Monthly Archives: July 2013

On Residencies

This is the last day of my residency at The Studios of Key West and I’ve been thinking a lot about “Go Away,” a beautiful essay that Alexander Chee wrote about residencies. In the essay, Alex talks about needing “…a mystical device I could use to step inside another world and finish the novel and return.” Yes. I am so familiar with this feeling. I went to my first residency three summers ago, in a fit of desperation. I had known about colonies for a while, but had resisted the urge to apply. It all seemed a little precious to me, I guess, the idea of being cloistered away in order to do my art. Who wants to be hidden away in the wilderness? I thought. Don’t you want to be IN THE WORLD? Needless to say I A. was being an idiot and B. had not yet started my novel. Halfway through my first residency, at Spiro Arts in Park City, I remember thinking that it was so amazing I no longer gave a shit whether it was precious or not.

TSKW is my fourth residency and I have gotten addicted to how much I get done at these things. It’s weird, I did work really long hours here, but I also got out too (Hemingway lookalike contest! Snorkeling!), so it’s not like I never saw the light of day for 4 weeks. And yet: so much done.

I think this is why: the most amazing thing about the residency is not the time (although that is great) or the TLC (also great), but the psychic space. I read more. I think more, not just about the project at hand, but about everything. Sometimes the life breakthroughs are as important as the artistic ones. There is also something to be said for having a very clear way to mark time. How have I spent these two weeks? This month? In real life, time can slip by so easily; the timeline of a residency, the gift of it, holds you accountable.

Before my first residency, I also didn’t realize how these places would permit me to be IN THE WORLD in a totally different way. Often residencies take you to interesting and/or very beautiful places; you meet all kinds of new people, artists working in different mediums; your worlds opens a little. I had no idea how much I would learn about visual art from going to open studios or even just from talking. I had no idea how much I would love the mountains of Utah. Or the daily ritual of walking to my studio at VCCA, stopping to pet the horses in the lush foggy field that borders the road. Or swimming in Lake Michigan when I was at Ragdale. Before I went to Key West, I had no idea I would learn all about infiltration art or make night swims in the ocean a ritual or how much being down here would change what I’m working on. There is a lot of living to be done at these places, it turns out.


The Imitation Exercise

I do this one most semesters and it goes like this:

Type up a bunch of passages from published short stories that demonstrate techniques you would like your students to imitate. I like to do enough passages that each student will draw something different, but you don’t have to. Once the typing part is done, I print and cut them up, so each student will draw their own little “card.” So crafty, I know.

You can make the exercise technical in orientation—i.e. examples of flashbacks, flashforwards, indirect discourse, etc. I ask the students to read their card and then “imitate” the technique presented, using their most recent workshop story. So if a student has just workshopped a story (or will soon workshop a story, depending on where we are in the semester) about a woman named Lucy who illegally sells exotic parrots and draws a “flashback” card, she will be tasked with writing a flashback for Lucy. This can be a good way to introduce more novice students to the various narrative techniques available to them.

If you want to make the exercise more extensive, you can have students work with the first card they draw, then trade cards with the person sitting next to them and do another imitation (so maybe this time Lucy gets a flashforward) and so on.

Sometimes I make the exercise descriptive, so all the “imitations” are different examples of descriptive language, authors describing apartments and wilderness and oceans and deserts and trailer parks. Good for getting students to be more attentive to the physical world.

You can also go character-oriented. Maybe the Lucy student draws a passage from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” where Clyde sucks on a lemon in lieu of sucking on a human, and has to write a scene in which Lucy gives herself an odd substitute for a destructive habit she’s trying to give up. Or maybe she draws the scene from “Last Night,” where the wife that the narrator thinks he’s killed comes down the stairs in the morning, woefully alive, and now this students needs to think about who Lucy would want to kill and why and how she would fail to kill this person and what it means for her that they’re still alive.

Sometimes I make the exercise weird. Maybe the Lucy student draws the scene from “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” where Frog explodes with maggots and boils and disintegrates, and now she has to write a scene in which Lucy physically crumbles in the most revolting way imaginable because why not.

Victor LaValle on ISLE

So thrilled to be able to share these generous words about ISLE from one of my all-time favorite writers, Victor LaValle. If you have not read Big Machine and The Devil in Silver, you are seriously missing out.

“People keep disappearing in Laura Van Den Berg’s haunting collection of stories. Some run away, some change identities, and one even gets blown up. This collection is rich, surprising, and a lot of fun. The Isle of Youth plays with crime stories of a kind, noir tales of deceit and betrayal, but really each investigates the spaces, the distances, that keep human beings from ever truly knowing one another. Van Den Berg is a ridiculously talented writer and this wonderful book provides the proof.” – Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver

Shaping the Story Collection at Grub Street

At the end of the summer, I’m moving back to the Boston area and here is one of the best things about that: I’ll get to return to teaching at the ever-awesome Grub Street! In October, I’ll be doing a 4 day intensive on shaping story collections. If you’re in the Boston area and have a story collection in the works, this could be right up your alley.


I remember that sentence driving at me in the dark like a glacier.” – Anne Carson

Short Story of the Week

“Windeye” by Brian Evenson.

I can still vividly remember hearing Evenson read this story (also the title story of his excellent recent collection, via Coffee House) at the 510 in Baltimore and gasping at a certain moment, when the terms change radically (you will know the moment when it arrives). A spooky, weird, haunting story about the confounding, multifarious nature of reality (among other things). I still think about this story A LOT, which is probably why I teach it (and often the opening paragraphs specifically, for a craft talk I do on story openings) so much. Here’s the first paragraph:

“They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle, thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers were thicker, so he could not.”

When something is actually occurring, that’s the worst possible time to try to understand what’s happening. You are in the moment. You have no clue. Knowledge is retrospective.

Mark Slouka (via karanablue)

Ann Patchett on ISLE

Over the moon to be able to share these lovely words for ISLE from the one and only Ann Patchett. I hugely admire Ann’s work (BEL CANTO! TRUTH & BEAUTY!) and also her extraordinary contribution to the literary community. My mom lives in Nashville and not one visit passes without a book-buying pilgrimage to Parnassus. It’s a haven.

“In THE ISLE OF YOUTH, a group of young women narrators seek to understand the people in their lives as a means of understanding themselves. Magically, Laura van den Berg turns a group of lost souls into a beautiful and compelling read.” – Ann Patchett