Introducing Our Debutantes: Katherine Karlin

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re interviewing each author about their debut book experiences. This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Katherine Karlin, author of Send Me Work, a captivating collection that includes the story she published with One Story, “Muscle Memory.”

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

We had a visiting author at Kansas State, Dana Johnson, whom I knew from USC where I’d done my graduate studies.  It was a very successful event, and after her reading a bunch of us went to a bar to hang out with Dana for a while.  I got home in the early evening, full of beer, food and companionship, and I lazily checked my email to find the note from my agent that Northwestern University Press would publish my short story collection.  It was a lovely end to an absolutely lovely day.

2) Your collection includes “Muscle Memory,” which you published with One Story in April, 2008. What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing Send Me Work?
Quite a lot.  When One Story published “Muscle Memory” I was living in Los Angeles, working towards my PhD.  By the time Send Me Work came out I was teaching at K-State.  So I went from grad student life to faculty life, and I’d moved from Los Angeles to the town of Manhattan, Kansas.  I wrote a novel in that time, and established my relationship with my agent, Barbara Braun.  I got my first house, and I got my dog.  He’s a Kansas dog.  A rescue.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?
The revision process was fairly painless.  Most of these stories had been published and I got great advice along the way from some wise editors, Hannah Tinti having been the most rigorous of them all.  Northwestern thought we needed one more story to round out the collection, so I wrote a new one, “Geography,” which is the final story in Send Me Work.  I wrote it the summer that BP was spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and that disaster haunts the narrative.

My stories are not linked by character or setting, but they are linked by the theme of work, and this motif evolved naturally for me.  It is just what interests me, as a writer.  I’m not very big on romance or on domesticity.  Some of the tightest connections I’ve made in my life have been with co-workers, and I wanted to explore those close bonds in my fiction.  So the theme kind of presented itself, and I realized after writing and publishing several short stories that I had a collection.

4)  Many of the stories in Send Me Work have women doing unusual jobs (like welding in “Muscle Memory”). What kind of research went into this collection, and how do your own work experiences play into your stories?

Many of the stories are drawn from my own work experience, particularly the stories that are set in oil refineries.  I worked in a Delaware Valley refinery for several years, and I worked along the Houston Ship Channel.  Like Destiny in “Muscle Memory,” I had a job in the toolshed of a Louisiana shipyard, where I learned how to weld.  I think these experiences helped give a certain depth to the settings, the descriptions of work, and to the characterizations, even though none of these stories is autobiographical.  I also tapped the expertise of my friends.  For “The Severac Sound,” I used everything I learned over the years from Philadelphia Orchestra oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld, whom I’ve known since we were in our teens.  Jane Harris, who is a railroad engineer for New Jersey Transit, taught me a few things about the railroad.  I have pretty interesting friends.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m most looking forward to meeting the other writers whose work I admire, and to seeing my good friend Bonnie Nadzam, the author of LAMB, who has been a mentor to me in so many ways.  I’m proud to have her present my debut.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Megan Mayhew Bergman

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debutantes through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week features a true Debutante: Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, just came out last week! It is a mesmerizing collection that includes the story she published with One Story, “Housewifely Arts.”

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was jogging, pushing my 2-year-old in a stroller on a dirt road down by the Battenkill River. It was November and I was 8 weeks pregnant.  My agent, Julie Barer (a wonderwoman!), called me.  I was getting terrible reception, so I packed up and drove to a church parking lot and parked by an old cemetery, where Julie gave me the news of the probable deal.  I cried, probably thought about throwing up (morning sickness and extreme excitement are a lethal pair), then came home and danced with my husband in the kitchen.

2) Your collection includes “Housewifely Arts,” which you published with us in November, 2010 (it later went on to be included in Best American Short Stories). What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing Birds of a Lesser Paradise?
What has happened to me?  Hmm.  No new super powers or shape shifting abilities or anything cool like that.  I had my second daughter.  We bought my husband’s childhood home from his father, painted the inside, and put up all our thriftstore-chic pieces among the existing antiques and baby gear.

Writing-wise, I started a novel and began teaching literature at Bennington College.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice
would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?

The revision process was great; I like to revise.  There were enormous stacks of scribbled-on manuscripts on my desk, on the kitchen counter, in my diaper bag.  Every now and then a page would get a crayon mark or coffee spilled on it.  Dog hair is on everything I own, including edited manuscripts, and probably anything I sent back to Scribner (Sorry, guys).

Revising needs to be savage and you need to walk away with some scars and dirty manuscripts to feel like you did a good job.  You abandon yourself to it.

As for turning a group of stories into a book-length manuscript, I think you know when the material is there.  Readiness of the work itself is the first battle; coherence for a collection is the second.  Most of us have thematic obsessions, or a consistent voice/narrator—the things that link stories together for a collection are often already in place in a body of work.

4) Many of the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise hinge on the question of home, as well as animals and their place in our lives. How do your home in Vermont and your own animals play into your work?
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is my therapy session with myself.  I was going through so many changes when I was writing these stories:  marriage, fertility questions, motherhood, my working life, the first signs of aging, moving away from my family in the south to my husband’s hometown in Vermont, homesickness, and grieving (my mother-in-law passed away just two weeks after my first daughter was born).

For example, the story “Yesterday’s Whales” is me working out my urge to have children despite significant environmental concerns.  In “The Cow that Milked Herself” the husband, who is a vet, gives his wife an ultrasound with the same equipment he uses on dogs (this really happened).

My animals and town make rogue appearances in the works. I had my spaniel Betsy in mind when I wrote the father’s dog in the title story “Birds of a Lesser Paradise.”  “Night Hunting” features a Christmas party like the one we attend annually, and an abandoned orchard like the one right up the hill from our house.

I occasionally use a real problem or setting for an anchor when I begin a story, but by the time the story is finished, it’s often 5 percent reality and 95 percent imagination.  Writers get into trouble this way.  People often ask me about the veterinarians in my work – are they my husband?  For the record – no, they aren’t.  Do I steal things that come out of his mouth? Yes, totally.  There is a certain beauty and exoticism to his medical jargon, the sparkle in his eye when he talks about running his scalpel through a body to solve a problem or save a life.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I am looking forward to two things:
1.  Spending time with my date, Amy Hempel, who is kind and brilliant.  People may think we are discussing literature, but we are probably talking about how to clean dog ears or trading rescue stories.

2.  Celebrating with Karen Seligman, who edited my piece at One Story, and a few after that, and became not just a trusted editor, but a friend.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Caitlin Horrocks

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we thought it would be a fun idea to introduce our Debs through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week, in our second installment, we had the pleasure of speaking with Caitlin Horrocks, author of This is Not Your City, a mesmerizing collection of short stories published by Sarabande in June 2011.

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Sarah Gorham, the editor at Sarabande, called me. I was living with friends for a few months while I guest-taught for a semester at Arizona State University. I ran out to the living room to tell them and we went out to dinner. As we ate, they were saying, “This isn’t the actual celebration, right? This is just dinner. We have to do something more exciting later.” But dinner was fine by me—much of what I was feeling was just relief, along with elation. The book had been accepted for publication once before, and then that publisher shut down. This time around, there was excitement, but also the feeling of a weight being lifted.

2) In January, 2011, your story “Life Among the Terranauts” was published in One Story. What happened to you between then and the debut of This Is Not Your City?

I’d actually just started writing “Life Among the Terranauts” when my book manuscript was accepted, and the copyediting was nearly complete when the story came out. So it didn’t make it into the book. That’s resulted in some Goodreads reviews about how my book is good, but would have been even better if it included “her awesome Terranaut story from One Story.”

To echo something I know many other One Story authors have commented on, the magazine’s format means that people actually read your one story. I loved hearing from people who enjoyed the piece and took the time to tell me so.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?

This will sound disingenuous, but my advice is to not worry too much about it. I wasted a lot of time and mental energy worrying over whether my book-length group of stories was really a book: were the stories cohesive enough? How could I make them more cohesive? Why would I even want to attempt that when much of what I love about short stories is reading and writing really disparate voices and places?

I shouldn’t have worried so much. Editors and readers have found plenty of connective tissue in this book, even things I hadn’t thought of as themes or obsessions. My book was a book all along.

4) The stories in This Is Not Your City are remarkably diverse in terms of setting and subject matter – one is written in the voice of a Russian mail-order bride on her way into Finland, for example, and another takes place in the Gulf of Aden, where Somali pirates hijack a cruise ship. What kind of research went into this collection, and how do your own experiences play into the fiction you write?

I’ve spent time in Finland, but I haven’t spent time on a cruise ship, or with pirates. There’s a blend of personal and researched experience throughout the book, and hopefully I’ve made them both seem real. The autobiographical material in my fiction is almost always some hacked up potato pieces in a much larger stew. They float alongside pieces of research that I perhaps shouldn’t admit are Googled, but often are. Even when the research is casual, I love the hunt for the exact right fact, or just the useless fact I find so interesting that I file it away in hopes of using it later. I have a lot of those.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m most looking forward to the second hour or so, when I look around and see that I didn’t wear the entirely wrong thing, and can relax. Other than that, I’m very excited to meet the other debutantes.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Ramona Ausubel

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we thought it would be a fun idea to introduce our Debs through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week, in our first installment, we have the pleasure of speaking with Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here Except All of Us, a dazzling first novel about a small Jewish village re-imagining their world.

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was on my way to New York  for the One Story Ball two years ago (this is actually my second time around as a debutante!).  My agent had sent the manuscript out a couple of days before and I had been biting my nails.  I was in the Albuquerque airport when he told me we had interest, in the Baltimore airport when he told me we had an offer and in front of Citarella on 75th and Broadway when he told me the deal was done.  I have extremely fond feelings towards those unlikely locations now.  I was with my sister and my husband when that last call came and we found the nearest bar and had a glass of champagne.  A couple of days later, I got to hear John Hodgman announce me and my book deal at the Debutante Ball.  What could be better than that?

2) In July, 2008, your story “Safe Passage” was published in One Story. What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and the debut of No One is Here Except All of Us?

Having that story in One Story changed everything for me.  I got a bunch of emails from agents and editors, which made the whole prospect of finding a home for my story collection and novel much less impossible-seeming, although the novel wasn’t nearly finished yet, so it took a while before I could make use of those contacts.  Eventually I went out to New York and met with some of the people, including an editor at Riverhead who ended up sending the collection to an agent she loved.  Happily, he loved the book and waited patiently while I finished the novel.  Fast-forward to the Citarella window.  Since then, I’ve been working on new stuff, which I hope, will eventually turn into another novel and another collection.  In non-publishing news, I had my first baby in November.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about producing a book-length manuscript?

I think my advice (and I have to remind myself of this all the time) is to have fun.  Having a book published has been terrific and I’m so, so grateful for it, but the real imprint on my life was made by the years I spent writing the thing, not by the flash of having it enter the world.  I guess the idea is to take pleasure in the work itself rather than worrying all the time about finishing it.  No One is Here Except All of Us took eight years and seventeen drafts to complete.  Only five of those weeks were spent writing a first draft (a terrible, crazed first draft).  One percent of the time I was starting the book, one percent of the time I was finishing it and the rest of the time I was in the middle. Basically, I’m reminding myself to enjoy the middle, because that’s where you live most of the time you’re writing a book.

4)  No One is Here Except All of Us puts a magical spin on real-life events. What kind of research went into this novel, and how does your own family history play into your work?

Stories from my family provided the original seeds for the book.  I grew up with legends about my great-grandmother and her children surviving on tree bark in the wilds of Romania during WWI while her husband was a prisoner of war in Italy, where he was having the time of his life (he was reported to say later, in his thick yiddish accent, “the vether vas varm, the vimen vas varm…”).  These were the stories I had in my head, but they seemed impossible.  How could they be true?  I began writing the novel to answer that question–my job was to create a world in which such stories could be real.  For many drafts, my imagination was my only source.  Much later in the process, I did a lot of research so that I could situate my invented world within history, within the Jewish religion and within the tradition of folktales. Though I was writing fiction, I felt like I had found some kind of truth.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m most looking forward to seeing lots of friends.  It’s also likely to be by far the latest I will have stayed out without my son since he was born, which will probably be weird and magnificent, in equal parts.

PEN 2011 Writing Awards Announced


Last week the PEN American Center announced its 2011 awards. We’re so excited that the winners included three members of the One Story community.

Susanna Daniel (“Stiltsville” #134) was one of two winners of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize (worth $25,000) for an excellent debut work of fiction for her novel Stiltsville. Smith Henderson, author of One Story issue #136 “Number Stations,”  won The Emerging Writers Award, a new prize which honors a writer who has been published in a literary journal, but has not yet published a book-length work. Former One Story contributing editor Elliot Holt, nominated by Guernica magazine, was named the runner up for this award.

We’d like to thank PEN for their continued extraordinary support of writers at all stages in their careers. We congratulate Susanna, Smith, and Elliot, and all of this year’s winners and runners up who will be honored at the 2011 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on October 12, 2011, at CUNY Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium in New York City.

You can see the full list of winners and runners up here. We hope you’ll join us in October to toast them all.

Come Celebrate Andrew Foster Altschul at Mediabistro Wednesday!

deusexmachina More exciting news has just come in about another OS author! We’d like to extend our congratulations to Andrew Foster Altschul (#62 “The Rules”), whose new novel Deus Ex Machina has been selected for Mediabistro’s book club. To celebrate, they’re throwing a party, and inviting anybody who works with literature or media to come on down on Wednesday, August 17 for some drinks and book-talk. Word is that Altschul might be giving away some copies of his book, which is certainly a reason to come– NPR called it “brilliant…one of the best novels about American culture in years,” and Booklist noted it as “absurd and hilarious…a smartly funny and timely montage which challenges the meaning of celebrity.”

Hang out with Mediabistro and see just why critics are raving about Deus Ex Machina by RSVPing  here, and if you’d like to read more about Altschul (who is also the Books Editor at The Rumpus, one of our favorite sites for book-related news), check out his website for updates and links to his work.

Congratulations Andrew, and we hope to see you all on Wednesday!

From the Trenches, Till Next Time

Eva, Abby, and Rose

Eva, Abby, and Rose

We are being withdrawn from the trenches. Despite the fact that there was really never a war going on, we figured that the time is right to make some room in the dugout for new One Story interns. But this means saying the g-word.

It being our last day in the office, the topic of goodbyes came up numerous times. Editor Marie-Helene Bertino introduced us to the concept of an Irish Goodbye, in which you might leave a room without saying a word, or say you have to move your car but in actuality drive it home. The concept of avoiding the emotional attachment to the simple word “goodbye”.

Therefore, before we do the deed, we thought we’d leave you with a collection of advice, musings and One Story insider information from our summer spent, knee-deep, in the literary trenches.

1. Those lovely invoices/renewal forms/miscellaneous mail items that show up at your door? Not sent by robots. Sent by us. Also received by us! So send us a fun note and keep using those quirky personal checks. Shout out to the fan of Spaying and Neutering Your Pets: Bob Barker would approve.

2. An internship does not give you security. We all came into this internship from different places wanting different things. We learned that interning is all about trying on various roles and seeing if it feels good—if it doesn’t, that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. Exploring your curiosities will make you more curious, and as Dorothy Parker said: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

3. When all else fails, bagels.

4. Be patient with your submissions. We work hard to make sure they get good reads, but sometimes this means it takes a while. This is the same for other small literary magazines and presses. Patience is key, but persistence, when suitable, is welcome.

5. It’s hard to run a literary journal. There is an extreme amount of care and love that goes into each issue of One Story. From the Thursday morning editorial meetings to when we stuff your envelopes, we make sure that what you are getting in your mailbox is something that we would want in ours (because it is).

6. Finding new voices in fiction is exhilarating. Giving other people the opportunity to do what we often hope for in the future is incredible. One Story is largely a literary family looking for some beautiful new children to put on display and later smother with excited hugs and kisses. The best part is: the number of extended family numbers is infinite. Maybe you can be the crazy uncle.

7. No matter how much you’ve read, you have not conquered all.

8. Writers are people who write, not necessarily people who are always getting published. Myla Goldberg gave simple directions: find a place where there is a low cost of living. Go there. Write. She spent the year after college in Prague strictly because she could survive on $100 a month and have the chance to work on her writing. Being a writer is a lifestyle choice and whether you have a year to set aside for the cause, or a few early wake ups a week, it’s a choice anyone can make.

9. Although it does feel like we all merged together a bit in these past few months, we’re all off on our own adventures. Tanya Rey, our beloved managing editor, is also embarking on a journey apart from One Story. But as Simon Van Booy helped us see, endings are really the prologue for beginnings, and there is no need to be afraid of them.

So sit tight while we hop on over to 5th Avenue for some coffee. We’ll be right back.

Golden Oldies: Revisiting Issue #13, “Stations West”

nullOnce again, I bring you back to one of our very first issues to remind you of the wonderful things One Story was doing before (many of) you became loyal subscribers! Issue #13: “Stations West” by Allison Amend follows a Jewish father from the old country making a life in America in the 1880s, and his son trying to do the same. Allison’s words are beautiful and carefully chosen to describe the lifestyles of these men that are foreign to most contemporary readers. The story demonstrates a unique family dynamic, and how despite attempts to change paths, the apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree. I strongly encourage you to see life through the eyes of Boggy and Moshe by ordering the story or, even better, picking up a copy of Stations West the novel.

After her publication in One Story, Allison Amend came out with her debut story collection Things That Pass for Love in 2008, for which she won a bronze IPPY award. However, years prior to this publication, Allison had completed her first novel, Stations West, in 2004. Using her One Story issue as chapter one, she found a well-known agent and began the hunt for a publisher. Several big name houses responded to the book with lots of enthusiasm, but no one was interested in pushing forward with a buy. After sending the novel around to smaller publishers with no success, Allison’s agent eventually told her to put Stations Westaside and move on. But this author wasn’t taking no for answer.

Allison parted ways with her agent and, because she believed in the book so much, persisted on her own. At one point, she even went to Book Expo America, pitching her novel to every publisher she liked. She said it was “horribly embarrassing and humiliating and in between every pitch [she] would go over to the bar and have a shot of something.” After some more time of sending her work around to no takers, the moment finally came. Hannah Tinti, editor-in-chief of One Story, put Allison Amend in touch with Michael Griffith, who was curating the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series and in search of a historical fiction novel that had been overlooked by mainstream publisher. As Allison stated, “the rest is history.” Stations West was published to great reviews and was a finalist for the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize.

Though Allison went through an unconventional publication process, her dedication and true belief in what she does followed what the students at One Story’s summer workshop learned all of last week. As Hannah Tinti explained in one of her craft lectures, “it only takes one person to like what you’re doing.” It may take a while, but you just need to find that one person to reaffirm your efforts. Many of our workshoppers said they felt validated at the end of the week and were comforted knowing that what they do is truly important and that they are certainly not alone. It’s a matter of passion, and Allison Amend certainly has it.

Click here to buy Issue #13: “Stations West”, or here to see more of Allison’s thoughts on writing the story. To watch a video with more details of her publishing process, just click below!

The End of the Beginning: The Final Day of One Story Summer Writer’s Workshop

One Story's editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti lectures about the publishing industry and encourages workship writers to "never give up."

As all good things must, the One Story Summer Writer’s Workshop came to an end this past Friday. The final day kicked off as all the others before, yet there was a tinge of nostalgia to the morning workshops as OS editors Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino gave their final critiques.

With all the whirlwind events and information, it’s easy to leave a workshop feeling a combination of excitement and also confusion of what to do next. OS Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti stepped up to give some tips and answered students’ questions about the business side of writing for our last afternoon lecture.

First, she said, always keep in mind:“It’s not publishing that makes you a writer. Writing makes you a writer.” But once you have a manuscript as polished as you can make it, it’s time to put on your “business hat.” Adding another perspective to the agent’s panel discussion from Monday, Hannah encouraged the workshop writers to look for agents carefully and selectively. Find the agent that’s the right fit for you. Don’t just sign up with the first agent you find or comes you way—make sure they represent similar authors and related genres. “It will save you some heartache,” she advised.

If you’re working on a collection, take the same care when looking for places to submit your stories. Check out up and coming literary magazines. There are a lot of them out there. Hannah suggested looking at prize-winning anthologies such as the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Short Stories. Also, subscribing to magazines like Poets & Writers and Publishers Weekly will keep you informed of what’s current.

At the end of the talk, Hannah shared some of her own rejection letters. She stressed the importance of behaving professionally even in the face of rejection. We also got to see examples of other authors who were rejected (Harry Potter, rejected twelve times! and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room labeled as “hopelessly bad.”) Seeing these letters helped put the daunting taks of submitting into perspective, and also provided laughs and comfort for the workshoppers. “It’s not always the best writer in the room who gets published,” said Tinti. “It’s the most stubborn—the one who keeps trying to improve their writing and doesn’t give up.”

One Story Summer Writer's Workshop final dinner and student reading

With hopes lifted and a buzz of adrenaline similar to that last-day-of-school feeling, the talented troupe of twenty gathered one last time for dinner and a student reading at Cabinet Magazine’s beautiful event space. Each writer read a few minutes of his / her own work, interrupted periodically by staff speeches and thank-yous in addition to a slideshow of pictures from the week matched to Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over till It’s Over” (selection courtesy of workshop-coordinator Michael J. Pollock).

Perhaps the most wonderful part of the evening (besides the opportunity to hear everyone’s work) was the continuous and gracious thanking. Marie-Helene gave a wonderfully sweet speech thanking the One Story staff for all of our dedicated work (in which she matched each staff member to various parts of the body) as well as genuine gratitude from workshop students and staff. A nostalgic mood pervaded the night, despite the fact that the workshop was only for one week. However, I spoke to one of the workshop participants about the comraderie present and she pointed out how amazing it was that everyone could open up and share a part of themselves in so little time to a group of perfect strangers.

A writer’s workshop is a vulnerable experience indeed and it is perhaps this sharing of words that make workshops both intense and unique.  And to continue with Marie’s metaphor for the One Story body, if I may, the writers from this summer’s workshop are like the lungs: bringing in fresh air, and pushing out again, to someplace new.

The Beginning of the End

With every day it seems there are only more ideas and philosophies and pieces of advice to incorporate into our thoughts about the One Story Workshop and writing as a whole. As usual, yesterday morning editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Alison led their individual classes, and after lunch,  we all gathered to hear a craft lecturer share their own insight on how to better make a story. Yesterday, Jenny Offill, finalist for the LA Times First Book Award and author of the New York Times Notable Book Last Things, joined us to focus on one of the finer compounds of writing: the sentence.

“Writing,” she explained, “is like being alive. It’s about paying attention, being awake in a larger sense.” By focusing on the concrete unit of the sentence, and even single words, Offill talked about treating language “as a door that opens us up into a world we’ve glimpsed or perceived in some way but haven’t entered.” Perhaps Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as “the best words in the best order” can be extended to all good writing. Good writing is something we’ve been hearing about all week. Often it’s been in a vague way just exact enough to sound daunting; we may all usually recognize it, and aspire to it, but reaching for it can make it seem intangible. The question of how exactly to make “good writing” seems another thing entirely. Offill, harkening back to her own days as an anxious middle schooler, explained it as a combination lock. We all remember being that kid, fumbling with the locker that won’t open, until finally you get the numbers right and it works. Writing, she said, is also an act of lining up elements: mystery, beauty, and surprise. Align the three, and you’ll make something that “captures the warp of your mind, but in a way that’s accessible to others.”

This was the perfect advice to prepare us for the afternoon, when we had the incredible opportunity to visit Manhattan’s Center for Fiction to hear from Simon Van Booy, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and author of many books, including The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter. As he read to us from his new novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, I couldn’t help but feel the sway of the language he used, how the sentences rolled over each other with their lush details and layers. They not only captured an experience, but became one themselves, taking the kinds of risks Offill had urged us all towards earlier. It seemed fitting then that Mr. Van Booy seemed not to shy from experiences in his own life. His talk covered a wide ground, from Einstein, the consciousness of the universe, psychological transference, Joseph Campbell and the Paris catacombs, to Fred Astaire, Greek sexual attitudes, the ugliest shoes he’s bought, and why suits are more useful than underwear. If that seems random, that’s because randomness is at the core of how things work.

As we listened to the winding series of chance meetings and lucky turns that brought him to where he is now, it became clear that his story was perhaps an embodiment of all the advice we’d been given so far at the One Story Writer’s Workshop: there is no magic formula for making it as a writer. Really, all you can do is find something, wonderful or terrible, and tell about it as honestly and passionately as you can. Finding your voice, and using it to conjure life for your characters, is the crucial step. “When you find your voice,” Van Booy said, “you’ll find you’ll write about the same thing for the rest of your life, just in different contexts.” That’s another thing everyone seems to agree on—there is no stopping the trials, or thrills, of writing. “When [a book] is all done, I just want to keep working on it. You don’t ever finish it, you abandon it at the point its ready to live on its own.”

Perhaps the same could be said about students. No one’s done learning how to write, and maybe it’s something you never really do all on your own. Van Booy began his reading with the prologue to his novel, the bit he wrote last. “What we call the beginning is often the end,” he said, quoting T. S. Eliot. “And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”