Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…


Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:


The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…


Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…


View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.


The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…


Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.


My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters


Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!


Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.


Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.


Here is where I’m writing right now:


I’m not gonna lie: It’s dreamy. I’m at the Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina; the incomparable TW is an instructor here right now, teaching a letterpress class, and I got to tag along. If you’re a visual artist, this is one of the best places in the country to study and practice. I am astonished by the talent and creativity of the people running around here. I can’t thank the Penland folks enough for their generosity and inclusion.

Though I had the chance to take an art class, I opted to use the time as my own writers’ retreat. I’ve never done a writer’s residency, but I imagine that it’s much like this. I hike in the mornings and write midmorning and all afternoon. I eat three meals a day– healthy, exquisite food served at set times. It all feels quite decadent, actually, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

As for the work itself: In May, I got feedback on the first draft of my novel from my readers — again, the wondrous TW and my dear friend and wildly talented writer Elizabeth Wetmore, both of whom donated their time to read and offer critique. It’s no small thing to drop the draft of a novel on someone’s desk, especially when those someones also are artists and have their own work and lives, and I can’t thank both of them enough for giving me their invaluable input. Since then, I’ve been working at an intense pace, about 6 hours a day, with maybe one day off a week, for about six weeks, feeling the end of summer nipping at my heels. This full-throttle pace is not my natural state, but having a job in academia has changed how I work. Summer is the only time that I can immerse fully, so I’m trying to keep my head down and do as much as I can, for as long as I can.

The revision process is a complicated but important one: I’m both trying to stand back and see with a critical eye and also immerse in the world of the story to figure out what it needs. Re-vision: Re-seeing, re-imagining what you have already made. I know some writers resist this phase, but for me, I finally feel like I’m getting ahold of what I’m trying to do. It’s not that I didn’t work hard on the first draft; I did my best to work carefully and closely. But it’s this phase where I’m finding out what’s best for the story. For example, I gave one whole character and plot line the ax. And I liked that character. But she wasn’t doing the work she needed, and the story is better without her. Getting rid of her allowed me to more fully develop a different character, who is doing important work, esp. in helping me understand the protagonist.

Writers tend to fall into two camps in their writing processes: “eking” vs. “gushing,” a concept that I borrow from Tayari Jones. Ekers are those who tend to write minimal early drafts and need to elaborate in revision; gushers tend to need to go back in and pare. I’m definitely an eker. Much of what I’ve been doing is fleshing out and developing: place, character, and tension — especially tension. Much of the major overhaul has happened early in the book, but of course, everything’s connected. Changes to the beginning mean changes everywhere. I’m stitching and ripping seams and patching and nipping and tucking all over the damn place.

Before we came to Penland, I printed it out so that I could work long hand on edits. It’s a real pleasure to work on the actual page. Thanks to my graduate students, too, who bought me a lovely fountain pen at the end of the semester. I love it. I sit in a rocking chair on a porch, put my headphones on (for the record, if there is such a record: I have been wearing out Mumford and Sons), and go line by line, page by page. Once I have those, I go back in and work through the changes.

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t feel in the least bit frustrated by the process. It’s invigorating to puzzle things out, to see your work anew and figure out how to make it better.

Home soon. The work will continue, minus the smoky mountain views, alas. But as Richard Bausch says, we should train ourselves to write anywhere.

Wishing everyone a creative summer,

This is your brain on summer

July, I hardly knew ye.

I’m stunned as usual at how summer is flying right on past the horizon without pausing to give me so much as the finger. Speaking of flying (and birds): A hawk — a hawk — totally landed on the hood of my parked car today. It set off the auto light in the carport, and then sat there for a couple minutes, just checking out the yard.  TW and I just gawped at it with a Keanu-like Whoa. And then, I laughed, because It reminded me of this:

Writing here at a steady clip, I suppose. I’m making progress but am feeling suddenly shy and superstitious about bringing attention to the whole thing, so I’ll just say that I’m working and I’m happy about it. Otherwise, I am being a zealous hermit. My big excursions include walking around the neighborhood or along the river path with a hat pulled low over my eyes. In one of these moody jaunts, I coined a little phrase that rather amuses me: Writers: We put the F-U in Fun.

I do have a little happy news from my small writing world: I got a story, titled “When Are You Coming Home?”, accepted for publication in Blackbird, and I think it will be out this fall. Yay. I also have two readings on the docket: one in October at the Auburn Writers Conference and one in March at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the UAB Writers Series. I’m delighted to be part of both.

I’ve also been reading. I’ve been for weeks intending to document my reading from the spring semester and this summer, and now I fear the details are already fading. I had intended also to write capsule reviews for each (ha), but now I would just like to get them down before they, too, fly away. Not all of these are perfect books, stories, or essays (what books are? And eek, I have got to get some more poetry in my diet). But I took something away from all of them, and as I scan the list I would give a “recommend” or a “highly recommend” to all. (The starred book-length ones are those that stand out to me, that really captured or moved me, left me a bit haunted or stunned; I think if you read any of those stories you’ll be a happy — or at least interested –camper.)

Spring (mainly short fiction and essays)

  • Selected essays from The Best American Travel Writing 2010, Ed. Bill Buford
  • Stories from The Best American Short Stories2010, Ed.  Richard Russo: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond; “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s No Place to Go” by Danielle Evans; “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events” by Kevin Moffett;  “All Boy” by Lori Ostlund;  “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” by Karen Russell; “Safari” by Jennifer Egan; “The Valetudinarian” by Joshua Ferris; “Painted Ship, Painted Ocean” by Rebecca Makkai; “PS” by Jill Mccorkle; “The Laugh” by Téa Obreht; “The Ascent” by Ron Rash; and “Raw Water” by Wells Tower
  • From The Contemporary American Short Story, Eds. Nguyen and Shreve. Sherman Alexie, “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”; Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”; Donald Barthelme, “The School”; Richard Bausch, “The Man Who Knew Belle Star”; Gina Berriault, “The Birthday Party”; Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”; John Cheever, “The Swimmer”; Junot Díaz, “Fiesta, 1980”; Andre Dubus, “The Fat Girl”; Stuart Dybek, “Pet Milk”; Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible”; Carolyn Ferrell, “Proper Library”; Richard Ford, “Communist”; Denis Johnson, “Emergency”; Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”; Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Third and Final Continent”; Andrea Lee, “Brothers and Sisters Around the World”; Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; James Alan McPherson, “Of Cabbages and Kings”; Bobbie Ann Mason, “Shiloh”; Alice Munro, “The Turkey Season”; Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”; Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”; Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Grace Paley, “Wants”; Mark Richard, “Strays”; George Saunders, “My Flamboyant Grandson”; John Updike, “Here Come the Maples”; Helena Maria Viramontes, “The Moths”; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Harrison Bergeron”; Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”; Tobias Wolff, “The Rich Brother”


  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.*
  • The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine López.*
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout*
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Going Away Shoes: Stories by Jill McCorkle
  • Life Class by Pat Barker*
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon*
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel*
  • A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan*
  • A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith*
  • Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
  • Trash by Dorothy Allison
  • Zoli by Colum McCann*
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro
  • On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan*

ps I started Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, and I gave it to page 100 — I really did — but it just didn’t win me over. I also started Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which is good, but dark in a way I couldn’t deal with right now, so I will return to it another day.

The X of Y, or something

During my first year of full-time teaching, my fiction writing of course took a hit. In those last days of spring semester, I was barely holding on, slogging with clumsy feet, clawing at my throat with an eye on the glimmer in the distant sand: summer writing time.

It’s a strange thing, though, to have a substantial — though ultimately limited — stretch of time before you. I spent part of May panicking, like, shit, shit, I only have X time to do XYZ and PDQ. Plus, it’s hard to return to the focus — that “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop calls it — that new writing demands each time, especially when you’re scrubbing off the rust of months of neglect. I spun in my chair, my worst fears embedded in the blank screen: the summer was going to be a bust. Here I was, with the perfect conditions, everything I needed, and I couldn’t do it.

But come on, little peanut. Everything’s not going to get written in a summer. That’s not how it works, or at least not for me. I have to work consistently, year-long, even when many of those months are unproductive little bastards. When I reminded myself of that, and I switched off Radio KFKD (thanks, Anne Lamott!), the knots in my psyche finally unclenched a bit. I’ve done steady work, much of it messy and some of it total disaster, but some of it not half-bad. I feel all right as the summer days begin (alas) to grow shorter, as my mind drifts more frequently to thoughts of fall planning. Rather than flog myself over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a nice change to step back and see what I have done. Imagine that. Oh, age.

I didn’t set a specific goal for pages or word count, just more of a grunting Write More. I started a new novel (the one  I have been working on the last few years is in the drawer for the mo’) and am trying to get my story collection into better shape. Here’s the tally:

Novel X: 76 pages

Short-story Y (draft 1): 16 pages

Short-story Z: 7 pages (finished-ish)

Okay, okay, okay. Back to work.