Round-Down: Reading As Luxury, or Necessity?


library useGarbage collector Jose Gutierrez gives new meaning to the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The 53-year-old Colombian man has been collecting children’s books out of dumps for the past twenty years in order to provide a makeshift library to the city of Bogota. He now houses over twenty-thousand titles rescued from the dump.

Gutierrez’s efforts are not in isolation. Plenty of creative minds the world over have been finding innovative ways to bring books to the world’s poorest kids. Book vending machines have popped up in Washington D.C., books are available on bikes in Seattle and San Francisco, and there are book buses in South America and Asia. Little free libraries remain popular, and a string of vandalism has outraged their community members. Recently, the media was captivated by a Utah boy’s plea to the mailman for junk mail to read. The mailman, touched that a young child was asking for reading material rather than electronics, put out a call for people to donate used books to the young boy.

While libraries are a great model for delivering literature to communities, many reports point out that branches are often located far from poor neighborhoods, a phenomenon not unlike that of the food desert, where many grocery store chains opt not to build stores in low-income areas. It’s easy to take for granted our access to books. It’s easy to forget that reading is luxury.Continue Reading

Tyrants big and little


How would an onlooker have described the scene at the 2nd hole of the golf course I played on during the summer after high school? The tee overlooked the pin far below, nearly a vertical drop, and way in the left-hand distance were mountains that looked serrated down the middle. It all seemed to converge at once: my future looming large, big mountains, plate tectonics, the years and years, the 9 iron or the pitching wedge?, my own small and un-forever life. My friends were rummaging in their bags as I tried to keep my heartbeat quiet. Those mountains could’ve killed me. This is how the 2nd hole felt to me.

This was Joan Didion’s reason for keeping a notebook, to record “how it felt to me.” The mountains that could have taken the onlooker’s breath away to me were dark and devoid of majesty. This is differential construal: how we judge life’s circumstances differently. That afternoon I was at the losing end of it.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Hashtags and Heresy

Hello again, Writers.

So I was driving to New York City a few weeks ago for a conference at NYU, where I talked about the ways story and song benefit public discourse. To say I’d been obsessing over the political impact of storytelling would be an understatement. So maybe it’s no surprise that I got worked up over this radio conversation about the #YesAllWomen Twitter trend:

“[D]o I think [#yesallwomen] can be beneficial in shifting the conversation?,” journalist Keli Goff asked on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

Sure. Do I think it is beneficial in the ways that if all the people who were doing hashtag activism actually voted or wrote letters to their members of Congress or actually gave donations to specific organizations doing specific work, no I don’t see it as particularly beneficial, except for creating platforms for people who want more attention for themselves—particularly in social media.

Goff’s words betray the persistent cultural belief that sharing one’s story is worthwhile only if it leads to some objectively beneficial socio-political result. If all you’re doing is storytelling, you probably just want attention. And maybe you should (shut up and) do something that actually matters, like vote. Or picket. Or call your Congressperson. But for god’s sake don’t “just talk” or “just write.”Continue Reading

Chucking “Art for Art’s Sake” – Writers and Social Impact

will write for social changeOne morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.

audrelordeLeaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:

We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…

Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?

is this gonna get political


Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.

But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:

  1. Identify Our Stories
  2. Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
  3. Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”

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