Tag Archives: national black arts festival

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

“With The Valley of Amazement (Ecco), Amy Tan reaffirms her reputation as a master storyteller, creating intriguing settings, unforgettable characters, and twisty plotlines.”

You can read my complete view at Oprah.com: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Valley-of-Amazement#ixzz2wsEjD4Qa

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Goodbye Ucross

Well, in about ten minutes, I’ll be heading to the airport.  My experience at Ucross has been wonderful.  The accommodations were perfectly suited to my needs and the food was excellent.  My co-colonists were an inspiring cluster of writers, visual artists, film makers and musicians.  Art was in the air and I breathed it all in.

The retreat lasted 28 days, but when you subtract the Thanksgiving holiday (and my birthday) let’s say it was 24 days.  Then I caught the flu, so that took it down to say, 21.  I got a lot done in those days.  By a lot I mean word count, but also I got a lot done in that I figured out some important questions having to do with my book.  I put a lot of new pages in, but I took a lot of pages out.  I’m leaving feeling satisfied, but also eager to keep working.

I think I have to face the fact that a novel takes on long time to write.  As much as I complain about NaNoWriMo, I understand the fantasy of having a book done by Christmas.  It’s what happens when you don’t want to write, as much as you want to have written.  This month out here in prairie has helped me remember what’s important, what I love about what I do.  Being out here has helped me here my own voice again.  So I am grateful. #blessed.

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Retreat Reading– Ucross Edition

Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley:

In her captivating debut story collection, Casper-raised author Nina McConigley examines with wit and empathy what it means to be “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” Although prejudice and ignorance surface, there are few bad guys in this game of cowboys and Indians, only complicated human beings.

The characters in Cowboys and East Indians must explain themselves frequently — they are never quite what those who encounter them expect. In the story “Dot or Feather,” a foreign exchange student from India tells a Wyoming kid dressed up as a Native American, “There are two kinds of Indians. Some wear dots, others wear feathers. You’re a feather Indian. I wear a dot.  – High Country News

You can read the title story here.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

Granted, a novel about a dude stuck in an airport isn’t for everybody, but I picked it up quite by accident in the Ucross library and I was sucked in by the voice.  Miles is a writer who seems to be unafraid of being himself.  This is a book that manages to be sarcastic, but still really vulnerable.  I’m digging it.

The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant

This one isn’t out yet, but I managed to get my hot little hands on a review copy.  The first story, Lizard Man, knocked. my. socks. off.  Poisssant has a way of using premises that may make your roll your eyes, and then sneak up on you, knock you over the head and steal your heart.  Example with Lizard Man: these two down on their luck dudes go on a roadie because one of the dude’s deadbeat dad has died.  When they get there, they try and kidnap this alligator.  (I can hear you rolling your eyes as you read this.)  But then, as you’re reading it, you’re all of a sudden weeping into your latte, and somehow filled with hope at the same time.  Well played, DJP, well played.

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Report From Ucross or Some Thoughts On Abundance

So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming.  I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting.  I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.

It starts with the landscape.  This is big sky country.  When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.

The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself.  In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat.  But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea.  And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio.  Take the whole box you want.  Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim.  The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create.  My needs are modest, really.  A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them.  But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything.  No need to ration.  That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.

My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance.  How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom.  I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material.  Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough.  The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.


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some thoughts on writing retreats

My deskAfter visiting half a dozen artists colonies and retreats, I have finally figured out what makes a successful retreat and what makes a for a dud.  Like romance, part of it is physical and the rest in in your head.  Let me explain.

I have been a guest at a whole range of retreats– from full service pamerfests like MacDowell (New Hampshire) where they bring you your lunch in a basket, to Gilbraltar Pointe Center (Toronto) that was a repurposed elementary school, to my recent stay at La Muse in Southern France.  I spent three weeks in Switzerland in 2004 in a set up that was kind of like The Real World, International Nerd Edition.  I’ve slept in a haunted mansion, I’ve written in a converted barn.  Sometimes I wrote like a maniac and other times I didn’t accomplish a gosh darn thing.  And finally, finally, I think I understand what went right and what went wrong.

The physical space matters:  I write best when I am in a tidy room with a lot of light.  I need a large desk to spread all my stuff out and I need a comfortable chair.  And I need not to feel cold.   I prefer to write in a different room than the one I sleep in.  So, basically, I know myself. I know what I like.  Things will go better if I’m comfortable.  When you get an acceptance to a colony, mention this to the people and they may be able to accommodate you.

The physical space matters even more when your head is not together.  There have been times in my life when the story was just bursting out of me.  I wrote sentences on napkins, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas. (I wrote my first novel in a closet!)  When I am in The Zone, all I want from an artist colony is for people to leave me the hell alone so I can do my thing.  But when I am not already in a creative frenzy, when the story is not cooperating, I need the environment to woo my muse. I need the creative equivalent of candlelight and Luther Vandross.

The retreat should take up less energy than being at home.  Now THIS is the major issue. I have noticed that the fewer services a retreat provides, the more women tend to be in attendance.  I think this is because for a lot of women, just being away from their kids is a luxury.  (A good friend I met at a colony that I didn’t love, answered all my complaints with “have you noticed that my kids are not here? I’m golden!”) A retreat that is “self catering” (that means no food provided) is fine because because many women find cooking only to feed themselves to be such a treat.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  I was recently at a self-catering retreat in France and between the cooking, hanging my laundry on the line, fetching water from the spring, constantly keeping the fire lit and living in a communal situation, I was wiped out from effort of just staying alive.  In my real life, I live in New York, alone.  When I am hungry, there is take out.  There is drop off laundry service.  I have a writing room in my home with an excellent desk and chair.  Nobody has keys to this apartment but me. So, the retreat wasn’t so retreaty because it was so hectic.  But consider if I was on this retreat five years ago when I was used to working way more hours and I had a lot of personal obligations that were eating up my time.  I would have been delighted to live the “simple life” in southern France is it meant I could actually hear myself think, and I would have written up a storm.  You gotta a) know yourself and b) know what you’re getting into.

You have to push yourself even when the circumstances are not ideal.  This is not my strong suit.  I am capable of spending a lot of time and energy being mad.  I can get mad because my room is not up to par.  I can get mad because, over wine one of the colonist said something jaw-droppingly offensive. (Oh the stories I could tell! You wouldn’t believe it.)  But at the end of the retreat, if you don’t get anything done, only YOU suffer, so you must try and push through whatever isn’t working, just like in real life… but that doesn’t sound like much of a retreat, does it?


Tomorrow, I am heading to Ucross, a writers residency in Wyoming.  All my friends who have been insist that it is the pamperfest I have been waiting for.  The food has been described as “spectacular”.  The grounds “gorgeous.” I’m all packed and I think that I am in a good place in terms of being ready to write.  I don’t think I am at the phase where all I need to peace and quiet, but I won’t pitch a conniption about scratchy towels.

Watch this space.  I’ll report back with pictures and updates.  This next month is really the home stretch for the novel. I need to write “THE END” by Christmas.  I’ve let too much time slip away.  It’s time to do this thing.


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More Retreat Reading

Turns out that my muse wasn’t really trying to hang out with me a La Muse. (More on that later.)  Instead of writing, I took long walks, drank excellent wine, and read. A lot. I am hoping that all this reading rekindles my love for novel and inspires me to breathe life into my characters.  So here’s what’s new on the reading list:

Foreign Gods Inc by Okey Ndibe– It was like the love child of Chinua Achebe and Victor LaValle.  A Nigerian ex pat, reduced to being a cabdriver in NYC decides go back home to Nigeria in order to steal the local diety and sell it to collectors.  Half satire, half not. Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. 

Raw by  Mark Haskell Smith– This one reminds me of Erasure by Percival Everett, but without the complication of racial politics. Imagine if one of the dudes from your MFA workshop were to ghostwrite a novel for “The Situation” from Jersey Shore.  Then imagine a young woman from that same class, she’s a blogger now, and is determined to unmask the ghost writer. That’s the plot here.  Soapy, goofy, but smart fun. Reality TV hunk and People magazine’s “sexiest man alive”, Sepp Gregory goes on a book tour to promote his debut novel, a thinly veiled autobiography. Not that Sepp has actually read the book, he doesn’t have to, he lived it! The book becomes a sensation, a New York Timesbestseller, and, surprisingly, it even gets rave reviews from serious critics. Aside from Harriet Post, that is.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile– Did you read Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season? (You should! It just won the Ernest Gaines Award, but I digress.)  Well, Queen Sugar covers similar territory– a black woman ends up running a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana.  While Locke’s book centers around a murder, this is more of a family story.  It’s a good read lots of plot twists, action, romance.  Why exactly Charley Bordelon’s late father left her eight hundred sprawling acres of sugarcane land in rural Louisiana is as mysterious as it was generous. Recognizing this as a chance to start over, Charley and her eleven-year-old daughter, Micah, say good-bye to Los Angeles. 



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Retreat Reading: Week One

This pretty little corner is my reading look while I am at La Muse.  I write during the day and in the evenings, I read to fill the well and relax.  Here is what I have been reading lately.

Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois:  This is a novel inspired by the Amanda Knox triall.  An American exchange student is accused of murdering her roommate.  Dubois seems to really “get” her characters.   While it has some issues here and there, I stayed up all night reading it.

In The Blood by Lisa Ugner:  Page turner falling into my favorite category of thriller– evil children.  Great writing. Twists and turns to the last page. Excellent travel real.

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: A bazillion pages. Lots of great characters and many thrilling adventures.  Perfect for a cup of tea, or a glass of wine.  Very very satisfying story.



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Greetings from La Muse in Labastide, France

For the next three weeks I am going to be living in the village of Labastide in southern France enjoying the La Muse artist’s retreat.  Although I have been to several artist’s residencies in the past, this is a new experience for me.  Here’s my report from my first few days.

To get to La Muse, I traveled by train from Paris.  The ride was about six hours total, and I had to change trains in the middle.  Trains in Europe are very comfortable– especially the ride from from Paris to Bordeaux.  Even the sandwiches in the cafe car were delicious.  I was apprehensive about the journey because I speak next to no French, but it worked out just fine.  People speak a little English and I had researched the trip thoroughly, so I knew what to expect and where to go.  Once I arrived at the train station in Carcasonne, a representative from the retreat took me to the grocery store and then up the mountain to the house.

La Muse is run by John and Kerry two New York writers who bought the house– built in 1100 AD (!)- basically on their credit cards.  They live in a part of the house and the rest is occupied by writers who come for three week retreats.

I have been to many writer’s residencies, but never to a retreat.  La Muse is not like visiting an artist colony like MacDowell or Yaddo where there is a large staff dedicated to keeping the writers fed and watered.  La Muse is more like visiting your country home.  It’s in a beautiful location– you should see the view from my window!  The writers themselves are responsible for their own cooking and basic upkeep.  It has been nice so far taking care of myself.  In my regular life, I eat a LOT of New York take out, so it has been sort of relaxing to prepare my own meals in the evening with the fresh vegetables we bought at the supermarket. (Does anyone have a nice recipe for duck breast?  I bought one, but don’t know what to do with it!)  There are also opportunities to buy eggs, chickens, honey, tomatoes, etc that are raised and sold by the neighbors.  It’s really old world living.

As a retreat, rather than a residency, the writers simply rent rooms like you would do in a hotel.  I was attracted this because I was tired of soliciting letters of recommendations and anxiously awaiting a letter of acceptance.  With a retreat– you pay then you show up.  I chose a suite of rooms called “Calliope” because I like to sleep and write in different spaces.  But there are very nice rooms that have both the bed and writing table.  The house is about a thousand years old, so there are little quirks, but it’s very pretty and John and Kerry appear to be renovating it, one room at a time.  (My bathroom, for example, is dreamy!)

The up-side to the DIY-ness of the retreat is that you just eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re dry.  There is no need to go to the dining room at any appointed time, possibly interrupting your writing groove.  But of course this is the downside as well.  If you want to eat, you’ve got to fix it and to plan it.  This morning, I had to get up from my writing table to meet the bread delivery man who brings the baguettes. But the upside is fresh baguette, warm from the oven!

In the afternoons we take long walks through windy mountain roads.  There is a spigot that offers crystal clear spring water where we fill our bottles.   Once a week, we go on an outing in John and Kerry’s car.  On the last day, we’ll get gussied up and go to a restaurant about 30 miles away that boasts of a Michelin star. (Yes, I’m into that.)

But the real pleasure of being here is the time to write and think.  When I arrived here, I had a little bit of work on my plate– letters of recommendation to write, novels to blurb, etc.  But I’ve put all those babies to bed, and now I can just sit here are spend some quality time with my characters.  I’ve been having a hard time writing lately– but over the last few days, I have felt the writing return.

I don’t have my typewriters, but pen and paper are working out just fine.

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Men We Reaped By Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, a native of DeLisle, Miss., chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous. Her National Book Award-­winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” claimed the Gulf Coast as her literary territory, but with “Men We Reaped,” it’s clear the region has claimed her in return. Ward’s memoir is an elegy for five young men dear to her who died in Mississippi between 2000 and 2004. Chapters are announced with each of their names, along with the dates of birth and death, giving the reader a feeling of winding through an overcrowded cemetery. The death of her younger brother, Joshua, is at the core of the book — “This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”

–Tayari Jones, NYTBR, September 15, 2013.

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I Wouldn’t Call It Writers Block, Per Se, But

Simply put, I haven’t been writing for the last couple of months.  I’m not ready to call it a writers BLOCK, mainly because I am not convinced that such a condition really exists.  It’s more like I am out of balance, so the creativity just isn’t sending me to the page. I’ve had a lot of my mind lately.  I traveled a lot this summer– Portugal, Spain, and Morocco.  It was a wonderful experience, but I mostly just scribbled in my journal.  Then, my favorite aunt passed away after a lengthy illness, and this broke my heart.  So I haven’t been much interested in playing with my imaginary friends.  That’s what I call my novel-writing because I engage with the characters as though they are in the room with me.

I’m telling myself not to worry.  That the writing will come back.  It always does.  I have to just have faith in it.

Though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading.  Mostly books that haven’t yet been published.  When the reviews come out, I’ll let you know.  I’ve also read some really exciting manuscripts that I have been honored to blurb.  (Get ready; 2014 is going to be tremendous for black women writers.  I’ll post about the books individually as soon as they are available for pre-order. Seriously.) I know there are writers who don’t like to read while they work, but I am just the opposite.  Reading inspires me and reminds me how much I love everything about literature.  It makes me eager to join in the conversation.  I don’t worry about  being influenced by another author– I hope for it.  To be influenced is to grow.  And it’s a connection between one artist and another.

I’ve got a really exciting retreat coming up and I hope that my characters are packing their imaginary suitcases because I’m spending three weeks in southern France at the La Muse Inn.  I promise to post photos once I get there. This isn’t Paris– it’s more like a sleepy little village with a population in the low three digits.   And my French is limited to ordering breakfast, so I will be forced to listen to my own mind instead of social butterflying.  It’s good, it’s what I need.

I’ve had to turn down a number of really sparkly invitations in order to take this time, but it’s the right thing to do.  In a busy world, it’s hard to  settle down enough for the kind of deep contemplation required to create a world with nothing but paper and ink.

Wish me luck.

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