2017 Spring Conference Review

By Caitlin Herron


It’s spring conference season in the DMV, and it’s a great opportunity to connect with your literary community, grow your skills, and network with other local writers.  Regardless of your writing experience or genre, there are several upcoming events where you can hear some fantastic readings, socialize, and expand your knowledge of the writing world (and even catch some of our authors in the process!) These are events you won’t want to miss!


2017 NEW LEAVES WRITERS' CONFERENCE

Hosted by Fall For The Book, in coordination with George Mason University's Creative Writing Program.

George Mason University, Fairfax Campus
Monday, April 3 - Friday, April 7
Registration: Free
 

With no registration fee and no sign-up required, this conference is great for writers with changing schedules. This years’ conference highlights its first “Day of Translation” on Wednesday, April 5, presented by our friends at The Alan Cheuse International Writers Center and The Center for the Art of Translation. The day features acclaimed translators and writers presenting on “Translation as a Political Act,” “The Art of Translation,” and other topics. The rest of the week includes readings from established writers Laura van den Berg, Spencer Reece, Helon Habila, and the Loud Fire reading by Mason’s MFA students. (Several Stillhouse Press staff members past and present will be there, so don’t miss it!) On Tuesday evening, Mason MFA alum Mike Scalise will be reading from his memoir The Brand New Catastrophe (Sarabande Books, 2017). And on Wednesday night, be sure to check out Linda Chavers reading from her chapbook (This Fucking Body Is) Never Yours, from our friends at Gazing Grain Press.


ARTOMATIC

Crystal City, Arlington, VA
March 24 - May 6
Entry: Free
 

Artomatic is a fun way to experience all of the performing and visual arts the D.C. area has to offer - in an old laundry building! That’s right, this space has been converted into a venue for writers and visual and performing artists to showcase and sell their work. With so many weeks to visit, there is plenty of time to get a taste of this unique event. Come April 1 for a reading by Stillhouse's Andrew Gifford, author of We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford's Ice Cream Empire (forthcoming May 1, 2017), and get your hands on his exciting memoir a full month before its official release.


CONVERSATIONS & CONNECTIONS: PRACTICAL ADVICE ON WRITING

Hosted by Barrelhouse


George Mason University, Arlington Campus
Saturday, April 22, 9am-6pm
Registration: $70
 

This conference is the premier way to connect with writers and editors through a day packed with workshops, panels, and ending in a legendary boxed wine reception! Panel discussions include flash fiction, point of view, handling grief, and a myriad other topics.  There will even be a panel with Barrelhouse Magazine editors giving advice on how to get your work out of the slush pile and into a lit mag. This year's conference will feature our very own editorial director Marcos L. Martínez, Stillhouse friend and Editor of Smokelong Quarterly, Tara Laskowski, and Rion Almicar Scott, author of Insurrections (The University Press of Kentucky, 2016), a 2016 Pen/Faulkner finalist. A highlight of this conference is its speed dating event, where attendees can bring their poetry, short fiction, or first few pages of an essay or story for a 10 minute critique with an editor. Lit mags attending include Barrelhouse, Smokelong Quarterly, Potomac Review, Gettysburg Review, and many more. This conference offers a great way to get feedback on your work from a range of editors in your genre.  The best part?  Your registration gets you a book by a featured writer and a subscription to a participating lit mag.  At $70, you get a lot of bang for your buck!  


KENSINGTON DAY OF THE BOOK FESTIVAL

Kensington, MD
Sunday, April 23, 11am-4pm
Registration: Free


The Kensington Day of the Book Festival is a lively outdoor literary festival for every reader in your family. Over 100 authors, poets, and artists will be lining the streets of this charming downtown for book sales, readings, and more! There will be tents with an on-the-spot poetry competition, an outdoor kid’s show, and even demonstrations from cookbook authors. Stillhouse's Andrew Gifford, (We All Scream, May 2017) is a special guest speaker, so you won’t want to miss this event, rain or shine!


BOOKS ALIVE! 5th ANNUAL WASHINGTON WRITERS CONFERENCE

Hosted by Washington Independent Review of Books

College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center
Hyattsville, MD
Friday, April 28 – Saturday, April 29

Registration:
Mar. 2 – Mar. 31 $250
Apr. 1 – Apr. 29 $260
Student Discount rate: $130
 

If you have a novel, story collection, or idea that’s itching to be pitched, this is this conference to hit this spring! After Friday’s “How to Pitch an Agent” session, participants will have the opportunity on Saturday to meet face to face with up to three agents for five minutes apiece. Agents are looking for work in all genres: YA novels, memoir, sci-fi, fantasy and more. Not looking to pitch? There are still plenty of panels from publishing industry experts to attend, including the keynote address from Judith Viorst, best known the children's classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. This is a great event to meet established authors in your genre and get advice from industry experts!


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Caitlin Herron is the events intern for Stillhouse Press and a copy editor for George Mason's student newspaper, Fourth Estate. She will graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric in December 2017.  She also works part time in Parks and Recreation for Fairfax County. 

A Veteran’s Guide to NaNoWriMo

It’s finally November and change is in the air. In addition to the cooler weather and falling leaves, thousands of people across the globe have begun a writing challenge of epic proportions: to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November.  National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, for short) began as a challenge between five friends with frustrated writing aspirations, but has become a major creative campaign for writers all over the world. Why do people subject themselves to this writing frenzy? What is the point of just churning out 50,000 words? Check out this realist writer’s guide to what NaNoWriMo can bring to your writing life.


Revitalize Your Writing

To keep on pace, participants must write 1,667 words a day. For many of us with jobs, kids, and school, this is probably more than we write creatively in an entire month. But having a formal challenge can be a great motivation to finally tell that story that’s been sitting in the back of your mind for months. Participating in NaNoWriMo is a tangible way to “write every day,” and even gamifies the process with fun infographics. Knowing that there are thousands of others undertaking this challenge with you (and reading the weekly pep talks from authors and the program staff) can help, too. This is an opportunity to write experimentally, to become Betty S. Flower’s madman and steep yourself in the primordial ooze of pure creative energy. It’s low risk and the work is yours alone—there’s no impending workshop, no prying eyes, no concern for continuity or perfection. It’s an excuse to write what you want, not what you should. What sticks might just surprise you!

Start Something Awesome

On average, the standard novel is between 60,000 – 100,000 words, give or take a few thousand. NaNoWriMo likely won’t give you a full manuscript, but that’s okay! What it does give you is a start, one you can revise, tweak, extrapolate, explode, deconstruct, and reassemble. Your NaNoWriMo project doesn’t even have to be a novel; it can be a short story collection, a memoir, or a series of linked essays. Even if you don’t make it across the 50,000-word finish line, you will have more words than you did at the beginning of the month, and that is a victory.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of Workman Publishing).

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of Workman Publishing).

Quality vs. Completion

NaNoWriMo critics complain that writing 50,000 words in frenzy mode will only create bad content. The sheer amount of published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects (including Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants) have proven them wrong, but the criticism is a valid one. Some of the content you make will be filler: there will be flat characters, plot holes, and plenty of unnecessary dialogue. The good news is you have 11 months to sift through that content and decide what fits your project, what doesn’t, and what might make another, even more compelling story. For every component you find that doesn’t work, there will be one that does—but that’s not a question for NaNoWriMo.  December through October is for revising. November is for writing.

The Value of a Minute  

One of the best lessons NaNoWriMo teaches writers is just how valuable those “transition” times of the day can be. Sitting in a lecture hall waiting for class to start?  Bang out a couple hundred words while the professor sets up. Commercial break during your favorite show? Challenge yourself to see how many words you can churn out in those seven minutes. Waiting for your kids to get out of practice?  Pull up the Notes App on your phone and get to work. This anytime writing practice may just stick with you for the rest of the year.

You’re the Only One That Can Tell Your Story  

Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder and former program director, gives a pep talk every year in the first week of November, and one pearl of wisdom is always the same: no matter what you’re writing, the only person that can tell your story is you.  Every writer has received a critique that claims a work is “derivative,” that it’s “too close” to what already exists. Well, guess what? We all live on the same planet, and the realms of human experience are not infinite. Narratives are culturally ingrained, perhaps even tied directly to our identity as a species. But nobody is going to tell that story the way you will. Nobody will choose the language that you choose or create the characters that you create. The only person that can tell your story is you. So go out and write it.

New to National Novel Writing Month? Ready to write a novel? You can participate on your own, or by creating an account on the NaNoWriMo website, where you’ll also find forums, pep talks, a way to track your progress, and more.


Copy of Copy of Webber_ProfileImage-2.jpg

Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a collection of linked short stories and is a fiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing BFA Program.

 

Tania James at Fall For the Book

By Evan Roberts

Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

In Dewberry Hall during George Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival, Harvard alumnus and new Mason professor Tania James spoke to a packed crowd of eager, rain-soaked undergraduates. I was privileged enough to be one of them.

“I really was expecting to read to only two people,” joked James, author of the well-received novel The Tusk That Did the Damage. And while I was prepared to pester her with questions about the unique perspectives in her latest novel, she made clear that she had turned the page to the next section of her life, moving beyond this latest piece.

For one, she’s a recent mother, and is more recently escaping a year-long writer’s block following childbirth. With less time on her hands, now she writes in “short bursts,” as opposed to forcing herself to write for extended hours. James recounted that previously she spent long periods of time writing “because [she] had to,” but now believes that time wasn’t used efficiently. It’s a predicament I believe every writer can relate to: the desire to produce, or else face the chest-gripping sense of guilt. “It’s a waste of time to work on one thing if you’d rather work on something else,” she said. Amidst all these exciting life changes there is one writing ritual James still abides, one from before her days as a mother: the first two hours of each morning are dedicated to the craft.

Currently, James is interested in what she calls the “weirdness of early motherhood.” In this transitory period of her life, now she’s drawn towards writers who have a surrealistic take because she feels surrealism speaks to her own experiences of past events – specifically to her own experience with motherhood. This new perspective captivated me. It seemed to provide a new source of inspiration, a way to dwell on the most confusing of reflections, and to appreciate them not necessarily for how they actually occurred, but for how they are remembered. When asked how she balances surrealism in otherwise realistic stories, she said that the voice should not be trying to “convince;” it should not linger in trying to explain or rationalize the science of the world, and should instead state what is occurring with authority. By explaining the inner workings of our worlds, we bring unnecessary attention to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In the concluding moments of the reading, James spoke on the dichotomy between a novel-length work and a short story. To her, a novel is the culmination of life lessons and perspectives gleaned over a period of several years of the author’s life. A novel is essentially the product of “countless inspirations,” and I truly believe this to be evident in her works. In contrast, James said that a short story has an intense focus – such an intense focus that it’s impossible for her to see past the borders that this single inspiration has framed for her.

Before the applause of damp hands and the formation of a queue by the author’s desk came the inevitable question during any reading: What inspires you?

Said James, “Every day seems to offer something.”


Evan Roberts is the coordinating editor of Moonshine Murmurs, and has worked as an editorial assistant, reader, and media contributor for Stillhouse Press. He will graduate from George Mason University in December, 2016 with a BA in English.

The Road Less Traveled: a Visit With Porochista Khakpour

By Leslie Goetsch

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Born in Tehran and raised in California, the enigmatic and seemingly enchanted Porochista Khakpour has crossed the country and beyond in pursuit of the writing life. As she says in her essay, “My Life in the New Age” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016), “I always liked the road less traveled.” One of Khakpour’s latest stops was Fall for the Book’s New Leaves Writer’s Conference March 21, where she spent the day and night as a visiting writer.   

The Last Illusion, Bloomsbury, 2014

The Last Illusion, Bloomsbury, 2014

Khakpour kicked off the first day of the conference with a reading from her latest novel, The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She began her reading with a discussion about the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, which serves as the inspiration for The Last Illusion. Khakpour’s retelling of the legend centers on the character Zal, a child of the “wrong color,” whose mother raises him in a cage, along with her other “darlings,” birds. These two passages from Khakpour’s novel demonstrate her range as a writer. The first offers a daring, poignant scene in which Zal is cursed by his suicidal mother; the second a humorous view of Zal as he approaches adulthood in early 2000’s New York, where he takes a job at a pet store and falls in love with a canary.  (Zal’s story is also the inspiration behind the three striking feathers tattooed on Khakpour’s right hand and wrist, and although she makes it clear her mother would prefer the tattoo removed, it’s hard to imagine her without this physical reminder of how writing has directed her life.)

As part of her visit, Khakpour also spent time conferencing with MFA students about their work, offering suggestions and a personalized reading list, as well as advice on how to navigate the writing world. Despite battling a recurrence of Lyme Disease (precipitated by a car accident late last year), Khakpour’s energy never flagged. She was funny, smart, nurturing, and constructive as she discussed her writing, assuring students that there is, in fact, a life after the MFA and opened herself up to questions.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Khakpour’s struggle with illness is the subject of her next book, Sick (forthcoming in 2017). Sick is a real-time recount of Khakpour’s ongoing struggle with Lyme Disease, including her difficulty finding a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, and her determination not to let the physical symptoms of the disease interfere with her writing career.  While she has published many nonfiction essays and reviews, this will be her first full-length nonfiction work. During a question and answer session with the author, Khakpour explained that she first became interested in the project because she felt her experience could help others suffering from the disease. Interestingly enough, Khakpour says she originally wanted to publish a pamphlet that could be distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices, though her publisher inspired her to turn her reflections into a memoir.

The subject and style of Sick are a significant departure from the magical, moving fiction of The Last Illusion, but as her reading at George Mason revealed, Khakpour is a storyteller whose spirit and insight marks all of her writing. There is little doubt that when the memoir debuts next year, it will make for a powerful and affecting read, and greatly add to the ongoing conversation about Lyme-related illness.


Leslie Goetsch is an MFA student at George Mason University. She is the author of Back Creek (Bancroft Press, 2008), a coming of age novel set in rural Virginia.


 

Tis The Season... For Writing Conferences!

It’s March, and the warmer weather marks not only the start of spring, but also the beginning of conference season for literary organizations all over the country. The Association of Writing and Writing Professionals, the largest literary conference in North America, is in Los Angeles this year. But fret not; you don’t have to travel across the country to broaden your writing horizons.

The D.C. area has some fantastic conferences to offer that will appeal to all writers, regardless of your experience, genre, or medium. Each conference has something unique to offer, with plenty of readings, panels, workshops, and networking and social opportunities to choose from. Take a look at our round-up of local conferences to see how you can get involved  in the D.C. area literary scene this spring.


NEW LEAVES WRITER'S CONFERENCE

Hosted by: Fall For The Book

Where: George Mason University, Fairfax Campus

Mon. March 21st- Thurs. March 24th

Registration: Free

 

New Leaves’ events are all in the evenings, which makes it perfect for busy D.C. students and professionals. The events include readings by established authors Porochista Khakpour, Leslie Jamison, Jennifer Atkinson, Heather Green, and Tim Denevi, as well as the annual Loud Fire reading by George Mason MFA candidates.

Tuesday, March 22, Stillhouse Press will celebrate the release of its second book, the hybrid memoir POP! , from debut author Mark Polanzak. Fellow press, Gazing Grain will host a reading by Heidi Czerweic and Nora Brooks, the winner and runner-up of their recent chapbook contest.


CONVERSATIONS & CONNECTIONS: WRITERS CONNECT CONFERENCE

Hosted by: Barrelhouse Magazine

Where: George Mason University, Arlington Campus

Sat. April 23rd

Registration: $70 ($65 for students)

 

Conversations and Connections is a great place to meet local writers and improve your craft. The one-day conference features panels and workshops on flash fiction, writing ethnicity, and “late bloomer” authors, among others. Writers Connect is known for its relaxed atmosphere and emphasis on networking; with an “editor speed date” for lunch and a boxed wine happy hour, you’ll be hard-pressed to leave without a few new friends and contacts in the D.C. literary world.  Your registration fee also nets you a free book by by one of the authors speaking at the conference and a year’s subscription to a participating literary magazine. All proceeds from the conference go toward supporting participating small presses and literary journals.


BOOKS ALIVE! WASHINGTON WRITERS CONFERENCE

Hosted by: The Washington Independent Review of Books

Where: Bethesda Marriott at Pook’s Hill Road

Fri. April 29th- Sat. April 30th

Registration: $240 until April 1; $130 for full-time students

 

Whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned veteran, Books Alive! is a great way to learn more about the publishing industry and what’s going on in writing right now. 

The conference begins Friday evening with a relaxed social, followed by a panel on how to pitch an agent. Writers can then use the suggestions from the panel in the Agent Pitch sessions, which will take place throughout the day Saturday. This year’s keynote speaker is Bob Woodward, award-winning investigative journalist for The Washington Post and best-selling nonfiction author, followed by panels on everything from voice in memoir to adapting books to film.

Be sure to catch the Small Press Panel at the end of the day, which will feature Director of the Santa Fe Writers Project and Friend of Stillhouse, Andrew Gifford and our very own Editor-in-Chief Marcos L. Martínez!


Michelle Webber is the Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press.  She is currently working on a science fiction novel and is a fiction candidate in George Mason University's BFA Program.

A Lesson in Tension

By Suzy Rigdon

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial, 1999) and A Year and a Day: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories, This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial, 1999) and A Year and a Day: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories, This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Compelling writing is about tension, Leslie Pietrzyk told graduate students from George Mason's MFA program during her Visiting Writers workshop in early February. Invoking the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock, Pietrzyk gave the example of film: if the audience sees a group of people on a train and then it explodes, we are surprised, Pietrzyk said. However, if we watch a group of men playing cards on the train and beneath their seat, visible only to the audience, the bomb counts down the seconds, we are hooked, our hearts racing.

Pietrzyk knows tension. Her fascinating collection This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) revolves around a single theme: in each of the stories, a woman’s young husband dies unexpectedly. From the very start, we know the direction each story will take; yet we read all sixteen stories, waiting for each discovery, anxious to see how the widow(s) will react. With each new tale, we grieve or laugh or shout alongside her.

If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

For Pietrzyk's craft workshop, I chose to work on a piece that had already earned a handful of rejections from literary magazines. Turns out the problem was pretty straightforward: I had pulled a punch in my story, springing a revelation on readers just as it had been sprung on me during the writing process. But readers don't like to be surprised, Pietrzyk said. They feel duped, tricked, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character finally discovers he was dead the whole time. It’s better to give more information to the reader up front, rather than surprise them later. If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

This Angel on My Chest, University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

This Angel on My Chest, University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

In Pietrzyk's story “I am the Widow," the title sets up the tension well. Widow is a strong word—evocative. Even before we start reading, we feel we know this woman. We become settled in our expectations, so even as the widow mentally (and seemingly irrationally) lashes out at the friends and family during her husband’s funeral, at the mementos they drop into his coffin, we stay with her. Her pain and anger makes us hurt, too.

Pietrzyk is a master of her craft. She tells stories in the second person, transforms narrative into lists and indices of foods, a quiz, and even a 40-page craft lecture told from twelve different perspectives. She builds stories from the point of tension. As she explained during her craft seminar, tension has to come somewhere between the external story (i.e. the plot and action), and the internal story (the emotional life and motivations of characters that ultimately create conflict). Even when writing in the most unconventional of ways, Pietrzyk succeeds at this.

At her reading, Pietrzyk told a crowded room of writers and readers that her self-challenge while writing This Angel on My Chest. was to feature at least one hard truth about herself as a woman, a writer, a wife or a widow in each of her stories. She considered releasing the book without giving readers the truth of her inspiration, but ultimately decided she needed to. Although she hopes readers don’t get wrapped up in looking for the factual truth in her stories, this knowledge creates a different type of tension.

Good analysis and good writing both stem from the same place: asking questions. How do you begin to revise a story you’ve spent weeks on, one that has already been rejected a few times? Think about the tension, Pietrzyk recommends. What kind of story do you want this to be? What do you want the reader to care about? Everything needs to lead toward something, she said. And in This Angel on My Chest—as in all of her writing—everything does.


Suzy Rigdon is the author of Into the Night (Spencer Hill Press, 2014), and has also been published in The Albion Review and Word of Mouth Literary Magazine. She is a second year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is the Marketing Director for the Fall for the Book literary festival. To find out more, visit her website at suzannerigdonauthor.com or follow her on Twitter @SuzyRigdon.

A Lesson Before Writing

By Kelly Foster

(Vintage 1994)

(Vintage 1994)

Speaking to themes found in his Oprah Book Club bestseller, A Lesson Before Dying (Vintage 1994), Ernest J. Gaines headlined events Sept. 28 at the 2015 Fall for the Book festival. In an event at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena, Gaines joined Professor of English and African American Studies, Keith Clark, where the two men discussed the seedlings for Gaines’ novel, and its significance in bringing awareness to racial understanding.

“Everyone learns something,” Gaines said of the characters in his novel, though he could easily have been referring to himself and the audience. Gaines received a 1993 Macarthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius Grant,” which he won for brilliantly illustrating racism in his novels, drawing from his own history of dealing with prejudice. Due to segregation laws in the south, Gaines had never stepped inside a library until he left Louisiana. When he eventually moved to California, where he was finally able to visit a library for the first time, he “had never seen so many beautiful things,” he said. “I found I could sit there all day long and dream.” This dreaming led him further into his career, creating characters who resonate with readers.

Gaines also talked about the effect his characters—most of whom are uneducated, and largely inspired by his neighbors in Louisiana—have had on his own life. “All of them,” Gaines said, when asked if his characters surprised or represented him in any way. “My characters are a part of me—if I did not love my character, I could not write about him.”

Photo courtesy of @ErnestJGaines

Photo courtesy of @ErnestJGaines

He chuckled warmly when asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers. “Read, read, write, write. A writer is going to be a writer. Write about experience; write while under conditions,” Gaines declared in his characteristic raspy voice. “This world has never helped the artist—this isn’t new. But a writer is going to write.”

Gaines concluded with a reflection on his character, Jefferson’s death in the electric chair. “As a writer, I am going to write it so well, you’ll feel it,” he told Clark and the audience. Not unlike the powerful resolution to A Lesson Before Dying, it was a powerful ending to the conversation, the effect of his words clearly palpable within the audience. He said, for each person, he or she will gain an understanding of something in their life. For Gaines, it was creating characters, even as he was only just growing into a man himself. He advised younger audience members to keep pursuing their individual gifts until their own words become powerful too.


Kelly Foster is a first year poet in the Bachelors of Fine Arts, Creative Writing program at George Mason University. She has lived in Northern Virginia for the past 10 years.


Foster's post was selected as the winner of the Moonshine Murmurs Ernest J. Gaines Blog Contest.

Honorable Mention: Ana Machado Silva.

James Thomas to Mason MFA: “Get In, Get Out”

By Brittany Kerfoot

James Thomas, editor of the Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction volumes of very short stories, was on campus March 24 sharing his advice with George Mason University MFA students on the form of flash fiction and several readings from his newest addition to the short fiction family, Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton 2014) which hits shelves April 13.

Thomas, who completed his own MFA with Bowling Green State University in Ohio, opened the workshop with a reading from “A Fable," a story from the inaugural edition of Sudden Fiction (Gibbs Smith 1983); “The young man was clean shaven and neatly dressed,” Thomas read, the description a stark contrast to Thomas’ own thick, graying beard, gold necklace, and brown suede vest and T-shirt. His demeanor was laid-back and he was immediately approachable, frequently cracking jokes and encouraging conversation within the group.

As the afternoon moved on, Thomas proved to be a wealth of knowledge, detailing the appeal of short fiction (or “subway fiction,” as he put it): “People can get to know a character and even see that character change in a short amount of time, like during a subway ride." And with readers’ attention spans seemingly getting shorter and shorter, micro-fiction is increasingly growing in popularity. For those looking to try their hand at writing a very short story, Thomas advised that “flash fiction relies heavily on tension and metaphor. You can have a story without a conflict, but you can’t have a story without tension.”

Thomas read several stories from other volumes he has edited, all with an apparent shared theme: suicide and death. “We are as interested in sex and death in fiction as we are in life,” he said. “It’s something we’re both obsessed with and something we fear.”

Flash Fiction International, Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

Flash Fiction International, Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

When asked what advice he would impart upon aspiring writers, he had several shades of wisdom, including perhaps the most painfully obvious one for any young writer: “Chain yourself to your chair, because almost anything can tempt you away from writing.” Thomas warned about the importance of perseverance and, as most writers can attest, the necessity of revision: “It’s all about going there, doing it, and revision, revision, revision. If you feel you’ve got it on the first draft, you don’t.”

After a quick break for a bit to eat and a smoke, Thomas’ more formal reading began. Following a short introduction from friend and fellow writer Alan Cheuse, Thomas read from his newest collection, which he co-edited with Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. One of the stories he read detailed an insomniac who can’t sleep even after he commits suicide, while another, “The Light Eater” followed a woman who eats light bulbs to summon home her lost lover. Most of the pieces contained elements of magical realism, a genre that seems to be making a popular comeback, perhaps especially with the short form.

Thomas concluded the reading, quite appropriately, with a quote from Raymond Carver’s wise advice for short story writers: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”

Go on, indeed.


Brittany is a third year fiction candidate in George Mason University's Master of Fine Arts program, where she also teaches English Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in Paper Tape Magazine, Driftwood Press, Four Ties Review, and Cactus Heart Press. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her fiancé and their many pets.

An Afternoon With Lucas Mann

By Emily Heiden

Lucas Mann wears a humble smile as he passes out a story he wants us to read.  It’s not one that he has written – this particular piece is about a journalist who endangered his life during the Vietnam War in the name of a new kind of reporting. We discuss the ethics of such a piece and what it means to immerse oneself in a specific place in order to write about it.

Mann too has immersed himself in this way, except that his place was a small town in Iowa, where he watched a lot of men play (and lose) a lot of baseball, and sometimes he dressed up in a giant suit as the team’s mascot, ‘Louie the Lumberking’.   

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, Lucas Mann (Vintage 2014)

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, Lucas Mann (Vintage 2014)

He talked with us about this type of reporting, or nonfiction – about “showing up somewhere and simply not getting turned away” – and what kinds of projects can take shape when writers are allowed to stay and really come to know a people and a place. Mann’s book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Vintage 2014), is a lovely example of what can emerge from hunkering down and observing a subject until a writer finds the story; that team, those men, that place.

Class A is an explication of what Mann observed in Clinton, Iowa: men imported from around the world to play baseball in one of the lowest-level leagues that exists; the people who populate the stands; the workings of the town itself.  It shows us an enigmatic factory on the edge of town that emanates a terrible smell, the train-cars filled with tons upon tons of corn being shipped out of the Midwest for processing and livestock feed, photos of players’ girlfriends – who the men call a “blessing” – and other instances of surprising humanity that tug at the heart.     

I learned a lot from Class A, from Mann’s decision to begin in medias res, in which he “enter[s] his torso” (code for pulling on his mascot outfit to become Louie the Lumberking) to the effective portraits he paints of both people and place.  His writing – and his teaching style – captured even this decidedly non-baseball-loving reader’s attention.


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Emily Heiden writes creative nonfiction at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition, creative writing, and literature classes.  She will graduate with her Master of Fine Arts degree this spring.  She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Iowa and a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Connecticut, which is her home state.

Politics & Prose and Stillhouse Press Celebrate the Life of Local Writer, Wendi Kaufman

By Meghan McNamara

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Osborne, http://www.elizabethosborne.com

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Osborne, http://www.elizabethosborne.com

I have read Wendi Kaufman’s short stories again and again. When Stillhouse Press first selected her collection as its debut publication, I devoured them. When the books arrived in our offices the morning that we learned Wendi had passed, I found consolation in them. In the months that followed, as we organized an early release of Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories and fervently promoted the collection, I came to know her narrators intimately. Wendi never had the opportunity to complete an interview about her book, but her voice lives on—powerfully, enchantingly, painfully—in this voice-driven collection.

This sentiment was fondly echoed Jan. 25th at Politics & Prose Bookstore in NW Washington, D.C. at the event celebrating Wendi Kaufman’s life and work.  Stillhouse Press Editor, Marcos L. Martínez said of Wendi, “The same caring spirit that she possessed in life is vivid on the pages and focused on her characters; young women in difficult situations, always aware that the other shoe is about to drop, surviving and sharing their wisdom from story to story.”

Mary Kay Zuravleff, speaking Jan. 25 at the Wendi Kaufman Memorial Celebration

Mary Kay Zuravleff, speaking Jan. 25 at the Wendi Kaufman Memorial Celebration

Mary Kay Zuravleff (Man Alive!), who penned the introduction to Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, remembered Wendi’s ebullient energy, which had the power to inspire writers of all backgrounds, young and old, established and emerging. “She brought the party to the room,” said Zuravleff, who shared memories about informal literary salons on the Kaufman front porch and her work with the Changing Lives Through Literature Initiative, through which Wendi taught creative writing to female juvenile offenders. “My girls, she called them,” Zuravleff remembered warmly.

Scott W. Berg (38 Nooses)—a long-time peer of Wendi’s and co-founder of the Rotisserie Writers Group, which she and Berg and three other graduates of George Mason University’s MFA program maintained informally for the better part of 20 years—reflected on the early iterations of “Helen on 86th Street,” the title story in Wendi’s collection, which was first published in The New Yorker in 1997. “She caught lightning in a bottle with [that] story,” he said. “Helen on 86th Street” was easily Wendi’s most successful story, appearing in The Best American Short Stories, The Elements of Literature textbook, and later adapted into a play, before becoming the face of her full collection.

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, Wendi Kaufman (Stillhouse Press 2014)

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, Wendi Kaufman (Stillhouse Press 2014)

During the event Jan. 25, Berg read from the final scene in the story: the pinnacle moment in which Vita, the 12-year old narrator, enacts the closing scene from her school’s rendition of “Helen of Troy,” secretly hoping to spot her absent father in the audience:

I’m supposed to hit my fist against my chest, draw a hand across my forehead, and cry loudly. Mr. Dodd has shown me this gesture, practiced it with me in rehearsal a dozen times – the last line, my big finish. The audience is very quiet. In the stillness, there is a hole, an empty pocket, an absence.

This scene—like so many in Wendi’s stories—resonates with the reader, because we find ourselves so completely drawn into the mind of the narrator. “Her voice in this collection of stories is a magnetic blend of strength, humor, and compassion,” said Martínez, reflecting on the power of Wendi’s narrative voice. And it’s true. These very elements are what initially drew me to her collection. As a young woman, I find so much veracity in her stories. They feel so true to life. They remind the reader that life is not without its ups and downs, its painful truths, which are made endurable with just the right balance of humor—a technique which Wendi so elegantly employs—and the compassion of others. Knowing this, I can’t help but feel the impulse to want to read Wendi’s collection all over again.

~

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) can be found at: www.stillhousepress.org/helenon86. For more information about Wendi, please visit the “Authors” tab at the top of the screen. In an effort to share her stories with others, Stillhouse Press is open to arranging readings from her work. If interested, please contact: Meghan McNamara, media@stillhousepress.org.


Photo Credit: Alexis Glenn, GMU Creative Services

Photo Credit: Alexis Glenn, GMU Creative Services

Meghan McNamara is a third-year fiction candidate with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program. She serves as the Director of Media and Communications for Stillhouse Press and was one of the principle project managers for Wendi Kaufman's short story collection. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where she is at work on a novel length work exploring addiction and relationships, told through the lens of a female protagonist.