Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"If It Makes You Cringe, Hit Delete:" Words of Wisdom from Anna Scotti

            A thousand miles from the quiet lake by the Chautauqua Institution, Anna Scotti lives in the blur of sunlight and sound that is Hollywood, California. By day, she is an English teacher; at night, a writer whose contributions to Chautauqua have made the journal what it is today.
            She began her writing career at a young age, when at thirteen her English teacher submitted one of Scotti’s short stories to The New Yorker. Now, she admits to having been “really surprised” that it was rejected, but her early experience with the publishing industry did nothing to diminish her self-confidence.
            “[My English teacher] Miss Jenal’s confidence gave me confidence in myself,” she says.
            Scotti continued to study writing in college, reading and sharing random poems with classmates and friends. Her first published work, however, was prose—and born out of a nightmare. While living and working in San Francisco, a man saw Scotti on the street. He began to stalk her, going so far as to move into her apartment building for the purpose of threatening her. When he was finally arrested, she says, the police found an “apartment full of weapons.” In need of a fresh start, Scotti moved to Los Angeles, but she couldn’t shake the memory of the stalker from her mind. A co-worker suggested that she write the story down. As a way to cope, Scotti parlayed the experience into her first novel, Sweet Dreams, My Darling. She sent it to her uncle, an agent in New York, and published it under the pseudonym Anne Joseph.
            While she enjoyed working on novels and poetry, Scotti’s agent thought that her voice was better suited to magazine writing. He recommended that she pursue a job for a brand-new magazine, Buzz, where she wrote an anonymous column, “Whispers.” There, Scotti talked about restaurants, nightclubs, and celebrity news around LA. She also wrote profiles for magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal.
            “I specialized in rather boring celebrity and style fluff, and also in what’s called ‘real life drama,’” she says. “Crime, disease-of-the-month, adoptions gone wrong…interesting stuff, but also very difficult. I was never able to distance myself from my subjects as real journalists learn to.”
            Scotti stumbled across Chautauqua in an unusual way—she found the copy of the journal at a yard sale, and was immediately hooked. She was “intrigued” by the division of the book into sections, and “worked up the courage” to submit a handful of poems. She ended up being featured in multiple volumes. Writing talent runs in the family, as well; Scotti’s daughter will be featured in our Emerging Voices edition this June.
            Now, Scotti works as a history and English teacher of middle and high school students, people who she says inspire her, “in a very real—and… completely unsaccharine way.”
            “My style as a writing teacher is somewhat infamous, but also effective,” she confesses. “I mostly just stand over the desk and yell, ‘Not good enough!  Make it better!’” And the kids deliver. They walk away from Scotti’s classes with both a desire to learn and the understanding that creative work is never perfect the first time around.
            “It took me a long time,” she says of the writing craft, “to learn something very simple:  if it makes you cringe, hit delete.”
            Because she wanted to write in a variety of genres, Scotti began her career with a pen name. Now, however, she is using Anna Scotti, for everything from the young adult novel—Big and Bad and How I Got My Life! Back—in the works to her next project, an as-yet unpublished collection of poetry called The Proximity of the Sun. The only exception to the no-pseudonym rule is when Scotti writes “occasional poetry,” a time-honored tradition where a writer puts together a poem for a special occasion like a birth or a wedding.
            “Writing an occasional poem is like solving a puzzle, and it’s good exercise,” says Scotti. “It takes the poet outside of herself and outside of that favorite pastime of all poets, contemplating our own navels.”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"A Moral Guideline:" Interview with Richard Krawiec

Good morning, Chautauquans! We're continuing our series of interviews with some of our valued contributors. Today's post features Richard Krawiec, an award-winning novelist, playwright, and poet.
            The image of an award-winning author brings to mind many different clich├ęs: black coffee, suits, paneled offices. Richard Krawiec comes attached to another word: prison.
            Krawiec, author of Time Sharing and Faith in What?, was born in Massachusetts, in a small neighborhood “one street over from the projects.” As a child, he spent Saturday mornings in the library, reading books like The Pokey Little Puppy and the Hardy Boys series, and afternoons out playing with his friends. Many of those friends were from rough areas, and from a young age, Krawiec knew that teachers and other adults saw him as different than his classmates.
            “[My classmates] had problems that were vastly different. Their fathers were fighting in the streets… [I recognized that] when I walked into a school, I was treated as if I mattered,” he says. “They were treated as if they had to be put up with.”
            As Krawiec grew, he became attuned to the differences between his life and his friends’, conscious of the distinction that the adults in his life saw between him and the people closest to him.
            “[There was] a lot of stuff I witnessed that I think people who were in the same classes missed,” he says. As a result, he adds, his work slowly began to resemble a sort of “moral guideline.”
            Krawiec earned his Master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied all forms of creative writing. He discovered Chautauqua while searching for anthologies and magazines to which to submit, and enjoyed the quality of the work. A prolific writer, he has released several short stories, two novels, five plays, and two collections of poetry over the course of his career. His poetry collection She Hands Me the Razor received a special honor: the title poem was nominated for a Pushcart prize. Even as Krawiec worked on his own stories and poetry, however, he was driven by a desire to give voices to people that had none—people like the kids he grew up with.
            Before the 1990s, literacy programs—like the ones taught in prisons and homeless shelters around the country—focused solely on reading. As time went by, however, the classes began to expand to include writing. This was where Krawiec entered. He was part of a group that went into prisons, homeless shelters, and centers for at-risk youth and adults to teach writing. As time passed, the work with the prisoners began to inspire him. Krawiec’s play, Here, There, or In the Air, began as a workshop exercise with women on death row in Raleigh, NC. 
            “I could have ended up [in prison],” he says, describing an alternate future for himself as a child. “I understand where [the prisoners] are coming from… They’re people. Their lives matter.”
            Krawiec’s independent press, the Jacar Press, functions to supply poetry to those who perhaps are not immersed in the world of academia. The contributors also teach writing workshops, either in low-cost online classes or in their own communities. Currently, he says, they are seeking writers to work with young people. As for future projects—well, he has “a million of them.”
            And it's a good thing, too. His refreshingly honest demeanor and dedication to the voiceless confirm—the world could certainly use more of Richard Krawiec.