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I Never Intended to Write a Novel

I was a young writer at a time when the short story enjoyed an era of great popularity, an era of Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Ann Phillips, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, et. al. Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, coined the term “Dirty Realism” to describe the work being done in the short form. I’ve never given much thought to why this aesthetic made such good sense to me, but I suppose it may have something to do with the fact that I came from a blue collar world where the economic circumstances of one’s life [...]

By | 2018-04-23T08:58:59+00:00 April 23rd, 2018|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Shh!: The Penultimate Moment before the End of a Narrative

Around five o’clock one evening, an emergency notice came on my phone, advising me to seek shelter immediately. Then the tornado sirens began to wail. My wife Cathy and I gathered up our orange tabby, Stella the Cat, and headed to our basement. The rain came and the hail. Then, everything went still. The wind calmed. The rain stopped. “Here it comes,” I said. Because I grew up in the Midwest and have been through more than one tornado, I know that often just before the funnel cloud touches down an eerie calm sets in. So it is with a [...]

By | 2018-04-16T08:40:29+00:00 April 16th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Ego and the MFA

It’s MFA thesis defense season here at Ohio State, which always reminds me of my own MFA experience at the University of Arkansas. So much of my education as a writer was a process of becoming aware of how much I didn’t know. At the time, it was often discouraging to realize just how humbling learning this craft can be. Now, in retrospect, I see my acceptance of my ignorance as a necessary step in my development. It’s been my experience, both personal and observational, that writers sometimes enter an MFA program too full of themselves. How can anyone blame [...]

By | 2018-04-09T07:24:26+00:00 April 9th, 2018|Uncategorized|8 Comments

Deciding on an MFA Program

Here at the beginning of April 1, I think about the rapidly approaching deadline for those of you about to make a decision on which MFA program to attend. For those of you with more than one offer to consider, I’m re-running this post from five years ago, one in which I offer some advice to help you make your choice. Follow the Money There are plenty of programs (like the one here at Ohio State, for example) that will fully fund you during your graduate study through fellowships, teaching assistantships, or a combination of the two. You’ll receive a [...]

By | 2018-04-02T07:31:32+00:00 April 2nd, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Are You Sure about That?: The Importance of Uncertainty

Each morning at the local YMCA where I work out, a group of retired men gather at a table to drink coffee and to express their strong opinions about everything under the sun. They’re certain about their beliefs, too certain it seems to me. I have a hard time trusting those who believe they know everything there is to know. To me, such beliefs stand in the way of the appreciation of the nuances of complex issues. Furthermore, such certainty makes little room for the opinions of others. Such certainty shuts down conversation and appeals only to those who share [...]

By | 2018-03-26T08:21:06+00:00 March 26th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

All Alive to Each Other: What Stories Have in Common

’Tis the season for March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament is in full swing, leading to the championship game and the annual commemoration of this athletic competition, the song, “One Shining Moment”: “That one shining moment you reached deep inside/One shining moment, you knew you were alive.” I can think of no graceful segue from these song lyrics to Sherwood Anderson, and Winesburg, Ohio, other than to make the leap and invite you to follow. In Anderson’s story, “The Untold Lie,” two farm hands are husking corn in a field at dusk. Suddenly the younger man confesses that he’s “got [...]

By | 2018-03-19T07:59:45+00:00 March 19th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Happy Birthday to Brevity

I was very fortunate to be on a panel celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fabulous online journal, Brevity, at this year’s Associated Writing Programs conference. I joined Beth Ann Fennelly, Daisy Hernandez, Heather Sellers, Ira Sukrungruang, and founding editor Dinty Moore for a reading of flash creative nonfiction and some thoughts on the genre itself. As I was in my post last week, I was interested in talking about how my flash cnf is so often tonally driven. When I write essays like the ones in Brevity—essays of fewer than 750 words—I sometimes use a communal voice to capture [...]

By | 2018-03-12T08:35:04+00:00 March 12th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

The Sounds Our Living Makes: A Tonal Approach

Sundays in my childhood home were usually days of quiet and peace. The sounds of such surrounded us. In the summer, I listened to the whirr of an oscillating fan that took its time pivoting back and forth. Its breeze lifted the corner of the pages of a Life magazine on the coffee table. My father napped, the Philco radio by his bed tuned to the broadcast of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. The voice of play-by-play man, Harry Carey, rose and fell with the outcomes of each at bat. The crowd was a gentle murmur in the background. [...]

By | 2018-03-05T08:29:20+00:00 March 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Pay Attention

I write for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that something in my past or in my imagination or in the world around me requires my attention. More and more, I’m convinced that the ability to pay attention is the most important skill a writer can have. “Try to be one of those,” Henry James said, “upon whom nothing is lost.” We have to pay attention so we can see the nuances and contradictions that exist in any given person, or situation, or detail, or image. I assume you’ve all seen those optical illusions that [...]

By | 2018-02-26T08:33:46+00:00 February 26th, 2018|Uncategorized|8 Comments

What Pauses Can Do for a Narrative

Yesterday, there was work to do—there’s always work to do, something to write, something to read—but, after brunch, Cathy said, “Why don’t you just rest?” I gave her my standard answer, “I’ve got so much I need to get done.” Her response? “Sometimes, it’s okay to not do anything.” So it is in the stories we tell. There comes a time when it’s okay for our characters to rest; it’s fine for us to allow them a few moments of pause. Here, then, are three ways we can think about what we can accomplish by slowing the narrative pace. 1.         [...]

By | 2018-02-19T08:25:08+00:00 February 19th, 2018|Uncategorized|7 Comments