Second Yuba Lit, New Online Winter Course

What an honor it was to present fiction writers Louis B. Jones, Janis Cooke Newman, and Amy Rutten at the second-ever Yuba Lit reading on November 19th. About 65 literature-loving listeners attended. You can read about it, and see photos, here.

The next Yuba Lit will be held Thursday, January 21st. I’m working on the lineup, while finishing a dream-job semester of teaching the Craft of Nonfiction seminar as a Visiting Writer in the MFA program of Saint Mary’s College.

I’m also working on a new course offering for Stanford Continuing Studies’ Online Writer’s Studio: “Writing About Spirituality.” I’m especially excited about the pluralism of this course–we’ll be reading across a wide range of faith traditions and genres. Registration opens November 30th.

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015 · Misc. · No Comments »

To me it happens like this: at first I struggle, it’s hard to get started, no beginning seems to me truly convincing; then the story sets off, or bits already written gain power and suddenly find a way of fitting together; then writing becomes a pleasure, the hours are a time of intense enjoyment, the characters no longer leave you, they have a space-time of their own in which they are alive and increasingly vivid, they are inside and outside you, they are solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the event must take shape; the thousand possibilities of the story choose themselves and the choices appear inevitable, definitive. Every day you begin work by rereading to regain energy, and rereading is pleasant, in perfecting, enriching, touching up the past to make it fit with the future of the story. Then this happy period comes to an end. The story is finished. You are no longer rereading the work of the day before but the entire story. You’re afraid. You test it here and there, nothing is written the way you imagined it. The beginning is insignificant, the development seems crude, the linguistic forms inadequate. It’s the moment when one needs help, to find a way to draw the ground on which to place the book, and understand what substance it is truly made of.

–Elena Ferrante as excerpted in Guernica

Thursday, November 12th, 2015 · Books · No Comments »

Words–I often imagine this–are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step-by-step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life. To mount too high or descend too low, is allowed in the cast of poets, who bring earth and sky together. Must the philosopher alone be condemned by his peers always to live on the ground floor?

–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Friday, October 16th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

We had a terrific launch for the first Yuba Lit community reading in Grass Valley on September 24th, with about 45 people in attendance. Great thanks to Molly Fisk, Christian Kiefer, and Joshua Mohr for sharing their gripping and beautifully written work. And kudos to the audience members who stepped up to share a poem or a page during our opening flash-reading round. We heard writing at its finest, met and mingled over local Szabo wine, browsed the treasures on the shelves of our host venue, The Open Book, and marveled at Christian Kiefer’s abilities to push the needle on the applause-o-meter during our contest for “most intriguing book title” found in the stacks. (The winner? Christian’s own brilliant title for his second novel, The Animals, natch.) All that and we raised $200 at the door for the Bear Yuba Land Trust. Can’t wait to do it again on November 19th with readers Amy Rutten, Louis B. Jones, and Janis Cooke Newman. Updated info is now posted on

And now I’ll be keeping my head down this coming week as I put finishing touches on the public craft talk I’ll be delivering as a Visiting Writer in the MFA program of Saint Mary’s College of California on October 7th.

UPDATE: Nice mention for Yuba Lit in Keri Brenner’s column in The Union here. Writes Brenner:

[Molly] Fisk was one of three presenters last week at the first Yuba Lit community reading that drew more than 50 people to The Open Book in Grass Valley. The event was a success; apparently there is quite the appetite for good writing and poetry in Nevada County.

Yuba Lit will hold another community reading in November. One of the speakers is expected to be San Francisco-based writer Janis Cooke Newman, author of the recently released novel, “A Master Plan for Rescue” (Riverhead).

Thursday, October 1st, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Launching Yuba Lit

In January I moved to the Sierra foothills: My husband and I bought a house in Nevada City. The little 49er-era mining town of 3,000 seemed a good place to be a writer: After all, I had met the novelist Josh Weil during a residency at the MacDowell Colony, and he seemed happy and productive living in Nevada City. And I knew that the organizers of the legendary Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, which I had attended two summers earlier, lived in Nevada City, too. And of course, the TV writer and memoirist Heather Donahue lives here, and the poet Gary Snyder lives about 20 minutes outside town, way out on the famous North San Juan Ridge. And surely other writers I was yet to learn about.

I’ve been here seven months now, and I haven’t been disappointed: The tranquility of this place, the long walks down blackberry-entangled trails, the coffee shops, the abundant bookstores . . . It seemed the only thing this missing was a community reading series. Wouldn’t it be great to bring up Bay Area writers to read and mingle with the Sierra’s many talents?

And so, announcing a new reading series for the writer-rich Sierra foothills: Yuba Lit. We have a stellar lineup of readers for our first-ever event on September 24th at 7 p.m. at the Open Book in Grass Valley, CA. Novelist Joshua Mohr will be up from San Francisco to read with Auburn novelist Christian Kiefer and Nevada City poet-treasure Molly Fisk. The $5 cover benefits the Bear Yuba Land Trust, the amazing group responsible for the beautiful trails that ramble through these hills. Members of the audience are invited to read, too, by bringing one page or one poem to share during the opening round of flash readings, for which participants will be selected by lottery.

The plan is to hold Yuba Lit every other month. Future editions will always feature three readers: One Sierra writer, one Bay Area writer, and one emerging writer (a writer who has not yet published a book). We’ll have wine–and the intoxication of great writing. I can’t wait for the first Yuba Lit.

Friday, August 14th, 2015 · Books · No Comments »

Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience. Its energy is to be found in how one event leads to another. Its mystery is not in the words but on the page.

–John Berger

Monday, August 3rd, 2015 · Books · No Comments »

“Critical theory seminars in the form of absurd, artist-led fitness classes”: I had fun getting “deep femme” while reporting this ditty on “Sappho and Sweat” for the New Yorker’s website.

Sunday, July 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

I don’t really know whether art can exist without a certain degree of tranquility or spiritual poise; without a certain amount of quiet you can have neither philosophy nor religion nor poetry. And as one of those specialties of modern life is to abolish this quiet, we are in danger of losing our arts together with the quiet of the soul that art demands.

–Saul Bellow

Friday, July 24th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

“On Modeling and Mortification” out in Gulf Coast

The gorgeous letterpress-cover summer/fall issue of Gulf Coast has just been released, containing so much good stuff: a story by Aimee Bender, a conversation on poetry with Natalie Diaz and Alan Shapiro, the winners of the Barthelme Prize–and my personal essay, “On Modeling and Mortification.”

An excerpt is online here, but you’ll need to purchase the issue (well worth doing) to read the full essay. It begins:

“I wish that everyone could have the experience of posing naked for a group of good artists at least once.

At the beginning of every session, yes, there is fear. You receive instructions— whether to do a set of two-minute “gesture” poses, or perhaps fives or tens; standing or sitting or reclining or a mix—and then you press “start” on your timer and drop the robe. It is arousing and unnerving, the first few seconds, to feel the air on your buttocks and your breasts. You reach for the sky or you lunge or you twist as though swinging a baseball bat. You are trying to do something that looks like a real, human action, something that is not two-dimensional but rather traverses three planes. Something that gives the artists a line of force to observe, or perhaps a bit of negative space to work with compositionally, or a challenge of foreshortening to solve. You are trying to do all this and you are hoping that your thigh bearing all the weight of that lunge will hold out for three minutes, and you are worried that the twist in your spine will make your latissimus dorsi spasm. By the third or the fourth pose, your muscles are warm, your neck loose, you are reasonably confident that you will not fall down, and the scratch-scratch-scratch of mark-making has cast its hypnosis. You breathe deeply and steadily. You feel a particular man or woman’s eye trained intensely on your collarbone or your crotch.

When the break comes, you slip on your robe, roam the room. Often, something that you hate about yourself—the spread of your thigh, the sprawl of your nipples—surprises you as beautiful on the artist’s page.”

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015 · Books, Misc. · No Comments »

What a wild month May was. I unexpectedly wrote two Sunday Profiles for the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, published within a few weeks of each other. First, what was originally assigned as a shorter feature became a tale of unexpected survival through dance when the choreographer Robert Moses, on the rise after a recent commission for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, opened up. Here’s a little taste of that profile:

“Choreographer Robert Moses paces like a boxer preparing for the ring, breaking into spurts of movement that twitch and flow and transform a stocky 52-year-old body into an instrument of anxious grace.

“Get your rhythms in your weight,” he calls sternly to his two dozen students after he demonstrates the phrase, a whirlwind of rippling torso and whiplash legs. “Questions? Going once, going twice? Fine, sold.” A mordant smile cracks above his silver whiskers.

The dancers look relieved. Moses is a firm but reliable father figure to his troupe, Robert Moses’ Kin, which will present its 20th anniversary season Thursday through next Sunday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. He’s also a pillar of Bay Area dance who’s beginning to break out on the national scene with his work, a hybrid of ballet, modern and street-jive that vacillates between tension and tenderness.

His work reflects a richly observant and conflicted mind, forged in a North Philadelphia ghetto and impervious to compromise. Moses rarely discusses his life story. But when a visitor to his small office in the Flood Building asks, like his dances, it all comes pouring out.

“Do you want long or short?” he asks, laughing in his warm but nervous way. “We had a mom-and-pop store, but my father was dead. Heart attack, but really he drank himself to death. Store was across the street from the projects. We had chicken wire up so people wouldn’t just snatch stuff and go out. Let’s see, what else can I tell you about that?” ”

The full story is here.

Then, I had the great privilege of interviewing the dance revolutionary Anna Halprin on the occasion of her 95th birthday, and doing my best to telescope a wildly wise and innovative life:

“Fifteen years ago, choreographer Anna Halprin opened the door to her mountainside home in Kentfield, buck naked. “Just a moment!” she said impishly to a startled reporter, and slipped on a kimono.

This time around, on a recent weekday, the 94-year-old Halprin is fully dressed in a turquoise tunic and silver necklace, but her uninhibited way of being is still obvious. Relaxed from a morning regimen of lap-swimming and hula hoops, she takes a seat overlooking the famous “dance deck” at her Marin County home, where in the ’50s and ’60s she essentially invented postmodern dance.

“Martha Graham used to say it takes 10 years to make a dancer,” Halprin says and then giggles. “I said, ‘No, I think it takes more like 10 seconds.’”

Of course, she quickly qualifies, a lot happens in that 10 seconds, a transformation of awareness that had profound implications for 20th century art. Before Halprin, American dance was cast in Graham’s regal mold, presented formally onstage, and performed by highly trained bodies that acted out the choreographer’s vision in a rarefied movement language. Halprin’s rebellion was to declare that any movement, performed with presence and intention, could be a dance, and anybody could be a dancer.

“She really was the genesis of so much postmodern dance,” says her biographer, Stanford Professor Janice Ross — though for many decades, the dance establishment in New York, a powerful world that tends to cast developments outside its sphere as “provincial,” discounted her place in dance history.

That has changed. This summer, to mark Halprin’s 95th birthday, fans and followers will host hundreds of events in 15 countries. Documentaries on Halprin will screen in Colombia and South Korea, and her works will be restaged in France and Israel. People in 46 nations, and in the Bay Area on Mount Tamalpais, will participate in her Planetary Dance on June 7. Tamalpa Institute, the training program based in Halprin’s home studio, will hold a benefit tribute to its founder on July 12, the day before her birthday.

Even the New York establishment that has so long ignored Halprin is paying its respects. Last fall, avant-garde choreographer Stephen Petronio announced that his “Bloodlines” project, which traces the lineage of 20th century experimental dance, will include works by textbook luminaries Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham — and Anna Halprin.

It’s a remarkable resurgence for an artist who, raised by Russian immigrant Jews in the Chicago suburbs of Wilmette and Winnetka, made a life of art secluded in the woods with her husband, the influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.”

Here’s that full story.

Friday, June 5th, 2015 · Dance · No Comments »

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