MFA vs. DMV

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Writers and Their Pets: Gina Balibrera

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Nancy Welch.

You can also submit your own essay to the series. Read our guidelines here.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

 

unnamedDuring the polar vortex, I took a pair of hounds under my charge while their owners were out of the country. A rough break-up, a mysterious illness, and the frozen earth had stalled the progress of my novel–though these weren’t good enough excuses for not writing, and I knew it. I moved into the house where the dogs’ owners lived, called it a two-week residency. Each morning I was tired, raw-brained, relentlessly afraid, and on the other side of the bedroom door, the dogs rustled with the knowledge that I was awake.

They whined and scratched their paws beneath the door, and in the dark I dressed with urgency. The dogs needed me. And what did I need? An exoskeleton. Walking across ice with these hot-flanked animals, their leashes wound around my mittens, I felt tough. Or: tough as seen from a distance, arrayed by an impermeable force field. Rhonda and Mantis were their names. Mantis, papillion-eared and fine-boned, was all hesitant peeing atop snowbanks and guileless love-eyes and polite nuzzles. Rhonda, pit bull mutt, was box-faced and brassy, unrepentantly hungry, quick to bound, a broad’s broad. Rhonda kept it real. Rhonda did not suffer fools. In the leather jacket and big black boots and red lipstick I had taken to wearing that winter, I wanted to be Rhonda. But my soft broken heart made me Mantis. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Embracing Hard Truths About Writing

Crazy WorldOkay writers. My last Round-Down was about the impact of self esteem on our creativity. Several readers asked for a followup about how to cultivate said esteem, and for a half-second I was so on it. But I can’t deny that the news around the world has been horrifying the last few weeks, and that trying to believe in one’s writerly value in the midst of it may feel like a fool’s errand.

So my first idea was to remind everyone that art and literature matter precisely in tumultuous moments! That creative works speak truth to power! That they convict and persuade! increase empathy and human connection! relieve and heal! But we know this. It’s probably why we became writers.

So. The more relevant reminder? Maintaining a sense of self-value–apart from what we create–is part of the WORK of being an artist. If it feels difficult as hell, you’re likely on the right track.

but what if i don't matterThe fear that our writing won’t “matter” (whatever that means) will always lead either to complete inactivity, or to a delusional inflation of the value of our work. It can also lead to Total Identity Meltdown: We don’t just question whether our work matters, but whether we can possibly matter if we’re not writing earth shattering material.

You guys, this is messed up. So for the love, I think it’d do us some good to revisit some hard truths about writing and creativity. Continue reading

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Retelling Tales: A Writer’s Guide

indexSo much of modern cinema and fiction revolves around the anti-hero and the sympathetic villain. Our culture seems to need our protagonists to be damaged or troubled in some way. It’s as if in some grand pursuit of Nietzsche’s rejection of absolutes, we can only accept shades of gray. Those moral shades of gray are particularly represented when authors elect to take villainous or marginalized characters and bring them to the forefront by writing their stories. While childhood stories clearly draw the line between good and bad, it becomes murkier as we age. Be it experience or expectations, we want more than the Big Bad Wolf or the Mustache Twirling Fiend. Telling a baddie’s story is one way to achieve that complexity.

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Episodia 2.8: Scott Cheshire & True Detective

CheshireIn his remarkable debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles, Scott Cheshire tackles the loaded subject of faith and religious fanaticism in America with the same élan, sophistication, and depth found in HBO’s neo-noir series True Detective. I had the pleasure of asking Cheshire about the parallels between his novel and the hit show. Read on to see how these two masterpieces collide, intertwine, and ultimately shed light on each other.

Q. Your narrator Josiah Laudermilk and Detective Rustin Cohle share a peculiar kinship. Both men dream dreams and have visions. Both are storytellers and armchair philosophers. Both are skeptics when it comes to faith and religion. And both–one a homicide detective and the other a former preacher–are looking for the missing pieces that will make their narratives whole. What do you think these two might talk about, were they to meet?

Scott: You know, I think they’d get along. Although I think while Josie would really enjoy Cohle’s company, Cohle might find Josie a bit unstable. Imagine that! Cohle calling somebody unstable. But I mean not as stable with regard to a particular world perspective (I’m not talking about booze or substance abuse, here, or Cohle’s instinct for violence).  Cohle’s take on the world is actually quite stable, even dogmatic, at times, which is one of things I like most about him. He knows who he is.

In fact, he thinks he knows who you are, too. He’s like Nietzsche crossed with “Bud” White (played by Russell Crowe in the film version of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential). God is dead and he’s going to find the motherfuc*er who killed him. Josie, on the other hand, knows very little. He’s lost. He’s trying embrace and divorce himself from his own past at the very same time. Which is exactly what Cohle’s trying to do, come to think of it. Maybe they’d talk about that. They would try and be “present” together, and talk. Drunkenly.

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Writers With Responsibilities: Damn the Dog Days!

4th of julyDear Sally:

In June, when I was running around from school picnics, to award ceremonies, graduations, lacrosse jamborees, school plays and concerts, I longed for the dog days of summer and no morning routine. But now summer is here and I can’t wait for school to start. Help.

Your friend,

If only the grass were greener.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “My Wife, in Converse” by Shelly Oria

Stories written in the first person are supposed to be more intimate and allow us greater access to the emotions and thoughts of the narrator than second or third person. But what about the characters who aren’t eager or able to articulate their feelings? What happens when we give them the mic and ask for a story?

209 paris reviewThe first-person narrator of Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, in Converse” in issue 209 of The Paris Review seems to be just this character—she’s reticent and she doesn’t always use her words to get how she feels. Divided into eighteen numbered sections, “My Wife, in Converse” is about a curtain maker whose wife is in the process of leaving her. The story opens in a cooking class. The couple decides to take this course together (or more accurately, the narrator’s wife decides and she chooses to come too), but the narrator, an incompetent cook, gets booted out early and takes the suggestion of the instructor to enroll in a poetry class instead. Through the following weeks, the narrator watches as her relationship with her wife deteriorates.

The first person narrator of “My Wife, in Converse” is a solid lady. I like her. That’s not always very important, but Oria gets at me with this character. I feel a lot of tender-hearted sympathy in her direction, which occasionally manifested as a desire to hulk out at the other characters on her behalf. I was a little surprised too, since in real life pretty much all I want to do is talk about feelings, and our narrator does not want to do that.

The narrator takes what other characters say too literally, which has the peculiar effect of making her seem both earnest and insincere at the same time. The scenes set in poetry class are especially effective in illustrating her inability or unwillingness to understand the non-literal language that makes up much human conversation, and hats off to Oria for putting her character in the environment most likely to exacerbate her flaws.

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Of All Things: The Signature

Kelly Link's inscription has it all.

Kelly Link’s inscription has it all.

Congratulations! You’ve published a book, and people are lining up to buy it. Now begins the trickiest part of an author’s journey: signing your own book.

You’ve read an excerpt, charmed the crowd. You’ve perfected the swooshy drama of your signature. Uncap your Official Signing Pen. Take a seat.

Lined up at your signing table are:

  • Your high school Home Ec teacher, whose class you nearly failed.
  • Your own former students, one of whom you nearly failed.
  • Another professor’s students, attending for the extra credit, or else they’ll fail.
  • All of your mother’s law partners.
  • Your father, who can’t believe his sweet child grew up to write this grim book.
  • Several strangers who wandered over when you read the dirty parts.

What do you write? Best Wishes? Keep Laughing? Every inscription seems too generic or too clichéd, especially for a writer. Oh no, did you really just write the word Awesome? Wait, does your beloved mentor’s name have one “n” or two? Does this pen have an eraser? Great, now you’re smudging. Continue reading

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Announcing Ploughshares’ 2014 Emerging Writer’s Contest Winners

Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  After receiving thousands of submissions from talented writers, Ploughshares is proud to announce the three winners of the 2014 Emerging Writer’s Contest, chosen by our editors: John Skoyles for poetry, Margot Livesey for fiction, and Ladette Randolph for nonfiction. The winners will each receive $1,000 and be published in the Winter 2014-2015 issue of Ploughshares, edited by the Ploughshares staff editors. 

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The Ploughshares Round Down: How To Tell People What Your Book Is About

Last week, I received a fiction pitch I knew I would reject a few lines in. It contained the phrase, “after he discovers a family secret long since buried.” (Or something like that.) I wrote back to the author and admitted that I was passing because, while other people might like books about that, I’m not a guy who was ever eager to read a book with that at the center. It’s a very, very common conceit, but I guess I figure that if the secret itself was really interesting, you’d be telling us what it is. If the family secret was that your main character’s grandmother was Einstein’s lover, dollars to donuts the novel would be called Einstein’s Lover.

j7zqgf5This writer had an interesting approach to telling a story, but all the rest of the details beyond the secret were mundane. This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town. He seemed like a good, clever writer, but he’d sabotaged his book from the start by writing something with a generic elevator pitch. To get an editor to read it, I would have to promise this author was the best stylist I’d ever come across.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was this article in Salon by novelist Ted Thompson, where he reveals what he found most surprising from having his debut novel published. All of the ideas he discussed are dead-on and useful, but the most important one is that, no matter how good your book is, people still judge it by how you answer the question, “So what’s your book about?”

What he doesn’t say is that there’s one way to answer that question that could take your book from the rejection pile to the bestseller list, and it isn’t about the plot.

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