Whoops! 8 Query Lessons…that made me a better writer

Free image from geralt @ pixabay.com

It’s submission season again.

For those of you who don’t go in for such self-flagellation, I’m talking about submitting to literary agents, entreating them to represent me and my book.

If you’re not an aspiring author, don’t back-arrow just yet–these lessons learned can be applied to many facets of our writing lives. (And, bloggers are writers, I say over and over and over.)

First, because everybody loves query results in hard-and-fast numbers, here you go: cycle one of querying, I submitted a total of 20 queries. Of those, I had:

  • 1 request for a partial (first three chapters); and
  • 1 request for the full manuscript (after the agent read the partial).

Not bad, really: some action from 10 percent. I feel confident I’ll do better next query cycle, beginning this fall, knowing what I now know…

No. 1: The query letter, itself, is the key to unlocking this whole maddening process of securing the right agent. I’ve pored over every word of my 85,0000-word novel manuscript–as have the writers in my in-person writing group and online writing group, along with trusted writer friends. I’ve lived with the characters in my novel since before I knew my kids! But even if a manuscript is polished to shining–without the right key, an agent will never get in there to look around.

No. 2: It’s OK to enlist help on your query letter. You know how some people suck at titles? Query letter-writing is like that: a completely different beast than writing a novel (or short story, essay, or poem). You can even be good at marketing–my freelance writing clients think I am–and not be great at marketing yourself.

A while back, I enlisted help from two traditionally-published novelists for help on my query letter; after my first 9 queries elicited nothing but crickets, I got help from a third novelist, who happens also to be a whiz at queries and artist’s statements that showcase the writer’s strengths–in the way only an objective outside party can. (Message me if you need her info.) When an agent, who has said she responds to only 3 percent of queriers requested pages from me, I knew my letter was finally in good shape.

No. 3: Along the same lines, be ready with your bio–not the standard education + publishing credits bio you use when you submit to journals/magazines, if you do; but a more expansive bio. What does your writing in general explore? How does your writing reflect your life–where you’re from, your challenges, your strengths, and the wider perplexities of your modern-day life? And how can you show yourself to be a good literary citizen, engaged with the writing world, with readers, and with other writers?

No. 4: One synopsis, 2 synopses, 3 synopses, 4. I wish I were exaggerating, but all I can say is have at least a one-page and a two-page synopsis ready before querying. (Don’t be like me, up at 2am working on another version–whoops!) Plus, I can’t tell you how beneficial writing a synopsis is to see how your story holds up, where the holes may be, where it feels saggy, etc. When I do it all over again (with my latest WIP), I’ll write up the synopsis as an exercise right after completing draft 1–a viable option or addition to reverse editing, I think.

No. 5: Comps are king. Or, comps mean nothing. Some agents love comparative titles–books you can compare yours to. Some don’t. Have a good list ready of titles published within the last few years. Better yet, make them debut titles (so agents know you’re not trying to compare yourself to a seasoned author) and find a few set in your book’s general setting, another few dealing with a similar subject, similar themes, and a few with similar writing styles. Even better yet, read these books–they are the books in your book’s orbit.

No. 6: Know your comps, so you know why and how your book stands out. True enough that there are no new stories, but a reader wants a little revelation. This reader does, anyway. How does your book address age-old questions while addressing something new (even novel)?

No. 7: Closed to queries means closed to queries. Save yourself time and trouble by responding to agents’ wishes–what they want, and when and how–laid out nicely at Manuscript Wish List. Then, go to their site to see who they represent and just how they want aspiring authors to submit queries–if they do. Follow directions to a T (capital T). There’s also a lot of agent action on Twitter, so you may want to log on there to gain access to discussions around books and authors and what agents hope is the next big thing. Unicorn vampires anyone?

No. 8: Go Mad! Not really. I’m talking #PitMad. Yep, that’s one more reason to hop on Twitter. “PitMad” is short for Pitch Madness, when, a couple times a year, aspiring authors pitch their books to agents on Twitter. If an agent “favorites” your pitch, you query them. Not only did I get through to one agent this way, last time out, honing your pitch (280 characters or less!) helps greatly when thinking about how to actually TALK about your manuscript. Don’t have time to deliver a whole “elevator pitch,” you’re going to want to boil your book down to a couple sentences (complete with Twitter shorthand). Here’s one version of my pitch, which begins with a comp:

PHANTOMS x Puzo

WW2 Cali, when Italy becomes an enemy of the US, having a wife who still reveres Mussolini may mean an immigrant’s downfall. When he’s unduly arrested and interned, his wife and American neighbors rally to right the wrong.

Can’t get enough of this query conversation, or looking to kick-start this process before the September query rush, check out “Query 101 (or many more)” by Allison K Williams for the Brevity blog. Her (No. 7) advice on querying in stages I especially appreciated. Always so much useful info from Allison–just go ahead and follow that fantastic blog.

Stuck around this long but are more interested in submitting short stories, poems, or essays to journals and magazines, you are very patient! For you, I’ve got my post all about submitting, titled (oh so cleverly) Submit, submit, submit. Plus, check out my category on publishing above for more on getting our work “out there.”

Speaking of “out there,” I’ve had a busy summer over at my Parhelion Literary Magazine gig. If you love fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or photography, I hope you’ll check out all our hard work. The June issue is live and we feature the occasional…um…feature, too. Lots to enjoy…

Now, it’s your turn, what have you learned from publishing–whether that begins and ends with hitting the blue “Publish” button on your blog or extends to querying editors and literary agents?

What’s your best advice to keep your confidence (and sanity) while sharing your words with the world?

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My interview with author Amy Jo Burns

I’m reblogging my interview with author and essayist Amy Jo Burns in honor of her latest published essay up right now at the Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/07/25/the-silhouette-artist/

Amy Jo has said this essay took her 10 years to write, and I think the essay is better for its long gestation. But, wow, this is also a good lesson for us writers to stick with, or return to, those ideas that keep us up at night!

Essays not your thing? Writer, editor, and blogger at daily (w)rite, Damyanti, featured a really interesting guest post by Felix Cheong, a poet living in Singapore. In it, he talks about the process of writing poetry, and he goes back to old drafts a lot–calling himself a scavenger. He says: “Given the right time, they [old, discarded writing material] could be salvaged, given a makeover and presented as shiny and new.”

Here’s to reviving what we thought was lost. Here’s to sticking to a good idea for a good long while. And here’s to new inspiration.

Happy writing and reading, all!

~Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

Bio Pic-1

Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!

Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?

I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that…

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a bit of writerly advice for July 20, 2019

Free image courtesy or KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.

Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.

But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.

That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:

What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays

About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)

Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:

…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.

Ross Gay

On reading GLORY DAYS…and other summertime scares

It starts with fire sirens, so loud the littlest children clap their hands over their ears. But not my guys, old enough now to tough it out–and join the parade on their decorated bikes to cheers from neighbors lined on both sides of the street.

Only … this Fourth of July Parade, one boy returned after he’d finished the short parade route, red-faced and sweating. The other wasn’t with him. “Where’s your brother?” was answered with a shrug. The street was empty. And I had the feeling of dread every parent knows, that hollowing out, followed by cold palms–on a very hot day.

I had to wait only a minute. A minute, and I spotted his smiling face, which I’d never loved more. He’d taken another lap around the parade route, winding up riding between a couple of police cruisers, utterly safe.

Still, I thought later about the hair’s breadth that separates joy from fear–and how that razor’s edge feeling works in life and on the page, to heighten our senses, arrest the world, and focus our intentions.

A part of us–the primitive brain part maybe–delights in the gooey sweet center of darkness. You know: the rickety roller coaster, the scary clown, the creepy circus music.

Which brings me to my latest summertime thrill-read: GLORY DAYS, a novel in stories by Melissa Fraterrigo, which I initially selected for my sister, who likes “creepy circus books.” It’s not creepy, but it is dark. And, if it’s important to eat with the season, I figure why not read with the season. What better season to settle into sticky-hot, unsettling stories set around an amusement park than summer?

Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo, from the Flyover Fiction Series ed. by Ron Hansen

Reading this book feels dangerous, like the Tilt-A-Whirl ride gone wrong when I was maybe 8, my brother 6, the safety bar broken–when I felt sure the centrifugal force would send him flying. No one flew, but still that dangerous, ecstatic feeling remains written on my middle-aged heart.

Glory Days feels like that–decidedly thrilling. Like being a mom or a roller coaster junkie: one in the same.

From the summary on the back cover: “At the center of this novel is the story of Teensy and his daughter, Luann, who face the loss of their land [to developers] even as they mourn the death of Luann’s mother….When Glory Days–an amusement park–is erected,” the past of Midwest ranchers and farmers is beat out by new money, drugs, and greed… “In Glory Days Melissa Fraterrigo combines gritty realism with magical elements to paint an arrestingly stark portrait of the painful transitions of twenty-first-century, small-town America.”

If you loved Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, a National Book Award finalist, you’ll like Glory Days. If you like novels in stories… If you like your summer reads with a side of eerie… And there’s the amusement park seer, Fredonia the Great, a great conceit and even better, heartbreaking character.

This book–set in its fictional Nebraska town of Ingleside–contains a multitude of envy-inspiring invention, like a roller coaster named Tornado. But it’s the language that arrested me. Fraterrigo is full-on gritty, without going too spare. She lets us settle into this unsettled landscape of new haves and historic have-nots–a tinderbox for conflict.

From the titular story:

Fredonia recalls the sound of the balers, dust rising up from the till. Back then Ingleside had dirt roads and banks of trees and always the river with its green fertile scent. She wakes with a start and remembers all over again that the fields have sprouted new weekend homes, and not too far away stores that are as big as football fields stretch out where corn tassels once swayed. Still, it is hard to look and not see the farms cowering. Now there’s the chatter of rides on their tracks, screams clinging to wind.

Glory Days would make a great Midwest tandem read with Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland, which I discussed here on the blog this spring.

Now, it’s your turn. What are you reading this summer? Do you look for a light read? Dark? Is it just me, or are suspense and horror novels popping up more and more on the What to Read this Summer lists?

Looking for a poem to start your day? A flash fiction piece over lunch? Short story or essay at bedtime? We’ve got you–over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where there’s a brand new issue up for your summer reading pleasure. I also encourage you to check out our Features section, edited by yours truly–for essays, reviews, and interviews. (For you writers out there, submissions are always rolling!)

Happy reading and writing.

~Rebecca

Home again, home again…

My mom’s old shade garden. My dad’s fence still looks good.

Jiggety-jig.

Did your mom say that nursery rhyme upon returning home (with our without the fat pig?). Mine did, and now I do the same, fully expecting the eye-rolls from the kids in the back seat.

So, I promised a photo-filled post of my trip home to Ohio, and I’m finally delivering. If you came here looking for writing advice, reviews, or interviews, please see the categories above. Or, take this advice: returning to your childhood home with your children for the first time can feel daunting, but it’s good for the soul–and stories.

One of my boys said he’d expected my childhood home, below, to be in a small town, but we were out of town on a country road.

The new owners painted the cedar shingles and the old red front door, but they haven’t cut down the tree-swing tree.

A trip through town, and the boys got to see my old high school; and the town square with the library, movie theater, and elementary school where my mom worked, and where the annual Geauga County Maple Festival is still held.

We also visited with my childhood best friend and her super funny and smart 3-year-old–and my boys got to experience Cleveland for the first time.

Of course, we went to the West Side Market–with it’s colorful produce hall, meats, cheeses, pastas (don’t miss the pierogies), baked goods, herbs and spices. I left with an armful of the some of the iconic tastes of Northeast Ohio: smoked Hungarian paprika, pepperoni bread, and mish-mosh bialys (not to be confused with bagels).

After a lunch of bratwurst sandwiches for the grownups and hot dogs for the kids, we treated ourselves to Mitchell’s Homemade ice cream–and the boys got to see it being made right there in the Ohio City shop.

For the country leg of our city/country day, we headed east to the Holden Arboretum, 3,500 acres of gardens and natural beauty. The boys’ favorite parts: the bridge 65 feet above the forest floor and the 12-storey high tower we climbed to look out above the canopy of trees–for miles, all the way to Lake Erie. (My apologies to any park guests there for my sons’ unending questioning at such heights: “Think we’d die if we fell from here? How about here?”)

From Northeast Ohio, we headed west to my dad’s hood of Port Clinton, Ohio, where we spent the rest of our vacation in Lake Erie Shores & Islands fashion. More heights–we ferried to Put-in-Bay, the ubiquitous party village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, and captured from atop Perry’s Monument views of the lake (no filter, btw), along with other islands and even mainland Canada in the distance.

Best view with your brew award, this trip, goes to Twin Oast Brewing (those tower-looking things are the oasts), which overlooks a 60-acre farm estate with apricot trees forever (and plenty of lawn for a couple boys to throw a football).

Of course, into each Ohio vacation some rain must fall (sorry, Longfellow)–or else the boys wouldn’t get to visit Ghostly Manor, with their favorite arcade and roller rink–where they had their first V.R. experience (see below).

Whew! God bless all you travel bloggers out there. This post took me forever! May all the weekend and vacation-time forces be with you.

Now, it’s your turn: how are you recharging this season? Taking any trips? Returning home? And, if you have kids, have you taken them to your childhood home? What was their reaction?

Happy Summer, and thank you for stopping by!

~Rebecca

Lima, Ohio in the Year 2000

If you’ve been visiting Rust Belt Girl a while, you know I have a thing for urban photography, especially of the kind that shows the patina of age–and soul. In a recent post, Michelle Cole, photographer and blogger over at Intensity Without Mastery, has captured the spirit of her Rust Belt place of Lima, Ohio, in the year 2000. I hope you’ll check out her post, and blog–where she also features nature photography, along with thoughts on “…family, faith…and life after depression.” If you follow her page on Facebook, you’ll find even more wonderful photography. Want to learn more about Michelle? Search by her name or under “Photography” on my blog for the 2-part photographic interview I did with her in 2017. Happy viewing, all! ~Rebecca

Intensity Without Mastery

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My photo archiving project continues. I decided to make albums of some of the photos on my Facebook page. The images for this blog posts are screen shots of an album that features photos I took in Lima in the year 2000. Back then I used one of the Sony Mavica cameras that recorded images onto floppy discs. I could fit just 10 images per disc, so I had to carry a baggy full of a dozen discs to make it through a photo walk.

Alas, I don’t have the originals files of these photos. All I have now are online copies, and the website where I uploaded them 19 years ago only has 500×375 or smaller versions of the images. I know that some of the photos had an original resolution of 1024×768 (if I felt bold enough to just take five pics per disc!). Lesson learned: back up…

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Almost Summer Round-Up

Chillin’ in the big CLE.

My boys and I celebrated the end of another school year with a trip to Ohio. Photo-heavy post to come, but for now, suffice it to say we had a blast. Hung out in CLE with one of my best friends and her son and then pressed on to to my dad’s, where we vacationed in Lake Erie Shores and Islands fashion.

As any parent will tell you, I could use a post-vacation vacation, but it’s time to get back to work, while my boys enjoy the freedom of summer vacation. First, I wanted to touch base with you and thank you for following my journey here at the blog. With my birthday coming up, I’m feeling a little reminiscent: thanks for helping to make this past year great!

Speaking of reminiscing, one of my fave smart-funny mom bloggers, Becca, interviewed me for her blog: With Love, Becca: Funny Mom, Career Coach, Storytelling Enthusiast. We chatted about my blog, about freelance writing, creative writing, rejection, and resiliency. Of course, we also talked kids and humor-as-saving-grace. And I submitted to a 90s rapid fire Q&A that took me all the way back. Good times. And such a fun interview to do. I hope you’ll check it out and follow Becca’s blog. She’s inspiring plenty of career-swiveling-fun parenting-sanity saving change over there. Developing Resiliency in Your Creative Pursuits: Q&A with Writer Rebecca Moon Ruark.

Happy almost summer! What are your plans? Vacay? Creative pursuits? And please let me know what books you’re looking to read by the pool this summer. I love suggestions!

Still Spiraling

Photo by iSAW Company on Pexels.com

Because spinning sounds like losing control.

And it’s not as dire as that, I’ve just been busy. Busy with my freelance writing work, with family–it’s my husband’s birthday today–and with moving forward with my creative writing process: create, recreate, revise, edit, submit, repeat. And that’s only for my short stories. As for my completed historical novel manuscript, I’m taking a break from querying agents. After receiving some constructive feedback, but no offers of representation, I will be back to the editing desk, come fall. For now, what better impetus to get a second manuscript under my belt than a little healthy rejection?

So, I’ve been working on my latest WIP, a multi-generational novel–and spiraling. Spirals are a shape I’ve had in mind for a while, since reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland (my take on that book, here) with her potent imagery of Kansan funnel clouds. (And, we had our first tornado warning of the season the other day, here in Maryland.) As it happened, the book I picked up as a tandem read to Heartland was Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, a fascinating craft book that takes the traditional story arc (or wave) shape–ya know, rising action-climax-falling resolution–to task. Or, at least suggests various other shapes our stories can take: spirals, webs, radials.

This led me to thinking about the “shape” of my creative process, which feels very much like spiraling. If you picture a funnel cloud spiraling, I’m the still eye in the center (most of the time). Of all the swirling ideas around a theme, say song and singing (one of the major themes in my WIP), I need to grab hold of the ideas that might fit and let the rest blow on by. Thus far, I’ve grabbed onto Finnish lament singing and folk songs; American Blues; Christian hymns and spirituals; and the best of the 80s radio hits: Whitney Houston, Wham, Elton John. (As you can see, I’ve held onto more than I’ve let go.)

Yet, such amassing of material around a theme–this kind of gathering research–I find much more freeing than the longitudinal historical research I did for my completed novel. Following along a historical plot line (albeit with fictional characters) was a bit constraining. And I’d thought it would have been the other way around: plot line laid out would free me to explore the other elements more fully: character, theme, setting. And maybe it did. But I’m having fun, this time around, creating in a freer way.

Now, it’s your turn, how do you capture ideas for your writing? How do you construct a post, a story, or book? Do you follow a forward-moving path? Do you regress? Do you turn in circles?

Of course, narratives move forward–the stories we create and the stories we are. But, I’m finding, we don’t always have to push them forward quite so hard. In fact, I will have a wonderful opportunity to look back on my own personal history soon. My boys and I are headed to Ohio, and I’ll have the opportunity to show them the house on the old country road I still think of as home.

I was thinking about our trip as I had a funny exchange on Twitter with the novelist Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories. (She was a featured author and read at the Barrelhouse literary conference I talked about here.) A Cleveland venue where she was appearing blurbed her as a young writer and she corrected them. I joked that maybe we’re all young in Cleveland. But then I got to thinking that I always feel young when I return to Northeast Ohio, maybe because I left at 19 and time for me, like my memories, has frozen in place. Let’s just say, I’ll be glad to get back, feel young, and look afresh at my native place through the eyes of my boys. Maybe we’ll turn around in circles a few times–even get a little lost.

What are your upcoming summer adventures–in reading, in writing, in travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

P.S. Want more Rust Belt? I’m always on at FB. Want the best in lit? Check out Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I am the new Features Editor.

Prince of the Midwest

Whether you are from the Midwest or not, this essay by Michael Perry is so engaging–a wonderful weekend read, if you’re so inclined. “A friend said Prince created his own creative world around him, something many of us in the Midwest have had to do in one way or another. When I heard Prince, when I saw Prince, I felt moved to be more than I was.” I just love that! Don’t you? My first memorable Prince moment was hearing his “Raspberry Beret” in an arcade on vacation in French Lick, Indiana. Somebody with more quarters than I picked that song on the jukebox (yes, this was the 80s, not the 50s) and played it over and over. I discovered something new each time it played. For those of you celebrating Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S., I have no cute tie-in with Prince–go ahead and suggest one–and to everybody else, the world over, who still gets goosebumps at the Prince of the Midwest, read on… ~ Rebecca

Longreads

Michael Perry| Under Purple Skies| Belt Publishing | May 2019 | 10 minutes (1,861 words)

You’d never dream it looking at me, all doughy, bald, and crumpling in my 50s, but I owe the sublimated bulk of my aesthetic construct to Prince Rogers Nelson, circa Purple Rain. The film and album were released the summer after my fresh-off-the farm freshman year in college. I sat solo through the movie a minimum of four times, wore the hubs off the soundtrack cassette, draped my bedroom with purple scarves, stocked the dresser top with fat candles, and Scotch-taped fishnet to the drywall above the bed. Intended to create seductive shadows of mystery, it wound up a pointless cobweb.

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The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

As it happened, I heard Ehrenreich, who is a pretty big deal and author of NICKEL AND DIMED, (a book for which she went undercover among the American poor), speak at Johns Hopkins University–to a group of us communications folks. I remember thinking the statistics and stories she shared that day seemed to me like from another world–foreign–and yet her research centered on the poor of Baltimore, not far from where I live now.

In contrast, there was no going undercover for Smarsh, born into a family for whom there were no bootstraps big enough to change their class: working poor. From the book flap summary:

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother–and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita–she gives us a unique look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.

I can’t say I loved this book, because it’s not a book to be loved. It’s not easy to read about statistics writ personal on the author’s immediate and extended family–generation after generation–in the way of teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

Smarsh is born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, and yet, instead of each generation doing better, it seems the opposite was true. Such is the power of the stranglehold of poverty–as destructive as the tornadoes that so often whip through the author’s home state.

I come to memoirs looking for at least two of three elements: a story worth telling, with logic to support, and emotional resonance to make me feel. That HEARTLAND is Smarsh’s story, which she supports through sound journalistic research, and narrates in such a lyrical way, made this a very satisfying read.

The swirling clouds were just above my head, reaching down with little arms…They spun around a middle void, stretched and grabbed at one another, pulling back into themselves–the beginnings of a funnel.

A supercell, as meteorologists call it, swirling over the plains is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Sarah Smarsh

Note: I didn’t say the memoir was an easy read. Passages that begin “Being broke has a way of separating families…” made me recall the ups and downs of my mom’s upbringing, born just 15 years after the worst year of the Great Depression. The last of four kids, she was sent away for a time to live with relatives, something not all that unusual then. And then there was the emotional poverty in families touched by the Depression and the use of alcohol as a balm. In this way, Smarsh’s story feels like a story out of time, like something from high school history stories of the Dust Bowl. But no. The story of American poverty and its tendrils is, unfortunately, evergreen.

How to break the cycle? How to scale that steep slope representing the hierarchy of needs? For Smarsh, like so many others, the answer lay in “getting out,” getting an education. Of course, it’s not as easy–or easy on the heart–as all that. Because getting out means leaving behind.

…as college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a similar disconnect with power. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.

Sarah Smarsh

Smarsh’s HEARTLAND and so many stories coming out of the American Midwest right now are sounding the alarm. Let’s hope we wake up.

Now it’s your turn? Have you read Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND or another book on the American Midwest, on class? What are you reading right now?

For ideas, here’s a must-read list of 100 books featuring the Midwest at Book Riot.

Comment below–I always love to get ideas for new reads!