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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

An interview with Thomas E Kennedy

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a writer who has been a mentor to me since we met at the Ploughshares Writing Workshop in the Netherlands nearly two decades ago, Thomas E. Kennedy, for Gently Read Literature, the online magazine. That interview will be coming out in the May issue. In the meantime, however, somewhat unexpectedly, our conversation continued concerning a workshop he will be giving this summer in Andros Greece at the Aegean Arts Circle , and for those of you interested in finding out more about his approach to workshops, you may find some information in the interview below.
LL : “Do you take a particular approach when conducting fiction workshops? Are there some aspects you emphasize especially?”
Thomas E Kennedy When I was a student in an M.F.A. program, I particularly wanted to hear what the workshop leader had to say. After all s/he was a published writer and presumably had much more to say than me, so I tried mostly to listen. Not that I didn’t ask questions also. With that in mind, I try to impart what I have learned to participants in my workshops. I want to talk about specific topics – verisimilitude and sensory evocation, narrative flow, the need for revision and how to revise, the use of intuition, point of view, structure, and so forth. And I find that participants – as I did when I was a student – want to hear about the nuts and bolts of being a writer, how to submit a manuscript, what the writing life is like, etc. I also do a lot of one-on-one with student manuscripts – a student of writing can learn as much from hearing a professional critique of another writer’s manuscript as of his or her own. But I need to have the manuscripts in advance – I need to contemplate a piece of prose before I know what I think about it.
But there is room for spontaneity also; the generative approach is something I find very useful – with writing prompts. It is amazing what a participant in a workshop can produce on the spot by being prompted by the leader with a little presentation – e.g. on sensory evocation, on cut-ups and rotations, or simply by setting a scene – and then the leader calling on the participants to write. The results are usually quite exciting. The very first writing exercise I took – about thirty years ago – led to one of my first published stories.
LL : What is the most important thing (or things) that workshops can give developing writers?
Thomas E. Kennedy: Well, I think one of the important things to remember is that in the workshop setting the participant is among equals – more or less equals of professional accomplishment – but is being guided by an experienced professional. So the participants can open themselves and trust – can read her or his work out or show it without fear because we are all in this together. We are all trying to help the participant to solve his or her writing problems and uncertainties, to try to help them go forward with a little more certainty than s/he had before. Immersing myself in the workshop at Vermont College was the best thing I ever did for myself as a writer. Hanging around with other writers, discussing formally and informally in workshop, talking shop and being unashamed of it – these all give potential for growth within the writer, for understanding of what s/he is trying to discover in taking on the vocation of writing.
I remember feeling when I went to my first extended workshop residency that suddenly I was among people who spoke my language – I understood everything that was said to me and everyone understood what I was saying. It was a great relief, suddenly to have people interested in matters I had been holding to myself for years.
And I see that in the participants where I teach, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, too, and the participants in the residency seminars and workshops I lead – they all profit from this same thing. The generosity of some of my mentors was incredible. Most writers like to talk about what they’ve discovered in pursuing their craft and their art. And as a participant in a workshop, I quickly became aware of that and opened my ears as well as trying to formulate questions.
In one of the first tutorials I ever experienced – in my early twenties – I had become obsessed with the fact that I did not know what a story was. And I sort of blurted out to the mentor – “I don’t even know what a story is!” It seemed like a stupid question and I felt extremely stupid and worthless for asking that, but he took it seriously – and I will never forget his answer: “Well a story is just something that happened. And you try to give it some kind of artistic shape, even if that artistic shape intimates the shapelessness of life.” A pretty good definition which satisfied my uncertainty. There are no stupid questions in workshops.
LL: . In your past as a student of writing, what were some of the memorable workshops you attended?
Thomas E. Kennedy Well, that one – with Edward Hoagland at the City College of New York – was important to me. Not only did he build up my confidence by answering my “stupid” questions, but he also let me look over his shoulder as he ran through my manuscripts and edited them – extremely instructive! And those tutorials were only 20 minutes long, but what a valuable 20 minutes! With my teachers at Vermont College, I think I learned as much in workshop as at dinner or at night when many of us sat around and talked. As I think the students and teachers learn at Fairleigh Dickinson University by exchanges with mentors and among themselves.
Visit the Aegean Arts Circle for more information on their upcoming workshops

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Linda Lappin reviews Pamela Sheldon Johns CUCINA POVERA

Review by Linda Lappin
Title: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
Author: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Publisher: Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC
185 pages (in English)
Hardback. 185 pages Price $21.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-4494-0238-9

During my thirty year romance with Italy, I have caught a few glimpses of the rustic life as it must have been lived once, not so long ago, before the sharecropping system was disbanded in the Italian countryside and the massive migrations to the cities began in the nineteen sixties. Decades later in most rural areas, old traditions lingered, and still linger today: old ways of doing things, old remedies and recipes, handmade tools passed down from generation to generation, along with an even older wisdom of survival that comes from living off the land. Stepping into an old house in Tuscany, Umbria, or Tuscia today is still like stepping into a story book. You are likely to find a sink hewn from stone, a pan of castagnaccio –pudding cake made from chestnut flour -- steaming on the hearth, tarnished copper pots hanging on the wall by a wood stove, or fragrant bunches of dried fennel or lavender suspended from the ceiling beams. In any Tuscan village, you’ll still find someone who can tell you what herbs will soothe a burn or a fever, what phase of moon you need to plant, prune, bottle wine or cut your hair. You’ll be offered the best red wine, olive oil, cheese, bread, bean soups, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll ever taste, and maybe some porcini mushrooms and truffles as well, prepared according to some grandma’s recipe which she in turn got from her granny’s granny, dating way before the Napoleonic wars, and maybe as far back as the Etruscans. And of course every recipe has its own story, history, and secrets. ,  Read More 
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