Farewell to Ivan Doig, Another Great of the American (North) West

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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doig

Growing up in the small town of Snohomish in Western Washington in the 1950s, it often felt as if the rest of the world had forgotten about us. Mountain ranges, desert and plains separated Northwesterners from the white hot center of culture in New England, and its glitzy pop cousin, Los Angeles. And Eisenhower’s dream of interstate freeways connecting us all, was 15 years from being realized. Not that I didn’t feel the pull of the world out there as I sat in the Snohomish Theater, transfixed by Around the World in 80 Days or staring agape as a young Elvis pretzel twisted his hips and sneered on our teeny-tiny TV, or tuning in to San Francisco’s KGO at night to listen to Ira Blue at the Hungry I as he birthed talk radio. But it seemed that in the Northwest we were free to invent ourselves. Thank God for parents who allowed us almost free rein to explore the Pilchuck River, or on one Sunday afternoon, to walk across the Snohomish River Valley on the railroad tracks to hunt for fossils at Fiddler’s Bluff; had a train come while we were on the last high trestle, we would have had a tragic Stand By Me moment. And to the east, the glacier-carved valleys and peaks of the Cascade would soon become an even larger playground. Our earliest jobs were outside, picking strawberries and raspberries and later wandering behind trucks in the pea fields with pitchforks or milking cows. Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “All the Wild That Remains,” by David Gessner

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Reading Under the Influence

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GessnerSanJuan

The natural world is out of balance. That much is clear to all but the most myopic among us. Global warming, annual ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ weather events, water scarcity, toxic pollution, species extinction… the list is a depressing drumbeat foretelling catastrophe. Yet despite this impending crisis the environmental movement seems to have lost its mojo. Where are the iconic leaders of this generation, the Ed Abbeys and the Wallace Stegners, wordsmiths who could awaken a movement with their well-chosen words? Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Teaching Creative Nonfiction? Here’s the Best Craft Book on the Market!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Are you teaching writing?  Is it about time to order books for fall semester?  May I suggest Writing Life Stories?  No reason to be humble–it’s the original and greatest book on making creative nonfiction–and the best by far, often imitated.  And while it’s aimed at the creative writing crowd, it’s also very useful in the composition classroom, a complete course, and perhaps particularly suited to the community college setting, or anywhere non-traditional students appear, from high school to grad school and beyond.  You get from it what you bring to it, in other words, and it self-adapts to whatever level the reader/writer/teacher approaches from.  It moves seamlessly from Getting Started to writing memoir, then uses the memoir exercises as evidence for the writing of personal essays, then uses both to aim at public writing, including journalism and the formal essay.  It’s got advice on publishing, too.  It’s fun for students, which makes it fun for teachers, and it’s filled with exercises to do both in-class and on the fly, or to assign.  Or for teachers who’d like to get some of their own writing done, goddamn it!  The tenth anniversary edition, with Kristen Keckler, is thoroughly up to date, and replaces the old edition.  Several sample essays form a mini-anthology, and the huge reading list in an appendix collecting great books in all creative nonfiction genres is famous, often borrowed!  Among the many charms of Writing Life Stories is its price: $16.95, which means students actually afford to buy it,  and most opt keep it.  Plus, you know me! I’ll do an email chat with your class. I’ll walk to your university no matter where in the world, and I’ll talk to your class while you put your feet up and plot your novel!

“Bill Roorbach’s WRITING LIFE STORIES is brimming with valuable suggestions, evocative assignments, insights into the writing process, and shrewd common sense. I can’t wait to try some of this ideas in the classroom and on myself. This writing guide delivers the goods.”
–Philip Lopate, THE ART OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY
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Lundgren’s Lounge: “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” by Jill Leovy

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Jill Leovy

Jill Leovy

Recent national events make it clear that W.E.B. DuBois’ famous observation, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line…” is every bit as resonant today to describe twenty-first century America as it was when first uttered, over a century ago. Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Madison… the drumbeat of places where young, unarmed black men have been killed by the police rolls on and the disconnect in the convoluted conversation between communities of color and the mostly white power structure are maddeningly unproductive, as though the dialogue is being spoken in different languages.

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “Closer All the Time,” by Jim Nichols

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JIm Nichols

JIm Nichols

Any discussion of candidates for the title ‘Fiction Laureate of Maine’ will quickly conjure names of the usual subjects: Stephen King, Elizabeth Strout, Carolyn Chute and Rick Russo spring to mind and all of them have carved out a unique niche in the Maine literary landscape. Bur for my money, when it comes to capturing the ethos of the people and culture of the Pine Tree State, perhaps no one does it better than Jim Nichols.

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “The Whites,” by Harry Brandt, aka Richard Price

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Richard Price TheWhites

We live in a culture that is obsessed with specialization and categorization. Things that don’t fit easily into a preordained niche make us nervous. The result diminishes work that is unique and difficult to classify, but it also does a disservice to writing that becomes pigeonholed into a category that does not often receive the serious attention it deserves.  Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “Astonish Me,” by Maggie Shipstead

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Rewarding read … Dylan Thomas prize winner Maggie Shipstead.
Over beers recently with a famous American writer, I admitted to being somewhat preoccupied. It seems I was halfway through a reading of Maggie Shipstead’s second novel, Astonish Me, and the story was there hovering on the edges of my consciousness, always. My friend the writer leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “Maggie Shipstead is the next great female American writer.” Indeed. Or the next great American writer, period.

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Lundgren’s Lounge: “Preparation for the Next Life,” by Atticus Lish

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish

The Great American Novel has always been a story about outsiders, people peering in through the gates at a uniquely American dream that seems maddeningly just beyond their reach… from Huck (where it all began), to the Joads and Gatsby and Bigger Thomas and on to McMurphy and Seymour (Swede) Levov, Ignatius J. Reilly and Sethe… these are all characters in pursuit of a mirage shimmering on an ever-receding horizon. Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Book Lounge: “The Story I Want to Tell,” by The Telling Room

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Telling room storiesShortly after moving to Portland over a decade ago in an attempt to escape the maw of the Big City that was alternately invigorating and trying to devour me, a friend introduced me to Susan Conley. At the time Susan, along with fellow writers Sara Corbett and Mike Paterniti, was in the early stages of creating a non-profit to support student writers in the Portland immigrant community and beyond, with an eye towards publication as a way to raise the stakes for the writers and the collective consciousness of their readers. Having worked extensively with student-generated publications in the NYC public school system, I was aware of both the potential and the limitations of such initiatives… it seems that many readers and critics find the work of student-writers to be endearing and empowering and yet not worthy of consideration as ‘serious’ literature.

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DFW on CNF: Deconstructing David Foster Wallace

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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“. .. personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on.” —David Foster Wallace’s syllabus definition of creative nonfiction.

david_foster_wallace

As a teacher and writer of nonfiction, I devoured the late David Foster Wallace’s recently released creative nonfiction syllabus. Salon, which published it, called the document “mind-blowing,” evidently referring to its tough-love language. In this blueprint for a night class he taught at Pomona College once a week in Spring 2008—so roughly six months before his death, presumably when he was already suffering from deep depression—Wallace prosecutes a rigorous, distilled aesthetic. He builds toward it in his opening “Description of Class,” which notes that “nonfiction” means it corresponds to real affairs but that creative “signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work.” Continue reading →