Yale Writers' Conference: Day 9, Workshops with Other Teachers

Humor class with Teddy Wayne. He did a reading from his book last week about a child rock star having a made-up, publicity date with a cute girl. V. funny, dry, and sad. He reads like Amy Bloom says you should, sort of like you are reading a newspaper. If the story is good, the pathos will come through and you don't have to perform and do the British accents.

First, we read a short piece by BJ Novak called "Missed Connection: Grocery Spill at 21st and 6th p.m. on Wednesday." The woman who reads it out loud is the same one who read a funny nonfiction piece about having too much hair everywhere. I suspect she has taken some theater classes (said the former theater major).

1. Short humor pieces often have a tight conceptual premise, and can start by asking "what if?" In the case of the above example, what if you wrote a missed connection piece that was absurdly specific, so that it could only be one particular person, versus the expected form which is more basic "You were wearing a red T-shirt with a pocket." Incongruity comes from attaching a greater connection, falling in love after one night where nothing much of significance happen except that they watch Animal Planet and cuddle.

Humor built around hyperbole (taking the "what if" scenario to the absurd degree) and spins it out of control.

2. Form not regular short/personal essay.

3. Has a beginning, middle, and end.

4. Comic techniques--incongruity/hyperbole, rule of three. That's a list of three things in a row. First two establish a pattern and the third is way off. "I attended Yale, Harvard and the Sally Hanson School for Nails."

End on the funny word. "I could be anywhere from 28 to 30." Find amusing words. Like..."he just said the word 'electric.'" He also specifically suggested ending on a hard "c." Not sure what that means.

5. Manipulative: not like a poem where the reader can interpret it any way she wants. The writer has a very specific response she wants to elicit, so must have tight control so reader responds the way you intended her to, much like a movie trailer thriller. Every sentence itself should ideally be amusing in some way.

Second story: "1997: The Year Tooth Whitening Broke," by Dan Kennedy

A parody of those behind-the-scenes kind of rockumentary; how Nirvana got started. Uses the sexiness and coolness of rock stardom against the banality of teeth whitening. Interview/documentary style. Premise is contained in the title, leads you to the rest of the piece (act I). Act II could be the moment when the first hygientist says, "But then, almost overnight, we just kind of looked at each other and went, 'Is this really happening?' Because suddenly, we were it." Male receptionist as a parody of having a female drummer, instead of a rock stadium, it's a convention center, instead of conventional rock groupies, you get a tall guy in Ralph Lauren Polo shirt.

90 percent of what we laugh at is not intended. People stumbling over words, dropping a napkin, people exaggerating something, or saying something that's incongruent, something that doesn't fit.Tension and build up of tension, and then the release of it with the punch line.

Third story: "An Open Letter to Officials of the United States Government Regarding What's New in My Reproductive Area," by Emily Weinstein (from McSweeney's)

If the gov't wants to be that invovled in my uterus, here you go. She details the twinges she feels during ovulation, very specific about her period dates. Darkly comic, because also talks about what she would do if she got pregnant, what it's like not to have health insurance, how we don't share our medical knowledge with other countries. Comic technique of hyperbole; attacking while seeming to be kind and genuine. The rule of three: "Me, my government, and that man in the polo shirt who hangs out oustide my gynecologist's office holding the sign with the fake blood fetus on it."

Polo shirts seem to be getting a bad rap in these examples. As they should.

Always better to punch up than it is to punch down, i.e. don't just be snarky and sarcastic for the sake of it. Attack the people in power versus the people who are below you, which would come off as just mean and small.

Generally, the story should be no more than 750 words.

Go ahead and start writing about something that irritates you.

Class exercise: Write an open letter to New Haven or Yale, something about the conference or the place. Title should be indicative of what's funny.

An open letter to the scowling person in fiction workshop whose story is about ponies

An open letter to the angels who sit watching above me in the atrium while I pass judgement on others

An open letter to the mold growing in the shower stall in my dorm room

An open letter to the Whistler exhibit at the Yale Art Museum

An open letter to the guy who read for thirty minutes when he was supposed to read for three

An open letter to my mom who won't stop texting me pictures of cats

Send your work to McSweeney's because they will actually read it.

Craft talk with Jotham Burrello: Focus on publishing.
He has a press he works with called Elephant Rock Books (www.elephantrockbooks.com). Today, we will also be looking at journals and glossy magazines and other small presses so we can figure out where our writing fits in the hierarchy. Some want to get rejected by the best (The New Yorker) and others want to shoot for what's attainable The Banana Peel Literary Review).

Two important questions to ask yourself:

Why do you write?

What are your measures of success, i.e. do you have one book in you or 17 books or do you want to publish a bunch of short stories in literary journals?

Start your indie search at www.aaupnet.org and www.newpages.com to see what literary markets are wanting, what opportunities are availalbe. Has areas for call for submissions, writing contests, and book reviews.

When writing your cover letter to submit to a mgazine, be sure you have read their work, and write something like, "I read that short story 'The Bulb Keeper's Wife' and I like what you did in that moment where the bulbs crashed down on the husband's head..."

About not being able to respond to writers who submit, Dinty Moore says, "It's a conversation I don't have time for." In other words, don't feel sad or slighted if an editor can't personally explain to you why your story was rejected.

Idea: consider adapting part of your novel into a short story so that it can be picked up and published as a stand alone story (in The Georgia Review, for example). Then, the agents may come and ask for the rest of your work. Must get published to get published.

Note to self: does Rider's student literary magazine take submissions? Does salon.com take fiction? I don't think so. Look at The Rumpus. Look at Thin Air magazine.

To get an agent or to get to the next step:

1. Keep writing every day.

2. Keep putting your work in the mail. Go ahead and get rejected and let it "fall off your back like rain" (says this guy in the video).

3. Find a writing group that you have accountability to and who will come after you if you don't finish your chapter or your story.

4. Go to good conferences like this one, and/or Ploughshares, Sewanee, etc.

5. Ask yourself what you are doing art-wise in your writing and in your community. Are you reading all the time? Go to conferences, join in a writing group, take a class, consider applying for a low residency program, volunteer to read on a literary journal. Write reviews for online magazines like The Rumpus and Book Slut and Electric Literature. Stanford and Wisconsin have online classes. Be a good literary citizen by going to readings and responding to blogs about writing. You can find The Rumpus at www.therumpus.net (but they do not publish fiction). Look again at The Chicago Reader, though I'm not sure they publish work by writers outside of the area.

One of the advantages about being online is that you start to build an archive--something that's easily accessible and easy to send along and will stay in the big world wide web forever.

What is your measure of success? Do you want a book, a story, do you want to teach, do you want to write book reviews, do you want to build a relationship with an editor who can help you out?

Find your stable of magazines to submit to--magazines whose work you admire, who you read regularly and who you want to publish your work.

Helix Magazine out of Central Connecticut State University. fJo will be teaching there in the fall. Brevity accepts short nonfiction stories under 750 words. Run by our friend Dinty.
Send something to Narrative, an online journal. They accept fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics (?). It's at www.narrative.com. Very competitive. Look at Word Right, The 2nd Hand, SLS Literary Review, and The Missouri Review.

To do: Look up UCLA extension because Aimee Bender might teach there and she is amazing.

To do: Find out more about what the writing community is like in Princeton (or your own town).
Send work to Clackamas Literary Review, to www.stpetersburgreview.com, to The Greensboro Review for the Robert Watson Literary Prizes (submit to https://greensbororeview.submittablecom/submit).

University of Nebraska Press is a good place to send your work.

For my short story collection, I need to get at least three more of those stories published at good places. This book he just passed around A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein (opened it up, smelled the pages, started reading, feel into a middle a story about having sex with a man who doesn't speak your language) has had stories in six publications, some I've heard of, some I haven't. I hope we get to keep this copy; I want to finish the story.

P.S. I went to very good panels in the afternoon, but this seems like enough for today.