Report on The Last Ekphrasis

IMG_3748Last night we enjoyed one another’s company for the last time — at least, it was the last time that Ekphrasis will gather under my auspices with its regular purpose of sharing and critique, since I’m moving to Texas to start my PhD at Baylor. It was a magnificent meeting! There were food and flowers, hilarity and drama, literature and art. In attendance were myself, Sharon G, Devon W, Eric M, Richard B, Curt D, Laura W, Andrew S MacD, Betsy G, Jeff H, Amanda L, and two newcomers, Thaina D and Diante R.

Even though it was a sort of a going-away shindig, it was really just an ordinary hard-working meeting. Lots of people shared excellent work.

IMG_3744(1)At the beginning of the meeting, Thaina and Devon shared the hot-off-the-press Spring 2016 issue of Xanadu, Lehigh Carbon Community College’s literary magazine. Thaina and Devon, along with Diante, are student editors of the magazine this semester, and I’ve been a faculty adviser to it for six years. This semester’s may have been the most professional issue of the magazine we’ve ever produced: the design is streamlined and debonair. Diante has a poem published in it; Thaina has a few poems and several pieces of prose.

indexThen Sharon G read another chapter of her Robin Hood novel adaptation, Mercy and Justice. This chapter included a sad story of a poor, cast-off, single, expectant mother, helped by Marian and Robin, which was a good way of revealing their compassionate character. Sharon has completed about half of this novel and hopes to draft the rest of it this fall, after finishing her current novel-in-progress, Chrysalis!

13184680_1014038361966917_2053915199_oRichard B and Eric M each showed pieces of their artwork. Richard is writing and illustrating a comic book starring his Jack Windsword character. Eric is working on drawings he’ll bring to the Baltimore Comic Con. Their work is somewhat similar–both depict heroes, villians, mythic, archetypal characters with bold lines and swift action–but their techniques are quite different. The black-and-white image to the right is from Richard’s book. The colored images below from Star Wars and Star Trek are some of Eric’s works of art.




Then we moved into a sort of stage-like area we had set up, in order to watch several theatrical scenes.

First up was a stage adaptation of a bit from a Brandon Sanderson novel, by Betsy G. It was a scene packed with secondary-world-building, lots of neologisms and names and cultural references. In it, an experienced con artist is teaching her apprentice how to fool her potential victims by posing as a foreign princess. The prize? Her dupe’s boots. 13184742_935769666536853_1112604979_o

Next up was a selection from Jeff H’s recent full-length adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, which was recently produced by Players of the Stage. This scene was Toad on trial for causing a motor car accident–which is really just a cover for his enemies to lock him up and take his ancestral mansion.

Then came my short play, Galatea Awakes, which I wrote for my creative writing class at LCCC, and from which I previously posted a selection. It’s a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and I’m exploring themes of the artist’s isolation and relationships, the idea of the art as a child, issues of voyeurism and objectification, questions about the nature of beauty, etc. It was admirably performed by Richard, Andrew, and Sharon, and much hilarity ensued–sometimes when it wasn’t in the script, such as when Pygmalion whispers to his animated statue to “scroll down, scroll down” for him so he can read his script!

We got to see another play from my creative writing class, too: this one by Thaina. It is a side-splittingly funny drama entitled Why Deals With the Devil Never Work (And You Should Always Read the Fine Print). I’ll give you just a tiny snippet here to give you an idea of how funny it is:

ASH: Look man, I just really want my soul back. Please? Pretty please? Have a heart.
SATAN: What part of Lucifer, Demon, King of Hell, do you not understand?
ASH: I know you’re Satan and all, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk!
SATAN: Do you listen to yourself when you speak?
ASH: Hm? Of course I do! My soul is gone, not my hearing!

Yup, it’s all like that. With a great twist at the end.

And we were treated to a performance of a powerful slam poem by Diante, a tale of troubles and salvation. It is meant to become his final project for Creative Writing class.

Finally, Laura W ended our evening with a mind-boggling 2-min mystery: a piece of flash fiction in 500 words. Since Laura won most of the weeks of Signum University’s “Almost an Inkling” flash fiction contest, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was magnificent!

There were some amazing conversations, too, about the “Artist-as-inspired-romantic-genius” myth, about the use of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in writing and drama, about anachronism and style and craft. These are the talks on which my soul feeds.

So, yes: a fitting ending for, what, eight years, I think, of Ekphrasis meetings. I’ll miss you guys, and I hope you carry on!



July Meeting Report: Transcending the Form

sonnetLast night we had an excellent, lively, productive meeting. We began with a workshop on Mastering the Form and Transcending the Form. We started out by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” We read it through, then made sure we all understood it pretty well. Then we looked at how Shakespeare mastered the sonnet form. This was a really popular kind of poem at the time, and he had all the techniques down pat. He could do all the rhyme schemes, rhythmical patterns, internal structures, types of imagery, and so forth that were expected.

But then we looked at the ending to see how he transcended the form. Take a look at the final couplet:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

We noticed that “compare” is used like a noun there, so we would say: “The woman I love is as beautiful and unique as any of those girls who are lied about in false comparisons.” So what are those false comparisons?

Well, they are other sonnets: traditional love sonnets that over-praise the lady by comparing her eyes to stars, her cheeks to roses, etc. We took a look at a couple of Sir Philip Sydney’s “Astrophel and Stella” sonnets to see the kind of thing Shakespeare was bashing. So basically Sonnet 130 is not about a girl at all: it’s about poetry. It’s not saying “My girlfriend is prettier than your girlfriend”; it’s saying “my poem is better than your poem.” It’s an advertising stunt.

So the point is that Shakespeare took the love sonnet to another level. He wasn’t tied to the cliche of the form, but went above and beyond and made something that totally kept the rules, but still surpassed the limitations.

That’s what we want to do! We don’t want to write more of the same cliched praise choruses or Christian romance novels. We want to master and transcend the form.

On that lofty note, we moved into the sharing-and-critique phase of the evening. We had a varied and high-quality selection last night:
– a one-act play by Jeffrey Harvey entitled “Hail Mary”
– a chapter from the Jack Windsword universe by Richard Berrigan
– a landscape pen-and-ink drawing by Sharon Gerdes in memory of Judy Harvey
– an illustration of the Armor of God by Eric Muller
– a short story about the importance of worship–and what happens when you don’t–by Carl Hoffmeyer, entitled “Casting the Stone”
– an acting-for-the-camera monologue from “Spitfire Grill” performed by Marian Barshinger
– the first 4 pages of a short story by me entitled “Dig”

Go you forthwith and transcend the form!!

February Meeting Report

On Tuesday evening, we eccentric Ekphrasians gathered in the wild world of Wegman’s. It was a glorious meeting. While the skies froze outside, we heated things up there in the cafe with our readings, performance, talk, and laughter.

First, Jeff Harvey started us off by imitating Andrew Stirling MacDonald’s approach to 2015: he shared a list of ambitious creative writing goals for the next 12 months or so.

spitfireThen Marian Barshinger showed her very great confidence by performing a dramatic monologue right there in the grocery store! She’s taking a course in Acting for the Camera, so her focus in this piece was on facial expressions and voice, rather than blocking or gesture. She chose a speech from The Spitfire Grill: a heart-rending narrative of abuse. She performed it very powerfully, with depths of expression and serious focus.

Next Betsy Gahman read a revised chapter of her novel Dragonhoard. This novel is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and in her version, the Beast is a dragon. In what we heard on Tuesday evening, our narrative-perspective character finds himself transformed into a dragon. Betsy’s revision goal was to get into the physicality of dragonness, and she achieved this admirably.dragon_symbol

A performance of another kind followed: a reading of of a scene from Sharon Gerdes’s play Rifton. This is a lively, funny, thoughtful family and small-town drama. It is really coming to life as she reworks it, deepening the relationships and exploring the pain of misunderstanding.

Following this reading, Eric Muller of Hand-in-Hand artworks shared more of his amazing drawings! It is a huge blessing to have a professional artist in our midst. He showed us the final, colorized version of a book cover he has recently created, plus several original portraits of U.S. Presidents for Pastime cards.eric

Switching to creative nonfiction prose, Carl Hoffmeyer shared a really gritty tale of torture–with a surprising historical twist. Carl has a gorgeous reading voice and a masterful command of narrative pacing, so his reading is always a supreme pleasure.

Continuing with our successful streak, Richard Berrigan honored us with the first few pages of his new comic book, starring the same characters from his ongoing Jack Windsword world. His style is lively and active, with exciting plotlines and mythic figures.

Then there was more fiction: a back-story chapter from Earl Pape to go with his dwarf-human saga. This was an account of a battle between minotaurs and their mysterious opponents.

We have a new member of the group, Devon, and she graced us with a piece of tragic creative nonfiction. We hope to hear more from her in the near future!

Since we still had more time, we got to hear yet another scene from Sharon’s Rifton and yet another of Carl’s gripping stories. This was an unforgettable tale of dinosaurs in the backyard!!

Do join us sometime with your own work to share.


“Richard II” reading

On December 30th, several members of Ekphrasis gathered to read Shakespeare’s Richard II out loud together. This dramatic event came about because Nadine Kulberg participated in a theatre workshop in NYC all summer, during which she learned one of Richard’s speeches — and then proceed to MEMORIZE the entire role of Richard II. The Ekphrasians came together to read the play under Nadine’s direction, while she recited her part from memory. Casting was as follows:
Richard II — Nadine Kulberg
Bolingbroke/Henry IV — Jim Femister
Mowbray — Eve Kulberg
John of Gaunt — Carl Hoffmeyer
Northumberland — Andrew MacDonald
Duchess of Gloucester — Marian Barshinger
Queen — Marian Barshinger
Percy — Jeff Harvey
Green — Betsy Gahman
Abbot — Amanda Langan
York — Andrew MacDonald
Willoughby — Robbie Gerdes
Exton — Matthew Diem
Ross — Elaine Stone

[let me know if I’ve left anyone out or mixed anyone up, please].

Here are some reflections from the participants (sometimes slightly edited).

Jim: “I had never before participated in a performance where the entire cast was also the audience. Nadine practically had me weeping in the fourth act with her cathartic portrayal of the deposed Richard’s mental anguish. It was a privilege to be part of the whole experience.”

Amanda: “It was excellent, and knowing I was a part of it in a small way was the best. Everyone took their part seriously; however, the element of fun was not forgotten.”

Sharon: “The reading was great. It was a bit boring at times for those of us who didn’t have much involvement in the script, but all in all it was a really positive experience. I enjoyed watching Nadine perform, and especially appreciated all her memorization and her ability to seem perfectly at ease on stage.”

Betsy: “The reading of Richard II was a great experience both as an actor and an English student. The atmosphere was serious but low pressure; some people created their own blocking, while others remained seated. It was great fun to have the freedom to explore different aspects of Shakespeare and even more fun to do it with such a diverse group of people.”

Marian: “For the dramatic reading of Richard II, I got to read for the Queen, the Duchess of Gloucester, and Salisbury. All three parts were very enjoyable to read, but I enjoyed the Queen best. The scene between her and Richard was beautifully tragic, and it was loads of fun to play across from Nadine. I followed along with the script most of the night, and was very impressed by Nadine’s memorization. Very rarely did she mix up any lines. Her performance was committed and stirring to watch. I was grateful to be a part of the experience. I love cold reads, as you can just pick a characterization without letting your head get in the way and run with it. Let’s do another!”

Elaine: “I am familiar with Shakespeare, yet I do not consider myself anywhere near a literary scholar, yet I decided to embark on the journey of attending a Richard II reading. I soon realized I was inducted to be a participant. I settled in, listening and trying to make some sense of what was going on as I had arrived late. I found myself intrigued as the play unfolded and the drama drew me in. I felt amazingly comfortable during the cold reading of my character, and before I knew it, the drama had ended, yet the fire inside me was still smoldering!  The excellent acting of the prepared participants had drawn me in to the story of Richard II.

Jeff: “I was quite impressed by Nadine’s royally brilliant performance as Richard himself. Not only her skill at memorizing the lines (which I heard her say she did ‘just for fun’), but also the control she took over the characterization, bringing out the more feminine aspects of the character, while still able to play it convincingly masculine when the need arose.”

Carl: “First, thank you to all of the wonderful people whom I met and worked with on this reading of Richard II. I have been on-the-boards, first as a child playing Jesus at age six, and more recently in Greek tragedy and Victorian comedy.
Nadine’s lightning presence as the title character was a a most arresting display of serious, dramatic dedication.
Her effort to commit her performance to memory was an inspiration to all of us who followed faithfully behind.
In a word: WOW!!
For those of us who have memorized our short parts in various plays, her hard work was a tour-de-force to compel our own efforts. And those efforts were substantial – our ensemble participation was the glue that bound together a wonderful evening of enlightenment and fellowship for us all.
Thank you for letting me participate with you. I hope that we shall get to do this again.”

So somebody memorize another complete Shakespeare role, and we’ll do it again!

“The Chapel of the Thorn” launched at Ekphrasis

Chapel CoverOn Monday (January 5th), my edition of Charles Williams’ play The Chapel of the Thorn celebrated its official release with a nice little Book Launch Party at Ekphrasis. You can purchase the book on Amazon. After enjoying fellowship and really great food (see below), we gathered to listen to a selection from Chapel, read by Betsy Gahman, Jeffrey Harvey, and Andrew Stirling MacDonald. You can watch the reading here: . I apologize for my zombie-like condition; I was (and still am) recovering from a horrific bout of ‘flu.

IMG_1399After the Chapel party, we proceeded to a regular Ekphrasis. It was short, but successful. Jeff and Alex shared fiction, Marian performed two drama audition pieces, and several members read an adaptation Besty made from Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. Is that it, folks? I can’t remember.

Do come out and join us next time!

Advice for Publication

IMG_1239During our meeting this evening, I shared advice about how to get published. Here are my notes; I cite my sources at the bottom, so thanks to the websites that helped me to shape this presentation.

Ekphrasis Publication Workshop

Rule Number One: NEVER, ever, ever, ever pay anybody anything up front, or ever.

  1. Write at least a complete first draft of the book.
  1. Revise, revise, revise, revise. Get beta-readers, then revise with their suggestions. Do a reading, then revise with those suggestions. It should be finished and polished before you query.
  1. Find an agent.
  • Look up the agents of successful authors whose books are like yours
  • Network, network, network; do you know anybody who can introduce you to an agent? Go to conferences, readings, etc. get your stories published in journals, become involved with writers’ blogs and online writer’s communities.
  • Real agents don’t advertise.
  • Real agents don’t charge upfront fees.
  • Real agents list books they’ve agented on their websites, and you’ll recognize the names of the publishers that bought the books.
  • Being a member of AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) is a positive sign for an agency.
  • Real agents don’t insist on all client interactions being electronic.
  • Real agents don’t offer to edit for a fee.
  • Real agents don’t sell adjunct services to their clients (websites, illustrations, business cards, flyers, brochures, photos, marketing plans, etc.)
  • Real agents don’t submit books to vanity or non-advance paying publishers.
  • Look at their submission guidelines and follow them precisely.
  1. Send the agent your stuff!
  • Write a query letter. You are trying to accomplish two important tasks with the query:
    1) You are trying to make the plot/subject of your book sound awesome
    2) You are trying to show the agent that you write well
  • 1st paragraph: Start with a catching hook. Include the book’s title and genre. Give the length and state that it is complete. One-line “elevator pitch.”
  • 2nd paragraph: 25-100 word “verbal snapshot.” Vivid, memorable.
  • 3rd paragraph: What’s unique about this book. Also why this particular agent would be interested in it; compare to other successful books they have represented. Include a personalized tidbit about the agent in the query to show you did your research.
  • 4th paragraph: your credentials. writing credentials, life experiences if relevant, academic degrees if relevant.
  • 5th paragraph: polite, business-like sign-off, with contact info and list of materials included or attached.
  • Most common mistakes:

1) Too long. (250 words to one page)
2) Trying to include a synopsis of the book instead of a “sound bite.”
3) Telling too much about yourself and your life.
4) Telling the agent how much friends and family loved the book.
5) Telling the agent what to think.
6) Making your writing experiences look like credentials when they aren’t. What if you have none? Don’t mention credentials at all.
7) Writers who inform the agent that the book they’re submitting is the first book in a 12 book series they’ve spent the last ten years writing.

  • Include a resume of relevant experience only if requested.
  • Write a SYNOPSIS. Write in the present tense. Names of characters in caps. Give spoilers. “Long synopsis” or “outline” means about a paragraph per chapter, so it will be long (7-10 pages). A “short synopsis” means 1-2 pages.
  • Include whatever they request: first ten pages? First chapter? First five chapters? Whole book? Make sure to format it carefully and submit it as a .pdf. “Send the agent exactly what he or she asks to see. No more, no less.”
  • Simultaneous queries OK. (talk about requests for exclusives)
  • Remember Rule Number One: NEVER, ever, ever, ever pay anybody anything up front, or ever.
  1. Send it out, send it out, send it out!! Receive rejections, revise, and do it over and over.
  2. Rule Number One: NEVER, ever, ever, ever pay anybody anything up front, or ever.
  3. Talk about self publishing and vanity presses.


“How to find a (Real!” Literary Agent” by A.C. Crispin

“How To Find A Literary Agent” by Nathan Bransford

Writer’s Market.

Other random books nearby on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Novel Madness in at least four senses

On Sunday, several Ekphrasians and friends gathered at Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church to read part of my novel-in-progress, The Four Senses, out loud. We shared good food and fellowship, and we read the first ten chapters — 30,000 words — out loud together.

What a wild experience that was!! First, the fellowship was wonderful. Most of the members of the core group were there, plus some occasional attendees and four newcomers! In attendance were: me, Marian B, Richard B, Betsy G, Sharon G, Carl H, Gary H, Jeff H, Nadine K, Andrew MacD, Jenn R, Terri R, Dan S, Elaine S, and Elizabeth S. Everyone brought wonderful food: guacamole, tacos, chips, salsa, curry, chicken bites, rice dishes, home-baked bread, cookies, and so forth. It was a feast for the body, heart, and mind.

Second, the sensation of hearing my writing read out loud was wonderful. I was afraid it would all sound stupid once it hit the air, but it didn’t. Yet the act of listening to my own prose was revelatory: I could tell which passages dragged or limped along, and which were more smooth. I knew what to cut, shorten, or otherwise alter just from hearing it read. And my friends did a beautiful job reading, especially Nadine K (who read the main character/narrator) and Carl H (who read musical and philosophical passages in a beautifully rich tone). Everybody brought their characters to life for me.

Finally, however, it was exhausting to try to take in all the comments, questions, critiques, and suggestions for revision. As the evening went on, the comments became more and more similar: “Develop this character more. Replace narrative with action.” And then at last a few members were competing with one another to see who could criticize the most, and I had to stop it before I fell asleep with exhaustion or started to cry. The suggestions were all wonderful, and I will take them all into account as I revise, but it was a lot all in one go! I don’t know how Sharon G. managed to put up with it for 13 hours and her entire 70,000 word novel earlier this year. Whew.

So thanks, everyone! Let’s do it again sometime. And bring pillows and blankets.