The Mark Blog

Writers’ Reel: Ramona Ausubel On Getting to the Truth

Author Ramona Ausubel describes how she began writing her novel No One Is Here Except All of Us. What started off as a way of documenting her family’s history turned into an award-winning work of fiction. The novel went on to win the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction.
“It surprised [me] how I got much closer to the truth once I put all of my notes away.” – Ramona Ausubel

Want to attend this year’s Literary Awards? Consider donating to the Emerging Voices Fellowship Kickstarter campaign -- one of our backer rewards includes tickets to this year's event. There are only four days left to meet our goal. Help us reach it: 

Bookmark This: Victor Vazquez on Validation

Victor Vazquez, 2014 Emerging Voices Fellow, shares his recent experiences in the fellowship. Discussing his immigrant background and his work with his EV mentor Douglas Kearney, Victorconsiders what it means to be validated as a writer.
“Why do we need validation? I can tell you my answer, but by the end of this, I will ask you for yours. My parents have worked their hands off. My father, an immigrant, scratched vinyls on a DJ table with the name Zygnus tagged across wood in white marker. Zygnus -- it means the sounds of the universe. He was a mechanic and then a business owner. My mother, also an immigrant, sold clothes in a swap meet, had five kids, stayed home, cleaned, cooked, and taught us how to be good people. Down the line, parents of parents of grandparents, we were all poor. Why then would I quit working with my hands to turn to the page and write? Better yet, how could I?
I learned English after I took in my native Spanish, went to school, took a big job, and felt lost. I’d sit, sometimes alone during lunch, and feel the trailings of ancestors around me… waiting for me to be a little more brave. I am brave, I thought — I went to college, took the big job, and I’m thinking of professional development like everyone else. I was playing the wrong game. I used to have this child-like vision of myself, this illusive grand magical dream where I’d build a tall ladder and I’d climb towards the sky to pick a star. I was filled with fear when I realized that the star I had my eyes on was a life where I could call myself a writer.
One night, I took a book off the store shelf and brought it home, The Poet’s Market: Over 1,000 Updated Listings to Help You Get Your Poetry Published. I learned how easily overwhelmed I was by the writing world. I did circle one listing, PEN Center USA Emerging Voices, and I underlined the words mentorship, seminars, and kickstart your literary career. I left it circled for three years before I actually applied.
Now I’m a fellow. For the past six months I’ve been building a ladder. One week I’m meeting with my mentor, Douglas Kearney, who is seeing in my writing things I had never seen… You do not know how not to be in war, he said. You are gay. You are Latino. You grew up lower middle class. And yet, there’s so much hope here—the fight is a thing in your writing you’ve accepted without question. Then I’m in a living room with Janet Fitch as she says, I was rejected for 10 years, and then… Oprah called. Then I’m at UCLA taking classes and writing with deadlines for 24 weeks. And now I’m on stage, reading. So let me alter my question…Where are we looking for validation?
The word validate comes from the Latin root valeo,which means I am strong, I am well, I am worthy, and I can. Everything about it is a declaration. As I climb, little by little, I understand there is quite a voyage to be had to reach that star… But, if I may extend the metaphor here, it is PEN Center USA that has allowed me to go from a person at lunch, head cocked up towards the sky dreaming, to actually taking steps towards that something you’ve felt the need to possess, to claim the words: I am a writer. It’s not illusive. It can be real. I’ve realized the work I get to do with my hands is through writing, amongst other things. And now I see how to be practical about it, and yet I can still hear the sounds of some universe saying, This is you being brave.
Why are you looking for validation? Whisper in your mind the answer. I found it, finally, when I moved back home and lived in my parents’ garage for the first half of this fellowship. I felt angsty, you know, like Hamlet felt when he had to come back home… let’s overlook the tragic reason why he had to do that. I thought beyond that angst, I found that the writer has to be the fifth act of Hamlet. It’s not the question of being, or not being, it is accepting the demand to let be.
Let yourself write.”
Keep Victor’s dream alive. There are only 9 days left to nurture our literary community. Click here to join our Kickstarter party!

Special Bookmark This: Emerging Voices Fellowship Featured in the Los Angeles Times Today!

We’re excited to see the Emerging Voices Fellowship being featured in the Jacket Copy section of the Los Angeles Times. The article includes interviews with program manager Libby Flores, as well as Emerging Voices alumni Cynthia Bond, Natashia Déon, and Reyna Grande. Read all about it here.

“People were able to say, 'I'm a writer. It seems like a small thing … but it's really a big thing for a person to take the risk and do that." – Libby Flores

Also mentioned in the article is our Kickstarter Campaign. Only 11 MORE DAYS LEFT to reach our goal. Keep the fellowship going!  



Writers' Reel: Charles Yu's Take on Breaking Through

In this interview, Matt Staggs tracks down author Charles Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Sorry Please Thank You) at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con to chat about the alchemical nature of a writer's process, Yu's experience as a first-generation Taiwanese-American, and his use of the "outsider" protagonist – one who sees the big-picture hierarchy and struggles to break in. Plus, hear about his not-so-secret life as a Bob's Burgers fan-boy and how playing Street Fighter 2 influenced his narrative structures. Yes – Street Fighter 2, the video game.
"So often I've found that the storytelling problems I've found to be the hardest are the ones I've taught myself the most by trying to get through." 
Charles Yu has been a mentor for the Emerging Voices Fellowship. To maintain this program, which pairs emerging authors with experienced leaders in the field such as Yu, help us reach our $10,000 goal by spreading the word or donating to our Kickstarter today! Everything and anything you can contribute counts.

Bookmark This: Bev Magennis On Shifting From Art to Writing

Bev Magennis, 2010 Emerging Voices Alum, writes about her experience of being a visual artist for many years before venturing into writing. Her favorite component of the fellowship was the UCLA Writing Extension class with author Ian Wilson. 
“In the spring of 1993, my ex-husband and I moved to a remote county in southwestern New Mexico where 3,000 people and 10,000 elk occupied 7,000 square miles of wilderness, without one traffic light or fast food restaurant. At 51, I had a successful career as a visual artist and would earn a living with continued gallery sales and commissions. Full of enthusiasm, we said ‘adios’ to city life, ‘hello’ to home-cooked meals in front of the fireplace!
Elk grazed along the creek, hawks circled above, swallows dipped into fields streaked with wildflowers. Mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, wild turkey, and bear dated and mated outside my back door, leaving tracks for me to identify. No street lamp lit the sky for 100 miles. The rooster’s crow replaced the alarm clock and squabbling jays, flapping ravens’ wings, and tapping woodpeckers made me pause and listen, really listen. I thought I’d gone to heaven.
But paradise had its downside. The locals were a tough bunch, resistant to regulations of any kind. They clung to local tradition, good or bad, and did not play well with others. Eccentricities flourished and were encouraged. Open space transmitted news at record speed and I got sucked in, eager as anyone for the inside scoop on the latest scandal. After 15 years, I understood how isolation strains relationships, how, without distractions, tensions grow unchecked and explode. Far from civilization’s eye, the county operated according to its own law; survival of the fittest applied not only to animals, but humans as well. 
Inspired by local characters and conflicts, I wrote a short story, and then began a novel based on one of the county’s unsolved murders. Writing seemed the perfect creative outlet for my position as resident and observer in this unique landscape. However, I knew nothing of literary craft. The university was four hours away. I searched the Internet for intensive writing programs and applied for the 2010 Emerging Voices Fellowship. 
Suddenly, I was in Los Angeles writing at the library, encouraged and supported by Emerging Voices Fellows. I met authors and went to readings and workshops and worked with a mentor. Most importantly, I took Ian Wilson’s class at UCLA. Each student’s work was critiqued with emphasis on character development, structure, exposition and summary, setting, the arc of the story, point of view, and pacing. I was inspired to stretch my imagination, test various approaches, to think about land as a character! We evaluated writing as literature, applying elements that comprise good story telling with an ear for sound, sensitivity to nuance, and recognition of theme. The UCLA class cracked the door, offering a peek into the adventure ahead, exposing the complexity and depth of the craft. It provided the solid foundation for formulating my ideas and experiences into a cohesive written work.
The Emerging Voices Fellowship not only supported my choice to write, it gave me the tools to do so in earnest. 
Begin. It’s never too late.”
Bev Magennis was born in Toronto, Canada. In 1971 she received an MA in art from the Claremont Graduate School, located in Claremont, California. After a 34-year career as a visual artist she started writing literary fiction, inspired by people and events in the remote New Mexico wilderness where she lived for 17 years. In 2009, Bev was accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop summer graduate class. She has been awarded a 2010 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and received a 2011 Norman Mailer Fiction Fellowship. 
Bev has been published in r.kv.r.y Literary Magazine, The Rattling Wall, and Bosque, and is currently represented by the Susan Schulman Literary Agency.
Only five more days left to apply for the 2015 Emerging Voices Fellowship. Deadline is August 11. Get those applications in
Not applying? You can still be a part of the Emerging Voices Fellowship by supporting the PEN Center USA’s Kickstarter Campaign. Help us meet our goal for this week of $2,500. Any amount works toward supporting emerging writers!

Bookmark This: Johnny Alfi On Unearthing His Real Desire

Johnny Alfi, 2012 Emerging Voices Alum, writes about how his former lack of ambition (dead end jobs, 18 failed job interviews) obscured his real desire to be a writer. With the help of his friends, the Emerging Voices Fellowship became the push he needed to pursue his dream.  

“Today I stand on a mountain with the cosmos circling me. My life is totally in order and, this fall, I get to start an MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Once upon a time, my life was not super-glamorous. I sold cell phone cases for near minimum wage, ate frozen pizza in excess, and botched, like, eighteen job interviews. I’d show up late because I didn’t actually care about Risk Management. I felt stuck and depressed and so did my then-girlfriend, and who could blame her? Every time her parents asked if I’d found a job yet, she was reminded that I was mentally challenged enough to have the asinine goal of writing professionally. 
During a workshop at UCLA with the late Les Plesko, a fellow writer I admired shared the news that she had been named a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. It sounded fancy and I wanted it. I envied her. Come application season, I sent her my Q&A and writing sample. She told me I was a genius and I had no choice but to believe her. Les wrote me a letter of recommendation and, next thing I knew, I was on time for an interview at the PEN Center USA office.
Being named an Emerging Voices Fellow was a pivotal moment for me as a writer, obviously. But more than the Los Angeles Times shout outs, the Daily Bruin article, or the Final Reading at the Hammer Museum, the true gift from PEN Center USA is lasting friendship and community. Writing is hard, but it’s so much easier pursuing it alongside those as insane and romantic as you.
Community is important. I cherish the limitless support I received and continue to receive from PEN Center USA staff and my mentor, Ben Ehrenreich, who read every single page of my novel; the camaraderie between fellows past and present; the authors generous enough to meet with us on Mondays; the small quips of validation that go such a long way; and, mostly, being surrounded by those with an endless love for the craft of writing. 
I’m lucky to have spent a better year of my life alongside Rayne Gasper, Sacha Howell, Chelsea Hodson, Nathan Go, and Amanda Fletcher. I’m no longer the quiet dude stooped on a bar stool at readings. I'm a fellow writer because Les, my then-girlfriend, and 2011 EV Fellow Azarin Sadegh pushed me to apply. I hope this essay does the same for you.”
Johnny Alfi was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 2008, he earned a BA in Art History from UCLA. He was named a 2011 Kirkwood Literary Prize nominee and, in 2012, a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. His work has appeared in The RumpusThe Coachella Review, and Writers Tribe Review. He is currently working on a debut novel, Saturday Morning Sadness, and will be attending the MFA program in Fiction at Brooklyn College this fall.
The deadline to apply for the 2015 Emerging Voices Fellowship is August 11. Don’t delay! Click here to apply.
And please support the Emerging Voices Fellowship by donating to our Kickstarter Campaign. Any amount counts!

Writers’ Reel: Junot Diaz and Karen Russell On Writing Short Stories

Watch authors Junot Diaz and Karen Russell as they share the stage at the 2013 New Yorker Festival and offer insights into their creative process. The two speak candidly on the difficulties of writing short stories as opposed to novels and how reading became their portal to another world in their youth.

“You have to be a gem cutter in a way. You don’t have to be but what I’ve enjoyed about stories is the amount of work it takes to have them structurally work out and yet seem to be some way naturalistic.” – Junot Diaz

“Junot and I had the same trajectory where a short story expanded and was going to became a novel. It’s true, you lose sight of the land for a long time… it’s tough to sustain that world for that length of time.” - Karen Russell 




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.