Writers lead workshops on historical fiction, new poetry

Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer


Civil War buffs will relish Pat Carr’s workshop this week on writing a Civil War novel, and poets looking for new work will find it with Nancy Krygowski’s fresh prompts.

It is the first visit for both writers-in-residence, and they will read selections from their work at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

A Pittsburgh resident, Krygowski teaches at a local arts center in the city and is the co-founder of the Gist Street Reading Series, a monthly meeting of new writers. She has received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, a Pittsburgh Foundation Grant and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, River Styx, Southern Poetry Review and 5AM, and she won the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for her first book of poetry, Velocity, in 2008.

This week, she will be teaching a generative workshop called “Action, Not Perfection,” which will focus on producing a quantity of new work.

She said the title comes from the adage that the more one writes, the better chance there is of producing “moments of perfection.”


“The idea is that good writing sneaks up on you or needs at times to be teased out of you, and you don’t necessarily know how that’s going to happen,” she said.

Krygowski believes that the structure and confines of writing prompts brings out unexposed material. Her workshop will emphasize the elements of craft, like forcing poets to write in an extended metaphor until it sinks in and becomes natural.

The best metaphors, she said, are the ones that not only ring true but also are surprising.

In the spirit of the unexpected, Krygowski will push her writers outside of their normal writing patterns, a crucial part of producing new work, she said.

“We’ll do a little more wild things, where students don’t know what they’ll be writing,” she said.

Krygowski’s own poems often are inspired by sounds, rather than the images that seem to inspire most poets, and so she will use exercises that engage the auditory side of verse. With a little structure and a little surprise, she said, her workshop will draw out the unexpected.

The prose writer-in-residence for this week will teach fiction writing on the Civil War.

Pat Carr lives on a 36-acre farm in Arkansas, but she was born in Wyoming and grew up in Texas. It was in the South that she encountered so many echoes of the Civil War. She attended all segregated schools growing up, taught in black schools throughout the 1950s and lived through the Civil Rights Movement.

Carr is the author of 16 books. Her latest is a memoir called One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life, published last year. She has published more than 100 stories throughout her career in publications such as The Yale Review, The Southern Review and Best American Short Stories. Her short story collection The Death of a Confederate Colonel won the PEN Southwest Fiction Award and the John Esten Cooke Civil War Fiction Award and was a Faulkner Award nominee.

“I had a grandmother who used to tell me about how (Union Army leader William Tecumseh) Sherman was marching towards the sea, and how she and the slaves would hide the silver when they knew the Yankees were coming by, and how wonderful it was to live on a plantation in Georgia,” she said. “It turns out she had been born in Texas, and she wasn’t born till 1876, way after the Civil War.”

Regardless, she was hooked on Civil War storytelling, and she will teach how to write a novel on the subject.

“People say, ‘Can you really teach writing?’” she said. “I can teach people to be honest. What’s their vision? What do they really want to impart on the Civil War?”

Carr believes that honesty is at the core of fiction. Despite being made up, fiction must be an honest account of the author’s vision to be successful. This is something she wants to help readers figure out during her workshop.

She also is a stickler for details and believes photographs are not nearly enough for accurately writing about the past, she said.

“Don’t go into this half-assed,” she said. “Get your dates right. Know what you’re doing. Have been to the place. You can’t describe how it smells, how it looks, if you haven’t been there.”