Opportunities and Announcements: August 3, 2015

Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

Member choice for the BWW’s Fall Literature Reading Series

And the winner is…My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Thank you to everyone who voted in the member poll to choose the book we’ll read for the 2015 BWW Fall Literature Reading Series. Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend emerged as the winner with 53% of the vote. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice took 2nd with 26% and Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick came in 3rd with 21%.

The literature reading series will begin in October—look for the schedule of Tuesday evening workshops on Meetup beginning next month.

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Reading With A Pen

file000424834161I recently found this fascinating article about reading with a pen by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books. The gist is this: the printed word is powerful, but it’s also seductive, so don’t let yourself be seduced too easily.

He’s referring to a common, dangerous assumption: if a book is published, it must be good. We may believe that each sentence has been vetted for clarity, each paragraph hangs together, and the author’s logic holds water. This isn’t necessarily true, Parks reminds us. He provides several examples of badly written published works to make his point.

Readers definitely fall into this trap. I’m definitely guilty of it, too. But if readers are at times not critical enough, creative writing workshop participants may be too critical. Workshoppers may assume that if a piece of writing isn’t published, there must be something wrong with it. This assumption isn’t necessarily correct, and if it isn’t consciously banished from your brain, you may blind yourself to the author’s intent.

Note: this isn’t the first time I’ve warned against “looking for errors” in a work-in-progress. I speak about it at length in “On Giving Feedback.”

It’s wise to be alert while reading, to “resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into,” as Parks says. But I would caution against being so alert that you find problems that aren’t really there. A general, almost neutral awareness of your responses to each part of the piece is the real weapon here—a weapon that takes time and effort to cultivate.

Opportunities and Announcements: Week Of June 23, 2014

3bearpondOur first event at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier was a great success! Al Uris, Linda Quinlan, and James Gamble gave a great reading, and it was great to meet some new folks in Montpelier. We had a good discussion about “what makes a story” and the conversation continued after the event concluded. I hope you’ll join us at our next event, on July 17th at the Essex Free Library.

Here are the opportunities and announcements for this week.
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Megan Mayhew Bergman Comes to Burlington!

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise and the forthcoming novel Almost Famous Women, will read from her work and sign books at Hotel Vermont on Wednesday, May 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Her short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Agni, Ecotone, Carolina Quarterly, and many other places. She’s posted a list of her publications here and you can sample some of her delightful stories. I’d recommend “The Pretty Grown-Together Children.”

This event is free and open to the public. Take a look at her stories and you’ll be totally convinced that this is a must-see reading. You’ll also have a chance to ask questions and get a book signed.

RSVP on Facebook.

RSVP on Meetup.

An Evening With David Budbill

David Budbill

David Budbill with Shakuhachi. Credit Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

Vermont writer and poet David Budbill will join us at Hotel Vermont on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 7 p.m. for a reading and Q&A about his work, the writing process, the publishing industry, and anything else that’s on your active, creative mind. RSVP today!

Budbill is a legend in Vermont’s literary scene. He’s perhaps best known for Judevine, a stunning portrait of life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, filled with characters who love so much it hurts.

A few years ago, I interviewed David about his collection of poems, Happy Life, on Vermont Public Radio. In our conversation, we talk about how he rebelled against the conventional wisdom that poets are supposed to be dark and gloomy. The whole interview, which includes samples of his poetry, is available here.

David Budbill’s poetry also appears regularly on The Writers Almanac. You can listen to his poems here.

“An Evening With David Budbill” would not be possible without the generous support of Hotel Vermont and the League of Vermont Writers. We hope to see you there!

Publishing Your Work: Debrief and Podcast

From Left to Right: Peter Biello, Jon Clinch, Dede Cummings, Jessica Swift Eldridge, and Jan Elizabeth Watson.

From Left to Right: Peter Biello, Jon Clinch, Dede Cummings, Jessica Swift Eldridge, and Jan Elizabeth Watson.

Last Saturday’s panel discussion on publishing was a huge success. Authors Jon Clinch and Jan Elizabeth Watson, agent and publisher Dede Cummings, and editor Jessica Swift Eldridge gave fantastic advice to writers.

“I’ve attended others like this through my MFA program and at the AWP conference, but the one on Saturday was by far the best,” said Annemarie Lavalette, who studies at Goddard.

“Excellent choice of panelists,” said Cardy Raper. “I found my head nodding at much of which they had to say.”

In the podcast, you’ll hear every word that caused such head-nodding. Each panelist shared the story of her/his journey to publication, or the stories of some clients. You’ll also hear some helpful nuggets of information on finding, keeping, and firing agents; what not to say when querying publishers; and why you absolutely must keep trying to get your work out there.

Here’s the podcast for your listening pleasure.

You may also want to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. Just open iTunes and search for “Burlington Writers Workshop.”

We had more questions than we could answer in a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately the panelists agreed to respond to all your questions, so I’ll send them questions soon and post their responses when they’re all available.

Thanks to VPR for providing space for this and Hotel Vermont for providing some rooms for folks traveling from far away.

We’re also taking suggestions on what our next panel discussion should cover. What’s your idea? Send it to us here.

Seven Days: “The BWW Has Ballooned, and Published”

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Seven Days has published a wonderful article about what The Burlington Writers Workshop has been doing. On the night of the interview, reporter Margot Harrison had originally planned to leave before 8 o’clock, but ended up staying beyond that time. If I had to guess why she decided to stay late, I’d say it’s because you’re all so awesome. Who wouldn’t want to stay late and chat with you?

To prepare for the buzz that this article will likely create, I’m launching some new meetings, which you can join for free at meetup.com. I want to make sure that if you want to attend a meeting, you can.

To that end, if you have suggestions on how I should go about scheduling meetings, please let me know: peter@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com. In fact, suggestions on ANYTHING are welcome! This is your workshop, so help me make it work better for you.

I’ve also got an idea for a three-part book-length workshop for folks who have finished manuscripts ready for review. This will probably be in October or November. More on that later.

And finally, one quick update on last night’s reading at the Essex Library. Success! I’ll post the audio and photos in the next few days. Stay tuned, and thank you for your continued dedication to reviewing each other’s work.

Chekhov’s Six Short Story Principles

chek

Anton Chekhov’s six aspects of fiction make for good revision guidelines.

I’ve been working on short stories lately, and every time I sit down to revise one, I’m reminded of how difficult they are. In my MFA workshops, my short stories were shot so full of holes that revising them seemed pointless. Once a teacher told me, “This story, in my view, can’t be fixed.” When you get a comment like that, you remember it well enough to put it in firm quotes.

Still, even with stories that “can’t be fixed,” I revise for a couple of months, then take my lessons from the failed story and start a newer, better story. Progress on my overall skill level was (and is) like watching an enormous file download very slowly.

In my novel and memoir workshops at UNCW, however, the feedback was much better, which makes me wonder why I’m even trying to write short stories when I should be playing to my strengths.

Because short stories are damned awesome, that’s why. I’ve read quite a few good ones lately and have a few well-reviewed collections on my shortlist now, including Tenth of December by George Saunders and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (who was on my thesis committee at UNCW).

When I’m wrestling with a new short story, I tend to pick up my copy of Anton Chekhov’s stories (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). The stories seem so pure that I can’t help but find myself going back to basics, scanning my own stories once for character, once for plot, once for dialogue, once for setting, etc. But perhaps the most helpful part of this book is the introduction, in which Chekhov’s writing advice is quoted.

According to Chekhov, there are six aspects of a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.”

These are helpful guidelines for revision. Perhaps my favorite of these is the last, “compassion.” That’s because it’s the most complex rule here. It asks us to avoid needlessly heaping pain and suffering on our characters. We can make them suffer, sure, but there’s got to be a clear reason for it. So I ask: Are my characters victims of my imagination? Or are they heroic in their suffering?

I’ll have one of my own stories reviewed by the BWW on Wednesday. I will admit that it’s an odd story, but after hearing so many good things about “Break and Enter” at the Book Launch Party last April, I’m wondering if I’ve turned the corner on short stories, or if I’m still writing stuff that “can’t be fixed.” Either way, I’ll wrestle with it for a few months, take my lessons, and move on.

For July, It’s 99 Cents!

bww2013coversmallThe whole point of publishing The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013 is to launch BWW stories, essays, and poems into the world.

To that end, I’ve made it even more accessible by lowering the price of the Amazon ebook to $0.99!

I’ll boost the price again at the end of July, so take advantage of this deal now. In addition to acquiring these powerful pieces of locally-made literature, you’ll also help us produce next year’s edition. All proceeds are put back into The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014.

Don’t have a Kindle? Fear not! You can download the Kindle app to your desktop computer, iPhone, or Android.

Check it out here. And thanks!

Martin Bock Made Me Cry

Martin Bock reading his poem, "braid"

Martin Bock reading his poem, “braid”

Martin Bock made me cry. Here’s how it happened:

The Burlington Writers Workshop took our Best of anthology on tour last week with a stop at the Joslin Memorial Library in Waitsfield. This was thanks to workshop member Al Uris, who lives and practices law across the street from the library.

Four workshop members who are featured in the book shared some of their work. All of the readings were stellar. Al started us off with his story, “Sand in the Shoes.” Shelagh Shapiro followed with an excerpt of her novel. Angela Palm finished the readings with an essay, “Projection,” which is not in the book but did receive BWW feedback last year.

But before Angela came Martin Bock, who read excerpts of “It’s Not So Easy,” an essay about his grandson, Ringo, and the difficult, existential questions grandsons sometimes ask (“How can I not die?”). But the essay didn’t make me cry. The poems Martin read for and about his wife, Melly, moved me. “braid” (no capital letter on the ‘b’) is a poem featured in the book, and you can hear Martin’s reading of it at 28:00 into the audio file. I can’t describe it to you. You’ll have to listen, and I dare you to keep your eyes dry.

Then, Martin threw in his adaptation of the James Henry Leigh Hunt poem, “Jenny Kissed Me,” substituting Melly’s name for Jenny. (37:40 in the audio file.) His voice—and the energy of the room—gave this poem so much life. Of course, such a bold and public declaration of love for one’s wife is rare and worthy of admiration and, for me at least, envy. Who doesn’t want to feel love that deeply? And who doesn’t want to express it in such an artful way?

I point out Martin’s piece only because it forced such an emotional response in me, but I must stress that I was awestruck by all the pieces I heard. Perhaps that’s because it was the first time I’d heard them. I’d read Al’s “Sand in the Shoes” many times, but I’d never heard Al’s voice read it aloud—and Al’s voice seemed perfectly suited for this kind of story. Angela Palm’s “Projection” was something we’d read at home before discussing it, but when I heard her read it, the humor inside this serious piece was more striking and apparent.

We’ve got another reading at the Essex Free Library on July 16th at 6:30, so please do join us for that one. And bring a tissue box, just in case.

Digging Deeper Into The BWW

Photo06060834I sat down with Elsie Lynn at The Essex Reporter a few weeks ago to talk about the Burlington Writers Workshop. This conversation was longer than the one I had with Molly Smith at WCAX, and we had a chance to talk about workshop ethics, the fear of sharing too much, and my own penchant for fictional characters who screw up their lives.

I’m finding it hard to answer the question: “How would you describe the book?” These pieces are so different that I’d have to laundry list and summarize each one, and of course that’s not possible in an interview in any medium. I’m thrilled that nobody has asked me to pick a favorite piece–I’m not sure I could!

Anyway, here’s the interview. Enjoy!

The Book Launch

The sandwich board on Church Street.

The sandwich board on Church Street.

The Book Launch Party was a great success.

For me, this was a loyalty event, a hearty “thank you” to all of the people who have supported this project. If everyone walked away feeling like their contributions were appreciated, then I feel like we’ve succeeded.

Gabe McConkey spent his birthday reading poetry with us. Anne Averyt, Erika Nichols (our poetry editor), and Lit Tyler also gave stellar readings.

Check out this photo gallery of the evening’s events!

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We asked Twitter users to tweet with #bwwlaunch, and you can check out the tweets here. If you missed the launch, but would still like to purchase the book, please buy one here.

Our Amazon Kindle ebook is also a good way to check out these talented Vermont writers.

During the celebration, the audience was asked to write an “exquisite corpse” poem. So here’s what the audience came up with:

I saw a buzzfly when I was born–
Trepidacious, mortar, drained with lost panko bullfrog
And then they died…
Her face was aglow with happiness.
WTF
We can just be friends and take things slow.
But even as I said it, I knew it would never be true>
So I walked down to the lakeshore & searched for meaning amongst the delicately stacked rocks.
Instead, I found lizards.
Lizards with gigantic green eyes and claws that could slice up rocks.
Lights flash! Cars crash
The lantern flickered faintly in the distance, carried by a cloaked figure who ambled hurriedly down the dew covered hillside.
Gliding among filamental clouds with the starlings, a gaseous gust of helium escaped from under a sheath of oily feathers.
A heavy wood, old world ceiling in a stark space.
Happiness is subjective.
It’s comforting to write with a cardboard pen.
Oh my my. There are still no meatpies in Grimsby!
And I quit being a vegetarian a month ago.
At times I wonder if this was a mistake, waking in the night with the taste of chorizo on my tongue.
But I haven’t eaten chorizo in years. Now my tastebuds make do with blander meats on their pallate.
They fell down on their knees and begged that this cup might pass.
The man looked down at him and frowned.
His life seemed to be on the end of a blade.
So much had changed so quickly.
Change is what happens when you’re stoned too long.
I’m at a writers workshop. Very scary, since I am barely a reader, aside from Vogue. I’ll go to the library I promise.
She made a beeline for the black door.
The secret you told me spilled over the edge of my eyes.
And I said something I never thought I’d say.

Being from Fall River, I’m happy that chorizo made an appearance in this poem, but it’s spelled “chourico“!

So, in short, it was a great evening, and I’m now working with BCA to plan next year’s launch. Because there will be another “Best of” collection next year, thanks to you.