Poetry Essentials:
Sound, Rhythm, Image

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

I like to meet with various local writers to talk about their craft. Poetry always fascinates me because it seems so basic to being human. Recently, I got together with my friend, poet Sandy Longhorn, to talk about the essence of poetry and what makes it eternal.

Toasted Cheese: How do you think poetry evolved as a form of expression?

Sandy Longhorn: The quote that I always return to when talking about poetry is from Lucille Clifton, one of the most gifted and generous American poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, may she rest in peace. Clifton says that the very first poem was written the first time a cave dweller stepped out into the light, looked at the sky, and said “Ahhhhhhh.”

This ties in neatly with Donald Hall’s description of poetry as “the unsayable said” or really the attempt by the poet to give voice to those deepest truths about the world that often escape words. See Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected.

So, poetry, which is the oldest literary art form, begins in the basic, physical, human need to express what presses and pulls within us, what yearns to be communicated to another human body. After all, poetry is created with the idea of both the poet and the audience. Yes, many people write poems that never see the light of day, but the drive to put those words down connects with the drive to share those words with others, whether that is the result or not.

TC: I’ve often considered poetry to be a mnemonic form to relate, repeat and remember cultural heritage and societal norm.

SL: As the oldest literary art form, poetry began well before the advent of the written word. It was oral and aural. It was sung, chanted, spoken, and most of all, it was memorized. The great stories that remain with us from the time before written texts (Gilgamesh, Homer’s epics, parts of the Bible and other religious texts) all began as pieces that were memorized and shared. In this sense, the idea of the singular author was not quite the same as it is today. Stories belonged to communities and regions. Each teller might tweak (i.e. revise) the story to fit his or her liking, to more accurately portray what needed to be said. Only with the beginning of written words did poetry make the transition to the page, and the poet’s work today is to be sure the words don’t languish there but that they leap from print and ask to be sung, chanted, spoken, memorized.

TC: What essential elements do you think make this happen?

SL: The three elements at play here—sound, rhythm, and image—all act together and are inseparable. To discuss one first is merely arbitrary.

As an oral/aural art form, poetry probably first relied on sound play as a way to ease memorization. Thinking of nursery tales and jump rope chants, we easily recall those rhymes that pleased us in our youth: “Jack, be nimble, / Jack, be quick, / Jack, jump over / the candlestick!” Say it out loud. Feel those Js striking on tongue and jaw. Hear the pleasing rhyme of quick and stick, but also the assonance of the ‘i’ in nimble that echoes the ‘i’ in quick and stick. Follow the consonance of the ‘j’ through the repeated Jacks and then jumped. Taste the roundness of “ump” right there in the middle. That is language at play. That is at the heart of poetry, even as we go beyond the simplicity of nursery rhymes.

Now, there is rhythm, which shows up in our Jack example as well. There is a clear beat that is repeated and, aside from the variation in line two, each line has four syllables. The variation in line two works perfectly as the shortened rhythm (only three syllables) emphasizes the word “quick.” Whether we recognize it or not, that variation contributes to the sense of urgency as we compel Jack on his task. So, the poet must think not only of what he/she intends to communicate, but also how best to use rhythm in that communication.

Sound and rhythm go hand in hand to build a physical memory, a muscle memory that was instrumental in the memorization of long poems like The Odyssey or The Iliad so that traveling bards could recite the various adventures and battles of the heroes and thus earn their supper along the way.

The third element, image, is also an integral part of the whole, as it is through image that we strive to express whatever it is bubbling up inside us. Of all the writers, poets rely most heavily on figurative language, in particular the metaphor. At its heart the metaphor, and its subset the simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that share some striking similarity. So, if I say that my hair is like the matted fur of an unwashed dog, that is one level of metaphor, but perhaps not very striking, as hair and fur are quite similar. However, if I say that my hair is matted and gnarled like weeds and sticks caught in an eddy at the river’s bank, that’s a bit more memorable and a bit more ‘wild,’ suggesting/saying something more strongly about my physical condition.

The poet’s work with image is to not only be memorable but to be precise. To chose the exact image for the expression that will communicate the idea most effectively. One of the long standing traits of poetry, even in long poems, is concision (compression). To create a poem charged with both meaning and craft, the poet must select each and every word and place it precisely where it belongs, not to mention placing punctuation marks and line breaks with care as well.

TC: Do you think codifying poetry, through writing, has changed its primal aspect?

SL: Historically, Western poetry was formal; it existed in set line lengths with set rhythms and set rhyme schemes. Think of the sonnet or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse plays. The formal nature of poetry aided in memorization and provided a scaffold around which the poet crafted the poem. At its best, formal poetry joins the intellect and the emotion of the poet and uses the formal structure because it is the best way to communicate whatever it is that needs to be said.

After hundreds of years, poets began toying with formal structures and eventually branched off into free verse, poetry that does not contain a repeated pattern of rhyme or rhythm. While there are precursors as far back as the fourteenth century in Western poetry, free verse became firmly established in the nineteenth century and has become as widely if not more widely used than formal poetry today.

Some people would question the importance of sound and rhythm, then, when dealing with free verse. Here, the poet does not have to conform to meter and rhyme; the poet is able to bend and break lines according to different rules. Still, I would argue, sound and rhythm are hugely important. Otherwise, what is to distinguish a poem from a paragraph that is simply broken into lines on the page? Where is the poet’s craft, then?

TC: This is great, Sandy. Let’s ask our Toasted Cheese poets what else they would like to hear and continue the discussion. Thanks.


Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, runs the Big Rock Reading Series, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.

Final Poll Results

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

2007 was an interesting year in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis and emotions were high. Books were published reflecting every perspective of the issue. Among the many books I read and authors I met during the year, the most refreshing and honest was Betsy Jacoway. Her book, Turn Away Thy Son, approached the crisis via interviews with the myriad people involved. As a transplanted Northerner, the whole integration issue seemed foreign to me, and her book gave me a perspective I would not otherwise have had. When Betsy had a book signing at the bookstore where I worked, we clicked and became friends. I am delighted that she would share with all of us the process of collecting oral history.

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

A Brief Bio

Turn Away Thy Son Elizabeth Jacoway grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended the public schools. As a child she lived through the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957–1959, but wearing the blinders imposed on a privileged southern white female by the culture of segregation, she failed to “see” or to question what was happening in her community. Not until she landed in her first graduate seminar, conducted by George B. Tindall at the University of North Carolina, did she begin to examine the flawed and tragic history of her region. In the years since that painful introduction to the realities of her own past, her intellectual focus has been on the sources, dynamics and impact of racism in American life. After receiving a Ph.D. in southern history from the University of North Carolina in 1974, she taught at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Lyon College. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she has lived for thirty years in the small, Mississippi-delta community of Newport, Arkansas. In 2007 she published the book about Little Rock that she had been working on for thirty years, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (Free Press).

Turn Away Thy Son won the 2008 Willie Lee Rose Prize, awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern history by a woman, and also the 2008 William Booker Worthen Literary Prize, awarded by the Central Arkansas Library System.

TC: Could you explain how one goes about collecting oral history, and how one does that in a sensitive environment such as race relations. Just your process will be fine.

EJ: In 1976, I was very fortunate to receive a year-long NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to inaugurate my study of the Little Rock Crisis. My graduate training had stressed the importance of starting with archival research rather than reading what other historians had written about my subject, so I simply dove into the papers of Daisy Bates (mentor to the Little Rock Nine) at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Brooks Hays (Congressman from Little Rock) at the JFK Library in Boston, and Dwight Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. At that time, these were the major collections that were available to researchers, and as you can imagine, at each of them I encountered dramatically different impressions of the same events.

By the summer of that year I was able to compile a list of over a hundred people who were still alive and who had played significant roles in the Little Rock story, and I started studying the available literature about how to conduct an interview. That process would have been so much easier if I had had access to the Internet! As it was, I was bound to the library and to correspondence with such organizations as the Oral History Association.

Just about that time, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina invited me to do interviews with Daisy Bates and Vivion Brewer (President of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools), and so I prepared ferociously and jumped in with both feet. Both interviews turned out to be delightful and incredibly revealing, and I was hooked. I realized immediately that the interview was a potential source of information that could not be found in any archive or library, and that it allowed the researcher to ask questions about things that no one had thought to record. Of course the interviewee always has his or her own biases and agendas, and everything he or she says has to be checked against archival materials, but the interviewee also brings an immediacy and interest to the subject that newspapers, diaries, and secondary accounts fail to convey.

After my Bates and Brewer interviews, I began to prepare enthusiastically for what I could see was going to be the best source of information for my book. I had already initiated a spin-off project that focused on the role of the South’s white businessmen in the Civil Rights Movement (eventually published by LSU Press as Southern Businessmen and Desegregation), so for the remainder of 1976 I interviewed over thirty of Little Rock’s business leaders from the 1957–1959 period, and I also interviewed (because he happened to be in town) Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the crisis.

I had grown up in Little Rock, and most of these men responded to me favorably because they knew me. This was just twenty years after the crisis, and many Little Rock people still felt a defensiveness about it and a reluctance to talk to outsiders about it. My being an “insider” helped me gain access to these people, but undoubtedly it also blinded me to some of the nuances I might have noticed if I had come from a different cultural milieu.

At this point, I talked only to white people (except for the commissioned interview with Daisy Bates)—in part because I was focusing on the business leadership, but also because I did not have access to the black community, and I did not feel that I understood the issues and the feelings across that racial divide. I felt very keenly my limitations in being able to bridge that divide, both as a white person and as a woman.

A series of events converged to take me away from my focus on 1957—marriage, motherhood, a move away from Little Rock, two other book projects—as well as fear that I had waded into a study that was going to make a lot of people unhappy (which it has). At length, however, the Little Rock project just reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. To my great good fortune, my work led me into a friendship with Annie Abrams, one of Little Rock’s leading advocates of interracial harmony and an old friend of Daisy Bates. Through Annie, I developed routes of access into and a deepening understanding of black Little Rock. Also, Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of the Little Rock Nine) has become a real friend, as has Elizabeth Eckford (the stoic black child in the iconic photograph of Little Rock). I can’t pretend to understand the experiences these women have had, and an entirely different book could have been written from their perspectives, but through their generosity, they have helped me enormously to bridge the gap between my world and theirs. For me, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

TC: Betsy, this is great. I thank you.

Could you delve a little more into the actual process? From making contact, determining your questions, how you conducted the interviews—and if anyone said no (or just clammed up during the process) and how you dealt with that.

The actual interview process involves making contact, usually by phone, then followed up by letter with more of the specifics. I used to make extensive lists of questions before the interview, but I learned quickly that the interviewee will lead you off into uncharted waters and that the best approach is to let him or her run in the directions that suit them—at least until you have established rapport and given the interviewee a chance to get on record whatever he or she thinks is of importance.

The hardest part of the interview is to get your tape recording equipment set up quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so that you and your interviewee can kind of forget about the fact that the tape is running (this always makes folks self-conscious). They will usually be nervous, so I always start with an open-ended question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) and let them run with it as long as they want. Then I start to steer the interview into the subjects I want to be sure to cover. I save any delicate questions for the last quarter of the interview, and by then my subject is usually comfortable with me and willing to be forthcoming. Of course you never offer judgments on anything they share with you, you never contradict or correct them, and you never go off on tangents of your own (and sometimes that’s hard).

As a general rule, interviews should not last longer than an hour or so, because most folks get tired and lose interest in the process. The great exception to this rule is Justice Jim Johnson, who is now in his late eighties and who will still be going strong after three hours! I have interviewed him two dozen times because he is an absolute font of information, and also because he is incredibly honest with me—telling me the bad things about himself as well as the good! For my purposes, however, most people have told me all that I needed to know from them in about an hour.

Only one person has refused an interview with me, and that is Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote a powerful memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, and she thinks that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of the Little Rock crisis. She does not believe that someone who was not inside Central High School in 1957 could possibly have anything to say of value, but of course if she’s right, all historians would be out of business. I hope my book demonstrates that there are many perspectives on any historical moment, and that it broadens our understanding of the concept of “truth” to examine any incident from multiple points of view.

Governor Orval Faubus had been interviewed so many times by the time I sat down with him that I found his responses to be fairly rehearsed. I came back for a second interview ten or fifteen years later and tried to steer him away from some of the pat answers he had been giving for years. He said at one point “there are things that I know that I’m not going to tell you unless you ask me about them,” and of course this was very frustrating to me! Apparently he took many of his secrets to the grave.

The standard practice in the oral history business is for the researcher to have the interviewee sign a release form giving permission to quote from the interview and use it in subsequent printed work. Many presses require this legal documentation before agreeing to publish your work, and many libraries and archives require it as well before accepting interviews for deposit. After the interview, the researcher then transcribes the tapes (or pays someone to do it), and amazingly enough, one hour of tape requires about eight hours of transcribing. This is what makes oral history programs so expensive.

Ideally, the transcribed interview should be returned to the interviewee for editing and corrections, but since I did not have a staff to help me with this part of the process, I rarely returned my interviews for correction—and sometimes I did not even edit them myself. I conducted well over a hundred interviews, and maybe half of these yielded one or two tidbits each that found their way into the book.

The same is true of archival research. You might spend weeks in a particular collection and then use just one or two bits of information from that research trip. This can be very frustrating, but you have to immerse yourself in information to get a feel for how it all fits together. It is not unlike putting a puzzle together, or solving a mystery.

TC: This is wonderful, Betsy. What is your next project?

EJ: Well, my son is on the list for a kidney transplant and that is consuming all my time.

TC: You know our thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

Final Poll Results

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, Author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

There are many joys working in a bookstore, among them when an author walks in and asks if we’d like him to sign the books of his that we have on the shelves. That was how I met Trenton Lee Stewart, author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trent is a local fellow. In his own words: “I grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, went to a small liberal arts school called Hendrix College, and finally attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I continued to live in Iowa City for several years while my wife finished work on her Ph.D., after which we moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the public library and also did some teaching. Both of my published novels, Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society (a children’s novel) were completed while I lived in Cincinnati. Last year we moved back to Arkansas, where I now write full-time—most recently on a follow-up to The Mysterious Benedict Society due out in 2008.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is hugely successful. Here’s an interview with him.

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart

TOASTED CHEESE: How did you get your start as a writer?

TRENTON LEE STEWART: I wrote occasional stories and poems beginning in elementary school and continued until college, where I began to write fiction in earnest. Afterward I was accepted into the graduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa, spent a couple of years discovering how little I knew about craft, and then spent several years more working various odd jobs as I tried to figure things out. During that time I published several stories, but I also wrote a lot of fiction that would never be published. I suppose it all amounted, in the end, to a start.

TC: What’s the first thing you published?

TLS: The first thing I ever published was a story I wrote in college about a man who falls overboard, unnoticed, in the middle of the ocean. He is certain to die (probably by drowning, though he also fears shark attack), and the story deals with his final hours. I sold it for five dollars to a tiny amateur literary journal now long since extinct. The most interesting thing about this story, though, is that some years later, flipping through an anthology of horror stories a co-worker had pressed on me, I came across a story that was almost identical to the one I’d written. Though I was stunned by how similar the two stories were, there could be no question of plagiarism, because the anthologized story had been written almost a century before, and by none other than a young Winston Churchill. My wife said this just proved I have a great deal in common with famous world leaders.

TC: That’s a great story. Do you drink brandy every day like Churchill? 😉

TLS: I’m pretty sure that story was the only thing Churchill and I have in common. I like brandy, actually, but rarely drink it. My beverage of choice would have to be strong coffee with a little milk. That’s something I do drink every day, with the occasional latte thrown in for good measure.

TC: I’d like to add that you are most diplomatic, another thing you have in common. Moving on, tell us about your path to being published.

TLS: It was a fairly straight path, but with lots of steep hills. My early interest in reading, and in words in general, helped me to excel in my English classes. I received lots of encouragement about my writing from teachers along the way, which led me to focus on it as a possible vocation. I studied literature and took a couple of writing courses in college. After that it was a matter of applying myself relentlessly to writing, to sending out my work again and again, and to accepting innumerable rejections as part of the path.

TC: About your path to getting published—tell us more about the entire process.

TLS: I’ve sold all my short stories myself, but years ago a friend of mine referred me to a good agent, who liked my work and with whom I developed a rapport. He wasn’t enthusiastic about selling Flood Summer, though—this happens a lot, actually; an agent may like your work yet not be excited enough to commit to trying to sell it—so I ended up selling that myself (to SMU Press). But I got in touch with the agent again when I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, and he loved it and sent it out right away to several different editors. It was a bit dream-like. Within a couple of weeks I was talking to editors—more than one wanted the book—and deciding which publisher I wanted to go with. A rare situation and certainly nothing like my previous experience trying to sell my work. And by sheer coincidence, both Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society were sold at virtually the same time (six weeks apart).

Both book editors wanted some revisions, so I was suddenly extremely busy. I finished Flood Summer first, after a few months of work, and it came out a year later. SMU is a university press without deep pockets, of course, so although they produce handsome, high-quality books, and are able to place some ads and send out review copies, much of the marketing ultimately depends on the author’s own motivation. I have writer friends who have arranged countless readings and signings at bookstores and universities and really get the word out there, but when Flood Summer came out I had two small children, a working spouse, and another pressing deadline, and I didn’t feel capable of more than a few readings and an interview or two. Still, I expected, or at least hoped, that it would receive some additional attention as a result of the publicity for The Mysterious Benedict Society (and it has).

The Mysterious Benedict Society was different. I spent a year, off and on, revising and editing it. The editors would suggest changes, and I would make changes, but the draft still wouldn’t feel quite right to everyone involved, and we’d go back to work. To be honest it was a very difficult process even though I liked my editors. Eventually it was finished, though, and Little, Brown put an enormous amount of energy and a lot of money into marketing it. Promotional mailings, websites, etc, and they sent me to do signings and meet prominent booksellers and librarians both before and after the book came out. I also was sent on a tour doing bookstore signings and talking about the book to students in schools.

TC: In Mysterious Benedict Society you use some delightful names that reflect the characters’ and places’ personae: Constance Contraire, Ledroptha Curtain, Nomansan Island, to name a few. Talk about your process of naming.

TLS: It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke. I set out in writing this book to have fun, to give myself freedom to fool around and be playful, and the naming process ended up being part of that. A lot of minor characters would have mundane, place-holder names at first, but eventually most, though not all, of them earned a more interesting moniker.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin?

TLS: Most of the time I begin with a scene, or part of a scene, that has occurred to me and engages my interest—often it’s an unusual visual image or an unusual interaction between characters. I suppose conflict is at the heart of it, but it might be anything, really. If this scene or partial scene holds my interest, I’ll eventually start wondering what led to it, and what would follow it, and what kind of people would be involved in it. In other words, plot and character usually develop, more or less simultaneously, from some other element that drew my interest.

TC: Do you see writing Young Adult fiction as your future? Is Mysterious Benedict Society an ongoing series?

TLS: I see it as part of my future but not all of it. I’ve almost completed a second Mysterious Benedict Society book and intend to write a third (and final) one, and I would like to write still more children’s books, which afford their own particular pleasures. At the same time, I have always written fiction for adults and love doing that, too, so I imagine (and hope) I will continue to write both.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

TLS: It’s shifted frequently over the years to fit my circumstances. I’ve stayed up late, gotten up early, whatever made sense at the time. More recently I write every weekday, usually starting in mid-morning and finishing in the mid-afternoon, with some breaks throughout.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

TLS: I love writing the first draft of any project—from arranging ideas and scenes into a rough plot to the actual crafting of sentences—no matter how difficult. The second or third draft, whichever one requires the most destruction in service of producing a better work, tends to be my least favorite stage of the process. But on an everyday level, what I enjoy least about writing is having to stop.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you break through?

TLS: It seems to me that writer’s block is not so much a lack of ideas as it is a flare-up of perfectionism: the writer doesn’t want to put something bad on the page, and everything he or she can think of seems bad. When this happens to me (as it occasionally does) I remind myself that the act of writing is different from thinking about what to write, that if I will just start laying down prose I will probably discover something to help me move forward. I may need to discard what I’ve written, or it may reveal to me that I need to be writing something different, but one way or another the act of writing tends to eliminate the act of fretting before a blank page.

TC: Why do you write?

TLS: It’s a natural outgrowth of something I’ve always done. Even before I could write—in fact even before I could read—I created elaborate stories in my head. I called it “thinking,” and I would shush my family if they were being too loud while I did it. I loved making up stories, then, and this led to writing them down, which (once I gained some competence) I also loved—and still do. If I didn’t love it I’m sure I wouldn’t still be doing it, because it’s a hard thing to do, with too many inconveniences, frustrations, and risks. So while it may seem too simple an explanation, I suppose the answer really is that I write because I love it.

TC: What is your advice for writers who want/hope to be published?

TLS: I can offer specific advice only to fiction writers, but more broadly I can say that nothing is more important than the writing itself, so you need to feel confident that what you’re sending out is as good as you can possibly make it. Beyond that, the key ingredient is perseverance, by which I mean insane stubbornness. You have to accept—even embrace—rejection as part of the process. If you can stomach that, and you work and work, your chances of eventually being published are helped immeasurably.

More specific advice for fiction writers: If you’re trying to sell short stories, don’t try to talk editors into liking your work. They’ll either like it or they won’t. Your cover letters should be professional and brief. If you don’t have any publications to your credit, fine: just say thanks for considering the enclosed story and be done with it. No gimmicks. The writing must speak for itself.

For book-length fiction, finding an agent usually helps, but you still have to send your very best writing, and you still have to be ready for rejection.

The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents are all updated yearly and are a really good starting place for publishing information.

Final Poll Results

Fun With Names

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bonnets

In this month’s AB article Trenton Lee Smith discussed how he named characters and places in The Mysterious Benedict Society: ” It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke.”

Write a character sketch, or describe a fictional place with a name that reflects a personality trait or thematic joke.

Au Paris: From Blog to Book

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Au Paris - Rachel SpencerThis is a story about serendipity. A young woman bored with work lands a dream job as a summer nanny in Paris, her previous employer allows her to blog about her adventure on its website, a book editor reads the blog, a little over a year later a book is published.

Au Paris is Rachel Spencer’s memoir about her whirlwind time as a Parisian nanny. In Rachel’s words, here is her story of blog to book.

“Why don’t you write for us?”

I had been working in the advertising department at the Houston Chronicle for about three years when I decided to resign from there to pursue graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, with a summer in Paris in between. It was May 2005 when I resigned. The day I told my manager my plans to leave, she told her boss, Stephen Weis, who is now the Executive VP/GM of chron.com.

When I told Stephen I really wanted to write—and I had even thought of trying to get a travel column going through the Arkansas Traveler, my school paper—he suggested I write for the Chronicle instead. I remember his casual, can-do, energetic but laid-back expression when he said, “Why don’t you write for us?” as if writing for one of the nation’s largest newspapers was something anyone off the streets could just take a stab at.

I laughed a little but he assured me he was serious. He told me to contact Jeff Cohen, the executive editor, and tell him my plans. Mr. Cohen, as I called him, was kind and witty and rather prompt in his reply. He’s a jovial, flirt of a guy who wears bow ties regularly and in doing so, manages to look both debonair and astutely academic. He directed me to Scott Clark, the only VP of chron.com at that time, who was strictly editorial. Scott came from the print side where he was the Business Editor. I would have much rather exchanged ideas with Mr. Cohen.

Scott’s right-hand man and the technology columnist, Dwight Silverman, was in the early stages of developing blogs on chron.com. There were just a handful then, all written by editors of the paper and maybe one or two in the archives from reporters who had gone to some offshore destinations.

Dwight and Scott were skeptics—and they had to be. But Dwight was thirsty for hot online content and, as much of a tech geek as he is, is a real romantic. I think he applauded my gumption to quit my job, flee the country temporarily, and return to my first love (writing). So I persuaded Dwight, and Dwight stroked and courted the idea to Scott. I don’t think I ever had a face-to-face conversation with Scott until after Dwight had already, unofficially, granted me permission to write a blog on chron.com.

It took a series of “interview” posts and a series of critiques and second chances from Dwight, but eventually, they said yes. Scott was still skeptical whether there would be any reader relevancy, but they took the risk. The opportunity to even write for chron.com and hold my own blog—the first by someone other than editorial staff—was a huge dream come true for me.

“I think your blog is amazing…”

Au Paris (the blog) did well, and exceeded expectations. It often ranked number one above the other blogs and received daily comments from readers worldwide. I was on a combined high from writing, living in Paris and fulfilling dreams by the end of the summer.

Dwight took me to dinner when I returned to Houston; I was leaving for Arkansas the next week to settle in before grad school started. We sat at Maggiano’s Restaurant and talked about future plans. He asked me if I could do anything after the unexpected success with the blog, what would it be. I told him I wanted to write a book based on the blog and include all of the things I just couldn’t fit in while I was in Paris busy taking care of the kids.

Dwight looked doubtful, but encouraged me nonetheless. He told me to high tail it to New York City and just start voraciously reading anything and everything. I left dinner with stars in my eyes, no doubt. So much of what I’d always wanted had already happened and I felt satisfied and inspired.

The next day, I went to the Chronicle to say farewell to friends and to thank those who helped with the blog. As I was stepping on the elevator, my cell phone rang. It was Dwight. He wanted me to come back in his office.

When I rounded the corner to his office, his face looked aghast. I wondered if some reader had posted an inappropriate comment or something. But then, why would Dwight need to show me that to me?

He called me to his desk. “Look at the screen,” he said. “Read that.”

The screen was indeed displaying a comment from a reader, but it wasn’t an inappropriate one.

I used to have it memorized verbatim, but the comment went something like this:

Hi, Rachel. My name is Danielle Chiotti. I’m an editor with Kensington Publishing in New York. I think your blog is amazing and I’d love to talk to you about book ideas. This is the only way I could find to contact you. Please feel free to contact me at…

Before I could say anything, Dwight read my mind and said out loud, “I didn’t write that!”

“Is this a joke?” I said, still stunned.

Dwight was just as stunned. Instinctively he began googling “Danielle Chiotti” and “Kensington Publishing New York.” We were both amazed to find real results. This was a real editor at a real publishing company and, we thought, we hoped, she really wanted to talk to me about a book deal.

Dwight, being the overprotective father-type by that stage of our mentor/student relationship, told me to let him handle the initial contact, and I was fine with that. I was too shocked to know what to say.

I had an official book deal.

In a matter of days after Dwight’s contact with Danielle, I was on the phone with her myself. I don’t remember much—it was one of those adrenaline-pumping moments when sheer elation blurs the memory. I do know that very quickly, I was agreeing to a 65,000-word non-fiction manuscript with a December 15, 2005 deadline. (It was early August.)

Dwight handled the agent part too and within a couple hours of his first email to an agent he knew, I was on the phone with the agent, giving him a fax number where he could send the author-agent agreement form.

I moved to Arkansas despite the new whirlwind turn-of-events, but I was quickly moving further from thoughts of sitting in a classroom. It was August ninth when I moved to Arkansas and I hadn’t registered for classes. I wasn’t going to grad school, but I hadn’t said it out loud yet.

On August 23rd, I received confirmation that I had an official book deal. In the days in between Danielle had pitched the idea and my platform to her boss and company. I had no other work but my blog, so I know she had to pull some strings and beg a lot of people to trust her. That same day, Danielle was named a Senior Editor of Citadel Press—the imprint on my book within Kensington Publishing—and my book, Au Paris, was her first under her new title.

The agent negotiated my contract, the advance, the royalty percentages, etc. I was in complete trust of a stranger because I had neither the knowledge nor the legal resources to find out on my own whether his negotiation was fair. (It was; it’s a first
book—you can’t complain!)

The whole process was an extremely personal, risky, emotional process for both Danielle and me. We had a very close working relationship and both learned a lot along the way. I missed the December 2005 manuscript deadline and several other deadlines after, but we still made the publication date. The book was released in December 2006.

What were the challenges of turning your blog into a book?

The contract for the book stated that all work must be previously unpublished material, based on the chron.com blog. There were a couple of occasions where I used sentences or perhaps even paragraphs from the blog simply because I had already written exactly what had happened, but the book is actually quite different. Not to mention that I think maybe one or two sentences total in the published edition of the book survived without any editing.

Two things made writing the book extremely difficult: one, chronology, and two, that I was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the time I was trying to mentally, physically, and emotionally place myself in Paris and then in several places throughout France.

The chronology part is difficult, I’ve heard, for any writer and requires quite a bit of training to master. My editor was constantly correcting my tense and reminding me that, for instance, if I arrived in Paris yesterday on a Saturday, today cannot be Monday morning with three family dinners under my belt. Things like this are very difficult for me to sort out and place correctly and accurately in the writing. This inhibited my writing more than I expected.

After you had the contract with Kensington, what was the editing process like?

Rough, but fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better editor. (Well, obviously. She is the reason I have a book published!) She was extremely patient, motivating, and honest with me. I could have stood for her to have been even more honest, as I was regularly begging for someone else besides myself to tell me how wretched my writing was. There was a lot of insanity while working on this project—besides the fact that I’d never attempted a book before, we were editing the manuscript as I was writing it. I now know that if I really want my style and voice to shine through, I need to have a finished manuscript before any editors snatch up my work. Of course, that is the normal process.

Danielle had to work very hard with me to extract action and sequence of events and plot from my overly descriptive, and often passive, writing. We referred to Stephen King’s On Writing to work through the passive voice mistakes, and I wished I could have read and studied that well before we began the book.

Additionally, my book was Danielle’s first project as a senior editor at Kensington, so we were both invested emotionally and personally throughout the writing and editing process. The success of the book was just as important to Danielle—if not more—as it was to me. Working with someone whose stakes were as high as my own was the foundation I needed to accomplish the often-intimidating challenge of writing my first book.

In brief, I wrote the first seven chapters of the book to meet my first deadline. I think I had about three months to do this. About three weeks went by before I received the first round of edits back. Almost every word on every page was red-lined, if that says anything about the editing process.

A few words from editor Danielle Chiotti:

Blogs are not often cohesive narratives. Rachel’s blog was not the bulk of the book. After I received a chapter from her, I would line edit and send it back to her. We talked over each revision.

What I liked about her blog was that it was not forced; it showed she was having fun, yet was a fish out of water. There was a realness that every woman could relate to.

Read Au Paris:
Au Paris Blog
Au Paris: True Tales of an American Nanny in Paris

Final Poll Results

Interview With Kevin Brockmeier

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of two novels, The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, a short story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children’s novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Georgia Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He has received the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and an NEA grant.

Kevin was born in Hialeah, Florida and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas with his family at the age of four. He attended Parkview Arts Magnet High School, earned a BA in Creative Writing, Philosophy and Theater from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) with a year at University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and an MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa. Kevin is 33 years old.

I met Kevin shortly after I began working at an independent bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. As I was ringing up books on the cash register, my co-worker Georgette said, “This is Kevin Brockmeier; he gets an author’s discount.” We chatted for a bit, then he and Geo talked about the movie club they belong to. What a friendly fellow—I figured he must work for one of the local newspapers or magazines. Wrong! We had two of his books in the fiction section. Now we sport three and his current young adult title (City of Names is out of print). When his two recent books came out this year, we were lucky to host his first Arkansas book signing, and all it took was a phone call to Kevin: “I’d be delighted. I’ll let my publicist know the date.”

When it became apparent that my turn for an Absolute Blank article was due, I knew what it would be. When Kevin stopped by the store, I told him about Toasted Cheese and that I’d like to interview him. Even though we both live in Little Rock, and essentially in the same neighborhood, we decided on doing the interview via email.

Toasted Cheese: How did you get your start as a writer?

Kevin Brockmeier: As a writer or as an author? These are two separate questions. I suppose I got my start as a writer when I was seven years old, putting together mystery stories during my spare time at school. In these stories I was always the detective, and one of my classmates would disappear under suspicious circumstances, and I would solve the crime to the applause of my teacher and all my friends. They had titles like “The Case of the Missing Eric Carter” and “The Case of the Missing Miss Vinson.”

I got my start as an author, on the other hand—by which I mean to say a published writer, a writer with an audience larger than his own circle of personal acquaintances—when I was twenty-four and a story of mine, “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” won something called the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Contest and was printed in a small magazine called Writing on the Edge.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

KB: The writers I know have adopted such diverse tactics when it comes to their routines—or if not routines, then impulses—of composition that it would be hard for me to say there’s any such thing as a peculiar writing schedule. I myself try to treat writing as though it were something like a regular nine-to-five job, with the difference that I write every day of the week until I am finished with a project (or with some discrete portion of a project, if it’s a novel) before I give myself a break, rather than taking a two-day break every weekend. I find that it’s difficult to get the engines running again after even a short vacation, and also that my own sensibility changes by small increments when I take time away from my writing, so I’m hesitant to pause in the middle of a piece of work for fear that I’ll ruin it by subconsciously shifting my approach to the material.

I think it’s best to write when your mind is at its sharpest. For a long time, that has been the middle of the day for me, but lately I’ve felt myself perceiving things more acutely in the evening, so it might be that I’ll have to change my working hours soon.

TC: Tell us about your path to being published.

KB: After my first story was printed in Writing on the Edge, I continued publishing stories in literary magazines and a variety of other venues. I was working as an adjunct English composition instructor at a pair of local colleges, as well as running errands for a property management company, but I spent much of my spare time writing. I got a couple of grants that allowed me to work on my fiction a bit more diligently, and in time I managed to complete a story collection, a novel, and a children’s novel.

Then what happened was this: A friend of mine from graduate school had become a literary agent. He wasn’t my agent at the time, but we were still in touch. One day, he was having lunch with an editor from Random House and asked her if she had read any new authors she enjoyed recently. She said that, yes, she had read a story called “These Hands” in the Georgia Review by a writer named Kevin Brockmeier, and though she had never heard of him before, she really responded to what he was doing. My friend said, “I represent Kevin Brockmeier.” And that’s how I fell blindly backward into acquiring both my first agent and my first editor in the course of a single lunch meeting.

This will be of no help, I realize, to anyone seeking practical advice on finding a path to publication, but it is what really happened to me.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

KB: I enjoy many things about writing, not least of them the pleasure of communicating some part of my vision of the world to other people and the simple experience of tinkering with words. What I most enjoy, though, I suppose, is the day following the moment when I finally reach the last sentence of a story. There’s a brief window of time when I know that I’ve satisfied the pattern I set out to create and I’ve not yet started to sift through a story for its flaws that is tremendously gratifying.

What I least enjoy about my job—hands down—is the traveling involved with the publicity phase. I like visiting bookstores, giving readings, and meeting people who have read or are interested in reading my books. But I travel very poorly. I quickly become exhausted when I have to spend time away from home, from my bed and my familiar routine. I start to degrade, both physically and psychologically, and I cease to feel as though I’m experiencing my life as much more than a passive spectator. If there were a way for me to step out of my door and simply appear in whatever city I was visiting, then step back home at the end of the night, I would be much happier. What I need is a Star Trek-style matter transporter.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how did you break through?

KB: I’ve certainly experienced times when I wasn’t writing, but I think that’s natural—and that it can, in fact, be productive for a writer to let his mind lie fallow for a while. I believe the best thing to do during those periods is read, tinker with the stories you’ve already written, and work on other types of writing, more personal and less rigorous forms like letters and journal entries.

That said, I write very, very slowly when I’m engaged in a project, and I’m not sure how easy it would be for me to distinguish writer’s block, whose most salient feature, as I understand it, is the long gap between one story and another, from my actual process of writing, whose most salient feature is the long gap between one word or one sentence and another.

TC: Why do you write?

KB: For me, the most honest answer to this question would be that I write out of gratitude for all the books that have spoken to me over the years.

TC: You said you sift through a story for its flaws. What is your sifting, or editing, process?

KB: Most of my editing takes place as I’m working through my first draft, though to call it a “first draft” is something of a misnomer, since I tend to revise each sentence many times before I move on to the next, each paragraph many times before I move on to the next, and each page many times before I move on to the next. I progress very slowly to the end of the story, in a series of tiny overlapping waves.

Because I work that way (a method I don’t recommend, by the way, since it’s very slow and painstaking, but one that I haven’t been able to avoid), my stories have usually reached a state that’s fairly close to their final form by the time I complete the last sentence. My final editing process, then, involves reading back through them to look for any infelicities, imprecisions, or contradictions I might have missed along the way.

When I first pick up a finished story for that last edit, after a day or two of rest, I usually see nothing but such problems and wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my time. My way out of this is to search through the story for some one sentence that seems fixed in a kind of beauty. Once I find it, the rest of the story seems to crystallize out from that still point, and I’m able to look at it with a more generous, less jaundiced eye.

TC: This year you had two novels published in the same month, a novel called The Brief History of the Dead and a young adult novel called Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. How did you juggle writing the two? Or was it just your agent’s work, in order to maximize publicity and save you from two tours?

KB: I always follow up each book for adults with a book for children, but I’m never actually working on the two simultaneously. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to set one project aside (or even one sentence aside) until I feel that I’ve made it what it can be. That said, both of my thus-far-published children’s novels (there’s a third that still hasn’t made its way into print) have been released immediately following a novel or a story collection. In part, this is because it’s taken me longer to sell my children’s fiction. But at least in the case of Grooves, I suspect it’s also because my editor sensed that The Brief History of the Dead was going to garner a certain amount of attention and felt that that attention would help the sales of Grooves. My children’s publishers have never had the money to send me on an extensive tour, in fact, but I’ve made it a point to publicize those books independently whenever I’m on the road.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin? Does it vary with each project?

KB: Someone else asked me this question recently, so I’ve given it some thought. I believe I begin each story first and foremost with an idea. Sometimes that idea is an element of the plot, sometimes it’s the psychology of a certain character, sometimes it’s a metaphor or symbolic device, sometimes it’s a particular narrative strategy—anything at all. It might sound as if I’m ducking your question, but I mean it when I say that when a story truly begins to take shape, and more than that to excite me, it always presents itself to me above all else as an idea I feel compelled to explore, even when that idea is something as amorphous or continually shifting as a character or a sequence of events.

That said, I’ll never actually begin writing a story until I’ve devised a title to place at the top of the first page. I once heard somebody describe the title as “the target toward which you shoot the arrow of the story,” and that’s a notion that makes a lot of sense to me. Without a good title, I feel I don’t know what a story is supposed to be. Sometimes I’ll even formulate the target before I’ve got the arrow, which is to say that an intriguing title can occur to me months or even years before I understand what sort of story it’s meant to accompany (as was the case, for instance, with “Love Is a Chain, Hope Is a Weed,” the last section of my novel The Truth About Celia).

TC: You’ve taught writing in many venues, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What advice do you offer to beginning writers?

KB: The advice I offer usually arises naturally—or at least I hope it does—from the stories we’re discussing in any given class. A couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over recently, though, are (1) that any narrative (or any piece of writing at all, really) will either adopt the sentence or the paragraph as its smallest unit of complete meaning, stacking one on top of the other to make the steps by which it moves forward, and it can be useful to determine which sort of narratives you’re most comfortable with or skilled at producing, and (2) that every writer of worth places his concern in at least one of these three things: in fidelity to the language, fidelity to his own obsessions, or fidelity to the human experience. Many of the best writers locate their faith in all three to varying degrees, but as long as a writer is sufficiently devoted to at least one of them, he’s doing the kind of work that I can respect.

TC: When you have a signing you often share your favorite books and I think movies. Would you share your top ten of each with us?

KB: Gladly. My top ten of each (in no particular order) are as follows:

Ten Favorite Books

  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee
  • The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
  • The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Ten Favorite Movies

  • Ponette
  • City of Hope
  • In America
  • On the Waterfront
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Elling
  • Running on Empty
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Muppet Movie

Some other time, you can ask me for my lists of favorite albums, songs, stories, foods, beverages, restaurants, words, human beings, states of being, years of my life, topics for lists, etc.

TC: Thanks, Kevin. I owe you a large ginger ale… Canada Dry, Vernor’s, the organic one Georgette loves, or other? Vernor’s is my fav.

KB: Let’s go with the Vernor’s.

TC: There will be a six pack of Vernor’s at the bookstore with your name on it Tuesday.

Yes, he came in on Tuesday: “I’m here for my ginger ale 😉 and to order some books.”

Final Poll Results

Slap! Assigned Writing

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Assigned writing. Do thoughts of ugh, yipes or never again run through your mind?

At some point in our lives, in school and possibly at work, we have all been asked to write about a topic that hasn’t carried much interest for us or was so overwhelming that it seemed like drudge work. Remember all those ‘boring’ reports and essays you had to write in school? Have you ever considered entering a writing contest, like those we sponsor at Toasted Cheese, read the topic and said to yourself, “Yipes, I couldn’t write about questioning authority in 48 hours to save my life.” This is about how to get beyond the notion that assigned writing is work, and discover ways to enjoy and effectively write about anything.

I remember an assignment in junior high, “Write your autobiography.” I’m sure I wrote something extremely boring, beginning with “I was born in Michigan.” My best friend Nancy, however, began hers with, “Slap! I entered the world screaming and haven’t stopped making noise since.” I wish I could tell you the rest of what she wrote but that was over 30 years ago. That opening line, well, who wouldn’t remember that?

Nancy took a fresh, vibrant approach to her assignment. Having fun and successfully writing something assigned is about excavating beyond the rubble of what you think is expected and writing about the unexpected.

Consider a short story contest with the theme natural disaster. You may think of an earthquake, for example, but take that notion beyond an earthquake and write about what might feel like an earthquake. A car rams into a house shaking it, two teenagers are having sex, the girl freaks, “I knew it was a sin” and runs from the house to see her parent’s car smashed into the house. The mother dies. Death = natural. Build the story: tell of how the family disintegrates = disaster, conclusion the rebuilding of the family = how nature recuperates from disaster.

Some editors may not feel that you addressed the subject. BUT, if you write well enough the editor(s) will recognize your innovative approach and consider your submission, and who knows you may even win!

The same holds true for non-fiction writing. If you want to get published, local weekly papers are a great opportunity. Offer to attend the school board and city council meetings not covered by the paper. Yes, they can be boring, but there is always a story there. Dig among the rubble: new textbooks? Don’t just write about that, go behind the scene, ask what was the decision-making process, who was involved, why did they choose a particular publisher. It’s fun; teachers and administrators love to talk, unless they’ve made a bad public decision, and then you have a field to explore. Dig deep, be polite and think creatively.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here are a few things to consider.

Remember your readers. Successful writing makes the reader think of life in a broader context. When possible, move from the specific to a universal theme the reader can relate to.

Use the active voice. There are three basic elements to a sentence: subject, verb, object. Example: Mollie, bite, mosquito. Depending on what happened you could write: The mosquito bit Mollie or Mollie bit the mosquito. DO NOT write in the passive voice: the mosquito was bitten by Mollie. Believe me, when I try to bite a pesky mosquito as I enjoy the setting sun it is very active. Engage your readers in the present.

Be descriptive and lively as you tell your story. You’ve read a million times: show, don’t tell. This is true and can’t be repeated enough. Use the active voice and tell your reader, “As she enjoyed the quiet sunset, the buzzing of a mosquito disturbed Mollie. She waited, moving her jaw in anticipation. When the menacing pest landed on her arm she bent forward in a slow, practiced manner. Chomp, she bit the pest.”

Gag. Just so you know I slap. But you get the picture don’t you?

Final Poll Results