Tag Archives: writing

Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block

A Craft Essay by Kristin LaTour

Writer’s block is like constipation. Writers know they have ideas and thoughts up in their brains, but they won’t come out onto the page. A search on the Walgreen’s website for a cure gave me no help. CVS was a little better but only because it changed “writers” to “whiten” and suggested a deodorant pen. Writers do use pens, and sometimes their writing stinks, but I don’t think this tool would help. I’m not sure it would even help stinky armpits. I wouldn’t want a pen tip going across the sensitive skin of my armpit. And how effective can something so thin and defined be? Anyway, I usually don’t have issues with writer’s block, as one can tell from my copious thoughts on deodorant pens. However, my students do, and I know other writers do too. Luckily, I have the brain laxative, or solution, to help.

I should start with some things not to try. Like being constipated, any health care professional will tell someone not to sit on the toilet and try to force the situation. In the case of writer’s block, the toilet is a blank computer screen or journal page. While the brain won’t get hemorrhoids, it’s as frustrating and unproductive as sitting on the pot for over an hour. Waiting for something to happen by ignoring the problem and doing other tasks will also not help. Again, the repercussions in the health arena are much more serious. Please do not wait days or weeks to poop. This will lead to a hospital visit and very unpleasant treatments. In the writer’s world, it just leads to nothing being written, which wasn’t the goal. One who is not trying to write doesn’t get writer’s block, the same way people who don’t eat don’t get constipated. But the latter will die. The writer will just be a sad sack who is a bore at parties full of other writers.

Now for some concrete solutions. Read. Reading is the laxative of the writer’s brain. Read work that is inspiring. Read work that is frustrating. In the case of the former, you might be inspired by the writer’s style, word choice, or tone. In the case of the latter, you will likely be frustrated and think you can do better. Then do it. Make that person’s ideas even better. Don’t publish this, and don’t share it with that writer. It’s best left in the journal on computer file unless you’ve made it uniquely your own or unless you’re into making other writers sad.

Mimic and steal. If you’re claiming you have no ideas (which isn’t true if you’ve been reading or you are a thinking human being), then take someone’s writing and mimic it. Write a poem using the same theme, line length, and rhyme scheme. Take a short story’s first line and, use it as your own first sentence.

Get a prompt. I know some writers poo-poo prompts. “Real creative writers don’t use prompts,” I’ve heard at least one fellow writer say. Fuck that. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after being prompted by Lord Byron that she and he, along with Percy Shelly, should each write gothic ghost stories. Also, creative writers use current events all the time in their writing. I Googled books on Hurricane Katrina, and the first five results are “best book” lists. On a side note, I can’t say “fuck that” to my students. Also, all my students are assigned prompts. This is mainly because if I let them write about anything they wanted, I’d be inundated with essays on legalizing pot and students so overwhelmed with their choices they’d have writer’s block.

Remember two important things: you are writing a draft, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. I tell my students this all the time. “I can’t write my ideas well,” they say, or, “I’m afraid what I write will be awful.” Therefore, they write nothing. I had a student once who had this problem through the whole semester and ended up failing because he never wrote a word. This is a psychological problem. I am not a therapist, but I can tell writers that you have to write the shit down to make it no longer shit. I can’t say “shit” to my students, so I call it the “crappy draft.” This aptly fits my metaphor of constipation and writer’s block.

Banish the thought that you have nothing to add to what is being written. I just went to GoogleScholar and searched for Shakespeare. Over 1.4 million entries came up. You can add to what is being written about anything. You can also assume that a lot of what is written isn’t good, in your opinion or someone else’s. Then you get a chance to write it better. You get to write it in your style, in your words. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. Who cares? You got it out of you. That’s what’s important.

With all that said, banish the thought that no one will ever read it anyway. Poets, with the exception of Maya Angelou and Billy Collins, all know that hardly anyone in the large scheme of things will ever read our work. Most novelists will never reach the sales of Stephen King. Still not convinced? According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 107,000,000 copies. It seems like EVERYONE read that book, right? Not even close. The world population had grown by about 2 billion people from 1995 (Harry was published in 1997) to 2017.* So roughly, 5% of the whole world has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Write for yourself. If you decide to share it, that’s great, but unless you are doing it for a living, it’s not what’s important.

Don’t label yourself. Here is a list of things I’ve heard writers say about themselves that keeps them from writing:

  • I don’t write poetry/essays/stories.
  • I only write in _______ style/genre.
  • I’m a reader, not a writer.
  • I’m an ideas person, not a writer.
  • I stink at writing.
  • I am not smart enough to write.

I have been through many years of cognitive behavioral therapy for my depression and anxiety. When a therapist told me to practice “positive self-talk,” I laughed. I didn’t believe I could just say things to myself and overcome years of believing I was unattractive, unworthy, and unintelligent. My therapist asked me what I would tell a friend who said things like that about herself. She asked me to imagine my best friend sitting next to me, saying those things about herself. What would I say to her? Of course, I’d say none of those things were true! What would she say to me if I were saying those things about myself to her? She’d say the same. So I started, slowly, telling myself nice things about myself or correcting my negative thoughts. When I thought I wasn’t looking my best, I’d picture my friend in my head saying I looked great. When I felt dumb about something, I’d remind myself I am educated and have experience but I’m still learning new things all the time. It started working.

If you tell yourself you’re not a novelist/poet/writer, then you won’t be. If you tell yourself you can’t write because all your teachers said so, you had awful teachers. Terrible human beings. And they don’t know you now. People change. I used to be pretty weak in math skills, but as I’ve aged and my brain has changed, I’m pretty good at it now. I used to say, “I can’t do math.” Now I say, “I can do a lot of math.”

If you think you stink at writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It’s the same as playing an instrument. Pretty much everyone stinks at it when they first start, but with practice, and learning, they get better. Not everyone gets to be a professional bassoonist, but adults who played bassoon in high school band can pick it up again with practice and enjoy it. They are going to have a hard time getting back into the swing of breathing and fingering, and reading music, but they will get better. You will too. Also, revisit paragraph 6.

Finally, I am reminded of the small bottle of stool softener in my medicine cabinet. I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. I’m also glad for Pepto-Bismol, but that’s a different problem and a different metaphor for another essay. Writers need to remember there are so many tools available through Google searches, books on writing, and online and in-person writing groups. My favorite website for help when I’m writing is called The Sunday Whirl, which gives a set of words every Sunday that writers can use to jump-start their writing. When I’m feeling dried up, I read a favorite poet. There’s never a reason not to write. There are so many reasons it’s good to write. Write your words. You need to let them out.

 

*data from Population Reference Bureau

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Kristin LaTour is a poet and professor living in Aurora, IL. Her book, What Will Keep Us Alive, and forthcoming chapbook, Mend, are both published by Sundress. Readers can find her in journals all over the web and in print. This is her only published essay. She wrote it in a few weeks. She didn’t procrastinate in writing it, but she did forget she had it done and to send the damn thing in.

 

 

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Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting Applications for Residency Fellowship in Long-form Journalism/Nonfiction

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Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting Applications
for Residency Fellowship in Long-form Journalism/Nonfiction

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is excited to announce that they are accepting applications for a new fellowship in long-form journalism and/or nonfiction. The Fourth Estate Residency fellowship comes with a two-week residency during the spring or summer residency periods as well as a $500 stipend.

In the age of anti-journalism and “fake news,” we believe it is more important than ever to give journalists and writers time to research, write, and revise work that delves into the events and issues of our time. Our group of ten writers (Camille Dungy, Eliza Griswold, Patrick Hicks, Ilyse Kusnetz (in memoriam), Kathryn Miles, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Brian Turner, Sholeh Wolpe, Elliott Woods, and Sunil Yapa) have joined together to make this possible. Although several of us work in writing disciplines outside of journalism, we believe it is crucial to support the work of journalists—especially in a time when the entire profession is under threat.

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This fellowship is intended to give writers space and time to continue to do this important and necessary work. Applicants may work in any journalistic medium—writing (traditional journalism or literary nonfiction), podcasting, vlogging, etc.

The SAFTA farmhouse is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The residency bedrooms are 130 sq. ft. with queen-size platform bed, closet, dresser, and desk. There is also a communal kitchen supplied with stove, refrigerator, and microwave plus plenty of cook- and dining-ware. The office and library have two working computers—one Mac, one PC—with access to the Adobe Creative Cloud. The library contains over 800 books with a particularly large contemporary poetry section and, thanks to the Wardrobe, many recent titles by women and nonbinary writers. The facility also includes a full-size working 19th century full-size letterpress with type, woodworking tools, and a 1930’s drafting table.

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SAFTA is currently accepting applications for our spring/summer residency period, which runs from December 31st to August 11th, 2019. The deadline for The Fourth Estate Residency fellowship applications is September 1st, 2018.

To apply for the Sundress Academy for the Arts residency, you will need the following:

  • Application form (including artist’s statement and contact information for two references)
  • CV or artist’s resume (optional)
  • Artist sample (see website for more details on genre specifications)
  • Application fee of $15 or $10 for current students (with student email) payable online*

Please also let us know if you would like to be considered for a residency even if you are not awarded this particular fellowship. For the spring, we also have fellowships for LGBTQIA writers; for the summer, we offer fellowships for writers and artists of color.

For more information, visit our website: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts.com/

*Application fee will be waived for those applying who demonstrate financial need. Please state this in your application under the financial need section.

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Passing Through Humansville Now Available for Pre-Order!

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Karen Craigo’s Passing Through Humansville Now Available for Pre-Order

Sundress Publications is excited to announce Karen Craigo’s new full-length poetry collection Passing Through Humansville is available for pre-order.

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Tania Runyan, author of What Will Soon Take Place had this to say about Craigo’s book:

“I’ve been reading Passing Through Humansville during a time of despair, and they are among the few written words that have comforted me. Emboldened me. Spoken. These poems explore marriage and family, nature and politics, and faith and doubt from a wellspring of compassionate wisdom and grace—a still, small (but not timid) voice of a life lived and loved with intention. ‘There are so many / ways to move across Earth’s face and I / would just as gladly move or sit with you,’ Craigo writes. I feel the same way about this book, it’s a companion whose side I won’t leave for long.

Other advance readers include Sarah Freligh, author of Sad Math, who said:

“In Passing Through Humansville, Karen Craigo is the best kind of tour guide—wise, tender, funny and keenly observant of the moments life serves up however large or small. Who among us cannot identify with the weary speaker in “Advent” who finds herself siding with the innkeeper who turned away Mary and Joseph: ‘Damn / but a hard day’s work / should earn us a little rest, / not crisis after crisis.’ I don’t know of another poet who is able to balance feminism, faith, and motherhood as deftly as Craigo does in these poems. These are wonderful meditations on the fierceness of love and the meaning of the word “humankind.”

karencraigoKaren Craigo is the author of two Sundress Publications titles, No More Milk (2016) and Passing Through Humansville (2018). She is also the author of Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (forthcoming from Tolson Books, 2018), and three chapbooks. She is the editor of a weekly newspaper, The Marshfield (Missouri) Mail, and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a blog on writing and creativity. She lives in Springfield, Missouri.

Pre-order your copy here: https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications/item/passing-through-humansville-by-karen-craigo-pre-order

 

 

 

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Sundress Academy for the Arts & Lambda Literary Now Accepting Applications for Spring Artist Residencies

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Sundress Academy for the Arts & Lambda Literary
Now Accepting Applications for Spring Artist Residencies 

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is excited to announce that they are now accepting applications for short-term artists’ residencies in creative writing, visual art, film/theater, music, and more. Each residency includes a room of one’s own, access to a communal kitchen, bathroom, office, and living space, plus wireless internet.

The length of a residency can run from one to three weeks. SAFTA is currently accepting applications for our spring residency period, which runs from December 31st to May 5th, 2019. The deadline for spring residency applications is September 1st, 2018.

For the spring residency period, SAFTA will be pairing with Lambda Literary to offer two fellowships (one full fellowship and one 50% fellowship) for a week-long residency to LGBTQIA+ writers of any genre. Lambda believes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQIA+ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read. All applicants to the two fellowships must identify as LGBTQIA+.  Partial scholarships also available to any applicant with financial need. This year’s judges will be Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Meagan Cass, and librecht baker.

The SAFTA farmhouse is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The residency bedrooms are 130 sq. ft. with queen-size platform bed, closet, dresser, and desk. There is also a communal kitchen supplied with stove, refrigerator, and microwave plus plenty of cook- and dining-ware. The office and library have two working computers—one Mac, one PC—with access to the Adobe Creative Cloud. The library contains over 800 books with a particularly large contemporary poetry section and, thanks to the Wardrobe, many recent titles by women and nonbinary writers. The facility also includes a full-size working 19th century full-size letterpress with type, woodworking tools, and a 1930’s drafting table.

To apply for the Sundress Academy for the Arts residency, you will need the following:

  •  Application form (including artist’s statement and contact information for two references)
  • CV or artist’s resume (optional)
  • Artist sample (see website for more details on genre specifications)
  • Application fee of $15 or $10 for current students (with student email) payable online*

For more information, visit our website: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts.com/

or find us on Facebook, under Sundress Academy for the Arts

or on Twitter, @SundressPub

*Application fee will be waived for those applying for the Lambda Literary scholarship who demonstrate financial need. Please state this in your application under the financial need section.

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2018 Chapbook Contest Winner

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Katie Burgess’ Wind on the Moon Named Winner 
of Sundress Publications’ 2018 Chapbook Competition

Sundress Publications is delighted to announce the winner for our seventh chapbook competition, Katie Burgess. Her chapbook, Wind on the Moon, rose to the top among many other outstanding works.

Stacey Balkun, Chapbook Series Editor of Sundress Publications and author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, had this to say about the chapbook:

“The stories in Wind on the Moon fit together seamlessly, creating a world that’s as real to us readers as it is enchanted with love and grief. Katie Burgess uses playful form Katie Burgessand familiar tales to distill the most complex family dynamics: a daughter reckons with her mother meeting her lover in the language of a math textbook. Adam and Eve become a husband and wife who ‘always did encourage each other’s bad behavior.’ In the final story, the act of writing conflates with the creation of the universe, our narrator critiquing the work of a god: ‘I liked how in your first draft everything revolved around the Earth. That makes a lot more sense if the people there are going to be important.’ And Burgess shows us the importance of all people, encouraging empathy and the desire to get to know every character, every person, no matter how insignificant they may seem at first. Burgess writes with an honesty so clear it aches. Wind on the Moon is one of those books you can’t wait to share with everyone you love.”

Katie Burgess holds a PhD in fiction from Florida State University. She lives downwind of a mayonnaise factory in South Carolina and performs with Alchemy Comedy Theater. She is also editor in chief of Emrys Journal.

It is also our pleasure to announce that Amy Watkins‘ Wolf Daughter was selected for publication. We were thrilled by all the great works submitted this year and would like to thank everyone for participating.

Other submitted Chapbooks of Note

Finalists
Rachel Federer- Lunar Fragments for the Scorpion Child 
Gail Griffin- Virginals
Jayme Russel- Threadbound
Amy Watkins- Wolfdaughter*

Semifinalists
Rachel Heimowitz-The Story of Dark Matter
Jed Myers- The Wire Said
Sara Ryan- but pink but want but blue

*Also selected for publication

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Interview with Rodney Gomez, Author of Citizens of the Mausoleum

 

Sundress Publications: The first poem in this collection begins with a quote from the Los Angeles Times, and several later poems also draw from newspaper articles. How did you make this decision? How do you see your work as a poet connected to, and interacting with, the work of a journalist?

Rodney Gomez: Well I think that poetry can and should serve as witness, especially for marginalized communities. I believe it’s a powerful way to document narratives that might otherwise go untold. So some of what you see in the book with reference to news articles is an attempt at preservation of some narratives that might not otherwise survive, or even be told at all. I don’t see this work as similar to journalism, however, because I am creating the story. I am not really telling the story. On the contrary, I am telling a story—the one that the poet hears and is then inscribing on the page. I can’t replicate, but only propagate, the narrative. Therefore, I felt that with these poems there was a need to point the reader to the actual news. In another sense, by drawing from news stories I am doing a very basic job—giving the reader some context that might be helpful to understand what is going on in the poem. In some cases, understanding might be necessary (“Checkpoint Aubade”). In others (“Zuihitsu of the Mesquite Virgin”) it’s helpful but not essential. I am indebted to other writers who uncover new realities. These shape my consciousness, and the poems themselves are also forms of gratitude. I see this relationship as parallel to an ekphrastic one, where another work of art serves as the impetus for my own poem-making.

SP: Your poem “Love” is so funny because it has this perfect twist at the end. It’s also notable because it’s a one-sentence, two-page monologue. Can you say a little about your process writing it?

RG: So “Love” actually arrived in the world pretty full-formed. There are autobiographical elements in it and the part about my friend and his girlfriend stem from an actual conversation, and so the style of the poem mimics that. It started off with a lot of conceptual leap-frogging and refusals to stop the freewheeling of imagination. I tried to focus the theme in subsequent drafts but I wanted to let the speaker’s point of view roam freely. It’s a bit neurotic, too, and I wanted to give the sense that you are hearing a monologue spoken on a therapist’s couch, but there’s a lot of room for empathy there.

 

SP: I feel like, in my own writing, I tend to do the same thing over and over again: the speaker’s voice is always my own voice, and I am usually writing about relationships. I can’t tell if this is just who I am, and that I should accept it, or if I need to push myself to experiment more. Reading through this collection, I’m so struck by the variety in form and tone. Is this something that comes naturally to you? My question is mostly one of admiration: how do you do it??

RG: Well I don’t like to be bored. I like surprises. I like to be delighted. I read so many collections that seem to operate exactly how you describe your own writing—the same voice, the same concerns, and the same way of telling the same stories or discovering the same concepts. So part of the reason for the variety in the book is a willingness to have fun. I have no allegiance to a particular conceptual framework or theoretical approach, so each poem starts anew.

On the other hand, I think development of a singular voice is not easy, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that your writing has a unity of voice. The voice you hear may be your own, or it may not. I would only consider the situation problematic if there were some lack of authenticity there. Is there something missing? Some people never find their voice, and this may be what you see going on in the collection. Maybe there are many voices because I haven’t found a voice. I might want to say that. Or I might want to say, instead, that I’ve developed a better ear for how a poem wants to develop than I had when I first seriously started writing poetry. So variety may be a consequence of developing the ear, or empathy. And the empathy is directed toward the poem—its concerns, its speakers, and its language.

SP: You have another book, Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge, coming out next year. Congratulations! Are you working on a new project now?

RG: Thank you. So yes, Baedeker will be out in February, I think, from YesYes. That’s the plan. That collection is about identity and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s a much more place-based book, a book about subverting conventions when it comes to Chicanxdad. I am working seriously on a third book right now, too, which is roughly based on the way we react to and make sense of acts of violence. It’s a horrible book in that it is depressing to write and really drains me, but I think it’s a book it is necessary for me to write. At this moment I am working on the one of centers of the book, a series of poems based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which is a series of dollhouse dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee to assist criminal investigators in their training. The scenes are ghastly — for example, one of them shows a bloody crib with a trail of blood leading out to the hallway from a child’s room. That book is a sister collection to Citizens and you can see some of the same concerns already in the first book. I’m not sure, ultimately, what kind of conceptual orientation the new collection will have. I only know that I have a rough operating theme and have certain contours of it in mind.

Citizens of the Mausoleum is available for sale at the Sundress store.

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Rodney Gomez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications, 2018), Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge (YesYes Books, 2019), and several chapbooks. He is the recipient of the Drinking Gourd Prize from Northwestern University and the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. His work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Verse Daily, and other journals and anthologies. A proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and the Chocholichex writing collective, he is also an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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SAFTA Now Accepting Fall Residency Applications for Writers Coop

Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting
Fall Residency Applications for Writers Coop

The Sundress Academy for the Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is now accepting applications for short-term writers residencies during the fall residency period for our new Writers Coop during the weeks of August 27 – December 30, 2018. These residencies are designed to give writers and artists time and space to complete their creative projects in a quiet and productive environment.

SAFTA is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,00 in the foothill of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The SAFTA Writers Coop is a 10×10′ dry cabin approximately a fourth of a mile from the SAFTA farmhouse. This tiny house is furnished with a twin bed, a desk, a wood-burning stove, a deck that looks over the pasture and pond, as well as a personal detached outhouse. While the cabin has neither electricity nor running water, residents will have full access to the amenities at farmhouse as well as solitude from other residents to write in the rolling hills of East Tennessee.

Each residency costs $150/week and includes your own private dry cabin as well as 24-hour access to the farmhouse amenities.

Applications for this residency are free and rolling. The following weeks are still available: August 27 – September 2; September 3-9; September 10 – 16; September 17- 23; September 24 – 30; October 29 – November 4; December 17 – 23; December 24 – 30.

Find out more at www.sundressacademyforthearts.com.

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Summer 2018 Fiction Writing Retreat

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Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces
2018 Summer Fiction Writing Retreat

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Fiction Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, June 15 to 17, 2018.  The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee.  This year’s retreat will focus on generative fiction writing and include two break-out sessions, “Conflict and POV as Perspective” and “Writing the Travel Narrative,” plus discussions on kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $250.  Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent for $25.  Payment plans are available if you reserve by April 17, 2018; inquire via email for details.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers from around the country, including Mary Miller and Jeanne Thornton.

unnamed-1Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009) and Always Happy Hour (Liveright, 2017), as well as a novel, The Last Days of California (Liveright, 2014), which has been optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and many others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. 

Jeanne Thornton is the author of The Black Emerald and thornton_author-photo_smallThe Dream of Doctor Bantam, the latter a Lambda Literary Award finalist for 2012. She is the co-publisher of Instar Books and the creator of the webcomics Bad Mother and The Man Who Hates Fun. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, WIRED, WSQ, CURA, and other places. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her online at:  http://fictioncircus.com/Jeanne.

Space at this workshop is limited to 15 writers, so reserve your place today at:
https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications

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The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ residency that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists. All are guided by experienced, professional instructors from a variety of creative disciplines who are dedicated to cultivating the arts in East Tennessee.

Web: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts/                     Facebook: SundressAcademyfortheArts

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Interview with Bernard Grant, Author of Fly Back at Me (Sundress 2017)

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Author of two prose chapbooks, Bernard Grant is a doctoral student. In this interview, Bernard talks about the beginnings of Fly Back at Me, good books to read, and his favorite part in the process of writing. You can read Bernard Grant’s e-chapbook, Fly Back at Me, with Sundress here!


Tierney Bailey: The opening words of Fly Back at Me are “A storm is coming.” Bubbling barely under the surface in the collection of stories is a connection between actual, literal storms and the terrible things people perpetually do to hurt each other—beginning with a lie told at a lake and ending with the cycle of sexual abuse in this particular family. Can you tell me just a little bit about how this connection was formed in the process of writing the chapbook?

Bernard Grant: I’d like to, but I can’t. Writing can be such an intuitive process it’s hard to describe how connections are formed. Most I can say is that things happened in revision, after I noticed patterns in earlier drafts, and then followed them.

TB: I know you’ve written about very similar stories to those in Fly Back at Me in your published nonfiction essays, but there’s a certain staccato rhythm in reading the stories of Fly Back at Me and an obvious, deliberate use of wording which would seem to very nearly poetic in nature—what drives you to write these narratives in connected vignettes rather than out-and-out poetry or even a longer, single story?

BG: Thank you for reading my essays. The biggest challenge of writing these stories was the voice. I had never written extensively in a child’s voice, and since all but one of the stories are in first person, I spent a lot of time listening to children speak. I also read some stories from child protagonists, but mostly I read narrative poems while I worked on this manuscript.

I think the short-short form lends itself to poetic language. I’m not a poet, so it never occurred to me to write these as poems. I had intended to write this as a longer story. After about nine pages, the story fell apart. I took a look at my own essays and realized how fragmented they are, how poor my memory is, and realized I couldn’t write a linear story from life. So instead of playing with a different form—like switchback style—I decided to try out flash, and the decision worked in my favor.

TB: Your previous chapbook, Puzzle Pieces, is very similar to Fly Back at Me in that it is composed of stories meant to be sparse of words for the reader to actual consume and strung together to create a whole story. How did the simple act of creating that chapbook influence the writing for Fly Back at Me?

BG: I actually wrote Fly Back at Me before Puzzle Pieces, which was composed of previously published micro essays that I assembled into a manuscript. Fly Back at Me was more difficult as I wasn’t just assembling a manuscript from completed material.

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TB: In “Big,” a moment that filled me with so much dread while I read the chapbook on the train occurs—“[Uncle Walter] pats my butt, squeezes it, keeps his hand there. His callouses are warm and rough.”—but doesn’t come to a “pay off” until the last short story reveals the abuse hiding there in plain sight. Did the chapbook always piece together like this in your head to culminate in the reveal of the abuse or did that happen as you pulled the stories together?

BG: No. Not at all. That came through revision. I see a pattern and I complete it. I think the manuscript was supposed to originally show a year in a child’s life, revolving around the death of his grandmother, his mother’s overprotection, and the anger that fuels his behavior, as seen in the opening story, which is meant to serve as a prelude. A reader commented on the pattern of dangerous men that surround the boy, and it was clear that I needed to follow that. Almost inevitably, I’ll draft a lot of material, and the piece or pieces take their own direction. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, in part for this reason.

TB: The age old question of process must always come up. Writing every morning, night, or using music or not using music. While writing, what rituals do you perform?

BG: Before I started PhD school, I wrote everyday, usually in the morning, and a little at night if I had the energy. I’m a morning person for the most part. Now I write when I can find the time and energy to do so. A few days a week, I have intense short sessions anywhere from half an hour to an hour. Two hours if I’m lucky.

TB: What was the last really good book you read?

BG: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.

TB: What would you recommend as a must-read for other writers?

BG: James Baldwin’s Another Country and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Oh, and Notes from No Man’s land by Eula Biss. Also, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

TB: Many writers I know always have a huge list of projects they want to eventually produce. What project are you working on next?

BG: I just finished a manuscript of novel-in-stories. I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel (my dissertation) as well as a collection of essays. Over the summer I started playing around with the idea of ghost stories. So far I’ve only drafted two stories. It’s not going well but it’s fun.



Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He has received fellowship and residency support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School.He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Sundress Publications), and his stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Day One, and many other venues. He received his MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and currently serves as Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

Tierney Bailey is a Libra, a lover of science fiction and poetry, and studies Korean in her spare time. Amongst her pursuits, Tierney is currently the production editor at Redivider Magazine and a copyeditor at Strange Horizons. As a graduate student at Emerson College, Tierney is studying publishing in the Writing and Publishing program. True to her Midwesterner roots, Tierney still smiles upon the slightest bit of eye contact, makes small talk in lines and elevators, and exclaims “ope!” with barely any provocation at all. If you can’t find her on a train somewhere between Providence and Boston, she can easily be found screaming into the void on Twitter as @ergotierney.

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AWP Roundtable: Journalism Skills for Fiction Writers

Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?

A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?

Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.

The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?

My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.

Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.

Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.

But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.

Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.

Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.

My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?

Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.

Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.

Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.

One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.

Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.

Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?

Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.

I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.

Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.

Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.

Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.

Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.

This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.

So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?

Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.

Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.

Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.

Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”

Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.

____

 

Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, SurgeonVersion 2 Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The MagazineBaltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.

JoPiazzaJo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.


Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collectionLove’s Long Line, from Ohio State SophfroniaScottUniversity Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoirThis Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novelAll I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.


Jennifer Steil
is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s JenniferSteilWife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York TimesNewsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.

Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac ReviewWorld Policy Journal, The WeekThe Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die WeltNew York Post, The Rumpus, TimeReaders’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radioand GRN Global Reporter Network Service.TomZoellner


Tom Zoellner
is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.

 

 

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