Critical Essays Archive

“If I Can Bear the Nights, the Days Are a Pleasure”: On Not Writing

I’m a slow writer and I accepted that a long time ago. But earlier this year, I noticed I was becoming slower and slower, writing a sentence a day, even a sentence a week at times. I was experiencing a period of drought.

Urgency: On Writing About the Body and the Corporeality of the Lyric

A few years ago, I spent a good hour on a medical table, swaddled in a pale blue paper sheet, supine in the shadow of a plastic surgeon who had had to numb my face with three full syringes of lidocaine.

Writer & Artist: What We Can Learn from Writers Who are Both

In many ways, visual art gave birth to literature. The first stories written down were cave paintings. For years our alphabet was made up of pictographs which simply meant that the only people who could tell stories were those who could draw.

An Angel Choir, Titans of Industry, and a Writers’ Festival: Western New York’s Chautauqua Institution

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When I arrive in early June to teach at the Writer’s Festival, the Chautauqua Institution is a ghost town. The lake laps against the shoreline and the proliferation of white wicker chairs on the historic Athenaeum hotel veranda are mostly empty.

What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists About Patterns & Meaning

Patterns are everywhere and we rely on them to understand ourselves and the world. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists attempt to unlock the mysteries of our existence by searching for patterns. Behavioral scientists, psychologists, psychobiologists, criminologists, sociologist and cognitive scientists seek insight into human nature by studying patterns.

The Cost of the Academic Job: A Personal Narrative

A few years ago, a small university invited me on an MLA interview for a tenure-track assistant professor position teaching publishing and creative writing. The hiring committee assumed I would be attending the conference and so told me when and where to be.

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries VII, VIII, and IX

In these three queries, Jefferson attempts to distill the complex meteorological, demographic, and military features of Virginia into a series of data points. His prose—supplemented by graphical tables tracking everything from rainfall to carriage wheels—draws a fine grid over the natural and human activities of the Commonwealth.

Time and Opening Chapters: Gaining Trust

Lately I’ve been thinking about time in novels. How to manipulate it, whether it should be linear or nonlinear, and what that choice means for a story. I began to examine it more closely after a recent weekend novel workshop I took with Lauren Grodstein.

Exaggeration & Distortion: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists

The purpose of art is not to depict reality—it is to transform reality into something more interesting and meaningful. And the only way to do this is to distort, exaggerate, or in some way embellish what is there. Supernormal stimuli excites us more than reality does. Birds, mammals, fish,

Wildlife as Metaphor: A Roundup of Roadkill Poetry

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I’m repeatedly drawn to certain forms and subgenres of poetry, like villanelles, sestinas, and poems about roadkill. Yes, roadkill poems actually seem to be a subgenre—try googling it. Categories appear: “Short Roadkill Poems,” “Famous Roadkill Poems,” “Long Roadkill Poems.” Examples pop up, including amateur efforts that rhyme kitty with