2 Become 1: An Envious Look at Collaboration


Recently I was looking at some art in a friend’s apartment when she and her husband shared with me their tradition of making a painting each year on their anniversary. One begins on the canvas and the other finishes. Neither of them is a painter by profession—she’s a poet, he’s an urban planner—but this is how they express themselves as a pair. I couldn’t stop looking at the canvases of different sizes and shapes that hung in their hallway; I was smitten with each as an act of intimacy and partnership.

I’ve always loved a good collaboration. Fischli and Weiss. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana. The sister-brother duo of the Swedish electronic band, The Knife. David Bowie and Tony Visconti. David Bowie and many others: Queen, Carlos Alomar, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Mick Ronson, etc. Husband and wife creators of The Wonder Years, Neil Marlens and Carol Black. Brandy and Monica. Allora and Calzadilla. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. I could go on.

I’m struck by the coupling of creative instincts, of what may be drawn from an artist when she is pushed by another’s thinking, the possibilities born when a particular sensibility sparks and build upon another’s. How do sister and brother, a relationship that for me is always on the brink of maddening, connect on a level that inspires creativity in tandem? How are lovers so in sync with each other as to together forge not only families but also whole exhibitions?Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Do White Male Editors Only Publish White Male Books?

For most of the nonfiction books I sell, the editors I’m selling to have a lot of objective information on hand to guess at a title’s potential success: the author’s Twitter following, other books on the same subject, other books by the same author, the popularity of magazine articles on the same subject, and so forth. For highly narrative books, however, especially literary memoirs and fiction, editors have to work from much more subjective criteria, and the most important factor becomes whether or not the editors really, really like it. They have to love the characters and feel moved by the conflicts they encounter; they have to find the world the writer’s created both familiar and fresh.

q349dvlIt’s no surprise, then, that writers worry about submitting to agents and editors who might come from different backgrounds than their own. Will other people like the book if they can’t recognize some of the characters from their own lives?

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks is an important essay in Buzzfeed by Daniel José Older, an urban fantasy writer, detailing the problems he and other non-white writers have faced in this area, and urging publishing to fight for greater diversity. Normally, I would summarize the piece I link to in more detail, but in this case it’s worth hearing out Older in his own words: “My friends all have the same stories,” he says, “of whitewashed covers and constant sparring with the many micro and mega-aggressions of the publishing industry.” The gist of his article is that writers of color face a host of problems, big and small, that they shouldn’t have to deal with in 2014.

I could write tens of thousands of words on this subject, but I’d like to stick to the two questions I know the most about. How white is the publishing industry, really? Answer: it’s pretty white. How big a problem is that likely to be when you’re submitting your manuscript? Answer: that depends.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Four Kinds of Editors (and Agents) You’ll Meet In Publishing Heaven

A rule I learned as an editor: when you look at a book’s acknowledgments, the effusiveness of praise for an editor is inversely proportional to the effort he or she put into the book. If a writer goes on and on about her editor, that editor did almost nothing. However, editors who wrote whole sections of the finished book are likely listed there as one name among many.

5cp0d0hI’ve had my name in all kinds of acknowledgments. I’ve had books I barely edited and books I waded into with a machete, a pair of hip boots, and a warning to my wife I might not make it back in one piece. I’ve also had plenty of people tell me I was an old-fashioned editor, since I still edited. That always made me wonder: Was I really alone? Was I the only one who edited?

What’s Gone Down

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was an article for The New Yorker’s website by Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper, arguing that yes, editors do edit:

I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.

Harbough’s article took on a new book of essays called MFA vs NYCwhich I’ve already written about here. For the most part, his piece is a testimonial: he and his colleagues edit. But it’s also an argument against the nonsensical nature of the claim. “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is,” writes Harbough, “the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”

The article takes a useful stab at figuring out where the idea that editors don’t edit came from, and why it persists; Harbough does a great job of showing how publishing really works. But I would take his analysis one step further, and divide editors into four different categories: therapists, writing teachers, producers, and visionaries. (There are also some editors who are just terrible at everything, but they eventually leave publishing.)

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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

MFAs Do It Best: Your Graduate Degree in the Workforce

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace?

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace? Photo credit: MadLabUK

When I graduated with my MFA this past May, I got a decent-paying job and the hell away from academia. I’d taught for four semesters and knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. I also knew that I had to get out of New Orleans, where the job market is hollow in the best economies. I had no service industry experience and there really wasn’t much else in the city for me in terms of work.

Fortunately I found a job in Chicago that I thought I wouldn’t hate too much, one that would also give me time to work on writing projects nights and weekends. I’ve been doing it since August with moderate success—and strangely enough, I’ve found that my MFA prepared me well for my new office workplace.

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Episodia 1.13: Embracing Your Dark Side

HomelandLet me begin by confessing that this was not the post I wanted to write. All week, I have been working on an essay about female friendships on television. Unfortunately, my writer-self is not cooperating. You’ve had that moment—much like this one—when you sit in front of the computer screen intending to write one thing, only to find yourself writing something else. And that “something” is ferocious in its desire to remain wild—it’s dark, confusing, and so “other” that you can barely recognize yourself in it. And yet it draws you in, compels you, until you realize that other “thing” you planned to write will have to wait.

So what do we do when we’re troubled by the words we find beneath our pens—phrases, sentences, and scenes that some might deem “dark”? For some perspective, I’d like to consider the HBO series “Homeland” and its main character, Carrie Mathison, who works at the CIA and is convinced an American POW has been turned by al-Qaeda. Oh, and one more thing. She’s bipolar, and it’s the “dark” part of her that she strives to keep hidden from the rest of the world.

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Writers Behaving Badly

1 aI’m at that stage in editing my second novel where I’m confronted with my own bad habits. It’s much like cleaning out your closet only to discover you still own not one but three pairs of those chunky clogs that were popular in 1996. How have they hidden this long? And what were you ever thinking?

In reading my draft, I noticed a character rolling her eyes more than once. I ran a search on the word “roll” and discovered I had 17 separate eye-rolling incidents, most of them from that one (really fed up, apparently) character.

I was also horrified to find twenty uses of the word “fool”—and I should clarify here that my novel is in no way about the courtly entertainments of the seventeenth century.

My choices were simple: I could either beat myself over the head with my manuscript, or I could drag other writers into the literary equivalent of that fifth-grade slumber party game, where you all tell your most embarrassing secrets. I chose the latter—and the results are below.Continue Reading

Reading Aloud: It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore

Photo courtesy TOM81115

Photo courtesy TOM81115

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately, out loud to my daughter. (She doesn’t seem to hear them when I read silently.) It’s made me more conscious of how words and sentences flow together and has helped me streamline my own, wordy prose. Another out-loud experience recently confirmed this insight for me. For the first time in a long time, I had to give a public reading, as part of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Commonwealth Reading series. It made me realize how much I gained when I read my work out loud, even to myself.

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Gatekeepers Part Four-point-One: on why the [red] pen is mightier than the sword (and other politically useful clichés)

Nearly ten years ago, when I was a twenty-year-old baby-poet with a sense of self-importance even more inflated than it is today, I organized a “Poetry in Protest” reading in Amherst, Massachusetts to demonstrate against what became, a couple months later, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

My work screening manuscripts for this event forever changed the way I understood what it meant to be an editor. Increasingly, I viewed every editorial choice as a fundamentally political decision that went far beyond an assessment of aesthetic quality—not just in terms of selection based on a diversity of aesthetics, identities, and literary intentions, but also the much more taken-for-granted criteria we use to decide whether a piece of literature is good or bad: chief among them the notion of “accessibility,” the very idea of “cliché,” the truism “show, don’t tell,” the widespread use of qualifiers like “sentimental” or “didactic” to justify why a poem or story fails, and the general reticence to ignore an author’s biography or lived experience in favor of evaluating the author’s work “independently.”Continue Reading

The Black Hole of Revision

You can potentially revise forever, as there’s always something that can be improved in your story. You could’ve added another dimension to a major or minor character. That word you used in paragraph 14, the third sentence…was that the right word? Or is there another one that is more precise? Did you give enough description of the physical attributes of the main character’s love interest?

I never know for sure when I’m done with a story. Before I send a story out to literary journals, I get that nervous “Wait, just one more read…” feeling, even if I’ve read it over 300 times already. After it is accepted for publication, I never re-read my work, because I know I’ll see something I wish I had changed. Reportedly, some famous authors have revised books years after they were first published because they re-read it and saw things that they didn’t like. I am afraid of that happening to me someday.Continue Reading