Thursday, March 31, 2011

John Irving: LIVE!

I’ve had the pleasure of attending several readings by John Irving (of Garp fame; of Cider House fame; of Twisted River fame; of overall Fame fame) and, whatever your opinion on his work, I think we can all agree that the man can weave himself a sentence.

However, there are several key things I've learned from this man, things I've taken to heart as a writer, sure, but also as a frail human being deeply afraid of ex-wrestlers. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. John Irving was born in March of 1942 (so says Wikipedia) and so is one of the few seventy-year old men I know with a full (full!) head of hair. Have you seen this thing? We're talking a hairline that goes from temple to temple. We should all be so lucky.

2. John Irving has ridiculously large forearms. Most photographs don’t do these suckers justice, but it's true. And I believe, if he’d wanted to, Mr. Irving could have very well put the entire crowd in attendance that night in one massive headlock until the lot of us weak academics cried uncle!

3. John Irving pronounces the word “diaper” as, DYE-ah-puhr. This is even more true than the size of his forearms. Go ahead, say it aloud. DYE-ah-puhr. It’s kind of funny (in a tee-hee-hee way). So imagine how difficult it was during the last reading I attended to keep a straight face, to truly relish in the thematic and profound weight of his prose, when he reads a sentence as, “...and there he found his baby, his only son, cold and lifeless, pressed beneath the weight of his own soiled…DYE-ah-puhr.”

Okay, so I made that sentence up. But the effect was similar and I don’t want to infringe on any copyright laws, lest Mr. Irving find me and break my face.

4. Finally, and he’s publicized this on more than one occasion, John Irving is famous for always writing the last sentence first. As in, before anything else, he's got it--the end sentence. This is a fun fact. This is literary trivia. And the audience eats it up each time. Imagine that! Knowing the last sentence first! He’s joking. He’s got to be pulling our legs!

Oh you’ll know when Irving’s pulling your leg.

But I do think this is incredible. This last line first business. And sometimes, because I’m a big nerd, I’ll take an Irving book and type out its last sentence, just to see what something like that looks like. And there it is. Nothing spectacular, not when the little thing isn’t preceded by page upon page, section upon section, century upon century, of sheer narrative brilliance.

But this is good to know. Because I often put so much weight into endings. As in, Geez I better really deliver here because this is it. And if John Irving has taught me anything, it’s to remove all pre-assigned expectations that come all too often with that final line, that final paragraph, that final page even. Because if the Boom! Pow! Bang! hasn’t happened yet—brother, it ain’t going to.

I recently completed a short story that I hope to send out before “submission season” ends (and I can’t help but picture myself as a dumb deer in an open field with a target on my gut). The reason I bring it up is because, for the first time, the ending found me. I wanted to write more. Had every intention of doing so. I had scenes in my head, plot points, dialogue, plenty of ground to cover, psychosis to explore, but then, suddenly, voila—the story was over. The last line written. This is it, it told me. Deal with it, okay?

Uh, okay.

Last note on endings. In her introduction to The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros wrote that “the last sentence must ring like the final notes at the end of a mariachi song—tan-tán—to tell you when the song is done.” I think this is a nice way to put it. Certainly much simpler and poetic than my little send up to John Irving.

Speaking of John Irving, I wonder if he listens to mariachi music. Maybe I can ask him next time I see him, just before he lays down the choke hold.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Attention all Parents!!! ~ interview with M. M. De Voe, executive director of Pen Parentis

In addition to serving on the editorial board here at Our StoriesM. M. De Voe is executive director of Pen Parentis. An award-winning and oft-published short fiction writer, De Voe established Pen Parentis in December 2009, after running a year of successful Pen Parentis readings in Lower Manhattan with salons curator Arlaina Tibensky. Three Pushcart nominations, two Editor's Prizes, a few arts grants, two children, and several publications later, De Voe continues to seek balance between family and writing career. She holds an MFA from Columbia and is a former actress: DeVoe still does occasional voiceover work—and is also the Director of Online Workshops as well as an Associate Editor at OurStories Literary Journal. See for De Voe's extensive writing CV and recent news. And if you have an extra minute: "like" her on

Q: According to the Pen Parentis website, "The objective of Pen Parentis is to provide resources to authors who are also parents." Could you share something about how, for you personally as a parent, Pen Parentis was something that simply needed to be?

Writing is a very isolating activity, and (surprisingly) so is becoming a parent. There are a zillion new-parent groups out there, but almost all of them focus on the child—when to change a diaper, how to teach them to sleep—what I needed was permission NOT to sleep when the kid was sleeping but rather to use that time to edit a short story. In short, I needed a community of artists who understood that writing was just as 24/7 as parenting--and who could help me find balance. The last thing I wanted to hear was "oh, just give up your day job for as much of your kid's life as you can manage." Writing wasn't something I could just give up. So I set about finding experts—people who had managed to publish novels despite having small kids in the house. The curator of our series, Arlaina Tibensky, is a genius at finding great authors. We have featured some outstanding authors—and all of them have had really great advice for the rest of us who are still struggling along! Our website actually has podcasts (free to members) of the Salons Q&As. They're amazing: successful authors who are so intimate and open about their personal lives.  As for me, personally, I have a 4 yr old and an 8 yr old, and thanks to the support of the members of Pen Parentis, I started a brand-new novel a year ago that's already nearing the second draft stage.

Q: What (or who) are some of the "success stories" of Pen Parentis?
Well, Cara Hoffman, for one—she was featured here on Our Stories! We invited her to read at one of our very first events, she came down from a small town in upstate new york and had us all in stitches. She read from an unpublished manuscript. Since then, she's gotten the MS published and is returning to our stage this coming May (alongside Ann Hood and Marina Budhos!) to read from SO MUCH PRETTY.  We have had such wonderful feedback from all the authors who read for us—our stage is elegant and upscale, not the beer-rings-on-the-bar open-mic experience we all know (and sortof love/loathe). There's lovely wine and you can even buy little food plates. It's very professional and warm. Authors who have read for us often ask to return—Arthur Phillips, for example, made the cover—the cover!--of the New York Times Book Review on the very week that we had him for the first time at Pen Parentis. He enjoyed his experience so much that when he published his next book (THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR) he asked if he might read again—and he brought along his friend, Whitney Terrell. So the April 12th, we feature the two of them (National Book Award winners, both!) as well as a third wonderful writer, Roy Kesey, who lives in Peru with his wife and kids. Honestly, I can't get over how talented and giving these authors are. Oh! And on a totally other note, we also offer a Fellowship each year to a writer who is a new parent—last year's winner, Abby Sher, had her second child a month after winning the $1000 award—and managed still to publish this year! And as for the organization itself, Brain/Child Magazine wrote a lovely article about us last December and we've been nominated twice for Neighborhood Achievement Awards as well as receiving Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grants. Oh! Do check out the Sustainable Arts Foundation at They are not affiliated with us but they did give us a lovely grant, and they are currently accepting applications from individual artists and writers who are parents (see? This is the sort of information we give out to our members all the time…) 

Q: What Pen Parentis outreach activities are currently under way, and where?
Well, we have our monthly Salons. They are always on the second Tuesday of each month at 7pm, September thru May, and always on the second floor of the Gild Hall Hotel in Lower Manhattan at the Libertine Library (a lovely little bar) -- 15 Gold Street is the address, if you happen to be in NYC this coming April 12th, or May 10th, you are invited! They're free and open to the public, and feature book signings, drinks, and great networking—we've had agents and even one big house editor soliciting manuscripts at our March event.  We are also soliciting applications for our Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parentis through April 20th, guidelines are on our website at  

Q: How can the Our Stories community get involved?
PLEASE FB us and Tweet about us!! If you have kids, please consider applying for the Fellowship. If you don't, please send this link: do someone you know who DOES have kids and is a writer. If you live near NYC or are visiting — come to the Literary Salons! They are free and open to anyone. You don't have to be a writer or a parent to enjoy them. You get to meet authors at close-hand, and really, the interaction is fantastic. Please visit our site-- membership is open—it's a national organization—we accept writers at all levels of their careers with any age children, but there's a lot to look at even if you don't become a member. We have free podcasts of most of the readings from the past two years, maybe you have a favorite author you'd like to hear live? Send us your suggestions—of course they have to have kids.  I'd love it if some more elderly writers would join the group; their advice is invaluable!  We have two message boards, one that's for the general public (for information on contests, submissions, etc.) and one that is for members only (to ask for and exchange advice on the balance between parenting and writing) — the website is very new, so we would really love to have more participation on these boards. We are creating something entirely new—a place where authors who are also parents can really let loose and be themselves in utter privacy. But if nothing else—just send on the link to someone you know who might know someone…again it's

Friday, March 25, 2011

The New World Order

Everybody get ready to move your clocks once again. Will it never end? Don't get us wrong, we love the annual springing forward, but we hate! we hate! the falling back. It plunges us in darkness! 'I know,' someone thought, 'let's make things worse for them! [maniacal laughter]' It's some sort of system of reward and punishment. Well, at least we're in the reward phase at the moment. We've been good! (Except for you Southern Hemisphere people – what were you thinking?)

Actually, Mr Parenthetical, that's a good point. I think you've spotted a global inconsistency here. Okay, so you've got all these different time zones zig-zagging the earth like cracks on fire-glazed china, all so we're 'matched up', you know, so that we're 'synced', more or less. And you've got these crazy half-way zones, like in India, where you're switching over half hour intervals like some sort of mad person. And this way, apparently, 7pm feels the same in Shanghai as it does in Tallahassee. We'll call it chronosimilitude.

[Brief tangent: does anyone else find the word 'mouthfeel', as used by food reviewers, creepy? 'That burger has such great mouthfeel.' Shivers down my spine, literally – hey! Buddy! I don't want to picture your mouth!]

So why is it, then, that we don't do the same with our months? I haven't fully worked this out yet (come on, I just came up with it mid-paragraph), but I surmise it would work best on a latitudinal basis rather than the longitudinal division on which our hourly system is devised. Okay, so I'm thinking here:

Above the Arctic Circle, it would be, uh, eight months of December, followed by a quick cycle-through of the other eleven months, each of them accorded, oh, I don't know, 11 days each. Done.

Between the Arctic Circle and the halfway line (45°N) you'd have four months of December, four months of March, four months of June and four months of September.

Between midcourt and the Tropic of Cancer: status quo. No need to scrap your calendars, you're good to go.

From the Tropic of Cancer to the Equator it's July every day of the year.

For the Southern Hemisphere it's exactly the same, but in reverse.

I'm glad we had this little chat.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Our Stories iPhone Application

The Our Stories application has hit the App store.

Go get it.

Special thanks to CJ Moutinho at MoBa Interactive, Inc. and Joseph Nalbone the OS Future Initiatives Director.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cheri Johnson ~ OS staff interview

Cheri Johnson was raised in Lake of the Woods County in northern Minnesota, and has since lived in Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Minneapolis. She studied English and writing at Augsburg College, Hollins University, and the University of Minnesota, and her fiction, poetry, and plays have been published in magazines such
as Phantasmagoria, The Rio Grande Review, Glimmer Train Stories, New South, Cerise Press, The Emprise Review, and Puerto Del Sol. Her reviews on contemporary writers
have been included or are forthcoming in The Hollins Critic, Pleiades, and Provincetown Arts, and in summer 2009 her chapbook of poems, Fun & Games, was released by Finishing Line Press.

In 2004-2005, Cheri was a Loft Mentor Series Fellow at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. She has won the Glimmer Train Stories Fiction Open, The Dorothy and
Granville Hicks Residency in Literature at Yaddo, a 2005 Bush Artist Fellowship, and a 2007 Loft-McKnight Fellowship. In 2007-2008, she was afellow at the
Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and currently she is in residence there again as a second-year fiction fellow.

Here's a short Q&A we recently had with Cheri. Enjoy!

Q: What, for you as an editor, makes or breaks a submission?

If I can tell right away that a writer is connected to her or his material in a deep and even mysterious way, I'm immediately interested. If I can tell that a writer is not very invested in his or her characters, does not care very deeply what happens to them, I just can't pay attention. I also want to feel that the writer paid attention to the meaning, rhythm, and sound of each sentence, each word, in the same way a good poet does.

Q: Could you tell readers something about your own writing process? When, if ever, is a draft done?

My process varies so much. The key, I've found, is not forcing a process on myself at any particular stage just because it's worked before, or because it "makes sense" that this is what I should be doing now. I do best when I go by instinct. When I feel like working slowly, I work slowly. When I feel like going quickly, I do that. When I feel like working chronologically through a draft, I do so, but when I feel like skipping around … etc. A draft is done when it stops occurring to me how I could change it.

Q: What's next for you and your writing?

I'm working on a very strange project, a novel that I'm having more fun with than I've ever had with anything. At first it was a re-telling of the story of Rosemary's Baby, but set in the northern Minnesota woods. It's still that; but it's also become a kind of mythological interpretation of that story that relies just as heavily on characters and narratives from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Thanks, Cheri!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Stories of Others


When I started writing I started collecting short stories that were not only good, but used a particular technique to advantage.  When I’m writing a story and want to slow the action down or create vivid descriptions of characters or places, I refer back to these stories; reread them, to see how the authors accomplished their effect.  Below is a partial list of the stories I’ve used.  I’m not expecting everyone will see the same things I do, but thought the list may be useful.


Here goes:





Almond, Steve


Perfect flash, punch end

Almond, Steve

The Breakup Vows

Poignant writing after rattling around

Antrium, Donald

Another Manhattan

Slow deterioration of a normal man into a mental institution

Benedict, Pinckney


Language & weirdness

Bierce, Ambrose

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Dream sequence

Black, Robin

John Parker

Two stories merge to one conclusion

Bloch, Robert

The Real Bad Friend

Two sides of the same person, portrayed as different characters

Butler, Robert Olen

Moving Day

Imagery, observation, detail, pattern

Calvino, Italo


Man given a gun when he joins the army, uses it to kill personal enemy

Calvino, Italo

World Memory

Second person address

Calvino, Italo

The Burning of the Abominable House

Spy v Spy v Spy, point/counterpoint

Calvino, Italo

The Queen's Necklace

Unfinished multi layered story

Cannon, Jo

Rictus (Insignificant Gestures)

Difficulties of dog parallel to person

Cannon, Jo

The Crow Down the Chimney

Image of crow becomes more and more important, meaningful repetition

Cannon, Jo

Mercy is Sick Today

Short tale of voyage from village to city and back

Coover, Robert

Going for a Beer

Temporal shifts

Dermont, Amber

Assembling the Troops

Jump cuts, with good opening and closing lines that are character descriptive

Doctorow, E.L.

Edgemont Drive

 Abstract dialogue

Doctorow, E.L.


Scene transitions

Doerr, Anthony

The Deep

interlocking vignettes

Foer, Jonathan Safran

Here We Aren't, So Quickly

relationship  I was, you were

Fong, Marko

Ocean in a Box

Perfect distance of POV from a very personal event

Garriga, Michael

On Watching her Husband Duel

3 POVs, same event

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

The Yellow Wallpaper

Creepy, spooky

Gordon, Mary

The Deacon

Longish dialogues that keep action going, good interiority

Guista, Michael

The Good Guy

POV 2nd person subbing for 1st

Hawthorne, Nathaniel

Rappaccini's Daughter

Old fashioned tale with fantastical ending

Johnson, Adam

Teen Sniper

Magical realism in Palo Alto

Joyce, James

The Dead

Spatial positioning of the characters

Kennedy, Cate

Black Ice

Clever revenge by a child

Klimasewiski, Marshall

The Third House

Time shifts are good and interesting

Lasden, James

An Anxious Man 

Angst about the stock market

Lasden, James

The Natural Order

Interplay between two men leading to the adultery of one of them, and his regret

Lasden, James


Obsession with rightness turns on the character's son

Lasden, James

Oh Death

Portrayal of a small town handyman

Lasden, James

The Old Man

The way a minor character is treated creates and insight into the character of the bride and her mother

Lasden, James


twist at the end

Lee, Andrea


3 men in Italy, description, slowing of drama

Markus, Peter

What the River Told Us to Do

Children, short, maudlin

Marrone, Frank

The Leaper

Funeral setting, woman leaps into grave

McEwan, Ian

The Use of Poetry

People description, use of time

Millhouser, Steven

The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman

Slow gradual awakening of a non-reality

Millhouser, Steven

Getting Closer

Very tight focus and description of things and people

Myles, Lynda

The Blue Dress

Clipped style dialogue

Obreht, Tea

The Tiger's Wife

Fantasy, interlocking stories

Obreht, Tea

The Space Elephant

Magical realism

O'Connor, Frank

Guests of the Nation

Summarizing last line

Orringer, Julie

The Isabel Fish

Flash backs

Orringer, Julie

Notes to my Sixth Grade Self

Second person as first

Paley, Grace


Five individual linked images

Pamuk, Orhan

Distant Relations

Well told tale, ending moves from particular to universal

Pancake, B D'J


Staccato style

Plump, Wendy

A Roomful of Yearning and Regret

Aftermath of an affair

Prose, Francine


Speed, linkages between paragraphs

Proulx, Annie

Them Old Cowboy songs

Slowing of time, interiority

Richter, Stacey

Christ, Their Lord

Jump cuts

Rothenberg, Pir


Gradual unwinding of the story using two strands

Styron, William

Rat Beach

War story, impact on ordinary soldier

Swofford, Anthony

Will they Kill You in Iraq?

Jump cuts, great transitions

Tellez, Hernando

Just Lather, That's All


Wallace, David Foster

Incarnations of Burned Children

Wholly frightening

Weston, Lesley

I Believe

Conditional tense

Wolff, Tobias

Hunters in the Snow

Horror slowly inexorably dawns

Wolff, Tobias

Bullet in the Brain

Slowing time



Townsend Walker