At my desk

Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).

Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed.  The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity.  The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art.  Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.

Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows.  I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned.  What would that be like?  It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway.  What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.

The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction.  He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.)  One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.

Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it.  Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning.  To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.

To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective.  When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.”  By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities.  In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.


Writing Tip by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Discover your assets!

With no income and possessing only a desire to complete a book about my work with Iraqi refugees, I realized my greatest albatross is really my greatest asset:  my house.  I decided to take a year and rent out my home while I travel, live elsewhere for free – and write.  I now house-sit/pet-sit and vigorously apply for fellowships.  This fall, I am enjoying a fellowship in Eureka Springs, AR, at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow (  I’m living in a serene suite with a nurturing staff in an artsy, lefty, hilly community while I write full-time and have my mortgage covered by tourists.    It’s a huge commitment to unplug for a year;  three months or three weeks might be more your style.  But dedicated time to moving a project forward is priceless, and reassessing assets can make it possible!

Biography of Kelly Hayes-Raitt: Kelly Hayes-Raitt is the Gorrell-Nelson Travel Writing Fellow at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow this fall and was last year’s Carson McCullers’ Fellow, living in the author’s girlhood home in Columbus, GA.  She continues to sleep around while completing Keeping the Faith:  An American Woman’s Listening Tour Among the World’s Forgotten. She blogs at

Writing Tip by Catherine Daly

Stress:  A Revision Exercise for Prose or Poetry
Don’t really SCAN.   Mark the stresses in your piece, or, if it is long, start with the first paragraph.  You might work through each character’s dialogue separately.  Even if this is a poem composed in meter, ignore scansion and merely looking at stresses.  Marking stresses may require reading aloud! even if plain speech is not your objective.  Marking stresses may require  dictionary work (itself a set of effective revision techniques), to see how stresses should fall.  While you must know the words in your writing, dictionary pronunciation can force you out of your ear  (“I want a stress here, so I will stress this when I read it”) into the way your readers will encounter your words.  Be careful not to mark line or sentence ends and starts due to placement; a corollary is, in the same way placement emphasizes, stresses emphasize words or syllables.  What words and ideas receive stress?  Are special sounds stressed, or does the verbiage mutter?  When I do this, I find words to delete and phrases to restate succinctly.

Now look at the parts that make you happiest.  Are they stressed differently than other parts?  Is this good or bad?  Sometimes I’m pleased with  accidentally metrical lines before I know if they are metrical.  After that, consider patterns.   Is there a pattern of stresses?   Would it be interesting to make the pattern more consistent?  elaborate?  Should you mix it up, lest consistency lull?   Should characters speak or think in different patterns?   Can stresses add interest and meaning to your words?

Biography of Catherine Daly: Catherine Daly lives and works in Los Angeles.  She is author of eight books of poetry, most recently VAUXHALL (Shearsman Press, 2008), and has three books of poetry forthcoming.  She also writes reviews, essays, and creative nonfiction and makes text objects; her blog is

Writing Tip by Noel Alumit

Noel Alumit

I think it’s useful to mix up my routine.  Don’t always write in the morning, try at night or the afternoon.  Don’t always write at your desk, switch to the kitchen table, the bedroom.  Even better, try a park.  My mind is constantly shifting depending on time and place.  Doing this allows me to find various shades in characters or scenes.

I’m a different person at night from when I wake.  I may be a little more tired and that mood colors how I write.  I think it layers my work, makes it more complex.  I think it prevents my work from getting stale.

Biography of Noel Alumit: Noel Alumit wrote the novels, Letters to Montgomery Clift, and Talking to the Moon.  He blogs at:

Writing Tip from Kate Gale


Lance Armstrong can cycle so well because he has huge heart.  What do you need to write well?  Fierceness.  A fierce need to get to the page and say something every day.  To connect with the keys, the pen, the pencil, the blood, the ink, your need to speak, your voice needs to be heard, you’re like a mockingbird, you won’t shut up.  You’re like Emily Dickinson’s bird.  Do not be quiet if they reject you, if they won’t give you work, if they say you dress badly, if they say you look like a Care Bear, if they say you look like a caterpillar, keep writing, my butterfly, keep writing.

 Biography of Kate Gale:  Gale is a poet, writer, essayist, librettist, and has a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University.  She is the managing editor of Red Hen Press; an editor for The Los Angeles Review; president of the American Composers Forum, Los Angeles;  and president of PEN USA 2005-2006.  She is also a board member of the Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities, A Room of Her Own Foundation, and Poetry Society of America.  Read Kate Gale’s daily blog of art, culture and self-reflection at  Visit her websites at and

Writing Tip by Cheryl Klein


Recipe for a Short Story

I’ve always found it strange that some writers and writing workshops perceive themselves to be too “advanced” for writing exercises.  Specific constraints sharpen your skills and get you out of your comfort zone.  If I just sat down with the vague idea that I was going to write a story, the protagonist would probably end up a lot like me, and the story would circle back to the themes that always interest me. Sometimes that’s fine, but other times…blech.  That’s why I’m fond of this exercise (though it does take multiple people—a good excuse to schedule a writing date):

1)  Write the following on a scrap of paper:

–a name

–a mode of transportation

–an emotion

–a small object

2)  Trade your list with your writing partner, or if you have a larger group, have everyone pass his or her list to the left.

3) Write a short story or scene that involves all of the elements on the list you just received.

This way, even if you always default to “Michelle/spaceship/anger/paper clip,” someone else is now ignited by your comfort zone, and you get to get inspired by “Fluffy/unicycle/bemusement/golf ball.”

Biography of Cheryl Klein: Klein is a Writers at Work alumna and the author of Lilac Mines (Manic D Press) and The Commuters (City Works Press).  She directs the California office of Poets & Writers, Inc. and blogs about art, life and carbohydrates at  You can read more about Cheryl’s work at