A Walk Around the Lake


“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” —Wallace Stevens

I think about writing more than I actually write.

I think about writing when I wake up in the morning, how I should dash to my computer and type up whatever thoughts I had just dreamed about to make sense of it all. Instead, I pour myself a cup of coffee.

I think about writing while I drink my cup of coffee and read a book, think about how simply these sentences seem to float right off the page and how difficult it is to piece them all back together onto a notebook in front of me.

I think about the trials and tribulations the author must have gone through while writing said book. Do they bite their nails like I do whenever I get stuck on a word? Iron all the shirts in their closet? Reconfigure the color coordination of said shirts? Do they bark at their significant other while writing, when in all honesty all we’re doing is staring at the same sentence over and over, deleting and then retyping the same words?

Sometimes, when I shave, I believe I see a stranger in the mirror.

I think about writing on my way to work, with another cup of coffee in one hand and listening to my latest music mix (on which I spent more time than I’d ever like to admit) on my iPhone. I think about how I should pull out my notebook and start writing when the reality of the New York City subway system and the limitation of only possessing two hands doesn’t favor the writer.

I think about writing when I glance at my fellow subway riders and how quick I am to label them: overzealous missionary, con artist with a kid, buttoned-up swinger. I can’t help but wonder how one would describe me.

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Writing Lessons: Rose Waldman

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rose Waldman, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Trip to Europe 2013 448 - CopyLike many emerging writers, I had become resigned to soulless “Thank you for your submission” rejection letters. But amidst a succession of form rejections, I finally got a personal note. It began with some kind words about the story I’d submitted, and then came the but: “Unfortunately, we felt that the characters needed to be filled in a bit more…”

I analyzed this editor’s words as if they’d come from an oracle’s mouth. Determined to “fill in my characters,” I printed out the story and painstakingly underlined each word, phrase or sentence that appeared to be highlighting the character’s, well… character. I made bulleted lists of each character’s attributes; her/his backstories, hobbies, and idiosyncrasies.

Armed with my lists and my marked-up story, I approached Sheila Heti, with whom I was then taking a class called “What is a character?” She read the editor’s note and glanced at my red-marked story. “Rose,” she said, “I don’t think the editor is interested in more characteristics; I think she just wants the character to feel more honest.”

People sometimes talk about a lightbulb moment, and this was mine.Continue Reading

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #9: Q & A & Q & A ….

For Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part! 

Screen shot 2013-07-23 at 7.36.42 AMAlrighty pals! Let’s consider this a bit of a clean slate. We’re about half-way through the year, and last session’s Cut & Paste gave us an opportunity to revisit our handiwork, pluck out the parts we especially liked, and put them in a special place—okay, a word doc—for safe keeping and easy access. Revisit that collection when you need a boost, return to it when you want a prompt, or let it hang out for a while, untouched, and rediscover your gems a little later on with fresh eyes.

Now, it’s time again to turn our attention outside ourselves. We’re askin’ questions; we’re gettin’ answers; but most of all, we’re listenin’ and we’re learnin’.Continue Reading

People of the Book: Debra Di Blasi

People of the Book is an interview series gathering those engaged with books, broadly defined. As participants answer the same set of questions, their varied responses chart an informal ethnography of the book, highlighting its rich history as a mutable medium and anticipating its potential future. This week brings the conversation to Debra Di Blasi, Founder and Publisher of Jaded Ibis Productions.

1.  How do you define a “book”?

Photo of the simulacrum of the book titled, "Debra Di Blasi"

Photo of the simulacrum of the book titled, “Debra Di Blasi”

While a visual art student at Kansas City Art Institute in the early 1980s, I took a course in bookmaking and artists’ books. This was after I’d already studied creative writing and journalism at a state university and therefore had a narrow view of “book.” I scheduled a private tour of The Nelson-Atkins Museum’s of artist books where some of the greatest artists played with the concept of “book.” One of our tasks as art students was to be inventive, to question the “formula” for “book” as a “container” of ideas. We broke down the parts—binding, cover, page, ink, contents, size and shape—and questioned and explored their possibilities by making our own books. Once you start down that slope you inevitably arrive at the question, “Who made the old rules and why should I follow them?”

In 1998, while teaching experimental writing forms at the same art institute from which I’d graduated, I began to seriously bend the definition of “book” with the inception of The Jiri Chronicles. The 13-year “book without boundaries” project grew from one mixed media story to eventually include over 500 individual works of prose, poetry, video, audio interviews, websites, music, consumer products and, yes, physical books like The Jiri Chronicles and Other Fictions (FC2/University of Alabama Press) and two poetry collections written by the late Jiri Cech. (Cech died in 2011 when he was allegedly eaten by lions in Botswana; his body was never recovered.) Most of Jiri’s products—like his books, CDs, clothing, and perfume—are extant; others vanished into the www-dot ethersphere. The Chronicles was, I see now, my first efforts toward an experiential “book”—a serious attempt to dissolve distinctions between real life and fictive life in the same way children (used to?) play imaginary roles in a physical environment.Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Don’t Fall Flat

256px-Alfred_Hitchcock_NYWTSAlfred Hitchcock says, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  That is absolutely true for the stories that are being passed on to editors. It is your job to tell the story but get rid of the boring bits. A reader wants to travel seamlessly from scene to narrative bridge and back again.

But how? Here are the simplest techniques.Continue Reading

Between Centuries: A Six-Month Perspective

The year is more than half over, which means those of us who attempted New Year’s resolutions have either mastered, given up, or heavily revised them. It also means my year of reading 100-year-old books is halfway finished.

BooksIt all started, in February, with a dead poet and a road trip. And while I had planned to traipse into various used bookshops around the country to find hidden gems, after that, it turns out there were some not-so-hidden gems right under my nose—classics like Jack London’s The Valley of the MoonEdith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and a slice from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, The Patchwork Girl from Oz.

Then there were delights like Blanche Ebbutt’s marriage manuals, the cookbook with a recipe for cooking calves’ feet, and a morality book for kids.

For the last six months, I have been living between two centuries.Continue Reading

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Disappearance of Herman Grimes” by Michael Shou-Yung Shum

It’s not often that I cry a little while reading a short story. I’ve been known to cry at badly written episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, at the emotional conclusion of certain novels, and in the presence of pretty much any crying person. (My tear ducts are sympathetic—what can I say?) But short stories, while often moving, don’t usually make me weepy. I’m not sure why this is—I honestly haven’t thought much about it—but all of this is to say: when a story makes me tear up, I notice.

issue10So earlier this week, when I cracked open the most recent edition of Midwestern Gothic and cried at “The Disappearance of Herman Grimes” by Michael Shou-Yung Shum, I wanted to figure out why.

I’m not going to write about the passage that made me so emotional, in part to avoid spoiling the end of the story—but also, I’d argue, because the reason it produces such a response happens much earlier on. It’s the result of an accumulation, not one specific moment. Just as a killer ending isn’t always about what’s on the last page so much as is about the shape of the narrative before it, the Paragraph That Made Me Cry wouldn’t have made me cry unless Shum had taken the time to create such a lovely and unassuming character in Herman Grimes.

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Up and Out: Five Things We Can All Learn from Roald Dahl

dahl 1

Dahl: Not the nicest guy, apparently. But a hell of a storyteller.

When I was six years old, I copied out the entirety of Roald Dahl’s The Twits. By hand. When I filled  one lined page, I’d apply an inch-wide swath of rubber cement and attach the next paper to the bottom, so that I wound up with a scroll the diameter of a car tire. I do still wonder why my teacher allowed me to do this during school time. She was the one who’d read us the book, so maybe she saw it as flattering. Or maybe she saw it as a way to improve my abysmal handwriting. Or maybe she was a genius.

I should acknowledge here that Roald Dahl was, by all accounts, a pretty terrible human being. (If you aren’t familiar with his personal life, this philippic should convince you to take him off your “Writers I’d Have Dinner With” list.) But my five-year-old has discovered Dahl this summer, is already three books in (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Esio Trot), and I couldn’t be happier. She doesn’t want help reading these, and even though this means she’s missing a bit of plot, I agree—Dahl should be consumed in private. But I can’t resist flipping through after she’s gone to sleep, and I’m remembering what made me love him. I think I absorbed something in all that Twit-copying, but even thirty years later, I’m still trying to break down what those lessons are.

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Writing Lessons: Judith Conte

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Judith Conte, a student at the 2013 Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. You can follow Judith on Twitter @JudithConte. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

colorAt the 2013 Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, Naomi Shihab Nye presented the following writing exercise:

“Write for three minutes using three-word sentences,” she said. What a treat, I thought. No consideration about dangling modifiers. No thought to commas versus semi-colons. No holding out for top-shelf words. It worked for Herman Melville; “Call me Ishmael,” he wrote, at the beginning of “Moby Dick.” A short, weighty sentence that pushes the reader to the ones that follow. Three words as famous as the entire book.

Here is what I wrote during the workshop:

Thank you lawyering. You served me. Thirty plus years. Fed my children. Housed us all. Time for goodbye. We are separating. It’s difficult, yes. Still, we must. Right brain insists. Left brain rests. Thank you lawyering. Battles I won. More than lost. You strengthened me. Equal to men. Thank you lawyering. My father’s pride. My mother’s anger. “You too haughty. Know-it-all.” Thank you lawyering. Goodbye for now.

In three minutes, I wrote a tribute to my law career and a farewell to my full-time profession, a delivery system facilitated by three-word sentences.

Call me happy.

To submit your own essay to Writing Lessons, read our guidelines here.

Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Round 2 – The Mighty Duck Palahniuks vs The Holden Caulbabies

After a fevered start to the competition, with spirited fights from each side, the competition slowed this last week as Buckle Your Corn Belts and Vonnegut to the Chopper! tortoised their way through the match-up. The teams ended at a stalemate, and we were forced to implement a tiebreaker: write one tweet from the point of view of one of your team’s writers, explaining why your team deserves to advance.

The winner, determined by the commissioner with help from the Ploughshares front office, was Vonnegut to the Chopper! Manager Brenna Dixon tweeted from Langston Hughes’s point of view, her take on the poem “Children’s Rhymes“: “By what runs/the Cornhuskers/we ain’t run/Genre HOA/is just no fun/What bugs/them cornfolks/don’t bug us/we know rules/aren’t worth the fuss.”

They advance to take on What the Chuckin’ Buk?! two weeks from now.

Draft bracket - Round2Match1 - resized

But this week, we have the semifinals!

mighty duck palahniuks

Editor: George Plimpton
Fiction Writer: Kurt Vonnegut
Events Coverage: Emily Dickinson
Nonfiction Writer: Werner Herzog
Poet: Melissa Broder
Health and Living Columnist: Hunter S. Thompson

holden caulbabies

Editor: Dave Eggers
Fiction Writer: William Faulkner
Cultural Critic: Roxane Gay
Nonfiction Writer: Michel Montaigne
Poet: Elizabeth Bishop
Travel Writer: James Baldwin

The semifinals begin with an epic match-up that really could be the finals of this competition. I don’t want to count out What the Chuckin’ Buk?! or Vonnegut to the Chopper!, but they just don’t command the same star power as these two teams. Both Caulbabies manager Michael Nye (Missouri Review) and Benjamin Samuel (Electric Literature) follow the formula favored by NBA teams, publishing houses, and book clubs across America: three All-Stars supported by key role players.

Nye has been bold with his trash talk at the podium:

Look, if The Holden Caulbabies are going to battle, there isn’t much need to talk about how we’re going to dominate. Still. We enjoy looking around at the bracket and deciding who is going to finish second. I’m sure there are plenty of tired witticisms from the editors and writers on the other teams. Child, please. We have no reply to make to them other than the brilliance of our poetry and prose. You come at the king, you best not miss.

But will his team back up the talk? Joining the commissioner today to analyze the competition is writer and assistant professor from the University of New Orleans M.O. Walsh.

Walsh was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but he studied in Oxford, Mississippi (The Land of Faulkner!), and still runs the Yokshop Writer’s Conference there—so the commissioner is especially curious about his take on the fiction writer match-up this week. How do you see the Faulkner-Vonnegut battle going? Does Vonnegut even get up from his recliner? Do you think The Mighty Duck Palahniuks concede the fiction spot?

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