Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based fiction writer

Tag: Fiction

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.

New fiction alert

I have a short story up at the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs, in its “Beauty” issue.

The story, “Polish Polka Band,” is one of the first I wrote after finishing graduate school, and it’s one of my favorites.

Also of note, this was probably the easiest time I’ve had of the process between acceptance and publication. Usually there’s a bit of a wait, during which there may or may not be edits to sort through, and an author bio is requested. It’s not arduous work by any means, but whenever I’m lucky enough to have a story accepted I anticipate it. With Halfway Down the Stairs, however, there was none of that. The story was accepted around May 26 or so; I wrote back saying, “Great! Thank you!”; the issue went live on June 1, with my story in it; my author bio was extracted neatly from the meaty second paragraph of my cover letter. Easy!

Free Box #5: Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?

“Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?” is the title of my undergraduate thesis in creative writing. I’m alarmed to find it’s more than 10 years old.

It was doing absolutely nothing, hanging out in a filing cabinet, so since I have a scanner and a website, I thought I’d post it. It’s quite a bit of writing, especially for an undergrad: 60 pages comprising two stories, three poems, one essay, and a tough-to-define thing that I guess you could call a story. (It’s text that was screen-printed onto a t-shirt as part of a group art project; see the very last page of the document and decide for yourself.) I’ve improved as a writer since then, certainly, but I remain fairly proud of a lot of this writing

Anyway, here’s Old Testament Beard Where Have You Been All My Life?.

 

Viktor and Rolf

Today I read a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal about Viktor and Rolf, a fashion design duo who are widely considered to be among the weirdest in the business. (Sadly, the article itself is paywalled, but you can get a flavor for it by watching a video interview with the journalist here.)

The gist is that they take huge risks with their runway shows, risks that have earned them fans and harsh critics. Some examples include having big cartoony letters popping out of models’ clothes; dresses with holes that make it look like an enormous mouse ate through the fabric; and, most notoriously, having models carry their own lighting rigs down the runway.

I’m disappointed that I can’t link to the article, because it is subtly hilarious in the two designers’ responding to questions about this or that fashion show with, essentially, “Yeah, people hated that. Maybe we went too far.” It reminded me of a certain kind of short story, that verges on a humor piece, with the descriptions of the failed or ill-conceived fashion designs growing more complex and outlandish. It also reminds me quite a bit of Steven Millhauser’s story “A Change of Fashion,” (this too is hidden behind a subscribers-only paywall, but read a bit more about it here or here) which basically describes dresses becoming ornate and involved to the point that women can’t move in them and they are these giant structures within which women hang out, invisible to the outside world. This was actually the first Millhauser story I read and I found it completely astonishing because it doesn’t really observe the usual rules of rising action, climax, and denouement—or at least it doesn’t obviously follow them—but seems to describe a process growing more and more involved, stopping at an absurd point with Millhauser then “escaping” from the story (as an old professor put it) via a few beautiful, evocative phrases at the conclusion.

Anyway, it is always interesting to see life evoking art, if not imitating it, and I always love reading journalism and nonfiction that could in some way pass for fiction.

Update: I tracked down a print copy of the paper and can present a few choice excerpts that will support what I say above.

Q: What was the point, for your fall 2007 collection, of making models carry their own individual lighting and sound systems while walking in huge wooden clogs?

Rolf Snoeren: That show in particular was one where afterward we thought well, maybe we took it a little bit too far.

Viktor Horsting: We overstepped a boundary. We wanted that every girl wuld be her own performance–her own universe, as it were–

RS: Of course, all of that was lost in the collective embarrassment.

. . .

[Question about the show where models wore giant letters and words popping out of their clothes]

VH: That show wasn’t really well received either. . . .

. . .

Q: Then there was the time you piled your whole collection on Kristen McMenamy, then undressed her on the catwalk, placing each item one by one on other models.

VH: That I would never do again because I think we were very lucky that everything went well because it could have gone horribly wrong. . . .

Another Great Writing Opportunity

Following up on this earlier post about a great (read: terrible) “ghostwriting” opportunity, here’s an ad I came across on Pittsburgh’s Craig’s List for fiction writing assistants.

As you’ll see, this sweet opportunity involves taking the ad-poster’s outline and . . . well, writing his/her novel, it appears. The successful candidate will have excellent grammatical skills, write quickly, and be able to make revisions quickly.

Okay, so it’s a ghostwriting gig. The person who posted this ad has an idea but isn’t good with words and just wants to pay someone to write it up. So let’s scroll down to the bottom where it mentions pay and see how much . . . Oh. Oh my. “Compensation: no pay.”

I won’t go on, because you probably get the picture. This crumb doesn’t mention anything about the successful applicant getting course credit, because he/she either doesn’t care or hasn’t thought that far ahead. What may be most audacious, though, is that applicants are asked to submit not only 1,000 words of writing but to spend additional time writing a 500-word statement asking for this person’s consideration. Does the poster think this is an attractive offer? Maybe he/she should mention literally any benefit the writing assistant(s) will derive from this arrangement.

My post about the ghostwriting gig was rather light-hearted, but this ad irked me so much I actually posted a response on CL. Was I too harsh? I don’t think so. It never fails to annoy me when I peruse CL or elance and see the rates people consider fair for writing (or editing or proofreading). I’m inclined to say that writing is not day labor, but that’s a faulty comparison because people have a better sense of the effort and skill involved in day labor. And I doubt you’d ever see someone get day laborers to build a patio or spread gravel around a driveway for no money by calling it an “internship.”

Update: Some time after I posted this, the person who posted the original, offending CL ad must have come to his/her senses (or, maybe, was adequately shamed by my response) and yanked the ad. So, you’ll have no luck following the link above. I imagine I’ve given a decent enough impression of the gist of the ad from the above takedown, however.

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.

AWP Post-Mortem: What Was That?

This past weekend I went to the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP, though obviously it would more accurately be “AWWP”) in Washington, DC. It was fun. I got to see some great writers read, among them Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shtyengart. I got a good, large dose of Richard Bausch, who is as entertaining, wise, and funny in person as are his stories. (Actually, he’s way funnier than his stories, which rarely “work blue,” in contrast to the man.) And I dropped in on a couple panels preoccupied with my own preoccupation, making a living as a writer (while not giving up on my personal, creative work).

But as I made my way back to Pittsburgh, the dominant feeling was something like “So that was AWP.” Kind of a flat feeling, like “Why did I do that again?” My hope for the conference was that I’d come out of it hungry to write, inspired by what I’d seen and heard. And while that sort of happened, to a greater extent, it didn’t.

I’d been to AWP once before, three years ago when it was held in New York. But in some ways I considered this my first conference because in New York I slept on a friend’s air mattress up in Queens, and it seemed that my days divided neatly into AWP Time and Friend Time. AWP Time featured panels and perusing the tables at the Bookfair. Friend Time began with a subway ride north, and was centered more on bars and strip clubs, with not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. In the time between conferences, I’d come to understand that a lot of AWP’s value stemmed from networking, and that a lot of that was done outside of panels and the Bookfair, at off-site events and over drinks (though never, that I’ve heard, at off-site events hosted by strip clubs, or over watered-down strip-club drinks).

My first reaction to the “flat” feeling mentioned above was that the trip was a waste of money and time (during which I got zero writing done, it bears mentioning). I opined to my traveling companion that it would have been better to do a writer’s retreat kind of deal, where a part of each day was spent actually writing.

That’s probably true, but in the fullness of time—two days later—I think that such a reaction misunderstands AWP’s purpose. I have a friend from grad school whose AWP schedule was positively packed, and the reason is that he attended a few of those writer’s-retreat deals—Breadloaf, Sewanee—and met a lot of people there. AWP’s function seems more to refresh those connections.

And/or to solidify them. My roommate, Sal “Chugg-a-Lugg” Pane, knows a lot of literary people only by way of the internet. It was interesting to see him talking with people in person whom he’s “known” for some time, but never actually met. (These observations also served to bring home the fact that a lot of literary people are quite awkward in person.)

These are incomplete thoughts, but when an experience feels flat or vaguely unsatisfying, it’s usually useful to think about why that is, and whether or not you’re “doing it” wrong. (Heh, heh.) I didn’t do AWP wrong, exactly, but it was less than it could have been. The way to do it, it seems to me, is to use AWP as a meeting space for old friends, understanding that it’s not going to help your writing transcend previous limitations, but, if done correctly, it might help you renew your commitment to the writing life.

Seemingly Unrelated Addendum: The writer Pam Parker (whose blog, Finding Meaning with Words, is well worth your time), is a Green Bay Packers fan and jokingly suggested some kind of wager between the two of us (as the Packers just played the Pittsburgh Steelers, my local team, in Super Bowl XLV). Nothing came of it, but in the spirit of friendly sports-wagering between writers, I thought I should acknowledge this “rivalry” and give Pam a small shout-out for having backed the winning team. Congratulations to the Packers, who also mowed down my real team, the Philadelphia Eagles, en route to becoming champs.

(This addendum is related, in case you are wondering (and still reading), because the Super Bowl was the culmination of my long, eventful weekend—i.e., I was home for maybe 90 minutes before kickoff—and thus the conference and the game are tightly linked in my mind.)

On Teaching (and Learning) How to Write the Novel

If you’re inside a particular literary circle already, this is old news to you. If not, writer and teacher (formerly in Pitt’s MFA program) Cathy Day has an insightful article over at The Millions entitled “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” (Her original title was the less-provocative “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book.'”) Basically, it makes the point that most creative-writing programs are centered around the short story, rather than the novel, and goes from there.

It’s fascinating reading for anyone who’s concerned with this stuff. I suspect it’s even more crucial if you’re teaching a creative writing class, or enrolled in one; it looks like there’s been tons of commentary below the article itself.

For myself, I found the “problem” Cathy Day points to weirdly inspiring. (Quotes around “problem” because, as per her original title, it’s not so much a problem as it is the state of things, for better or for worse; she suggests “think[ing] outside the workshop” but isn’t more specific than that, which is fine since the piece is more a conversation-starter than a prescription for change.)

And by that I mean that I’m pleased to know that the novel remains outside the reach of academia. I don’t believe in the “MFA effect” or that there really exists an “MFA story.” In fact, I kind of hate that kind of argument. And yet, I do think that MFA programs have had a leveling effect on the craft side of things, allowing lots of decent writers to craft good-enough stories that eventually find homes in journals but which are not often worth reading. I guess that’s harsh, but my experience with most lit mags is more akin to a buffet than a feast: I try a little of this story, then move on to the next. Most are well-written, but fail to convince me to care about what happens in them.

I like, by contrast, that writing a novel remains a major feat, a challenge that workshops can prepare one for, but only so much. Cathy Day cites John Barth’s distinction of “sprinters” and “marathon runners” among writers, and I like that. Plenty of people run a marathon each year: I’ve seen estimates of about 500,000 Americans. But that’s something like five percent of all the people who ran at least one road race in a year, and less than two percent of Americans. It’s a strikingly uncommon phenomenon, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to do.

Both novel writing and running a marathon are difficult because of the sheer volume of work that goes into both. A personal trainer can give you tips on marathon training, and might even accompany you on a few runs. But unless he or she is really well-paid and/or really dedicated, you’ll be doing some of those runs alone, and you’ll have to get yourself up at 6 a.m. at least some of the time. The same idea seems to hold when it comes to novel writing, and it’s this problem that Cathy Day illuminates: a workshop can do a really good job evaluating the first chapter of your novel, but after that the volume of work it would take to properly critique the thing becomes prohibitive.

I guess that that’s what I like, that for some things the only answer is to work through it. Sure, there are running groups organized around a specific race, and you can form a group of friends who’re all writing their novel. But you’ve got to press every key yourself, just like you’ve got to take every stride. The act of keeping it up, of getting down to work and keeping your seat, isn’t something anyone else can teach. And I like that.

Noveling

I wanted to share a novel-writing resource I’ve found useful over the last few weeks, as I’ve changed course while working on my novel. As usual, I’ve gone on at length in the run-up to sharing this valuable resource, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for outlining a novel, so I’ll link to it here in case you’d rather not wade through the waist-high verbiage below.

In a nutshell, I became frustrated with the increasing aimlessness of my novel. I had what I thought was a good idea of where it was going, what the various threads were, and so forth. But each scene seemed inessential, even dull. I felt like I was writing only for the purpose of getting that day’s word count in. I could all too easily see to the end of this process, when I’d have a first draft I didn’t care to revise, and would be faced with re-writing the entire thing.

I thought, “What will I do before the second draft to make this less of a mess?” The best answer was that I’d look through, see what I had, and rigorously plot out the second draft based on the storylines and characters I’d worked out. This satisfied me for about thirty seconds before the obvious occurred to me: why not plot it out beforehand?

I’ve never worked that way before. I’m not ideological about it, though; I just think it’s fun to free write, catch a hint of where this thing is going, and then follow it there. I think Stephen King, in his surprisingly great On Writing, describes this method as something like finding dinosaur bones in the ground and then just following the process of excavating them. I’ve found that solid . . . but it’s never worked for me for the novel. Part of what gave me pause as my novel went along in its bumbling fashion was that I’ve been here before. I’ve written two novels, and each one I wrote more than once. That thing I said about getting to the end of a first draft and not caring to revise it? Yeah, I was very much speaking from experience on that one. (I would argue that my first novel is more like three novels, since each one shifted focus quite a bit.)

So I was left with the alternative: to plot. (I should stop and confess this is hardly a new dilemma for a writer to face; so much so, the website for National Novel Writing Month has at least one forum thread dedicated to the “Plotters versus Panters” (i.e., by the seat of your pants) schools of thought, and there are over 70,000 Google results for that search phrase. (Interestingly, “Plotters versus Panthers” turns up about eight times more results. Go figure.))

I looked around the internet for resources or advice on outlining a novel. Read the rest of this entry »

Further Franzen

Making steady progress through Freedom, which thus far is impressive and engrossing. The novel should be, and is, of special interest to me given the navel-gazing I’ve done in the past (see here and here for starters) on the subject of the mainstream novel, meant to garner millions of readers; implied in those dispatches was the notion that the literary novel belonged elsewhere. Franzen’s novel, of course, is a “literary” book that also aspires to bestseller status; Franzen has talked about his task of making the work so compelling one turns away from television and video games.

As a preface to registering a minor complaint about Freedom, let me say as clearly as possible that I greatly dislike this guy, B. R. Myers (at whom I took an earlier swipe here). He seems not to derive any pleasure from reading, only smug satisfaction from knocking down popular and approved-of books and writers. He has an unreasonable fixation on prose, too, to the seeming exclusion of all the myriad other elements that make a work of fiction go. And that is from someone who occasionally feels he is unreasonably fixated on prose style, who has wrestled with some of the same writers Myers trashes in his A Reader’s Manifesto—Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy among others—and in some instances tossed their books across the room.

With all that said, I start to wonder if Myers isn’t onto something, regarding Franzen’s prose, when I read sentences like this:

“She was a very good and painfully earnest and strenuously mature young person whose exasperation with Patty and Joey—her feckless mom, her ruthless brother—was seldom so extreme as not to seem comical” (171).

I hate this sentence because it is really quite masterful for about 3/4ths of its duration. Franzen uses rhythm to get away with out-and-out telling; nothing concrete here, nothing to be seen, heard, or felt. He keeps a beat even as he interrupts himself: feckless mom, ruthless brother. And in terms of telling us this, it all is perfectly satisfying and appropriate within the context of the story: this is a section where the main character, Patty Berglund, is sharing her autobiography; Franzen is using the fairly sophisticated trick of having a character write about herself in the third person, and having the “character” in that text (now at an extra remove or two from Franzen’s  third-person creation of the Patty Berglund character) reflect on the character’s daughter, Jessica, and what she thinks of her mother and brother. The sentence falls, too, within an immediate context of a couple stitched-together scenes involving Patty and the novel’s most interesting character, Richard Katz, a sexy musician and an old Berglund family friend.

All of which makes it mildly infuriating to come to the far side of that second em dash and have to stop flat. Wait. Seldom so extreme . . . not to be comical. So she’s rarely extreme, and it’s not funny. Or no, she’s seldom so extreme that it’s actually funny? This clause reads like a Mobius strip, and though the following sentences and a feel for the novel and the character, Jessica, tell me the meaning—she is so extreme it is funny (see how clear things can be when you strip away double negatives?)—by the time I decided to let it go, I’d come to a dead stop.

It’s just one sentence, and I’m sure by the time I hit page 562 of Freedom it’ll be long forgotten. But these are the kinds of lapses that, accumulating over the length of a book, can make it less readable, less engrossing, less magical than a book otherwise could be.