Writing Life Workshop Happens

On February 11, the Flatiron Writers and Papershine co-sponsored their first workshop: Creating Your Writing Life. Despite the snowy weather, twenty brave souls joined us at the Unitarian church in Asheville for the daylong workshop. The seminar focused on helping people develop the commitments and habits necessary to realize their writing goals. It was a wonderful and productive day.

Heather Newton welcomed everyone and served as the moderator for the entire day. Margie Klein discussed the importance of your writing space and environment. A.K. Benninghofen spoke about the rituals and routines that support the writing life. Maggie Marshall then talked about the writing process and ways to approach new projects or those that have stalled. Heather filled in for Geneve, who was feeling under the weather, and led a conversation about the importance of a supportive writing community. Marc Archambault graphically recorded the entire workshop on a gigantic poster. At the end, we all gathered in small groups to identify things we’d like to change in each of these areas and committed to making these things happen. After the workshop was done, everyone enjoyed wine and cheese and hopefully connected with other writers who will be able to support their writing goals.

Special thanks to Jeremy Bacon for all his help making the day happen.

Download a printable version of the graphic notes from the workshop. (2.3 MB)

Stay tuned for our next workshop!

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My Writing Life: A graphic

As the Flatiron Writers group as been getting ready for next weekend’s workshop, we’ve all been exploring our own writing lives for insights. This is a look at my writing life, in pictures. Click the image for a larger view.

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On Finding A Writing Community

In preparing for my presentation, Community, for the Flatiron Writers workshop, February 11, I thought about what community has meant to me over the years. I was surprised to find that, while community has always been important to me, the most important community turned out to be my writers’ community.
My early experiences with community were similar to most kids. I attended Sunday school and, through my church, joined the Girl Scouts. In high school, I joined a group of girls who called themselves a sorority. That, in turn, led me into a sorority in college.
My first job out of college was as a copy editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, BHGB (before Helen Gurley Brown). It was a small-staffed magazine that published excellent fiction and quasi-sensational articles (revelations by a wife and mother whose minister husband made her sleep in the hallway outside their bedroom door; the alarming rise of teenage suicides). Working there was like being part of a close-knit family. The editors handed off movie reviews to the copy department, which was my first taste of critical writing. I also was given the job of writing synopses of the articles in each issue for the publicity department. I left to become a free-lance writer, doing articles for the magazine—until HGB became editor—at which point I found a niche in reference book work where I wrote articles for encyclopedias on various subjects from world drama to mystery writers and subjects like (geographical) place names. But the pay was dreadful and I was unhappy with the isolation of the work, and I don’t mean loneliness. I’ve never been bothered by the loneliness of the writer’s life. What I wanted and needed was a community of other writers. So I left free-lance work and got a job as assistant to the editor of a small business magazine and eventually became managing editor. Once again, I had found a small community where co-workers became family. I wrote and edited articles, edited crossword puzzles, and created acrostics. I was there for some ten years when, once again, a change of editors made me rethink what I wanted. The answer was that I wanted to write fiction.
I returned to free-lance work, and started trying out various workshops. The turning point came when an ad in Poets and Writers listed openings in a fiction workshop to be given at something called the Writers’ Community. I couldn’t possibly resist that. I applied and was accepted, along with eleven other women who were starting out as writers. When the workshop was over, eight of us continued as a peer group that lasted almost ten years. Marriages and relocations ended the group. I joined other groups, but none was right for me. During that period, I had found writing space for rent at a small, private library. There I became friendly with another woman, who in turn introduced me to a writing workshop run by Philip Schultz—an award-winning poet and, at that time, head of the MFA program at New York University. In the forge of Phil’s stringent, at times acerbic, criticism, I became the writer I am today.
When my husband and I moved to Asheville in 1992, I looked for a group to join. I visited several, but didn’t find one that was right for me until 1993. It was then I became part of a group, of which Heather was a member, which met in the Flatiron Building. The group provided support, astute criticism, and respect for one another’s work. Membership in the group turned over. New members came and went, until Toby, in 1995. He came and stayed and formed, along with Heather and myself, the stable core that allowed the Flatiron Writers to continue. We have since added writers who share the Flatiron Writers’ goals of providing support, astute criticism, and respect for one another’s work. We also demand of one another that we be the best writers we can be.
In writing this, I see how predisposed toward Community I was and how happenstance helped me along: an ad for a workshop that in turn led to being part of a successful peer group; meeting a woman who introduced me to the workshop that in turn forged me as a writer; and, finally, coming upon that writing group in the Flatiron Building that has defined my writing life for nineteen years. But predisposition and happenstance aside, it was finding out who I wanted to be as a writer, and looking until I found the right people to work with, that led me to be the best writer I can be.

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Used To Could

A friend who recently read my novel, Under The Mercy Trees, laughed at the part where I have my character Bertie describe the place she got married: “in front of this porch, by the steps where a butterfly bush used to be.” My friend, who is from the north (bless his heart) said that only in the south would people describe things in terms of what is no longer there, as in, “turn left at the house that used to be orange.”
I wonder if it really is just a southern thing, this need to reference things lost. Or if it’s a trait shared by cultures who have experienced a military occupation. Or if all humans do it, just because our supposedly advanced brains let us remember and yearn for things.
If all parties involved remember the same thing, references to what used to be make perfect sense. When I give directions to my law office the first question I ask is, “do you know where Max’s Deli used to be?” Max’s Deli closed years ago but no other restaurant that has rented that space since has lasted more than a few months, so Max’s it is to most people. When my siblings and I visit the Pamlico river where our grandparents lived when we were young, we collectively remember the huge magnolia my mother planted in the yard when she was a girl, and we avert our eyes when we pass the McMansion that now towers where house and tree used to be. Last month I visited my parents in Raleigh and took a walk around the neighborhood where I grew up. As I passed our old house two little boys and their mother were returning home, the youngest one running ahead to be the first to the front door. I said hello to the woman as I passed and almost told her, “this is the house where I used to be.”
I think the only danger in referring to things that no longer exist is that they may never have been real at all. In one of Bertie’s chapters in my novel I write: “As she stepped up to the door she heard them start Are You Lonesome Tonight, a Carter Family song that always called up in her a false memory, sad but sweet, of somebody she had lost, but when she stopped to think who it might have been she realized there never was anybody and she was looking back at nothing.”
Those advanced brains of ours can trick us, making us nostalgic for what never was, keeping our eyes turned backward instead of on the road ahead.

Heather Newton is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011). Visit her website at www.heathernewton.net.

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What to Wear, What to Read, What to Say

My novel, Under The Mercy Trees, comes out in two months, so it’s time for me to start thinking about upcoming book events.
There is, of course, the question of whether anyone will come to my readings. Remember that line in Spinal Tap? (I’m paraphrasing) “If I told them once I told them a thousand times–it’s Spinal Tap first, then Puppet Show.” Fortunately, the appearances my publisher and I have set up so far are all in cities where I have family and friends, so I don’t have to worry too much about no one showing up.
Then there’s the decision about what to wear. My dad does have a black beret and matching turtleneck I could borrow, but then I’d have to find someone with a bongo drum to accompany me. My mother, who is also a writer, likes to poke gentle fun at lady writers who wear “author clothes”–usually flowy, flouncy skirts and scarves, and the largest dangly earrings their lobes will support. I don’t really own anything suitable and wouldn’t know how to accessorize properly if I did. My wardrobe includes two types of clothing. I wear business suits when I have to look like a lawyer. At all other times I wear ripped jeans and comfortable 100% cotton shirts that don’t touch my body at any point. And fleece. I like fleece. Maybe Santa Claus will bring me an outfit for Christmas that strikes a happy balance between my Boston Legal look and my dug-it-out-of-a-trash-can look. I am grateful for one indispensable item of apparel I recently acquired–my bifocals, without which I wouldn’t be able to read at all.
Then we get to the reading itself. Some people have wonderful reading voices. My Flatiron Writer friend Maggie is one of them. She was an actress before she began writing, and her voice is mesmerizing. In comparison, my own native North Carolinian speech is somewhat nasal and flat. I thought about hiring Maggie to come with me on the book tour. I could take along a screen for her to hide behind, like the Wizard of Oz, and let her read while I move my lips. But I doubt I could afford to pay her what she’s worth. So any of you who come to see me will just have to put up with my lack of dramatic ability. I promise not to go on too long.
The choice of what passages to read will be interesting. Sex scenes are out, I suppose, as are scenes that give away the ending. When I read at a church there’s a handy Baptism chapter I can use. When I go to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (January 27th at 7 p.m.) I can read an excerpt that takes place on the very street the bookstore is on. The rest I’ll have to wing.
The final, and perhaps most challenging, part of the author events will be the audience questions. I have been to many readings in my time, and inevitably someone in the audience asks, “who are your favorite authors” or “what are your favorite books?” Given the zillions of authors and books I love, how will I choose which ones to list? I’ll feel guilty if I leave one out!
Someone asked me this week whether I was nervous about the book events. I’m really not. Are you kidding? Put me in a room with lots of people who love books and let me talk to someone other than my husband about my novel? I can’t wait.

Flatiron Writers member Heather Newton is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (Harper Paperbacks, Jan. 18, 2011). You can find a list of her upcoming book signings and other events on her website at http://www.heathernewton.net.

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The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson

In the opening pages of this tour-de-force, Javier Falcon, a Spanish homicide inspector in Seville, is called to the scene of a murder: a man bound and gagged, his eyelids removed and forced to watch . . . what? Falcon cannot get the scene out of his mind and throughout the novel, he never recovers his equilibrium. The identification of the victim eventually leads to a connection with Falcon’s own father, a famous, recently deceased painter whose house now belongs to Falcon himself.

If this were the extent of the novel, it would be a fine piece of writing: a psychological battle of wits between an emotionally deteriorating detective and a twisted killer with his own logic and motives. But Wilson gives us, in glorious decadent detail, the unread journals of Falcon’s father, and it is this thread from the past, interwoven with the present, that turns the novel into an exceptional piece of literature. In an author’s note at the end of the novel Wilson explains that half way through the writing of the novel, he realized he needed the journals of Francisco Falcon, the detective’s father; and took three months off from the novel to write them.

The novel is set initially in Seville, Spain, but Falcon moves freely around the country, tracing the history of his murder victim and his own father, and following the thread of his father’s journals, to Tangier. Wilson, an Englishman, is obviously at ease in both English and Spanish, interspersing Spanish phrases throughout the novel. These only add to the ambience of the setting. Most can be deciphered through context though it would be useful for the discerning reader to have a Spanish dictionary at hand.

Falcon’s father, in the execution of the will, directs Falcon to burn the entire contents of his studio: the unsold paintings, his journals, and a cache of money. Falcon disobeys as anyone with the psychological makeup of a detective would, and they lead him to discoveries that push his psyche close to the boundaries of sanity. The title of the novel is ironic here; we must wonder who the “blind man” referred to in the title actually is. Maybe the victims, but perhaps also Falcon himself who finds the illusions of his childhood and his life stripped away. At the end we are not surprised when Falcon does, indeed, carry out the last wishes of his father.

At the time of this publication (2003) Wilson had published six novels, including the celebrated title, A Small Death in Lisbon, and more since. I’m not sure there’s anything better for a book

Copyright 2010 by Toby Heaton

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David Schulman: Conversation

David Schulman, a writer and novelist who grew up in Sylva, in Western North Carolina, is the creator of the Gritz Goldberg books. I came to know David and his work through Tommy Hays’s Advanced Creative Prose Workshop at The Great Smokies Writing Program. As I read the pages of the novel-in-progress that David brought to the workshop—“The Late Gatsby,” a second Gritz Goldberg book—I fell in love with Gritz, a therapist turned part-time sleuth, and a thoroughly lovable and unique character. I had to know more about him so I acquired the first Gritz, “The Past Is Never Dead.” It was a delightful mystery, as entertaining as the pages I was reading in workshop. In his books, David combines humor and Asheville history, adds a dash of mayhem, a ghost (or two or more), various eccentric characters, and turns out a well-crafted novel that is a joy to read. I became curious about how the character of Gritz evolved and how David came up with the plots of his novels, and decided to ask him.

Genève Bacon: David, I know your family ran a retail clothing store and that after you were graduated from college you went into business for yourself, at the age of twenty-three, and opened your own retail clothing store. You built a highly successful chain of six stores—David’s and Boo-Boos Outlets—in Western North Carolina, which you sold in the early 1990s. How did you evolve from retailer to writer?

David Schulman: From 1971 to 1991, I wrote some radio spots for my stores and a few letters to the editor. After I went out of retailing I took some one-day workshops to get acquainted with the writing process. Then I discovered, in the early 1990s, that the University of Iowa granted degrees totally off- campus/online—the only state institution in the country to do so. I took writing classes with them for eight years, many of which were taught by MFA students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was during this time that I began working with Gritz and even took a screenplay course with the Gritz character. I took so many classes during those years I found out that if I combined my other credits from Western Carolina State University, I could get a new degree. The result was that in 1999, at the age of 50, I graduated U of I with a BLS degree. I followed up with more writing workshops.

At the same time (the mid-1990s), I began to write a monthly column, called “Roaming the Past,” for a magazine underwritten by the Blumenthal Foundation in Charlotte. I interviewed mostly elderly Jewish citizens across the state about their lives and about notable historical events in North Carolina’s Jewish history. For two years in a row, 1994 and 1995, I won the annual N.C. Press Club’s prize for best personal columnist. The column was noticed by the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Asheville and I was hired by them to do a number of oral histories of Jewish citizens of Asheville and Western North Carolina.

GB: What led you to come up with the idea of the Gritz Goldberg character—a Jewish therapist and amateur detective ?

DS: Gritz was a vehicle for telling my story of being Jewish in the South during the 1950s and ’60s. It was a totally different experience from what other metropolitan Jews experienced, even very different from that of the Southern Jewish experience of today.

GB: How did you find the historical context of the Southern Jewish experience?

DS: During the tapings I did for UNC-A, many of the interviewees told me they had moved to Asheville in the 1920s and 1930s. Curious about what it would have been like in Asheville and Western North Carolina in those days, I visited Pack Library [in Asheville, the main branch of the library]. I searched through the microfilm issues of the local newspaper, “The Citizen,” now called the “Asheville Citizen Times.” Going day-by-day, I came across a 1936 murder at the Battery Park Hotel, one of Asheville’s premier hotels. The story fascinated me because the hotel itself was part of my own history. My Bar Mitzvah celebration had been held there and, as a kid, my father would take me out of school to go with him to the hotel to see the traveling salesmen who set up to sell merchandise for the stores in the area, including my family’s store. The story of that murder sparked the idea for the plot of my first Gritz novel, “The Past Is Never Dead.” I had gotten the start I needed.

At the same time, one of the people I taped for the UNC-A project, Leo Finkelstein of Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop, opened a closet to show me memorabilia he had collected on Asheville history in general and Jewish history in particular. What caught my eye was a Wanted Poster of William Dudley Pelley that Leo said he had taken directly off a telephone pole. When I asked Leo what the poster was all about, Leo said, “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that!” Oh, but I was.

I did further research and found that Pelley, a nationally known figure who had run for president, was a fanatical Nazi supporter with a wildly interesting, nutty and dangerous past. His followers, for example, had attacked the San Diego naval base in a rowpoat. Pelly arrived in Asheville in the 1930s and set up a hate-mail-production operation—without much success, I might add. He also went around holding some séances. And I had another strand to weave into my novel.

Then one day in the late 1990s, in pursuit of more information about Asheville history, I went out to my father’s store in Sylva (which he ran until he was 91) to talk with one of his cronies, John Parris. John was a well-known, long-time journalist and columnist for the “Citizen Times.” He asked what I’d been doing since selling my stores and I told him I was thinking about writing a mystery based on the murder at the Battery Park Hotel. And John said, “Oh, I covered that for the ‘Citizen’ and spent the night next to Martin Moore [the Negro convicted of the crime] in Central Prison before he was executed. Would you like my notes? I save everything. . . .” As they say, the rest is history.

GB: What was the next step after you had a finished manuscript of “The Past Is Never Dead”?

DS: I took the usual route of sending it out to agents.

GB: How long did it take before you got an agent?

DS: It was something like two to three years. Let me tell you, it was a lonely and debilitating journey for a writer to receive so little affirmation for his writing. But in the end, I found a fantastic agent who was enthusiastic about the book. He presented it to 13 publishers in all. We both thought the major New York publishers would “eat up” the uniqueness of Southern Jewish history being told in a mystery setting. Boy, were we surprised. They didn’t get the book and were not excited by the idea, except for one major editor who did love it. He took it to committee where it did not get through. Twelve major publishers rejected the book; the 13th was a regional publisher that did get it!

GB: It’s been some five years since the first Gritz appeared. What did you do in the interim between Gritz 1 and the start of Gritz 2?

DS: After “The Past Is Never Dead” was published, I toyed with two other novels: one was a second Gritz, the other a non-Gritz novel. After about 60 pages of each, I realized they weren’t working. The plots seemed to vaporize and I lost interest in them.

GB: How, then, did you find Gritz 2?

DS: I kept remembering one of the things people commented on during my two-week book tour across five states in 2004. They pointed out the fact that Zelda Fitzgerald had a long history at Highland Hospital in Asheville where she died, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a history with Asheville as well. I researched almost all the books written on the two and fell in love with their dynamic as a couple. I envisioned Scott and Zelda appearing to Gritz to ask him to solve a problem, and bingo! Plot and characters clicked into place. And that’s how “The Late Gatsby” was born.

GB: How close are you to finishing Gritz 2?

DS: I was putting the finishing touches on it and close to sending it off to my agent when I got a letter from him saying that he had closed up shop—a victim of the downturn in the publishing business. So now I have to start the process of finding an agent all over again.

GB: Will you being working on a third Gritz while you make the rounds with Gritz 2?

DS: I certainly hope to continue the series, although I have not decided on the plot of Gritz 3.

GB: Thanks, David, for sharing your and Gritz’s history with us. I wish you luck with “The Late Gatsby.”

Check out David’s website: www.thedavidschulman.com. David’s first Gritz, “The Past Is Never Dead,” may be obtained through amazon.com.

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A Card Carrying Member

I got to do something recently that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I became a real member of The Authors Guild. I had been an “at large” member for a while, because I represent writers as part of my law practice. But I wasn’t eligible to join as a writer member, because the publications that had accepted my stories were all too teeny weeny or not literary enough.
At-large members enjoy plenty of benefits, including access to the Guild’s Model Trade Book which alone is worth the annual dues. So why did I care what kind of member I was?
I’m a plaintiff’s employment lawyer. I have a soft spot in my heart for those who work to produce goods and services. I think it’s a good thing when such folk join together to get what they deserve for the work they do. In my life as an attorney, I’m part of the legal team that represents the state’s largest teachers’ association. I know all the words to “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and can tell you more than you would ever want to know about the history of May Day and the modern labor movement. You get the picture.
Now that a publisher has accepted my novel, I am an associate member of the Guild. When the book comes out, I will be a “regular” member. I’m proud to carry the card in my wallet, and to have this fine organization advocate for me.
For more information about The Authors Guild, go to http://www.authorsguild.com.
Copyright 2010 by Heather Newton

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Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest Now Closed

The Flatiron Writers short fiction contest is now closed. Thanks to all who entered! Follow our blog for contest updates. We’ll announce winners on our website by April 1, 2010.

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Update on the Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest

As of this morning, the Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest has not yet reached its cap of fifty entries and is still open for submissions (see contest rules on the home page). Once we receive fifty entries that meet all eligibility requirements (word count, genre, file type etc.), or reach the December 31, 2009 contest closure date, we will notify the people who are entered in the contest. Thanks to everyone who has sent in a submission to date. We will post any necesseary contest updates on our blog–become a follower!

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