chicago Press, 2010) won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Believer Poetry Award, and the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress; fiction writer Alan Heathcock of Boise, Idaho, whose short story collection Volt (Graywolf Press, 2011) was a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize; fiction writer Anthony Marra of Oakland, California, whose debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, will be published in 2013 and 2014, respectively, by Hogarth Press; and fiction writer Hanna Pylväinen of New York City, whose debut novel, We Sinners, was published this past summer by Henry Holt.
Four playwrights, Danai Gurira, Samuel Hunter, Mona Mansour, and Meg Miroshnik also received the awards.
The "no strings attached" grants are given to writers whose early work suggests a promising literary career to come. Past recipients of the Whiting Award have included Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Tracy K. Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, and C. D. Wright.
The New York City-based Whiting Foundation has given the Whiting Awards annually since 1985. Candidates are nominated for the award by literary professionals, and an anonymous selection committee of accomplished writers, editors, and literary scholars appointed by the Whiting Foundation chooses the winners. There is no application process.
Sehba Sarwar blogs about her role as founding and artistic director of P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."
On October 1, 2012, Inprint, Inc., and the Poetry Society of America in association with Nuestra Palabra presented a panel discussion, Red, White & Blue: Poets on Politics, featuring Sandra Cisneros and Tony Hoagland and moderated by the Poetry Society’s executive director Alice Quinn. The gathering, held at the University of Houston, drew a mix of students and community members and there was a rich conversation about the urgency of poets to speak in response to social issues. Both Cisneros and Hoagland read work by poets they admire, followed by a discussion about the importance of giving voice to community. Sandra closed with a poem by Amber Past, who lives in Mexico but archives stories of indigenous women.
The next morning, I had a spontaneous breakfast with Sandra, who I know because I’ve been part of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop for the past four years. The group, which began fifteen years ago with twenty writers gathering at Sandra’s kitchen table, long before a nonprofit was formed, gave San Antonio and Austin-based writers a space to gather and share their work. Once Macondo evolved into a nonprofit arts organization, annual summer retreats were organized in San Antonio. At its peak, Macondo had as many as 80 members. We gathered in San Antonio from around the United States and Mexico to workshop our writing or to gain time to write. Today, the Macondo Writers’ Workshop is going through a transition as Sandra steps back to focus on her own writing.
Many artists, like Sandra, initiate arts organizations because they have a passion for their work and want to share art and resources with a larger community. However, there is a natural tension between the creation of art itself and the formalization of an arts organization. Art is not a prescribed process. One begins the journey without knowing the ending and most artists who start arts organizations either give up their own art or step away from the formal structures they create. Next year, Sandra will be taking a year’s retreat in Mexico so she can write. “I’m going to Mexico for the same reasons you go to Pakistan each year,” she tells me. “I need to be reinvigorated.”
The act of writing is solitary. We need community for feedback and support, but to create work, we need time to be alone. As I reflect on my visit with Sandra, I remember a January 2012 New York Times opinion piece by Susan Cain, who talks about how “group-work” is over-emphasized in today’s world. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,” Cain states. Her words make sense to me. In the flutter of our time, when to remain visible one must tweet or post on Facebook and always keep a product in sight, the need to slow down and reflect is underestimated. I applaud writers and artists who resist producing, and instead, dedicate time to the process.
Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.
One of the most dangerous pitfalls of creative nonfiction can be chronology, and some of the best essays are written in a nonlinear fashion. Think of a story that you know by heart--maybe a memory from your childhood, of finding first love, or of the birth of a child--and try to retell it without using typical chronologically. Start from the end and work your way back, or alternate between scenes of present and past. The result should be an essay that keeps the reader always moving but never quite sure of what comes next.
Dorothy Randall Gray is a certified life coach and best-selling author of Soul Between The Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing (Avon/HarperCollins). In addition to six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, periodicals, and theater productions. Gray’s creative writing and personal growth seminars have inspired thousands throughout the world, including the participants in her P&W–supported workshops with Urban Possibilities. She has also served on the faculty at New York University, as a commentator for National Public Radio, and as special guest delegate to UNESCO. She can be reached at DRGheartland@gmail.com.
What makes your workshops unique?
When I teach workshops I feel like I am in my glory. I am energized and in love. I’ve been told that my joy is infectious. As a spiritual activist I believe I was put on this planet to make a difference. The motto on my business cards reads: “Transforming the world one word at a time.”
I’ve served local and global communities from Mumbai to Manhattan, Compton to Connecticut. My spirituality studies in Eastern, Western, African, Native American, and Asian systems also add a distinctive flavor to the classes. So, when people attend my workshops I believe they can taste the love, the world view, the spirituality, and my years of experience.
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
I’ve got a wicked sense of humor and we laugh a lot in my workshops. Laughter eases tension, relaxes the soul, and frees the imagination. Shy writers may lack confidence in their work, fear making a mistake, or feel intimidated in front of others. That’s why I create a safe, non-judgmental space in which writing is validated, not judged. I never ask people how long they’ve been writing or how much they’ve published. I often pair students so they can read to each other. A technique I developed over 18 years ago called “seeds” is also very helpful. Now many other writing teachers have found it useful to employ this nonjudgmental way of giving feedback that encourages and inspires.
Everything around us is inspiration for the creative spirit within everyone. I love finding different ways of stimulating that spirit—music, guided meditation, movement, visualizations, provocative exercises, inanimate objects, colors, artifacts found in an abandoned house, even a Scrabble board.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I believe living on purpose is its own reward. I can hardly think of any teaching experience that hasn’t been rewarding. Over the years I’ve worked with postgraduate students, HIV positive men, battered wives, gay and lesbian populations, cancer survivors, mental health professionals, and writers from Iceland, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Trinidad. One recent experience almost moved me to tears. After weeks of teaching my writing class of 15-year-old boys at a juvenile detention center I walked in one day and they broke into a round of applause.
What affect has this work had on your life and art?
This work inspires me to seek as many opportunities to teach as I can find, and to write as much as I encourage my students to write. The joy that this purpose-filled life gives helps me navigate the challenging passages of my own writing life. It encourages me to push past rejection letters, ungranted grants, and bills that seem to multiply like gremlins fed after midnight.
Poets & Writers has been a consistent and invaluable supporter of my writing life. Its Readings/Workshops program enabled Urban Possibilities to offer my workshops to a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ skid row. P&W has also lent its support to Women Writers and Artists Matrix in upstate New York. In addition, its Southern California Workshop Leaders Retreats provide excellent opportunities for writing teachers to exchange ideas.
What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
I am moved to create new exercises and teaching methods. It keeps the teaching fresh and vibrant, and moves it toward the excitement of the creative unknown. This is particularly true of my work with incarcerated youth for Theatre of Hearts/YouthFirst.
What is the most memorable thing that’s happened as a result of one of your workshops?
One woman felt so empowered after one of my workshops that she stood up in the middle of a conference audience and announced, “I’m getting a divorce. Anyone know a good lawyer?” Another who hadn’t spoken to her mother in five years used my class exercises to write about the rift. At the end of the workshop series she called her mother and handed her those writings. They’ve been talking ever since.
Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center/foreground) with participants in a writing workshop sponsored by Urban Possibilities, which serves homeless men and women in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. For Readings/Workshops in New York support 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, and the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.
Write about a time when you traveled to a place where you didn't speak the language—either literally or figuratively. It could have been a foreign country or simply a different city, state, or group of people among which you felt like an outsider. As an ethnographer might write about a different culture, focus on how the people around you spoke and behaved, how you felt as you listened and observed, and the ways in which you were able—or ultimately unable—to assimilate and communicate.