Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Pittsburgh

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.

The Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014

photo (11)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

The unceasing wonder of the internet (and Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11)

. . . exists, among other places, in the fact that sometimes your blog subjects write back. And are completely kind and nice about it.

In the comments of that piece today, I found Billie Nardozzi had written in! Just go to the above link, scroll down to the comments, and experience my unfolding wonder as it happened.

This brings me to my Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11: people here are really, really nice. Like continue-to-surprise-you-with-their-niceness nice. (I had the idea recently for a mural (or a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or whatever), in the vein of Austin, Tx.’s “Keep Austin Weird,” that would read “Keep Pittsburgh Polite.” I still think it’s not a bad idea.)

Reason to Love Pittsburgh #8

The “Random Acts of Kindness” column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I just love it.

For the sappy reasons you’d think, having to do with faith in humanity and the milk of human kindness and so on. But also because there’s such lovely Pittsburgh textures in these messages, and because, if you live here, you can convince yourself these stories wouldn’t be told everywhere else in the world.

Here’s an example, from the March 21st installment:

“Thirty minutes later I realized I didn’t have the [lost credit] card and hurried back to that lane, where I asked the assistant if she had found it. She had not. She directed me to the customer service counter, saying, ‘Don’t worry — this is Pittsburgh!'”

Also to wit, the opener from one of today’s “Random Acts of Kindness”:

“I had occasion to have a buffet luncheon and soft drink at the Pizza Hut located in Brentwood Towne Square.”

Oh, Lord. Oh, Pittsburgh.

P.S. Here is a link with all of the other reasons to love Pittsburgh. There are many more than eight, but I’ve been going slowly.

True stories of the clueless

Right off, I’ll warn you that this is going to be a bit meaner than many of my previous blog posts. But I believe the joy I take in this person’s failure is well-earned, in this case.

Here’s the background: I administer the social media accounts for a large university. It’s fun: my job is to post things several times a day on Facebook and Twitter, and to some extent to engage with people on those sites. What’s more, I’ve got some flexibility and I’m able to come up with ideas, implement them, and get the immediate gratification (or, sometimes, the lack of it) of getting “likes,” retweets, and appreciative comments (or, again, snarky comments).

A case in point was this Monday. It was April 1; i.e., April Fool’s Day. I had what I thought was a great idea for a post. I worked on doctoring up a photograph on Friday and would periodically think about this joke throughout the weekend, sort of chuckling to myself.

(Very briefly, yet more background: at this large university, there is a very tall, gothic-looking building where a couple of peregrine falcons like to nest. There’s a webcam set up on them, and lots of great photos have been appearing over the last week (like this one, taken from the great “Outside My Window” bird blog) as one of the falcons has been laying her eggs for the year. It’s been great fodder for Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve milked it to the fullest extent.)

The idea was the image you see below: Dorothy, the new mother, having laid one additional egg: a dragon’s egg, from Game of Thrones (which, neatly enough, had had its season 3 premiere the night before).

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Is it great Photoshopping? Of course not. But is it fun? Certainly.

So, cut to the purpose for my writing this. Several hours later, several dozen “likes” and retweets and friendly comments in, the comment in the following photo appears. (The names of certain people have been blacked out to protect them in their naivete.)

Dum dum 2 fixed

In case you can’t read it, the person writes, “nice joke, SET THE BIRD FREE!”

There are great responses in the rest of the comments, most asking, “Is that an April Fool’s joke, too?” One or two people pointed out that, what, this bird is totally free already. Then, some wonderful person pointed out what I had realized, but didn’t dare mention in my capacity as account administrator: this commenter had several weeks previous made the same comment, demonstrating an apparent belief that this photo shows a peregrine falcon in a dingy cage, for some reason enslaved by the major research university and elite public educational institution that employs me. (For the record, via the National Aviary, here is a web cam with more information about the whole set-up. Suffice it to say, these falcons are quite literally as free as birds.)

I could not resist clicking the person’s name to find out what his/her deal was. Lo and behold, I found the image below:

Dum dum 1 fixed

The person shared the photo on his/her own Facebook page, with a message reading, “To all my fellow animal activists will you send [the name of the university (written incorrectly, I can’t help pointing out)] a little message about the importance of freedom, look at where they have this noble creature!”

Oh, dear God.

I shouldn’t jump on this person too much, because one of his/her friends later commented that it appeared the peregrines were free indeed, and just perched in this spot, and the person basically acknowledged this. But come on. There is something about someone jumping to a conclusion like this, granting zero credit and being so swift to be outraged, that their being mistaken and my having the opportunity to revel in it is just. Irresistible. That it was all unfolding on April Fool’s made it that much sweeter and more poignant.

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »

Brief Menu Item Reveals Inescapability of Steelers Football in Pittsburgh

From the weekly menu of Zenith, a great vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store in the south side neighborhood of Pittsburgh:

POLAMALU (need you to play) WRAP

BLACK BEANS, RICE, PINEAPPLE, YELLOW  PEPPERS, COCONUT AND ONIONS IN A SPICY TROPICAL SAUCE WRAPPED IN A FLOUR TORTILLA

If this were just “Polamalu Wrap,” you could suspect the scrawny vegetarians at Zenith of pandering to Pittsburgh’s well-known obsession with its NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The revealing touch here is the parenthetical plea to Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ otherworldly, locally beloved free safety, to get back in the game. (If you want to know why Polamalu is beloved, among other reasons, check out either one of these videos of him diving into the crowd during the Steelers’ 2005-06 and 2008-09 Super Bowl victory parades.)

If a Washington, DC vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store served the “Orakpo Wrap,” I’d similarly suspect those pale, feckless herbivores of pandering to that town’s football crowd. But if they served the “Orakpo (Really Going to Miss You) Wrap,” I’d be impressed, as I am in the case of the Polamalu Wrap, and surprised. You just don’t expect the same level of casual football knowledge among residents in other cities. Here, it’s sort of de rigeur. (Orakpo, by the way, is Brian Orakpo, linebacker of the Washington Totally Racist Team Name. You may recognize the name from his appearances alongside a caveman in these Geico commercials. He was injured this past week and will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. I’d never cheer anyone’s getting injured but Washington fans’ loss is the Philadelphia Eagles’ gain.)

Steelers fanship in Pittsburgh is serious and widespread enough that it’s spawned a sort of backlash contingent of people who sniff and tell you, in the same tone they might use to inform you that they never watch television, and in fact don’t own a television set at all, that they don’t follow the Steelers, or football in general. Among fans of other teams, too, there’s a sort of common response of despising the Steelers and rooting against them. (A few weekends ago I was in Cleveland for the Eagles’ home opener against the Cleveland Browns. On the way out of the game there was some mostly calm discussion between Browns fans and Eagles fans (who were, in total, surprisingly numerous there in (the refreshingly named) Cleveland Browns Stadium), and it turned out one gnarled, hard-living couple in Eagles jerseys was from Pittsburgh. “We hate the Steelers, though,” the man said hastily to a guy in a Browns jerseys. His female companion turned and nodded that this was so. When they got outside, the two men shook hands and the Eagles fan, in parting, raised a fist and said, “Let’s both beat the Steelers this year” and they were joined in solidarity re: beating the Steelers. (This year teams in the NFC East play those in the AFC North, so the Eagles and Browns will indeed both be playing the Steelers.))

More telling, though, is the number of people you’ll find in the supermarket during Steelers games (which I watch part of, usually; if I’ve gone through the drama, the heartache and/or euphoria, of a Philadelphia Eagles game, I have no more patience or emotional energy to then watch the Steelers as well). You would think that Giant Eagle would be a ghost town during the game, but enough people have made the same simple mental calculation—All those sheep will be inside, glued to the tube, rooting for their ‘Stillers,’ drinking their ‘Ahrn City,’ etc., I’ll have the run of the place!—that it’s often no less crowded than it is on a Saturday morning, or midway through the evening on a weeknight.

The backlashers, people who hate the Steelers or who are indifferent but nevertheless organize their Sundays around the team, have always seemed to me to be caught in a simple binary trap: love the Steelers or hate them, they still seem to know exactly when the game is on, and to plan accordingly. Steelers football is just kind of the water you swim in in Pittsburgh, which is a crucial difference between the sports culture here versus nearly anywhere else.

Review of “Abbott Awaits” at Hot Metal Bridge

I wrote a book review of Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and it’s up at Hot Metal Bridge (which is also up to lots this summer: you should check out the winners of their fiction and non-fiction contests).

Shorter review of Abbott Awaits: it’s good. Oh man, it is really good. Probably my favorite novel this year, and up there for the past five years. I like Bachelder’s stuff a lot: U.S.! and, to a lesser extent, Bear v. Shark, are precisely written, fun, and thoughtful books. But Abbott Awaits is a leap into a new category for Bachelder. I explain and justify all of this in the review, so rather than babbling more about how much I liked the book, go check it out.

(Also, just read as implied here notes of embarrassment and apology over having not updated the blog in about two months. As it happens, I’ve been busy, the sort of busy where there’s plenty to report but little time or inclination to report it. I wish I could say it will be the last time, but who knows. Anyway, look for more frequent dispatches in the near term.)

New Story

I have a piece of flash fiction up over at Prick of the Spindle, a great online lit mag publishing lots of interesting fiction, non-fiction, interviews, and (I will have to take others’ word on this) poetry. My story is called “Root Canal” and is about, yes, a time I had a root canal. It’s very strongly connected, in my mind, to my first year in Pittsburgh. Not only did I have the aforementioned root canal then, but the other thing in the story—a noisy upstairs neighbor—was also a big factor in my life. Reading over it now really takes me back to those heady days in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. Anyway, I’m quite proud of it and excited to be published in Prick of the Spindle.

Notes on “The Next Three Days”

After missing it in theaters and taking my sweet time about having Netflix send me a copy, this weekend I finally checked out The Next Three Days, the Russell Crowe film that shot in Pittsburgh over the summer and fall of 2009. I felt compelled to watch it—and guilty that I so far hadn’t—because my brother worked on the film as a locations assistant, crashing on my futon for at least part of his stay in Pittsburgh.

I can’t really offer a comprehensive review of the film. Read the rest of this entry »