The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Right Way to Write

salem witchAs the year wraps up, I’ve been collecting articles that encourage writers to trust ourselves: To find our own practices for creativity, or shun the idea of practices altogether. To choose between quick first drafts or taking more time, based on what works in the moment. To define success case-by-case rather than comparing our work to someone else’s. These articles ask, “Is there a right way to write?” And the answer, of course, is no.

It’s almost strange that such reminders are necessary–that creatives are so prone to Impostor Syndrome. But despite our aptitude for invention and world-building, despite frequent, wild leaps into formless voids, we’re easily convinced that the “real world” is the one we’re not allowed to explore or map–the one in which we have no right to name or define, or to even call ourselves “writers” or “artists.”Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: “Not Everything We Need Is In Ourselves”

B1TRDNaIYAAYGDo Creation is often imagined as inherently isolated and intimate: a Walden Pond-esque activity improved by seclusion and destroyed by wifi, phone calls, and . . . well, friends. So I’ve been thrilled this month to see a few books being celebrated for challenging the Lone Genius Myth: Walter Isaacson’s The InnovatorsJoshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two, and Stephen Johnson’s How We Got to Now. All three contradict the myth by emphasizing the creative significance of collaboration, connection, and incremental societal change.

Many of us have been enticed at some point by the Lone Genius Myth: wanting to believe that the world’s significant successes were achieved by a creator who was holed up in a spare room with only a beaker, a cup of coffee, or a pen for company. Such romantic scenes get perpetuated by author interviews and bite-sized bios that leave out any of the banal details that would mar them. But why are we drawn to this myth in the first place? Why do we want it to be true?

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why You Should Plan Experiences

experience definition2
It’s mid-October, and some of us are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNonWriMo. Some of us are just inspired by the changing seasons, and want to finally try some new thing we keep putting off. Or maybe we just want to actually read one of the books stacked on our nightstands.

Unfortunately, we writers humans have an endearing habit of envisioning grand creative plans, only to throw them out for the sake of some suddenly-urgent busywork. (Or Halloween candy binge). We also tend to distract our imaginations with things we want or need, hoping accumulation will make us happier, healthier, and/or more productive. So I was happy to come across James Hamblin’s “Buy Experiences, Not Things” piece in The Atlantic, which describes psychological studies showing not only “that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions,” but also that “spending money on experiences ‘provide[s] more enduring happiness'” than spending money on material possessions.  Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing

don't fear biz Last week, Guernica published an interview with art critic Ben Davis, which begins with Davis questioning the premise that “the central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money.” Davis says there can obviously be tension between what sells and what an artist wants to express, but he argues that money also funds innovative creative work. “If things were as simple as the equation ‘success = corruption,'” he states, “then you wouldn’t need [art] criticism.”

The same misguided equation has long haunted the writing world. It’s with trepidation and/or resignation that writers dip their toes into Literary Business, and it’s often with suspicion that readers observe the marketing tactics of writers we love. Why? Mainly because we’ve been told for ages that financial success implies selling out, and that any desire to make money from literature (or even to amass readers!) is indicative of having devalued Lit for the sake of consumerist advancement. We assume that “business”–a fast-paced, bottom-line-focused enterprise–is fundamentally opposed to the slow-paced, journey-is-the-destination mentality required of deep reading and serious literary engagement.

Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: We’re Over-Reliant on the Bucket List

bucket list doneHaving long hated the term “bucket list,” and having nevertheless thought about making one for myself (#MomentsOfWeakness), I was a complete sucker for Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker essay in which she questions its merits. In “Kicking the Bucket List,”  Mead asks whether such a list actually helps us carpe diem-ize our otherwise thoughtless lives, arguing that it can instead turn sought-after moments into mere items to check off: more things “to be got through”–so we can say “DONE” and move on.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Calvary Film and the Purpose of Art

uncomfortable CALVARY

“[T]he barrier between one’s self and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things we would rather not know!
— James Baldwin

John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary begins with priest Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) preparing to hear an unseen confessor. The confessor reveals that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by a now-deceased priest– and his language for this revelation is violently forthright enough that I won’t include it here. McDonagh chose this “startling opening line” because, in his view, the euphemistic language of “child abuse”

has enabled us to detach ourselves . . . because we never actually think about what it means to be abused every day of your life. What that physically means.

The grim candor of his opening line is indicative of McDonagh’s approach to the rest of the film: an experiment in taking viewers where we don’t want to go, leaving us embarrassed and backed into our seats, waiting for relief or levity that doesn’t come.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Chasing “Childlike Creativity”

peter pan not necessaryEarlier this month I got to spend a week leading creative writing workshops with children in the foster system, some of them as young as six-years-old. And while many of you work with six-year-olds all the time, I usually teach college students or teenagers in jail. This was challenging, hilarious, and loud.

My friends knew I was in unusual Tasha territory, so several of them wrote to ask if it was really different working with young children: because weren’t they so much more creative, so open to their own imaginations, so unpressured by life’s demands, so . . . kids? And the answer was, emphatically, no.

But my friends’ questions weren’t surprising, given the persistent advice in the creative and self-help industries to cultivate your childlike wonderor to create like a child! or to do what you love with no regard for failure, like children! Such advice means well, but it’s weirdly ignorant . . . about children.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-down: The Problem with Literary Doomsday Laments

the end of literatureWe who love literature face an urgent crisis: a gruesome epidemic of articles worrying over the demise of literature, reading, English Departments, and apparently (along with them) culture, art, morality, humanity, and ALL KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION. We’re in dire need of an antidote for this doomprophesying fever, these impassioned warnings aboutphilistinism.” (A word that, btw, needs to please hit a wall and slide down.)

Like other doomsday prophecies, tales of literary demise are long on fear and short on fact. And although based on verifiable observations (decreasing readerships and book sales, closing bookstores, squeezed English departments), they’re so focused on Certain Doom that they can’t acknowledge the many places in which literature is thriving and/or receiving a new infusion of public interest.

The last few weeks have offered up their own versions of doomspeak (and questionable solutions), including David Mascriota’s writeup for The Daily Beast — in which he argues that English departments must be salvaged because they’re the only places anyone reads anymore. (And apparently there are zero alternatives.) So basically, we have to make people read books in college English courses or we’re doomed to devolve into an uncivilized, unread mass of (un)humans.

phenomenal cosmic power

Unfortunately, this mammoth dearth of imagination is par for the Doomspeak course. Preachers of Lit Demise often assume that, because literature is disappearing from the places and situations they’ve learned to look for it, it’s disappearing entirely.
More egregiously, they often first exalt literature to a place of Powerful Human Significance, then claim it can survive only via a few fora: bookstores, classrooms, book clubs. It’s all weirdly small-minded . . . and vastly uncreative.

And it’s making me crazy. So Lovers of All Things Lit: It’s time we face up to our own raging blind spots, and to the ways in which we’re contributing to the very crises we fear. Literature will live, but/and we’ll have to come to terms with the wildly diverse reasons people are seeking it out. And we’ll have to let people love it for whatever qualities they see in its big fat fabulous literary face.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Embracing Hard Truths About Writing

Crazy WorldOkay writers. My last Round-Down was about the impact of self esteem on our creativity. Several readers asked for a followup about how to cultivate said esteem, and for a half-second I was so on it. But I can’t deny that the news around the world has been horrifying the last few weeks, and that trying to believe in one’s writerly value in the midst of it may feel like a fool’s errand.

So my first idea was to remind everyone that art and literature matter precisely in tumultuous moments! That creative works speak truth to power! That they convict and persuade! increase empathy and human connection! relieve and heal! But we know this. It’s probably why we became writers.

So. The more relevant reminder? Maintaining a sense of self-value–apart from what we create–is part of the WORK of being an artist. If it feels difficult as hell, you’re likely on the right track.

but what if i don't matterThe fear that our writing won’t “matter” (whatever that means) will always lead either to complete inactivity, or to a delusional inflation of the value of our work. It can also lead to Total Identity Meltdown: We don’t just question whether our work matters, but whether we can possibly matter if we’re not writing earth shattering material.

You guys, this is messed up. So for the love, I think it’d do us some good to revisit some hard truths about writing and creativity.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Labels, Action, and Confidence

and you call yourself a writerA couple weeks ago, author and marketer Ryan Holiday wrote a piece for Thought Catalog titled, “Can You Call Yourself a Writer?” In it, he argues that “[j]ust because you have done something, doesn’t mean you are something.” In other words, calling yourself a writer when the craft is a mere hobby that hasn’t (yet) earned you a keep or an audience is unwarranted, presumptuous, and likely to keep you from actually doing the work to “earn” the title.

Then again, author Judy Blume told The Guardian just last Friday,

I talk to kids and they say, ‘How do you become a writer?’, well, I don’t know that you become a writer: you just are. 

writing not writing.jpgSo is writing something you are, or something you do? Or does it require the accumulation of enough doing over time to justify your eventual claim to being? We’re not going to clear this up today. But thankfully, what Holiday and Blume seem to agree on is that writers write. That is, a hoard of ideas or stories means little until it’s shareable; until an audience, however small, is capable of encountering it.

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