Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Lucy Bucknell of Writing Outside the Fence

Lucy Bucknell is the founding director of Writing Outside the Fence, a writing program for returning citizens in Baltimore. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewThe Baltimore ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewCream City ReviewFictionThe Laurel ReviewNatural BridgePleiadesSouthern Humanities ReviewWar, Literature & the ArtsWillow Review; and elsewhere. After teaching for several years in both The Writing Seminars and the Film and Media Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, she became full-time faculty in FMS in 2007. She is also Principal Investigator for the Baltimore Youth Film Arts Program.

We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: What is Writing Outside the Fence and how did it get started?

Writing Outside the Fence is a free, volunteer-staffed, community writing workshop. It meets weekly at the Northwest Career Center in Baltimore. It was originally intended specifically for returning citizens. I taught a workshop at the Anne Arundel Detention Center, and one of the participants—a Baltimore City resident—was due to be released. I tried to find him a free or affordable writing program and there was none. The then-director of the Career Center, Felix Mata, suggested I start one, so I dragooned a couple of friends to teach the first few sessions. Within weeks writers of all stripes were asking to join, so the group opened to anyone from the community, regardless of background. Instructors have continued to volunteer and we’ve kept on. The center director is now Gerald Grimes, and he’s also been very welcoming. In twelve years, we’ve paid no rent, no salaries, and no tuition; and we’ve missed meetings only for water main breaks and snowstorms.

Q: In an email I received inviting me to lead a workshop, you wrote that past instructors have included poets, journalists, playwrights, screenwriters, and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction: “No two have run their workshops quite the same way; all have found it rewarding.” How have you found it rewarding?

Writers over the years have been so generous with their art. There is always something new to hear, something surprising, something moving, something human. Attendance goes up and down; writers come and go. We also have writers who’ve been coming for a decade. But whenever I teach or attend a reading, I always feel I’m on fresh ground. It’s an expansive group, a tolerant group. They make room for one another and for the instructors, they tell the truth in beautiful ways, and it’s just a rare and rather wonderful project to be part of.

Q: What do I need to do to get involved in Writing Outside the Fence, either as a teacher or a writer?

To join as a writer, you would simply walk in the door. If you forget your pencil, we’ll lend you one. Anyone interested in teaching can contact me at writingoutside@aol.com. Instructors tend to be published, working writers, and many, though not all, have teaching experience.

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Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction (From Here and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore called Starts Here! and editor in chief of the literary online weekly jmww. We’re grateful she’s taken the time to answer some questions.

Q: You come with high praise in that a contact suggested that I interview you as a “great Maryland writer whose work engages sexual identity.” What are some ways in which you’ve done that?

Thank you! I’m very flattered to hear that. I don’t think of myself as someone whose work engages sexual identity specifically, but as a lesbian I’m sure it influences my writing to some degree. Mostly, I’m not afraid to write about things that interest me, whether it’s incest, sexual abuse, May-December same-sex romances, murder, or transgender characters. I’ve always been interested in the “other” and unconventional narrators, i.e., people on the margins without much representation in literature, and placing myself in their shoes. I think my interest has a lot to do with not really seeing myself reflected in the books I read growing up, and it’s made me think even more, as an adult writer, about those voices that have been left out in addition to my own.

That said, it’s a great time to be a writer now, because not only is there so much diversity on the shelves, but also readers are actively seeking out other perspectives, whether they’re sexual, racial, or political. Years ago, I remember being a little worried about publishing a collection of novellas that included sexual abuse and a May-December same-sex romance (Could You Be With Her Now) for how people would perceive me or my work. I don’t think I would have the same concerns today. And I think it’s wonderful that writers are being allowed to not only push past the boundaries, but that they’re being encouraged to as well.

Q: How do you stay connected with the literary scene in Maryland and Baltimore? How can I get more involved?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been involved in the scene for many years, and beyond reading, reading, and reading, I think making connections in the community is the most important thing for any writer to do. I’ve always been a little introverted or, at least, I need a lot of time to recharge after social events, but I’ve been editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww since the early 2000s and spent more than ten years hosting reading series (The 510 Readings and Starts Here!), so I’m living proof that you don’t have to be some high-octane, gregarious, outgoing person to get involved in the literary ecosphere.

Where to begin? If you want to get an overview of the community, I would start by attending The CityLit Festival, which is held every April at the University of Baltimore. The festival attracts fantastic regional and national authors for readings, panels, and talks, and there’s a marketplace where you can pick up all sorts of information about writing programs (including the University of Baltimore), literary journals, and writing organizations in the area. A similar offering would be The Maryland Writers Association’s annual conference: there are plenty of panels and lectures on craft and specific genres (like mystery writing or children’s books), and there’s usually an agent or two there.

If you want to jump in, get on the ground and meet and hear writers, there are several excellent reading series in the city: monthly series like Writers & Words in Remington and Hey You, Come Back! In Station North, almost-weekly readings from Writers LIVE at Enoch Pratt Library’s central branch, and the Ivy Bookshop hosts writers practically every night at their Falls Road location. Readings are places in which I’ve made the most meaningful bonds with other writers, and other opportunities can arise as part of those connections, whether you secure an invitation to read at said series, find people with whom you can start a writing group, or maybe you discover a local press that’s publishing work to which you really relate and you buy a book from them or you volunteer to be part of their staff or maybe they dig your work so much they publish you.

Putting yourself out there can be hard, no doubt, but even if the thought of going out to talk to other people makes you break out in hives, there are so many great literary journals operating in the area, such as the Baltimore Review, the Loch Raven Review, the Delmarva Review, and, of course, the Little Patuxent Review, for whom you can volunteer to read submissions or review books or interview authors, all online. At jmww, we’re continually looking for interns and volunteers to fill these roles, and they’re great opportunities to gather some publishing credits and build your resume all within the comfort of your home or coffee shop.

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Meet the Neighbors: Literary Family at The Writer’s Center

This guest post comes from Zach Powers, the communications manager for The Writer’s Center (4508 Walsh St, Chevy Chase, MD 20815).

When I came to The Writer’s Center in February 2018, I didn’t know much more about it than the fact that it was a literary arts nonprofit. I was new to the Washington, D.C., area, still trying to find my place in the local literary community. Sure, I’d perused The Writer’s Center website and read the latest issue of The Writer’s Guide, the triannual magazine the Center has published for decades. I knew that the Center was over forty years old—a true Gen Xer—and has been housed at its current location in Bethesda since the early 1990s. I knew the Center has been publishing Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry journal, for the last three decades of the journal’s existence. And I was told, right from the start, that a renovation was in the works for the upstairs of the building (the lower level had been renovated in 2014).

Within months of taking my job as Communications Manager at The Writer’s Center, the long-anticipated renovation began. My colleagues relocated their offices into the lower level writing classrooms (I was lucky enough that my office was already downstairs). Our coterie of faithful interns took up positions in the writing carrels in the main room. We snaked cables all over for power and internet. The construction crew sealed off the stairwell with plastic sheeting, and the first rumbles of demolition began right away.

Even though my first months on the job were disrupted by sawing and hammering and bangs so loud I can only guess they were caused by small explosive devices, I learned something important about The Writer’s Center. The building, as shiny and new and amazing as it now is (more on that later), merely houses the spirit of The Writer’s Center family. For over forty years, the Center has empowered writers and those who want to write, and that mission is far larger than the 12,000 square feet that make up our facility. No building is big enough to contain all the stories lived and written by the people who make up our community.

I had spent a year trying to find a literary community when I moved here, and I did meet a few writers, but since joining The Writer’s Center I’ve found so many friends and collaborators, from acclaimed published authors to new writers jut now taking the first steps toward creating literature. These are fiction writers, poets, journalists, memoirists, and people finding purpose and inspiration in the written word. These are my people.

At The Writer’s Center, I consider it my job to grow this community, to welcome to our family every single person in the Washington, D.C., area who wants to join us, especially those who may not yet know that we’re here for them. Our newly renovated building will certainly help.

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Review of How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman

This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader. 

Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.

The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”

All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.

* * *

RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?

TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.

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What’s Happening: Q&A with Kathleen Hornig of the Baltimore Book Festival

The 23rd annual Baltimore Book Festival returns to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on Friday, September 28 through Sunday, September 30. Produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, the literary arts celebration takes place along the Inner Harbor Promenade, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily. The festival is free and open to the public. Thank you to Kathleen Hornig, the festivals director at BOPA, for joining us for the Q&A.

Q: What’s the history or origin story of the Baltimore Book Festival?

Now in its 23rd year, the festival was inspired by our former director’s visit to the charming Edinburgh Book Festival. Our festival was designed to celebrate Baltimore’s literary arts scene, including its history, authors, publishers/presses, and variety of independent booksellers.

Q: How did you come to be personally involved in the festival?

As a language & literature major (and all around book girl!), I was asked to draft a plan for how a book festival might come together in Baltimore. So I got out my notebook, started making lists, and the Baltimore Book Festival was born!

Q: Is there a theme for this year?

There isn’t an official theme but, not surprisingly, many of the authors at this year’s event speak directly to current events in terms of politics and equality. The Baltimore Book Festival is well-known as a safe space for having these important conversations, because we connect authors with readers on a very personal, dynamic level.

Q: Last year was my first festival, and it was a lot to take in at once. Do you have any tips for enjoying the festival?

Plan ahead! Go to baltimorebookfestival.org so that you can organize your itinerary. With ten literary stages (all 100 percent free and open to the public!) it’s a good idea to have a game plan so you don’t miss any of your favorite authors. You’ll also want to grab some food and drink from our local vendors, and check out the live music at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. And make time for the shopping–with exhibitor tents lining the entire Inner Harbor, it’s a book lovers dream!

Q: Sometimes events like this make me feel anxious about my own writing (sorry for being self-absorbed!). Do you have any advice?

The Baltimore Book Festival is a great place to network and talk to other working writers about the craft. We also have workshops and panel discussions to help keep your practice fresh, and overcome obstacles such as writer’s block.

Q: Even after the festival is over, how can I continue to stay connected to Maryland writers and book-lovers?

The Baltimore Book Festival is three days of magic, but the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts can keep you connected to the literary arts scene year-round. Stay plugged into BOPA’s social media and with our program partners, who regularly host literary events: CityLit Project, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Red Emma’s, Maryland Romance Writers, Art Way Alliance, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and, of course, The Ivy Bookshop.

Opportunity for Writers to Present at Gaithersburg Book Festival

Thank you to the Gaithersburg Book Festival for sharing this message about an upcoming opportunity for writers in the area:

Join us at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18, 2019, for a day-long, outdoor celebration of books and reading. Our festival tents are filled with eager audiences for author talks and signings, free writing workshops, and singer-songwriter performances. We are proud to have welcomed hundreds of talented authors and performers to our stages. Now in its tenth year, the festival has established itself as one of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area’s premier literary events.

The Festival Author Committee invites selected authors to participate as Featured Presenters in solo and panel discussions. Writers or their representatives interested in being a Featured Presenter at the Gaithersburg Book Festival are encouraged to submit an application for consideration. Full information about applications can be found on the GBF website.

Please note that preference is given to books released in either hardback or paperback in the year since the previous festival (May of each year). Books must be available for sale as of the day of the festival to be considered.

Applications are due by November 2nd, 2018.

Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Meera Trehan

Meera Trehan was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in nearby Virginia. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced public interest law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. Her work for children has been published in various magazines. Her first novel is The Science of Seeing. Trehan lives in Maryland with her family.

Q: When you were working as a lawyer, were you also writing on the side?

No. A lot of my work as a lawyer involved writing, but even though I was an avid reader and loved the idea of writing creatively, it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could actually do.

Q: What gave you the confidence to focus on creative writing?

After thinking about it for much too long, I took a class at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and then another and then another (and then one at Politics and Prose). I also worked through the exercises in Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, as well as other books on craft. Eventually, I joined SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) where I had my work critiqued by authors, agents, and editors. All of these things were crucial to my development as a writer.

But I don’t want to imply that I always feel confident! Confidence is elusive. One day you have it, the next day you don’t. Part of writing, in my experience, is pushing through on those harder days, knowing you can revise, and if there’s an aspect of craft that’s holding you back, working on that.

 Q: How did you end up writing for children and young adults?

I had an idea for a YA book with a teenage protagonist during the first class I took at The Writer’s Center and when I gave the one-minute summary to Susan Land, my teacher at the time, she told me that was the book I should be writing. I didn’t believe her at first, but after a few years of the characters rattling around my head, I got there. Joining SCBWI was also instrumental to teaching me about the children’s market and connecting with other writers.

Q: Does writing for younger audiences require any sort of special approach?

Yes and no. I think about the audience when I first get the idea for the story and particularly when I’m developing the protagonist(s)—who for a middle grade or young adult book will be about the age of the targeted readers or a little older. Getting that perspective and that voice right is critical. And when I have a close-to-final draft, I edit with my audience in mind, in case I’ve accidentally slipped into my lawyer-voice. But when I’m in the middle of drafting, I just focus on trying to tell a story that moves, with characters who are real, and that ultimately feels true.

I think it’s important not to underestimate young audiences or write down to them. The basics of craft are equally important for any readership.

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