In times of trouble, fiction thrives
"When reality stinks," the crusty old novelist quipped, taking a quick drag on his cigarette, "write fiction." No, Raymond Chandler didn't snap out that advice. And many Philadelphia-area fiction writers plainly started on their literary tasks long before 401(k)s began dropping by half.
"When reality stinks," the crusty old novelist quipped, taking a quick drag on his cigarette, "write fiction."
No, Raymond Chandler didn't snap out that advice. And many Philadelphia-area fiction writers plainly started on their literary tasks long before 401(k)s began dropping by half.
But as stock markets tank, newspapers go bankrupt, and city services vanish, the humble, bracingly personal act of trying to write fiction - preferably with the support of a writers' workshop - appears more popular than ever.
For Halimah Marcus, 23, a Friends Central and Vassar grad who grew up in Narberth and, until recently, worked as a personal assistant to director M. Night Shyamalan, it's "much more a feeling of internal need than thinking I'm a prophet of any kind. It's just something I've had a desire or need to do from early on."
For Laura Spagnoli, 37, a Boston-area native who took her Ph.D. at Penn and teaches French at Temple, "writing some fiction in college" didn't prove satisfying. She returned to the craft in January by joining two workshops: one online (where participants never meet), one of the old-fashioned kind.
Ask Henry Pashkow, 68, why he's also writing fiction after a career that included importing tiles, trading rare coins, selling kitchen cabinets, and helping the homeless at the St. John's Hospice on Race Street, and he offers a blunt explanation: "I just have this passion to write, which seems to have reawakened in me."
The same goes for Patty Russo, 28, a lab technician at Fox Chase Cancer Center who grew up in Abington and lives in Frankford. Her decision to switch from visual arts came when she "took a writing class, and realized, you know what? I like this!"
Local writing workshops - themselves so popular that new ones pop up all the time - are fueling the boom. Some cost money, others don't.
Marcus, Spagnoli, and Pashkow came together for the first time last month at the "Philadelphia Stories" workshop (eight sessions, $125), which meets Monday evenings at Moonstone Arts Center on 13th Street. Thirty-two people applied for 12 positions in the workshop (moderated by short-story writer Aimee LaBrie), leading "Philadelphia Stories" to launch a second one.
Then there's the free "Steak" workshop that floats among participants' homes in West Philadelphia and elsewhere - Russo started attending it about a year ago. And the "Penn and Pencil" writers' group that meets monthly at the University of Pennsylvania. And the "Whatever's Write" workshop that meets the first Thursday of each month at William Rohrer Memorial Library in Haddon Township.
For fiction writers, workshops transform ambition into commitment. Whatever professional success or disappointment their participants may face down the line, the workshops discipline them to produce work.
"I wanted to be a writer since I was in fourth grade," says Marcus, mentioning her enthusiasm for favorites such as John Cheever.
She came back to Philadelphia after Vassar, where her senior thesis consisted of short stories set in Philadelphia, for a perfect storm of reasons: She's "super-comfortable" in the city, five or six of her Vassar friends moved here earlier, she's close to her family, and the city has "a lot of the perks of New York, but is way cheaper."
Her job with Shyamalan, which included a work trip to Japan, proved a detour. Now she's also thinking about becoming a professor of film after deciding big-budget moviemaking wasn't to her taste.
"Too much climbing up a ladder," Marcus says. "It just felt really corporate." The job also made her fret about not getting much writing done. "If I have a job where I'm working a minimum 45 hours a week," she says, "I'm not going to write anything."
For Marcus, the attraction of rendering in fiction her unusual family circumstances - her father and mother, for instance, turned to Sufism through the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship at 5820 Overbrook Ave - helped to make writing fiction a top priority. So did her interest in articulating "the day-to-day humiliations" people face.
Joining a workshop, Marcus says, amounted to "a conscious decision that I'm at a crossroads, that I have to make a commitment to me."
Russo also came to her intense focus on fiction writing after evolving through other interests, such as painting, video, and installation art.
A 2002 graduate of Bennington College, a school renowned for producing fiction writers, Russo says she was largely "unaware of literary life" there as she concentrated on visual art.
Only after returning to Philadelphia and taking a job in Fox Chase's Breast Cancer Research Laboratory did the force of her desire to write fiction - and the belief that she could do so - begin to surface.
"If there's one thing true about Quaker schools," says the graduate of Abington Friends, "it's that you learn how to write."
Gradually, Russo found herself "not wanting to do art anymore." Instead, she signed up for Penn's master of liberal arts program, earning her degree in 2007.
"Art is easier," Russo says, "because you can hide behind the subjectivity. You make a painting or a piece about a lot of things and you don't have to articulate what it means. But writing's so direct. You're saying exactly what you think, what you mean."
Russo agrees with Marcus that fiction workshops offer special benefits.
"It's small," says Russo of her group, "Steak," "so we get to know each other, to see the progression of one another's work. . . . It's easier to give constructive criticism."
That's obvious one recent Sunday afternoon as a foursome of Russo's fellow writers - Sylvie Beauvais, Tanya Underwood, Jeremy Rosenberg, and Sam Allingham - react to her short story "Go, Go, Go" in Allingham's Cedar Avenue apartment.
"In a story this short," Rosenberg comments on her tale of a dog who won't do the usual Sunday dog-park thing, "every word has to matter." Beauvais asks if the dog should have a name. Allingham likes the "intentional vagaries in the background of the character." Russo takes careful notes.
Similarly, on a Monday night at Moonstone Arts Center, Marcus absorbs feedback on her story, "Lincoln's Couch," about a young boy whose mother claims they own that prize possession.
The group likes the story, but has questions. Is there too much exposition at the beginning? Is the boy too young? Is what happens to the couch too dramatic?
After a spirited discussion, everyone hands Marcus a copy of the story, with comments. It's like getting 11 reviews on opening night.
That payoff of a workshop, and his own passion to write fiction again, explains why Pashkow joined the "Philadelphia Stories" group despite a serious stutter.
"Joining," he says simply, "is better than hiding out."
For Pashkow, the answer to why he's currently working on "The Shelter," set 25 years in the future, lies somewhere deep inside: "I labor under the illusion that I actually have something worth saying."
One thing's unquestionable: These local fiction writers devote themselves to their craft.
Marcus, after the session on her story, will painstakingly go over "the holes" in it. She'll tweak the end, clarify the father's status, add a scene. Spagnoli, in addition to absorbing suggestions and sending back her own, will turn to editing In Other Words, a Temple magazine that features literary work in multiple languages.
And Pashkow's form of perfectionism? He'll try to make his new novel better than the two completed ones he dumped because they weren't good enough.
Listen to any of them and you get the feeling they'll be writing fiction till the ink runs out, the pixels fade to black.
Russo, the lab technician, puts it simply in describing her short-story work: "I'm working toward the day when I can do this more, rather than less."
Workshops In the Region
Interested in a writing workshop?
"Philadelphia Stories": Contact Christine Weiser, 215- 313-2588, email@example.com
"Whatever's Write": Contact Robert Nigro, 856-983-6966, firstname.lastname@example.org
"Steak": Contact Sylvie Beauvais at email@example.com EndText