On the Art of Perspective: Christopher Castellani & Maggie Nelson

e.v. de cleyre 35mm dining table setting light room pshares

“I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner.” Christopher Castellani‘s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story begins with that simple phrase, the driving force of storytelling: the author has something they want to convey. Which quickly leads us to the issue of how to convey it. Castellani, a Ploughshares Solo author, doesn’t know how to convey the story of what happened on the way to dinner, “because I haven’t decided who’s telling it.”

There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.”

“Perspective” is defined as a particular attitude or point of view, or an understanding of the relative importance of things—a sense of proportion. Perspective in literature is often boiled down to first, second, or third-person point of view. Castellani widens the lens, broadening the subject to the point of needing to note where the book touches the edges of its scope: “The question of how far outside her own experience an author is ‘allowed’ to write has more to do with politics than with craft; as such, it is outside the scope of this book.”Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Seeing Red: What Writers Should Know About Color

colorWriters should understand how to use color because seeing “red”and reading the word “red” can evoke the same heightened emotion.

Our perception, behavior and mood can be influenced by color. Reaction to color is part of our evolutionary biology. The color blue, for example, is associated with the nighttime and rest, so it calms us. Yellow, the color associated with the sun, does just the opposite.

The way we perceive space can be altered by color. Warm colors — yellows, reds and oranges — tend to advance and make a room seem smaller. Cool colors — the purple, blues and greens —retreat in space and make a room feel larger.

Semantic meaning is embedded in color. Light green on a label indicates “cooling mint.” And the color of something can change our behavior towards it. We might be less likely to buy mint gum packaged in red.Continue Reading

On Being A Writer With A Super Common Name or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Google

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My name is Daniel Peña, I’m a writer, and there are other Daniel Peñas messin’ up my Google results. It’s annoying and I’m against it.

To ground us, let me tell you who they are:

One Daniel Peña is an incredible twelve year old boy who showed me up by designing a Nike Air Jordan shoe to help raise money for the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in 2013 (not bad for the Daniel Peña brand). Another Daniel “50 billion dollar man” Peña is a Trump supporter and self-proclaimed laird of a Scottish castle out of which he runs a business seminar, The Quantum Leap Advantage, and shoots Youtube videos in a trophy room in said castle (weird for the Daniel Peña brand). And yet another Daniel Peña is a Youtube star whose promposal video went viral last year (romantic for the Daniel Peña brand).Continue Reading

NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries II and III


vintage virginia

This is the second installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Here’s the first installment.

Query II: A notice of its rivers, rivulets, and how far they are navigable
Query III: A notice of the best Seaports of the State, and how big are the vessels they can receive

When we talk about Virginia, we must talk about water. The Atlantic World begins with storms and tides, with strange ships alighting on new shores.

Despite Jefferson’s faith in the fixity of what he calls “the economy of nature” (Query VI), nothing really holds still in his world. Jefferson’s Virginia, the “area somewhat triangular” he delineates in Query I, actually is a porous landscape channeled by rivers and marshes of varying depths. Hard boundaries now dissolve in the water that flows over and through the land. Likewise, the rivers which Jefferson catalogs in Query II reflect a glimmering overlay of colonial and Native vocabularies: James. Monongahela. Rivanna. York. Names branch into other names. Jefferson observes that the Cumberland River is also called the Shawnee; and when he speculates about the sources of the Missouri, he alludes to stories told by Spanish merchants based in the once-French, now-Creole settlement of St. Louis.

This is how one world floods into the next.Continue Reading

The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition


The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.


If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.


In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

The Art of Dialogue for the Reticent


I write down bits of conversation I overhear in the train, in the park, at the checkout line, and borrow the more memorable ones for my own fiction writing. I am interested in the lines that sound strange or nonsensical, because they show a sense of character and intimacy that is only available to those on the inside. Perhaps those lines sound significant precisely because they reveal that meaning lies elsewhere.

In Denis Johnson’s story “Out On Bail,” Jack Hotel is being tried for armed robbery and comes from the courthouse to the bar during recess. The narrator asks him, “What did you do? Who did you rip off?” Hotel replies, “It was last year. It was last year.” The narrator tries again: “‘Who did you rip off, Hotel?’ ‘Aah, don’t ask me. Shit. Fuck. God.’ He turned and started talking to somebody else.” Hotel chooses evasion over bluntness. His reticence, his decision to withhold, shows something deeper about his feelings on his situation than if he’d simply described it in so many words.

Fictional characters reveal themselves in speech. They talk for pages, talk past each other, lie, manipulate, evade, interrupt. Written dialogue is an opportunity for them to speak for themselves, without the heavy hand of authorial assistance. Their voice is a demonstration of power, an emotional dance that shows who wants what from whom. It either gives or withholds. And as much can be communicated with silence.Continue Reading

Origin Stories: Amy Gustine’s YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD

You Should Pity Us Open

Amy Gustine’s debut collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, is an unsentimental exploration of people in distress. I recently asked Gustine where she drew her inspiration. She told me that stories come alive for her when she opposes two equal forces, which explains why each one feels like such an exquisitely engineered work of tension. Gustine gave me more details about the origin of three of them.

1. “All the Sons of Cain”

“All the Sons of Cain” is about the mother of a kidnapped Israeli soldier. Here’s how Gustine came up with the concept:

This story began with something I read about the national debate Israel was having about whether or not to exchange Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was being held in Gaza by Hamas. I tend to get interested in the effaced people behind news stories: the children adopted into unfamiliar cultures when their whole family dies after contact with loggers, the men behind those ads on Craiglist for naked cleaners. I became interested first in Shalit’s mother, and then the invented character of R’s mother, a soldier who is kidnapped after a prisoner exchange brings Shalit home. R’s mother sneaks into Gaza to try to free her son and befriends a Palestinian boy and his mother.

The collision of the mothers, Gustine went on to explain, broke open the story.Continue Reading

Body Language: What Writers Can Learn from Artists


Body language is the nonverbal expression of emotion and thought—a form of communicating arguably more effective than the system made up of words. Words are adequate for the less complex task of conveying information, but body language and tone do the heavy lifting.

By some estimates only 7 percent of all communication is verbal. Our ability to read body language is embedded in our DNA. Our ancestors survived by understanding body language. We interpret it intuitively and instantaneously.

The skillful depiction of body language should be considered an essential aspect of literary art. It can tell us so much more about a character than language can.

We can see inside a character, we can understand how that character feels by observing, for example, the way she walks. Does she slouch or point her chin upward? And exactly how is that done? With a high and mighty attitude or does the gesture reveal a hint of vulnerability? We can understand a person’s true intentions by reading body language. Is he making eye contact, does one eye twitch when he speaks, is he leaning in or stepping back?

The language of the body is contained in every part of it: the hands, shoulders, hips, legs, feet, spine, and in every feature of the face. What is it about the gesture that telegraphs a certain feeling? Does your character’s expression of shyness and longing reside in the tilt of the head or is it in the pigeon toed, slightly knock kneed stance? Or is it a combination of both?

Continue Reading