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“Being a good writer is about listening and observing” | MWW19

Come meet poet Mitchell L.H. Douglas …

Mitchell L. H. Douglas is the author of dying in the scarecrow’s arms, \blak\ \al-fə bet\, winner of the Persea Books Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award, and Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem, an NAACP Image Award and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award nominee. His poetry has appeared in Callaloo, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press), The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books), Crab Orchard Review, and Ninth Letter,among others. He is a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets, a Cave Canem graduate, and Associate Professor of English at IUPUI.

 

Mitchell’s sessions for MWW19 include:

  • Form as Freedom – Sestina or villanelle, poetry will never lose its fascination with form. In recent years, poets have evolved from experiments with traditional sonnets and ghazals to creating forms of their own. In this workshop, participants will examine new innovations in poetic form (including Ruth Ellen Kocher’s Gigan, Terrance Hayes’s Golden Shovel, and workshop leader Mitchell L. H. Douglas’s invention, the Fret) and discuss how a mode of writing typically linked to restraint can also provide freedom.
  • Maps to Metaphor: Ekphrasis & the Outward Gesture– Metaphor is the sport of poets: the drawing of threads between seemingly disparate things that shows a reader just how cunning a writer can be. It’s also no easy feat. Ekphrastic poems, interpreting visual art in textual medium, is a natural way for poets to meet their greatest responsibilities. This workshop will employ works of art to craft poems that create original metaphors and connect your poems to the world outside the lines.
  • Writing Beyond Your Experiences – Ashley Hope Pérez, moderator. As writers, we are always making a leap outside of our own experiences, but doing so responsibly is especially important when we are engaging in narrative with communities we aren’t part of. What are the dos and don’ts of creating a diverse world in your stories? How does this effort matter to the quality of your writing? (Mitchell L.H. Douglas, Cole Lavalais, Larry Sweazy)
  • Line breaks (and a brief exercise to illustrate how effective breaks are made)

Lylanna Musselman, Midwest Writers Workshop board member, caught up with Mitchell and interviewed him for this Q&A.

 

MWW: Your new book of poems, dying in the scarecrow’s arms (Persea Books), is your third book of poetry. What is something you would like readers to take away from this collection?

MLHDdying in the scarecrow’s arms is a book of hope. It’s about having the determination to survive in the face of violence, knowing our worth, and wanting more: love, understanding-respect. The poems are explorations of these universal needs.

 

MWW: People are often intimidated by poetry (reading or writing), what would you say to someone who likes to write, but steers away from poetry?

MLHD: Being a good writer is about listening and observing. Be curious, go into the streets of your city and walk them like a tourist, like everything is new. Image is important to all imaginative writing, but it is particularly important to poetry. If you start with a strong image-something you witness that appeals to the senses-the rest will come naturally.

 

MWW: How did poetry become your genre of choice?

MLHD: I enjoyed writing short stories as a child, but I officially declared myself a poet in middle school. I was so taken by the political messages in the punk music I was listening to, I wanted to write songs with the same impact. Those song lyrics eventually morphed into poems.

 

MWW: As a cofounder of Affrilachian Poets, can you share a little about this group?

MLHD: We started as friends at the University of Kentucky and became a poetry family in 1991. Undergrads, graduate students, and a very popular professor new to UK (Nikky Finney) were among the first members. The name, which comes from cofounder and former Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker, speaks to the idea that people of color exist in Appalachia. Affrilachia, as we see it, is the 13-state region touched by the Appalachian Mountains: a special physical and spiritual space in the African Diaspora.

 

MWW: What are you working on now? Is there a new book in the works by chance?

MLHD: I have a few special things in the works that will surprise readers. I’m also superstitious, so I believe too much talking about what you’re working on is bad luck!

 

MWW: Finally, last question – when you’re not writing poetry what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

MLHD: Listening to jazz (a lot of jazz), visiting museums, pretending to be a photographer, and making beats. I am constantly creating a soundtrack for my life.

Get help to build authentic lives for your characters | MWW19

Come meet author Cole Lavalais …

Cole Lavalais’ work can be found in the Chicago Tribune, Obsidian, Apogee, Warpland, Tidal Basin Review, Aquarius Press, and others. Her novel, Summer of the Cicadas, was published by Willow Books in 2016. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for Black Fiction, VONA and the Callaloo Writing Workshops. She’s been awarded writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and The Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. She holds a M.F.A. from Chicago State University and a PhD. from University of Illinois at Chicago. She has taught writing for over twelve years and is the current Director of the Chicago Writers Studio and a faculty member of the Chicago State University M.F.A. program.

Cole’s sessions for MWW19 include:

  • Building Authentic Lives – This workshop will introduce you to strategies to imagine and develop compelling and authentic characters who leap off of the page.
  • Short Story 101 – This workshop will introduce you to the basic tools every good short story writer uses to create engaging and unique fiction. We will discuss plot, point of view, setting, dialogue, and character development.
  • Panel: Writing Beyond Your Experiences – Ashley Hope Pérez, moderator. As writers, we are always making a leap outside of our own experiences, but doing so responsibly is especially important when we are engaging in narrative with communities we aren’t part of. What are the dos and don’ts of creating a diverse world in your stories? How does this effort matter to the quality of your writing? (Mitchell L.H. Douglas, Cole Lavalais, Larry Sweazy)

Gail Werner, long-time friend of Midwest Writers Workshop, caught up with Cole recently and interviewed her for this Q&A.

MWW/GW:  Can you tell me more about your background and how you got into writing fiction?

Cole: I started writing about 20 years ago. I was working on my Masters degree in psychology, and my thesis supervisor mentioned something about writing a book based on my thesis research, and I got really excited at the mention of me writing a book. And I knew right then I was going to write a book, but it wasn’t going to be based on my research. Soon after I began writing my first novel.

MWW/GW: You write short stories and you published your first novel, Summer of the Cicadas, in 2016. Which style of writing comes more naturally to you-short stories or novel writing? Or do you enjoy writing both equally?

Cole: I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to short story collections growing up, so most of my models were novels. I only really began focusing on short stories after I finished my first novel because I didn’t have the energy to commit to my characters that a novel requires.  I figured in a shorter genre, I could write about them and be done with them in a couple of months.

MWW/GW: Where do you seek inspiration for your stories? Is there anything you do to generate ideas, other than wait for your “muse” to appear?

Cole: Luckily, I have never had a shortage of ideas for stories. I have more ides than I have time to write. Sometimes they come from a story I hear in passing or sometimes they come from those close to me. I’ve also been known to just make things up completely. I’m really good about unplugging in public, so I can watch and listen to the people around me. You’d be surprised to see the types of stories that will find you out and about in your every day life.

MWW/GW: One of your upcoming sessions at Midwest Writers 2019 is titled “Short Story 101”. I’ve heard it said that writing a short story is the perfect place to begin your writing career. Do you agree with that opinion? 

Cole: I do. The short story genre is the perfect place to hone your writing skills. If you can tell a whole entire story in 10 pages or 5 pages or 1 page, you are ready to tell a story in 300 pages. Writing the short story well teaches you about story structure and language that is easily translatable to longer genres.

MWW/GW: You were born and raised in Chicago, and you’re a founding director of the Chicago Writers Studio. Can you share your thoughts about the literary scene there? It seems like it’s really taken off, in recent years especially.

Cole: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, so things happening in one part of the city, aren’t really accessible to the other parts of the city. While the literary scene has definitely spread in the last five years, we can really do better supporting and hosting events all over the city.

MWW/GW: Can you share with us anything about what you are working on right now?

Cole: I’m currently working on a short story collection set in Chicago in the early 80’s and a novel set in a small town in Alabama.

MWW/GW: And lastly, when you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing? 

Cole: Sleeping, eating, and walking my dogs.

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Author Platform and Career Development Bootcamp with Jane Friedman!

An all-day bootcamp to help authors sort through various strategies, tools, and opportunities available

and what makes sense at this point in time for the next stage of their careers  

Midwest Writers board member Dianne Despain (writing as Dianne Drake for Harlequin), who got her start at MWW in 1993 and now has 57 books published, asked Jane Friedman about the Author Platform and Career Development Bootcamp intensive workshop she will teach at MWW19 (Saturday, July 27) this summer.

 

MWW: So first, who, exactly is your bootcamp directed toward?

Jane: It’s for published authors or soon-to-be-published authors (those with a release date) who want to develop a long-term, sustainable strategy for marketing and promoting their work.

Many authors are confused about how to prioritize the many marketing tools and opportunities available-and what makes sense for their particular genre or readership. By the end of this bootcamp, writers will have a clearer idea of what’s next for them-and if all goes well, an action plan with specific and concrete next steps for the year(s) ahead.

MWW: If you could list the top five things your bootcamp will address, what would they be?

Jane:

  • A strong definition and understanding of your target audience or readership. What is your understanding of your readership and who they are? How can you find out? Is there a potential readership you’re missing out on?
  • Optimization of your product (your books or anything else you do) and brand. How well are your books “optimized” to appeal to your target audience? Are you offering a coherent marketing message across everything you do? Are you using the language of readers to help your efforts?
  • Direct reach development. How do you reach readers currently, and what areas need shoring up? What opportunities are available to expand your direct reach? What does your own website, email newsletter, or social media analytics tell you about that reach and where the opportunities lie?
  • Lead generation. What strategies and tools do you use to reach new readers? How effective are your methods? What methods should you try?
  • Using the power of community to help you. What opportunities exist to improve your reach through collaborations, partnerships, and influencers?

MWW: Since you’re known for your nonfiction writing and advice, how will this workshop benefit fiction writers or poets?

Jane: My books and courses help writers from all across the industry. I focus on teaching marketing and business best practices that remain the same regardless of the genre you work in.

MWW: Is there an overall commonality between fiction and nonfiction when planning your career?

Jane: Regardless of what you write, the more you understand your target reader, how to reach them, and how to engage them, the more successful you’ll be at turning your writing into a sustainable business.

MWW (DD): I wrote for Women’s Day, Family Circle, etc. back in the day when they wanted words. The market has changed drastically since then, words counts are lower, pay is much lower, so is there a way to break into the magazine market today and make a living, or do magazine journalists need to seek out other types of writing to make ends meet?

Jane: It’s still possible to make a living as a freelancer, but it’s far more difficult to do so if focused strictly on getting paid by the print magazine market. Most freelancers have to diversify their business model and consider working for a range of outlets, print and digital, and consider work that readers might pay for directly. (Paid subscription newsletters are very popular right now with journalists of all kinds.)

When I first entered the publishing industry twenty years ago, one of the most popular books for freelancers was The Well-Fed Writer, which focused on how writers could get paid a much better rate by pitching themselves to corporate clients and businesses. E.g., there is significant demand for magazine-like content for businesses as diverse as Netflix, American Express, and Warby Parker. Even high-minded institutions like the New York Times and Atlantic have divisions to offer businesses custom content-to help pay their bills. So, if freelancers are flexible about the type of work they’ll do, there is paying work to be found.

MWW: Self-help books used to be all the rage in nonfiction. Are they still, or is there something else out there that’s currently the hot trend?

Jane: In recent years nonfiction sales overall have increased all around the globe. Partly this is due to current events and the political situation-so you’ll see growth in those categories. But personal development (i.e., self-help and self-improvement) continues to dominate, in both the adult and children’s markets. When I was at London Book Fair last month, a representative from Nielsen said she’d studied the words that are most common in the titles of books forthcoming in 2019. They include inspiration, calm, happy, and mindfulness.

In the current landscape, you might categorize nonfiction publishing growth in two ways: there are books that help you learn and understand the world, but then there are books that help you cope with and escape the world. (And some books are a little of both.)

MWW: If there’s one best piece of advice you’d give an aspiring writer, what would that be?

Jane: Be patient with yourself and your progress.

MWW: And similarly, if there’s one best piece of advice you’d give a writer who’s had some success and is finally on the way?

Jane: Be patient in growing your readership.

 

This intensive is ideal for published authors or about-to-be-published authors, whether self-published or traditionally published. 

Explore how to live a more creative life | with Melissa Fraterrigo | MWW19

Meet fiction author Melissa Fraterrigo

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel  Glory Days  (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) which was named one of the Best Fiction Books of 2017 by the  Chicago Review of Books ; she is also the author of the short story collection  The Longest Pregnancy  (Livingston Press). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah  and  The Massachusetts Review to story  South , and  Notre Dame Review . She teaches classes on the art and craft of writing at the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana.

During MWW19, July 25-26, Melissa will teach  The Write Start: Cultivating Creativity.”  In this session, Melissa explains, “You will learn how to turn your love for the written word into practical experience. Whether you are new to writing, have an idea you are interested in pursuing, or write regularly but need a reboot, in this class we will explore how to live a more creative life.”

On Friday morning, Melissa will teach  Finding Your Personal Essay Through Play” where participants will discover how form can be used to structure personal essays to reveal unexpected insights and create momentum through play. In the afternoon, she will present  Exploring the Novel-in-Stories.” She asks, ” What do  Olive Kitteridge  by Elizabeth Strout, Cathy Day’s  Circus in Winter  and  Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson have in common?” The answer: All are novels-in-stories, existing between a collection of stories and a novel. Those attending this session will leave with a clear idea of possible linkages in their fiction and how to build upon these for their own linked collection.

MWW alum and volunteer Stephen Terrell asked Melissa a few interview questions to help us learn a bit more about her as a writer and faculty member.

MWW: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

MF: I have always loved writing and penned my first book when I was in the first grade. It was called “The Littlest Pukin” (I think I was inspired by “The Littlest Angel”; pukin was actually supposed to be pumpkin) and I can still remember how glorious I felt flipping the pages of my book, showing it to my parents. I always felt a kinship with words and stories and in many ways, I think I was destined to work with stories in some fashion; only it took me a long time to get to where I am. Despite that, I’ve got to say I have the best job in the world.

 

MWW: What is the Lafayette Writers Studio?  How did it come about? What do you want people to know about the Lafayette Writers Studio?

MF: I taught high school and junior high English for three years after earning my bachelor’s degree. My first job out of college was teaching high school English in a small town in downstate Illinois where the job prospects were few and many of my students were from families that were struggling both financially and emotionally. I really liked my students and loved talking to them about literature, but during that year my grandmother passed and I did some hard thinking about how I wanted to spend my own days. I hadn’t forgotten the desire to be a writer, only I didn’t know how to be a writer and also pay bills.

Somewhere during that first year I told myself to just start writing–just a little bit. I found the more I wrote, the more I enjoyed it. That summer I took at class at the University of Illinois at Chicago–my first fiction class–and met two other women who were also interested in fiction and poetry. For three years we met on a monthly basis to share work with one another and offer each other feedback. I have no doubt that without their support I would not be where I am today. Writers need other writers, and these two friends provided the support and encouragement I so desperately desired.

I love my parents with all my heart, but they were children of parents who survived the Depression. Working toward a degree that would get you a job, which in turn would pay some solid salary mattered more than doing work that fulfilled. Fortunately, I listened to my gut and kept writing, following the thrum of excitement I felt each time I drafted a new story or had an idea for a piece.

I attended Bowling Green State University and met a fantastic cohort of writers and instructors of writing–most of whom I’m in contact with today. This community of writers was essential for building the “literary family” that I craved–folks who were also driven to create worlds from their imaginations. We encouraged each other and continue to do so.  I taught at Southern Utah University, Penn State Erie–all the while working on fine-tuning my short story collection, The Longest Pregnancy was published in 2006. With time, I shifted into freelance writing for different universities. However, I still missed teaching and three years ago established the Lafayette Writers’ Studio to combine my love for teaching with my desire to help others tell their stories. I started my forthcoming novel, Glory Days a few years before I opened the studio.

The Lafayette Writers’ Studio is a place where writers of all experiences and backgrounds can learn about the art and craft of writing in an intimate, encouraging environment. We offer a range of classes from one-night intensives to workshops that last several weeks. It’s really a wonderful place with amazing students from all walks of life.

 

MWW: Working at the Lafayette Writers Studio, what are the three biggest suggestions you have for writers looking to improve their craft?

MF: I encourage writers to read like a writer, and approach texts seeking answers to the questions they have about their own work and craft in general. Every writer is different and as such, no one approach is going to help each and every writer get words on the page. As a result, I encourage students to take the time to get know themselves and their process.

 

MWW: Can you compare the process you go through in writing a short story compared to a novel? What makes one story more appropriate for a short story and another suitable for a more extensive treatment in a novel?

MF: My first book,   The Longest Pregnancy,   was published in 2006. About 1/3 of the book was written as part of my graduate thesis at Bowling Green State University. The stories really were stand alone pieces and I was nearly finished with the book before I started to see how they might fit together. I started my novel,  Glory Days   a few years before I opened the Lafayette Writers’ Studio and the first chapter I wrote for the book–“Teensy’s Daughter” actually appears ¾ of the way through the book. I initially thought I was just writing a story, only after I finished drafting “Teensy’s Daughter” I continued to think about three of the characters–Gardner, Teensy, and his daughter Luann. So I wrote another story with Gardner and Teensy at a much earlier part in their lives and found that I still had more to uncover. I was absolutely fascinated by these characters and once I realized how the town of Ingleside was a part of the conflict of the book, I knew there was a whole novel to be unearthed. So to answer your question, I really think it begins with the author’s own interest in the story and whether it can be sustained.

 

MWW: How do you channel real life experiences in your fiction – or do you? 

MF: I keep a small notebook with me at all times and jot down ideas whenever they strike–it could be an arresting image or a word or lately, a lot of memories from my own childhood. Some writers call this rich content “composting.” Just like you might mix together certain ingredients to make a soil healthy, you can use elements of your life and what you find interesting to create memorable characters and situations.

 

MWW: What are the most satisfying aspects of writing for you? Conversely, what are the most frustrating or difficult aspects of being a writer, and how do you cope with those issues.

MF: I love revision, I love the thrum of a new idea, I find structure immensely satisfying and there is nothing better than discovering a new writer who fuels my work. Yet the days are long and can be rather lonely. It’s important to surround yourself with other writers who can support and encourage you when the work isn’t going the way you initially envisioned.

 

MWW: I’ve seen Glory Days referred to as “Fly Over Fiction,” a term I’ve heard applied to other writing about middle America. Yet when I look at the wish list of literary agents, I never see “flyover” or “middle America” mentioned. Given that this is the Midwest Writers Workshop, do you think there is a place in the current fiction market for “flyover fiction”, that is, fiction that has its roots in the people, places, challenges and values of middle America? 

MF: I actually think there is an increasing interest in the Midwest as a place with its own identity, culture and values, which is quite separate from the coasts. That being said, I don’t sense that flyover fiction or Midwest literature is a concern of the big publishing houses. But smaller indie presses such as Nebraska University Press , Graywolf, Coffee House Press do not offer huge advances and therefore don’t have the same constraints as large publishing houses so they can pursue topics and approaches that appeal to different audiences, and this includes a newfound interest in work that is often overlooked such as flyover fiction.

 

MWW: Rejection is the most common shared experience among most writers. Do you have any advice for dealing with rejection from publications, agents or publishers? 

MF: I think it’s always important to keep in mind why you are writing. Are you writing because you want to become rich and famous? Are you writing to prove to your high school English teacher that you had more potential than the C- he gave you your sophomore year? While all of us dream of sharing our work with a wide audience, I think it’s much more realistic to think that the results of our efforts may not play out the way we imagine. The work you do must be the reward–publication, awards, all of those moments when you and your work are in the spotlight are fleeting. But the work is with you for the long haul. Try not to focus to much on those outside forces you cannot control and instead honor your relationship with your craft and your writing.

 

MWW: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given about being a writer or about life in general?   What was the worst?

MF: Read everything you can get your hands on and don’t just read your genre–everyone should read poetry! Write! Put yourself on a writing schedule and commit to writing regularly. Even if you are only sitting at your desk twiddling your thumbs, the longer you sit there, the more ideas will come to you. As you begin to take note of those thoughts by jotting them down or mulling them over in your mind, your brain will send you even more ideas. Writing begins with paying attention to your world and your surroundings and choosing to be curious with your own thoughts and reflections. I think writing helps you be your best self-at least that’s what it continues to do for me.

 

MWW: Any last thoughts or comments that you want to share with those considering the MWW19?

MF: Come write with us!

Come to MWW19 and meet Melissa! Register here.