Objects of Affection

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

It was 2000, late September. I was twenty years old, studying abroad in Italy, and on my way to Munich on a train. Just before boarding, I picked up a copy of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. I didn’t have a lot of extra spending money, so buying the new book was a luxury.
The train was packed; it was the first weekend of Oktoberfest. My friends and I had booked sleeping berths. People were stuffed everywhere–the train had been oversold. It was dark, loud, and a little dirty. I was outside my comfort zone.
Passengers were already beginning to party on the train, swigging from bottles, moving from car to car, celebrating in varied languages. I settled into my berth–an act of territoriality and nerdiness–and began reading my new book.
Soon I realized I could no longer read without a pen in hand. I was so taken with Michaels’ sentences that I had to stop and worship them. Her character Athos says to a young boy he’s just rescued, “Sometimes I can’t look you in the eye; you’re like a building that’s burned out inside, with the outer walls still standing.” “Never,” Michaels writes, “trust biographies. Too many events in a man’s life are invisible.”
This passage also stirred my twenty-year-old soul:
Always hungry ourselves, we commiserated with the starving explorers. In their howling tent, the exhausted men ate hallucinatory meals. They smelled roast beef in the frozen darkness and savored each bite in their imaginations as they swallowed their dried rations. At night, rigid in their sleeping bags, they discussed chocolate.

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Fugitive Pieces was a first love of sorts, the first time I remember engaging seriously with a text on my own outside the strong hand of academia, or loving the sound of prose as much as its content. I was a different reader, then, with different tastes. But never before had I been so intimate with a book, read its passages over and over, dog eared pages with abandon just to return to a beautiful sentence.
Years ago, I loaned that first annotated copy of Fugitive Pieces to a colleague and never got it back. I figure it exists somewhere on a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s bookshelf, or in a warehouse of used books. I wish I could go back and see the sentences I underlined, the pages I marked. It was a very dear and formative possession.

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Letter to a Fiction Teacher

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

Dear Fred,
You don’t remember me. You would, perhaps–I hope so, at least–but you don’t.
I just wanted to tell you that I reread a story of yours the other day, and then, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare, I reread another one.

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What I mean is that I got up, crossed the room to the bookshelf, replaced the book of yours I’d been reading, and–when I should have been thinking about my lesson plans for tomorrow, the papers I had to grade, the e-mails I had to answer–I took another book of yours down from the shelf, returned to the chair, propped my socked feet on the sill once more, and read. First “Ralph the Duck,” and then “Domicile.”
You would like hearing this, I think–not least because you’d find it gratifying. Who wouldn’t? We’re all eager for some sign that the work we do at the keyboard, once we send it out into the world, does more than simply travel like a Voyager spacecraft into deeper and deeper isolation. And you were more eloquent than most, in your essays, on the subject of the silence out of which the fingers begin tapping the keys, and the silence that descends again after the fingers stop.
You edited a book, Letters to a Fiction Writer, devoted largely to this topic, and to providing encouragement and advice to young writers in the face of this silence.

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Writers Rule

Fan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Fan Wu

David, an entrepreneur, world traveler, and longtime friend, e-mailed me to say he disliked my latest blog entry, “Being Published, and Then…” He wrote: “This post is too dark and negative…I hope that in your next post you will talk about solutions to writers’ problems.”
I’m no marketing genius but I understand what David meant. Yes, the Web has provided great opportunities for writers to market and promote their own writing. Writers can create an author website, open a fan page on Facebook and other networking sites, blog and tweet, send out regular newsletters, make a book trailer, and engage in many other activities to connect with readers or potential readers.
If you follow the advice from Seth Goldin, my former coworker at Yahoo!, you should give away your books to get your name out and get readers hooked, then charge them later–either directly (sorry, my next books are no longer free) or indirectly (you need not pay, but please tell others about the books so they can buy them).
I’m sure many writers are already using the Web and viral marketing to get buzz for their books, and have probably benefited from their diligence. But so many factors determine whether a book sells or not. A writer would be naïve to bet his or her life on self-promotion.

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Trying to Write the Southern Accent

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Confession: I used to hate forms that asked for your place of birth, because I had to write Gaffney, South Carolina–a city best known for its stucco outlet malls and peach-shaped water tower that some refer to as “the ass in the sky.” I’ve lived most of my life not far from I-95, the southern portion of the highway saddled with South of the Border billboards and franchised barbecue joints advertised by bug-eyed pigs on roadside signs. When I have to, I speak Southern.

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Last year, I moved to Vermont after thirty years of Southern living. Behind the Raleigh neighborhood I left was beautiful, historic Oakwood Cemetery, founded in 1869 and home to 1500 Confederate graves. The Old South was all around us there, in the azaleas, the awkward Civil War reenactments, the hundreds of Victorian-era homes of the neighborhood, and the obelisk memorializing the Confederate dead. Yet New England retirees populated the neighborhood with drought-resistant landscaping, rain barrels, and biodiesel vans parked in the driveways of their antebellum houses. On my street, the quintessential Bubba lived next door to a gay couple who drank wine on their porch while he washed his truck and played with his amateur radio station. I loved watching the culture collision unfold.
The urban South, I believe, is wrestling with an identity crisis. It reminds me of the sign on a downtown Raleigh biscuit joint, Biscuit Station: country good and city fast. In the urban and suburban South, many locals live in close proximity to shopping centers and start their mornings with store-bought lattes, but like me, many had grandmothers who picked tobacco and uncles that made moonshine, mothers and fathers that raised them with thick accents. Like me, they remember when the South was more regionally distinctive, but they have since assimilated to a time where a shopping center in New Jersey could be a shopping center in North Carolina. Suburbia feels modular–most people have access to the same ideas, chain food stores, and clothes. The once stark regional identity is quickly becoming more generic.
However, in writing workshops I often see people trying to write Southern accents, as if a character living below the Mason-Dixie line still necessitates a phonetic dialogue guide for readers. It’s tempting, it’s been done well before, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done in 2010 and onward. I’m suggesting it should be done sparingly and only if:
A) You know enough about Southerners to write it well–nothing reveals a tin ear like bad Southernese. Think Nicolas Cage in Con Air.
B) The character has earned it–by being an older southerner, living in a marginalized or bottlenecked environment, or consciously choosing Southern mannerisms. (See the NC Language and Life Organization‘s videos on the brogue still used on North Carolina’s Coast).

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Why I Fish Is Why I Write

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

Because I enjoy fishing and have several tech-savvy friends who do as well, Google will every so often sift through the contents of my GMail inbox and offer me a targeted advertisement from PETA. “You wouldn’t impale a dog in the mouth,” the text reads, “so why would you do it to a fish?”
The obvious answer–”Because fish aren’t dogs”–is logical, perhaps; it’s also cold. It capitalizes on the rhetoric of the query without bothering to address its underlying concerns.

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Determining what those underlying concerns really are, though, is tricky. At first, the question appears to be one of functional equivalency. Are the perceptual and experiential capabilities of fish and dogs functionally equivalent for the purposes of the question being asked? Raising this question, we might think we are making an appeal to neuroscience.
In fact, however, we are entering the pathless land of narrative.
In terms of both the expert testimony it includes and the reader commentary it has generated, a recent Room for Debate article from the New York Times website on the ethics of catch-and-release among fly-fishermen provides a very basic overview of the controversy; it may also illustrate the basic problem of the appeal to neuroscience: no matter how exhaustively the nervous system of a fish is described, the gap between scientific data and knowledge of a fish’s experiential world remains open. This being true, expert testimony on the subject–which is divided in the first place–tends to begin with scientific fact and end with personal anecdote: fish writhing on hooks or else being caught and released and going on to lead healthy, unremarkable, fishy lives. (From the NYT article, see the testimony of Dr. James Rose.)
This slide from fact to anecdote is symptomatic of the basic problem. We are asking a question of science that science cannot answer: What is being felt by another?
This is the motivating question not of science, but of narrative.
When we enter the realm of the narrative, we are entering the realm of empathy and alienation, selfhood and otherness, the two poles of the spectrum along which we relate to characters in a story. The PETA ad spins a tale in which the hook is in the mouth of a ready target for our anthropomorphic empathy. You wouldn’t impale a dog in the mouth . . . . No outpouring of data could quell the upsurge of empathy we feel in response. And why should it? Good literature feels true, whether or not the story is factual. The heart has reasons that reason knows not–and this is true of empathy and anthropomorphism as well as love.
By the same token, I, like most fishermen I know, could tell you about the many fish I have caught–twice. Minutes after being hooked, played, landed, handled, and released, the same fish will sometimes strike again, to be caught and released again. In other words, whatever the content of the experience was for these fish, it was not enough to cause them to act afterward in a manner in any way different from that of a completely healthy, uncaught fish. Behaviorists, conclude what you will.

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Special: Back Issue Packages

Max.jpgInterested in exploring the history of Ploughshares but don’t know where to begin? Delve into our private bookshelf with our new back issue packages.

For less than the cost of one year’s subscription, enjoy packages of three to six issues grouped by genre, theme, or writer. We’re currently offering specials for Charles Simic, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Tate, and Martin Espada, as well as:
Fiction Fill Up Package: A look at the short story through the eyes of editors like Richard Ford and Tim O’Brien. Includes stories by Gary Soto, Gordon Lish, Richard Bausch, and Ann Beattie.
Poetry Package: For the poetically minded, try four issues guest edited by Bill Knott, Derek Walcott, Charles Simic, and Gail Mazur. Includes poets like Mark Strand, James Tate, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, and Robert Pinsky.
Nonfiction Package: The truth of the world is exposed and explored in this series with work by Sam Cornish, James Merrill, James Welch, Alberto Alvaro Rios, and the first all-nonfiction issue in our history, guest edited by Kathryn Harrison.
Conversations with Poets: If you’re interested in the minds of poets like Frank Bidart, Allen Grossman, and Michael S. Harper, try this group for interviews conducted by Mark Halliday and James Randall.
The Crossroads Collection: Taking its name from the Spring 1997 issue edited by Yuseph Komunyakaa, this group includes tales of tribes, family, and the impulse to belong. Includes writers like Martin Espada, Mark Doty, Sherman Alexie, Ron Carlson, and Joyce Carol Oates. 
Traces of Struggle and Desire“: Taking its name from the Winter 1991-92 issue edited by Carolyn Forche, this group spotlights writers “with passions and beliefs,” including Tony Hoagland, Charles Simic, James Tate, Gish Jen, Peter Jay Shippy, and Kevin Young.
Check out our special subscriptions page for the details.

The Art of the Author Photograph

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Every now and then, someone in the writing world wants to know what I look like, and put a picture of me next to my work. This is kind, and probably a great design principle, but it propels me into a spiral of petty vanity. Each request sends me running to my husband and camera in search of the Perfect Author Photo.
To be clear, the Perfect Author Photo is not about beauty. Necessarily. It’s about–what is it about? Not looking like an enormous fool? Projecting intellectual capability? Cred? Sexuality? Giving readers a face they like enough to support? Giving your words and virtual presence some flesh and blood?
I want to think it’s simpler than that, and tell my vanity to get out of the way – but the minute I convince myself author photo selection isn’t a big deal I send over a crappy photo that becomes immortalized on the internet. And suddenly you’re the girl who gazes too lovingly at her chicken.
Guilty.
My Interior Dialogue While Selecting Author Photos:
Should I project the face of a serious author? No–because you’re not. Show humility. Who do you think you are, Nabakov? No one will want to get a beer with you at AWP.
Do I flash a full-on smile? You’ll look like a quasi-literate Skipper doll. A hack.
Half smile? Only if you’re drunk. An intentional half smile? Like you’re too cool to really smile?
Raise an eyebrow? Petulant. Theatrical and creepy.
Smoke a cigarette? Poseur!
Should I turn to one side? Cup my chin? Gaze into the distance? No–too contrived. No JC Penney catalogue model ever won a Pushcart.
So maybe a candid shot? Oh–you just happened to be playing with the chickens again? Running with the dogs in a field of sunflowers? Sure.
Okay. I’ll just sit on one of the hay bales in the barn and… Readers don’t care if you live on a farm; that hay bale is a prop. What’s next, laser beams? A faux library?
Screw it! I’ll just use an old photo. People will think you’ve been living hard when they meet you in person.
Okay, I’ll use Picasa’s touch up tool and Photoshop a new shot. You erase any more wrinkles and spots and you’ll look like a rural Michael Jackson.
This “sepia” option is cool… That was a good stint in the Wild West, wasn’t it, MMB? Or a Wild West-themed photo booth in Myrtle Beach.
If you can’t tell, my inner self is no Dove beauty commercial.
Then there’s the toddler factor. This year I’ve had a few photo shoots with my husband. The first was during a time when our daughter wasn’t sleeping through the night, and I owed an anthology a headshot. I was exhausted, hadn’t brushed my hair since waking up, and had bags underneath my eyes. Then, of all things, I was photobombed by the wind:
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During a later photo shoot, I thought I would look cool posing with my chickens. Minutes later, I was photobombed by my toddler, who at that very moment sprinted with maniacal zeal toward a Silkie bantam:
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I’ve come to believe a photobomb during an author photo shoot is the universe’s way of urging you not to take yourself too seriously. Or to switch careers. Or make like the Gorrillaz and send a virtual, gutter punk avatar onto the web to do the heavy lifting.

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Of Stone Tools and Stargazing

Guest post by Greg Schutz

“Take control of your writing process,” I tell my students. “Be aware of the ways in which how you write affects what you write–and how well you write.”

 

And as my students look up at me–we’re in Composition I, Argumentative Writing, or Developmental English; they’re seventeen or thirty or fifty-two years old; they are nodding intently or gazing vacantly at a spot on the blackboard just above my head or else just watching and waiting and wondering whether they’re supposed to be taking notes–a small part of me is channeling Holden Caulfield: “You big phony!”
There’s nothing outwardly amiss with what I’m saying, of course. It’s accepted wisdom, no more controversial than reminding a runner that what she eats and how she stretches might affect her 10k times. It’s also something that many of my students need to hear early and often as they adjust to the idea of discovery drafts, peer workshops, revisions. (“How many of you began writing this morning?” I ask my students in the first week of the semester, on the day they turn in their ungraded diagnostic essays. Slowly but surely, a small forest of hands usually rises.) I believe what I’m telling them, in other words. And yet, when it comes to my own fiction, I hesitate to practice what I preach.
It’s not that I don’t revise. (Quite the contrary!) What I mean is that, whereas I teach my students methods for taking control of their writing processes, for becoming more deliberate in their methods as a means of becoming more purposeful in their products, my own struggle is just the opposite. As a fiction writer, I’m always trying to liberate myself from the writing process as such.

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Being Published, and Then…

Fan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Fan Wu

We’re all familiar with Anna Karenina’s famous opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It applies to authorship, too. All unpublished writers are alike–wanting to be published; each published writer is unhappy in his or her own way.
Before I was published I envied published writers as if “being published” were a decorative medal indicating elite status (in some way it’s true, I guess). I had many questions for them, though I had no chance to ask: Which literary magazines do you submit to? How long does it take to hear back? What are the odds of acceptance? How did you find your agent and how do you work with him or her? How do you like your editor? What advance did you get for your first book?

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Since I met few real writers then, I turned to Writers’ Market. The book helped but not until I had accumulated a list of publications myself did I begin to understand why each published writer is uniquely unhappy.
Writers have many concerns. You need an agent, in an era in which few publishers accept direct submissions. Finding an honest, understanding, capable, experienced, devoted, and supportive agent is as hard as finding a spouse. Assuming that you now have a perfect agent who has sold your first book to a major publisher for a good price (lucky you, but “a good price” rarely means that you can live on it for two years), the next step is to work with your editor to polish the manuscript. The editor has strong opinions about the book but your opinions are stronger–after all, you’ve spent probably thousands of hours on the book and it’s like your own baby. So after months (hopefully not years) of debate, discussion, negociation and sleepless nights, the book is finalized, proofed by a copy editor and ready to print.

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