Greg Schutz on Multiple Points of View

Greg Schutz‘s story “Joyriders” appears in our Fall 2010 issue edited by Jim Shepard. It opens:

Because nights on the third shift seem to stretch longer than they should, and because sleeping through the day has been giving him nightmares, Jimmy Barnes buys coffee at the truck stop on Sugar Hill Road. He circles the place once before parking. In the big lot out back, the tractor-trailers are lined in rows, their sleeping cabs dark. Between two of the trucks, a figure steps aside, out of the wash of his headlights. Barnes doesn’t stop. He’s not sure what he’s looking for, not sure he’d know trouble if he found it.

Here, Greg gives three explanations for the origins of the story (and its point of view): 
greg8sm.jpgThe first several drafts of “Joyriders” were written in the first-person, with Doc as the narrator; the events themselves were similar to those in Doc’s half of the story now. I was pleased with Doc’s voice and with the feel I had for him as a character, but those early drafts still contained mysteries. First among these was Doc’s interaction with the young deputy: their conversation seemed animated by a tension that could not be explained by Doc’s motivations alone. The deputy, I realized, was carrying some baggage of his own. What was it, though? I tried various methods of teasing out this information, rewriting the scene between Doc and Deputy Barnes a number of times, before finally giving up and moving the story into the third-person, with Doc, Barnes, and a third character–whose scene I hadn’t anticipated until maybe three or four seconds before I actually began writing it–sharing the point of view. 

Once I did this, the story arrived at its final form quite naturally.

Working with multiple points of view clarified things for me, but for the characters in the story, of course, the actions of the people around them remained as opaque as ever. (Who knows, Barnes wonders at one point, why people do the things they do?) Eventually, this opacity–how uncertain we often are of our own motives, let alone the motives of others, and how much of the good and the bad that comes as a result of our actions comes unbeknownst to us, and by accident–became, to my mind, the central concern of “Joyriders.” I’m perhaps irrationally pleased by this, the way the story’s theme germinated from its flaws.

Another way of explaining the genesis of “Joyriders” is to say that my father is a livestock veterinarian and my mother is a police officer. (Though my father, for the record, is not Doc, and my mother is certainly not Barnes.) So I know a little about both professions; enough, at least, to imagine them.

A third explanation: some years back, I rode with my father on a farm-call in which he treated a horse that had been shot by a .22 handgun. It was one of a spate of such shootings; local teens were suspected, though as far as I know no charges were ever filed. In any case, when the time came to write this story, I remembered the sight of my father treating the horse, and I remembered the hole that the bullet had made, and I began where I suppose I had to–with Doc.

Q&A: Literary Agent Julie Barer

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Q: I used to think agents were really scary, city-savvy people only concerned with the bottom line. However, the more agents I’ve met, the more I realize how many of them truly love literature and care about the authors they represent.

Basics first: Why did you decide to become an agent and what do you love most about your job?

A: Before becoming an agent I had the great fortune of working at an independent bookstore. It was the act of being able to literally put the books I loved into people’s hands that made me want to work in publishing.

I decided to become an agent rather than an editor because not only do I get to do a significant amount of editorial work, but I am closely involved with every step of my client’s careers–I love to talk about structure and character development in a manuscript, but this way I also get to help with jacket design, marketing, placing their short fiction or essays in journals and magazines and much more. In some ways the best part of my job is still being able to put the books I love into people’s hands–I just get to do it a lot earlier in the process, which I find pretty awesome.

Q: Also – I’m pretty sure agents read more than anyone I know. Do you have an insane stack of manuscripts on your bedside table? When do you do your best reading?

A: Yes, I think it would be fair to describe the stack by my bed (and on my kitchen table, the floor, the couch) as insane. I can’t read during the day at work–too many phone calls and emails and paperwork. I need quiet and big blocks of time, so I usually set aside a whole day of my weekend (9-5 or so) and any evening I can to focus on reading and editing.

Q: There is a lot of pressure on writers to find agents, particularly as they graduate from MFA programs. But not every MFA graduate or first time novelist is ready for an agent.

What does “readiness” look like? If you could give advice to any writer submitting work to agents right now, what would it be?

A: My advice would be to wait until you have done absolutely everything you can to revise the book, then put it aside for a month, then revise it again, then put it aside for a month, and rinse and repeat. You have nothing to lose by making sure it’s in the best shape possible. You will attract more agents that way–you only get to make a first impression once.
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Thank You, Mr. Venturini

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

Thanksgiving is almost upon us. For me, this means a welcome weeklong vacation from teaching: a chance to dig into that stack of student essays awaiting grades; a chance to sort and stow or recycle the countless handouts, worksheets, rough drafts, lesson plans, and attendance sheets that seem to accumulate in messy piles all around my apartment over the course of the semester; perhaps even, wonder of wonders, a chance to do a little writing of my own.

Of course, it’s also a chance to say thank you.


At the beginning of my junior year in college, I registered for Introduction to Creative Writing as a way of filling out an otherwise busy semester with three easy credits. Sure, I’d dabbled with writing before, but only as a hobby. I enrolled in the class not because I was all that interested in becoming a better writer, but because I was double-majoring in philosophy and political science and looking for an elective that wouldn’t assign too much homework.

Teaching the class was the poet Peter Cooley, former poetry editor of the North American Review. He arrived, I remember, a few minutes late, aiming an intense, fixed stare out at the assembled students from the front of the classroom.

His first words to us, after taking attendance: “You are all bad writers.”

A ripple of disbelief spread through the class.

Never mind that he was right. We were students, pampered; we weren’t used to being spoken to that way. We were in the classroom because we expected a cupcake of a course, or because we were the darlings of our high school English courses, or else–I can see myself on that day, flinching–we were a little bit of both.
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Why Must I Write?

Fan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Fan Wu

In 2004, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar–my first literary event–where I met Sandra Cisneros, a keynote speaker. Though I had just begun to write and was unpublished, she was encouraging and generous with her advice and wisdom. Later that year, after reading a short story of mine, she invited me to join the San Antonio-based Macondo Workshop, a literary foundation she started in 1995. Poets, journalists, novelists, performance artists, and other creative writers gather once a year for week-long workshops, seminars and readings. I accepted the invitation with excitement and gratitude, and have since been back to San Antonio three times: twice as a student, once as a teacher.
Many things about the Workshop are attractive: the creativity, the variety, the energy, the camaraderie, etc. But what draws me to it most is the participants’ strong social and cultural awareness. As its mission states: “What unites us is a commitment to serve our under-served communities through our writing.”

Lately I find myself brooding about Macondo’s mission and asking “Why must I write?” When I first started, I had no time for such self-examination, being consumed completely by passion and enthusiasm. Now, having learned more about what it takes to be a serious writer, I ponder. Is it to release my anger or frustration? Is it to learn more about myself or certain things? Is it to pass on my message to the world? Is it to hear feedback and seek resonance? Is it to answer an irresistible and mysterious calling from my heart and soul? Is it to free me “from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling,” as Philip Roth said? Is it the only thing I’m good at? Or is it all that and more?

I hate it when people say writing is just a hobby–like gardening, fishing, or cooking. I even dislike it when people call it a career or an occupation. I know that if I cannot write (which has nothing to do with whether my writing will be published or not), I would probably explode like a ‘dream deferred.’
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Terrance Hayes awarded 2010 National Book Award for Poetry!

terrancehayes cr Yona Harvey.jpg

We are proud to announce that Terrance Hayes is the winner of the 2010 National Book Award for his poetry collection Lighthead.

Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say in their starred review of Lighthead:

The deservedly acclaimed Hayes returns in his fourth book with the kinds of sly, twisting, hip, jazzy poems his fans have come to expect, but also with a new somberness of tone and mature caution. 


Here’s a great interview with Terrance Hayes on the National Book Foundation website.

We are so excited for Terrance, and even more excited that he’ll be visiting us in a matter of weeks!

Terrance Hayes at Emerson College, December 2

We at Ploughshares are pleased to announce that Terrance Hayes, poet and guest editor of our upcoming Winter 2010 issue, will join us at The Paramount Center on December 2 for a reading and Q+A session.

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The Q+A will begin at 4 pm in the Bright Family Screening Room, and will be led by Emerson professor Kim McLarin, author of Jump at the Sun and Meeting of the Waters. For more information, see our Facebook event.

The reading will follow at 6 pm, when Hayes will be introduced by Emerson professor Jabari Asim, author of A Taste of Honey and What Obama Means. For more information, see our Facebook event.

For the Winter 2010 Ploughshares, Hayes has chosen poems and stories from over 50 authors, including Denise Duhamel, Major Jackson, Denis Johnson, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tracy K. Smith. “Guest editing Ploughshares was a wonderful experience,” Hayes said. “It gave me the chance to house both new and familiar voices under one dazzling roof!”

Hayes is the author of Lighthead (2010), recently nominated for the National Book Award; Wind in a Box (2006); Hip Logic (2002), winner of the 2001 National Poetry Series and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Muscular Music (1999), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. About his work, Cornelius Eady has said: “First you’ll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turns of phrase. Then you’ll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world.”

Thanking Our Departing Blog Editor

Upon his departure for Western Michigan University, where he serves as faculty advisor to Third Coast, all of us at Ploughshares would like to thank Jay Baron Nicorvo for his tireless efforts as editor of our blog over the past year.

He was key in developing the feel of the blog, implementing our guest blogger, ‘Get Behind the Plough’ series–posts currently filled by Greg Schutz, Meghan Mayhew Bergman, and Fan Wu–and introducing Myron, our rooster colophon. And his, like those of Ploughshares itself, were humble beginnings:

“I came to Emerson College in 1999 as a twenty-three-year-old MFA student,” Nicorvo said. “The first thing I did when I moved to Boston from Florida, where I’d grown up and went to college, was visit Landsdowne Street and Fenway Park. The second thing I did was knock on the door of the Ploughshares office and ask if I could be a reader of poetry and fiction. I was given a test in each genre, passed both, and began reading right away.”

After about six months digging through our slush piles, then-editor Don Lee promoted Nicorvo to assistant fiction editor, a position which lasted through his moves to Florida and to New York City, when interim editor DeWitt Henry appointed him head reader. When the editorship transitioned to Ladette Randolph, she asked him to help reinvent the blog.

“When Ladette Randolph was hired, she and I met at AWP in Chicago, and we hit it off,” he said. “She felt kindred and was wildly smart and spirited, and we talked about my role. She wanted me to relaunch and edit the blog, come up with a format and present a forum that would lead traffic to the website without taking away from the journal.”

Indeed his efforts, along with those of interns Joshua Garstka and Doug Paul Case, have been successful. Blog traffic has grown to thousands of visitors a month.

“Jay was instrumental in jumpstarting the Ploughshares blog,” editor-in-chief Ladette Randolph said. “He was tireless in bringing out the best in our blog contributors, setting a high standard for what we want the blog to do. I appreciated his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his knowledge of contemporary literature. We couldn’t have done it without him, and everyone on the staff wishes him well in his new endeavors at Western Michigan.”

We hope Jay’s new adventures will be equally fruitful. “In the last six months, I’ve had my first poetry collection accepted for publication by Four Way Books; my wife, Thisbe, gave birth to a little fellow, Sonne; and we all moved from the Hudson Valley to Michigan, bringing our chickens,” Nicorvo said. “We’ve also bought an old farm, deeded by Martin Van Buren in 1839 to one Richard Godsmark — a prominent Seventh-day Adventist who harvested lumber from the property to build one of the church’s first publishing houses in Battle Creek — and all of its sprawling 48 acres on the Waubascon Lake.

“And so it’s sad that after more than ten years, my tenure at Ploughshares has come to end. I am literally leaving for green pastures and the plow, but given how good — how embarrassingly fruitful — Ploughshares has been for my writing, my career and my life, it’ll be no small chore to see my new pastures as greener.”

Writing in a “Phrensy”

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz
In Book II of his De Oratore, Cicero stages a dialogue between Marcus Antonius, Caius Julius Caesar, and several other figures, one of whose subjects is the evocation of emotion in the audience and the consequences of emotional speechmaking on the orator. According to Cicero’s Marcus Antonius, it is unthinkable that an orator might make an effective emotional appeal upon an audience without feeling some of those same emotions himself: “I never yet, upon my honor, tried to excite sorrow, or compassion, or envy, or hatred, when speaking before a court of judicature, but I myself . . . was affected with the very same sensations that I wished to produce in them.”

Before long, the conversation–as classical treatises on rhetoric seem apt to do–turns to poetry and drama, the arts of ancient Greek and Roman narrative. If orators are vulnerable to the very emotions they seek to instill in their audience, Marcus Antonius observes, this should come as no surprise. After all, actors, dramatists, and poets are deeply moved by their own material–which, unlike the orator’s material, is “fictitious.” In fact, he continues, such emotional engagement with the material is absolutely necessary. “I have often heard,” he says, “that no man can be a good poet (as they say is left recorded in the writings of both Democritus and Plato) without ardor of imagination, and the excitement of something similar to phrensy.”

muse and hesiod.jpg

Phrensy. I love the word in this spelling, and yet I can’t help but feel a little indicted by it, as well. After all, the kind of writing sessions I tend to have hardly feature the crackling synaptic lightning of a Muse-stoked phrensy. I write slowly and deliberately, mulling over each sentence, even in first drafts. When I’m writing at my best, my state of mind could be described as calm, tranquil, and meditative. I am deeply but dispassionately interested in the scene I’m envisioning and the words I’m using to evoke it. I’m certainly never swept away on currents of emotion.

The closest I come to a phrensy–or even a regular, run of the mill frenzy–is the molar-grinding frustration of an hour spent in the chair with only three mediocre sentences to show for it. And when this happens, I know it’s time to stand up, stretch, and take a break.

In other words, the closest I get to a phrensy is the furthest I get from actually being able to write.
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The Great Indoors

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

I read my friend Sara Schaff’s story “Our Lady of Guazá” in the latest issue of Inkwell with rapt attention, to say the least. This is not simply because the story, about the relationship between two half-sisters in Bogotá in the wake of their mother’s death, is excellent–I invite readers to see for themselves–but also because the story takes place somewhere with special meaning for me.

I don’t mean the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, which the two sisters visit, although the subterranean cathedral’s passageways and vaults do call this place to mind. No, I’m talking about someplace far more vast and less tangible. Call it the Great Indoors.

It’s a place I’ve been exploring all my life.

* * *

As a boy, I created my own planet. The planet’s surface, I imagined, was a scorched wasteland. Beneath the surface, however, I invented a paradise: an endless network of inexplicably well-lit caverns thick with steamy undergrowth; underground rivers and fountains; and claustrophobic passages opening onto vast, buttressed chambers that stretched off toward hazy vanishing points. Near the surface lay civilization as my ten-year-old self knew it–small towns carved from rocky cavern walls, two-lane blacktop tunnels stretching from place to place, open farmland rolling into the distance beneath twinkling ceilings of stone. But the further downward I journeyed–wandering through the basement or my backyard, sometimes narrating events to myself in a whisper–the stranger and more wild the landscape became.

Described this way, it sounds almost blatantly metaphorical, doesn’t it? Polite society above, wilderness beneath: Even one of the names I gave my planet, “the Depot,” suggests a storehouse of the subconscious. Down and then up, treasure in tow–that story’s at least as old as Orpheus. But of course I didn’t consider this at the time.
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