on writing nothing



There are so many words I don’t write because I don’t feel qualified to write them. It’s a sentence that would be so easy to delete, but I’m going to let it lie there.

I wanted to write about fashion and I wanted to write about travel, but became so consumed with the question of how that I stopped. The topics are too big, too complicated, too messy. Where to begin? Where to steer the conversation? What form should it take?

I find that current forms of these topics are outdated or insufficient: the style blog, with its carefully curated images and sometimes-secret sponsors; the travel blog, with its self-aggrandizing tone. How many take into consideration questions of race, gender, and privilege when they pen a post? These are unfair generalities, of course, and the short answer is that that’s not what those blogs or websites are about. And that’s okay, because we need both.

We need Beyonce and bell hooks. We need spaces to explore the ecological implications of what we wear and how we move through the world, alongside an appreciation of those wares and wanderings. We need time to figure out what that looks like, but we also need to get something out there.

That’s the fine line of the creative process along which I balance: waiting until I’ve found what it is I want to say and how to say it, but not waiting so long that it becomes procrastination, avoidance, or resistance rooted in fear. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be ready, and we don’t have to be completely “qualified,” whatever that means. It just has to be, because writing nothing says something, so we might as well say something.

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…

View original post 1,699 more words

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/