The Virtue of Stillness

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The lesson I look forward to most in the creative writing for new media class I teach at the University of Iowa involves me giving an unconventional lecture as a series of texts (complete with abbreviations, typos, and emoticons) projected on an overhead while I forbid speaking of any kind for about 20 minutes. During this time, students are allowed to take out their cell phones and use them in any way they wish—if they have a question, they’re instructed to type the question in a text and raise their phone in the air so I may come around and answer them with a text. It’s a strange spectacle to behold for sure but I’m always amazed at just how apt they are at following along, never missing a beat. Almost all of them whip their phones out and relish the opportunity to check their e-mails or Facebook while I type away and they glance up every once in a while. The room is full of darting eyes and tiny glowing screens. Continue Reading

Round-Down: Artists’ Books Now On Display Online

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I have always loved artists’ books, though I didn’t until recently—embarrassingly—consider them part of their own genre. The Smithsonian Institution only weeks ago launched a new inter-institution project, digitally curating many gorgeous artists’ books online on a searchable platform. The Smithsonian is collaborating with the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Library, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library, the Library at the National Museum of African Art, and other renowned institutions in order to make this careful digital curation a reality. Over six-hundred artists’ books are already searchable online and helpfully supplemented with notes and high-quality images of the books themselves.

In case you’re unfamiliar with artists’ books, the Smithsonian has included an introduction to the collection: “Artists’ books,” the introduction begins, “are works of art, like paintings or sculptures, but in book form. While book illustration has a much longer history, the book as art object is a product of the 20th century.” This primer goes on to note that “Many artists use the book format to create narratives to deal with difficult issues, with ideas that cannot be conveyed as clearly on a canvas or other medium. Some artist-made books illustrate the words of others, integrating art and literature. And some artists’ books do not have words at all.”

The challenge in creating this vast and growing archive is not immediately apparent, but is considerable. Anne Evenhaugen, reference librarian for the Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, mentions in Allison Meier’s article for Hyperallergic that a significant challenge is deciding how to catalogue and sort pieces “with a vocabulary often unique to printmakers and bookbinders, not to mention the significant task of categorizing a book as an artist’s book, as so many examples defy easy identification.” How, then, do we classify pieces that might even deliberately elude this easy or typical classification, and broker our desire to stay true to an artists’ vision with our desire to have these beautiful pieces available in digital form?

Unlike illustrations in books, the Smithsonian’s introduction also points out, artists’ books are a recent “product of the 20th century.” We’re also drawn to the further complicating idea that “Many artists intend their works to be interactive and expect their pages to be turned and the weight and texture of the book to be felt by the reader.” Online, while this sort of interaction isn’t possible, the photographs provide strong suggestion these details, and the archive invites us to consider the purpose of artists’ books–as beautiful art pieces with seriousness of intent and vision.

Check out some of these astonishing artists’ books here.

Calisthenics for Writers

exerciseWriter’s Butt is a real and tragic thing. You might be making great progress on that novel, but is your seat getting wider with every word count goal? Is your back so tight that when you stand up your arms are permanently locked in that T-Rex typing position? Time to stretch out and get the blood flowing with these specially designed exercises. (As always, consult your physician before starting any vigorous training regimen.)

Bind together seven copies of literary magazines that rejected you, and impale them on the end of a sharp stick. Now do the same with seven more mags on the other end of the stick. Now it’s time for the free lift! That thing must weigh at least ten pounds.

Sitting in your rolling chair, use your feet to propel yourself away from your computer in disgust. The sudden motion and rush of oxygen might give you a new idea. If it does, tiptoe-crawl your chair back to your desk, because you’re too far away to grab the edge of it with your hands. This uses your abs more than you’d think.

Switch to an old-timey manual typewriter. After a few weeks, your fingers will be strong enough to curl your own ironic handlebar moustache.Continue Reading

The 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest is Now Open

EWCbannerThe 2015 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is now open!

Our Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in Ploughshares.  We consider you “emerging” if you haven’t published or self-published a book.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

Over the years, Ploughshares has helped launch the careers of great writers like Edward P. Jones, Sue Miller, Mona Simpson, Tim O’Brien, and others.  We were thrilled to publish last year’s winners.  You can read their winning entries on our website:

The contest is open until May 15. But don’t wait! Submit today!

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell

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When we speak of a story as “voice-driven,” that typically means it’s written in first person and that the narrator has attitude. Instead of quietly striving towards general objectivity, the narrator—à la Holden Caulfield—gives us a unique angle on the world that keeps our eyes fixed to the page. Matt Sumell, in his story “All Lateral” from One Story, shows us some compelling ways in which that’s done.

From the opening sentence, Sumell’s language is oddly constructed and unpolished, creating a sense of a character who is brash and informal: “Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a sailboat.” The narrator isn’t interested in political correctness, nor impressing us with lyricism. He simply doesn’t care—or at least it appears that way.

Nor is he interested in being polite. Sumell’s narrator is the antithesis of a Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People disciple, and wonderfully so. Notice the line of argument he takes with Whatsherface at the San Pedro bar when they begin arguing the relative merits of cats:

“‘Look,’ I said. ‘I didn’t tell you about the drowned cat to make the argument that cats as a species are bad swimmers, but they are bad swimmers. What they’re good at is murderous rampages. Not only do their turds cause birth defects and mental problems, but cats spend all night looking for small animals to kill. For fun. They don’t even eat most of them.’”Continue Reading

Review: Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens

Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo
John Stevens
Shambhala, 2007
101 pages
$12.95
Buy: book | ebook

In John Stevens’ half-biography/half-koan-medley Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, we visit bamboo-fenced dojos, learning from early 20th-century Japanese master Awa Kenzo how archery can be a vessel that improves a whole person. In particularly zen fashion, piercing the bullseye doesn’t seem to be the primary requirement in demonstrating an improved self. Indeed: “Kenzo argued that in today’s world the true purpose of archery is to perfect the human spirit.”

Admittedly, some of the koans–spoken by Kenzo, translated by Stevens–read as much like a line of dialogue for a cross-legged yogi in a Saturday Night Live sketch as they read like actual wisdom. The tenth and ultimate level in shooting prowess is, I guess, achieving “a shadowless moon-mind.” Your guess is as good as mine here.

Plenty of times, though, it feels like Kenzo’s aphorisms scratch meaningfully beneath the surface of physical activity, recording the ways in which the spirit moves with the body. A personal favorite: “If you look at the target as your enemy, you will never make progress. The target is a reference point, not your opponent.” I’d like to think that “target,” here, can be read not just as the archery-specific bullseye but also as any of life’s targets that we, you know, aim for. Usually it feels like we’re doing battle with our goals in life–some days it would seem they have picked a fight with us–but in Kenzo’s approach these objectives aren’t battling with us any more or less than a mirror is battling with us. The mirror, the bullseye are reflections of ourselves as we truly are.Continue Reading

The Power of Predation in Literature

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I woke to find the cougar curled at the foot of my bed.

Or, at least, I thought I did.

I accidentally bumped the sleeping cat with my foot. He rose with a gleam in his eye, arched his back in a dramatic stretch. Heat emanated from his hyper-muscular body. He began to walk the length of the bed, toward my face.

He was self-assured, as only an eighty pound killing machine can be.

I tried to yell. I could not breathe. This was the end.

“I think someone in the house had a nightmare,” one of my roommates at the Millay Colony for the Arts said the next morning at breakfast.

I did not own up to the ruckus, or the epic fight I realized I’d had with my down comforter the night before. Who was scared of a four-hundred fill goose-down-cougar? Me.

I was a resident at the Colony that November, and bloodlust was everywhere. Deer season was on, and gunshots ricocheted throughout the national forest that surrounded the Colony. The caretaker mentioned a seventy pound coyote-dog hybrid he’d seen the week before, and showed us where a bear had peeled off siding from the renovated barn, Steepletop, in which we slept.Continue Reading

On Opening Secret Rooms

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My childhood copy of The Secret Garden is unusually pristine for one of my books though I read it many times. Two of us must have worked hard to keep it that way; the book was my mother’s before it was mine. Next to the flowery, rabbity bookplate I stuck inside, you can see the inscription to my mother, Ann, from her sister, Martha: “One of my favorite books to one of my favorite sisters. Love, Mart.” My mother was the youngest of four girls, Martha the oldest; my middle name is Martha, after her. She died in 1967, when the small regional airplane she was taking to visit her boyfriend crashed. She was eighteen, my mother eleven.

The inscription—the handwriting of a person to whom I’m related, but who has always been, for me, unreachable, unknowable—wrapped an additional layer of mystery around this book about mystery. I wonder if that’s part of why I loved the story so much. On every rereading, I was transfixed by Mary’s discovery of the garden. Here was a whole secret world she could claim, made special by its separateness from ordinary life. I read and imagined myself finding what she finds, holding my breath, opening that door:

It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. She put the key in and turned it. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn [...]

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

There are really two hidden spaces in the novel, the garden and also the secret bedroom where the master’s sickly son, Colin, is lodged. This second, darker mystery was as magnetic to me as the first: the idea of a whole hidden person. The question of what happens, finally, when that hidden person is found.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Enough of Genre Debate Already

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I’m a little disappointed in Jennifer Weiner. And not in the way you’d think. Certainly not in the same way as Jonathan Franzen. Rather, I’m disappointed that she’s seemingly buying into the genre vs. literary distinction while she (admirably and very hilariously) defends herself on Twitter against Franzen’s latest attacks.

One of the things Weiner recently wrote that left me shaking my head (rather than giving her the applause many of her other comments inspired) was this: “And yet, I end up saying it. Over and over and over again. Every. Single. Time. I should just get an I’M NOT LITERARY tattoo!” To me, that kind of statement, regardless of whether she actually believes it (and I hope the Princeton grad and prolific, bestselling author doesn’t), indicates that she’s upholding the binary belief that genre fiction is somehow less than literary fiction. I, for one, am over the genre vs. literary fiction debate, especially because it so often coincides with the discussion of the issue of gender imbalance in the literary world.

That said, I am monstrously upset at Franzen’s mansplain-y criticism of Weiner’s talent and simultaneous admission that he hasn’t actually read any of her books. He also clearly hasn’t read any of her many intelligent essays championing women’s issues–not just in publishing, but in health, image, and beauty (see one in the New York Times as recent as the Sunday after the Franzen interview broke). The more I read up on the Booth Franzen interview and its aftermath, the more annoyed I get—especially since, on one level, Franzen actually agrees with what Weiner has been trying to say all along.Continue Reading

A Knack for Names

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I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.

Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.

Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”

Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
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