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Chippewa Valley Book Fest's Past, Present, and Future: An Interview with Fest Co-Chair Mildred Larson

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by Chloe Ackerman

The Chippewa Valley Book Festival began on Monday, October 15th and goes through Thursday, October 25th, spreading literary events across the Chippewa Valley. The festival’s lineup includes a variety of events like writing workshops, dinner discussions, events for children, and much more, so there is something for everyone!

I had the chance to sit down with Mildred Larson, a co-chair of the festival, who has been with the Chippewa Valley Book Festival since the very beginning. We talked about how it has grown over the years and what she is looking forward to in this year’s festival.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: How did the book festival start?

MILDRED LARSON: The book festival started out as a partnership between the L. E. Phillips Memorial Library and the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center 19 years ago. I was working at the public library, we had a grant from the American Library Association for a series of authors and discussions, and we needed a co-sponsor separate from the library. We found the Literary Arts Committee from the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center. Their representative was Karen Loeb, now a retired UWEC English department faculty member, so she and I did that grant. It just seemed to work well, and I think that’s how it got started. We were able to get a few more grants to bring more authors in so obviously it wasn’t the size of the current festival. At first, it was called The Festival of the Turning Leaves. I think people didn’t quite get the pun of turning pages in a book and fall, so that was kind of lost. We decided to change the name to something more obvious, and it became the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.

Many people have helped with the festival over the years, but the UWEC English department has been very helpful all along. Nadine St. Louis, who has passed away, was an English professor and poet and one of the first chairs of the book festival committees. After she passed away, we started to have a memorial poetry reading at the festival in Nadine’s honor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The theme of this year’s reading is called Words Without Borders: A Celebration of Poetry in Transition. It’s at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19th.

CA: How has the Chippewa Valley Book Festival grown since it began in 2000?

ML: It’s grown in a lot of different ways; we have expanded the number of days, and we’ve expanded to include more locations. This year, we have programs in five public libraries: the Eau Claire Public Library, and then also in Menominee, Chippewa Falls, Altoona, and Fall Creek. We’ve tried various locations around town, for example, we have had programs for several years at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have programs on university campuses, and this year for the first time we have a program at UW-Stout.

We’ve also added different kinds of events, such as writing workshops and a theatre event. The biggest addition has been authors in the public schools. We have ten authors coming to public schools in Eau Claire, Menominee, and Mondovi so it varies each year. It’s a wonderful experience for the kids. We have writing workshops for children and a Young Writers Showcase.  For the showcase, young writers submit writing to be selected by English honors students at UWEC.  Those whose work is selected will read at the Grand Theater in Eau Claire on Sunday, October 21st in the afternoon. It's fun and lively, and the children are excited to read to an audience.

CA: What are you most excited for in this year’s Chippewa Valley Book Festival?

ML: I am most excited about moving some of our programs into the Pablo Center. Barstow & Grand, David Treuer’s Native Americans and the Imagination, and then the third one at the Pablo Center is Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. David Treuer’s talk will be in the JAMF Theatre, the Barstow & Grand release party will be in one of the rehearsal rooms, I believe, and then the final one, Caroline Fraser, will be in the big RCU Theatre which is a large auditorium. So we will be using three different spaces in the Pablo Center.

CA: What kind of connections do the authors in this festival have to the Chippewa Valley?

ML: We have local authors and we also have authors coming from Los Angeles, California, Spartanburg, South Carolina, and other faraway locations. This year we have three authors who are regional or local, there is Nickolas Butler who is going to be at UW-Stout, there’s Thomas Pearson who is going to be at the Fall Creek Library talking about frac sand mining, and then Molly Patterson who will be at the Menominee Public Library. Every year we have sort of a mix of local and regional writers and writers from around the country.

CA: What do you hope those who attend The Chippewa Valley Book Festival events will take away from them?

ML: I mostly hope they enjoy themselves. We look for authors who are going to be exciting presenters and we have scheduled a great range of types of literature and topics, so people should be able to find whatever’s of interest to them. For writers, we hope some of them will be inspired by the writers we bring, and then the people will maybe find some reading they want to follow-up with.

CA: Is there anything else you would like to add?

ML: Because it’s a long festival, it’s sometimes hard to get all the events out in front of people. I hope people will go to the website and look for more information on the authors and the programs. I hope that they will be coming all the way through October 25th when we have two very excellent programs; there’s Molly Patterson and there’s Heather Swan who is going to be at the Chippewa Falls Public Library. She has a book about honeybees, and it’s a very beautiful looking book. I am certainly hoping that people will continue right through the 25th of October.

Barstow & Grand Issue 2 Sneak Preview!

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by Erin Stevens

The second issue of Barstow & Grand will soon be released into the world, and we’re getting ready to celebrate. Consider this your formal invitation to the issue two release party on Tuesday, October 16th!

At this year’s release party, you’ll have the chance to purchase issues one and two of Barstow & Grand, as well as any other books or publications by the contributors of issue two. The editors of the journal will be our hosts for the evening, so you’ll have the opportunity to get to know them, say hi, and ask them any questions you may have about submitting to the journal.

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Then, of course, there’s the main attraction of the evening: a reading. You’ll be able to sit back and listen as the issue’s 14 contributors read from the work they submitted to the journal.

“The mix of contributors will show off the range of writers we were able to publish,” says Eric Rasmussen, Editor of Barstow & Grand. “People who live in town and who are traveling over to participate, young, old, folks who have published widely, and others for whom this will be the first publication.”

One of those contributors who submitted her work from outside Eau Claire city limits is Rebekah Morrisson. Morrisson, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2014, currently lives in Maine where she works as a Trail Specialist at Baxter State Park. She drew from her trail building work for the short story that’s featured in issue two.

“Having my first published short story featured in Barstow & Grand's second issue is more than an honor,” says Rebekah.

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Since graduating from UWEC, she’s lived in parts of California and Maine for months at a time, making it difficult to find writing communities. That’s why she’s so grateful that Barstow & Grand exists so that she can stay connected to a community she loves so much.

“While I can't attend the release party, I can share in the excitement of another issue by reading it and experiencing the stories there which ground me in a community that I always want to be a part of,” says Rebekah. (Click here to hear a recent piece written by Rebekah).

Something else for attendees to look forward to 一 a chance to check out Eau Claire’s brand new arts center. Yes, you read that right! This year’s release party will be hosted at the Pablo Center at the Confluence. Come for the reading, mingle with members of your favorite local writing community, and also see what this new venue has to offer.

When asked what he’s most excited for, Eric’s answer came without hesitation.

“My favorite part is handing issues to the contributors and everyone who helped with the issue,” he says. “Producing the journal is a lot of work, and that moment when people see it and flip to their names or pieces - that’s a pretty cool moment.”

You, too, can be part of this moment! Make sure to come to the Pablo on Tuesday, October 16th at 7 p.m. to grab your copy of issue two and support our talented community! In advance, please snag your FREE ticket here!


Telling the Truth about the Middle East through Cathy Sultan’s New Novel Damascus Street

 Cathy Sultan

Cathy Sultan

By Chloe Ackerman

Writer Cathy Sultan grew up in Washington D.C. where she yearned to know more of the world. In 1969 her wish came true when she met her Lebanese husband and moved with him to Beirut, Lebanon. She quickly fell in love with the city. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out blocks away from their home in 1975, they continued to raise their family in Beirut until it was no longer manageable.

Cathy Sultan uses her experience and unique knowledge of the civil war in Lebanon to write her latest book Damascus Streetthe sequel to The Syrian. Sandy Tolan, author of Children of the Stone, which was a 2015 L.A. TimesBook of the Year finalist, wrote "Her insights into the region's history and politics go far deeper than your average thriller, exploring U.S. imperial meddling, the heartbreak of Palestinian refugee camps, and the complex and fragile construction of Lebanese society. Damascus Street will stay with you."  Damascus Street recounts the story of American physician Andrew Sullivan, whose fiancée is kidnapped by an important Lebanese ex-political figure. This book follows Sullivan’s thrilling mission to get her back. The following is an interview with Cathy Sultan about her latest book.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Your book Damascus Street tells the story of a man whose fiancée was kidnapped in Syria by a former intelligence chief after a civil war in Lebanon. What is your writing process for such a serious topic 

CATHY SULTAN: I think it is my ability to imagine the impossible. After all, I am writing about the Middle East, and particularly Lebanon, which I know intimately, and where skullduggery is an everyday occurrence.

This book includes many specific dates and historical events that took place in the Middle East; what kind of research was involved while writing this book?

I am a news junkie and so I read extensively about events as they unfold across the Middle East. Most of the research in the book is first-hand knowledge and other than fact-checking on some events and dates, I needed little research. Some of the events in the book, like the explosion that took the life of an important intelligence chief, happened a block from my apartment. Our building shook and I was there to cover it first-hand as the aftermath was reported. He was such a colorful, shady, and important figure with four different passports, and once the rumors began flying about who he actually was and what he did, I began collecting any and all articles I could get my hands on, assuming I would get to use it in some future work. When I got to that part of Damascus Street, I knew it was the right moment to get out my notes and reconstruct his assassination, the details of which, without much invention on my part, were true. 

Are there any challenges you face as both a fiction and a nonfiction writer?

Other than accepting the challenge from my editor to take on fiction, I have not faced many challenges. Writing fiction is actually more fun. No footnotes, no intense fact-checking and I get to use my imagination, which works overtime, due, no doubt, to the exciting life I have had the privilege of living. I don't rule out returning to nonfiction, particularly if Lebanon is attacked, but in the meantime, I feel that fiction gives me the vehicle to tell what I perceive as the truth, only through fiction I get to hook into fast-paced thrillers which makes it easier for the reader to learn something while enjoying a good read.

According to your website, you wrote the memoir A Beirut Heart: A Woman’s War as a project for your children. What made you want to write the novels Damascus Street and the first book The Syrian?

Yes, I began writing A Beirut Heart for my children, but I soon discovered that it was also a way to mourn my loss of a city I loved. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was also discovering a way to combat what came to be called PTSD. For a very long time, I could not even read sections of A Beirut Heart without crying. Over the years I have gotten better but the trauma of war never disappears. On the upside, the experience of war has not only defined my life, it has driven my motivation to better understand the destructive forces of conflict across the Middle East and to place blame where I know it belongs.

The trilogy which includes, to date, The Syrian and Damascus Street, centers on regime change in Syria. The characters involved in carrying out the West's agenda, and those willing to risk their lives to stop such an atrocity, are the people I want to see rule our world. I know for a fact that our mass media has distorted the news coming out of Syria, and I took it as a challenge to refute those reports and incorporate more accurately what is really going on in the region.   

On your website, you explain how it was frustrating before you wrote your memoir that when you wanted to tell stories about your time living in Beirut during civil war, no one seemed to want to listen. Have people approached you since you started writing your books to share any of their stories relating to the Lebanon Civil War? 

I did find it frustrating and at times hurtful when no one initially wanted to hear me talk about my life in Beirut during the war. Once A Beirut Heart was published attitudes changed. People's aversion to things they can't comprehend is part of human nature. I also attribute that attitude to the fact that we as a country have never had to face the challenges of a war. A conflict far from home enables us to "turn it off" and pay it scant attention. When we are confronted with someone who actually lived through one of those wars, it disrupts our complacent lives and makes us uncomfortable. State-side, no one has approached me about their own Beirut stories, but in Beirut, among my friends, we often reminisce about the years we shared together and that forever changed our lives.

What do you hope the readers will take from this book?

I hope my readers will better understand the West's intervention in Syria and the motivations behind such destruction and upheaval. I also hope readers will realize mass media oftentimes, with its close affiliation with the military, industrial complex, has a political agenda in promoting war. Remember Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction lies!

To purchase Damascus Street, visit The Local Store

A Note from the Guild Director: Saying Goodbye To Cirenaica

 The Cirenaica crew.

The Cirenaica crew.

By CVWG Director B.J. Hollars

On the last night of our last summer retreat at Cirenaica, I waved goodbye, wished the writers well, and then slipped out the door into the cricket-filled night.  

What I knew—but what few others did—was that it would be our last night there forever.  

After three glorious summers at Cirenaica, we are saying farewell once and for all.  The property was a perfect fit during our early years, but as our program grows, so too must our venue.  In chats with the property owner, patron of the arts Jill Postlewaite, it seemed the timing was right on both ends.  And so, on that last night, I closed the door, and with it, concluded the last of my magical nights out at the lodge.

I’ve been putting off this article for a while now.  Mostly because by writing it, I’m acknowledging that this chapter of my life is now closed.  And certainly, it’s one of my favorite chapters.  When reflecting on my various professional duties, it’s clear to me now that aside from my time in the classroom, nothing I’ve done—no meeting I’ve attended, no committee I’ve chaired, no anything—has offered me such a rewarding experience.  If you were a part of this magic in any capacity—as a participant, or a writer-in-residence, or a chef, or an assistant arts administrator, or simply as a guest—I want to thank you.  The truth is, you brought that magic.

Of course, that magic’s a little easier to come by when secluded in a beautiful lodge on 43 pristine acres.  But what remains true—and what I was reminded of throughout our combined 16, three-day sessions at Cirenaica—is that the magic resides in the people, not the place.  It’s the spirit of Cirenaica that must live on, and it will.  

Last summer was filled with all the usual fare: great writers, delectable food, and raucous ping-pong battles that raged deep into the night.  But what made this summer different was the way in which the participants seemed to take full ownership of their time there.  If there was a problem they fixed it.  If all was going well, they worked hard to make their time better still.  

One of my fondest memories involves a toilet seat, which, one afternoon, came a bit loose from the bowl.  A quick-thinking participant grabbed his tools, ran to Menards, and replaced the seat without so much as an ask.  And in doing so, he created a brand, new Guild award: The Toilet Seat Award.  After giving it a thorough scrubbing, we began awarding this toilet seat to the participant each week who, in the opinion of Cirenaica staff, best embodied a spirit of generosity.  And week after week, the recipient appeared to be over the moon at the chance to lift that toilet seat high above his or her head.  Yes, it was goofy, and maybe even a little strange.  But for me, it was confirmation of the bond we’d forged together.  In 72 hours, we’d grown comfortable enough to take pride in such a silly thing.  

Which, of course, isn’t a silly thing at all.  In 72 hours, strangers became friends and writers became a writing community.  That so much could be accomplished so quickly is a testament to that aforementioned magic.  Empathy was at the core of everything we did, and that will hold true for everything moving forward.

We’ve got something very, very special in the works for next summer.  And if I were you, I’d block off July 18-21 on your calendar right now. We’ll have more details soon, but for now, just know that though we’re saying goodbye to Cirenaica, we’re holding strong to its spirit.

It’s a spirit that you helped create.  And we’re hopeful you might bring it with you next summer, too.

Be inspired, inspire others,

– B.J. Hollars   

Bruce Taylor On His New Book, Breaking Forms, and Fish Chowder

 credit: Justin Patchin

credit: Justin Patchin

by Chloe Ackerman 

I will never stop being amazed by the awe-inspiring power of words. In my studies as a creative writing major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I have consistently found myself motivated by the writing processes of other writers. I was especially excited to have the opportunity to interview Bruce Taylor—former poet laureate of Eau Claire, and professor emeritus at UWEC—about his new book Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death. Bruce Taylor will be reading from this book at The Local Store in downtown Eau Claire at 5PM on Monday, October 8th. Be sure to swing by and pick up a copy!

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Chloe Ackerman: Has your poetry style evolved over time? If it has, how has it changed? 

 Bruce Taylor: As a young poet in the 60’s I would say, along with many others, things like “the sonnet is where old poets go to die” What I didn’t know I meant was I wasn’t good enough to write one. It takes a while to get your chops. Formal poetry is easy to do badly but hard to do well. You try.

CA: Have you noticed any changes in the poetry or literary scene around Eau Claire?

BT: I don’t know if more folks are writing across the Chippewa Valley, though it seems so. There are certainly many more venues to share: the readings at places like the library, The Local Store, The Pablo Center, publications such as Local Lit, Barstow & Grand, Twig. And the CVWG is directly responsible for injecting new energy and interest in writing. For a population the size of ours, the CVWG list an extraordinary number of writing groups, and book clubs.

 CA: At what point in the poem writing process do you decide to put it in a form?

 BT: Very early, and you don’t “put” it into a form as much as coax, tease, worry, beat it in that direction. The form can always be abandoned, and the poem turns into something more free (er) verse, and often better. Or you can simply cheat. We call it “pushing the envelope.” I have some 16-line sonnets, 3-line couplets and an envoi-less sestina. A form is only as good as it can be challenged, stretched, adapted. Still only about half of my poems are in traditional forms. The new book brings them together for the first time in one volume.

 CA: What question would you like to be asked that gets at the core of you as a writer and/or your writing?

 BT: You just asked it.

 CA: On October 8th at 5pm you are reading from your new book, Poetry Sex Love Music Booze & Death, at a Local Lit: Off the Page event in the Local Store. What do you hope people will take from this event and other events in the series with other local authors?

 BT: A book.

 CA: Is there anything else you would like to share?

 BT: I make a very good fish chowder.

 

On Eating Fire, Following the Research Trail, And Enduring, Enduring, Enduring: A Q&A with Tessa Fontaine

 credit: Annie Agnone

credit: Annie Agnone

BJ Hollars

During my time at the University of Alabama, I had the pleasure of sharing the classroom with nonfiction writer Tessa Fontaine, whose debut memoir The Electric Woman, has received rave reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Vogue, among many other venues.  Additionally, her book been named a New York Times Editor's pick, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.  Which is the long way of saying: I’ve got some pretty talented friends.  On October 19, Tessa will host the program “Recklessness, Obsession and Wild Abandon” as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s annual dinner at The Lismore Hotel.  Purchase your tickets here.

Read on to learn more about Tessa, her writing, and the books that inspired her own.

 BJ Hollars: In graduate school, your work explored an array of topics—from Alabama ghost stories of hoboes riding the rails to Jacques Cousteau.  Did your interest in immersive journalistic techniques, such as joining the last sideshow, seem like a natural progression, or were you spurred to action due to your mother's health issues?

 Tessa Fontaine: I love writing nonfiction because it gives me permission to follow the trail of something I find interesting as deep into the story as I can go. That's what I loved about those earlier nonfiction projects I was working on, and it's the same thing that prompted the beginning of my investigation into the sideshow. But I think my mom's illness—and her impending trip to Italy, from which I didn't think she'd return—that gave me the final push to actually join up with another life entirely. I didn't really know much about immersive journalism before that, but I was hungry to be swallowed by another world, since the one I knew seemed to be falling apart. 

BH: Over the years, I've regularly taught your essays with students, and they're always astonished by your bravery.  Specifically, your willingness to leave school to pursue a life wholly unknown to you.  Can you describe those first moments when you transitioned from graduate student to fire-eating bally girl?    

TF: The transition from graduate student to fire-eater wasn't immediate. In graduate school, you are valued for your brain, for what kinds of things you can think and write. In the sideshow, while quick wit and a fast tongue are important, the most fundamental skill was a physical ability to endure. So I found myself, in my first few days out with the sideshow, still trying to define myself and connect with people by how I could talk about myself, by my accomplishments. But there was always work to be done. Packing and scrubbing and eating fire. So I quickly adapted, understanding that the way to be valued out on the road is to eat fire with such confidence and allure that the audience can't help but buy tickets for the show inside. To work for hours putting up the circus tent without complaining that you're too tired, or the sun is too hot. It was a shifting of work values and skills, neither one better than the other, but a definite rearrangement. 

BH: In writing about learning to eat fire, you note, “The only way to do it is to do it,” adding later that “There is no trick.”  For me, this seems an apt metaphor for many of life's difficulties.  (Robert Frost's line "The only way out is through" also comes to mind.)  When grappling with the loss of your mother, did you find yourself experiencing a similar sentiment?  Does grief, too, transcend the notion of a trick?     

TF: I think grief absolutely transcends the notion of trick. In the face of a profound and sustained loss, as was happening with my mom for years, there's an understandable desire for things to change. For there to be some shift, some miracle, some departure. I came to understand why so many people find themselves alienated from their loved ones in the face of a long-term debilitating illness—choosing to be distanced. While my mom was sick, I kept waiting for something to change, and the heartbreaking and exhausting reality that she wasn't going to get better was almost impossible to accept. But ultimately, that's all there was to do. There was no trick, nothing to make it easier or faster. There was just this: endure, endure, endure.

BH: Some have compared your spirited prose and adventurous spirit to memoirist Cheryl Strayed's work, in particular, her bestselling book Wild.  Did Strayed's work—or the work of other writers—inform The Electric Woman? 

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TF: Yes! I love Cheryl Strayed's spirit and am honored to be compared to her. I think stories of people—especially women - doing physically amazing things are some of my favorites. I had a lot of other books open near me while I wrote The Electric Woman as well—Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir The Chronology of Water, Justin Torres' novel We the Animals, anything by Anne Carson, Jazz by Toni Morrison—I keep a pretty wide array of books open around me and imitate their prose as best I can. 

BH: What don't readers know about your book or your experience writing it?

TF: For me, writing is one of the greatest exercises in empathy. To write the characters in The Electric Woman, I had to think of them as both real human beings, and also characters, versions of the real people, since it's impossible to show all of who someone is. And to do that, as is necessary with a fictional character as well, you have to show all sides—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lovely things they do and their flaws. I think it helped me become a better person— to have to think through a person's best sides as well as their mistakes. It created such a swell of empathy, and I'm very grateful for that. 

You Get When You Give: A Special Note From Director BJ Hollars

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A few months back, after my beloved writers group provided me with some firm but fair feedback on an essay, I wandered back toward my minivan in a haze. I’d spent weeks on that essay, and yet it seemed as if every last word had fallen flat. Frustrated and dejected, I returned to my minivan, collapsing into my seat and putting my key into the ignition. Or rather, I tried to put my key into the ignition, but it wouldn’t fit.

Odd, I thought, taking a closer look. It worked an hour ago.

And it still would have worked had I entered the right minivan. But in the midst of my writerly haze, I’d entered a stranger’s vehicle. That’s right: I’d inadvertently broken into somebody’s van. I leapt out, scanning the darkness for the cops who would surely arrive any minute. 

When I was certain the coast was clear, I began to laugh. Ahead of me, I saw the silhouette of my buddy Ken, who by then was walking toward his own vehicle (and the one he owned, I might add). “Hey Ken!” I called. “I just got into the wrong van!”

He laughed. This was exactly the kind of thing he’d come to expect from a writer like me.

I share this wholly embarrassing anecdote to make a larger point: when we writers spend too much time in our own heads, we lose sight of the larger world. And losing sight of the world—and each other—is a trespass far greater than momentarily entering the wrong van. 

The fix, of course, is to come together as a writing community. To rely on one another so we don’t have to rely fully on ourselves. For the past two and a half years, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has worked tirelessly to provide such opportunities. Over the past year, we’ve made our greatest strides yet, including grants from the Eau Claire Community Foundation, JAMF Nation Global Foundation, Visit Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Arts Board, as well as a city proclamation, and the formation of 6x6: A Reading Series, Writers Anonymous, and Barstow & Grand and continued partnerships with The UW-Eau Claire Foundation, The Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, the UW-Eau Claire English Department, Blugold Radio, Volume One, Wisconsin Public Radio, the Chippewa valley Book Festival, the Brewing Projekt, and so many other local organizations. In addition to all this, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of (thanks to the generous support of Dotters Books, the Sultan Family, the Guild, and a pair of anonymous donors) was our ability to offer scholarships to 10% of our Cirenaica participants this summer. We are changing writers’ lives in fundamental ways, and through their writing, changing our world, too. 

WE NEED YOUR HELP

I come to you now because we need your financial support. For as little as 5.00 a month, you can ensure the Guild’s long-term sustainability with your tax-deductible donation. Not only that, but by joining at any level (Scribblers, Scribes, Wordsmiths, Practitioners, or Patrons) you’ll be eligible for a wide array of gifts: free Barstow & Grand and Cirenaica submissions, stickers, postcards, as well as being entered to win personalized first-edition copies of books by authors from near and far. You can also receive a consultation on your own writing courtesy of a Barstow & Grand editor.

For complete details, click here, then click the “Give to the Guild” button and direct your gift to the “Chippewa Valley Writers Guild Monthly Sustaining Membership” campaign.

It’s hard to quantify just how significant an impact we’ve made together over the past year. Do we measure our success by books published, words written, or the friendships we’ve forged while pounding at the keys? As for my own success, I’ll rely on a single measure: my ability to avoid entering any minivans that don’t belong to me. 

If you value our work, then help ensure that we can keep doing it. We are here for you, but we need you to be here for us, too. 

Please make your gift today. And then, directly following, let us get back to the important work that warms our souls, enriches our lives, and helps build our community one word at a time.

Yours,
B.J. Hollars
Executive Director, Chippewa Valley Writers Guild

Chippewa Valley Writers Guild Awards Five Scholarships for 2018 Summer Writing Retreats

Thanks to the support of Dotters Books, the Sultan family, Chippewa Valley Writers Guild donors, and a pair of anonymous donors, this year the Guild was thrilled to award five scholarships for writers to attend Cirenaica, a writers retreat in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.  

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This year’s recipient of the Dotters Book Scholarship is Katy Hackworthy of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  She writes, “I feel incredibly humbled to receive this honor from a group of women who I respect and who truly display a passion for literacy and equity in the Chippewa Valley.  This award will help me continue to create works that highlight issues I am passionate about, as well as give me the opportunity to further engage with a community of artists that motivate and inspire me.”  Elizabeth de Cleyre, Margaret Leonard and Jill Heinke Moen of Dotters Books say, “Dotters Books is excited about this opportunity to support a local woman writer and her literary work at the Cirenaica Writers Retreat. As women owners, we aim to promote literacy and equality in literature by creating spaces for other women to create. It is our belief that supporting the literary community will help foster collaboration and creativity within the Chippewa Valley.”


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The recipient of the Sultan Scholarship is Sarah Merrill of Sarasota, Florida. “During my time at Cirenaica, I’m hoping to generate new material for a collection of short fiction, set primarily in my home state of Florida. This will be my first time visiting Wisconsin, and I'm excited to broaden my horizons by spending time in a new region of the country. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to connect with fellow writers, as we all strive to delve deeper into our craft.” Author Cathy Sultan, and the scholarship’s underwriter, remarks, “I was very fortunate to have had someone offer help and encouragement in my early writing career. Now it is my turn.”


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The recipient of the CVWG’s Alumni Achievement Award is Dan Lyksett of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  “I'm so grateful to the CVWG for its generosity, allowing me to participate in another Cirenaica workshop. The retreat experience not only directly impacts my writing, but more importantly connects me to new friends and mentors in our growing writing community."


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Finally, our Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards go to Caleb Rosenthal (above, right) of Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin) and Andee Erickson (above, left) of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  Caleb writes, “I am thrilled to attend the Cirenaica retreat with Holly Hughes because it will give me the opportunity to immerse myself in an inspiring and creative atmosphere generated by the presence of other passionate writers, and it will allow me the time to focus on growing as an artist and person."  Andee writes, “I applied to a Cirenaica retreat to expand the way writing exists in my life. Writing creatively is a passion I've kept to myself and I'm excited to celebrate the process with a supportive community. And I'm looking forward to learning from Michael Martone about how to care for each part of the story.


Thanks to these generous donors, this summer, 10% of our Cirenaica participants are scholarship recipients.  “We’re moving in the right direction,” says Guild director B.J. Hollars.  “One day I dream of being accessible to 100% of participants.  We welcome any and all local businesses, organizations, and individuals who’d like to help us reach this goal.”

Both the Dotters Book Scholarship and Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards were selected by a blind submission process.  The CVWG’s Alumni Achievement Award was selected by Cirenaica staff.  The Sultan Scholarship was selected by CVWG executive director B.J. Hollars.

An Interview with Lindsay Starck, 2018 Cirenaica Writer in Residence

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By Emilia Hurst

I recently got the chance to chat with Lindsay Starck one of our writers in residence.  Lindsay is a professor at Augsburg University and the author of Noah’s Wife.  Get the chance to work with her at the Cirenaica retreat this summer, “Thickening the Plot: On Creating Tension and Suspense in Fiction” which will run from August 2-5.

Emilia: What would you say are some of your best personal writing experiences? 

Lindsay Starck: I heard another writer say once that 15% of writing happens when you’re sitting down in front of your paper or your computer, and the other 85% happens when you’re out interacting with the world—walking or cooking or talking with friends. 

Some of my best personal writing experiences have occurred when I’ve stepped away from the page and sat down to talk about the craft with fellow readers and writers who are willing to swap ideas and share experiences. 

How would you say writers can look forward to growing in their craft at this retreat? 

Writing is typically considered to be an activity you do in isolation, but this retreat provides the opportunity to reflect on the process and the product with other writers. Participants will share ideas about stories and techniques, and we’ll be able to experiment with new ideas and new styles. Ideally, we’ll all leave the retreat feeling more inspired and excited by our projects than we were when we arrived. 

What's something you'd like to tell us about your own writing? 

My first passion as a writer is for language. When I wrote my first novel, I believed that beautiful sentences would be enough to create a strong story. I revised that manuscript for several years, during which time I learned the importance of narrative elements—tension, rising action, questions—that help keep readers engaged. Now I’m trying to write stories that balance poetry with plot. 

What are some more specific things writers can look forward to at this retreat? 

Plenty of time to work and reflect on the craft; engaging conversations with fellow writers and mentors; delicious meals; insight into the publishing world of literary magazines; a few days free of all other obligations so that you can immerse yourself in the life of a writer. 

What are some things you've been reading and enjoying lately?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Prairie Fires, the new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book does a wonderful job describing the historical context surrounding the Little House series. It’s also very cool to be reading it while living in the Upper Midwest, since Wilder spent many of her early years in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The most recent novel I read was Jenny Offhill’s Department of Speculation, which was experimental and moving. I might reread Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels this summer, since I enjoyed them so much the first time around. 

How would you describe your writing process? 

I’m very type-A, so I like to plan out my project before I begin it. But once I start writing, the story goes in a different direction. So I have to scrap my plan and come up with a new one. Then I start writing again, and the story slips out of my grasp once more. So the writing process, for me, is a constant balancing act between plotting out the narrative and allowing the story to find its own shape. 

What is one of your favorite places/settings to write in? 

I like to write in coffee shops. Sometimes I put my headphones on and listen to white noise, and other times the din of the coffee shop is white noise enough. Lately I’ve been getting up and writing before doing anything else, like reading my phone or checking my email or even making my breakfast. I heard a writer say that this early morning hour is the perfect time to work because part of you is still in that hazy, vivid dream world, which gives you the space to form fresh sentences and ideas.

What do you do when writing gets tough? 

I spent five years revising my first novel, and I learned from that experience to be patient and have faith in the writing process. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a piece of fiction is leave it alone. Go outside, or clean the house, or play the piano. Let your thoughts wander, and when you come back to your writing, the solution might be waiting right there for you on the page.

8 Questions with Nickolas Butler: Cirenaica Writer-in-Residence

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By Emilia Hurst

I sat down with hometown hero and international bestselling novelist Nickolas Butler to chat about his writing as well as his past summers at CVWG’s Cirenaica writer’s retreat.  Here’s what he had to say.

Emilia:  What are some of your favorite memories from Cirenaica?

Nickolas Butler:  Honestly, what springs to mind are the mornings at Cirenaica.  Typically, I'll leave my house and drive over to Cirenaica about eight in the morning.  And even before we begin our first workshop of the day, all the attendees are generally working away quietly, or bouncing ideas off one another.  You can see that it is a very productive time and space; I always expect to find a few of the attendees either sleeping-in or hungover, but that's never happened.  Everyone really utilizes their time.

What have you learned about writing from teaching at Cirenaica?

Just that everyone has a different path, a different vision for what they want to do with their writing.  People are coming from different starting points in terms of how much they've read, how much they've workshopped in the past, how much they've worked on their own craft, what they want for their careers...  It's good for me to be reminded that we all come to Cirenaica because we love writing, and hopefully books.

How would you say writers can look forward to growing in their craft at this retreat?

It can be really difficult to find unbiased readers of your work—folks who will give you honest feedback.  To me, it's rewarding to watch attendees become friends, fans, or at the very least, supporters of one another's work.  And I'm part of that, too.  I'm really honest with attendees; I write every attendee a personalized letter, every attendee gets individual feedback from me, and I read every story over multiple times.  Our workshops are positive, safe places for criticism - we're trying to make the work better.  And sometimes, it's reading another person's work, or witnessing their workshop that really brings into focus some aspect of your own work.

What's something you'd like to tell us about your own writing?

That's a huge open-ended question...I don't know.  I've published three books, my fourth will be published in early 2019...I'm a full-time writer who feels like the luckiest guy on the face of the planet.  I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing as long as I can and hopefully I can get better at it along the way.

What are some more specific things writers can look forward to at this retreat?

Great food, great camaraderie, a cool rural setting, nice people, a restorative blend of work and relaxation, good conversations, cold beer…

What are some things you've been reading and enjoying lately?

I'm really into the Austrian writer, Robert Seethaler.  Check out his books, A Whole Life and The Tobacconist.  

How would you describe your writing process?

I have none.  I write when I can, when I'm inspired, when I'm afraid I'll forget something...  Sometimes I write at the kitchen table, sometimes in my bed, sometimes in a cafe...  Some folks need a routine or a process.  I'm not one of those people.  I'll take 8 months away from writing to just read books or think or work in my garden, and I don't feel guilty about that.  

What is one of your favorite places/settings to write in?

One of my favorite places to write is the L.E. Phillips Public Library in Eau Claire.  My kitchen table has also been a pretty productive spot.

 

Don’t miss out on the chance to work side by side with this accomplished writer at “Building a Solid Base: Getting Your Fiction Off On The Right Foot,” which runs from July 19-22 at Cirenaica.

See you there!

The Rundown: Meet This Summer’s Writers-in-Residence

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by BJ Hollars

A successful writers’ retreat generally boils down to two factors: the generosity and enthusiasm of the writer-in-residence, as well as the generosity and enthusiasm of the participants themselves.  And so, when trying to find the perfect mix of people to place together in the woods for three days, we at the Guild are often left trying to use one’s words as an entry point into one’s intentions.  Does the writer-in-residence seem fully committed to the participants and their creative work?  And on the other end, do the participants seem excited to grow alongside the writer-in-residence?  We can never know for sure, though the applications go a long way in helping us determine how to best create the supportive community we so deeply value.  

Learn more about our Cirenaica Writers Retreats

My main job is to work hard to provide the best summer programs possible.  Which means I spend a lot of time getting to know our prospective writers-in-residence.  And this year, let me tell you, we’ve got quite a line-up, indeed. Read on for the stories you didn’t know about this year’s writers!

Holly Hughes: Queen of the Birds (And Mindfulness, Too!)

Let’s begin with Holly Hughes.  Holly and I first met, quite by chance, when we were thrust together for a joint reading on extinct birds at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis in the fall of 2017.  We’d never met one another, but at the bookstore’s prompting, we were glad to share the mic.  Holly and I had barely shaken hands before I knew she’d be a perfect fit for Cirenaica.  She exuded kindness, and as she shared her work, I sat quietly in the front row imagining just how much Cirenaica participants could benefit by her expertise both as a poet and a mindfulness expert.  Since our initial meeting, Holly and I have continued to keep in touch.  The writers-who-write-about-extinct-birds club is unsurprisingly small, and every time I think I catch a flicker of a Passenger Pigeon out of the corner of my eye, I always make sure to drop her a note.  Check out her retreat, “Words To Hold A Glittering World: Crossing Genres Mindfully” which runs from June 21-24.

Karla Huston: Wisconsin’s Bard

Next up, Wisconsin poet laureate Karla Huston.  So many kind things can be said about Karla that it’s hard to know where to begin.  But I suppose the story that touched me most involves meeting her last fall, when she took the time to hear me read as part of the Fox Cities Book Festival.  Given her many poet laureate duties, I imagine Karla’s time is a little tight.  Yet the fact that she was able to spare a bit of it to hear me was quite humbling, and further reaffirmed her kind and generous nature.  Over the past two years, Karla has toured the state promoting poetry.  And how lucky are we to share three days with her this summer.  Check out her retreat, “Speak, Write, Memory: On Writing Poetry By Searching Within” which runs from June 28-July 1.

Michael Martone: Modern Day Magellan (At Least Compared To Me)

And now, onto my mentor and friend, Michael Martone.  Michael, like me, hails from Fort Wayne, Indiana.  When I stumbled upon this fact as an undergraduate while reading one of his contributor’s notes, I immediately dropped him an email.  “There are two writers from Fort Wayne!” I said excitedly.  Of course, there are many more than just two.  Soon after familiarizing myself with Michael’s work, I begged my college to bring him to campus, and they obliged.  The one catch: I had to pick Michael up from the airport.  When the big day arrived, I picked both Michael and his son, Sam, up from the Davenport Airport and prepared to drive them back to Galesburg, Illinois.  The problem, though, was that I soon became utterly lost.  Utterly, utterly lost.  As the miles dragged on in the wrong direction, I found myself incapable of admitting defeat.  How far would I have driven, I now wonder?  Would I have driven us to California had Michael not intervened?  Thankfully, Michael intervened, and as politely as possible, suggested that I might consider turning around.  It was good advice.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed all that time together, what I enjoyed most was how charmed he seemed by the entire ordeal.  Or at least not utterly put out by my ineptitude.  Two years later, we studied together at the University of Alabama.  And a few years after that he served as my thesis advisor for my first book.  These days, when faced with a dilemma in the classroom, I often ask myself: “What would Michael Martone do?”  And then, I proceed just as he might.  Apply for his retreat, “From Start to Finish: On Beginnings, Endings, and All the Words In Between” which runs from July 12-15.

Nick Butler: Hometown Hero / International Star

Of course, international bestseller (and hometown favorite!) Nick Butler needs no introduction.  This is his third summer at Cirenaica, and each session with Nick just gets better and better.  Nick’s writing chops hardly need any endorsement from me.  (Though if you want my endorsement, here it is!).  But beyond his writing, he’s also about the kindest, most supportive guy you’ll ever meet.  In summer’s past, I’ve loved watching him meet individually with participants on the back deck, talking folks through their stories.  At the conclusion of each conference, participants always leave with a smile.  Nick always finds a way to help writers find their footing, and he plans to do so again this summer!  Click here to apply for “Building a Solid Base: Getting Your Fiction Off On The Right Foot” which runs from July 19-22.

Lindsay Starck: Writer/Teacher Extraordinaire

Last but not least, meet Lindsay Starck!  A professor at Augsburg University and the author of Noah’s Wife, Lindsay came highly recommended to us by way of Barstow & Grand editor, Eric Rasmussen, who has the pleasure of studying with her in Augsburg’s MFA program.  Last week the three of us enjoyed tacos together at a writers’ conference in Tampa.  What a joy it was!  Lindsay’s welcoming personality and writing talents make her a perfect fit for Cirenaica.  She, like the others noted above, is generous and enthusiastic.  Frankly, the summer can’t come soon enough.  Click here to apply for “Thickening the Plot: On Creating Tension and Suspense in Fiction” which will run from August 2-5.
 

In an effort not to bend your ear (or your eyes) too terribly, allow me to simply say that these writers are ready and waiting to work with you.  And did I mention that each session has a special guest as well (Max Garland, Jon Loomis, Peter Geye, Eric Rasmussen, and others)?  

In closing, there’s always a reason NOT to apply for a writers’ retreat.  And it’s easy to say, “Maybe I’ll try next year.” I’ll encourage you not to wait.  Your art deserves your attention, and we’re here to support your art as best we can.

So what are you waiting for?  Apply today!  Tell your friends!  We’ll save you a seat around the campfire.

    

 

 

Let Nothing Stand in Your Way: Fiercely Guard Your Writing Time!

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by Jan Carroll

Do you put time for writing on your calendar, like you would plans for a romantic evening out (with a heart drawn around it), an appointment with your doctor (underlined twice), or regular time with your best friend (circled and then made into a sun or a flower)? Maybe for you, writing time is so established, so habitual, so ingrained in your schedule that you don’t need to write it down or enter it into your phone—you know when it will happen, like you know what hours you have to be at work, what time to start getting the kids ready for bed, and which night to drag the trash can to the curb. If so, good for you! But that’s not true for all of us.

First Give Yourself Permission

For years, I really wanted to write, but it took a long time to realize that first I had to give myself permission. That among all those other voices, all those other really important things to do—work for money, recover from work, prepare to work again, spend time with loved ones, exercise, mow the lawn, take the car in for a checkup, get my teeth cleaned, do the dishes, scrub the floor, help a friend, do my part to make the world a better place, take the dog out—writing too is important! And for writers—for me—it needs to be a priority. Writing can be seem to be held as less important than so many other things in our culture. But it is important—for what the creative process does in and through us, as well as for whatever potential “product” it yields. For me, writing is like getting enough vitamin D, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I just feel better, more whole, more me. Writers need to write, and we need writers to write.

Then Make It a Date

Once you’ve given yourself permission and have assigned writing a prominent position in your life (and in your schedule), fiercely guard the time you make for it. Rest assured, hordes of reasons to put writing aside will sweep in to distract you. If you think of your writing time the same way you would a romantic date or a great conversation with a good friend, you’ll be less inclined to put it on the back burner if some other enticing or guilt-inducing possibility presents itself. Poet Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook, explains why maintaining this focus is so crucial. 

If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet—one or the other lagging, afraid, or busy elsewhere—there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing … is not so different.

Sure, sometimes you might not be as excited about going to dinner with your sweetie. And true, not every talk with that friend is scintillating. But showing up and being there for that person, and that person reciprocating, over time yields a beautiful relationship. But you have to make the date and show up—on time! If you are consistently there for your writing, it will be there for you. Stephen King, in On Writing, says:

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.

If you find you’re not really that into your writing times, maybe you’re not really that into writing, and you should consider watercolor, piano, community theater, hiking, or chess. But before you throw the baby out with the bath water, first give your writing time some of your best attention, the benefit of the doubt, and approach it with a sense of expectation. Give the relationship a fair chance.

But Maintain Consistent Focus

Why all the fuss? Can’t you just write when you feel like it? When you have a few minutes? Yes, impromptu, spontaneous times to write can be wonderful too. But there’s something about writing at a set time, a regular time, that yields the benefit of continuity of thought. Even if you have to eventually pack up, head home, and get ready for work, if you’ve set the intention to return to the work at the same time tomorrow, or whenever you’ve planned to, it tends to keep your head in the game. Instead of the first twenty minutes of each now-and-then session being you trying to reorient yourself to writing in general and to the mindset of the particular piece you’re working on, you can more easily jump right back in. You don’t have to spend time catching up with your old friend. You can venture right into new territory.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, concurs, describing how purposefully dedicating time for the writing to occur is key to the writing actually happening:

When we sit down each day [or in regularly scheduled sessions] and do our work, power concentrates around us. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

How quickly that magnetic hold can be lost, though. If too often I exchange a writing session for some other fun and possibly quite worthwhile activity, the “iron filings” scatter, and it takes time and work to restore that magnetism. Of course, if the dog is throwing up, a child is bleeding, you get called into work, or fire or flood threaten, do your due diligence. Your muse will understand. 

And Declare and “Wear” This Commitment

Zadie Smith, in her “Ten Rules of Writing,” says, “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Decide when and where you will write. Discuss this with loved ones who share your space and time. Then when other opportunities come up, be prepared to say, “Oh, I can’t. I have another commitment,” or “Can’t. That’s my writing time, and that’s sacred,” and follow through. Over time, most people will get used to this; they’ll respect the time you set aside to write, if you do—so honor it.

Where you write has a lot to do with being true to it. Planning to write at a busy café during busy hours means you’ll probably run into someone you know, and even brief chats eat up precious time and defer concentration. Write away from Internet connection. You can research later, or beforehand. Turn off the phone. Have a bag prepared with all your writing paraphernalia or a space cleared at home dedicated to authorial pursuit. The dining room table, unless you live alone, is not the best spot. Having to clear it off every time, unless absolutely necessary, is not ideal.

Yet, Be Aware of and Open to Spontaneity

While regular, scheduled writing times do the heavy lifting, at times you will experience surprise insight, sudden bright ideas, and great lines coming to you at the least convenient times—in the shower, just as you’re falling asleep, or driving in hectic traffic. That’s ok! In fact, these lightbulbs suddenly glowing above your head or metaphoric faucets turning on can be a wonderful residual result of your regularly scheduled (and kept) sessions. I have often had to slog through a tough writing time when nothing much was coming to me, not much was working, or way more pondering was occurring than composing only to pack up, head home, and then BAM—everything seems to cohere, and choice words flow freely. Good idea to have a pen and paper or recording app readily available.

So, Fiercely Guard This!

If you haven’t yet, first work through giving yourself permission to write—and do! Then, passionately make it a priority—a date, resolutely stay focused and attentive, own this commitment as a valid and vibrant part of who you are, and guard your writing time stubbornly, while anticipating unpredictable, schedule-averse but fruitful deluges. 

Oh—and Have Fun!

 

 

Having Trouble Writing? Write Faster

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by Katie Venit

Ah, writing. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Connecting with readers through telepathic magic, transmitting our thoughts to someone else...it’s a powerful experience. But first you have to fill that blank page, and sometimes that really sucks. You have an idea, a word, a character in mind… but then what happens? What if it’s just slop? What if the ideas vanish before they can be fixed on the page? These doubts can really get in the way of productivity. 

One of my favorite writing adages is that rough drafts are perfect just for having been finished. You should have doubts about your rough draft--but not until after it’s done. Somehow you have to ignore the doubts to complete the perfectly imperfect first draft. 

Enter fast writing. 

With your writing group, take a minute to reflect on your intentions. Set a timer for 30-40 minutes. Everyone writes as fast as they can, with absolutely no edits, no pausing, no doubts. Don’t correct your grammar or spelling. The backspace key does not exist. Your goal is to get as a high a word count as possible. 

After the timer dings, each person reads aloud. Listeners take turns sharing something that they liked about the draft. Constructive criticism is verboten; after all, it hasn’t been revised yet. 

If I have a good idea of what I want to write (or if I’ve had half a beer), I can write almost 900 words in 30 minutes. One of my groupmates consistently tops 1,000. I may only get about 400 words if I don’t really know where I’m going (or if I’ve had the entire beer). Either way, that’s several hundred more words than I had only a half hour earlier, and I can push forward from there in revisions.  

Variations

  • In person, this works best with groups of 2-4 people. If you have a larger group, split into pairs or triads.
  • In addition to giving positive feedback, talk about directions the piece could go in, bring up questions about the piece, or answer any concerns the writer herself brings up. Still, no negative constructive criticism. Just positive energy.
  • Everyone can respond to the same prompt, choose one of several prompts, or continue whatever they’re already working on. My favorite sessions are when I finally pin down an idea that’s been knocking about loose in my head for several weeks. What a relief!
  • Writing longhand on paper is the ultimate way to avoid editing. You probably can’t write as many words per minute, but there’s no backspace key. I also find that I can think more creatively when I write longhand. 

Distance variations

  • Call up a friend and say, “go!” Both of you write for 30 minutes. When time is up, call her back and read your pieces to each other. This works best with two people, unless you’re better at conference calling than I am. 
  • For an online community, set a prearranged time for everyone to start writing into wikis, a private blog, or google docs. When time is up, share the documents electronically and leave feedback for each one. Remember, no one has edited their documents; positive feedback only. 

 

 

 

When the Pen Won’t Work, Try the Axe: On Chopping Writers Block Out of Your Life

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by Ron Davis

A coffee cup holding pens, pencils, a Daisy Duck Pez dispenser and, for some reason, a size 9 blue Rapala sits on my desk. Boldly lettered in dollar bill green on the cup’s side is the phrase, “Will Write For Food.” As a motorcycle magazine columnist, feature writer and reviewer, I do that. But as any writer trying to turn words into bank deposits knows, writing for food often means butting up against the most creativity-crushing, soul-sucking, motivation-murdering impediment to writing anything you’ll ever be happy with: deadlines. Deadlines force compromises; you may never find that certain word, that certain slant you know is out there. Worse, deadlines may also lead to dead ends. A stalled vehicle on the side of the road, at night, in the rain, with no cell phone bars—not just writer’s block—writer’s paralysis. In the words of Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.”

What do I do then? I stop writing. But just walking away to scarf a sleeve of Caramel deLites  Girl Scout cookies or watch one more season of Homeland doesn’t work. I head out to the wood pile.

Splitting and stacking wood works, sometimes. Barring no wood pile, I try mowing the lawn. As long I don’t have to worry about garden hoses, rocks and the neighbor children, it’s a meditative state, the sound of my aged mower even sounding like a mantra…Ommmmmm, cough cough, ommmmmm... Walking the dog can be good, too, though there is a certain level of distracting focus and dexterity involved in daintily bagging dog poop. Driving? I don’t think so—too much imminent danger uses too much brain. Riding a bike? Maybe, but motorcycling, definitely not. Huddled over a luke warm cup of coffee while gazing vacantly out the Acoustic Café window has never beckoned the muse for me. And drinking Scotch just makes me want to, well, drink more Scotch. 

Shoveling snow, now there’s something to try when nature cooperates, but snow blowers, no. Painting has its merits, but isn’t a half-done wall just another deadline? Cleaning the garage, washing the car, all pretty good, as long as I don’t get too fussy. Reading, I would not recommend—too demoralizing to know some smug writer has actually hit his or her deadline.

For me, to break a stalemate with the keyboard, an activity has to walk that wobbling tightrope between having just enough self-absorption to counter the heebie-jeebies of the approaching deadline, while leaving enough room for my “inner writer” to work. As Michael Perry aptly wrote in Coop, “While the bones and meat wrassle, the mind is free to sort and ponder.” 

So, my coffee cup taunts me. Another looming deadline with not so much as a first paragraph, and it’s once more into the backyard where the wood pile awaits. It’s a frosty morning, and breaking the silence, a lone cardinal chimes from the highest branches of a barren ash. It’s working, the oak splits cleanly, and with it the Gordian Knot of another writer’s block. If you’d like to try it, I have about five cords. Bring your own maul.

Our Organization Is Now A Two-Year-Old

 ABOVE: Launching the Chippewa Valley Writer's Guild, February 2016 

ABOVE: Launching the Chippewa Valley Writer's Guild, February 2016 

by CVWG Director B.J. Hollars

On a Thursday night in February of 2016, I arrived at the Volume One Gallery half an hour early in anticipation for our first ever craft talk.  Titled, “Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings On The Way Down” (an homage to my literary hero, Ray Bradbury), I’d prepared to talk about how our fledgling organization might grow for the good of the community.  But the truth was, I had no earthly idea how it might grow.  What might we be?  I wondered.  And how might we do the most good?

Two years later, we’ve found our footing.  Not only do we work hard to provide an array of high-impact educational opportunities for residents of the Chippewa Valley, but we also strive to provide support beyond our craft talks, writers retreats, and other regular events.  What does that support look like?  It comes in many forms.  Maybe we’re partnering with other local organizations to expand our shared missions, or maybe we’re providing an outlet for your work by way of Barstow & Grand or our newsletter.  The point is: we’re here for you, and we’ll continue to be here for you.

And already, our work is receiving notice.  In February, the Guild received more recognition than we could have hoped for.  For starters, on February 27 the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild received a proclamation from the City of Eau Claire in recognition for our commitment to the literary arts.  “Eau Claire values all the writers who live and work among us because they open our minds to what is familiar and challenge us to understand what is different,” said City Council President Kerry Kincaid.  “I am pleased to help elevate the craft to its rightful place among the arts.” And we’re pleased to accept such an honor.  

In addition, on February 9, I was extremely humbled to receive a Vanguard Award on behalf of the Guild’s work.  Once more, to be abundantly clear: this is your award.  Admittedly, my mug (rather embarrassingly) takes up all the air time on the recipient video (who says writing doesn’t make for good film?), but that doesn’t make this award any less yours.  For me, it’s a testament to the power of our literary community, and it’s a reminder, too, that people are paying attention.  

Now that our organization is a two-year-old, I fully except a lot of crying and temper tantrums in the days ahead.  (I imagine I’ll be the one doing both).  But on a more serious note, we’re at a point where there’s still so much to look forward to.

On that note, I’m pleased to announce the formation of 6x6, a new reading series to be held right here in the Chippewa Valley.  What’s 6x6 mean?  It means each reading will feature 6 readers for 6 minutes each.  The catch: once you read in the series, you’ll never read in it again.  This isn’t meant to be exclusionary.  Quite the opposite!  We have so many talented writers in this region that we can fill the series again and again and feature new voices every single time.

In short, we’ve already put some great days behind us, but we’ve got plenty more great days ahead.  Let’s look forward to the good work (and good writing!) ahead of us.

Cirenaica Spotlight: An Interview With Writer-in-Residence Holly Hughes

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by Emilia Hurst

This summer the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild will be hosting five amazing writers retreat.  Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring one retreat in each of our newsletters.  This month, we’re excited to share a few behind-the-scenes details on our first retreat, “Words to Hold a Glittering World: Crossing Genres Mindfully” featuring Seattle-based writer-in-residence Holly Hughes. This retreat will take place from June 21-24.  

I recently had a chance to catch up with Holly and ask a few questions about her personal writing philosophy, as well as what potential participants can look forward to this summer:

Emilia Hurst: What do you feel is a unique experience or aspect about these retreats?

Holly Hughes: First, I appreciate the philosophy that I believe underlies Cirenaica: that we’re gathering to learn from the natural world as well as from each other;  that we’ll be combining writing instruction with time spent writing; and that the focus is on building a community of writers during the time we have together.  Writing workshops and retreats can feel intimidating, especially if participants feel that they’re in competition with each other.  I like to create a supportive atmosphere in which we’re all there to encourage each other to become the best writers we each can be.  And as a former seafarer, I love that Cirenaica means “siren of the sea.”  In my experience, the sea has provided a rich reservoir of imagery for creative work—and I think that can be true for the natural world in general.   

What part of the retreat are you most excited for?

I’m excited about all of it!  But I must admit I’m looking forward to returning to the Midwest for a few weeks—I grew up in Winona, Minnesota—so it’s a chance for me to experience the landscape of my childhood again.  Walking is definitely an important part of my writing practice, so I look forward to walking in a different landscape.   I’m also looking forward to experimenting with writing in different genres—and helping participants discover how crossing genres can feel freeing. 

What kinds of people would enjoy and benefit from this retreat?

I hope that my workshop will appeal to anyone who’s interested in words and place and how the two interact with and inform each other.  I also hope it’ll appeal to writers of both prose and poetry who share a willingness to write outside their comfort zone.  Finally, I think it will appeal to anyone who wants to experience a supportive writing community, where the focus is on exploring the craft of writing, though I will address questions about publication briefly, too.  

How would you say your latest poetry collection Passings is different from your previous publications?

Passings is unique in that it’s a chapbook focused on a specific subject:  extinct birds, an interest/passion  I share with BJ Hollars.  It’s also unique in that it’s a fine-art limited edition letterpress book—only 375 copies were printed. Like the birds, when they’re gone, they’re gone.  I hope it will raise awareness not only of the bird species we’ve lost, but those we’re in danger of losing as birds’ habitats and ranges are affected by changing weather patterns.  And finally, I included a short prose essay as a Preface to establish a context for the poems, so it’s an example of a cross-genre book.  

What can people expect to take away from this retreat?

Through the time-honored tradition of walking as a means of inspiration,   students can expect to take away a variety of strategies for connecting with both their inner and outer landscapes.  More specifically, they’ll also learn a few hybrid forms, such as the Japanese haibun, and do some collaborative writing, by working on a renga together.  I hope everyone will come to the workshop with an open, receptive mind—what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” -- and a willingness to try out new forms, all in an effort to hold the elusive beauty of our glittering world. 

What more could you ask for? Click here to apply today for this wonderful opportunity! 

February 27: Chippewa Valley Writers Guild to Receive Proclamation from the Eau Claire City Council

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On Tuesday, February 27 at 4:00p.m. the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild will receive a proclamation from the City of Eau Claire in recognition for the Guild’s commitment to the literary arts.  “Eau Claire values all the writers who live and work among us because they open our minds to what is familiar and challenge us to understand what is different,” said Council President Kerry Kincaid.  “I am pleased to help elevate the craft to its rightful place among the arts.”

Since its founding in February of 2016, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has worked hard to provide an array of high-impact educational opportunities for residents of the Chippewa Valley and beyond.  By way of writers’ retreats, craft talks, a robust newsletter, and other events, the Guild has continued to showcase the vibrancy of our region’s literary community.

“It’s an honor to receive formal recognition from the City of Eau Claire,” said Guild executive director B.J. Hollars.  “This region’s support for the arts is well-known, and by working closely with city officials, I’m certain the arts can continue its upward trajectory.”

Planners vs. Pantsers: Which Are You?

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By Katie Venit

Rumor has it there are two types of writers: planners and pantsers. Planners outline the heck out of a piece. They know every scene, plot twist, and character’s favorite color, all before firing up the word processor. Pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants) don’t do any of that. They wait until the muse moves them, then they simply record what it says. They let the characters decide their own fates and are excited to write because they want to find out what happens. 

The reality is that most of us are planner/panster hybrids, and could benefit from some casual prewriting planning. Drawing graphic organizers like mind maps can generate ideas or explore unconscious connections between topics.

Start by writing a word or phrase in the middle of a piece of paper. Let’s say, “apples.” Branching from that like legs on a spider, connect “apples” to whatever associations that word brings to mind: tree, pie, fall, apple of my eye, Lowly Worm, Apple Dumpling Gang, comfort food, crisp, sweet, Gramma.

If one of your associations seems especially rich, such as “tree,” branch associations off of that: shoe trees, climbing trees, wood, carpentry, family trees, tree of life, Adam and Eve… whoa. Adam and Eve branched off of “tree,” but it also connects to “apples.” Draw a line from “Adam and Eve” back to “apples,” connecting the two. That might be an interesting theme. “Family tree” is another area that seems intriguing. How can you connect “family tree” with “apples”?  Could “Gramma” be the connection? 

Does a particular area of the map calls to you? If so, that might be a rich direction for your story. 

You can do this on your own, but it’s really fun with your writing group. Set a timer for 10 minutes and quickly map words without second guessing your choices. When everyone finishes, take the group through your map, explaining the associations and what parts intrigue you the most. 

Variations

Everyone creates a map on the same topic. Compare and contrast. This is a great team building activity that offers a window into how your groupmates think. 

Related to the above, consider having everyone draw mind maps for one of your member’s specific projects. These maps can provide inspiration when it comes time to write.

Everyone draws maps using different word prompts then share. What areas are most intriguing? Despite being drawn from different words, do the maps inform each other somehow? 

If everyone maps different topics, trade maps and spend another few minutes adding to someone else’s map.

Work simultaneously on the same map. You might not need a timer for this variation; just work until it’s finished. 

After finishing the maps, spend 30 minutes writing drafts based on the maps (trade maps or have everyone work on their own). Maybe the challenge is to write an entire piece or maybe it’s just the first paragraph. 

Distance variation: The internet has a plethora of free mind mapping tools out there. Create one, and email it to a partner. 

5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Be A Writer (and the One Reason Why You Should)

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by BJ Hollars

A few weeks back I was asked to join a panel of writers at GeekCon, a wonderfully successful event held on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.  The event featured all kinds of creatives: sculptures, comic book artists, Lego builders, game players, role players, among others.  In preparing for the panel, I tried brainstorming a list of reasons why people should be writers.  About ten minutes into my brainstorm, mostly all I’d come up with were reasons why maybe we shouldn’t.  My list reads as follows:

Reasons Not to Be A Writer:

1. Most of us will never find our books at Barnes & Noble (translation: fame is rare).

2. Most of us will never make a living doing it (translation: riches are rare).

3. Most of us will never receive the recognition we think we deserve (translation: even the people who love us will likely give us little more than a skim and a “like” on social media).

4. Most of us will feel personally unrewarded for our efforts (translation: it’ll never feel good enough).

5. Most of us can barely even fess up to being called writers.  

(This last one might be related to my own personal neurosis.  When people ask me if I’m a “writer” I generally say “I write”—opting for the verb, instead.)

As I chewed on the eraser of my pencil, trying to figure out what bit of optimism I might bring to the panel, I was at last reminded of the main reason why I write.  Because for me, writing is the most direct and democratic mechanism to connect with the human heart.  For the price of a pencil and a notebook you can bypass geography and social circles and tax brackets and potentially make a difference in another person’s life.  Through your work, you might be able to offer the precise words that someone else desperately needs to hear.

On a few rare occasions in my life, I’ve been the recipient of such kindnesses.  Once, while at a conference, a stranger ran up to me with a literary magazine I’d published in, and she asked me to autograph it.  “I read this essay probably once a week,” she said—blowing my mind.  And then, in an effort to blow it further, added: “I’m a farmer, and I like to read it on the tractor.”

I lifted a skeptical eyebrow.  Not only had this person enjoyed the words I’d written enough to read them more than once, but she’d enjoyed them so much that she read them while farming!  Not in a million years could I have predicted that my humble piece might have touched a stranger so deeply.  But in this instance, it had.

And that, of course, is true for all of us.  We all possess words and stories that have the power to connect with the human heart.  And while it’s easy to get bogged down with all the reasons why we ought not to write, focus instead on the one reason why you should.  We do it to connect.  We do it because it feels good to be heard.   And sometimes, in doing so, we remember that sometimes our words matter to others, too.    

Sci-fi Sister Act: An Interview with Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin

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Recently, I got a chance to converse with Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin – sisters and co-authors of a new YA sci-fi book called Halcyon. Check it out ...

BJ Hollars: Tell us a bit about Halcyon. What's the book about and how did it come to be?

Caroline Akervik and Ruth Rankin: Halcyon is a Young Adult Science Fiction novel about a teenaged girl who discovers that things are way more complicated than they seem at her new school.  

It’s hard enough to always be the new girl at school for Hailey Schick. She’s managed to irritate the ruling clique at the school and Trevor, the boy she sort of likes, is total social outcast. Nothing is as it seems at University. Preston and Chelsea rule the school with an iron fist and are obsessed with stomping out all nonconformity. There is more going on here than the usual cutthroat high school games. Eternally young sentinels from the parallel universe of Halcyon have infiltrated their school and plan to use it as a launching pad for a planned takeover of Earth. Hailey and Trevor may be all that stands between Earth and a takeover by the militaristic Juventus.  Halcyon blends elements of the Gossip Girl with The Hunger Games. 

The novel developed from conversations that Ruth and I had while waiting for my kids to finish swim lessons more than ten years ago. It took us a very long time to understand the story, the characters, and the problem that they face. 

BJH: Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration.  How did you two meet?  How did you decide to write together?

CA & RR: We are sisters. We’ve always talked about and discussed books that we have both read, or wanted to read. So it was a natural next step to try and write something together. We also both like to read the same genres, so we just kind of brainstormed what types of novels we would like to read as avid young adult fans. There is a really special energy about YA literature that drew us to the genre. We started with the question of “What if…” That question led us down the rabbit hole to Halcyon, a world where a sinister order of the eternally and unnaturally young rule.

BJH: What was that writing process like?  What are the upsides to collaboration?  The downsides?

CA & RR: We live in different states, California and Wisconsin, respectively, so it takes some imagination and lots of shared docs to write together. Collaboration requires some creativity. We discuss ideas and possible story developments over the phone. Brainstorming with another person who knows the characters and the story arc well is very powerful, but you do have to work your way through arguments/discussions when our visions or ideas diverge. And if that fails, there is always rock, paper, scissors. 

BJH: What advice do you have for folks working in the young adult genre?

CA & RR: Both of us read a lot of YA lit. Our advice to those interested in writing in the genre is to not write “down” to young readers, rather to assume that they are a discerning and demanding readers. However, there are some real distinctions to YA lit. YA books tend to be less wordy and get to the action faster. YA readers are less patient with authors. The best way to write in a genre is to actually read the genre. You get a sense of what the readers expect, and it can shape how your narrative comes together. 

BJH: What else would you like to share about the book?  Any lessons learned along the way?

CA & RR: We are debating the idea of writing a sequel to this novel. Earth may not be safe from the Juventus, so we may need to see what Hailey and Trevor are up to next. As far as lessons go, we’re not entirely sure how we ended up writing a Young Adult Science Fiction novel. As you grow in understanding your characters, they choose their own path, and, as the author, you have to make it work within the framework of the novel. When you’ve finished writing something, and you reread it, you have to come away from the experience knowing that you have written honestly and from the heart, no matter what the genre.