Auto Biography

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Earl Swift
It Books, May 2014
368 Pages

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To the casual passerby on North Carolina’s state Route 168—and the County inspectors—Moyock Muscle looked like a junkyard. The lot was overflowing, with hundreds of cars in terrible condition. Cars stacked on top of each other. Cars cannibalized to be parts donors. Even on contemporary Google Map street views, with the cars neatly arranged in rows, Moyock Muscle is reminiscent of a rusty, boxy graveyard. And yet, customers will pay a premium for the one rusty box of a car that catches their attention, the one that makes them feel a twinge of nostalgia. Continue reading

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First Down Te Ching: On The Tao of Chip Kelly

The house that Chip built.

The house that Chip built.

The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons From America’s Most Innovative Coach
Mark Saltveit
Diversion Books, 2014
128 pages

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Today marks the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, America’s favorite consumption-based present-time activity. Odds are that a family, friend, or loved one in your life has already burrowed themselves away for an evening immersed in a fantasy football draft. These same people will fall off the grid each weekend from now until the Super Bowl in early February, whole afternoons if not entire days absorbed in channel-hopping across a regenerating bank of games until they sag, prostrate, in front of empty pizza boxes. I am absolutely one of these people.

Just as a person can drive a car for their entire life without really knowing how, exactly, the machine works, a person can become a lifelong die-hard without really knowing how football works. The layers of tactics, strategy, and technique behind each play are immense. The game itself is so large and contains so many moving parts that television coverage has yet to figure out a way to deliver the entire field to the viewer: on most plays, when wide receivers run down the field to open themselves for a pass, they and their defenders are simply allowed to run past the edge of the frame. It is viscerally satisfying to cheer on the booming tackle or epic touchdown grab without realizing the complex chain of events around the field that made the big play possible. Mastering that complexity, though, is why the men involved in coaching professional football are famously, universally workaholics. For a coach to piece together a winning game plan at the elite levels of football can only be the end result of a life’s work spent learning exhaustively at the altar of football. Continue reading

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Picasso’s Tears

untitled-1Picasso’s Tears
Wong May
Octopus Books, June 2014
323 Pages

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Few books of poetry this year will have a more interesting back story than this one. Born in China in 1944 and raised in Singapore, Wong May came to the United States in the 1960s to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three collections of poetry with Harcourt Brace. Then, rather abruptly, no further books.

Poet Zachary Schomburg came across Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron public library and was sufficiently intrigued to investigate. It turned out than Wong May had married an Irish physicist, moved to Dublin, and raised two sons. Although she published virtually nothing, she had continued to write poetry. Since Schomburg is one of the many contemporary poets who has a sideline as an independent publisher, we now have Picasso’s Tears, a handsomely-designed (by Drew Scott Swenhaugen) hardbound volume, 286 pages of poetry and an interview (more precisely, a 12-page answer to the question, “How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?”). Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: What NYC Publishing REALLY Thinks About Self-Publishing

Last week, I had an author ask me the earliest his publisher could have his book out. I told him January 2016. Even if he turned it in this week. “And, they wonder why big publishers are dying,” he said. He wondered aloud if he should crowdfund a shorter idea and self-publish a ninety-nine cent ebook between now and then. The funny thing is that he’d referred a friend to me just a few weeks ago who wanted an agent. That friend had gone exactly the route he was now proposing, and had found the indie pub experience to be much less amazing than he’d been led to believe.

4x8dmoxI’ve written before that big publishers aren’t dying, but many of my authors wonder if they aren’t at least scared by the number of alternative routes to getting a book published. If you spend a lot of time on Reddit’s subreddit for writers, you’ll get the feeling that authors are all revolutionaries and that, because of them, the NYC publishers must know their weak foundations are crumbling.

That’s not, however, how the people I know think of the situation at all. I’ve never heard a single person in publishing, young or old, express fear over the rise of self-publishing.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this article in the Guardian by Suzanne McGee, called “You can try to be the next Hemingway– for $6,000.” (Full disclosure: I have spoken with Suzanne in the past about her writing, but not about this piece.) It’s an account of what you’ll have to pay to self-publish well, and it’s a useful resource for writers.

What’s even more interesting to me, however, is how much more than this a traditional publisher spends to make a book happen. NYC publishers spend ten times that, which demonstrates that you get what you pay for: the difference in the final product is a big part of why many employees at the big publishers don’t consider self-publishing a threat at all.

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An MFA for the Rest of Us

mfa 2

Needless to say, we will all dress like this

I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog. Continue reading

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Writers with Responsibilities: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Children_about_to_board_the_school_bus_(Thibodaux,_Louisiana)Perhaps, you’re one of those people who cry on the first day of school. For those of you putting your eldest on the kindergarten bus for the first time, I’ll give you a pass. For the rest of you, get real! The first day of school should bring the same wonder and joy you experienced traipsing down the stairs in your feety pajamas to see what Santa left under the tree. The endeavor warrants nothing less than a small jig.

A word to the wise: Your exuberance must be internal, lest you be accused of not truly loving your brood. (Been there, done that!) Those of you that home school, I admire your dedication and question your sanity, but this is a joy you’ll never know. And I am sorry for that.

Each school year marks the passing of time—small-kid problems get bigger, life gets more complicated. For me there is also another clock. It began ticking when my daughter, Claire, was in third grade and lamented the fact that her parents weren’t cooler. “Finn Haney’s mom is an artist and his dad makes movies,” she said. Claire felt more than gypped. Continue reading

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Birthright” by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

I believed in ghosts as a kid. Since then, I’ve wondered why I wasn’t ever fascinated by the lore of other supernatural creatures. I think it’s in large part because ghosts—unlike angels, demons, vampires, or werewolves—didn’t seem to have such a strict set of rules governing their existence. In my understanding, ghosts could pretty much show up wherever they wanted, for any reason, and all manner of mysteries could be attributed to “ghost activity.”

Revolver_Full_mobileLiving a childhood where ghosts were real meant that any suspicious noise, weird animal behavior, or missing object could not only be explained but also imbued with significance. A door closing on its own didn’t happen because open windows in the house caused a difference in air pressure that made the door move. No, an angry ghost slammed that door because it was once a girl like me and she had died. But how? And what did she want now? And why was she angry?

In other words, I liked ghost stories because they at once solved and created a mystery.

I loved Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s story “Birthright” when I read it on Revolver earlier this month for the same reason. Clocking in under 700 words, “Birthright” is about a girl, never named, who resembles her dead grandmother. The story reads like a myth in its straightforward, naked aim to account for the girl’s likeness to her father’s mother, mixing modern pragmatism with fancy. The girl, referred to as an “Old Soul,” is visited by the ghost of her dead grandmother at night, both in dreams and reality, a distinction that doesn’t seem to matter because, as the narrator points out: “It is always late and dark and dreamlike.”

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Pie” by Suzanne Matson

Matson-Final-smallerWe’re thrilled to kick off our third volume of Ploughshares Solos with “Pie,” a story by Suzanne Matson. Over the past two years, our Ploughshares Solos series has given us the opportunity to publish excellent long-form stories and essays: first in an easily affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus collection. We have some great work lined up for this third year of Solos, and we’re really excited to share it with you. Stay tuned for a new Solo nearly every month from August through May. If you are in search of even more reading material, you can see all our Solos on

About “Pie”
Leaving behind her strict Mennonite upbringing, Kathryn has moved west by herself. America has just won victory in Japan, and a charming older man begins visiting the diner where Kathryn works, taking her out dancing and around town. With her old soldier boyfriends now scattered, and the country flush with postwar happiness, Kathryn takes a chance on her mysterious admirer and moves to Los Angeles with him. But how much does she really know about her new boyfriend? In this Solo, acclaimed novelist and poet Suzanne Matson looks at the thrill and danger inherent in the American dream of unrestricted liberty.

This Solo is available on Kindle for $1.99.

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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

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What Is It About the Literature of War?

511S2LUdJoLUp until that short story workshop I took my junior year of college, my TBR pile was made up of a bizarre mix of Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Bryson. Then my professor passed around photocopied packets containing stories by Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and Tim O’Brien, and I realized there was more to life than homicidal clowns and humor writing.

The Things They Carried,” a staple in college classrooms across the country, started me in on a love affair with O’Brien’s work. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that appealed to me. I had never before been interested in historical fiction in any form. Rather, it was the beauty and artistry with which he strung his words together. That coupled with his quiet, quirky sense of humor.

Heck, I enjoyed July, July (a novel set at a high school reunion, having absolutely nothing to do with war) almost as much as I enjoyed Going After Cacciato.

But then his books became a gateway to other war literature. Catch-22. All Quiet on the Western Front. The Thin Red Line.

I ate them all up.

But what was it about these books? Continue reading

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