Welcome to the Literary Jungle

Eudora WeltySeveral times a year I am the recipient of emails or phone calls from friends, colleagues, parents, or complete strangers in search of writing guidance. Often the messages begins, “Hello, my name is Barbra. My daughter wants to be a writer. She’s very talented. Jill Matthews said you might be able to . . .” What follows ranges from, “give some advice” to “edit her trilogy.” These types of messages leave me sighing, not because I don’t enjoy cultivating new voices, but because how those people perceive the writing community and the writing vocation is often vastly different from actuality.

While it would be easy to give advice from my personal experiences, those experiences are just that–personal. Continue reading

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The Power of An Author Who Can Share Her Insides

Prozac Nation Book CoverAt least sixteen years ago, maybe more, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and saw myself.

These days, it’s de rigueur to dismiss Wurtzel as a chaotic, self-involved mess. But back then, after receiving a diagnosis of chronic depression with bipolar tendencies, I ate up Wurtzel’s navel-gazing, book-length confessional. I read about her struggles with depression and, in a time when going to therapy was still a bit taboo to talk about, I began to feel a little bit less alone. Continue reading

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Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered. Continue reading

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Writers Do It Best: Robin McCarthy

In the ‘Writers Do It Best’ series, contributors reflect on how their education and experiences as writers have uniquely prepared them for their lives outside the writing world. Today, we hear from Robin McCarthy, an MFA student studying fiction at Northern Michigan University.  You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinMcCarthy28.

headshotI have held a lot of jobs for which I have not been qualified, and the position I was perhaps least prepared for was as a cook aboard a small cruise ship taking middle-aged tourists on vacations in the arctic. When I explained to the ship’s captain in an interview that I had no professional experience as either a chef or a mariner, he shrugged. No problem. The job, he explained, was just a collection of skills, and skills could be learned.

I took the job and was immediately confronted by the depths of all I did not know. There was a catalog of knots and safety protocol, the persnickety temperature-setting of the oven, the art of cramming months of provisions into storage and the timing of a five-part meal for twenty delivered hot in a rolling sea. I was overwhelmed by the volume of tedious minutiae to be learned.

And I messed up. A lot. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Calvary Film and the Purpose of Art

uncomfortable CALVARY

“[T]he barrier between one’s self and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things we would rather not know!
– James Baldwin

John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary begins with priest Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) preparing to hear an unseen confessor. The confessor reveals that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by a now-deceased priest– and his language for this revelation is violently forthright enough that I won’t include it here. McDonagh chose this “startling opening line” because, in his view, the euphemistic language of “child abuse”

has enabled us to detach ourselves . . . because we never actually think about what it means to be abused every day of your life. What that physically means.

The grim candor of his opening line is indicative of McDonagh’s approach to the rest of the film: an experiment in taking viewers where we don’t want to go, leaving us embarrassed and backed into our seats, waiting for relief or levity that doesn’t come.

jamesbaldwin3It’s this effect that kept reminding me of what James Baldwin identified as an artist’s purpose: “to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid” what we don’t want to know, either about ourselves or our society. So as reviews have piled up over the last few weeks, I’ve been surprised to find so few of them discussing Calvary‘s venture into dis-ease. They focus instead on either “the film’s twist on the classic ‘whodunit’,” or on Gleeson’s performance as the “good priest.”

Other critics have worried over how unrealistic it was for McDonagh to place so many crazy characters in one tiny Irish town, or for the town’s “cynical gay hustler” to speak entirely in exaggerated “movie-gangster patois,” or for the “over-performing” characters to have such a “sense of being characters“. But these were obviously deliberate choices, and many of them drive the movie’s overarching disconcertion. Meanwhile, Calvary‘s uncomfortable teetering between dark comedy and dramatic profundity has been damned as inelegant writing or “weird jokey-ness.” And while I agree that the writing’s distinctly uncomfortable, I’d argue that the discomfort is the point: the viewer laughs, only to regret or question her laughter in the next breath. Is this absurdity hilarious or terrifying? Is that character ridiculous or tragic? Is this dialogue supposed to feel embarrassingly trite?

feeling awkward is hardSo I couldn’t not register the movie as performing its Baldwinian artistic role. Calvary risks both religious and social blasphemy to get at some (often literally) unspeakable truths. It’s biting in its exposure of the absurdity of justice, relationships, faith, wealth, vocation, and authenticity . . . but it simultaneously refuses to (entirely) dismiss any of these. The screenplay lurches from domestic violence to gaelic wit, from cannibalism and impotence to gutter humor and something like forgiveness. It’s not toying with our inhibitions so much as asking the questions they hide: is justice even a thing; what are the limits of “blame;” how do we live with absurdity; how do we hide from ourselves; does regret (or “penitence”) matter? And are there really reasons to live?

And finally, Calvary embarrasses us with its characters’ flagrant neediness. They loathe Father James, but they also patently need him, seeking him out with their dramatic questions, bouncing off of him their rage and/or exhaustion. Their conversations are painful not because they exhibit trite writing, but because they nevertheless feel so damned legitimate. Our growing discomfiture in these scenes comes less from feeling sorry for Father James (and his growing isolation) than from not wanting to face the questions we’ve otherwise avoided by labeling them “trite.” There’s something loathsome about witnessing such groping need behind such amusing caricatures.

And they are caricatures. While Father James is persistently present and accessible–with a human face we see behind, into, with–every other character is a persona, ever exiting his own experience. The banker goes on about money even though “it doesn’t mean anything” to him; the butcher over-pretends his own contentment; the adulterous wife plays at being the town seductress; the atheist doctor delivers cynical jabs because it’s his “role”; the second priest lamely approximates gratitude or compassion as required; the murderous teen makes grotesque choices because that’s just how God made him. And that exaggerated movie-gangster patois? It embodies the affected-ness of the hustler’s (un)chosen role. You keep waiting for him to drop it, and he doesn’t. He won’t. It’s painfully awkward.

What little humanness we do get comes in such fleeting moments that we’re tempted to hate the parishioners and their veneers rather than wait and wait for one of them to finally show up behind his ridiculous face. And maybe this is where critics get stuck: they’re embarrassed by the self-aware playacting and chalk it up to Screenwriting Failure.

But Calvary‘s characters only exaggerate our own affectations. If we’re embarrassed, it’s because we recognize our own willingness to take up a role rather than honestly encounter who we are or who we’re with. Or maybe we’re reminded of all the times we pretend not to notice the outrageous veneers on the people around us, wishing we hadn’t seen (through) them. Or the times we wait and wait and still nothing human shows up behind the beloved face in front of us.

The effect of Calvary‘s tonal lurches and its weird characterizations is a creeping empathy for its parishioners. Not for the ways they suffer so much as for their inabilities to feel or reveal that they do. For the ridiculous affectedness that replaces or numbs suffering, for humans’ varied, practiced methods of denial.

The film’s dark humor–along with its refusal to let up on discomfort and unwelcome sympathies–harks to O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or MacLeish’s J.BI can’t say Calvary belongs with these in the classroom or canon, but its frank exposure of the absurdity of justice or theology in light of both trauma and routine existence feels similarly necessary.

In “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin writes that artists must always war with society– by reminding it that “the truth about ourselves,” both as individuals and as a collective, “is always at variance with what we wish to be.” In this sense, maybe it’s not surprising that Calvary‘s critics have stayed in safe territory: avoiding the film’s relentless awkwardness, whistling in the dark. I don’t blame them.

For my part, after the final scene, I sat waiting for music, sound, light, another scene, anything to lift the weight of jumbled sympathies. I realized I wasn’t breathing. This is strange praise for a movie, but it’s how I know it did an artist’s work. Calvary was a lush disabusal: lovely, crushing, with an ending silent as hell.

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Is Chicana/o Literature Dead? (A: No, not really): A Teacher’s Ramblings


It used to be that I didn’t know what Chicana/o literature was. Sometimes I still think I don’t, which is embarrassing because I teach classes on Chicana/o lit. The dictionary definition is easy—it’s been studied, chronicled, crystalized–and I can easily think of my heroes: Helena Maria Viramontes, Dagoberto Gilb, Corky Gonzales, Sandra Cisneros, La Gloria tambien. But what the genre is today is a different matter all together, giving me nightmares about how to teach a Chicana/o literature course at all. One question about the subject in specific used to unravel me:

In my dreams, I’m teaching in this ill-fitting Tommy Hilfiger suit (used car salesman grey), just killing it with my lesson plan, when some kid raises her hand and asks, “So, what is contemporary Chicano literature?” Of course there are writers I could cite, dates I could mention, etc. But what is it? Continue reading

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Auto Biography

UnknownAuto Biography
Earl Swift
It Books, May 2014
368 Pages

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To the casual passerby on North Carolina’s state Route 168—and the County inspectors—Moyock Muscle looked like a junkyard. The lot was overflowing, with hundreds of cars in terrible condition. Cars stacked on top of each other. Cars cannibalized to be parts donors. Even on contemporary Google Map street views, with the cars neatly arranged in rows, Moyock Muscle is reminiscent of a rusty, boxy graveyard. And yet, customers will pay a premium for the one rusty box of a car that catches their attention, the one that makes them feel a twinge of nostalgia. Continue reading

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First Down Te Ching: On The Tao of Chip Kelly

The house that Chip built.

The house that Chip built.

The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons From America’s Most Innovative Coach
Mark Saltveit
Diversion Books, 2014
128 pages

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Today marks the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, America’s favorite consumption-based present-time activity. Odds are that a family, friend, or loved one in your life has already burrowed themselves away for an evening immersed in a fantasy football draft. These same people will fall off the grid each weekend from now until the Super Bowl in early February, whole afternoons if not entire days absorbed in channel-hopping across a regenerating bank of games until they sag, prostrate, in front of empty pizza boxes. I am absolutely one of these people.

Just as a person can drive a car for their entire life without really knowing how, exactly, the machine works, a person can become a lifelong die-hard without really knowing how football works. The layers of tactics, strategy, and technique behind each play are immense. The game itself is so large and contains so many moving parts that television coverage has yet to figure out a way to deliver the entire field to the viewer: on most plays, when wide receivers run down the field to open themselves for a pass, they and their defenders are simply allowed to run past the edge of the frame. It is viscerally satisfying to cheer on the booming tackle or epic touchdown grab without realizing the complex chain of events around the field that made the big play possible. Mastering that complexity, though, is why the men involved in coaching professional football are famously, universally workaholics. For a coach to piece together a winning game plan at the elite levels of football can only be the end result of a life’s work spent learning exhaustively at the altar of football. Continue reading

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Picasso’s Tears

untitled-1Picasso’s Tears
Wong May
Octopus Books, June 2014
323 Pages

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Few books of poetry this year will have a more interesting back story than this one. Born in China in 1944 and raised in Singapore, Wong May came to the United States in the 1960s to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three collections of poetry with Harcourt Brace. Then, rather abruptly, no further books.

Poet Zachary Schomburg came across Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron public library and was sufficiently intrigued to investigate. It turned out than Wong May had married an Irish physicist, moved to Dublin, and raised two sons. Although she published virtually nothing, she had continued to write poetry. Since Schomburg is one of the many contemporary poets who has a sideline as an independent publisher, we now have Picasso’s Tears, a handsomely-designed (by Drew Scott Swenhaugen) hardbound volume, 286 pages of poetry and an interview (more precisely, a 12-page answer to the question, “How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?”). Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: What NYC Publishing REALLY Thinks About Self-Publishing

Last week, I had an author ask me the earliest his publisher could have his book out. I told him January 2016. Even if he turned it in this week. “And, they wonder why big publishers are dying,” he said. He wondered aloud if he should crowdfund a shorter idea and self-publish a ninety-nine cent ebook between now and then. The funny thing is that he’d referred a friend to me just a few weeks ago who wanted an agent. That friend had gone exactly the route he was now proposing, and had found the indie pub experience to be much less amazing than he’d been led to believe.

4x8dmoxI’ve written before that big publishers aren’t dying, but many of my authors wonder if they aren’t at least scared by the number of alternative routes to getting a book published. If you spend a lot of time on Reddit’s subreddit for writers, you’ll get the feeling that authors are all revolutionaries and that, because of them, the NYC publishers must know their weak foundations are crumbling.

That’s not, however, how the people I know think of the situation at all. I’ve never heard a single person in publishing, young or old, express fear over the rise of self-publishing.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this article in the Guardian by Suzanne McGee, called “You can try to be the next Hemingway– for $6,000.” (Full disclosure: I have spoken with Suzanne in the past about her writing, but not about this piece.) It’s an account of what you’ll have to pay to self-publish well, and it’s a useful resource for writers.

What’s even more interesting to me, however, is how much more than this a traditional publisher spends to make a book happen. NYC publishers spend ten times that, which demonstrates that you get what you pay for: the difference in the final product is a big part of why many employees at the big publishers don’t consider self-publishing a threat at all.

Continue reading

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