What writers can learn from Shakespeare–from Margot Livesey

  1. Don’t be dismayed or surprised if some pieces of work turn out to be rehearsals
  2. Be careful how you repeat yourself, and why.
  3. Begin dramatically.
  4. Don’t keep back the good stuff.
  5. Consider beginning in the present.
  6. Negotiate your own standards of plausibility.
  7. Once you’ve invented your rules, keep them.
  8. Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don’t need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee.
  9. Don’t overexplain.
  10. Be sure that borrowing a plot, a character, or situation doesn’t seem like theft.
  11. Know which kind of suspense your narrative depends on, and use accordingly.
  12. Be aware that form and tone govern content.
  13. Ask if your plot needs a subplot, or two.
  14. Develop your characters both as individuals and in relation to each other. Let the reader know which characters are major and which minor.
  15. Be ambitious with your language.
  16. Whatever you do, keep making rhymes, lines, puns, clauses, phrases, metaphors, sentences, paragraphs, sonnets, scenes, stories, plays, poems, novels…

–From Margot Livesey’s Essay “Shakespeare for Writers” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft on Essays from Tin House

A little #Rumi for what ails ya…

The Guest House

rumi116fThis being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu #amreading

17182114-1A fantastic book by a writer that is sure to write even more powerful work. It’s hard to believe a writer as young as Boianjiu could write something so assured and powerful. It’s called a novel, but it could very easily be considered linked stories–many different POV’s–narrators–stories–all centering around three young woman in the Israeli army. The most powerful story, “The Diplomatic Incident”, is an amazing act of story telling. Boianjiu effectively includes nearly half the globe in this story–pulling characters from Israel, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Somalia–switching points of view–bringing people from factories, from the desert, human trafficking, refugees camps, the military, the country, the city–all converging on a small observation post on the Israeli/Egypt border, to one guard tower and one particular moment in two female guards’ lives. In fact, pretty much every story here has the scope of a novel, but the tight control of language required by short stories. Consider my socks knocked off.

And it begins… #writing #amwriting

20140112-214505.jpgI’m working this winter with Peter Markus in his online workshop. I had once vowed to never take another workshop again in my life–I’ve done my time in workshops and writing groups and while they’ve been really helpful and have saved me an immense amount of time, I generally feel that I know what I want in my writing without the group feedback. But Markus is such an inventive writer and when the opportunity to work with him arrived, I took the plunge. Why now? There are a lot of reasons for this. Mostly I struggle with the idea of being a writer at all. It’s not a question of talent or skill; I don’t think it’s being egotistic or overconfident to state that I’m a talented writer. One would hope that I have some talent, being that I teach writing and publish short fiction. Talent is overrated anyway. The less talented writer that works hard is going to get to the same place that a talented writer get to, eventually. Of course, there must be some core impulse that guides either writer. I often think that the only difference between the talented writer and any other writer is the talented writer’s willingness to follow his or her imagination as far as it needs to go. All of this is really neither here nor there. Maybe I’m just lost as a writer. I’ve been plugging along for nearly twenty years at this with little to show for my efforts beside hundreds of drafts and a job that allows me to talk about writing. There are many days that I don’t even think of myself as a writer–or not only as a writer. It’s that old doubt spiral. When people ask me what I do, I say I teach. On my tax returns, I’m a teacher. What is a writer, anyway?

I know that asking any writing workshop to answer any of these questions is a little insane, but perhaps it can shake something loose and allow the bucket that holds my fears and doubts to plunge into the creative space in a new way. At the very least, I’ll be able to steal a bunch of his ideas to use in my own classes (feel free to imagine an evil, maniacal laugh if you’d like). Either way, it’s on. I’m writing.

Excerpt from James Kelman’s HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

20140109-214031.jpgI was thinking about this book today. I haven’t read it in nearly fifteen years but the opening and closing paragraphs have stuck me with ever since. Here is the opening paragraph, complete with crazy punctuation and spelling and sudden shifts in point of view. The novel is a stunner. And the last paragraph, which I won’t print here, will knock your socks off.

Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far, far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man. Edging back into awareness, of where ye are: here, slumped in this corner, with these thoughts filling ye. And oh christ his back was sore; stiff, and the head pounding. He shivered and hunched up his shoulders, shut his eyes, rubbed into the corners with his fingertips; seeing all kinds of spots and lights. Where in the name of fuck…

–James Kelman, How Late it Was, How Late

One of my favorite sections from Rachel Kushner’s #TheFlamethrowers

P9781439142011“I went down, strapped the duffel to the rear rack of the bike, and rode it over to the Bowery, to the Kastles’. It was my first ride through the streets of New York City, but on a bike I already knew. I had to watch out for potholes, and cabs that came to sudden stops, but crossing Broadway, zooming up Spring Street, passing trucks, hanging a left onto the Bowery, the broadness of the street, the tall buildings in the north distance, the sense of being in, but not of, the city, moving through it with real velocity, wind in my face, were magical. I was separate, gliding, untouchable. A group of winos in front of the Bowery hotel gave me the thumbs-up. At a stoplight, a man in the backseat of a cab, a cigarette hanging from his lips, rolled down his window and complimented the bike. He wasn’t coming on to me. He was envious. He wanted what I had like a man might want something another man has.

There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure. It made the city a stage, my stage, while I was simply getting from one place to the next. Ronnie said that certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes. But maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Like China girls. Flash, and then gone. It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.”

–Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

From “The Adulterous Woman” by Albert Camus

“Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom. Janine did not know why this thought filled her with such a sweet, vast melancholy that it closed her eyes. She knew that this kingdom had been eternally promised her and yet that it would never be hers, never again, except in this fleeting moment perhaps when she opened her eyes again on the suddenly motionless sky and on its waves of steady light, while the voices rising from the Arab town suddenly fell silent. It seemed to her that the world’s course had just stopped and that, from that moment on, no one would ever age any more or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended–except in her heart, where, at the same moment, someone was weeping with affliction and wonder.”

Various thoughts on #Change and Entry into the New Year


I’ve had long hair for thirty years. On December 30th, I went short. It was simply time. I thought it would be a sad moment, but it was a freeing experience. I’d been holding onto the long hair for a long time even though I wasn’t quite sure why. It just “was.” I think I was mostly tired of braiding it every morning. I was holding onto the idea of the braid and not enjoying the braid. It was like giving up a character defect–once it was gone,  I couldn’t believe I’d carried it around with me for so long. It was a vanity. I’m glad that the braid (fifteen inches long) will be helping someone through Locks of Love soon.

I only have one new year’s resolution each year: Take better care of my teeth. I’ve used the same resolution for about ten years because I like my teeth and I want to keep them. It seems to be working. A few of the ones in the back are gone, but mostly due to wisdom teeth issues. I like the pointy ones up front the best.

But I do like the idea of having a plan for change at the beginning of the new year. All is change, after all. Here are some things on my plan:

Finish the novel I started in the summer of 2012. I’m transcribing my handwritten journals now. Lots of work ahead.

Write some short stories in Peter Markus’ online workshop. His writing is so different than mine. I signed up because I hoped working with him would shake something loose. I’m not sure what it means to be a writer any longer.

Read way, way more. I read fifty books this year. In 2014, I want to try and double that number. I need to breathe in more books. Not analyze, mind  you, simply read. Last year, I read all of Camus’ fiction published while he was alive. This year, I have a whole boatload of reading goals, but here are the three most important:

Read twenty novels by contemporary women writers. I’ve posted about this before on my blog before and I’ll update frequently. I’m reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers now.

Also: Read all seven of Thornton Wilder’s novels. The only thing I’ve ever read of Wilder’s–and this was all the way back in high school–was Our Town. The man won a Pulitzer and a National Book award and hardly anyone talks about his fiction. In fact, I’ve never really heard his fiction mentioned in a class, ever. That may be my fault, but still I feel it should be rectified. Also, I’ll read the new Wilder bio by Penelope Niven.

Also: this year, I’m going to read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s the bard, yo.

Other goals of the year: more classical music. In particular, I’m interested in the symphonies of Mahler. I’m not saying I won’t rock, because I certainly will, but the classical realm has been calling me.

In my next post, I’ll reflect on the past year’s goals and add a couple more to this list.