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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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Do White Male Editors Only Publish White Male Books?

For most of the nonfiction books I sell, the editors I’m selling to have a lot of objective information on hand to guess at a title’s potential success: the author’s Twitter following, other books on the same subject, other books by the same author, the popularity of magazine articles on the same subject, and so forth. For highly narrative books, however, especially literary memoirs and fiction, editors have to work from much more subjective criteria, and the most important factor becomes whether or not the editors really, really like it. They have to love the characters and feel moved by the conflicts they encounter; they have to find the world the writer’s created both familiar and fresh.

q349dvlIt’s no surprise, then, that writers worry about submitting to agents and editors who might come from different backgrounds than their own. Will other people like the book if they can’t recognize some of the characters from their own lives?

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks is an important essay in Buzzfeed by Daniel José Older, an urban fantasy writer, detailing the problems he and other non-white writers have faced in this area, and urging publishing to fight for greater diversity. Normally, I would summarize the piece I link to in more detail, but in this case it’s worth hearing out Older in his own words: “My friends all have the same stories,” he says, “of whitewashed covers and constant sparring with the many micro and mega-aggressions of the publishing industry.” The gist of his article is that writers of color face a host of problems, big and small, that they shouldn’t have to deal with in 2014.

I could write tens of thousands of words on this subject, but I’d like to stick to the two questions I know the most about. How white is the publishing industry, really? Answer: it’s pretty white. How big a problem is that likely to be when you’re submitting your manuscript? Answer: that depends.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Four Kinds of Editors (and Agents) You’ll Meet In Publishing Heaven

A rule I learned as an editor: when you look at a book’s acknowledgments, the effusiveness of praise for an editor is inversely proportional to the effort he or she put into the book. If a writer goes on and on about her editor, that editor did almost nothing. However, editors who wrote whole sections of the finished book are likely listed there as one name among many.

5cp0d0hI’ve had my name in all kinds of acknowledgments. I’ve had books I barely edited and books I waded into with a machete, a pair of hip boots, and a warning to my wife I might not make it back in one piece. I’ve also had plenty of people tell me I was an old-fashioned editor, since I still edited. That always made me wonder: Was I really alone? Was I the only one who edited?

What’s Gone Down

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was an article for The New Yorker’s website by Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper, arguing that yes, editors do edit:

I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.

Harbough’s article took on a new book of essays called MFA vs NYCwhich I’ve already written about here. For the most part, his piece is a testimonial: he and his colleagues edit. But it’s also an argument against the nonsensical nature of the claim. “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is,” writes Harbough, “the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”

The article takes a useful stab at figuring out where the idea that editors don’t edit came from, and why it persists; Harbough does a great job of showing how publishing really works. But I would take his analysis one step further, and divide editors into four different categories: therapists, writing teachers, producers, and visionaries. (There are also some editors who are just terrible at everything, but they eventually leave publishing.)

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Ditch the Publishing Gods

publishing godsIn mid-March, Time published the first ever in-depth interview with Jonathan “Jony” Ive, the Senior Vice President of Design at Apple. In it, Ive described the experience of working toward an excellent—and aesthetically pleasing—product:

Steve and I spent months and months working on a part of a product that, often, nobody would ever see… We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.

As writers, many of us have felt this way about our written work. Because we believe in what we’re doing, we’re willing to hack away at another draft, risk rejection, stay up all night aching for the one word that really fits—even if no one else will notice. We want our work to be as good as we know it can be. Anything less feels like failure.

But our refusal to accept failure too often stops when our writing stops. We write something amazing, then submit it all over the place. No acceptances? No bites from a press? It dies a slow death in a computer file. It’s like we believe we have power and ownership over the creation of a written work, but not at all over whether it reaches an audience. Submitting is as far as our powers take us: the rest is up to the publishing gods.

Um. #EwIhatethis.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Learning To Write Plot Matters

A few years ago, my cousin was just about to graduate from a small state school with an English degree. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I had never read any of his writing, so I was unbelievably discouraging. Try a job in the real world, I said, before you fill out all those MFA applications. Move to Pittsburgh, and work at a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it. A few months later, my mom told me he had finally gotten into some program, but it was only some small one in the Midwest…. Maybe Idaho?

“Can you find out if it’s Idaho or Iowa?” I asked. “It kinda makes a difference.”

Turns out it was Iowa.

dhulsddI was pretty excited for my cousin, because he’d always have that stamp of approval, and he was going to make good connections. But I didn’t tell my mother (or his) that I didn’t expect him to actually learn everything he needed to learn.

Hanif Kureishi also thinks writing teachers cover all the wrong things. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was a widely circulated article about him in The Guardian, which included the amazing quote: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

In fact, I agreed with Kureishi so much it made me realize something about my slush pile. When I get something in from a writer, seeing he or she has an MFA can sometimes make me dread reading it. 

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: “Die Empty”

make more stuff.If you’re on Twitter, you likely noticed that a new tool took over the twitterverse last week, allowing everyone to identify and re-post their very first tweets. My first? Ahem: I retweeted a friend’s observation that “The writers of the show He-man were frickin’ geniuses”.

I mean, obvs my friend spoke truth. Still, by taking that particular occasion to speak up, I’ll never not have ridden into the Twitterverse on the back of Battle Cat. Dangit.

I’m not the only one laughing at my #firsttweet; collections of “embarrassing first tweets” are making the rounds. (The Independent even noted that Vladamir Putin’s first tweet congratulated Obama on his re-election.) But actually, more than funny, I find my first tweet strangely comforting. It made me realize that, awkward or not, people will only remember our first tweets—or our second, or third—if we never write anything else.

“Don’t Die Full of Your Best Work.”

This is creativity guru Todd Henry‘s appeal in his 2013 work, Die Empty. The book’s a surprisingly upbeat repository of advice for getting epic creative work out of your busy life. (Go read it.) But when beginning, it’s hard not to feel a little pummeled by its foundational idea, summed up in a quote from Henry’s friend:

The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard. In the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships, and all of the other things that people thought, ‘I’ll get around to that tomorrow.’

RIGHT?

No surprise, I couldn’t get Die Empty out of my head this week. I kept thinking, What if all the world would ever know about you is the creative work you’ve completed up to right now? This got unforgivably sentimental, but it reminded me that if my work isn’t what I want it to be, I have to make more. I’m only stuck with what I’ve already done if I don’t make anything else. Writing is the opposite of stasis. 

If you feel your work isn’t what it could be, and/or if you’ve lost all sense of creative urgency, here are three right-now stories to get you writing. These people embody the sense of urgency that overtook me this week; they’re adding to their bodies of work while they still can. They demonstrate that it’s possible to overcome definitions and limitations by making more stuff. You can increase your satisfaction with your output by adding to it. Don’t die full of your best work.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Is It True You Can’t Make Any Money Writing Books?

When I was making the switch last year from being an editor to being an agent, I heard from older agents that I was making a huge mistake. Advances are shrinking, they said. Midlist authors are going without contracts, and everybody is self-publishing. The whole industry is falling apart! One suggested I should find a different line of work altogether. 4eb07epFrom where they sit, with Borders out of business and Netflix sucking up mindshare, I can see how their office starts to look like a handbasket where it’s getting hotter every day.

It’s not just agents who tell me this sort of thing. I’ve been reading for two decades about all the ways publishing is dying. In fact, the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks carries this as its subhead: “The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” The article, in The Guardian, draws this conclusion based on the experiences of two financially struggling British novelists, Joanna Kavenna and Rupert Thomson—and it is possibly the most wrong-headed thing I’ve ever read about book publishing.

What’s Gone Down

The article uses these authors’ declining advances to assert that few writers are making money anymore. I’m sympathetic to both writers. I haven’t read their books, but the reviews make them sound appealing. And I have a car payment mortgage and kids and I could use a new pair of sneakers. Who wouldn’t like to get paid more for their work?

However, the article leaves out the most important detail. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Creativity Is Neither Magic Nor Madness

magician noAt the end of 2009, I was hunched in the passenger seat of a van, weeping down a midwest interstate. We’d just recorded an album with a Grammy-winning producer, paying for it with months of fan-funding hype. And we were touring to promote it, planning to release it ASAP, when seven years of full-time music-ing suddenly clobbered me.

Worst. Timing. Ever.

I remember not being able to look at my partner. “I don’t know what to say,” I told him. “Music is all I’ve ever wanted to to do. But I can’t do this anymore.”

In a way, this is how I wound up here, writing for the Ploughshares blog. Because the thing about depression is that nothing ever rises above the blah surface of the Great Gray Blah of Infinity. If you’re super-lucky, you have people helping you latch on to any spark of interest in whatever, however dim. That December, my one dim spark was poetry.

Um.

So on Christmas day, having googled “pay me to read poetry” (yep), I found a creative writing graduate program. I mailed off an application on a whim, not expecting to get in. I went back to sleeping and watching The Dog Whisperer. (I KNOW.) I was in bed for weeks. I began therapy. I started medication. I slowly got healthy. And I got the call that led me to grad school and a writing career.

creativity killers?Given my history, it’s no surprise that Gila Lyons’ recent article in The Millions—in which she describes her battle with severe anxiety disorder—resonates. Her illness turned her final year of a writing MFA into a blur of emergency room visits. For years she’d put off getting help, fearing medication (the only help she seems to have considered) would rob her of the “hyper-aware, exultant perceptivity” that had made her both prolific and successful. Eventually, she thought she’d have to choose between life and the thing that gave her life meaning: writing.

Unfortunately, this impossible choice feels real to far too many of us in creative professions, who (according to some studies) are more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. I too attributed the success of my songs to the depression that seemed to engender them. But the fear of health reveals a seriously limited—and therefore dangerous—understanding of how mental illness is treated. More broadly, the fear of control feeds the myth that creativity is some kind of Mysterious, Mad Magic.

It’s not. When my depression got so bad that I couldn’t function (let alone write), I couldn’t argue anymore about getting help.
And lo, Cymbalta mocked my fears that a happier Tasha would stop writing: I’ve written far more post-depression than I ever did before.

Regardless of whether you’ve suffered from mental illness, there are things we can all learn from the popular myth that “madness”—or at least some kind of untamable magic—begets creativity. By owning up to our reliance on Magical-Muse thinking, we empower ourselves and each other to make more and better work. And to be healthy while we’re at it. So:

Five Ways to Kick Magical Thinking (and Get To Work)Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Your First Few Pages Mean Everything

Because I love transparency and being generally helpful to writers, or because I am a masochist, I let writers query me by Twitter. It says in my bio that if you can squeeze your pitch into three tweets I’ll respond. I’ll admit I have a few stock responses, but on probably every tenth pitch, I tell them to go ahead and send the manuscript.

8ebt6m9This sounds really generous, but of those that get through I also have a set of subsequent stock responses I give after reading the first three pages. Usually there’s too much exposition, a plot clearly heading nowhere, or a main character making utterly predictable choices.

I have taken on one client from Twitter, though, a fiction writer, and it was because by the end of the third page I knew this would be a great book. It sounds crazy when you think about it: agents and editors want you to write an entire novel before submitting it, but they’ll make their decision based on the first few hundred words.

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks spends a good amount of time on the importance of openings—it’s an interview with the Vice-President of Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz. She covers a lot of really fascinating ground, but perhaps most usefully she talks about the difference between the novels she rushes to sign up and the ones that get tossed in the reject pile.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Waiting on a Job? Grad School? Publisher? Wait Better.

WAITINGOkay Writers. Confession: my last couple months disappeared in helpless Waiting: to hear from an interested publisher, to hear about grant funds, to get word on research, jobs, schools, where the hell I’ll be living in six months… It’s excruciating.

And I’m not alone. Thousands of you are sending out resumes, submitting manuscripts, obsessively checking gradcafe.com, hearing nothing. (Can we just high five each other for a second? Thanks.) We all know intimately that Waiting makes us feel helpless—like everything we care about is defined by someone else’s choice.

This is an EPIC exaggeration of reality, which nevertheless feels accurate. But here’s the thing — when we buy in, we give away what control we do have: our ability to create, to have impact, to invest in ourselves and others, to feel alive during the limbo season. And that’s messed up.

To the rescue: two artists who know what it means to wait and hope. Photographer Michael Wilson’s new photo essay just came out in Burn Magazine, and artist Ann Hamilton was interviewed for the public radio program On Beingwhich aired last week.  Their work is a compassionate kick in the ass, because they both embrace the waiting. They create from within it. We can, too.

Hey Writers: Four Steps to Better Waiting

1. Stand in front of things and hope.

Michael Wilson Photo Essay at BurnMagazine.comPhotographer Michael Wilson is best known for his work in the music industry. He’s photographed artists like Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, Hugh Laurie, Waylon Jennings, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Bill Frisell, David Byrne, Philip Glass… Basically, if you’ve seen a natural light, black and white photo of a great musician, it’s Wilson’s work.

But when his photo essay posted, Wilson’s introduction began this way:

“I’m a photographer.

I stand in front of things and hope.”

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