One Story Workshop Day 3: Let them eat cake (or tacos)

Book-Paintings2 (640x406)We’re back for Day 3 of One Story’s summer writing workshop!  After an amazing assortment of breakfast pastries, the writers divided up for their workshops with Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino.  They met back up for a lunch of tacos before we jumped right in to the first craft lecture of the day.

Stacey D’Erasmo spoke to us about the power of white space in our writing.  Most writers use white space as a way to advance the action, a means of locomotion, if you will.  Stacey showed us some examples of writers who use white space to generate a kind of narrative power other than speed.  For instance, she argued, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler uses white space as a subjunctive space.  Think of the space around the story as a kind of ‘what if?’

This idea of using space as alternate storytelling method came up in one of the pieces she brought into class for us to examine together.  In “We Wanted More” by Justin Torres, the real story of the family happens in the void.  The writing is beautiful, but it’s only by not hearing what’s actually happening that we fully understand the abusive nature of this family.  My favorite example of alternate uses of white space in D’Erasmo’s lecture was Eros: one small fragment of a chapter in Kathryn Davis’s Versailles: A Novel.  This section details the last moments of Marie Antoinette’s life.  The writing is beautiful and poetic, but it is only by sitting in the quiet aftermath that you realize her death happened there.  The white space becomes the guillotine, the crowd, the world.

Our writing exercise today was led by Michael Pollock (One Story’s workshop organizer extraordinaire) and was a prompt called “Build a city from the clouds exercise” from Karen Russell.  Using Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we each had to create a city in 300 words or less.  Everyone in the group had a different take on the exercise. We went from a town called Periphery to Paradise City, from a city built on Mars to a town in East Texas.

James Yeh from Gigantic Magazine, Benjamin Samuel and Halimah Marcus from Electric Literature, Suzie Hanrahan from Columbia: A Literary Journal and Jonathon Lee from A Public Space joined Adina Talve-Goodman for our evening panel on editors and publishing.  We opened the panel by talking about each magazine’s slush (unsolicited stories) reading practices.  All four magazines have a reading period that allows them to take time off to catch up and make sure every piece gets read and replied to.  When asked what their magazines were looking for in slush, the editors had a similar suggestion:

  • Read the magazine!  See what is being published by the magazine and send pieces that you feel would be a good fit with the other work they publish.

After this, we spent time on rejection letters. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

  • When do you send a rewrite?  ONLY when explicitly asked.  If one of these editors returns your story with personal notes, it means: they liked your work, but next time, send a different story, not a rewrite.  Also (and this was stressed) don’t send something back immediately.  If an editor took the time to reject you personally, it means he or she wanted you to know how you can fix a story.  They want you to think about their suggestions (and take a few if they appeal to the story you are trying to tell) before sending them something new.
  • Why was I rejected? There are many reasons for a rejection.  Maybe your story didn’t fit in with the theme of the magazine. Maybe there was too much sex or violence for a certain issue. One big reason you may be rejected is because your piece feels like a first draft. You should always have someone you trust read your work before submitting.  Make sure there are no glaring mistakes that might make a promising piece less appealing.

We ended the night on a high note.  Each panelist discussed their idea for the future of publishing.  Benjamin Samuel summed it up perfectly; “I think the future of publishing is bright, because I refuse to think any other way.”


One Story Workshop Day One: Writers need failure & a doula

DSC00250 (640x480)It’s that time again, writers and readers!  One Story’s fourth annual summer workshop has begun.  Twenty talented writers have come to New York City’s Center for Fiction to workshop stories, listen to craft lectures and learn from diverse panels.  The week began with our students breaking into two morning workshops with our fearless  returning teachers, Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino.

After lunch we sat down for an intimate craft lecture with Jenny Offill.  The theme of the lecture was failure.  Jenny went around the room and asked everyone what was the most discouraging comment they had received about being a writer.  Comments ranged from: “You would have made such a good doctor” to “Really? Have I read anything you’ve written?”  Although we started off doom and gloom, throughout her lecture, Jenny really encouraged embracing the notion of an “un-successful” life, so long as it remains writing-focused.  At the end of the lecture, Jenny shared some of her important life hacks for being a writer in New York.

Highlights included:

  • where to find free cheese and wine
  • a list of movies about people with interesting lives
  • a list of jobs that give you time to write (but will not make you rich or encourage your parents in any way)

She ended by giving her secret to success as a writer.  “Let everyone give up on you.”  That moment of pity when no one, not even your loved ones, believes that you can finish the book can be a catalyst.  Sometimes pity is the biggest spur.

In the afternoon, our students stretched their hands and minds with writing exercises, hosted by One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti. Together they wrote beautifully about memory and remembering, and shared their work out loud in an impromptu performance, before heading into midtown for dinner.

The evening session was a panel on the usually un-definable job of literary agents.  On our panel was Renee Zuckerbrot, Julie Barer, Jim Rutman and Rebecca Gradinger, and it was moderated by our own Hannah Tinti.  When asked what an agent’s actual job was, we heard comparisons to doulas, cheerleaders and characters from Jerry Maguire.  Each of the panelists agreed that the agent’s job is to be the writer’s biggest advocate in the literary world.  That being said, agents are looking for great books that they fall in love with.  They are in a unique position, between writer and publisher, to follow their gut and tackle stories that resonate with them.

The most important lesson of the night was finding the right agent to be your partner.  Multiple agents may find a connection and believe in your work, but it is important that a writer takes the time to choose an agent.  Discuss your  own short-term versus long-term writing goals with a potential agent, as well as their plans for your work.  It is important to be on the same page from the beginning, as your relationship with this person will be one of, if not the, most important connections in your writing life.

Day one ended with wine, cheese and mingling. It was a fast-paced day full of information, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Stay tuned!