Thursday, January 10, 2019

Syllabus: NYC Winter 2019 Writing Workshop Starts January 22

One of my favorite activities is developing a new syllabus.  I teach in six and ten week sessions and spend a few days every two or three months looking for stories, essays and portions of memoirs and novels that I love and want to teach, and which I hope my writing students will love and want to read. Great reading leads to great writing.

I admit I teach some authors over and over---Raymond Carver, Nathan Englander, Lauren Groff, Tessa Hadley, Etgar Keret, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Yiyun Li Alice Munro, David Sedaris, Curtis Sittenfeld, Zadie Smith---but I also try to push myself to find writers who I haven't read much of (Rachel Kushner, ZZ Packer, Min Jin Lee) or  have just discovered (Scholastique Mukasonga.) I gravitate towards women writers, so have to nudge myself to find men, There are some good ones. I love discovering an established writer who I've never read before and then rushing to read as much of him or her as I can---lately I've been on a Donald Hall tear.

Below is what I'm teaching this winter. There is one spot left in the workshop I'm teaching on Tuesday nights at the JCC Manhattan. We start Tuesday, January 22 and the workshop runs ten sessions through April. We meet from 5:30-7:30 p.m. so you can nibble on something during class or go out for dinner afterwards. Here is the link to the class if you're interested. The cost is $480 for non-JCC members, $420 for members.

We will be reading some great fiction and creative non-fiction. The setting is small and intimate. We sit around a conference table and I run the workshops the way I was taught at Columbia: We discuss great authors' published work first, do some writing exercises, and then discuss submissions from writers in the workshop. The writer whose work is being discussed stays "in the box" (remains silent) while his/her work is being discussed, and then can ask questions afterwards.

I believe that writers need community, and that we all need feedback and deadlines. In this workshop, you get all three.

If you would like to read student testimonials, click here. If you would like to see where my students have been published, click here. If you decide you would like to write with me and read these pieces this winter, let me know asap. If not, you can read them on your own. They're all free and fabulous on line. 

Writing Our Stories
Winter 2019

Nora Ephron, Nora Ephron’s Apartment: A Love Story (non-fiction)

Donald Hall, Between Solitude and Loneliness (non-fiction),

Tessa Hadley,  Silk Brocade (fiction)

Etgar Keret, Creative Writing (fiction)

Phil Klay, After Action Report (fiction)

Bobby Ann Mason, The Burden of the Feast  (non-fiction)

Alice Munro, Home (blend of fiction and non-fiction; Alice Munro: The Art of Fiction, Q&A with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson from Paris Review

David Sedaris, Father Time (non-fiction)

Callan Wink, A Refugee Crisis (fiction)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Stuff to read over the holidays...

Tis the season to travel, celebrate and read. I love the slow time between Christmas and New Year's. This year, we're going skiing in Utah and it's going to be brutally cold. My family has a greater appetite for skiing than I do, so I'm going to spend at least half the time, reading and writing by the fire. Here's what I've read the past couple of months, and intend to finish before the New Year.

Donald Hall, Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety: Oh, this book. What a great, feisty memoir by the late great poet, who loved his second wife (the late, great poet Jane Kenyon), a beautiful young woman who died of leukemia and was once his student at the University of Michigan. Hall had worried that because of their age difference, he would leave Kenyon a widow, but she died at 47 and he lived decades without her. Her remembers her presence and her poetry with longing, detail and lust. Hall was nearing 90 when he wrote this book and it is amazing how sharp and funny and tough he can be, on other poets and himself. His love for Jane Kenyon and his family in New Hampshire will make you want to write down everything you love and will miss about the people you love. I love how upfront he is about how many drafts it takes him to get something right. "The next day I started 'Out the Window'," he writes in In Praise of Paragraphs. "It took me fifty drafts over six months..." 

Sometimes it feels as if LaMott has texted portions of her recent books to her editor and/or has cut and pasted ideas she's shared on Facebook and merged them into a short book. But she also writes  hilarious, incisive anecdotes about someone she loves who is imploding and/or surviving against all odds. These little stories are the reason I download her books as soon as they come out. There's also nobody more astute about writing about surviving a dysfunctional family. In "Famblies," she writes: "My younger brother and I were raised to be perfectionists, which meant that if you somehow, against all odds, managed to finally do something perfectly,  you beat yourself up for not having been able to do it years before. We didn't know that mistakes, imperfections, and pain were going to turn into strengths and riches, turn us into Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, our true selves. Our parents forgot to mention this." Amen.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches.
Mukasonga has a new memoir out, The Barefoot Woman, which I haven't read. But this one, which was translated into English from the French and came out in the US in 2016, is exquisite. Mukasonga, who grew up a Tutsi in Rwanda, escaped the genocide because her family sent her and her brother away to study---and by doing so, saved them. The rest of the family was killed. Mukasonga now lives in France with her husband and children. This is one of most beautifully written memoirs I've ever read--and despite the horrendous subject matter, often funny and wry. If you don't want to read the whole memoir, read Mukasonga's gorgeous short story, Cattle Praise Song, and Deborah Treisman's interview with her. I learned so much about life in Rwanda and the specifics of milking and taking care of cows from Mukasonga's work---not subjects I normally gravitate towards. I was enthralled by all of it. A movie version of her novel, Our Lady of the Nile, is coming out in 2019. I love what she says to Treisman about why she writes fiction: "Fiction makes it possible to take on subjects that would be too difficult or painful to address in the first person. It allows me also to maintain a certain distance from what I write...Writing eases my pain and my anger. So that was how, somewhat in spite of myself, I became a writer."

Michelle Obama, Becoming: I downloaded Obama’s memoir on my iPad and am also listening to it on Audible. You don’t need me to tell you how good this is.

Jill Soloway, She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. Soloway, the creator of "Transparent" and "I Love Dick," is funny, candid and a genius at writing dialogue. She deftly recreates the scene where her father shares that he is trans (he tells her over the phone one morning while she is watching her younger son eat cereal.) Her efforts to process this news triggered the creation of "Transparent" and her own transitioning journey. (Soloway, the mother of two, eventually left her husband, began dating women, and now prefers to be called "they.") You can read an excerpt from the book here

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir.  It's shocking how the author managed to overcome so many obstacles to her education by a family that did its best to thwart her. Westover is a genius at recreating scenes of  physical abuse by her brother and emotional neglect and manipulation by her parents, as well as beautiful scenes that detail her love of learning and the professors who mentored her. Westover says she taught herself how to write memoir by listening to New Yorker podcasts. 

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine:  A Novel. A strangely uplifting story about a traumatized office worker.  Similar to and (possibly) derivative of Alice Munro’s brilliant and disturbing short story, Dimension. (If you read "Dimension," tell me, so we can discuss.)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room: Fabulous, dark and sometimes funny novel about a single mother incarcerated in Northern California. Much of it is written in the first person and in those chapters, it feels like memoir. You can read an excerpt from the novel here, and/or listen to Kushner read it here.

ZZ Packer, Dayward: This story is an excerpt from Packer's novel in progress, The Thousands. This is a harrowing story about a brother and his deaf younger sister, who run away from a murderous dog set on them by their former slaveowner. This story packs a punch. You can read more about what Packer is doing here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Chanukah Turkey Chili

I'm calling this Chanukah Chili because I got this recipe for turkey chili  shortly after Thanksgiving and right before Chanukah, and it lasted eight days. (Actually, eleven, counting today, though it spent some of that time in the freezer.) 

As a birthday gift, my friend Debbie gave me a cooking  class with Pam Riesenberg at the new, gorgeous The Kitchen at Bed Bath & Beyond in East Hanover. Pam used to teach classes out of her house, but has since sold her house and moved to The Kitchen. After Thanksgiving, she gave a class in which we made a bunch of turkey based recipes: Turkey Chili with Sweet Potato, Corn & Black Beans (aka Chanukah Chili), Moroccan Turkey Meatballs with Onion Raisin Sauce and Turkey Wonton (less) Soup with Ginger & Lemongrass. All the recipes were delicious and easy, but it was the turkey chili that really blew me away. Five days after class, on the eve of Chanukah, I made it. 

Since it is now just my husband and me eating at home most nights, whatever I make in a big pot lasts a long, long time. This huge pot of chili seemed to last forever and was I glad! Every night, I added a little lime juice to it to soften it up. It only got better. After five days, I was getting a little sick of it, so put it in the freezer. Two days later, I started yearning for it, took it out again and ate it three days in a row. I sent a picture of the recipe to my older son, who worked in a restaurant in Maine for a while and is learning to cook. So when Debbie called me from the supermarket and asked me for the ingredients, I had the recipe on hand. Here it is:

Turkey Chili with Sweet Potato, Corn & Black Beans (aka Chanukah Chili)

2 tablespoons avocado oil
1 large onion, diced (I used red onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper (diced---I skipped this since we didn't have)
2 medium sweet potatoes, diced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 package 93/7 (lean, not fat-free) ground turkey, about 1 1/3 pounds
1 29 ounce can Fire Roasted Diced tomatoes (Muir Glen)
 1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rised
1 1/2 cups frozen corn (Pam recommends Trader Joe's roasted frozen corn, but we didn't have that)
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Topping options:
Grated sharp cheddar cheese
Avocado, sliced or diced
Chopped cilantro
1 lime juice (I used this)
Red onion, sliced
Tortilla chips

1. Heat oil in a soup size pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, green pepper, sweet potato, cayenne and chili powder. Saute until tender, about 5 minutes.
2. Add ground turkey, breaking it up as it cooks, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes, with juices, and the beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 25 minutes. (Can partially cover pot.)
4. Add corn to pot and continue to simmer for 5 more minutes If too thick, add a little water to think it out. Taste for salt & pepper and serve.

This can last 8-9 days, in the fridge, and a lot of time in the freezer. Add lime juice to moisten.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Love Deserves Better Than That: Sigrid Nunez's The Friend

Sigrid Nunez's new novel, The Friend, which just won the National Book Award for Fiction, is one of the most compelling and beautiful novels I've ever read. It reads like a memoir and perhaps, in its way, it is. The first-person narrator, a writer/teacher, loses her dear friend/former lover/mentor/professor to suicide, and the book is addressed to him, an unnamed "you." The friend leaves her his dog---an enormous, sweet Great Dane named Apollo, who becomes her savior and soulmate. The book is a love letter to the friendships that form between teachers and students, men and women, humans and dogs. It is also a meditation on what it's like to be a working writer battling grief and contemplating the lure of suicidal ideation in 2018: 

"Stevie Smith calling Death the only god who must come when he's called tickled you pink, as did the various ways people have said that were it not for suicide they could not go on. Walking with Samuel Beckett one fine spring morning, a friend of his asked, Doesn't a day like this make you glad to be alive? I wouldn't go as far as that Beckett said.

Nunez was briefly my professor in grad school and once wrote on the top of a writing exercise, "Be careful of showing too much anger." The narrator in this novel has much to be angry about---she lives in a small apartment and risks being evicted for having a dog---and one that poops in the house. "Jesus, it smells like a stable, said a delivery man. Someone else said zoo." She teaches insufferable twentysomethings in an unnamed MFA program, one of whom wants her to take a questionnaire before enrolling in her class and asks in an email, "Are you overconcerned with things like punctuation and grammar?"  The narrator sees a therapist, who is occasionally astute. She spends holidays alone. She is celibate. 

But she doesn't get angry, just bemused and sometimes amused by the unexpected lessons and blessings her friend's death bring to her in the form of his dog. Her friend left behind a third wife, who doesn't want Apollo, and Apollo has been standing by the front door, keening, as he waits for the friend to return home. When the late friend's wife puts the dog in a kennel, she explains to the narrator why: "You can't explain death to a dog. He didn't understand that Daddy was never coming home again. He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn't even eat. I was afraid he'd starve to death. But the worst part was, ever once in a while, he'd make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever." The wife pauses, and asks the narrator: 
"Oh, I know it's a lot to ask, but I really want to get the poor thing out of the damned kennel! If I bring him home, though, I swear he'll spend the rest of his life waiting by the door. And he deserves better than that, don't you think?
Yes, I think, my heart breaking.
You can't explain death. 
And love deserves better than that."

Love does deserves better than that. This is ultimately a book about the enduring power of love and how the memories of loving and being loved can help us find new love. The narrator's attachment to her dead friend's memory and his (mostly benign, though also predatory) influence over her, and to the canine friend he left behind, is funny, wry, intense and passionate. This is one of the most intimate books I've ever read, though nothing erotic happens.  Her yearnings for her friend, her efforts to understand why he took his own life amount to her own version of canine keening. But you finish the novel concluding the narrator has gained more than she has lost.

If you have a dog, and/or have ever lost someone you miss profoundly, read this book. I couldn't put it down.

Friday, November 2, 2018

David Sedaris' Calypso

I spent three days gobbling up David Sedaris's new book, Calypso. It's a book of essays that adds up to a memoir, about his relationship with his immediate family and his boyfriend. His mother was an alcoholic and one of his sisters committed suicide but the book still manages to be laugh out loud funny, despite the darkness and some of his more disturbing confessions. In the chapter, "The Spirit World," he writes about his sister, Tiffany:

"The last time I saw my sister Tiffany was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I'd just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say 'David. David, it's me. ' 
We hadn't spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn't have been more than forty-give. 'It's me, Tiffany.' She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she'd found them in a trash can. 'I have something for you.'  There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, 'Will you close that please?' I had filled the house that night. I was in charge---Mr. Sedaris. 'The door,' I repeated. 'I'd like for you to close it now.' "

Sedaris never saw or spoke to his sister again. She died by overdose and asphyxiation four years later.  It's a singularly appalling moment in an otherwise (mostly) warm and loving book, but kudos to Sedaris for admitting to being such a schmuck, out loud and in print. 

In "Why Aren't You Laughing?," Sedaris paints a loving portrait of his mother, who, despite her alcoholic rages and self-destructive tendencies, was a master storyteller who taught her kids the art of story-telling and sent them loving notes and money when they needed it. In other essays, Sedaris writes about his obsession with his Fitbit, his love affair with a fox named Carol, getting a 6-day stomach virus and performing anyway, his staunchly Republican father, his efforts to feed his own tumor to his favorite snapping turtle in North Carolina, and the number of lovers his boyfriend had before they met. 

If you don't want to read the whole book, here is a l
ink to "Why Aren't You Laughing?", an essay about the highs and lows of life with his mother, and  a link to "Now We Are Five", an essay about what happened to his immediate family after his sister passed away.  You can also listen to Sedaris read "Now We Are Five" on This American Life. But I suggest buying or borrowing the whole book. You won't be able to put it down.

Syllabus: NYC Winter 2019 Writing Workshop Starts January 22

One of my favorite activities is developing a new syllabus.  I teach in six and ten week sessions and spend a few days every two or three ...