On Intimacy: Elena Ferrante & Stacey D’Erasmo

neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante’s novels are often dubbed “intimate.” Meghan O’Rourke writes in The Guardian, “As fiction, they are both deeply realist and surprisingly intimate.” The LA Times notes that one novel in particular “is as expansive and broad as it is intimate.” It seems as though people do not want to believe that fiction can be intimate—that is: detailed, personal, private, sacred, something with which readers feel closely acquainted or familiar. It is especially surprising if it is also broad, and that one book can accomplish both apparently astounds reviewers.

Why is this so astounding? What is so intimate about the novels of Elena Ferrante? What is intimacy in literature, anyway? Stacey D’Erasmo asks similar questions in The Art of Intimacy: “What is the nature of intimacy, of what happens in the space between us? And how do we, as writers, catch or reflect it on the page?”

Read the rest of this post on Ploughshareshttp://blog.pshares.org/index.php/on-intimacy-elena-ferrante-stacey-derasmo/

the power of keeping

e.v. de cleyre painting MFA boston

Lately, I have a hard time writing. Not like those horror stories of the world’s worst writer’s block, where you can’t read or sit down to write without a migraine or severe vertigo. More like I don’t know how I want my words to interact with the world, which seems to change so quickly, and also I know that I can’t possibly control how those words will interact or be received.

Instead, I sew. Yesterday I stitched garment tags into the pieces I’ve made these last six months, which felt like a huge accomplishment but also very silly, reminding me of how my mother wrote my name into my clothes before I went to camp one summer (which reminded me how she did not write my name inside my underwear [thankfully, because one day I dropped a pair of dirty underwear in the middle of the cabin, on my way back from the showers, and when everyone saw it before I did, they demanded to know whose underwear it was, and only a fool would have said “mine”]).

Maybe this is what makes up a life, or art: a series of remembrances, seemingly unrelated, seemingly forgotten until drawn up like water from a well.

As I stitched garment tags, I listened to a Have Company podcast. I’m not really that into podcasts. I tend to open up the app on my phone, browse, feel overwhelmed, and sit in silence instead. Yesterday, though, this interview with Molly Schaeffer kept me company (pun!), and I enjoyed her thoughts on creativity (and Marlee’s refreshing candor), particularly the last little bit, where the two discuss Schaeffer’s lack of a personal Instagram.

Marlee asks, “when you make stuff, where do you put it?”

The whole answer is worth listening to, and I won’t relay the conversation that ensued, only note that I admire Schaeffer’s apathy in the face of Instagram, which (arguably) seems to encourage her prolific creations (though most of us may not see the results of it via the internet).

I’m more interested in the question than the answer: “when you make stuff, where do you put it?”

I’m stuck on the idea that what I make (write) needs to go somewhere or be something. If I write an essay (this essay), should I put it on a blog, send it to a literary magazine, or sit on the idea for a year before I finally let it go and pursue another subject?

Instead of writing, and deciding where to send said writing, I sew (and joke that it’s an outlet of creativity that does not involve rejection), but I’m reaching the point where I could probably sell things—not that what I make is that good, but that it is starting to accumulate, to become more than one person could wear.  Or, if not sell, I could post an image on Instagram, connect with quilters and designers, and receive “likes.” But all of that sounds like an awful lot of work, and sometimes I want to create something and just be okay with the fact that I created a thing—feel safe in the knowledge that the act of creation is intrinsically successful, as opposed to the sharing of the act being the part that validates its existence or ensures its success.

“There’s power in the keeping.” Marlee adds.

Sometimes it’s nice to just make something and keep it. Or give it away. A friend of mine who knits exquisite scarves and shawls and sweaters for herself recently gave me one, because she makes so much so quickly she can’t keep it all. She is a designer, but stopped selling things, no longer interested in making art for money (which is another essay altogether).

I wish I didn’t adhere to this commonly accepted assumption that the places we “put” the“stuff” we make need to be sanctioned, endorsed, or validated spaces—literary magazines and journals, galleries, brick-and-mortar or online shops. Sometimes it feels better to give a creation to a friend who will cherish it, someone we know will appreciate it, as if these are our little handmade babies we need to lovingly re-home. Sometimes it’s really hard to give something up to the world. Sometimes it’s difficult to release a work into the wide, wild world, especially via the internet. Sometimes it’s okay to keep it to yourself.

(However, go listen to this episode of the Have Company podcast for reasons why artists and creatives need to share their work with the world: http://have-company.com/podcast/2016/4/30/episode-thirty-nine-in-conversation-with-schaeffer

On Sentimentality: Zoe Heller, Leslie Jamison, Nate Pritts & Mary Ruefle


When we talk about sentimentality in literature, we talk about the “contemporary, pejorative sense of the word,” Zoe Heller writes for the New York Times. A word defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or state of being sentimental especially to excess or in affectation.” A word with synonyms such as gooeyness, lovey-doveyness, mawkishness, saccharinity, and sappiness. A word with which most writers don’t want to be associated. A word often summed up with a quote by Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

In an article for Poets & WritersNate Pritts writes, “Our present situation is such that sentimentality is inherently seen as a weakness.” He adds, “Critics use the term ‘sentimentality’ recursively, to indict writing that presents unwarranted sentiment, passages of unmoored or unjustified feeling.” It isn’t only critics; the characters of Harry Potter use sentimental as an insult almost as much as they cast curses—Snape snidely asks, “feeling sentimental?” and Dumbledore says to forgive his mawkishness.

Leslie Jamison notes that there is a “kind of collective shame that we feel about sentimentality,” a shame that “manifests as an accusation—accusing a film of a piece of art of manipulating our emotions.” Pritts writes that his “primary worry” is “that in this crusade to root out sentimentality, people have begun to eradicate sentiment as well.”

Which brings us to the heart of the issue, a question posed by Pritts: “how to navigate the use of sentiment without falling to sentimentality?”

Read the full post on the Ploughshares blog: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/on-sentimentality-zoe-heller-leslie-jamison-nate-pritts-mary-ruefle-2/

On the Art of Perspective: Christopher Castellani & Maggie Nelson

e.v. de cleyre 35mm dining table setting light room pshares

“I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner.” Christopher Castellani‘s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story begins with that simple phrase, the driving force of storytelling: the author has something they want to convey. Which quickly leads us to the issue of how to convey it. Castellani, a Ploughshares Solo author, doesn’t know how to convey the story of what happened on the way to dinner, “because I haven’t decided who’s telling it.”

There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.”

“Perspective” is defined as a particular attitude or point of view, or an understanding of the relative importance of things—a sense of proportion. Perspective in literature is often boiled down to first, second, or third-person point of view. Castellani widens the lens, broadening the subject to the point of needing to note where the book touches the edges of its scope: “The question of how far outside her own experience an author is ‘allowed’ to write has more to do with politics than with craft; as such, it is outside the scope of this book.” Read the rest of this post on the Ploughshares blog: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/on-the-art-of-perspective-christopher-castellani-maggie-nelson/

Celebrating Creative Nonfiction: The Best of Brevity Magazine


You may already know Brevity Magazine for concise creative nonfiction, craft essays on writing, and its prolific blog. For nearly two decades, the magazine has published work from emerging writers and well-known authors alike, including Roxane Gay and Sherman Alexie.

We asked Brevity’s editors to consider this exceptional body of work and recall the piece that speaks to them the most.

Dinty W. Moore, former zookeeper, is the author of many books and the director of the creative writing degree programs at Ohio University.

Dinty W. Moore, Founder and Editor

Coming up on our 20th year of publishing brief essays, it is an undeniably tough task narrowing down the choices. “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” by Randon Billings Noble is, however, a favorite of mine for both its honesty and its ingenuity.

The essay is about love, or more precisely, infatuation…

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Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words

lahiriOn my fifth day in Italy, I accuse an Italian man of stealing my clothes. His basket, overflowing with clothing, is blocking the dryer into which I placed my clothes, and none of the garments are visible through the glass window. Scusi! I say, and that’s it—the extent of my Italian. I am all out of words and stand there with my hands on my hips, angry and confused and feeling like an idiot. The man speaks in rapid-fire Italian, riffles through his basket. He gestures to the three dryers, as if to say, which one? I point to the one in the middle. He moves his basket, and when I am close enough, I see my clothes there, stuck to the side of the dryer.

Mortified, and not possessing the words to explain, I repeat myself, but in a kinder tone: scusi!

 “The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world.”

To read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) is to be reminded of all that we don’t know, and all that we seek to find.

Read the full review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words on Brevity.

Writing Travel: A Process of Unmooring

e.v. de cleyre train track photograph 35mmSara Majka‘s debut story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, begins with movement: “Maybe ten or eleven years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city. We were both moving often during this time, as if it were the best solution to a shattered life: to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves.”

Why do we travel, and how do we write about why we travel? As if addressing the difficulty, the first line of Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild is: “My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.”

Sara Majka’s beginning is straightforward—a character ten years out from the middle of a divorce recalls taking a train, and in the same breath, recalls the reason for all that movement: “trying to thread together […] something in ourselves.”

Read the rest of this article on the Ploughshares blog: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/writing-travel-a-process-of-unmooring/

Weathering/Writing the Storms


In an episode of Master of None, Dev and Arnold walk home from a mostly uneventful night out at a bar. One remarks how cold it is. The other says it’s supposed to be nicer the next day. Dev acknowledges how cliché and potentially banal the topic at hand is when he asks, “you want to keep talking about the weather?”

The weather is often the subject we revert to when we don’t have anything to talk about, or when we don’t know someone well enough to know what to talk about. Read the rest of the article on Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/weatheringwriting-the-storms/

How to Write Violence


How to talk about violence in literature, when the term violence is so broad? “Violence” is defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something,” but it’s also used to depict the “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” How to talk—or write—about violence at all, both despite and because we seem so inundated by it? Read the rest of the post over at Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/how-to-write-violence/

now that i have your attention


This week, a short essay of mine was published, and at the same moment I posted an announcement on social media, WordPress chose one of my blog posts as an editor’s pick. The first thing, the essay, I knew about, but the editor’s pick was a complete surprise. In the post, I wrote, “the reality of my inbox is crickets,” but yesterday, the reality of my inbox was a freshly hatched nest of baby birds.

When I first launched this blog on WordPress to document my travels in Asia, finding my voice as a writer (a voice I find painful to go back and re-read), I read the editor’s picks and liked the posts and thought to myself, someday. I found new blogs to follow, and those whose posts were chosen and received hundreds of likes seemed to feel compelled to write a follow-up post, a reflection on the humble beginnings of said blog, complete with gratitude, in an arguably deservedly self-congratulatory tone.

For years, I hoped to be chosen. Only when I forgot about it did it materialize, and instead of telling you about how great it feels to receive a wellspring of positivity from strangers around the globe, how grateful I am (and I swear I am), I want to tell you how it hurts.

Like this: my second thought, after some disbelief, was, there’s still work to do. As in: an editing deadline to meet, a book proposal to write, books to read and write. While I guess that line of thinking keeps me humble, it also keeps me from pausing long enough to enjoy the moment—to revel in the fact that I put a piece of writing out into the world that resonated with people. That’s what I wanted, didn’t I?

Like this: it hurts because I wanted it, and I thought that exterior validation through the form of publication was what I needed to prove my self-worth, and now that it’s here, it has arrived, I see my self-worth is far too dependent on the words and actions of others. I thought publication and attention and accolades would validate me as a person, as a writer. I thought it would elevate my self-worth. But instead of reveling in these small and necessary accomplishments, events that are very reaffirming for me as a writer and oft-reluctant blogger, the issues I thought would be solved with publication were only magnified. As I wrote this morning, I cried—sobbed—to the point of gasping for air, blowing my nose so hard it bled.

Despite—or because—of everything, I did not feel seen or heard—at precisely the moment when I thought I would.

I’d be lying if I said this was all about having one post receive a mere blip of attention in the vast span and scope of the internet. (“I am not a special snowflake,” whispered Roxane Gay.) It’s never about one thing. That’s the problem with writing, blogging, with narrative—done poorly, it loses all sense of nuance.

“More often [true moral complexity] is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty. Quoting Barthes, aiming to “live according to nuance,” Nelson adds that “By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like. It can only be an experiment.”

How much of an appetite can a blog have for nuance, how much room for discomfort, for wading? How far off track do I have to get before I tell you: someone very close to me did something that made me feel not seen and not heard—unseen and unheard. Invisible. They did not acknowledge my existence, rendered me a nonentity. The intention was not malicious, there was an apology, and that, combined with the flood of attention to a single blog post, should have been enough to tell me that I am seen, heard.

Nuance is harboring intense gratitude and severe self-loathing at the same time. That knee-jerk reaction, there’s still work to do, is dedication and ambition and the depths of low self-worth, at the root of which is the feeling of not being good enough. (“No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gas lighting,” writes Claire Vaye Watkins in her essay “On Pandering.”)

So here, now that I have your attention, let’s open up that wound. Let’s blow past the surface-level gratitude, the titles and lines on a CV, and let’s explore the question of what it means to be seen and heard in a culture and society where every movement is tracked, every meal, interaction, conversation, and event can be shared widely and immediately. What does it mean to feel seen and heard? What does it mean to feel connected? What does it mean to feel good enough? And what if I defined it for myself, rather than blindly ascribing to societal conditioning? What if (and how) do I divorce my self-worth from the thoughts and opinions of others? If external validation feels empty, how can I make myself feel seen and heard?

“Such a project generally gets a bad rap in our culture: nuance is all well and good for the ivory tower, people say, but in the ‘real’ world, what position are you going to take? Whose side are you on? Where will you land at the end of the day, or at the end of days?” (The Art of Cruelty)

Head still throbbing and nose full of snot, I slipped into the most ridiculous lavender-colored knee-high socks, laced-up my sneakers, and went for a run—for maybe the second time in six months. I ran not through the streets of my neighborhood, not over the sidewalks, but through the abandoned alleys. Footsteps landed on cracks and potholes and clumps of deadwet leaves, on paths that were largely neglected. I did not run on the streets where I could be seen, did not run on the sidewalk where I might be heard, but tread lightly past the empty backyards, asking myself with each taptaptap on broken pavement what it would be like to see and hear only for my self. A mile later, clearer-headed, catching my breath, I passed a winter camellia in bloom—pale salmon petals with a gold stamen. I could tell you that I had a mini-epiphany, walking past the tree and its flowers, but that would be a lie. I did not land on any answers in the alleys, did not land on anything except my own two feet. So maybe that’s it, that’s the point, or the solution, or part of the solution: to land on one’s own two feet.