A Year Spent Reading 100 Books

1152px-Pierpont_Morgan_Library_LOC_gsc.5a29820I write New Year’s resolutions every year, though I really ought to know better. Run every day, floss regularly, stop eating donuts: it’s the stuff of fantasy. In 2014 I spared myself the usual set-ups for failure in favor of a more exotic set-up for failure: I resolved to read one hundred books. It was just excessive and foolish enough to be tempting. I suppose I just wanted to know if I could do it. By the time this article is posted I’ll have read my hundred books, and I’d like to share some unexpected lessons I’ve learned while completing this reading challenge.

1. Become a regular at your local library.

Browsing through the library is the best way to find your next good read. The classics and dustiest castaways rub spines with the potboilers and popular hits. If you keep an open mind, you never know what you’ll find in the library.

One of my best finds of the year was Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark. The publisher’s blurb was enigmatic: a Russian epistolary novel which may or may not involve time travel? I couldn’t tell if it would be fantastic or completely ridiculous. It turns out it was great–as powerful and heartbreaking a novel as I’m ever likely to encounter. In this same way, just poking around, I discovered two other favorites: Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World and Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder Chronicles. It’s surprises like these that keep me going back to the library.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Black and White Business of Confronting Racism in Literature

eric garner protests nyc

Like most Americans, I’ve been stunned the last few months by the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. Tens of thousands of protestors, black, white and brown, have taken to the streets and to social media to voice their protest and outrage at the implicit message received from these verdicts that black lives don’t matter—but who is putting pen to paper in attempts to record such moments in literature?

I ask this question as a young white poet at UNC Wilmington—a city that is no stranger to racial tension and violence. This semester, I took a graduate-level poetry workshop called “Gazing In, Gazing Out” where we discussed poetry under two lenses: that which speaks more confessionally and personally versus that which speaks more politically and socially consciously. The essential question that arose from that class—from, I couldn’t help but notice, a room full of young, white writers—was this: How can our art be political without being preachy? Rhetorical without turning into a rant? Sensitive to identities other than those we were born with?

But after reading a series of articles in the news lately about art and our current times, I can’t help but ask now: Who else has the luxury of debating this but white artists? And who else has more of a responsibility to step up to the challenge now more than ever?Continue Reading

The Narrowed Divide: Of Stylists, Shape-Shifters, and Multiple Aesthetics

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Our collective understanding of how a story, poem, or essay should operate remains in constant flux; every sentence is a new description of language, every piece of writing, a new commentary on art. In this sense, any shared definition of storytelling is best left unresolved, unless we are to say a story is simply something that will continue to surprise us again and again.

As examples of the boundless possibilities of language, here are five pieces of writing that embrace multiple forms, comfortably residing in the shadow space that exists between genres. In subverting tradition and synthesizing dual modes of expression, these shape-shifters offer the welcome reminder that aesthetic is always open for interpretation from unexpected vantages.

1. The Essay as Poem: “The Glass Essay,” by Anne Carson

Nominally essayistic and in appearance a lined poem, “The Glass Essay” resists easy categorization. Rather than offering a structure of comfortable familiarity, Carson invites readers to inhabit “an ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation.” Yet within this restless composition resides stunning elegance—a weave of confession, poems within poems, and thirteen visions called “Nudes” used to illustrate the end of an affair. While the resulting form is difficult to label, it retains moments of intense recognition: “It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.” Call it a poem, argue it’s an essay—regardless, this work of art will keep you returning, offering new meaning with every reading. The same can be said for Carson’s other publications, including Nox—by turns poetry collection, elegy, and accordion book-in-a-box.Continue Reading

Review: Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates

Adobe Photoshop PDFDismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates
Kate Charlton-Jones
University of Alabama Press, August 2014
279 pages
$49.95

Buy: book | ebook

An English professor, a former colleague of mine, once admitted to me that he wasn’t much of a fan of the novelist about whom he had spent his entire career writing. I’m sure the look I gave him summed up my feelings. Really? Are you kidding? Sadly, I’ve since met other professors who’ve held similar dim views. Consequently, libraries are full of such clinical, soulless monographs written by hazmat-wearing academics decontaminating their authors. And so when Kate Charlton-Jones writes in the introduction of her book Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates that it’s “an extended appreciation of Yates’s work,” I said aloud, “Thank God!”

Later, she writes, “It is my hope that this book will add to the real resurgence of interest in Richard Yates’s fiction and help to persuade those who have either dismissed it or have yet to read his stories that they have made a grave error of omission.”Continue Reading

Seven Under One Hundred

Baby with a Goat CartThere are a lot of age-based lists of writers out there. A lot. Of. Lists. Here’s another one.

Jake Strand, 34, after twelve years in the corporate world, recently found the courage to apply to MFA programs. He didn’t think he’d get in, but he did. His writing is extraordinary. In six years, when his first novel, Lick the Toad, is published, it will tear your heart to little pieces. It will be your favorite book. Right now, he and his wife are figuring out if they can both afford to move to Iowa. If she stays behind to work, it would strain their marriage. He’s not sure this is worth it.

Gladys Hollinghurst, 82, was an English major until she met her husband. That was a different era, and although she’ll never regret the time she spent raising her children, she does wish she’d done something sooner with the novel manuscript she’s been writing and rewriting for the past few decades. Her husband would have been scandalized, of course. He died three years ago, and that’s when she decided to make a go of it. The publisher who finally took a chance on a debut by an eighty-two-year-old is, rather than hiding Josie’s age, making a bit of a fuss about it. She finds this slightly embarrassing.

Emma Lopez, 13, has just written her first poems, her first real poems, in purple pen in a Moleskine notebook, starting on the last page and working her way forward. She mostly writes in study hall. She will spend the next twelve years working on her craft, and will almost have a book-length manuscript ready before the MS diagnosis. Ten years later, she’ll be well enough to revisit the manuscript and submit it to a few contests. She will be runner-up in two of them. Her first collection will appear when she is 40 years old. It will, unfortunately, be her only collection. But my God, those poems.Continue Reading

Ploughshares Gets a Makeover

Boston_MFA_Back_BayYou may be noticing that the blog looks a little different today. Or maybe you’re not–maybe you’ve never been to this website before. If that’s the case, I hope you stick around.

Regardless, today you’ve stumbled on (or have been intentionally prompted to visit, courtesy of our Twitter or Facebook) the redesigned Ploughshares Blog. It’s Part 2 of the our website relaunch–Part 1 being the redesign of our main website. These projects are roughly two years in the making, so I thought it’d be a good time to highlight some of the changes that have been going on in the Ploughshares Universe, and to introduce to you the 2015 cast of Ploughshares Bloggers.Continue Reading

Round Down: When Books Are As Essential As Bread And Water

parisWhenever I drive to my real local library or the Barnes & Noble near my house, I’m always disappointed I can find a parking space so easily. Trust me, I love convenience. But where is everyone? What are they doing that’s more fun than browsing the shelves? Every man keeps a few secrets from his wife, and here’s one of my key ones: the line at the library checkout desk is never that long. Sure, I said I was just returning some of our kids’ books, but that shouldn’t have taken forty-five minutes. I’ll let you know, dear reader: I wasn’t really waiting that whole time. I was checking out three more books on behavioral economics, and I’m not even sure why. (But maybe there’s something in these books that can explain it!)Continue Reading