Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Week of Observations: P4

What I learned this week, and a prompt:
  • The advice given others can be quite useful when repackaged and delivered back.
  • Flow is only possible with focus. Focus is necessary.
  • Gyms are great. Go figure.
  • There are days when everything sounds like a good idea, then there are days when everything promised needs delivered on and half of it no longer seems like a good idea.
  • Running is far more pleasant in chilly temperatures.
  • Deep-fried cookie dough exists, and it really should not exist.
  • Sweater dresses are not very flattering in general, but they look good on a hanger.
  • Black and white photos can make anyone look cool, even when said person forgot to tuck in her shirt (see me reading at Viva Tacoland with my shirt half hanging out).
  • Everything seems simpler on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram.
  • Magical thinking exists for good reason.
  • Interviews are damn fun.
  • The elderly couple who workout in jeans are more motivation than the iron men and women of the fitness club.
  • Dyslexia can be a real PITA, but it's not something to dwell on.
  • The guy who works at the coffee shop and doesn't drink coffee should keep that fact to himself.
  • Writing is hard but worth it.

As I work on the next author interview, I want to offer a simple prompt:

Find something you've kept for a long time, a memento or even just a strange accessory you refuse to throw away, a broken bracelet or a belt that you've tied around a stuffed animal's belly... whatever. Pick something in your home that you've had for more than a few years. Describe it in detail. Now think about why you still have this thing - what value does it hold? Exaggerate this, give the object to a character and write about why s/he has it for 20 minutes. Nonstop. This is November, people! Go!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Writers in the Spotlight: Tina Barry

Hi Tina, Welcome to Literary Exhibitionism! I’m excited to have you as a guest author. I was originally introduced to your work in Fictionaut and was awed by your ability to create textured, vivid images in so few words. “Tuscaloosa,” a poem I read in Ramshackle Review some years ago, left a particular impression on me.

Hi Jen. Thanks so much for inviting me as a guest author at Literary Exhibitionism. I’m flattered. And thanks for the kind words about my writing. Yes, Fictionaut. I’m indebted to that site for introducing me to so many great writers who have become friends and supporters. You ask later in this Q&A what advice I’d give to other writers. Join sites like Fictionaut where writers meet, comment, workshop and encourage one another.

It’s interesting that you mention “Tuscaloosa.” My writing has been called “image driven,” and I suppose it is. I was a designer for over a decade; so it’s the image I see first, the story it tells follows.

I wrote “Tuscaloosa” after reading about the “Super Tornados” of 2011, in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama. The poem is a series of images, one piled on top of the other, the way I imagined someone would see objects, things, people, whirl by during a tornado, and how those things would be a visual synopsis of their world:

"A pin in a doll’s heart
then one in its foot.
Hot vapor
with its own populace:
The lady at Stop & Shop
with the dead eyes and gray perm.
Your neighbor’s pick up truck
grandpa’s house
with grandpa inside
and a prom queen
wearing a fake satin dress
corsage pinned just so.
for its years of service
and unblemished safety record
a Ferris wheel gently rocks
its last riders
then dumps them to the ground.
People laugh
at the banality
of final thoughts.
Closer to the stars
a man finds comfort
recalling the part in his daughter’s hair."
I would love to know more about your process. So, my favorite question to ask… Writing is hard. Why do you do it?

Writing is hard, especially for someone like me who works in fits and starts, sometimes obsessively, hunched over my computer for days, sometimes a week will go by with only random notes.

Why do I do it? Writing helps me unearth and make sense of my memories. And it’s craft as therapy. I love watching a piece tighten, finding stronger words, dumping lines that don’t add to the whole.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspiration?

I wanted to be a visual artist, not a writer. I have a degree in fine arts, and then spent about 15 years as a textile designer, and then a children’s clothing wear designer, before getting completely burnt out. I thought, though, that I could write about fashion and style. After working in the industry, I knew fashion lingo, and teachers had always praised my papers in college. It sounds naïve now to think I could just jump into that kind of work, but oddly enough, I was assigned pieces for newspapers, magazines and online venues pretty quickly. Not long after that, I wanted to write creatively and took classes in non-fiction and fiction before going for my M.F.A. During my years in graduate school, I explored poetry and short fiction.

Early influences? When I was around 10, my mother gave me a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant. His famous Boule de Suit “Ball of Fat” gripped me. No story I had read before it elicited such rage and sorrow, and in so few pages. I also read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web obsessively. I had the first few pages memorized. I read it to my daughter when she was little and was touched again by the originality of the story and its message.

What's the last fantastic book you read?

The Liar’s Wife, Mary Gordon’s four novellas. I was completely lost in the worlds she created.

Congratulations on your new release, Mall Flower, a collection of short fiction and poems. What do you want readers to take away from reading Mall Flower, and how did the book come about? 

Thank you. Mall Flower is my first book and I’m excited to have it out in the world.

The book came about when I started to read through my work over the past few years. I realized that without intending to, I had written a lot of pieces about my family, especially my father’s departure from us and how that event colored my experience as a child, teen, young and older adult. I sent the manuscript to Robin Stratton at Big Table Publishing hoping it would be a chapbook. She loved it but wanted a book, so I opened it up. If someone reads Mall Flower and thinks, Yeah, I relate to that, and if it makes him/her laugh, or squirm, that’s the best take away.

Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked, and if so, how do you find your way through?

There are people who can sit down with a journal and scrawl page after page. Words for me are like badly behaved dogs that need to be coaxed from beneath the sofa with a bone. I get a piece started the same way I once began a visual arts project: I look at a lot of visual art; that always stirs something inside me. Then I read other writers’ work. In my office, I keep a big bulletin board where I tack up photos and cards, colors I like, different writers’ poems. Designers use these storyboards to gather inspiration for a project; now I use mine as prompts for stories and poems. I read and reread work online and in publications like Poetry, always on the hunt for the word or image that will spark an idea. I turn to Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories. Whenever I read their work, some memory or question I’ve had always comes to the surface. It’s a beginning.

Do you ever use prompts?

I love prompts! When I connect with a prompt, I can explore ideas or combinations of ideas, in ways that surprise me.

The poem “Honeycomb,” in Mall Flower, comes from a visual prompt of a black and white drawing of a beehive. The hive, crammed with insects, reminded me of an apartment I shared years ago with two roommates, who were -- I’ll be kind and say -- “unstable.”

“…I once lived in an apartment
with too many roommates.
One initialed each egg
in its carton.
Another swigged scotch
till she stung.

I think of us now
in that warren of rooms,
our droning lives.
How small we became
to fit there.”      
What is the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything)?
Best advice? If you worry about being the best at something you probably won’t be. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s always rung true. If you worry that someone is doing it better, whatever “it” is for you, you’re wasting your time. Someone is doing it better. It’s just the way it is. Write, cook, paint, run: whatever makes you happy. Just keep honing your craft. If you let other people’s accomplishments diminish yours, it’ll crush you.

What are you working on now?

Promoting Mall Flower. I’ve done a couple of readings and have a few more in the works. I’ll have the dates on my Facebook page soon (

I’ve recently moved from Brooklyn to a small town in upstate New York. It’s been quite a transition. I see more trees and fewer malls in my work. Eventually, I’ll do what I did with Mall Flower: take a look at the themes that emerge and shape it into the next whatever it wants to be.

Thank you, Tina! 

*Inspired by Tina's interview, find a black and white photograph and write for twenty minutes. See where the visual catalyst takes you. I particularly enjoy post cards and photography books--especially portraits. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Week of Observations: P3

With an extra hour to write and reflect, I figured I'd make a blog list. It's my new thing. Here's what I learned/remembered this week. Next post will be a new interview with the poet and fiction writer, Tina Barry. In the meantime, my week's lessons...
  • Saying, "Thanks, that what I intended" in a super low voice is the best way to receive a compliment
  • 5Ks are much easier if a dog is pulling you along
  • Buying cheap candy means being stuck with cheap candy 
  • Getting your short story collection nominated for the Pen/Faulkner is like eating warm bread pudding with a scoop of vanilla
  • It's always good to have an extra pair of shoes in the car
  • To Do lists are only helpful when they're realistic; otherwise, they are a source of anxiety
  • Putting all recurring characters in a single story is awkwardly delicious
  • NaNoWriMo could be any month 
  • If the conversation is awkward, walking away abruptly is a natural end
  • Pot pie can't be dressed up
  • The right frame can be tough to find
  • People are almost never who they seem
  • Ice and heat, in the right combination, can cure most minor ailments
  • Handstands after thirty are an exercise in fearlessness - but they shouldn't be rushed
Writing prompt: Write the opening to the next great novel. Just the opening, a mere paragraph. Make that paragraph the best paragraph you've ever written. The next day, read that paragraph and continue to write. 20 minutes minimum. See what happens.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writers in the Spotlight: Rob Dinsmoor

This is the first in a series of author interviews in which I will try to get an author to tell me all their secrets in the spirit of Literary Exhibitionism. The spotlight is on, the writer is ready, the interview is about to commence. First up, ROB DINSMOOR! A little about Rob...

Robert Dinsmoor is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. He has published hundreds of articles on health and medicine as well as pieces for Games, Paper, National Lampoon, and Nickelodeon Magazine and scripts for Nickelodeon and MTV.  He has written fictive memoirs titled Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime and co-authored a children’s picture book called Does Dixie Like Me? 

So, Rob, thanks for stopping by my virtual home. I'm about to ask you the tough questions, the literary questions, the complex questions. The kind of questions you sit with, much like a Zen kōan, for hours or days or years. Here we go...
J: Writing is hard.  Why do you do it?
R: It’s a compulsion.  I can’t not write.  It’s an opportunity to have complete control over one small area of my life.

J: Do you write full time or part time?  And what is your writing process/routine?
I’m semi-retired but spend about 20-30 hours a week writing both nonfiction health-medical articles and my fictive memoirs.  My writing process for nonfiction is very different from my fiction work.  For nonfiction, I begin by doing a lot of research on-line, downloading relevant articles and scientific papers.  Then I carefully underline relevant parts of the documents, spread the documents out in front of me, and painstakingly hand-write a very rough draft.  This is a tedious task, requiring a lot of focus, and I take frequent breaks. (Most of my housework gets done while I’m writing these drafts.)  If I need to interview experts on the subject, I like to have good mastery of the material before I talk with them.  I tape and transcribe the interviews, print them out, and underline the information and quotes I might want to use.  Then I rewrite my article according to the new information and carefully insert quotes where they seem to fit. The final stage is editing and making the words flow, so that the reader never has to slow down to figure something out.

For creative work, I write at the keyboard, as I’m a fast typist and want the thoughts to flow quickly.  I start with individual stories or scenes and then patch them together and edit them.  If I get stuck, I jump to the next scene. 

J: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspirations?
R: I wanted to be a writer starting around age 11.  I was a big fan of horror movies, especially Vincent Price movies.  I soon learned that they were based on stories written by someone named Edgar Allan Poe, and that other writers made them into scripts.  It was a mind-blowing revelation that writing stories could actually be a person’s career!  The first stories I wrote were about werewolves.  Then my parents, oddly and wisely, bought me Playboy anthologies of horror and science fiction, and while I didn’t understand all their nuances, they introduced me to more sophisticated writing.  Those writers, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Jerome Bixby, were remarkably smart and creative, and I started seeing their names in the credits for movies, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Gradually, my interests widened to intelligent science fiction, satire, and the world of books as a whole.

J: What was the last book you read?
R: I just finished Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  The author is a crime reporter who traced the current epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse to a number of factors.  One was a paradigm shift in the treatment of chronic pain, when pain specialists decided that opiates were very safe based on a widely cited “landmark study” from 1980.  It turns out that it was actually a Letter to the Editor making observations about opiate use in a small number of hospitalized patients.  Using this “landmark study,” pharmaceutical reps began to aggressively market highly addictive opiates for all kinds of pain.  The book also describes the ingenious way black tar heroin was sold all over the U.S. in ways that largely escaped detection by law enforcement.  The book is so fascinating and crisply written, I couldn’t wait get back to it.

J: What do you want readers to take away from reading You Can Leave Anytime?
R: Going through drug/alcohol rehab was such a bizarre experience it took me a few years to get my head around it.  The book is a gentle reminder to other high-functioning alcoholics that things can go downhill very fast.  Second, it’s about trying to make the best of life when you have very little control.  And, as bizarre as my experiences at the “Wetlands” were, I got sober there and stayed sober-- probably as a result of three months of abstinence as well as better understanding of addiction and tools to cope with it.  The book is also about recovery, taking all the dogma with a grain of salt and choosing the methods that work best for you.

J: Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked and, if so, how do you find your way through?
R: Sure.  I usually have a few long-term writing projects going on and, if I hit a snag, I re-read what I’ve written, start to fix and embellish, and pretty soon I’m writing fresh material.  When I really haven’t any idea what to write, I sometimes read some of my best writing, which gives me confidence, and read my favorite authors for inspiration.

J: What’s the most important part of a story (beginning, end, setting, dialogue)? 
R: They’re all important!  I tend to start with a setting, geographical or emotional or both, and invite the reader into that world.  I create that world through the judicious use of sensory details and character.  And dialogue is very important because nothing brings characters to life like what comes out of their mouths.  Beginnings are also important because you have to hook readers or they won’t keep reading.

J: I rather love prompts and post them weekly here. Do you ever use prompts?*
R: Not really.

J: What advice do you have for other writers?
R: Write about you know, even if it’s all made up (like H.P. Lovecraft did).  In terms of character, I always recommend finding the central paradox that defines each character.  Make your violent thug something of a white knight when it comes to women.  Maybe your geek writes bullying letters to the editor.  Make your heroes a little irritating and make us care what happens to your villains.

J: What advice do you have for humor writers?
R: Brevity is the soul of wit.  When it’s time for  the punch line, cut to the chase and don’t put in a lot of extraneous material to distract the reader.  And while it’s important to let your reader in on the joke, don’t explain the joke for them and ruin the pleasure of figuring it out.  The reader must be an accomplice.  If you tell a really good raunchy joke and people laugh, they are just as guilty as you are because they had to make the connection.

J: What’s the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything else)?
R: Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Life is too full of real tragedies to get caught up in minor slights, insults, and disappointments.  I don’t like to live melodramas—I only like to write about them.

J: What are you working on now?
R: One is a short story collection, 32 Dogs, the title of which comes from a poem I wrote about an African American friend in Southern Indiana (where I grew up) whose dogs chased off visiting Klan members. The collection is about the intersection between love and ferocity.  The other is a science fiction novel called Ageless Dilettantes, about a bratty antihero who is somehow invincible to the ravages of age and disease—and is guided by morbid fascination.  Over the course of many decades, he lives through wars, plagues, cults, opium dens, tuberculosis sanatoriums, a half-baked attempt to mimic Houdini’s death-defying escapes, atom bomb tests, and LSD mind control experiments.  In a strange way, it’s autobiographical. 

I look forward to reading the new work, Rob! Thanks for stopping by.

*This week's prompt: Try your hand at comedy writing. Under a thousand words, no more than two characters, and take Rob's advice. I paraphrase: Don't over-explain, just tell the damn joke. Readers are smart, they'll fill in the blanks. 
If you get stuck, read one of Rob's fantastic books to see how it's done.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Week of Observations: P2

It was another long but rewarding week, and here are a few things I learned (digression: making lists is my new thing - I've been making all kinds of lists lately, and they've been bringing me great joy. Lists are highly recommended. If we get a Yelp for random things the way we're getting a Yelp for people, I would give Lists 5 stars). That said, my week of lessons in a list:
  • Starbucks is fast food (and expensive fast food at that, but the new drive-thrus are freaky cool)
  • I can't do it all; it's okay to turn down work
  • Emu oil can cure almost anything
  • Strange is okay
  • Freelancing work may not pick up for years, but when it picks up, it picks up fast
  • Travel is necessary for artists
  • It's good to practice what I prescribe
  • Not everyone has to "get" everyone else... let it be
  • Sleep is necessary for sanity
  • Complaining doesn't help anything
  • There's a National Coffee Day and I am its newest self-appointed ambassador 
  • Opportunities come in groups
  • Sometime you need to tell people to shut up, even if you don't know them (but only if they're being horribly inappropriate)
  • Investing a little time in organizational efforts reduces a lot of paper shuffling time later
  • I am a sugar addict (it's bad - I need help)
  • Having more than one full-length manuscript complete when submitting work is a very comforting feeling (good vibes are welcome)
  • Making lists keeps me on track
Writing prompt: Try writing a list poem. It can turn the way of flash, or not. I like the idea of writing a list of things in a junk drawer, as outlined on Poetry Soup. But this can be a mere catalyst. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Week of Observations

  • If you're allergic to avocados, you're allergic to guacamole
  • You don't have to do ALL the Zumba/yoga/HIT moves
  • You keep saying you're going to be more consistent with this blog, just a reminder
  • Dog park people are almost always nice
  • Good teachers are rare and valuable, and the world needs to start respecting them 
  • The internet just might be an actual black hole
  • If you don't plan to stay long at the party, bring cookies instead of wine
  • Be patient when trying to catch fast spiders
  • When you work six jobs, you'll occasionally forget which one you're supposed to be doing
  • The second person perspective is perfectly okay when referring to self in lists
  • When you have talented friends, they will forever release new and exciting work. Here are two friends' works that you can't wait to read:
  •  These writers' words are why you do what you do:
Gemini Ink Writing Workshop at the Guadalupe Home. Photo taken by Chris Shanahan, 2015

Writing prompt: Write your own week in a list. Pick one item and write a story about it. Maybe pick a few.