Thursday, September 27, 2007

On The Line

As many Grubbies have probably noticed, Grub Street doesn't have online registration. Instead, like some sort of Little House on the Prairie rerun, our registration process forces potential students to trek five miles through waist-high blizzard drifts, their chalkboards slung around their necks and hot potatoes stuck in their muffs to keep their hands from freezing off. Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But it does require them to--gasp!--CALL AN ACTUAL PERSON ON THE PHONE in order to sign up for a course.

You might think that I'm about to launch into a blog about the evils of technology and how in our modern world, isn't it great to be able to make a connection with another human, even if it's just their disembodied voice on the line? Don't worry, I won't do that to you. Frankly, if I didn't work at Grub and wanted to sign up for a Grub Street class, I'm sure I would be SO OVER the inconvenience of having to call during business hours. Get with the program, Grub, I would be thinking, if I can order a Starbucks latte online and then go pick it up in my car at the drive-thru window, I should be able to sign up for Novel in Progress over the internet. But I do work at Grub Street, and here's the sick, sick truth: I think we aren't all that concerned about online services because we LIKE having to talk to people on the phone. Maybe it's a power thing: You want to sign up for a class but you can't do it without my help. Maybe we enjoy the occasional call from someone truly batty, like the guy who called the other day and wanted us to publish his novel, and when we told him we're not a publishing house said (and I quote): "What I want to know is, is Grub Street just another chickenshit operation?" (The answer to that, if you're wondering, is yes. Yes we are.) But more likely, it's that we all love to talk to other writers, find out where they are in their processes, and help them choose the classes that will be the right fits for them. Obviously, we don't always get this right, but we really do enjoy offering advice, and--not to toot our own horns or anything--we know what we're talking about. Since we're such a small organization (only three staff members), by default we HAVE to have our fingers in all the pies. We all help choose the programming, we all meet all (or most) of the instructors, and we take Grub Street workshops ourselves. So call us!

This quarter, for the first time, we've listed on our website which classes are sold out for the fall. We did this because MANY of our classes are already sold out, and we got tired of disappointing people when they called in. But we did it with trepidation, because we're worried that it might stop people from calling and signing up for a different course--a class that might end up being as good (or better) than their initial selection. So, as fall term registration comes to a close (classes begin October 9th), here are some tips , advice, and not-so-secret secrets about choosing a class.

1. The teacher is the most important thing about the class. Level one, level two, ten weeks of stories or six, in the end it doesn't really make that much of a difference if the instructor's good.
2. The other students in the class are the second most important thing. While we can't control who takes our courses, most of the students who take Grub classes are truly dedicated to their work--and their dedication will help to make the class productive and inspiring for everyone.
3. Be sure you're really committed to the six or ten weeks of work before you sign up. Grub classes are demanding, and in most of them you'll find yourself reading anywhere from 30-60 pages of classmates' work, writing critiques, and working on your own stories each week. That's a big time commitment. If you're strapped for time, take a few seminars or a weekend class instead.
4. If you've taken a few Grub classes in the past, try something totally new. This term, for instance, we're offering something called "How to Edit Yourself," taught by an editor at Beacon Press. It might not seem like "fun" to focus on revision for six weeks, but we can guarantee that this class will take your writing to a new level.
5. Please, please do not assume you'll be the best writer in the class. Do not say things like: "Is there a level higher than the master level, because I'm a really, really good writer" or "I'm worried that having to read all the schlock other people turn in is just going to bore me, because I'm a really, really good writer." We're sure you are a good writer. But so are LOTS of other people who take Grub classes, and the point of the class is to learn something (see Michelle Seaton's great blog post from a few weeks ago for more on this).
6. Sign up soon! We've got lots of great classes that still have space in them, but they are filling fast.

In dread and on the phone,
Whitney Scharer

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Week Three

Some bad advice I used to give my Fiction II students at Grub is now coming back to haunt me.

I liked to share my half-baked theory that every writer needed one indulgence. I'd say, glibly: "Maybe you drink a lot. Or watch too much TV. Or overeat. That's fine! Go for it! Live it up! But you get only ONE of these indulgences. For everything else, moderation rules. Every day, you have to write a little, eat a little, exercise a little, read a little, make a little love, and sleep a little - not necessarily in that order. And somewhere in there, you find time to binge on your indulgence."

It made sense at the time. I must have been reading Ben Franklin or something, and thought how perfect that man would have been if he'd admitted to at least one of his vices in his *Autobiography.*

My vice at the time? Can't remember. Honestly. But since then I've learned that, in order for me to get *anything* done, I can't succumb to the big indulgence. Once I do, I get greedy. If it's baseball, I want to watch 6 hours of it. If it's food, I want to eat an entire pan of lasagna. The baseball cuts into my writing time; the lasagna cuts into my exercise time; soon, the entire regimen falls apart. I can only thrive when, like Franklin, I build my indulgences into that regimen. I will watch 2 hours of baseball; I will eat a small slice of lasagna and chase it with a handful of carrot sticks; I will read for 2 hours; I will answer emails and surf the web for 1 hour, etc.

For my first two weeks here, you see, I stuck to this regimen. Every day, it was a little this, a little that. And it worked beautifully. Balance. Order. It was gorgeous! I was renewed! It was like writing an excellent sestina -- art within order. Then I allowed myself to relax a bit. I took the day off from the gym. Instead of writing my 1000 words, I watched a day baseball game. Now I'm playing catch up -- I have to write 3000 words tomorrow, which means I'm setting myself up to fail -- and everything's out of whack.

I think this is especially true when you live alone, or have a career that forces you to be solitary. You have to be hard on yourself. No one's there to hold you to your schedule and your goals. And let's face it: writers thrive on self-sacrifice, martyrdom, etc., so we really should be able to handle this.

- Christopher Castellani

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Week Two

This week on campus:

There's an article in the student newspaper about how blogs are "the end of writing as we know it" partly because "it's impossible to have an original voice." Seems to me, though, that, given how new blogging is, there are greater opportunities for original voices in blogs than in any other literary medium. Nevertheless, I feel accused.

On Wednesday I taught my first workhsop, accompanied by the usual feeling that I've had pig's blood poured on my head and the entire room is laughing at me. My students are sweet and polite, though, and would never do such a thing. They're also excellent writers. We did the exercise where I call out 6 random words -- 1 per minute -- and they have to use them in the same scene. They read these scenes aloud, and I was very impressed by their imaginations, clarity and range of voices.

Among other texts, we're reading a chapter from Charles Baxter's *The Feast of Love* for next week, and also the first couple chapters of Francine Prose's wonderful *Reading Like A Writer.* Then, the week after, the actual workshopping begins.

I spent some time with my parents at the house where I grew up, also known as the Land of a Thousand Sadnesses. My mother had a bad reaction to her most recent medication, and spent most of Saturday night in tears and intense stomach pain. I spent the rest of my days there dealing with doctors and pharmacists and doing internet research and hearing stories about all my parents' friends who are dying. At the same time, I started reading Robert Ferro's novel The Family of Max Desir, which was recommended to me. It's beautifully written, but turns out it's about a gay Italian guy and his sick mother, so I've set it aside. Not sure if I'll ever be able to read it.

I've also done some writing when possible, and, after five sessions, I have 4600 new words. That's huge production for me, so, for that, I'm grateful.

-Christopher Castellani





Friday, September 7, 2007

Back to School

At the beginning of the summer term at Grub Street, I ran into fiction I instructor Mike Heppner in the hallway at Grub HQ. We’d met once at a staff meeting, so we stopped to chat. Mike started with the usual question.
“What are you teaching?”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m taking a class.”
“Cool. Whose?”
“Yours.”
Mike blanched at this news, and I felt for him. No one likes a surprise.
I’ve been teaching memoir and nonfiction classes at Grub Street for seven years. Before that, I taught a sophomore survey course at Boston University. Then last fall I took my teaching notes, my handouts and threw most of them away. The rest went into storage. I didn’t want to teach anymore. In fact, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write anymore. Instead, I wanted what a lot of new Grub Street students want, a sense of renewal, a sense of adventure that comes from trying something new. So I stepped outside my role as teacher and signed up for a fiction class. Then another, and another. These are not easy classes, and becoming a student has given me a few insights. So here they are: the four things I learned as a Grub Street student.

1. Like everyone else, I’m afraid to suck. Every instructor has seen this. Someone comes into class with a lot of writing experience, or several clips, and they are all smiles during the introductions. By week two they sit in stiff silence, unable to read anything aloud or write anything in class. By week three, they’ve gone AWOL, claiming illness or work issues, and they never return. By contrast, the folks who come to class with a sense of humor about themselves, regardless of their levels of experience, write reams of stories, forge intense friendships, and have a rip-roarin’ good time. For seven years, I’ve been telling students to loosen up, and this was excellent advice—until I had to take it myself. There I was, sitting in Ron MacLean’s wonderful Structure of Short Fiction class, forcing myself to read out loud, with my hands shaking so hard I couldn’t see the words on the page.

2. Deadlines are erotic. I took Stace Budzko’s class 10 Weeks, 10 Stories. Doesn’t everyone? I spent the spring in a panic, plotting as fast as I could type. The housewife has to run away with the mailman. The son has to drive his father to the asylum. The girl has to dance with the ghost of George Washington. All this has to happen in writing by 5 p.m., at which point I can print it out, load the kids in the car, tear over to Staples to make 12 copies, and then hand the kids off to my husband before barreling down the Pike to get to class on time. Look at those dirty dishes, the unpaid bills, the piles of unfolded laundry, and the blinking light on my phone—some message from an angry editor. Where is my story? I’ve been awake since 3 a.m., out of bed since 4, typing, typing. I am awash in shame over the important things I have neglected to do all week. I vibrate with the fear that this story is horribly, laughably bad. And, yes, I’m also a little turned on.

3. I fear praise. Once, I asked an editor what he thought of my work, and he said, “I wipe my ass with this.” What’s worse, he took the paper and rubbed it against the seat of his pants in the universal ass-wiping gesture. One of my editors routinely returns my stories to me with parenthetical queries after each paragraph. (I don’t get it.) (This is stupid.) (You’re putting me to sleep here). His comments are in all-caps. And red. Every writer deals with an avalanche of criticism. As a result, writers who teach strive to create a classroom environment that guards against the raw pettiness we’ve faced. I always worked to praise every story, every effort before pointing out a few little things that might need work. As an instructor, I prided myself on my ability to praise and encourage everyone. As a student, encouragement scares me. My efforts as a fiction writer are uneven at best. The stories meander, the characters are clich├ęs sent in from central casting. My narratives often wander off cliffs and drop into the abyss. I know this, and I’m petrified to face a revision armed only with vague admiration. I’m not alone. In one class, we sat around praising a fellow student’s story. We went on and on about the lyrical language, the beautiful imagery, all of which was true. We neatly skirted the fact that we had no idea what the story was about. None. Finally, the writer stopped us. “Enough,” she said. “Don’t tell me how great it is. Tell me what to do with it. I need help.” We were so relieved. We ponied up the advice, some of it off-point and mistaken, and she was thrilled to get it all.

4. Hierarchy is self-imposed. I used to like identifying myself as an instructor at Grub parties, at readings, at the Muse. What do you do? I teach here. Not anymore. Last week Mike Heppner moved our Fiction I class to the Brookline Booksmith where we watched Joshua Furst read from his new novel The Sabotage Cafe. He arrived a bit late, and looked bewildered, just like a writer. Then he opened his book and nailed us to our seats for 25 minutes. Afterward, we had class in the basement of the bookstore. We worked on our stories, surrounded by books, and by people shopping for books. As a working writer, I worry constantly about the hierarchy of success. Who has better clips? Who has more time to work? Who is younger and more talented? As an instructor I worry about being good enough to teach. As a student, none of that matters. Effort alone matters, effort and showing up on time.


Michelle Seaton

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Be careful what you wish for...

Ever since Grub Street moved into our office in 2005, six windows on the east wall have been bricked over, ostensibly to save us from any construction site mishaps as Emerson built the behemoth dorm next door (sadly, this is not a joking matter: there WAS an accident, which sent a crane falling 8 stories and killed three people: a bystander and two construction workers. We were at work when it happened, and I'm sure none of us will ever forget the terrible accident scene).

Construction was completed last summer, in time for fall 2006 classes, but the bricks stayed up. Over last year, our feisty 84-year-old landlord would periodically appear on our floor, shouting to us from the hallway that the construction workers told her it would be next week, three weeks, mid-March, July, or some other date that the bricks would be removed. At first, we believed her (and them). Mid-March, we thought. Perfect! Just in time for our spring classes. But alas, the months dragged on and soon we forgot that those big black squares were windows at all. We got used to the interrogation-room quality of our small classroom, where the mixture of sunny yellow paint and lack of natural light made everyone appear a little jaundiced, as if after a long sea voyage. We went to IKEA and bought more floor lamps, decided that mood lighting was something that Grub Street could be known for.

Rumors abounded. The building that had been torn down to make way for dorm space had been a mafia building. Bodies were buried in the walls, and that's why they had to brick over our windows--as they tore into the structure, they didn't want us to see the ancient skulls and phalanges flying through the air. They had promised to leave eight feet of space between our building and theirs, so that light would still get to our floor, but we were convinced they hadn't: take down the bricks, and all we'd see was the concrete slab of Emerson, pressed as tight against 160 Boylston as a lover.

Finally, our building manager told us they were really coming to tear things down. We got ready, shuttling printers and papers to the hallway and generally reducing our office to even more of a mess than ever. And only one year and 2 weeks late, the construction workers really did arrive. Their method, which we have now been assessing for a full week, is for one man to chip at a brick with a pick and hammer while another man watches. When the brick is removed, it's dropped four stories down to a courtyard below, where another man is waiting to catch it. Luckily, a second man also stands below, watching the man waiting to catch the brick. As you might imagine, this is not a fast process. By the end of day one (which was supposed to be the only day), they had finished one window in the back room.

But o, what a difference it made! Even just that one window sends a flood of new light across the space, and the room appears to be twice as big as it used to be. Sonya and I kept walking back there, just to see it. We were ecstatic. Our space, which we have always loved, was about to become a million times better. Buh-bye, IKEA lamps, I thought happily.

Last night, they finished the yellow classroom, and like the back room, the difference is unbelievable. It's suddenly a place you want to hang out in, so hang out we did, standing next to our brand new view and occasionally poking our head outside to stare at the 8-foot-wide courtyard far below. As day turned into night, though, and the lights came on in the Emerson dorm rooms, we realized one thing that we hadn't really considered until then. 8 feet is not very much space, and those Emerson students are very, very close to us. As we looked out the window, we realized we were surrounded by activity. Personal, intimate activity, taking place in personal, intimate spaces. One woman had many bottles of Clorox wipes and a full-size plush statue of E.T. Another window revealed two girls in low-cut tops, ostensibly getting ready to go clubbing. A third had posters of beer girls and huge printouts taped to the glass that spell "508" (his room number?) When two shirtless boys stared back at us, and then one of them made some kind of lewd gesture, laughing, we went back to our desks, in our office where the bricks have yet to be removed.

And it was then that the other downside became clear: bricks are terrific sound insulators. Typing away at our keyboards, we heard noises unlike anything we've heard before. Whooping, cawing, that strange ululation people sometimes make in step aerobics classes, and this all at 5:30pm! We can only imagine what we'll hear when the parties begin.

All in all, natural light is worth any amount of leering shirtless boys and whooping underage drinkers. Our space is back to what it's supposed to look like, and we couldn't be happier. We think. We'll keep you posted.

In dread,
Whitney Scharer

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Real World, Part I

This is the true 14-part story of one writer's return to his alma mater to teach a fiction workshop, finish his third novel, keep up with the Grub community, maintain his long-distance marriage, and spend quality time with his elderly but vibrant immigrant parents, who live a mere 20 miles from the college. It's *The Real World: Swarthmore* minus the hardbodies and gratuitous sex (though possibly not the binge drinking).

Highlights of the first 5 days:

-- SATURDAY (Day One): Having copied the wrong address for my new apartment, Michael and I (with the help of the Swarthmore Police Dept) spend an hour roaming the dark leafy streets on foot trying to find it. Finally the landlord, History professor Marge Murphy (who initiated and runs the amazing War News Radio) appears in the driveway and ushers us into my new digs: three *enormous* air-conditioned rooms, including a walk-in closet and bathroom with jacuzzi tub. I share a kitchen and common area with two undergraduates, one of whom has already baked me a little cake.

-- SUNDAY (Day Two): Professor Murphy informs me that she has recently installed cable TV, including the MLB package. I resist the urge to throw my arms around her. Michael and I set up my room, then hit the King of Prussia mall, have a drink at a snazzy Manayunk bar and El Vez in the Center City Gayborhood. Back at the apartment, we install and test webcams and sign up for Skype. Fears of loneliness and isolation begin to ebb.

--MONDAY (Day Three): M & I make our first trip to the lush and majestic Swarthmore campus. Classes have started, and we gaze at the students as if at a zoo. ("Look how they check their mailboxes; isn't that cute?") I thought I'd identify more with them than the professors -- that I'd feel the 13 years since I graduated slip away -- but it turns out that the students all look twelve, and I am as fresh and vibrant as Methuselah. We hang out for a while in the English Department, and then make the inevitable trip to the airport. As M and I hug goodbye outside the AirTran terminal, the fears of loneliness and isolation resurge, and it occurs to me that webcams are tragically poor substitutes for human contact. I drive directly from the airport to my parents' house in Wilmington, where I am in charge of bartending and grilling for a 12-guest barbecue. After skimming half a martini per guest for myself, I soon pass out in my old twin bed.

--TUESDAY (Day Four): My dad fell last week, and now suffers from sharp pain in his leg that keeps him from walking comfortably for more than a few minutes at a time. Still he cleans out my car, fills it with gas, and makes me three days of meals -- all before I wake up (at 10:30). My mother is taking three different sets of pills for an illness she won't specify (all she and my dad will say is, "it's nothing serious. It's not cancer, so don't worry") and has to sleep most of the day. Still, she insists I drive her to Costco, where she buys me more food and other staples (i.e. a big jug of Bushmills) and, when I get home, sets me up with a new set of sheets, a comforter, and a coffeemaker. I head back to Swarthmore mid-afternoon and leave them standing in the driveway in their pajamas, waving.

The rest of my time has been spent preparing for my first workshop, which is Wednesday night (tonight!) from 7pm - 10pm, much like a Grub class. We're doing a writing exercise, introductions, and close-close-reading a short-short story. I'm eager to meet my 10 students, any of whom could be sitting among me at the bustling Kohlberg Coffee Bar, where I'm writing this. (Note: there was no coffee bar in this spot in 1994, just a cramped and creaky old building called the Annex, where I can guarantee no one ever lingered over a latte).

This is, of course, the best part of the semester. We're all optimistic. We're going to do our best work, write amazing stuff, attend lectures (even those in different departments!), and jog daily through the Crum Woods. We are our best selves, full of promise(s), eager and (gasp!) confident.

You can tell I haven't started working on my novel yet.

--Christopher Castellani

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Grub Street Rag, 9/4/2007



"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore."

-- Andre Gide

Welcome to the Grub Street Rag, a newsletter of the Boston literary scene sent out every Monday (except when we take a respite from our labors) from the double-black-diamond-rated water slide 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.

As Heidi Klum would say, "Auf Wiedersehen"
First, the good news. We're delighted to report that Grub's own Artistic Director, Chris, will be a Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College this fall, where he will be teaching an Advanced Fiction workshop for ten lucky students. Now, the bad news: Isn't Swarthmore, um, not in Boston? Yes, it's true, Chris will be on sabbatical this autumn, making only brief, glittering cameo appearances in the Grub office, like some sort of exotic butterfly. Thankfully, he'll still be working for Grub Street remotely, and will be back for good in January. Look for the rare Artisticum Directoria Castellanae at Adaptations, A Taste of Grub, and on the web at the Penny Dreadful on Tuesdays. We'll miss you more than we can say, Chris, but we're so proud of you and excited to hear how your teaching goes.

Coming soon to a theater near you
On Thursday, October 11th, join us at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for our second "Adaptations" event. This year, acclaimed authors Arthur Golden, Russell Banks, Alice Hoffman and Scott Heim will read short excerpts from their novels, show the corresponding scenes from the film versions, and discuss the “translation” from page to screen. Films discussed include Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, Hoffman’s Practical Magic, and Heim’s Mysterious Skin. Sure to be a lively, fun, informative and inspiring evening. Sign up early – tickets for the 2004 version sold out quickly, and seating is limited. Visit www.coolidge.org to reserve your ticket today.


A literary feast

Save the date: November 2nd, 2007, when Grub Street holds our third annual fundraising feast, A Taste of Grub. This year, we return to the beautiful and swanky Parkman House on Beacon Hill for a night of delicious nibbles, delectable sips from BRIX Wine Shop and Magic Hat, and provocative "beginnings and endings" from authors including Anita Diamant (The Red Tent). Tickets are available now, and more information is available on our website or by calling Whitney or Sonya at 617.695.0075.

The fall schedule is large and in charge
Our fall schedule is up on our website, and it's looking like this will be our biggest, best term yet. Some highlights: Christine Cipriani joins us from Beacon Press for the new How to Edit Yourself, Nick Mamatas instructs us on the ins and outs of Popular Fiction, and our sell-out Six Weeks, Six Stories spawns a non-fiction spinoff with Michelle Seaton's Six Weeks, Six Essays. Of course, old favorites abound as well, including Novel in Progress, Memoir I, Ten Weeks Ten Poems, and much much more! Check out the full schedule online and call us at 617.695.0075 to sign up today. Fall is always our busiest term, so don't wait until the last minute and lose your slot.

Cheers,

Whitney, Sonya, and Chris (from Pennsylvania)

The P.S. Grub Street's looking for a quality printing shop to print our fundraising invitations. If you have any recommendations--particularly somewhere that might give discounts or special rates to non-profits--please let us know! You can email whitney@grubstreet.org with ideas.