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

The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.Continue Reading

Guest Editor Conversations: Percival Everett, Fall 2014

I Am Not Sidney PoitierWe’re happy to present the first of a new series–interviews with our guest editors, following the publication of their issues. Below is an introduction by Jessica Treadway, Emerson College professor and author of the forthcoming Lacy Eye (Grand Central, 2015), and a conversation between Editor-in-Chief Ladette Randolph and Percival Everett, guest editor of the Fall 2014 issue.

If you read Percival Everett’s books blind, without any names attached, it would probably take you some time to absorb the fact that a single author was responsible for them all. I knew it was the same author, and it still took me time–his work is that versatile, that eclectic, that impossible (thank goodness) to pin down. It is always exceptionally smart. By turns it can also be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, quiet, rowdy, clever, provocative, and sad. Even in the case of an outlandish premise, it is completely true.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why You Should Plan Experiences

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It’s mid-October, and some of us are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNonWriMo. Some of us are just inspired by the changing seasons, and want to finally try some new thing we keep putting off. Or maybe we just want to actually read one of the books stacked on our nightstands.

Unfortunately, we writers humans have an endearing habit of envisioning grand creative plans, only to throw them out for the sake of some suddenly-urgent busywork. (Or Halloween candy binge). We also tend to distract our imaginations with things we want or need, hoping accumulation will make us happier, healthier, and/or more productive. So I was happy to come across James Hamblin’s “Buy Experiences, Not Things” piece in The Atlantic, which describes psychological studies showing not only “that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions,” but also that “spending money on experiences ‘provide[s] more enduring happiness’” than spending money on material possessions.  Continue Reading

The Evolution of the Style Guide: An Interview with Psycholinguist Steven Pinker

By Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and psychologist whose work focuses on language–how it works and how it breaks down. Drawing upon his nearly forty years of research, as well as his experiences on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, Pinker has developed a new guide to writing good prose called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The Ploughshares Blog recently met up with Steven Pinker in Chicago to talk about art of writing a style guide, his work in the psychology of language, and how the two combined to create The Sense of Style.Continue Reading

Escalating Conflict

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adriaen Brouwer (circa 1605/1606–1638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. For the conflict averse, instilling a story with juicy conflict may take some practice. Someone who has read many drafts of many of my short stories once dubbed me “Anca Did She Forget the Conflict Szilagyi”–a moniker that has become helpful as I work on second and third drafts of stories. As is often the case in learning something, I was aware, theoretically, that I had this problem. But how to proceed?Continue Reading

Welcome to the Literary Jungle

Eudora WeltySeveral times a year I am the recipient of emails or phone calls from friends, colleagues, parents, or complete strangers in search of writing guidance. Often the messages begins, “Hello, my name is Barbra. My daughter wants to be a writer. She’s very talented. Jill Matthews said you might be able to . . .” What follows ranges from, “give some advice” to “edit her trilogy.” These types of messages leave me sighing, not because I don’t enjoy cultivating new voices, but because how those people perceive the writing community and the writing vocation is often vastly different from actuality.

While it would be easy to give advice from my personal experiences, those experiences are just that–personal. Continue Reading

The Power of An Author Who Can Share Her Insides

Prozac Nation Book CoverAt least sixteen years ago, maybe more, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and saw myself.

These days, it’s de rigueur to dismiss Wurtzel as a chaotic, self-involved mess. But back then, after receiving a diagnosis of chronic depression with bipolar tendencies, I ate up Wurtzel’s navel-gazing, book-length confessional. I read about her struggles with depression and, in a time when going to therapy was still a bit taboo to talk about, I began to feel a little bit less alone.Continue Reading

Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.Continue Reading

Writers Do It Best: Robin McCarthy

In the ‘Writers Do It Best’ series, contributors reflect on how their education and experiences as writers have uniquely prepared them for their lives outside the writing world. Today, we hear from Robin McCarthy, an MFA student studying fiction at Northern Michigan University.  You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinMcCarthy28.

headshotI have held a lot of jobs for which I have not been qualified, and the position I was perhaps least prepared for was as a cook aboard a small cruise ship taking middle-aged tourists on vacations in the arctic. When I explained to the ship’s captain in an interview that I had no professional experience as either a chef or a mariner, he shrugged. No problem. The job, he explained, was just a collection of skills, and skills could be learned.

I took the job and was immediately confronted by the depths of all I did not know. There was a catalog of knots and safety protocol, the persnickety temperature-setting of the oven, the art of cramming months of provisions into storage and the timing of a five-part meal for twenty delivered hot in a rolling sea. I was overwhelmed by the volume of tedious minutiae to be learned.

And I messed up. A lot. Continue Reading