Craft in a bottle: The Portable MFA in Creative Writing

MFAI came across the Gotham Writers Workshop website a couple of weeks ago and ordered some of their books. The two I’ve started on so far are worth getting excited about. Strange but true, The Portable MFA is both great bedtime reading and desktop handbook. It’s got me checking my work for structure, making lists of stories to read for reference, and it promises more as I go on. Highly recommended!


I have two books on the go right now, one on my night table–No god but God, by Reza Aslan, and The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England, by Dan Jones, downstairs by the fireplace. Of course they are very different, but they both involve the development of elites, warring for power and the quest for a method of government that balances the needs of the many with their need for leadership. Kings and caliphs, archbishops and ayatollahs….

Apart from enjoying the contrasts of the two, I truly recommend Aslan’s book as timely and important reading. It makes the history of Islam clear–or at least lays it out in a way that the uninitiated can follow and understand.


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Sticky pictures

For a few years now I’ve thought about writing a biography or historical fiction. I work on who I might research, who I might write about or develop a story about, and eventually set it aside. Next book, I think. But who?

The Blue FlowerI recently read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, a novel about the poet Novalis–or rather about the man who became the philosopher poet Novalis. It’s a wonderful piece of work, full of what I think of as sticky images: visuals that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s set in houses and locations that are fundamentally unhealthy; where tuberculosis is the wolf tracking the weakest members of each family, waiting to find ways to strike them down.

The story focuses on Fritz, the brilliant student in love with Sophie, a twelve-year-old girl, light and frothy as gossamer. In spite of her age and lack of all that might be valuable to him in a wife, Fritz drives towards an engagement. As Sophie displays signs of illness, he first denies it and later takes her for special treatments, until her sister suggests that he might spare her the painful effort of trying to seem better for him.

English PatientdownloadThis book feels to me like The English Patient–full of images such as the one of Almásy carrying Katherine wrapped in a parachute, with the white fabric billowing around them against the desert stone.

So these are my ideals–marvelous stories about real people, full of sticky images. But who will I write about?



The Queen with shock and awe

I recently finished Victoria, A Life, by A.N. Wilson. The first biography of Queen Victoria I’d read, I found it full of jaw-dropping surprises. She was not at all what I expected–only her taste in interior decoration fit the stereotype.

More than a long-serving monarch and the Widow of Windsor, she was a fascinating personality during times of enormous change. Wilson’s book allows the reader to follow the politics, the history and personalities from the Corn Laws to the shadows of World War I with clarity with Victoria at the centre of the vortex. Strongly recommended.

Full of surprises

You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards. James Thurber

Yesterday I received a very pleasant query decline from an agent’s intern.

To date I’ve had “not right for our list,” declines [as well as other types of positive responses] so this one, which made a comment I didn’t understand, and may even disagree with, gave me pause. I wondered if some rewriting was in order. Not wanting to be inflexible,  I discussed it with a few people.

I was told in no uncertain terms to give my head a shake and wait for more detailed commentary. So that’s what I’m doing–but I know I will wake up at two in the morning and wonder, what did she mean?  I really wish that a) writing wasn’t such an insecure exercise, and b) the process wasn’t so one-sided. I would love a little dialogue, a little elaboration. But never mind. Thanks for saying something more.