The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Chelsea Hodson on Being Mentored by Ron Carlson

Chelsea Hodson, 2012 Emerging Voices Fellow, recalls being paired with her mentor, author Ron Carlson. Because she primarily writes creative nonfiction, Chelsea explains was she was reluctant to work with the short story writer, but her doubt was soon quelled after their monthly meetings at an IHOP. 
“’Would I keep writing if I’d been rejected for ten years?’ That’s what I asked myself after the other Emerging Voices Fellows and I met with Janet Fitch at her home to discuss her work. We talked about her novel Paint it Black, but she also told us she was consistently rejected for nearly a decade. And then, one day, Oprah called to tell her White Oleander was the next Book Club pick.
There are only so many Oprah-level opportunities for writers, and I think it’s hazardous to expect one to arrive someday. But perhaps it’s helpful on some level to buy into the myth that good work will eventually be recognized. The truth is, geniuses go unnoticed all the time. But what the Emerging Voices Fellowship helped me realize was that the work itself was what really mattered. If I worked to make my writing as good as it could be, that was enough. Maybe Oprah would call one day. But probably not.
I was still discovering how difficult it was to write honestly about my own life, and how hard it was to find the much-talked-about, impossible-to-pin-down “voice.” But as an Emerging Voices Fellow, we spoke to different authors each week and realized how many struggles they dealt with on a daily basis as well. Perhaps I used to think it got easier, and perhaps that was a relief to me. But I soon understood writing would very likely never get easier, and that was also a relief. Writing wasn’t difficult because I was a novice, it was difficult because the translation from mind to hand is an unreliable process.
So I asked myself, ‘Would I keep writing if I’d been rejected for ten years?’ I couldn’t say for sure, but I thought that I would. In the past, logic and money had made convincing arguments, but I’d always returned to writing. 
I felt apprehensive about being paired with my Emerging Voices Mentor, short story master Ron Carlson. I thought, ‘What can a short story writer teach me about writing personal essays?’ That question is proof of my ignorance about what a mentorship could accomplish.
Every few weeks, I’d drive from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach to meet Ron at IHOP. I’d order scrambled eggs and toast, Ron would ask the waitress, ‘Which one is that healthy omelette again?’ She’d bring him the omelette with spinach and tomatoes, and we’d discuss my latest essay.
Once, he flipped the pages over and drew a visual representation of what the essay’s structure should look like. As he went on to suggest certain narrative changes, my first instinct was to resist his advice to reign in the collage elements of my essay. I thought, as many inexperienced students do, ‘You just don’t get it.’ But once I turned off that voice in my head, I could hear his, and I continued to hear it as I edited my formerly messy essay into a cohesive piece that worked the way I wanted it to.
In his book, Ron Carlson Writes A Story, he writes: ‘The most important thing a writer can do after completing a sentence is to stay in the room.’ I think that’s true, because the longer you stay, the longer you have to live with your words, so they might as well be good words.’
Chelsea Hodson was a 2012 Emerging Voices Fellow. Her latest chapbook, Pity the Animal (Future Tense Books, 2014), is available from Powell's and as an Amazon Kindle Single. Her essays have been published in Black Warrior Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Sex Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. 
Chelsea’s mentor Ron Carlson will be hosting the Emerging Voices Final Reading on Wednesday, July 30th at 7PM at the Hammer Museum. Please join us! Click here for more information


Writers’ Reel: Anthony Doerr On Using Journals

In this audio clip for Aspen Public Radio’s First Draft, author Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot SeeThe Shell CollectorFour Seasons in Rome) talks about his use of personal journals to further his craft. Doerr also talks about the impetus for his latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, and how he always takes into account what the reader will think.
“Occasionally you do turn to it for a kind of therapy, but most of the time I would be at peace and I would be looking out and using it as a way to just practice to translate the world into language…A lot of those things I will later cannibalize for my fiction.” Anthony Doer on journals 

Bookmark This: Laurie Dea Owyang On Why It’s Never Too Late

Laurie Dea Owyang, 2006 Emerging Voices alum, recalls how her passion for writing lay buried for a long time as she married, raised kids, and built a successful career in human resources. But when the right push came along, that passion reignited, proving that there is never a set timetable for chasing after your dreams. 
“A voracious reader, I knew when I was ten years old that I wanted to be a writer, but life happened. I toiled every day at my parents’ hardware store in San Francisco’s Chinatown after school, on weekends, and during summers. Later, I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, got married, moved to Los Angeles, built a human resources career, and raised children. Finally, 34 years later, I found the time and space to enroll in a writing class at UCLA. 
From day one, I devoured advice on craft, determined to improve my writing and tell compelling stories. I kept taking classes until my favorite writing instructor, the one who scribbled thoughtful line edits and encouragement all over my pages, said to me, 'Stop taking classes. You’re a writer. Just write and send your stories out into the universe.' I got the message.
In 2006, I was selected as an Emerging Voices Fellow. Over the next eight months, I was given generous access to Los Angeles’s writing community. Our cohort of ten fellows bonded instantaneously over meals, carpools, confessed insecurities, ridiculous amounts of laughter, and, most especially, our pages. Diana Wagman, our superlative master class instructor in fiction, made us hone our words and sharpen our prose. During author evenings, we met with Janet Fitch, John Rechy, and David Ulin, all generous and supportive. We learned from editors and agents and publishers. My EV Fellowship was intense, demanding, and wonderful.
Our final reading took place at the Central Library in the Mark Taper Auditorium. Under bright lights, I stood on stage behind the podium and read my story to a large crowd (which included my husband, my teenage daughters, and even some of their friends), thrilled to read my words in public. I got the message again. I am a writer.”
Laurie Dea Owyang retired in 2009 after a thirty-year career in human resources. She volunteers at the library and also at Dress for Success as a career coach and mentor to women seeking employment. She is working on a collection of short stories inspired by the circumstances under which her parents fled China to escape poverty and war, and their ongoing quest to improve their lives and their children’s lives. 
Please join PEN Center USA at Skylight Books this Sunday, July 20, at 5pm for the Emerging Voices Meet and Greet. We’ll be answering all your questions about the 2015 Emerging Voices Fellowship application process. Find more details here.


Writers' Reel: Your Haruki Murakami Primer

Author Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is set to hit the States next month. As fans anxiously await its arrival, watch this lovely video by animator Ilana Simons that details the award-winning author’s creative journey. From his first revelation, experienced at a ballgame, that he would become a novelist to how his writing plays with the tension between the conscious and the unconscious, this animated video visually depicts Murakami's history with eye-popping artistry.

"[Murakami believes that] every person is the storehouse of her sensual, visual memories. A writer has to return to those memories and turn those experiences into words. It’s a very difficult, brilliant alchemy.” – Ilana Simons on Murakami 

Bookmark This: Terrance Flynn on Coming Out of the Closet

Terrance Flynn, 2013 Emerging Voices Fellow, shares his experience of secretly writing in his father’s closet as a child. In this light-hearted essay, Terrance reveals how being awarded the Emerging Voices Fellowship marked his literary ‘coming out.'
“I wrote in my dad’s closet as a kid—more a matter of the carpeting and quiet than an unconscious psychodynamic crisis. His Arrow shirts hung above me in dry cleaning bags that tickled my shoulder and clung to the back of my neck. Better parts of whole days spent writing amidst fumes of dry cleaning fluid and Speed Stick by Mennen, which I applied in order to smell like my dad and older brothers, a scent called regular.
Many years later, PEN Center USA outed me as a writer by proclaiming me a 2013 Emerging Voices Fellow. At least it felt like an outing, a proclamation, spoken in the steadfast voice of a town crier—none of the shillyshallying of the whisper inside my head. Proclamations help. They tell you what the hell to do. Also outings: they hold you accountable. 
The Emerging Voices Fellowship is a series of ongoing conversations on writing lead by authors, poets, audiences, the PEN community, agents, publishers, and fellow fellows—all who expect you to cough up further proof of being a writer of note. For me the fellowship boiled down to a series of threats of being exposed as a fraud. This served me well.  A touchdown still counts if the running back is scrambling to escape being pulverized. Panic or fancy footwork, both earn the points.
The less romantic aspects of the fellowship get less attention: talk of deadlines, loglines, submission guidelines. The necessity (for published authors even) to hold day jobs. Whether to MFA or not. Which residences, conferences and funding sources to ignore or pursue. How to read faster in your own head and more slowly to an audience.
Since last July, I’ve internalized the scramble and run headlong into other opportunities: some publications, more readings and fellowships, and recently an agent who expects me to cough up a full draft of my book to be proposed in the fall. It’s dangerous to speak of things that don’t yet exist, like a completed first book, but we are just talking here. A conversation about writing, no longer in a closet, though I still run scared from one sentence to the next in search of meaning and in fear of annihilation. As for now, I can claim applying for this unique fellowship. That was all me: I applied.”
Terrance Flynn recently signed with Lorin Rees of Rees Literary Agency to represent his memoir, Dying to Meet You. He was awarded a 2014 Promise Award by the Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Stanford Calderwood fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship. Terrance is a finalist for the Wabash Prize for Nonfiction judged by Cheryl Strayed. He's been published in Slice Magazine, and two essays are forthcoming in Sycamore Review and Creative Nonfiction.  

The deadline to apply for the 2015 Emerging Fellowship is August 11. Click here for more info. And don’t miss the Emerging Voices Meet and Greet on July 20 at Skylight Books!




Writers’ Reel: Remembering Walter Dean Myers


Last Tuesday, award-winning children’s book author Walter Dean Myers passed away at the age of 76. Myers wrote more than 100 children's books and was a strong advocate of diversity in children’s literature, recently penning the article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” for the New York Times. His list of honors includes a Michael L. Printz Award, a John Newbery Medal, and a Coretta Scott King Award for Authors. His words will live on for generations to come. Watch the author talk about his start as a young reader in this Reading Rockets video.

“I spent 10 years, 11 years in speech therapy. I couldn’t speak very well for most of my childhood life. So when I wasn’t playing ball or fighting someone I would be home with my books. My books were my friends.” – Walter Dean Myers  



Bookmark This: Bret Anthony Johnston on Rejection

In today’s Bookmark This, author Bret Anthony Johnston tackles the beast that affects all writers—rejection. In a funny essay titled “On Rejection; or Dear Author, After Careful Consideration,” Bret compares writers with skateboarders learning how to perfect jumps and spins with prolonged dedication.

“Like skateboarders, writers live by rejection; like writers, any skater worth his salt must have the single-minded tenacity of a wiener dog.” - Bret Anthony Johnston
Join PEN Center USA on July 11, 2014 at 7:30pm when we present Bret at a special reading at Skylight Bookstore. RSVP here!
Plus, Bret will be leading the This Is How We Do It: A Practical Approach to Craft Workshop on July 12th at 10am. Register here.

Writers' Reel: Happy Birthday Franz Kafka!

This Thursday marks Franz Kafka’s 131st birthday! Born in Prague, Kafka is one of the most studied author of the 20th century. Commemorate the writer’s birthday by watching this animated, award-winning short film created by Piotr Dumala. The film is based on Kafka’s diaries.

Watch the 16-minute short here:

Courtesy of Open Culture.


Bookmark This: Jamie Schaffner on Being Lost

This week, 2011 Emerging Voices Alum Jamie Schaffner reminisces about struggling to find her place in the fellowship. Jamie explains how she found her literary footing with the help of authors Janet Fitch, Bernard Cooper, Dinah Lenney, and vocal coach Dave Thomas.

“From the application to the Final Reading, the Emerging Voices Fellowship wasn’t easy. As a perfectionist with floundering confidence, I did what I always do with the unknown and difficult—gave it everything I had. This, I reasoned, was the only way I wouldn’t get distraught and lost and, in short, be stranded proverbially naked in front of esteemed authors, other fellows, my mentor, and the PEN Center USA staff.  

Every week, I read every sentence in every book selected for the Author Evenings and prepared questions, so that on Mondays I’d be articulate. At the PEN Center USA office, sitting elbow-to-elbow with other fellows at a table chock-full of salami, cheeses, and crackers, we engaged with remarkable authors. I was not articulate. Before our vocal coaching, I read my excerpt out loud incessantly and set a stopwatch to ensure I wouldn’t exceed five minutes. I exceeded five minutes. The master classes, we were told, would be run like the Iowa Workshop. Meaning: don’t speak, don’t explain. Instead, just listen to the critiques. I spoke; I explained.

I was distraught. I was lost. I was naked.

Still, I soaked up the array of writing knowledge, tools, and inspiration. During our evening with Bernard Cooper, he asked about hurdles we had with our work, and, from our brief responses, he offered dead-on advice. “Sometimes you just trip on your end. You’re writing and you realize that’s it,” Cooper said to me. Afterward, I stopped chasing my novel’s ending. Months later, after writing a scene, among the endless scenes in Get the Girl, I reread what I’d written and it hit me—that was the end. Another evening, Janet Fitch inscribed my copy of Painted Black with a nod to a symbol I’d used in my own work. Encouraged, I watched for other symbols that I might deploy in my novel. When I felt claustrophobic writing in first person, I took Dinah Lenney’s suggestion and switched to second. I gained distance, as she’d said, and was able to see what the scene was about, then returned to first person. During the Hammer reading, I did what Dave Thomas, our vocal coach, said to do: nothing. Leave a gap, a silence, at the end of a crucial moment. I stopped reading, gripped the podium, unnerved, and counted to three. The audience grew quiet, waiting on my next word, as Thomas said they would.

For eight months, I read a book a week, attended an Emerging Voices workshop or event at least two times a week, wrote new pages, edited existing scenes and commented on colleagues’ writing. All the while, I was certain the day would come when I wouldn’t get nervous during an Author Evening. Or, before our next public reading, I wouldn’t have to recite my piece out loud while lying curled in the fetal position until leaving for the venue. Or, when the thick manila envelope with my mentor’s comments arrived, I wouldn’t put off opening it.

That day never came.

It’s been three years since I became an Emerging Voices Fellow and still, I’m distraught. I’m lost. I’m naked. I’m writing.”

Jamie Schaffner was born in Los Angeles, raised in Portland, Oregon and has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UC Santa Barbara. She was a 2011 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, a UCLA James Kirkwood Award Finalist and her work appears in the anthology Best Lesbian Romance (Cleis Press, 2011). She is a member of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, and is completing her debut novel Get the Girl. Jamie lives in Los Angeles with her wife and their cats—Lucy, Ethel and Buffy.

Join Jamie at the Meet & Greet on July 20 at 5pm at Skylight Bookstore when current and former Emerging Voices Fellows and mentors answer your questions about the fellowship. For more information, click here.


Writers’ Reel: James Baldwin on How Reading Saved His Life

The author of Go Tell It On the MountainThe Fire Next TimeSonny’s Blues, and many other prolific works is interviewed in this California Newsreel documentary. James Baldwin talks openly about his strict upbringing by his father and how the library helped him connect to the world. 

“You think your pain and your heartache are unprecedented in the history of the world but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very thing that connected me to all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”