Saturday, August 24, 2013

Inaugural QHWW Open Mic at Cafe Berlin a roaring success!

On Thursday, August 22nd, the Quarry Heights Writers' Workshop hosted its first-ever Open Mic night for Columbia poets and writers. 

The event was held at local favorite Cafe Berlin, and more than fifty people turned up to share their work or support their friends over a pint of beer (or a glass of Champagne--saw some of those, too!). Readers of all ages and backgrounds shared five minutes' worth of poetry or prose, and the emcee, photographer and sly devil Shane Epping, kept people laughing. 

QHWW hopes to offer these Open Mics on the regular, with the next one falling sometime in early November. If you're interested in attending, be sure to check the QHWW Facebook page or email for details. The event is open to anyone and everyone, so please spread the word!

Emcee Shane Epping warms up the crowd

Mingling around the bar before kick-off

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Dozens of decisions...and all just to produce one short sketch."

In his 2010 "The Art of Fiction" interview with The Paris Review, David Mitchell is confronted with a sentence from one of his early books. The results are pretty funny and yield insight into the way fictioneers create ("dozens of decisions..."):

In Number9Dream, you have a description of a gangster who has a voice “as thirsty as sandpaper.” He has “cavernous eye sockets, plump lips, mottled and flaky skin—the sort used on young actors playing old roles—and a wart on the corner of his eye bigger than an amorous nipple.” 
Good God! 
You don’t like it? 
I’m not sure. Am I guilty of Orwell’s criticism of Dickens’s fabulous gargoyles, that they make for rotten architecture? “His voice is as thirsty as sandpaper.” I think that’s from David Bowie’s description of Bob Dylan’s voice, a voice like sand and glue. Cavernous is the right word, at least. It has whiffs of cadaverous. Plump lips is OK too—the ps go pop: plump lips. The stuff about the makeup used on young actors playing old roles works. The makeup always looks wrong, doesn’t it? An amorous nipple is too pleased with itself. That’s writing, I suppose—dozens of decisions about what’s in, what’s out, what goes with what, what’s clever but not honest, what’s so honest that it’s a truism, what’s meretricious—and all just to produce one short sketch. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Announcing an addition to the QHWW faculty!

Happy 2013!

With the new year comes exciting news: I'm delighted to announce the addition of talented fiction writer and teacher Lein Shory to the QHWW faculty!

Lein, who holds an MFA from Louisiana State University and has ten years of experience teaching writers, will lead the Spring 2013 Workshop.

This fall, I had the pleasure of working with Lein in class, and he impressed me with his skill, deep knowledge of literature and craft, as well as his insightful critique of other students' work. I know Lein will do a marvelous job leading the Spring Workshop!

If you are interested in registering for the class, please email me at The workshop will meet one evening per week over eight weeks in April and May 2013.

Below, please find Lein's full bio, as well as some of his thoughts on what makes the workshop model successful and beneficial.

Welcome, Lein!

About Lein

Lein Shory received an MA in English with creative writing emphasis at Auburn University, where he studied under novelist Elly Welt, author of BERLIN WILD, and an MFA from Louisiana State University, where he studied under Andrei Codrescu, Vance Bourjaily, Moira Crone, among others. He earned awards for his writing at both schools, including the LSU MFA Award for Fiction in 1995.

After teaching composition and creative writing for ten years at Auburn, LSU, and at Owensboro Community College in Owensboro, Kentucky, Lein worked as a web designer and as an education content editor for Houghton Mifflin in Chicago. He currently designs online courses for the eMINTS National Center at the University of Missouri.  

In the more Wild West days of the World Wide Web he experimented with fictional blogs and edited a small online literary zine, Zugernat, that featured early work of novelists Steve Weddle and Mary Jane Beaufrand.

His novel THE IRATE SAVANT and novella SECRETS OF COLUMBIANA were both semifinalists in their respective categories in the William Faulker - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. He is currently developing SECRETS OF COLUMBIANA into a novel.

While his reading tastes tend toward the literary, he is also a fan of young adult, fantasy, and science fiction.

In addition to his workshop and teaching experience, Lein feels one of the strengths he'll bring to the workshop is a healthy wariness of the workshop format.

"Writing can be as lonely and agonizing as it is rewarding," Lein says. "It does a writer no good to enter a hostile environment full of non-constructive criticism or workshop leaders who impose their particular vision. The best writing workshops are communities built on mutual trust and respect, in which a writer can find and develop his or her own unique voice."

"One of the things I admire about the Quarry Heights Writers' Workshop is the care that's taken to build a community of trust," he says. "I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to lead a workshop under the Quarry Heights banner."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You make me feel like an unnatural woman

I've always felt conflicted about the idea of motherhood. I love kids, but babies scare the crap out of me. They just need you so bad all the time. Isn't this America, land of independence? Come on, babies! Get it together! Do you really want to be part of the 47% of whining, crying freeloaders already plaguing this country, sucking at the not-so-proverbial teat? Because it'd be a whole lot easier for Mom and Governor Romney if you could just start pulling your weight--all eight pounds of it--around here.

I had the vague notion that I wanted a family, but I rather wanted an articulate, semi-independent eight year-old child to spring fully-formed from my loins, reading Proust and asking whether maman would like some chamomile tea.

For years, I struggled with whether or not I wanted to be a mom. Though I've always loved being a woman (The sparkly dresses! Beef jerky and yogurt marketed specially to me! The crazy-close friendships! Making $0.70 to every dude dollar!), I feared that motherhood might mean that my womanness overtook my personness--that I would no longer be "Keija," but instead just a walking uterus (first) and (then) "So-and-so's mommy," Milk Machine extraordinaire over there, leaking through her shirt.

And there were all the books I wanted to write, books that would require solitude and peace and long, idle mornings made solely for "finkin'," as Ali G. would say. As we well know, though, babies are pretty selfish. They don't give a damn about your craft or your sense of fulfillment; they just want you to be boobs out 24-7, ready to meet their every need.

Sounds scary, right? Like all the nightmare relationships you ever learned about on Lifetime television.

Yet for all my internal struggle on the subject of whether or not to become a mom, I capitulated pretty easily. The person I love more than anything in the world looked at me and said, "Want to have a baby?"

I was just wrapping up the book tour for my debut novel and feeling pretty chuffed with myself and on top of things, plus, theoretical babies can be pretty awesome if you don't get too deep in details (mine, on that particular night, had raven-dark hair, was very reasonable, and was called Anastasia).

"Yes!" I trilled, and kissed my Truelove.

My reproductive system was pretty theoretical at that point, too. I hadn't given any thought to my uterus or eggs since 9th grade health class, other than to put the kibosh on the whole operation with the help of a pill wheel I shall affectionately call "Freedom" (shameless plug for truly Planned Parenthood). Fertility was still just some corny word thrown around by women who called themselves goddesses and celebrated the harvest season.

When I found myself pregnant three weeks later, I was totally shocked. I felt like this guy:

Wait wait wait wait wait, hold the phone. You mean these babymakers we have actually work? For procreating and stuff??! After all those seasons of Teen Mom, you think I would have had a clue.

Suddenly, Anastasia was more than theory; she was a mass of dividing cells who would, if all went well, turn into a very dignified, laid-back baby who knew how to change her own diapers. We high-fived our successful effort. For two people who love nothing more than a Saturday morning spent couched out with the New Yorker and listening to Jordi Savall, we were pretty happy about the prospect of morning and night being hijacked by our ladylike baby who would cry only in birdsong.

Now, we know he's a boy, and I'm in my third trimester; we've read a few books and heard from one or two people about the subject of parenthood (wink wink). As my belly grows, I do very much grapple with the fact that my giant, expanding uterus is the first thing people notice about me and want to talk about, and I do very much have anxiety about being so closely tied to my more animal functions through pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. I've never felt my biology was my destiny; I don't believe all women have maternal instinct, nor that this is what I'm born to do. I was born to be me--to love my friends and family, to explore, to write, to question. Having a child is just another thing that I can do.

A few weeks back, a friend shared this fascinating link with me after I went on a rant about moms who use scare tactics on soon-to-be moms ("Good luck finding any time for your writing after you have kids!"). I discovered with relief that the two writers in conversation--one is a mom and one is childless--articulated many of the complicated feelings I have about motherhood, especially as it relates to my writing and my self-image as a feminist. I appreciate how candid both women are about their judgement of those women who have made different choices from them, as I have often made the same judgements--and am now probably similarly judged by peers who think babymaking is for the crazies.

And it's important to note that the writers in conversation represent just two of the infinite ways in which one can be a woman in today's society, and that notion, too, comforts me. In Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf writes: "And it is significant that of the four great women novelists--Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot--not one had a child, and two were unmarried." Thankfully, due to an ever-expanding definition of womanhood and motherhood, it is no longer the case that women writers must choose between the life of the mind, or domestic life.

I'll close this post by saying that I'm thankful and excited to be able to have a child. I'm proud of what my body has been able to do in pregnancy, and I'm trying to approach the impending experiences of childbirth and motherhood with joy and a sense of adventure. In a few months, my body will be my own again--I'll be able to run and do crazy yoga moves and wear those sparkly dresses I so love. I will be Keija again, she of the single heartbeat--but this time with a really adorable and well-mannered sidekick.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The pros and cons of being married to a book hoarder

When we married, my husband's dowry included thousands of books and subscriptions to The New Yorker and Harper's. I, on the other hand, came into the marriage with a ragtag amalgam of photocopied short stories acquired at grad school, some costume jewelry, and a threadbare collection of furniture from Goodwill. If we lived in an Austenian era of matrimonial tit for tat, I think it's clear who came out the victor when we said our vows.

All this is to say that I am still discovering books on our shelves that I've never seen before, thanks to Husband's remarkable gift for literary acquisition--a gift he has now thankfully put to bed since our every wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with the fruits of said gift. During our three plus years living together, I've had a fraught relationship with these books. When we moved the hundreds of heavy boxes into our wee house, I moaned. When we had to go and buy bookshelves on bookshelves, I groaned. When he cleared out our living room to stain and saw custom shelves, I sighed, hands on hips.

I'm a writer, so it goes without saying that I adore books, but does one want to feel as if one lives perpetually in a library? Husband's answer to that is yes. Mine? I would prefer to have room for the odd decorative vase or two, or piece of art that in no way resembles the spines of books.

But last week, I experienced a sea change in my relationship to my book-cramped abode. While Michael Phelps swam one of his thousand races, the blue of the pool glowing over the vast spread of titles surrounding the TV, I pulled a footstool up to the custom shelves (which are quite handsome, to Husband's credit) and started browsing. Though I stare at these particular books from our couch almost every day, the abundance of works by writers I've been meaning to read--mostly foreign, mostly perished--took me by surprise, and I started to harvest books like the best story-starved bibliophile. There were all of Nabokov's works, minor and major, several volumes of Calvino, the slim and sexy books of Milan Kundera, intriguing novels by Jeannette Winterson and John Berger. They now comprise a neat stack at my bedside, and I realized: If I allow my walls of books to be books, rather than a patchwork mosaic covering most surfaces of my home, they're pretty fantastic.

Last week, I finished Kundera's strange and wonderful THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING, and I realized why his books have lasted, why they continue to turn up on our shelves decades after their writing. His writing is so incredibly fresh--funny, sensuous, vivid, frank--that it reads as if it had been written yesterday. Even while he tackles the looming matters of his time, which tag the work temporally--the Russian invasion of the Czech Republic, for instance--he does it in such an artful way that his words and the lessons they carry become timeless.

At the end of the book, there's an interview of Kundera by Philip Roth in which he speaks compellingly about the novel's purpose in the world:

"A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties."  

After stumbling across that gem, I am reminded again of the riches I inherited when I married my book hoarder.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Endings are hard. Yes, I realize that right now, I sound like your corny college boyfriend who broke up with you in soundbites. But does it help to know I'm not talking about love, but rather, novels?

What I mean is, it's hard to get it just right, and you're certainly not going to please everyone. Also, contrary to popular opinion, the reader isn't always right about what's right for your book; they are only right about what is right for them, as the reader, reading your ending.

Confused? Me, too. It all sounds a bit like that song by Akon. Who was noticing whom first, and as the singer, doesn't Kardinal Offishall have the advantage in this exchange??? Anyway. I'd also like to note that you don't want an angry reader to cold-cock you when your paths cross at the neighborhood laundromat. The poor bastard's just spent hours, days, weeks inside your head (yeah, yeah, the heads of your characters--whatever). Check out how pissy this guy is about endings. You don't deliver the goods? He'll never read you again! Bam. And ouch.

Still, that reaction is somewhat understandable. You want to give the reader some kind of payoff, or at least a sense of resolution. Keep in mind that I'm talking about novels, here. I think that short story writers have more latitude to end ambiguously because, well, you've probably spent about 45 minutes reading the story, not a week of your life, and probably won't go punch through a wall if Alice Munro doesn't tie up all the loose ends for you.

Here's what Anne Rice has to say about novel endings:

I love this answer for a few reasons, one of which is that she says " I go pounding toward that ending..." Yeah, that's right. Writers pound. But also, it's a relief to hear her say, "I've been criticized for my bad endings. For cliffhangers, for open endings, for not wrapping everything up. I think that comes from the fact that a lot of the time, I want the reader to have that feeling of life and the character going on. But I do want that resolution, that satisfied feeling that you've come to the natural end of something. Doesn't always work. It will work for me but not work for the readers."

Even Anne Rice leaves her legions of fans unsatisfied! And let's be honest: when was the last time you read a novel where the ending seemed perfect to you? Of the dozens of novels I've consumed in the past year, I remember exactly one that seemed pitch-perfect to me, and that was the ending to Aminatta Forna's THE MEMORY OF LOVE. It was bittersweet, it was sweet, it was realistic, and it satisfied my expectations, to the extent that I had any. When I read a great writer, I tend to step back and let the work wash over me; I try to accept it on its own terms because, after all, who the hell am I? I'm merely the reader, and the writer is the writer--the person who poured years of her life into the book, while I've given it a week. Who the fuck am I, the reader, in the scheme of things? Art will exist without me. People will create art on their own terms, and they do not need my permission or my approval. Isn't that what's wonderful about rocking in the free world??

Perhaps by now you sense my defensive crouch :) (Did I have you at "Who the fuck am I?" :) Well, it's more of the confused stammer I develop when people discuss the ending of my novel. Two months into my book's release, I've visited many book clubs, and the book has been reviewed in several major papers and on several blogs (but that's a whole other post), and not only do people have mixed feelings about the ending, but several of them missed the ending entirely! Some very nice, intelligent women, one major reviewer, and some minor reviewers, got it completely wrong!

Crap, I thought as wine-fueled debate raged around the dining tables and living rooms of these lovely book club ladies. *SPOILER ALERT* Some of them think Rosalie stays with Abdullah! That she accepts being his second fiddle! That she subjugates herself to the unacceptable lifestyle he's arranged for them!  

The first time this happened, I actually had a mild stroke that left me passed out on my very comfortable easy chair and drooling out of the left side of my mouth. OK, not really. But I was horrified. In my attempt to write an ending filled with poetry, did I forget to mention that she leaves the bastard? Did the ending get muddled in ambiguous language? Dammit, Parssinen, you put in five years and then you effing blew the ending.

Then I opened the book and re-read the last two pages:

"With both hands, she smoothes the map she has placed on the dresser top. She found it in a desk drawer, the socialist's map from the bar all those years ago. He cannot know how well he paid her that night, when he gifted her with the entire world. She runs her fingers over the boot of Saudi Arabia, feels the crinkle of the paper. She remembers the ache of homelessness she felt when they flew out of the desert, she, Maxine, and Wayne. Sometimes, the cure for nostalgia is return. She knows she will leave.

She puts her finger on Texas, moving it from west to east until she arrives at Sugar Land. For her, it is a heavy place, the blinds always drawn, her mother cranky without her supply of Yemeni khat, the swampy Gulf air rich with decay. She has never been nostalgic for Sugar Land and she will not start now. A new place is what she is after. She feels the Urals rise up under her open palm, the unfurling of the South China Sea at her fingertips. She knows there is an island where she can catch slick, muscled fish that glitter more brightly than all the jewels of Gold City. She knows there is a place where she can sit too long in the sun and shed the layer of skin that clings to her now. She will find that place, lose herself, lose memory. The children will visit her there, in this place beyond language, beyond nation; they will laugh and laugh and laugh, a sound like bells echoing into the sky."

Whew. There it is! Relieved to realize I didn't forget to mention that she'll be LEAVING (see line "She knows she will leave") her entitled and cowardly husband and heading for parts new and unknown. Oh, and while I'm snarkity snarking: the title is, after all, THE RUINS OF US. Bitch leaves! They're dunzo!

Last night, I expressed to Husband my frustration about my somewhat frequent brush with readerly misunderstanding of the ending, and he said, genially, which did not prevent me from wanting to stab him in the knee with a pencil, "Well, if it's happened more than once, maybe it is a problem worth examining?"

Traitor! This from the man who told me that I shouldn't wrap things up too neatly, and that I wanted people to be able to read into it a bit.

Double sigh.

But also--dare I say it--I think a problem is that, in our eagerness for the payoff, we read endings too quickly. Perhaps we get impatient, or perhaps the book's momentum is so great that we can't slam on the brakes to give heed to language? Language that, presumably, the author chose very carefully? I have a bad habit of changing my book status on Goodreads from "Currently reading" to "Read" even before I've finished the last chapter; I know as a reader, I get sloppy toward the end of novels.

Really, when it comes to endings, can a writer ever win? Even when an ending is well done and I've loved a book, I still tend to be a tad bitter, simply because I'm being shut out of a world I've come to enjoy. I guess what I'm asking is, readers, can we please meet in the middle? I'll give you your payoff, but you have to promise to actually read it :)  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Trapped in the dreaded technology loop, that first-world no-man's-land

Lately, I've been feeling a lot like Fred in this Portlandia sketch:

I've been checking my website email, my Twitter email, my personal email, my work email; I've been Tweeting and Facebooking like a good contemporary author as the book launch date (January 17th!) came and went; I've been guest-posting on blogs; commenting on blog giveaways and nice blog reviews (there are many things other than comment that I long to do when I read a bad blog review, but most of those things don't require technology :); responding to every reader comment on my Facebook author page; responding to heartfelt and moving Facebook messages I receive from readers and friends; corresponding with friends who send cute pictures of themselves with my book--

--adorable, right?--and texting friends back with my sympathies when they complain that they were UP ALL NIGHT finishing the dang book and how are they supposed to look presentable at their morning meeting??? (this has been an awfully fun vicarious problem to have, by the by!). So yeah, I'm stuck in a technology loop that I can't seem to get out of. Somebody get me a school photo from 1992, so I can remember the good old days when my consciousness wasn't fractured into a million little bytes. Better yet, how about this classic from 1980, when I knew only life's most natural rhythms: eat, sleep, excrete:

Being in a technology loop not only threatens my sanity, but also my creativity. With each new little ping and congratulatory beep that enters my world as various gadgets inform me which new piece of communication I need to respond to, I feel adult-onset ADD testing the terrain of my brain and my second novel, all 300 pages of it, retreating from me, every bit of momentum I had--and writing is nothing if not a momentum game--compromised by my multi-focal post-publication state of mind.

You see, I'm no multi-tasker. I need quiet hour upon quiet hour to escape into the imaginative realm which all writers must visit in order to create their fictional worlds. I need stillness, not loops. I need long peaceful mornings spent in solitude so that my mind might empty itself of chatter and regain the deep, contemplative calm from which the work is produced. And of course, that calm is little more than a distant memory or a fragile hope with the book launch machinery (very thankfully!) churning away. Classmate and author of the acclaimed novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore Ben Hale addresses that elusive calm and how much he missed it over at The Millions.

All of this brings to mind a hilarious and mildly disturbing set of episodes that unfolded at my sister's home over the Christmas holiday, where I stayed for a couple of weeks to meet my new nephew, Mini-Chimi, and wrangle his older brother, the Flying Chalupa. Friends with multiple children had warned of older siblings attempting to smother new baby brothers with pillows, trying to negotiate an infant-return policy with the hospital, and generally displaying insurrectionist and fratricidal/sororicidal tendencies, so I knew what I was getting in to. Still, I was surprised when, while taking a walk with sis and the boys, the Chalupa started saying to the local fowl in a sing-song voice: "Geese! Oh, geee-eeese! Come and take baby brother! Oh, geee-eeese! Come and take the baby!"

Sometimes, I feel like the pre-and-post-publication technology loop--that perfect shitstorm of Tweets/texts/emails/Facebooking/blogging--is First Novel's way of summoning the geese to conveniently remove Second Novel, which, like a cooing, soft-smelling newborn, presents all the enticements of a clean slate that a potty-training, tantrum-throwing, regressing toddler (First Novel--are you with me here?) cannot. My first novel is out there; it has a life of its own now, and the world will interact with it in ways I can't control or predict, whereas my second novel is still this beautifully nebulous thing that has captured my heart without even really trying, and demands almost all my energy. The technology loop is a lot like the Chalupa's pointy little finger jabbing at Mini-Chimi's soft spot--a mere annoyance if caught mid-jab and redirected, but a serious danger if allowed to proceed full-prod!

Thanks to Husband and my wonderful, sensible agent, I've come up with a plan to re-dedicate myself to the work of the new book and try to be less obsessive about the first book, lest it snuff out entirely my creative spark. I'm instituting, starting tomorrow, a morning media and email ban. Each day before breakfast, I'm going to turn on some Jordi Savall, light a candle, and do an hour of kitchen yoga so that I no longer feel like the protagonist of a Pixies song. Then, I'm going to take my quiet mind, sit at my trusty old desk, and write like there's no one else in the world--no agent, editor, publicist; no bloggers, no Twitter followers, no Facebook friends. My only companions will be my new characters, my old characters from The Ruins of Us entrusted to the care and occasional abuse of all the new reader-friends out there in the wider world beyond my imagination. As Oprah and Budweiser say, Here We Go.