Writers in the Mountains (WIM) presents When Space Speaks with Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, a three-hour intensive workshop, Tuesday, September 21, 2021 from 1 to 4 p.m. Once they register and pay, participants will be given instructions on how to join the class.
In this class, students will explore vignette, ellipses, and space breaks, as we interpret the unsaid and sharpen our ear for silence. We will look at how the elliptical form can provide exhilarating leaps of energy—and explore how cutting one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page can in fact sharpen meaning, leaving only prose that shines like a diamond.
Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is a Board member of Writers in the Mountains. She is also a #1 New York Times bestselling author; Publishing Director of the Chicago Review of Books; and Associate Editor of A Public Space. Her website is https://www.sarahblakleycartwright.com/.
To register for this class, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To register online, visit writersinthemountains.org. Class fee is $35. Registration deadline is September 14.
Writers in the Mountains is a 501 ( c ) (3) not-for-profit organization with a mission to provide a nurturing environment for the practice, appreciation and sharing of creative writing. For more information, visit writersinthemountains.org.
Listen to this week’s Kaatscast podcast to learn about arts and culture in the Catskills, creative writing and publishing with Simona David, Sharon Israel, Anique Sara Taylor, and Leslie T. Sharpe, authors affiliated with Writers In The Mountains (WIM). Kaatscast is a biweekly podcast produced by Silver Hollow Audio delivering history, travel guides, arts and culture, outdoor adventures, sustainability news and local interviews from New York’s Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. Celebrate the Catskills with Kaatscast!
Simona David is a media consultant, author of How Art Is Made: In the Catskills (2017), and former president of Writers In The Mountains (2012 – 2019), currently working as an advisor to the Board. Her website is simonadavid.com.
Sharon Israel hosts the radio show Planet Poet-Words in Space on WIOX 91.3 FM (WIOXradio.org) in the Catskills, and hosts a podcast by the same name (available on Spotify, Apple iTunes and Google Play, and on her website at sharonisraelpoet.com). Sharon’s debut chapbook Voice Lesson was published in 2017 by Post Traumatic Press. She was a 2020 “quarterly challenge” winner in four lines Poetry and Art Magazine online at https://www.4lines.art/challenge/winners . Sharon has served on the Writers In The Mountains’Board of Directors for over a decade.
Anique Sara Taylor is the author of Where Space Bends published in May 2020 by Finishing Lines Press. Her works have appeared in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Adanna, Earth’s Daughters, St. Marks Poetry Project’s The World, and many anthologies. She has co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and others. Anique holds an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, an MFA in Drawing from Pratt Institute, and a Diplôme from the Sorbonne University in Paris. An award-winning artist, Anique’s paintings have been featured in numerous museums and galleries throughout the tri-state area. She teaches creative writing for Writers In The Mountains and Bard LLI.
Leslie T. Sharpe is an author, editor, and educator. She began her editing career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is currently an editorial consultant specializing in literary nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing (Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012). Leslie has been a regular contributor to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column, and her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Global City Review, International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, New York Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice; The Villager; The Writer; and Psychology Today. Her latest book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, was published by The Overlook Press in the spring of 2017. The Quarry Fox audiobook was published by Silver Hollow Audio in June 2020. Leslie has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University and the City College of New York as well as Writers In The Mountains.
Writers In The Mountains (WIM) was founded almost three decades ago in Roxbury to promote literary arts in the Catskills and beyond. Over the years the organization has grown into a major cultural force in the region by significantly expanding its programs and outreach. In addition to its core mission, to offer creative writing workshops year-round, WIM has ventured into other arenas as well, by hosting a popular annual Literary Festival and a quarterly Literary Salon that bring together a variety of publishing professionals: whether be writers, illustrators, editors, literary agents, educators, consultants, and publishers.
Writers In The Mountains promotes literary arts while at the same time builds community.
The pandemic however has forced the organization to re-invent itself. After New York went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, WIM took a pause, then re-emerged with a series of online programs that catapulted the organization into the national limelight virtually overnight. Once the programs were moved online, nationally recognized professionals from all over were able to participate, in addition to local communities in the Catskills, Hudson Valley, and New York City metropolitan area. Consequently, our literary community has grown bigger and moreover happier, because we get to learn from one another, and grow professionally at a different pace, which makes the experience ever more fulfilling.
CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOPS
WIM offers creative writing workshops year-round with established professionals and covers anything from creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and publishing advice. For instance, this year WIM has offered for the first time a Micro-Memoir workshop taught by Linda Lowen, a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly – participants learn how to submit stories to The New York Times’ Tiny Love column. Several have already been published.
WRITERS UNBOUND ANNUAL CATSKILLS LITERARY FESTIVAL
Launched in 2014, the festival had been taking place every year in the spring at Union Grove Distillery in Arkville. In 2020 the festival was canceled due to the pandemic. Beth Lisick, a New York Times bestselling author, was scheduled to be the keynote speaker; Beth is also an actress – she has appeared at the Cannes Film Festival and other events. Silver Hollow Audio was scheduled to be on the Publishing Panel to address the rise of audiobooks. The festival has been a great opportunity for authors to network and have a platform.
RANDOM CONTEXT LITERARY SALON
A few years ago, WIM launched a literary salon to give writers taking its workshops the opportunity to share their work with the public, and also give the community a chance to get to know the writers. In between readings, there were opportunities to mingle, exchange ideas, and make connections. The pandemic has put this successful program on pause as well. It will be revived with a series of online readings.
PARTNERSHIPS WITH OTHER ORGANIZATIONS
Over the years WIM has partnered with other organizations in the region to enrich the Catskills cultural life. In 2017, for instance, WIM hosted a series of Artist – Writer Talks called “The Arts Converge – Mutual Muses in the Catskills” in partnership with the Catskill Center. There were writers in conversation with visual artists or music composers to a great effect. In 2018 WIM hosted a series of workshops and readings at the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville, partly funded by Poets and Writers, and New York State Council on the Arts. Leslie taught a nature writing workshop, Simona taught an art writing workshop, and Sharon performed music and poetry with composer Robert Cucinotta. That was a perfect example of synergetic artistic endeavors.
UPCOMING LITERARY JOURNAL
WIM is currently working on launching a literary journal dedicated to authors who have an affiliation with the organization. More details will be revealed soon. Read about Writers In The Mountains at writersinthemountains.org.
Writers in the Mountains (WIM) presents Micro-Memoir, a six-week long workshop with Linda Lowen, January 8 – February 12, 2021. The class will be held online Fridays, from 10 am to 12 noon. Once they register and pay, participants will be given instructions on how to join the class.
Memoir doesn’t have to cover decades to tell a story. Sometimes a single moment, vividly depicted, illuminates a life. If you’ve wanted to write memoir but are overwhelmed at the immensity of the task—or you’re already writing but need a fresh approach—consider micro memoir. The smaller format can be freeing, allowing you to focus on an event that serves as a microcosm of the larger experience. In this workshop you’ll write short 200-word pieces and discover less is more. Weeks 5 and 6 we’ll focus on Tiny Love Stories, relationship tales of 100 words or less, and you’ll come away with one piece suitable to submit to the New York Times column of the same name.
A book reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Linda’s nonfiction has been published in the New York Times and is forthcoming in “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less” from Artisan Books in December. Her writing advice has appeared in The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines. She teaches creative nonfiction at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY, and has led workshops at the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and HippoCamp, the annual CNF conference sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. Her website is lindalowen.com
To register, e-mail email@example.com. To register online, visit writersinthemountains.org. Class fee is $100, if you register and pay by December 18, and $125 after that.
Writers in the Mountains is a 501 ( c ) (3) not-for-profit organization with a mission to provide a nurturing environment for the practice, appreciation and sharing of creative writing. Learn more at writersinthemountains.org.
Catskills author Nina Shengold’s latest book Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days will be released by Syracuse University Press on June 15, 2020. Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days chronicles a year in Shengold’s life, from September 15, 2015 to September 15, 2016, when the author took daily walks along the Ashokan Reservoir, a place that she describes as “an ideal reflecting pool for the Catskill High Peaks.” As she was approaching sixty, the author embarked on a journey of self-discovery and re-connection with nature no further than her own backyard, where she finds the Ashokan Reservoir – throughout the book she fondly refers to the reservoir as “the res”.
In Shengold’s own words:“My reservoir year was a treasure, a gift that keeps giving. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sweet span of days from one September to the next was the only year I could have fulfilled the commitment I made to myself, a restorative pause between wearing the mantles of caregiving mother and caregiving daughter. The Ashokan landscape is a part of me now, a deep well of peace I return to in times of stress and hold in reserve for the times I’ll go back there to grieve; a reservoir in every sense of the word.”
Partly meditation and partly nature diary, the book highlights the importance of being outdoors and re-connecting with self. The author took her daily walks regardless of weather and mood, holidays, birthdays, and celebrations. Sometimes she was accompanied by family or friends, but most of the time she was alone. From time to time she encountered other strollers which she meticulously describes in her book. Shengold’s daily recollections depict nature, people, moods, thoughts, and errands and activities that are on Shengold’s timetable at the time, as she goes about her daily life; the experience is juxtaposed with intermissions to take trips to New York City or attend other social functions, all between taking care of aging parents and spending time with a loving daughter. Adventures and unexpected turns intercede, as it often happens in life.
The book is structured as a chronicle of 367 days – fall, winter, spring, and summer. “The Ashokan is a different kind of gorgeous in every season, in every kind of weather and light,” Shengold recollects. Without taking any pictures or notes, the author immersed herself in this daily experience, only to write about it later. In her diary, some days are full of observations, whereas others are reduced to one single line.
The Ashokan Reservoir was built in the early 1900s when twelve local communities were displaced to make room for this wondrous construction needed to bring mountain water to New York City. The Ashokan is one of several such reservoirs built in the Catskills. The name “Ashokan” comes from Algonkian and can be translated as a “place of many fish.”
Shengold’s observations from Day 9, on September 23, 2015 at 6:50 pm include: “Sun already behind the ridge, air cool and breeze up. I notice the curves of the mountains, even the distant ones, are saw-toothed with individual treetops. But the star attraction tonight is the eastern sky, in soft rainbow stripes—indigo, lavender, pink, amber, gold—and floating above all that color, a startlingly bright moon, already past half.”
Another day reads like this:
“Day 11. September 25, 7:25 pm I drive to the res straight from teaching. Two roller-derby girls in full combat gear—sleek black catsuits, sculpted helmets, red knee pads—sail off the path and circle the empty parking lot, using the wide space to practice. They skate backward, drop into low crouches, do lunges and tango-like dance steps. Both of them laughing, enjoying their badass moves. Then they step out of their skates and remove their protective gear, loading it into the backseat one piece at a time as they chat about haircuts, blow dryers, and Rite Aid reward cards. They get smaller and blander as each piece of armor comes off. Come back, roller ninjas!”
On Day 14, September 28, 6:20 pm, Shengold explains her method: “I don’t have many ground rules for this, but I don’t carry paper and pad when I’m walking. I notice whatever I notice, and memorize a few keywords to help me remember. Here are today’s: heron cloak veil stillness alchemy. Which is either a very short poem or dialogue you might hear from a tarot reader at a Woodstock bar.”
A single line describes the day of October 3, 2015: “Day 19. October 3, 9:55 am Ghost mountains, gray on gray. Cold, wet, and blustery.”
Day 173, March 5, 2015 at 6 pm includes a visit to John Burroughs’s log cabin at Slabsides, a National Historic Landmark:
“Born in Roxbury, high in the Great Western Catskills, the young Burroughs taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the relocated village of Olivebridge, less than a mile from the Ashokan dam. He went on to write hundreds of essays on nature and literature, publishing twenty-three books between 1861 and his death in 1921. It occurs to me for the first time how he saw these valleys change, as one reservoir after another was built on the fast-moving streams he had paddled and fished.”
The motto of Shengold’s book is in fact a quote from John Burroughs’s Signs and Seasons: “The place to observe nature is where you are; the walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed.”
Burroughs, the founder of nature writing in America, is best known for his collections of nature essays Wake Robin (1871), and Signs and Seasons (1886). He is also known for his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, industrialist Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, and poet Walt Whitman. Burroughs is buried at Boyhood Rock, next to the Woodchuck Lodge, which served as his summer residence in Roxbury from 1910 until his death in 1921.
In the Afterword, Shengold reminisces about how the reservoir had changed her over the course of one magical year of daily walks: “I’m calmer. I found an oasis, a daily routine. In the same way I once used to walk my dog, I walk myself. I’ve learned that the days I resist going out are exactly the days when I need it the most. I lost some, not all, of the “pregnancy weight” I’d carried for twenty years. My eyes opened wider; I pay more attention to details. I can find more constellations in the night sky. I recognize more plants and birdcalls, the flight silhouettes of different raptors. I’m better at guessing how soon it will rain, what kinds of clouds will yield what kind of sunset. I’ve learned that dawn, sunset, and twilight unfold over time. The practice of learning to notice goes on and on. It’s connected me to this particular place, to the cycle of seasons, and to the earth we all share.”
Shengold’s previous books include the novel Clearcut (Anchor Books), River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers (SUNY Press, with photographer Jennifer May), and fourteen theatre anthologies for Vintage Books and Viking Penguin, many coedited with Eric Lane. She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders. Her plays are published by Playscripts, Broadway Play Publishing, and Samuel French; War at Home: Students Respond to 9/11, written with Nicole Quinn and the Rondout Valley High School Drama Club, has been produced around the world. Shengold has profiled more than 150 writers for Chronogram, Poets & Writers, and Vassar Quarterly. She’s a founding member of the theatre company Actors & Writers, author series Word Café, and Hudson Valley Writers Resist. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Shengold has taught at Manhattanville College and the University of Maine, and currently teaches creative writing at Vassar College. She was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, escaped to Alaska, and now lives and works in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days expounds the transformative power of making a commitment and sticking to it. There is reward in that, as the author herself discovers throughout her journey. The book is an invitation to find our own “Ashokan Reservoir,” a place of magic that will engage our senses and awaken our spirit.
Writers in the Mountains (WIM) invites you to its annual literary arts and community event and celebration Writers Unbound (formerly known as Meet the Authors), the fourth in our series of annual literary festivals.
This year the event takes place on Sunday, April 30, from 12 noon to 4 p.m. at the Union Grove Distillery in Arkville, NY. Union Grove is housed in a big old barnlike building featuring comfortable spaces fitted with stainless steel and copper and wood, a roaring fireplace, and the percolation of fine spirits—all making for a perfect environment in which to listen to, talk about, and think about books and writing.
The daylong event welcomes all writers and readers, artists and audience, and community members from every walk to enjoy a warm gathering of successful and fascinating writers, illustrators, editors, educators, booksellers, and publishers from Syracuse to New York City and points between and beyond. This year’s keynote speaker is Holly George-Warren. As a writer specializing in music history and biography, she has written many journal articles and liner notes, edited compilations and collections, and is author or co-author of more than fifteen books, including her forthcoming biography of Janis Joplin, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. She also teaches, lectures, and is a consultant, curator, and archivist in the museum arena; she serves as the director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Oral History Program.
Come by to shop for books directly from their authors, hear readings and peer-to-peer discussions, join in an enticing raffle (books are the prize, of course), and vote in the Best Book Cover contest.
Participants include poets Sharon Israel, Anique Taylor, Sharon Ruetenik, Lissa Kiernan, and Clark Strand; authors Leslie T. Sharpe, Nina Shengold, Sari Botton, Dara Lurie, Carrie Bradley Neves, and Simona David; playwright Amie Brockway; illustrators Durga Yael Bernhard and Will Lytle; and publisher Dayl Wise from Post Traumatic Press.
The program is as follows:
12:30 p.m.—Poetry Reading / Featured Poet Sharon Israel
Sharon Israel is the host of Planet Poet-Words in Space, an edition of The Writer’s Voice program on WIOX 91.3 FM in Roxbury, New York. She has just released her first chapbook Voice Lesson, published by Post Traumatic Press. Her work most recently appeared in Per Contra, SPANK the CARP, 5:2 Crime Poetry Weekly, Medical Literary Messenger, and Spry Literary Journal. In 2016 Ms. Israel appeared as a panelist at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, Mass. As a poet and soprano, she collaborates with composer Robert Cucinotta on works for voice, live instruments, and electronics. She will be reading selected poems from Voice Lesson.
1:00 p.m.—Publishing Panel / Group Discussion Addressing the Latest News and Trends in Publishing
Panelists include authors Leslie T. Sharpe and Anique Taylor, and publisher Dayl Wise from Post Traumatic Press. Moderated by Simona David.
1:30 p.m.—Keynote Address “The Art and Craft of the Biography” with Holly George-Warren
Holly George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and an award-winning writer named one of the top women music critics “you need to read” by Flavorwire.com. She is the author or co-author of fifteen books, including A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, from the Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man; Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry; and the forthcoming biography of Janis Joplin, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. She co-wrote the New York Times bestseller The Road to Woodstock (with Michael Lang), as well as John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion (with Varvatos) and It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (with Jenny Boyd). Among her other works are The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The First 25 Years;Punk 365; Grateful Dead 365; Bonnaroo: What, Which, This, That, the Other; How the West Was Worn (with Michelle Freedman); Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West; and the nonfiction children’s books Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country & Western Music; Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll; and The Cowgirl Way.
2:30 p.m.—New Release with Leslie T. Sharpe, author of The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills
Leslie T. Sharpe is a writer, editor, and educator. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing(Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012). Her new book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, published by The Overlook Press in March 2017, is a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains. Ms. Sharpe will be reading excerpts from her new book, and will discuss the genre of nature writing, as it relates to the Catskill Mountains.
3:00 p.m.—Fiction: Roots and Branches with Nina Shengold
Nina Shengold writes in many genres. Her books include the novel Clearcut (Anchor Books), a Book Sense Notable Selection; River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers, with photographer Jennifer May (SUNY Press); and 13 theatre anthologies for Vintage Books and Viking Penguin. She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love, starring Marcia Gay Harden, and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders. Ms. Shengold has taught creative writing at the University of Maine, Manhattanville College, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and locally at Word Cafe, the Omega Institute, and as a visiting guest artist at SUNY Ulster.
3:30 p.m.—Illustrators’ Moment
Illustrators Durga Yael Bernhard and Will Lytle, cookbook editor Carrie Bradley Neves, and art writer Simona David will talk about the ins and outs of illustrated books.
4:00 p.m. —The Bounty of Books Raffle, with a prize of ten selected book titles, will be awarded (come early, tickets are limited!), and the winner of the Best Cover Contest will be announced.
Throughout the day, participating authors will read from their works and share their stories with the audience. Admission is free. For more information, visit writersinthemountains.org, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writers in the Mountains is a 501 (c) (3) not-for–profit organization with a mission to provide a nurturing environment for the practice, appreciation, and sharing of creative writing. Learn more at writersinthemountains.org.
Anique Taylor holds an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, and an MFA in Drawing from Pratt Institute as well as a Diplôme from Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She has co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and others. She has given featured readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Dixon Place, the Speakeasy, Cedar Tavern, and group readings at What Happens Next, Tompkin’s Square, Charas, and The Knitting Factory. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Stillwater Review, The World (St. Mark’s Poetry Project), Adanna, Cover Magazine, Cheap Review, Southern Poetry Review, Earth’s Daughters. She has published several chapbooks, including Where Space Bends, chosen Finalist by both Minerva Rising’s and Blue Light Press’ Chapbook Contests, and Under the Ice Moon, also a Finalist in the Blue Light Press Chapbook Contest. Anique has taught The Creative Journal at Bard LLI and the Poetry Workshop at the Benedictine’s Oncology Support Program. She teaches a Creative Nonfiction Workshop for Writers in the Mountains.
Simona David: Anique, talk a little bit about yourself.
Anique Taylor: I’ve been a visual artist most of my life. I’ve also written all my life, and have been involved in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, doing poetry readings for quite a while. A few years ago I re-committed myself to writing, and enrolled in a MFA program at Drew University, which has some of the most accomplished poets in the country. They’re deeply devoted, and have exquisite knowledge of craft. They opened up my whole life.
SD: You started a Poetry Reading series here in the Catskills, in the town of Phoenicia.
AT: Yes. Phoenicia has a population of around two hundred. We started a marathon reading during the summer, and had about one hundred and thirty people on the lawn, sitting in lawn chairs. They sat for hours listening. It was wonderful.
SD: You have been teaching for Writers in the Mountains, for quite a while now, a popular Creative Nonfiction Workshop. Let’s talk a bit about the genre of creative nonfiction.
AT: I think we each come to writing however we can, and from wherever we can. For some it’s easy, for others it’s difficult. But most of us come to it because we have a desire, and the desire continues. Each time we write, we venture into the unknown, and it’s always a risk. I’ve been writing ever since I could write, and before that I used to write stories in my head. I didn’t consider myself a writer, because I didn’t make up stories. The real writers were the ones who made up stories. I liked to write about things that happened to me or around me, and the things that I felt and thought. When I studied poetry, that gave me tools to write better. Afterwards, I discovered that what I was writing all along is called creative nonfiction.
SD: Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine in 1993, defines the genre as “true stories well told.” How would you describe creative nonfiction? And what does it cover?
AT: Creative nonfiction can be memoir, personal essay, journal, poetry, research papers; it can be almost anything. I’m working on a manuscript now of creative nonfiction poetry. It’s based on stories about non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II. It’s poetry, it’s also creative nonfiction, because the poems are all crafted from true stories. Lee Gutkind also said that in some ways creative nonfiction is like jazz: it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas and techniques, some of which are newly invented, and others are as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can use the tools of writing forms such as sound, diction, metaphor, rhythm, description, dialogue, even plot. When you write something that is true, you still need to decide how to frame it, where it begins, where it goes, what to put in, what to leave out. The art is to make it come alive, to make it matter. There are two parts: what you say, and how you say it.
SD: What do you think makes this genre so popular?
AT: I think people are fascinated with other people’s lives. There are so many possibilities – you can do anything you can think of in the world with creative nonfiction.
SD: Biographies, for instance, have always been popular. Please, share some of the best names in creative nonfiction.
AT: There is Thoreau, who wrote Walden. That’s a memoir. A biography covers a whole life, a memoir covers a part of a life. Emerson’s essays are really wonderful. Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion – Didion’s work is exquisite; Anne Lamott, David Sedaris – very funny and popular. Virginia Wolf, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, so many. What I find interesting is that it’s very usual for novelists and poets to also have essays or memoir pieces.
SD: Let’s talk a bit about your approach to teaching creative nonfiction. I’m looking at a note you sent out to class at the beginning of the semester: “Write about love. Do not directly describe the person (animal companion, place, house, friend, group, etc.). Avoid emotional adjectives and adverbs. Let your nouns and verbs give substance to your writing. Let details, action, dialogue, description speak for your emotions. It doesn’t have to be about cozy, kissy love. It could be about unfulfilled love, loss, confusion, betrayal, the excitement of beginning love. See where it takes you. Have fun. Your work can be personal or shared with the class.” What is the structure of your class, and what are your goals as an educator?
AT: What we do in class is that we start with a silent writing prompt. And everybody writes for about ten minutes. It’s work that they never have to show anyone. Then we usually have a discussion about the readings – I send out beforehand a few essays or a story piece. And we talk about the craft, we talk about what makes the piece work, what are the issues that the writer uses and are strong, what’s the structure. Then we listen to each other’s current work. I give a class exercise. In the end I assign homework.
SD: One piece of advice you give your students is “Avoid clichés, and overused expressions.” And I often hear experienced writers say “write as you speak.” In other words, just be natural and authentic, and don’t strive to find the perfect phrase.
AT: I think it’s very important, especially with the first draft, to just write and let everything come out. Don’t focus on trying to have a voice. Focus on speaking out as yourself. When you look at the piece a few days later, you will edit. Yes, on the one hand, be authentic; on the other hand, you want to take out phrases that weaken or slow the process and lose the reader. There are writers who write very simply and plainly, and that is riveting. And there are other writers who write in very complicated ways, dealing with very difficult, philosophical questions.
SD: Absolutely. And each of this kind of writer has his or her own readership.
AT: Exactly. And some of us love both.
SD: You mentioned voice. On the first draft, you say, don’t focus too much on developing your voice. What is voice, and what is tone?
AT: My advice is to write the first draft with passion, then come back when it’s cool, to be able to bring in the editor in you, and tighten things up. Your voice is who you are. We’ve also had long discussions in class about tone and viewpoint. Are we writing from the first person? Is it intimate? Are we talking to someone close to us? Is it a gentle tone, or angry or resentful? Is the first person omnipotent? You can write from the second person. The third person can be very familiar. It can also be an omnipotent third person. We take a piece and write it from various points of view. These are all tools that I want my students to have in their toolbox.
SD: I know that at the beginning of your class, you ask your students to clarify their goals – why are they taking the class, and what do they seek to accomplish? You ask them to think about their strengths, and what they want to write about, their voice, and also what they think holds them back. Talk about this experience.
AT: I want my students to become aware of what they had really wanted but never verbalized it before.
SD: Let’s talk about writing a personal essay. You recommend a piece by Tim Bascom, Picturing the Personal Essay, A Visual Guide. How does diagramming an essay work?
AT: Most people assume that, because it’s creative nonfiction, you just tell the story. But there are infinite possibilities in a way you tell a story. So, in class we started to diagram the structure of each essay, and that gave us a visual sense of how to form an essay.
SD: I think this is helpful from the reader’s point of view too, because we’re all visual learners to some extent, and once we see a story in our head and the story makes sense to us, it’s easier to remember it as the time goes by.
AT: Yes. As a writer however, I don’t think you start with a form in mind. I think, as a writer, you just have to let it go, and then come back to it later to see what you’ve gotten.
SD: In essence, your advice is to focus first on what you have to say, then how you say it, and then look at the overall structure – the visual representation of your story.
AT: Yes. The visual representation is something you would come to later to look at. It’s also important to read other people’s work to see what they do.
SD: One last piece of advice for writers.
AT: I constantly read, and do it as a research for class. What I look for are pieces that will inform us about how to write, and what choices to make when we write. I want a literary piece to be beautifully crafted. I care about what the writer is saying. I look for humor, wisdom, and scope. I want the writer to give us something that we can take with us, and will open us up, and change us.
Leslie T. Sharpe is an author, editor, and educator. She began her editing career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is currently an editorial consultant specializing in literary nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing(Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012). Leslie has been a regular contributor to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column, and her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Global City Review, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, New York Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle,and Village Voice; The Villager; The Writer;and Psychology Today.She recently finished her memoir, Our Fractured, Perfect Selves,and her new book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, will be published by The Overlook Press in the spring of 2017. Her poems for children have appeared in Ladybug Magazine.Leslie has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University and the City College of New York.
Simona David: Leslie, you are well-known to the Catskills literary community as an instructor for Writers in the Mountains. You also taught for MediaBistro. And of course, for a long time, you taught at Columbia University in New York City. Your new book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills will be published in the spring of 2017 by The Overlook Press. Congratulations!
Leslie T. Sharpe: Thank you. I am delighted to say that my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills is set to be published by The Overlook in spring 2017. The Overlook Press started in Woodstock, but their offices are now located in Manhattan. Since the 1970s the press has had a wonderful specialty area for Catskills books, Hudson River Valley books; that’s why my agent and I really wanted to be published by them. They have a large list, including literary fiction, literary nonfiction, history, and other parts of that genre. For instance, Alf Evers’ The Catskills, From Wilderness to Woodstock was published by The Overlook in 1972.
SD: You’ve been a naturalist all your life, very much involved with Audubon Society. What is a naturalist, and what does he / she do?
LTS: The thing that I’m proudest of with regard to my environmental credentials is that I was president of Junior Audubon when I was in the 2nd grade. I’ve also been the vice president of New York City Audubon Society, and editor of the Urban Audubon. And like most people who love nature, I’m a lifelong birder and naturalist. Of course, there are many definitions of naturalists. In a large sense, a naturalist is just someone who observes nature. This could be a backyard birder or a wild life biologist. Everyone who looks out their window, and watches their bird feeder, welcomes the hummingbirds, puts out sunflower seeds for the chipmunks, and watches their antics and often records them – this is what a naturalist is, and the basis of our knowledge about nature really comes from people like you and I who are not trained as scientists but watch and observe and record. And there are many events that honor this. For instance, National Audubon and other organizations have what they call “bird counts” such as the Christmas bird count in December: people are urged to go out and count the number of birds they see, which species, the number of birds in each species; and this kind of anecdotal information is an incredibly important part of our knowledge of birds and animals, and our sense of population rise and fall, and the effects of the environment on them, the effects of winter on them, and the effects of summer on them. So, yes, basically a naturalist is someone who just observes, and keeps a diary, and writes down his or her observations.
SD: One doesn’t have to have scientific training in order to be a naturalist. Is that right?
LTS: A naturalist has a very personal and deeply felt connection to the natural world. To be a naturalist in essence all you need is a pen and a notebook, perhaps a recorder. But the most important tools are your senses. It’s not really a division however between a naturalist and a scientist. For instance, Rachel Carson who was a scientist was also a naturalist. These are not mutually exclusive occupations. My point is that anyone can watch, anyone can observe, anyone can record. And those are very valuable insights.
SD: You teach a Nature Writing workshop for Writers in the Mountains in the tradition of naturalist writer John Burroughs, a Catskills native. Participants range from memoirists and essayists to journalists and scientists. Let’s talk about various approaches to nature writing.
LTS: There are so many aspects to nature. We think automatically of critters, and that’s largely what I’m writing about. But in my upcoming book I also have a whole chapter on wild flowers. Without dandelions in early spring what would the bees do? It’s the first thing bees find once they come out of their hibernation. Everything in nature has a purpose. And there are so many aspects to nature writing, not only the genre it can take, but also what you’re writing about. For instance, in my class we had people writing essays, journals, poetry, and some fiction as well. We had someone working on sketches for a book. A photographer, working on a multi-media project, brought his photographs to class, and shared some other angles.
SD: Let’s talk about the writing process. How does your routine look like? How do you alternate between observing nature and then writing about it?
LTS: It’s really organic. For instance, all the chapters in my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills are about different creatures. And they’re all marked by two things: it’s my direct experience with the critter, but it’s also the latest science on the subject. Because there is so much that is being discovered. And although my book is described as a lyric narrative book about the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, it’s also informed by the latest science. One of the hardest things to do when involved with these creatures is to remain objective and not to become sentimental. Another struggle is to not interfere and not to project our own emotions on them. They have their own emotions.
SD: Have you done a lot of research for the book?
LTS: Yes. There are many sources, but you have to weigh them carefully. For instance, All About Birds, which is from Cornell Institute of Ornithology, that’s a fabulous resource. Audubon also has its own online resources. As a trained classicist, I very much enjoy doing research as part of the learning process. But I’m also scrupulous with my sources, both in print and online.
SD: Would you like to expand a bit, and talk about the genre of creative nonfiction?
LTS:The Quarry Fox, as narrative nonfiction, is themed to the wild Catskills, but every chapter is essentially a different personal essay. That is very much in the tradition of John Burroughs, the founder of the nature writing genre in America. One of the things that I do in my book, is that I dedicate each chapter to a nature writer that I love. The first chapter is dedicated to John Burroughs, a spiritual father of mine. I have a chapter dedicated to Edward Abbey, another one to Annie Dillard. I believe Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is the best nature writing book ever written. Dillard, on the other hand, is a mentor to anyone writing creative nonfiction.
SD: You have taught for Writers in the Mountains a workshop called Selling Your Nonfiction Book: The Art of Proposal Writing. Would you like to share a few tips?
LTS: Nonfiction is such a popular form, a lot of folks are working on memoir and personal essays. To sell a nonfiction book, whether you hire an agent or not, you need a book proposal to show it to the publisher. When it comes to nonfiction, publishers don’t want to see a whole book right away; what they want is a proposal. The proposal breaks down into certain aspects, including a marketing plan, a literature review, and some sample chapters. It’s important for the publisher to know who the book is for and how they can sell it, also if there are other similar books out there, and what credentials the author has. In my case, there are very few other books out there since John Burroughs that really cover the Catskills’ wild life. It’s important to know that everything you write when you submit to a publisher or an agent is a writing sample. The query letter is a writing sample, and is a sample of professionalism. The proposal itself, and the description of the chapters mirror the quality of the chapters themselves.
SD: What makes a naturalist also a good nature writer?
LTS: I am a writer, and I believe that we humans are hard-wired for stories. That’s what compels us. We tell our stories, and pass them down. Most people who write about nature are most certainly naturalists, they observe nature. Most naturalists are not necessarily nature writers. But what drives us as naturalists who are also nature writers is our desire to tell stories. How you tell your story is completely up to you. Nature writing is a great American form, not uniquely American, but this country is so extraordinarily beautiful, and there is such a diversity of landscape and critters and birds of all kinds that we’ve been shaped by it.