"IMMERSE YOURSELF IN GREAT SENTENCES:" THE 3-Minute Interview with Jamie Quatro

Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013, and New York Times Editors’ Choice, Jamie Quatro’s debut collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More, was received with overwhelmingly positive critical reception. The fiction writer, poet, and essayist will release her first novel, Fire Sermon, in early 2018 and a new collection of stories later that year. The Porch is proud to host her for a reading and workshop this spring. In advance, Quatro was kind enough to answer a few questions about sex, spirituality, and setting. —Hannah Fowler, Porch Spring 2017 intern

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How does place inform your writing, and to what degree do you feel connected to region as a writer?

When my last book came out, I was often asked, Do you consider yourself a southern writer? We’ve lived in the South for twelve years now, and have raised four children here, but my answer is still: yes and no. If you define a “southern writer” as one with deep ancestral roots in the south, I don’t qualify. I was born in California and raised in Arizona. But if a “southern writer” is one who deals in some fashion with topics that have historically defined southern literature—religion, the grotesque/gothic, racial tension, the Civil War—then I’m a southern writer, no question.

When writing I Want to Show You More, did you set out to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality, or was that something that happened more or less organically? 

I didn’t set out to explore anything! I didn’t even know I was writing a book. I knew something needed to be said, though I didn’t know what it was, or how I would say it. I just re-read the Paris Review interview with T.S. Eliot, and I love what he says about authorial intention: “One wants to get something off one’s chest. One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off.” It wasn’t until I had this little body of stories that I was able to sit back and realize there might be some thematic links, including the intersection of the sacred and sexual.

How does your writing process differ when working on a novel versus writing short fiction? Specifically, how do you know when an idea for a story will expand into a novel or when it will fit best into a shorter piece?

I don’t know how to talk about “process,” or if it’s a useful thing to discuss. Stories, novels, essays – they all emerge sentence by sentence. Everything happens on the page. The “process” of writing feels, to me, as much like listening as it does composing. When someone asks, How do I become a writer, what is the process? I usually say: read. Immerse yourself in great sentences, in poetry. Start with Shakespeare. That said: somehow, running is part of my process. I often work out narrative problems during that open-brain/endorphin hit of a long run. Playing the piano opens up that same space. Prayer, too, plays a part — the paying-attention kind of prayer. And human interaction, away from the writing desk, is essential to me. The longer I do this work, the more I realize how important the work/life balance is, not just to my mental health, but to the health of my art. 

How do I know if something is a novel? I started writing a story about a backwoods prophet and got to 60 pages and realized I wasn’t even close to the middle, and I was going to need a lot more real estate. And then this new novel hijacked the first. I wrote it in secret while I was under contract for the prophet novel. I was cheating on the contracted novel. I told no one. It felt dangerous and rebellious and I had no idea that it would become a sell-able book, or even anything I could show anyone. When I was 100 pages into cheating, I decided to “confess" to my agent and editor, and see what they thought about the material. They both said to keep up the affair. 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel Fire Sermon?

It’s about—what else?—God and sex and marriage and infidelity. A physical affair this time. (I suppose it makes sense, given that the writing of it was a torrid adulterous fling.) I can tell you it’s quite short—you can read it in one or two sittings—and it’s partially set in Nashville.

What will you be teaching at the Sewanee School of Letters this summer, and what works might you assign to your students? How do you go about that selection process?

Initially I was going to teach a literature course, Faith and Fiction: Religious Themes in the Short Story. But things shifted around with faculty appointments, so I’ll be facilitating a traditional fiction workshop instead. It won’t be as text-heavy, obviously. I’ll likely have two or three books on the syllabus: a short story anthology (I like the Paris Review anthology, Object Lessons) and one or two short novels. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for sure, and maybe Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Since I’ve just written a short novel myself, I’m excited to talk about the possibilities and limitations of the form.

"End the Poem Singing": The 3-minute Interview with Keith Leonard

With this post, we begin a new series at the Porch blog, "The 3-Minute Interview," in which we ask just a very few questions of some of our teachers and favorite writers. A literary snack, if you will—a handful of words rather than salted almonds.  

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard

Keith Leonard, a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University, will come to the Porch the weekend of April 22-23 for a reading and poetry workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way." Leonard's debut full-length poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode, is now out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; a chapbook, Still, the Shore, was previously published by YesYes Books. When Porch instructor Kendra DeColo raved to us about Leonard and suggested we bring him to Nashville, we were all-in. Leonard was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of his appearance.

Your Porch workshop will look at combining narratives as a way toward a new poem. Could you give us a brief example of how you've done just that in one of your works?

Sure! I have this poem called “Osiris Ode” (which was first published here) in which I imagine my friends ceremoniously burying my body by planting corn in curved rows on my gravesite. That narrative eventually gives way to a second narrative of how frustrating that unruly gravesite would be for the groundskeeper whose sole responsibility is to make the cemetery look orderly. If independent of each other, each narrative is a little quaint—maybe even humorous—but together they combine to a become (I hope, at least) a meditation of living an unstructured vs. a highly structured life.

Tell us a question that you kept coming back to, or circling around, while writing the poems in Ramshackle Ode.

Well, I’m not really sure I answered anything, but I think that’s my intention with poetry. Besides the fact that I’m not all that wise, I was much more interested in poetry as a method by which I might poke at some questions I can’t answer. You know, some of the big ones—like why love? And that approach usually led the poems to wonder, and that—in turn—led the poems to an appreciation of my own small and miraculous life.

In your years of working with established poets and teachers of poetry, what's one approach or piece of wisdom that you've carried with you into your own classroom?

Maurice Manning once told me that a poem should never end in the emotional register that it began in. That might seem like a simple point, but I think it speaks towards what a writer and reader mostly want from a poem. We want change in the speaker. We want to know that something was realized in the writing of the piece, and that such knowledge has shifted the speaker’s understanding. And to go a bit deeper, I think that shifting of emotional register also speaks to how a poem might be an artistic mode well-suited to the expression of compassion. My favorite poems are the ones where a speaker starts out disgruntled and somehow—as if by magic—ends the poem singing.

Who would be present at your dream literary dinner party?

I’m generally a fan of intimate diners between no more than three or four people so I think I’d go with:

  1. Walt Whitman: I get the impression that he’s long-winded and has a big sloppy heart, so there wouldn’t really be any awkward conversation lulls.

  2. Lynda Hull: I’m an unabashed fan of her under-read poetry, so I could just sit there in awkward awe half the time. Plus, from what I gather, she lived an interesting life, so I’m sure she’d have some great stories.


And the menu?

Fondue? I’ve never had fondue, so if either of them have had it, they could show me what it's all about. And if none of us have had it before, then we would partake in the melty experiment and bumbling newbies.

Keith Leonard will read from Ramshackle Ode at the Skillery at 6 pm on April 22. His workshop, "Letting Narrative Lead the Way," will be held from 2 - 5 pm at the Skillery on Sat., April 23. Register here. —Susannah Felts

Be brave, be reckless, stay weird: An interview with poet Tiana Clark

Tiana Clark is a Pushcart Prize nominee, first-year MFA student in poetry at Vanderbilt, and recipient of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. (She's also a Porch board member.) Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Raven Chronicles, Nashville Arts Magazine, Word Riot, Native Magazine, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Best New Poets 2015The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere. Porch Intern Gabriela Garcia sat down with her to talk about growing up in Nashville, literary citizenship, and the politics of poetry.

GG: In July Rattle published your poem “Sandy Speaks” about the police brutality against Sandra Bland for their Poets Respond series. They also published a recording of you reading it out loud where you were kind of inhabiting her words. What was that experience like?

TC: When we read poems they go through our bodies, and so much of police brutality is about silencing. I wanted to be a megaphone for her. I think poetry is a powerful act of witness and a way to respond to injustices.

GG: “The Ayes Have It” felt connected to “Sandy Speaks” in its address of racial trauma in American society. How did it feel to talk about that particular issue through poetry?

TC: I’m interested in the ontological approach of asking what race means as a construction. What I love as poet is asking how to manipulate and subvert the roots of words and create a new meaning, a new place for myself.

GG: Poetry is often thought of as a difficult career path. In The Paris Review, Eileen Myles talked about poetry as a career. She said: “In the poetry world, people need to act like they don’t know how this happened…It’s the loafer posture, the veneer of I don’t really need this. People loved to talk about how Frank O’Hara didn’t really care about getting published. That doesn’t jibe with my experience.” What are your experiences with publishing and envisioning your career?

TC: Literary citizenship is really important to me, and publishing is a way for me to connect with a larger community and consciousness. Poems are conversations and I want to be in dialogue with an audience. Especially when talking about race, I don’t want to shout into the void. I’m humming; I want people to hum too. With technology and the Internet, we have immediate access. It feels so powerful to have that connection, to have people interact with my work. It democratizes the process. You don’t go into poetry for the money, but I do I think there’s something noble about a vocational approach. Finding innovative ways to bring poetry into the marketplace helps writers thrive and hopefully fund their art.

GG: You were an Africana and Women’s Studies major at TSU. Did you also take creative writing?

TC: I didn’t! I was writing in the margins of my notebooks and then just couldn’t give it up. But studying Africana and Women’s Studies changed how I view history and taught me to be really honest and critical. Poems can investigate unanswerable questions when we explore things like grief or loss, and I think having that investigative mind helped shift my view.

GG: So you hadn’t taken formal workshops until Vanderbilt?

TC: I took classes at The Porch, started my own workshop group, and did a conference before I started. I called it my DIY MFA.

GG: Did that cause your poetry to evolve in any way?

TC: Absolutely. As a poet you spend a lot of time by yourself, so finally having people respond to my work and ask questions was really important. It raised the level of critical analysis in my poems.

GG: When did you first start to engage with poetry?

TC: I grew up an only child and I would always talk to myself. I look at that now as the beginning of my relationship with poetry and love for language. I was speaking into the silence of me and my Mom in a single room. It was a way for me to self-soothe.

GG: Did you grow up in Tennessee?

TC: Pretty much. I was born in Los Angeles but moved here when I was seven.

GG: Where we are in the world affects how we process poetry, how we create. How has this particular landscape influenced the way you write?

TC: I actually have a poem all about this. In Los Angeles, everyone was different. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Then I came here and people asked, “What are you?” That’s a question I’m constantly answering in my work, and I think it will be the engine or drum behind my first book. It’s really what “Equilibrium” is about. Being uprooted was very interesting.

GG: What’s next?

TC: I’m working on a chapbook. It’s fun to see how my poems are talking to each other. I can see the holes, as well—where I need to write the connective tissue.

GG: Do you ever find that your poems have a better memory than you do? Do things show up that you didn’t know were there?

TC: It’s like you’re an archeologist dusting off bone. Like most of us, I don’t know how a poem is going to end, and that’s usually when I am most surprised, like, “This is what this experience made me feel.”

GG: What is a word or phrase that you think is highly underrated?

TC: I think the lyric “I” is underrated. I find liberation in the “I.” Only I can tell my story. Muriel Rukeyser said, “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” That, to me, is the power of the “I” in the poem.

GG: What writing advice would you give your younger self?

TC: “You’re not alone. Write no matter what. Whatever you’re scared about is what you need to be writing. God’s still gonna love you. Your parents will still love you. No one’s gonna leave you for telling the truth.”

GG: That reminds me of the last line of your poem “Magic”: “It took me a while to understand that I didn’t have to beg for it, God was already washing the dust of my feet.”

TC: Yeah! I used to be very afraid. I thought I was too emotional. I thought I was this weird Sylvia Plath/Maya Angelou trapped in a fourteen-year-old body, but it takes intensity to write mypoems. I would tell myself to be brave, be reckless, and stay weird.

 

 

Food as Lens: a Q&A with Jennifer Justus

This weekend, we're excited to bring local writer Jennifer Justus, author of the recently released cookbook Nashville Eats, to the Porch for a special food-writing workshop. Jennifer will whip up some evocative dishes for you to enjoy; then she'll pair them with readings and writing exercises to provide a rich experience from which to summon your own food stories. If you've ever wanted to dabble in food writing—or if you just want a unique entry point for exploring family and personal histories—this is a great place to start! —Ed. 

Porch Program Assistant Ryne Driscoll had a few questions for Jennifer in advance of her workshop. 

How did your relationship to food and cooking when you were younger influence the place of those things in your life now?

I grew up in a small town in North Georgia and started pitching in on family meals during high school, especially when my parents worked late. As I learned more about cooking, I feel like it became a portal to other worlds—a way to experience people and places. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Cuba yet, but I can make picadillo and fried plantains and experience a little bit of that culture through food.

You mention growing up with parents who “worked hard outside the kitchen, but not so often in it." What do you suggest for busy parents who want to begin a tradition of cooking family meals? How about college students, with very few cooking utensils and not a huge income, who want to branch out from frozen dinners and pizza delivery?

I’ve never owned many cooking utensils myself, and I really wanted that to come through in the recipes of my book. I also wanted to keep the steps simple and ingredients basic. I don’t think we need anything more than that. So for younger people, I would recommend finding dishes that you like through trial and error and just slowly and steadily adding to a repertoire.

In your writing you seem to go so much further than just sharing recipes. You travel and really get to know the people and communities behind the food. What's your favorite place you've visited in search of the culture behind food? What did you love so much about it?

I spent some time on a farm in Dorset, England as part of the WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program.  We would get up every morning, drink tea and discuss what needed to be done that day. For me, it usually meant a couple hours outside and then finishing the day in the kitchen helping bake bread, grating beets for salads and making soups. It was a simple way to live during a difficult time in my life, and I met great people from around the world in that little kitchen.

Who are the biggest inspirations in your career?

The people of the Southern Foodways Alliance have been my biggest inspiration: the writers, food stylists, restaurant owners, chefs, historians, teachers. It’s such a smart and interesting collection of varied people who gather a few times a year to talk about and study food in such genuine and alternative ways.

What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer?

Focus on living, staying curious, and experiencing as much as possible. Study the craft, the writing, and worry less about being an expert on the food. I like to think of food as the lens through which to tell stories about the people and sometimes make sense of the harder topics of religion, politics, race, etc. Food helps us connect and understand one another a little better.

What’s your comfort food?

It changes depending on my mood and the season. Right now, it would be spaghetti and meatballs.

What ingredients do you always have in the kitchen?

Eggs. There’s so much you can do with an egg. It’s pretty much the perfect food in my opinion.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book, other than great Southern meals?

I hope that it gives people a sense of Nashville hospitality, past and present, through the recipes and the people who make them, whether it be a cheese maker, farmer, chef, musician or home cook. It’s a love letter to Nashville, really.

What’s next for you?

The Dirty Pages exhibit that I put together with Cindy Wall and Erin Murray is headed to New Orleans next month for its permanent home at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The exhibit showcases a diverse collection of Nashville women with their messiest recipes and the stories behind them. It’s the original version, but we’re also starting to think about the next iteration of Dirty Pages, which we hope to hang this summer.

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Register Here to take Jennifer’s workshop, "Read It, Write It, Eat It: Food in Literature from the Page to the Pen to the Plate," October 31 at The Skillery in Germantown. Here's the full description: 

From Proust’s madeleine to Quentin Tarantino’s Royale with Cheese, food has long served as a writer’s muse. In this class we’ll read and discuss excerpts from fiction and nonfiction, and even listen to song inspired by food. We’ll explore the ways food can help us make deeper emotional connections in our work. And we’ll eat, of course, as some bites will be inspired by what we read while others will inspire us to write our own stories. 

Old House, Tragic Past, Weird Families, Dark Secrets: Writing Where the Story Is

We're proud to bring you this essay by Nashville writer and blogger and friend of the Porch Betsy Phillips, about her writing process for her novel in progress. In it, she talks about how writing on an actual porch (!) is fueling her storytelling. —Ed. 

I love ghost stories. Most of my own fiction—perhaps all of it, if you squint just right and look closely—contains ghosts. I love movies about ghosts. I love books about ghosts. I especially love movies and books about haunted houses. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Caitlin Keirnan’s The Red Tree, Stephen King’s The Shining, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and on and on.

One thing I noticed is that the haunted house story is a New England story. Even haunted house stories set someplace else are usually written by someone, like King, with deep New England roots. But the elements of a haunted house story—old house, tragic past, weird families, dark secrets—seemed to lend themselves to a story set in the South. Plus, the South has quite a few old houses that actually purport to be haunted. Why aren’t there any fictional Southern haunted houses?

We’ve all heard that we should write the kind of book we want to read, so I’m working on a haunted house story set in the South. I reread all my favorite haunted house books. I watched all my favorite movies. I visited as many old houses in Middle Tennessee as I could find time and money for.

Once I felt steeped in the genre and the location, I wrote a draft.

On the one hand, I’ve never written straight-up horror before. A lot of the draft was me feeling my way around the form, trying to make sure that my plot consistently aimed toward scary and unsettling. When I finished my draft, I reread it and I felt proud. It is scary and unsettling. It’s the kind of book I would want to read.

On the other hand, it stinks.

Not irredeemably. At least, I hope not. But as embarrassing as it is, I’ll admit it stinks. Extraneous characters need to be cut. Scenes need to be reworked. It needs a massive revision. The story’s good, I think, but the revision’s going to be tough.

I needed some place to sit with a notebook, a pen, and my thoughts and map this nightmare out.

One day, as I was pondering how stuck I was on my revisions, I was googling antebellum houses in the Nashville area and I came across a news item about a new park in Brentwood, which contained such a home. I drove to Smith Park which, it turns out, is an antebellum plantation—house included—that the city has put hiking trails all over. The house has been refurbished and you can rent it for events.

The house, Ravenswood, has a history very similar to the one in my manuscript—built in the 1820s, lived in by the same family for generations, and renovated over the years. If I wanted to see how a real family built and lived in a real home similar to my fictional one, well, here it is.

The house has three porches—the grand old front porch overlooking the lane that approaches the house, a small, Victorian-era addition side porch with two rocking chairs, and an L-shaped back porch that faces the hills.

The first time I sat on the Victorian porch with its gingerbread spindles, I looked out over the lawn and I thought, “This would be a good place to think about the book.” Two-hundred-year-old brick at my back, a comfortable rocking chair under me, the quiet of a part of the park with no paths nearby.

Like I said, the house is used for events and I don’t want to intrude. So, I check the house’s calendar and my calendar and on Saturday mornings, when we’re both clear, I go down and sit on the porch and work on revisions. I’ve sat there, just myself, thinking. I’ve brought a notebook and taken notes. I’m hoping to sit there with my laptop very soon.

I’m revising a book about a brick house built in the 1820s while sitting on the porch of a brick house built in the 1820s. If I have a question about how thick a wall is or how the bricks might feel or how many steps it is from the back door to the freestanding kitchen, I can just go check.

If I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to walk up the country lane to the house for the first time, there’s a country lane. I can walk it. I get a sense of the sounds of the place. The people talking to each other on the trails give some sense of the level of noise on a plantation full of enslaved people doing their daily thing off in the distance. The crows calling in the trees, the way the wind sounds as it whistles past the chimneys, the smells of the flowers planted up near the house, they all tell me something about what life would have been like for my characters over the years.

Plus, Ravenswood, the house itself, is noisy. Since I want to keep using the porch without fear, I keep telling myself those are just the sounds old houses make. But it clicks, it knocks, it pops, it groans. As much as I find it a little unsettling, I’m really glad to experience it. When my main character enters my haunted house, how does she decide which strange things are ghostly and which strange things are just the results of an unfinished war between a two-hundred-year-old house and gravity?

My time on Ravenswood’s porch has been instrumental in helping me write this book. I never know what I’m going to learn there, but it’s always worth going.

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Betsy Phillips is the author of A City of Ghosts and the artist's book, The Wolf's Bane. Her fiction has appeared in Apex and Betwixt and is forthcoming in Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Storefront Writer

What's it like to write in public? We asked friend of the Porch C. Williams, who keeps a writing studio at the Shoppes on Fatherland in East Nashville, to tell us a bit about how her chosen location shapes her writing life (and others'). We think you'll be inspired by what she has to say. --Ed. 

THE ALCHEMY, ELIXIR & BLOOD LETTING SHOP

I have surrendered. By 10:30 am, on a good day, I am working behind tinted windows in my  storefront writing studio, huddled on Nashville’s East side. I’ve already written from 5­ to 6:45 am, been to the gym, downed a protein shake and walked my cat. This schedule  requires endurance. I’ve so much to do and I’ve come late to this career. More and more,  I spend my time here. I’m teaching myself to give in to focus. This is my work, a serious  job. So, I keep shop hours. I put in the time.

As for proof I’m a writer, I’ve no papers. With less than half a dozen short stories  published in literary journals, I must work hard writing every day. There’s no MFA, Prize  Winner or New York Best Seller that follows my name. Yet. 

Writing is a Fever. 

I caught it early 2009 in a writing class. At first, I couldn’t finish a short story. By  Christmas, ten months later, I’d written a novel. It’s no great work, but it opened me up  like true love will, to a thread of need. I didn’t know it was the tail of a dragon.

The process resolved a heavy darkness that I’d carried far too long. It offered a  new shape, an incarnation from what was left of me before I simply burned down to dirt.  One needs a cave to hunt fiery serpents, so I built my own in a tiny storefront.

I call it my Hut, as if my intent is less than serious. This is a trick. This frees my  subconscious to build its peculiar worlds and stories. It is unafraid to create, destroy, fly  and crash. Burn it all down. It is that mind that tosses the match. 

Nothing could be further from my sensible brain, alert with shrill warnings of  danger, doubt… already grieving the great loss before my fall. 

Fear lives in that mind, but not in the Hut. In the Hut, I am shameless.

My little storefront sits among a thriving retail enclave in a popular tourist-stop  neighborhood. People wander into my studio every day looking for things to buy. I have  no stock, no tangible exchange. But as I’m telling them where to find tea or souvenirs, I  keep the essence of their embodied stories.  I was raised to catch and release. 

But for those few moments they look around my studio, I give them something to  consider. My hope is, even if they never read a novel, they can imagine themselves sitting  alone in a room, watching people walk by as they sit and struggle to create a story, to  produce art. It lures people to slip inside characters’ minds (in this case, mine) and  experience life through the eyes of someone maybe extremely different from themselves. 

I am teaching myself to write in public because then I cannot toss about lame  excuses or elegant rants about how hard it is to be a writer. I rented this space to be  visibly accountable so I would show up, walk the walk and demonstrate that this is real  work. Damn hard work. My work.

Tick-­tock. There is no plan B. 

No muse shows up looking like Charlize Theron in a gauzy wrap with a bottle of  cold white wine at sunset on the beach at Malibu whispering J’Adore in your ear.

Dedicated writers know you have to drag the fecund beast up from the dark scary  place, put it in a cage and shake it like hell. You have to feed it with a long, pointy stick.  Watch your fingers, and make sure you double­check the lock when you close your eyes  and wait for sleep. You get used to its howls of things long gone.

You must scratch 1000 to 100,000 words out of black marks on white paper that  shape the creatures we call stories. By grace, they may lead you to your awake life or  others who’ve cured their own somnambulism.

To inspire others, I must show this is a decision, a choice. I wanted to create a  studio, a space that evokes a desire in others to sit down and write. 

If one kid taps on my vintage typewriters and it gets in her blood, then job well  done. She will understand the language, its call and tenure. I will have helped shout a voice in the world. 

I write in my shop window to prove that somewhere, a human being is physically sitting down and writing a story. People see me doing this.

I’ve purposely set my struggles up as a show going on behind my picture window.  By publicly sitting and writing, reading and pacing, talking and listening, I create an  opportunity for anyone seeing me in my studio, a chance to experience empathy. 

This is the miracle of fiction. It teaches us to see beyond our own beliefs by the  ability to change our point of view. We come to understand how others learn to feel how  they do. Hate and anger lose their power when we come to know someone’s story. We learn to look out at the streaming world, and recognize shapes of truth.

I never know who will walk through the door, so I leave it open as weather  allows. This has brought me riches in the form of people who teach me that we all have a  common desire to bear witness, communicate and be heard. 

I’ve been befriended by an African American woman who gets up to write at 4 am  everyday before rushing to work at a drive­thru window. She inspires me to shut up and  write. She’s let no one read her work but me. Her diligence, her genius, is humbling.

She has the Fever.

A young Hispanic, teacher of Literature for the US Army, explained to me how he  could identify the cadets at West Point who will become leaders, simply because of how they  understand the importance of poetry.

He spreads the Fever.

A brilliant young woman from India talked to me for several hours of her dread of  confessing to her parents that she was quitting medical school to finish her second novel.

She is aflame.

One of my writing heroes walked in my studio. She is an icon in screenwriting.  We had a brief chat before she was whisked away by her driver to make her plane to kick  off her European lecture tour. But not before I promised to send her info on how to  submit her new short stories to literary journals.

Relentless Fever.

It’s a lonely pursuit most of the time... y’all know this.

Because it’s so hard to go this alone, I crafted my studio to be a Writer Trap. Before…I worked in film designing visual worlds.

That is why I picked a storefront, to attract others of my kind. I feel a longing for  a deeper camaraderie and feedback, challenge and validation that is beyond me, sprinters  I have to chase to keep up. I hope to convince writers I believe are better than me, to  come in and give me a push. I’ve played a lot of sports; this is how you get an edge. 

Sweat and Fever.

Sometimes, behind this glass window, I feel like the lone monkey at the zoo.  Most of the time, that’s all right. Then there are days when someone walks into my tiny  studio and there is a look of wonder and surprise on their face.

I watch them try to decipher the dark red oval sign with just my name and a black  crow.  Then they step to my door, where another small, framed sign has that crow  perching over the words: Writing Studio.

Most read it a few times like they are seeing things, like it makes no sense. Like  they are seeing an ancient plank of wood, handcarved: ALCHEMY, ELIXIRS & BLOOD LETTING.

“What do you do in here?” they say, poking their heads in the room. “Do people  really hang out here and write?”

“Yes, “ I say. “Come in.”

---

C. Williams writes in a tiny storefront studio among busy shops on Nashville’s East side.  She’s also a photographer and Production Designer in film & Television. C. Williams’  fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, Motif, Appalachian Heritage, Revolution  John, and Still: The Journal.

What Makes a Winner, part two: A conversation with Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay

Last month, Lagnajita, a student at Hume Fogg High School, won our Nashville Reads Essay contest in the teen category for her breathtaking piece, "An Insignificant Balcony." We're proud to share a few words from her today, but first, in case you missed it, here's a bit of her winning work: 

The humid July air drifts through the open windows, leaving fragrant footprints on the cold tiles. There’s no such thing as summer here; it’s monsoon season. The rain comes in droves like the murder of crows perched on the colorful awnings of the market. The city’s littered with sundry sounds, from street peddlers to wives hanging up clotheslines and sloshing rickshaw wheels on slippery mud. All this, accompanied by the horns of passing bicycles, creates a symphony of vibrancy that’s difficult to forget. This is home.

I’ve seen limitless wonders from this insignificant balcony, played I Spy with Grandpa from the fourth floor, and counted cars until I ran out of fingers and toes. This crooked foundation has held the weight of my childhood, from Popsicles to school uniforms. Yet here I am now, a million miles away, disconnected from the very idea of a simple visit to Grandma’s.

Read the rest of the essay here. 

The Porch: Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing "An Insignificant Balcony"?

Mukhopadhyay: Writing "An Insignificant Balcony" was quite a quick process, really. I had a slight hint of an idea ahead of time but no structure. When I sat down to write, however, things just started flowing out. Eventually, the entire story was done within a matter of a couple hours. It was a pretty satisfying outpouring of my ideas, thoughts, and feelings onto paper. The finished product is a really honest and emotional account of my experiences.

The Porch: This essay is very lyrical, and I know you write poetry as well as prose. Is the subject matter of this essay something you've explored in your poetry, as well? What kinds of subjects and themes have emerged in your poetry? 

Mukhopadhyay: Yes, actually one of the first poems I had ever written was along the lines of this subject called "Midsummer," and it was about the feeling I get when I visit my home in India. On the subject of my poetry, I like writing narrative poems dealing with human nature and the thoughts and emotions of people. Most of my poems are stories about individuals, ranging from infamous historical figures like Hitler to unknown individuals. It is a priority for me to resonate with my audience and for them to relate to my poems, whether they be art or writing connoisseurs or everyday people.

The Porch: What compels you to write? What do you think creative writing can do for a young person? 

Mukhopadhyay: Writing is such a release for me. Anything I don't or can't say, I write about. It is the best form of human communication, in my opinion. That is my outlet for individual expression, which I think is so very important for young people. And in doing so, I like to think that my ideas and my message can be conveyed to people from all walks of life and make a difference in a small way.

The Porch: What books / authors have you enjoyed recently? 

Mukhopadhyay: Recently, I have been in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Voltaire's Candide, and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Other than that, I also have been enjoying poets such as e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Frost. And last but not least, I am not shamed to admit that I am a huge John Green fan as well!

What makes a winner: a conversation with Jen Dominguez

A few weeks back we were thrilled to name Jen Wallwork Dominguez's essay, "Growing Home," the winner of our Nashville Reads contest in the adult category. (And Jen, also thrilled, claimed that she'd never won anything before, "not even a cake walk." Here's a bit of that piece to whet your appetite:

I spent my young years tearing out pages of the JCPenney catalog, creating collages of happy families: a baby from children’s wear pasted into the arms of a woman who, prior to my scissors, had been modeling cookware; a couple from sporting goods glued into a dining room, their tennis rackets poised recklessly close to the china cabinet. I owned every board game that could be played by two players and irritated my mother by begging her join me. One Christmas she bought me Clue, a three-player game, and it taunted me mercilessly.

I am an only child. I’ve come to learn, through idle conversation on playgrounds and articles in magazines, that this label predisposes me to be self-centered, self-confident, and accustomed to getting my own way. Evidently “only child” is synonymous with “center of attention.” I’ve decided I need to hyphenate. In the same way that “in-law” conjures images of a completely different relationship than simply “mother,” I’ve been searching for a single word that more accurately describes my place in my family. I’ve yet to find it. In the meantime, accident-that-happened-one-time-only-child will have to do.

(You can read the rest of Jen's essay at Chapter 16.)

Jen was kind enough to answer a few questions for us, in which she sheds light on her drafting process, her thoughts on blogging versus essay writing (she blogs weekly at Life in the Circus), and more. Have a look.  

The Porch: Tell us a bit about the process of writing this particular essay.

Dominguez: "Growing Home" was actually the second essay that I wrote for this contest. The first was a family history of alcoholism, but I decided that I couldn’t do it justice in 750 words. I took the prompt very literally and thought about what the most important/most defining circumstance of my life was, and I came up with, obviously, the fact that I have five children. As my therapist is always reminding me, this is A LOT of children. The final version of the essay is significantly different that the first. Originally, I began with the statement that I am an only child. However, after thinking about the revision and submission class I took at The Porch, I realized that the most effective stories were those that began with an image, so I decided to begin with what was originally the middle of the essay: the image of me tearing apart catalogues. 

The Porch: How is essay writing different from blogging for you?

Dominguez: Essay writing is blogging on Valium. I write a lot on my blog, and as a result I don’t have the time (or usually the space) to spend days reworking a piece. With an essay, everything slows down. There is time to carefully consider word choice and ask myself if I’m telling the truth in not only the most entertaining way (very important for a blog post) but also the most honest way. The audience for an essay is also different than that of a blog. In a blog, I think it’s important to make everything very relatable and potentially useful. In an essay, since you aren’t begging someone to stop by from Pinterest, there is more of an opportunity to focus on the heart of a story, the deeply personal aspect. Of course, I hope it will be relatable to readers, but I’m freed from trying to make it universal. 

The Porch: What did you learn or discover in writing "Growing Home"?

Dominguez: Before writing this essay, I’d never really considered the origin of my snarkiness. I knew that I was an expert in complaining about motherhood, but I’d never stopped to consider WHY. As I wrote, I had to ask myself whether the things that I bitch about (the sleeplessness, the laundry, the arguing, the toting back and forth, etc.) were things that really bothered me or things that I just THOUGHT should bother me. It turns out that it is more the latter than the former. I couldn’t have told you that at the beginning. That’s how writing works for me… I often don’t know where I’m going until I get there. 

The Porch: What motivates you to write? Do you rely on routine or ritual? 

Dominguez: I write only because it’s easier and less painful than procrastinating about writing. I have spent years trying not to write, because writing is scary and hard and (for me, at least) plagued by self-doubt. But the truth is, when I’m writing, even if I’m writing garbage, I’m happier. when I’m not writing, I’m kind of an antsy bitch. I do have five small children, and so finding time to write is a challenge, but I just take it as I can… I write early in the morning, or during nap time, or late at night - usually all three. Obviously, my house is a disaster. 

The Porch: You blog at Life in the Circus. Are there other blogs you look to for inspiration? 

Dominguez: I didn’t actually discover the world of blogs until a few years ago. My first introduction was Rants From Mommyland. I loved the way the two writers made me feel normal - evidently their cars smelled like a rotting juice box too! I’m always on the hunt for new blogs, but I’m very, very picky. I want touching, and funny, and well written. Something that makes it ok to spend 10 precious minutes reading. It’s a tricky combo, but right now, my favorite blogs are Momastery and Five Kids is a Lot of Kids

The Porch: What's your bedside reading right now? 

Dominguez: I’m a polyamorous reader. I’ve always got several books going at once. Right now, I’m reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, which I’m previewing for my oldest daughter. I just finished The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, which I loved, even though it is over 150 years old. 

 

When poetry & prose mingle

Adria_Bernardi_photo_credit_Tammy_Gentuso--April2013--Web--10.jpg

Ed. note: We are honored to have Adria Bernardi teaching a 4-week course for us this spring, "Two Voices, Two Parts: Working with Prose & Poetry in the Same Work," which offers new angles of inquiry and inspiration for prose writers and poets alike. Seats are still available! We asked Adria to say a bit about the kinds of mixed-genre works that the class will look at for inspiration. 

___________________________________________________

The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snowy trails winding through high mountains.  Nevertheless I welcome the New Year just as I am.

 

 New Year greeting-time:

 

I feel about average

welcoming my spring[1]

What is this conversation that is written in both prose and poetry? Why and how is the one essential to the other?  Why this shifting back and forth?  Why does narrative not suffice? Why doesn’t the excellent poem stand alone? These questions continue to nip at my heels as I head into April — and into a workshop — where we will be looking at new work written in both prose and poetry, and reading the writings of several writers considered masters of a form that goes by different names, among them, mixed genre, hybrid, and the haibun.

It’s the quality of back-and-forth, inward and outward, a kind of nonlinear call-and-response that I’m stuck on, an outwardly visible division of the articulating self into parts that carry on an extended conversation: the rational, cognitive-self (and its need to order, whether narratively, by story, or in a systems kind of way), and then another part of self that works by other kinds of association, the kinds of unexpected association we think of when we think of the poem, insight, the detail of a painting, the unexpected juxtaposition that causes laughter.  Time leaps.

Some of these hybrid or mixed-genre works might look, and seem, at first glance, like essays, with the poem functioning as citation, reinforcing or bringing into evidence (as punctuation mark, or emphasis) that which the writer is investigating within the prose: Here! is the illumination!  But in the best of these works, prose and poetry are in a dialogue that is difficult to define. It isn’t exactly an argument, although there are elements of that. It isn’t exactly a narrative, although there are elements of the narrative, too. The parts converse with each other in ways that aren’t entirely linear, and which resonate spatially, as within a large space, as in acoustics, where sound reverberates from one wall to another, ceiling and floor, at angles.

Such correspondences, spaced pages apart, call attention to expanded space itself in a dialogue that moves between text in prose through correspondence in a vast space.  These kind of works work in a logic that is not readily apparent; the reader must make connections. It works, in other words, like a poem.  —Adria Bernardi

 

ABOUT ADRIA: 

Adria Bernardi is the author of a collection of essays, Dead Meander, which received a Bronze Award in the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the category of and essay/creative nonfiction.  She is the author of two novels, Openwork, and The Day Laid on the Altar, which was awarded the 1999 Bakeless Prize by Andrea Barrett.  A collection of short stories, In the Gathering Woods, was awarded the 2000 Drue Heinz Literature Prize by Frank Conroy.  She was awarded the 2007 Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship to complete Small Talk, a translation the poetry of Raffaello Baldini.  Her most recent translation, the poetry of Cristina Annino, Chronic Hearing: Selected Poems 1977-2012, was recently published by Chelsea Editions.  She has taught fiction-writing at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  She lives in Nashville.

Register for Adria's class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Kobayashi Issa, translated by Sam Hamill, The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 2

 

A Poem by Anders Carlson-Wee

We're thrilled to have Anders Carlson-Wee teaching a poetry workshop for us this weekend. Here's one of his poems to whet your appetite for the class, "Narrative Poetry: Story & Image," which meets Saturday, Mar. 7, from 2 - 5 pm. Seats still available! Register and learn more here

----

Northern Corn

 

Traveling alone through Minnesota

as the corn comes in. Steel silos filling

to the brim. Black trees leaning

off the south sides of hills as the cold light

falls slantwise against the gristmills.

You have allowed another year to pass.

You have learned very little.

But that little is what you are throwing

in the furnace. That little is stoking the dust-

coals of last year and burning something.

Burning blue. The ninety-year-old father

is bringing his crop in. He climbs

off the thresher, checks the engine,

moves an oak branch. He pours

rye whiskey from a thermos and sips

the lidless excess of his private noon.

The size of his hands. The size of one finger.

The flathead prairie of his calloused

thumb-pad. He lies awake in the middle

of the night and whispers something

and suddenly loves his son again.

The way excess falls through him.

The way oil runs down the Mississippi River

and remains on the surface and burns.

The father no longer breathing.

The respirator breathing. The father lying

in a hospital bed in a nightgown.

The plastic tubes and machinery.

The whole hospital breathing.

The janitor waxing the white-tile floors

at midnight while life is trying hard

to leave. You must go to your father

while he is still your father.

You must hold him. You must kiss him.

You must listen. You must see the son

in the father and wonder. You must admit

that you wonder. Stand above him

and wonder. Drop his swelled-up hand.

Whisper something. Now unplug the machine.

 

“Northern Corn” originally appeared in Best New Poets 2012

-----

Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow. He is the winner of Ninth Letter's 2014 Poetry Award and New Delta Review's 2014 Editors' Choice Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Linebreak, Best New Poets 2012 and 2014, and elsewhere. A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Residency Fellowship, Anders is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University.

 

Julep Journal Releases Third Issue, Throws Party with Appropriate Beverages

Last fall at the Southern Festival of Books, we were excited to discover a new and especially lovely literary journal being produced right in our backyard, Julep, which had recently released its second issue. Julep: A Journal of the Young South is a pretty little thing, petite in trim size but expansive in vision, and the editorial team—founding editors Kevin Foster, Greg Frank, and Joseph Storey; and editors Brittney McKenna and Theron Spiegl—has some pretty innovative ideas about how to breathe new life into the lit-mag concept, as you'll see below. Issue 3 is now a reality, and it'll have its big debut this weekend (tomorrow!) at a release party at Deavor, a coworking space in Germantown. The $10 door fee will get you a copy of the new issue, plus everything that comes with good old-fashioned revelry, and yes, a julep or two. With the party right around the corner, we checked in with Kevin Foster to find out a bit more about the vision behind and plans for Julep.  —Susannah Felts

The Porch: Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds as editors/designers. What has shaped your particular vision(s)?

Foster: Joseph and I have some experience editing academic and literary publications in the university setting. Greg is a professional designer (and an artist, in my opinion, although he might kill me for saying that). Brittney has been involved in the nebulae of the music industry media for a long time. Theron has long been the go-to editor for creative friends and friends-of-friends, and he recently edited a former professor’s philosophical tome. He’s probably the most well-respected as a true editor, in the word’s most basic sense.

We have a strong mishmash of experience with different forms of artistic and intellectual expression. Our vision has come, in part, from a sense that these forms have been unnecessarily segregated and ultimately disassociated. This inhibits the evolution of the forms, corrupts the ideas themselves, and degrades the communities that create and are served by the work. Not to say that all expression is necessary political, or that its value comes from its utility—mainly that the isolationist tendencies of artistic, academic, and intellectual communities is bad. 

Early conversations about the necessity of a publication like Julep stemmed from frustration with media that addressed the same broadly human themes but from utterly separate and limited perspectives. Why should the reader have to cobble together all forms of media there are to consume (my least favorite word) about, for instance, gentrification? Or even a less politically charged topic: loneliness? Or Nashville, the South, America? Are there not common intellectual themes between the philosopher and the journalist, the poet and the sculptor? Are there purer expressions of ideas that live between these forms? We think so.

The Porch: When we've spoken before, you've told me about how Julep really takes the idea of collaboration and runs with it in a fresh way. Can you tell us more about that? 

Foster: Yeah, we try to live out these ideas through a much more collaborative editorial process than any other journal we know of. This plays out in a few ways.

First, we accept content that might not make it in publications that adhere to a stricter sense of form. While we’ve taken some straightforward academic essays, suites of poems, and self-contained fictional pieces, we’ve also published radical twists on forms. I immediately think Josh Gillis’ scraps of found poetry from Craigslist’s Missed Connections, from Issue 2. It distills loneliness in a way that neither Craigslist nor poetry could do on its own. In Issue 1, Heather Hayden played with the qualities of pace and narrative fracture inherent in the graphic novel to deliver a mostly textual story about gender identity. And more importantly, these disparate forms are living together, expressing a collective whole greater than its parts.

Oh, and we don’t choose a theme until we have our pieces selected. The theme of each issue emerges in the space among the pieces as they grow. We were skeptical about this method at first, but it’s worked for us really well so far, which I personally view as a kind of confirmation of the ideas that spawned Julep in the first place.

We also think that the isolation of one seemingly distinct idea from another, or even an idea from another iteration of a related idea, is also a sort of easy fallacy. We have accepted finished pieces, but we’ve also accepted compelling ideas or theses. We don’t see a huge difference between the two as far as being interesting or worthy of consideration. In the case of a thesis, we will collaborate with the author as the piece is fleshed out. This is probably the main way we’re different than other publications—we workshop with writers in service of their visions, which is on some level more important than the expression of that vision that ultimately gets published. It’s just an expression; it’ll grow as you give it space and time.

The flip-side of that coin is that the ideas don’t live in isolation. Humans owe a great debt to one another and to the world at large when we express ourselves. Say, for instance, a painter sees a dog walking down the street. She recently read Chekhov’s “The Lady With The Dog”—this is perhaps why she noticed the dog in the first place. This sparks a thought of a reality T.V. show she begrudgingly watched with a friend. She then paints an oil-based landscape that includes the dog, perhaps being interviewed by an aggressive, faceless executive with an executive haircut. The painting is hers, but she was not alone in preparing to paint it. We have a lot of ideas about how to show the interaction between creation and reception, the evolution of a thing as it combines with other things to become something related but distinct.  It’s a way of pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz as isolated creator while marveling at the forces that put him back there in the first place. This is probably the least realized aspect of our vision, but we’re excited about how we can do it in the future.

The Porch: You teach middle school, right? Does your work with students inform your creation of Julep, or vice versa; are there any surprising overlaps or intersections? 

Foster: Yes, I’m a middle school teacher. You can imagine how miserable I make my students sometimes! I take the same values into the classroom. My students know that a good writer is never done. They understand that the things they create will be better—purer, even—if they work it out with others. They’re constantly talking and sharing ideas, pushing one another. Honestly, they’re a kind of inspiration for the journal: they’ve not yet been indoctrinated to the cult of the creator as silo. They still think of themselves as creators. They still learn from one another because it’s easier to see that there’s a lot to learn when you’re ten.

The Porch: Are there plans underway for the 4th issue? Any call for submissions yet? 

Foster: We’re formally announcing our call for submissions at the release event on Saturday, but we’re pretty much always taking submissions. We have a few pieces that have been gestating for a year now; not sure if or /when they’ll make it into the journal. We have lots of plans, but I’ll stay mum on them for the time being. 

The Porch: Julep announces a certain Southernness with its title. I wonder if you could say more about that: How is the journal distinctly Southern, and how is it something new in the world  of Southern literary magazines?

Foster: [I’m handing it over to Joseph for this one.] On a prosaic level, the journal is Southern because its constituents are Southern. But the fundamental “Southern-ness” of Julep is in the particularity of this South in this moment of history. As the global praise for Southern creators, entrepreneurs, lifestyles and products become deafening, we who call the South home have to ask: what is really going on, here? In this sense Julep is unique among Southern literary journals in that it as much a journal of the future as of the past or present. Our vision is for Julep to be a medium through which we as Southerners might collectively articulate a vision of what the South ought to be, through the exploration of ideas, stories, and expression. If we can get closer to developing a vision of that “ought to be,” then maybe we can move forward in accordance with that vision, rather than fall to the inexorable cycles of power, capital, and animosity. It’s an old cliché, but we really do believe that writing and the arts can change the world as well as reflect it.

The Porch: Where can we purchase the journal? 

Foster: You can purchase the journal online at www.julepjournal.com and also at East Side Story. We’re exploring other options right now. Hopefully it’ll be available at other locations,  and in other formats, soon.

The Porch: Why should we all look forward to Saturday night?

Foster: Well, it’s a party. Plus the issue is awesome. Deavor is an incredible space—our featured visual artist in Issue 3 is hanging his work there, so we’ll have that up in addition to the issue. Did I mention it’s a party? What else could you ask for?

A Tale of Two Tims: The Recap

We've been in a bit of a happy fog since the evening of January 17, when our inaugural fundraiser and first birthday celebration went off as a smashing success. The Tims had a great rapport, the crowd seemed incredibly engaged, the food for the Meet & Greet was delectable, and from everything we've heard since, everyone just had a great time. We couldn't have asked for more!

The day before the event, Terry Bulger of WSMV Channel 4 interviewed the two Tims.

And here's a post by Trisha Ping from BookPage that does a lovely job of summing things up, complete with audio. We're so thankful to her for taking such good notes and putting it all together, as we clearly have not had a minute to do so... 

And pictures? Yes, we have them! Click on the image below to begin the slideshow. 


The Usefulness of Stripey Things

Editor's note: This is adapted from a brief letter I sent my Foundations workshop students last fall. I hope it resonates for some of you! —Susannah

I've been wanting to dabble in watercolor ever since my daughter and I played with them at the Frist's ArtQuest last year and I made this little stripey thing I liked. (I can't bring myself to call it a painting.) It made me think, "Hm, I want to make more of these stripey, watercolor things."

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I also thought it'd be fun to learn a thing or two about real watercolor technique. So I signed up for a one-session class, which turned out to be just me and the instructor, which was was fine by me. As she suggested, I brought two photographs to work from, both photos I'd taken and posted on Instagram. We sat down and got to work. 

It didn't take that long for me to realize that, like most things, watercolor was going to take some practice. And that maybe I was not going to be so great at it. Or at least I wasn't great at it on this, my very first "real" try. I didn't care much; I was just there to dabble. At the Frist, I'd found my casual stripe-making process meditative, even soothing, and I mostly just wanted to have that experience again. 

The instructor gave me some tips as she worked on her own piece. She talked about "scrubbing" the page, and dabbing up extra water, and defining shapes from the outside/edges, and using colors, not black, to make shadows, and doing your background wash first, and a few other watercolor basics.

I nodded and gave it my best. But as time went by, I felt like I was flubbing more than succeeding. I think she sensed that. "Loosen up in your technique," she said.

I wasn't entirely sure what she meant. And did being told to loosen up make me loosen up? Ha! No, it did not. I grew increasingly eager to finish my earnest dabbling in "real" watercolor and just chill out with my stripes again. 

Finally, I did just that—went back to making a stripey thing—and I have to say, the rest of the evening was more like bliss: I played with color and line, and I felt I could focus more on chatting with Denise because I wasn't thinking too much about what I was doing, and it was just something pleasing to do with my hands and pretty colors and randomness, and I. was. happy.

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This all got me thinking (and at last! Here I am, getting to some my point!) about my classes, and the things I tell you guys.

I try to be serious and helpful in passing along tips about narrative craft and the revision process (which really is the writing process), because that is what the class is billed as offering. But sometimes I worry that I'm over-stressing the work, on the necessary growing pains of writing, on the failure that leads to success (see: the Claire Vaye Watkins's blog post I read to you on Tuesday), and stressing y'all out as a result. I worry that you'll be shut down by all that talk. I know you are taking this class because writing brings you pleasure in some way, feels soothing or necessary or even redemptive to you. The last thing I want to do is kill that pleasure. And I've struggled myself with the way that advanced education in the craft of writing can, indeed, seem combative with—if not murderous toward—that pleasure. 

So let me just say this: While, YES, revision and work-work-work are integral to getting a story right most of the time, writing can and should also offer a great release, a time of play and fun. I so want you to experience and never lose that gift. It is just as important that you do the writing that feels good to you, that feels freeing and energizing or relaxing for whatever reason. Do the writing you want to do and don't feel like you have to make it into anything else for anyone else. Writing can serve so many purposes; let your writing serve the purposes that you need for it to. 

Want to make pretty stripes? Make those pretty stripes, and love every minute of it. Want to push your technique further? Go for it.  Which is not to say you can't also have fun making pretty stripes; the two kinds of art-making are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think you need periods of both to feed that hunger to create. 

I'll close with a few words from Anne Lamott, because when CAN'T we use a few words from Anne Lamott? 

"Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward." —Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird

—Susannah Felts

More Community, Less Churning: A Weekend at Rivendell

Editor's note: Today we're excited to offer our first post from a guest contributor! Kate Parrish, a Nashville writer and blogger, attended The Porch's 2014 fall retreat at Rivendell. We asked her to recap the experience for us. Here's her take: 

 

En route to The Porch’s fall writing retreat at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tenn., on a chilly November day, I was unsure what to expect. What is a Writers’ Colony? I asked myself. I imagined we would be greeted by individuals dressed in period costume, something circa Massachusetts Bay Colony, and required to churn our own butter each day. Fortunately (unfortunately?), no manual labor or costumes were required.

Rivendell, named after the Elves’ domain in The Lord of the Rings, is tucked away off the main road into Sewanee, nestled into a bluff and overlooking Lost Cove. There’s a pond to the right of the house, a lavender garden to the left, big beautiful trees everywhere. Each room is named after a famous author. I stayed in the O’Connor room featuring two twin beds. I think Ms. O’Connor would appreciate that set up. No space for shenanigans. Only writing. Or thinking about writing, as I’m prone to doing.

There were seven of us, from as far away as Portland: a mix of both published and unpublished writers, poets and fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers and I’m-not-sure-what-I-am writers. We spanned a broad age range. Some came to finish work, others to revisit a decades old project for revision and fine-tuning. Others, myself included, were just looking for a place to get started.

As we convened in the living room in this beautifully remodeled home around the fireplace (in addition to visions of costumes and chores, I also had a mild fear that we would be sleeping on cots in a one-room cabin), we were surrounded by the books of authors who have escaped to Rivendell, folks like Kevin Wilson and John T. Edge.  Katie and Susannah, our gracious hosts, outlined the weekend for us over wine and cheese: Activities were planned but nothing was mandatory. Participate, don’t participate, the weekend was ours to do with as we pleased. Meals, amazing meals, would propel us from one point in the day to the next.

Later that evening, Leigh Anne Couch, managing editor of The Sewanee Review came by for a casual Q & A and poetry reading. She graciously answered our questions, things like, “What are my chances of getting published?”, “Who actually reads all the submissions?”, and “How many submissions do you get a year?” Having access to the town’s local literati seemed to keep the questions coming at a good clip.

On Saturday, we had the chance to share some of our writing and talk about what was working, what wasn’t, and how to get what wasn’t working working again. It was a great opportunity, for me at least, to really get in the ring and see if this whole writing thing had any merit in my day-to-day life. That’s what most of the weekend ended up being for me--an affirmation that this is what I want for myself, that this is more than a hobby, that this is work that reflects my character.

The rest of Saturday was open for us to write, take a hike around the property, do some reading or editing, perfect an image for Instagram, participate in another afternoon draft chat. The ease of each day was truly lovely. I understand why people come here to write--the nature, the house, the lack of urgency all seem to provide optimal space for creative thinking and creative doing.

Sunday morning—again, for those interested, no pressure—we circled up to discuss a few topics Katie and Susannah prepared--the writer’s life and why good writing is good (my words, not theirs). We had one final feast and then it was time to wind down the mountain.  

What this weekend made possible—what The Porch makes possible—is a community of writers. I can’t create this fellowship in my own home alone with my computer and my work. I suppose I could, but I don’t think it would be very good or very fun. Carving out dedicated time and space through the writer’s retreat to interact with other writers, new and seasoned, allowed me the space to settle into possibility. I had approached writing with some rigidity, believing that my work needed to unfold in a certain way. My time at Rivendell helped immensely to understand that, when it comes to writing, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Being in the company of other writers, hearing my struggles in their struggles, sharing thoughtful feedback and tips, and simply having the dedicated physical space for reading and writing was an invaluable experience. I left the retreat with a list of contacts, more confidence in my work, and more compassion for myself during the writing process. And probably five extra pounds (but zero butter churned). —Kate Parrish

 

Nashville: The It City Becomes a Lit City

Nashville has received a heaping helping of media love in the past couple of years. The New York Times famously proclaimed it the latest “It” City in 2013. GQ dubbed it “Nowville.” Condé Nast put it in the top five “Must See Cities” and the top ten “Friendliest Cities in America,” and Forbes named Nashville #3 in “America’s Most Creative Cities.” The list of accolades goes on and on, and Music City’s future looks bright and bigger than ever: We’ve heard that 80 people move to Nashville every day, a lot of them creatives. However you measure it, whatever you dub it, Nashville’s clearly a very good place to be.

That’s truer than ever if you’re a writer—and for once we’re not talking about songwriting (though of course it’s as hot as ever for that). Nashville’s writing community is having a moment alongside the vigorously healthy visual and performing arts scenes that have helped put the city on the map. Herewith, ten reasons this ”It” City is a “Lit City”:

1. Literary Rock Stars love living here: No doubt you know Ann Patchett’s a proud resident—our city’s literary icon, certainly, and beloved savior of our independent bookstore scene. But did you know that Lorrie Moore joined the MFA faculty at Vanderbilt last year? That Tony Earley, Madison Smartt Bell, Jon Meacham, Adam Ross, and bestselling thriller writer JT Ellison all call Nashville home? We’re taking bets on what big name will adopt Nashville next—or emerge from our homegrown scene.

2. We are Parnassus’s hood:  Is there any more celebrated, adored, media-darling of an indie bookstore than our own Parnassus Books, deemed one of the “World’s Coolest Bookstores” by CNN? Arguably not. While competing against the big Amazonian dog is a battle fought and lost in too many places, Parnassus Books is our David to Jeff Bezos’ Goliath, the gift Ann Patchett famously gave the city she loves. When Patchett was forced to sell her book at an alteration shop because both of our bookstores had closed, she took action, teaming up with Nashville native Karen Hayes, who’d long been in the trenches of the book business, and together with their team of committed and brilliant booksellers, they are fighting the good fight… and winning. We love that they’ve put Nashville on the map as a town of passionate readers who are equally passionate about supporting their local bookseller. Not only does Parnassus offer a wonderful place to buy books, they host loads of author readings and signings—over 250 a year. Speaking of which…

3. Literary Rock Stars love to visit: It’s no secret that Nashville is a favorite destination for girls’ weekends and bachelor parties, things like that. Our many music venues and dining scene do a stellar job of luring visitors, but hang around just a few days and you’re also likely to catch the appearance of a notable writer or poet. In just the past few years we’ve hosted luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Barbara Kingsolver, the late John Updike, Elizabeth Gilbert, Donna Tartt, Michael Pollan, Yann Martel, Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie… Seriously—this is just the quick, off-the-top-off-our-heads list; there are countless others we could name, thanks in large part to free readings offered by Parnassus Books, the Nashville Public Library’s Salon@615, and the Southern Festival of Books. Vanderbilt University’s Gertrude and Harold S Vanderbilt Reading Series is also a huge literary boon: this spring and fall we’ll be treated to visits from Stuart Dybek, Natasha Tretheway, Claire Vaye Watkins, Jamie Quatro, and others.

4. Our lit roots run deep: Okay, so we can’t claim Faulkner or Angelou, Hurston or O’Connor. Compared to other Southern locales, it might seem that few giants of the written word have worked their magic in our town (though we’ll claim Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson, thank you very much). But a literary culture has long brewed on the banks of the Cumberland River: The Fugitive Poets and subsequent Agrarians, whose cast of characters include Robert Penn Warren, John Crow Ransom, and Allen Tate, among others, rose out of Nashville, as did Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, John Egerton, and John Seigenthaler.

5. We’ve got Salon@615: We could heap big praise on the Nashville Public Library for so many reasons. But we’ll make a special shout-out for Salon@615, the free reading series hosted by the library in partnership with Parnassus Books, Humanities TN, and the Nashville Public Library Foundation. Salon@615 brings to town nearly twenty bestselling authors a year, giving Nashvillians regular first-hand exposure to those who weave the fabric of our nation’s literary life. (And note that key word above, partnership. That’s how we do it in Nashville – collaboration makes our arts world go round.)6. We host the Southern Festival of Books: October is one of our favorite months in Tennessee for many reasons, not least of which is this annual festival, held downtown for the past 26 years. Thousands of authors and book-lovers descend on the city for this weekend full of free readings, panel discussions, and literary revelry. It’s the biggest book festival in Tennessee, a real embarrassment of riches. This year we’ll be treated to readings from Joshua Ferris, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Greene, Rebecca Makkai, Antonya Nelson, and so many more.

7. We’re a city that reads together. Our mayor loves books—no lie, he’s in Parnassus all the time—and literacy is one of his top agendas. To promote literary citizenship in Nashville, he started the Nashville Reads initiative, modeled on successful programs in other cities, to encourage Nashvillians to read a book together as a community, and to engage in events all over the city, from book discussions to writing contests to school-based programs. Nashville Reads culminates each spring with a visit from the selected book’s author. Selections over the last few years include Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

8. We’re a stone’s throw from Sewanee.  Ninety minutes south of Nashville, nestled on the Cumberland Plateau, is Sewanee University, University of the South, host to The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee School of Letters, The Sewanee Review, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. Sewanee has its own incredibly rich literary heritage, of course, and has played a vital role in the education of contemporary writers such as John Jeremiah Sullivan, Kevin Wilson, and TK.… And did we mention it’s absolutely gorgeous up there? Oh, yes. There’s something in that air up on the mountain…

9. We have our own East Side Story. In East Nashville, a thriving, arts-rich neighborhood across the river from downtown, this tiny but mighty bookstore carries only books by local authors (plus lovely book-related artwork and handmade books), and opens its arms wide to writers who self-publish as well as those who go the “traditional” route. Its owner, the also-mighty local literary hero Chuck Beard, hosts the biweekly East Side Storytellin’ series, which features a local author or poet paired with a local music talent, and is working steadfastly on a micro-publishing venture that pairs local writers and artists.

10. We’re home to Chapter 16. While book review pages have swiftly disappeared from magazines and newspapers over the past decade, Chapter 16—Humanities Tennessee’s online center for the book—has taken up that noble task, offering daily reviews of new books, interviews with local and touring authors, features about literary culture in Tennessee, and more, all free for the reading. Browse the site for a true trove of smart, in-depth literary coverage.

That's our lit-city list -- what would you add? Tell us in the comments! 

 

 

Time to Rise: Time to Write and Why Writing Matters

In June and July, The Porch had the great pleasure of teaming up with Time to Rise, a long-established Nashville nonprofit whose program provides academic enrichment and summertime structure to at-risk youth. Over the course of several weeks, we ventured into the Time to Rise classrooms to facilitate creative writing workshops. Rising fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were challenged to think of themselves as writers for the morning as they were guided through the process of crafting a short story and several poems. In the end, we worked with approximately one hundred and twenty Time to Rise students, who, if their enthusiasm and smiles were any measure, each experienced the spirit of adventure, surprise, creativity, and satisfaction that comes with imaginative writing.


In coordinating these workshops, The Porch’s objectives were, one, for the students to have fun. We wanted to put a friendly face on the experience of writing (which unfortunately, doesn’t always happen in school.) Two, we wanted the students to feel successful in producing creative work and further, to experience pride in sharing their stories and poems with their peers. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we hoped to plant within the students a paradigm shift in how they view writing and to impress upon them that writing is not only important but maybe even magic.


Magic? Indeed. After all, as we explained in our introduction, writing can last forever. Have a good idea, a cool story, and artful turn of phrase, and most likely, if it doesn’t leave the walls of one’s brain, it’s forgotten, lost in the clutter of living. Write it down, and it’s locked in place, permanent. Maybe, just maybe, someone else will read it and it will become a part of that person’s mind too. Maybe, just maybe, that person is someone far away, someone the writer will never meet, someone who lives in the future, and through the words on a page, the writer can speak to that reader, tell him or her a story, impact, inspire, or entertain him. Think of Shakespeare, speaking to us from five centuries ago. That, my friends, is magic.


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Furthermore, through writing, we can make characters and worlds that don’t otherwise exist come to life. When asked at the beginning of the fiction workshop how it was possible that within the hour, instead of eight people sitting in a circle of desks, there would be sixteen, students replied, “Not possible.” No? In an hour, we countered, they would each create a character, breathe life into that character though physical details as well as as the character’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivations, and through each young writer’s description, the rest of us would come to believe in the newly-imagined character. Magic? Absolutely.

Why should this creative writing business even matter to a kid in middle school? Ask a group of fifth graders to raise their hands if they like books, and a good number will lift a wary arm. TV? Most hands go up. Movies? Songs? All hands fly high. Ask what these things have in common, the students will eventually answer: “Words?” Yep, and where do those words come from? The students may for a moment be stumped until one small voice will venture: “Writers?” 


Writers. You bet. And only the day before, these kids thought writing was just this thing their teachers made them do for homework.