Alix Ohlin at Skylight Books

OK, I’ve been bad lately about getting to my monthly literary calendar. As in: I haven’t posted one for nearly a year. Sorry. And thanks to those who missed my posts and inquired.

I nearly got my act together earlier this month because I wanted to help promote Steve Almond‘s appearance at Skylight Books with his new story collection God Bless America (which includes “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” featured in the most recent Best American Short Stories). And now comes along one of my very favorite short story writers, Alix Ohlin, appearing tomorrow (June 21, 7:30) at Skylight Books with both a new novel and a new story collection. I discovered Ohlin in the 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories–her story “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student” is a small miracle. I then went on to read and review her collection Babylon & Other Stories.

Ohlin’s new collection, Signs and Wonders, is drawing praise from the likes of Joy Williams, Richard Bausch and Jim Shepard. And the new novel, Inside, was just named Book of the Week by none other than Oprah. She’s deservedly getting a lot of press these days, including this nice write-up in The Globe and Mail. Along with Richard Ford, she was featured earlier this week on the new Los Angeles Review of Books show on KCRW.

Live from Tin House

The week-long Tin House Summer Writers Workshop is wrapping up, and I wanted to file a brief report before heading out on a hiking trip. It’s my fourth year here, each more than well worth it.

At the online discussion board established so students can download each other’s work and introduce themselves, the conference coordinator dubs each workshop leader with a title. I studied this year with Dorothy Allison. Her title, the Shepard, could not have been more fitting. She is tough, but it’s out of love: love for you, for the characters, for story. She’s a keen reader with an eye both for detail and for what I can only call a larger cosmic vision of where writing fits in the larger scheme.

The week juggles morning workshops with afternoon seminars and evening readings–and then all the informal stuff that makes such a conference so valuable. Highlights included, as in past years, Charles D’Ambrosio packing more challenging thoughts into one hour than many teachers might in a whole week (more on this later, sometime); Bret Anthony Johnston introducing writing exercises from his fine book Naming the World; a very good panel on beginnings (“the beginning is a question for which everything that follows is some kind of answer”); a talk by Aimee Bender on “fructification”; and a party marking the magazine’s 10th anniversary (a lifetime in litmag years) where, among other things, Steve Almond treated us to a tour-de-force deconstruction of the Toto song “Africa.”

Steve Almond at Tin House

I’m finishing up a week-long class with Steve Almond at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Steve is a tremendous teacher, remarkable for his passion, attention to detail, and emotional generosity toward a story’s characters–which I say partly because I’ve encouraged him to check out my blog, mostly because it’s true.

Here are the two core lessons I’ve taken from him (followed by a third bullet I’ll explain when I get there):

  • At the heart of any good story must beat a certain love for your characters, which he defines as sustained attention. It is the willingness to stick with them–moment by moment, observing, wondering, hoping–through the most difficult times. It is the refusal to adopt a safe distance from them–the safe distance afforded by amusement, irony, disdain, easy judgment. It is learning to love your characters enough to get them into trouble, and to see them through it. Loving them even, especially, when they behave badly.
  • As we set out on a story, the writer is in the grip of two powerful, opposite, twined impulses. One is the urge to tell the story: something fascinates, troubles, entices, repels the writer. The other is the urge, once the story enters terrain that is difficult or uncomfortable–which is to say, when the story becomes interesting and worth telling–to avoid telling precisely that story: to skirt the difficult with evasion, vagueness, easy answers. Thus a writer’s early drafts, the language itself, will often run hot & cold: hot when the initial impulse flows freely and without self-consciousness; cold when calculation, evasion and self-awareness creep in.
  • This third point is something Steve touches on, but is more uniquely the territory of Charles D’Ambrosio, who also teaches at Tin House. D’Ambrosio says, in so many words, that the hot & cold nature of a writer’s early drafts is not only unavoidable, but necessary and good. It is the writer’s conflicted relationship with his or her own material–and then her willingness to engage that inner conflict, to wade deeply and messily into the muck of it–that in large part lends the story its urgency. The friction of the writer pushing against his own resistance, like a saw cutting through wood, is what generates the story’s heat.

Steve Almond is the author of the story collections The Evil B.B. Chow and My Life in Heavy Metal; the memoir Candyfreak; with Julianna Baggott, the novel And This Brings Me to You; and his most recent, Not That You Asked, a collection of essays. Get them at your local independent bookstore or online at Powell’s.

Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of the story collections The Dead Fish Museum and The Point; and of Orphans, a collection of essays. Ditto: bookstore, or Powell’s.

Published in: on July 19, 2008 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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