Over the last ten years at The Writer's Center, Glen Finland has taken workshops with Bob Bausch, Ellen Herbert, Leslie Pietrzyk, Richard McCann, Barbara Esstman, Alex MacLennan, and others. After one of her pieces was published in the Washington Post Magazine, a New York agent sent her a simple but life-changing e-mail: “Would you consider writing a book proposal?”
"Yes," she wrote back without hesitation. But to figure out just how to do that she turned to The Writer’s Center and its dedicated community of writers. Three months and a book proposal workshop later (with Shannon O'Neill), the agent sold her idea to Putnam. Now, in 2012, her book, Next Stop, will publish.
"Writing," she says, "is hard work often done in seclusion, but never underestimate how being present in other writers’ lives enriches your own." Read Glen's story at First Person Plural.
For Alan Orloff, "the yen to write fiction hid deep inside, dormant like a defective daffodil bulb, for forty-odd years." But he didn't know where to begin. So he joined The Writer's Center, and took a workshop with veteran workshop leader Ann McLaughlin. That first workshop exposed him to a wide variety of writers with a wide variety of interests: SF, memoir, fantasy, experimental, cozy, historical.
After that eye-opening workshop experience, he was hungry for more, so he signed up for Noreen Wald's mystery writing workshop. From the first moment of the first workshop class, he realized he was "home." Says Alan: "Mystery writers to the right, mystery writers to the left, mystery writers hiding in the closet with a lead pipe."
Alan has come a long way from those days of discovery. Today, he's the author of two mystery novels: Diamonds for the Dead (nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel) and Killer Routine: A Last Laff Mystery. Kirkus Review writes of his second novel: "Orloff generates considerable suspense en route to a conclusion most readers won't see coming. Good-hearted characters...make this premiere of the Last Laff series a winner." No doubt. And with a killer tagline like this, how can you go wrong? "Even in the cynical world of stand-up comedy, murder is no laughing matter." Read Alan's story at First Person Plural.
When Patricia McArdle was retiring from the Department of State in 2006, she learned of The Writer’s Center at a seminar for retirees. Just as she was putting the finishing touches on her first novel, a friend sent her a course catalog. Though she lives in Virginia, Tammy Greenwood’s revision workshop was the right workshop at the right time, and she decided to make the trek to Bethesda.
“I’m so glad I did,” she says. Between Tammy’s lectures and classmate comments during the workshopping of her first three chapters, Patricia garnered a wealth of valuable information that helped her shape her novel. She entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest—and won. Thanks to that prize, Penguin will publish that first novel, Farishta, in June of 2011. Though much of her time these days is spent promoting solar cooking technology around the globe, she thinks there’s another novel in the offing. Let’s hope so.
A. Van Jordan
In the mid-90s, a young A. Van Jordan came to The Writer’s Center, eager to learn. He registered for one of Rose Solari’s poetry workshops. “At that early stage,” he writes now, looking back, “when I was just embarking on the journey to learn this craft, having a workshop that took my early poems seriously meant the world to me; indeed, having Rose's workshop then gave me confidence to continue my journey.”
That journey has led him many places. Today he is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan. And when he’s not teaching and guiding other would-be young writers, he is busy working on his poetry. He is the author of the collections Rise, MacNolia, and Quantum Lyrics. About MacNolia, his re-imagining of the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition, Edward Hirsch writes: [It] is a deeply humane and highly imaginative sequence that combines the tragic poignancy of the blue with the cinematic sweep of a documentary. It is a necessary work.”
In 1997, Eugenia Kim enrolled in a beginning writer’s workshop lead by Patricia Elam. She had been writing for some time, but felt there was something missing, something she needed to learn. “I am convinced that TWC’s focus on encouragement and constructive criticism,” she writes, “is the best type of writing workshop. The experience seeded a new reality for me: perhaps I could be a writer.”
After the workshop ended, she joined a writer’s group that met monthly at The Writer’s Center. From there, she says, her writing blossomed. But there remained one daunting obstacle: finding an agent. Proving that persistence pays, Kim sent out 47 queries to agents before a story she’d published in a literary journal caught the notice of one literary agent. Today, thirteen years after her first workshop, Eugenia Kim is the proud author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a novel Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, calls “a beautiful, deliberate, and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history.” Learn more about Eugenia Kim and The Calligrapher’s Daughter.
When she was a student at Holton Arms high school in the late 1970s, Pagan Kennedy was a voracious reader with a curious intellect. After her first year of college, in 1981, she decided she’d enroll in a fiction writing workshop at The Writer’s Center.
“I went into college thinking I was going to work with animals,” she says, “but the teacher was very supportive. He made us tell stories out loud, and that gave me the confidence to see myself as a writer.”
Since that first workshop here three decades ago, Pagan Kennedy has authored ten books in a variety of genres—from cultural history to biography to the novel. A regular contributor to The Boston Globe, she has published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including several sections of The New York Times. For her novel Spinsters, she was even nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize, an international award given to a female author. Read more about Pagan Kennedy.
James Mathews grew up in El Paso, TX and on a number of Army bases throughout the country. He knew he wanted to write—that he was a writer. But he knew, too, that he had some work to do to polish his work. He took his first fiction-writing workshop at The Writer’s Center in 1994 with workshop leader Richard Peabody. The experience was eye opening.
He says of that workshop: “It allowed me to interact with a seasoned instructor and other developing writers to get and absorb truly constructive feedback…the process really opened up new ways of looking at my fiction and allowed me to see how others approached their work.”
Since those apprentice days, his fiction has been published in numerous literary journals. And in 2008 his collection of short fiction, Last Known Position, won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published by the University of North Texas Press. Coming full circle, James Mathews now leads writing workshops for us. To learn more about James Mathews and Last Known Position, visit his Web site.
"You have a choice in the way you present life but life itself is not like that." - Ismet Prcic
Fact or Fiction?
Ismet Prcic on writing an award-winning debut novel
By Angela Swayze
After fleeing war in his homeland of Bosnia, a young man named Ismet Prcic became so wracked with guilt that his former life shattered and became nearly unrecognizable. But which Prcic are we talking about: the author and winner of this year's First Novel Prize, or the namesake character in his debut novel, Shards?
Prcic doesn't want you to know. Some of it is true, he says, and some is not.
"I want the reader to feel safe," he says, reading it as fiction.
Prcic is the second winner of TWC's First Novel Prize, established in 2011 to honor three long-time TWC worskhop leaders: Barbara Esstman, Ann McLaughlin and Lynn Stearns.
TWC’s judges loved your novel! How does it feel to win the First Novel Prize?
It’s a great privilege and honor. It feels really amazing because it took me so long to write the book. It takes a long time to write a book, especially for somebody who comes from another country and has to learn the language. It was the fall of 2000 when I started writing; it took seven years of writing, two years to cut all the fat and then two years to sell it. When someone says, “that decade of your life is not wasted,” it’s a wonderful validation.
Some consider Shards autobiographical. Is it?
I’m against looking at any writing humans generate and calling it ‘nonfiction.’ If you take regular life the way you experience it and try to explain it using the alphabetical symbols we all agree on, then put them in a particular order, there’s a lot of fantasy involved. You have a choice in the way you present life but life itself is not like that.
Still, most people believe that if the character has the same name as the author, then it’s like a memoir, and therefore it’s going to be a safe book because they are writing about what’s happened. No matter what the main character encounters, they’re obviously still okay.
What was it like to transition from writing short fiction to a full-length novel?
I took a ‘short fiction’ class with Eileen Myles, a poet and professor at University of California, who believes that newbies should not be forced to write something called a ‘short story.’
We wrote two pages every day for the duration of the class and by the end we had a portfolio of writing. There was no shape to it, just pieces of writing that we cared about. For me, it was really interesting to see that all of these pieces of writing had reoccurring motifs and it gave me an idea. That’s why the book is called Shards.
How did you manage to capture the chaos of war and its effect on the human psyche?
When I think about the writers who came before me who wrote about war, it’s rare to find a book that tries to capture what it’s like in an orderly way. Most books try to break out of the normal way of writing, like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut or The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien.
Aleksander Hemon, author of The Question of Bruno, really influenced me. After reading the book, I wrote to him and asked how to write sentences that seem so broken up but make sense and become unified. He told me you cannot take something as amorphous as life and shove it into a mold that exists already; you have to find a form that fits your experience. If you write about trauma and war, your psyche is kind of shattered. There’s no semblance or sense to it. So the writing needs to be broken up. It needs to appear shattered.
Has generating new material been a challenge after completing your first novel?
I experienced the ‘second book blues’ most people talk about. I was really depressed for two years after I sold it and it was in the hands of the editor. I wouldn’t know what to call it but there’s this emptiness you feel after having written a book. Everything that was charged inside you is outside of you now. I tried to write short stories. I wrote half of a play and a screenplay with a friend but none helped the fact that I couldn’t write the next book. I’m not in the business of getting up and inventing a character I don’t really care about. I try to look at my own life and break it down in a way that might help me understand it.
What’s your best advice for aspiring writers?
One of the great things I learned from Ron Carlson at UC Irvine was to “stay in the room.” Most of the time, if you’ve written a paragraph that makes you feel great and you think it's wonderful, you start thinking, "maybe I can go to the fridge and get a beer." He always advocated for staying in your room. No matter how good you feel about your writing, staying in the room is the most important part.