The Art of Procrastination

Image: Wendy MacNaughton for The New York Times

I don’t know about you, but it seems like the amount of time I spend procrastinating increases as my workload increases. Before I can force myself to focus, I have to clean my apartment, re-alphabetize my bookshelf, eat a snack, brush my teeth, text everyone in my contact list, drag a shoelace around the apartment for my cat to chase, and check all my favorite websites and blogs. There are so many wonderful, fascinating gems out there in the great wide world web! Here are a few of my current favorites.

1. Awful Library Books

Image: awfullibrarybooks.net

Two Michigan public librarians bring us the best of the worst in current library book holdings. Take, for example, this treasure, which examines how junk food can “convert a normal brain into a criminal mind.”

2. Haiku For The Single Girl

Image: This Isn’t Happiness

You, too, can write haiku!

3. Ommwriter

Introducing OmmWriter Dāna from hs&co on Vimeo.

 

And, last but not least, here’s a tool that *might* help you stay focused. Let me know if it works for you…

Poems, Stories, Storming In

I’ve been doing some solitary brainstorming about brainstorming. Let me explain. I’ve been storming, mainly on my own, in my head, trying to wrangle up all the amazing ideas that I witnessed develop as a result of collaborative problem-solving. And I’m screeching to a thundering halt. This attempted recall began after I read Jonah Lehrer’s article “Groupthink” in The New Yorker this week. He recounts how, in the 1940s, ad man Alex Osborn’s revolutionary strategy of “brainstorming” erupted on the corporate scene, positioning Osborn as “influential business guru.” Osborn advocated for many minds working in rapid fire to generate ideas, and proposed that many more ideas in commando-fashion attacking a problem would create the most innovative solutions. Since then, brainstorming has been applied in numerous situations—corporate strategy, product development, academic research, and as a pedagogical tool, to name a few. As a result of Osborn and the pervasiveness of his method, I’m sure we’ve all brainstormed at one time or another.

One way brainstorming intersects with the literary is in the realm of a writing workshop. Yes, my brain storms all the time, on its own, night and day. Sometimes I wish it would calm down a bit and just bask in some sunshine, and other times when I want some good old fashioned thunder, I’ve got nothing. But it’s in group workshop that brainstorming, collective problem-solving, actually becomes problematic. Critiques of the workshop call it “groupwrite,” the phenomenon in which a bunch of writers get together to “fix” a poem or to “solve” a problem it’s having. Writers not in a traditional workshops often long for someone to tell them what to do, to help them mend their not-quite-right poems (or stories). However the problem with this approach is that it assumes too much—that the group knows the poem’s intent, that there is only one way the poem can work, and the group will come to that creative solution. This is not to say there aren’t amazing groups of writers and great workshops, or to say I don’t have amazing readers myself, of my own work. But jointly, brainstorming mentality has the ability to strip the poet of his agency. When groupwrite happens and the writer turns to the group to mend his piece, what results, I find, is a faltering of voice, an evening of texture, and distillation of originality. Further,one main requirement of brainstorming is to eschew negative feedback and criticism. Yet for great ideas to be developed, in my mind, discernment is crucial. In workshop we talk about issues with the writing, but not issues with the proposed revisions. Not all solutions are equally plausible or helpful.

And sure enough, Leher writes that when Osborn’s technique was tested, “‘brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool ideas.’” Which is when it hit me. This is what a literary magazine is! Here at IR we don’t sit down together and write a whole issue conjointly, rather writers work on their own–near, far, all over the globe, storming away to come up with rich and glorious and weird and terrifying stories and poems. And they send them to us, offer them up to the group. Who is discerning and takes those literary ideas, and pools the best of them into a carefully crafted collection. Groupwrite? No. A group of amazing writers. And the result? Lightning bolts galore.

Jonah Lerner “Groupthink.” The New Yorker, January 30 2012

Young Writers and Workshops

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey Adams, one of IR’s wonderful interns, for south central Indiana’s NPR station, WFIU. Kelsey is an undergraduate fiction writer in her senior year at Indiana University, and she makes for an eloquent and thoughtful interview subject. (Stay tuned for a couple of follow-up talks with her in the future!)

“Here at IU is where I really began to feel as if I was a writer,” Kelsey says, and–though this didn’t make its way in to the final interview–she told me with humility and wisdom that she sees herself writing in the tradition of Lorrie Moore. What a gift, I thought, to find your writerly identity as an undergrad! A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that would always stay with me, a conversation about the importance of heroes. I think one of the great benefits of creative writing programs is that they expose young writers to older ones, allowing them to find their literary heroes. Creative writing workshops let us see our own writing as literature, just as we learn to read literature as if it were workshop writing. Only when we’re then able to locate our work in the vast landscape of literature that’s already out there, workshop wisdom tells us, can we take ourselves seriously as writers. (And only then, paradoxically, after we begin to take ourselves seriously, can we actually become ‘serious’ writers.)

They also teach us some serious rules. As anyone who’s been in a creative writing workshop knows, there are a handful of sayings that come up a lot: “Show, don’t tell!” “The ending has to be earned!” “Let your characters make their own choices!” The list goes on–and gets more and more specific. Of the story from which she reads excerpts in this interview, Kelsey says, “This one started [with my reacting to how] they always tell you, ‘Never write a cancer story.’ …I did it anyway.” Another thing you learn in a creative writing workshop is when to break workshop commandments. The premise of Kelsey’s “cancer story”? A woman discovers her cancer has been cured, but realizes she wishes it hadn’t been, wishes she were still sick.

On the excellent Web site Open Culture, there is a recent post recounting advice about writing from great writers: Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and that poster boy for grammatical correctness, William Safire. A couple of these pieces of advice stick out as particularly hypocritical–and particularly wise. Neil Gaiman advises:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And George Orwell says,

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Inside IR: Meet the Editors

As you might imagine, Indiana Review‘s poetry editor is a busy, busy woman, but Cate Lycurgus takes a moment to speak in exclamation points and spread a little literary love.

Where are you from?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and did my undergraduate degree there. I miss the sun and the ocean and the tart frozen yogurt!

Favorite issue of IR?

33.2 because it’s here! And because it was the first issue that I really remember fighting for poems. There were pieces I felt strongly about, and wanted to see them published.

Fave non-IR journals?

Too many to count! I love Crazyhorse and Pleiades and Hayden’s Ferry. I also can’t get enough of Poetry, and I look forward to it every month. Especially the “Q and A” issue in December. Hearing writers answer questions about craft and about particular poems is such a treat, and I learn more from them than many literature classes and lectures.

What/who is on your reading wishlist right now?

When they come out this spring, Todd Boss’ Pitch and Mike McGriff’s Sequence of the Night. I want to read Kimberly Johnson’s A Metaphorical God, and Juliana Spahr’s Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You. I always want to return to Rilke, to his Duino Elegies. For fiction, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harback, then so much non-fiction: Reza Aslan’s Beyond Fundamentalism, Melissa Coleman’s This Life is in Your Hands, Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life–I want to read that to my dad.

What do you hope to see next for IR?

Previews of poems that will appear in our next issue online and maybe some new online content. While holding a journal comes first in my heart, I appreciate a tasteful website that has inspiring work so I can get a flavor of it through browsing. I want people to see what a stunning journal IR is and to subscribe!

Inside IR: Meet the Editors

This week, IR’s prized and plucky Fiction Editor Rachel Lyon, shares some of her favorite journals with unique pursuits and reminds us that we all still need to read Moby Dick.

Photo sources: Tom Neely, Vanessa Michelle, Indiana Review

Where are you from?
Brooklyn, New York.

Favorite issue of IR?
31.2, Winter 2009, because it was the first issue I saw. It’s as old as my studentship at IU, and it introduced me to the work of writers like Michael Martone and Dan Beachy-Quick, whose work I still follow. Plus, I love that wicked rabbit on the cover.

Favorite non-IR journals?
I love the Canadian journal Geist. It’s funny, Canada isn’t that far away, but reading Geist you get a real sense of a different culture. I’m also interested in journals that are dedicated to more specific projects, like Alimentum, a journal that showcases work about food, which Deb introduced me to; Memoir, which pushes the boundaries of traditional memoir; Fourth Genre, which focuses on creative nonfiction; or Camera Obscura, which has some beautiful fiction and photography.

 

What/Who is on your reading wish list right now?
I am itching for summer, when I’ll have the time to finally read Moby Dick. The short passages that I have read are stunning. I can’t wait to read it from beginning to end.

 

What do you hope to see next for IR?
I’m interested to see where we go in the next five or ten years with digital literature, interactive written work that is only available online. I think digital literature offers some really interesting possibilities, and I will be following IR long after I graduate to see how we eventually develop those ideas.