Not sprawling, but curated. It’s all in the language, right? I mean, if anyone can, we word nerds can make this Thanksgiving sound pretty good.
Thanksgiving 2020 might look different, but there’s still a lot to be thankful for. Yes, really.
You, for one. You, especially, all 1,553 of my followers (from 98 different countries). I mean, were you lost? But, really, thank you for joining me, as I read and write the Rust Belt and far (far) beyond. Your comments—and friendships—are so valuable to me, especially this weird year.
While not surprising, I was struck by the fact that one of my non-writerly posts was among my most viewed, this year. The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief was my way to reach across the blogosphere with a memory and a listening ear. Words can’t heal, not really, but they can offer solace and togetherness, even if virtual. I mean, we bloggers know that well. We bloggers were made for these pandemic days. But, really, I think we’ve had enough now. Right?
2020, while an underachiever by any standards, was a big year for new reads, and marked my introduction to Italy’s Elena Ferrante (and many other American readers’ introduction, I’m guessing). Which led me to Domenico Starnone. Which led me to more great literature in translation, that of Finland’s late, great Tove Jansson.
Thanks to the WordPress editors for bringing back Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts, like “open” and “song,” were the inspiration I needed to ruminate on the fear, isolation, and (tender, if forced) togetherness of those early pandemic days.
Author and professor Sonja Livingston, who writes about her Rochester, NY, home and searching faith, was kind enough to join me, in May, for an interview, in two parts, where we discussed her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Any of her books, really, are a balm–and I highly recommend them.
In June, I reviewed Rust Belt-set The Distance from Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell, a book that answers the age-old question: can you really go home again? Reader, you can, but home might surprise you.
Wherever you find yourself at home this Thanksgiving (or this November 26th for the rest of you wonderful people), here’s wishing you a good word or two, a happy song, a note of thanks, and peace.
Got some time? Interested in more author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Also find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Writing-and-reading is a reciprocal relationship. Of course this is true, if I sometimes forget it, as I write. Bestselling American author and comedian David Sedaris makes it plain:
Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.
And don’t we love those books the most? The ones that invite us to bring our “stuff” to the narrative? To bring our anxieties and passions, our joys and fears? How else to truly connect with story, if we don’t add ourselves to the mix?
I recently finished Tove Jansson’s (autobiographical) novel, Fair Play. (Yes, my Jansson fascination continues.) Those who have read any Jansson will not be surprised that it is a quiet story–a story of two women, partners in life and art–that feels incredibly brave at the same time it is a meditation.
Written in short chapters accumulating in just 100 pages, the reader watches the artists–one woman is a writer, one a visual artist–go about their daily lives of work and play, as the two remain open always to creative possibilities. Yes, there are arguments and bickering; they don’t always agree on their art or their life’s comings and goings. But the space they give each other to be the artists–and humans–they need to be, is more touching (and romantic, really) than any standard-fare romance could be for me.
The space to create is at the heart of this engaging read–and I’m going to hold onto that feeling as I write. Readers aren’t a byproduct of writing; they’re partners in it. They are a vital part of the creation.
Which is why community–no matter your art–is so important. Thank you for being here!
What are you reading? What are you writing this week?
Did you read any of Jansson’s famous Moomin books for children, when you were a child? Have you seen the trailer for the first full-length film based on Jansson’s life?
Interested in author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time both drags and flies by. And even us rabid readers find our towering TBRs just keep growing taller. Anxiety and ennui make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, making it tough to hold a long story in the imagination.
Short story to the rescue.
I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from the world on fire. But short fiction? As you might imagine, the novel beats out the short story collection in sales, everywhere. Sure, there are popular short story collections. But, as this Guardian article notes: “Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint).” Even when sales of short story collections surge, as they did in 2018, they’ll never beat out the novel.
But right about now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft–for those of us who write fiction–and also, and maybe most importantly right now, for connection with other readers. One of the most delightful virtual connections I’ve made in these pandemic days is with a book club (hosted by jesuit.org if you’re interested) that meets over at FB. The last book we read was, you guessed it, a short story collection, Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.
At the moment, I’m reading short stories before bed (“they” say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). I’m still working through short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign and inviting and cool. I save novels for daytime reading: right now that’s Jansson’s Fair Play; and Pete Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which is a Rust Belt novel if I’ve ever met one, and I plan to discuss it here.
Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.
Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: famously, Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella (OK, not quite as brief as a short story but he’s adapted a lot of those, too): “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” A little more recently, there was Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, then there was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which inspired a movie that released 86 years later–testament to the lasting power of the short story (or, at least, short stories by masters, like Fitzgerald).
I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction (that many of us seem to desire in a novel: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years–and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.
Take Raymond Carver’s famous story “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to write it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same big American Lit 101 tomes as the classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, O’Connor and Kate Chopin, and more modern short story masters of the world, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel. (And it’s totally not how I write, but aspire to.) Let me know what you think of it, if you read it!
Do you read short stories? Write them? What’s your favorite? Need a suggestion for some pandemic escapist short story reading?
This year has been (among other things) one giant exercise in imagining. Imagine this is a regular writing workshop. Imagine enjoying this poetry reading in an art gallery (instead of in your bathrobe). Imagine actual happy hour. But if we writers are good at anything, it’s imagining.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favorite literary festival, the literary highlight of my year, the 2020 Fall Literary Festival hosted by Lit Youngstown (Ohio), was a great remote success. I was incredibly impressed at the quality of the craft workshops, readings, and community spirit–even from a few hundred miles away.
From the festival description, “This year’s conference [was] centered around the theme In Many Tongues, a conversation bringing together writing and publishing, literary inclusion, translating and translation…and the generational, political, ecological, and experimental elements that add to the wider literary conversation.” Whew!
If only I could have attended each and every session, heard each and every voice. But, there is only one of me, so I picked and chose from the many literary offerings. Here, I’m happy to provide highlights in the hopes I whet your appetite for next year’s festival–or a literary event in one of your favorite places in the world:
Jacqueline Marino, who edited two anthologies focused on the stories of Youngstown, Ohio, titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables, taught a craft workshop, Write Your Rust Belt Story. You know I was there. The journalism professor and writer talked about crafting place in our stories, establishing voice, and finding the moment of connection in a piece. With a little free-writing, I started on a piece about my own Ohio hometown.
David Giffels was this year’s keynote speaker. In his talk, “Thank you Cleveland Good Night: How the reluctant writer becomes a performer,” Giffels shared his own personal story–from a shy, bookish kid to a newspaper columnist to the award-winning author and essayist–and spectacular storyteller–he is today. His latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America is an on-the-ground look at Ohio and its people and place in American politics. For the first time, Giffels narrated his own audio book, and he related ideas of (actual) voice and (literary) voice. You write “the way you wish you could talk,” he said. And, as for writing about place, he recommended looking for what’s odd about your spot. Further, explore “a question you know you can’t answer.” (Oh, so many questions.)
Writer Quincy Flowers’ craft talk, On Polyphony: Writing a Novel and Making Meaning in Dialogue with Others discussed incorporating texts, including historical and para-texts, along with documents real and imagined, into our fiction. For this historical fiction writer, Flowers gave me a lot to think about, including, when does historical invention cross the line into untruth… and why haven’t I read more Percival Everett?
Dr. Ken Schneck, an author, editor, and professor of education, led a session called Shameless Self Promotion, which focused on helping us writers market our work–and ourselves–to build our audience for our books, journals, or even (ahem) blogs. Top takeaways: writers need a thing to market (not themselves) and a measurable goal; writers need to know who’s doing the kinds of writing we’re doing (our “comp” writers); and writers need not shy away from self promotion. Most helpful: Schneck’s discussion on the importance of our “elevator pitch.” You know, the succinct, pithy answer to “What do you do?” (I’ll share mine in the comments.) This talk also inspired me to update my About page at this blog–let me know what you think.
Fiction writer, playwright, and teacher Toni Thayer led a session called Finding your Voice in the Voices of Others, in which she urged us participants to carefully consider short pieces by “a diverse range of writers to fuel playful, creative imitation, with the end result of expanding one’s own style.” I studied a poem by Ohio poet Hanif Abdurraqib, in which music dictates the sound and the meaning of the piece–and applied some song to a WIP of my own. Refining your own voice through imitation is such great exercise!
Keynote speaker David Giffels talked shop in Relatively Speaking: Writing about Family in Personal Essays and Memoirs, and I’m happy to share some of the best tips for my writer friends here. What’s tough about writing about family, said Giffels, is we know too much. And also too little. Our own memory of an event is only the beginning. What comes next? Research. Interview family members to get their take; research events on YouTube; refresh your memory through photos and artifacts and by revisiting the place. But the bottom line in how NOT to get in trouble when writing about family, Giffels said: “empathy is everything.”
And there was so much more literary goodness over the 2+ day festival–even a happy hour.
Have you attended a literary festival or conference in this age of Zoom? What was the highlight? Any tips to share? Do you write about family on your blog or elsewhere? How do you avoid the pitfalls while telling your story? Do you have an elevator pitch at the ready, when people ask, what do you write about, what do you blog about?
Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices. Let’s connect!
Let’s revisit this interview with memoirist, essayist and all around great (and very funny) guy, David Giffels, shall we? David is the keynote speaker for the 2020 Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival, which I am enjoying virtually right now! Hope you enjoy this interview. And please check out my categories, above, for more interviews with Rust Belt authors, for book reviews, essays, writing advice and general musing on all things bookish. Have a great weekend! ~Rebecca
David Giffels is the author of Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, published by Scribner in 2018.
“…when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him with the unusual project of building his own casket, [Giffels] thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But life, as it usually does, had other plans.” (From the book jacket copy.)
Giffels’s father, Thomas Giffels, passed away three days after this book on loss and grief was released. “The book is so much about him, and mortality, and thinking about aging parents and all these themes that were directly connected to him,” said the author, who spoke with me earlier this month.
Furnishing Eternity continues the Akron, Ohio, author’s award-winning literary career. Giffels’s previous books include The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the…
Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
First off, let me confess right here that I have read one and only one Stephen King book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I know. I could promise you that I will change my ways, and pick up Carrie or maybe the epic, The Stand. But I’m not about to make a promise I know I won’t keep. Time is short and my TBR is a leaning tower that grows taller by the day.
While it’s been a while since I read On Writing for a grad school class, one scene from King’s craft memoir sticks out in my mind. It features a young King up after the rest of his family is asleep in their trailer, using a washing machine as a writing desk. I can picture him hunkered over it, writing his horror-inducing, future-bestselling heart out.
Now that scene stands as a sort of gritty yet romantic image of the aspiring novelist who will stop at nothing to write–everyday–no matter what.
And, it’s an image that can serve us writers well–and ill.
Because, hear me out, there’s more to writing than the writing part. Novelist Lauren Groff put it better than I could on Twitter several days ago, and she went on to explain herself in a thread. But the initial tweet rang true for me, and maybe it will for you, too:
I don’t know who needs to hear this today (I do), but the vast majority of the time one spends writing a book isn’t spent in writing the book, but rather reading, dreaming, running, walking, experimenting, restarting, writing things that gradually bring you closer to the book.
Lauren Groff via Twitter
Something like 3.5 thousand retweets of Groff’s tweet later, and let’s assume quite a few writers needed to hear those words.
Boiled down: a lot of writing a book isn’t. It’s researching, reading a ton, writing around it, writing “off the book,” as they say–even if there’s no book yet.
And I’m going to venture: a lot of writing a book is about living with the idea of the book for a little while.
I was writing in the spring, even as my pandemic-anxiety shifted into gear (and sometimes overdrive). I wasn’t writing the book, but I was writing short reflections here at the blog that–from a distance–I can see thematically inform my book. I was reading–a lot–and connecting with writers I admire through interviews and reviews. I participated in a couple writing workshops, and even wrote a little “poetry” (note the quotes). (If you’re really paying close attention, my little guy’s buckteeth haven’t been fixed yet. “Soon and very soon,” as the hymn goes.)
Over the summer, which is not over quite yet, I lived, albeit safely and distanced–that’s my boys’ sailing class above, each kid to their own boat. I swam and ate Lake Erie perch and Maryland blue crabs and read and laughed and sang and read some more. Finnish author Tove Jansson is my current read-around-the-book obsession, and I’m loving her The Summer Book!
Reader, my tank is full, and so is my plate.
It’s my busy season as a development writer by day, but I’m writing the book: not 1,000 words a day, but it’s coming, because I was ready to write the book.
What are you reading this week? What are you writing? Are you a write-everyday-no-matter-what-writer? I admire you! #nextlifegoals
Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
I’m re-blogging today’s piece from the Brevity blog (if you’re not following their awesome, topical work, you’re missing out). As the title implies, it’s about writing about our family members–something we bloggers, and especially those with personal, even confessional, blogs do a lot. It’s a funny, short essay, but it gets at some serious questions of privacy in writing memoir or anything else personal. I’d love to know what you think about the issues the author, Joanne Nelson, raises. As you might have suspected, I’ve been swamped by writing work–both my development writing for universities and other nonprofits and my creative work. If you’ve got time and are looking for the latest in bold short stories, flash, poetry, and creative nonfiction, I hope you’ll check out the fresh and new summer issue of Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I serve as associate editor: parhelionliterary.com. In the mood for Rust Belt interviews and author interviews, check out my categories, above. Let me know what you’re reading and writing this week–are you taking names?! More soon…Rebecca
“Have you asked them?” A friend inquired after noticing I was using my kids’ real names in essays. Actually, I hadn’t. And then it seemed wrong that I hadn’t. I used pseudonyms for parents, neighbors, and childhood friends, assuming they deserved some modicum of invisibility from my faulty memory. Hmm, and the kids and spouse and my brother didn’t?
Years ago, I made a chart of names and aliases, deciding on the perfect alter ego for everyone I wrote about. The list took me several afternoons of overthinking and unfortunately, has been misplaced. I’ve memorized the key players’ pen names though, and now think of them as family members. My spouse, in fact, goes by “Bruce” in most of my work. I like thinking of him as a Bruce—especially as the change honors Bruce Springsteen. Truth be told, I like thinking about Bruce Springsteen in all kinds…
We are a thing-ful culture. A quick scan of my writing desk, and I realize I’m awash in things: a mouse that needs batteries, a coffee mug, an old manuscript in a box, a calendar, a laptop with more calendars inside, kids’ immunization records, a rolodex (I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century), a mouth guard for teeth-grinding I need to boil and use, a note card with an illustration of the Eiffel Tower (a really big thing made small), a recorder that also needs new batteries, a birthday card leftover from June, a fabric-covered box with love notes from my kids inside (things inside of thing)…
Paper-things many of these, but things, nonetheless.
For a minute, Marie Kondo’s less-clutter-more-happy idea made me disdain of my multitudinous things. Pandemic 2020 made me happy for them again, especially the stacks of books I’m still reading. I guess you’d call this relationship with things complicated.
Which brings me to my spot of writing advice for today, which was inspired by today’s feature over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I was recently promoted from features editor to associate editor. I encourage you to check out this short essay; in it the essayist, Darcie Abbene, calls upon authors and poets, including Ray Bradbury, Terry Tempest Williams, and William Carlos Williams to help her with her own writing. In turn, her essay helped me in my thinking about my writing–and it might do the same for yours.
As for those pesky things…Williams was a poet, whose most famous poetic phrase (probably) remains:
No ideas but in things
William Carlos Williams–from his poem “A Sort of a Song” and repeated in his epic collage titled Paterson
As a leader of the movements of modernism and imagism in poetry written in English–it makes sense that the poet was concerned with things. Of course, my things are not his things, just as yours aren’t mine. Williams was a physician, and I like to imagine how his professional things–and place things like a hospital or even (ahem) a red wheelbarrow–informed his thinking. So, things before ideas.
I’m paying close attention to things in my reading today. Working down my stack of withdraws from my local library ($1 each–sad, but lucky things for me), I’m currently reading Spy of the First Person, Sam Shepard, playwright, musician, and novelist’s, final fiction. So far, I’m flooded with things: a rocking chair, a beach, a cot, corpuscles both red and white… But I’m having trouble seeing the forest for the trees (the idea for the things?). I’ll keep working on it.
Which brings me to my own writing (Lord knows something should!). I’m back at it, my novel-in-progress, working in fits and starts, but working. And for all my anxieties over the things of my current state of life: 3-ply masks, school uniforms, new kids’ sneakers… It’s things–those concrete simple images set down on paper–that keep me writing.
Maybe it’ll work for you, too?
What are you writing? What are you reading this week? Any exciting weekend plans?
Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
OK, sorry for the click bait-y title. The gallows humor. I neither take lightly “these uncertain times” we’re enduring, nor do I think we’re in for a siege of locusts next. But then there were murder hornets, so who knows? Those who’ve been around here a while know I’m a worrier. Uncertain times always feel dire until the next round of uncertain times comes along to take their place.
I mean, who here remembers the joys of labor, delivery, and early motherhood?
*raises both hands at once*
End Times at every turn, right? Maybe that’s a bridge too far, but hear me out…when I say that my children’s birth–my guys I love like mad now–felt like the End Times. It was the end of my childlessness, of course, the end of my marriage as one with no children. It was also the beginning of a wonder-filled new stage of life, but that was hard to see through the haze of sleeplessness. I watch the quick videos my husband captured of those times, now, and I train my eyes only on the boys–round-cheeked and elbow-dimpled–because if I glance at then-me, I think of what I wasted. Busy worrying, instead of laughing, through it.
I’ve been drawn to novels with strong themes of motherhood, this summer. (Maybe seeking some kind of fictional map to follow?)
Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance from Four Points, which I reviewed here last month, features a mother and her teenage daughter, and answers the question (among many other interesting questions): How does motherhood change when a mother takes her teenage daughter from their comfortable present to a past of painful secrets–the home the mother thought she left for good when she herself was a teenager?
Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy is an ambitious historical novel that follows an American couple and their “beloved but mysteriously mute” four-year-old boy. Family ties are tested–and severed–as the family is evacuated during World War II from their home in the remote Adaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. At the heart is a question of motherhood: how does one best mother a child so unlike herself he seems, at times, a stranger?
Which brings me to my current read (or one of them), Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, which draws the reader into the panic-inducing, tear-filled, amorphous days of mothering a young toddler, alone. Here’s a taste:
Finally we sit in the big bed and have milk which is warm in the sippy cup from this morning because I haven’t brought a carton and we have two stories Goodnight Moon and Goodnight Gorilla, trying to emphasize the goodnight aspect and the sleeping aspect, and I decide to forgo brushing teeth and then think no no no it’s too easy to fail to establish good habits and I haul her into the bathroom and poke at her with the toothbrush and she clamps her mouth shut and cries and then I lay her in the Pack ‘n Play turn on the sound machine say “I love you I love you I love you” and close the door and listen to her scream.*
from Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State
Are your palms sweaty, like mine are, after reading that? Really, the prose is as funny as it is visceral. Though I don’t think I would have found it as funny when my boys were small, so there is such a thing as coming to a book at the right time.
As for my writing, it’s been both heartening and depressing that one of my most popular blog posts remains a post from March, which ties these times to my own Dead Mom Club in highlighting Kübler-Ross and company’s stages of grief. These times can feel like the End Times, but there is still escape, and even laughter, if we look for it.
What are you reading–and writing–this week? Are you able to laugh at all through these uncertain times? Show us whatcha got in the comments!
* Did you notice the quote from The Golden State is one long sentence? (How I love a well-done run-on!) Up for a little writing challenge? Task yourself with writing just one sentence, when you feel stuck. Learn more from “The Case for Single-Sentence Prose in the Age of Insecurity,” by Jason Thayer and featured on the Brevity blog, yesterday.