The Meta-Narrative

Using John Ashbery's poem "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name" from Houseboat Days as a model, tell a story by telling us how to tell a story. Scaffold the narrative by meditating on the nature of storytelling.
This week's creative nonfiction prompt comes from Vijay Seshadri, director of the nonfiction program at Sarah Lawrence College and author, most recently, of The Disappearances (Harper Collins, 2007).

Pacific Northwest Authors Honored by Booksellers

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has announced the winners of its 2012 book awards, honoring authors from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington. Among the winning titles are a semiautobiographical novel by a Bosnian expat, a memoir by an Olympic hopeful swimmer, and a contender for last year's Booker and Giller prizes.

Patrick deWitt, born in Canada and now living in Oregon, won for his second novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco), which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Ismet Prcic, who fled war-torn former Yugoslavia in the nineties and now lives in Portland, Oregon, won for his semiautobiographical debut novel, Shards (Black Cat). Prcic's novel was also shortlisted for a major award last year, the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award.

Washington author Jonathan Evison, whose first novel, All About Lulu (Soft Skull Press, 2008), received the Washington State Book Award, won for his second novel, West of Here (Algonquin Books). Portland-based graphic novelist Craig Thompson, author of Blankets (Top Shelf, 2003) and Goodbye, Chunky Rice (Top Shelf, 1999), won for Habibi (Pantheon Books).

In nonfiction, memoirist and lifelong swimmer Lidia Yuknavitch of Portland was honored for The Chronology of Water, published by Portland indie press Hawthorne Books. Washington State biologist Thor Hanson won for Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (Basic Books).

The book awards have been given annually since 1984 and judged by representatives from regional booksellers. For the 2012 award, the nine-person jury considered more than two hundred ninety nominated titles.

The video below is a book trailer for Yuknavitch's winning memoir.

Student Writing Contest Seeks Poets and Writers of Social Justice

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, is looking for works of poetry and prose from collegiate writers whose literary work advances social justice, in the spirit of Stowe's activism through storytelling. Accepting all types of previously-published writing, from poems to stories to blog posts, the inaugural Student Stowe Prize competition will award twenty-five hundred dollars to a current college or university student.

The winning work will also be republished on the Stowe Center website, and the writer will be recognized at a ceremony on June 7, 2012, alongside a secondary school student whose writing also strives to make "a tangible impact on a social justice issue critical to contemporary society." Eligible works may touch on questions of, for instance, race, class, or gender equality, and must have appeared in a notable periodical or blog.

Student writers may submit entries, which should be accompanied by three references, until February 27. For complete guidelines, visit the Stowe Center website.

Guardian First Book Award Goes to Biography of Cancer

Indian American oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee is honored for his "anthropomorphism of a disease" in The Emperor of All Maladies (Fourth Estate), which has won the Guardian First Book Award. According judge Lisa Allardice, Mukherjee, who began the part-memoir, part-biography in an effort to contextualize cancer for one of his patients, "has managed to balance such a vast amount of information with lively narratives, combining complicated science with moving human stories. Far from being intimidating, it's a compelling, accessible book."

The only nonfiction title on the shortlist for the award, The Emperor of All Maladies, which also took the Pulitzer Prize this year, beat out four novels for the ten-thousand-pound prize (roughly $15,700). Also competing for Guardian First Book Award were American Amy Waldman's post-9/11 novel, The Submission (William Heinemann); Down the Rabbit Hole (And Other Stories Publishing) by Juan Pablo Villalobos of Mexico and translated by Rosalind Harvey; The Collaborator (Viking) by Mirza Waheed of Kashmir; and Pigeon English by British novelist Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury), whose debut was also shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

"You never write books to win awardsthey are immensely gratifying but unexpected," Mukherjee said. "In recognizing The Emperor of All Maladies, the judges have also recognized the extraordinary courage and resilience of the men and women who struggle with illness, and the men and women who struggle to treat illnesses."

In the video below, the author discusses the origins of the book, and how it evolved into a biography of a disease.

Thurber House Announces New Residency Contest

Beginning next fall the childhood home of author and humorist James Thurber will open its doors annually to one writer for a monthlong retreat. The John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence of Thurber House, located in Columbus, Ohio, will receive a stipend of four thousand dollars and a private, two-room apartment in which to develop a work-in-progress.

The inaugural residency will be offered to a nonfiction writer, in honor of the prize's namesake, the late author John E. Nance, whose work in the genre includes books on the Tasaday people of the Philippines, where he was an Associated Press bureau chief, and the biography of a master potter. In subsequent years, the award will be given in other genres.

Eligible writers for the 2012 award must have published one book of nonfiction (including creative nonfiction) within the past three years or have a book under contract. The most recent book or manuscript, as well as a brief application, must be submitted to Thurber House by March 15. Complete guidelines are available on the Thurber House website.

Caroline Brown's Unconventional Journey

Instructor of applied theater at Cornish College of the Arts, Caroline Brown has facilitated workshops for diverse groups, including veterans, AIDS widows in Kenya, and incarcerated women, as well as P&W-supported writing/performance workshops with BABES Network-YWCA and Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle, Washington. Caroline shared some reflections on her work with us.

What makes your writing workshops unique?
For the most part, my focus has been on the use of theater and performance as a means of helping marginalized communities share their stories with a wider audience. Writing has inevitably been an integral part of this process.

What techniques do you employ to help writers open up?
I conducted a five-week writing workshop with Seattle-based BABES Network-YWCA, an organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS. I asked the women to help me create group guidelines for the duration of the process. One woman shouted “spelling doesn’t count!” I was so pleased to hear her say this, as I know were the rest of the women. This simple guideline gave the women permission to avoid self-editing, trust their instincts, and find their voices.

I offer exercises that reveal commonality and reduce feelings of isolation amongst the group. I do this by asking participants to create collective poems or short stories that reflect both the diversity and similarities of the group. While conducting the workshop with Compass Housing Alliance, an organization that provides services and housing to homeless and low-income people, we created a composite character that reflected each individual’s respective experience. The group chose a key turning point for the character and took turns answering questions as that character. They were able to collectively narrate the story of how he met his goals. I feel strongly that the participants would not have been as engaged had the same subject matter been discussed outside the context of a fictional story.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for underserved groups?
The work can be tiring and there are times when I yearn for a more conventional career. It is during moments of doubt that I remind myself of experiences such as the one I had working with incarcerated women in the Rhode Island state prison system. Upon completing a writing exercise one of the women asked me through tears if “we did these exercises on the outside.” She was being released from prison the next day and was scared of “going back to her old ways.” The workshops helped her to recognize herself as a good person, something she had never felt before. Her fear was that without such an outlet, she might forget this feeling and start making unhealthy decisions again. What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that such workshops are not so readily available to those who need them the most.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I am inspired by the risks individuals take within the creative process and the freedom they gain from doing so. My greatest challenge in this work is to remember how important that journey is to everyone, including myself. After seven years of encouraging others to endure the challenges that come with the creative journey, it is important to remind myself to embark on the same. I owe it to myself as well as to those who have shown so much courage in the face of their own hesitations toward the creative process.
 
Photo: Caroline Brown. Credit: Sven McNichols.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

A Story Grows in Brooklyn

This fall the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival is sponsoring a contest for stories and essays centered on the most populous borough of New York City. The organization is looking for "compelling Brooklyn stories from writers with a broad range of backgrounds and ages, who can render Brooklyn's rich soul and intangible qualities" using their actual experiences in Kings County as inspiration.

One prose writer, selected by a panel of Brooklyn authors, will receive a prize of four hundred dollars, and the winning piece will be published on the festival website. The winner will also be invited to give a reading at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, near the borough's downtown area.

Story and essay entries, which should range from four to ten pages (up to twenty-five hundred words), should be submitted via e-mail by November 25. There is no entry fee. For more information, visit the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival blog.

The video below is a trailer for some of last year's festival offerings, featuring shots of Brooklyn past and present.

Whiting Awards Help Early-Career Writers "Negotiate With Their Doubts"

Last night in New York City the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation offered another group of emerging writers what could be a life- and career-altering gift. Since 1985, the foundation has annually offered fifty-thousand-dollar prizes to ten writers whose early work suggests the promise of a flourishing careerJeffrey Eugenides, Yiyun Li, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and Terrance Hayes are among the 270 poets, authors, and playwrights to have received the award in the past.

The 2011 Whiting Writers' Award honorees, most of whom have published only one book, are poets Don Mee Choi, Eduardo C. Corral, Shane McCrae, and Kerri Webster; fiction writers Scott Blackwood, Ryan Call, Daniel Orozco, and Teddy Wayne; memoirist Paul Clemens; and playwright Amy Herzog. None of these writers applied for the award; winners are nominated by a group of anonymous literary professionals, which have historically included editors, agents, bookstore owners, and critics.

Poet Mark Doty, who received the Writers' Award in 1994, delivered the prize address, encouraging the winners to "savor this brilliant occasion of attention and celebration" and store it for those inevitable occasions where rejection and self-doubt threaten to define the day.

"May these awards...help you to negotiate with your doubts," he said. "May this award lend you aid and comfort while you move ahead in what I hope will be a long, happy work in service of what is real."

In the video below, Don Mee Choi reads from her book, The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010).

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