Writing Lessons: Sandy Pool

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Sandy Pool, a student in the Ph.D. Creative Writing program at the University of Calgary. You can follow her on Twitter @sandypools—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

IMGP4022-2 copy 2Do you find poems impenetrable? Do you cry easily? Are you overcome with grief at inopportune moments? Do not despair.  I have borrowed from my good friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to illustrate how easy it is to confront the difficult poem, and move on with your rich and fulfilling life!*

Confronting the difficult poem can be easily broken down into five distinct stages, as illustrated below:

1. DENIAL

“This can’t be happening to me.  I can’t be forced to read this crappy Yeats guy.”

Student uses denial as a temporary defense. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to read poem. Student may insist on ice cream, or Chuck Palahniuk. Denial is a defense mechanism and some students can become locked in this stage.**

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Ditch the Publishing Gods

publishing godsIn mid-March, Time published the first ever in-depth interview with Jonathan “Jony” Ive, the Senior Vice President of Design at Apple. In it, Ive described the experience of working toward an excellent—and aesthetically pleasing—product:

Steve and I spent months and months working on a part of a product that, often, nobody would ever see… We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.

As writers, many of us have felt this way about our written work. Because we believe in what we’re doing, we’re willing to hack away at another draft, risk rejection, stay up all night aching for the one word that really fits—even if no one else will notice. We want our work to be as good as we know it can be. Anything less feels like failure.

But our refusal to accept failure too often stops when our writing stops. We write something amazing, then submit it all over the place. No acceptances? No bites from a press? It dies a slow death in a computer file. It’s like we believe we have power and ownership over the creation of a written work, but not at all over whether it reaches an audience. Submitting is as far as our powers take us: the rest is up to the publishing gods.

Um. #EwIhatethis.

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Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book)

This is the story of Todd Manly-Krauss, the world’s most irritating writer. He’s a good enough guy in real life (holds his liquor, fun at parties, writes a hell of a short story)—but give the guy a social media account, and the most mild-mannered of his writer friends will turn to blood lust.

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Okay, so he’s not a real writer. Except that he is. At times I fear he’s me. Continue reading

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Come to Bratislava!” by Benjamin Reed

I knew I was into Benjamin Reed’s story “Come to Bratislava!” in Big Fiction when the main character, a forty-three year old man named Edgar, makes an observation about the phrase “You are my rock.”

I’ve never liked this way of articulating someone’s importance and essentiality—hearing it uttered usually prompts an eye roll from me. The phrase is shorthand, and that I understand, but I find it irritating anyway. Still, I wasn’t ever able to put my finger on what about it I found grating.

BF 5 full spreadAnd now I don’t need to because Reed has done it for me. In an early scene in the story, Edgar visits Naama, the employee he’s hired to help him run his rare-book store and the woman he likes: “‘You’re my rock,’ he’d say [to Naama], hoping she’d know he wasn’t joking, hoping also that she wouldn’t force him to elaborate. He could only imagine that she wanted more than to be someone’s heavy, reliable stone.”

Reed nails it—of course we all want to be more than a sure thing, an object used by another person to feel calm and grounded. Who wants to spend too much time around someone who reduces other people—especially those they claim to need—down to an object? (On my first read-through I jotted down in the margin, “YES. This makes me absolutely love this story.” Hey—you all know how I am with my margin notes.)

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Competing With Your Muse: On Stephen Amidon’s Something Like the Gods

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Cathy Freeman, redemptive figure in sports’ long history.

Under Review: Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron by Stephen Amidon (2012, Rodale, 240 pages)

Sports, much like the arts, are only as vitally useful—or frivolously useless—as the beholder deems them. Neither game nor poem serves an essential function in helping a person survive on this planet. And yet, across all generations and all cultures, games and poems and tournaments and stories alike percolate up and out of us, by some unconscious, uncontrollable urge.

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The Magic of Objects

Simon Renard de Saint-André, via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Renard de Saint-André, via Wikimedia Commons

“I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative,” Italo Calvino writes, in Six Memos for the New Millennium, “it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.

Specifically, Calvino describes the movement of a ring in a legend about Charlemagne—from beneath the dead tongue of the emperor’s lover to the bottom of Lake Constance—that lends that tale its fascinating deftness. As the causal link between events in the story, Calvino calls the magic ring the true protagonist of that story. Continue reading

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Writers Do It Best: Justin Brouckaert

In the ‘Writers Do It Best’ series, contributors reflect on how their education and experiences as writers have uniquely prepared them for their lives outside the writing world. Today, we hear from Justin Brouckaert, a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina. You can follow Justin on Twitter @JJBrouckaert.

justinbrouckaertI was playing basketball with friends from the English department a few months ago when someone observed that I seemed to be a mid-range player—a bit of a rarity in pick-up ball. I hadn’t thought of it before—I’d never made an effort to be any particular type of player—but of course he was right: I’m no sharpshooter, and I don’t make my living driving the lane, either. I’m a mid-range guy—the last of a dying breed.

Like writing, basketball is intuitive for me, but embarrassingly enough, I rarely know the fundamentals. And when I do, I have a difficult time putting a name to them. I survive by wearing down more poorly conditioned defenders. My abnormally high shot makes me tough to block. I bank shots from angles no one should attempt, and my best move is a flailing 360-degree fadeaway J that usually comes off the wrong foot.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Learning To Write Plot Matters

A few years ago, my cousin was just about to graduate from a small state school with an English degree. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I had never read any of his writing, so I was unbelievably discouraging. Try a job in the real world, I said, before you fill out all those MFA applications. Move to Pittsburgh, and work at a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it. A few months later, my mom told me he had finally gotten into some program, but it was only some small one in the Midwest…. Maybe Idaho?

“Can you find out if it’s Idaho or Iowa?” I asked. “It kinda makes a difference.”

Turns out it was Iowa.

dhulsddI was pretty excited for my cousin, because he’d always have that stamp of approval, and he was going to make good connections. But I didn’t tell my mother (or his) that I didn’t expect him to actually learn everything he needed to learn.

Hanif Kureishi also thinks writing teachers cover all the wrong things. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was a widely circulated article about him in The Guardian, which included the amazing quote: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

In fact, I agreed with Kureishi so much it made me realize something about my slush pile. When I get something in from a writer, seeing he or she has an MFA can sometimes make me dread reading it. 

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Las Damas: The New Generation of Latina Writers

La-DamaA student of mine asked the other day if Latinos still wrote. He was dead serious. And by the reddening at the tops of his ears I could tell it was a completely sincere question, a bold one with all of the shame that fills the liminal space between a bold question and the professor’s answer.

Tongues were clucked, little exasperations were aired. One kid even went daaaaaaaaaang for a really long time. And I have to admit, at first even I was like daaaaaaaang, because this is a Chicana/o course that I’m teaching. But when I asked my student to unpack his question with me, I found out he really wanted to know Who are the new Latino writers? Like, the not old ones.

He literally said that—not old. And I laughed so hard. Not because it was a dumb question but because it was an incredibly astute one, a smart one, and I told him so. His ears still kept red but it opened a discussion not only about the state of Chicana/o Lit but about Latina/o Lit at large: What are Latinas/os writing about these days? And who are they and why don’t we know more about them yet? Where are they writing? What are the names of their books? Are they friends with Junot Diaz? THEY’RE NOT FRIENDS WITH JUNOT DIAZ?!

Freshmen have this incredible knack for asking these questions everyone is thinking about but nobody is really asking yet. And I love them for it. I’ve compiled this list of my favorite new(ish) Latina writers for them and also for anyone else who has dared to ask: who are the new voices of Latino writing? Continue reading

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Book Recommendations for All You Budding Freelance Writer Entrepreneur-Types

bookcaseThis past winter has been a hellishly bleak and frigid ice-scape, filled with dark mornings, dark nights, burst steam pipes, and broken furnaces. And frankly, it’s been hard to get myself motivated to do the work people are paying me for, let alone the personal projects that will someday bring me literary acclaim.

Still, despite the fact that I’m still wearing cardigans and cat slippers in my home office, I feel that spring is coming, and this gives me a renewed sense of purpose.

In fact, it’s this time of year that always inspires me to take on bigger and more ambitious projects as a means of revitalizing what the long, cold winter (and seasonal affective disorder?) attempted to kill. If you’re anything like me, I can only assume you’re suddenly itching to write a book, launch a new arm of your business, land a literary agent, or open a coworking space.

Before you get ahead of yourself, though, might I suggest the following resources? Continue reading

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