New Books on Creative Writing at Central Library

I have a conflicted relationship with writing books. Books on writing can seem like books on sex: embarrassing, beside the point, and possibly harmful. You like to think that you have the moves down, that you won’t get lost in the dark. It’s a difficult thing (I mean writing) and this difficulty sustains the market for writing books, which offer guidance, encouragement, and consolation. The consultation of these books can be a distraction, a form of procrastination, or a doomed search for easy answers, but many of these books do have valuable insights for beginning and experienced writers alike. There is no substitute for the work itself, but in moments of doubt, there are some good options out there, and we’ve tried to make them available at St. Louis Public Library.


The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman

As someone who has worked at a publishing house, a lit mag, and as a screener for a novel-writing competition, I can say that Lukeman has a solid concept here. In the flooded-as-ever literary marketplace, the “gatekeepers” are looking for any reason they can find to stop reading your manuscript, and Lukeman breaks down a number of the technical and stylistic problems that can occur in the opening moments of a narrative. Plus you have to like a writing book that begins: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I.”


Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson

While there is no formula for great writing, in a genre such as mystery there are a number of elements that must come into play if you’re going to earn your cred. Ellis and Lamson have gathered a large number of contributors to offer tips and exercises to help novices attain genre mastery. I like the entry from St. Louis’s John Lutz about engaging the senses in fiction:

An effective technique, too often ignored or not used to full effect, is to involve most or all of the senses. Weapons glint in the sun or look dangerous in the shadows; blood has an unpleasant taste; the flesh of combatants is sweaty and slippery; perspiration has an odor; bone makes a distinctive sound when broken; there might be ragged breathing, cries and moans of pain, soles scuffling on grass or dirt or gravel. So there we have sight, taste, feel, smell, and sound, all easy enough to use even in a brief action scene. All five senses. Makes my pulse quicken just reading about them.

You don’t have to tell a public librarian that perspiration has an odor, but this is the kind of straightforward, hard-hitting advice you can expect from Now Write! Mystery.


Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

If only it were so easy! I jest, but Maass is a seasoned literary agent who knows something about the marketplace and why a book succeeds or fails. Along with richly anecdotal tales of his experiences in the publishing world, he offers good, common-sense advice about the scope, stakes, and emotional impact of a story, and his examples are refreshingly catholic, ranging from Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist within a single chapter. Bonus here is a preface by Anne Perry, one of Maass’s clients, and one of the real-life protagonists of the film Heavenly Creatures, who has gone on to explore the criminal mind in dozens of mystery novels.


Wonderbook,by Jeff Vandermeer

Full disclosure: this title is not on our shelves yet, but it is on order and should be available soon. I’m pretty excited to have a look at it, because Vandermeer is a fabulist who’s not afraid to lead his reader into strange and magical alleys: witness his recent Annihilation, book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy which will be published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in installments throughout the year. Based around an expedition to a thoroughly creepy nature reserve full of ambiguous ruins and Lovecraftian fungus, Annihilation is one of my favorite reads of 2014 and I think it’s safe to say that Vandermeer has “broken out” with this series, judging by the six-figure advance and the film rights going to Scott Rudin. (Kind of funny how the popularity-virus connection is structured into our language, don’t you think? One of those “metaphors we live by.”)


It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences, by June Casagrande

Have to admire a style guide that offers a grammatically dubious sentence as its title. Generally, I think we can say that writing books that acknowledge their own limitations are probably better, and Casagrande does that–offering a chapter on “when to break the rules.” This is more in the nature of a micro, style guide than a grand sweeping “how to write a novel” sort of book. Still, all books start with sentences, and I’m bound to be charmed by a book that focuses on this humble unit of prose. See also Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.


Artful, by Ali Smith

This book barely fits into the category at all. If you’ve read any of Ali Smith’s fiction–I enthusiastically recommend her debut novel Hotel World–it will come as no surprise that this book on writing craft is slippery, brilliant, and unclassifiable. I think it is the first book of lectures I’ve read that has a ghost in it. Anyway, if you find yourself feeling drab and uninspired, turn to Smith’s virtuoso meditation to remind yourself of how a great artist can rearrange and illuminate the world. With encyclopedic command, humor, and cameos from Dickens’s Artful Dodger, Artful is a book about art that is also a work of art–which is easier said than done.



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National Poetry Month: A Cure for the Word Flu

At the moment I’m reading an interesting debut novel called The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. An English nerd’s paranoid trip, it documents the outbreak of a technologically-induced “word flu” which causes language to become debased and corrosive. Definitions are bought and sold in an online marketplace and almost no one can recall even everyday words without the use of their device (the Meme). But without getting too far into Graedon’s fictional world, it’s worth reminding you that there’s a simple cure for this kind of malaise: it’s called poetry.

We asked two talented poets and public library supporters, Jessica Baran and Ted Mathys, to curate shelves for Central Library this month. Thankfully, they agreed, which means I will get to spend a lot of time hunting the poetry stacks this April! Here are a few of their language-enhancing prescriptions. They’ve made many more selections which will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout the month.

Because, as an assistant lexicographer in The Word Exchange puts it, “Language seems to be the only means for linking consciousness, the most effective way to stifle loneliness and pull us from our night-like pits.”

ImageJessica Baran’s Selections:

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery. Lyrical detachment, queer irony, displaced pronouns and warped self-reflection: what more could you want? A now-canonical poetic text, this book has a brilliant rhetorical knack for always coming across as a sly, private revelation.

The Emily Dickinson Reader, Paul Legault. If you ever needed confirmation that Emily Dickison was in fact a zombie gardener, here it is. An English-to-English “translation” of the Masteress’s elliptical poems, rendered with tear-inducing wit into tweet-length Americana.

Inferno, Dante (translated by Mary Jo Bang). Bang’s version of this well-known trip to hell is a fresh reminder of a day-to-day moral order perhaps only alive in books. There is a moment when Virgil advises Dante not to stare too long at certain vulgar sufferings; it should make any reader blush. We are all implicated. Beyond all the well-known grotesqueries, this is a long poem about indiscretion’s finer grain and the equally delicate texture of loss, which Bang powerfully harnesses.

Sprawl, Danielle Dutton. It goes everywhere. This novel, which takes its title as a formal cue, explores the psychology and lived reality of the contemporary suburban condition, which manages to pull identity, time and language to a point of blurred and horrific thinness.

Dictionary of Received Ideas, Gustave Flaubert. Speaks for itself. Here are a few sample entries: AMBITIOUS – In the provinces, any man of reputation. “Me, I’m not ambitious!” indicates an egoist or an incompetent. AMERICA – Fine example of injustice: Christopher Columbus discovered it and it takes its name from Amerigo Vespucci. Without the discovery of America, we would not have syphilis or phylloxera. Praise it nonetheless, especially if one has not been there. Inveigh against self-government. AMUSING – Must be attached to all remarks: “How amusing!”

Jessica Baran is the author of two poetry collections: Equivalents (Lost Roads Press, 2013) and Remains to Be Used (Apostrophe Books, 2011). Her art writing has appeared in, Art in America, Art Papers, and BOMB, among other journals. She is the director of fort gondo compound for the arts and teaches at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art.


 Ted Mathys’s Selections:

Hart Crane, White Buildings

Hart Crane was my first poetic hero. I grew up on a farm in northeast Ohio, about an hour from Crane’s childhood home. In the lyrics of his first collection, White Buildings, I found both a mesmerizing poetry unlike anything I’d read before, and a kind of implicit license to write poems. His springy, tensile lines are charged with energies – at once sensual, desperate, and optimistic – and his diction is lush. While Crane’s poems are difficult to assimilate logically, their emotional friction and imaginative leaps are remarkable. It’s not what his poems mean, but how they mean.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium

Stevens’ meditative playfulness, wonderful music, and formal architectures make me return to him often. His poems give a sly nod to philosophical rigor and formal arrangements of thought, but never yield to them, giving his voice a gnomic quality. Harmonium contains some of my favorite American poems, including “Domination of Black,” “The Snow Man,” and “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”

C.D. Wright, Deepstep Come Shining

C.D. Wright has developed an unmistakable idiom in contemporary poetry, incorporating folk wisdom and the vernacular of her native Arkansas while turning her fierce powers of observation toward the social, racial, and political dynamics of American culture. In Deepstep, Wright uses avant-garde techniques of composition and documentary assemblage to create an eerie book concerned with the nature of sight, memory, and art against the backdrop of a road trip through the Deep South.

Arthur Sze, The Redshifting Web, New & Selected Poems, 1970-1998

Arthur Sze is a poet of simultaneity. His poems dare to take on the structures of reality, charting the complex relations among matter, language, and thought that together make up what we call “the present.” He often proceeds by a process of accretion – privileging the present tense, using semicolons as little hinges among unrelated units, and layering lines on top of each other like strata of rock to form gorgeous canyons. These poems marvel at cacti and quasars equally, traveling the interconnected webs of the human and natural worlds.

Inger Christensen, Alphabet

Christensen’s Alphabet is a classic in Denmark and a stunning, book-length experiment in form. The poem combines abecedarian form (poems that proceed through the alphabet, in this case from “A” to “N”) with the Fibonacci mathematical sequence, such that the number of lines in each section of the poem is the sum of the previous two numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…). Published in 1981 amid Cold War tensions and geopolitical changes in Europe, her poem reckons with how to name and experience the beauty and joy of a world always at risk of annihilation, shuttling from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic as the book spirals out into its own, uncontainable form.

Ted Mathys’ third book of poetry, Null Set, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2015. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, his poetry and criticism has appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, BOMB, Conjunctions, Fence, Ploughshares, Verse, and elsewhere. He currently splits his time between Iowa City, IA, where he is completing an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and St. Louis, where he is co-curator of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts Poetry Series. 



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Magic and the Intellect: A Remarkable Occurrence at AWP 2014


So, lately I’ve been reading Lucy Corin’s brilliant story collection “A Hundred Apocalypses.” This insightful report from Naomi J. Williams’s blog concerns some very strange happenings involving Corin at the recent AWP conference in Seattle. Fascinating glimpse of a fascinating mind at work – although I should say, not at all your typical AWP panel! For those scribbling at the outer limits …

Originally posted on Naomi J. Williams:

AWP 2014 So for the first time, I’m attending AWP , the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs . I wasn’t planning to blog about the experience at all. But something extraordinary went down this morning at a panel called “Magic and the Intellect.” What follows isn’t an objective “report” of what happened. A lot of other people were there, and each would have a different telling. This one’s mine.

The four writers on the panel were Lucy Corin, Kate Bernheimer, Anna Joy Springer, and Rikki Ducornet. I went because, while I’m fairly confident about the intellect part of my life and work, I’m not always sure about the magic. I’ve always loved Hamlet’s rejoinder to Horatio about there being more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, but ever since largely abandoning the religious faith of my…

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Movies About Flowers, Books About Nothing

The other night I had the chance to revisit Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film (I know Spike Jonze directed it, but this is Kaufman’s movie all the way). It takes us into the mind of a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman as he struggles to “adapt” Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief for the screen. Charlie worries about everything, pretty much: his hairline, his physique, his interactions with women, but mostly he agonizes about his project, a “movie about flowers.” Not wanting to corrupt the screenplay’s source material, he envisions a movie in which things don’t happen, people don’t change or realize anything. “In the end, it’s about disappointment,” he says.

Complicating matters, Kaufman’s (fictional) twin brother Donald, who lives with Charlie, also abruptly decides to become a screenwriter. After attending Robert McKee’s Story seminar — an actual screenwriting seminar, and the actual McKee appears in the film — Donald returns home with a preposterous idea about a serial killer with multiple-personality disorder, one that naturally wins him a hot girlfriend, riches, and praise from the industry. The twin brothers begin to collaborate on a script that moves farther away from Charlie’s initial vision of a plotless “movie about flowers” and into the familiar conflict-and-crisis mode of Hollywood storytelling that is brilliantly parodied toward the end of the film. Adaptation is also, needless to say, simply a great character study which also gives us a window into Orlean’s fascinating book and the obsession at its core.


It also succeeds, I think, at dramatizing a conflict many writers deal with. On the one hand, the desire to be truthful, to represent life as it is lived (or at least experienced by the writer’s mind). On the other hand, the knowledge that storytelling is strategic lying, presented for the purposes of entertainment and distraction, and in the hopes of gaining fame, wealth, immortality, and hot girlfriends/boyfriends. Kauffman gets this tension really well and he gives both sides a voice in his script. (Indeed I heard Kaufman say to a deferential Swedish interviewer at the Ingmar Bergman Institute that the main character of Adaptation was the screenplay–if anyone changes and grows in Adaptation it is the adaptation itself.)

For example, screenwriting guru McKee gets to convincingly defend his own principles:

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your —-ing mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every —-ing day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every —-ing day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the —- are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!


On the other hand, especially in the thrall of a seemingly endless winter as we seem to be, these narrative formulae and storytelling tricks can lose their luster. Life sometimes feels static, caught in a loop. You can find McKee convincing on the natural drama of real life, the need for characters to meaningfully change, the artist’s responsibility to consider and manage audience expectations; at the same time, these kinds of calculations can be completely off-putting and at such moments, reading a work of fiction becomes almost impossible due to the background noise of gears grinding. At some moments in our lives we just want the movie about flowers. Flaubert famously wrote that he wanted to “write a book about nothing … held together by the internal strength of its style.” Sometimes the absence of B.S. is the paramount quality we are looking for, even if that strips away plot, character, conflict, and most of the other fundamentals of storytelling. (Another thing Adaptation shows brilliantly is how boring “thrillers” can be.)


So, even though I’ve had some trouble sticking with longer narratives lately, Padgett Powell’s You & Me hit the spot when I finally picked it off the shelf last night. (Almost as if it had been waiting for me, like a good bottle of wine, for the last two years.) It was the tonic my bleak late-February mind needed, the brisk dose of anti-narrative, of pure voice, that got me attuned to the language again. You & Me is a set of dialogues between two “weirdly agreeable dudes” sitting on a porch somewhere in the South. They consider various plans–taking a walk, donating everything in the house to Salvation Army–but end up deciding against them. They stay on the porch. They keep talking, That is all. A sample of its music:

Why do we talk?
Why would we not?
I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?
Precious little else, darlin’.
My point.
Your point is that we do nothing but talk …
And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.
Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.
I dispute you not.   (You & Me, p. 77)


I imagine most readers vacillate in terms of their feelings toward fictional narrative. Just as a dedicated historian might take a break to read a pulp mystery, the hardcore fiction reader probably has to stop once in a while for a dose of nonfiction or a collection of poetry. I’m curious what other fiction readers turn to at these times, when the traditional tropes of fiction don’t satisfy them. When all they want is writing that doesn’t go anywhere, that spins its wheels beautifully. I’m thinking about a few other books now as well, such as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and Lydia Davis’s stories, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Beckett’s Malone Dies. These books that serve us as a palate cleanser and carve out some much-needed negative space in our reading minds.

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Happy 100th Birthday, William S. Burroughs

February 5th marks the 100th birthday of St. Louis’s own gentleman junkie and agent provocateur. I can remember hearing news of his death reported on NPR in 1997, crying “Burroughs!” as I drove through suburban Minneapolis. Given the life he lived, detailed most recently in Barry Miles’s hefty biography Call Me Burroughs, it’s incredible that he survived the Biblical threescore and ten, and then some. The recent tributes speak to his vitality, even in afterlife; among the best are Will Self’s reflection at The Guardian and Sand Avidar-Walzer’s piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Burroughs himself would probably be shaking his head and muttering profanities in response to all this celebration, but what the hell, his vision of a culture permeated by addiction and lust and manipulated by obscure agents of control and surveillance has only increased in relevance in the years after his death.


(Christian Tonnis / Wikimedia Commons)

This week offers two outstanding opportunities to celebrate the work and legacy of Burroughs. First on Wednesday night, at the Heavy Anchor in south St. Louis, the 100th Birthday of William S. Burroughs will feature readings by local poets Brett Underwood and Christian Saller, music by local electronic composer Eric Hall and troubadour Tim Rakel, and Burroughsiana for sale by Subterranean Books from 6-8. Should be a fun night, although I doubt any of us will be able to ingest enough substances to really pay tribute–who knows, maybe some will be trying …

After the mandatory recovery time, Thursday night offers a mellower opportunity: Burroughs biographer Barry Miles will be reading at Left Bank Books in the Central West End (not too far from Burroughs’s childhood home). Miles spent some serious time hanging with the Beats in their heyday and should have some good stories to tell.

All in all, two great opportunities to celebrate one of the weirdest, most original human beings to ever come out of St. Louis, or anywhere else for that matter.

A good selection of books by and about Burroughs are on display here in the Entertainment Literature Biography Room at Central Library.

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Writing After War

The other day Publishers Weekly posted this list of its ten best contemporary war novels. Ranging from Ben Fountain’s superb Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (one of my favorite reads of 2012), to David Abrams’ satirical Fobbit, to George Saunders’ surreal The Brief and Frightening Rein of Phil, the list demonstrates the vitality and range of work being produced out of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here at the St. Louis Public Library we’re excited to be offering a Veterans Writing Workshop in the spring of 2014, in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. The series will offer veterans the resources they need to tell their stories, as well as the chance to adapt their work to other media using the technology in Central Library’s Creative Experience. Full details below.


Writing After War

St. Louis Public Library Central Branch

January 21 – March 25, 6:30-8:30 PM

Moderated by: Kathleen Nigro, Geoff Giglierano, Eric Lundgren

Workshop Coordinator: Deb Marshall, Warriors Arts Alliance

For six weeks, participants will have an opportunity to learn to write personal stories in these FREE workshops at St. Louis Public Library’s Central Branch. Although these workshops are geared toward veterans and their family members, anyone interested in the writing craft will benefit from these workshops led by St. Louis writing professionals.

January 21 and 28: Writing Your Story: Getting Started

Everyone has a story to tell and we’ll help you get started writing yours by providing you with writing prompts, exercises and discussions which will help get you started writing yours. Poet and educator Jane Ellen Ibur will provide you with keys to help you unlock your personal Pandora’s box of poetic creativity.

February 4: “The Artist’s Way” to Find Inspiration

Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2013, Julia Cameron’s milestone book, “The Artist’s Way” continues to help thousands of individuals discover their creative voices. We’ll use some of the techniques from “The Artist’s Way” to keep you inspired and to keep you writing, even after the workshop has ended.

February 11: Using What Has Already Been Written in Your Writing

Many of us write very few letters these days, choosing instead to communicate online. Letters, personal journals, and now emails, provide us with insight and history for our stories. We’ll explore piecing together stories from personal writings — some of them from generations ago.

February 18: Storytelling from the Interview Perspective

The interview process provides writers with information from which a story can be built, but sifting through interview information can be tricky. General questions to help build a framework for your interview and the interview process will be discussed and practiced in this session.

February 25: Building Your Story from the Ground Up

From outlines to pyramids and character descriptions to settings, participants will be introduced to writing tips to follow as we prepare to put the story together in a first draft.

March 4, 11, 18 and 25: Fiction, Graphic Novels and The Creative Experience

Using fiction writing as a basic framework, workshop participants will combine traditional fiction writing with other media to tell a story. Utilizing the resources of the SLPL’s Creative Experience media lab with its visually-augmented technology, participants will experiment with writing combined with music and images in order to create a video story.

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Orlando on Reading (with a Nod to The Goldfinch)

So, to begin 2014 with an embarrassing confession, I had never until very recently read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. No idea why: I love Woolf and read most of her work in high school and college, including some of the less-read stuff like The Years, but this one escaped me until a few weeks ago. It’s one of Woolf’s most sheerly enjoyable books, with all the lightness and invention of a love letter–the book was inspired by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West. The novel is subtitled “a biography” and one of the most fascinating elements for me was how Woolf uses the biographer’s voice throughout, meditating on the conventions of how we narrate a life. Of course, there have been whole shelves of academic monographs devoted to the issues of gender and perception raised by the novel (in case you haven’t heard, the protagonist changes from a man to a woman midway through). None of them, I’m sure, as fun to read as Orlando itself, which I’m glad I read as a private citizen, not a student, with the same freedom that Woolf wrote it.


There is a wonderful aside in Orlando about Orlando’s own reading life:

The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away, and he almost burnt down the house with tinder. To put it in a nutshell, leaving the novelist to smooth out the crumpled silk and all its implications, he was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature …. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality, so that Orlando, to whom fortune had given every gift — plate, linen, houses, men-servants, carpets, beds in profusion — had only to open a book for the whole vast accumulation to turn to mist.

As a foot of snow fell on St. Louis yesterday, whiting out the world, and panes of ice formed on our rattled windows, I stayed inside, happily absorbed in the final pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The powerful symptoms of the “disease” that Orlando mentions are also, in a sense, what Tartt’s novel is about: the multiple ways in which great beauty–in this case a small but exquisite 17th century painting called “The Goldfinch”–can order, alter, lift, or even save our lives. I love how Fabritius’s painting appears like a half-unwrapped gift on the brilliant book cover:


I didn’t exactly keep track, but I think I read the 770-page Goldfinch in less than a week. It’s the kind of thrilling, all-engrossing narrative world that will have you up late like a kid, burning through your tapers and breeding glow-worms, so to speak. In these early days of 2014, I’m feeling very grateful for gifts like these, offering glimmers of light (and a reason to get up) on these winter days that can be pretty cold and bleak. But sometimes a book, a lamp, a cat, and a couch are all you need to make the outside disappear.

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