Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Pittsburgh Copywriter

“Scaffolding” in fiction writing

I’ve had the post below saved as a draft for a while, and was inspired to go back to it after reflecting, today, on the conclusion of a really wonderful session of the fiction workshop that I’ve been teaching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts over the last two or so years. (Shameless plug: another session of the workshop is starting April 6.)

I like to open each class with some discussion of an open-ended question. I do it because writing is such a solitary art form that a little time to compare notes, commiserate, and try to talk a little about how we do what we do (or what we’re trying to do) can be really important and really encouraging for writers, myself included. Also it’s a great way to ease into class before the students have to hear me lecture on plot, point of view, character, etc.

Some questions are better than others, and last night I came up with a good one: where does meaning—“theme,” that quality in a story of its being “about” something—come from? Do you start out thinking, “This story is going to be about human avarice and greed,” or “I’m going to write a novel about fathers and sons”? Or do you just write, and do something like hope a meaning develops? Or look for meaning only later, when you’ve thrown a few thousand (or more) words on the page?

It was a great discussion, and if there was any consensus it’s that your work will usually surprise you: that fathers-and-sons novel you had planned out so nicely will prove to have little to do with either fathers or sons, and that story where you just thought it would be fun to write about rodeo clowns might prove to have unexpected depths beneath the surface.

In any event, it got me thinking about an experience I had last spring and summer with a pair of stories, about which I started to write a blog post that I never finished. I’ve completed the thought and wanted to throw it out there in case it’s of any use or interest to anyone else in thinking about where not only meaning comes from, but where anything in a story comes from: the act/art of composition and the mystery of it.

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Two fiction classes at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

A note to plug two excellent classes being offered this winter through the fantastic Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA) (and yes, I am teaching one of them):

*”Fiction Writing I,” taught by Clare Beams, running from January 14 through March 10 (eight Thursday evenings, 6:30–9:30). Clare is a wonderful writer and teacher who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know through our involvement with the PCA. This fiction class incorporates elements of reading fiction carefully for craft elements, completing writing exercises to generate material and practice specific fictional skills, and some workshopping. It is a fantastic place to start if you’ve been dabbling in fiction writing, wanting to work on stories or a novel in a more focused and sustained way (or perhaps have made a New Year’s resolution to do so), or have a story you’d like to get some feedback on. Clare is a generous, knowledgeable, and fun guide to the art and craft of writing fiction.

*”Fiction II,” taught by . . . me! and running from February 1 to March 16 (seven Wednesday evenings, 6:30–9:30). I use many of the same approaches and techniques as in Fiction I, with the difference that in this course we jump much more quickly into sharing our work with the class, offering comments and constructive criticism through a basic fiction workshop model.

I like to say that this class is not necessarily for advanced students, or even students who’ve taken Fiction I, but is more for students who have material ready to share, and/or who have a writing process that works for them. We will still cover crucial fiction skills such as plot, character, point of view, details, etc., we will still read exemplary stories and novel excerpts from published authors, and we will still dedicate class time to writing exercises that will help you sharpen those skill areas. But we will do it while also giving time to a weekly workshop of two to three stories, requiring students to read their peers’ work with close attention, preparing to discuss the work in person and to hand their peers written comments responding to the work.

*

Every workshop I’ve had the pleasure of leading at the PCA (where I have been teaching for about 2–3 years now) has been a wonderful experience; it’s easily in the top two or three things I get to do each year.

And that’s true not just because I get to talk fiction for several hours each week, or because the students are so wildly talented (although they are), but because I get to spend that time with others who care about stories and writing. If you are aiming to get more serious about your writing, wish to pick up a lapsed writing habit, or are finding your solitary writing routine a little lonely, both these classes offer the gifts of community and commiseration—things that can make all the difference to a writer, especially one new at his or her craft. One of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher is the fact that a number of writing groups have spawned from these classes, as students have gotten comfortable enough with one another as writers and critiquers that they’ve sought to continue those conversations on their own.

One final plug for either or both classes is just to say that both Clare and I are graduates of Master of Fine Arts programs in fiction writing, and we both have taken liberally from those curricula, not only in terms of how we run our workshops but in the way we approach craft elements. (Speaking for myself, my mini-lectures on things like point of view and dialogue are based on observations I made during a really formative “Readings in Fiction” class taught by the writer Michael Byers when I was earning an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh.) To put it a little bluntly, both fiction classes offer a high level of information and instruction—a level you’d typically pay quite a lot for—at a very, very low price.

OK, plugging is over. I’ve never really discussed these classes here on my blog, and I’m not sure why, because they’re a lot of fun to teach and I think both courses, along with the PCA’s offerings as a whole (and those of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, its sister organization), are really awesome, a credit to Pittsburgh in general.

More new fiction

Another of my favorite stories has just been published, this time in After Happy Hour Review, a terrific and fast-growing literary magazine based in Pittsburgh and affiliated with the Hour After Happy Hour writers’ workshop, which I was fortunate enough to participate in over the summer.

The issue was launched with a fantastic reading and party last night, and it looks great, from the front cover to the back.

My story, “One Man in Three Parts,” is a bit of an oddball but has always been a favorite of mine. It involves impalement, the middle finger, sociology, and a priest, Don Guanella, whose name might be familiar to anyone who grew up in the specific geographic area that I did.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look into where this story came from: I wrote it during a period when I was obsessed with The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs triple album, and in particular this song, “Papa Was a Rodeo.” Especially, I was amazed by Stephin Merritt’s daring temporal leap in the last section of the song, which begins, “And now it’s 55 years later / We’ve had the romance of the century.” Early drafts contained lines and phrases in the vein of “Now it’s 55 years later.”

Then I revised and rewrote it many, many times over a period of years, periodically forgetting about it and rediscovering it. I did some last-minute tweaking before passing it on to the AHHR editors, and they were kind enough to take it.

New fiction at Ekphrastic

One of my favorite all-time stories, “Mr. Critic,” is now online at Ekphrastic: Writing and Art on Art and Writing, a cool literary magazine focused on the arts.

I wrote the story during graduate school and it’s undergone many iterations since that time (including dwindling from a ridiculous 50 pages to its current, more reasonable length). It’s told from the perspective of an art critic following an artist-provocateur whose specialty is upsetting installation work. There’s also a conservative-columnist character, possibly slightly reminiscent of a real public figure, who enters the story to complete the love triangle. I love this story and its characters so much, I’ve written two sequels and have a weird hybrid novella-in-stories chapbook planned, if I can only find a publisher who accepts chapbooks of 50-60 pages.

Anyway, please check out and enjoy Ekphrastic and “Mr. Critic.”

Summer Reading: “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

This summer I have been experiencing what a lot of my friends who teach have known of and enjoyed for some time: the stress and pleasure of living and working on a semester-by-semester basis. I’ve been looking over my list of the books I’ve read this year, and see that since the middle of May I’ve nearly doubled the number of books read up to that point.

That’s not the only pleasure of being “off” for the summer, of course. (And I’ll just say briefly that I have kept plenty busy with a number of different writing projects.) But it’s the one I want to focus on now and again over the rest of the summer, beginning with a book I’d heard a lot about for a while, and finally tackled this summer: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, first published in 1958, and first published in the United States in 1960.

Although I’d heard lots about The Leopard, I had no idea, really, what it was actually about. Is there a real living leopard in this thing, or what? I never knew before beginning. All I heard was that it was excellent.

Well, guess what. It is excellent. And there are no genuine, living, clawing leopards in the book. But Lampedusa’s slow, steady, consistently beautiful prose more than atones for the lack of wild animals. (Although a dog, Bendico, features prominently in the novel; Lampedusa called him the secret key to the whole novel, and he is a central player in the novel’s truly weird and beautiful ending image.)

In a nutshell, The Leopard traces the decline in influence of Don Fabrizio, his family, and his class of Sicilian gentry around 1860, when Garibaldi took over the island with aims to unite it with the rest of Italy. Fabrizio is the eponymous leopard, a giant, blond-haired man of delicacy and temper who’s both likeable and somewhat satisfying to see reduced by historical forces. After reading it, I can understand why I’d never heard too much detail about its plot, because the larger political intrigues and the familial ones—a nephew calculating whom to marry; a provincial neighbor wearing the wrong style of tails to dinner—don’t come across very powerfully when taken from their context.

What I’d like to do instead is offer this passage, which floored me. My wife and I were driving from Portland, Maine, back to Pittsburgh, and I asked her to read it aloud for me. (More on this trip in a subsequent post. Also, she was in the passenger seat during this reading.)

The ballroom was all golden: smooth on the cornices, uneven on the door frames, in a pale, almost silvery design against a darker background on the door panels and on the shutters annulling the windows, thus conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.

That solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache as he stood black and stiff in a doorway: this eminently patrician room reminded him of country things; the chromatic scale was the same as that of the vast wheat fields around Donnafugata, rapt, begging pity from the tyrannous sun; in this room too, as on his estates in mid-August, the harvest had been gathered long before, stacked elsewhere, leaving, as here, a sole reminder in the color of stubble burned and useless now. The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylization of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on the parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever and forever. The crowd of dancers, among whom he could count so many near to him in blood if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made up of that material from which are woven lapsed memories, more elusive even than the stuff of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Wow!!!

Forgotten poem fragment: “Coffee shop fart”

It’s important to me to write every day. I’m a writer; that’s what I do. But I’ve been writing every day for a long time and it’s become a habit that I find it irritating not to complete every day. It’s gotten to the point that I identify writing, along with some form of exercise, as really key to maintaining an overall positive state of mind.

One byproduct of doing this is that I will sometimes generate material that I later completely fail to recognize. It’s usually something I’m writing between projects, a brief idea that I explore and that turns out, a page or two later, to be nothing, or a writing exercise I make myself do just to get going.

I found a really striking example of this phenomenon today, looking through some old files. I don’t know what this was about or where I might have thought I was going with it, but finding it delighted me. I love everything about it, perhaps no element more than how little of it there is.

But enough hype. Here it is: “Untitled (Coffee shop fart)”:

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 4.25.13 PM

In case the screen shot isn’t displaying properly, the poem (dated 8/29/14) reads

Coffee shop fart fills

The pause between two songs

In the coffe

That’s it. Your guess is as good as mine.

This ‘n That: An All-Encompassing Update on Life, Work, and Other Stuff

It has been more than eight months since I last posted anything at all on this blog. (Here’s the last post, a triumphal and epic look back on my struggles with plantar fasciitis.)

Since that time a number of pretty substantial changes have occurred. The biggest and best is that I got married on May 24, 2014. My wife and I went on a honeymoon to Croatia and to Budapest, Hungary. (The Adriatic outside a hotel balcony, the islands off the coasts of Dubrovnik and Split, seem very distant now, as snow continues to fall on Pittsburgh for the 10th consecutive hour.)

About two months after we returned, I left a job I didn’t like much to embark on a new career. In August I began teaching at a couple of colleges in the Pittsburgh area, and also started ramping up my marketing and networking efforts in the area of freelance writing and editing. Since then I’ve gotten to work on some fantastic and interesting writing projects with organizations and publications I truly admire. As far as teaching, I had a bit of a trial by fire in that first semester—there are some days, and classes, I’d do over if I could—but I came through it with a better sense of how to teach, how to be myself in front of a classroom, how to structure classes so you don’t lose your mind during the last week of the term. I’m in my second semester now and the experience of that first semester has made a big difference.

The biggest adjustment has been learning to manage my time and not to become overly isolated. I’m writing this on a Monday night, late, in part because each Tuesday of this semester is entirely free—at least, free in the sense that I have no classes on Tuesdays, and nowhere to be. In reality, there are five writing projects I am chipping away at (not including my own fiction), a Wednesday-morning class to prepare for, and a long Thursday-evening class I have to at least be thinking about. I will be plenty busy. Tonight I see on social media that much of the eastern seaboard is preparing for a blizzard, eagerly anticipating being snowed out of their jobs. I want to join in, to switch between reading and watching Netflix all day long, but I can’t. Working from home has been a perfect fit for me, but I’m also high-strung enough that it’s made it difficult to relax, and sometimes tough to call an end to the day’s work.

So that is what has been going on. It doesn’t really explain the complete silence out of this blog, but I suppose we could pretend it was a perfect and reasonable excuse.

Plantar Fasciitis No More

Almost a year ago now I wrote a long account of my battle with plantar fasciitis, and wanted to update the record with some advice for anyone in the same boat.

First of all, I no longer have any real idea what was wrong with my foot, Achilles, posterior tibial tendon, calf, or any other part of my leg during that time. Plantar fasciitis is the handiest thing to call it based on the symptoms and likely cause (overuse). But after having rested my foot for the better part of a year and finding the discomfort still there, I have to believe something else was wrong. And the things I’ve tried and had success with since then have borne that out.

My road to recovery began with an e-mail from Runner’s World advertising the book Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof. It sounded like exactly what I needed: a book that would address any conceivable pain afflicting the feet and lower legs. I ordered it (not directly from Rodale Press for $25, as the e-mail suggested, but from Amazon for $14. (What is up with your pre-internet sales appeal, Rodale?))

I’d recommend Fixing Your Feet to anyone with foot problems from running, hiking, or the infliction of punishment from day-to-day activities. And I’m glad to have it on hand for future reference. But its real value to me lay in turning me on to another book that has made the greatest difference to my recovery.

That book is The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief by Clair Davies. Since checking it out of the library I’ve bought a copy for myself and one for a family member, and later pressed my copy onto a coworker who was having leg pain. (The book covers pain throughout the body, not just in the legs.)

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The Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014

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This weekend I had the good fortune of participating in the Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014, which raised funds for the extremely worthy Literary Arts Boom (LAB), a project run out of an awesome Pittsburgh nonprofit, Assemble. LAB is Pittsburgh’s answer to the 826 writing centers project from McSweeney’s and fills the same niche of tutoring kids in writing, publishing, making reading and writing fun, and so on.

A friend texted my fiancée and I about the spelling bee and, without too much reflection, I signed us both up.

I should say that I have a history with spelling bees. I participated in my middle-school spelling bee every year I was eligible (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades). I still remember each word that knocked me out: “raunchy” in sixth grade (“rawnchy”); “dormitory” in seventh (“dormitary”) . . . and the last one I’ll mention in a moment.

I love spelling bees; I love spelling. I always thought I was great at it in school, and I entered the spelling bee last Saturday feeling like I’d only gotten better over the ensuing years. Since eighth grade, I’ve graduated high school and college and earned a Masters degree in writing, and have accrued about a decade of experience as a professional proofreader, copyeditor, and writer.

Still, I didn’t have any expectations. I basically took it on faith that somewhere in Pittsburgh there existed a medieval Latin-reading philosophy grad student, or a wizened old doctor who knew all the derivations of a thousand polysyllabic conditions and syndromes, or an insomniac librarian with a photographic memory, who would show up and dominate the field with the detached cool and confidence of a spelling assassin.

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Just in time for the holidays: something I made

I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but I designed, laid out, and printed a 2014 calendar that replicates the French Republican Calendar, a historical curiosity used in France for about 12 years during the French Revolution. I think it looks pretty great, and am excited to have conceived the project and carried it through.

The calendar is now for sale at Etsy. Or you can get in touch with me (at adamreger [@] yahoo.com) if you’re interested.

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Read all about it, including what the French Republican Calendar was, over at the website I set up for my publishing venture, Dr. Homunculus Press.