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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STEAL THIS STUFF: What Writers Can Learn from Over the Rhine

Okay Writers. If you’ve been tucked safely away from Great Music over the last two decades, you may be new to the “aggressively beautiful” music of Over the Rhine.

Today, the husband/wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist are invading my column, not just because they’re critically acclaimed songwriters—but because, with lyrics that threaten to cross over into literature (I KNOW), they’re fitting guides for any writer.

And perhaps more significantly: after 20 years and too many albums to count, they’re still crafting, experimenting, and connecting. In fact, tomorrow (Sept 3) they’re releasing a new double-album—as in, too many songs for one record.
Nice problem. (PS. Listen while you read: Stream the new record online.)

Full disclosure: Linford and Karin are friends of mine (we met when Ellery opened for OtR). So as their release date approached, I snagged Linford to tell us about his influences, sources, books he’s loved, lines he’s stolen, his practice as a writer.

Hark, writers of all stripes: This guy knows his craft. Steal his wisdom.
And OtR fans old and new: You’re welcome.

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Help! How Do I Use Microphones??!

Dragon with MicOkay. So you know that microphones are devices you put near your mouth to make your voice louder. Beyond that, there be dragons.

So let’s bust through seven common mic Q’s. Then sail on, writers!

#1. Won’t using a mic make me seem stiff and formal?
If I hear another author get on stage and ask, “Do I really need this thing?” I’m gonna…
Look. A mic will be whatever you make it. Is JT stiff and formal? Is Eddie Izzard?

JT grammies

Eddie Izzard




A mic just makes you audible. And hearing you is the purpose of a Public Reading. Therefore, Mic=Good.

“Do I really need this thing?” translates to, “I’m vaguely afraid of the mic, and I feel stupid when I use it. So I’d like to avoid doing so, while coming off as ‘cool.'”
 You’re not fooling anyone, and the people in the back row will pay for your choice. So use the mic AND be laid back! Everyone will forget it’s there.

#2. What if I’m too loud??
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Giving a Reading? How Not to Panic.

microphoneIn my previous post, I discussed the crying shame that is the Public Reading. You commented, shared, and agreed. You asked how to feel more confident, use a microphone, give more creative readings, etc. I’ll tackle all of these over coming weeks – starting, today, with confidence.


Let’s bust the myth right now that says you should be able to just jump in front of a crowd and feel amazing. That’s true for almost no one.

Sharing any creative work requires vulnerability and risk. If you add to that an unfamiliar environment (a stage with an audience) and unfamiliar tools (a microphone)… No wonder you feel nervous! So: be kind to yourself, and know you can cultivate ease.Continue Reading

Why Are Readings So Awkward?

Hey Writing World.
I love you. You’re brilliant. You make amazing things happen on a page.

But you have NO IDEA what to do behind a microphone.
And so many of your venues are grim! They make us forget that there’s ever been magic in words.
Basically, there’s an oozing sore on your writing, and it’s where and how you read it.
PS. The seventh grade called; it wants its awkwardness back.

But seriously.

How many poetry, nonfiction, or fiction readings have you attended for which the audience showed up for a reason OTHER than:
A. inherent interest (attendees were other writers)
B. politeness/goodwill
C. obligation
D. coercion for extra credit

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Introducing… The New Ploughshares Blog!

The Ploughshares blog has changed a lot since we first launched it in 2009. Back then, it was mostly a supplement to the magazine—a clearinghouse for announcements, extra contributors’ notes, and all the other little tidbits that wouldn’t fit elsewhere. Over the years we added more original material, too, inviting our print contributors to sign up for four-month stints as guest bloggers, and then, in July 2011, adding our first real proprietary content—a book reviews section, written by our staff and other writers not connected with the print magazine.

The blog was still very much a supplement to the magazine, though—and to a certain extent, of course, it always will be. On the other hand, we were increasingly excited about what our regular book reviewers were coming up with, from Shannon Wagner’s Dr. Poetry column, to Paul Scott Stanfield’s “Not Unlike…” column. And who could forget Anca Szilagyi’s inventive book-reviews-in-bullet-points? Suddenly it seemed like the blog could be more than just extra pages for the magazine’s contributors: it could complement the magazine, giving it a lively online presence that would ultimately draw more attention to the wonderful prose and poetry we’ve always published in print.

So we’re very excited to announce, today, that the blog is changing once again. Starting next week you’ll be meeting a crop of nearly twenty regular bloggers, all of whom will be with us for a whole year—and none of whom (with one exception) have any connection with the print magazine’s recent issues. For the first time, the Ploughshares blog is becoming its own, separate creature.

And though I don’t want to spoil too many surprises, here are a few highlights you can look forward to:

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