Into the Darkness

4.17.12

In her essay "Total Eclipse" from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. "What I saw," she writes, "what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world." Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness—whether by your own choosing or not—and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.

More Words From Winners: Danielle Cadena Deulen

To accompany our May/June 2012 issue's feature "Winners on Winning," part of our special section on writing contests, we'll be posting a selection of mini-interviews with prize recipients on the benefits of their awards and what they learned from winning.

First up, we speak with poet and creative nonfiction writer Danielle Cadena Deulen, whose essay collection, The Riots, was published in 2011 by University of Georgia Press as part of the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction. The book went on to win another award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, which offers winners a paid reading tour of several colleges. Her debut on the literary scene, the poetry collection Lovely Asunder, which she'd shopped for five years, was also released in 2011 as part of a prize—the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize from University of Arkansas Press. Deulen discusses how her two awards in different genres gave her an edge in the job market and offers strategies for polishing a contest manuscript.

How did winning your latest honor, the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction, change your career?
I believe The Riots was pivotal in helping me to gain my position as an assistant professor in the doctoral creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati. Obviously, publications enable one to establish themselves in tenure track positions in academia—there’s nothing unusual about that. However, I applied and was hired as a poet. My first book, Lovely Asunder, was published in the same year just a few months earlier, and landed me an interview for the position. During the interview process, The Riots was published, and as it turns out, the faculty member that had taught creative nonfiction in the program at UC had recently left for a position elsewhere, so they needed someone who might be able to teach creative nonfiction as well.  This meant I had something extra to offer the department—important in such a tough job market! A more subtle benefit of winning the prize is that my work seems to have caught the attention of a few agents and editors at literary magazines I admire who’ve queried me for new essays.

Did the award have an effect on any decisions you made as a writer, on the path you chose to take in life or in your work?
Both prizes are recent, so it is still unforeseen how they might affect my future writing. However, in the responses I’ve received about The Riots, specifically, I have come to realize that there is a desire for innovative creative nonfiction. When I wrote The Riots I wasn’t thinking much about the audience for such a book and structured it in a way I found interesting—that is, I was working in forms that, at times, thwarted traditional ideas of prose, though were very familiar to me as a poet. As it turns out, other people found this interesting as well. As I move forward into new projects, in poetry as well as creative nonfiction, I will be thinking more actively about innovation: how structure might augment or illuminate my subjects.

What advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
This only applies to a manuscript that can be arranged in a variety of ways (poetry, essay, short fiction), but when submitting to contests, I believe it’s important to arrange your manuscript for a contest, not necessarily for the most artful arrangement. You have to keep two people in mind when arranging a manuscript for a contest: the contest judge and the contest screener. Be sure to research who the judge is for the contest you’re sending and read some of her work to determine if she might be aligned with what you’re attempting in your manuscript.  If you decide that the judge might be a good reader for your work, go on to worry about the screener.  The screener, who is likely a writer herself, will probably be reading your manuscript on a day that otherwise would have been a vacation from work and has a huge box of manuscripts beside her which she must get through relatively quickly in order to send something to the judge. This means your poor screener probably doesn’t have the time or energy to pour over your work; you must impress her immediately with something stylish and interesting.  For this reason, you should place your best piece first, offer her variety (in tone, form, or subject matter) throughout the manuscript to keep her reading, and be sure to end the manuscript with a strong piece as well. Then, cross your fingers, hold your breath, and keep in mind that dumb luck also plays a large part in this process. Be patient with yourself.

In the video below, Deulen discusses the variations in her approach to writing poems and prose.

While No One Wins in Fiction, Smith and Greenblatt Get Pulitzer Props

The Twittersphere heated up this afternoon after news broke that no Pulitzer Prize would be awarded for fiction published in 2011. The finalists for the award, also revealed today, were Denis Johnson for Train Dreams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karen Russell for Swamplandia! (Knopf), and the late David Foster Wallace for The Pale King (Little, Brown). No explanation has been given regarding the decision to withhold the prize, a move that last occurred in 1977, except that the choice was up to the Pulitzer board, and not this year's judges, Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, and Susan Larson.

On Twitter, Publishers Marketplace news editor Sara Weinman (@sarahw) inquired, where does the money go, if no prize is given? (Each winner receives ten thousand dollars.) Beatrice.com creator Ron Hogan (@RonHogan) bemoaned the perceived necessity of such a prize altogether, writing, "But, but, if we don't have a Pulitzer-winning novel, nobody will get the sales boost, and publishing will be DOOOOOMED! #waaah." Public relations maven Kimberly Burns (@kimberlyburnspr) offered a similar sentiment: "No #Pulitzer for fiction means go to an independent bookstore & ask a bookseller for a recommendation."

But amid the chatter over the Pulitzer in fiction, plenty of attention was sent the way of poetry prize recipient Tracy K. Smith, whose win for Life on Mars (Graywolf Press) came on, of all days, her birthday. The finalists in poetry, also published by small presses, were Forrest Gander for Core Samples From the World (New Directions) and Ron Padgett for How Long (Coffee House Press).

Stephen Greenblatt took the prize in general nonfiction for his National Book Award-winning The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton). The finalists were Diane Ackerman for One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing (Norton) and Mara Hvistendahl for Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs).

The Pulitzer Prizes are given annually for books published in the previous year by American authors.

In the video below, Smith discusses Life on Mars, including what Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey have to do with her winning collection.

Iowa Review Introduces Contest for Veterans

In partnership with the family of a Vietnam veteran known for his antiwar writing and activism, Iowa Review has launched a multigenre writing contest open to U.S. military veterans and active duty personnel. The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award competition, which offers one thousand dollars and publication in Iowa Review, is accepting entries of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction on any subject.

Pulitzer Prize winner and Vietnam veteran Robert Olen Butler will select the winning work from a pool chosen by the journal's editors (all finalists will be considered for publication). Butler, much of whose work is informed by his experiences in the U.S. military, served in Vietnam as an intelligence agent and a translator. He is the author of twelve novels, most recently A Small Hotel (Grove Press, 2011), six short story collections, and a nonfiction book on craft, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove Press, 2005).

Writers may submit their work with a fifteen-dollar entry fee via Submittable or postal mail (an extra ten dollars gets entrants a yearlong subscription to the magazine). The deadline is June 15. Visit the Iowa Review website for complete guidelines.

In the video below, Butler discusses how his time in the military led the former playwright to fiction, and how his experiences in Vietnam have shaped his work.

Hierarchy of Regret

Think about big and small regrets you have in your life—things you wish you had done, people you wish you had treated better, directions you wish you'd gone. Draw a chart that represents a hierarchy of your regrets. It can be simple or decorative, straightforward or complex. Then write an essay that explores what you see when you look at it.

Find the Unfamiliar

Take a walk that you know well—through your neighborhood, around the block where you work, or your route to the train or bus. Study this familiar landscape carefully, and try to find a detail that you hadn’t noticed before—a piece of graffiti, a certain row of trees, the pattern in which the sidewalk is cracked. Write about this new observation, small as it may be, starting with physical description and then allowing your thoughts to wander.

Memory and Place

3.28.12

Like fiction, good nonfiction narratives are often driven by description of place. Think of a place that you know well—your kitchen, your office, or a spot you often visit—and, from memory, write a passage that describes that place. Focus on the physical characteristics of the space, leaving out any emotion that may be connected to it, and be as descriptive and detailed as possible. The next time you’re there, read your description and see how accurately your memory served you. Take note of the details you may have missed. 

The Dimensions of Suffering

3.21.12

In Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), the author writes, “suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the shape and size of a life.” Write about a time in which you experienced suffering—emotionally, physically, or otherwise—and try to focus on how that suffering fit into the shape of your life then, and how it has helped shape the life you know now.

Kelly Norman Ellis on Chicago's South Side

Poet Kelly Norman Ellis, author of Tougaloo Blues and longtime P&W-supported writer and presenter of literary events, dotes on Chicago's South Side and the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

I’ve lived and worked on Chicago’s South Side for almost thirteen years. As an educator and writer, I am attracted to organizations that express a commitment to writing and art outside the academic community. Our writing program at Chicago State seeks to coalition build with community organizations so that our students realize the benefits and necessity of teaching outside of the academy.

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) located on the South Side of Chicago fills this need. NWA runs writing workshops for adults in low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago, and publishes selected pieces from those workshops in its quarterly award-winning publication, Journal of Ordinary Thought (JOT). Founded in 1996 by Hal Adams, Deborah Epstein, and Sunny Fischer, NWA grew out of JOT, which was founded by Hal Adams in 1991.

Hundreds of Chicago adults have participated in NWA writing groups in a range of settings—from public libraries and public schools (where parents participate) to social service agencies and public housing projects. Workshops are conducted across ethnic lines. In one workshop, I taught African Americans born in Chicago, Mississippi, and Jamaica; Polish immigrants; fourth generation Irish Americans and second generation Mexican Americans. Participants in these workshops write primarily from their own experience, but through writing and discussion make connections between their personal experiences and broader social issues.

Workshop leaders are Chicago-based professional writers and arts educators such as Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Parneshia Jones, Tony Lindsay, Carlos Flores, and Valerie Wallace, to name a few. NWA also has an impressive Writer’s Advisory Council, which includes Achy Obejas, Alex Kotlowitz, television journalist Bill Kurtis. The legendary Studs Turkel also served on the council before his death.

Our MFA program at Chicago State believes in the connection of writing and social justice. NWA demonstrates this principal at work by providing internships to our writing students on the graduate and undergraduate level, allowing them to experience the successful marriage of art and activism.

Photo: Kelly Norman Ellis. Credit: Natasha Marin.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Charis Books and More: Keeping Doors Open for 38 Years

Elizabeth Anderson is the program director at P&W–supported Charis Books and More and Charis Circle, a unique for-profit independent feminist bookstore and 501(c)(3) social justice literary nonprofit hybrid located in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a writing coach and fiction writer at work on her first novel, "Paradise Park."

What makes your reading series unique?
Charis Books is turning thirty-eight this year. With bookstores continuously closing, we will be the oldest feminist bookstore in North America and the primary LGBT-focused bookstore in Atlanta. Our events have always reflected the old feminist axiom, "the personal is political." We believe that fiction has the power to change the world and that reading can be a revolutionary act. We maintain a deep investment in helping to center voices traditionally at the literary margins.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
The P&Wsponsored evening with Sassafras Lowrey, editor of Kicked Out, an anthology of work by homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras shared her own story of homelessness and talked about receiving one teen's story via text message because the kid didn't have access to traditional modes of journalistic communication. Sassafras opted to publish it in the book with a standard English translation. That anecdote spoke to me about the value of telling our story despite the obstacles.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The life of a bookseller is a crazy one. We hear more confessions than priests and doctors. People share. A LOT. Folks come to a reading about how to turn a front lawn into a food producing garden and end up talking about their grandmas who, as it turns out, were from the same small town. By the end of the night, you have complete strangers hugging and smiling and trading recipes and crying over long dead people. That is the wonder of a reading at Charis.

How do you cultivate an audience?
It's about relationships. It's about remembering people's names and tastes. I call people on the phone. I invite people personally via e-mail and on Facebook. If someone buys an author's book, I remember. If that author is slated to read at our store six months later, I make sure to remind the customer. If the independent bookstore is to survive, it will be because of relationships.

How has literary presenting informed your own life?
It has made me a better writing coach: I can tell you exactly the moment at which you will begin to bore your audience (seventeen minutes, don't ever read for more than seventeen minutes straight, I don't care if you sound like James Earl Jones and are the best looking person on the planet, people will start to glaze).

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
All writers and readers have the potential to be activists if they choose. Bookstores are gathering grounds. They are the places to come and recharge your batteries or lick your wounds or rebuild after a hard political battle. At Charis, we fight to keep the doors open for our community because we believe there is a kind of grace in the act of gathering around stories no other space in our culture can provide.

Photo: Elizabeth Anderson.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

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