Roundup: Craft

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on the craft of writing.

Many books have been published on the craft of writing.  The topics can range from big picture discussions of the structure of a novel to detailed examinations of sentence structure.  From time to time, our guest bloggers have weighed in on the subject of craft, and this week we’re bringing you some of those posts.

Roundup: Finding Time and Space to Write

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on finding time and space to write.

Some writers have the luxury of structuring their lives around writing, but most of us are juggling a combination of work, classes, family, and everyday tasks like laundry and taking out the garbage.  Our guest bloggers are here to help with advice on finding time and space to write.

  • If you prefer to listen to music while you write, you might appreciate Michael Klein’s post “Music to Write By.”
  • Finally, if you are someone who works best with a deadline, then you might be interested in National Novel Writing Month.  The challenge, to write 50,000 words in November, is a great excuse to sit down at your desk and work.

Image – Flickr: Nick in exsilio


The Way In

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

Between the ages of 18 and 24, I did consider myself to be a writer, though I wouldn’t have known whether to call myself a poet, novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, or playwright, and I wrote almost nothing.

My occasional literary effort fizzled out after a page or two. To my secret mortification, I couldn’t see any path from where I was to what I wanted, but I believed passionately in an idea summed up by William Blake as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” If only I were more experienced, I told myself, I’d have something to write about.

At 19, I interpreted experience as mild psychedelic adventures and having a girlfriend. At 22, after a lackluster undergraduate career, I felt that I needed more job experience: more experience of what I then called “the real world.” At 27, I was in an MFA program, and I knew that a writer is someone who sits at a desk and writes. Nonetheless, I felt that if I wanted to be an extraordinary poet, I’d need to live an extraordinary life, and to that end, I did many things that I’d rather not talk about. I also drank more than anyone I knew; one of my professors, a poet whom I respect enormously, warned me that unless I restrained my drinking, I’d damage my brain and never amount to anything as a writer.

James last.JPGBy 31, I’d stopped drinking altogether. I’m now 35, and married. I hope that by the time I’m 37, I’ll experience fatherhood, though I do sometimes worry that I’m too self-involved to be anyone’s parent.

It’s possible that I’m still in the woods. Maybe we stay in the woods all our lives. However, I’ve learned, or think I’ve learned, two lessons of genuine worth: (1) despite my best efforts to lead an exceptional life, my life hasn’t been particularly unusual, and (2) the value of your writing to other people is determined not by your exceptionalism, but by your ability to recognize and continue to understand that you are not personally important.

This post is more intimate than the one I intended to write, but it’s my final blog entry for Ploughshares, so a personal reflection, though a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t feel wrong. In fact, during the past month, I’ve begun to think that blogging, like writing poetry, involves a mix of self-disclosure and self-suppression. If you talk too much about yourself, the reader feels imposed upon, and withdraws. But at the same time, you have to be vulnerable.

Even if you are not the subject of your writing, you must create intimacy… or really, the illusion of intimacy, since you the writer are not a person, but a shadow, sufficiently indistinct that the reader can round you out with his or her imagination; your willingness to disappear in this way is what gives the reader a way in.

This is James’ final post for Get Behind the Plough.

On Walking

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

Somehow I never got around to taking my driver’s test. I make various excuses for not having a license (I grew up in a city with a subway, I’m doing my part for the environment, I have bad eyesight, cars are expensive, gas is expensive, etc.), but the truth is, I don’t know why I never learned to drive, except that I’ve never really wanted to. I walk everywhere and take a foolish, conceited pleasure in the fact that some people find this eccentric.

But from a writer’s point of view, there’s at least one justification for long walks. Walking, though it’s inefficient (or maybe because it’s inefficient?), lets you carve out blocks of time in which you can daydream: time that you’re not spending on the phone, on the Internet, at your job, or even at your desk, writing.

To walk somewhere, when driving would be more sensible, is to recognize that inefficiency is worth something.

walking.JPGWhen I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle, my favorite walk was west-southwest down Pike Street from Broadway, turning north at the Pike Place Market and following Elliott Avenue to Myrtle Edwards Park, and then on to the Pier 86 Grain Terminal, where grain brought by rail from eastern Washington and further inland is loaded onto hulking steel freighters and carried across the Pacific.

Going for a walk puts you into an intimate, observant relationship with the physical world, and I think the chemistry that takes place between the objects we see and the moods we bring to bear on them–causing, for example, a sequoia to seem melancholy if the observer is in a melancholy frame of mind–is at the very core of why and how we make metaphors.

Looking outward, in my opinion, is not the opposite of looking inward; both are the opposite of not looking at all.

Photo credit: Vladimir Menkov.

This is James’ fifth post for Get Behind the Plough.

Travel, Tor House, and Negative Capability

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

During the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have some opportunities to travel, and not surprisingly, the places I’ve visited have begun showing up in my poems. In fact, these days when I sit down to write, I usually begin by flipping through my journals, which are full of notes like this one, made on a recent trip to Indonesia:

To reach the pinnacle of Mt. Bromo, we walk 3 km across “The Sea of Sands,” and then up the slope of the cone. Volcanic sand is blowing everywhere, stinging our eyes; we swallow it. The pattern of blown sand: streams of quickly moving particles being lifted into the air, and underneath, smaller grains rolling along the ground, like soldiers.

Arthur travel 1.JPGBut as much as travel–no, let’s call it what it is: tourism–nourishes my writing, I think I’d bristle if anyone referred to me as a “travel poet.”

I suppose that a tourist is often thought of, unfavorably, as a dilettante who admires unfamiliar places and cultures mainly for their alienness, without trying to understand what it would mean to be a citizen of that unfamiliar place.

And I can understand the criticism. There’s a lack of rigor in the willingness to glide through the world, asking only to be dazzled, and no doubt it’s presumptuous to write about things you don’t really understand… but is it a poet’s job to understand? Doesn’t a poet need unknowingness to find that literary state of grace that Keats called “negative capability”: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”?

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Extreme Isolation

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

Several years ago, I had a brief, obsessive relationship with Winged Migration, a 98-minute documentary about birds, and I went to see it three times in theaters around Seattle.

To my outrage, every time I saw the movie, there were people in the audience who seemed to talk through all 98 minutes: not whisper, or murmur, but talk, at a volume far exceeding that of the ordinary movie-theater hubbub that annoys people like me, but which I guess is part of the experience of watching a movie in a public place. During my second excursion, I cranked around in my seat, stared into the faces of the chatty couple sitting behind me, and said something unforgivably abusive.

It only recently occurred to me that they were talking because the movie doesn’t have any dialogue: talking because they didn’t think they were interrupting anything.

headphones Arthur.jpgI don’t know when I started feeling so oppressed by the absence of silence that I began buying earplugs, but I now get them in packs of twenty, and the window ledge in my study is a graveyard of dirty coffee mugs and the violet-colored earplugs that remind me, every time I see them, that middle age is just around the corner. One of these days, as soon as I can bring myself to cough up the money, I’m going to buy a set of noise-canceling headphones, like the beauties shown here, the Direct Sound EX25 Extreme Isolation Headphones.

This evening, I took out my earplugs and listened. I made an inventory of everything I could hear from my study, added a few sounds that I’d heard on other nights, and, like a god, separated the sounds into two species.

BENIGN SOUNDS: rain, distant traffic, the rumblings and mumblings of the refrigerator, the voice of my wife, birds;

NOISE: motorcycles, dogs, conversations on the street, buskers on Delmar Avenue, the drum circle in the park, any sound whatsoever from the downstairs apartment, and, above all, band practices by the students living across the alley who play Led Zeppelin covers almost every night: definitely noise, even though Led Zeppelin was my favorite band, too, when I was in college.

Comparing my two lists, I can see clearly that most of the sounds in the second category–the noises–are the sounds of other people.

The Direct Sound EX25 Extreme Isolation Headphones retail for $59.95, have a nine-foot cord, weigh slightly more than half a pound, and block 25 decibels of sound. According to the manufacturer’s website, they’re perfect for musicians, students, gun buffs, or anyone who requires silence, but, the manufacturer warns, there are simply no headphones that can block all noise: not for any price, anywhere.

This is James’ third post for Get Behind the Plough.

The Bottom of the Mere

James Blog OK.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

I’d like to think that although poetic styles change, as they should, the themes of poetry are more durable: that poets will keep writing love poems, for example, as long as romantic love exists, and writing elegies as long as there is death, because poetry reflects human experience, and the parameters of human experience are themselves durable.

But lately, I’ve started wondering whether people might someday build a world containing so little wilderness–so little territory beyond the control of human beings–that any poem about a wild place would seem quaint. The Beowulf-poet, in Heaney’s translation, writes:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.

… And I can’t help but feel, despite Heaney’s graceful rendering of the original, that something–a sense of dread, maybe–has washed out of the lines, now that we as a species actually have sounded the bottom of almost every lake and pond. There are very few implacable wildernesses remaining on Earth, so will they disappear from poetry, too? And what if we, like the empire-builders in Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” require the existence of something we cannot dominate?

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The Dead Poets Society

Three for three: James starts today as our final Get Behind the Plough blogger for the Winter 2009-10 issue! What better way to kick back on a Friday afternoon? As always, read. Savor. Leave comments.

James Blog OK.jpg“The Dead Poets Society”
Guest post by James Arthur

I sometimes feel self-conscious when I’m asked to name my favorite poets, because a good number of my idols–the poets whose work I read aloud to myself–are dead, and heavily anthologized: the poets everyone likes. Not all my idols, of course; I’m a contemporary poet, after all. But claiming Auden or Yeats as a hero, I feel a little sheepish, afraid of seeming pretentious or reactionary, afraid of seeming disengaged from the artistic climate of my own time and place. But I’m not talking about now and then. I’m talking about the psychological impact of knowing that a poem’s author is dead.

In some ways, I do experience writing as a team sport: I go to readings, keep up with favorite magazines, buy new books. I learn from my friends, some of whom are certainly better writers than I am. But I don’t have a strong sense of writing as a conversation, as I sometimes hear it called. Even if a poet’s life is social, and mine is, writing a poem strikes me as a very lonely act, not part of a dialogue, but an outcry: an assertion of selfhood and being, against a backdrop of the nothingness waiting for all people.

Reading a dead poet, I feel that I am sharing another person’s solitude, maybe because I know the poet wants nothing from me.

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