Friday, April 27, 2012

Entry # 58 - "About Those 2012 Pulitzer Fiction Non-Winners"

"Caribbean Blues" - Jan Bowman - October 2011
This week I’ve thought about the announcement that the Pulitzer Prize Board would not name a fiction winner this year.  Unfortunately, what the public is likely to conclude – incorrectly – is that no works from the 2011 crop of literary fiction were “worthy” of an award this year.  But the reality is that 2011 was a year with many wonderful works of fiction; some of which I intend to read over the summer and are given at the end of this reflections piece.

I’m not alone in suggesting the system used to identify the winners is a flawed process in need of repairs. In a New York Times OP-ED response April 18, 2012, author, Ann Patchett said, “Not awarding a Pulitzer for fiction is a snub to everyone.”  And I am inclined to agree. The process needs revision. All the fine fiction for the past year and all the amazing authors who have written worthy books and who were nominated to the long-list of 300 plus, should be outraged. But it also helps to remember that the winner of the Pulitzer or any other award is not necessarily the best novel of the year in such an arbitrary system. I won’t pretend to write a prescription for how to “fix” this problem, nor do I intend to offer a critical assessment of the three books that were finalists.  Instead I will offer some information and observations.  I’ll also offer some books from 2011 that I intend to read, because I believe they will be interesting literary works.

So how are Pulitzer winners selected?  The administrator of the Pulitzers of Columbia University, Sig Gissler, explained to the New York Times that a three-person fiction jury reviews hundreds (300 or more) works of self or editor nominated fiction over the course of about nine months. These three readers select three books as finalists and send them to the 18-20 person Pulitzer board. The board is expected to read these three books and select the winner. The board is mostly made up of newspaper editors and journalism professors and this year had only one fiction writer, 2008 Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz.

So the board does not consist of fiction writers, but is made up of people with a range of experiences and publication backgrounds, many of whom were previously awarded prizes in various journalism categories. Gissler notes that if they can’t agree, after examining the final three, then no winner is named for that year, something that happened in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1977 and now 2012.  Gissler goes on the say that “the decision is not meant to be a statement about fiction in general. … And no decision just means that those on the Pulitzer Board in a given year were unable to award a majority of votes to one of these three books.”

It seems to me that the three judges who offered their recommendations did their work with due diligence. They waded through all manner of books.  Some books weren’t so good.  Some were self-nominated, self-published and unedited.  But they also read some amazing work from new and veteran authors. Maureen Corrigan, Georgetown professor of English and a 22-year veteran book critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air” expressed chagrin upon learning that the board had decided not to award a fiction prize.  Michael Cunningham, who won a Pulitzer for his wonderful book, The Hours and Susan Larson, the well-respected book editor for the Times-Picayune served as the other two judges.  All have expressed surprise and frustration about the board’s decision.  It’s as if their year of hard work was wasted effort; after all they’d been wading through fiction since last June.

And yes, do the math. No way did they read every single book submitted to them. If they had read over 300 books each, over the 6-9 month period, they would have read two books a day.  But some could be eliminated easily.  Self published, unedited books probably ended up in the “junk box” within seconds of a quick scan of pages.  Still what remains is a lot of reading for anyone and these three people are busy with “day jobs” so there is that to consider.

And the final three fiction nominees were as different and as similar as car horns and houseflies. Or to put it another way, these books were as different, and yet as similar, as children adopted from different counties would be. But they were reasonable examples of fiction, just as those three children would still be children with various traits in common. Would three other jurors have selected three other books? Given the arbitrary nature of the selection process, probably yes. 

The finalists were a gangly, unorthodox lot. A number of people in the industry suggest that this fact, in and of itself, may have given the Pulitzer board pause.  Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams,” was published as a novella in The Paris Review in 2002, and then was repackaged and released as a hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Twenty-nine year old Karen Russell’s debut novel, “Swamplandia!,” published by Knopf has some rough edges. And David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” was unfinished at the time of his suicide in 2008, and the ten-year old incomplete manuscript was found and stitched together by the author’s wife and his former editor.

So what other notable 2011 works of fiction are flying low on my radar that deserve to be on this year’s reading list?  Here are some, several of which were published before 2011 - in no particular order:

Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories
Michael Ondaatje’s The Cats Table
Erin Morgenstein’s The Night Circus
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Russell Bank’s Lost Memory of Skin
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
Antonya Nelson’s Living to Tell: A Novel
Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic
Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
Justin Torres’s We the Animals
Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang
Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
Chris Adrian’s The Great Night
Mat Johnson’s Pym
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

Finally, Ann Patchett wraps up her April 18, 2012, New York Times  OP-ED piece by saying,
“Reading fiction is important.  It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

Here are a couple of links on the topic:

"Atlantic Sunrise" - Jan Bowman - May 2011
“Houseflies and car horns have something in common. Most American car horns beep in the key of F. The housefly buzzes in the key of F.”  So! What in the world does this suggest to you?           --New York Public Library Desk Reference.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Entry # 57 - WRITERS TALK - Pamela Murray Winters - Part 2 - Poet

Poet - Pamela Murray Winters as Fourth Grader
Background Notes: 
Pamela Murray Winters grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland. Her poems have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Gargoyle, the Delaware Poetry Review, JMWW, the Fledgling Rag, and Takoma Park Writers 1981, among other publications. A former music journalist, she plans to publish a collection of poems on the relationship between performers and audiences. 

Note: The first part of this interview was posted April 17, 2012 as Entry #55.

Jan:     What “rules” for poetry do you reject as too constricting?  Are there any particular “rules” that you believe are essential for the full development of your work? 

Pam:     Outside my day job, where rules are the norm, I’m not a rule-oriented person--or I try not to be. One big prejudice: I’m really squirmy about slant rhyming being called rhyming. I’m really old-school on rhyme. Call it rhyme only if it rhymes!

I try not to edit myself too much on the first draft. Someone--I don’t remember who--said,  “The first draft is for the writer; the second is for the reader.” I think it’s a sound guideline.

I try to be open to all possibilities. I’m firm in my belief that the “I” in my poems isn’t necessarily me, and I have to not let fear of misinterpretation get in my way. One poem, based on a trip to San Francisco with a friend, became a sort of love poem as I was writing it; I went with that literary discovery even as I worried, and still worry a little, that my friend thinks I carry a torch for her.

I have on my bulletin board some notes from Deborah Digges, the full text of which can be found here:

One of them is “Never ask ‘Why?’ about your obsessions; ask ‘How can they transform?’” I love that idea. It frees me to be a total crazy person as a writer. I’ve already got enough of an editor in my makeup to balance the sort of wildness that, while dangerous in the mundane world, is essential to poetry. I could stand to be wilder still.

Jan:     Who are among your favorite poets alive and writing today?  And of course, I must ask who are your favorite poets who are no longer with us?

Pam:    I just mentioned Deborah Digges; she’s a recent favorite. I didn’t hear about her until her death, and I didn’t know when I first started reading her work that she was the ex-wife of my favorite mentor and teacher, Stanley Plumly. Among her many gifts are descriptions of actions with a naked clarity, that in some cases, ought to come off as prosaic but never does. She’s triggered at least three poems for me.

I have a thing for Philip Larkin. That darkness in him that’s redeemed by flickers of light: that’s a quality I first saw, and was drawn to, in the music of my favorite musician, my muse, Richard Thompson. I’m pretty sure that Richard saw it in Larkin as well.

There’s a younger poet called Adrian Blevins who, unlike the previous two, is still living and working. She’s from the same part of the country as my maternal family, southwestern Virginia. She’s funny and bleak and she has these long, long lines that are conversational and odd and entirely hers. In fact, that’s what moves me about each of these poets: each has a distinctive, unmatchable voice.

Jan:     When did you begin to write poetry?  Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?  How does it “stack up” next to your current work?

Pam:     I’m not sure. I know I wrote odes to Theodore Roosevelt in fifth grade or thereabouts. By high school, I was deeply into poetry; rumor was that the school principal was mad because I’d written a disproportionate number of the poems in our school literary magazine.

In college I studied with Rod Jellema and Reed Whittemore, who died just a few days ago. There are a few poems I wrote in my college years that I still like, but for the most part, I wasn’t nearly as good as I might have been, mostly because I was hobbled by shyness and depression. It was working with Rod Jellema again, maybe five years ago now, that showed me how far I’d come as a person and thus as a poet and how I’d gotten rid of so much of the preciousness and fear that had stopped me in my tracks before.

Jan:     What are the greatest obstacles to your writing at this point in your life?  And of course, what do you know now about writing, poetry and the poet’s world that you wish you’d known when you were twenty?

Pam:     I want more time! I don’t want back the 20-odd years when I wasn’t doing much with poetry; clearly I needed those years for other things. And I don’t mean that I want to live forever, although maybe I do; that’s a whole “nother” topic! I mean I want more time, day to day, to spend with this thing that matters more to me than almost anything. The need for full-time work, even though I love my job, is pretty constraining.

I’m not complaining; I’m grateful to have a job, especially one I like. I’m just saying that it’s harder to switch gears at my age (I’m 51). One has to sleep. One has to commute. One has to feed one’s cats. One has to watch “Law & Order.”

Jan:      Our readers are always interested in your process.  So how do you write a poem?  How would you describe your particular process?

Pam:     Oh, jeez! This is a hard one…First off, it’s nearly impossible for me to write a good poem “about” something. Here’s an example: I’ve tried to write a poem about a childhood friend who was murdered. I know that there are emotional boulders in my way: not only would such a topic be upsetting to anyone, but I have to be particularly careful because of my tendency toward depression; I don’t always feel strong enough to tackle such things.

The Poet's Muse - "Bear" - 2012
But even with more mundane topics--I’d love to write about my cat, Bear, who’s the most fascinating four-legged creature in the state of Maryland--I can’t point myself that way and expect the words to come.

Once I allowed myself to be open to the idea of poetry, poetry started coming to me. It’s when I’m falling asleep that a lot of it comes. And I often get pretty full first drafts. I write down what I can --when I can--but there are also health and professional concerns; I can’t be staying up all night writing poetry, or at least not that often.

I have found the book The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, an excellent resource for exercises that spur the creative process. One that I love, in the modifications with which I use it, involves finding a poem in a language you don’t know, making a “fake translation” by riffing off the sounds or connotations of the words, and then seeing where that leads you. I’ve gotten some unusual poems that way.

Rod Jellema, in whose workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda I learned about the Behn and Twichell book, believes that word leads to word and sound leads to sound. That’s how a poem is knitted: by following a path that seems utterly natural even when you can’t explain the logic behind the sequence of steps. (I know.   Mixed metaphor.)

Jan:     And what advice do you offer to a budding poet that would help and encourage him or her?  What should you know if you want to be a poet?

Pam:     Make yourself open to occasions of poetry. Learn to trust your own voice. Learn to take criticism humbly--but if it feels wrong to you, do your own thing.

Don’t be cowed by the name-dropping you’ll encounter in poetry circles; if a teacher mentions May Sarton and 10 students nod sagely, there’s a good chance that at least three of them haven’t read a word of hers! Just gather those names and go see what the fuss is about.

One thing I love about poetry is that there are no rules. Another is that the stakes, in a worldly way, are incredibly low. I’m a poet because I write poetry, because I channel poetry. I’m not going to make a living at it. I’m not going to become famous because of it. Therefore, I’m going to do it either because I need to--because of some inner drive--or because I want to. I’m grateful every day that I wake up and I’m a poet.

Pamela Murray Winters was just notified that her poems will be featured at a Miller Poetry Series Reading at Rock Creek Park in DC this summer - on July 8, 2012. Contact her for more information.

More Useful Links:

The Gettysburg Review:

Stanley Plumly: here’s a poem:

Deborah Digges—aside from the link I had in the interview, here’s one of her reading:

Philip Larkin:

Adrian Blevins: (a site much like yours, in which she's interviewed about her process)

Rod Jellema:

Reed Whittemore:

The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

The Writer’s Center:

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Entry # 56 - "Write What You Imagine"

"What Do You Imagine?" Photo Credit - Jan Bowman 10/2011
While writers are often urged to "write what you know," one of the most powerful incentives to write, both prose or poetry, comes from the free and joyful exploration of the imagination.  Exploring and learning about what you don't know and writing about it, provides one of the wonderful pleasures of writing. Writers can explore what it's like to live a life they've never before experienced and describe it with such passion and precision that readers recognize what is possible.  We are able to connect with our common humanity.  Fiction writers, in particular, are at a serious disadvantage if they are forced to avoid experiences they're unlikely to know as a firsthand life event. 

Imagine, if you will, what it was like to live as an early North American settler or a prehistoric cave dweller or on this Caribbean Island pictured above. Writers can imagine parachuting from a plane or diving into the Aegean.  They can research the details, technology, history, and through their imagination, build images that bring up emotions that add to our shared experiences as people and as readers.  Readers don't need to dive into the Aegean or jump from a plane to imagine what they would feel. Thus the term, "armchair tourist"comes from countless readers who can't or won't ever get closer to some experiences than a book, but isn't it wonderful that in this rather limited time that we all have on this planet, in our particular skins, that we can know so much more than just factual information.  That allows readers to move beyond the time and place limitations of physical bodies and explore richer emotional lives.  A reader travels and trusts his safe arrival at a new destination to a skilled writer.  Skilled writers are pilots who fly readers to where ever they want to go. Time and place are not limitations.
So I was thinking about a question I sometimes ask people when I interview them on my writers blog.  I ask some version of  "what advice have you been given in your writing life that you have learned to ignore." And I think one bit of advice that I have chosen to ignore is "write what you know."  I have replaced it with "write about things you can imagine, research, and explore through the internal and external landscape of the heart and mind."  

More often than not, readers come to fill their cups at the cool spring of imagined lives and take away more of a life than they would be likely to experience in their lifetimes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Entry # 55 – WRITERS TALK – Pamela Murray Winters - Part 1 - Maryland Poet

Background Notes: 
Pamela Murray Winters grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland. Her poems have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Gargoyle, the Delaware Poetry Review, JMWW, the Fledgling Rag, and Takoma Park Writers 1981, among other publications. A former music journalist, she plans to publish a collection of poems on the relationship between performers and audiences.

Part 2 of this Interview will be posted next Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

Jan:     Pam – We met a few years ago at Tinker Mountain Writers Conference Workshop at Hollins University.  I remember being impressed by your poetry readings there. How have summer workshop experiences helped you grow as a poet?

Pam:     Tinker Mountain was my first “residential” workshop. It’s an incredibly fulfilling experience to immerse yourself in a poetic identity like that. "I remember walking around the beautiful Hollins campus--a campus where my niece Catherine is now an undergraduate studying creative writing--and thinking 'I’m a poet. This is me being a poet.' Which probably sounds silly if you haven’t experienced it, but I think that identifying as a poet has a certain burden, because it carries all the stereotypes of narcissism, dissolution, dysfunction. Such pernicious concerns got in my way for a long time.

I grew up thinking that the best thing to be was a writer and the best kind of writer was to be a poet. "I no longer rank 'things to be' anymore--at least not consciously. But “poet” was an identity I wanted." At some point, as an adult, I lost faith in poetry for the better part of 25 years. So to be able to be in a place where my job was to be a poet, where I was around other writers, was immensely satisfying.

Besides being able to live for a week with “being a poet” being first and foremost, I benefited from the guidance of my workshop leader, Thorpe Moeckel, and interacting with my fellow workshop writers. It’s great to be in such company. 
"I love sitting around that table the first day of a workshop; I feel like we’re all at Hogwarts."

Jan:     Which of your current poems are your favorite poems to read before an audience and how do you select particular poems to read aloud?

Pam:     Let me start by saying I’m a ham. It’s a weird thing, because I’m basically shy, and I tend to be brutal on myself, at least after the fact.  But I get a real rush from doing readings. It’s something every poet should try.

That said, I don’t know that my poems go over as well in readings as they do on the page. I have a big, weird vocabulary and a blend of high and low diction that sometimes takes a while to get.

One of my favorites to read is “Ernie’s Foreign Legion.” It’s about my father, and the last time I read it aloud it caught me up short; my eyes teared up. I love doing the poem I wrote for my favorite musician: its title is something like “To Richard Thompson, age sixty, from Pam Winters, age forty-eight, on the occasion of the most recent of hundreds, yes hundreds, of his concerts that she’s attended, leading some to fear for her psychological wholeness.”

I’m aware of a tendency to put things in my poems that can be a little scary to perform. A poem I wrote about the Cropredy Festival in England has a few lines of a song by Fairport Convention, which I sing when I perform it. “Ernie’s Foreign Legion” has a hog call in it!

Jan:     What happens when a poet reads her work aloud before an audience?  Based on audience reactions, tell us about how that experience best empowers the poet’s resolve to write? 

Pam:     Performing a poem--I’ll say “performing” here rather than “reading,” to distinguish between reading aloud and reading as in consuming words--is empowering because it gets us out of the garret. Writing is largely a solitary art; even if we’re doing research and interviewing--when I was first a music journalist, I was astonished how much “being a writer” required me to engage with people--a lot of the act is staring at that screen or that page, playing a song to ourselves on the keys. Then again, getting the work out into the world, in real time, isn’t necessary for everyone. Can you imagine J.D. Salinger at an open mike?

For a poet, the greatest value in reading aloud, aside from getting to feel like a rock star for about 15 minutes, might be in hearing the sounds of your words. Even errors--“slept” for “swept”--can be instructive. Sometimes you can hear that a word or a line just doesn’t work, that it doesn’t sing. Sometimes you hear that it does, and your heart sings with it.

Jan:     Recently you read three of your poems at the DC Swan Day reading.  Tell our readers about the DC Swan Day project and your involvement in it. 

Pam:     I got an email, a call for women poets to read at DC SWAN Day. SWAN stands for Support Women in the Arts Now. There were women making art all over DC that day--as there are every day, if not in such a way that the whole city can enjoy and participate. I could go on and on about the incredible and under-recognized arts scene in the DC area, but I’ll leave that for another venue.

There ended up being 20 of us billed (get it? “swan” “billed”?!), although a few were ultimately unable to make it. We each read four minutes of poems, which worked out to about three poems for most of us. We read alphabetically, so I got to be last, which is a sweet spot—you get the accumulated good will of the crowd.

"The coolest thing was that there was such a wide range of self-chosen poets, different from each other, and most of us not really “known.And the quality was amazing. I was so happy to be a part of it, sharing my work with a small but appreciative audience. I look forward to next year. 
Here's a link to my YouTube reading, :

Jan:     One of your poems, “Guitarslinger” is one that I liked immediately when I heard you read a version of it several years ago, and now it’s in the latest issue of Gargoyle.  Can you tell readers a bit about this poem and also talk about how it connects to your passion for music?

Pam:     As a music reviewer, I saw the icky blemishes on the dull business side of a glorious art. For example, image making. Press releases, publicity photos, album design, all crafted to create some simplistic, edgeless snapshot of an artist that, the machine hopes, will cause people to notice and buy and consume.

Anyway, I’d been pondering the fact that two of my favorite musicians, Lucinda Williams and James McMurtry, both of whom have a sort of rough, rootsy vibe, are the children of literary figures, academics.

McMurtry’s a favorite of mine. He’s a real maverick. He cuts quite a figure. The last piece I read on him talked about his gun collection and featured him eating venison in a cabin. You get the idea. I got to interview him one time, and it was awesome--a word I don’t use often unless I’m being snarky. He’s a keenly intelligent man, taciturn and not necessarily quick to eloquence in an interview setting, even though his lyrics are among those rare lyrics that can often also work as poetry. That man can turn a phrase like Audrey in “Twin Peaks” twists a cherry stem…

Yeah, I probably have had a little crush, too. So as I started writing, with this image of a sort of ersatz-Western typeface on a CD booklet, other things got woven in, like McMurtry’s hat and his smoking--I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, by the way, but the speaker of my poem clearly does--and the exaggerated romanticism of the imagery in the third stanza.

I’ve never slept with a musician, unless you count the fact that my husband is extremely adept at crooning the incidental music from “Star Trek.” One has to use one’s imagination as a poet…Anyway, it’s a poem about image becoming truth.

Jan:     Your poem, “The Limits of Culture” is in the latest issue of The Gettysburg Review.  That’s an amazingly powerful poem.  Tell us about how this poem arrived in your writer’s consciousness?

Pam:     From 1987 to 1997, I was a copy editor at the American Society for Microbiology. I’m not a scientist; they hired me on the basis of a spelling test and trained me in the work. I ended up among this extraordinary group of people…I can’t speak highly enough about my workplace. While I was there, I began doing some freelance music reviewing--one of my first reviews was of James McMurtry’s first album--and I left in 1997 to pursue that for a while. In 2009, I came back to my old job at ASM.

This work isn’t for everyone. You get a manuscript from one of the journals we publish, you edit it, you turn it in.  Then you get another one. I have spent much of the past three days reading about horse feces, but more often, the subject matter is so highly technical that the copy editor is mostly doing a sort of visual dance: subject-verb, subject-adverb-verb.

On one of my first days back at the job, I read a case report about a soldier injured in the war. It was heartbreaking, even more so because of the standard scientific prose: the passive voice, the flat recounting of horrible incidents. There was this horrible time lapse in which by the time the medical people figured out what had infected him, it was too late to do anything. Also, if you’ve ever seen photos of magnified fungi, some of them are quite beautiful; that juxtaposition of the flower like images in the figures and the horror of war just knocked me sideways.

The poem just happened. I don’t remember whether I went home and wrote it or took a break or what. I wrote it all of a piece, as I often do. I really thought it was kind of over the top, frankly, with the sort of magical realistic turns I took. And I wondered whether the structure, which evoked the manuscripts I read, would work for a poetry audience. But I took it to a master class with Stanley Plumly, who is a very tough audience, and he had good things to say, so that made me rethink it. 

Note:     Part 2 of Interview with Pamela Murray Winters will be posted next Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

Useful Links:  
Thorpe Moeckel: at a reading:

Richard Thompson: here’s a video clip of a lesser-known song that I like a great deal:

DC Swan Day:

Gargoyle:  (“Guitarslinger” was in #57; another poem of mine, “Exegesis of a Bootleg Tape of ‘Truckin’,’” will be in #58.)

James McMurtry: his primary website:

More Next Week
Note: Pamela Murray Winters:       Website – under construction -

Friday, April 13, 2012

Entry # 54 - "The 10,000-Hour Rule Applied to Writing"

"Clouds in Sunshine" - Jan Bowman 4/2012
In July 2011, I reread sections of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. And I wrote a Reflections 2011 Entry about my impressions after I had processed it for a while. I was then, and remain now, particularly interested in Gladwell’s idea of the "10,000-Hour Rule" that essentially describes the amount of “pure practice” and investment in time required to move beyond mastery to actual expertise. 

Gladwell asks, Is there such a thing as an innate talent for writing or does writing require practice?” He explored this idea across disciplines and cited numerous studies. He said that "The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."
In fact, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise.  Researcher have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise:  ten thousand hours.” So perhaps the reality is that “It takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” Even if you are smart - if you don’t work at getting in the “practice time” - you’re not likely to “play at Carnegie Hall” or anywhere else - other than your living room.

Writers, whether they write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or plays are quite a lot like concert violinists; they don’t get their expertise from thin air.  All (not most) work at it.  Even in the face of all the distractions of their worlds, if they don’t spend time on their rose, their rose won’t bloom or be appreciated. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once and then you’re good.  It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” The 10,000-hour rule translates into more than ten years of consistent practice where the daily process of trial and error accumulates, increasing proficiency and expertise. Gladwell says that you need some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives you a chance to put in those hours of practicing your craft, whether it’s playing the violin, or hockey, or writing novels. In fact, to get in the time, you might need to quit your day job or find another way, short of criminal activity, to finance the time required for practice. 

"Later That Same Day" - Jan Bowman 4/2012
   “It is the time that you’ve wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”  from  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Entry # 53 - WRITERS TALK - Sharon Cupp Pennington-Author of Contemporary Romantic Suspense Novels

Background Notes:Sharon Cupp Pennington’s short stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues, with anthology contributions to The Rocking Chair Reader in the Coming Home edition (2004) and Family Gatherings (2005), A Cup of Comfort for Weddings:Something Old, Something New (2007), and Good Old Days Magazine (March, 2007). Her debut novel, Hoodoo Money, was released in May 2008 and the sequel, Mangroves and Monsters, in November 2009.  She lives in Texas with her husband, Wayne, where she is currently working on her third novel in this series.
Jan:     Sharon, I understand you’re working on your third novel in a series that began with your debut novel, Hoodoo Money, published in 2008. Tell our readers a little about Hoodoo Money, and then the second novel, Mangroves and Monsters, published in 2009. How did the first novel evolve into this series?


Sharon:     First, Jan, allow me to thank you for this opportunity to connect with readers. It’s such an important part of what we do. I never intended Hoodoo Money as the start of a series. However, I did intend to heighten the emotion by killing off a main character, supermodel Angeline St. Cyr - after I’d allowed readers to fall in love with her, of course.  And fall in love with Angeline they did! I was working in my present writing group, Writing Well, and some members were quite upset at Angeline’s demise. Hence, the sequel Mangroves and Monsters, which takes place on the fictitious island of Jacqueme Dominque and has Charlie Cooper searching for a resurrected Angeline.     I run two parallel storylines in each book now, with one primary couple and one secondary. The secondary couple then becomes the primary couple in the next book, but readers still get that window into the lives of past couples. I hope that makes sense.

Jan:     Do you have a working title and a publication date for this third of the Hoodoo Money series? What changes have occurred in your main characters lives since they set out on these adventures? What do you think draws previous readers back to read more?

Sharon:     The working title of this third installment in the Hoodoo Money series is Reparation. However, there is no publication date yet. How have the characters changed? I love that question. Although I never intended this as a series, I enjoy giving the readers a continuing glimpse into the lives of my main characters. They’ve seen marriages and babies, gotten to know extended families, gone on a jungle adventure and been introduced to numerous baddies. Of both genders. Based upon feedback I get, readers appreciate it all. They seem to care about the characters as much as I do. And they love surprises!

Jan:     So tell our readers about the unusual title for your first book. Is this your original or working title?

Sharon:     Hoodoo Money wasn’t my original title. It’s funny now, but I can’t remember that first working title so it must’ve been lame. Anyway, while researching the book, I visited New Orleans and found the term hoodoo money in a guide book. It seemed the perfect fit for a story spurred by a nickel stolen from the grave of a hoodoo woman. By the way, the plot is loosely based on an adventure my eldest daughter had in New Orleans - mugging and nickel included.

Jan:     What drives your plots, you or your characters or the setting?

Sharon:     Characters drive my plots. Exotic settings are fun, familiar cities great to explore. But I love taking ordinary people and giving them a gauntlet to run, an obstacle course of the unexpected. I love bringing out the worst and the best in them. My protagonists always triumph. And the baddies? Well, they always have a price to pay for their evil ways.

Jan:     Tell our readers about your experiences working with your publisher, Draumr Publishing. Other writers always want to know how publishers and writers find each other and establish a working relationship.

Sharon:     I started out, as many writers do, seeking an agent. After a truckload of rejections, I decided to send queries to small independent publishers, a batch at a time. Draumr Publishing was in that first group. Soon after I heard from Rida Allen, one of the co-owners. She read the Hoodoo Money synopsis and sample chapters, and then requested the full manuscript.  She said held her interest from beginning to end. A revision request followed - and then a contract. It is hard working with a small publisher, though, as the bulk of the marketing falls on the author and I’m not good at stepping out of my comfort zone. But I wouldn’t change the way things happened for me. I know the publishing world is evolving with electronic books becoming more and more the norm, but I’ll never forget the feeling of holding that first print copy of Hoodoo Money in my hands. I wish that moment’s joy for every author.

Jan:     What do you like to read? Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Sharon:     I’ve always loved suspense with a peppering of romance, both in books and movies. Perhaps because I was such a shy girl. Books were my escape, and I spent many a summer afternoon in the library. In my twenties and thirties, I ravenously ingested works by the greats: Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Tami Hoag. Oh, there are so many fabulous authors in this genre. I’ve since moved onto novels heavier on the suspense. James Patterson is a favorite, as is James Rollins, and the creative duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I adore their Special Agent Pendergast series. What I don’t like or appreciate is graphic gore, the “slasher” stuff. No thank you!

Jan:     You have described your series as Contemporary Romantic Suspense. What do you see as essential ingredients for successful novels of this genre?

Sharon:     I believe you need a good balance of romance and suspense/mystery, and of course, all of this in a modern setting. The characters need depth, and they need souls…likeability. Is that a word?

Jan:     Other writers often want to know about your writer’s process. What does a typical day in your writing space look like? Describe how you write.

Sharon:     I write best in the morning and try to put in at least two or three hours each day. While researching, I often have books open and scattered about the floor around my desk. Poisons, weaponry, character traits, antique furniture. Writing Hoodoo Money, I had crime scene photographs of a local murder spread out on the floor. I suppose some set the mood with wine and candlelight, soft music. I’ll take those police photos any day.

Jan:     What is the easiest part of your work and what is the most difficult part of your writing life?

Sharon:     I admit that efficient use of time is not my strong suit. I’m family oriented and constantly let them draw me away with their needs. Which is both good - and not so good. The easiest part for me is creating the characters. Fleshing them out is another story.

Jan:     What’s the worst advice anyone’s ever given you about writing and what has been the most useful? What would you say to encourage and help beginning writers succeed?

Sharon:     I was told early on you couldn’t make a living as a writer. My parents believed daughters should perfect secretarial skills: typing, shorthand, that sort of thing. Which I did. I don’t resent the fact they didn’t encourage my artistic side, mind you. That’s was the norm in the fifties and sixties. Girls graduated high school, married, often worked part-time and raised children full-time. I’m glad expectations have changed. Girls, women, dream bigger now. Isn’t it great?

The most useful writing advice? That’s an easy one. One of the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) mentors once told us if you hit a wall with your characters, place them in the worst situation you can think of, deadly and damning, and then force them to work their way out of it. I love that! And I use the technique often.

I wish beginning writers the best of luck, because there is a certain amount of luck involved. Talent, yes. Definitely. But also having your manuscript in front of the right person, at the right time is key. I encourage fledgling writers to persevere and believe in themselves and to never stop honing their craft. Take time to do a thorough research job, whatever the subject matter. I came into writing late. Hoodoo Money was released a couple weeks after my 60th birthday. I would say to any beginning writer, “Don’t wait as long as I did.” 

Jan:     Thank you for taking time for a wonderful interview. And good luck with your series.  Readers can find more at:  

Author's website:
Book Trailer - 44SDO

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


Friday, April 6, 2012

Entry # 52 “So What Matters to You As A Writer?”

"March Moth" photo credit: Jan Bowman 3/30/12

This week I have reread for the third time Marilynne Robinson’s online Paris Review Interview in Issue 186, No. 198, Fall 2008 – “The Art of Fiction” and once again I come away with new and powerful impressions that I share with you.  Here are some gems to consider:

“…proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arranged between good and bad, but between bad and worse.”

“…I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part, I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.”

“…I’ve almost never done anything that I didn’t want to do. My life has been laid out to satisfy any aspirations of mine to the power of ten or a hundred.  I can only make sense of my unaccountable good fortune by assuming that it means I am under special obligation to make good use of it.”

In that Paris Review interview, Robinson was asked to respond to this question:  “You’ve written that Americans tend to avoid contemplating larger issues.  What is it that we’re afraid of…”

Her response:  “People are afraid of themselves…The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world.  The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what human kind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow.  We experience pain and difficulty as failure, instead of saying, ‘I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it.  We should think of our humanity as a privilege.’”

As a reminder to readers:  Robinson wrote about the Sellafield Nuclear Plant in her nonfiction book, Mother Country in 1989 and she describes how the plant off the coast of England polluted the sea since 1956, as it extracted plutonium 239 and sent vast quantities of radioactive wastes into the sea.

Among fiction readers in the US, she is most widely read for her remarkable fiction works:  Housekeeping, Home, and Gilead.  But if you’d like to think for days about something you’ve read, I highly recommend, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.  Sometimes it is worth the time and effort to dig deep and think about what writers bring to us all, if we would only read what they have to say about our world.  But then, not everyone reads. Some just talk about it as if they had read.

Here's a passage from Home that I like:  "They sat waiting for him, and in a few minutes he came back with a handful of sweet peas in a water glass, which he put down in front of Lila.  'We can't have Mrs. Ames as our guest and no flowers on the table!' he said.  'It's not much of a bouquet. A little better than nothing, I hope.'"  It's at first glance simple and yet - powerful and revealing about people and culture.  Sometimes less is so much more. 

So what matters to you as a writer?