For my daughter, who just turned two, language is plastic. She pokes it and stretches it to find out what it can do. Joyfully, she tells stories (only some of them true) about her day. She loves to list the parts she and the cat do and don’t have in common.
When it comes to colors, though, she just won’t play—at least not the way I want her to. “What color is the duck?” I ask, pointing at the page.
She looks at me, grins, and says nothing.
Her grin gets wider. “Blue!”
This is her customary answer for ducks, fire engines, leaves, pumpkins, and her hair.Continue Reading
I woke to find the cougar curled at the foot of my bed.
Or, at least, I thought I did.
I accidentally bumped the sleeping cat with my foot. He rose with a gleam in his eye, arched his back in a dramatic stretch. Heat emanated from his hyper-muscular body. He began to walk the length of the bed, toward my face.
He was self-assured, as only an eighty pound killing machine can be.
I tried to yell. I could not breathe. This was the end.
“I think someone in the house had a nightmare,” one of my roommates at the Millay Colony for the Arts said the next morning at breakfast.
I did not own up to the ruckus, or the epic fight I realized I’d had with my down comforter the night before. Who was scared of a four-hundred fill goose-down-cougar? Me.
I was a resident at the Colony that November, and bloodlust was everywhere. Deer season was on, and gunshots ricocheted throughout the national forest that surrounded the Colony. The caretaker mentioned a seventy pound coyote-dog hybrid he’d seen the week before, and showed us where a bear had peeled off siding from the renovated barn, Steepletop, in which we slept.Continue Reading
Follow this new blog series in 2015, where we’ll delve into the background of character archetypes–the Mad Woman, the Detective, and the Wise Fool, to name a few. In this first installment, we take a look at the Byronic Hero.
Origin Story: In literature, the Byronic Hero’s first embodiment is Childe Harold, protagonist of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As the name implies, the Byronic Hero was created by British Romantic poet Lord Byron, who himself is often viewed as the living, breathing incarnation of the character type’s namesake. Some critics believe that Byron was simply bored with the Romantic Hero archetype, twisting the ideal to fit his own personal tastes. He also may have been inspired by Hamlet, but that’s just literati gossip.
Characteristics: Like the Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is a complex individual who often works against the grain of societal norms. More so than the traditional Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is psychologically damaged in some way. Even when he acts in a benevolent manner, it is often tainted by his brooding, dark nature. Essentially, he’s a tortured soul whose turmoil makes him the center of his own world–his emotional (and sometimes physical) scars are too profound for normal people to fully understand him. Naturally, women love him.Continue Reading
Recently I was reading the prose section of an online literary magazine’s fall issue when I could not overcome a nagging sense that something was lacking. The stories themselves were well-written; the style was cohesive with the magazine’s tone; the narratives were engaging. Yet it somehow felt incomplete. As I scrolled through the stories again, it finally hit me–dialogue. None of the stories contained a stitch of dialogue. Certainly there were references to it and summaries of conversations. Actual dialogue, however, was nowhere to be seen.Continue Reading
When I was a junior in high school, we read The Great Gatsby in English class. I hadn’t read the book yet, but I knew the rest of my family hated it. (They’re Hemingway fans.) “Ugh, that Daisy,” my mom said. “Who cares?” Obviously a lot of readers care about Daisy and Gatsby, but many readers also place a priority on likeability.
On popular review sites, reviewers refer to everyone from Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley to Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester to the cast of A Visit from the Goon Squad as unlikeable. Part of this is a personal taste issue, but it also deals with what kind of people we want to surround ourselves with. A novel that’s over three-hundred pages long is a fair time commitment—it can be grating to spend that much time with a character you wouldn’t want to interact with on a daily basis. Likeability is about ease and comfort and a kind of emotional bond.Continue Reading
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
“I need to tell you something,” he said. He twirled his spaghetti around his fork.
She sipped her wine. “What is it?”
“Well.” He shoved the tangle of spaghetti in his mouth and chewed.
She fiddled with her spoon.
Suddenly, the waitress appeared. She had a grease stain on her apron. Her nametag read Renee. She symbolized harsh reality. “Can I get you somethin’ more, hon?”
He smiled and shook his head. He returned to his spaghetti. The waitress walked off, probably thinking about her ex-husband.
“What is it?” she asked him, tearing off a hunk of bread.
“I think,” he said, stirring his spaghetti in its blood-red sauce, “that we should stop perfunctorily setting fictional scenes in restaurants.”
CJ Hauser’s evocative debut novel The From-Aways will take you deep inside small-town New England, a budding friendship, and troubled family ties. It’s a whip-smart and heartfelt book. It also shares some common ground with the fan-favorite television series Gilmore Girls, and below CJ and I discuss the show, as well as her novel, the nuances of small town life, and the myth of belonging.
Q. Both The From-Aways and Gilmore Girls explore the breadth of female relationships. How did you decide to place Leah and Quinn’s new friendship at the heart of the novel?
A. The true story? I started writing the book with just Leah. Then, in a sulky fit, I threw it out because it wasn’t good enough. I started the book over, with Quinn. In a sulky fit I threw that out because it wasn’t good enough either. Then I poured myself a whiskey even though it was four in the afternoon and I sulked some more. When my best friend and roommate came home from work she retrieved both chapters from the trashcan and read them. Do you realize, she said, that you should write about both of these women? I think they would be friends.
And she was right. I realized that neither of the women could tell this whole story on her own. Each needed to push the other into making different, difficult decisions. They made each other better because they were these two different halves of a pair, and I like to think that made the book better, too.Continue Reading
Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, has gone 84 days without a catch.
His apprentice, Manolin, still likes him, but his parents have made him go work with a more successful fisherman.
So on day 85 of his Bad Luck Streak, Santiago sails his skiff out alone, beyond the usual shallows.Continue Reading
Fans of the Ploughshares “Writers and Their Pets” series have probably noticed the majority of those blogs are about writers and their dogs. In my view this is because dogs are the best writing companions. For one thing, they never ask, “What’re you working on? or “Aren’t you done yet?” or “Why don’t you just write books like [insert any best-selling author name here]?” Cats may not ask these questions out loud, but their faces say it all. Makes you wonder how on earth Hemingway managed. More importantly, however, dogs are also terrific writing teachers. Below I’ll illustrate why, with the help of one of my current canine companions, Sadie.
1. Go with your gut.
As Karen Shepard so aptly illustrates in this poem from Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard’s Unleashed: Poems by Writer’s Dogs, dogs are often driven by an overwhelming and indiscriminate appetite:
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
I’ll eat that.Continue Reading