The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

The 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest is Now Open

EWCbannerThe 2015 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is now open!

Our Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in Ploughshares.  We consider you “emerging” if you haven’t published or self-published a book.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

Over the years, Ploughshares has helped launch the careers of great writers like Edward P. Jones, Sue Miller, Mona Simpson, Tim O’Brien, and others.  We were thrilled to publish last year’s winners.  You can read their winning entries on our website:

The contest is open until May 15. But don’t wait! Submit today!

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

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Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Optimism” by Angie Kim

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In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.

The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Third World Kroger” by Greg Schreur

gregSome stories only get better—the more you read, the more you see. Greg Schreur’s opening lines in “Third World Kroger” set catastrophe front and center: “My wife needs more flour for another cake. Since our son Michael was taken and killed about six months ago, she bakes a lot of them.”

That matter-of-fact narrative voice and the jarring connection, somehow, between baking cakes and a murdered child signal a world gone so deeply wrong it is incomprehensible. Yet it is one of Schreur’s gifts that he can, in just these lines and the few that follow, make his characters so appealing we want to know more. Yes, they are deranged: she’s baking cakes and he’s usually in the basement watching reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” and fixating on germs. But I’d be crazy too if one of my kids was murdered. By starting with inconsolable loss flatly stated, Schreur’s story balances—like a luminous, fragile egg on days of equinox—grief and absurdity, obsession and sense, madness and love, and moments of qualified, uncertain survival (but what kind, on what terms?)

In terms of plot, Schreur deftly offers up not one but two stories that, only at the end, fold together. The first, in the present tense, recounts the errand to buy flour. The second, in the past tense, is about what happened to Michael. Driven by memories that crowd and fill every pause and turn of the narrator’s thoughts, the second story dominates, taking up all the air. When the narrator steps into the grocery’s men’s room, he remembers Michael at two, in this same place with his dad and not knowing what pink urinal cakes were. Remembering the flour, he thinks of his wife’s grief and then Michael again, at four, so good on a trip to the mall that the narrator buys him a treat and looks away “for maybe a minute tops”—the minute Michael is snatched. “I searched everywhere, screamed his name, begged complete strangers to find him, sobbed to a police officer, and never let go of the elephant ear I still knew he would enjoy.” Meanwhile, alongside this incurable trouble, the grocery errand turns surreal in the men’s room when someone hurls human waste.Continue Reading

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

All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

Proxy Narratives: Jennifer Clement’s “Widow Basquiat”

raamellzee-bep-bop I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month. Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Café Deux Mondes” by Catherine Browder

Browder-FinalWe are excited to announce the publication of the latest addition to our Ploughshares Solos series, “Café Deux Mondes”, by Catherine BrowderThe Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the recently released Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2. Check in every month from August to May for new reading material!

About “Café Deux Mondes”

When the Khourys and McKissicks meet to share a neighborly meal, an adventure begins. Living in the changing ethnic landscape of Kansas City, one is a family of Syrian immigrants; the other, African Americans with roots in Louisiana. What brings them together is a love of food. Along with friendship, a dream takes root between the two mothers, Miriam and Tamara—starting a new restaurant that will feature the specialties from both of their traditions: the Café Deux Mondes, or Two Worlds Cafe. Little do they know just what they are up against when they begin their venture. From the skepticism of their churches to neighborhood crime, disaster always seems to be just around the corner. Award-winning writer Catherine Browder takes a warm look at the troubles and joys of the American melting pot, and how we can grow even from our failures.

“Café Deux Mondes” is available on Kindle for $1.99.Continue Reading

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2 is Now Available!

3D Cover Omnibus 2 WhiteWe are thrilled to announce the release of the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2, the second print compilation of our Ploughshsares Solos series!

After individually publishing each of our Ploughshares Solos in an affordable digital format, we are pleased to offer a beautifully-designed print anthology featuring nine Solos. This Omnibus, edited by Ladette Randolph, is a collection of works by Paul Byall, Christopher Castellani, Brendan Jones, Aurelie Sheehan, L.C. Fiore, Lisa Heiserman Perkins, Kathleen Hill, Patricia Grace King, and Alexandra Johnson.

The Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2 can be purchased at www.pshares.org for $19.95. This omnibus edition is also included in subscriptions to Ploughshares, the literary journal. Upgrade your subscription today to be sure you don’t miss this Omnibus!Continue Reading