Roundup: Reading it By Ear

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

We’ve had a few posts lately at our blog about the aural aspects of writing, so we decided to roundup some posts on the connection of silent, physical writing to the act of reading, speaking, and listening.

From Ploughshares:

  • 4808475862_01243f6740We recently posted Amber Kelly-Anderson’s “Writing by Ear,” where she advises you to play with your words, Seuss-like.
  • Thomas Lee asks if you should really try to recreate how people really speak with your dialogue – or if it just sounds fake – in “The Way We Talk.”

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Roundup: April Fools’ Day! The Literary Hoax

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on literary hoaxes.

We promise this post contains no hoaxes. It’s not a joke, like this infamous stunt pulled on April Fools’ Day in 2001 in Copenhagen regarding their new metro system:

Aprilsnar 2001

All fake train wrecks aside, there have been many literary hoaxes over the years (yes, you’ve been fooled, this post contains many hoaxes). Which ones have you fallen for?Continue Reading

Roundup: Women’s Voices

As we launch a new blog format 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 women’s voices in writing.

We are no strangers to women’s voices here at Ploughshares.  Many of our contributors, guest bloggers, staff, and readers are women.  Occasionally our guest bloggers turn their attention to how female voices affect writing, Ploughshares, and the literary world.  Here are some of their posts:

Orthodoxy, Humor, and the Bookstore of Your Dreams: An Interview with Michael Lowenthal

To open any of Michael Lowenthal’s novels is to be struck by the visceral power of his images.  From a woman’s “depthless smile” to a man with a belly like a rucksack, from flags snapping in the wind at a WWI parade to a description of an adolescent boy’s braces to a heartbreaking scene of two women doing each other’s makeup in a mirror-less room, Lowenthal’s descriptions wrest the reader directly into his characters’ struggles and delights.  Even when his books grapple with questions of sexuality and power, there’s nothing didactic or abstract in them.  We experience Lowenthal’s fictional worlds right alongside his characters—and those worlds are quirky and terrifying and sensuous and redeeming, and absolutely recognizable.

Lowenthal has just released his fourth novel, The Paternity Test, from University of Wisconsin Press.

RK:  In The Paternity Test, Pat envisions having a child with Stu in order to create a new sense of family. Yet his growing bond with their surrogate mother threatens his relationship with Stu. As the plot of The Paternity Test emerged, what about it felt most exhilarating or taboo to write?

ML:  What felt exciting for me to write about—a little bit itchy, if you know what I mean—was Pat’s reevaluation of being gay as his primary way of making sense of the world. I pictured him as someone who, like many gay people, had to reorient his entire way of being when he came out of the closet. He felt he had to sign on to a whole program of what it meant to be gay in his particular time and place: a certain set of attitudes about monogamy (or the lack thereof), a certain glorification of being marginalized, etc. And I wanted to write about how someone who has bought into this vision of gayness might eventually . . . well, might have buyer’s remorse. He might come to see that this new orthodoxy can be as bad a fit for him as was the previous version — that maybe orthodoxy itself is the problem. I have Pat say at one point, about his group of rebellious, New York City, sex-with-no-strings-attached peers: “We had all decided upon the same way to be different.” And there’s another line about how “our brand of liberation became a kind of trap.” I’m someone who has benefitted greatly from the gay-liberation movement, and I have fought proudly in some of its battles, so writing these lines—even from the point of view of a character who is separate from me—felt a bit like apostasy, or biting the hand that feeds me.

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Weekly Roundup: Inspiration

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.  This week we’re introducing a new roundup post that explores the archives.  Each Monday we’ll gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week’s theme: inspiration.

Jamie Quatro explored the question of how ideas come to writers in her series of First Draft interviews with fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers.  The answers from the writers she spoke with varied widely.  Some highlights:

  • Timothy Liu explains “I can prepare myself for a poem to come to me, just like a memorable dream, but I can’t force it to happen.”
  • Lia Purpura tells Quatro about stopping in the middle of teaching a class to scribble down a poem as it came to her.
  • Young Jean Lee asks herself “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?”  Then she writes that play.

If reading writers’ ruminations on their process doesn’t inspire you, try Rachel Kadish’s suggestion: panic and musical improvisation.

Speaking of music, James Scott writes about how he uses music to inspire and remember the emotions of a piece in his post “Non-Writing Things That Nevertheless Help Me Write: Music.”

If you need any suggestions for your own writing playlist, David S. MacLean has kindly provided his favorites in his post “Writing Soundtrack: A Step-by-Step Playlist.”

Sometimes the greatest obstacle to our writing is the world’s best procrastination tool: the internet.  Discover why reading on the internet may be eroding our focus in Carol Keeley’s post “The Conceit of Wisdom.”

Follow up with Jamie Quatro’s tips on how to avoid the lure of internet addiction in her post “How Do You Get Past the Sirens?”

Where do your ideas come from?  What techniques do you use to open yourself up to these ideas?  Tell us your thoughts on inspiration in the comments below.

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On Improvisation: a Farewell (For Now) to Blogging

When asked about the experience of improvising Two Thousand Year Old Man with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner famously said, “I always tried for something that would force him to go into a panic—because a brilliant mind in panic is a wonderful thing to see.”

Panic (or, to use less panic-inducing terms: fear, uncertainty, garden-variety doubt) can be the creative artist’s friend. It’s something a writer eventually gets used to…ultimately, it’s something a writer befriends, even learns to harness. Continue Reading

On Quietness: an Interview with Brian Morton

It wasn’t long into my semester in Brian Morton’s graduate fiction workshop at NYU when I realized that the understated manner in which he led the class was misleading. On the page, that same writer who led class so unobtrusively was one of the toughest critics I’d encountered, examining every word of a story and calling me on any false note.

So it wasn’t a surprise to open his novels and find that same unerring attention turned on his quirky, uncertain, yet often unexpectedly larger-than-life characters. The world of Brian Morton’s novels is often studiously unheroic. His characters—some raised on tales of their parents’ generation’s stark political upheavals—tend to live out their own quieter dramas (the questions of love, of choosing to have a child, of choosing to spend one’s energy making art in an often indifferent and destructive world) in a gray-scale moral landscape. Yet for all that these struggles might be conducted in a whisper rather than a roar, they’re no less shattering. In Morton’s novel Starting out in the Evening, a character quotes philosopher Sidney Hook’s notion that “…most of the difficult decisions in life don’t involve right against wrong, but right against right. That’s why life is tragic.” In prose that gently demolishes the small falsehoods and self-justifications people use to preserve their illusions, Morton follows his doubting characters up to the edge of tragedy and sometimes beyond–sometimes so far beyond that they, and we along with them, end up at something like redemption. Continue Reading

On Generosity of Thought—a Writer’s Gifts

Wayne Brown sailing

On the June afternoon when I first joined Lesley’s MFA faculty, during a break between meetings, I carried my coffee to an outdoor table where several other faculty members were sitting and asked if I could join them. Wayne Brown, the Trinidadian writer I’d only just met, looked up. He said to me, solemnly, “When you are old and gray and your grief has become a steady joy, then you may sit with us.”

Then, seeing my hesitation, he laughed and gestured me to sit.

It was the start of a five-year friendship I came to cherish. Blunt, funny, opinionated, unflinchingly honest and disinclined to suffer fools, Wayne was a writer’s writer. That his work isn’t better known in this country has always struck me as absurd—his “Landscape with Heron” should, by rights, be in every undergraduate short story anthology between Anderson and Carver.Continue Reading

The Physics of Fiction, the Music of Philosophy: an Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s astonishments as a philosopher and as a novelist are too numerous to list here. Already launched in her career as a philosophy professor, she reached a moment in her own life when philosophical inquiry no longer felt like a broad enough arena in which to explore the full range of human experience. In response, she began writing fiction—asking, from the perspective of her philosophical training, what seemed “the most ‘unprofessional’ sorts of questions”.

These unprofessional questions have propelled her through six novels and a book of short stories, even as she’s continued producing philosophical texts. Upon granting her a fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation stated that her works “emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.”

Her fiction, though, feels anything but theoretical.

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Reading Devoutly, Writing Devoutly

Although I’m not religious, there are days when I wish I could teleport my writing students back for just a few sessions of my childhood religious-study classes. Surely, those teachers who once schooled me in old-fashioned text learning didn’t think they were training me to be a fiction writer.  But they did exactly that—for which I remain grateful.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a Conservative Jewish day school. My parents weren’t particularly religious, but given my mother’s family background (she was born on the run to Holocaust refugee parents, and much of her family ended up in Israel), she wanted to educate her children to be fluent in Jewish history and culture, and of course in Hebrew. So my brother and sister and I were sent to a school where half of each day was taught in English and focused on secular topics, and the other half was taught in Hebrew and devoted to Jewish study. Continue Reading