Jessica Goldberg is the creator and executive producer of Hulu’s The Path. Her television credits include Parenthood, Camp, Deception, Alex of Venice, and The Prince of Motor City. In addition to her film and TV work she is an award-winning playwright whose works include Affair Play, Good Thing, The Hologram Theory, The Hunger Education, Refuge, Stuck and Ward 57.
Picture it: you’re at your favorite cafe when out of the corner of your eye, you spot Spielberg picking up his early-morning latte. You follow him across the street through the revolving door of a nondescript office building and into the elevator where he asks you to press the fourth floor button. You’ve always wanted to break into TV. This is your big chance! You take deep breath and confidently pitch him. Luckily, you’ve just developed your perfect pilot with Steven Peros.
Steven’s done it all: playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing. He’s sold 18 films and 4 pilots.
Add to that a staff writing gig AMC’s First Scripted Series and pilots sold to MTV and NBC-Universal. This is a man who knows what to say and how to pitch it. NYU pedigree, an eye for detail and a gab gift.
We were lucky to catch up with Steven to learn more about his life in show business, his work as a playwright and personal insight into what it takes to break into and stay in Tinseltown.
Steven is teaching an Intro TV Writing Workshop at the Pad starting Mon. June 26. If crafting a high concept show for TV, fleshing out the pilot or pitching it like a pro excites you, check it out.
1. How did you get your first gig as a TV writer?
I credit my first gig from being in the right place at the right time with the right piece of material. A producer knew I had written the as-then unproduced script for THE CAT’S MEOW which was about Old Hollywood. As it turns out the producer had a former partner who was trying to put together a writing staff for a new show on AMC called THE LOT, a half-hour single camera dramedy which took place on a fictitious movie studio backlot in 1938. They wanted writers who knew that world – as opposed to seasoned sitcom writers – and I had the perfect writing sample. So the lesson here is keep writing because you never know when it will come in handy.
2. What’s your advice for aspiring writers on breaking into TV?
First, learn how to write TV well. Read LOTS of pilots and take notes on what is happening and when it happens. Notice the consistencies. Don’t binge watch shows. Instead, watch every pilot and do it with the pause button so you can take notes on where each act break is and what has been accomplished in each act. Finally, don’t be afraid to be yourself. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t sell your first show. I did. Second, nurture relationships, contacts, and have the perfect elevator pitch for your show. Reach out to anyone you can who can help you on your path to a producer or agent.
3. You wrote on AMC’s Emmy-winning comedy, The Lot. This was AMC’s first serialized Period Show. Any differences between writing a period half hour comedy versus a period feature?
It was an unusual situation in that we all wrote separately and then met one on one with the show runner. There was no writers room. So it was like writing a little mini movie each week. Other than page count, there was no difference between the period TV show and the period movie except that there was more emphasis on “the joke” in THE LOT than there was in a more subtly “witty” script like THE CAT’S MEOW. It was also where I learned that all of our scripts ultimately went through the show creator’s laptop so that all episodes could sound like it was coming from “one voice.”
4. You’ve worked with legends (Peter Bogdanovich, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Dolly Parton). What was that like?
All of them wanted to do what was best for the work. They all have strong personalities and points of view, but were very secure so ego never came into play (despite Peter’s enfant terrible reputation from the 1970’s). I learned so much about directing and writing from Peter, especially economy. Kirsten and Eddie were both very hard workers and both wanted to say less, not more. Eddie is super smart, had just won two Emmy’s for his HBO special, and had great ideas. And Dolly Parton lives up to her reputation as both larger than life yet truly the nicest and most approachable person in show business.
5. You’ve sold pilots to prestigious networks like MTV and NBC/Universal. What’s the key ingredient to a successful pitch? Can you tell us about those pitches and what the studios/pods connected with about these projects (Barbizon, Dorian Gray, etc)?
You must be a showman when you pitch. You must make producers and network executives (1) SEE the show and (2) want to work with YOU. Those are your goals. For no more than 20 minutes (ideally 10-15 minutes) the floor is yours and they want you to entertain them and make them forget their stressful lives. They are hoping you will be great. So rehearse and be great. If there are a lot of characters, I have found it helpful to create a poster board with stills of known actors who look “in character” so that they have even more of the feel that they are watching the show unfold before their eyes and don’t have to keep track of all the names you are saying.
I always receive a big exclamation of delight when I pull out a character board because they know I am making it easier for them to focus. And don’t try to tell them everything. Just what is necessary to segue into Part 2 of the pitch meeting: Discussion (as opposed to monologue).
6. You’re a playwright as well as a screen and a TV writer. What are some of the valuable skills that you learn through writing plays and how do they translate in TV writing?
You learn how to write dialogue in scenes that are far longer than those found in TV shows. This is a plus because you learn how to write with subtlty and humor as opposed to story-story-story. As a result, when a playwright enters TV (networks are always interested in playwrights), you can show them how to bring nuance to scenes where the dialogue is too flat and/or “on the nose”.
7. What is the #1 mistake rookie writers make in their scripts?
They forget about the visual component of movies. Even though they may never go to see stage plays, their early scripts read like stage plays, communicating everything through dialogue only.
8. Would you let us in on what writers can expect to learn from your TV Pilot class?
They can expect this: if they come in with three ideas in Class 1, and if they do the work I ask of them each week, they will leave Class 5 with a thorough beat sheet, with a beginning, middle, and end, broken into acts and scenes. Every one of my students who followed my guidance left with a solid blueprint to then write their first draft.
Thanks so much, Steven! We can’t wait for your class.
Dream of breaking into the biz? Check out Steven’s Intro TV Writing Workshop starting Mon. 6/26.
Every aspiring journalist knows the dream: the Columbia degree, weekend jaunts in Central Park between celebrity interviews, hunkering down in a Harlem Brownstone with a hot cup of joe in hand while revising that line of a NY Times Piece. Jessica Henriquez has lived it for the last five years. We caught up with Jessica to learn more about her journey as a writer, her creative process and hard fought lessons as a freelancer and essayist.
Jessica is teaching a online Personal Essay Class at the Pad starting Tues. June 6. If writing brutally honest essays for top tier publications like Salon or O Magazine is your thing, you should check it out.
1. Tell us about your background.
You know those obnoxious people who say things like: I’ve always been a writer, or I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil? Well, I am one of those obnoxious people. On my bookshelf, I have a dozen thick journals that hold every single one of my secrets, heartbreaks, and pages of the agonizingly boring analysis I’ve made about the world since I was 6. I didn’t pursue journalism or creative writing in college. In fact, I studied to be an Elementary school teacher until I realized that I wasn’t especially fond of other people’s children.
I broke into the publishing world like a teenager breaks into a neighbors vacant beach house: clumsily and quickly. Many people have this assumption that you need to start at the bottom and work your way to the top and for many people–this strategy works. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was too impatient for that. One of the first cold pitches I ever sent out was to an editor at Vanity Fair (about a luxury hotel in Big Sur that housed guests on one end of the property and employees on the other side). Within 36 hours she sent me a response! It was a no. And because I was so young and naive and ambitious, I didn’t let that “no” stop me.
I simply went down my list and sold the story to CondeNast Traveler – a more appropriate place for a story like that. Rejection is a good thing. Don’t fear it. Embrace it. There are a dozen reasons an editor rejects a pitch and it doesn’t mean you’re a worthless writer who should have listened to her mother and gotten a real job. No means not right now. No means revise. No means cut words. No means find another angle. No means find the right publication.
2. Any tips for appealing to A-list editors?
The best way to appeal to ALL editors is this: have a great story and be easy to work with. It sounds simple, but it takes a bit of effort. In the beginning of my career, I wrote EVERYTHING on spec (meaning – I wrote the entire piece un-commissioned and unsolicited and hoped the editor liked it enough to buy it). That was really motivating for me because if I put in the time and energy to find sources and interview them and write up a 1500 word article, you better believe I wasn’t going to stop until somebody bought it. Another thing to remember is that the writing world is actually REALLY small. If you have one contact that can introduce you to another, that can make a world of difference.
The last thing you want is to end up in the slush pile (the general submissions inbox for a magazine or news outlet). If you have one human person to send it to directly then you are WAY ahead of the game.
3. Do you process things that are difficult to talk about in your essays? For instance, is your NY Times Modern Love essay an example of that?
That essay was a true labor of love (from living it, writing it and editing it with Dan Jones). There are so many things that personal essays should never be (cliche, naval gazing, written for revenge!), but one thing that all successful essays have in common is that they reveal something to the writer and the reader. Joan Didion has this quote that I love: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Writing has always been a way for me to ask a question about myself or the world or an emotion I don’t yet understand and hopefully by the end of my piece, something has been revealed to me as well as the reader.
An essay doesn’t need to end with a pretty little bow, but it does need to come to some conclusion.
4. Tell us about the your experience as an MFA Candidate at Columbia.
For two years, I was able to dedicate my life to writing down all of the stories that had only ever lived in my head and reading five books a week; it was in so many ways every artist’s dream. I studied with brilliant minds like Hilton Als and Margo Jefferson and Paul Beatty and Rob Spillman and so many others who were generous with advice and encouragement. One bit of advice that sticks out to me is something I was told by the memoirist/novelist/biographer Benjamin Taylor, “A writer is never more exposed than when he/she is writing dialogue.”
This is so true! You know when you read bad dialogue because it is clunky and leaves you feeling uncomfortable and thinking NO ONE SPEAKS THAT WAY! We all have conversations and overhear conversations every day. Yet, so much bad dialogue exists in writing. Take a small notebook with you everywhere you go (or use your iPhone notes app), and write down bits of conversation that stand out to you. Write down that thing a pilot said over the loud speaker that made everyone on the plane laugh. Write down the things children say. Write down how your waiter introduces himself to the table. All of these will be valuable to you when you write a character.
5. You have such admirable willingness to share your life with readers in pieces like your O Magazine essay. One of the most harrowing things for writers about the personal essay is, well, how personal it is. Has the vulnerability of exposing yourself to your audience ever been difficult for you? What advice do you have for aspiring writers hoping to overcome that barrier?
I’m actually a very private person, ironically. There are secrets and shame that I wouldn’t share with someone in my day-to-day life but you could easily read about it online or in a magazine. It is hard to put your personal life on the page because while it does something beautiful like inviting a reader into your world to connect with your pain or experience, it also invites readers in who will judge, analyze, shame and speculate. I had no idea that I was wasting so much money on couple’s therapy when the people with all of the answers on how to have a happy marriage were trolling the online comments section!
Getting over the fear of exposing yourself in your writing is to really ask yourself why are you writing this and who are you writing this to? I write everything that I write because I want to connect with that reader that is 10,000 miles away who feels how I felt and truly believes that they are alone. I don’t write personal essays for the likes or the shares or for the money. I write about my experience hoping that it finds its way to that person who is in desperate need of solidarity. Reminding myself of the who and the why allows me to quiet the voices in the back of my mind.
6. Tell us about your creative process.
I just read this great Shouts and Murmurs in the New Yorker about the writing process! My process is a little more chaotic than the one described there. I freelance full time. I’m finishing my first book. I have a 4-year-old son, and I’m training for a triathlon. We all have so many things going on in our lives that waiting for inspiration to strike is not an option. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it is another way to say I’m feeling scared today, or I’m feeling lazy today, or I’m feeling hungover today. Writing is my job. If I were a baker, I couldn’t show up and claim baker’s block. Do your job. Mix the ingredients together, whip icing, kneed things, (I have never baked in my life – is that clear yet?) and if it tastes disgusting when you’re finished, well, then you’ve had a terrible baking day but by god you baked because you are a baker.
As far as routine goes, I don’t need to sit in the same chair every day and drink 2.5 cups of tea first and use my lucky pen, no. I get in 4-5 hour chunk of writing while my son is at school. I write in a hotel lobby, in a coffee shop, on the subway, in my head while I’m eating lunch in the park. The idea of an office and a cubicle seems unbearably loud to me. Other people’s chatter is my white noise. I start every writing session by editing what I wrote the day before and then I pick up where I left off. I write 1500 new words every day. That is my goal and if I don’t meet it I am miserable (ask my partner, he can always tell by my mood if I’ve had a successful writing day or not).
When it comes to personal essay I always have a dozen ideas floating around in my head so I choose the one topic that I feel the most angry/saddened/confused by. I like to start with a solid emotion and write my way out of it.
7. When you write personal essays, do you have your upcoming memoir in mind?
I think a lot of personal essayists have a book of essays in mind, especially for their first book. I do not. The memoir is called, “Autobiography of a Broken Road,” and I am telling the story of one boy’s death from the points of view of the three people who blame themselves for it. The Modern Love essay was actually the first and only thing I’ve ever published about the story. That is probably why the day it was published was so nerve-wracking for me. I had no idea how people would respond to it. I’ve written about divorce and parenting and miscarriage and illness and therapy and etc… but I’d never written about this one death that had a lasting effect it had on my family. The response was absolutely remarkable. I had 749 emails filled with positive messages and encouraging words and people willing to share their own beautiful heartbreaking stories. Every writer should have that kind of response at least once in their career because it was such a solid reminder of why I write.
8. What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers trying to get an editor’s attention?
Know the story you’re trying to tell. The first agent I ever met with was Lisa Bankoff (Ann Patchett’s agent) . This was years ago and we sat down and she asked me what my book was about. My answer took nine minutes and left ME breathless and left her bored. She didn’t sign me (obviously). Instead, she gave me her card and said, “let me know when you know what your book is about.” Do not send an editor 1,000 words describing what your story is about. Get it down to 2 sentences.
Know your audience. You probably wouldn’t pitch the same exact story to Teen Vogue that you would pitch to Harper’s Bazaar. Each publication is different and their readership is unique and accustomed to a certain voice. Read the magazines and the columns you are trying to write for, know what topics they steer away from and what subjects they’ve already covered. Know your publication: If you’re writing a personal essay about a sister who sets up her newly heartbroken brother on a date with his soulmate, make sure the publication you’re pitching hasn’t run a story even remotely similar to yours.
Also, if your essay is 3,000 words long and the section you are pitching to only runs essays between 1500-1700 words, then you’d better start cutting.
9. Your essays is that they always have great hooks. How do you find them?
Back to the earlier question about the best advice I was given in my MFA – the amazing writer Mitchell Jackson told me that a personal essay should start naturally, like a conversation you would have with a stranger in a bar.
You are trying to lure your reader in with how interesting or enticing or unique you are or your story is. Your first line should be something you would actually say out loud to another human being, something that shows us who you are and why we should be listening to you. Writing is very much like having a conversation, you always want to be anticipating what your reader is wondering, what information they want next.
10. What can students expect to learn from your class?
There was a controversial New Yorker article recently published: The Personal Essay Boom is Over. One thing that students can expect from my class is proof that this article is false. Personal essays are still valuable, but the social climate is requiring us to raise the bar higher than it has been in recent years. There is no more room in our heads or souls to read click-bait cliché. It’s time for the personal essay to go back to its roots: powerful words with a purpose.
In this class I will help you find a way to write what is personal to you AND still universally valuable. What does your story offer to the world? Together, we will write the story you need to tell while maintaining your dignity, your truth and we will leave your reader with something to think about. Remember, I have been freelancing for the past 10 years! Chances are, I know an editor & the submission guidelines for the publications you’re trying to break into. I’ve made all of the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
Thanks so much, Jessica! You gave us so much excellent advice. We can’t wait for your class.
Dream of getting paid for writing? Check out Jessica’s Online Personal Essay Class starting Tues. 6/6.
In the meantime, check out some of Jessica’s amazing pieces:
NY Times: Keeping A Family Together After Divorce and The Accident That No One Talked About
Salon: Why Waiting Till Marriage Is A Bad Idea
O Magazine: Getting Back With Your Ex
Whether it’s with an improv ensemble or mastering her craft as an individual storyteller, Jenny Rosen is a seasoned Bay Area performer who has her roots in BATS, SF’s highly acclaimed and longest running theater(where she’s a company member). She also teaches improv to kids and has collaborated with her husband, Moth Host Corey Rosen, on a children’s musical. We caught up with Jenny in Potrero Hill to talk about her approach to improv and the fundamentals to her storytelling style.
If you have a passion for improv and storytelling, Jenny’s SF Improv Storytelling Class, starts Wed. 6/7.
1.How did you get into improv storytelling?
I had never really done any kind of acting, storytelling or improv. I had been working nights for 3 years and had recently switched to a “day job” I cannot really explain how or why I decided to sign up for an improv class, I just knew it was something I wanted to do. First day of class, I was hooked. Freedom to create on the spot, the magic of failure, of gifts, of creating stories, appealed to me instantly.
2.Your chicken or the egg question: Which do you need to master first, improv or storytelling?
I was absolutely doing a ton of improv before I got into storytelling. It was a natural progression for me. One of the best skills I learned was the Story Spine, a nine sentence starter to create a story. Improv story telling taught me to find out about who the hero is, and how to take them on a journey.
Finding and marrying my husband! Corey was below me in taking classes and all of a sudden he was in our student improv group. I was like, “Who is this funny guy?, I want to hang out with him!” We were friends for many years, creating stories, shows and just hanging out. He finally asked me out on a real official, honest to goodness DATE. And I said YES! We have very similar storytelling and improv styles. We love telling stories. He’s a better singer.
4. How has improv helped you as a writer?
The best is the freedom to write it all down, good, bad, weird, dark and not judge it. To not get stymied by writers block. Also, to say YES AND to your ideas.
5. You’re a BATS improv company member. Any advice for improv and storytelling newbies?
Do do do. Go out there and improvise, write everyday. Fail all over the place. Take classes, see shows. I was either taking a class, performing, or watching theater 4 days a week when I first started.
6. What do you do when you get stuck on ideas? Do you have any go-to techniques?
It sounds funny but one thing I do is write down really bad ideas, absurd ideas and that tends to get me back and inspired. I also get up, move around, take a break, play a silly improv game.
There’s an improv game called, What Comes Next? where you literally can only say what comes next. “the door bell rings, you hear it, you get up from the chair and head to the door, you open the door, there’s a clown…..”
7. How do you keep yourself honest in the moment, if you think an exaggeration or lie would be more interesting?
The best stories are the honest, true stories. There are ways to keep it grounded and compelling without exaggerating or lying. Tell your story in a genre, create an act out in the middle, be a significant character. Most important is tell the story, yes?
I never feel like I am competing with Corey. We are two different people with two different styles. I adore improvising with him on stage however! My advice is to do things together but do things separately, have honest check-ins with each other.
9. Do you and Corey get to work together often? What’s one of your favorite projects?
We do get to work together. My favorite collaboration was our children’s musical, “Wish Fulfillment, ltd.” which examines what actually happens when someone makes a wish. Beautiful original music by Corey.
10. Solo or in a group. Which do you prefer to perform with and why?
I like both but if I had to choose, it’s with a group. I love performing live theater with fellow actors, creating something together. It’s that ensemble thing I like so much.
I think one of the biggest mistakes is not reading the room. Advice I give a lot is don’t forget about the power of silence. You don’t have to fill in all the space with words. Stillness can be very powerful.
12. How is your approach to storytelling different?
You get narrative skills as an improviser, the feel for how a story should go, ways to approach a story all come from an improv background. Let’s play different characters, change the genre, all that juicy stuff.
13. When doing improv storytelling, do you have a goal before you start? Post-show check-ins?
My goal is always to tell a good, honest story. Have the story go somewhere and hopefully the audience be changed by it. Or at least give them something to think/talk about. If I am doing an improv show, we do usually tend to have a check-in. What did we like, what did we notice that didn’t go so well. When it’s improv, it’s never to be repeated again. If it’s a story I will be telling again, we look at: what landed with the audience, what went flat, how can we expand/condense parts that need that editing.
14. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from improv?
From Keith Johnstone’s Impro: “The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improvisor’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.”
Improv helps you create an interesting, simple story.
16. Which improv storytellers do you admire the most?
Dana Gould and Mike Birbiglia.
17. A preview of what students will learn in your class?
YES! We will be using improv and the tenets of improv to help create and shape our stories. Maybe it’s a story we always tell but using improv maybe we find a way to deepen it, find a different angle, and think of it in a different way. Learn to say not only, YES but YES AND. Let’s say your story is about the time you stole a candy bar from the corner store when you were six. So we get your perspective but what if you told the story in the perspective of your parent?, the store owner? the candy bar??
Thanks so much Jenny!
Be sure to check out Jenny Rosen’s SF Improv Storytelling class, starting Wednesday, June 7th. You’ll have the chance to apply all her seasoned techniques to your story and performance in a pro theater.
Imagine seeing your work in the iconic New Yorker font. What was once scribbled in your favorite notebook or typed into a Word document now looks sleek and confident in that special type that you associate with Zadie Smith, quippy opinion pieces and political cartoons. Now picture that same name and bio in Harper’s Magazine, the Yale Review, Poetry Magazine, ZYZZYVA. . .
For fiction writer and poet Austin Smith, this hypothetical is a reality. He graciously agreed to chat with us about growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, his creative process and post-Stegner life.
Austin will be teaching a one-day short fiction intensive at Writing Pad San Francisco on Sunday, June 4th (your only chance to study with him this summer). If you’re serious about literary craft, be sure to check out his workshop !
1. You were raised on an Illinois dairy farm. How do your roots inspire and impact your work?
My dad is a poet, so I was exposed to poetry at a really young age. I still have my first notebook. On the back cover, on the Subject line, I wrote “Poetrey.” I don’t know how old I was – apparently not old enough to spell the word correctly. My dad would give readings at the local art museum, and poets like Gary Snyder and Michael Mott would visit us on the farm, so from an early age I understood that being a poet was about more than just writing poems, but was also participation in a community. I’ve always thought that the phrase “giving a poetry reading” is a particularly beautiful expression, with its suggestion of offering something to others. So that was the context in which I first encountered the writing life.
My roots in Illinois certainly continue to inspire and impact my work. Though I’ve lived in California going on seven years now, the Midwest is still my subject matter. The place and the people of that place, are what I’m most interested in exploring, both in fiction, poetry, and in more recent nonfiction projects. One of my favorite writers is William Maxwell. He was the fiction editor for the New Yorker for a good part of the twentieth century. He grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, a town he left when he was fourteen. Until his death in his nineties, he wrote mostly about Lincoln and his memories of the place. I expect my career will follow a similar trajectory (minus being the New Yorker Fiction Editor and assuming living into my nineties).
2. Tell us about your creative process.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately because my creative process has been thrown off a little by my obsession with the news and my teaching duties at Stanford. I’ve learned that one must be absolutely fierce in carving out time for one’s own writing. It’s not so much a matter of writing a certain number of words a day as it is giving oneself permission to sit at a desk and perhaps do nothing at all but daydream. I usually try to make time for this early in the morning, when I feel most alert. The prospect of drinking coffee is the thing that draws me to the page more than the idea of writing, which can be surprisingly intimidating considering how many years I’ve been doing it. I try to set aside all distractions and write by hand in order to make stronger my connection to the words appearing on the page.
It helps, I think, to be writing towards a certain moment, particularly when working on a longer piece of prose. But when it comes to short stories, I feel that one must really work swiftly, in a kind of desperation to reach the end or else risk losing the thread of the story. When I’m really working on a story (and I’ve only had this experience a dozen times in my life), the story will demand my full engagement and attention until the first draft is done. Then I can work it over in a more leisurely way. Finishing that first draft feels like tightrope-walking –hurrying across, trying not to lose momentum or look down for fear that you’ll realize that you have no business being way the hell up there in the first place.
3. How do you land on a story and how does it evolve?
My head is filled with what I’ll call, for lack of a better image, “story spheres,” situations that suggest the possibility of interesting and dramatic writing. For instance, there was a haunted barn that my friends and I used to go to at Halloween when we were in high school, and I knew that I had to set a story there, and tried to get the story off the ground for a couple of years before it finally took shape. So perhaps my idea above about writing the story in one sustained effort over the course of a few days is misleading, as one has likely been working on the story for some time (years, perhaps) before one lays the first word down.
4. Your stories and poems have been featured in massive publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, and the Yale Review. Do you have special tips on how to appeal to A-list editors? How do you manage the submission process?
I’m really fortunate to have had work appear in the places listed above, but I think of the total amount of effort I exert as a writer, only 10% or so goes towards submissions. I submit work when I have the flu, am home for the holidays, or am in the midst of a busy teaching term – in other words, when I can’t write. I think at some point I grew tired of having work rejected that I myself believed was strong and deserved to be out in the world, so I started posting my poems on my website. I would suggest using caution when publishing one’s own work online, as it can lead to copyright issues, but for me it’s been a nice way to place my work in the world without the barriers of the submissions process.
My submission process has become much more organized since I started using a site called Duotrope, which helps you keep track of where you’ve sent what. This is particularly helpful for submitting poems.
5. Endings are notoriously tricky for writers. How do you approach finishing a piece?
It’s difficult to let go of a piece, whether letting go means deciding what image to conclude the story or poem with, or deciding the piece as a whole is ready to submit or send off to one’s agent. When I’m really working on a story I’ll begin, about halfway through the draft, to see where the story might end, and will begin writing towards that place. Upon finishing the story, I’ll go back over it quite obsessively, maybe twenty to thirty times, smoothing out the sentences. I’m not a big ironer but I imagine the process is akin to ironing a shirt. Eventually there are no wrinkles left and you know that anything you do from there on is probably going to harm rather than help the story. When the story starts losing my interest and my mind is wandering off towards the next one, I know it’s time to let it go.
It was a huge honor for me to be awarded the Stegner Fellowship. And quite a surprise. For several years I had applied in poetry. In 2011, having written one short story and part of a novel, I applied in fiction as well and was accepted. All my life, through my two graduate programs in poetry, I had considered myself a poet, and had never been very interested in fiction. I turned to fiction when I found poems insufficient vessels for the things I wanted to say.
My interest in both genres has kept me from fully committing to either. I never finished the novel I was working on as a Stegner Fellow and have since taken up other projects. The best part of the fellowship was working with teachers like Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Tallent and reading the work of fellow Fellows.
7. As a Jones Lecturer at Stanford, what is one thing that you prioritize in your classroom?
There’s quite a bit of laughter in my classes. I try to get my students to loosen up and have fun, because I think that only when young writers are comfortable with one another are they going to be willing to be courageous and honest, both in taking criticism and doling it out. But “criticism” is probably too harsh a word for the sort of feedback I give, and that we give one another. Having had some quite withering workshops in my own life as a young writer, I’m leery of giving young writers the opportunity to lay into one another. In a speech she gave called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor compared this workshop model to the blind leading the blind. I think when people don’t know what to say about a piece of writing, the default is to criticize it, if only to make oneself feel better about one’s own work. So I try not to let a pecking-order sort of hierarchy develop in my classes. And I also make sure to let everyone know that poets and writers do not necessarily have to be “smart,” or have lofty philosophical or literary ideas. Taking away this pressure tends to make everyone feel more comfortable and open, so that the real work of figuring out what makes a piece of writing great can proceed.
8. Who are you reading right now? Who do you admire?
I’m pretty bored by most contemporary fiction and have a hard time getting into most new novels, which feel to me too packaged and artificial. Honestly, I don’t read much fiction at all. Maybe one reason I can’t finish my own novel is that I can hardly finish anyone else’s. Right now though I’m reading a really good novel by Walter Tevis called Queen’s Gambit, a chess thriller which was recommended to me by Tobias Wolff (whose taste I trust absolutely) and which I expect to finish. You’re more likely to find me reading something weird, like The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, or Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets or a book on Marian apparitions. I also love biographies, especially of poets and artists.
I have a pantheon of artists who are guiding lights for me, and who I return to again and again: James Salter, Norman Maclean, Frank Stanford, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Wordsworth…
9. Nature holds a dear place in your life and writing. Where in the bay do you go for inspiration?
Thanks for this question. It’s something that I’ve struggled with, because I grew up on a farm, and really miss being able to sit on a porch in the evening, far from all city lights, watching fireflies. My idea of heaven is walking forever down a long farm lane with a beer in hand, accompanied by an old dog. So living in the city is hard for me. Northern California is, of course, a stunningly beautiful place to live, but I often feel like I have to commute to find the sort of solitude I used to be able to find by just stepping off the porch. But the longer I live here, and the more desperate I become to find some space, the more places I discover. Lately I like running on the Nimitz Trail, which is up in the hills above Berkeley. And I love driving north to the Point Reyes area, and even further to Boonville and Mendocino.
10. As both a poet and a fiction writer, do you find that one feeds the other? Or do you consider your poems to be completely separate from your stories?
I guess I touched on this a little before. I said that I turned to writing stories when I felt that poems could no longer contain the things I wanted to say. I still think that’s true. But there’s also the fact that it’s a relief that I can turn to poems when I’m getting bogged down in a story. Right now I’m not really writing very much at all, which is always a terrifying and terrible period. As for whether I consider my poems to be separate from my stories, I guess I would say no, that they feel to me to be one body of work. If I had my way I would publish both genres together, poems interspersed with stories, like the Japanese form habuin that Basho worked in for his great travel journals. I think that the division between these genres, which is amplified by one having to choose whether to do an MFA in poetry or in fiction, is artificial, and perhaps is one of the reasons that poetry gets so marginalized in the publishing world.
Yes these are stories that I wrote while a Stegner Fellow, and in the years since while I’ve been working as a Jones Lecturer. They are loosely linked and take place in Pearl County, a fictional stand-in for Stephenson County, where I grew up. At left is a map of the county painted by my friend Emily Underwood.
I feel pretty confident that the story collection is finished, and can be published as is but I’ve had trouble getting it out there.
So it’s sort of just sitting around right now, which is a little depressing. Hopefully I’ll find a way to get the stories out there, because I think since the election people on the coasts are finally taking some interest in what is happening in so-called “flyover country” (which is the title of my new poetry collection).
12. You lecture at Stanford but live in San Francisco. What are your favorite literary haunts in the city? Any cafés or book shops that help you feel tapped into the bay’s rich creative vein?
I live in Oakland now. I used to live near Dolores Park but moved to the Adam’s Point area near Lake Merritt last spring. I still get over to San Francisco quite often. A few friends and I convene once a month or so for a gathering we call Poets’ Table. We usually get together at Vesuvio or Spec’s or Mario’s in North Beach and talk about poetry and share poems. Many of my friends have had to leave the Bay due to high rents, so I really value the friends of mine who’ve somehow managed to hold on here. Having a community of fellow writers is important, even if you only see them once a month for beer and bullshit.
13. Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?
I think the usual advice people give is to read as much as possible, and of course that’s very important, but I think that young writers should turn inward in search of the reason they want to be a writer in the first place. I think not getting caught up in the idea of publishing and selling a novel, in social media, in all that stuff that is really extraneous to the creative process itself, is important. At the end of the day one has to be content with spending long swaths of time alone, doing work that may never be published and that one may never get paid for. And if doing that work still feels vital to you, absent all the trappings of publication and attention, then you’re giving yourself a much better shot at enduring the periods of disappointment and doubt that no writer, no matter how lucky, can hope to be spared from.
14. What do you think is the difference between a good short story and a great short story?
I really like this question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. There’s a really interesting essay, a few years old now, by the writer Elif Batumen (it appeared in the journal N+1) in which she levels some quite strong and, to me, refreshing criticism against contemporary short stories. I’m very loosely paraphrasing her argument here, but I believe what troubles her about the stories she finds in Best American Short Story anthologies is that they’re perhaps too polished, too perfect. One can write a very, very good story that everyone agrees has nothing whatsoever wrong with it. It might be so unmarred by mistakes that it appears in an anthology of the best short stories published that year. But such stories don’t tend to stay around for very long, I don’t think. My favorite stories, like James Salter’s “Twenty Minutes” for instance, have a kind of rough, unfinished quality about them. There are moments in the story that continue to confuse you even after a dozen readings. One finds that one cannot quite grasp the story.
There’s something unwieldy about it, even awkward. One suspects that even the writer didn’t precisely know what they were up to. I think this is the essential difference between good and great stories: with a good story, the writer appears to be in control throughout; in a great story, the writer appears to have been working at the behest of the story. To reference a line by the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the story or poem has outgrown the writer, and has thrown them out of the nest.
15. What will students learn in your class?
Certainly I will be extremely enthusiastic about whatever piece of writing I choose to share in order to demonstrate the qualities I admire in fiction. I often teach a passage by the great novelist Kent Haruf that to me perfectly inhabits the consciousness of two boys watching a horse being cut open for an autopsy. I feel that if I can convey to a student why I find this particular passage so brilliant, they may then be able to turn to their own work and try to imitate or in some way mirror that moment.
I am sometimes a little tongue-tied when responding to a student’s writing, perhaps because, rather than improving the piece on the page, what is called for is for the writer to re-approach the moment in an entirely new way. And I think that by really delving deeply into great scenes and stories and poems, one can impart a certain way of looking at the world to a young writer. So students should expect me to discuss their work in the same breath that I’m discussing a paragraph by Chekhov or Nabokov or some other writer whose name ends in “ov,” because I really feel that when it comes to the writing life, we’re all in this together, teacher and student, the living and the dead.
Thank you so much, Austin! We’re Looking forward to the release of “Flyover Country.”
If you’re itching to hone your craft (or if you’re as curious as we are about this brilliant horse autopsy passage), don’t miss Austin’s 1-day fiction intensive in SF on Sunday June 4th.