Erotica for Writers

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Here in Chicago, we have a series called Naked Girls Reading. No joke. I know what you’re thinking. You’re either asking yourself why this would be a thing, or why you don’t live in Chicago, or whether there isn’t a Naked Boys Reading series. (Only in London, apparently, and can we please fix that?)

If you aren’t lucky enough to make it to one of these events, don’t worry! Here is some porn for writers. Eight porns, to be exact. Writers are a varied lot, so I’ve tried to include something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some of y’all are sick.

Porn 1: You know when someone is reading your manuscript, and they like something, how they put a checkmark in the margin? You know how sometimes there’s even a double checkmark? Well, what about a triple checkmark? Quadruple? Now we’re talking. Pentuple. It’s possible. Yeah, baby.

Porn 2: Misplaced commas, bother you, don’t they? Do they, bother you a lot? How much, do they, bother you? What about apostrophe’s? I bet you want to fix that, don’t you? Well you can’t, because you’re handcuffed to the bed.

Porn 3: Grainy lighting on a small workshop room, six cardiganed writers around a conference table. Saxophone. The workshop leader rises and plucks a stack of papers from his briefcase, tossing it on the table. It’s your short story. Yes, it is.

“This work,” says the obnoxious girl in the corner, “it makes me want to quit writing forever. It’s that good. If I can’t write this well, what’s the point?”Continue Reading

Tidy This: An Imagined Conversation with a Popular Tidying Expert

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We walk into my bedroom, where the Tidying Expert senses immediately that I have too many books. The term “book hoarder” is on the tip of her tongue. She wears a fresh mint-green cardigan and peers menacingly over a clipboard.

“We’ll start by putting the books in the center of the room,” she says, pointing to a bare spot on the carpet next to the cat.

“Pull them off the shelves?” I ask, already reaching for Thornton Wilder, who has been piled on top of Percival Everett, who has been piled on top of Eudora Welty.

“We’ll discard the ones you won’t return to,” she says crisply, as I bring stacks of books to the dumping ground. Soon, we are waist-deep in Willa Cather and Dennis Johnson, Sharon Olds and Millay, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.

The Tidying Expert holds up a pale pink paperback I’ve had since high school, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

“Does this spark joy in you?” the Tidying Expert asks, waving the book at me.

“No,” I say, thinking of Heathcliffe and Catherine. “Great heartbreak and longing, actually.”

“Toss,” she says, cruelly, flinging it toward the trash pile. The cat flees underneath the bed.

The Expert holds up Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

“What do you feel now?”

“The weight of adulthood.”Continue Reading

“She did not let go until her story had been told”: An Interview with Sandy Longhorn

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Sandy Longhorn is the author of three collections of poems, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press, 2013) and The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House, 2015). She teaches at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-edits Heron Tree, “a journal of online poetry, bound annually.” I first found out about Sandy’s poems by way of her blog, Myself the Only Kangaroo among the Beauty (the title comes from Emily Dickinson), where she writes candidly about the daily struggles and little victories that come with being a poet in the world. Her poems are carefully structured and quietly moving, un-ostentatious and often unforgettable. We caught up via email for this conversation late last year.

MATTHEW THORBURN: The poems in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths create and inhabit their own world, right from the first poem, “Disclaimer,” in which “the Author” is “painting the sunlight” and “coaxing things out of the ground.” Did you have a sense of where these poems take place right from the beginning, or did it come into focus as you were writing?

SANDY LONGHORN: This book, my second, is closely linked to my first, Blood Almanac. In the year after Blood Almanac came into the world thanks to Anhinga Press, I didn’t write much at all. When I did return to writing poetry, I found myself writing poems that continued the trajectory of being set firmly in the Midwest. Although I haven’t lived there in over 15 years, that landscape is at the essence of my voice. At the time I was writing the oldest poems in The Girlhood Book, I was also reading diaries of women who had lived in Iowa at various points in history. In each of them, weather was a central factor of the entries. I began to imitate that on my blog, and weather became an even bigger focus of “place” for book two. In short, yes, the sense of place was paramount from the beginning.Continue Reading

Impossible to Pin Down: Truth & Memory in Nonfiction

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Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:

The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?

It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. The latter is evidence of an experienced writer, who chooses responsibility to the narrative over the facts. Vivian Gornick might agree with this approach in The Situation and the Story:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.

Continue Reading

Conquistador: A Tiny Interview with Rafael Acosta

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It’s no secret that Mexican letters are making a comeback. Though it should be said Mexican writers have never left the building. They’ve been around: working, translating, publishing in plain sight as the rest of the western world goes on lamenting boom writer after boom writer’s death. In the meanwhile, a new, millennial generation of writers has emerged on the heels of the now well-established Mexican literati comprised of the older statesmen and women of Mexican letters, which include names like Jorge Volpe, Mario Bellatin, Carmen Boullosa, and Elena Poniatowska among others. And while so many readers and critics focus on the cerebral, neck-up literature (with a capital “L”) that so many argue can only come from Mexico City, I’m finding myself drawn toward the literature coming from the epicenter of the contemporary Mexican moment itself: the great Mexican north. Ground zero of much of the drug wars in Mexico, yes, but also home to some of the best writers and writing happening today. Rafael Acosta is one of these writers and he’s the real deal. I interviewed Rafael Acosta who originally hails from Piedras Negras on the Texas-Mexico border. We talked about his new novel, Conquistador (Tierra Adentro Press), basketball, and the contemporary drug war in Mexico.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Young or Old, Why Do We Write?

1200px-NY_stock_exchange_traders_floor_LC-U9-10548-6One essential question rises out of the hullabaloo of conflicting opinions broadcast in Cynthia Ozick’s philosophical essay in the New York Times on old vs. new writers and The New Republic’s Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s prickly response: Why do we write?

Both essays are well written, thoughtful, and make excellent points worth considering for writers of all ages and ilk regarding the difference between old writers and young writers, as well as between those who write for love of craft and those who write in the hopes of a paycheck.

Ozick laments the ways in which our publicity-crazed culture ostracizes “old writers” (her words) and instead encourages an ambition-fueled sense of entitlement amongst young writers, turning them into caddy entrepreneurs. She wonders at the end of her piece what kind of world we will have once millennials are themselves old.

Hers is a subtle, elegant, intellectually rendered reminder for anxious, over-eager young writers like me to question our original impetus for writing. Is it simply for attention? Fame? Careerism? Have we forgotten the simple pleasures of a blank page filling up with epiphany? Can we not employ a little better sense of trust and patience when it comes to the payoff of our craft? All of these are questions I as an already burnt-out second-year in a three-year MFA program needed to hear.

And yet, I can’t help but feel Bovy’s response is necessary to keep in mind, especially in today’s shifting economical context for writing. As she says, “It’s now stigmatized for a writer not to have practical concerns,” and there are new prescribed paths to a writing life that have nothing to do with the romantic ideals of a room of one’s own. Gone are the days of entry-level, apprentice positions being available to the literary-minded (except in the form of unpaid internships).

Instead, we live in a world where editors tell us at writing conferences that we pay to attend that we can expect not to try for a career in writing if we do not establish a social media presence by the time we have a manuscript. We live in a world where there is an influx of mediocre writers and an insatiable need for digital content. The market is over-saturated, and the odds of us living by our pen (or even teaching by it) are slimmer than ever. It’s enough to make me want to throw up my hands and in despair ask why I embarked on an MFA (so repugnant to Ozick and “old writers” of her mindset) and left a career in secondary teaching in the first place.Continue Reading

How to Win AWP

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I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:

The Book Fair Bartering Game:

Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.

The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:

You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.

The Intentional Misidentification Game:

Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

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How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

Five Literary Games

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Roger Ebert once wrote that video games could never be art, which later he would go on to clarify that what he actually meant was video games could never claim the status of “high art,” like that of, oh, say, cinema?

While I would obviously refute this sentiment as a teacher of creative writing for new media (as would the Supreme Court, which in 2011 ruled that video games should be considered an art form, “deserving of First Amendment safeguards as ‘the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them,’” or The Museum of Modern Art, which in 2012 featured an exhibit of 14 games as art objects, among them Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, and Portal), I would also argue that video games can be quite literary. (And here I differentiate between artful games with a dominant narrative and artful games with a minor or altogether absent narrative—Minecraft, Fez, Tetris, Civilization, for example.)

But what qualifies something as literary? Is it a matter of mere technical accomplishment, its inherent architecture: well-strung together sentences in the case of a book, or in the case of a game its design, aesthetic, and game play mechanics? Is it the capacity to meditate on grand ideas and pose difficult questions? To speak to the human condition? To capture a certain era in history like a portrait frozen in time? Or simply to move us: to tears…to action…to something, anything beyond complacency?

If any of these prerequisites suffice, there are plenty of literary games out there waiting to be played that pack the same punch as a good book, and if I had more time here I would sing the praises of all of them (Shadow of the Colossus, The Legend of Zelda series, Braid, Chronotrigger, Earthbound, Ōkami, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout, et cetera et cetera, ad infinitum) but for starters, here’s a list of five of my favorites you should consider playing tonight instead of starting that new book for a change.

THE LAST OF US

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Death has never felt more appropriately heavy than it does in The Last of Us. In it you assume the role of Joel, a man traversing a zombie-infested urban hellscape and doing his best to leave the past far behind him. This no-looking-back philosophy is challenged when he meets the stubborn and spirited Ellie.

Though the narrative isn’t exactly original, it achieves an impressive depth of realism and thematic richness while, ironically for Ebert, approaching cinematic excellence. It’s a game about survival, loss, our legacy, and the lies we tell ourselves to protect us from pain. In other words, it’s a game about the human creature posing as a game about zombies.

Standout Moment: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t click if you’d rather not spoil the surprise.) Encountering something implausibly beautiful in a world so racked with gloom and grief.

BIOSHOCK SERIES

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In the original Bioshock, you assume the role of Jack exploring the mysterious underwater city of Rapture and evading big mechanical baddies called Big Daddies.

Striking a perfect balance between gorgeous aesthetic and meaty narrative, what really sets the Bioshock series apart from its first-person shooter predecessors is its meditation on big philosophical ideas about governance, ttopias, salvation, and free will vs. determinism.

Standout Moment: A very Lynchian meeting with Sander Cohen. Or in Bioshock Infinite, a barbershop quartet Beach Boys concert.

DEUS EX SERIES, MINUS INVISIBLE WAR (DEUS EX 1 + DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION)

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In the original Deus Ex you assume the role of JC Denton, a biomechanically-enhanced agent for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, as he tangles with Majestic 12, Hong Kong Triads, and even the Illuminati.

Equally of the mind and the heart, the Deus Ex series asks difficult questions about what it means to be human, and dares us to envision the implications of our rapid evolution toward something like the Singularity. Full of dark conspiratorial twists and turns, Deus Ex offers us a glimpse into the nearer-than-we-think future.

Standout Moment: When you are standing at the edge of civilization, the fate of all mankind is left up to you with the push of a button.

HEAVY RAIN

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A dark noir thriller that tells the intertwining story of four characters and their link to a serial murderer called The Origami Killer, Heavy Rain boasts expert pacing and one of the most compelling plots I’ve ever encountered in a game, taut as a tightrope and as gripping as a masterful novel.

Standout Moment: When you’re unexpectedly immersed in the shoes of the killer, and suddenly you understand why they are the way they are.

RED DEAD REDEMPTION

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In RDR, you assume the role of John Marston, a former outlaw tasked with performing some unfinished business for the government in exchange for his family’s release, who are being held for ransom.

If the litmus test for great literature is its ability to move us to a tearful gushing mess, then Red Dead Redemption certainly qualifies, though it might seem like an unlikely candidate at first. With its western genre-ness, dark humor, and antihero protagonist who at first may seem like a pretty two-dimensional character, RDR soon exceeds all expectations, counterbalancing one sinner’s search for redemption with an Old Testament sermon on the cyclical nature of revenge and mankind’s capacity for violence.

Standout Moment: Riding through Mexico to Juan Gonzalez’s Far Away. For a spell, true redemption almost seems possible.

Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading