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

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Labels, Action, and Confidence

and you call yourself a writerA couple weeks ago, author and marketer Ryan Holiday wrote a piece for Thought Catalog titled, “Can You Call Yourself a Writer?” In it, he argues that “[j]ust because you have done something, doesn’t mean you are something.” In other words, calling yourself a writer when the craft is a mere hobby that hasn’t (yet) earned you a keep or an audience is unwarranted, presumptuous, and likely to keep you from actually doing the work to “earn” the title.

Then again, author Judy Blume told The Guardian just last Friday,

I talk to kids and they say, ‘How do you become a writer?’, well, I don’t know that you become a writer: you just are. 

writing not writing.jpgSo is writing something you are, or something you do? Or does it require the accumulation of enough doing over time to justify your eventual claim to being? We’re not going to clear this up today. But thankfully, what Holiday and Blume seem to agree on is that writers write. That is, a hoard of ideas or stories means little until it’s shareable; until an audience, however small, is capable of encountering it.

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Research Unleashed! And Leashed.


German Shepherd in a cone.

I knew I had a problem when I started envying my dog’s cone collar.

Now, my dog’s problem was a hot spot. Allergic, itchy, hot, and double-coated, my German Shepherd had chewed her hind leg raw over the course of a single evening.

My problem was research. Engrossing, surprising, discomfiting and endless, my novel-in-progress was generating fact after fact, but very little story.

Neither of us could resist the itch of our obsessions, which were self-ruinous and spreading. For my dog, the vet imposed a “cone of shame”—a demoralizing, and mostly effective, plastic barrier denying her access. This is what sparked my envy, for what kind of restraint could I impose on myself, a writer whose project requires research—research that also derails the project at every turn?

Latest Findings: Novel Research Leads to Pornography

How does research become a problem? Well, for one, it’s larky. You wonder if your character’s pants would have buttoned or zipped, which means you need to know about the invention of zippers, and then, hours later, you’re pouring over sketches of Victorian pornography.

A surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.

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The Ploughshares Round-down: Why “Don’t Feed the Trolls” Falls Short

trollers gonna trollOver the last two weeks, the internets have exploded with news about terrible comment sections and how to handle trolls. As writers, we know that since comment sections are where humanity goes to die (Ploughshares comments excepted of course), putting creative work online basically means exposing ourselves to the worst mankind has to offer. (Hooray!) Enter mass advice geared toward writers and artists, telling us how to get past the paralyzing fear of encountering internet trolls. Some of this advice is legitimately helpful, but let me boil down rest of it:

1. Don’t read the comments.
2. Don’t base the value of your work (or person) on internet feedback.
3. Grow thick skin. (i.e., if you can’t handle Internet Evil, don’t publish your stuff.)

It’s not bad advice. But given that it’s aimed at people with so much imagination, it’s unbelievably small-minded. So, dear writers, I’m about to change up the going advice about comment negativity—by fixing its insane, glaring omissions. Read the below, then get to (re)imagining.

1. Question the Existence of Comment Sections.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why “Do What You Love” Is Bad Advice

find a job you loveIn 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.

Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.

Oh darn.Continue Reading

Writing is Not Like…

For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.

photo by Bohman

photo by Bohman

Writing is not like magic.

They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.

At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Celeste Ng

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, forthcoming from Penguin Press in June 2014.

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng

So, Celeste, I’m at the official “One Year In” point of writing of my first novel, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. 

Yay! And you’re not supposed to be. If there are people who are finished in under a year, I don’t want to hear about them.

I understand it took you six years to write your novel. For lack of a better way to phrase this, and not to sound like your mother but: why did it take you so long? 

The short version: it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing. I wrote four drafts in those six years. I had the general story from the beginning—the favorite daughter goes missing and is found drowned, revealing a web of family secrets—and that stayed consistent throughout. But I had to figure out all of the family’s back story to understand how those secrets came to be. I wrote a lot of pages that never made it into the novel, but they shaped my understanding of the characters and the stories I was telling.

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Writing is Like Making Snowballs

Photo by redjar

Photo by redjar

It snowed today. It was supposed to snow, but only for a minute, and it was not supposed to stick.  Instead it snowed all day and as the sun went down at 4:30 (alas) the snow was still there on the lawn.  And while part of me is so not ready for the onset of sneaky snow days, another part was perversely pleased. It was an object lesson in waiting for things to add up.

For the past few months, I’ve been waiting for my writing to add up. I’ve written a short story, attempted a return to the beginnings of a novel, but have mostly been reading and casting about for my next project. Lately, one-off stories or essays don’t feel like enough. I’m looking for something bigger to wrap my arms around. It’s not writer’s block—I’m still writing—but I want my work to add up to something larger. I don’t want snowflakes. I want snowballs.

In writing, there’s a process of thought and accrual that happens before an idea is fully formed. It’s a largely invisible, idiosyncratic, highly disorganized process that I still haven’t figured out. Perhaps a surrender to the chaos of it is what’s necessary, even as I crave purpose and order. Continue Reading

Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

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Punctuation I Have Known And Loved

by Leo Reynolds

by Leo Reynolds

Fall is correcting season for me, and while I try not to turn into the grammar police while I’m reading, I usually cannot resist the chance to amend errors. One of my all time favorites was an essay that suggested that two parties in disagreement solve their problem in a “civilized manor.”  I can picture it right now: the columns, the portico, the cucumber sandwiches. If such a place existed, surely Middle East peace would be achieved.

Beyond the homonym confusion wrought by spellcheck, the most glaring problem I notice—particularly among my creative writing students who are trying to wring original meaning from each sentence—is punctuation. They have no idea how to use most of it. Periods, sure. Exclamation points: irresistible. Anything more nuanced escapes them. And yes, I know you’re reading over this post again to judge my punctuation. And that’s my point. I think even many accomplished writers disagree over their usage. Here I consider the ways they seduce and confuse.

The sexy semicolon and its friend, the humble uninspiring period.

Let’s face it: periods are boring. Mere dots. How can they compare to the semicolon, shaped like a tadpole or a wagging puppy? My students sprinkle semicolons liberally when trying to sound more sophisticated and mysterious. As a result their writing ends up confused and ambiguous.

I constantly argue for the humble period. It’s emphatic and clear. It doesn’t stop you from writing long, flowery sentences filled with deep and meaningful thoughts that lead the reader into deep meditation on the meaning of human life. Periods are elegant. Chic, even. Sure, semicolons seduce with their shape and strangeness, and they have a place in prose. But not nearly as often as many writers would like. (For more on how to use a semicolon and hold your head up high, see this comic from The Oatmeal.)

By Leo Reynolds

By Leo Reynolds

What’s an em-dash?

I like to think of the em-dash as the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. It’s when Michael Scott or Frances Underwood turns to the camera and addresses the audience, interrupting the scene unfolding behind him. According to the AP stylebook, it signals an “abrupt change,” or it can be used to indicate “a series within a phrase.”

One of the main problems with the em-dash, of course, is its name, which speaks to its length (the width of the letter m) and differentiates it from its shorter cousin the en-dash (the width of the letter n). All of this talk sounds very Guttenberg, very inside baseball for many of my student writers, who simply have a story to tell. There’s more than one kind of dash? Who knew?

Again, knowledge of this funky form of punctuation—the ability to break into any sentence and proclaim a tangential but related thought and attract attention while doing so because you’ve built the reader a little bridge to get to your island of insight—leads quickly to the neglect of the humble comma, which does yeoman’s work and is often the correct and necessary choice. But it’s also so much less intriguing. For more on the modern proliferation of em-dashes, see  Slate’s “The Case Against the Em-Dash.”

By Leo Reynolds

By Leo Reynolds

Upside down Questions and Exclamations

I never took Spanish but I was always jealous of that upside down question mark at the beginning of sentences. Turns out you can use an upside down exclamation point too. They serve to alert the reader in advance to the kind of sentence they are about to read, signposts pointing them in the right direction.

But I have to say I’m thankful that they don’t exist in English. My students love exclamation marks almost as much as Elaine Bennis and they enjoy, too, sprinkling in question marks where they don’t belong, in the name of some sort of punctuational variety or proof to me that their vast punctuational knowledge. Again and again, I tell them that dialogue written well, with specificity, does not require assistance from punctuation; the meaning is there.

Sadly, this semester, their nods were all disbelieving. Some even questioned me aloud. But then we read a passage in Ron Carlson’s wonderful book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, in which he makes the exact same point. Angels sang. Light streamed through the windows. Insight was achieved.

Like the other punctuation mentioned here, these marks and points have their place. But less, when it comes to punctuation, is almost always more.

Of course, my students are not the only guilty parties here. When I revise my own work, or edit the work of my friends, I’m usually looking at language and story. Which means I’m overlooking punctuation. Though it shouldn’t be an idiosyncratic part of writing, it often is. I go through stretches where I find the semi-colon as irresistible as everyone else. Where I abuse the colon. Or over-use periods to the point of stiltedness.

As for my friends, nobody wants to be the grammar police. The punctuation police sounds even worse. But punctuation does matter. Like stage direction, it gives readers important clues to story. It allows them to pause, to drift for a moment, to contemplate what has come before. And why not let our writing have the benefit of the pauses we wish we all had in real life?