Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender. Read more about how Mohsin Hamid, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson utilize second person-pronouns: Ploughshares online.
Why Bother with Craft?
“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.
Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story. Read more on the Ploughshares blog.
Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’
The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written. Read more on the Ploughshares blog.
Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:
The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?
It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. Read more on the Plougshares blog.
Language plays a crucial role throughout Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, but nowhere is it more decisive than in the author’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written against the backdrop of the Biafran War, two wealthy sisters return from England to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths: Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, in response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions, and a largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra—officially the Republic of Biafra. Characters are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language can get you killed.
Throughout the novel, Adichie is careful to note when someone speaks in English, Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. Why take the time to write what languages are spoken and when? Read more on the Ploughshares blog.
Exterior details lend themselves to the interior landscape of a character or narrator. What one chooses to notice, how one describes an object, says more about the speaker than it does about that thing. A character who spends a whole paragraph noticing someone’s unwashed, unkempt hair tells the reader that hygiene is an obsession. The distant relative who’s quick to point out the stain on a shirt might be hasty to reveal the flaws of others. Daily Details Made Monumental, on the Ploughshares blog, discusses how Joan Didion utilizes detail in her nonfiction.
I nearly closed the issue when I read the first line of the editor’s letter: “One morning Gore Vidal and I drank scotch in his bedroom in the Hollywood Hills.” That’s the type of name-dropping, scotch-drinking, rock-and-roll male bravado from which I shy away, and yet I kept reading. That’s the thing with name dropping: it’s repulsive yet enticing; it tells me this person knows people worth knowing, and I read on to find out how they know the knowing knowers. Editor Dan Stone then extols musician Aimee Mann’s reading habits, specifically how she lets “sound and sense wash over her, rather than engaging with a text from the critical and intellectual distance that directs the reading experience of so many ‘literary’ people.”
Literary in quotation marks? What kind of a lit mag is this? Head over to the Review Review to find out.
I’m honored to be contributing to the Ploughshares blog each month. Check out my first post here.
Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling? Read more at blog.pshares.org.
I mark a flurry of years in holidays. Last year, I was in Maryland with my father’s family, on the outside of a motley crew of friends and neighbors that gather there every year to reconnect. The year before must have been New Hampshire, with my mother’s new companion, or my father’s house in the woods. Year before that, I don’t recall. Wait. I recall. How convenient of me to forget that three years ago I flew to Edinburgh to see a man I liked and soon after left. Four years ago I sat at a long table in Tibet, with four more Americans and fifteen others from a buffet of nations; we each brought a dish to share, dropped sentences of gratitude into a hat, mixed them up, and plucked them out; one by one we vocalized our thanks through other people. Five years ago I waited tables at an Inn in Maine with the promise of time and a half, a promise that was renounced that morning before opening; that night the servers got high and I baked a sweet potato pie with the only measuring cup available, one-third, guesstimating the ingredients, and swearing it was the best dish on earth. Six years ago I ate at an Irish-American pub in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a full plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a side of apple pie, dishes I didn’t know I’d craved for two months. Seven years ago I was in Maryland, my hair cropped close to my head, having shaved it on my way to India three months prior; I hadn’t seen my family since my hair was down past my chest. Eight years ago I flew from my college in California to the place I still considered home, New Hampshire. Nine years ago I was a senior in high school, discovering The Rule of the Bone, The Catcher in the Rye, and Everything is Illuminated; novels that made one feel less alone.
Holidays are momentous because we render them so; the intention is there to turn an ordinary date into something to remember. This is why they become easy for me to mark: one year here another there, places–states and nations–acting like place settings in the dining room. Though I am not very enthusiastic about holidays, disgusted by the excess consumption and the history of colonization, my heart melts faster than vanilla ice cream on hot apple pie each Thanksgiving.
The Macy’s parade, an ostentatious procession, makes me teary-eyed; I remember my elbows bristled by the carpet of my grandmother’s house, where I sat glued to the television, relishing the bulbous floats, basking in the simplicity of life, too young to cook or clean. We awoke early and drove two hours south to Massachusetts, just so we could watch the parade, just so we could see Santa’s first appearance. At least, that’s how it seemed to me, though I’m sure there were more nuanced and practical reasons why my family orchestrated the beginnings of the day before dawn: turkeys to roast, pies to bake, potatoes to mash.
This is the first year I’ll spend Thanksgiving with my husband, in Oregon, a place far-removed from our own families, a place that suits us well for now. Snow fell on our hometown and the power went out, so our parents make do with wood stoves, generators, and barbecues, telling us all about it by phone. Oregon is rainy, fifty degrees, and I can’t complain. There is a roast in the oven, a pumpkin pie cooling by the kitchen window, and a pan of seasoned vegetables awaiting their turn on the stove; none of which I can take even a shred of credit for preparing.
There is much for which to be thankful.
Nowhere is now in its fifth year as an online “journal of literary travel writing,” a genre defined by the magazine as “narrative with a strong sense of place, character or time.” Porter Fox, himself a travel journalist for two decades, is the founder and editor, and created the magazine because he wanted something “more engaging, authentic, and diverse.” The website is specific about not publishing “reviews of spas or shopping centers” (yet conveniently never mentions the advertisements). You won’t find the ten best bars in Cabo here, but you will find travel writing that takes you places—or rather, contemplates place.
Read more on The Review Review, an all-around awesome website: