Posts Tagged With: literature

Cowboys and Elephants

Today marks the publication of the sixth and final post on Literary Cowboys for Ploughshares . I talk Star Wars, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and much more.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 6: Save a Horse, Write a (Space) Cowboy”

In the coming months I’ll continue to write for Ploughshares on all things lovely and literary.



Also out this week is the summer 2013 issue of Brain, Child featuring my essay, “The Elephant Maker.” It’s available on some news stands and online here.




Categories: Get Smart, Objects de Art, The Little People and Furry Friends, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Guide to Cowboy Poetry

The fifth part in my series on Literary Cowboys is live on Ploughshares today. Mosey on over and give it a look-see.

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 5: Cowboy Poetry”

Categories: Get Smart, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

My Love Affair with The Blind Assassin

Before I fell in love with Margaret Atwood, I fell in love, as readers often do, with one of her books.

Perhaps as an American female writer I should be more enamored with Joyce Carol Oates, but I just can’t help myself. Our (one-sided) romance took root in the autumn of 2000. Newly graduated from college, I meandered into a Santa Monica bookstore in one of those rare moods where I had no purpose other than to wander through the world of literature, seeing what caught my eye. At the front of the store was the display of New Releases. There were other works there, but the cover art of this particular book called to me.

Perhaps it was because the image reminded me of LA Confidential, one of my favorite films. Or it might have been the title–The Blind Assassin. Already so intriguing, particularly juxtaposed with an image that seemed completely disconnected. The book found its way into my hands. Rather than reading the jacket, I flipped to the first page:

The bridge

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

I shut the book and bought it. In that single sentence, she had me. Although I knew Atwood’s name from The Hand Maid’s Tale, I had never read the book and knew almost nothing about her. I bought a non-discounted hardcover book based on three things: the title, the chapter title, and the first sentence.

While the title is intriguing (how does one become a sightless political murderer?), the other two were what harkened to my wallet. Here was a decidedly adult text that used chapter headings instead of numbers. It automatically gave the text, to me, an almost fairytale quality. It reminded me of books I had read as a kid that were completely engaging, so much so that I lost track of hours and weeks because I was captivated by this world. There again was that promise.

The first sentence is, without question, simple. In that is the beauty. We have a simple subject (Laura) and a simple verb (drove). Atwood establishes a rough time period (sometime around a modern war–one might guess World War II at the earliest), a point of view, and a mystery. Notice that Laura’s car did not drive off the bridge. It did not swerve or fall. She “drove” it. That indicates intent. Did Laura drive off of a bridge on purpose? Is the time period, ten days after the conclusion of a war, significant?

The answer to both is yes. The why to both takes roughly 500 beautifully rendered pages to fully grasp.

The Blind Assassin is on that short list I mentioned last week of life changing books. It is as if Atwood took everything I love, shattered it into pieces, and constructed a narrative mosaic that displays flashes of the familiar in ways I could never have imagined. The use of newspaper entries, flashback, nesting, and somehow even science fiction to tell a historical romance should not work. And yet it does. After reading more of her work, the themes and style are decidedly Atwood; I’m rereading Cat’s Eye right now and feel bits of Iris in Elaine, even though they are different characters.

Beyond the beauty of the prose and the stellar storytelling, the novel has sentimental ties. It is one of the last books my grandfather read before his sight was too far gone. Although set in Canada, coming from Michigan, he responded to the time period and sense of place. After reading it he couldn’t wait to sit down at our weekly dinner to discuss it with me. But it was more than just the WWII period that engaged him: I think he felt connected to Iris as he counted down the years of his life. I remember him needing his handkerchief to dab at the tears as he recounted in gasping chuckles one of his favorite sections–Iris reading graffiti in bathroom stalls. He never admitted that he did it himself, but his reaction tells me he did.

One of my grandfather’s habits that I have acquired is signing the front of books. When he finished a book, be it the Bible or Harry Potter, he would initial (or sign) and date the inside cover. It was his mark, his way of remember what he read. For me it has been a way to connect with him after he died. Many of his books came to my keeping. When I  begin them, I can see those letter and numbers telling me when he held the pages. Eventually, I sign my name under his. For all that I love technology, I doubt I can ever completely give up the actual book, if just because it would mean giving up my books as documents of those I’ve known and loved and the books we’ve shared. (It’s a rule, by the way, that if you borrow a book from me, you have to sign and date inside the front cover. Don’t like it? Don’t borrow my books.)

When I teach Atwood in my classroom, I usually do “Happy Endings” because it is in our textbook, although recently we also looked at “Backdropp Addresses Cowboy” as part of post-colonialism. “Happy Endings” concludes with this thought: “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” Atwood addresses our fixations on beginnings and endings without focusing on the meat of the subject. My favorite line from The Blind Assassin mirrors this thought in even more poetic terms:

“The living bird is not its labeled bones.”

As a writer, I try to keep that in mind. The skeleton of the story can be the same as ten thousand others. It is the living bird that we strive to capture with our words if only to show that it not just brittle remains with labels.

Thus, I take no hesitation in naming The Blind Assassin as my favorite book. That copy I bought out of college (that I couldn’t really afford) with my grandfather’s signature is priceless to me, as priceless as the story inside.

Categories: Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Great Gatsby Illusion

When I list books that changed my life, The Great Gatsby tops the list. By the time I read it in high school, I already knew I wanted to be a writer and had since third grade when I tried to write my first novel (it was about horses because my best friend drew crazy good horses). But I remember the exact line in Fitzgerald’s novel when I fell in love with words in a different way:

“The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.”

It’s a simple sentence, yet so much happens: simile and metaphor, color symbolism, and his implied time element (isn’t the story, after all, about what can happen for just a moment?). It’s a glorious piece of writing.

And so it is with great trepidation that I anticipate Baz Luhrmann’s anachronistic adaptation. I admit I have not seen the movie and I am trying to refrain from judging before I do; that being said, I have a feeling they picked the wrong guy to bring this once more to the screen.

A few years ago I was reading an interview with Jack Nicholson where they asked him what role he missed out on that he regretted. His answer was losing out on Jay Gatsby to Robert Redford. Just reading the sentence, I cringed. Nicholson as Gatsby? Granted this was before he became a caricature of himself, back when he was doing Reds and China Town. Still–Nicholson? Then I read his reasoning. He explained that the problem with Redford was that he was Jay Gatsby, but he was not James Gatz. Robert Redford represented the illusion of what Jay Gatsby should be without being the man James Gatz actually was. He saw himself as James Gatz.

I’d never thought about it that way, but for some reason the idea resonated with me. The book is about illusion, deceit, and identity. Based on the previews, Luhrmann has taken the illusion part of the story to eleven. My concern is that as a director he is one who favors style over substance. His movies explode visually in a chaos of color and sound; however, he seems to fear silence and stillness. Flappers swirling on trapezes, a Jay-Z soundtrack, fireworks–this is the illusion of Gatsby. Does Luhrmann have the self-control and temperance to tell the story behind the illusion without making the film about the very things Fitzgerald attempted to critique? I’m not sure.

On one hand I’m excited for the visual escapism of it; on the other, I have a feeling that I should not view the film as a representation of the spirit of the book lest I be disappointed. But isn’t that usually the rule with adaptations?



Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Write on Wednesday: U is for Unfinished

The Casual Vacancy.jpgA few months ago I finally bought a used copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I was excited to finally have in my possession and dove in with abandon. After the first chapter, I put it down for what I thought would be a day; it turned into a week as I read another book. Following the completion of that book, I tried it again. This cycle of read a chapter, read a different book has continued until now, almost five months later, the books remains unfinished. Last night I picked it up and thought about trying to finish it before realizing that I don’t really care. Not about the story or the characters. If I do ever finish it, the reason will be wanting to avoid giving up.

I rarely walk away from books. Out of principle, I trudge through even the worst ones. However, there are a few that I just can’t ever seem to finish. And as a writer, I think there is something to be learned with every reading experience, even if it is just what not to do. I keep them in the back of my mind like badges of failure that I must conquer someday. Here are a few of my unfinished reading projects:

  1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert–Just ugh. I love women’s travel writing, but I cannot finish this. It’s so self-indulgent and borderline Orientalist.
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens–Some Dickens sweeps me in. This one makes me tired.
  3. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon–I actually do not think I am smart enough for this book.
  4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner–Faulkner is usually hit or miss for me. Either I love it or it drives me crazy. This definitely falls in the crazy spectrum.
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert. Apologies, Sci-Fi lovers. I just can’t get into this one.

What about you, dear readers? What books remain unfinished in your world?



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

R is for Rock On (Five Things That Rocked)

Not to make light of the tragedies that have unfolded by understatement, but it’s been a rough week. Sometimes reading, watching, and listening to the news has been frustrating in that I miss the days when there was a filter and we weren’t overwhelmed with unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. It’s the nature of the new raw news age. Many times I found myself reading unrelated articles to pass the time until more solid stories could be read. Here’s some of those time passers that I enjoyed:

  1. I actually stumbled onto this topic by reading a male blogger’s argument as to why The Women’s Fiction Prize is stupid. His thesis was basically women get enough praise; men are the real suffering minority (I wonder if he is familiar with the VIDA report). In the comments someone posted a link to “My So-Called ‘Post Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by Women’s Prize Nominee Deborah Copaken Kogan. Comments in response to that? She’s just whiny. Slow motion lame. Thus I am featuring only Kogan’s article which is an insightful look at the publishing world, slut-shaming, and why sometimes we still need praise.
  2. Anna Lea West is judging you and your grammar. It’s awesome. Check it out.
  3. “15 Things We Always Forget Are Privileges.” Just to keep things in perspective.
  4. My second favorite bookstore in the world (The Strand is still number 1), Austin’s BookPeople, posted this list of Wonderfully Weird Books for Kids. With their delightful and inspiring children’s section, it’s no surprise that the list is filled with wondrous surprises.
  5. The weekly recap of the televised train-wreck that is Celebrity Apprentice. Dalton Ross embraces the ludicrous nature of this venture and makes me feel less nuts for enjoying it.



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

K is for Keep Calm and . . .

Recent years seem to have brought an interest in the iconography of Britain’s World War II motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Created in 1939, it fed into what would become the ideal of British Stoicism; stiff upper lip while putting on the kettle. Sociologically, it’s fascinating to watch how that adage is both embraced and rejected by British society. The Queen, a film about the days following the 1997 death of Princess Diana, deals in many ways with that ideal.

The phrase itself can be found on coffee mugs, t shirts, website titles . . . something about the solid background with it’s crisp all-caps is striking. And now there are tons of derivatives: “Keep Calm and Read Jane Austen,” “Keep Calm and Do Yoga,” “Keep Calm and Play Ultimate Frisbee.” The possibilities are endless.

In my own office, I have a collection given to me by friends, including:

“Keep Calm and Teach On”

“Keep Calm and Read On”

“Keep Calm and Write On”

“Keep Calm and Carry On”

as well as the less literal

“Be Original and Don’t Plagiarize”

“Keep Integrity and Don’t Steal”

“Stay Professional and Be Honest”

“Show Respect and Give Credit”

What is the appeal of these phrases, this specific piece of nostalgic propaganda? Perhaps it is merely the simplicity of it. Two commands linked by the most used coordinating conjunction that tell the viewer, in essence, to keep a cool head and focus on moving forward. Viewed from that perspective, I find it to be a soothing mantra. Don’t wallow, don’t sulk, don’t panic. Use your inner strength to stay focused on the moment and make progress toward the next moment, knowing it will bring you closer to resolution.

Over the next week, instead of freaking out when things go a bit fumble-bumble (perhaps I’m reading too much Dr. Suess these days!), take a breath, steady yourself, and carry on. I’ll do the same.



PS. A special thank you to one of my personal heroes, Jodi Chapman of Soulful Journals, for featuring this blog in her newsletter. If you haven’t checked out this website, please do (and look for a post and a quote from yours truly!). The posts are always so inspiring! I will also admit that I have a pretty healthy addiction to their etsy products at This Is It! Creations. Their notepads and journals are some of my favorite gifts for friends, teachers, and (occasionally) myself.

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Write On Wednesday: The Conjurors of Lies

Originally posted on my old writing blog February 2012.

A few weeks ago I made a wondrous discovery: as a professor I can order books gratis from publishers for ‘consideration.’ The revelation led to the equivalent of an alcoholic blackout where I order a dozen annotated novels, anthologies, and theory books. This morning heralded the arrival of the first of those, a short book called The Twentieth-Novel: An Introduction by R.B. Kershner. Although the Preface is not particularly brilliant, Kershner’s description of fiction (no matter the form) as “an elaborate and sustained falsehood” caught my eye.

I’m sure I’ve heard that description before; there is something vaguely familiar about it. But for some reason I can’t stop tumbling it over in my mind. Falsehood. It’s such a strange word. The connotation veers toward the negative and yet I think of fiction as anything but negative. It actually made me think of Galaxy Quest when they try to explain to the alien race what actors are. The aliens can only connect that actors are liars.

Does that mean that we, as fiction writers, are the creators of lies? Fundamentally, yes. We spin falsehoods and construct worlds that are only real within our minds. However, I think good fiction is something more than that. Fiction, at its best, be it literary or genre driven, contains some grain of human truth.

My students can tell you that I have a slight obsession with archetypes. There is something endlessly fascinating about the way humanity constructs these traditions and reinterprets them. Perhaps my fascination stems from the truth that resides in archetypes–we create and nourish them because we on a basic level need these elements in our lives. We need heroes and villains, tricksters and shadows, gardens and forests. Their meanings takes us into a deeper understanding of ourselves, a truth that lies within us.

In my British Lit class right now we are discussing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella has been reinterpreted relentlessly. Certainly the plot is interesting, but I think it is more than that which draws us to it. Stevenson, in his sustained falsehood, is questioning the truth of human nature, duality, good and evil, and redemption. While we may not take potions and push the boundaries of science, do we not all question the light dark that exists within us? It is that appeal to the truth of our nature that sustains our fascination with this story. That Stevenson captured such complexity in such a concise manner is one of the miracles of writing and talent.

One of the quotes that I keep with me in the forefront of my brain is from Atwood’s The Blind Assassin:

“You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones.”

The last line is the one that I cannot forget. It haunts me and reminds me why I do what I do.

The living bird is not its labeled bones.

We are not all definitions or classifications. We are blood and flesh and hope and pain. Fiction then is not just a sustained lie, it is the art of giving flesh to bones, flight to dreams. As writers, we may be the conjurors of lies, but sometimes we have the gift of seeing truth, of speaking the truth when politics and society cannot or will not.

I don’t know about you, fellow writers, but I enjoy having my pants on fire.



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Things that Rocked March 17-23

1. This post by Rebecca Makkai on what not to ask writers at readings. Considering that I am attending an evening with the center of my writing universe, Margaret Atwood, in roughly two months, I love the tips. Truth be told though, I’m probably just going to wig out like a first American trip Beatles fan, clawing my face and sobbing. (Writers: The Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest ends April 2. Enter now!)

2. My cat may have her own following where she misinterprets Edith Wharton and tells our Border Collie she’s the next chapter of death. Read about her here.

3. This Tweet from my Ploughshares buddy, A.J. Kandathil. If you haven’t checked out her posts on television connected with writing, you kinda suck. Go do it now, then follow her blog. It makes kittens do that cute kneading thing.


3. Blogger Brittany Gibbons is wearing a bikini on the internet. It’s fantastic. Go see why.

4. Amanda Fall. Do I need to say more than that? Her interview, Part 1 and Part 2, gave a little peek behind the creative wonder of her world, in particular Sprout. She’s a big deal. The end.



Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Write On Wednesday: Creative Reading

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” –Samuel Johnson

As my students can attest, I am riddled with pet peeves when it comes to writing: the use of second person in academic essays, repetition of initial sentence words, repetition of verbs, repetition of pretty much anything (although there are certainly exceptions), cliches, comparing vampires to statues, overuse of adverbs, overly dramatic tags, overuse of names in dialogue, any description of passion that mentions fire or burning, naming a main character Jack . . . the list goes on and on. For creative writers, those mentioned above are the more nit picky, forgivable things that I will grumble to myself about, mark, and move on. However, I have two main pet peeves, not so much with writing but with writers:

  1. Writers who cannot/will not/do not take criticism.
  2. Writers who cannot/will not/do not read.

To me, these are almost unforgivable curses. If a writer cannot do these two simple things, they should not write. Or they should not make other people read what they write. Or maybe they should not make me read what they write. I would like to address taking criticism, which is a skill in and of itself, in another post. So I proceed with the second bit of peevish behavior: writers who do not read.

Before I get into the practical and craft building necessity of reading, I will share a story. Several years ago I joined an online writing forum. It wasn’t particularly great, but it allowed a place for writers to brainstorm together and find critique partners. (I’m always a fan of actively working on craft.) One day, a participant referred someone, who I shall call Pedestal, to a book that might help with the piece she was writing. Pedestal replied: “I don’t like to read that much because I feel it corrupts my style.”

This was one of those times I am glad I was behind a computer screen instead of in a face to face environment (my facial features betray everything, an unfortunate impediment that has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion), because “What kind of arrogant, ignorant buffoon are you?” was probably written on every bit of my face.

It’s like those actors who in interviews (cough *Harrison Ford* cough) say that they don’t go to the movies, like they have such great lives that they don’t have to stoop to mass entertainment like the rest of us, even though that’s what they do for a living. Enjoy your ranch, Harrison. Glad we peasants were not held to your high standards and saw Indiana Jones, even the terrible one(s).

I feel the same way about writers who don’t read–how can you be a part of a community if a.) you only give your own work without appreciating others, and b.) you don’t know anything about what’s come before and what’s happening now in that community? It is downright baffling to me.

Back to Pedestal’s comment on style: certainly there is a possibility of stylistic influence, particularly when reading someone with distinct style. I went through a four month period in college when I was reading Bret Easton Ellis like there was going to be book burning at the end of the semester, and there is no doubt whom I was reading when reviewing my writing from that period. Do I still write like Ellis? No. I moved on to another author, kept writing, and continued to develop my own voice. Are those stylistic elements still present in my writing? Some bits, I’m sure. Less than Zero uses modular design in an interesting way that I play with sometimes. But Ellis was certainly not the first to do character point of view shifts from chapter to chapter. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying does the same thing. I don’t believe it to be presumptive to consider that Ellis read Faulkner at some point. Part of progress and creation as an artist, at least in my mind, is understanding what has come before, even if it isn’t your taste and/or genre, and then asking, “What can I do with this?”

My point then is this: writers must read to understand and appreciate good writing, as well as recognize bad writing. They must read to understand the fundamentals of narrative, grammar, and style so that they may then create in a more effective way. Writers must read so that they may begin to review their own work.

What to read? Read things in the genre you write (if you are in fact a genre writer). Read classics, especially if they aren’t in the genre you normally write/read. Read short stories. Read fiction, Read non-fiction. If you still have no idea where to start, look at the Reading List page. Many of those are available for free online or at the library.Or, go back to your favorite book that you haven’t read in awhile. Reread it and jot down what it is you love about it. I’m doing that at the moment with Blind Assassin.

Personal writing aside, I also suggest keeping a Reader’s Journal. There are fancy versions available, but those aren’t necessary. Use a plain journal, blog, or even just a Word document to write a critique every time you finish any book. Write about your thoughts on the book–what worked? What didn’t? How successful were things like style, pacing, plot, characters, dialogue, setting, description? Is there any technique or idea that you might want to explore in your own writing? Are there any quotes or scenes that you really loved or hated? Note those pages numbers for future use.

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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