From My Bookshelf: Four Seasons in Rome

To be perfectly frank, every day it’s seeming less and less likely that I’ll ever reach the level of literary success of, say, Anthony Doerr. Which means it’s looking less and less likely that I’ll ever win a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. But this weekend I at least had the privilege of glimpsing that experience through Doerr’s eyes when I read his new (and delightful) book, Four Seasons in Rome. Subtitled “On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World,” the book chronicles Doerr’s Roman holiday (sorry–couldn’t resist that) from his arrival (accompanied by his wife and their six-month-old twin boys) to their departure the summer after Pope John Paul II’s passing. It’s a highly engaging read on many levels, including, for this practicing writer, Doerr’s account of the project he brought with him to Rome (a new novel set in German-occupied France during World War II), and the genesis of a new short story. Magnifico!

From My Bookshelf: An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs

This review originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of The Writer magazine.

Help for Choosing a Writing Program

An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MFA or MA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship
by Amy Holman, Prentice-Hall Press/Penguin, 208 pages plus CD-ROM. Paperback, $18.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

If you’re tired of Googling for online lists of MFA programs or writing grants or residencies, and if you’re not interested in seeking separate print volumes dedicated to each of the same, Amy Holman’s new book, An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will make you very happy. A published poet and literary consultant who indeed demonstrates an insider’s knowledge of the field, Holman has assembled a no-nonsense guide to several key aspects of writers’ professional development. Both beginners and more advanced writers should be grateful.

Holman defines “creative writing programs” broadly; she wants to “open your minds to possibilities you might have overlooked, thought were closed to you, or worried were too hard to pursue, and to change your mind about them.” So she doesn’t limit herself to academic (MA or MFA) programs in creative writing–although she profiles 60 such programs, including some administered through the popular low-residency option, in the book, and lists another 93 on the accompanying CD-ROM. She covers residencies, colonies, grants, and fellowships, too.

The book’s first sections introduce you to this vocabulary and offer advice on “choosing the right program at the right time” and preparing an application. Holman provides the context, background and guidance for you to proceed on your own, because, as she rightly notes, “How you become encouraged about your writing ability, how you improve, hone, or perfect it depends largely on your personality and also on your personal engagement to the literary community to date.” She wants to help you identify the “right environments” for your own development as a writer; she understands that that will be a personal process.

Program profiles fill most of the book. Those covering graduate schools (presented alphabetically, as Holman has wisely avoided ranking them) stand out for the way they highlight distinguishing features/program “perks” while following an economical and easy-to-follow template: For each program, Holman tells you what kind of degree it offers, a “nutshell” summary, a faculty list, and information on “defraying the cost.” Non-academic program descriptions are similarly highly individualized. Holman also does the reader a favor by signaling when colonies or grants are truly open to early-career writers and when they’re really looking for very experienced, very published people. Holman complements the listings with informative quotations throughout.

Since Holman limited the number of profiles printed in the book (which keeps the text both readable and portable), one of An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs‘s selling points is its accompanying CD-ROM, “with listings and links for 300 programs.” This bonus sounds fantastic, and in many ways it is (especially in listing and linking programs located outside the United States). But take note of my experience:

*I could not initially access the promised searchable database on my Mac; when I tried the disc on a library PC, that problem seemed to disappear.

*The desktop left me confused. I didn’t know which file/icon to click; I would have appreciated a file labeled “Read me first.” When I did find the database, I learned that I could search only one category at a time (type of program, state, or subject of program).

*Although I searched successfully for “low-residency MA programs,” an attempt to identify “low-residency MFA programs” yielded what seemed to be a list of residency and low-residency programs combined.

*Similarly, the 300 promised programs are divided among multiple categories (Resident MA; Resident MFA; Low-Residency MFA; Low-Residency MA; Artist Colonies and Writers Colonies; Artist-in-Residence Programs in National Parks and Community; Academic Writer-in-Residence Programs; Grants and Fellowships; and Paid Writing Spaces). Holman provides an excellent introduction, but to identify additional programs you’ll still need to make use of other resources (including those helpfully linked in a “Resources” section).

*If you’re hoping that the CD-ROM will contain program descriptions similar to those Holman provides in the book, be forewarned that it offers program links only. In other words, you won’t find another 93 MA/MFA program descriptions there.

Those observations notwithstanding, Holman has done something exceedingly useful here. “No matter at what stage–beginning, emerging, or established–you are in your writing career, you have goals,” Holman writes. An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will help you meet them.

From My Bookshelf: Reading Like a Writer

The original version of this review appeared in The Writer Magazine, February 2007.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
by Francine Prose, HarperCollins, 288 pages.
Hardcover, $23.95 (also available in paperback as of April 2007, $13.95)

We hear it all the time: If you want to be a writer, read. And don’t just skim, or read for plot, or race through to a story’s end. Read in a special way. Read closely. Read like a writer.

But what does that really mean? How does one read for lessons on craft and technique, lessons that can hopefully be transferred from Flaubert’s or Tolstoy’s pages to one’s own? It’s an essential art for any serious writer, but it can be an extraordinarily elusive one. Fortunately, Francine Prose, herself the author of 14 books of fiction, has given us a guide to her own “education as a novelist” that truly does, as she intends, “help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.”

Other writers and writing instructors may talk about “close reading,” but Prose actually shows us how it’s done. Again and again, she provides excerpts from published work followed by her own analysis. She looks at words; she looks at sentences; she looks at the language within the dialogue. For Prose, these are the concepts that really matter: she notes that “to talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re more often asked, such as, Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?”

So talk about sentences (and words, paragraphs, dialogue, narration, and much more) Prose does. In neatly divided chapters, she takes on all the true tools of the writer’s craft and shows us how others have used them to maximum effect. She gives us, for example, the first lines of the first six paragraphs in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, showing how the author “introduc[es] the reader to the topography of the town before narrowing in on one of its inhabitants.” She also gives us that novel’s entire fifth paragraph, “because it is such an elegant example of its form, one of those single paragraphs in which a writer tells us nearly all we need to know about a character.”

Stendhal is no accidental selection. Reading Prose’s examples, as well as following her suggested “List of Books to Be Read Immediately,” you’ll be considering many “classic” authors. Although she highlights some contemporary writers, including Gary Shteyngart and ZZ Packer, her texts of reference come primarily from the canonical past, for which she (refreshingly) makes no apologies: “You can assume that if a writer’s work has survived for centuries there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males.” Prose even devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov.”

At the same time, Prose is careful to point out how often traditions–in the form of familiar writing mantras and “rules”–can and have been broken. Citing an Alice Munro excerpt, for instance, she encourages us to think how much more powerful “telling” can be, when we’re usually directed to “show.” Later, when she notes that one-sentence paragraphs “can be an annoying tic, a lazy writer’s attempt to compel us to pay attention or to inject energy and life into a narrative,” Prose also provides examples (Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Raymond Carver’s “Fat”) “in which single sentences actually do seem to merit paragraphs of their own.”

An experienced teacher, Prose also anticipates difficulties newer writers encounter: “Even when novice writers avoid the sort of dialogue that is essentially exposition framed by quotation marks, the dialogue they do write often serves a single purpose–that is, to advance the plot–rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish.” Then she provides counterexamples that instruct, illustrate and inspire (in this case, excerpts, sometimes lengthy, from novels by Henry Green).

“I’ve always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop,” Prose muses. For those not lucky enough to enroll in such a course with Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer is an excellent (not to mention relatively inexpensive) substitute.

Recent Reads: The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2007

Thought I’d post again about some of the excellent work I’ve been reading via the literary journals I picked up at the recent AWP conference in Atlanta. Today’s selection is the Winter 2007 issue of The Cincinnati Review, a beautiful publication I’d love to see my own work in someday (believe me, I’ve tried). In the meantime, I’m happy enough that the new issue includes Susan Perabo’s extraordinary short story, “The Payoff.” And I’m happy to be able to point you to an excerpt online. Click here to get to the journal; then click “issues.” If you click on Susan’s name within the Winter 2007 listing (make sure pop-ups are enabled), you’ll get the excerpt.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in a classroom under Susan’s direction, and even luckier that I believe I may call her a friend. But even without that bias, I’d recommend her work wholeheartedly. I first read her story collection, Who I Was Supposed to Be, about six years ago, and I’m still in awe of the ease (she makes it look easy, anyway) and skill with which Susan creates a true range of vivid characters and stories. (This particularly impresses me because I’ve often felt a little “caught” in work of my own that might most charitably be called slightly repetitive.) Fiction writers have a lot to learn from Susan’s prose, and all readers will find plenty to enjoy.

(For more on this issue of The Cincinnati Review [and Susan’s story in particular], see the review at

Recent Reads: The Chattahoochee Review, Fall 2006

Last week I promised to blog some more about the journals I picked up at the AWP conference in Atlanta, highlighting standout work that’s available online. And while I certainly have my flaws, those who know me also know that I always keep my promises!

So here’s a follow-up. The Chattahoochee Review (for which I am a contributing editor) generously sponsored my conference registration, and I spent quite a bit of time at the journal’s Bookfair table. Which means that I was able to pick up a hot-off-the-press copy of the fantastic (if teensy bit delayed) Fall 2006 issue.

Of course, I was happy to see my own review of Faïza Guène’s Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (trans. Sarah Adams) within. But since that piece is not available online, I’ll point you instead to one that is: Amina Gautier’s short story, “Pan is Dead.” Click here to reach the journal, then click “Current Issue” to reach the list of Fall 2006 contributors. Click again as appropriate for Gautier’s piece. And go ahead and read.

As I told Marc Fitten, the journal’s editor, in an recent e-mail, Gautier’s is one of my two favorite pieces (by writers who aren’t named Erika Dreifus) in this issue. The other is Courtney Eldridge’s astonishing “Thanks, but No Thanks.” [UPDATE ON MARCH 31, 2007: Eldridge’s piece is now also online.]

Marc responded with the excellent news that he will be introducing Eldridge when she reads at the New York Public Library’s “Periodically Speaking” series on May 8 here in the city. I’ve marked the date on my calendar and if you’re going to be in the area, you should, too.