Guilt, Shame, and the Workshop Experience

(This is going to finish in a very different place from where it begins; please be patient.)

When the finalists for the directorship were announced, I had somewhat dismissive comments of Samantha Chang; recalling this, combined with the recent acknowledgement of our vague, anonymous audience, has led me to do some reflecting.

Sam was my instructor first semester, too, along with Grendel and TLB (and others). Sam was a very calm presence in the classroom -- I don't mean vague or ethereal, but her energy was always positive, rather than taking the form of closed off, negative, iron-clad criticism. She was willing to listen to an author; to not only have a polite, measured critique of a story, but to also try to understand an author's concerns. She was a sympathetic instructor, in other words.

(It's worth nothing that before Iowa, I went to an MFA-type Masters program where the faculty was very similar in personality to Sam: considerate, polite, helpful, sympathetic; as caring about the author as anything, I'd say.)

Anyway, second semester at Iowa, I had Frank. Big difference. I don't remember exactly who was in that workshop that's also on this blog -- kclou, certainly, and also bR (congrats by the way!) -- but I was up first, and to use dull parlance, Frank tore me a new one. The 'workshop' was about fifteen minutes of him ripping my story to shreds (mostly inconsistencies with language). At one point he actually wondered aloud if in writing the story, I'd gone to a "cliche-store," where cliches were on sale for a nickel apiece, which made it easy for me to buy so many of them.

I blushed and sweated the entire time. It was absolutely humiliating. I'll never forget the experience; it was the first time in any workshop (and I've been in MANY) that an instructor was so brutally honest. It was the antithesis of the Sam experience: unsympathetic and cold, rather than warm and gentle.

Yet when I look at the work I've done over the last few years, that day stands as a clear dividing line: crappy stories before, better stories after. I know it's easy to create faulty cause/effect relationships, but this one holds truth: the effect of being humiliated that day has had a larger impact on me as a writer than any ten of my other workshops combined. I approach writing diffently *because* of that workshop . . . and I think maybe that's why I was originally critical of Sam as a workshop instructor; it had little to do with her, more with me (my apologies to her, then, for the original comments). I was at a point where 'just' polite story-to-story criticism wasn't going to be as helpful as something more jolting.

Many of us seem to have more respect (if grudging respect) for teachers who were 'mean.' Any thoughts on this? Has anyone else had similar experiences? Is there a point where to actually teach a writer who thinks he/she knows something about the craft, an instructor has to 'shock' them out of that 'knowledge'?

If people HAVE had experiences like this, I wonder if we could collect them here, try to pass it on to something like P&W, if anyone has contacts to a magazine like that. A group essay on the effect of workshops would be cool. Who knows. Thanks.

(feel free to think/tell me I'm being stupid, too)

Lan Samantha Chang interview

Based on your brief, most recent impression, how in your view has the workshop changed since you were here, if at all?

I'm not sure that the best, most important parts of the Workshop have changed at all: the focus is still on writing and not publication; the faculty are still humane and deep; the students are still highly talented and motivated.

What do you think is the key to Iowa's remarkably long-lived success and how can that be best sustained?

In my opinion, the success of the Workshop stems from its irreplaceable and brilliant faculty and from its students. The Workshop students are at the heart of its extraordinary achievement; their enthusiasm, talent, and passion has made the Workshop what it is. I'd like to work on creating more financial aid so that we can remain competitive and continue to matriculate the best applications.

Any scary or funny stories from your time here that you'd like to share?

I led a tame life. The most exciting thing that happened to me was one Chinese New Year, when I threw a very large party and one of the guys brought in a huge bunch of 16-year-old and doubtless illegal firecrackers. We set them off on the driveway, not knowing if they'd explode into the air or into our faces, and we were stunned by the extraordinarily beautiful blossoms of color that shot way above Burlington Street, a brilliant signal to the Iowa City police, who fortunately had better things to do that night than check us out. Ironically the house has since burned down, not that night, but several years later.

Would it be a good idea to foster more links between the fiction and poetry programs? Have students take one workshop in the other genre maybe?

I love the idea of partnerships. Poets and fiction writers have an enormous amount to share with each other. Without interrupting the autonomy of the two genres within the program, I would love to see more interaction, such as a special joint workshop.

Many fiction students focus on the short story for two years and then graduate and realize they want/need to write a novel instead and their skills may not exactly apply. How can novel writing be incorporated better into the workshop -- or can it?

[Here LSC rightly pointed out her talk on craft, which provides a lot of insights into writing novels. See SER's post for a detailed summary of that inspiring discussion.]

What is an area you might want to focus on in your tenure?

There are many things I'd like to do, but first and foremost, I'd like to raise money to be used to guarantee free tuition, or at least in-state tuition, for all students. That would be a beginning.


Weekend updates

Word is, Jim Shepard's slated for tomorrow and Tuesday. I'll call Deb or Jan when the Dey House opens and find out when and where. Prolly late morning like the others.

SER's agent has another scoop re: workshop especial on BAF.

Was at the mall yesterday and swung by B&N looking for anything by Marcus, Shepard, and for Sam's novel. Only found Love and Hydrogen on the shelves. Info woman said they'd have to order Marcus and Chang. I just shook my head. That really is a shitty store. I'm sure Prairie Lights have them. Anyway, the first Shepard story ("The Gun Lobby") impressed me in a few ways, but maybe more about that later. What else. Randomly ran into Beth Wetmore and Jorge Sanchez and son Henry this weekend, and ended up intruding ourselves into Henry's baptism ceremony this morning, which included remarks by Marilynne R.

Goats Vampiro, chad, and Charlemagne were surprisingly in town as kind of surly bachelor desperadoes, and joined El Gordo, nate, Jorge, myself, Tracy, Nikki, and others poetical and IWPish in tossing back PBR pitchers at the Deadwood Friday night into wee hours. El Gordo kept screaming, "Jaeger's ON SALE!" and his advance man chad made sure many were swallowed. Comparing notes confirmed beyond all doubt that the blogs are way, way public; Pete's new site tracker on BAF confirms popularity in some surprising places (click on it to see). Goat tracker added this morning (scroll on down and click!).


Sam Chang's talk on craft

SER has posted a nearly comprehensive blow-by-blow of Sam's talk this morning on Babies Are Fireproof. I accosted Sam afterwards and she had a lunch scheduled with the Dean, but she agreed to do an email interview, which I'll post here in a few days.

My career as a satirist just ended

How the hell am I supposed to compete with this?

Hannidate 2005: The Sean Hannity dating board.

That's right: right-wing hack, host of Faux News's "Hannity and Apologizing Liberal Speedbump," and alleged boot licker* Sean Hannity hosts a dating board "where you may find your perfect match through Hannity style romance." My guess is that Hannity style romance involves firing twin 9mm pistols at pictures of the Clintons while getting pegged by Ann Coulter.

The participants are about as dark as an Alaskan summer and all look like they just got off work at Mel's Diner. However, it is nice to see a personals section that embraces Christian values, like ignoring Jesus's prohibition against divorce and remariage.

*alleged by me, with apologies to boot lickers everywhere.


Thoughts on Finishing My Novel, Part II

You cannot write a novel without the letter "s"....And this is exactly the key that will stop working on your laptop three weeks before deadline.


Anyone else stumbled across this site? It's a watchdog for student-teacher nepotism in literary contests. They want to file class-action lawsuits. Like, seriously. The Iowa short fiction and poetry awards are viewed with particular scorn. Interesting reading, if nothing else.

On a less serious note, I recommend queryletters.blogspot.com. Hi-fucking-larious.


They watch The OC and they can read

Wow! Who's seen today's NYTBR? Gilead is gone, but Workshop alum Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel Prep debuts at Number 11. Seventy thousand copies already in print. That "young adult" market is definitely nothing to be trifled with. I've no doubt Curtis's work stands strong on its merits, but damn, I'm envious. Nice work, Curtis.

Here's What! Vol. 4

Now that's loyalty: Corey Feldman is defending Michael Jackson up and down. And up and down and up and down and... An armless, carbunkled uncle who’s 2 feet tall; a mother covered in llama fur who can sniff her own taint; a rubberized grandfather who balances headless albinos on his chin – not THAT’S a family circus!... Have you heard? The OC is hot! (Please come visit me at my home in Oxiogo Clamp, GA)... I held a taco shell up to my ear and heard the Gulf of California... Back to the drawing board: Honda scientists are working feverishly to cure Asimo's shingles... You wanna talk reality? How about next season's "The Bachelor: Love Me, Love my BM’s"?... Say what you will about Zoobas, but my GOD did they get me laid... Why don’t grocery stores advertise victuals more?... Not a bad score on the ol’ kink-o-meter – eating Peaches while smoking Herb... La musica: The Hot Carl Incident opens for DMB at Bonnaroo this summer... New way to say ‘sound’: Virtual cochlea fucking... Is it any wonder no tuna fish were killed in the tsunamis when its anagram is 'miss tuna'?... How come every single contemporary Christian song has the word “awesome” in it?... Baby ‘down-the-well’ Jessica ain’t a baby no more – have you seen her “Rope-Bucket Hotties: The Whole Hole” vids?!... Um, yeah – a little tip for marathon runners: PACE YOURSELVES!!... Newsy stuff: NASCAR is reversing the direction they drive around the track so as not to be confused philosophically with left-leaning traitorous liberal pussies... Why can’t they figure out a way for public officials standing together at a media event in partnership holding up each other’s hands triumphantly to do it less awkwardly?... If John Rambo fought the Viet Cong half as well as he bawled at his commanding officer 18 years later back in the States, I think Iraq today would look a whooooole lot different... David Bowie and Mick Jagger emerging nude from under the covers to get Alice Cooper’s smashed kittens’ blood pumped from Rod Stewart’s stomach using Gene Simmons’ surgically-implanted cow’s tongue as the scooper?! Not again!!... Suicide watch: Having a job interview at Denny’s when you’re not applying for a job there...

Thoughts on Finishing My Novel, Part I

Novel-writing causes mental breakdowns, loss of sleep, obsessive-compulsive behavior, brooding, snappishness, and the gaining of weight....No one on earth could have taught me to write a novel, not matter what format the class took on....Spouses and significant others and dear friends are absolutely necessary to novel-writing. No amount of kind words and scraping off the floor will ever be enough....Poverty and ignorance are the best inducements to continue working....The closer the deadline, the worse the writing becomes; the farther away the deadline, the worse the work habits become....Beginnings and endings are easy and fun, but the middle will always kick your ass.


Up next week: Sam Chang

Thurs. Feb 24 11am Shambaugh, "El workshop especial" (stories now available at Dey House)
Thurs. Feb 24 8pm EPB Gerber, "Leyendo de su libro nuevo"
Friday Feb 25 11am Shambaugh, "El conversacion sobre el futuro del workshop"

Prose Bowl?

From Thursday's New York Times:

"The First Annual TMN Tournament of Books, presented by The Morning News (TMN), a daily online magazine (themorningnews.org/tob), and Powells.com, an online bookstore, is under way. The writers aren't hacks and they aren't in a stadium. The fans don't roar and they don't judge. But the Web tournament is set up exactly like an N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, with ladders, seeds and head-to-head contests.

Round after round, novels from 2004 are pitted against each other until only one of the original 16 is standing. The champion will be announced on Feb. 28. At that point its author may receive a live rooster, which has a cryptic connection to the brother of the writer David Sedaris.

Rosecrans Baldwin, a co-editor of The Morning News, and Kevin Guilfoile, one of its writers, said on its Web site that top seeds went "to books that were much hyped before or after publication," lower seeds to books that appeared on many best-of lists. The rest of the slots (almost half) went to novels that the magazine's editors and writers said they felt "passionate about." Each match has a single judge except the final one, which is judged collectively.

The process is arbitrary, but then so is any literary contest. "Arbitrariness is inherent in book awards," the creators say on their Web site. "The way books are nominated, the judges who consider them, the division of labor as the books are assessed - arbitrary, arbitrary, arbitrary, bordering on meaningless."

My Final Four: Runaway, Gilead, The Plot Against America, Cloud Atlas. This is real, by the way.


Link Between Rush, Fantastic Stories, Childhood, and Disrespect

As the Pooper and I are wont to do, we spent this morning watching Rush: Live in Rio (a DVD I should really return to Brando). Pooper was really enjoying it, and I began to wonder why I view Rush as a "Secret Shame" band of mine: basically music too dorky to admit to liking in certain company (Lumpy's secret shame band is Boston, which fits into what I have to say below).

This led me to consider Pooper's clear enjoyment of the DVD -- his favorite records (as far as I can tell -- I base this on how much sppppplllttting, smiling, and arm-waving he does) are Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, Belle and Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and Baby Bach. All three of these records contain fairly complicated songs, some with movements and Brian Wilsonian harmonies, just as the standard Rush song does. When I was younger (elementary/junior high) all the bands I really liked had these same types of complicated set-ups (Iron Maiden, Rush, YES, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis). It was not until I reached high school that I could start to really appreciate songs made up of basically three chords and the truth (or simply three chords really loud and fast). At that point, I took down my Eddie poster, gave away my copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and shoved my Rush and Yes concert shirts into the darkest recesses of my closet. For the next several years, these bands became a guilty and ironic pleasure (something to play during band practice as a joke because we thought REM and The Cult were cooler than this clearly "lame" stuff). It seemed clear that those earlier records were something best enjoyed by children.

So, as a test to see whether this stuff had some connection with youth (or even extreme youth, as Pooper was acting as my guinea pig), I turned off Rush and put on a videotape of two clearly cooler bands with basic song structures: Modest Mouse and Guided by Voices. Pooper's face fell. He literally started crying.

Which brings me to a potential revelation: Perhaps we, as presumeably more sophisticated writers, view "fantastical" stories with talking dragons, monkeys, etc., the same way we tend to view Rush when we reach high school -- dorky, overblown, and for the younger set who has yet to kiss a girl. And maybe this is why so-called "genre" fiction gets such a bad rap -- it is clearly uncool, unnecessarily complicated, and, most importantly, serves to punch all those pleasure buttons we had in childhood. And maybe this is why the large man can blithely claim that a fantastic story is clearly lower on the evolutionary ladder than a "realistic" one, because kids like the fantastic.

After the experiment was over, I switched back to Rush, and Pooper settled in to take a nap in the crook of my elbow. That's when the first twinkling notes of one of my childhood favorites came on, and the power and wisdom of Rush really poured over me. I began to realize that they had had the same revelation concerning form that I had just had over 25 years earlier. To quote Neil Peart as sung by Geddy Lee, "it's really just a question of your honesty" -- and maybe that's the real answer to the argument over what makes a story a good one.


I never took Marilynne's workshop and, sad as it is to say, never read Housekeeping. I took her Moby-Dick seminar but stopped going when it seemed to be a series of Calvinist sermons. But Gilead... I just finished it. Man. I believe it could very well become one of those small classics, like Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, or Gatsby.

The prose is so tight and economical, and yet utterly natural in its rhythms and pacing, that I could only gape in admiration as I turned the pages, alternately nodding and shaking my head. Beginning with an inspired premise -- an old, ailing father in the 1950s writing to his young son whom he'll never live to see grow up, putting the narrator a mere two generations away from the Abolitionist movement -- she solidly and even surruptitiously gathers her story. Like an ocean liner at night, the book ever so slowly makes its graceful turn, so that near the end, I was like a passenger waking up suddenly in a different latitude. The book winds up being not about the poignance of an old man imparting posthumous wisdom to his child, not about the beauty of a saint-like man given an improbable second chance after losing his first family, but about his failures regarding his third child -- his namesake, the incredible character of John Ames ("Jack") Boughton.

This amazing creation, Jack, is simply a marvel to me. He starts out being something of a thorn in the side of our narrator, and was irritating at first to me as a reader. "Oh, that guy, the troubled preacher's son, uh-huh." Then it seemed he was going to become the narrator's final tragedy, stepping in to take over his young family as he faded from the scene. That, I thought, was excruciating, and how wonderful and surprising that old Ames recognized and accepted this impending development in a truly Christian manner. How satisfying that Marilynne gives her best lines to an athieist, has her Christian wringing his hands over his own failings, pulls the rug out from under even our sympathy for Ames by widening the frame to remind us in the end what society really was in the 50s. The final revelation that comes from Boughton (no spoilers here) is like the final turn of the jack-in-the-box crank, releasing at once all the themes that Ames has been carefully trying to weave into a coherent life philosophy -- fatherhood, piety, conformity, social justice, loving your neighbor, race relations, violence, shame. Elizabeth McCracken once said in our workshop, "Only connect." But Marilynne demonstrates that there is connection that narrows, that tidies up, and there is connection that flowers out, that spreads like a net.

Her restraint and generosity toward this menacing character of Jack Boughton is simply delicious and is the chief joy among many I take from this book. How does she do it? He's a villain, but he's always smiling, playing with Ames's child, talking to Ames's wife, never overtly being anything but pleasant and civil. It's chilling to watch this guy in the novel, and incredibly instructive to see how subtly an antagonist can be crafted. And the way he blooms in complexity in the end, dumping the narrator's and reader's assumptions straight into the dirt ... just marvelous and so satisfying.

I was naturally poised to hold my nose through the religious parts, but Ames's humble, sincere Christianity is attractive. And the neat balance Marilynne shows, not just via Jack but through Edward, Ames's athiest brother, was more than enough to carry me through the theological thickets. The other thing that carried me was the structure, the way it builds like a wave starting as a swell far from land, becoming more and more defined, finally cresting and crashing against the sand of our expectations, spewing out such a froth of moral dilemma and hypocrisy in the end that it humbles everyone involved, characters, narrator, reader, country.

On to Housekeeping.

* Update to this post: I have since read Housekeeping and loved it as much as Gilead.


Not The Bar On Dubuque St.

Anyone else a fan of HBO's Deadwood? The most recent New Yorker (the double anniversary issue) has a fascinating profile of its creator, David Milch. (He also co-created and, during its brilliant early years, was the head writer of NYPD Blue.) More to the point, he's a Workshop alum and in the New Yorker profile has many interesting things to say about writing in general, not just for television. Worth checking out, even if you don't like or haven't seen Deadwood.


Getting rid of TWFs, etc.

Michelle informs me that Bausch said something to the effect that the Workshop is considering changing financial aid, which sounds like a great idea to me.

Why doesn't the Workshop ditch TWFs and what not, and just give everyone the exact same amount of aid? Then, those who want to teach can (possibly based on the same kind of three top choices sheets we fill out for Workshops), and those who do not don't have to. Otherwise, I think people get into weird situations which are ultimately bad for their careers (weeks playing nothing but XBox because of the enormous amount of freetime they have) or for their undergraduate students (see Marco).

Frankly, I don't see much point in the current incarnation of financial aid as some kind of competition (except for the fact it gets people to read the red folders by telling them it's actually some sort of honor). I don't think anyone ever wrote any better or worse because of the aid competition, and as the faculty said over and over again, a TWF is no indication of future success. All the current finanical aid set up seems to do is cause hard feelings (see Chris Offutt's comments regarding Elizabeth or Workshop Class of 2002 for examples).

Plus, I think the red folders would be read regardless -- some of us are extremely interested in the machinations of the Workshop, and I actually think these people would volunteer for the job (see Dunkeys or Kclou -- I could be wrong, but within 5 minutes of entering Iowa City, Connie was telling me Dunkeys was the guy who knew everything that was going on -- and he is still the one that keeps us all on Workshop-related topics, while I want to make jokes about Biblical Archaeological Review).

One of the best things a writing prof ever told me was that "There is room at the top for all of us." Don't you think the elimination of the aid competition would allow Iowa Workshoppers to become more of a United Front in the lonely business we've chosen for ourselves?

Shocking News From The New York Times

In His Book, Mailer Says Wolfe Overused Steroids

Published: February 12, 2005

Norman Mailer, the self-anointed "godfather of steroids," alleges in his new book that Tom Wolfe, a former New Journalism peer, "went overboard with steroids" and became "the most outright juicer in literature."

Mailer wrote that Wolfe’s prose "has the most obvious steroid physique I've ever seen in my life." The San Francisco Chronicle reported last year that Wolfe testified to the grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative that he used steroids before publishing “I Am Charlotte Simmons” in 2004 but not as early as 1997, when he published “A Man In Full.”

Mailer said that after Wolfe overused steroids and human growth hormone, his prose got "so bloated, it was unbelievable."

"There was no definition to his chapters at all," Mailer wrote. "You could see the retention of modifiers, especially adjectives; to those in the know, that was a sure sign of steroid overload."

In "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Literature Got Big" (Regan Books), Mailer wrote that he was a scholarly and careful drug user who first used steroids after his directorial debut, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” bombed, then introduced other literary figures to them a few years later. He continued to do so throughout his career, until, he said, steroid use became widespread.

“I felt like I could write anything,” Mailer wrote in the book. “A thousand-page novel about the history of the CIA that ends with ‘To Be Continued’? Knocked it out in a f---ing weekend.”

Mailer portrays himself in the book as a proselytizer for steroids and human growth hormone to friends and rival authors, describing for them the effects of individual drugs and where to buy them. Mailer called responsible steroid use "an opportunity, not a danger" and said that those who say otherwise speak "from ignorance."

Mailer wrote that he converted Tom Wolfe to steroid use in 1988 and witnessed how his prose bulked up. "After a night at Le Cirque or right before readings, Tom and I would duck into a stall in the men's room, load up our syringes and inject ourselves," Mailer wrote.

He added: "I was the godfather of the steroid revolution in literature, but Wolfe was right there with me as a living, thriving example of what steroids could do to make you a better writer."

Mailer said that he believed that his literary career ended because of his well-known reputation for using steroids, but once an outcast, he said, he became a performance-enhancing mentor to John Updike, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates.

"Soon I was injecting all three of them," he wrote. "I personally injected each of those three guys, many times. You think they average a book a year on talent alone at their age?”


Here's What! Vol. 3

Workshoppers! Leave it to your pathetic neighbor to steal your thunder: Have you heard they’re accepting applications for the Missouri Scribes Roundtable?... I just wish someone had told me Hendrix was black... May I introduce the variable "or mess in your pants" into the duality of 'shit or get off the pot'?... Move over Peyronie's Disease, there's a new bent vagina in town!... Folks, we just got the Worst Sound Ever winner: Repeated use of a tape roller to tape up boxes... Hey, how do you pronounce Laphroaig, anyway?... *sigh* – Another Valentine’s Day, and I doubt I’ll even get finger-banged... NBC back in court: blindfolded and ball-gagged, a “Fear Factor” contestant dies after being dipped naked into Jersey City untreated sewage, lashed, and set aflame... Awww shniz, my precious Inner-Earth Hoan G’Tay Sho! I just got back from a looooong "trip" to Rivendell (wink wink)... OH GOD! Here it is mid-February and I was supposed to drink whiskey through the winter! FUUUUUCK... So do ya think Michael Jackson will “beat it”? And by it I mean the rap. And by the rap I mean Bubbles’ hot quivering meatus?... Now here come the copycat cases: I guess Webster is accusing Gary Coleman of a 1983 Dirty Sanchez incident... When they came for the lactose-intolerant, I said nothing. And I’m glad I didn’t… Sure, girls may now surpass boys in classroom achievement, but do you know what boys surpass girls at? Upside-down-in-the-closet-masturbating-with-a-leather-belt-around-our-necks…


Bausch interview

Friday February 11, 2005 - Shambaugh House
Transcribed from a shitty tape

SER: All right. So here are a few questions some of the alumni are wondering, the distant alumni who can’t be here. One question that’s come up a lot is that short stories are not as widely read or published as they were in the first decades of the workshop. How do you think the workshop can or should accommodate students’ growing interest in writing novels as opposed to short stories. And can you workshop a novel effectively?

RB: You can, but it’s harder, because you end up workshopping chapters. I’m teaching a course in novel writing right now. It’s different.

SER: How is your novel-writing workshop structured right now?

RB: Everybody’s got a first reader, so you turn your chapter in to them. We did some mapping. I showed them a little bit about how to do that. Just, you know, ways of planning out the immediate stuff. You don’t really know where the whole thing’s going, usually. You’re just sort of brainstorming with yourself.

SER: How many chapters are people turning in.

RB: Probably... not more than three or four chapters.

SER: Have you noticed in your program that people are more interested in novels these days, or is that more particular to here?

RB: Yeah, I think people -- they’re listening to the prognosticators who say the short story’s dead, and of course the short story will be at their funerals. It always shifts. It’ll shift back. In five years people will be talking about this beautiful rush of short stories. Story writers in this country right now are writing stories as good as anybody ever wrote them. And we have more of them than we ever did before.

SER: Who do you think some of the best ones are?

RB: The usual suspects. Andrea Barrett, Tim O’Brien, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Grace Paley... Eudora just left us, but Eudora. Can you imagine all these people -- these people? -- Barry Hannah -- alive at the same time and writing stories? There are many of them. I mean, you guys name a couple. Jayne Ann Phillips, Charlie Baxter, Allen Weir (sp?), George Garett(sp?) is still alive and writing stories. Ellen Gilchrist. It just goes on and on.

G: Another one is about approachability and student/faculty interaction outside the classroom. How would you make yourself available?

RB: Tell them to contact my students at George Mason University. They’ll tell you every class is actually a six-hour class. We meet for three hours and then we go to a bar for another three hours.

G: That leads into another question...

SER: Which is would you go out drinking with the workshop students and if so what would you drink?

RB: It’s a matter of course. Every single time. So much so that at this restaurant they named an entrée after me.

SER: What’s your drink of choice?

RB: Red wine, and then seltzer water if I have a long way to drive. If I’m out with a student who has a problem with drink, I just drink seltzer water. But we’ll sit and have a bite of food and talk.

SER: What’s your entrée?

RB: It’s called Richard Bausch Mountain Trout.

SER: What criteria would you look for in visiting faculty? What matters more, their resume as teachers or as writers?

RB: Um, I know so many writers, and I know the ones among them who are really good teachers, so that’d be who I was interested in bringing. There others who are not such good teachers. I’m not going to name names, but I’ll guarantee that no one would sit in the room and not feel [unintelligible].

G: What about the admission process? Would you change anything from the way it’s done now, with the students reading them all? Frank apparently read every one. That was the legend anyway.

RB: I wouldn’t involve myself. I’d look to faculty involvement, have them read some of those and make some decisions. I think one of the biggest problems is when the TA’s actually can say no. Two of them can block someone out. And I think that’s kind of risky and subject to sensitivities, especially when you’re a TA and you’re crowded with things like that anyway and you’re scared. I would think that at least one faculty member ought to be involved. The trouble is there are so many manuscripts. But I would think that faculty involvement would be ... certainly what Frank’s has been. But the great thing is we get to pick who we work with. Being part of that is fun, I mean, you see a great writer and get excited and say get that person.

SER: I know you’ve only been back here for a couple days, but what differences in student camaraderie and environment from when you were here do you see?

RB: It seems more generally involved. We tended to be kind of incestuous when I was here in the sense that the novelists hung out with the novelists, and the poets with the poets, and there wasn’t a lot of crossing the line. One of my best friends, who died a few years ago, named Michael Maguire, was a poet. But there tended to be a little less than what looks to me like a lot of mixing. Everybody seems very comfortable with anyone.

SER: Do you have any horrific workshop stories or workshop experiences that are legendary from your time? Either happening to you or to someone else?

RB: Well, there was -- there was the [Gordon] Lish visit, but I wasn’t there for that.

SER: What happened during that?

RB: Called up some guy who wrote a story, threw it down, and said, “Piece of shit.” Then Robert Grossman, who was in that workshop, went to interview for a job at Esquire, and [unintelligible!]

SER and G: (Laugh)

SER: What do you think the best book of fiction published in say the last three years was?

RB: Mine.

SER: Uh-huh. We’ll put a link to Amazon on there for you.

RB: I, uh, I don’t know, I don’t think in terms of best... the last couple years?

SER: Well, the recent past.

RB: My brother’s novel A Hole in the Earth came out a couple years ago.

SER: What’s your brother’s name?

RB: Robert. It’s a hell of a book.

G: Aren’t you twins?

RB: Mm-hm. Identical. My friend Stephen Goodwin’s novel Breaking Her Fall. Wonderful book. And there’s the poet Alan Shapiro’s The Dead Alive and Busy. And C.K. William’s The Singing.

SER: Okay.

RB: Good.

G: Cool. Thanks very much.

RB: Pleasure.


Writing: A Practical Observation

The self-employment tax sucks.

Shameless self promotion

For those of you who are as yet unaware, I recently started a humor writing blog called Jane's Calamity, which I encourage you all to visit. Basically, it's like a little tiny online humor magazine. Except it's a blog, so it's hip and all, yo.

Contributors include myself, SER, and Brando at the moment. If you write humor/satire/etc. and would like to become a contributor, drop me an email at janeroper@hotmail.com, preferably with a sample piece of work attached, and even more preferably with pictures of yourself wearing a leopard-print g-string and a viking helmet. El Gordo de Amore, I'm counting on you.

Soliciting questions for *exclusive* Bausch interview tomorrow

SER's briliant idea, after his workshop, was to interview him for Babies Are Fireproof and Earth Goat. We approached him. I mumbled something about workshop grad blogs and could he spare 5 minutes tomorrow after his talk. "Hell," he said, "let's do twenty."

So! Here's your chance. I suppose Baby questions will be asked by Sarah and Goat ones by me, though it's starting to feel like it's one big blog with two URLs. At any rate, what would you like to ask Richard Bausch? Interview is late tomorrow morning. FABULOUS idea, SER.

Review: Bausch workshop

It's a big room, that library, bigger than any workshop room in the Dey House. Eleven students were seated at the table, and various hangers-on, such as SER, TLB, myself, and Catherine Knepper appeared and took seats straight off one short end of the table. The chairs were thoughtfully arranged in rows so that we had a full view of Bausch at the far end. Kind of like watching a movie of a workshop. Ethan, Marilynne, Jim M., Jim G., Connie were also in attendance. Ethan took an empty seat at the workshop table, and as the thing proceeded, I started imagining that I was watching Ethan taking a Bausch workshop.

He came in the room last and took his seat with ease, smiling, an ornery elf in a black leather jacket. White hair combed down either side, white beard with a bit of scraggle to it, tinted lenses. His voice is low in register with a faint Southern drawl, which added to the disarming charm he began to display. Chris Merrill stood and introduced him as "Dick Bausch." After preliminaries about how he conducts his workshop (writer must remain silent), he told about the first story he turned in, for E.L. Doctorow's workshop, when he was a student here, called "Where Is John Wayne?" It didn't go well. Students thought it was "arbitrary," and he went home thinking he'd moved his family here for a big mistake. "Ever notice how when something good happens, you get published, or someone likes your work, you figure it's a fluke? And when something bad happens, well, that's the way it is, it is all bad." He said to ignore these extremes and only think about the work.

He began the first workshop by inviting comments on the story. One youngster started off about how much he liked it, trailed off, then apologized. "Don't apologize for liking something," said Bausch. "But it's an uninteresting writer who sparks no argument. Others?" The students began grinding out the you-know-what, and it proceeded like most workshops. It was undirected, but Bausch had things he wanted to say. When someone touched on them, he'd come in with advice. Without knowing the stories, it's hard to say how good the advice was, but it sounded good. He suggested the writer rework it in 3rd person. "First person is far more complex than all the others. There's an extra somebody in the story. Who's story? The narrator's? How reliable is that person? Then you get into dramatical irony. You can get across something in two or three sentences in third person that might take pages in first."

Here, TLB scribbled a note to me: "He's Frank."

"Drama is trouble in context," he was saying. "People knock Ray Carver for being spare, but if you pack it in like he did, you get really fulsome exposition. It's all a magic show." He began quoting from stories from memory -- Carver, Fitzgerald, Welty, Lardner -- and brought it all back to his point about third person. When they were done, the author of the story said, "That's a great idea, actually." Again, who knows, but he clearly had the room with him.

And so it went, for the next two. Let me just type out some random quotes I jotted down from him:

"What is the loudest note in the story? That's what the story's about."

"If you're having trouble with a certain part, it's probably the crux. Try bringing it up front and putting it out there for the reader."

"You're leading the reader through a museum. And they want to be there. Don't mess with them. Be honest."

"A story is an organic thing, always changing. You want the changes to be surprising. Trust it. Keep going through it. If you're in confusion, well, confusion's the name of the game. Just means it's not ripe yet. Keep going through it."

"There are two rules: You have to use words. You have to be interesting."

"You know how you read [someone] and think, this is it! Then you read [someone else] and think, boy this is it! Well, what is it? It's art. I hear people say writing is an indulgence. It's not an indulgence. You give up indulgences to do it. Think about this day's work. Ask yourself, did I work today? If the answer's yes, boy, you know how you feel like you can do anything then?"

"I don't teach writing. I teach patience. It's supposed to be hard, but every book happens this way, little by little. Confusion and doubt dog everybody, nobody's sure what the next sentence will be. But you've got to trust it."

He literally peppered his rambles with quotes and adages and chestnuts -- I'll bet he knows everything anyone ever said about writing. But I was impressed not so much by what he said about writing -- because really, who actually knows a fucking thing about writing anyway? -- but by his calming, wise presence in the room. There was an honest-to-God twinkle in his eye, and a slight knowing curve to his lips, and he easily achieved the respect of everyone there, it seemed. Not once was there anything uncomfortable or unclear or anything you'd crook an eyebrow at to a friend across the table. TLB may have put it best when she said, "He seems approachable." And you definitely want that in a director (remember he readily agreed to an interview right afterwards and suggested quadrupling its length). Was Frank approachable? Ha! He still isn't (bless him). Bausch simply won everyone over, it seemed to me. He was very encouraging to the students. Just my opinion, but my bottom lines are: 1) I'd hand over the workshop to him in a second, and 2) I left the room feeling excited about writing. I'm interested in what others thought.

Potential concern: the workshops were fairly short, maybe 20-30 minutes each. Could be due to the circus nature of the gala atmosphere, and the fact that this week those 11 students had to workshop 6 stories each. And not every student spoke. Dunno if that's the way he normally does it. It was unstructured in such a way that you could get away with not having even read it, I suppose, because at least 5 of them never said anything. I kind of like when everybody has to say something.

Pimpin' for Frog and Toad

If you're in The IC and looking for an uproarious, non-alcoholic diversion, check out A Year with Frog and Toad at the Iowa Children's Museum (yep, the one at Coral Ridge mall). It runs the next three weekends (through Feb. 27). My lovely wife is assistant director for the production and has spent the last month painting scenery, hustling for donations and pushing actors around instead of cooking and cleaning. (That definitely was not in the marriage contract.) I'll be there this Saturday night. Additional show info at goiowacity.com.


Reminder: Richard Bausch Feb. 10-11

11:00 a.m. Special Workshop, IWP Second Floor Library, Shambaugh House
6:30 p.m. Reading, Gerber Lounge, EPB

10:30 a.m. Talk re: vision of the Workshop, IWP Second Floor Library, Shambaugh House

Does anyone actually have the balls to go to that special workshop? I'd like to, but I've got a deadline for putting Writing Children's Books For Dummies into production by noon, and I'm baaarely gonna make it. Great if we could get at least one mole in place.

I remembered the story of his that I liked. It was called "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona" from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. About an alcoholic on a family picnic who sneaks drinks from a bottle he's stashed in the trunk, then goes home wasted, wrestling with his kids until there is some sort of scream, and he and his wife realize they are afraid of him. She ends up taking the kids and going away. It's pretty haunting the way it's written, how the disintegration of this family is so matter-of-factly and calmly presented.


The TRUTH is revealed!

From a recent review of Fumbling in The National Catholic Reporter:

"So, what does a reader take away from this book? Many things, but there are three in particular. Number one, Alex is a saint. Seriously."

Relics and blessings now available! Join the Millions who have already been Touched by Alex. LET HIM TOUCH YOU! LET HIM TOUCH YOUR FRIENDS! YOUR FAMILY! CUTE NEIGHBORS! Simply send three easy installments of $29.95 to All Hail The Blessed Alex Enterprises, Iowa City, IA! Act now! Supplies are limited! If requesting a Relic, please specify either nail clipping, lock of hair, or razor residue.

Blog -- New Opportunity for Anxiety and Paranoia

I wouldn't ask non-writers this question, but does anyone else get a little depressed when his or her posting elicits no comments (or only one from Grendel -- Sample El Gordo thought: "My God, in five days my poem only got a Grendel comment, and he'll comment on anything -- Everyone knows he's a Comment Whore!").

I thought the cover of Biblical Archaelogy was one of the funniest things I've seen in the 21st Century -- and that posting got like one comment (see Grendel, above). I'm still upset, confused, hurt, and feeling a little vulnerable -- possibly in need of a hug.

Marilynne Robinson on Fresh Air

It's 11:51 am Central time.


Why is Bush reading "I Am Charlotte Simmons"?

A good question, raised by the International Herald Tribune. I suppose it's a pleasant surprise that the president can read, let alone a novel. But why this one?

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

He would be 193, had he lived. A reminder and some brush-up info from Encarta Encyclopedia (What are some people's favorite Dickens books? I've only read GE and DC and ACC...):

Dickens, Charles John Huffam (1812-1870), English novelist and one of the most popular writers in the history of literature. In his enormous body of works, Dickens combined masterly storytelling, humor, pathos, and irony with sharp social criticism and acute observation of people and places, both real and imagined.

Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth and spent most of his childhood in London and Kent, both of which appear frequently in his novels. He started school at the age of nine, but his education was interrupted when his father, an amiable but careless minor civil servant, was imprisoned for debt in 1824. The boy was then forced to support himself by working in a shoe-polish factory. A resulting sense of humiliation and abandonment haunted him for life, and he later described this experience, only slightly altered, in his novel David Copperfield (1849-1850).

From 1824 to 1826, Dickens again attended school. For the most part, however, he was self-educated. Among his favorite books were those by such great 18th-century novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, and their influence can be discerned in Dickens's own novels. In 1827 Dickens took a job as a legal clerk. After learning shorthand, he began working as a reporter in the courts and Parliament, perhaps developing the power of precise description that was to make his creative writing so remarkable.

In December 1833 Dickens published the first of a series of original descriptive sketches of daily life in London, using the pseudonym Boz. A London publisher commissioned a volume of similar sketches to accompany illustrations by the celebrated artist George Cruikshank. The success of this work, Sketches by Boz (1836), permitted Dickens to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and led to the proposal of a similar publishing venture in collaboration with the popular artist Robert Seymour. When Seymour committed suicide, another artist, H. K. Browne, called Phiz, who subsequently drew the pictures for most of Dickens's later works, took his place. Dickens transformed this particular project from a set of loosely connected vignettes into a comic narrative, The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). The success of this first novel made Dickens famous. At the same time it influenced the publishing industry in Great Britain, being issued in a rather unusual form, that of inexpensive monthly installments; this method of publication quickly became popular among Dickens's contemporaries.

Dickens subsequently maintained his fame with a constant stream of novels. A man of enormous energy and wide talents, he also engaged in many other activities. He edited the weekly periodicals Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), composed the travel books American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846), administered charitable organizations, and pressed for many social reforms. In 1842 he lectured in the United States in favor of an international copyright agreement and in opposition to slavery. In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol, an ever-popular children's story. Dickens's extraliterary activities also included managing a theatrical company that played before Queen Victoria in 1851 and giving public readings of his own works in England and America. All these successes, however, were shadowed by domestic unhappiness. Incompatibility and Dickens's relations with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, led to his separation from his wife in 1858, after the marriage had produced ten children. He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.

As Dickens matured artistically, his novels developed from comic tales based on the adventures of a central character, like The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby (1837-1838), to works of great social relevance, psychological insight, and narrative and symbolic complexity. Among his fine works are Bleak House (1852-1853), Little Dorritt (1855-1857), Great Expectations (1860-1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). Readers of the 19th and early 20th century usually prized Dickens's earlier novels for their humor and pathos. While recognizing the virtues of these books, critics today tend to rank more highly the later works because of their formal coherence and acute perception of the human condition. In addition to those mentioned, Dickens's major writings include Oliver Twist (1837-1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), Dombey and Son (1846-1848), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished, 1870).


Estrogen therapy working for "the Ronald"

The injections have been proceeding apace, and surely, judging by the photo, the lower surgery can't be far behind. Way to be yourself, Ron! (Photo courtesy of gwarbot)



Official Earth Goat Super Bowl Predictions

Your predicted final score. Also, to keep it interesting, especially for the non-football fans, what you think everyone will be talking about the next day.

Patriots 35, Eagles 17

During the halftime show, a wardrobe malfunction reveals that Paul McCartney is, in fact, a robot. Subsequent investigation reveals that he has been a robot since 1972. The actual Paul McCartney has been locked up since then in the basement of a Merseyside post office. He emerges albino-pale, his beard down to his feet. His first comment: "No fucking way I recorded an album called 'Flaming Pie.' Come on. I've been locked in a basement for twenty-three fucking years. Stop taking the piss."


Author-Narrator-Character merge

There's an article in February's Writer's Chronicle (remember that?), a copy of which I swiped from that desk in the Dey House, by Frederick Reiken, who teaches writing at Emerson, called "The Author-Narrator-Character (ANC) Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists."

It begins by describing his first novel, which he wrote in close 3rd with 3 POV characters. No one would buy the thing. Comments boiled down to "We love the writing, blah blah beautiful, blah blah great descriptions, but we were bored and uninterested in the characters. It's almost like you're not seeing them."

He shelved it, wrote another that sold, started teaching. He then noticed that those comments were his very own when reading a lot ("at least half") of his student work. He identified the problem with merged, flat characters as

"...the narrative structure that occurs when an author, for reasons ranging from naivete to authorial narcissism (which often go hand in hand), fails to invent and/or reinvent -- i.e. in the case of autobiographical novels -- the main character, both visually and in relation to some objective external context. What is happening, unconsciously, is that the author has not separated himself or herself imaginatively from the character being written, and hence inhabits that character from the vantage point of being stuck inside the character, usually right behind the character's eyes."

But the character has to be "an other," a fully imagined creation separate from the author. He then goes on to detail the separation of author/narrator/character, very simply, like this:

Author (Narrator(Character))

The author is forever outside the text. The narrator provides context for the character. And the character is inside the story developing the action. He says this is true even in an autobiography and goes on, to my mind, to prove it. Using Catcher in the Rye as an example, he easily shows the separation of the here-and-now Holden as narrator from the back-then Holden and claims it is this distance that provides context for the reader to determine the meaning of the text, as well as derive the pleasure.

Now, this is a much more sophisticated analysis of point of view than the one Ethan espouses, for example, where the goal seems to be to climb as far into the character's head as possible, the infamous close 3rd -- which Reiken says is called free indirect discourse. Maybe Ethan in his own writing is able to unconsciously provide the narrative distance and so doesn't think to teach it.

It struck me as I read that the narrator provides the second "eye," making what would be a flat perspective into a 3-D one. It made a lot of sense to me. One other quote poked itself out to me:

"Most third-person narratives proceed with constant modulation of the psychic distance, moving like a camera eye between long-range establishing shots to very limited, close-range character POV, [and out again]. But in a case where the author has not fully imagined the point of view character -- often because the author has not yet truly conceived the character as a bona fide other -- the ANC relationship gets structured in such a way that there is little or no psychic distance between narrator and character, no way for us to see the character moving through a setting or situation, and hence, though unintentionally, what I am calling a merged affect."

Again, a subtler, more detailed view than the one I got from the Workshop.

He uses other examples, such as the fact that the Bloom sections of Ulysses are more vivid and engaging than the Stephen sections, speculating that Bloom is a better realized character because Joyce conceived him as an other, whereas he pretty much saw himself as Stephen Dedalus.

How many stories did we read and write with merged ANC? Countless, as I think back. Thoughts?


And Then What About Those Who Want To Raise Awareness But Prefer Long Sleeves?

From Timothy Noah's Chatterbox, on Slate:

At this late hour, it's impossible to look at somebody's awareness bracelet and learn precisely what that person is trying to raise awareness about, because there are simply too many possibilities. Purple, for instance, now signifies support for Alzheimer patients, abused animals, battered women, epileptics, children in foster care, or people with irritable bowel syndrome, among other things. Teal invokes the fight against ovarian cancer, except when it invokes the fight against myasthenia gravis, drug addiction, or sexual assault. Gray can raise awareness about brain cancer, diabetes, disabled children, emphysema, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, or a couple of diseases I've never heard of; or it can raise awareness about asthma or allergies. ("Please join me in the fight to cure hay fever.")

...I guess this means it's too late to introduce my crumpled-Maker's-Mark-label-colored bracelet to raise awareness about crap pretending to be literary fiction.

Here's What! Vol. 2

Jeez, leave it to the Internet to make electrical home repair disgusting! Check out www.iluv3wayswitchers.com... Fair warning – my buddy and I drank Jager-bombs instead of X-Mas shopping for our families on Dec. 22: he's been demoted thrice and I'm in and out of traction... How do maggots vomit? Find out on a very special Nova tomorrow night... A middle-aged bachelor who wears purple velvet jackets, occasionally breaks into sensitive ballads, and regularly gives candy to children. Pedophile? Nope: Willy Wonka... Okay, point taken: Did my dentist have to angrily rub a fish stick in my mouth to illustrate my tartar problem?!... A friend of mine just turned 374 months; they’re so fun at this age!... Peter Framptom asked Do You Feel Like I Do? Hey Pete: No, I am not an obsequious alcoholic... Folks, I’ve been short of breath lately, so I got rid of ALL my plants. Those mothers are wicked-oxygen-hogs... I guess the auto transmission of a person going through gender-reassignment would be a “tranny’s tranny”?... Poor Ed and Valerie Van Halen – to think they traded Michael Jackson their son for the chance to play a solo on Beat It... I consider my bathroom, really, to be the staging area for the rest of my life... Perhaps a tad OCD? I cleanly ripped a bit of ragged skin by my fingernail all the way up to my shoulder... Last note to birds: Taking a bath in a mud puddle does NOT make you clean... I’m sorry, but even during the Grateful Dead’s seminal mid-70s jams, the vocals sounded exactly like karaoke night at Patty’s Whistle Stop Pub... Shhhh: you know that red drippy plastic on the top of the Maker’s Mark bottle? It’s Cindy Brady’s first menses. I know, it’s fucked up, but whatever...


Desperately seeking earth goats

If you have a fairly recent email address for Kevin, Fid, Abby, Deanna, Johnny, Erica, Nikki, Johnny, Cristina, Kristin M, or others, please email me. I can't find my workshop list.

Jennifer Haigh reading tonight

Our upperclassman colleague takes the Prairie Lights stage at 8 p.m. to read from her second novel, Baker Towers, a chapter of which I remember from Ethan's workshop. I saw her last time around, and although I have yet to follow up by actually sitting down with my signed first edition of Mrs. Kimble, her reading from it was masterful, I thought.