The Dewey Decimal Project

The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed ‘the’, ‘cat’, ‘rat’, ‘man’, and ‘you’. No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic reve­lations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘we don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.’ —To Kill a Mockingbird

I’ve decided to start a new reading project: I’m going to read my way through the Dewey Decimal system. The plan is to read one book from each decade of the catalog. This will end up being a bit less than 100 books courtesy of some gaps in the system. Other than the beginning and end of the system where I’ll read the first and last books on the shelf respectively, I’ll give myself leeway to pick whatever title in the range sounds interesting.

The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed `the’, `cat’, ‘rat’, ‘man’, and ‘you’. No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic reve­lations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘we don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.’

Final Residency—Final day

It’s a day of lasts for me. My last seminar, Rick Moody and Susan Minot discussing John Cheever (although I have to say that I’m finding a lot of Cheever to be a bit of a mixed bag, with more duds than successes to my mind, but I did rather enjoy the convoluted storytelling of “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well”).

Then my last lunch of beige food, albeit a bit less beige than previously.

And then finally the hooding ceremony and I’m now not just a writer, but a master of the fine art of writing (creatively). Plus I apparently now own this groovy outfit:

 

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Final Residency—Days 7 & 8

Day 7

The morning opened with Rick Chase’s seminar. He began with a bit of “buddhist” meditation. I use quotes and lowercase since I’m not entirely sure if that’s how he views it, although the mindfulness of it does seem very much in that vein. He expanded from this into some poetic writing exercises.

Our first afternoon seminar consisted of Marcus Wicker and Ian Stansel talking about how to break out of the slush pile. Perhaps the most helpful part of this was learning what Stansel saw too much of in the fiction queue: first-person stories. Merely by writing in the third-person, a story can stand out. It kind of sucks for me since the vast majority of my short fiction is in the first person.

The second afternoon seminar was Leslie Jamison talking about going beyond the self in memoir, focusing on Joan Didion’s “The White Album” in articulating her point.

The evening reading was Ian Stansel reading from Everybody’s Irish and Leslie Jamison reading from The Empathy Exams.

Day 8

Rick Moody

We began with more open time for those of us in our final residency. I got a bunch of writing done before lunch. The afternoon began with the last of the graduating student seminars. I heard Kathy Lockwood-Fleming give an excellent talk on characterization in memoir, Jared Silvia discussing revision techniques and Shane Hinton on the work of Daniil Kharms.

TheIMG 0588 second afternoon seminar was another rerun, this time Enid Shomer revisiting a topic that she lectured on back in my first residency.

The evening reading was Rick Moody and Susan Minot. Moody read one story from Demonology and an excerpt from his upcoming novel. Minot read from Thirty Girls, her novel about the atrocities of Joseph Kony’s army in Uganda.

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Final Residency—Days 5 and 6

Monday was another short day. After lunch we had Mikhail Iossel giving a seminar on close reading, which was a repeat of a seminar from an earlier residency. 

Then we had the final round of readings from the graduates. I really enjoyed the stories from Jared Silvia and Benjamin Tier, although all were good.

The evening reading was Carmen Gimenez Smith reading from her poetry. We’ll have her for a seminar tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday opened with a fiction workshop with Jeff Parker, looking at “Difficult Fiction” we examined stories by Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret and Daniil Kharms, taking them apart to see how they worked and then trying to wriIMG 0549te something emulating the technique. I ended up taking a divergent path from something that Keret wrote in “Fatso” to do something which didn’t really meet the parameters of the exercise, but which I think might be usable somehow.

The afternoon began with the first round of graduating student seminars. In addition to my own seminar, I attended seminars from Christina Boussias on revision andIMG 0552 Kari Fuhrman on multiple plots in the novel. 

This was followed by a seminar from Carmen Gimenez Smith on documentary poetry which has inspired me to consider actually tackling the Chicago Sonnets project I’ve been thinking about for the past few years.

The evening readings were Marcus Wicker reading from his poems and UT MFA alum Nathan Deuel reading from his book, Friday Was the Bomb.

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Final Residency—Day 4

The day began with a seminar led by Benjamin Percy and his deep voice of doom. He spoke a bit about genre “barriers” remarking, “So much of what AWP is about is taxonomy… Rather than genre barricades, perhaps we should distinguish literature on the basis of ‘good’ and ‘not good’.”

The afternoon was composed of a visit to Ybor City with a discussion about the history of Ybor and the mingling of the immigrant communities which formed its core from Gary Mornino. No evening reading, leaving me time to catch up on some reading and writing time.

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Final Residency—Day 3

We began the day with another fiction workshop, this time led by Jessica Anthony, who answered the question of how do we compete with all the multitudinous inputs of contemporary life? Her answer: Surrealism!

We did a few surrealist exercises: First was the two minute conversation: Two Jason Ockert eople speak to each other for two minutes continuously on two different subjects simultaneously (“Victoria’s Secret” and “frogs”). Dialog ends up being nonsense, but entertaining because of the juxtaposition. 

Anthony pointed out that when people speak, we’re getting not only the spoken dialog, but the entirety of their subconscious as well.

The next exercise had us paired and one partner wrote five questions, the other five answers, without consultation. This creates a dialog, again nonsensical but with occasionally surprising emergences of meaning.

Language has multiple layers of meanings. Surrealism raises questions rather than answering questions.

Benjamin Percy

The seminar du jour was Jason Ockert on digression and how a digression can serve to develop the story in surprising ways.

Afterwords was round two of student readings, including myself. My selections were two short stories, “Le Pont des Arts” and “Thy Neighbour’s Goods” both of which, but especially the latter, will well-received.

Evening readings were Jason Ockert and Benjamin Percy. Percy is an amazing reader with a scary intense deep voice, well-suited for reading from his werewolf novel, Red Moon.

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Final residency—Days 1 and 2

Day 1

In a near-replay of last January’s travel difficulties, I arrived at the hotel at 4a. Despite a mere three hours of sleep, I managed to make it to the opening session on time and even have a bit of prep time in the morning.

After the initial orientation, we had a breakdown by cohort with those of us in our final residency learning about life after the MFA from Erica Dawson and Jessica Anthony. 

Our first seminar of the day was David Kirby talking about book reviewing. He views this as a great opportunity for writers since, “Nobody wants to do book reviews.” He advises using clips of previous reviews as a means to work your way up the food chain from indie publications to paid reviewing. The latter doesn’t necessarily pay a lot, but $350–600 for a review is typical.

David Kirby

He went on to look at structural aspects of book reviews using a few reviews he had written for The New York Times and The Washington Post to illustrate his points.

The reading for the day took place early and featured Kirby and his wife Barbara Hamby each reading from their poetry.

We then adjourned to the hotel for the pool party and barbecue. There was a threat of lightning storms so the barbecue ended up being burgers and hot dogs served from steam trays in the hotel ballroom. The rain held off so we ended up mostly standing around near the pool although some of our number had brought their suits and actually entered the pool.

Day 2

Kevin Moffet

The day opened with a genre workshop from Josip Novakovich. Those of us in our final term had some open time while the others had their small group workshops. 

After lunch, Barbara Hamby talked about writing across genres, although like so many people, the question of how do you know whether something is a poem or a story was not really answered satisfactorily.

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We then had the first round of graduate student readings (I’m on tomorrow), some mighty fine stuff there.

The evening readings were Kevin Moffett and Tony D’Souza. Kevin had a reading consisting of three monologues from The Silent History and he employed MFA students Kat Grilli and Benjamin Tier to perform two of them. Their theatrics actually made for some of the better readings and I look forward to hearing them read their own work later in the residency.

Tony read from an article he recently published about his last trip to Côte d’Ivoire.

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“Le Pont des Arts”: The Story Behind the Story

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I wrote the first draft of this story while staying in the same apartment building in Paris where Katherine Mansfield wrote “Feuille d’Album.” The apartment was located on Ile de la Cité a short distance from Pont de l’Archevêché which has become a popular spot for tourists to attach locks declaring their eternal love as described in this story. Le Pont des Arts, a bit further downstream is the original “lock bridge” of the story, which I didn’t actually visit during the course of this trip to Paris.

I made a quick run over to Pont de l’Archevêché while working on this story to get good non-stereotypical-yet-still-French names for my characters. While looking over the locks I found that the vast majority were placed there by foreign tourists. Perhaps more amusing were the large number of apparent same-sex couples represented and a few locks which had three names on them (although my wife pointed out that these were likely parents and child and not, as I had assumed, the locks of a ménage-à-trois).

This piece was read by Terese Svoboda in an early draft and later by Jennifer Vanderbes, Carolyn Eichorn, Connor Holmes, Kate Sanger and Chelsea Wait.

Photo via wikimedia commons.

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“Thy Neighbour’s Goods”: The story behind the story

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Some background on my story, “Thy Neighbour’s Goods” which appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Southampton Review.

The story began with a conversation with my wife about language. We were discussing the lack of distinction between singular and plural second person in English and I told her that actually the English “you” is plural and the singular second person is the effectively abandoned “Thou.” She had been asking me to write something in the second person, but I was unwilling to go diving into Jay McInerney territory. And it occurred to me that using “thou” for a second-person piece would give me a new take on it.

The only problem was what the story should be about. Then, while reading Raymond Carver’s “Menudo,” I had one of those moments of reading off the page that yield the best ways to be influenced. Carver had written a story about a man who had had an affair with the neighbor’s wife. I found myself imagining what would happen if it the watcher had had the affair with the neighbor rather than the neighbor’s wife. From there, things began to flow. The structure of the story emerged midway through the first draft; I picked up the statue from one of my MFA classmates and Terese Svoboda made the suggestion (glaringly obvious in retrospect), that the goods should be arranged to make the story chronological. A King James Bible I filched from a hotel room while in college helped me in creating the language of the story.

Thanks to Christina Del Rio, Tiffany Knowles, Chelsea Wait and David Weisblatt for workshop commentary on this piece.

Illustration courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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Beautiful sentences

She looks down at the playbill. She looks down.
Terese Svoboda, Bohemian Girl.
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