Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing

don't fear biz Last week, Guernica published an interview with art critic Ben Davis, which begins with Davis questioning the premise that “the central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money.” Davis says there can obviously be tension between what sells and what an artist wants to express, but he argues that money also funds innovative creative work. “If things were as simple as the equation ‘success = corruption,’” he states, “then you wouldn’t need [art] criticism.”

The same misguided equation has long haunted the writing world. It’s with trepidation and/or resignation that writers dip their toes into Literary Business, and it’s often with suspicion that readers observe the marketing tactics of writers we love. Why? Mainly because we’ve been told for ages that financial success implies selling out, and that any desire to make money from literature (or even to amass readers!) is indicative of having devalued Lit for the sake of consumerist advancement. We assume that “business”–a fast-paced, bottom-line-focused enterprise–is fundamentally opposed to the slow-paced, journey-is-the-destination mentality required of deep reading and serious literary engagement.

Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.Continue Reading

Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.Continue Reading

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

Writers With Responsibilities: Damn the Dog Days!

4th of julyDear Sally:

In June, when I was running around from school picnics, to award ceremonies, graduations, lacrosse jamborees, school plays and concerts, I longed for the dog days of summer and no morning routine. But now summer is here and I can’t wait for school to start. Help.

Your friend,

If only the grass were greener.

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Research Unleashed! And Leashed.

bonehelpcone

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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Writers With Responsibilities: Patience is a Way of Life

veruca-salt-charlie-and-the-chocolate-factoryDear Sally,

I want it all, NOW! What do you have to say to that?

Your friend, Veruca Salt

 

Dear Veruca,

You can stomp and jump up and down all you want—but the truth is, if you’re a writer with responsibilities, you’d best get down with the heavenly virtue of patience. I know, I groan every time I hear it mentioned, too. Job practiced patience and look what happened to him. It makes sense in theory, but why does it have to apply to me?

But I have proof for all you nonbelievers.

Witness, Megan Marshall, author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. This latest venture took her six years to complete. She started writing it from a large house in Newton and completed it from her two bedroom apartment in Belmont, all while coping with a difficult divorce. Margaret Fuller encouraged her to reinvent herself. Marshall says, “Patience is not a virtue, but a technique!”
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Writers With Responsibilities: Keep Your Mojo

Mark_Twain_pondering_at_desk

Dear Sally,

I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.

When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school  full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.Continue Reading

Eye Want

"Cupid in a Wine Glass" by Abraham Woodside. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Cupid in a Wine Glass” by Abraham Woodside. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Valentine’s Day later this week, and my first post in a series of writing prompts, I present to you this ever so schmaltzy “Cupid in a Wine Glass.” (More on that in a minute.)

Between drafting my first novel and teaching creative writing to undergraduates and adults, I’ve been happily cavorting with visual writing prompts for about ten years now, because they so often provide a welcoming spring board for new work or even continuing works-in-progress in unexpected ways. Beginners seem to like the visual as a concrete starting point; writers who’ve been at it for a while seem to like the experience of shaking things up, refreshing the palette, feeding obsessions or finding new ones. Regardless of where you are in your writing life, you might consider what Edward Hirsch has said about looking at art in Transforming Vision: Writers on Art: “Works of art initiate and provoke other works of art; the process is a source of art itself.”Continue Reading

Walking the Bridge: American Letters From Latin America

photo_5496_20080405When asked whether he saw himself as a Peruvian writer or an American writer in the New York Times last year, following the publication of his newest novel  At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón replied, “Why should I have to choose?” I remember reading that passage in the second paragraph, rereading it, and then rereading it again for a third time out loud.

The electricity of it. The audacity of such a simple question, really, that struck so fiercely at the core question of the American literary schematic: where do you come from? Alarcón’s response, for many Latin American writers—and particularly those like myself who shift frequently between countries and write predominately in English—was the question we have been wanting to ask all along: Why does it matter? Why should I have to choose?

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