Writers and Their Pets: Carol Keeley

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Carol Keeley.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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It was a kill shelter, the kennels concrete and crowded. We’d visited shelters weekly since losing our first dog. My husband fell in love each time. I was still in mourning. It had been eight years.

This shelter was wretched—sickly dogs smeared with feces, frenzied barking, puddles of piss. A handsome mutt smashed his heart against the bars as we passed, as if he recognized us. We stopped. He had big polka-dotted paws and a wide smile. “One year old, not house broken, loves everybody,” said his slip.

I was finishing a novel and a degree. Brad was often traveling. An untrained older dog? With liquid green diarrhea? I resisted for two months.

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Roundup: Conversations and Collaborations Among Writers

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on conversations and collaborations among writers.

Much has been professed about the nature of writers – that they are solitary creatures, or instead, ones that require community to fuel their work. Of course, there isn’t a definitive answer, and many writers are both. So let’s not generalize. As the great Mark Twain once put it, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Please enjoy these posts about writers connecting with other writers:

  • In this post, Alicia Jo Rabins explores the advantages of writers forming a creative partnership in Torah study, a “form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning,” where it’s common to work in pairs.

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Roundup: Craft

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on the craft of writing.

Many books have been published on the craft of writing.  The topics can range from big picture discussions of the structure of a novel to detailed examinations of sentence structure.  From time to time, our guest bloggers have weighed in on the subject of craft, and this week we’re bringing you some of those posts.

Roundup: On Reading

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on reading.

We’ve been doing a lot of roundups on aspects of writing, so I think it’s time we take a look at the other half of the Ploughshares equation: reading.  A literary magazine, after all, cannot survive without a healthy readership.  Also, at a reading last week at Emerson College, Tobias Wolff said “All the writers I know are voracious readers.”  So whether you are a reader, or a writer/reader, here are some posts on the state of reading.

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Roundup: Writing advice, tips, and lists

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on with writing advice, tips, and lists.

Last week we saw someone tweet this collection of writing rules from famous writers.  We loved the lists of rules so much, this week we gathered posts that contain writing advice and tips (some in list form).

Weekly Roundup: Revision

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our weekly roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week’s theme: revision.

If you are still a young writer, like me, revision may be intimidating.  More experienced writers may struggle with when to stop revising.  Fortunately, our guest bloggers are here to help!

  • For those just learning to revise or any who would would like to take a fresh look, Eric Weinstein posts about his introduction to revision (re-visioning a piece) and discusses the inherent pros and cons in “Which a Minute Will Reverse”.

Weekly Roundup: Inspiration

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  This week we’re introducing a new roundup post that explores the archives.  Each Monday we’ll gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week’s theme: inspiration.

Jamie Quatro explored the question of how ideas come to writers in her series of First Draft interviews with fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers.  The answers from the writers she spoke with varied widely.  Some highlights:

  • Timothy Liu explains “I can prepare myself for a poem to come to me, just like a memorable dream, but I can’t force it to happen.”
  • Lia Purpura tells Quatro about stopping in the middle of teaching a class to scribble down a poem as it came to her.
  • Young Jean Lee asks herself “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?”  Then she writes that play.

If reading writers’ ruminations on their process doesn’t inspire you, try Rachel Kadish’s suggestion: panic and musical improvisation.

Speaking of music, James Scott writes about how he uses music to inspire and remember the emotions of a piece in his post “Non-Writing Things That Nevertheless Help Me Write: Music.”

If you need any suggestions for your own writing playlist, David S. MacLean has kindly provided his favorites in his post “Writing Soundtrack: A Step-by-Step Playlist.”

Sometimes the greatest obstacle to our writing is the world’s best procrastination tool: the internet.  Discover why reading on the internet may be eroding our focus in Carol Keeley’s post “The Conceit of Wisdom.”

Follow up with Jamie Quatro’s tips on how to avoid the lure of internet addiction in her post “How Do You Get Past the Sirens?”

Where do your ideas come from?  What techniques do you use to open yourself up to these ideas?  Tell us your thoughts on inspiration in the comments below.

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Not Night Enough


Carol Keeley blog OK.jpgGuest post by Carol Keeley

I wrecked my neck last July–three blown discs, bone spurs, stenosis, a semi-choked spinal cord. For the next eight months, I was unable to write. On a good day, I could type for about ten minutes or write briefly by hand. Then mid-winter, I compounded the injury and was unable to write at all, or hold a book, or walk without clutching a wall. Prior to July, I’d had a daily yoga practice for more than eight years and had written daily for more than twenty-five years. “One has the choice of coming before the world as a writer or actually being one,” wrote Saul Bellow. For me, being one meant working at it every blessed day. Which I loved doing and did to excess. This contributed to my neck’s collapse.

Friends and family quickly suggested speech recognition technology. This was met with mulish resistance. I still have no idea why. Much of it is attachment, I’m sure, attachment to the ritualistic aspects of writing. Once, I hoisted the thick white diner coffee mug my friend John Rodgers gave me decades ago for a Christmas present–before he died of AIDS, when he was still the world’s best thrift store Santa–the mug that never left my desk except for trips to the coffee machine: “If this ever breaks,” I announced, “just put me down.” I was certain I wouldn’t be able to write without it. But early in my injury, I stood up from the couch with the Times in one hand and the mug slipped from the other. The spinal compression had weakened my grip. I had yet to realize this. The mug shattered into fat ceramic shards on the hard tile. I looked at it, unable to cry. “Well, that makes weird sense,” I told the startled dog.

Not Night 1.jpgIt makes sense, too, that if any writer could use speech recognition fluidly, it would be Richard Powers. In a compelling essay, which he wrote from bed by speaking to a tablet in his lap, Powers says he hasn’t “touched a keyboard in years” and admits it took him “weeks to get over the oddness of auditioning myself in an empty room.” He keeps august company: Homer, of course; Milton recited Paradise Lost while blind; Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Henry James spoke their novels into being as others typed. Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens composed while walking, where, as Nietzsche claimed, “all truly great thoughts” were conceived. In Hindu and early Buddhist philosophy, sacred works were exclusively oral. Tradition dictates that text be corrected against the spoken. The written word is considered a crutch for the weak-minded, for those who can’t memorize. This is how the Vedas were transmitted for centuries.

From Socrates to Derrida, we can map a parallel duel between speech and text in the West. I don’t believe one is inherently better. I just can’t seem to manage what Powers calls the “huge cognitive readjustment” required. And, in my experience, speaking is a direly different thing than writing.

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Traveling on Foot: Werner Herzog

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Guest post by Carol Keeley

Herzog 4.jpgI first saw Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe at the Music Box, a Chicago theater with faux stars overhead and a live organist between features. While Herzog stuffs garlic and herb bundles into the toe of each boot, he invokes a “real war against commercials, against talks shows” and television, then pauses to add hot sauce to the boot before lacing it. He brushes dirt from the sole with his sleeve, then drops it in a stock pot. Alice Waters later adds a bucket of duck fat and some rosemary. The result of a bet with Errol Morris, who was struggling to make Gates Of Heaven, Herzog hoped this act would encourage scared filmmakers. After the boots simmer for five hours, Herzog sits to carve one in front of an audience, deciding to skip the gummy rubber sole. When you eat a chicken, he reasons, you leave the bones.

I’m not a cineaste. I see films maybe once every four years. I know nothing about the genre and fear our increasing addiction to the visual, the eye-driven. But Herzog thrills me. He thrives in the crack between crude truth and the mind’s capaciousness. At the recent Conference on World Affairs, he dismissed cinema verité, “as if facts constituted truth,” and claimed it’s always been “very clear to me that I am a storyteller and not an accountant of history.” Hence Fitzcarraldo. Herzog lives and creates in liminal space.
werner-herzog-eat-his-shoe.jpgBeing Bavarian explains his “affinity for the fertility of the jungle,” how it represents “an intensified form of reality,” he says in Herzog on Herzog. He often stresses that he’s Bavarian, not German. They’re as different as Scots and Brits, he insists. Take Ludwig II, “vivacious, crude and roughly hewn,” also known as the Swan King. And the Mad King. He built Disneyesque castles “full of Bavarian dreaminess and exuberance,” says Herzog, whereas William II, “that idiot, spent all his money on wars.” He goes on to describe King Ludwig wandering the countryside, sleeping in huts, knocking on doors, then stripping off royal jewelry to give to the child who brings him water.

“The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” This is Herzog’s dictum. For him, this means “traveling without a house on my back.” Just a toothbrush, compass, a change of underwear. If you travel without luggage, you must ask for shelter, forage for food. This is precisely what he did when told Lotte Eisner was dying. “She was the missing link, our collective conscience, a fugitive from Nazism” and an expert film historian. “German cinema could not do without her.” He knew if he traveled on foot to see her, “she will not die. I’m not superstitious at all,” he tells us. “I just knew this.” So he walked from Munich to Paris.

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The Greensboro Five

Carol Keeley blog 2.JPGGuest post by Carol Keeley

Among the iconic civil rights heroes in a recent Platon portfolio in The New Yorker were the Greensboro Four. The image of these young men at a whites-only counter in Woolworth’s ignited a movement and is part of our national conscience. But this shot includes a terrified young man who has too long gone unidentified.

greensboro.jpgBehind the counter is James Spencer Dungee. This photo, taken the second day of the sit-ins, includes only two of the actual Greensboro Four. Spencer was nineteen. He had worked at the store for five years and had advanced to working the grill. Though he knew two of the protesters from Dudley High School, he knew nothing about the planned sit-in. “I was more shocked than the managers,” he says today.

On February 1, 1960, four college freshmen sparked a revolution by waiting for Woolworth’s to open, then calmly sitting at the lunch counter. Blacks were expected to get food at the pick-up station and eat elsewhere. As they sat down, Spencer kept whispering, “What are you doing?” He knew the cost of such courage. His cousin, Josephine Ophelia Boyd, was the first black student at Greensboro Senior High School. While the Little Rock Nine, escorted by federal troops, was making national news, Spencer was organizing carloads of friends to patrol his cousin’s dangerous journey to and from school. While there, she endured students spitting in her food, splashing ink and ketchup, endless insults. At home, two family dogs were killed, death threats phoned; her mother was fired and her father’s sandwich shop incinerated. Spencer knew what quiet teenagers seeking justice suffered.

“Just be cool,” his friends whispered back to him. The Woolworth’s manager let the freshmen sit, without service, until closing the store early. He figured that would be the end of it. The next morning, they returned, joined by nearly thirty others. Within days, there were three hundred students at the Greensboro Woolworth’s, and protesters occupied lunch counters in fifty-four cities across the South. “That’s when I got scared,” Spencer says. “I was more afraid of somebody getting hurt, you know, someone losing his temper. That’s when you had to think about it.” Police started arresting protesters mid-week, as downtown businesses were impacted. Sit-ins spread to Walgreen’s and other five-and-dimes, Spencer recalls, but not to Kress, a department store that complained of bomb threats. “Their food wasn’t worth it,” he chuckles. “Hot dogs for ten cents, you know. And they tasted like ten-cent hot dogs.”

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