Episodia 2.4: Lessons in Creativity from “Mad Men”

Don DraperTonight the seventh and final season of “Mad Men” premieres on AMC. I’ve loved this show and the slow, magnetic swirl of 1960s Manhattan ever since the episode “Babylon” aired in 2007. The entire series might be considered in terms of the opening credits we’ve all grown familiar with: a man in a suit-silhouette of black and white falls through the sky against a backdrop of skyscrapers and advertising billboards.

Week after week, “Mad Men” sifts through the detritus of a life spent in advertising—the ghostly cigarettes, empty decanters, door-jamb nooses, and the insistent chatter of a typewriter that soothes a desperate heart. And though most writers will never be flown west to meet with Sunkist or to broker a deal for a television spot, I still find many parallels between literature and advertising, two artistic endeavors in which creative work sometimes turns a profit. So what might writers learn from this show, its characters, and its creator?

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Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

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Days in the History of Silence

lindstromDays in the History of Silence
Merethe Lindstrom
Other Press, August 2013
240 pages

Buy: book | ebook

I’m not very familiar with Norwegian literature, so I can’t comment on whether Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence follows the typical conventions of Norwegian novels. What I can say is that this award-winning work defies many of the conventions I tend to associate with novels written in English—foreshadowing, dialogue formatting, an eventual climax—and to surprisingly memorable effect.

The story is told by Eva, a relatively well-off, retired teacher who, faced with her aging husband’s complete silence, is compelled to dwell in memories of the other silences they’ve created in their lives. She remembers the son she had as a teenager and gave up for adoption; she remembers the fact that her husband, a Jew, survived WWII in hiding as a child; and she remembers the reason they fired Marija, their undocumented immigrant housekeeper and closest friend. These are all stories Eva and Simon never told anyone, not even their three daughters.

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Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 1)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and (starting today) will also span two blog entries here at Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

In Part 1, we discuss “realism” as a construction, George Saunders, Beloved, Cormac McCarthy, and vacuum pigs.

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel.Rebecca Meacham: Lincoln, you made the following charge against literary realism:

 I find the term “realism” to be pretty… problematic. Most stuff labeled realism isn’t really realism, and it’s frustrating that every other kind of writing gets lumped into a few vague categories (magical realism/fantasy, satire, maybe postmodern now and then).

Tell me more. 

Lincoln Michel: Thanks for inviting me to talk about this! This is a topic that I think a lot about, so I’m afraid you might be opening a can of worms—is a can of worms “realistic”? Can of nightmare dream snakes?

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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:


“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.

facebook 1

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


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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