Five Books That Changed How I Think About Writing

A page from Danielewski's "House of Leaves"

The best books I’ve read haven’t just been good: they’ve changed the way I think about writing, they’ve challenged what I think a book can and should do, they’ve encouraged me to go back to older texts and read them in a new light. In short, they’ve not only provided me with entertainment, but tools with which to explore the world, tools I can bring to bear on my own writing. Good writing, after all, starts with good reading, and here are five contemporary reads I’d count among the best I’ve come across.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares AWP Book Review Competition

There won’t be any book reviews on the blog this week, mostly because we think you should all be at AWP in Chicago instead, buying—and attending readings of—as many books as you can.

More importantly, though, if you happen to be at AWP, make sure you also take some time from your busy panel-going and book-buying schedule to stop by the Ploughshares table, where you can enter our very first Blog Book Review Competition.

The format is simple: we give you a small card, you write us a book review in one sentence, of any book you like—past, present, or even, if you feel like showing off your publishing industry connections, future. Winners will be chosen both for creativity, and success as a satisfying review; we’ll publish our favorites here, and the best will also get the chance to contribute a full review to the blog.

So what are you waiting for? Get yourself to Chicago, and we’ll see you there!

William Giraldi

William Giraldi’s short story, “Hold the Dark,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “Hold the Dark” opens with this passage:

The wolves came down from the hills and carried away the children of Chinook. The village lay wedged into a horseshoe beneath those white hills, twelve winding miles from Norton Sound. First one child was taken at the start of winter as he tugged his sled at the edge of a slope; another was snatched the following week as she skirted the homes near the frozen pond.

Here, Giraldi talks about his inspiration for this piece:

“Hold the Dark” began in 2009 after I wrote an in-depth assessment of the fiction of William Gay for The Southern Review. Gay, like Bellow, is one of those maestros who makes another writer feel as if he’ll never scribble another sentence. His tar-dark genius cast a kind of spell over me, and I wanted to emulate his grim gems, especially his story “The Paperhanger,” which is the most horrifying story I know in the American canon. So “Hold the Dark” turned into a kind of homage to “The Paperhanger.” At the same time I was working on the Gay piece, I went back to revisit those early Cormac McCarthy novels, Child of God especially, because they had had such a forceful impact on Gay. Late McCarthy has all the fame but it’s early McCarthy that will echo across the eons. Some of his Old Testament language crept into “Hold the Dark”: I could feel it happening and embraced that infiltration. And I can’t really explain this, but the whole time I was writing “Hold the Dark” I kept thinking of Macbeth, the mythos and occultism of that powerhouse play. It’s a fever dream, and that’s the quality I wanted for my story: a narrative that feels as if it’s happening simultaneously in this world and in some alien land where devils hold sway.

William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters. He teaches at Boston University and is Senior Fiction Editor for AGNI.

One Man’s Approach to Writing Women Characters

How do you write women so well?

I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” – As Good As It Gets.

The above, often-cited quote about how to write female characters is quite funny, but at least for me, not true. As a man, I have not discovered a formula or answer for how to properly write women or girl characters into my stories. All I know is, I never know if I “got it,” until the female characters are given a stamp of approval by a few woman readers whom I trust.Continue Reading

A Ploughshares Guide to #AWP12 Chicago

Sarah Stetson, former intern and current Ploughshares reader, bravely manning our table in 2011.

AWP 2012 in Chicago is fast approaching, and boy, are we excited! AWP is an annual conference organized by Associated Writing Programs where writers, small and big presses, literary magazines, and writing programs gather to talk about writing, reading, and submitting. Apparently this will be the biggest AWP conference yet, with 10,000 attendees.

We hope you find the information gathered here helpful in planning your AWP trip. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but it’s just enough to get you pumped pre-trip without exhausting you.

General information and social media help

For the most comprehensive list of what’s going on at AWP on- and off-site, it’s best to visit the official Associated Writing Programs website here. If you’re on Twitter, you should also follow @AWPWriter (official) and @AWPTweets (unofficial). Putting a permanent search in your Twitter application for hashtag #AWP12 will keep you up-to-date on other happenings from attendees. (Oh, and follow us too @Pshares [if you haven't already], because I’ll be tweeting AWP related things all week.)

“Required” Reading pre-conference

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Picking Up Where They Leave Off… an Interview with Randy Testa

Last week, I wrote about a disturbing trend I see in children’s movies. For this week’s post, I asked Randy Testa, Vice President of Education and Professional Development at Walden Media, to share some reflections on the process of adapting children’s books to screen. Randy Testa spent six years as a third grade teacher, earned an Ed.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and taught at Dartmouth before taking on his current role. At Walden, Testa writes educational materials and programs related to Walden films, especially those based on beloved children’s literature.

RK: Can you describe your involvement in the stages of developing a children’s movie? 

RT: I spend a lot of my time at Walden Media looking over what we’re doing–especially as concerns adaptations of children’s literature for the screen. And I spend a lot of time on the road talking with classroom teachers and librarians at state and national conferences. Continue Reading

Maia Evrona

Maia Evrona translated a poem by Anna Margolin called “The Years.” It appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “The Years” opens with this line:

Like women who are loved to the fullest and are still unsatisfied,

Here, Evrona chronicles her experience translating Margolin’s poem:

When one sets about peeling back the first layer of best-known Yiddish language writers—Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim, Bashevis Singer—it is not long before one comes across Anna Margolin. She was one of the first Yiddish writers I read after I began studying the language, though, of course, I read her poems with a dictionary, slowly. It was later a revelation to bring them into English, the language in which I internally articulate my thoughts and feelings, where poetry reaches me with the most immediacy.

The one exception may be “The Years.” With such a heart-stopping line as the one describing landowners “who will seize an uprising by its throat,” not much was lost reading the poem in Yiddish before translating it. It was also one of the first poems I read that convinced me of how very much Anna Margolin, though obscure to English language readers, was the real thing: a gifted, powerful poet. I hope that not so much has been lost in my translation that readers encountering her for the first time in English will not agree.

Blurbese: “unflinching”

I think a lot of book reviewers were smacked as children. Some of them must have at least been bullied. How else to explain their admiration for the ability not to flinch?

Just look at the first page of results when you Google “unflinching book review.” At the British newspaper the Independent, for instance: “Book review: Unflinching look into the eye of a needle.” Then there’s NPR, a particularly shameless offender with both “Unflinching evil in ‘Say You’re One of Them’,” and “Three Books in Unflinching, Unforgettable Voices.” And from the Harvard Crimson, we get “Unflinching Didion Courageously Tells All in ‘Blue Nights’”—which seems redundant, if nothing else. (Unflinching and courageous? Send that woman the Medal of Honor!) Continue Reading

Things I Wish I’d Always Known

I was teaching undergraduate creative writing last fall, and toward the end of the semester a few of my students began asking me about how, exactly, one becomes a writer. They wanted to know what classes they should take, what sorts of things they should be thinking about or doing, who they should be talking to, &c, &c. I dedicated one class to talking about how publishing works and what a writer’s life can look like. Afterward, I couldn’t stop adding to the small lecture I’d devised to fill an hour, and within a few weeks I’d started a file titled, simply, Things I Wish I’d Always Known.

I’ll spare you the more philosophical asides, but there are some things I’ve learned over the last few years that I wish someone had told me when I started seriously considering becoming a poet. In no particular order:Continue Reading

The Last Holiday

The Last Holiday
Gil Scott-Heron
Grove Press, January 2012
384 pages
$25.00

The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you’re livin’ and the way you move.”1991

We remember him as the bluesologist, the godfather of rap. But for a long time, Gil Scott-Heron thought of himself as a writer: he had two published novels and an MFA from Johns Hopkins before he recorded his first album of spoken-word poetry.

His recent memoir, The Last Holiday was a 20-year work in progress when Gil Scott-Heron died last May, at the age of 62. It was originally written in the third person, but his editors thought this was problematic, and had him reframe into the first person. As a result, The Last Holiday became much more about Scott-Heron’s early life than his original focus: the story of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July tour and campaign to make a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.Continue Reading