Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling - recently tweeted out and now republished in an article on Aerogramme - are surprisingly helpful for writers in all genres. Here are the first ten. Number 9 – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a favorite. Check out Aerogramme to see the complete list.  



  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Writing Prompt: "For a Long Time"...

Perhaps a year ago, I was listening to the radio when a book review came on, an author's voice reading the first sentence of her novel. "For a long time," she read, "my mother wasn't dead yet." What a terrific beginning, I thought. (And in case you're wondering, it's from Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson). 

Of course, the sentence itself is wonderful - wistful, intriguing, heartrending. But even the first part, the fragmentary "for a long time," echoed in my head. It suggests the end of the known present and the beginning of an unimaginable future. "One day," it implies, and this is the place all literature begins, "everything was different."

Today, I invite you to complete that sentence in your own way. Set the timer for 15 minutes and put your hands on the keyboard. Think about a familiar state that is interrupted. Imagine, what could possibly come next? Then begin: "For a long time..."

Stories that Teach: "Letter to the Lady of the House" by Richard Bausch

Well here's a happy discovery: the ever-wonderful Masters Review has a blog called "Stories that Teach." In their February edition, they discuss an old favorite: "Letter to the Lady of the House" by Richard Bausch. Their discussion questions the notion that sentiment is for suckers and examines what makes this romantic - but realistic - epistolary story so moving. "In 'Letter to the Lady of the House,' sheer sappiness bumps up against moments of ugliness," they say. "Grand proclamations about the nature of love follow descriptions of the mundane. Its sentimentality is not only excusable; it's extremely effective." You can listen to Bausch reading his story for "This American Life" and then read the analysis in "Stories that Teach." 

Previous editions of the blog examine the fictional lessons and social relevance of  Susan Minot’s story “Lust,” dissect the elegant sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” and consider what makes Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven” so effective. Check it out...

David Biespiel Appointed Poet-in-Residence at Oregon State University

"David Biespiel is a major voice in twenty-first century literature. "

In addition to his work as the President of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, David Biespiel will now also be the Oregon State University Poet-in-Residence.

Appointed by the College of Liberal Arts, David — who has taught in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film since 2001 — will teach and advise undergraduate and graduate students in the MFA in Creative Writing; promote poetry in the OSU community; and continue to build the already substantial national reputation of Creative Writing at OSU.

In his appointment, College of Liberal Arts Dean Larry Rodgers said, "David Biespiel is a major voice in twenty-first century literature." He is the first Poet-in-Residence in the history of Oregon State University.
A celebration of David’s new role at OSU — where he will give a talk and reading — will be held at 7:30pm on March 16 in the OSU Alumni Center’s Johnson Lounge.

Read the announcement

The Craft of Writing: Surprise

It’s such a simple idea, really—says CraftLiterary.com — that surprise is a key element in our work as writers. But somehow, I hadn’t grabbed onto that idea until I took a workshop with Bret Anthony Johnston who believes wholeheartedly in the element of surprise. Here’s what Johnston has to say about it:

As a reader and a writer, I’m always looking for the same thing—for the characters or the writing to surprise me. If I don’t think there’s potential for surprise in something I’m writing, I’ll throw the idea away, if I don’t think there’s potential for me to be surprised as a reader of a novel, I’ll close the book.

Notice that Johnston specifically doesn’t mention plot when he talks about surprise, and yet that’s often where we think to insert surprise when we’re writing. Johnston is more interested in being surprised on the sentence level—with the writing—or with a character who behaves in an unexpected way. And that rings true to me as a reader, particularly a reader of literary journal submissions. Again and again, I find myself writing in the notes: “Characters behaved in expected ways.” And it is strong and surprising writing that often keeps me reading a piece, even if—and especially if—I don’t know where it’s heading.

Advice for Writers: Go to "New York"

Continuing our occasional series "Advice for Writers" with this quote from Walter Kirn (author of "Up in the Air," among other books, which was made into a film starring George Clooney). Kirn is arguing for just such places as The Attic Institute, places "where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests." Here's the full quote:

“My advice for aspiring writers is go to New York. And if you can’t go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do.”

Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program | Free Info Session | Mon Feb 26 7:30pm

The Rainier Writing Workshop is one of the premier low-residency MFA programs in the country, based at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. 

On Monday, February 26, at 7:30PM, the Attic Institute will host an info session about the RWW experience and the low-residency MFA program. Participating in the info session will be: Rick Barot, Director of the Rainier Writing Workshop; David Biespiel, President of the Attic Institute and a long-time RWW core faculty member; Caitlin Dwyer, former Attic Institute writer and current RWW student. 

Come on up. Join us to learn more about how low-residency MFA programs work, and about The Rainier Writing Workshop.

Details: RWW + MFA Information Session | FEBRUARY 26, 7:30pm | FREE

Please R.S.V.P.: Contact us to save your spot

Writing Prompt: Going to Extremes

Thanks to Poets & Writers for this week's writing prompt: 

Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?

The Attic's Ed Skoog Among the 2018 Oregon Book Award Finalists

The Attic's own Ed Skoog is among the finalists for the 2018 Oregon Book Awards, which honor the finest accomplishments by Oregon writers in the genres of poetry, fiction, graphic literature, drama, literary nonfiction, and literature for young readers. Skoog was nominated for his third book of poetry, "Run the Red Lights" (Copper Canyon Press). His second book, "Rough Day," won the Washington State Book Award in Poetry for 2014.  His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, Narrative, Ploughshares, Tin House, and elsewhere.

Spots are still available in Skoog's Poetry Writing Workshop the weekend of February 24-25. Classes are Saturday and Sunday 12:30-5:30 PM in the Attic's North Library. Early Registration is $207 (cash/check) or $219 (PayPal), and the deadline is seven days prior to the start of the workshop. Late Registration is $222 (cash/check) or $234 (PayPal). A maximum of 12 students will be accepted. 

Inside North Korea's Literary Fiction Factory

With colorful rhetoric about dotards and nuclear buttons, North Korean propaganda is attracting attention around the world.

However, there’s another side to North Korean political messaging, one directed at the domestic population. One of the more illuminating forms of internal propaganda, Meredith Wilson writes in Aerogramme, is the regime’s state-produced fiction. Published in monthly literary journals, these stories are distributed by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party to select schools and offices around the country. Read the full story at Aerogramme

A North Korean propaganda poster proclaims, "Let's establish the habit of reading all over the country!"

Advice to Writers: "Wear Books Like Hats"

Here we are at the end of January, that time of year when New Year's resolutions begin to flag. If your commitment to writing could use a boost, remember that Winter II classes are starting soon! Also, here are some words of inspiration from Ray Bradbury to help you on your way. That wonderful man. This quote made me want to sit down immediately and write:

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.

Celebrating Women Writers with Soapstone

In Portland, we're blessed with many writing resources. Among them is Soapstone, whose mission is to bring people together to celebrate and support the work of women writers. Their primary work: study groups that offer the opportunity to delve into the work of a single woman writer.

In March and April, there's Reading Adrienne Rich (led by Sara Guest); in May, Reading Susan Glaspell (led by Gay Monteverde). When fall rolls around, they will be Reading Virginia Woolf's Nonfiction (led by Judith Barrington). Meet fellow readers and writers and get inspiration for your own creations! To participate, the workshop fee is $60 and scholarships are available. Or if you're interested in leading such a group, note that small grants are available to support this, and applications are due March 15. For more information, visit Soapstone.org.

Writing Prompt: Big and Small

New Year's Resolutions still fresh? Then it's time for a freewrite inspired by this picture. Notice the huge leaf; the tiny little deer. Why are they so small? What are they looking at? Was there a noise that stopped them in their tracks? What did it sound like? Is someone else there? What will happen next? 

Cell phones off, and give it a try!



"Placing a Premium on Pragmatism": the Working Poet

A few months ago, we alerted readers to a unique opportunity: the Mall of America, purportedly the biggest shopping mall in the country, was seeking a Writer in Residence. The winner would spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall and writing about it. Perks would include not only bragging rights, but also four nights in a hotel, a $400 mall gift card, and a $2,500 honorarium. Four thousand people applied, and a winner was announced: poet Brian Sonia-Wallace.

Writing Prompt: Guests

Now that the holidays are over, let's pay tribute to the guests. There's making yourself at home and party crashing, overstaying your welcome and snooping in the host's medicine cabinet - all that rich material for your fifteen minute write! So set your timer and get underway. 

$20,000 for a 100-Word Story: Museum of Words Flash Fiction Contest

The Cesar Egido Serrano Foundation’s fifth international flash fiction contest is now accepting entries. Administered by the Museo de las Palabras (Museum of Words) in Madrid, the competition is for very short fiction pieces of up to a maximum of 100 words. The winner will receive a prize of US$20,000, with three runners-up each receiving $1000.

2017-2018 Atheneum Fellows Announced

Congratulations to the class of 2018

Our annual certificate program, the Attic Atheneum melds independent study under close faculty supervision, student receptions, public readings, and other special Atheneum events created around good food and great conversation, dialogue, and literary community.


POETRY: Peggy Capps, Michelle Williams, Louise Wynn

FICTION: Doug Chase, Althea Gregory, Dennis Steinman, Don Westlight

NONFICTION: Heidi Beierle, Kathleen Goldberg, Heather Rocha, Nadia Webb

Storytelling in folk and country music

I was talking with a friend recently who was explaining his relatively newfoundland love for country music. Among his reasons were the songs simply tell stories. I think it's worth taking a look at the lyrics of country musicians in relation to a narrative; country songs, or songs whose lyrics are derivative of country and folk origin, transcend the format of prose or poetry while still giving us an account delivered with sentiment. 


Reading to keep existential anxiety at bay in the summertime

As of two days ago it is officially summer. 

I have mixed feelings about the summertime. I love swimming, hot weather, drinking iced coffee, warm nights, walking for hours without any destination, going to sleep red and waking up a shade darker. At the same time, as a student who takes classes nine months out of the year, June through August presents a kind of chasm in which routine is discarded and needed to be refound. I inevitably find myself with time on my hands to ponder too much. Recently I've been wrestling with the idea of existential dread and how to utilise the thoughts which arise from it to initiate helpful, discrusive thinking. I don't really think there's one solution, but I find comfort in texts which offer empathetic narratives. 

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From David Biespiel, President of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters


Letter in 2010 announcing the new Attic Institute

"Eleven years have gone by in a blink. But today begins a new era as we renew our dedication both to the word and to the world."


Interview about the founding of the Attic Institute

"All sorts of excellent pieces of writing get started and finished here. That's what it means to be a literary studio."


Essay in the New York Times on they mysteries of poetry

"Poetry connects us to our past, and poets unmask both private and civic memories, dreams, and urgencies. By harmonizing the body with the mind, serving both young and old, poetry is a guide to deliver us into a fresh engagement with our inner lives and with modernity."


Essay on poets and democracy in Poetry magazine: "This Land Is Our Land"

"America's poets have a minimal presene in American civic discourse and a miniscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling -- both for poetry and for democracy."