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“Discovering Your Hidden Voice”: Hidden River Winter Writers’ Workshop in Society Hill, Philadelphia!

“Discovering Your Hidden Voice” is Hidden River Writers’  Workshop for Winter 2014!  Six weeks of intimate, intensive exploration of craft and creativity will be conducted by award-winning writer and playwright,  Debra Leigh Scott, Founding Director of Hidden River Arts and Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing.  Hidden River has formed an exciting new partnership with Cavanaugh’s in Headhouse Square in Society Hill to offer our workshops in the wonderful Pickwick Room — so named when this pub was The Dickens Inn – owned by a descendant of Charles Dickens himself.  What could be more perfect that a fiction workshop in a private space that resonates with the spirit of Dickens?

The workshop will meet on Wednesdays from January 15 through February 19, from 6:45 to 9:00 p.m. in The Pickwick Room, at Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, 421 S. 2nd Street, Phila, PA 19147.
To maintain intimacy and personal attention, the workshop is limited to 12 people.  We welcome writers at all levels of proficiency, from beginners to advanced, in this workshop.  Cost is $235. We accept PayPal, credit and check payments.

Please email hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com or call 610-764-0813 to register.

Hidden River also brings a variety of workshops to private groups, schools, homeschool organizations, professional organizations — we can adapt all of our programs to suit your schedule and budget.  Private individual tutoring and writing consultation, developmental assistance and editing help are also offered to writers at all levels of development.  Please see our Workshops page for further information about all that is offered.

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The Next Big Thing – A Writer Interview Series

I would like to thank Tree Riesener, who is the winner of our inaugural Eludia Award for her wonderful collection of short stories, SLEEPERS AWAKE, for inviting me to take part in this interesting writers’ interview program.  The Next Big Thing is a sort of interview chain which provides readers with an ever-growing series of discussions about writers and their most recent projects.  It offers an inside view of our process, our passions, our efforts to create our best work.  Below you will find my own answers to the interview questions.  You’ll also find my own recommendations – three truly wonderful writers who will be answering the questions about their own projects.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

1– What is your working title of your book?

My book is called Piety Street.  It’s the first novel in a trilogy, a family saga, about an extended Delta family and an immigrant family, settled in New Orleans from Sicily.

2–Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book, and the trilogy, were born from stories I was told as a child about my own maternal grandmother’s childhood.  Tales of leaving Italy for America, of being raised in an orphanage in a strange country by extremely cruel nuns when her parents both died.  Lots of family stories lived in my imagination for many years, and then, as I writer, I found myself building on those stories, fictionalizing them, searching for the archetypal truths in the experience of the sojourner, the orphan, etc.  So, although the seeds of the trilogy came from true family stories, what has resulted is a work based on an attempt to paint a bigger picture of human experience.  I set the story in New Orleans, one of my favorite areas of the country, for its mystery, mysticism, multi-cultural, multi-racial lifestyle.

3–What genre does your book fall under?

It’s literary fiction, but could also be considered historical fiction, since it moves through several separate time periods – 1919, 1927 and 1955.  I guess you could also include it in the sub-category of “family saga”.

4–Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This is really hard to answer, since the book moves through three major time periods, and the characters age from childhood, to their 20s, and then into their 50s.  It’s not a typical book-to-film kind of project; rather it is more like a Dickens piece – the sort that would adapt better to an episodic PBS or BBC project — a mini-series, maybe.  We’d need some really unusual actors, too — because the characters are not only Sicilian in nationality, but there are others who are Creole, including a Vodou priestess. It would be a great vehicle for casting diversity, that’s for sure.  It’s not so much a “star vehicle” project as it would be a great ensemble project.

5–What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Piety Street is a family saga, the first novel in a trilogy, about the Favaloro family from Sicily and the Duvalle family, a Creole Delta family, whose paths and lives cross and converge throughout the first half of the 1900s in New Orleans.

6–Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Piety Street will be published in 2013 by New Door Books.

7–How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The book took years.  Probably close to 7 years, altogether.  I wrote, rewrote, restructured, set it aside while writing other things, including an inter-related collection of short stories, Other Likely Stories and several plays.  I’m also working on a documentary film.  But I’ve recently returned to the book, rewrote some sections yet again, edited and re-shaped it a bit….and will be letting it go.  It’s been a hard book to wrestle with, largely because the structure and layering of the stories requires that we move through these time periods in an unusual way.  The book opens in 1955, flashes back to 1919, back to 1955, then flashes back to 1927, finally returning one last time to 1955.

8–What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Some possible contemporary comparisons would be to The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, or The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.  Like my book, both tell their stories through a young girl, who is the starting point for unraveling family mysteries and secrets.  My book begins in 1955, with 5-year-old Rachael Meade, third generation of the Favaloro family, whose abuse at the hands of an extremely troubled great-aunt, begins to unravel long-held family secrets and evils.

But I’d like to compare the book also to the kinds of stories that Charles Dickens told (although his stories began often with a little boy and mine a little girl).  His novels always included a large caste of characters, themes of lost innocence, cruelty, family honor, and ultimately redemption.  That’s the journey Piety Street takes the reader on.

9–Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I said before, my grandmother’s stories of her own childhood were the inspiration.  More than anyone else in my family, she raised me to be the person I am.  Her name was Eludia Marie Orgoglioso, and I’ve recently launched a fiction contest in her name at my own arts organization and small press, Hidden River.  It’s called the Eludia Award, and provides $1000 and publication for a first booklength work of fiction (novel or short story collection) to a woman writer, age 40 or older, She lived during an era when women had little chance of following their dreams.  I want to honor her by helping other women follow their dreams with an award in my grandmother’s name.

10–What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Readers who like entering into an entire world and staying there, discovering a variety of powerful characters, experiencing mystery, struggle, injustice, crime, and ultimate resolution and redemption, will love Piety Street. It’s filled with everything found in my beloved New Orleans: mysticism, magic, spirituality, passion.  And all of that is blended with historical events: the great immigrations of Sicilians to New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, the sweep of death caused by the 1919 influenza pandemic, the great flood of 1927 that destroyed large areas of New Orleans – much like the more recent Katrina.

Coming up in THE NEXT BIG THING are three of my favorite writers!

ERIC D. GOODMAN

Eric is author of a wonderful collection of inter-related stories, Tracks.  The book won the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Region. This novel-in-stories follows a diverse group of passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago, revealing the secrets of their past, their hopes for the future and just how intertwined their lives really are.Journey by train from Baltimore to Chicago via the perspectives of a diverse array of passengers. Eric also curates the popular Lit and Art reading series at The Watermark Gallery in Baltimore, MD.  Eric will be discussing Tracks on February 8 at

http://www.Writeful.blogspot.com

KAREN RILE

Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music, a novel set in Philadelphia, the city we share. Other truly wonderful works of fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, American Writing, Creative Nonfiction, The Land Grant College Review, Other Voices, and Apiary, and has been listed among The Best American Short Stories.  Karen will be discussing Winter Music on February 8 at http://www.rilesmith.com/

CHARLES DODD WHITE

Charles identifies himself as an Appalachian writer, a writer whose knowledge and understanding of this truly mysterious and unique region of the U.S. results in powerful, moving stories, unforgettable characters, and one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  I first became aware of Charles in an anthology, Degrees of Elevation, and then read his own collection, Sinners of Sanction County with awe.  He’ll be discussing his latest book, the novel, Lambs of Men on February 8 at http://ltmarlborough.wordpress.com/

 

I really hope you enjoyed reading this blog entry, and learning a bit about my forthcoming novel.  Please feel free to comment here, or to get in touch if you would like to arrange a reading, or if you have a bookclub interested in either Other Likely Stories or Piety Street.  I am always happy to make either a personal appearance, or a skype or Google HangOut interview with a group of readers.  

Be sure to check in with Tree’s blog, which is still up, discussing her wonderful short story collection, and to calendar February 8 for the posting of the three wonderful writers I’ve invited to take part.

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Announcing new workshops in “Visual Spatial Storytelling”

As a writer and arts educator, I’ve run creative writing workshops for years and years.  Recently I’ve been thinking about alternative ways to approach the practice of creative writing.  About a year ago, I developed a program called “Visual-Spatial Storytelling” for an arts center where I was working with young children.  This was a great success with the children as well as with the art center administrators; and I began to wonder:  why not provide these workshops for all ages?   While writing prompts are nothing new in creative writing workshops, the focus on training a writer to develop more powerful observational skills here is a bit different.

This year, in discussions with visual artist, Brooke Lanier, I suggested that we try to expand on that and present a workshop which combines visual arts training with creative writing. We’re going to be launching our first 8-week sessions on February 11 in Philadelphia. I’m excited about this because I believe that inter-disciplinary explorations are so wonderful in increasing the potentiality of creative expression. Brooke will be presenting a variety of explorations in both style and technique in 2-D and 3-D art. I’ll be leading our workshop participants through writing poetry, fiction and drama, using close observation tactics and visual art prompts. The result will be a rich experience that combines a variety of narrative techniques with visual art-making in a unique and entirely new interdisciplinary way.

My hope is that, as we work with our students and share discoveries of this process, Brooke and I will be able to put together a book, and perhaps teacher-training materials in order to help educators use our program.  I plan to blog a bit more about this as we move through the sessions.

If there is anyone reading this who would be interested in taking part here in Philadelphia, or if you would like us to travel the program TO you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.  This is absolutely a workshop that can be taken “on the road”.   If you would like to know more about me, my own writing and other activities, visit my website.

For more details, or to invite us to put a workshop together for you, please email hiddenriverwriters@gmail.com with the subject line: Visual Spatial Storytelling.

 

 

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On Writing Memoir

Memoir is a subset of autobiography. Where an autobiography usually discusses the broader scope of an entire life, a memoir examines one portion of a life, often in a fairly specific context (i.e. the years spent as a young Marine in the Korean War, or life as a young upper-middle class mother in Reagan’s America).

William Zissner calls memoir, “A careful act of literary reconstruction.” What does this mean? It means that you are not simply recounting an experience. You are shaping the story you tell, crafting it, deciding what to tell and how.

Memoir is reductive.

The writer has to be discerning about the most potent things to include and ruthless about the many things to exclude. One of the hardest things to do is remove the details you recall, to which you are emotionally attached, but which don’t serve the arc of your memoir.

William Zinsser says to think small. “Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.”

In other words, look for those telling moments which somehow, almost magically, crystallize the meaning of the larger life.

In order to write memoir, you have to set aside the assumption or belief that you understand your own life. The process of writing memoir is about your own discovery of new ways to see old experiences. It’s about slowly recognizing a thread or pattern in events or behaviors that you didn’t see before. It’s about understanding the symbolism of your own life.

Know in advance that this is going to hurt. If you are opening up your own heart and mind and searching for the most authentic experiences, you have to remain honest. You have to examine your own areas of avoidance, your own areas of denial. Otherwise, the writing will reek of what Tennessee Williams called “mendacity” – a dishonesty that will render your effort worth very little.

Memoir is not journalism. The tone cannot be objective or removed. There can be no distance between the voice and the experience, but here is where things can get confusing. Neither can there be a telling of an experience too immediate, too raw, too fresh. Why? Because it doesn’t allow time for reflection, for introspection, for the kind of synthesis of experience and understanding that only comes with time. So the melding of voice and experience has to come through the wisdom gained in the passage of time.

What about “privacy,” either your own or that of others you include in your memoir? Worries about offending others can cloud your ability to write truthfully. The best thing to do is to put that concern aside and write as honestly as you possibly can. Write as if no one but you will ever see the manuscript. Then, when it is in finished form, if you intend to publish the manuscript and offer the memoir to a wider public, you might want to consider showing those mentioned the pages in which they appear, as a courtesy. But be prepared. They might ask you to remove or change certain passages; it is your decision alone whether to do so or not. It’s your story, after all. The thing about memoir is that it’s based on your best possible memory; but there are many possible versions of “truth” in a shared past. Be true to your own most honest memories. This is especially important if you are writing about those who are no longer alive.  People sometimes feel guilty, struggle with a sense of betrayal about the story they tell.  Sometimes there is a kind of tribal prohibition against revealing certain dysfunctional parts of family’s history.  Be honest with yourself about these obstacles. If you aren’t strong enough to do write memoir honestly, don’t write memoir.

Another challenge is for you to write with your senses. Drawing from your memories, it is sometimes a bit difficult to remember fully through what Sanford Meisner would call “sense memory”. For instance, you might remember a particular moment in your childhood – let’s say a terrible family argument when you were only eight years old. You might remember the people involved, where they were in the room, the words they screamed at each other. But you may not remember the color of the blouse your mother wore, or the smells of dinner burning in the kitchen. You might not remember that there was a television playing in the next room, or that the sound of rain on the roof thundered as loudly as your grandfather’s voice.

It’s your job, when writing memoir, to keep digging and searching your sense memory until some of those more deeply buried recollections are unearthed. Why do they matter? Because the more fully recreate the scene you are describing. The reader will be able to smell the burning meatloaf, or hear the static of an old radio, feel the crack of lightning outside as the family thunders at each other indoors. Sensory detail enriches the story being told, and serves to create a more memorable experience for the reader.

Memoir is all about retrieval and discernment. It is about revisiting a specific time and seeing it again, through new eyes, seeing yourself through new eyes. It’s a journey of discovery, and often one of healing. It takes willingness, bravery and the desire to mine for your deepest truths.

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Man Booker Prize and My Total Lack of Interest

A quick note on the announcement of the Man Booker longlist, which was announced a few days ago.  I wonder how many of you are in the same place as I am — I haven’t read ONE of these books.  With my attempts to keep my own writing on track, I find I am reading less and less.  I, who have always railed at other people about how important it is for writers to also be voracious readers, and supporters of other writers.  When I man a table at the Associated Writing Program yearly conference, I get incensed at those graduate students who wander the aisles asking at each table, “What do you publish?” — when it is clear that they haven’t purchased a damn thing from anyone.  Because I’m getting cranky with age, I ask them, “Why don’t you buy some books and find out?”  They don’t even have to buy from MY press — just buy some books for God’s sake.  How can you expect that the industry is going to support YOU if you don’t support the industry?

And here I am, reading less and less.  I review books, but I rarely read for pleasure any more.  Of course, we’re all broke.  That’s a given.  So, yes, there is that.  I am trying to focus on my own work, so there’s that.  But what is happening to me?  Is it possible that reading has ceased to BE a pleasure? How could that be possible?  Or, is it about these awards, and about the struggle of writers to be taken seriously if they are NOT on a prize list somewhere?  Am I simply tired of the endless beauty contests that this culture forces us to endure?

I wonder if any of you out there have experienced this.  You are a writer, an avid reader much of your life, and suddenly you have no hunger for literature?  It’s like a gourmand losing his taste buds.  It’s like a singer no longer wanting to listen to music.  I’m open to advice on this one, because I’m puzzled.

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Oh God, Could This Be Writers’ Block?

Having prided myself on never having anything remotely resembling the dreaded “writers’ block” that always seemed to me to be the stuff of Hollywood and TV sitcoms, I was two weeks into a total dry period – and by that I mean, little to no writing save what I was doing on Facebook and Google + . The summer months I had determined would see me through the final edit of my novel and the completed full draft of a work of non-fiction, several book reviews and a few blogs a week were now 2/3 gone, and July would pass into early August in a few days. Yes, I had a few more chapters of non-fiction written. Yes, I had finished a blog or two. But the edit wasn’t even begun, and the writing I expected to be well underway had never really fallen into a daily rhythm.

“Oh God,” I thought, “could this be writers’ block?”

I’ve gone through stretches like this before. There have been times when I felt as though I was moving backward, not thinking clearly, needing to sit and stare and think and stare some more….and holy cripes!…this IS writers’ block! Had I known, I would have started to do….well, something, about it. I would, at least, have read for hundreds of hours on line about the cures. I would have talked to other writers and asked their advice. I would have done visualizing exercises around being happily productive at my computer.

Finally having had this realization, I’ve begun thinking back through the summer months that have passed me by, to all the things I DID do which clearly have not helped to increase productivity. It might help others if I compile the list as a “what NOT to do when you have writers’ block” advice blog. So here goes.

1. Don’t sit around in your workout clothes day after day — those raggedy ones you’ve had in your dresser drawer since, well we won’t say for how many years, but let’s say Bill Clinton was still in The White House — telling yourself that you’ll workout someday soon. Get up, take a shower, put on some real clothes, comb your hair, use the toothbrush. From now on, when you put on the workout clothes, actually DO the workout.

2. Don’t eat or drink more than a sane person does. And by this I don’t only mean, “Don’t drink like Hemingway or Fitzgerald,” but don’t drink pots of coffee, or eat entire chocolate layer cakes in one sitting, or hoover 2 lb. containers of wasabi peas. In fact, what I mean here, is don’t eat a lot of your meals alone, squirreled away as if you are on a stake-out. Why? Because it will make you sick, for one thing. You’ll also feel like crap, and probably look like crap. Most important, it effects your ability to think. Send out some texts or emails or whatever form of communication you find most appropriate and make some plans to meet friends, have lunch, go to a happy hour. That will re-boot your eating habits. Next, go grocery shopping for real food, and make normal meals, like a human. No more pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No more running to the corner sandwich shop for cheesesteaks and onion rings. Buy real food – organic if possible, because the agri-business companies don’t care if you die, just so long as they are turning a profit.

3. Turn off the TV. I am a huge Aaron Sorkin fan, but 400 hours of West Wing is overkill. So is watching 48 episodes of Sons & Daughters in three days. The same goes for videogames. Or Facebook. Just stop it. Try music instead. Or silence.

4. Stop keeping erratic hours. Staying up until 4 am isn’t going to help. Sleeping until noon won’t either. Falling asleep on the couch or that big comfy chair while watching all that TV (see #3 above) is going to completely screw up your sense of sleep time vs. work time vs. relaxation time. Change the sheets on your bed, then sleep in it. Set a regular bed time, a regular wake time. Establish better patterns for your day-time and night-tine activities. Assign certain hours of the day as work hours — so that “work” time doesn’t seep into every waking hour. This is especially important when you are blocked, since with that block, “work” time doesn’t end EVER because you aren’t working at ALL. “Work” time becomes “getting ready to work time”, or “trying to work time,” but work never gets done. Write up a chart if you need to, and stick to it. Remember those little red, and silver, and gold stars you got in kindergarten when you achieved something? Buy them and put them on the chart each time you accomplish something. We writers need positive feedback any way we can find it…..keeps us from consoling ourselves with that chocolate cake.

5. Don’t underestimate the healing and inspiration to be found in art. Read some good books. Walk through an art museum. Head out to the theatre. Go to a concert. You’ll be getting yourself away from the TV, away from the chocolate cake and wasabi peas. You’ll be forced to shed the Clinton-era workout clothes, and shower. You might even interact with a few other humans. Refreshed and inspired, you might find that your own desire to create is re-invigorated.

You might not find yourself writing reams of Shakespearean prose immediately, but putting an end to the avoidance, the wallowing, the over-indulgences will help more than you imagine. I’m curious to hear from you: what are some of YOUR methods of getting yourself back on track, of writing steadily? I welcome your comments!

Marie Lamba, author

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