My Poetic Past (and Present)

Something not too many people know about me is that my publication history began with poetry. As a teenager, I saw my poems published not only in my high school’s literary magazine, but also in journals I found–yes, that’s right–in Writer’s Market. (Clearly my odd passion for literary market research started early!)

But I didn’t sense that poetry was where my future rested. I loved prose. I wanted to write prose. I was writing prose. Poetry receded, except in the college classes where I read (and wrote academic essays [prose!] about) Blake and Baudelaire.

As an MFA student I read a lot more poetry (and met a few very talented practicing poets). I still didn’t think poetry was my “thing,” but after awhile I started to wonder. A bit.

And now, occupied all day with my full-time university office job, maintaining a semblance of a freelance life with a few article and review assignments and waiting for a couple of accepted stories to appear in print (or online), I am turning to poetry. I am trying to shake things up, especially where my fiction writing is concerned (to say that new work has plateaued is to be too kind to myself). I am trying to learn some new skills that I may apply elsewhere.

I am taking a poetry class. Online. My first homework assignment is due by July 17.

So I am trying to benefit from the structure and inspiration of a class and from the skills and expertise of the instructor who is leading us. I am trying, still, to grow as a writer.

Even if, in a way, I’m going back twenty-something years, all the way to my bylines’ beginnings.

Wish me luck.

Delving Into the Toolbox: An Interview with Sands Hall

(This interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, September 2006.)

Delving Into the Toolbox: An Interview with Sands Hall

by Erika Dreifus

It’s a true joy for me to present this interview with Sands Hall, one of my first fiction teachers (and one of the finest writing teachers out there today). Sands is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds a second MFA in Acting; her experience as a director, actor, and playwright gives her a unique perspective on the writing process. In addition to her work as a freelance editor, she facilitates private workshops; she is also on the staff of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and teaches for conferences such as the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, as well as for the University of California, Davis, Extension Programs, where she was recently honored with an Excellence in Teaching and Outstanding Service Award.

Sands is the author of the novel, Catching Heaven (a Ballantine Reader’s Circle selection and a Willa Award Finalist, Best Contemporary Fiction). Her produced plays include an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and the drama Fair Use. She is an Affiliate Artist with The Foothill Theatre Company and lives in Nevada City, a historic mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California.

Recently Sands “talked” with your editor via e-mail about her latest book, Tools of the Writer’s Craft (Moving Finger Press, 2005):

Erika Dreifus: What inspired you to write and publish Tools of the Writer’s Craft?

Sands Hall: I’d been teaching and editing for a number of years and found that I was scribbling similar comments, again and again, in the margins of student and client manuscripts. I decided to put those thoughts into organized form, and the essays became a sort of shorthand, as in, “see my thoughts about this in the attached.” Then I began to include them in course packs of various classes, as a way to ensure that everyone in a given class would share a sensibility and nomenclature. I was often told they were useful, but thought that getting them officially published would be an arduous task–until my blessed editor, Steve Susoyev, and Moving Finger Press decided to see them into print.

The book also includes exercises. These started as assignments I gave myself, to try and solve particular writing problems, and at some point I began to assign them to students. (Editor’s Note: For a sample exercise, click here.) As a teacher I find them extremely useful: when an entire workshop is working on the same exercise, with the same focus and objectives, the discussion is similarly focused, on a specific and particular craft problem. The result is that what is learned in the writing (and critiquing) of, say, 300 words, can be applied by the writer to a whole manuscript, the larger endeavor. It is exciting and gratifying to see the leap in ability and understanding that the exercises create in a workshop of diligent and generous writers.

In most other art forms an artist practices every day: a dancer does pliés, a painter takes on “studies,” someone longing to get better on the mandolin plays scales. The exercises in the book offer a way to practice writing. As often as not the pieces generated wind up as part of a larger piece, although that needn’t be the reason for tackling them.

ED: How do you see readers integrating these two parts of the book, “The Essays,” and “The Exercises”?

SH: The section of the book that contains the exercises is called “Put It to Work,” and that pretty much explains the idea. The essays offer theory and the exercises offer a way to put that theory into practice.

In my experience, one gets better–more effective–as a writer by reading, writing, critiquing writing (by which I mean, reading with a discerning eye as to what particular writers, published or unpublished, are doing); then reading and writing and discerning some more.

ED: As it happens, the book opens with an extensive discussion of “Making Workshops Work.” In my experience, this is an often-underemphasized aspect of writing instruction. What has led you to place such importance on it?

SH: Not long after Tools was published a (discerning) reader wondered why “Making Workshops Work” is the first of the essays in the book, rather than, as she thought it should be, the final one. I thought it a fair question, as it’s true that the essay assumes some knowledge of the craft issues discussed in the rest of the volume. It says a lot about my own passions that I lead off with that essay.

In the last five decades workshops have tended to focus on what a writer is doing that does not work rather than what does, with the result that the “learning process” and environment are ones that can humiliate and demean rather than encourage and support. Of course this rests largely on the shoulders of the facilitator of a given workshop, the tone and the system–the “workshop methodology” if you will–he or she sets or insists upon.

I think workshops, for a long while, were a bit like that image we have of a ballet class painted by Degas, where the ballet master has a long stick with which to rap or pummel a ballerina’s unaesthetic or unruly calves and arms, accompanied by words of degradation; this was intended to improve technique, and certainly created legendary dancers. I have come to believe that this kind of teaching, teaching with abuse and fear, is simply old-fashioned, patriarchic, but it still goes on. (I’ve had students, inculcated in this tradition, tell me they don’t feel they’ve had a “good” workshop if they don’t feel shredded at the end of class.) Yet there have always been masters and choreographers who work more, dare I say, lovingly, enthusiastically, positively, and the result is just as lovely and “correct”–and certainly more pleasurable for the artists involved. The essay is an effort to encourage another way to participate in a workshop, although these are certainly not new notions.

In addition, it took me such a long time, when I was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to figure out just what a workshop was supposed to accomplish, and I wish I’d known some of that when I started the program, rather than just beginning to get the point of it at the end of those two years. So the essay is also an effort to pull these ideas together, and intended to help students get a jump start on the workshop process; above all, I hope they will examine and own the idea that the more they put in to critiquing the writing of others, the more they will take back to their own

ED: Some of the material in this book was happily familiar to me as your former student. How has your vision/definition of “tools of the writer’s craft” evolved over the years you’ve been teaching and writing?

SH: It has to do with that idea of “a dancer does plies” articulated above. There are some things one cannot be in control of: basic talent, luck, timing. But there are things a writer can control, and one of those is to be the best writer he or she can be. In the end, art is largely a matter of the craft it takes to create that art: one can write one great song by accident, or shape clay into something brilliant once or twice without “knowledge,” but those artists that endure, whose work stays with us, at some point grew into or grasped elements of what it is that created–sustained and improved–what they did before. That’s craft, and it seems to me by attempting to pinpoint and discuss various components of artful storytelling–vivid writing, who is telling the story, rendering life into art–one might grasp some tools that can be manipulate with *purpose*–a very important word to me–to create effective writing.

ED: You have experience as an actor, director, playwright, novelist, and, obviously, essayist. How do you see the “tools of the writer’s craft” crossing and/or overlapping genres?

SH: Well, I certainly hope your readers will be inspired to buy the book and find out. Seriously, the essays do describe elements of my theater experience that have proven useful to me as a writer, and I’ve had any number of students who have said that it is some theatrical metaphor or image that allowed them to grasp some aspect of writing that had otherwise eluded them: turning down the sound on a scene to underscore the idea of show versus tell; the idea of what a reader “sees” as the curtain goes up, or a camera fades in, to illustrate character; the idea of point of view as a camera; to name a few.

ED: What are you working on now?

SH: My new novel, Xie, is currently in New York. Like my previous novel, Catching Heaven, Xie has three narrators, but this novel also dances across a lot of history: one narrator is a playwright, living now, who is writing a play based on a trove of letters written between 1869 and 1920 by a woman who gets inspired by the women’s suffrage movement. Of course I’ve had to write those letters, and even some portions of the play, so it’s required a lot of research. I’ve had a wonderful time and hope my readers will too.

ED: Thank you, Sands!


Tools of the Writer’s Craft
by Sands Hall
Moving Finger Press, 298 pages.
Paperback, $15

(c) Copyright 2006 Erika Dreifus

Writing for a Good Cause

On Saturday, June 9, I spent the day at the New York Writers Coalition 2nd Annual Write-A-Thon. Having raised $461 (raising a minimum of $100 was required, and here’s a big public thank you to all my donors!) to support NYWC programs, I’d earned a ticket to a terrific day at the New York Center for Independent Publishing (previously the Small Press Center).

Soon after I arrived, I entered a classroom for a writing workshop. I have to admit that it was strange–though by no means unpleasant–to find myself not in the role of the workshop leader this time! The actual leader, who regularly leads NYWC workshops, took us through two sets of prompts/exercises. In each case, after we’d finished 15-20 minutes of independent writing, we reconvened as a group. We had the option of reading our work aloud for the group’s response. It all had to take place within the following guidelines:

1) You can ignore the writing suggestions and and write whatever you want to. You can also keep writing after the workshop leader calls people back to the group. This workshop is for you to use for your own writing however best it serves you.

2) We discourage ‘observing’ or ‘auditing,’ so we ask that you at least attempt to write something, or spend time thinking about writing, even if it’s staring at a blank page, making notes, freewriting or doodling.

3) You don’t have to read aloud what you just wrote. But if you do decide to share your work with the group, please only read what you wrote in this writing time, not something you brought in or wrote earlier in the Write-A-Thon.

4) Only say what you like and what you remember when you are talking about others’ writing. The writing we are hearing is all brand new so it’s too early in the writing process for critiques or suggestions. It’s ok not to respond to every piece.

5) What is written here will be treated as fiction, and will be discussed that way. This means referring to the characters or the narrator of the piece rather than saying something like, ‘I like the part where YOU ran away from home at age 12 after YOUR mother yelled at you.’

6) What is written here, and what is said here, is confidential.

After the workshop came lunch (sandwiches, pasta salad, and cookies). Because this was a writers’ event, there was also plenty of coffee (and Diet Coke) available throughout the day.

At 1:30PM author Chris Baty gave us a “pep talk.” I’d say it worked: I was pepped up sufficiently to decide–and I declare publicly right here and now–that I am going to sign up this year for his brainchild, National Novel Writing Month.

After the talk ended, I settled in with some stories-in-progress I’d brought along, and actually got some long-delayed revising done. That may not seem too impressive, but these days, any uninterrupted daylight attention I give my fiction is indeed precious.

There was something extremely inspiring about sharing the space, the time, and the occasion with so many other writers. There we sat in rooms throughout the building. Some people had brought laptops. Others, like me, scribbled away in notebooks. It may sound corny, but there really is something to be said from the momentum that comes from other people’s writing (or typing) within view (or hearing).

The day definitely served me well. And I’m proud to have contributed to the work of the NYWC in the process. I’ll be back!

Thanks to GalleyCat for letting me know about this event in the first place!

From Erika’s Archive: On Writing, Publishing, and Literary Contests: An Interview with Ronna Wineberg

(A version of this interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, January 2006.)

On Writing, Publishing, and Literary Contests: An Interview with Ronna Wineberg

by Erika Dreifus

Ronna Wineberg was born in Chicago and educated at the University of Michigan and the University of Denver College of Law. Her collection of short stories, Second Language, won the New Rivers Press MVP Literary Competition and was published by New Rivers Press in October 2005. The book has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Wineberg was a 2004 fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Since 2000, she has been the fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. Wineberg has been awarded residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has taught writing at New York University. She has also been a public defender and had a private law practice. She lives in New York with her husband and children.

Erika Dreifus: Ronna, thanks so much for taking the time to “talk” with us. I know it’s been a busy time for you. Let’s start with some background. Please tell us a bit about your development as a fiction writer. Did you ever consider the MFA route? Why or why not?

Ronna Wineberg: First, it’s a pleasure to be interviewed by you, Erika. Thank you for asking such excellent questions. They helped me review what I’ve done with my writing and why.

I followed a circuitous path to becoming a writer. I didn’t consider the MFA route when I graduated from college. I went to law school because I wanted to do something practical and help underserved and poor clients. I worked for Colorado Rural Legal Services, as a public defender, and had a private practice. But I was always interested in writing. When I was a public defender, I wrote stories and poems while I sat in court, waiting for a case to be called. I stayed late at the office writing. I lived in Denver at the time, and one summer, I attended the Aspen Writers Conference. My instructor, Kathleen Spivak, was encouraging. She suggested I take a writing class and recommended the University of Denver.

I talked to a professor there who allowed me to enroll in a fiction writing class in the MFA program, but not for credit. I loved what I learned, and enjoyed the interactions with other students, reading their work. I took another class. I became more serious about writing fiction and became a member of a writers group. I had a simple goal at first–to learn to write a story that worked, that conveyed emotion. This was harder to do than I imagined. I wrote story after story. I decided that I wanted to pursue an MFA I talked to someone at DU about being admitted to the program and was told I needed to take the GRE exam first. I made plans to do this, but then my husband was offered a job at Vanderbilt University. We moved to Nashville.

There was no MFA program at Vanderbilt then. I considered applying to a low residency program. But this seemed too great an undertaking at the time; my three children were young. So instead, I tried to construct a writing life. I attended conferences, Sewanee and Bread Loaf. I joined a writers group in Nashville. Some of the members had published books; I learned from them. I continued my connection with writers and mentors I had known in Denver. I read short stories. And I wrote.

ED: For those who haven’t yet read it, Second Language includes 13 stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals/magazines. Many short story writers (and poets and essayists, for that matter) are advised to publish their work in journals before trying to publish a collection. What’s your take on this, and what advice can you offer about publishing individual pieces?

RW: I would strongly advise a writer to publish short stories in journals first, or to publish in journals even as the writer is looking for a publisher for a collection. It can take a long time to find a publisher for a book, years and years. It can be a discouraging process. Short story collections are hard to place.

Journals provide a venue for your work, and publication there can boost a writer’s morale. It’s a great feeling to have individual stories published (or poems or essays). This gives you a chance to have success along the way, to be visible as a writer, to have readers, and become part of a wider writing community. Sometimes journal editors will offer suggestions for revision. Also, when you publish in journals, you’re building a list of publications that you can mention in a cover letter to an agent or editor. And agents and editors read journals; one might like your work and contact you.

In terms of suggestions for publishing individual stories, my advice is probably similar to what other writers have said. First, be persistent. The rejections are hard. But the best way to deal with them is with persistence. If a writer receives a rejection with a comment, that’s encouraging. Editors receive enormous amounts of submissions and give comments only when they are impressed with the writing. Send the story out again. Send another story to that same editor. I found that, on occasion, I developed a relationship with editors. Sometimes two or three stories were rejected, and the editor accepted the next story.

Also, make informed choices about where to send work. Read a journal before submitting to get a sense of what the journal is looking for, themes or styles. See how you like the work in the journal. Be realistic. If you submit to the New Yorker or a famous literary journal, your chance for publication is extremely slim. Start with smaller, well-respected journals that are open to new and emerging writers.

Third, be systematic. Keep a notebook or computer file with information: name of story, what journal and editor it was sent to, the date, the date and content of response. Ideally, the week you receive a rejection, send the story out again. An editor may reject a story because of the needs of a particular issue. I’ve seen this with the Bellevue Literary Review. We have rejected pieces reluctantly because we had too many on the same theme or dealt with the theme in the previous issue.

Follow the journal’s guidelines. Be sure your manuscript is neat, double spaced, without typos, grammatical or spelling errors. Write a simple cover letter, listing where you’ve published (if you have), if you have an MFA or anything you feel is pertinent. But keep the letter fairly short. I would advise against giving a long description of the story in the letter. Let the work speak for itself. Be sure to enclose an SASE if you submit via regular mail.

Don’t submit a story until you feel confident it’s finished and ready to be sent out. This can be hard to judge, though.

If an editor offers suggestion for revision, consider the comments carefully, but revise only if the suggestions seem accurate to you. You’ll most likely want to revise (if the comments are helpful) if the editor makes a commitment to publish or says he or she will take another serious look at the revised story.

And last, the writer needs to consider whether he or she wants to submit work simultaneously, to more than one journal at a time.

ED: Second Language has been published by New Rivers Press through its MVP competition. The book’s closing story, “The Doctor,” was published in The Licking River Review and was also a finalist in two prestigious competitions. An earlier version of the book was a finalist for the Willa Cather Prize from Helicon Nine Editions. So submitting your work to contests, as well as to literary journals, has clearly formed part of your writing/publishing experience. In an e-mail, you commented: “I’m a believer in contests as long as a writer has patience and realistic expectations (as with all of writing).” Can you explain a little more about your approach to literary contests and competitions, and share any tips you may have for other writers?

RW: I am a believer in contests. However, I try to approach contests realistically. On the one hand, there is just one winner and a few finalists, so the chance of success is much less than if a writer sends to a journal. However, if you are fortunate to be a finalist or winner, it’s a great honor. One of my teachers suggested I send my story collection to contests since collections are so hard to place with publishers. Often, the prize of a competition is publication of a book. I researched what contests existed for short stories, and decided to submit the manuscript to some competitions.

I came to value contests early on. I was fortunate that one of the first stories I wrote, “The Feather Pillow,” won a prize in a local contest, the Denver Woman’s Press Club Adult Short Story Contest. There was a monetary award, though no publication. I was thrilled and grateful for the affirmation.

I’ve entered a few individual stories, like “The Doctor”, in a contest because I’ve believed in a story, felt it was a strong piece of work. When Second Language was chosen a Finalist for the Willa Cather Award, this strengthened my belief that someday the collection would be published.

In terms of tips, I’d suggest researching what contests are suitable for a writer’s work. There are lots of contests–for story collections, for novels about social justice, for writers who have never published books, writers who have already published books.

Local contests are a good place to start. There are also contests limited to writers who live in specific geographic areas. Find what best reflects your work. Preparing a manuscript for a competition, either a single story or a collection, is a good way to push the work to another level, make it more professional.

In addition, when entering a contest: 1. Follow guidelines and honor deadlines. 2. Consider cost. Some contests have no entry fee, which is very appealing. It can become expensive to enter a lot of contests, so choose carefully. And choose carefully what work you submit. 3. Consider past winners–are they well-known writers or ones at earlier stages in a career? 4. Once you enter the contest, forget about it, and go to your desk and work on current projects. You’ll eventually hear the results. 5. Keep a record of where you’ve sent your work.

ED: Rosellen Brown has described the “second language” of these stories as “desire…an unrealized longing, a secret unearthed, a passion suppressed or–unexpectedly–yielded to. The situations of Ronna Wineberg’s characters are diverse, but they circle one inescapable theme with flawless emotional accuracy: that few are fulfilled, and even fewer will live out their lives without at least trying, bravely, to make a break for it.” This is very powerful stuff (and, as a reader, I find it wholly accurate). To what extent were you aware, in crafting the stories, of this essential quality?

RW: I was surprised and very flattered by Rosellen Brown’s description. However, when I wrote the stories, I wasn’t aware of these themes. But as I thought about her words, I realized she was right.

I wrote one story at a time about what interested me at the moment. I didn’t have a theme for the book. The themes evolved intuitively. So I’m glad the book seems to work thematically.

ED: Several stories in the collection portray (or at least allude to) experiences of illness and healing (of the main characters or someone close to them). A number of stories also feature physician characters (in “A Crossing,” the protagonist is a pediatrician facing her own life-threatening illness). Tell us how your interests as a fiction writer have contributed to your editorial work for Bellevue Literary Review, a literary journal published by the Department of Medicine at New York University, and how your experiences as an editor have influenced your own writing?

RW: Before I became associated with the Bellevue Literary Review I was interested in health and healing. I have always believed that medicine in its purest incarnation is a noble profession. I admire its power to heal, but I am also aware of the tension between its promise and its limitations. Writing about illness and doctors allowed me to experience the profession vicariously. That’s what one can do in fiction–live different lives.

Being an editor has influenced my work. I learn from the fiction I read for the journal–about technique, what works and what doesn’t, about language, voice, point of view. I’ve tried to be objective about my own work and use my editing skills on it. But I think it’s easier to edit someone else’s work. I’ve also learned about how a journal functions and have seen first-hand the enormous numbers of submissions.

ED: Please tell us about the process you went through structuring the collection, choosing and sequencing the stories, and so on.

RW: I compiled different versions of the story collection, at first experimenting with titles. After I had the title, I continued to debate which stories to include. The process was like putting together a puzzle. I shuffled stories, adding some, taking out others, experimenting with the arrangement.

When I wrote a new story I felt was stronger, I included it and removed a weaker one. The manuscript I sent to the Willa Cather competition was titled Second Language, but it didn’t include all the stories that are part of the book.

After the manuscript won the New Rivers MVP competition, my editor at New Rivers Press suggested that I consider putting fewer stories in the collection and change the arrangement. He left it up to me whether to make the changes. I had worked so hard on the sequence already and was reluctant at first to make a change. But when I looked at the stories again, I realized he was right. I saw which stories could go.

I decided to put what I considered a strong story first and last, beginning with a story that touched on what I saw as the book’s themes. I wanted the sequence of stories to have a logic to it, although I knew that readers do not necessarily read a collection in the order, but jump around. Once I started rearranging, the new sequence became apparent to me. I hope it worked!

ED: Anything else you’d like to tell us?

RW: Thank you again, Erika, for interviewing me. It’s wonderful to “talk” to you and your readers, an honor and privilege.

ED: Thank you, Ronna.

Second Language
by Ronna Wineberg
Many Voices Project/New Rivers Press, 2005
250 pages, Paper, $14.95.

(c) Copyright 2005-2008 Erika Dreifus

And Still Further Thoughts on "When Student Writing Crosses the Line"

We’re now about two-and-a-half weeks beyond the terrible events at Virginia Tech, and the subject of “deciding when student writing crosses the line,” as Joseph Berger’s most recent “On Education” column in the New York Times is titled, is still very much with us.

You can read Berger’s column here. See also Jim Papa’s editorial on “Criminalizing the Creative” from the April 29 edition of Newsday. (Papa is a poet and essayist who teaches creative writing at York College of The City University of New York.)

(For earlier posts on this topic, with links, please begin here.)