A delightful friend and colleague of mine, Deb Siegel, recently shared with me a sort of photo essay of the various places she sat and read The Temple of Air this past summer while she was visiting her family camp in the Belgrade Lakes district of Maine (think On Golden Pond.) I don’t think she will mind if I share these photos with you, and also her very lovely note:
This summer when I was in Maine, I finally immersed myself in The Temple of Air. It was a delicious read and I was repeatedly drawn into the stories and the characters and the places and your insights and language. I wanted to show you some of the places I read the book. Our island is such a perfect spot to read, to be transported to other worlds. Well, I couldn’t decide which picture to send, so here is a little photo essay (there are more!). This is a little like “View from the Keyboard” at the other end!
Thank you so much for the stories, and everything else you share,
So it is a full-circle sort of thing that The Temple of Air got to spend summer days in Maine. Thanks, Deb, for sharing your trip with my book. And as always, to you and to everyone else–thanks for reading! -PMc
Bolstered by coffee, cookies, and support, a group of four writers gathered together at Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin to take part in four days of writing, reading, manuscript review, and story sharing.
It was my good fortune to direct the June Writers’ Workshop at Shake Rag Alley, a community arts center founded by artists and arts enthusiasts in what looks like a Cornish mining village settled in a century passed. The participants were from a variety of backgrounds and concerns, among them an Op-ed writer from Northwestern Illinois, a mother of four (who also is a working engineer) from Iowa, an early-retired special education teacher from the Galena, Illinois area, and a high-powered business women from Boston. Their stories (the ones they are writing and the ones we shared over lunch and the occasional after-class beer) were diverse in their content and in their ways of telling. From social commentary to pieces on faith and spiritually to raising a multiracial family to fiction that explored grief and childhood in small town Louisiana, the writing done for and in the workshop was topical, funny, and moving.
It is a pleasure to work with such a group of folks who use at least part of their free time to further their own skills and talents. The seriousness of purpose these four brought to the writing table each day helped them discover new moments of story and new possibilities in the work. Pages and pages of writing was done, and since the end of the workshop just four days, and I know from notes I’ve received that the writing habit has taken hold for these writers, despite their busy lives and other obligations and interests.
Sometimes it is just the act of keeping the work going that is the hardest part of writing. Programs like this and the August Journal and Sketchbook workshop at Shake Rag Alley, as well as the upcoming Writers’ Retreat at Interlochen College of Creative Arts can help us develop on-going strategies to get the words on the page. It is so easy to move away from the writing life; why not take the steps back toward it by finding a workshop? Below are some simple steps to choosing the right workshop for you:
Determine your level of commitment. Workshops run in different ways and for different lengths of time. You can spend an afternoon to two weeks or more in a writers’ workshop. How much time and effort can you afford now?
Determine your budget. The cost of these workshops vary widely. Many of the tuition costs don’t include housing or transportation, so look at all of these line items together when making your plan. Housing can vary greatly as well. You can camp near Interlochen, or stay in one of the summer camp-like cabins. Shake Rag has very upscale B&B offerings in town, as well as the perfectly affordable and suitable motor courts and motels close by. Some workshops are held on campuses where you can stay in dorms and in some cases share rooms and costs.
Find a place you would love to be. So many workshops are held in beautiful settings like Mineral Point, WI, and Interlochen, MI. Stonecoast Writers’ Conference is held on Casco Bay in Maine. There are workshops on remote islands and in the middle of bustling cities. What setting will inspire you? And just in case you are unhappy with the workshop itself, you want to make sure that you are in a place you enjoy and can escape to and in.
Research your instructors. It is always a good idea to find out about the work of your instructors. While it is true that a good teacher is one who can respond well and helpfully to each student, you might want to at least know what sorts of things your writing teacher writes, get at least a minimal understanding of their artistic sensibilities. This of course won’t save you from a bad workshop (years ago I attended a workshop with a writer whose work I admired greatly. He was not a good teacher, however, and seemed to take a bit of pleasure in insulting his students and in some cases bringing them to tears) but it will give you some context for the work at hand.
Research the workshop. Most workshops, conferences, and retreats will have quite a bit of information available for you ahead of time. What will the schedule be like? Are manuscripts to be submitted ahead of time? Is the course aimed at generating work, discovering and exploring work? Is it a critique-based course? Are there excursions and social activities embedded in the schedule? Will participants get a chance to read their work to a larger audience? Will there be craft talks and readings about and from a variety of genres? Is there time to write? To read? Not each workshop is all things to every participant, so consider what you want and make your choice based on this. Also, though, be open to a manner of working that might be different from your usual MO. Shaking things up creatively will almost always lead you to interesting work.
Go with an open mind and empty pages. You’re paying for this. Try things out; get your money’s worth. Don’t be afraid.
Don’t talk yourself out of it. How many times have you decided you CAN’T do the things you want to do? The writer Hubert Selby, Jr., gave students at Columbia College Chicago some very good advice a number of years ago. He said it is good practice to say “yes” before you think of all the reasons to say “no.” If you think a writers’ workshop, conference, or retreat is a good idea for your own creative practice, then sign up now.
→There are still spaces left for Interlochen’s Writers’ Retreat that will start in just a couple of weeks. Check it out. For more on Shake Rag Alley, click here. To read an interview with Judith Sutcliffe, one of the founding artists’ of Shake Rag, stop by Philip Hartigan’s Praeterita. And thanks again to my Shake Rag Writers’ Workshop participants. Don’t forget to write! -PMc←
Dennis McFadden lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, just up Peaceable Street from Harmony Corners in upstate New York. “Diamond Alley,” from his collection of linked stories, Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press, June, 2010), was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Missouri Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, CutBank and The South Carolina Review.
Dennis and I met years ago at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference in Maine (we were housed on the Bowdoin Campus where we walked the same paths that Lawrence Sargent Hall did.) We were both trying to fine the balance between our “real” lives and our writing lives. Dennis was better at that than I, and his truly fine debut collection shows just what hard work and tenacity can get you. His insightful answer to “Why the short story?” is below, as is his follow-up question, “How the short story?”
Dennis: I was flattered when my friend Patty asked me to join this conversation about writerly things with some of her writerly pals, flattered and perhaps (that is, “per” “haps”) a bit flummoxed. My credentials can’t compete. Unlike Patty and Gina and Vanessa, I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor, nor a full-time writer. I’ve had one book published. I’m a state worker, a project manager for the New York State Department of Health who tries to write an hour or two in the morning before work. My apprehension was validated when Patty kicked off the conversation with “Why the short story?” and all I could come up with was, well, why not the short story? Because it’s short, that’s why. Then, when I saw the eloquent and elaborate offerings of my co-conversationalists, I knew I was in trouble.
But one of my mother’s favorite stories came to mind, and I was granted a modicum of hope. Good old mom. According to her, I was no more than two or three when I looked out the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C. sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Was that not eloquent? And, anytime you use a word with more syllables than your years, elaborate?
Still, there weren’t many books around my place when I was a kid. Nobody’d gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books, and enjoying them, and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, and he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old chick are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the chick still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know. So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. I should write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.
Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.
How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, a couple of stories published in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took off 10 or 12 years after college to drink and party. And when I finally did get back to writing, it was to the novel, not the short story. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejection slips, and she dumped me after a year. In my state of despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next fifteen years getting England out of Ireland (no hard feelings, Philip, Vanessa). All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces are very much like short stories.
They had to be short. The old attention span blues that Gina referenced.
So maybe we’re on to something here. Short satire evolved into short stories as Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think).
So why didn’t I go back to writing novels? Oh…just thinking out loud here…maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Just a thought. Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became addicted, jonesing for finishes.
It’s not that I really prefer one to the other, the novel and the short story. I read both, write both. I can become equally immersed—reading or writing—in both. The aforementioned Boy With a Gun, Plunkett’s Strumpet City, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Nichols’s The Sterile Cuckoo—these are novels that have stayed with me all my life. On the other hand, I (like my new found friend, Vanessa) will never forget “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, nor Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children,” George Saunders’s “The Falls,” and any number of other stories, particularly those with an Alice Munro byline.
In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps.
A few years ago I was sitting around a table at Stonecoast listening to Patty read a George Saunders story called “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Toward the end, I felt a wave of goosebumps breaking out on my arms, on my neck and back. Not for the first time, nor the last. Same thing happened toward the end of “The Ledge,” and many other stories I’ve heard or read—including, I’ll shamelessly admit, my own story, “Painting Pigs.” Same thing almost every time I write what is, at the time at least, the last sentence of a new story.
On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one (though, admittedly, a single goosebump might be difficult to detect).
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you.
The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.
Now I’m curious as to how the short story. (We can defer what the short story, who, where and when the short story for later.)
How the short story? We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? One moment there’s nothing there, blotto, oblivion, nothingness, and the next there’s a seed that leads, a week, a month or years later to a fully formed, complex and meaningful story. Do you will it into existence, or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion?
How does it happen? A theme? An event? A character? Something else altogether? Is there any discernable method or pattern, or is inspiration random and chaotic? Thinking through my collection, one story originated from a buried childhood memory of snow floating down through the glow of a streetlight and covering a park bench. The scene itself never made it into the story. Another was inspired when I imagined how a gaudy Christmas light display might piss off the guy’s neighbor, another was sparked by a news article about a deathbed confession, and yet another by an actual experience (finding a kid lost in the woods) of my nephew.
What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?