Suspend Your Disbelief

Posts Tagged ‘Under the Influence’

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Under the Influence: A Parable of Courage

When I send out submissions, I’m easily spooked. After receiving my 4,575th “positive rejection”—i.e., “Not a good fit this time… send more”—I wonder if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is mwa-ha-ha-ing behind the scenes: “Everyone Else is Going to Be Published. Die, Sucker.” Fortunately, better writers than me have endured the soul-sucking chill of the Dementor’s Kiss. My go-to writing mantra is a story about a Really Successful Writer (hereafter known as Harry Potter) told to me by my favorite writing mentor, whom I’ll call… Hermione Granger. Perhaps the story means so much because she believed in my work. When I can’t maintain faith […]


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Under the Influence… of Janet Peery

For me, the beauty of Janet (besides her flowing hair and karaoke skills, obviously) is that she forces students to name things, to make the abstract concrete. She won’t tolerate imprecise language, lazy writing, limp sentences.  I think her “Janet-isms” are in keeping with that. A lot of her funny sayings, some of them her own creations and others drawn from a lifetime of reading and study, concisely label common student writing flaws. Another former writing instructor once wrote in the margin of one of my stories, “I’m bored.” Fair enough. But, for me, that criticism was never helpful. After […]


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Under the Influence… of Robert Olen Butler

Three years into the doctoral program at Florida State University, my wife and I had tired of living like graduate students—the hard studying, hard partying, and hard poverty of it all. I thought I’d found a way out when I was offered a job and a place to live at a boarding school in western North Carolina. I called my dissertation director, Robert Olen Butler, to share my plans. “Is it money?” Bob asked. “Do you need money?” “You think it’s a bad idea? I’ll have time to write in the afternoons.” “If you fart on the squash court,” he […]


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Under the Influence… of Sands Hall

Immersed in a 9-to-5, year-round office job since early 2007, I haven’t led a fiction workshop for some time. But if I should inhabit that particular teaching role again, I’d want to remind myself how the job is best done. Ideally, I’d do that by sitting in on one of Sands Hall’s workshops. I met Sands when I enrolled in her “Tools of the Writer’s Craft: Novel” workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in 1997. I subsequently returned to Iowa to take other workshops of hers. We’ve stayed in touch, and I’m proud to say that we’re friends. In […]


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Under the Influence… of Arnost Lustig

I was the worst writer in my MFA program my first year.  I know this thought isn’t unique, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.  My confidence was shot.  I was lost as a writer and so concerned with impressing my teachers and fellow students that I had abandoned whatever it was that made me worth accepting into the program in the first place. The following summer, I attended the Prague Summer Program, where Arnost Lustig was my workshop teacher.  We began each class with jokes.  We wrote a fable every day.  We read (after a fashion) Aristotle’s Poetics.  We discussed […]


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Under the Influence… of Fred Chappell

North Carolina’s esteemed novelist, short story writer, teacher, and former poet laureate Fred Chappell came along at a critical moment in my writing life: when I was starting to hear voices. Trained as a journalist but always identifying as a writer, I resumed a childhood poetry habit after it had been on hiatus during college. I began writing short stories as well in the early ’80s, and then started a novel. As I began to take myself (semi)-seriously as a writer, I started to attend conferences and workshops. That’s when the voices began. Don’t mix genres, the experts warned. Decide […]


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Under the Influence… of Stanley Plumly

When I was an MFA student at the University of Maryland, Stanley Plumly said two things about my poetry that have stuck with me and shaped not only how I think about my writing process but also how I approach teaching creative writing. In one conference, he asked, Will you ever write a ten-syllable line? Stanley Plumly is fond of John Keats’s work, so maybe he did want me to write in ten-syllable lines, but the question was designed to force to me think about formal choices I was making. My initial, silent response was that I was experimenting with […]




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