Archive for August 2012

The Books of High Summer

Quick announcements:

Check out and sign up for our upcoming courses. Click here for details.

Also, click here to see Bellingham’s own Betty Scott who is featured on

The Books of High Summer

By Laura Kalpakian

I’ve often thought the Perfect Summer would be three whole months to do nothing but sit in some lovely place, a garden of some sort, and read Remembrance of Things Past. Yes, all three volumes. It would take three nonstop months, the reading itself is so rich, so redolent that you (that is, I) have to stop every page or so just to savor the prose, the thought or image. This is slow, delightful going.

So far life has not offered me that perfect summer. I have had to dip in and out of Proust’s classic as best I can, but over the years I return every other summer to two novels that were key to me not simply as a reader, but as a writer. For me, they are synonymous with summer.

I first read The Great Gatsby on a place called Picnic Hill where I went to college. It was a secret sort of place, shaded by tall, scraggly eucalyptus trees, set back from the old Citrus Experiment Station. I had it to myself. I read the whole novel in one afternoon.

Gatsby was the only novel assigned in a summer school history course called The Twenties. (Another text was called the Era of Republican Ascendancy which gives you some notion of the general snooze level of the course.) I’ve always been glad I took that course. I might have read Gatsby under other circumstances, but that summer afternoon started my long love affair with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like many love affairs, this one had many disappointments, but I was also introduced to a huge array of other authors, both before Fitzgerald and after him, whose work delighted my imagination and gave me much to think about as a reader and a wannabe writer.

Gatsby is fitting summertime reading. After all there are all those parties, that summer at Gatsby’s house, and the book, literally takes place between the summer solstice (see Daisy’s bit of conversation in chapter one) to Labor Day. Gatsby takes his last swim the day after Labor Day in September. I can teach this book in winter, but I cannot read it in winter.

My other favorite, obligatory summertime read is a very different sort of book, Virginia Woolf’s small masterpiece, To the Lighthouse. Most of this novel takes place on one evening in the summer of about 1904 with a large, noisy family and their guests at the Ramsay summer house on the coast of England.

Whereas Gatsby is like a lively cocktail, easily downed, To the Lighthouse is demanding. I read it originally in grad school (where it was not assigned; Jacques Derrida was assigned, which also gives you some notion of the snooze level). I first read To the Lighthouse in what you might call a grad student fashion: that is, I plowed through it as quickly as I possibly could.

Then I came to the line in which Mrs. Ramsay had died. And that’s all it is, just a line, a throw-away line, not a great weeping farewell, not a momentous loss, just there among the detritus of everyday life, Mrs. Ramsay died. Not possible! Mrs. Ramsay! I was stunned as if I’d known her personally and her death was a shock! Certain that I must have missed something important in my fast read, I immediately went back to the beginning, and this time I really read what Woolf had written. I slowly gave myself up to the novel.

In fact, I had not missed anything. Mrs. Ramsay dies. They never get to the lighthouse no matter how many times I read it. But as a reader and indeed, a writer, I was never the same.


What are your Summer Season Reads? How about the other seasons? What do you re-read each year?

Guidelines for Writers’ Groups

Below are some guidelines that came via Janet Oakley via the University of Washington. Beyond that we don’t know the origins of this list (do tell if you know). Would LOVE to hear what you do in your writing group. Are there rules? Processes? Specific goals? And what do you think of these listed here? Agree? Disagree? Want to add something? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Forming a critique group

  • It should be held in an environment which holds to these standards 1. A neutral place of emotional safety for a writer’s work to be heard. Not at someone’s home. Think of this as a business meeting. 2. A professional attitude 3. The main goal is to further the work of the other writer in a respectful, helpful manner.
  • No more than 4-5 participants
  • Up to 3 pages read per writer for beginners.
  • Up to 5 pages read per writer for intermediate / advanced. This depends on the experience of the participants.
  • Notes and the specific symbols used in this type of critique are important. ie: ‘+’ this part of the scene being read is working.  ‘~’ means there is a ‘bump’ in this part of the scene (it isn’t working /examp. A POV shift.) ‘Q.’ means the listener/critique has a question about something like. “What is the emotional curve you are trying for with this character, in this scene.” ‘*’ Something in the scene is especially well done. Use small ‘legal’ type note pads. Put the symbols in the margins next to the specific part referred to. Only AFTER all of the critiquers have read their notes to the writer are the sheets ripped out of the pads and handed to the writer. Noise is distracting.
  • The way it is done: Take turns. Each writer reads aloud his/her pages without any prefacing of the scene. The critiquers are to listen without comment or questions, during this and take notes. When the writer is finished reading each critiquer, taking turns, reads back to the writer what they have written down, without any interruption from other critiquers, or the writer. The writer, is at this time, writing down what the critiquer is telling them (additional information often comes out verbally that hasn’t been written down.). The writer Does Not answer the questions the critiquer is asking. These questions are a tool for the writer to later examine the scene with.
  • Language used by the critiquer is important. When something in the scene isn’t working say…”I was ‘bumped’ out of the scene because of a POV shift.” Or, “I was ‘bumped’ by the abrupt transition part in the scene.” Do Not say something like. “That was a weak or stupid way to show a transition.” Another acceptable way is: “I needed to know who was speaking in this part.” Or “I needed to have you show me, not tell me about the emotional curve of the character in this scene.” It is your responsibility to help further the work of the writer. This process has nothing to do with negative criticism.
  • The writer gathers up the sheets and later at home uses the information as a basis to revise the scene.
  • Choose your working group carefully. You are not looking for people to do line editing, or grammar corrections. Neither are you looking for a critiquer who is only interested in ‘telling’ and controlling how you should write your scenes. Beware of ‘you shoulds’. You are looking for respectful, committed participants who will show up on a regular basis, not just drop in once in a while.
  • Get down to work and keep the social chitchat to a minimum. It will take 3-4 hours to complete the process for 4 writers in one sitting. Make sure the place is comfortable to meet in! You can socialize after the group is finished.
  • Do not mix fiction writers with non-fiction or screenplay writers, or poetry writers. Each is a world unto its self.
  • Have fun and enjoy the creative life of a writer!