Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Grub Street Rag, 7/30/07

Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday from the balloon and party hat recycling station at Grub Street's world headquarters.
As always, if you are receiving this e-mail in horror, please advance to
the bottom of the page to unsubscribe yourself.

And now, onward to puberty


We've turned ten, and we couldn't have done it without you. We're thrilled to report that over two hundred friends and fans of Grub gathered in our offices last Friday to hear readings from Hacks (our anthology), get our faces painted, nosh on Redbones barbecue, eat birthday cake, and fill in our personal histories on the big Grub timeline on the wall. We hope you all had as much fun as we did. We're already looking forward to Grub's Sweet Sixteen!


And now, a thank-you to our sponsors and donors
We know you're asking: How did Grub pull off such a snazzy, stylish birthday party? We owe a lot to our staff, volunteers, and interns, but the party wouldn't have been SUCH a party if it weren't for our event sponsors and donors. HUGE thanks to Redbones for providing barbecue, enormous thanks to Newport Vineyards for providing wine, and big thanks to Blanchard's for donating a portion of the night's beer. We'd also like to thank all of the party-goers who made a contribution at our Donation Station: in total, you donated $188, which helps defray the costs of the evening's festivities. If you attended the party but missed the donation station, or couldn't make it to the party but would like to help us out, we'll gladly take donations online. Please click on http://www.grubstreet.org/getinvolved/donations.html to pony up.










Memoir II morphs into a new 6-week course
Our Memoir II class has changed its length, price and start date. It's now a 6-week class that runs from August 13th to September 17th, and costs $275 ($250 for members). The objective of the course stays the same: to give more experienced writers intensive review and analysis of their creative nonfiction, and to write and revise one or two nonfiction pieces or book chapters. Call us at 617.695.0075 to sign up.

Grub Street all over the Globe
There have been two Grub-related writeups in the Boston Globe in as many days. First, check out the article about one of our favorite instructors, Lisa Borders, by clicking http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/07/29/for_her_fames_not_name_of_writing_game/. Lisa teaches our Novel In Progress course, and her writing is just as beautiful as this article says. Grub Turns Ten also got a mention in the "Names" section of today's paper. The text is online at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/07/30/fun_and_game_plan/?page=2.


SOFTBALL DEPARTMENT (Brought to you by regular sportscaster, Chris Castellani)

DENOUEMENT
Grub Street Word-Slingers 15 BSSC Indies 16


ANDOVER - Leave it to a bunch of writers to save their most compelling drama for the final act. Leave it to the Word-Slingers to avoid the cliche of getting pummeled in the playoffs. Such a predictable end would have been savaged in workshop.

What we had instead, sports fans, was an old-fashioned thrilla.

It started with a ball that bounced out of Ben Patterson's glove into the glove of newcomer Mark Beckytuchsfriend, preventing at least two runs. Indies up 3-2. Then, at the top of the third, the Slingers took the lead with five runs, four of which were awarded as bonuses because the Indies were woman-deficient. For once, the draconian/chauvenist BSSC rules benefited Grub, who'd drafted reserves Anna Stern nee Goldsmith, Nicole Patterson and Lyssa Marksgirlfriend.

But those four runs, like free Redbones BBQ, disappeared quickly. The Indies got 7 at the bottom of the third thanks to three throwing errors and chaos on the basepaths.

By the top of the seventh, the Indies were up 13-12 after Beckytuchsfriend tied it, Jen "RBI Machine" Dupee knocked in two and Wayne Feldman provided some fireworks with a bases-loaded single that notched two more. The Slingers needed one run to stay alive, and then, miraculously, a Patterson walk sent Becky Tuch trotting gleefully home. Indies don't score again. Game tied 13-13. Extra innings. History in the making. Weak knees.

At this point, the Indies starting pitcher -- a coltish, huffy Amazon with a dash of crazy -- was ready to strangle the umpire, whose breath reeked of whiskey, and who liked to call her balls and strikes before they reached the plate. The Indies brought in their closer for the eighth, and the Slingers scored, this time on a bloop hit by power first-baseman Michael Borum, who scored five-tooled star and expert center-fielder Jeff Stern. Anchor outfielder Tom Meek and infielder Brian Runk called a team meeting to pump everybody up and strategize defensive positions in the next half-inning. Brian was still fuming from being called out at third after a brave slide, and wanted revenge. But the Indies scored anyway, and the game was tied again.

Top of the ninth. Skies darkening. Mosquitoes attacking. The Slingers don't score. Game still tied 15-15. Dead silence as pitcher Chris Castellani serves up a triple. Man on third, no outs. Then the next batter hits a line drive into center field, the man on third scores, and the game is over.

Maybe the Word-Slingers have sought over three seasons to experience all the nuances of loss. Maybe they fear the bourgeois trappings of success, the sappy losers-will-triumph happy ending. Maybe they glory in the flames licking their backs as they swan-dive from the heights each and every Sunday. In any case, they're writers. Their skin is thick, and they will fight on.


See you next year!


Cheers,
Whitney, Chris and Sonya

Friday, July 27, 2007

Two Book Reviews

Dan Pritchard here as the guest blogger. If you like my post today, I have a less-formal daily literary blog The Wooden Spoon [danpritch.blogspot.com] you can read when I'm not "The Penny Dreadful." A quick disclaimer, I work for David R. Godine, Publisher, who is doing In the Blood—suffice to say I would not write about it if I didn't really enjoy the book (my review options become limited as I read mostly galleys, haha). Thanks!

McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets
(McSweeney's, 2007)

is somewhat more organized than Dadaism. I mean, it could have been truly random. The curator, Dominic Luxford & company, could have begun by scattering slips of papers torn from an anthology around the room at random with poems on them and then tossed lawn darts, blindfolded, to chose which poems would go in the book. Instead they began with a whim. Ten poems by ten poets that they liked. Luxford says, in the "About This Book" foreword, "we tried to stay entirely out of the way, letting the poems in this book pick themselves."

Each poet chosen then was asked to choose one more of his/her own poems, and another poem by another living poet, and so on. The result is an extraordinary and revealing selection of contemporary poets, established and burgeoning, that spans movements, cultures, and languages.

Some of the choices make so much sense that you wonder how you didn't see it coming, as with an M. Night Shyamalan film—the twist just barely inventive enough to be concealed. Like James Tate choosing his poem "The Radish," one of his more popular poems and one he has taken to reading when he does appearances, and then bringing the reader to "The Devils" by Paris Review editor Charles Simic. Simic's poem goes, "We drank gin / And made love in the afternoon." Of course James Tate – the literary world's Keith Richards – would take us here. Of course! And both writers are so distinctive, so individual, their poetic voices making those kinds of complex native sounds no other poet could. It's like Bert picking a poem by Ernie.

Tomaz Salamun picks a poem by the student Thomas Kane and you think How did he find this Kane? but then you discover that Kane is translating Salamun's poems into English as part of his MFA candidacy. Michael Ondaatje chooses "[Untitled]" by Lisa Robertson and all at once, like a moment of grace, you realize that they speak in the same rhythms, their syntax overlaps in ways that no one could have guessed. One begins to see a community of poets in the world that ignores the normal boundaries of gender and race.

The book is not without its criticism. There are sections that are not as strong as others,– one mediocre poem quickly becomes four or five before the cycle is broken – and poems (mostly those chosen by the author from their own work) that may not have been included if there were a more dictatoriam editor. The collection avoids any extremes of avante-gard, or classicism, and in doing so a whole sub-culture of writers is exempt. But these peccadilloes exist with any collection—this or that poet was snubbed, etc., etc.

For all its inventive approach, for all the wonderful connections you see, the best part of this collection is the feeling that these poets are recommending each other to you. By getting out of the way, Luxford has washed his hands of that job. It is no stuffy editor or academic, trying too hard with indexes and anthologies. Here, each author says to you, you should read this, take it home, tear this page from the book, – you'll like it, I think – fold it in your pocket, take it. When will you ever have this chance again?


The Back-way Glance
Andrew Motion's In the Blood

The role of American Poet Laureate is not one of clearly defined powers and responsibilities. They are often chosen in recognition of their careers from blank page to verse. Beyond that, a laureate's role is defined by each individual poet. Donald Hall, for instance, tends to his garden in New Hampshire. Louise Gl├╝ck insisted on the umlaut. Billy Collins picked arguments with undergrads. William Carlos Williams furrowed his brow at beautiful women, who passed with asphodels in their hair. Essentially they did—whatever it was they always did before, and added a line to their resumes.

Not so in Britain. A Royal Poet Laureate of Great Britain is required to write occasional verse (for special occasions, mind you, not poetry some of the time). The poet must versify – to the best of his or her ability – state affairs, moments of national triumph, hours of mourning, and everyday occurrences. The reigning British laureate Andrew Motion sums his duties up in his forthcoming memoir, In the Blood. The part of the poet laureate is played by mum. Andrew plays England, in all his slumbering glory.

"Mum doesn't knock, she just whisks open my bedroom door, crosses straight to the curtains, tears them apart, and flaps one hand in front of her face. 'What a fug!' "

Motion is well known for his fondness of meter and rhyme, and established verse forms such as iambic pentameter—he is an unadulterated lover of his national literary heritage, of which he has made himself very familiar. His acclaimed biographies of Phillip Larkin and John Keats reveal his poetic genealogy, but despite the use of classic verse forms, Motion's poetry is clear and often very personal. He is, in that respect, as much a descendant of Robert Lowell's "confessional" writing as he is of Larkin's impersonal but more colloquial style. He is very well suited for the royal position he holds—a poet capable of expressing the personal in traditional verse forms, making a connection between individual perception and feeling, and the grand historical moment.

"The best poems are those which speak to us about the important things in our lives in a way that we never forget," Motion told the BBC. One could argue just the inverse of Motion's work. His poetry is very much informed by the central themes of his early life: the premature death of his mother, and his childhood in the ever-dwindling English countryside.

Motion's memoir In the Blood (Godine, 2007) is a masterful, lyrical work of autobiography. It centers on the young poet's relationship with his mother, opening with the hunting accident that would – after a long coma – tragically take her life. Their bond is intricately drawn over the course of the book, without being focused too tightly, so that it still exists in the context of a family that is full, and fully drawn. The story is crafted so naturally that it seems almost like a novel—though few modern novelists outside of Colm Toibin would dare attempt to depict so simple and human a story.

It was from his mother that Motion was first taught the power of words. In the most middle-class, domestic way, she teaches young Andrew to use words such as "looking-glass" for "mirror," and "perfume" for "scent," because they "always have done." Their conversation is comical –nearly absurd – for its stereotypical preoccupation with propriety, however two of Motion's great strengths as a poet can be traced back to this scene. The first is his complex relationship with slang, colloquial, and working-class diction. Motion is the rare poet who is able to choose a diction that matches the occasion and themes of the poem without overwhelming them. There is a balance to be found between ideas and the words used to express them, when a poem conveys theme and mood clearly, easily, and beautifully.

The second strength is Motion's reverence for tradition. It is clear from In the Blood that the Motion clan is only recently middle-class, and no class of people since the French Revolution are more concerned with tradition and propriety than the recently elevated. In the wrong hands this reverence becomes stale language and out-dated verse forms, poems rife with dead metaphors. Motion, on the other hand, feels his place in the long line of British poets as a eminent challenge. They stand over his shoulder, they point out his naivete and flaws with the blank faces of their collected works, and he is able to use or break tradition masterfully with their expert guidance.

Throughout the memoir the importance of scenes such as this becomes clear only in relation to the first chapter, depicting his mother's injury. Thus Motion is able to affect the same layered construction of his life that is so central to the experience of being a child, and of looking back at one's childhood. Hindsight gives the quiet moments between poet and mother an emotional weight that the author-as-child has obviously not developed enough to perceive. The poet's relationship with his mother is the central event of his self-construction, and imbues him with an ability to see the true value of the present.

There are times when this book is so domestic, and so much a picture of life, that the going becomes slow—happenings are infrequent, and the world in which he grew up in England is unlike any in America, and likely has disappeared there as well. The greatest enjoyment I found was with the craft and care Motion took in his writing. He has the rare ability to draw a visage that is full of subtext, delineating a hidden life beneath the surface.

Motion was seen very much as a "safe" choice for the position of laureate, but that description belies his complicated relationship to the past, and his gift for seeing the present with a kind of immediate hindsight. This gift allows him to see his own poems in relation to the past, to the future poets of Britain who will seek their own lineage, and now to his family, on display quite beautifully in his memoir In the Blood.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Grub Street: A Romance

In honor of Grub's 10th anniversary celebration this Friday, I wanted to share a love story with you. It's a simple tale, filled with lucky coincidences, temporary break-ups and gushing praise, and has--as all good love stories do--a happy ending.

And who, you may ask, is the object of my affection? Dear reader, in this post it's Grub Street. Perhaps you'll find this love a bit unconventional: Woman and Organization, some hot female-on-nonprofit action. But bear with me, it's not as sordid as you might think (and if you were actually hoping for sordidness, sorry to disappoint).

The story begins with me, fresh out of college, my shiny new liberal arts degree hanging on the wall of my rat-trap apartment bedroom, which I was sharing with a friend and subletting for $250 a month. (In Davis Square. 5 minutes from the T. Just to give you some idea of the level of rat-trap-itude.) The moment I graduated I became one of those lost souls, the kind of person who sees adulthood stretching out in front of them as one long uninterrupted stream of mundane desk jobs, broken only by the possibility of paid vacation time increasing from 2 weeks to 3 when you hit your mid-thirties. I missed, more than you might imagine, the rhythm of the semester system, the promise in a new course catalog, the excitement of a fresh stack of textbooks. As I mail-merged and reformatted, I could actually feel my creative energy drying up inside of me. Like Tantalus, my thirst for knowledge seemed permanently thwarted.

But living in Davis Square put me in close proximity to Grub Street's first (and short-lived) plastic advertising kiosks, which were set up next to the T station and filled with shiny workshop brochures. Here, I realized the first time I picked up a brochure, was my salvation: 10-week-long courses in fiction, offered in the evenings at the end of the workday. One semester out of school, I signed up for my first Grub Street class, taught by Chris Castellani and held in Brookline's Temple Sinai, where we sat at diminutive desks and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was heaven, and Chris remains--after countless courses and two years in an MFA program--one of the best teachers I have ever had. I still have the two single-spaced pages of typed comments he wrote on one of my stories, and marvel at the dedication he showed as an instructor.

Over the next few years, I took a few workshops, all of them great, volunteered a bit and became acquainted with the Lady Behind It All, Eve Bridburg. I went to her apartment in Somerville, out of which she ran Grub Street for many years, and felt as if I was peering in at some secret club of cool, hip writers. (Part of why I felt this way was how cool Eve was. Even her apartment oozed with cool: the guest bathroom on the first floor had a clawfoot bathtub in which she had laid a mannequin's arm. Just lying there in the tub, like some sort of avant garde art installation. How awesome is that?)

My fantastic Grub Street teachers wrote recommendations for me when I decided to apply to an MFA program, and in the personal statement portion of my application, I wrote that I planned to move to Denver after I graduated to start a non-profit literary center--modeled on Grub, of course. While in school, I subscribed to the early days of the Grub Street Rag, and read it hungrily--and with a bit of jealousy and nostalgia--each week. As graduation loomed, and the same panic overtook me that I felt when I left college, I responded to a posting in the Rag for a grants intern. The director at the time, Jamie Hook, took a chance on an unknown gal from Seattle who promised to be there in July after driving her possessions across the country, and I started as an intern in Grub's old office space, a converted toilet paper factory outside of Union Square, Somerville. Then a new executive director started, Ron MacLean, who hired me on as a full-time administrator. For the first year, there were only the two of us, set up at rickety old folding tables with an odd sticky scrim covering them (I refuse to acknowledge that this substance could be anything other than the adhesive residue from Scotch tape). We had a photocopier that was so old you had to bang it to turn it on, which sat--for some unknown reason--UNDER a desk, so that when you wanted to copy something you had to sit down with the dustbunnies and old chewed pen caps on the floor, bumping your head on the desk above.

Those days are gone, and now here I sit, over three years later, in Grub's swanky digs at 160 Boylston, at a desk I assembled myself after a long and arduous trip to IKEA. How Grub has grown over the years! As I type, a few members are scattered around the space working on their writing, our summer interns are hard at work (thank you guys!), and Grub's--gasp-- multiple other employees are cranking out all the great work they do that makes Grub as special as it is.

It may seem weird to be in love with an organization, but that's what it boils down to for me. I love all of the people I've met here. I love Grub's scrappy history, its irreverent attitude towards all things that smack of stodge (if that's a word). I love everyone who works here and how we sit in the same room and interrupt each other every five seconds yet still manage to get TONS of stuff done. I love that we work hard because all of us Absolutely Love What We Do. I even love that we all talk about "making time for our writing a priority" but have trouble making it happen because there's so much good stuff to get done in the office. And most of all, I love that Grub Street is a place of happy coincidences, a place where a student and volunteer has found a place that feels as much like a home as any workplace ever could.

Oh, and the vacation time's not that bad either.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer

P.S. See you at Grub Turns Ten on Friday, right? Right?
P.P.S. I promised you "temporary break-ups" in the first sentence of this post. For that piece of my not-so-illustrious Grub history, send me an email and I'll give you the scoop.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Grub Street Rag, 7/23/07

the grub street rag. (Re)writing Boston since 1997.

* Resourceful Grub gossip
* Dexterous Grub events
* And then, Grub was ten.

"The story is always better than your ability to write it. My belief about this is that if you ever get to the point that you think you’ve done a story justice, you’re in the wrong business."

-- Robin McKinley

grub street gossip.

Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday from the lakeside snack bar at Grub Street's world headquarters. As always, if you are receiving this e-mail in horror, please advance to the bottom of the page to unsubscribe yourself.


And then Grub was ten
THIS FRIDAY, Grub turns ten years old! Join us on the lawn outside Grub Street's headquarters (and inside our office) for barbecue, beer, word games, music, birthday games even a 10-year old would love, face painting, ten-minute tarot, and a reading extravaganza from our 10-year anthology, Hacks. Click here for more info--if you sign up in advance, your name will be listed on our website and entered into a raffle for free seminars and Grub memberships. Full details and the program will be posted later this week.

Darci Klein's reading--featured in this week's Globe Sidekick
At the 2005 Muse and the Marketplace, Grubbie Darci Klein participated in the Manuscript Mart and met literary agent Sorche Fairbank, who loved her (then-unfinished) memoir so much she signed her on as a client. This Tuesday (as in tomorrow, folks) we're celebrating the recent publication of Darci's dazzling memoir, To Full Term: A Mother's Triumph Over Miscarriage, with a reading and book party at Porter Square Books. Join us for the reading and head over to Christopher's afterwards to raise a glass to Darci's success!

(The Varied) Forms of Poetry
As chimerical as its subject matter, our Forms of Poetry class has changed its length, price and start date. It's now a 6-week class that runs from August 15th to September 19th, and costs $275. The subject matter stays the same: each week, students will examine and practice a different form of poetry. Taught with brio by the inimitable Chris Hennessy.

SOFTBALL DEPARTMENT (Brought to you by regular sportscaster, Chris Castellani)
FOUL PLAY
Grub Street Word-Slingers 1 The U's 22 22
MEDFORD – It took three years, eighteen heartbreaking losses, a handful of crabby and self-important umpires, as many obnoxious opposing teams, a few injuries, countless dropped balls, umpteen groundouts, and some occasional bickering, but today it finally happened: the Grub Street Word-Slingers stopped having fun.

Yes, the offense sputtered: the lone RBI came from rookie sensation Jen Dupee, who brought in Gold Glove outfielder Tom Champoux. Yes, the pitching was shameful: did Castellani think this was Home Run Derby? But the crowd (more specifically, Ben Patterson's wife and infant child) was used to that. They'd seen the Word-Slingers struggle week after week and still emerge all smiles. And on a day that saw some great defense – a spectacular Champoux catch in deep right, some top-quality dirt-dog play from shortstop Jon Papernick, a nifty hot-corner tag-out from Patterson, Glenn Morris's solid first base coverage, and tremendous assists from rover Jeff Stern – that fan and a half really might have witnessed something special.

Instead they smelled a skunk. First, an actual skunk that sprayed the field in the third inning. Then the smarmy self-satisfaction and frat- like bullying of the Unexpectables, which reeked like, well, a lot more skunks.

"They're making fun of us," beloved newcomer Brian Runk informed the team during the game. "Whenever we muff a play, they laugh and talk sh*t."

"That's not cool," said captain/catcher Becky Tuch, words that meant a lot to her Word-Slingers, who knew how hungover she was. In comfort, center fielder Michael Borum added, "they're douchebags."

Up 22-1 in the fifth inning, the U's played like it was a one-run game, which would almost have been admirable if this were, say, the major leagues. They quibbled over the score. They took extra bases and cheered every single like it was a walk-off home run. In the bottom half, they actually called a meeting on the mound. And worst of all, they derided the Word-Slingers' self-deprecating humor, which, in the end, was all they had left.

Only their catcher seemed like a decent person. "I know how they feel," she said in a post-game conference. "The team I was on lost every game last season. But now I'm on a good team."

Congratulations, U's! You trounced the worst team in the league and stomped all over their hearts. Enjoy that T-shirt you'll get if you win the tournament. If there's any justice in the world, you're all terrible writers.

Playoffs start next Sunday, July 29th, at a time and location TBD.

Cheers,
Whitney, Chris, Paige and Sonya

Friday, July 20, 2007

Memories of Syracuse

I am one of those lucky people who loved her MFA program. I say lucky, because compared to others, I’d done preciously little research prior to applying. I made some foolish choices, too. I applied to Columbia, which I could never afford. I applied to Brown, even though I barely knew at the time what “experimental” was. But I did one thing right: I applied to Syracuse.

Now, whenever I end up on MFA-related panels, I start gushing. I gush about the generosity and talent of the teachers, who cared about our writing as much as their own. I gush about the abundance of writing time. About full funding. About Salt Hill journal. About the Living Writers Reading Series. About receptions, and parties, and the coffee hour every Friday afternoon. (I don’t gush about Syracuse itself, which is a grim little town that every winter drove me to the edge of insanity. But hey, you’ve got to sacrifice something for your art. )

The best testimony to an MFA program, though, is the work of its students, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of “Syracuse” books, which I am here to tell you about. You see, if Grub Street was my first writing-home, Syracuse MFA was the second one, and I’ve always wanted to bring the two together somehow (Grub Street, meet Syracuse! Syracuse, meet Grub Street!)

So, without much further ado, the first book on my list is American Youth by Phil LaMarche. Phil was a class ahead of me at Syracuse, but the classes were small, we all knew one another well, and we spent many evenings on Phil’s porch drinking beers and forties – I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but yes, my Syracuse gang introduced me to forties! -- talking about the state of contemporary literature, and predicting brilliant literary future for one another. And what do you know, for Phil it all came true. His novel is a huge success -- published by Random House and praised in every review. It is about a teenage boy in New Hampshire who is implicated in a shooting accident (he loads a gun, his classmate fires it, another kid gets killed). The boy is then “adopted” by a conservative youth group called American Youth. It’s a great story, and the best part about it is, it makes you forget your politics. In fact, no matter what your politics are, you’ll end up caring about the boy and his parents. Not just understand where they’re coming from, but root for them and care. Just think – we’re all writers here -- how much talent it takes to tackle an issue as loaded (excuse the pun) as gun control and to transcend the politics. But it’s more than talent. It’s also hard work, and Phil was always among the most dedicated writers I’d known. No matter what else was going on in his life (a kayaking trip, a damaged vertebrae), writing always came first. The rest of us would still be finishing our beers on that porch, and Phil would already be heading off to bed, so that bright and early next morning he could get to work on his novel again. Whenever I start slacking off in my own writing, I still think of that.

Continuing with the New Hampshire theme, my next recommendation is Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis. I met Becky on my first trip to Syracuse, shortly after I’d been accepted. Denis Johnson was on campus that day doing a reading and q & a, and afterwards there was a dinner and then a reception. I remember George Saunders introducing me to Becky and basically telling me what a star she was. He was right. That summer one of her stories appeared in the New Yorker. Since then, she’s had two more stories in the New Yorker, two in Harpers, one in O. Henry Awards, not to mention StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, Fence, and many others. And now her book is finally out. The stories in the collection are set either in small New Hampshire towns, or else in strange unidentified locations where monsters appear at your door, wolves ask for your phone number, and married upper-middle-class couples adopt something called “cute-sters.” One of the things I love about Syracuse MFA is its stylistic diversity, a healthy mix of experimental and realistic writing. Neither style is considered superior, and students are encouraged to practice either, or, as in Becky’s case, both. I can’t think of another short-story collection that dares to combine two styles of writing the way Twenty Grand does. And Becky totally pulls it off. What makes it work, I think, is that thematically the stories sort of bounce off one another. Their heroines are young women who don’t quite fit in the world around them. They are lonely. They struggle financially. And they’re frequently betrayed by their families. To me, the family betrayals are the most haunting theme in the book, and it’s the more surreal stories that really bring these betrayals to the surface.

I read somewhere, years ago, that if a fiction writer wants to write beautiful sentences, he or she must read poetry. I think it’s a great advice. I don’t do it as much or as often as I should, but I try. Luckily, I happen to have met some fabulous poets along the way – many of them at Syracuse – and it’s their collections that I usually read. The latest one is Filibuster to Delay a Kiss by Courtney Queeney. It’s published by Random House. How many poetry collections get published by Random House? The answer is, not many. Especially not by newcomers. But Courtney is amazing. She’s already been compared to Louise Gluck and Sylvia Plath, except unlike Plath’s, Courtney’s poems are haunted not by “daddy, you bustard” but by a Mother. Mother as a force of nature. Destructive mother. Unstable mother. Mother who attempts endless suicides but never dies. But the heroine of the book -- or as Courtney names her, The Anti-Leading Lady -- is the daughter, a young woman trying to piece her life together, a survivor and insomniac. Also there is love (or anti-love), sex, and Syracuse. Where would we be without Syracuse! (In fact, it’s kind of tempting to try guessing which incident might have inspired a particular poem.) What I love about poetry – and what I believe fiction should do as well -- is that it finds the most unusual and brilliant ways to express things. And Courtney is a master at that. To quote:
"Then I heard a cello and thought,
Oh. That’s how you say it."

Finally, getting back to fiction, the book I’m reading and loving right now is Better Ways of Being Dead by Christian TeBordo. If you love experimental fiction, this is your book. If you don’t love experimental fiction, this is still your book. If you love panda bears, this is most definitely your book. It’s playful. It’s sad. It’s got a love story and a mystery. And its narrator is hugely compelling. He’s a student at a university, somewhere in Cincinnati, who has to wear long-sleeved clothes because his skin sometimes breaks out in lesions. He’s in love with an agoraphobic girl who lives in the tunnels underneath the university. They are both enrolled in “Advanced Recomposition” class, held in a janitor’s closet and taught by a creepy professor everybody calls “I.” The thing about tags such as “experimental fiction” is, they scare people. But a good novel, experimental or not, will break your heart and make you forget about silly tags. And Better Ways of Being Dead does just that. Back in Syracuse, Christian lived in a tiny studio filled with books, most of which I wanted to borrow. He’s incredibly well-read, but he never flaunted it. You could talk to him about anything. Even in the midst of a Syracuse winter, when everyone else got a little wonky. Especially in the midst of a Syracuse winter. Talking to Christian would keep you sane. He used to ask me if there were panda bears at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and I kept telling him I didn’t know. I would offer to check, and he would tell me not to – because it was fiction, it was better not to know. In the end, Pittsburgh didn’t make it into the novel. But panda bears did.

Ellen Litman
http://lastchicken.blogspot.com/

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Grub Street Hotel

Today is a special day for me. It is the one-year anniversary of the night I slept in the Grub Street office. I had been celebrating a friend’s birthday down the street, finally grumbling into an overpriced taxi at 2:30am, and as we drove under Grub’s darkened windows I yelled, “Stop the cab!” I unlocked that elevator and I rode to the top. Frightfully, I turned on every light. I made myself a little “bed” on the long red couch, spreading my windbreaker over my legs and propping my purse under my head as a pillow. There. For some minutes I laid there, wide-eyed, devising how to make sure Chris and Whitney never found out. Then I fell asleep, the lamplights glowing red through my eyelids, me snoring to the sighs of the industrial air conditioner.

Five months later I was outed at a party (Chris: “We’re so devoted to Grub Street, we practically sleep there.” My friend: “Oh! Like Sonya did!”), but today that memory has me thinking about work and sleep. Writers seem to balance the two in any number of ways.

Some write no later than sundown— their creativity needs a full night’s rest. e.e. cummings was one of these, claiming to be capable of only 4 hours of writing each day, followed by a rigorous swim and evening aperitif. I admire these people. Probably they glow with good health, whiling their days eating leafy greens, composing poetry, and having great skin.

Then there’s me. I stumble into the other category: those writers who seem to thrive off of little-, no-, deprived-, sporadic-, or caffeine-compromised sleep. These are the Jack Kerouac’s, the Lucy Grealy’s, the Edgar Allen Poe’s, and all other delirious and half-mad writers for whom others feel concern. We know that staying up, and staying stimulated, is a true skill.

My desk is littered with gum wrappers, leftover from my notion that chewing keeps you awake. So does glasses and glasses of water, which lie discarded on my floor like shotgun shells. In this environment I work in deadly silence, save for a lonely ticking clock. I know what hour the birds start chirping outside my window (four o’clock), and what hour it turns to squawking (five).

It sounds disorganized and unhealthy, but the habit, I think, can be magical. Nighttime— in all its privacy and stillness— can help conjure ideas more imaginative than those of normal daylight hours. Maybe I’m making excuses. But for better or for worse, I'm not alone. A Very Famous Writer once told me, in response to complaints of my strained writing time, “You know, Sonya, there are these little pills you can take...” Apparently we No-Sleepers are more common than we feel.

Atop my head is a sprout of premature gray hairs, which should be called my “writing hairs” instead. And if I can’t find a better name before nightfall, there’s always the Grub couch to sleep on.

~Sonya Larson

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Grub Street Rag, 7/16/07 (posted late!)

the grub street rag. (Re)writing Boston since 1997.

* Transformable Grub gossip
* Fluid Grub events
* Summer workshops begin this week


"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."

-- Robert Cromier


grub street gossip.
Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday by the life-size wax figures at Grub Street's world headquarters. As always, if you are receiving this e-mail in horror, please advance to the bottom of the page to unsubscribe yourself.

6- and 10-week workshops begin this week
This is it, people. Our 6- and 10-week workshops begin this week, and a few of them still have spots available. If you're itchin' to be scribblin' this summer, check out the descriptions for Memoir II, Fiction I, Forms of Poetry, Not Now I'm Writing or our Daytime Exer-Series courses. View the whole schedule, and call us at 617.695.0075 and get yourself registered before time runs out.

And then Grub was ten
On July 27th, join us on the lawn outside Grub Street's headquarters (and inside our office) for barbecue, beer, word games, music, birthday games even a 10-year old would love, face painting, ten-minute tarot, and a reading extravaganza from our 10-year anthology, Hacks. Click here for all the details--if you sign up in advance, your name will be listed on our website and entered into a raffle for free seminars and Grub memberships.

Join us to celebrate Darci Klein's new book
At the 2005 Muse and the Marketplace, Grubbie Darci Klein participated in the Manuscript Mart and met literary agent Sorche Fairbank, who loved her (then-unfinished) memoir so much she signed her on as a client. Now, we're celebrating the recent publication of Darci's dazzling memoir, To Full Term: A Mother's Triumph Over Miscarriage, with a reading and book party at Porter Square Books. Join us for the reading and head over to Christopher's afterwards to raise a glass to Darci's success!

SOFTBALL DEPARTMENT (Brought to you by regular sportscaster, Chris Castellani)
Thunderstruck
Grub Street Word-Slingers 8 TSL Marketing 19

MEDFORD - It was a dark and stormy day at Tufts Park, but for once a ray of hope shined through for the Word-Slingers: they had finally encountered a team as bad as they were. Their opponent's starting pitcher, Some Girl Named Jess, was pulled in the first inning after loading the bases on three walks. Sure outs sailed between the legs of the shortstop or were thrown over the head of the first baseman. By the end of a very long first, Grub was in the lead, and the rain was passing them by.

Either the poor play of TSL inspired the Word-Slingers, or they bloomed at just the right time. Strange things happened - like a home run (from Some Guy Named Dan, who joined the Word-Slingers for one game because they were short a player) and the team's very first double-play. They had a swagger. The Jens (Dupee and LaVin) hit screaming line drives into the outfield, able first baseman Michael Borum went 4-4, shortstop Tom Champoux Jeter-ly gobbled up grounders, pitcher Chris Castellani recorded two strikeouts (one swinging, one looking), and Diana Beaudoin reached base twice.

In the dugout at the bottom of the fifth, the Word-Slingers up 8-5, captain and left-fielder Becky Tuch smiled upon her team with pride. She was about to witness their first victory.

Then the wilting began. First a walk to Some Girl Named Megan. Then balls popping in and out of Word-Slingers' gloves, both at home plate and in the outfield. Then longball after longball after longball from TSL. They got seven runs in the fifth. Seven more in the 7th. The swagger defected, and the Word-Slingers hung their heads in despairing disbelief. They never scored again.

After the game, as TSL gathered on the mound for an exuberant team photo, someone suggested that Grub Street change their name to the Expletives. That sounds about right.

Next game is Sunday, 7/22 at 6pm at Tufts Park vs. The Unexpectables. And because you never know what can happen, expect the - oh, forget it.

Cheers,
Whitney, Chris, Paige and Sonya

Welcome to the end of the e-mail, where, like a flamingo in stilettos, we offer you the chance to win a prize. This week, we're setting ourselves apart by NOT having a quiz question about The-Book-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. Instead, here's a chance to wow me with your memories: What book did you read as a child (fantasy or not) that had the biggest impact on you, and why? I will arbitrarily choose my favorite response. Email your answer to Whitney. Winner receives a gift certificate for ice cream at J.P. Licks.

Answer to last week's quiz: Inman Square is featured in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Winner: Filip Tufvesson.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th Debunked Just a Bit

I decided to use “Wikipedia” for some inspiration on the theme for today, despite its recent flack received from Bowdoin college professors who found it to be fraught with possible misinformation that research students were citing in their papers as fact. Based on that academic caution, I will temper any references here up front – they may be inaccurate in places in general and possibly due to horror movie fans who have decided to pepper the website’s pages on “Friday the 13th’ with bunk I may not catch.

At least you can take comfort in knowing that I did not use “Wikepedia.org”, which is really frightfully unfair of someone to register, don’t you think? I was quick enough to redirect and change websites when the bogus “Wikepedia (with two “e’s”) asked me “Are you Johnny Depp?” (I’m not, but he is one of my wife’s “boyfriends”, a term of affection that she uses for actors she likes.) I redirected to the true Wikipedia site (with three “i’s”) ready to absorb the history of today’s fateful Friday, which has gone on to be a 10 sequel franchise (if you count “Freddy vs. Jason.”)

Thankfully, if you want to read more on your own, I can say the aforementioned
horror movie is oddly nowhere to be found in any sort of material way. I do find it interesting that today has its own phobia – Paraskavedekatriaphobia - but then again, these days, what doesn’t?

So he we are with me posting and you reading about a day of superstition founded in…does anybody know?

Can someone tell me why parents always instilled a sense of dread whenever the 13th day of the month landed on what is most kid’s favorite day of the week? (after Saturday and Sunday of course.) I mean, come on, it’s Friday…no school tomorrow…Saturday morning cartoon marathon with unlimited cereal bowl refills…perhaps even something special like French toast since it’s the weekend and if you’re good.

Friday typically means pizza for lunch at school and in some cases like my house, for dinner (since I always said to my parents school lunch was fish sticks so I’d be assured of two pizza meals.)

Friday was the exhale after the afternoon’s very last minute of school, which seemed to last forever, each second counting as ten. What could parents possibly be talking about by being extra careful and worried about on a Friday?

Actually in my house, they never said a word. This absence of addressing what seems to be a very suspicious almost holiday was not so much based on parental myth-busting efforts by my folks but rather circumstance.

My dad had not yet started his 27 years of sobriety (and actually didn’t until right before I moved to college) so there was that. He was just more of absent of paternal participation in general and not just jumping over parental warnings about jinxes and curses.

My mom had another reason for being well, mum, about the date and she never spoke of it.

It was up to my grandfather to enlighten me as he did about a great many things. He reminded me every time the date came around, which is one to three times a year by the way. Grampy assured me that Friday the 13th being unlucky was just something that I shouldn’t believe, not in the least.

My mother, his daughter and his only child, was in a horrific car accident, which left her in a coma for 6 weeks when she was 19. She woke from it quite unexpectedly on a Friday the 13th, apparently in defiance of any superstition. The 13th card of the Tarot is Death, which also means rebirth according to the gypsy woman, so perhaps mom doing just that – defying the death they thought she was heading for.

My grandfather, despite being 100% Italian and prone to some amount of belief in the supernatural because of that, could never again believe the date to have any sort dark relevance. In fact, whenever a Friday the 13th rolled around, he got excited about what good fortune may follow the family. Although the extra lottery tickets never did pan out, I always invest a couple bucks in his memory just in case.

My mom doesn’t say much about it because, well, she doesn’t remember much about the accident: having it, waking up or sadly my grandfather’s overwhelming joy at having her back. Her memory still trips on itself here and there and we’ve just learned to be patient and give big hugs. It’s just one of those family things that we know about and like a lot of family history, dance around in conversation.

I was going to suggest that if you’re looking for a reason to simply treat this like any other day, just enjoy your Friday pizza as I plan to do with no worries. Maybe you can share this tale with your kids instead of telling them to look today up on the internet where they will undoubtedly search for more information on the Vorhees family movie franchise instead of any of the interesting historical references that I decided not to include here after all. Hey, you can visit Wikipedia any time you want, I’m only blogging today.

Yes, I was going to tell you to just move on and enjoy the day like any other TGIF - thirteen, schmirteen.

Then a frustrating and true thing happened. I wanted to post this much earlier today (some folks like to start the day off with their horoscope, yours truly included.)

Since I am the world’s worst proof-reader of my own work (I’m sure today is no exception), I was doing some last minute editing and…well…my laptop, which is only 2 months old, froze for the first time since I bought it. My edits were not recovered as they have been in the past on a Word document.

Perhaps it was just fate suggesting that I not be so cavalier about the prevalent creepiness surrounding today. Despite my mom’s story, perhaps you should do the same after all – just be aware. A crashed computer is nothing tragic, just a bit of a nuisance and maybe it’ll just help to double check today (or save your document along the way…)

But then again, I'm confident this finished piece is better than the one I lost so, there is that for you to consider as you proceed with caution.

And just remember, as I do when I imagine my mom opening her eyes for my grandfather almost 50 years ago, great things can still happen. I’m buying a lottery ticket or two in case my grandfather is watching out, right after I call my mother.

John LaFleur

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Off the Shelves, part two

First, let me say this: I am not proud of what I'm about to disclose to you.

Here goes: I don't like used things. I don't like to shop at vintage stores or thrift stores. I am skeptical about the idea of buying a used car, even though I am well aware that new cars are a terrible investment. I use Craigslist only to get rid of my own used items, and am always surprised when people want what I am selling. I hardly ever remember to eat leftovers, and have an embarrassing habit of throwing away Tupperware containers because the contents is visibly--i.e. through the plastic--too alien to merit further exploration. And, most shameful of all, I'm not so into used books. I like the idea of them: the musty bookstore, the frisson-inducing experience of finding a hidden gem, the surly bookseller climbing a rickety ladder to show you a first edition of Gatsby. But the reality? The reality is me, harassed and impatient, flipping through a dusty table of cast-offs and despairing of ever finding the one book I can remember having on my list to buy. I am not a thrill-of-the-hunt kind of shopper.

But new bookstores? Oh, let me sing of ye, new bookstores*, let me tell tales of your glory, of the hours I've spent running my gaze over the uncreased spines of your fiction, the afternoons I've whiled away in your comfy chairs, breathing in the scent of your untouched inky pages, the anticipation I've felt choosing tomes from your perfectly alphabetized shelves.

(*a note so that you don't all think I'm irretrievably lame, just fiscally irresponsible: I am speaking here of INDEPENDENT bookstores. Your WaldenBooks, your B. Daltons, your Borders(es), fill me with despondency, the sterile familiarity of the store layouts, the generally unhelpful staff, the selling of CDs at seventeen bucks a pop while the books are buy-two-get-one-free. I will gladly pay more to shop at an independent bookstore, and do so as often as I possibly can.)

I love you, new bookstores. I love you so much that I often indulge in that terrible sin, gluttony, and purchase not only the one book I intended to buy, but a nice juicy stack of books, which I then set on my nightstand and stare at with the manic glee of someone with a behavioral problem.

If this wasn't bad enough already, here is the part that I feel really bad about revealing: Out of this new stack of books, these delicious novels and story collections I was so excited to purchase, I will probably only read, on average, 3/4 of them. Why, you might ask, would I only read 3/4 of the books I was so excited to buy that I paid full price for them? The only explanation I have is that after a few months go by, these books cease to be new. Their shiny covers fail to entice. Like a secret crush nursed for so long that, when finally requited, the make-out sessions leave you wondering what's on the telly, these books bore me before I even begin their first chapters. The books sit on my nightstand, their pages yellowing with the passing of the seasons, and where am I? The new bookstore, of course, buying newer books to place on the dais of their forgotten forebears.

And so, this week, a mea culpa to the orphans of my bookshelves, the Forgotten Ones. I am sorry, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, my husband read you first and by the time he was done I lost interest in you. My apologies, The Collected Letters of E.B. White, you had such a great staff recommendation at Porter Square Books, but you proved too heavy to carry on the T. I hope to make amends, First Light by Charles Baxter, I loved your author so much that I bought five of his books at one time and then became temporarily Baxtered-out. I confess, Nothing But Blue Skies by Thomas Mcguane, I have a terrible habit of buying books about the vast plains of the American West and then never reading them. And lastly, I seek redress, Sons and Lovers and everything else ever written by D.H. Lawrence, I always buy your books when I am deep into a Henry James novel and then never end up reading you. To all of you, and all the other Forgotten Ones who are so forgotten I can't even remember who you are right now, I am sorry. I want to read you, really I do. Maybe this August? Or maybe September... there are a lot of new books coming out in paperback that I might want to check out.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Thanks For Not Writing

Ask most authors for their best writing advice and most will hand you the old saw, "You must write every day." They say that even when it seems impossible -- your only spare time is from 4-5am, you're hopelessly blocked, you're having brain surgery -- you must write something. Anything! And if you don't write every day, then clearly you're not committed or passionate enough. I've given this advice countless times and, for many years, actually taken it.

A friend of mine, a fellow author & teacher, once told me he didn't believe in this truism. After a few glasses of wine, he came out about the fact that he was on an extended break from writing, and that, despite some intermittent guilt, he'd never felt more creative, inspired or happy. He was alive again! Instead of straining his eyes at his computer, he was spending his time reading, taking walks, re-connecting with his family, and, every so often, working through plots and characters in his head. He was looking forward to a returning to his work one day, but until then he was "recharging." He argued that this recharging was crucial for his imagination and would ultimately make him a better writer.

My response: "Interesting theory." What I was really thinking: "So, he's not a *real* writer after all." And, feeling superior about my daily regimen of eye-straining and hand-wringing at my computer, I offered to pay for the wine.

Now, having not written a word of my novel for close to two months -- and even slacking on my blog responsibilities -- I am starting to see what my friend meant. My left-behind characters, who'd seemed stagnant and thin in April -- are beckoning me back, siren-like. I long to spend time with them, but instead of indulging that desire I daydream about what they might do and say. I'm back to what is most fun about writing: that sense of play and possibility. And though I could find some time these days if I tried, I might play hard to get with my book for a while. After all, that tactic does work in most other spheres of life.

Of course I could just be lazy. Or not a real writer after all. But my friend ended up writing two novels after his "recharging" period, so he's my new hero. And my new best excuse.

***

Just a few days ago I learned that one of my favorite poets, William Meredith, died on May 30th at the age of 88. I had the honor of meeting him a few times and hearing him read, and I am deeply saddened by his passing. He was an elegant, generous and accomplished man who will be missed by many.

I read a Meredith poem, "Crossing Over" at a friend's wedding last weekend, but here is another of my favorites:

The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think that this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
that keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

--1958

~Christopher Castellani

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Grub Street Rag, 7/9/07

* Alacritous Grub gossip
* Lissome Grub events
* Last week to register for a summer workshop

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster."

-- Isaac Asimov


grub street gossip.

Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday from the Boston Harbor Island satellite office of Grub Street's world headquarters. As always, if you are receiving this e-mail in horror, please advance to the bottom of the page to unsubscribe yourself.

Last week to sign up for summer 6- and 10-week workshops
Have a desire for a daytime class? A passion for poetry in all its forms? A craving for creative non-fiction? This week is your last chance to sign up for our 10- and 6-week workshops, which begin next week. View the whole schedule, and call us at 617.695.0075 and get yourself registered before time (and availability--several are already full) run out.

Find us a Cambridge space, take TWO FREE Grub Street classes
Grub Street seeks 4-5 classrooms in the Cambridge/Somerville area to hold our fall classes. All the rooms must be at the same location, and big enough to fit 13 adults comfortably. Parking and T-accessibility are key. We would need the rooms on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights from 7-10pm for ten weeks starting in October. Please let us know of any leads--if we end up renting from your tip, you'll get two free Grub Street classes to take yourself or give as gifts. Email whitney@grubstreet.org with ideas (or for more info on what we need).

Grub Turns Ten
Join us July 27th for our 10-year anniversary celebration, with readings from Hacks, our new anthology. Click here for all the details and to sign up.

Softball Department (brought to you by guest sportscaster, Dan Pritchard)
Double-Digits on the Horizon
Grub Street Wordslingers 9 – MannyOrtez 20

It had all the makings of a great day at the park. With two outs in the first inning, your Grub Street Wordslingers put 4 runs on the board for one of the best starts of the season. Two-out hits and timely walks were the key to our production. It sure was hot on the diamond, but so were our bats. Dan, Jen, Jeff and Becky had especially good turns at the plate today. It all seemed to be coming together for this ragtag group of authors-come-ballplayers.

The opposition – MannyOrtez – was stiff, and brought home 6 of their own in the bottom of the first. Their defense held the Slingers scoreless through the second, while doubling their own tally to make it 12-4. The Slingdogs kept it close with an epic effort, rallying to add 5 more runs in the third, but ManyO kept the pace and stayed true to their name, adding 4 runs in the third and then 4 more in the fourth. We tried to get it going in the fifth, but a tag-out on some great, aggressive base running ended the game.

Looking back, we learned a lot that hot day in July, together out there on the field. We learned that an umpire can really affect the complexion of a game. We learned that wooden bats are questionable. In the third inning we learned that MannyOrtez's left fielder was not up for a golden glove, and did our best to capitalize. I learned to throw it to the base, not the person — sorry Jen. We learned that walking a boy to strike out a girl is unfair, and wished we could apply that rule to Julio Lugo. But most of all we learned that the most important thing is family, so try not to hit the kids with errant flies.

The un-unbeaten streak remains unbroken. Still think we could beat the Pirates though.

Cheers,
Whitney, Chris, Paige and Sonya

The P.S. There was an error on our website, which incorrectly listed a Riot Act taking place tonight. There is NO Riot Act tonight (July 9th). Sorry for the confusion!

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Happy Camper by Becky Tuch

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I am in a bar. I am drinking white wine, staring at a horrifically garish electonic red eyeball on the top floor of Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square. I’m with a friend who is flirting with the bartender. Aside from the three of us, there is no one else in here. The air conditioning is on full blast, so cold my gums are freezing and I wish I had a winter coat, though it’s the end of June.

After about an hour, I leave the bar and get on the T to meet my ride. Tonight, I am going to a potluck hosted by the director of my new summer camp. Yes, I am to begin work at a day camp on Monday. How I will pull this off is still a mystery. I am drunk in the middle of the afternoon and I am lonely, frightened and more confused about the direction of my life than I have ever been. My roommate and I have been fighting. My boyfriend and I are “on a break.” I need to find a new apartment. I am absolutely fed up with waiting tables and don’t know what to do next. The novel I’ve been working on for the past three years is going nowhere.

Yet by Monday morning, I will be expected to smile and encourage budding young minds to write stories, to create characters, to participate in this fiction workshop. How, I wonder, can I even feign pleasure over writing when I feel so heartbroken and downtrodden over the whole enterprise of writing--of living--altogether?

My ride comes to meet me in front of the Somerville theater. She is a soft-featured attractive brunette with a bright smile. Somehow, I feel even drunker at this moment, and suddenly more exhausted.

“I’m Kate,” she says. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“I’m 27 and I’m terrified,” I want to say. But I don’t, of course. We shake hands and she starts driving.

“Are you excited about orientation tomorrow?” she asks.

“Orientation,” I repeat. I had not remembered anything about orientation. All I could think was that camp would start on Monday. But that’s right, we have a two-day orientation tomorrow and Friday. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten this. What kind of counselor will I be? What kind of human being am I? How could I begin this new job at a summer camp and not even get the dates right? How could I be drunk for my first meeting with all the other counselors and camp staff? No wonder I’m aimless and adrift.

“Yeah,” I say, plucking at the strap of my seatbelt. “I’m totally excited.”

**

There are moments in life when I just glide along, and the fact that I’m alive and doing things does not occur to me. That’s how it should be. I work, I cook, I get lost in each moment of bustling activity.

But then there are the days when I’m aware of every moment, every second as it stickily clicks past. And I don’t know how I’ll get from this second to the next. It all seems so terrifying. Not knowing where to work, where to live, whether I’ll succeed or fail at the things I want to do most, whether the people I love will really love me back. I feel too young and feisty to ask for help, but too old to still believe I can do everything my own way.

I manage to survive the car ride, and then I survive the dinner too, drinking a little more wine and spending as much time chewing as possible. Conversation is stiff and tense, but I do survive.

I even survive the first couple hours of orientation the next day. The camp director’s voice travels in and out of my ears as I struggle to hang on to the basics. This is the art room. And the computer lab. There is the courtyard. Don’t mind the construction. You’ll have to make sure your campers are with you at all times on the way to the pool. Each computer has internet access. This is the auditorium. That is the cafeteria. The soda machines don’t work. There is always a salad bar at lunch.

But later that day, the camp director places the counselors in random classes so we can each get a taste of what other people are teaching. I am placed into a class that could not be farther from who I am or what I’m about: Afro-Caribbean Dance.

I would laugh with ironic self-deprecation if my legs didn’t actually feel so stiff and heavy, my brain so dense and thick. They want me to dance?

I spend the entire fifty minutes of the class thinking of excuses for why I should stop dancing. I have bad knees. My ankle hurts. I have my period. My father is very sick (which he’s not.) I’m “on a break.”
But meanwhile, I’m still dancing. Or, to be more accurate, I’m lifting my feet up and putting them down and lifting my hands and dropping them one beat or two around the time that everyone else does the same.

Then I learn that tomorrow we will be performing our dance routine on stage. Ha! I almost cry. But it’s not a joke. Not only do I have to endure this torture of being forced to dance now, but tomorrow I will do it in front of an audience. Then, on Monday, when camp starts, I will have to perform again, this time in front of the entire camp.

“Believe me,” the dance teacher assures us. “The campers are more afraid to be here than you are to be performing.”

“No,” I think. “I’m not quire sure that’s possible.”

**

But then something happens. Monday. The campers come. And I just start faking it. But no, that’s not right. I’m not quite faking it. I am genuinely happy to see them. Children. Little people. Shy small creatures. Mini-humans.

They come spilling out of their cars and their school buses and they are looking so scared, so I put on my biggest smile to show them that I am not scared. I can’t be scared. I am their counselor. Suddenly, it’s not about me and everything I’m afraid of. It’s about them, and being confident and enthusiastic for them. It occurs to me that this must be the feat that parents pull off all the time, putting their own personal grievances aside in order to ask Callie if she remembered her tennis racket today and to make sure Betty got into the classes she wanted and to find out if Janie likes to bring her lunch or buy it in the cafeteria--the little questions that become so petty to adults but so, so meaningful to these curious, shy little people.

Each counselor is assigned to a group. Or, as the camp calls it, a “Groupie Group.” I have the good fortune of getting all girls, and they’re all around ten years old. I make fast friends with a camper named Enid.

“Do you like to write, Enid?”

“Yes!” she says. “I love love love love love love to write. I write poetry and I write stories and I’m writing a novel.”

“Wow!” I say.

I’m not even jealous. How could I possibly feel writer-envy for this kid? She loves to write. I hope she writes a billion novels. I hope she publishes everything she writes. I’m simply happy that she has a hobby, that she happens to have the same hobby I had when I was her age.

“Are you writing a novel now?” I ask.

“Yes! It’s about gypsies. There are lower-class gypsies and middle-class gypsies and upper-class gypsies…”

Now a small laugh slips out. A ten-year-old with class consciousness. This is going to be a very special camp.

“Does your book take place in Eastern Europe?” I ask, toeing the line a bit further, to see how rigorous her little mind can be. “That’s where gypsies are originally from.”

“No,” she says. “Not there. But in this kingdom that I made. But the kingdom is really part of this trilogy that I’ve been working on.”

“Cool,” is all I say. “A trilogy.”

**

The image that keeps returning to my mind is of an egg cracking open. I know it’s their brains that are supposed to be the eggs, nurtured and cared for to one day crack open into fine young adult minds. But that’s not how it is. I am the eggshell cracking open. Little by little, these kids are teaching me about everything I forgot.

In my Writing and Illustration class, I tell them to choose a character to be the subject of our story. One group comes up with Maria the Dolphin, who is distraught because she’s trapped in a cage too small for her. Another group comes up with Bob the Bulletin Board, miserable because he spends his life being continually stuck with pushpins. That is to say nothing of the Imaginary Penguin, or The Frozen Dragon who battles the mighty “Sir Land Sir Lot.”

They care about animals and they care about the environment. The older kids care a great deal about the upcoming presidential election. The younger kids care about the small things that happen every day, in all their classes, to their friends, to their counselors, to the environment and to our country.

Naturally, these are special kids. They come from good homes and most of them go to private schools during the year and they are lucky.

But I am the lucky one for getting to be around them everyday.

I tell all the girls in my “Groupie Group” that I will be getting on stage to perform. Not only will I be performing, but I will be dancing.

“I am a terrible dancer,” I tell them. “They made me take Afro-Caribbean dance and now I have to perform the number. You’re all going to laugh at me.”

Enid is sitting right next to me. She pats my arm and looks earnestly into my face. “Oh,” she says. “We won’t laugh at you! We’ll say, ‘That’s great! You tried!’”

I laugh. She asks me what’s funny. I tell her nothing.

But it’s everything.

Hey! That’s great! You tried!


Becky Tuch
July 5, 2007

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Toilets and Literature

I was using a friend’s toilet last week when I pleasantly discovered a book of Alice Munro stories propped up on the tank. Brilliant! I thought. Toilets and literature. Finally I was reading “Visitors,” and if it wouldn’t have caused my friend some nervous concern, I could have stayed in that bathroom and gotten to “The Moons of Jupiter.”

Since visiting other uncultured toilets, with many sighs of disappointment, I’ve wondered why not every household toilet has a Best American Short Stories propped up on the tank. Why don’t people read stories on the subway, or in line at the bank, instead of the novel they complain to have been reading since 1998? In short, why aren’t short stories more popular?

Cultural observers love to point at my generation and at modern America in general, noting our shorter attentions spans, high distractibility, and impatience with expression. Sometimes I’d like to break their fingers, but they have a point. More than ever, art and entertainment seem best absorbed in brief, easily ingestible chunks, whether as music videos or mp3s or favorite Sopranos episodes that can be skipped to on a DVD. Short stories, it seems, ought to be the hit singles of the literary world.

But perhaps I’m wrong to characterize short stories in this way. Good stories are “brief,” yes, but they’re not necessarily “easily ingestible chunks.” The best ones are actually robust as brick, and reading them requires the patience and appreciation of reading novels.

Filmmakers are realizing this truth. Recently a number of short stories have been adapted into full-length films, including Annie Proux’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” (with the film title Jindabyne), and Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (film title Away From Her). Perhaps the short story’s rise in popular culture will be driven by film.

I was hoping that while writing this post I’d conjure some huge and brilliant theory as to why short stories aren’t as popular as novels. I haven’t. So in the meantime I’ll be on the toilet, fantasizing about how to get short stories in every bus depot and waiting room in America. Missing Munro too? Her books look great against porcelain.

~Sonya Larson

Monday, July 2, 2007

Grub Street Rag, 7/2/07

"Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page."

-- Eudora Welty


grub street gossip.

Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday from the granite outcropping at Grub Street's world headquarters. As always, if you are receiving this e-mail in horror, please advance to the bottom of the page to unsubscribe yourself.

Poetry Book Prize Winner Announced
We are thrilled to announce that Linda Gregg has won the first Grub Street
Book Prize in Poetry
for her collection In the Middle Distance (Graywolf Press, 2006). Gregg is the author of five previous poetry collections, including Things and Flesh and Too Bright To See. A poet of international acclaim, Linda Gregg has taught at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. She currently lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.

You will have two opportunities to meet and learn in person from Linda Gregg. The first is on Friday, December 7th, 2007 at 7:00 PM, when she will be reading from her work at Grub Street. The reading will be followed by a Q&A and a reception. The next morning, Saturday, December 8th, from 10AM -12PM, she will lead a free craft class on poetry writing for Grub Street members. Do not miss this extraordinary opportunity to work with one of the country's most accomplished poets.

This year's contest attracted many excellent and worthy submissions, and we were honored to read so much great and varied work. We would also like to congratulate our two wonderful finalists: G. C. Waldrep for Disclamor (BOA Editions, Fall 2007) and Peter Pereira's What's Written on the Body (Copper Canyon, 2006).

The New York Times Book Review
We just discovered this cool underground literary publication and thought you might want to check it out. Kidding! But... you should take a look at the article in the July 1st edition by amazing writer (and Grub friend) Martha Southgate. It’s an essay about the apparent scarcity of African-American writers of literary fiction, and you can find it in the paper issue or at this link (along with a podcast with editors Sam Tanenhaus and Jennifer Schuessler and a short list of little-known African-American writers): http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/books/review/Southgate-t.html?ref=review . Read it and forward it on to anyone you think would be interested.

Softball Department (brought to you by guest sportscaster, Tom Champoux)
MEDFORD –This week’s “Softball in a word”: Abnegation.
Yes, it’s true. The road-weary, perhaps ill-prepared Word-Slingers took their game to Medford, and, while tossing practice balls and stretching our quads, we somehow managed to lose. Yes, sadly, the ratio of Word-Slingers in vs. out of Medford was quite large, and we did not have the required eight players to field a team.

But mercy asked, mercy found. Two gracious opponents – Mike and Sara – offered to take their place next to the Word-Slingers and the game was on. Since the game was officially ruled a forfeiture, score was not kept, making the day a whole lot more fun for everyone.

And fun it was. Becky and Kate both continue to exhibit ferocious power at the plate. Brian put on a third base clinic and Tom again pitched a beauty of a game. Such a resplendent site did we make that a random spectator named Anthony left his girlfriend sitting on a rock so he too could join the ranks of Word-Slingers.

The highlight of the game, at least for me, came in the form of my very own long, rolling homerun. And as I rounded third I glimpsed my two young kids, Abby and Eli, shrieking and jumping with delight for their huffing, red-faced dad. What pleasure it is to experience the complete and utter joy of softball through the eyes of two proud and enthusiastic tots. True Word-Slingers in the making.

As for the loss? Remember, that which does not kill us makes us better writers.

Cheers,
Whitney, Chris, Paige and Sonya

Welcome to the end of the e-mail, where, like the manliest manatee, we offer you the chance to win a prize. Rudyard Kipling wrote a series of stories to entertain his daughter, Josephine. Though British-born, Kipling knew much about American geography, and included what list of Massachusetts landmarks in one of these stories? Please name the title of the collection of stories, as well as the list of Massachusetts landmarks. Email your answer to Whitney. Winner receives a gift certificate for ice cream at J.P. Licks.

Answer to last week's quiz: Ian McEwan has been convicted of a crime. While writing On Chesil Beach, McEwan pilfered stones from Chesil Beach and was ordered to return them by the British authorities. Winner: Judy Salzman.