Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Literary Wish List!

Do you have a literary wish list for the holidays? If you’re a writer, you do.  You might be dreaming of a stack of new books, a beautiful new journal, a fancy pen, a literary map of Ireland poster, or my current favorite from the British Library, "Ex Libris: The Game of First Lines and Last Words."  (This is a good one for playing with bibliophile friends on a winter night in front of a blazing fire.) Or maybe all you really want is a bar of "Lady Macbeth's Guest Soap."

We surveyed MFA faculty and students about their lists (both to give and receive); read on and enjoy:

Moleskine notebooks and Varsity Pilot fountain pens (in purple). Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend, by Cristina DeStefano and Marina Harss. And probably several more. I'm still thinking.  – Nicole Hamer

These days, my favorite gift to give is an annual subscription to The Sun, a completely ad-free magazine that publishes excellent fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. I support everything The Sun stands for and I feel especially happy to support a magazine that pays its writers decently. Of course, any literary journal of your choice would make a good gift. And since literary journals often take chances on unknown writers, they are very inspiring for writers. For that writer friend who has everything she needs and spends too much time on social media: an annual subscription to Freedom, an app that blocks the Internet from your computer and other devices.  - Shahnaz Habib

My family and I are devotees of the delicious Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóðtranslated literally, the Christmas Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, it is customary for friends and family to exchange books and then to spend the rest of the night together at home reading. Here's a story about it if you are interested. If you'd like to partake, here are some books worth giving or receiving: the detective novel Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason. It's wonderfully creepy with many uniquely Icelandic perspectives on the fine art of committing and solving murders. A less gruesome option would be The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. If you love J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the rest of their Oxford cohort, this group biography will be your favorite gift. If you can find it (you might need to hit used book stores or, check out The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. It is not a new book but it is a delightful read, one part parable, one part poem, one part fairy story, decidedly Thurber. - Kara Noble

One of my favorite gift books is The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. The poems are so human and timeless, and I read them often. For all the dog lovers, my favorite is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, poignant but unsentimental and just an all-around treat. (My dog is named after it.) Unsurprisingly, (and Google be damned) I love atlases. Here is a hefty one that's bound for armchair and serious travelers alike. Lastly, and not a literary choice but I've bought this book for many people and it makes everyone happy—Paper Blossoms, a book of pop-up bouquets. I first saw a copy at the Gardner Museum gift shop and was completely charmed. - Susie Seligson

I highly recommend the great feeling of helping to change some lives, by helping to purchase a permanent home for my neighbor, the draft horse sanctuary Blue Star Equiculture in Bondsville, Mass. Since its founding eight years ago, Blue Star has rented a farm down the street from me and now needs to move. But any new home won't happen without the help of all who care about horses and their ages-old human connection. The page has some great shots of the hoped-for new farm home in New Salem, Mass., along with an easy way to make a donation small or large by Dec. 18. If anyone can spare even a buck for the herd by that deadline, I urge them to please do so. Big thanks to anyone who can help Blue Star, which I wrote about in Yankee magazine last year.  – Suzanne Strempek Shea

Subscription to The Sun and the New Yorker, journals, Mary Oliver’s Devotions, printer cartridges/paper, French roast coffee beans, wool socks, flannel sheets (I write in bed), Maker’s Mark (alters consciousness nicely), new laptop, votive candles (always lit while writing).  - Karol Jackowski
As for me, all my writerly wants at the moment are intangible wishes -- more time, the ability to get up earlier in the mornings (!), that every important literary influencer will tout my upcoming book...that sort of thing. But that's not helpful, I know. Here is a link to a round up on the blog of the organization I teach with locally - some cool things on there. Personally, I'd love the Wipebook, and the Nite Note Notebook mentioned/linked in the post. – Lisa Romeo

During the holidays, I love to gift books I love—and I’m especially pleased when I have books from my writer-friends to give away! This year, I’m wrapping up Kay Campbell’s debut novel, A Caravan of Brides.  It’s rich in history, and delivers a beautiful, timeless—add also timely—message about women helping women—a perfect girlfriend gift! And if you have a baseball lover on your list, I recommend Tommy Shea’s Dingers. That was a huge hit last year with my local sports fan! Some of my favorite book-related swag comes from Litographs. Through a proprietary process, they print the actual text of books, poems, and stories (including your own, if you want a custom order) to create a graphic image on tees, scarfs, totes and posters.  Yes, words—up to 90,000 of them—creating a picture.  It’s one of the coolest things ever, for a literary geek like me.  And on my list? Well, those nearest and dearest to me know better than to buy me a book.  Just hand over the gift card for my one of my beloved indie bookstores. (Supporting an indie in person or online is so much more soul-satisfying than shopping at that big-A-place. Plus, you’ll be upping your writer-angel points.)  This year, I’d like to shop for myself at the recently opened Belmont Books, please! – Kate Whouley

December greetings

Greetings! Here in New England, the cold and snow have arrived, just in time for the holidays. (To this native Californian, gaudily decorated palm trees with chili pepper lights evoke the holidays much more than snow.) With or without snow, what else puts you in a holiday mood? For me, it’s books. Holiday roundups of best books of the year, new releases, and the anticipation of hours spent engrossed in a book in front of a fire, a cup of good coffee by my side and a notebook nearby to jot down thoughts. 

Two books in particular should be on your list, both by MFA faculty members: Sophfronia Scott’s Unforgivable Love, an ingenious re-telling of the 18th-century French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, set during the Harlem Renaissance; and Adam Braver’s The Disappeared, a work of fiction informed by recent history and a deeply thoughtful response to what we do in the face of inexplicable acts of mass violence. Both works showcase the exceptional talent and range of our MFA faculty. And both shed light on the essentials of being human that remain constant despite social and political eras, including our own: love, connection, trust, compassion. These are not “holiday” values. But it’s a good time to be reminded. And a good time to reflect on what we have together as a community, both in our MFA and in the larger literary communities we belong to.

Speaking of literary communities, we are pleased to welcome a new member to our MFA faculty: travel writer Susan Seligson, whose revealing interview with Sandy Chmiel can be found here. After I read it, I took a moment to reflect on the places I’d been that have changed me, altered the direction of my life, taken root in my heart. I think of the beautiful holiday traditions in these countries—Mexico, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Lebanon, Spain—and how our religious and cultural differences are something to celebrate, not fear. The more we travel, via plane or via good book by an international writer, the better we understand the range and depth of our shared humanity. Across the world, we all hope for peace this season. 

Wishing you a peaceful holiday season with plenty of great books to read (and chili pepper lights, just because) and see you in the new year.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Introducing new MFA faculty member Susan Seligson

Please join us in welcoming new MFA faculty member and travel writing instructor Susan Seligson, acclaimed journalist, travel writer, and author of Going with the Grain, a chronicle of her cultural and culinary odyssey as she investigates bread-making traditions around the world:  India, Ireland, Morocco, Jordan, all the way back to Hunstville, Alabama. Here, Sandy Chmiel speaks with Susan about how she began her writing career and the frame of mind required for not just travel writing, but travel as an adventure. 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer? How did you get started in travel writing?

Though my bachelor's is in biology and I was in the lab for a bit I soon realized I longed for a career with a much broader focus, and did a masters in journalism, which proved a perfect fit for my bottomless curiosity and gregarious nature. Like most journalists I began as a newspaper reporter, but after moving on to magazine writing and becoming a columnist, my love of, and talent for reporting from the field brought me more and more long-form travel assignments and several books.

What is most challenging about what you do? Most rewarding?

Most challenging are the logistics. An effective travel writer must do extensive background research including lots of reading, perhaps learning a bit of the local language, finding contacts in far-flung places and making often complicated arrangements to meet them, and then have the resourcefulness to return with a story even though things may play out completely differently than you expected. It requires flexibility, an open mind, a healthy sense of humor, and the willingness to endure physical discomfort and unfamiliar food and customs. The most rewarding aspect for me is making a connection with people from different cultures, learning how they are shaped by history and circumstances, understanding their passions, their faith, and realizing how much we all have in common.

What motivates and inspires you?

I am motivated first and foremost by curiosity. I never tire of experiencing new places. They don't have to be beautiful, they don't have to be a ten-hour plane ride away; they just have to be new. And I'm endlessly inspired by people and their resilience. I am happiest in the bustling markets of huge chaotic cities where all of life is on display. I love Kolkata, Istanbul, Jerusalem, New York. I'm not shy about talking to people of all ages.

Do you have other passions besides writing?

I love to dance. I'm a belly dancer and I do a lot of African dance, and anywhere I go in the world, if people are dancing I'll join in. I'm also a flutist and do some performing. I also volunteer as a writing tutor and mentor, and work with refugees.

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers?

Read as much as you can about a place before you go there so you have a sense of the place's customs, history, and politics. Watch documentaries. You can never know precisely what to expect, but you should get to a country aware of, at the very least, its political system, the name of its leader, the official language, its colonial history and dominant religions. Know beforehand which American customs are inappropriate in other cultures. Once there, listen to everyone and anyone, and keep all your senses engaged. Your job is to put the reader there, so take note of how places smell and sound, the rhythms of the language. Though you see and hear things that collide with your values try not to judge—part of the magic of travel writing is finding that, for example, a woman whose face is veiled is good-humored company and a lot like you. Be respectful but don't be timid. If you are open to it people will invite you into their homes for tea or a meal—go! Go to the public bath, the mosque, the temple, the university. Try to become comfortable saying greetings and thank-yous in another language; that is always appreciated. These last two things might not sit well with people but my experience as a world traveler moves me to give this advice: If you're not on a beach or by the hotel pool, dress modestly, always. And unless you're a professional photographer, exercise restraint with the camera. If you're constantly snapping, posting, sharing, it dilutes the experience of the here and now. That experience is priceless, and yours alone.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Always keep in mind that when it comes to travel, things will go wrong. Bus connections will be missed, contacts won't show, you'll be knocked down by food poisoning, you'll be the target of a deft pickpocket—it happens. Always exercise a balance of adventure and caution, and remember that mishaps can make for the best stories.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Greetings! The fall semester is underway and MFA classes are in full swing. This semester, I’m running the “Learning to Teach” course with students in their final year, many of whom will go on to lead their own creative classes and workshops. One of the big questions we’re exploring is what, exactly, makes a good creative writing teacher. Expert editing advice? Creative inspiration? Personal support? I’ll be addressing that question, among others, when I give a public talk in early October for the Bay Path community as part of the annual “Got a Minute?” lecture series.

Named in honor of late professor Dick Briotta, whose eponymous signature phrase became legendary (the “minute” usually became an hour or so), the lectures celebrate the intellectual diversity and range of Bay Path faculty. The title of my talk? “Why Creative Writing Makes You a Better Person.”

Yes, I’m putting it right out there. The art of creative writing, when practiced properly, not only leads to better prose but also to heightened empathy, compassion, and awareness on the part of the writer. This is not just my own conviction; scientific studies prove it. Stay tuned – the lecture will be taped and made available as a podcast. Next time, when a well-meaning relative at a holiday party wants to know why on earth you’re writing a memoir instead of, say, a TV pilot about zombies on spring break (all respect to zombies), you’ll have your answer ready.

In addition to the podcast, I’ll be hosting a lunchtime webinar interview with MFA faculty member and Ireland seminar co-leader Tommy Shea on Tuesday October 3, from noon – 1 p.m. Free and open to the public, “Hot Topics in Creative Nonfiction: How to Make Real People Real on the Page,” will draw on Tommy’s 35+ year career as a reporter and columnist for Springfield newspapers and as a book author researching the real people behind baseball legends. Tommy will be taking your questions during the last 20 minutes; bring yours and join us!

I’m also looking forward to our 16th Writers’ Day on October 15. A lively afternoon of talks, panels, and interactive workshops, this Writers’ Day features memoirist Patricia Reis in a talk about mining the personal in nonfiction; poet and performer Charles Coe, who will share tips on reading in public; and writers Elizabeth Searle, Ellen Meeropol, and MFA grad Meredith O’Brien ’17, discussing how they drew from current events to write their most recent books.

And please join me in welcoming the newest addition to our MFA faculty, prolific author Sophfronia Scott, whose work and teaching was featured in our August 23 blog post. Read more about Sophfronia here.

Speaking of reading, what’s on your fall book list? I’ve been dazzled by Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door. Next up: The Mother of All Questions, an essay collection coming in October by the brilliant Rebecca Solnit. Let me know what’s in your book queue! Drop me a line at

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcoming new MFA faculty member Sophfronia Scott

On today’s blog, we feature novelist, memoirist, essayist, and new MFA faculty member Sophfronia Scott. A graduate of Harvard and a former writer and editor for Time magazine, Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards when her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2004. Her work has appeared in publications including Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine,, More, and O, The Oprah Magazine, and her new works are forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins and Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books.
We are so pleased to have you join the Bay Path University MFA in Creative Nonfiction faculty. Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer?

I’ve been writing since childhood, but I didn’t know it could be a career and vocation. My father never learned to read so that kind of living was never on my radar. I only knew I had to be able to support myself when I grew up and that led me to want to become a doctor. At Harvard I was struggling along as an unhappy biology major. But I loved writing and in my junior year I took a nonfiction writing class called Introduction to Rhetoric that required you to write five pages a week. I felt if I wrote five pages a week something might happen for me and it did. My mentor in the class, Carl Nagin, one day said to me, “What are you doing? Don’t you know you’re good enough to get paid for this?” I didn’t know and his words shocked me. He eventually connected me to a recruiter for Time magazine. Time Inc. hired me right out of college and, as they say, the rest is history.

You have written novels, personal essays, and a memoir. What are the unique challenges—and what are the rewards—for a writer who works in multiple genres? Do you find they inform one another? 

I didn’t set out to write in multiple genres. I enrolled in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to study fiction, but one of my friends suggested I study creative nonfiction as well. I’d never heard of the term before and, honestly, I thought it sounded like something that would have gotten me fired in the magazine world! However, the more we talked about it the more I realized I didn’t have to stay mounted in one genre. I began to see myself not as a fiction writer or an essay writer or a poet but as a writer, period. The more avenues I have of transforming what I want to say into the written word, the better.
The genres do inform one another because they all have the same source: me. Everything in me, everything that has influenced me, everything that has touched me will find its way onto the page, sometimes whether I realize it or not. But there is one big difference between working in fiction and nonfiction: I like to say that when I write fiction I’m planting seeds. I know these seeds, they are essentially the outline of the story I know I want to tell. But I don’t know what these seeds will look like once the characters grow until their full expression. That’s exciting.

With nonfiction I’m not planting, I am digging. I’ve started an essay with a thought or a question in my mind and I don’t know where it will take me. I don’t know what I’m going to dig up. Nonfiction can take a lot longer to write for that reason. It takes a lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking, and that takes time. Recently I was asked to write an essay for an anthology being published by Simon & Schuster next year and I took every bit of time they gave me right up to the deadline to write it—not because I was procrastinating, but because I needed the time to sift through my thoughts and make the piece coherent.
This anthology also illustrates one of the rewards of writing in multiple genres: you get many more opportunities to publish and to teach.

You have a new novel, Unforgivable Love, being released September 26. How would you describe this book and your process writing it?

The novel is a retelling of the 18th Century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. I set my version in Harlem in the 1940s so instead of drawing rooms and opera theaters you have nightclubs and churches and the Brooklyn Dodgers! I’ve had a simmering obsession around this story for years going back to when I first saw the film Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. I’ve consumed every version that’s come down the pike, including Cruel Intentions, which starred Reese Witherspoon. When I mentioned my preoccupation to my friend, the screenwriter Jenny Lumet, she said there needed to be a version of the story with an African American cast. That lit the flame for me—I knew immediately I could do it and what I wanted it to be.

I originally wrote the story as a screenplay because the film had been my first influence. But by structure a screenplay is sparse—you have to leave room for the vision of the director and the actors. Only about a quarter of my vision made its way to the page. When my agent suggested I write the story as a novel, I was thrilled because I could finally make that journey of discovery that is part of the novel-writing process. Unforgivable Love fulfills my original vision in both scope and story.

Your memoir, This Child of Faith, due out in December, was written with your son. What was that experience like for you as a writer and as a mother?

The material in the book is emotional—it tells the story of our family’s faith journey from the time we started taking my son to church at the age of six and how his faith managed to sustain him and us in the aftermath of the shootings at his school, Sandy Hook Elementary. So sometimes it was hard. He’d come into my office in tears because he was thinking about the friend he’d lost or because something he’d read often when he was younger had moved him in a different way now that he’s older and can understand it on a different level.

But all this allowed my son to be privy to what I do every day as a writer and sometimes that includes sitting at the computer crying over what I’m trying to write. I’ve made sure to involve him in every step of the book’s production process—from signing the contract, to reminding him of our deadline, to sharing emails and notes from our editor, to the session to shoot our author photo. He has a great window now on how it all works. That has been a tremendous gift.

Many writers find that the publishing industry today expects authors to do quite a bit of their own book promotion. Is that your experience and, if so, what can you share about it? Will you be going on tour, giving readings, speaking at events?

It all depends on the publishing house. My novel is being published by William Morrow/HarperCollins and they are doing way more on the promotion end than I could ever do on my own. My forthcoming nonfiction is being published by a small press and a university press and there’s no way they could do the same level of promotion as a HarperCollins because the budget just isn’t there. However that doesn’t mean those books are left to shift in the wind. It’s been my experience with publishers large and small that promotion is a team effort. The publicity/marketing department brings their ideas and connections to the table and I bring mine, and together we do the best we can for the book.  And the author should have something to bring to the table—this means not waiting until you finish the book to start making connections and establishing a social media presence. The sooner you start, the better because it takes time to develop a platform that can help move your book.

We’re now in the process of scheduling appearances to promote the novel. I’ll be giving readings, doing radio interviews, and speaking at events. I also have a new website and blog that I’m thrilled about,

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you or your writing practice?

I have a writing buddy! I write in the mornings and two to three times a week I’m joined via Google Hangout by my friend and writing partner David Hicks who lives in Colorado. We each discuss what we’re working on and then start writing. It’s kind of like sharing an office. We keep each other company while we write. We’ve both published books this year so we’re celebrating. He wrote about our buddy system in the October 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest so you can check that out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MFA faculty: Summer Reading

Summertime, and the reading is easy....or challenging, thrilling, shake-you-up-and-set-you-down someplace new. In today's blog, MFA faculty talk about what they're reading this summer—everything from classic nonfiction works to memoirs to groundbreaking novels by new writers. Whether you're traveling to a distant country or down the block to your local, air-conditioned library, you'll find the world opening up in the pages of these books.

Mel Allen - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
I am in the midst of writing a major feature for Yankee on the Making of the Vietnam War. It’s about Ken Burns’ new 18-hour epic to be aired this September. I have read all Vietnam all the time the past month. In particular Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going after Cacciato— as well as personal memoirs from unknown soldiers and even one by a mother who lost her son.

Leanna James Blackwell, MFA Director - Mentorship Lab, Field Seminar in Ireland
I just completed Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a richly imagined, stunning meditation on grief, told in the voices of souls who live in the cemetery where Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was buried. In a completely different vein, I’m midway through Norse Mythology, a retelling of Norse legends by Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods. I often turn to mythology and folklore for inspiration –my most recent play, Grimm Women, is a feminist retelling of three classic fairy tales and I’m currently working on an essay collection inspired by Greek myths.

Next on my list are two new memoirs I can’t wait to read: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, about growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation by the brilliant poet, novelist, and short-story writer Sherman Alexie; and Roxane Gay’s newest book, Hunger, which explores the dangerous territory of weight, female bodies, and the way the body responds to trauma.  Last on my list is a book I re-read every summer, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Woolf’s work has served as a lighthouse to me during my entire writing career, and each time I revisit her books I discover something fresh, startling, and unexpected.

Mieke Bomann - Getting Inside Lives: Writing the Personal Profile
I have three books open now. Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate can Transform our Lives, by Thupten Jinpa. The author is the longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama, and a former Buddhist monk himself. Clearly written, moving and practical, Jinpa outlines how compassion is the "best-kept secret of happiness." Re-reading The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, a terrific take on Shackleton's legendary Antarctic expedition. The writing is great, the photos fantastic, and the journey unmatched in its magnitude of spirit, courage, and mind-boggling fortitude. Plus, the frozen setting brings coolness to a hot day! Finally, The News: A User's Manual, by Alain de Botton. As a news junkie—and who isn't, in these days of presidential disaster-a-minute bulletins?—I'm curious to see what this British "pop philosopher" has to say about our media habits, and to gain further insights into the extraordinary impact the 24/7 news cycle has on our hearts and minds.

Adam Braver - Thesis I and II

Currently, three books in the nightstand rotation, two of which are Norwegian novels: The Unseen by Roy Jacobson (shortlisted for Man Booker Award, which was a draw), and another called The Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen (a book that came highly recommended by a Norwegian friend). I very much like to read contemporary literature from other countries because I find them to be less constrained, in that they trust the intellect of the reader, and can take chances with form, convention, and the exploration of ideas and consciousness. The third book is a nonfiction essay collection: Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill. I greatly admire her fiction and thinking, and look forward to seeing it in the personal essay form.  

Susie Chang - Eat, Drink, Get Paid
I'm not reading much fiction these days but picked up The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho on my husband's recommendation, mostly for pleasure. It turned out to be not only a good read but also very relevant to the kind of research on spiritual journeys I'm doing right now.  I’m also reading Tarot and the Magus by Paul Hughes Barlow, just one of the two or three dozen Tarot books I'm constantly dipping in and out of right now in the course of writing a book, Tarot Correspondences, for Llewellyn Publications.  In this case I'm specifically looking for some advanced techniques to incorporate both into my divination practice and into my own book.

Anthony D'Aries - Mentorship Lab, Professional Track in Teaching
I'm reading a memoir by Leah Carroll called Down City: Daughter's Story of Love, Memory, and Murder. Set in Rhode Island, it's about the writer's mother, a photographer who was murdered by two drug dealers with Mafia connections when Leah was four years old. The book is not only about that traumatic event but also the mystery of her parents' lives, told through interviews, photos, and police records. It's a wonderful memoir. 

Aine Greaney - Health and Wellness Writing, Mentorship Lab
I just picked up a wonderful memoir, Once We Were Sisters, by Sheila Kohler. It's by a South-African-born author who, following the death of her 39-year-old sister, flies back to her native country to grieve and come to terms with their shared lives and strange childhood. I chose this because the writing is so beautiful, I love transatlantic books and am always fascinated by family relationships and how family history overlaps with a country's history.

Shahnaz Habib - Creative Nonfiction Form and Theory I and II
This month, I have been reading the Qur'an with my daughter. We are in the middle of Ramadan, a sacred month for Muslims. It's the month in which the Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet. As a reader and writer, I love remembering that the first revealed word of the Qur'an was "Read!" So every day, Sophy and I read a few Qur'an verses in Arabic, then we read their English translation. I love sitting on the prayer mat with my daughter on my lap, reading in two languages. Reading with a six-year-old means stopping to wonder about words, defining concepts I have taken for granted, parsing the difference between literal and metaphoric. The questions she asks are compelling me to think through my own understanding of belief, God's powers, human purpose.

Ramadan has been particularly hard this year in North America in these long summer days. I have been humbled and challenged by the daily 16-hour fasting regimen. For inspiration, I have been reading about fasting. I just finished the gorgeous, lyrical Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali, in which he writes about fasting and writing and doing yoga. I have also been dipping into Ramadan: Motivating Believers to Action, an anthology that collects theological and philosophical writings on Ramadan from the 12th century to our own times.

But there comes a time of the day when my hunger is too distracting for lofty reading. So I have also been cutting the fat with some detective fiction. Right now I am working my way through Susan Hill's Inspector Serailler mysteries. I will admit that I linger a bit too much over the descriptions of police officers discussing the latest murder over pie and peas in a pub. Pie and peas. Mmmm.

I am also prepping for a Study Abroad program I will be leading in India later this summer, so I am rereading some Indian writers I want my students to read. I was awed by Ghachar Ghochar, a novel in translation, in which the author Vivek Shanbagh captures a changing city by focusing on the domestic tensions within one family. I will soon turn to R. K. Narayan who created a fictional small town, Malgudi, the likes of which are fast disappearing in India, and peopled them with characters, each of whose lives he explored through individual books in the Malgudi series.

Karol Jackowski - Women’s Spiritual Writing, Nature Writing
Years ago I started reserving summer as a time to re-read books that changed my life.  I scan my bookshelves waiting for a book to pick me. This summer Jung's Active Imagination was my first pick.  How did it change my life?  In 2001 I finished writing—with a six week deadline—a heart-wrenching book called The Silence We Keep, a nun's view of the pedophile priest scandal.  Feeling like I'd never write another word, I picked up Active Imagination in which Jung speaks in depth about how to keep the writing soul alive. He writes about what to do when you finish writing a book before beginning another one. "Do the opposite of what your craft is,” he said, and used the example of a writer beginning to paint.  Doing the opposite of our craft awakens creative visions in the soul untouched by the mindfulness of writing.  Or as Gertrude Stein reveals..."It takes a heap of doing nothing to write a good book." The mindlessness and playfulness of painting has now become the soulmate to writing life. Thank you, Carl Jung.

Lisa Romeo - Thesis I and II
For part of my spring and summer reading, I decided to catch up with books by some fellow graduates of the MFA program I attended. It's a wildly divergent group of books. I'm currently reading two: The Butcher's Daughter by Florence Grende, a memoir of growing up the child of Holocaust survivors; and A Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol, an unusual novel about plants, eco-terrorism, family, and…(well, I'll find out). And next up are: Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, in which she interviews writers who tackled difficult memoirs; The Language of Men by fellow MFA instructor Anthony D'Aries, a father-son story of love, travel, discovery; and In the Context of Love by Linda K. Sienkiewicz, a novel of family secrets and the always challenging path of love.

Suzanne Strempek Shea - Writer-in-Residence, Field Seminar in Ireland
I’m reading Ma Speaks Up: And a First-Generation Daughter Talks Back, by Marianne Leone. Leone’s first book, Jesse: A Mother’s Story, is a heart-grabbing tribute to the life of her late son, and the story of how she and husband Chris Cooper became activists for others who, like their Jesse did, struggle with physical and/or mental challenges. In this new book, Leone brings us to the story (both the real one and the fable she delivered over the years) of her mother’s immigration from Italy, and to Marianne’s own journey across the sometimes swirling seas of being that larger-than-life woman’s daughter. Often poignant, and just as often hilarious, the writing shines with spirit and love. Second on the list is the brilliant Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971, by Leigh Montville. I read anything by this perennially best-selling writer, who spoke on interviewing at one of our earlier Writers’ Days. Montville’s prose, research, approach, and his basic ideas (as this look at a very tumultuous time in the life of Ali and this country illustrates) fascinate and inform.

I’m also reading Puppy Bible: The Ultimate Week-by-Week Guide to Raising Your Puppy, by Claire Arrowsmith and Alison Smith. It’s been ten years since I’ve raised a puppy, and this is a solid paw to hold as my husband and I begin anew. I’m happy about the guidance and checklists that start with the decision to adopt a pup, and then go through preparing the home and family and bringing the little one home. The week-by-week setup that brings us to six months has been most helpful. The sections on dog psychology, behavior issues, training and more also have been read more than a few times. I don’t agree with everything (please spay/neuter your critters, don’t waste time pondering) but find this a generally solid resource.

Tommy Shea - Field Seminar in Ireland

Summer reading! What it Used to be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver by Maryann Burk Carver. I’m a reporter, always looking for the other side of the story. I first read Raymond Carver’s short stories in Esquire in the early ‘80s. Then I started buying his books, Cathedral the first. The sentences and paragraphs were short, terse. What wasn’t being said hung there like cigarette smoke, silent, ever present. The characters within seemed straight out of the Bruce Springsteen albums, “Darkness on the Edge of Town’’ and “Nebraska.” Hardscrabble, paycheck-to-paycheck lives. The baby is on the way. The rent is overdue. The phone rings and no one picks it up. The drink is always being poured and drunk too fast. The cup hits the table, signaling “I’m done, hit me with another.” The author always said he drew his stories from his life.

Raymond Carver, who had toiled as a soda jerk, janitor, and farm worker, the guy who graduated Chico State College with a B-minus average, became a literary star. He was reviewed as an “American Chekov,’’ the “most important American short story writer of the second half of the 20th century.’’ He divorced his first wife, married a famous poet, quit drinking, had a lung removed, kept writing. He was dead at 50. Cancer.

Carver’s first wife, Maryann, was a footnote in too many obituaries. She had met him when she was 14, working as a waitress at the Spudnut restaurant in Union Gap, Washington. When they married in 1957, she had just graduated high school, two months short of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Carver was 19. Before Maryann was 18, she was pregnant again. She quit school to support her husband’s writing habit and her daughter and son, working as an encyclopedia saleswoman, a waitress, restaurant hostess, before finishing her schooling and teaching English. Maryann had her book published in 2006. I’m only reading it now. So far it is a love story I don’t think will end. But I know different. I think.

Kate Whouley - Mentorship Lab, Health and Wellness Writing, Professional Track in Publishing
Right now, I am reading Woe is I by Patricia O'Connell, as I am working to develop a foundational refresher course for incoming students. For pleasure, I’m reading The Rebels of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd. I read his novel Paris earlier this spring, and fell in love with his contemporary approach to historical fiction. (And after you finish one of his sweeping epics, you have a new doorstop!)

And, of course, my summer reading always includes the good writing in The New Yorker, Yankee Magazine, and, yes, Vogue.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Interview with Mieke Bomann

In today’s blog Mieke Bomann, journalist and MFA instructor in profile writing, talks about the role of journalism in civic life, the pleasure of discovering the “meat” of individual lives, and the surprising connection between poetry and narrative nonfiction. Read on to learn how she became a journalist – and what’s next in her writing life.

Can you tell us about your background and your path to becoming a writer?

While I have always written or edited for a living, I have never called myself a writer; mostly, I identify as a journalist. I owe a lot of my motivation and writing skills to great teachers and good editors, an early aversion to authority, and the satisfaction I take in discovering the meat of a person’s work life or lifelong obsession, and then sharing that bit with equally curious readers.

When thinking about a profession after college, I was drawn to both the freedom and privileges that journalism offers. I could make a living by asking interesting people questions about almost anything and, if I did it right, go back to my desk with the ingredients for a story worth reading.

I worked for a couple of newspapers as a city hall and business reporter, and then spent about twenty years going back and forth between freelance writing and editing, and fulltime work for college publications.

What do you see as the role of journalism in today’s society?

There’s a book in that question, but one short answer is that responsible journalism is one of the best tools citizens in a free country have to check the tendency of people in power to seek additional power. The Washington Post puts it even more succinctly on its front page these days: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I am most energized by truly motivated students who use the advantage of their affiliation with Bay Path to dig into unknown territory, and write about people who they might otherwise not have a chance to get to know. I am amazed and humbled by the challenging subjects many students choose to write about. I also love watching students make use of the expertise of their academic cohort to expand their worldview and deepen their stories.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Consider taking a class in poetry writing. No matter the length of your stories, your prose will likely benefit from the intense understanding of the music in language that poets bring to their craft.   

The journalist in me recommends that you write up your notes from an interview as soon as possible because your memory, handwriting, and recording technology are never as reliable as you think.

Finally, taking the time to review the appropriate stylebook and pesky rules of grammar and punctuation will make the journey through your prose much less bumpy for your editor/instructor, who may then reward you with untold riches.

What are you currently at work on?

I am helping to research and write a script for a visitor’s tour of an historic house, owned in the mid-nineteenth century by William Cullen Bryant, a poet and long-time editor of what is now the New York Post.  I am also doing some research on humor writing and satire, and thinking about revitalizing my long-neglected gardening blog, which was never particularly funny but really ought to have been.