New Year’s Resolution

Fan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Fan Wu
I was awakened at 3:36 a.m. by my two-year-old daughter’s crying. I went to her room and lay down beside her, as I always do when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Half an hour later she fell sleep, while I was wide awake. I thought about Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I just finished reading and liked, and about the book that had been percolating in my mind for months yet hadn’t been started because I hadn’t figured out a satisfactory opening. I also thought about my agent’s email concerning the difficulty of translation, my best friend’s upcoming wedding and my aunt’s declining health. When I finally drifted off, dawn was breaking. At 7 a.m. my daughter got up. So did I, from a fragmented and nonsense dream, feeling as though I had a terrible hangover. The whole next day, I felt miserable because I hadn’t written a word.

Such a day has been typical since I became a parent. Some nights, after I put my daughter back to sleep, I went to my study to write, but most of the time I was too tired–or should I say too lazy?–to get up. My story probably sounds familiar to writers with small children. More than once, I heard sighs and complaints from writer friends who, like me, are new parents.

But I mustn’t blabber about interrupted sleep and reduced productivity. This post is about the importance of establishing a writing routine. We always have millions of excuses for not having the time or energy to write–writing undeniably requires physical and mental strength–but, in truth, as soon as we sit at our desk at a familiar time we always feel better. A writing routine is comforting. It makes us more efficient and helps us stick to our task.

New Year Resolution.jpg

I used to have a routine. Wake at 6 a.m., have a cup of green tea, write until 8:30 a.m., shower, dress, have a quick breakfast, then leave for work (the job that paid my bills) at 9 a.m. In the evening, if I didn’t have to work late, I wrote for an hour or two then read before going to bed. I didn’t realize how crucial such a routine was for my writing until my daughter arrived. Suddenly, my well-planned schedule was messed up. I lost my discipline. After all, lying in bed and letting the mind wander take less effort than getting up to write.
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Notes from My Dashboard

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz
“Writing a novel,” E.L. Doctorow has observed, “is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

For me, at least, the same could be said about writing short stories. Perhaps my headlights just don’t reach as far as Doctorow’s. In any case, whatever I can offer in this post by way of “advice” is really just a description of how I work. These are some notes I keep taped to the dashboard when I’m driving at night.

* * *

A further disclaimer: As writers, many of you have a great deal more experience, and have enjoyed a great deal more success, than I have, in which case I’m probably telling you little that you haven’t already discovered for yourself. You have your own notes taped to your own dashboards, your own highways, the dark landscapes of your own narratives flowing past your windows. Still, whether veterans or newcomers, we’re all dealing with the same basic challenges of language and narrative. It can’t hurt, now and then, to compare notes.
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Nightwood, Revisited

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Or, perhaps I should say, Nightwood–finally visited.
Djuna Barnes Forcibly Fed Graphic.gif
As readers may recall, I publically chided myself for my inability to get through a book I truly wanted to read–Djuna Barnes’ novel, Nightwood. Fond of her other work (Ryder, Creatures of an Alphabet, Ladies Almanack, How it Feels to Be Forcibly Fed) and convinced of her importance, I’d made previous attempts to read the book, and failed miserably, finding the prose of the first few pages thick and slow-going.

I still found those first pages slow going, but, as T.S. Eliot promised I would in his introduction to the work, discovered upon completing the novel “a great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.”
Ultimately, it felt good to work through Nightwood. I fought a little. I paused and re-read. I even scribbled the word “momentum” on the top of a page to celebrate the instant when I found myself investing in the work. It happened, as a fellow Ploughshares reader suggested, at Dr. O’Connor’s entrance.

Here’s a quick summary of Nightwood for those unfamiliar with the book: Robin Vote marries a false Baron and unenthusiastically bears him a male heir. Unhappy, she abandons her family and moves in with Nora, an American in Paris, but eventually leaves her as well–departing their home at night, drinking, and taking up with a widow, Jenny. In anguish, Nora consults Dr. O’Connor repeatedly on Robin’s behavior, and her own feelings of distress, ownership, and abandonment.

The verdict: I admire Nightwood, but not unequivocally. The characters were stupendously original (especially the transvestite Dr. O’Connor), the setting dark and fascinating, and Barnes’ use of language remarkable. But at the end of the work, I was troubled by my lack of belief in Nora’s obsession with Robin, and this was a barrier to my complete enjoyment of the book.

I never bought into Robin’s allure–what made her worth Nora’s constant agony, and endeared her so easily to her hapless and deceitful husband Felix and the widower Jenny.
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Of Mice and Horsemen: Point of View in ‘Lord of Misrule’

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

Early in her National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon offers two competing accounts a single conversation through two different points of view. Medicine Ed, an old groomsman at a rundown thoroughbred track in West Virginia, spies on an encounter between Maggie, a young woman, and Tommy Hansel. Tommy is Maggie’s employer, her lover, her partner in grift, the master to her willing servant–theirs is a difficult relationship to define, as evinced by their conversation itself.

Here is their dialogue, as first reported to the reader by Medicine Ed:

You shut up, you hear me? he said in her ear. That’s enough out of you.
Let me go, she said. Someone might come by.
Just shut. Do you hear me? Do you understand?
What do you want? she whispered.
I want you to capitulate.
All right. All right, she said.

And here is Maggie’s subsequent version of the same conversation–similar, but altered:

That’s enough now, do you hear me, Maggie? he said.
Let me go. Someone might come by.
You’re going to shut up, starting now. Do you hear me? Do you understand?
What do you want? she said very low.
I want you to capitulate.
All right. All right, she whispered.

There can be no doubt, of course, that Maggie and Medicine Ed are reporting the same encounter. And yet it’s equally clear that their reports are far from impartial. In Maggie’s account, Tommy is just slightly more verbose, less harsh; meanwhile, Medicine Ed’s account lacks the minor tenderness of him addressing Maggie by name and seems to be somewhat inflected by Medicine Ed’s own patois (“Just shut”).

So, who’s right? The novel provides the reader no grounds on which to answer. Both Maggie’s and Medicine Ed’s accounts reference a real event in the novel’s fictional universe, but in a very real sense, the event itself does not appear in the novel at all: Instead, the reader receives two retellings of that event, subjectively sieved through screens of selectivity and language. Tellingly, Gordon eschews quotation marks to indicate speech throughout Lord of Misrule–an indicator that none of this dialogue is objective, or actual, but is instead being filtered through the consciousness of a point-of-view character.
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Terrance Hayes at Ploughshares (pt. 2)

Terrance Hayes graciously visited Ploughshares at Emerson College’s campus on December 2, 2010. At 4:00 pm Kim McLarin
conducted a Q&A with Terrance, and then moderated questions from
the audience. At 6:00 pm, Terrance returned, freshened up with a jolt of
coffee from a nearby coffee shop, ready for his reading. His reading
was introduced by Jabari Asim.

of you who follow our blog know that Terrance Hayes, recent winner of
the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection Lighthead, guest-edited our Winter 2010-11 issue, for sale now on the Ploughshares website. You can also purchase an eBook edition in the Kindle store. (Even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can download Kindle editions through apps on all sorts of devices, such as BlackBerrys and iPhones.)

This is part 2. You can find part 1 here.

Congratulations to Julia Story

julia_story1.jpgAll of us at Ploughshares would like to congratulate Julia Story for winning the twentieth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for her prose poetry collection Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books, 2010). The $1,500 award, named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge John Skoyles, the poetry editor of Ploughshares, praised Story’s collection: “The accomplishment of this book is that it is disjointed and yet whole; fractured yet complete. Post Moxie is full of stunning surprises in language, perception, and thought.”

You can read her poem “Its Plastic Light” at Verse Daily. A full profile of Julia appears in the Winter 2010-11 issue edited by Terrance Hayes. Continue reading for an interview with Julia, conducted by Ploughshares Associate Editor Simeon Berry.
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The Trouble with Happiness

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

In 1873, Tolstoy famously opened Anna Karenina with a homily that has hounded fiction writers ever since: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Even though Anna Karenina ultimately complicates the notion of happiness and, furthermore, questions the very notion of a happy/unhappy dichotomy, this statement has nonetheless been taken at face value by generations of young writers. In narrative terms, they are told, there is nothing particularly interesting or useful about happiness. Unhappiness, on the other hand, is where any story lies.

But writers who believe this, I contend, do so at their own risk.

To be sure, it’s not without reason that so many of us turning our backs on happiness when we want to build a narrative. After all, many of us cut our teeth on narratives that work that way. Most folk and fairy tales begin with the arrival of unhappiness (Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods) or else in medias res, with unhappiness already in full swing (when we meet Cinderella, her cruel treatment at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters is already underway). Happiness, meanwhile, is an end state–static, utterly still. And they lived happily ever after is the death knell of narrative, the last thing you hear before the storybook shuts.

And perhaps it’s the apparent stasis of happiness that makes us so suspicious of it. If static or unchanging, happiness gains an airless, artificial, Stepford quality. At best, it’s boring. At worst, it’s insidious: in the era of mass production, we as readers and writers are both weary and justifiably wary of anything that can be produced “all alike”–including the characters, the families, in our narratives.

In any case, if I go on to defend the narrative utility of happiness, it does not then follow that I must attack the narrative utility of unhappiness. On the contrary, unhappiness is potent narrative fuel. From Pride and Prejudice to The Corrections, that old familiar format, with unhappiness eventually and finally giving way to some form of happiness–whether sweet or bittersweet–is still very much with us. Trouble, as I suggested in a previous post, is at the heart of narrative, and trouble and unhappiness go hand-in-hand.

And yet trouble is precisely the reason that happiness has its place in narrative, too.
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The Hen and Her Eggs

Fan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Fan Wu

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Hen and eggs.gif
Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than traditional bookstore and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties. These promotions sound reasonable, though I haven’t tried them.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.
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The Power of Redemption Narratives

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Two things caught my eye before the Thanksgiving holiday:

1) Michael Vick’s electrifying performance against the Redskins

2) James Frey’s “Fiction Factory”, and his alleged tactic of asking his employed writers to follow a Greek three-act narrative structure in their commercial work, with a focus on the protagonist’s redemption


The sports arena is a tremendous stage for redemption narratives to play out. There are set-ups novelists dream of: losses to avenge, previous drug-enhanced performances to surpass once clean, disadvantages to overcome with hard work, rivals to humble. The field is a place to triumph over personal demons.
Watching Philadelphia school the Washington Redskins on November 15th, I was drawn to an athlete I loathe–Michael Vick. He’s an exciting player. He’s athletic, runs the ball, and, humbled into bankruptcy and prison time after a felony animal cruelty charge, comes with a fascinating back story.

The announcers were breathless over his landmark performance, a third string quarterback breaking records, better than his enviable form of old. You could feel their pulse quicken: A story to drive ratings. His newfound maturity! The adversity he has overcome! “Somebody get me his autograph,” one exclaimed. The sharper Vick’s passes, the better he played–the more I found myself, despite my utter disgust at his past acts, watching him with interest.

The next day, the media made clear the direction the Vick narrative would take. See the New York Times article, “As Vick Soars, Stigma of Conviction Fades,” or USA Today‘s “In Comeback Michael Vick Has Become a TV Draw.” There was league MVP chatter. The Pro Football Hall of Fame requested his jersey from the game. Days later, Rick Reilly proclaimed in an article that “The Time to Forgive Vick is Here.” “The man is contrite. He is humbled. He is chastened,” Reilly writes. “How long must he carry this cross?”
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The Book You Didn’t Know You Needed

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz

The advent of another holiday season reminds me that, as readers and consumers, it’s easier than ever these days to get what we think we want. Looking for Jonathan Franzen’s new novel? A couple clicks, a couple keystrokes, and it’s on its way to your doorstep. Searching for the perfect gift for a friend who enjoyed Freedom and The Corrections? Amazon provides a variety of tools to lead you to your friend’s next big read, from discussion boards to other shoppers’ wish lists to the ubiquitous (and occasionally inscrutable) “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought.”

One upshot of the internet era is that books are now indexed by a variety of associative methods, meaning that the book-buying process has never been more efficient. If you can provide search parameters, you’re practically bound to swiftly find what you’re looking for.

Of course, this presupposes that you know what you’re looking for. It devalues untargeted browsing in favor of targeted shopping. In other words, if it’s easier than ever for us to get what the book we think we want, it’s harder than ever for us to find ourselves gratefully surprised by the book we didn’t know we needed.

I’m far from the first to make this observation, I know. And serendipitous discovery is still possible in the internet era: as an undergraduate, for example, I discovered the fiction of Frederick Busch by mistyping an Amazon search for Richard Bausch.

Still, it’s hard for Amazon or any other website to replicate the experience I had the first time I visited the John K. King bookstore in Detroit.
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