Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

Plate_depicting_emotions_of_grief_from_Charles_Darwin's_book_The_Expression_of_the_Emotions

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

Round-Down: Is Evaluating Great Literature A Democratic or Elitist Prospect?

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With many year-end best of 2014 book lists pouring out on the tail end of the National Book Award announcements last month, as well as with prize nominations opening up this month for the Pulitzers, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about literary merit prizes and how they influence the public’s opinion on what’s worth purchasing.

Let’s consider the literary awards’ selection processes, which in many ways parallel how awards are given in the film industry. (Though literary awards are given with ever so slightly less pomp and circumstance. Not many people tune in to comment on what Louise Gluck wore last month, for example. And thank goodness for that.)

For the National Book Award, the Foundation selects five judges for each category: non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and young people’s fiction. These judges are usually writers of some sort of acclaim, though as of 2013, the Foundation opened up the judgeship to include other prominent members of the literary community, such as critics, booksellers, and librarians. Unlike the Pulitzer, writers cannot submit work on their own; instead, recommendations are made, for a fee, by publishing houses every spring.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

What Is It About the Literature of War?

511S2LUdJoLUp until that short story workshop I took my junior year of college, my TBR pile was made up of a bizarre mix of Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Bryson. Then my professor passed around photocopied packets containing stories by Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and Tim O’Brien, and I realized there was more to life than homicidal clowns and humor writing.

The Things They Carried,” a staple in college classrooms across the country, started me in on a love affair with O’Brien’s work. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that appealed to me. I had never before been interested in historical fiction in any form. Rather, it was the beauty and artistry with which he strung his words together. That coupled with his quiet, quirky sense of humor.

Heck, I enjoyed July, July (a novel set at a high school reunion, having absolutely nothing to do with war) almost as much as I enjoyed Going After Cacciato.

But then his books became a gateway to other war literature. Catch-22. All Quiet on the Western Front. The Thin Red Line.

I ate them all up.

But what was it about these books?Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-down: The Problem with Literary Doomsday Laments

the end of literatureWe who love literature face an urgent crisis: a gruesome epidemic of articles worrying over the demise of literature, reading, English Departments, and apparently (along with them) culture, art, morality, humanity, and ALL KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION. We’re in dire need of an antidote for this doom-prophesying fever, these impassioned warnings aboutphilistinism.” (A word that, btw, needs to please hit a wall and slide down.)

Like other doomsday prophecies, tales of literary demise are long on fear and short on fact. And although based on verifiable observations (decreasing readerships and book sales, closing bookstores, squeezed English departments), they’re so focused on Certain Doom that they can’t acknowledge the many places in which literature is thriving and/or receiving a new infusion of public interest.

The last few weeks have offered up their own versions of doomspeak (and questionable solutions), including David Mascriota’s writeup for The Daily Beast – in which he argues that English departments must be salvaged because they’re the only places anyone reads anymore. (And apparently there are zero alternatives.) So basically, we have to make people read books in college English courses or we’re doomed to devolve into an uncivilized, unread mass of (un)humans.

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Unfortunately, this mammoth dearth of imagination is par for the Doomspeak course. Preachers of Lit Demise often assume that, because literature is disappearing from the places and situations they’ve learned to look for it, it’s disappearing entirely.
More egregiously, they often first exalt literature to a place of Powerful Human Significance, then claim it can survive only via a few fora: bookstores, classrooms, book clubs. It’s all weirdly small-minded . . . and vastly uncreative.

And it’s making me crazy. So Lovers of All Things Lit: It’s time we face up to our own raging blind spots, and to the ways in which we’re contributing to the very crises we fear. Literature will live, but/and we’ll have to come to terms with the wildly diverse reasons people are seeking it out. And we’ll have to let people love it for whatever qualities they see in its big fat fabulous literary face.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Embracing Hard Truths About Writing

Crazy WorldOkay writers. My last Round-Down was about the impact of self esteem on our creativity. Several readers asked for a followup about how to cultivate said esteem, and for a half-second I was so on it. But I can’t deny that the news around the world has been horrifying the last few weeks, and that trying to believe in one’s writerly value in the midst of it may feel like a fool’s errand.

So my first idea was to remind everyone that art and literature matter precisely in tumultuous moments! That creative works speak truth to power! That they convict and persuade! increase empathy and human connection! relieve and heal! But we know this. It’s probably why we became writers.

So. The more relevant reminder? Maintaining a sense of self-value–apart from what we create–is part of the WORK of being an artist. If it feels difficult as hell, you’re likely on the right track.

but what if i don't matterThe fear that our writing won’t “matter” (whatever that means) will always lead either to complete inactivity, or to a delusional inflation of the value of our work. It can also lead to Total Identity Meltdown: We don’t just question whether our work matters, but whether we can possibly matter if we’re not writing earth shattering material.

You guys, this is messed up. So for the love, I think it’d do us some good to revisit some hard truths about writing and creativity.Continue Reading

Voice and Chorus: Cristina Henriquez and “The Book of Unknown Americans”

jpegI saw Cristina Henriquez read just a few weeks ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where my poet buddy, Sally Wen Mao, took me after a long day in the city. Generally, I’m horrible at readings.  I’m the guy seated in the front row, probably running on three hours of sleep or less, glassy eyed (behind actual glasses), with no indication as to whether I’m staring through you in idle boredom or at you in profound thought. But when my friend, Sally, invited me to see Henriquez, I knew I had to go. Sally is mostly in-the-know about all things literary in NYC in addition to having impeccable taste in books. So, I went. It was incredible. Oh, yeah—and it completely changed the way I read Latina/o literature.Continue Reading

Huizache: The Biggest Little Secret in Texas

huizache3D_1As far as literary journal subscriptions go, I only maintain three. I’m one of those writers, and for my sins I mostly miss the great early pieces of writers I come to love years later. This is especially true of new Latina/o writers, who I think most people miss for various reasons, not least of which is the serious lack of hard-hitting journals that focus on new Latina/o work.

That’s not to say there are none though. Huizache, which is probably one of my favorite journals right now, has quietly carved out a space for Latina/o letters both old and new. Over the past three years, they’ve published work by Sandra Cisneros, Domingo Martinez, Héctor Tobar, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, almost without a blip on the literary radar.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Louie Is Like Great Literature

Tasha Golden is on vacation from the blog this week, so covering for her on the Round-Down today is the writer Gila Lyons. Gila’s work has appeared in Salon, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The NY Press, The Faster Times, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she writes and teaches writing. —Andrew Ladd, blog editor

By Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Ewer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Ewer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Critics and journalists love to proclaim Louis C.K. the best comedian alive. They have much to say about his sharp wisdom and existential dilemmas—but few have discussed the relevance of his work to writers. Yet the fourth season of Louie, which began last month, has much in common with today’s great writing.

At times Louie is like a Lydia Davis collection, full of odd-shaped stories of varying sizes—some full-length episodes, some tiny three-minute segments. At other times it’s like the punchy vulgar version of Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, whose stand-alone narrative chapters are punctuated with poetic “weather reports,” as Louis’s plot-driven episodes are book-ended with stand-up bits. The material of some episodes are mundane like Evan Connell’s glimpses-of-life novel, Mrs. Bridge—Louis lying in bed eating ice cream watching the news, Louis picking up his daughters from school; some are surrealistic and Kafka-esque—Louis, riding the bus alone on New Year’s Eve, comes face to face with the woman he’s been missing, and as they begin their smiley hellos blood pours from her nose and she dies. Louie is in turns microfiction, magic realism, Avant-garde, lyric essay, short story, and poem. He is Aimee Bender, John D’Agata, Raymond Carver, Samuel Beckett, Lorrie Moore.

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Walking the Bridge: American Letters From Latin America

photo_5496_20080405When asked whether he saw himself as a Peruvian writer or an American writer in the New York Times last year, following the publication of his newest novel  At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón replied, “Why should I have to choose?” I remember reading that passage in the second paragraph, rereading it, and then rereading it again for a third time out loud.

The electricity of it. The audacity of such a simple question, really, that struck so fiercely at the core question of the American literary schematic: where do you come from? Alarcón’s response, for many Latin American writers—and particularly those like myself who shift frequently between countries and write predominately in English—was the question we have been wanting to ask all along: Why does it matter? Why should I have to choose?

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