Props to the Young Scribblers of St. Louis

This year, for the first time, St. Louis Public Library offered the My StL Challenge, giving junior-high and high-school students the chance to reflect on a person, place, or institution that defines St. Louis for them. We got a lot of great entries in both the written and audiovisual categories, and it was my privilege to serve on the jury that selected the winners. We invited them down to Central Library to present their work at a ceremony in the Carnegie Room earlier this month.

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The winners included an essay on cleaning the streets of north city, an immersive soundscape created in SLPL’s new recording studio, and an ingenious spoken-word recording that used the letters of ST LOUIS to spell out the lines of a chorus. (We at Scribbler are acrostic fans.) Many of the winning entries are posted at the SLPL teens blog.

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We are all extremely proud of the young writers who stepped up to enter the challenge, and we look forward to offering similar opportunities in the future. Also a big shout-out to STL Style House, who provided T-shirts for all of our winners. These kids have talent and style to spare.

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Thomas Bernhard: Everybody’s Favorite Austrian Misanthrope

I have replaced the screen saver on my work computer with a picture of Thomas Bernhard. He will watch my desk while I am gone. He stares, remorseless, with a hint of humor and contempt, directly at me in my ergonomic chair. How long will I be able to withstand the penetrating gaze of Bernhard? Actually, I am leaving the library for a few weeks to teach at Washington University’s Summer Writing Institute, so this picture of Bernhard will be waiting, like a coiled spring inside my computer, should one of my colleagues log onto my computer by mistake, and it will be that colleague, rather than I, who will have to face the amused, slightly contemptuous, so-called steely gaze of Bernhard.


Fun Facts about Bernhard:

– He suffered from incurable tuberculosis from a young age and spent long periods of his life in santoriums and rehabilitation centers.

– He once commented, “Everything is laughable, when one thinks of death,” after receiving a minor Austrian state literature prize in 1968.

– While best known for his novels, also a playwright. Cf. his play Eve of Retirement, in which a former Nazi officer dresses up in his S.S. regalia and forces his sisters to join him in a pageant celebrating Himmler’s birthday, which was performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1980s when I was a child (man, I would love to know how that play went over!)

–  Referred to Austria as “a brutal and stupid nation … a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe.” His will stipulated that his works could not be published in Austria after his death.

Common Features of Bernhard Novel:

1. Obsessive, ranting narrator who hates Austria and suffers from lung disease.

2.  Meditations on failure.

3.  Narrator is often consumed by an endless and futile project (i.e. dissertation on Mendelssohn, labyrinthine soundscape for experimental music, architecturally strange compound built for sister in the woods)

4.  Repetitive musical style, the same phrases used again and again, often with the modifier “so-called” (Bernhard’s style is very skeptical toward language itself)

5.  Actually quite funny if your sense of humor tends toward the dark and dyspeptic.

Notable Works:

Novels: Gargoyles (1967), The Lime Works (1970), Correction (1975), The Loser (1983)

Memoirs: Gathering Evidence (1985), My Prizes (2010) all published by Knopf/Random House

A brief excerpt from Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Old Masters: A Comedy:

The perfect not only threatens us ceaselessly with our ruin, it also ruins everything that is hanging on these walls under the label masterpiece. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one of the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further. In every one of these paintings, these so-called masterpieces, I have found and uncovered a massive mistake, the failure of its creator. For over thirty years this, as you might think, infamous calculation has come out right. Not one of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter by whom, is in fact whole or perfect. That reassures me. It makes me basically happy. Only when, time and again, we have discovered that there is no such thing as the whole or the perfect are we able to live on. We cannot endure the whole or the perfect. We have to travel to Rome to discover that Saint Peter’s is a tasteless concoction, that Bernini’s altar is an architectural nonsense. We have to see the Pope face to face and personally discover that all in all he is just as helpless and grotesque a person as anyone else in order to bear it. We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. And we have to deal in the same way with the so-called great philosophers, even if they are our favorite spiritual artists, he said. After all, we do not love Pascal because he is so perfect but because he is fundamentally so helpless, just as we love Montaigne for his helplessness in lifelong searching and failing to find, and Voltaire for his helplessness. We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.

Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy

Translated by Ewald Osers

via A Piece of Monologue (Modern & Contemporary Art & Expression)

Brief Excerpt from Bernhard Interview:

Q: A publisher once…

A: What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there’s no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that’s harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can’t find them anymore. That’s the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can’t find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he’s muddled, either way they’re gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it’s either ruined or impossible to find.

Full interview here.




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“A Pen Warmed Up in Hell”: Joy Williams at the Paris Review

The great Joy Williams is interviewed by Wash U grad Paul Winner in the Summer 2014 issue of the Paris Review. Love this opening anecdote about her giving a craft talk at a university. Instead she discussed Kraft cheese.



What would be the point, she said,

to discuss the craft of Jean Rhys, Janet Frame, Christina Stead, Malcolm Lowry, all of whose works can teach use little about technique, and whose way of touching us is simply by exploding on the lintel of our minds. It is not technique that guided them. Their craft consisted of desire.

We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and the ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen–in Mark Twain’s phrase–warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.


My favorite Joy Williams book is probably her 2001 novel The Quick and the Dead; Domenica Ruta’s excellent review over at NPR gives a fine overview.

Winner concludes the anecdote:

She smiled, thanked the audience, and sat. There were no questions. A student at the reception wondered aloud if tonight’s craft talk could have destroyed future craft talks. “I hope so,” her friend said.

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The Scribblers Charter

This is intended as a primer for new members of the STL Scribblers group at Central Library. Here are the basic guidelines for our group, which will be reviewed periodically and will change over time. If you have a suggested amendment to these rules, please e-mail group coordinator Eric Lundgren at and it will be brought before the group.

Basic Information

1. STL Scribblers meets the first Monday of the month at 7 pm at Central Library. Members are encouraged to form their own sub-groups to extend the conversation at other locations or through online discussion.

2. Usually, at least part of each meeting will be devoted to a workshop discussion of a story or novel excerpt from one of our group members. The goal of this workshop is to offer honest and supportive feedback and to help the author prepare the story for publication.

3. In addition to workshops, STL Scribblers will also discuss literary events in the St. Louis area; engage in creative exercises; discuss the business/practical side of the writing life; and share news, accomplishments, and resources with each other.

4. All submissions for workshop will be submitted and shared by e-mail. The group is willing to consider revisions of the same story, time permitting, if the revision is a substantial one, but priority will be given to new work.

5. Writers are generally expected to be silent during the first part of their workshop, although exceptions can be made to this rule.

Guidelines: Responding to Other Group Members’ Writing

1. Tailor your comments to the writer; judge each piece in terms of its intentions, not your personal likes/dislikes as a reader.

2. Critique the writing, not the writer. Make sure to word all criticism in a way that is polite and civil.

3. Speak from your own perspective, and discuss your own reading experience (i.e. “I found this passage confusing” and not “This passage is confusing.”)

4. Remember that you are in a writing group to help each other improve. All criticism should aim to be constructive and helpful.

5. Whatever you say, imagine yourself on the receiving end of the comment.

Guidelines: Reacting to Other Group Members’ Responses

1. Remember that the writing group is trying to help you become a better writer. Try to be open to the process.

2. Put yourself in the critic’s shoes: it is difficult to articulate criticism in a way that is both polite and helpful.

3. Remember that all readers are different. Filter out what is not helpful and focus on what is. Look for patterns in the feedback you receive.

4. Remember that criticism is not an indictment of you; it is simply a response to something you wrote on one occasion.

5. Listen to praise with the same intensity that you listen to criticism. They really do mean it.

This charter is a “living document” and will be reviewed by group members approximately once a year. Adapted from Writers on the Plains Writing Group Guidelines, Colorado State University Libraries:

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Paying Tribute to Place: The My STL 2014 Challenge

“The city will follow you,” the Greek poet Cavafy wrote in his poem “The City.” This summer, the St. Louis Public Library challenges teens grades 6-12 to create something about St. Louis on its 250th birthday. We’ll be accepting submissions of short essays, poems, stories, songs, and videos through the end of June. Winners will receive T-shirts from STL Style House and other great prizes, and will have the opportunity to read their work in Central Library’s auditorium. On Monday, May 19th, author Antony John will be leading a workshop to get the ideas flowing at Central Library. 


My StL 2014 Challenge

stl250_nowater_cmykSt. Louis is 250 years old, and we’re challenging teens! Reflect on a person, place, or institution that defines your St. Louis. Describe the emotional power of this place, person, or institution, and tell us how your choice is reflected in the St. Louis of today. Submissions judged on excellence of presentation, originality, production quality, emotional impact, and storytelling.


  • Writing: An essay, poem or short story–no more than 500 words.
  • Visual: A short (no more than 2 minute) film, music video, song, or spoken word recording.

Pick up an entry form at any St. Louis Public Library location. Entries accepted May 1-June 30.  A panel of writers, artists, and Library staff will select the middle and high school winners.


Winner Showcase and Award Ceremony is Saturday, July 12, at 2-2:30 p.m. in Central’s Auditorium.


Writing Workshop

Need help getting started with your entry? Attend a My STL 2014 Challenge Writing Workshops.

anthony johnAntony John, the award winning young adult author of Five Flavors of Dumb, will help you work on your entry. All programs 6-7 p.m.

  • Monday          May 5             Carpenter  
  • Monday          May 12           Julia Davis  
  • Monday          May 19           Central

dumb_350Registration recommended.

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Recycling and the Greater St. Louis Book Fair



It’s a few days late for Earth Day, but the legendary Portland bookstore Powell’s made this graphic available so that readers can share their passion for recycling used books this week. Locally there is no better way to exercise this passion than by attending the Greater St. Louis Book Fair, which starts today with $10 admission from 4-10 pm. The fair then becomes free for the rest of the weekend, with a half-price day on Sunday and a day for certified 501(c)3 nonprofits on Monday. Of course, when it comes to sharing books, your public library cannot be topped, but the GSLBF is a regionally significant celebration of the printed word that benefits a host of educational and literacy nonprofits. Have fun treasure-hunting this weekend.

Speaking of recycling, Scribbler gladly re-offers its own primer to the weekend’s activities: last year’s post The Stages of the St. Louis Book Fair.

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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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