The Passionate Lives of Writers and Readers

When my husband and I moved in together, one of the biggest challenges we faced was how to merge our TV-watching styles. For my husband, if the TV is on, you’re actively watching something. For me, if the TV is on, it means you’re home. (I need some kind of ambient noise, and why not have noise that includes narrative?) He’s more likely to suggest watching intense dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. I could easily throw on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve already seen nine times.

Over the last few years, we’ve found a TV-watching schedule that works for us, including binge-watching a variety of shows with varied emotional content and stakes. One show we’ve been watching is Parks and Recreation with its cast of wacky characters trying to make a difference in Pawnee, Indiana.

Recently, I came across a quote by former Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell, who referred to Parks and Recreation as “criminally underrated and one of the best ensembles on TV. They figured out how to make comedy out of people who like things…Turns out passion can heighten things in the same way that conflict does.”Continue Reading

The Virtue of Stillness

The lesson I look forward to most in the creative writing for new media class I teach at the University of Iowa involves me giving an unconventional lecture as a series of texts (complete with abbreviations, typos, and emoticons) projected on an overhead while I forbid speaking of any kind for about 20 minutes. During this time, students are allowed to take out their cell phones and use them in any way they wish—if they have a question, they’re instructed to type the question in a text and raise their phone in the air so I may come around and answer them with a text. It’s a strange spectacle to behold for sure but I’m always amazed at just how apt they are at following along, never missing a beat. Almost all of them whip their phones out and relish the opportunity to check their e-mails or Facebook while I type away and they glance up every once in a while. The room is full of darting eyes and tiny glowing screens. Continue Reading

Calisthenics for Writers

exerciseWriter’s Butt is a real and tragic thing. You might be making great progress on that novel, but is your seat getting wider with every word count goal? Is your back so tight that when you stand up your arms are permanently locked in that T-Rex typing position? Time to stretch out and get the blood flowing with these specially designed exercises. (As always, consult your physician before starting any vigorous training regimen.)

Bind together seven copies of literary magazines that rejected you, and impale them on the end of a sharp stick. Now do the same with seven more mags on the other end of the stick. Now it’s time for the free lift! That thing must weigh at least ten pounds.

Sitting in your rolling chair, use your feet to propel yourself away from your computer in disgust. The sudden motion and rush of oxygen might give you a new idea. If it does, tiptoe-crawl your chair back to your desk, because you’re too far away to grab the edge of it with your hands. This uses your abs more than you’d think.

Switch to an old-timey manual typewriter. After a few weeks, your fingers will be strong enough to curl your own ironic handlebar moustache.Continue Reading

The Power of Predation in Literature

Animal - Dog - Wolf Audubon's Quadrupeds

I woke to find the cougar curled at the foot of my bed.

Or, at least, I thought I did.

I accidentally bumped the sleeping cat with my foot. He rose with a gleam in his eye, arched his back in a dramatic stretch. Heat emanated from his hyper-muscular body. He began to walk the length of the bed, toward my face.

He was self-assured, as only an eighty pound killing machine can be.

I tried to yell. I could not breathe. This was the end.

“I think someone in the house had a nightmare,” one of my roommates at the Millay Colony for the Arts said the next morning at breakfast.

I did not own up to the ruckus, or the epic fight I realized I’d had with my down comforter the night before. Who was scared of a four-hundred fill goose-down-cougar? Me.

I was a resident at the Colony that November, and bloodlust was everywhere. Deer season was on, and gunshots ricocheted throughout the national forest that surrounded the Colony. The caretaker mentioned a seventy pound coyote-dog hybrid he’d seen the week before, and showed us where a bear had peeled off siding from the renovated barn, Steepletop, in which we slept.Continue Reading

The Millennial-Gen X Rift Part II: the MFA System And A Digital Latina/o Literary Renaissance

are_you_seriousHector Tobar wouldn’t be the first to speculate about a contemporary Latina/o literary renaissance. That hype has been around for a long, long while. It surrounded the work of Gen X Latina/o writers beginning to publish in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s of which Junot Diaz is the most notable. The same can be said about the generation that produced Helena Maria Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros.

So many latina/o writers I know have heard that word so often they scoff at it. Renaissance. A close friend, an old prof, said to me in jest once that Latina/o writing goes through a “renaissance” every twenty years or so. People bestow upon our literature that label. But who knows why? There’s probably a lot of wishful thinking in aligning Latina/o letter with the trajectory of something like the Harlem Renaissance, but probably twice as much marketing can be gleaned from that word alone: clean, prestigious, professionalized. It signals the arrival of something, the coming-of-age of something. Who doesn’t want that? More than anything, who doesn’t want to buy into that? Writer or reader. Continue Reading

Daily Details Made Monumental

joan didion by julian wasser 1972

Exterior details lend themselves to the interior landscape of a character or narrator. What one chooses to notice, how one describes an object, says more about the speaker than it does about that thing. A character who spends a whole paragraph noticing someone’s unwashed, unkempt hair tells the reader that hygiene is an obsession. The distant relative who’s quick to point out the stain on a shirt might be hasty to reveal the flaws of others.

Joan Didion utilizes details throughout her nonfiction to stand in for larger ideas. In The White Album, a house half-built when Reagan was Governor of California and was then abandoned is a commentary on misuse of government funds and the American Dream. Rather than explicitly make fun of the deserted construction through exposition, Didion’s criticisms are grounded in physical details:

The walls “resemble” local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a stale yellow cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams “resemble” native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.

Continue Reading

(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

Mask image

I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

An Incredibly Brief Introduction to New Media Lit



Let us consider a form mired in its indefinability: new media lit. I’ve found that nothing – not even poetry – can alienate a reader more quickly than encountering it. Normally I would resist trying to encapsulate an entire genre into one shell of a definition, but because we don’t have a lot of time here and my purpose is simply to expose you to the very distant edge of what the genre has to offer (whether you choose to step further is up to you), let’s stick with a radically basic, extremely flawed definition: New media lit is any “literature” that appears online, utilizing the myriad tools of technology and often allowing a greater degree of reader interaction than does offline literature.

This stuff has been around for a while—since Michael Joyce first doled out a floppy disk to his peers bearing the first (arguably) hypertext story entitled “Afternoon, a Story” in the late ’80s—but only on the fringes of literature, existing more as a novelty than as a respectable form. Robert Coover hailed its potential more than anyone, seeing it as perhaps the natural evolution of literature—the product of emerging media and our increased connectedness to technology. At a certain point in the 1990s, for some, new media lit seemed to be the inevitable future.

It was a future that never came to pass. But today, as digital literacy and the capacity for multimodal thought processing increases light years with each new generation beyond the previous one, I think it’s worth dipping into the digital waters again, if only to challenge our notion of what literature is and consider what else it can, and might, one day be.Continue Reading

“Death!/ Plop.”: The Instructive Power of Very Bad Art


In the basement of three small theaters in Massachusetts lives a collection of some of humankind’s worst artistic efforts: the Museum of Bad Art. Everything in the collection is gloriously, earnestly bad (the curators reject anything that seems bad by intention). You can go there. You should. The photograph above is just a first taste. Sunday on the Pot with George will impress you with the richness of its detail. You won’t soon forget Lucy in the Sky with Flowers—those frolicking legs! Or Peter the Kitty, with his cluster of feet and unsettlingly human expression. Or Johnny McGrory and his spiffy hat. Or The Cupboard Was Bare (just look at it. I’m not sure what to say). You may in fact be seeing them when you close your eyes until the day you die.

The Museum of Bad Art has a literary cousin that has also brought me joy: the anthology Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn and Ross Petras. It’s a treasury of fabulous failure. Julia Moore (1847-1920) seems to have had a poetic obsession with dead children (see “Little Libbie”). Solyman Brown (1790-1876) penned the educational “The Dentologia—a Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth.” The editors deemed “A Tragedy” by Theophile Marzials (1850-1920) the worst poem ever written in English; its first two lines read, in their entirety, “Death!/ Plop.” But my own favorite is “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese, Weighing over 7,000 Pounds,” by James McIntyre (1827-1906):

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze—
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto. [...]

Of the youth—beware of these—
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o’ Queen of Cheese.

We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

The rhyme scheme is something, but it’s the actual addressing of the beloved cheese that gets me. And the cheek-squeezing/biting, and the whole last unexpected stanza.Continue Reading

Bring In the Old: The Writer as Collector


There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was unhappy, for reasons that now seem ridiculous to me but were no less potent because of their ridiculousness. I wanted to be a writer, but I worked a business consulting job from home and spent a lot of time alone in my old Victorian in downtown Raleigh–a house once owned by a woman named Swannanoa Branch. We used to get Swannanoa’s mail–mostly evangelical pamphlets that talked about bathing yourself in the “fire of Christ’s love.”

When the realtor showed us the house, she was careful to point out that we would be the proud owners of the oldest in-tact outhouse in Wake County. I think this appealed to me more than to my husband, who opened the door with the sawed-out silhouette of a moon, revealing a rusted, cricket-infested toilet. It was an outhouse turned garden shed. I have always approved of adaptive re-use; take something old and make it your own. Abuse and honor it. Fill it up with your spirit. This is one way to make art.Continue Reading