Friday Find: Dispatch from Iowa City, A Guest Post by Ronald H. Lands, M.D., M.F.A.

Ron Lands has to be one of the most impressive (and modest) people I met in my M.F.A. program. So when I learned that Ron – who earned an M.D. well before he tackled the M.F.A. – was attending a two-day event on “The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine” at the University of Iowa’s Carver College at April’s end, I was eager to request a guest post. Ever generous, Ron agreed. Here’s his dispatch from the conference (you can learn more about this event, and check out the online archive, here).

“The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine”
University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine
April 28-April 30, 2010

by Ron Lands

Medicine and literature often share the same topics; life and death, suffering and loss and everything in between. As they have every year since 2006, medical students, physicians, nurses, patients, and caregivers convened in a city known for its great writers, to collaborate regarding the power of writing in making sense of these grand themes and to demonstrate that the practice of medicine is an interpretive work.

A cardiologist put a human face on illness by blending his profession with his hobbies, interpreting the patient’s heart pathology by ultrasound then photographing the person in their home and writing poetry about the experience. An English professor wrote a play based on her personal experience with cancer and an actor interpreted and performed this dramatic work. Academicians shared tools and techniques to empower other educators to exploit the power of writing to cause reflection and nurture empathy in their students. Researchers presented data hoping to identify a physiologic link between writing and stress reduction in caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. A literary scholar turned physician offered a powerful examination of metaphor in the language of pain. A leukemia patient and her hematologist shared their five-year journey from diagnosis to a durable and sustained remission, using essay, memoir and colored pencil sketches drawn during the trauma of her bone marrow transplant.

Flannery O’Connor, one of many great writers associated with Iowa City through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said, “I write to find out what I know.” “The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine,” further demonstrates the clarifying effect that reading, writing and reflection can bring to the chaos of illness for those who suffer and those who witness the suffering.

Ronald H. Lands teaches in the Department of Medicine at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus, where he practices and teaches Internal Medicine, Hematology and Palliative Care. His fiction has appeared in New Millennium Writings, descant, Washington Square, and many others. He has published essays from the intersection of writing and medicine in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Geriatric Society, and the Journal of Palliative Medicine. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

A Poem About a Poet by Anne Whitehouse

I have a superb offering for you today: a poem by Anne Whitehouse. This poem is included in Anne’s new poetry collection, Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press). And, appropriately for this blog’s purposes, it’s a poem inspired by a writing workshop. My deep thanks to Anne for the gift of permission to republish this piece.


He was not good or kind,
but he was memorable.
He was the Poet,
and we the disciples
each week seeking
the benefit of his insight
as we sat around the table
listening politely
while he free-associated,
his random thoughts
drifting into aperçus
delivered in a high-pitched
nasal voice, the ash
hanging off his cigarette
until it dropped by itself.

At the interview
for admission to the class
I was in awe of him.
“These are yours?” he asked,
indicating my Fogg Poems.
In suspense I assented.
“Not bad,” he continued,
and paused. “But there are
so many of them.”
He sighed, leafing
through the seven pages
as if they constituted a burden.
“You’re in the class,” he said,
handing them back to me.

Believing he must be right,
I let him influence me.
From that day on
I dared not add another poem,
though possibilities still
occurred to me,
I ignored my ideas
until they went away.
At the time I didn’t know
he was writing his own series
of loosely-titled sonnets
hundreds of them
he would publish
in multiple versions
under two titles.


As winter melted into spring,
his mind grew unhinged.
One afternoon in class,
hearing workmen
making a racket
in the room below us,
he flew into a rage
and shouted at them
through the ceiling,
banging his chair
on the floor in retaliation.

Another time I saw him
shuffling across Mass. Ave.
in bedroom slippers
looking lost and dazed.

At his poetry reading at The Advocate,
he could barely speak.
The week before his collapse
he put aside student work
and, ignoring us,
closed his eyes and intoned,
“A bracelet of hair about the bone.”

“A bracelet of hair about the bone,”
he uttered the line again
and again, in a trance,
his voice growing fainter
until at last he grew silent.

We fled, leaving him
clutching his dead cigarette,
the ash scattered on the table,
staring into nothing.

(Bonus: Check out practicing writer John Vanderslice (Creating Van Gogh)’s review of Blessings and Curses for the Santa Fe Writers Project.)

Guest Post: Lisa Romeo on Crafting A Contest Winner

As promised, I present to you guest commentary from Lisa Romeo on the craft decisions that went into “43 Lies About My Child,” a recent winner in Masha Hamilton’s 31 Hours Parents’ Intuition Contest. Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing this with us.

I actually still don’t know what to properly call this piece. It’s definitely creative nonfiction, and in my mind, a type of personal essay, though the form is unusual. It requires some visual assistance via the regular and italics fonts to distinguish the two voices on the page. Some have called it “fragmented memoir,” others a prose poem, and that’s fine with me.

About three years ago, an essay I wrote about having a child who clearly had developmental difficulties but for which there was no specific diagnosis, was included in an essay collection and, in an adapted shorter form, in The New York Times.

I had a lot of left over material, including a list of things people had said to me over the years, beginning when my son was a baby and continuing until he was an adolescent. It was, I suppose, “advice” offered in a well-meaning way, but which struck me as judgmental, and infuriated me because I couldn’t at the time summon the confidence to reply.

I knew I wanted to write something that addressed these voices that were still in my head, but it didn’t seem to fit in to the form of a traditional personal essay. I didn’t want to be whiny on the page either. So I played with it as a prose poem for a while, and then as a humor piece; neither really worked, so I put it aside.

Meanwhile, Ann Hood referred me to a nonfiction piece she’d written for Tin House‘s special issue about lies and is now part of her memoir, Comfort. In the essay, she addressed all the trite and generic things people said to her about grief, in the period after she had lost her young daughter.

I realized something similar could work for me, with some changes. In Ann’s piece, she lays out the standard lines, such as, “time heals,” and then through short narratives, shows them to all be lies — how passing time has not eased her pain when she sees spring dresses in Target even a year after the girl’s death. She doesn’t really talk back to the crowd so much as takes the reader inside the narrator’s experience with each “lie.”

I wanted to do something less narrative, more satirically “prescriptive” and I began to play with the idea of a parody of the type of articles in parenting magazines – 12 ways to help your shy child. I knew whatever I did had to be voice-driven, really all about three distinct voices: The annoying voice of the nosy outsider; the narrator’s I’m-the-Mama-Bear-Don’t-Cross-Me voice I knew was inside me somewhere, but had never been in evidence when I needed it; and a third voice which lurks behind – that voice inside every mother’s head telling her she knows what’s true about her child. Eventually, I put the first two voices directly on the page in opposition to one another, and the third exists more or less in the background.

Originally, there were 81 “lies,” then 76, but one of my writing friends pointed out that the piece loses its urgency over the long stretch in such a contrived format. So I trimmed down to 50, but I was still trying to cover every base, every facet of his and my journey over about 12 years.

I submitted it for an essay collection, and the editor rejected it, but gave me excellent advice about improving the pacing, and cutting to the bone so that the piece would really bleed on the page, instead of just hinting at distress. I stopped trying to cover it all, and got more selective about which “lies” to include.

That took me to 43 lies and by then the “advice” proffered, and the narrator’s responses – were all shorter and more sharply focused, and much less tactful. I had been trying to protect even the people who had said awful things to me, and was still trying to make the narrator seem nice! Another writer friend who I asked to read it noticed that the best lines were the ones where I was allowing the mother’s voice to really lash out.

Finally I gave myself permission to “answer” in the way I never would have in my own skin back then. That’s when the piece began to have an edge; it was no longer tentative. I allowed my narrator to be someone who doesn’t give a fig what anyone else thinks, which is not necessarily how I am in life. In that sense, maybe there’s a bit of fiction at play – the narrator as she wishes she could have been; then again, I suppose that’s the creative part of the nonfiction.

After the Retreat: A Guest Post by Chloé Yelena Miller

AROHO Retreat: Digestion
Second of two guest posts by Chloé Yelena Miller

AROHO, pronounced as one word, is the acronym for A Room of Her Own.

Oneness was the unofficial theme of this year’s retreat. A group of 80 or so women gathered in the red desert to share ideas, challenge each other, and form one community.

I wanted to write this blog post at the weeklong retreat. In my creaky bed, I tried to summarize what was happening. But even at the airport returning home, I was overwhelmed.

So I asked AROHO friends on Facebook what their favorite moments were:

Barb Johnson, Gift of Freedom Award Winner and author of More of This World or Maybe Another, wrote, “Rita Dove. Transcendent readings. Wonderful conversations. Dancing. Discovering that hummingbirds chitter.”

Jennifer Mattson, NPR contributor and instructor, added, “Rita Dove, twice. Conversations with Barb Johson, hiking and the Georgia O’Keeffe tours…. and of course late nights with the roomie.”

“Two moments: The first evening, one of the women explained the perseids (she goes somewhere each year to see them), which was a first clue this would be an interesting, informed group. Also, Meredith [Hall]’s exercises for memoir writing” were oral historian Abbie Reese’s favorite memories.

Summer Wood, Gift of Freedom Award Winner and author of Arroyo, shared: “Ellen [McLaughlin]’s phenomenal monologue following Rita [Dove]’s lovely, generous reading. I thought I was going to explode out of my skin.”

I filled up a notebook. I wanted to remember Mary Rose Betton teaching us about reading our work aloud, starting with our natural voice (which can be found by simply saying, “uh huh”). I wanted to remember Rita Dove saying: “After a project, I promise myself to do something completely different. Something that scares me.” On writing for public radio said, Jennifer Mattson said: “Always mumble when you write. Read and write at the same time.” I keep thumbing through the notebook.

Many women arrived planning to write throughout the days. Since I work alone from home, I wanted to meet people and attend classes. I tried not to sit in my room, but rather talk with other writers who were up for conversation.

I mentioned in the previous post that I attended Smith College, an all-women’s school. Perhaps because I’d already experienced being part of a supportive, all-women’s network, I was particularly interested in finding honest critiques of my writing.

Luckily, author Laura Fraser’s workshop on creative nonfiction did just that. She was firm and clear. I’d read her book An Italian Affair before leaving. I knew she was successful in her freelance career. She was candid in class, shared tips with us and encouraged us to be precise. She noted the “one rule.” Every piece, paragraph, and even sentence should have one point. She recommended On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and as I reread the book on the plane, it reverberated with Laura’s points and her writing. She helped the students in the class trust each other, ourselves and our writing enough to want it to be as good as possible.

There were moments the setting distracted me from the writing. It turns out that I am as afraid of coyotes’ howling as I am of sleeping in a room with an unlocked door that opens up to the outside. This retreat caught me a little off guard with how rural it was. This Jersey girl needs a tougher skin.

That said, I’ve never been anywhere where the stars shone as brightly as they did at night. I’d also never felt as safe and as challenged as I did there.

As soon as I got back home, I took a long, hot shower and then logged into Facebook to find my new friends. I trust that some of us will be sharing writing for years to come and prompting each other not only to write, but to write well.

Thank you to everyone who worked to organize this wonderful retreat.

Guest Post: Chloé Yelena Miller on Preparing for a Writing Retreat

Please extend a warm welcome to our guest blogger, Chloé Yelena Miller, whom you may remember from a previous post. Today, Chloé shares some thoughts as she approaches a writing retreat. She’ll be back with another post once she has returned home. Chloé has poems published or forthcoming in Alimentum Journal, Lumina,, South Mountain Poets Chapbook, Sink Review and The Cortland Review. Her manuscript, Permission to Stay, was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. She teaches writing online for Fairleigh Dickinson University and edits Portal Del Sol. She received an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. from Smith College.

A Women’s Writing Retreat: One Woman’s Treat and Necessity
Chloé Yelena Miller

I have never seen a desert, and I am obsessed with Georgia O’Keeffe. The Writers’ Retreat, hosted by A Room of her Own, adds writing to the mix of a desert landscape and O’Keeffe’s home. What could be better?

I have been in love with O’Keeffe’s work since I first saw an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a child. The landscape that helped to form her art was so different from my own setting: urban New Jersey. I remember sitting cross-legged on the carpet in my parents’ living room looking through her oversized book One Hundred Flowers. This upcoming retreat feels like a homecoming as visual art brings me to a writing space.

A black and white portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe has been pinned over my desk since high school. It has traveled with me from New Jersey to Massachusetts to Italy to New York and finally to Michigan. This year’s retreat’s theme is “My Country is the Whole World” (Virginia Woolf.) Perfect.

We all need more time and space to write. While I am working part time and have been dedicating much of my time to my writing this last year, being surrounded by other writers and attending classes (far from laundry, bills to pay, and other time-
consuming tasks) can only spur my writing, editing of past work, and contemplation of ideas. I truly can’t wait. (On the other hand, there is a pile of procrastination that must get done before I can leave.)

I enjoy the company of forward-thinking, creative women. There are always potential risks to gathering folks around one aspect of themselves, but since we will have two – writing and our gender – in common, we shouldn’t have any problems. I imagine this will be similar to my experience at Smith College. I chose Smith College not because it was an all-women’s school, but because of the type of motivated students it attracted. There is indeed something special about being surrounded by women.

I look forward to attending classes, writing and hopefully talking at length to the other writers. I will be in a workshop led by Laura Fraser, whose book An Italian Affair I recently gobbled up in three evenings. From the memoir, I think she is a woman after my own heart. I have been doing some freelance writing and hope to improve my hand at not only being honest, but including facts in my writing (a puddle-jump from my poetry.) I promise you the same in a blog post when I return.

I hope to return rejuvenated and with a long list of books to read, craft challenges, ideas for future pieces and if I’m lucky, the start to a few new pieces.

Aside from small festivals and short workshops, I haven’t returned to the humble state of student for some time. As a writing teacher, I know how important this is. I was a poetry writing graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College and attended the Western Michigan State University’s program in Prague (where I met our lovely, creative and energized Erika) and was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. I learned something new in each program.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as perhaps it might keep me honest), I will be finishing teaching an online course during the retreat. I hope I will have some time every day to log into the class and grade papers as they come in. I’m a wee bit nervous about combining the two activities and doing both well simultaneously. I will also admit that while I can’t wait to see the desert, I am not someone who loves the heat. I will report back about how hot “dry heat” really is.

Writing students must expect as much from the program itself as from the other students. We all have a lot to do to prepare. I’ve been reading works by the authors who will be there, listening to interviews online, and tweaking my own writing for workshops. I’m ready.

Letter from the London Book Fair

I am proud to present a guest post written by Brett Jocelyn (BJ) Epstein, who very recently attended the London Book Fair. Among BJ’s latest literary accomplishments is Northern Lights: Translation in the Nordic Countries, a volume she edited containing essays from a conference she organized. To learn more about this wonderful writer-editor-translator, please visit BJ’s blog and Web site.

The London Book Fair 2009

by BJ Epstein

Ah, books, books, books. Rows of books, books for sale, authors signing books. Books and more books. That’s what the typical bibliophile would excitedly imagine when thinking of a book fair. In fact, although events such as The London Book Fair (LBF) and the Frankfurt Book Fair seem to be about books, they are really about the bottom line.

The LBF is a place where publishers come to show their wares to other publishers, hoping to make foreign sales. People rush around holding notebooks, looking for books they might want to purchase the rights to and then have translated to their own tongue. The major publishers have big stands with lots of small tables where their agents can meet with other agents. An observer can stand at a distance and watch as figures are discussed and hands are shaken. It’s all very serious and pragmatic and it doesn’t seem to be predicated on a love of books. Writers and translators may feel unwelcome amidst all this deal-making.

Nevertheless, for a visitor willing both to accept that and to do a lot of walking, there is plenty to see and enjoy at the LBF. The fair takes place at Earl’s Court, a large convention center in London, and it is very well organized. The huge main room is where publishers from all over the world have their stands. One area has children’s books, another travel books and maps, the religious (primarily Christian) books are in one (fairly small) spot, textbooks are in their own section, and so on. If you go past this room, after, of course, having browsed it to see what is being published these days (gift books seem to be a growing trend), and on into the next, smaller one, the atmosphere is different. This room is where the printers and binders have their stands, where people sell little book lights and other items for the book-lover, and where the various cultural agencies are located.

As a translator from the Scandinavian languages, I spent most of my time flitting between the Swedish Arts Council, the Danish Arts Agency’s Literature Centre, Norwegian Literature Abroad, Finnish Literature Exchange, the Iceland booth (this was the first year the Icelandic publishers and agencies had their own stand). On Monday, April 20, there was a joint Nordic reception, and events like that are excellent for networking, especially for writers, translators, and people from smaller publishing companies.

I also made sure to visit the stands from other countries. Several of them publish an annual or biannual magazine with biographical information and short translated excerpts from their nation’s top writers. This magazine, such as Sweden’s Swedish Book Review or Portugal’s Voices from the South, is meant to tempt publishers, but it is also a wonderful way for curious readers to learn about the kind of literature being published in other places. Because so few works are translated to English, unless you happen to read a particular tongue, you will never know what writers are doing in other parts of the world. I picked up as many of these magazines as I could carry. India was this year’s special focus at the Book Fair, and I had no idea there were so many publishers in that country. It was very interesting to see the way these publishers manage to differentiate themselves; I was slightly surprised by how many seemed to have a distinct niche in spiritual books.

PEN is also at the fair every year, offering readings. And one of my very favourite parts is the Gourmand area, which showcases top cookbooks from every culture imaginable. Even if you can’t read the books, you can salivate over the pictures. A number of chefs give demonstrations of their craft and they always make enough of the dish for the audience to try a bite as well.

In short, then, the LBF can be an enjoyable event, but only if you are prepared for what it can and can not give you. It is not a place to buy books or to connect with other writers. But it is a place to get a deeper understanding of the publishing world and to feel inspired (or overwhelmed) by the sheer number of books published each year.