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.

Risk and Obsession: A Craft Talk With Jericho Brown

By Frank Harder

For Jericho Brown, poetry is laced with doubt. The poet should remain vulnerable, frightened even, in the midst of writing. Each line break drives the poet further into uncertainty. Ironically, Brown feels most whole when thinking in lines. The process he suggested to young poets during his April 21 Visiting Writers craft talk at George Mason involves listening and riffing, relying on reflex and intuition. With this musician’s curiosity, sounds grow to have personality. For Brown, music and aesthetics—an appealing voice, tone, or arresting image—supercedes meaning. He might tell you a poem “needs more bass,” though he’d be pressed to tell you what exactly that means.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Brown, a name which is currently buzzing in the small but fervent poetry world, is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Brown is the author of two books: the musically-driven Please (New Issues 2008), recipient of the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry, and The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), which recently won the 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and received high praise from Library Journal, Coldfront, and The Academy of American Poets.

The New Testament , Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

The New Testament, Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

Brown’s advice to young poets was both energetic and organic during his craft talk. He selected readings from two of his essays, pausing only to clarify where his opinions on a subject had changed or complicated, and followed by opening himself up to our nervous questioning. It was this openness that kept us rapt in attention, the air of tension that characteristically surrounds a celebrity poet of Brown’s stature quickly dispelled, and the conversation livened. Listening to him speak, I sensed that the personal lies at the crux of Brown’s craft, even if the personal is a performance. Performance is closer to the self that one might think, as it keeps the speaker vulnerable in relation to his audience. “The artist’s answer is always risk,” Brown said in a tone of amused experience. “Faith keeps us breathing.”

For Brown, uncertainty drives the process. Take his poem spoken in the voice of Janis Joplin, “Track 5: Summertime” from Please. The lines “So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl/I’m such an ugly girl” didn’t initially come to him direct from the mouth of Joplin. Rather, they were lines he could eagerly get behind, but had to figure out who might say them. As chance would have it, he had Joplin on his mind. Brown’s collage-like process of sorting through lines can be obsessive, and in describing it, he inadvertently answered the one question that many writers fuss over: “Do I need to write every day?” Brown does, he acknowledged, though he distinguished between writing something every day from writing a poem every day. In a span of 3-5 years, he said, you’re bound to write about only a limited amount of obsessions. Books can arise from bringing together these obsessions, attending to and even fostering them.  “Be complete in what you want to do and go all the way,” Brown said.

Frank Harder is a graduate student with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program, where he studies and writes poetry. He grew up in northern New York and currently lives in Fairfax, VA.

Writing From a Place of Understanding

By Linda Prather

“Who is the crafted person on the page? Is that person as well-rounded as the narrator? What is the intention of this piece?” Rachel Louise Snyder asked fellow writers last week during the second installment of George Mason University’s Visiting Writers’ spring workshop. Snyder, a recently tenured professor of Literature at American University, focused on the craft of the personal narrative and crucial concepts for memoir writing, specifically dual narration and intention, during her April 16 workshop.

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Snyder, who also works as journalist and has traveled extensively, often explores themes such as struggle, survival and social justice in her writing. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and is the author of two books, What We’ve Lost is Nothing (Scribner 2014) and Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade (W. W. Norton 2009). With regard to structure, Snyder says, fiction and nonfiction can develop quite differently. According to Snyder, fiction lends itself more to discovering the structure of a piece as evolves, whereas with nonfiction, it's important for writers to have some general idea of structure before embarking on the composition process.

Snyder draws her lessons in craft from a variety of sources, including author and poet, Grace Paley, who often doesn’t quite bring her stories full circle. By veering off course near the end, Snyder says, Paley’s stories are both surprising and memorable. During her workshop, Snyder also shared a “fill-in-the-blank” mantra for writing nonfictionthe thing about (subject) is (what)?which she learned from fellow journalist and This American Life host, Ira Glass. If you can’t succinctly fill in the blanks then you don’t have your story clear enough in your mind, Snyder said, adding that the best nonfiction essays present an essential question with which the writer is grappling and that answering it is often beside the point.

What We've Lost is Nothing , Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

What We've Lost is Nothing, Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

Snyder's more informal lesson took place in my car, as I navigated rush hour traffic, heading north on Chain Bridge Road. We were on our way to dinner at Dolce Vita in Fairfax when the conversation turned to the query letter and how a writer gets her nonfiction placed in such prestigious literary publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker, both of which have featured Snyder’s work. Here’s the formula that Snyder shared for shaping the ideal query letter:

  • Paragraph 1: Write a brief narrative illuminating the issue that you plan to explore.
  • Paragraph 2: Explain why it matters. Why tell this story at this moment?
  • Paragraph 3: What are experts saying about this topic? Are there statistics you can site? Who will you interview?
  • Paragraph 4: Why are you the best person to tell this story?

Herein lies the real value of the Visiting Writers program, as highlighted by Snyder’s impromptu lesson: the opportunity to chat informally with published authors outside of the classroom, to gain insight from an established author that students can then apply to their own writing lives. Now, for that query letter...

Linda Prather is a nonfiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA Program and is slated to finish her masters in the spring of 2016. She has lived in Northern Virginia for the last eight years.