Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reality 2, Fantasy 0

The fantasy: It's 6am on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I'm just outside of Portland, OR, the morning after my best friend's wedding. I wake easily, the smallest glimmer of sunrise pulling me from bed. Softly, so as not to wake Ryan, I slip on flipflops, grab a journal, and head out to an Adirondack chair on the hotel's sloping front porch. Everyone else is still sleeping, and I have time to write 3, 5, 22 pages of my book before the hubbub of the hotel coming to life saps my concentration.

The reality: 11am, I am huddled over a cup of coffee I can't drink, attempting to eat a slice of dry toast, wondering where I left my glasses. I have spent the last half hour stumbling around my hotel room, squinting at piles of clothing and picking up objects at random in the hopes that they might be obscuring my spectacles. Did I put them under the alarm clock? Between the pages of the Gideon? Behind the toilet?

The fantasy: Monday morning of Memorial Day, I wake before all my friends and brew a pot of coffee in the house we've rented for the post-wedding weekend. The house is quiet, calm. A gentle ocean breeze blows through the window. I take my journal and sit at the rough-hewn dining table, the coffee cold and forgotten next to me as I cruise through 6, 12, 18 more pages of my book.

The reality: Ryan slams the bedroom door on the way back from the bathroom at 10:30. "Gotta pack," he says.
I groan, flinging an arm over my eyes as he flings open the curtains.
"Crap, it's 10:30? I thought I'd get up early and write today," I say, all earnestness.
Ryan stares down at my prone form with a pitying expression.
"Who ARE you?" he asks. "Blanche DuBois? 'Oh, ah'm a southern belle.'"

He has a point. Even New Dedicated Me is not going to get up at 6am on a holiday weekend with friends to work on my book. New Dedicated Me is a bit loonybins to even THINK that I would be able to do this. And yet... and yet... at the end of the vacation, I find myself feeling a little sad that I didn't write anything.

I'm what you would call a skeptical creature of habit. I frown at claims that humans love schedules and routines, yet admit that without a routine, I wouldn't accomplish anything. The only time I can go to the gym is if I'm in a pattern of going to the gym--somehow, the thought of squandering all the previous weeks' hard work on a lie-in and a doughnut is enough to get me up and swathed in Lycra. The same holds true for writing: all that thinking and scribbling I've been doing every morning is going to lose momentum and sputter to a stop if I don't keep at it each day.

So: reality may have won out over fantasy this past weekend, but as of tomorrow I'll be back into my usual morning routine. And I'll probably keep falling off the wagon, but hopefully each time, I'll get back on just a little bit quicker than the time before.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What Your Friends Are Reading

Stalking people is fun, but stalking their books is better. Since I learned of GoodReads at, I've felt an obsession coming like a bad rash. And here: I'm passing it to you!

The site lets you list and track your favorite books and those of your friends, instructors, and attractive strangers. You can rate books and write blurbs, and click on someone's profile to see what they love and how to get your hands on it. Find Steinbeck fans in Somerville or Marquez fans in Mattapan. You can even label books as "currently reading" or "to-read," which should help clowns like me, whose "to-read" list is long and embarrassing.

Who's that stud who loves Anagrams? Who'd take a bullet for Revolutionary Road? It's the literary way to fall in love.

~Sonya Larson

Friday, May 25, 2007

Where I'm Writing From

Today's blog is from guest contributor Raymond Carver, who was born on this day in 1938 in Clatskanie, Oregon.

Today’s my birthday, and I’m at a desk at Grub Street. I’ve been here before. What’s to say? I’m back.

Some birthdays ago, I moved to Boston and married a woman. We had a kid. I wrote a couple things, nothing special. I was happy with the way things were going. I had a wife and kid I loved, and an okay delivery job. I was living in the city I wanted to live in. But for some reason— who knows why we do what we do?-- my writing picks up. I begin missing some dinners. Or else I’d show up but I wouldn’t want anything to eat. I’d filled up on snacks at the bar. Sometimes I’d walk in the door and for no good reason throw my lunch pail across the living room. When my wife yelled at me, I’d turn around and go out again.

I did janitorial work and more deliveries. I kept writing. Poems, sometimes a fiction story. There was a part of me that wanted to keep doing deliveries. But there was another part.

I had heard of Grub Street. The barman said something. I’d like to know what on earth this place was. In their headquarters there was this supposed library and some rooms for workshops. The staff, they were all-right-looking, too.

Anyway, these headquarters I went to. It was in a building on Boylston Street. You could see it had tall windows. I walked in this building and up an elevator to the top floor, walked around, saw through those windows overlooking a green park. So okay. I’m saying it felt different in there. There were books and tables, and a long red couch. So much writing so close to home, where had I been? I knew I was inside an office. But it didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

I signed up for a workshop, with other writers and a teacher. Here’s how it went. You'd write something and fix it up, then fix it again, finally show it to your friend or your barman, your wife even. Your wife and your barman would say, Alright, a nice pile of words. But what did they know? They weren't your teacher.

This teacher read my story. It was nighttime when she read it, along with people in the workshop. We sat around one of those tables with plastic cups of water. They talked about my story, they liked reading it. They could read and read. I felt funny. The teacher liked the story-- a small, good thing, she said— but I’d have to fix it. Fix it again! Too much, I said. I got stormy but later I went through the pages and she was right. I got these notions forming.

As for the deliveries, they were alright. I felt I had a different job. Later my wife would call, and she’d ask me where I’m calling from, and I’d have to tell her. I’m at Grub Street, on Boylston Street. It’s not the first time.

If this sounds like a story of success, okay.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Write for yourself?

My sophomore year of college, I was somehow admitted into an advanced fiction workshop called Readings for Writers. I had just transferred to the university, and knew no one. I spent my lunch hours in my dorm room, eating cold bagels, and my dinners eating with other transfer students. I knew my new school was going to be great, but it wasn't great yet.

Readings for Writers met once a week in the evenings. On the first day, I showed up carrying the entire stack of books from the assigned reading list, and sat down in a circle of students who all seemed older, taller, smarter and more poised than me. It didn't take long to realize that they seemed that way because they were, and by the end of the class I knew I was out of my league. Though every student in the class was amazing, there was one who I was convinced was going to win the Pulitzer the moment he graduated. His name was Bret, and he wrote stories set in backcountry Montana, achingly beautiful love poems to his (undeserving, in my mind) girlfriend, and was working on a novel. He was also one of the most generous and thoughtful critics I have ever had. Being in workshop with him and the other students made me made me consider and reconsider every sentence I put down, every word, in the hopes that I'd impress them. I read those students' comments again and again, and have kept them to this day.

Bret graduated two years ahead of me, and we didn't keep in touch. For years I kept expecting to read about him the New York Times Book Review, or happen upon his novel in the bookstore. About three years after he graduated, I found his name in the class notes of our alumni magazine: Bret was a bike messenger in New York City. A bike messenger? I was disappointed. Still, it had a certain romance: dodging taxis by day, holed up in a cockroach-infested garret by night, wearing those fingerless gloves and writing by the light of a guttering candle. But then, more years passed, and still no book. I had always expected to measure my success against the people from that class, and when I had published a few short stories and still seen nothing by Bret, I felt oddly let down. Competing with him and the other students in college had led me to produce some of my best writing... how would I continue to do that if the other players dropped out of the game?

A lot of people say you should write for yourself. This is a great idea, but for me it just doesn't work. My self is a pretty easygoing sort, always ready to accept a variety of excuses for not getting work done or abandoning projects. My self has laid back on a lounge chair and watched with a satisfied expression while I've organized the closet by color and theme, has waved off an apology for not revising a story with a quick pageant-contestant wrist flick, has taken a toke while I ignore my latest New Year's resolution to write every day. My self's a lot of fun to party with, but not a very good boss.

Instead, I need to write for others. Not a lot of others--that way madness lies (and bad workshop advice, as Sonya so sagely pointed out)--but a few select readers who are themselves writers, and whose work astonishes and inspires me. To write at my best, I need to feel like I'm competing with someone, and always in second place. Otherwise, I get lazy. Thankfully, I've found those people. I married one of them, and found the rest at Grub Street. They're all great critics, but more importantly, they're great writers, and if they haven't had books published yet I know they will soon--hopefully long before me.

A few days ago, a college friend of mine sent me a link to an article in Outside magazine with a mention of Bret. Turns out, he's been living in China for the past seven years, drumming, writing, learning Mandarin, and working on a translation of the Tao. A few things happened when I read this article. First, I became incredibly jealous. Why wasn't I living in China, gathering incredible experiences to write about? Second, I thought: of course. Of course he wasn't schlepping around New York City and eking out a living delivering contracts to law firms during rush hour. Third, I felt a huge sense of relief. I need Bret to be doing something fantastic, so I can keep on waiting for his first fantastic book. He may be all the way across the world, but just knowing that he’s working on his writing makes me want to get back to my own.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Maybe Syphilis?

So I’ve been thinking about workshops, probably because I just finished a great one, Master Fiction, with the masterful Ellen Litman. The group felt like some superhero team of readers, but perhaps we were a long time in the making.

Critiquing stories isn't easy. In my very first fiction workshops, back in college, I was clueless. I would lie in bed and read someone’s story over and over, amazingly forming no vision for what would improve it or make the writer not hate me. I’d bite my pencil and skim it again. Finally I’d scribble something in the margin as messily as possible, so that the writer couldn’t read it but would sense my deep earnestness. Class time was dreadful, as this was where I’d have to say these ideas out loud. But just as a person must wear some sort of clothing, even if it's not useful or interesting, I offered my suggestions. I sat straight and pointed to the writer with my pen. “I like the narrator’s sister,” I’d say. “I just wish she was a brother.” Or, “This character needs something to hide...maybe syphilis?”

My fellow workshoppers weren't much better. In the margins of my stories they’d try and try: “I like the way this character runs-- like a real runner.” “The father should blow his nose with a Kleenex, not a tissue.” And the best one: “Dear Sonya. You must be trying to make me hate this.”

One particular story of mine set off a minefield of suggestions, ranging from changing a character’s eyebrow color, to making another one gay, to bull-dozing the whole thing and reestablishing it in a Southeast Asian country. Exasperated, I left the class confused about what to do next. True: the story was riddled with holes. But who among us knew how to plumb?

A week later my professor met me in a coffee shop to discuss the story one-on-one. She could tell I was anxious, and got me decaf. She set the mug in front of me and said these words: “Sonya, some people can be very intelligent, and very enthusiastic, very observant and very articulate. And they can also be wrong.”

What a beautiful insight. Like most good writing advice, this one applies to life in general, but I keep it in mind during workshops too: pay attention to which advice you trust, which writers you trust, and to be ready to pitch the rest.

...The Grub Goods
Raise your glass to the winner of the coveted 2007 Muse and the Marketplace raffle, KATIE MAXIM. For her qualifications that defy explanation, Katie wins a weekend workshop of her choice. Will she learn to write for radio? Write 2 plays in 2 days? Stay tuned.

Pave the way for Thieves Jargon, a fantastic literary journal edited by Grub member Matt DiGangi. The 3-year-old magazine publishes fiction, poetry and artwork on a weekly basis, and released their first print anthology last summer. Be a Grubbie and a Jargon Thief!

~Sonya Larson

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ask me what's on my mind this afternoon (it's Tuesday, my day to post, so I'll just assume you're asking), and I will tell you it's my recent discovery of the work of María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza de Rasten.

Like all too many prodigies, María sold out relatively early in life, choosing fame and big paychecks over her art. As a poor immigrant, she had a precarious place in American society, and money provided stability for herself and her family. Though she studied her craft under one of the all-time greats, and distinguished herself among his students, she did not believe she could make a career out of her true passion, so, for many years, she virtually abandoned it.

I'm talking, of course, about Charo.

Yes, the cuchi-cuchi lady, frequent Love Boat cruiser, Hollywood Squares dingbat and, most recently, Surreal Life punch line. Until recently, I had no idea she was still alive, let alone a real musician, and certainly not one of the most accomplished flamenco guitarists in the world. And she was performing in Boston!

So my partner, Michael, and I caught the late show at Scullers on Saturday night. We sat in the 2nd row, behind the family that owns the Central Square restaurant Cuchi Cuchi. Promptly at 10:30, Charo emerged in a skin-tight sequined red jumpsuit and, as she made her way to the stage, hugged and shook her prodigious breasts in the faces of the audience members (myself included). For the first half of the show, she danced, sang classics like, "Hot, Hot, Hot" and "Fernando," told corny jokes, sat on the laps of many a smiling man (myself included) and delivered a few of her famous and deliberate malapropisms, such as "Don't misconscrew me..."

But Charo has been misconscrewed, which she proved in the second half of her show, when she covered her shoulders with a tasteful jacket and took up the flamenco guitar. Michael and I were mesmerized. The crazy antics of the first half - and years of self-effacing TV appearances -vanished from memory as her (Maria's?) fingers danced across the strings, and she and the guitar became one. In every song, you could feel both her passion for her country's musical tradition and her pain in having masked it for decades. I've been listening to her cd, "Charo and Guitar," ever since.

What does this have to do with writing? With Grub Street? It's fairly obvious, I'm sure. For example, during the brief but exciting period I was deciding among editors interested in my first book, Ralph Lombreglia (one of my favorite authors and professors) told me: "Don't follow the money. Follow the art. If you do, you'll never regret it." I feel incredibly lucky that I get to "follow the art" every day - both at Grub and in my fiction - and that I won't have to wait decades to share it with the world.

~Christopher Castellani

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dear Friends,

Welcome to Grub Street's first-ever weblog!

In our simultaneously wary and giddy embrace of this 21st century medium, we take our inspiration from the 19th century: specifically the low-cost publications known as "penny dreadfuls." Often Gothic, sometimes lurid, always sensational, these books were printed on cheap paper and widely distributed. Their goal was a wide audience of readers eager for the next installment. So is ours.

Here's how it works. On Mondays, our post will be a reprint of our weekly newsletter, The Grub Street Rag (sense a theme here? What's next, the Grub Fishwrap?)

On Tuesdays, Artistic Director Christopher Castellani will share his musings on all things grubby, literary and random.

Program Coordinator Sonya Larson will spin on Wednesdays.

On Thursdays, the syntactical stylings of Associate Director (and Rag author) Whitney Scharer.

On Fridays, a rotating series of guest bloggers from the Grub community. A Who's Who of the Boston (and beyond) literary scene. Aka whomever we can strong-arm.

We'll post photos, round-ups of events & parties, gossip, publication news, rants and raves, etc.

A few weeks ago, I heard of a T-shirt that says, "Nobody Reads Your Blog." I thought it was funny, for a time.

Dreadfully Yours,