Don’t Sleep on the Side Project

Amber Sparks

Who has time for side projects? You barely have the mental energy to write a paragraph of your own work each day, let alone expend effort on some half-assed thing that may never see the light of completion or publication. You’re already in a rut; you’d rather pull your entire goddamned set of teeth than take off on some tangent, further delaying your celebrated debut or star turn on the literary scene, or the music scene, or the painting or theater or comedy scene.

But don’t sleep on the side project. The best work I’ve ever done is due largely to a lot of glorious wanderings in between. In a lifetime of making art—theater, music, and writing—my best creative bursts have almost always come after a side project, work outside my genre or practice, collaborations with others, one-offs and even joke projects. And often, some of my best work has ended up being these projects themselves.

*

We are boring people, by ourselves. We burrow into our own heads, absorb nothing but our own echoes, style ourselves after ourselves. We become feedback loops, escalating sound, repeating endlessly, signifying nothing but our own creative burnout.

The Story in the Stone

Ana Menéndez

 

Being a writer is like being a sculptor, except a writer makes her own stone. Sometimes a stone emerges that is so unusual in form or material that it can stand on its own, without being worked. But these kinds of stones are rare and anyway cannot be replicated. The rest of us have to work on a stone for a long time before it fits the image we have in our minds. Most people give up too soon. They give up at the raw-stone stage, which is to say at the first or second draft.

*

“The material usually comes first, and then I think about the design,” the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto recently told an interviewer. This is a good way to think about almost every creative activity. Once a writer has her first draft, she needs to forget that she made it. She needs to see it as an organic object and then evaluate it the way a sculptor evaluates a rock or a painter evaluates a surface. Is the stone big, small, soft, flaky? Is this story about loss or sadness or joy? Why did I even write this? What is it that I’m really trying to say? Why does this story obsess me so? And then the writer can begin to start chipping away everything that doesn’t belong.

*

Yes, we are talking about revisions: They take many forms. Most people think of them as changing a comma here, fixing a typo there, removing the passive voice, adding a bit of dialogue. Those are minor revisions. And a manuscript needs them. But before you get to that, you need to think about the big revisions. Should this really be in the third person? Or did I just write it that way because it was easier? Is the voice of this character too sophisticated for a six- year-old? Do I have the timing right? Should I begin elsewhere? All of this takes time. A lot of time. Art is slow. Some days it seems you are making no progress at all. But time is what allows you to work in the fine details. Time is how you arrive at the tiny strokes, imperceptible to the lay consumer, but utterly crucial for the transformative power of any artwork.

*

Then, when you think it’s finally time to stop, you’ve only just entered the final phase. A lot of people stop here too. When it seems just good enough. I often stop here myself. But for you it’s not good enough. Because you know better. How do you know better? Because if you are a sculptor you have educated yourself to the point that you understand that your stone hand is missing the precise rise of a nearly imperceptible tendon. The smile needs one more tiny wrinkle. If you are a writer, you have educated yourself on the form to the point that you know that this essay might cut it for a quick presentation or a college assignment. But it is not something that William Gass would publish. It is not equal to an essay by Joan Didion. So you go back, trying to match the greats, stroke for stroke.

*

Sometimes you tell a story over and over many times and it’s a good story, but it’s not transcendent. Still, you keep it up. You keep telling it. Why? Because your body knows the story is trying to say something more than what you are letting it say. Because your ego is scared. Tell your ego that this is not his story any more.

*

One summer, I found myself in Paris. It was August. If you’ve ever visited in the summer you know that Paris in August is dead – that’s when half the city leaves for vacation. Many shops and restaurants are closed and those that remain open are often staffed by surly staff and stalked by all those souls without enough money or connections to escape the city.

On my first night, I managed to find a decent restaurant near the Luxembourg Gardens. It was a gorgeous evening and I decided to eat out on the patio. I was the only patron and the waiter was brusque with me— stupid American coming to Paris in August and disturbing the local indolence. I ordered a half- carafe of red wine and a cheese plate. I love cheese plates. And this one belied the season, the rude waiter, the desolate streets: This one was a work of art. Somewhere deep inside the restaurant, there was a chef who cared. Even though it was August and all his friends were at the seashore, this chef cared enough to make sure the cheeses were at the right temperature, the Brillat-Savarin just this side of melting, the Mimolette without a drop of condensation. They had been chosen and arranged with care—: Comte, chevre, Camembert, Valdeón—; the board dotted with fig jam and walnuts and surrounded by freshly toasted bread. I was in such a reverie that I didn’t notice the bedraggled woman pacing the periphery until it was too late. Suddenly, she darted for my table and grabbed the cheese board.

I can’t explain what I did next. It’s not a reaction I’m proud of. This woman was clearly down and out. She was hungry. But my first impulse was to grab the cheese back. I sat there, in my seat tugging at my end of the board as the other woman tugged at her end. In the middle of this epic struggle, my surly waiter darted out to the patio. He yelled a few words and chased the woman off.

Then he turned to me with disgust and snatched the cheese board off the table. My French isn’t very good. But even if it were, I would not have known what to say. I had only finished about half the plate – why was I being punished? I sat sulking there for a few moments, growing more and more embarrassed about how I had handled the whole thing. What a ridiculous figure I must have cut, tugging on my cheese, Mine! Mine!

And then the waiter reappeared. He was still unsmiling. But in his hands he carried a full cheese board, one perhaps even more generous than the first. My eyes widened at the bounty: more Camembert than I could eat, the chevre, the Mimolette. He put the board down in front of me and, wagging a finger, addressed me like a drill sergeant: Faites attention!

*

Now that is a funny anecdote to tell at a party. And I’ve told it often.  It happened more than a decade ago and I retell it at least once a year. But this airy little anecdote haunted me in a way that the story doesn’t fully reveal or explain. I kept going back to it, not even sure why. And then finally one day, on a run, I understood. What if I tell you that I was in Paris that August to see a lover. That the reason I was dining alone is because he was spending that particular evening with his wife. And that in the coming year there would be some unpleasantness and a lot of sorrow. Suddenly, then, the waiter’s admonition to Pay attention! means something else, though at the time, it didn’t mean much more to me. At the time, I thought the waiter was only warning me about the cheese.

*

Sometimes a decade will have to go by before you understand the stone you’ve made, or why you return to it again and again though it is just an ordinary stone without much to say. Sometimes you will have to sit at your desk for years. And nothing at all will come. But you need to be patient. Because the gods have a sense of humor. And they are willing to wait – until you are out on a run, or sick in bed, or in the shower – to reveal the punchline, to whisper the secret that at last releases laughter from the dumb stone.

Imagined Realities

Natalie Bakopoulos

When writing a novel set in the past, you’re hoping to animate the period, to imagine what might have happened between the historical events that we know are true, or perhaps to even interrogate what it is we recognize as true, and why. As Peter Ho Davies noted in an interview: “I’ve been attracted over time to those little bubbles of history where we just don’t know what went on in that space.” He continues: “The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history… is simply to understand why certain things happened.”

But when writing in a contemporary moment that engages with a particular social, political, or cultural event, you’re writing on a shaky, ever-changing terrain, so you cannot simply lay your fiction atop it. What might have been your foresight may become fact, and so instead of imaginative visionaries we simply become regular old observers. You may be outpaced by history. In some ways, it is impossible to write fiction set in the present moment because the present moment does not exist. We only have the past and the future.

David Bezmozgis, in an essay entitled “The Novel in Real Time,” describes the experience of writing his most recent book, The Betrayers, set in Crimea: “I kept changing when the action was set,” he writes, “constantly pushing the date ahead by another year to coincide with the year of its ultimate publication.” When in 2014 Ukraine and Crimea were suddenly in upheaval, the concerns of his novel in light of the present conflict no longer felt relevant. The events were too urgent to not mention, but with them the plot would no longer work. “The novelist who tackles social and political phenomena,” he writes, “must posit a world and commit to it fully. He cannot merely describe—he must anticipate an outcome, if only a little. If a work of journalism is a solid structure made of facts, the novel is a moral and imaginative leap from atop that structure.”

How a novelist makes that leap, however, is the question, but I think it has to do with the way we create and inhabit the work’s reality. Right now, I’m writing a novel set in Greece, where two major global events are playing out: the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. But a fictional narrative is not a media narrative, nor should it become literary tourism: here is the Acropolis, here is a homeless man, here is a protest march, here is a woman who has lost her job, here is a refugee trying to get to Germany. Here is how the narrative connects them. Yet to ignore these realities seems insular, and ignorant.

Greece presents the novelist, particularly the foreign novelist, with a particular set of complications because it already exists so powerfully in our collective literary imagination, with its ties to both mythology and a classical past. Sometimes these things become overdetermined. For a good few years it seemed impossible for the New York Times to write about the current crisis and not use the words “Greek tragedy” or to invoke the Greek gods. The earlier trope of the dancing Zorba, or of Greece as a place of leisure and spiritual awakening, linked too easily, in the eyes of international media, with the idea of Greeks as lazy freeloaders who do not want to work.

Drawing the Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Hannah Tinti

In 2013 I met the cartoonist, writer, teacher, and artist Lynda Barry at a writing conference in Cleveland, OH. I’d been a fan of Lynda’s ever since I read her magnificent novel Cruddy in 1999. That book led me to her comics, which always seemed to pull emotions out of me that I didn’t know were there. Her work has a way of capturing moments so that they feel like your own memories.

I was at the conference to teach. Lynda was teaching too, a combination art and writing class with the talented author Dan Chaon. My group met in the classroom next to theirs each morning. I had great students and we did good work together that week, but every once in a while there would be a burst of laughter from the room next door—and I would long to put an ear to the wall.

Twelve Lives

At the time, I was working on a novel called The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. The book is a complicated story, weaving back and forth through time and following two characters—an ex-criminal named Samuel Hawley who carries twelve scars on his body, each from a bullet that nearly took his life, and his daughter Loo, a teenager trying to uncover the truth about her mother’s mysterious death. I’d found connections between the story I was trying to tell and the myth of Hercules (another violent man seeking redemption after the loss of his wife), and liked the idea of bringing elements of that ancient hero into my novel. But I was having second thoughts. I wasn’t an expert of any kind on the Classics, and the whole concept felt way beyond my talent and reach. Every time I opened my manuscript, I saw only flaws and mistakes. And yet here I was in Cleveland, trying to show other people how to write.

At the conference, each teacher was asked to give a lecture on their process. I enjoyed sitting in the audience, slipping back into the role of student. Lynda Barry’s talk was on the human brain and creativity. Adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses and tucking a strand of exuberant, curly hair into her red bandanna, Lynda asked: why do we stop drawing? When we’re children, drawing is a natural extension of our selves. It’s how we communicate before we even have language. Put any kid in front of a box of crayons and there is no self-consciousness. They just grab their favorite color. We stop drawing, Lynda said, when we learn to judge and criticize. When we realize that our scribbles do not match the images we are trying to capture. And, perhaps even more important, when we start noticing that someone else’s drawing is better than ours. We’re told by others (or decide for ourselves) that we are not “good” at art. And so eventually—we stop. And that joyous part of the human brain that flares and sparks when we doodle goes silent.

Why do we only do things that we’re good at? What would happen if you picked up a pen right now? Lynda encouraged us all to try. As we giggled and drew pictures of batman, she talked of how doodling could re-ignite parts of our mind and memory. Doodle on a regular basis, she said, and that spark of creativity could turn into a roaring fire.

2017 Winter Workshop Scholars

Tin House Staff

It is both and honor and thrill to introduce you to our inaugural class of winter workshop scholars. All three of these remarkable writers inspired us, both on and off the page, and we could not be more excited to follow their voices in the years to come. 

C Pam Zhang’s fiction is in or coming to Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, The Missouri ReviewThe OffingTin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. An Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow and a Hambidge Center Distinguished Fellow, she was recently a runner up in The Missouri Review Editors’ Prize and an honorable mention in the Zoetrope Short Fiction Contest. She’s not quite sure where home is, but lives online @cpamzhang.

Jessica Guzman Alderman is a Cuban-American writer from southwest Florida. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Sycamore Review, The Normal School, BOAAT, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from West Virginia University and currently studies as a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. She reads for Memorious.

Ana Owusu-Tyo has a master’s degree in eighteenth-century literature from Indiana University. She is Spanish and Ghanaian and currently lives far away from her native Brooklyn on ten acres in rural North Carolina where she raises her three children and chickens.  She is finishing a memoir about losing a daughter and beginning a novel inspired by the spirits on the former plantation she lives on. An excerpt of her memoir, Footnotes, has recently appeared in the anthology Stories that Need to be Told. She is also semi insta-famous for her crochet and recently learned to do a headstand in the middle of the room.

 

Announcing the Spring Tin House Craft Intensives in Brooklyn!

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The spring 2017 Tin House Craft Intensives are here! Come study with Elissa Schappell, Alice Sola Kim, Samantha Hunt, or Pamela Erens, in classes that range from the Stevie-Nicks-approved spectral to the fantastically real. Applications open now through March 20th–apply early for your best shot! Final deadline is March 20th.

SP17-CI-Announcement

April 2nd, 2017: Setting the Clock: Manipulating Past, Present, and Pace in Fiction, with PAMELA ERENS

April 23rd, 2017: Where Are You Going, How Do You Get There?, with ELISSA SCHAPPELL

May 7th, 2017: Dread: A Primer, with ALICE SOLA KIM

May 21st, 2017: Surrounding the Ghost, with SAMANTHA HUNT

Tiny-House

On Anthony Doerr

George Estreich

(Spoilers ahead. Read the book first.)

Near the beginning of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Werner Pfennig, a boy in a German orphanage, is listening to a radio with his sister. It is 1934. The boy tunes in to a lecture on science, then hears a stranger ask a question that seems meant for him alone:

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

The stranger’s question is a key to the book’s concerns. All the Light is many things: a historical novel; a coming-of-age book; a detailed homage to the world’s endless detail; a meticulously crafted paean to craft; a meditation on disability and adaptation; a book about trauma, identity, and impossible moral choices. But beneath these concerns, and joining them together, is an abiding preoccupation with the ways we make sense of the world.

The Art of the Sentence: Anthony Doerr

George Estreich

BG-Art-of-the-Sentence-2015

(Spoilers ahead. Read the book first.)

Near the beginning of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Werner Pfennig, a boy in a German orphanage, is listening to a radio with his sister. It is 1934. The boy tunes in to a lecture on science, then hears a stranger ask a question that seems meant for him alone:

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

The stranger’s question is a key to the book’s concerns. All the Light is many things: a historical novel; a coming-of-age book; a detailed homage to the world’s endless detail; a meticulously crafted paean to craft; a meditation on disability and adaptation; a book about trauma, identity, and impossible moral choices. But beneath these concerns, and joining them together, is an abiding preoccupation with the ways we make sense of the world.

On Lucia Berlin

Taylor Lannamann

BG-Art-of-the-Sentence-2015

“I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”—Lucia Berlin

Call me impatient, call me lazy, but I’m tired of reading backstory. I want the frontstory—if I may—to do the narrative work. Info-dump is, I think, the best way to make a story go cold, which is why I so often turn to authors who pen extra-short short stories; not flash fiction, necessarily, but fully-realized five-pagers that crackle with life played out almost entirely in the present action. Think Denis Johnson à la Jesus’ Son. Think Lucia Berlin.

In Berlin’s “Angel’s Laundromat,” for example, the narrator sits in a plastic chair as her laundry tumbles through a public washing machine. She notices a man in the mirror—also sitting in the Laundromat—studying her hands. Suddenly she sees herself anew, and Berlin lets us in on her striking double-consciousness: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” This spare and circuitous self-characterization is the lifeblood of the story. Without plunging into flashback or extraneous anecdote, Berlin brings to the surface her protagonist’s personal history, and she does so in a way that is recognizably human and complex. Not only do we learn that this woman has children, has had many lovers, has tended a lifetime’s worth of flowers, but we also begin to understand something of her psychological process—this is a highly attentive character who uses small details to build a greater mosaic of self-understanding. We might even intuit a touch of neurosis, a hypersensitivity to ordinary existence. Her hands’ supposed scars and wrinkles and blemishes come to her—and to us—laden with meaning. They signify.

image-1

Of course, this sentence presents a conundrum when considering the classic creative writing mantra show don’t tell. Is Berlin showing or telling? In one sense, she’s merely telling. Without actually setting anything in motion, she gives the reader a little factsheet: now we know a few things about this character’s love and home life, her status as a mother. We don’t see a teething baby biting her hand. We don’t see her cracking knuckles as she stays up late awaiting some unruly lover. We don’t see her toiling in a thorny garden. Instead, we see her—at most—staring at her hands and rather abstractly plunging into a process of existential metonymy.

And yet, the line is so evocative that it does, in fact, show us these things. Maybe we don’t tangibly see—watch—Berlin’s protagonist crouching in a garden, but we certainly feel the action’s lurking history. The power lies in the syntax; “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” Could see. The word choice is purposely at once distant and close. Here is the notion of ability, the idea that memory is there for perusal if only the protagonist wants to indulge it. Her backstory, then, is available for inspection even if it doesn’t necessarily invade the present moment in the form of a secondary scene. If, on the other hand, the protagonist uttered that she saw these things in her hands, Berlin’s choice not to launch into flashback would feel deceptive because we, as readers, would be set at a remove. This would be telling not showing, the character ultimately surveying a hidden and inaccessible world. Instead, Berlin weaves this backstory—that entire mysterious life—into the fabric of the present. She is simultaneously precise and approximate, and the details of the protagonist’s life come to the forefront of the present action without taking any historical detours.

Still, to some this might seem a throwaway line. The story, after all, focuses primarily on the man doing the staring. From the very first sentence, the narrator tersely and fragmentarily directs us toward the story’s alleged subject: “A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” We are thereby encouraged to fixate on him. But it’s really her—the narrator’s—presence that commands the story, and she expands in the peripheries until, finally, she easily dismisses the man at the end by saying, “I can’t remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.” We’re left to realize that we’ve tracked the wrong character. And the only thing left to do is look back down at our narrator’s hands and recognize that they hold the real story.

Tiny-House

Taylor Lannamann holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Paris Review Daily. He is currently at work on a novel.

The Art of the Sentence: Lucia Berlin

Taylor Lannamann

BG-Art-of-the-Sentence-2015

“I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”—Lucia Berlin

Call me impatient, call me lazy, but I’m tired of reading backstory. I want the frontstory—if I may—to do the narrative work. Info-dump is, I think, the best way to make a story go cold, which is why I so often turn to authors who pen extra-short short stories; not flash fiction, necessarily, but fully-realized five-pagers that crackle with life played out almost entirely in the present action. Think Denis Johnson à la Jesus’ Son. Think Lucia Berlin.

In Berlin’s “Angel’s Laundromat,” for example, the narrator sits in a plastic chair as her laundry tumbles through a public washing machine. She notices a man in the mirror—also sitting in the Laundromat—studying her hands. Suddenly she sees herself anew, and Berlin lets us in on her striking double-consciousness: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” This spare and circuitous self-characterization is the lifeblood of the story. Without plunging into flashback or extraneous anecdote, Berlin brings to the surface her protagonist’s personal history, and she does so in a way that is recognizably human and complex. Not only do we learn that this woman has children, has had many lovers, has tended a lifetime’s worth of flowers, but we also begin to understand something of her psychological process—this is a highly attentive character who uses small details to build a greater mosaic of self-understanding. We might even intuit a touch of neurosis, a hypersensitivity to ordinary existence. Her hands’ supposed scars and wrinkles and blemishes come to her—and to us—laden with meaning. They signify.

image-1

Of course, this sentence presents a conundrum when considering the classic creative writing mantra show don’t tell. Is Berlin showing or telling? In one sense, she’s merely telling. Without actually setting anything in motion, she gives the reader a little factsheet: now we know a few things about this character’s love and home life, her status as a mother. We don’t see a teething baby biting her hand. We don’t see her cracking knuckles as she stays up late awaiting some unruly lover. We don’t see her toiling in a thorny garden. Instead, we see her—at most—staring at her hands and rather abstractly plunging into a process of existential metonymy.

And yet, the line is so evocative that it does, in fact, show us these things. Maybe we don’t tangibly see—watch—Berlin’s protagonist crouching in a garden, but we certainly feel the action’s lurking history. The power lies in the syntax; “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” Could see. The word choice is purposely at once distant and close. Here is the notion of ability, the idea that memory is there for perusal if only the protagonist wants to indulge it. Her backstory, then, is available for inspection even if it doesn’t necessarily invade the present moment in the form of a secondary scene. If, on the other hand, the protagonist uttered that she saw these things in her hands, Berlin’s choice not to launch into flashback would feel deceptive because we, as readers, would be set at a remove. This would be telling not showing, the character ultimately surveying a hidden and inaccessible world. Instead, Berlin weaves this backstory—that entire mysterious life—into the fabric of the present. She is simultaneously precise and approximate, and the details of the protagonist’s life come to the forefront of the present action without taking any historical detours.

Still, to some this might seem a throwaway line. The story, after all, focuses primarily on the man doing the staring. From the very first sentence, the narrator tersely and fragmentarily directs us toward the story’s alleged subject: “A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” We are thereby encouraged to fixate on him. But it’s really her—the narrator’s—presence that commands the story, and she expands in the peripheries until, finally, she easily dismisses the man at the end by saying, “I can’t remember when it was that I realized I never did see that old Indian again.” We’re left to realize that we’ve tracked the wrong character. And the only thing left to do is look back down at our narrator’s hands and recognize that they hold the real story.

Tiny-House

Taylor Lannamann holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Paris Review Daily. He is currently at work on a novel.

The Drop

Ethan Feuer

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Ethan Feuer is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia. Previously, he has worked as an architect in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature / Okey-Panky, SmokeLong Quarterly, and DIAGRAM. He is presently at work on a novel. On Twitter @hellofold.

 

Correspondent’s Course: High School for Adults

Anne Valente

BG-Correspondent's-Course

High school isn’t just prom dates and team sports and driver’s licenses and acne. It’s more than the fluff dramas we’ve been given on the CW and FOX, as entertaining as those dramas can be. High school is a time of transition, of self-discovery, of heartbreak and searing joy. It’s a time of life that is so easily dismissed, one that contains far more pain and wonder and richness than the stereotyped depictions on television offer.

lindsaydaniel

It’s often assumed that books about high school must be for high school readers, and that adult readers have long left their adolescent years behind. The prevalence of John Green novels and the Twilight series, both valuable in their own right and marketed toward young adult readers, may lead adult readers to dismiss books about high school as nothing but narratives about cheerleaders, jocks, and outcasts. But adolescence contains far more than these stereotypes, and in the hands of a skillful author, its depiction comes alive on the page. The following books don’t trivialize the highs and lows of adolescence. They capture for adult readers the immediacy of high school and coming of age.

Tiny-House

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Jarrar’s first novel follows Nidali and her family as they move from Kuwait to Egypt and then to Texas after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A rebellious and spunky young protagonist, Nidali navigates cultural transition and family struggles with humor and charm. Jarrar’s book is a loving and warm portrait of a family, and a fantastic coming of age novel for adults about a charismatic young woman.

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Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Heim’s first novel, which was later made into the film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, brings together two young men who once shared a Little League team. As a teenager, Brian Lackey suffers nosebleeds, blackouts and nightmares, believing that he was once abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick is a teenage hustler living dangerously. Heim brings these two characters together again across the length of a novel that explores sexual abuse, the faults of memory, and the nature of truth.

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jackson’s first novel spans the summer where two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, leave Brooklyn to stay with the grandmother in Barbados. Phaedra, the younger sister, explores Barbados through the prism of her grandmother’s work as a midwife while sixteen-year-old Dionne rebels and wants to return home, discovering her own sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Jackson’s novel beautifully addresses themes of family and dislocation in lyrical prose, a gorgeous coming of age story for adult readers.

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Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Wasserman is an accomplished author of young adult novels, and this year’s Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults. The book charts a dangerous triangle of friendship between Hannah, Lacey and Nikki against the backdrop of early-90s grunge music, sex and drugs. Hannah is an awkward, quiet teenager until she’s taken under Lacey’s wing, a reckless teenager obsessed with Kurt Cobain. What follows is the unraveling of secrets both girls keep from one another, told in alternating chapter from each girl’s point of view, and in a non-linear structure that spirals toward the novel’s inevitable and devastating end.

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Pessl’s first novel is set at an elite boarding school where Blue Van Meer, the book’s brilliant and precocious teenage protagonist, arrives without friends. She’s quickly swept into the world of the Bluebloods, a secret society of eccentric students, and into the aftermath of a murder that keeps them second-guessing one another on a trail of clues. Organized by chapters named after common required high school reading, including Heart of Darkness and Paradise Lost, Pessl’s novel is a compelling, compulsive mystery that delves into the darker side of high school.

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High School for Adults

Anne Valente

High school isn’t just prom dates and team sports and driver’s licenses and acne. It’s more than the fluff dramas we’ve been given on the CW and FOX, as entertaining as those dramas can be. High school is a time of transition, of self-discovery, of heartbreak and searing joy. It’s a time of life that is so easily dismissed, one that contains far more pain and wonder and richness than the stereotyped depictions on television offer.

It’s often assumed that books about high school must be for high school readers, and that adult readers have long left their adolescent years behind. The prevalence of John Green novels and the Twilight series, both valuable in their own right and marketed toward young adult readers, may lead adult readers to dismiss books about high school as nothing but narratives about cheerleaders, jocks, and outcasts. But adolescence contains far more than these stereotypes, and in the hands of a skillful author, its depiction comes alive on the page. The following books don’t trivialize the highs and lows of adolescence. They capture for adult readers the immediacy of high school and coming of age.

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Jarrar’s first novel follows Nidali and her family as they move from Kuwait to Egypt and then to Texas after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A rebellious and spunky young protagonist, Nidali navigates cultural transition and family struggles with humor and charm. Jarrar’s book is a loving and warm portrait of a family, and a fantastic coming of age novel for adults about a charismatic young woman.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Heim’s first novel, which was later made into the film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, brings together two young men who once shared a Little League team. As a teenager, Brian Lackey suffers nosebleeds, blackouts and nightmares, believing that he was once abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick is a teenage hustler living dangerously. Heim brings these two characters together again across the length of a novel that explores sexual abuse, the faults of memory, and the nature of truth.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jackson’s first novel spans the summer where two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, leave Brooklyn to stay with the grandmother in Barbados. Phaedra, the younger sister, explores Barbados through the prism of her grandmother’s work as a midwife while sixteen-year-old Dionne rebels and wants to return home, discovering her own sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Jackson’s novel beautifully addresses themes of family and dislocation in lyrical prose, a gorgeous coming of age story for adult readers.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Wasserman is an accomplished author of young adult novels, and this year’s Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults. The book charts a dangerous triangle of friendship between Hannah, Lacey and Nikki against the backdrop of early-90s grunge music, sex and drugs. Hannah is an awkward, quiet teenager until she’s taken under Lacey’s wing, a reckless teenager obsessed with Kurt Cobain. What follows is the unraveling of secrets both girls keep from one another, told in alternating chapter from each girl’s point of view, and in a non-linear structure that spirals toward the novel’s inevitable and devastating end.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Pessl’s first novel is set at an elite boarding school where Blue Van Meer, the book’s brilliant and precocious teenage protagonist, arrives without friends. She’s quickly swept into the world of the Bluebloods, a secret society of eccentric students, and into the aftermath of a murder that keeps them second-guessing one another on a trail of clues. Organized by chapters named after common required high school reading, including Heart of Darkness and Paradise Lost, Pessl’s novel is a compelling, compulsive mystery that delves into the darker side of high school.

The Furniture Appears to be Dreaming

Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder attempts to, for once and for all, to define poetry.

In this lecture, first given at our 2015 Summer Workshop, Matthew tackles metaphor, so-called “poetic” language, and explores the differences between poetry and prose.

Other topics covered included Keats, chimney sweepers, Bishop, line breaks, and blue antelope.

In other words, all the essentials.

When the Action is Hot, Write Cool

Debra Gwartney

It can be tempting to believe you’ll increase the tension of your prose if your characters over-emote: cry, weep, wail, explode with joy. But it’s often more effective to convey emotion with a matter-of-fact tone and highly controlled language.

In this craft talk from our 2015 Summer Workshop, Debra Gwartney discusses ways to allow the reader to feel for herself, rather than be instructed by the writer.

How to Write a Hoax Poem

Kevin Young

Kevin Young drops by our classroom to discuss some of the more notable modern poetry hoaxes, glimpsing into the secret history of the poem as something conceived to tempt or even trick. By understanding the ways the hoax works, Young suggests that we may better know our own assumptions, habits, and hurts, and how to subvert them in our writing. For the hoax poem urges us to write poetry that is not afraid of chaos but confronts it.

This lecture was recorded during our 2014 Summer Workshop.