Tag Archives: joe

Yale Writers’ Conference (part 1)…..

When I decided that I actually am a “for-real” writer, I ordered The New Yorker because in order to be a “for-real” writer one must read The New Yorker. Right? R.I.G.H.T.

Flipping through the pages kind of felt like my 8-year-old-self wearing my mother’s high heeled shoes, mink stole, droopy pearl earrings, and possibly my grandmother’s satin opera gloves. But then I saw it–an ad for the Yale Writers’ Conference. I might have even giggled. It certainly sounded marvelous but I hesitated, thinking “Yale? Who are you kidding?”

Ultimately I thought, “Why not!”

I showed the ad to my husband. When he didn’t laugh, I took it as a sign that the universe was pushing my newly established writer-self out of the nest to test out my pencil wings.

So, I applied with the beginnings of my novel in progress “The Alligator Purse.” While I waited for a response, I reminded myself to breathe. And then I waited and waited, for what seemed like a really long time. Forever really. (That might have been a by-product of the watched in-box never boils syndrome. Maybe. Okay, probably.)

When the email came inviting me to attend, I was beside myself–proud, disbelieving, believing, and more than a little nervous. I mean, it’s Yale. What were they thinking letting me in but thank you Jesus, they let me in!

So if you have any of that self-doubt, erase it now. Right now. The Yale Writers’ Conference is so welcoming. They accept 140 people each year. So that’s 140 chances for them to say yes to you. And please know that you do not have to be an established rock star writer to attend. You do have to submit a quality writing sample that is polished and then re-polished. And then polished five more times. But, there is plenty of room for those who are early in their writing career. Please understand that this doesn’t mean there isn’t talent at the conference – there is and a lot of it! People who invest in their writing generally take honing their craft very seriously. (Remember I said to polish your submission! And then polish it again. And then one five more times.)

Terence Hawkins (with his trusted sidekick Victoria Rinkerman who is nothing short of amazing herself) is the man behind the magic that is the Yale Writers’ Conference. He is a writer himself and is eager to help all of us succeed.

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Here are a few things that are good to know:

The less expensive option is to stay in the dorms. The un-air conditioned dorms. When I was in college, I lived at home so I actually loved staying in the dorms. But they aren’t fancy and if you are used to your own bathroom and A/C, you should know that the dorms do not equal the Ritz Carlton. You should also know, however, that most people stay in the dorms and that it is fun to be there. (So it’s really a positive masquerading as a negative.)

The dorms are gorgeous (from the outside 😉 ).

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_255And they really aren’t terrible on the inside…

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Session I is ten days. That’s a long time to be away from work and family (possibly another positive masquerading. I guess that depends on your job and family. 😉 ). Session II is shorter if you really like your family and/or your job.

The rest is all up side.

Did I mention the conference is at Yale? Yes, “the” Yale that you’ve heard so much about. It’s magical to walk the streets of New Haven in the spring.

For ten days, you will talk and learn about writing with some very talented/committed/enthusiastic writers and instructors. You won’t wash any dishes or drive a car. If you pack enough clothes, you won’t have to do laundry. Someone will cook breakfast and lunch for you buffet-style. (Dinner is not included but New Haven has tons of fabulous places to eat.) You might not even watch tv. It’s heavenly. You’ll meet in large sessions to hear amazing guest speakers and you’ll meet in groups of ten to workshop each others writing. You’ll even get to attend one master class workshop with a guest speaker of your choosing (This is why it’s smart to apply early. The earlier you get accepted, the more choices you have.)

You will eat, sleep, and breathe writing for ten days. Ahhhhh.

In effort not to keep you reading this post for hours on end, I’m consolidating my experiences from two years into one post. (I’ve been to Yale for the past two years and the only reason I’m not applying this year is that my son is graduating from high school around the same time as the conference.) That means I won’t be able to tell you every fabulous thing about the conference, but here is some of what I learned…

From Richard Selzer (Mortal Lessons)

  • Don’t be timid: you can say in writing things you would never say aloud.
  • And don’t be afraid to tell lies: they give writing a vivid complexion.

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From Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang)

  • Writing is a muscle you have to exercise and you have to change up your routine to keep it all moving.
  • When building a story, instead of starting with a tree and adding ornaments to it, start with an ornament and build a tree to support it.
  • You might be the worst writer in the world, but if you write, at least you’ll have evidence to attest to that fact.

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From Deborah Treisman (Fiction Editor, The New Yorker)
She was asked “what makes a story stand out.” She answered that you just know it when you see it. She looks at the story’s ambition–what it’s trying to do–and figures out if it’s doing it.

2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_135From Z. Z. Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere)

  • Give the reader an image to start with. Then you can put that image into action: you can create symbolism with the image.
  • The readers want to see a journey with obstacles that add up to something. What the character wants will give them motivation–look at the “lack” behind that want. What will the want satisfy?
  • If you want to read a terrific article by Z. Z. Packer on writing short stories, click here.

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From Joe McGinniss (who sadly lost his battle with cancer this past year)

  • Especially in non-fiction, you are going to make people angry.
  • However, the worst thing is no reaction at all.

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From Tom Perotta (Nine Inches)
Get the story going before you give backstory.

2013_June_14_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_209From Susan Orlean (Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin)

  • People can be made to care about things that seem ordinary.
  • Ultimately we end up writing to ourselves.

2013_June_18_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_754From Sybil Baker (Into this World)

  • Short stories are almost always based on desire and characters are often responsible for their own problems.
  • Raise the stakes for your character on her original desire, rather than adding in new desires.
  • Dialogue is more interesting when characters are disagreeing or at least not agreeing.

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From Chuck Klosterman (I Wear the Black Hat)

  • You want the reader to be engaged with the text, themselves, and the world.
  • The first chapter makes an assertion that gets carried through the book. It’s important for the reader to get to know who she’s going to spend the next 250 pages with.

Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 10, 2014-12From Rob Spillman (Tin House)

  • When he reads a submission, he wants to forget he’s an editor and remember that he’s a reader.
  • The writer should establish authority in the first 300 words. Writers can do that through language, forward momentum in the story, stakes for the characters, and story questions.

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From Colum McCann (TransAtlantic)

  • Write what you want to know. You do not have to write what you already know.
  • There’s no true distinction between fiction or non-fiction: it’s all story-telling.
  • Beginnings are hard because they can go in so many directions, but the ending should be the one thing that has to happen.
  • Life is deeper than Google: you might have to go to the library.
  • It’s all shit, until it isn’t.

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From Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune, McLaughlin Group)

  • Be courageous and be persistent.
  • Some stories will work: some won’t. So what.
  • There is someone out there waiting for your story.


From Rick Moody (The Four Fingers of Death: A Novel)

  • Rethink abstraction: it’s better to be fully grounded in things and scenes and people.
  • Use all five senses–remember smell is most closely linked to memory.
  • Read all of your work out loud, to someone else and your mistakes will be more obvious.

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Okay, I don’t know about you but I’m tired. So, I’ll be back later with more. (You can read Part 2 here.) Come back soon for Yale Part II. And you missed the other workshops I’ve written about, you can read those

Tin House Winter Workshop

Woodbridge Writers Retreat



Oddly enough, my family was at Penn State when the news broke of Jerry Sandusk’y alleged child abuse. Either the campus had not yet heard the news or not yet realized the full reach of the story. No one was talking about it yet. Maybe it was just that we enjoyed isolation from the news because we were sequestered in the Natatorium and that isolation protected us from really understanding all that was unraveling.

But before I get too comfortable on my own high horse, I want to say that we all need to be careful here. I know there have been times when I was concerned about a child (or an adult for that matter) and did nothing because I simply did not know what to do. I want to be sure to say I have not been worried about abuse or egregious behavior  but I have surely seen neglectful behavior or over-reactive behavior. I have been very concerned. But that mystical dance between being worried about another person’s child and crossing the line of that child’s parental responsibility is impossible to gracefully maneuver.

However, Joe Paterno is nearly a God at Penn State. He is certainly larger than life and I suspect that those poor children were likely lured to Penn State and to Jerry Sandusky’s care under the full shadow of Joe Paterno. They may have been there with Jerry Sandusky, but the reason they wanted to be there was likely to bask in the glory that was Joepa’s alone.

While we were in State College, we ate at a local restaurant. The largest picture in the dining room was Joe Paterno’s. There were quotes from him surrounding it. There was a sandwich named after him – The JoePa. The waiter even joked with us that if someone innocently mispronounced it “hoepa”, he would walk away from the table snickering and shaking his head in sympathy for the poor customer who just didn’t know. That sometimes it was fun not to correct them and just imagine them walking  around campus embarrassing themselves until some kind soul felt sorry enough for them to let them in on the secret – it’s pronounced with a “J”.

I saw on the news today that there were student riots near the campus. I can only imagine that those students who were taking part just don’t understand why Joe Paterno should have been fired because they are not parents yet. They don’t know that their own parents are worrying what kind of place they are paying to send their children to. I don’t want to believe that we are raising a generation of young adults who think that football legacies are more important than the safety of young, innocent kids.

A lot will be revealed in the coming months and maybe we will learn that Joe Paterno did a lot to try and stop what he seems to have known (or at least suspected) was happening under his watch. I hope so. But it will be hard for me to believe that he could not have done more. When Joepa talks, people put down their sandwiches named after him and listen. He has the weight of all of this on his heart. The least of his worries is never coaching football again.

So many layers…………..

I don’t normally pick the topic du jour to write about. But, I have been thinking a lot about Michael Jackson this week – yeah, I know, who hasn’t been. Right now, thoughts of him have been nearly impossible to avoid. Love him or hate him, he was an icon of our pop culture. It would probably be hard to find anyone who doesn’t recognize his name.

MJ’s name came up at the pool. One of my friends is exploring online dating options and I suggested to her that she use the question, “what do you think about Michael Jackson’s death” as a barometer for picking the men she will go out with. Of course, I was half kidding. But think about it for a minute. You would know right away if the guy was a logical thinker with no room for gray areas, compassionate, in touch with his feminine side, a possible dance partner, a believer in plastic surgery, or just completely out of touch. Interesting, huh?

Like many, I have run the full spectrum of emotions – all the way from “dang that’s horrible” to “good riddance”.

But the central thread running through all that I have been thinking is what a real responsibility we have as parents to nurture our children. To hold them tight when it’s dark, to let go of their hands when they need to grow but to keep our own hands cupped behind them in case they stumble backwards, to just love them with our whole hearts. To not use them as a means to an end. To help them learn and love to smile and to wipe away their inevitable tears when they cry. To anticipate things that could hurt them and not throw them bound and gagged into harms way.

I saw a press conference given by Joe Jackson the other day. Before he talked about his son’s memory and the deep loss I am sure he is feeling (if no where else but in his wallet), he talked about a new project he was working on. My heart cracked. Even in his death, Michael still did not seem to have his father’s full attention – even when the rest of the world stood still if only for a second.

Really and truly, I could not believe it. The full circle of it all.

Here is a man who influenced the world in very spectacular ways and he never seemed to accept himself. How does this bode for the rest of us with much less lofty ambitions and accomplishments? The press keeps showing pictures of him as a boy and then as a man – it was a little sickening because it was just for shock value, letting the pictures say what they could not mutter aloud because it would have seemed inappropriate – but those pictures were just that – shocking and inappropriate. We all get it that Michael Jackson mutilated himself with surgeries and probably bleaching and God only knows what else. We all know he was a mess. And that his mess spilled over into the lives of so many. But I would argue that he is not the one who filled that glass and started tipping it over. He had a lot of help spilling!

I know he was accused of some very dark acts (and let me be clear that I would not have left my children in his care – not that he was asking, but you know what I am saying). Anyglove, he will soon enough be held accountable for all of that. I am not writing here to sit in judgment – just to evaluate my own parenting and make some adjustments. We can all use some improvement. His death reminds me of the damage we can all do to each other, so I am trying to be more patient, less critical, and just more loving in general.

I want my children to know that they are loved, protected, respected, and most importantly – accepted. And that I am so proud of them. Note to self – remember to act that way.

They also showed pictures of a run-down Neverland. Oh, the symbolism in that place. A child that was never allowed to be a child builds a magic kingdom that simply crumbles. So many broken little pieces.

Clearly Michael Jackson connected with his mother. After all, he has given custody of his children to her. But I am so sad for them. Not that life was going to be easy for them in the first place, but now they have lost their father. Horrible. But the obstacles ahead of them. Good grief. Katherine Jackson did not seem to do much enough to help Michael – what will happen to those kids?

I guess prayers are helpful – but humans are involved – so let’s also cross our fingers that things work out for those poor children and for anyone else affected by all of this.