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!
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!
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
I started blogging for a couple reasons: to connect with the writing and writers of my native Rust Belt and for fun. Two years later, and a couple other things have happened along the way. I’ve improved my personal essay-writing skills (that is what so many of our blog posts are, really) and I got “out there.” Not “out there” in a huge, platform-developing way for the nonfiction book that’s coming–because, of course, I’m a fiction writer–but out there connecting with you awesome people who keep coming back here. Not sure why, but I love you for it. So…I’m excited to share my news. I hope you’ll check out Parhelion Literary Magazine. Now, it’s your turn. What have you gained from blogging? I’d love to know your take. More soon. ~Rebecca
I have big news, folks! Today I’d like to introduce you to our new Features Editor, Rebecca Moon Ruark.
I’ve wanted to add more “regular” content to the magazine for a while. I’ve probably been thinking about it since last summer. Darren and Leeta and I have talked about this with great enthusiasm, but because we were so busy, we never seemed to come up with any of this imagined content despite our good intentions.
Rebecca submitted a story to us back in November 2018 that we published in our February issue, called Scooter Kid. And then I started stalking her online (yes, I look at the links people send me). I started connecting Rebecca with this content idea. I thought about contacting her for a long time—since the end of last year, and she stayed stuck in my head, swirling around in there, so finally, I just asked…
Issue No. 8 from Barren Magazineis out, and features my story, “The Virgins,” among among so much fantastic poetry, prose, and photography for your weekend entertainment. (Thank you to the editors for letting my story sit among such great company!) See also my friend (and Rust Belt Girl follower) DS Levy’s flash fiction piece, “Tengku,” my fave poem of the day, “Barrels of Fruit,” by Caroline Plasket, and more gritty, rusty photography–along with sweeping skies and far-off places–than a girl could shake a stick at.
Saturday, I attended Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference organized by literary magazine, Barrelhouse, chock full of practical lessons from published literary authors, editors, and publishers. Note: I said practical. (Leave your insta-agent-three-book-deal fantasies at the door.) Really, it was like transporting myself back to my MFA program for the day–complete with the insecurities and boxed wine! All right in my world.
Advice: The first of three panels/workshops I attended featured a memoirist, a novelist, a nonfiction writer, and a poet who all engage with the past–and endure much historical research–for their writing. Some of the most helpful advice suggested writers utilize first-person accounts to better instruct our characters in how to engage with historical fact. There was also an interesting discussion exposing the differences between creative nonfiction and fiction when making meaning of historical events. In fiction, the research must become a part of the narrative arc; in nonfiction, the journey to understand can become another part of the story, a knew way of knowing.
Beginnings: For my second session of the day, I attended a hands-on craft workshop on developing short story openings that grab a reader’s attention. Flash Fiction author, instructor, and editor Tommy Dean led us workshoppers using four prompts for four different story openings. All the prompts started with character/setting/conflict, then added another element to complicate the story start–like subverting the setting or flipping a normal, everyday activity. I am not a prompt person, relying instead on the ideas that fly at me and then stick–usually long about 4am–but even I came away with a few solid story starts, a real win.
Connections: MFA programs are a wealth of information on the art and craft of writing. But then what? How do we get our work out there, and just where is there? Enter the literary journal editors with hands-on experience in the world of literary publishing for a 10-minute editing session, a la speed dating. I took a flash fiction piece of mine; however, I knew going in, I wanted to use that precious time to ask advice of the editor on the other side of the desk. My question was about chapbooks (short collections of poetry or stories). But the point is I used my 10 minutes to connect with someone I could learn from. Not to leave out my fellow conference attendees, time waiting in line for the editor session was a good chance to meet local writers (shout-out to Sonora!).
Inspiration: With the growing popularity of spoken-word and oral storytelling heard on programs like The Moth Radio Hour, today’s creative writing readings are not the cure for insomnia they once were. The featured author readings at C&C did not disappoint. Going in, I knew of the work of only one of the authors, essayist Randon Billings Noble, who I connected with in an online critique group years ago (the writing world being both huge and small). I was delighted to be introduced to the poetry of Kyle Dargan and the fiction of Ivelisse Rodriguez and of Gabino Iglesias, who read their work with such passion–the highlight of my day and very inspiring.
Books…and more books: Want to make an author (and their small press publisher) happy and earn your good literary citizen card? Buy the book. I came away with autographed copies of Billings Noble’s essay collection, Be With Me Always; Iglesias’ horror/crime novel Coyote Songs; Matthew Ferrance’s memoir, Appalachia North; and the poetry collection, Haint, from Cleveland native (yes, we are all over) Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who sat on the panel for the third of my three sessions, focused on publishing and offering great advice on connecting with the local literary community. (These last two authors, I plan to talk about more here on the blog!)
For writers across genres, and for bloggers alike–there’s a conference made for you. This one was a good fit for me, and I’ll be back next year.
Do you conference? What are your top tips? Have you read any of these books? How was your weekend? Comment below–I always love to hear from you… ~Rebecca
When I was 9, the Ohio state tourism slogan became: Ohio, The Heart of it All, and I felt vindicated, this little girl who dreamed of the bright lights of big, cosmopolitan (coastal) cities. Maybe, after all, the middle was the sweet spot! And now here comes another HEARTLAND… I’m still reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR…, when this author interview found my inbox. Thought I’d share with you what might prove to be an interesting historical perspective of the American Midwest. More soon. ~Rebecca
The American Midwest is hard to define. Even which states can be considered “Midwestern” depends on who you ask; is it what lies between Ohio and Iowa? Or does the Midwest stretch further west across the Great Plains; north into Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas; or east into parts of Pennsylvania and New York state? Perhaps part of the confusion over the term is rooted in the idea that the Midwest represents far more than a geographic space — it represents a vision of the country as a whole, and is a stand-in for nostalgia, despite the fact that the reality of the nation, and the Midwest along with it, has always been far messier than any myth.
This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.
Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”
This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.
I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”
Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to
those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I
wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a
real person—that insult, “trash.”
We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”
Sarah Smarsh in Heartland
And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.
Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?
And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours
from me and mine…
As a “regional” writer and booster of Rust Belt writing and writers, I found this month’s book newsletter from Dana Snitzky at Longreads fascinating. Have you read any of these books? And what do you think of this premise: “Paying attention to where we live — attention to where we really very specifically are, in space and in time — might give us the empathetic capacity to save the planet, is basically the idea.” Chime in, if you like, and I’ll be back with a new post in a day or two. ~Rebecca
This month’s books newsletter is overflowing with regional fiction and travel writing. Kali Fajardo-Anstine and Bryan Washington have both written short story collections set in the cities they are from (in Washington’s Lot, each story is even named after a different street in Houston) and featuring characters that are representative of the communities the authors grew up in. Speaking about her collection Sabrina & Corina Fajardo-Anstine describes her struggle to stake out physical space in literature for herself and for the Chicano and Indigenous community she is a part of:
I’m always writing against this idea that Denver’s a white space … How does my community loom so large in my consciousness and in all the choices I make, but when I talk to people on the street they’re like, “What do you mean you’re from Colorado? What do you mean there are brown people here?”