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
By that, I mean you will find no images and taglines here that you could use to make into a poster for your conference room. No cute kittens of mine will ever tell you to “hang in there”–or anywhere. (That’s my kid, above; my arms hurt just looking at him.) If I were to make such a poster, it might say, “Bitch a lot, and hope for sympathy–or at least free coffee.”
Still, I am not totally, cynically immune to pep-talks, or at least subtle reminders that bitching gets us nowhere, usually not even heard. But perseverance can get us writers, bloggers, and do-ers of all kinds off the starting block (or whatever tired motivational metaphor you prefer).
Call it perseverance. Call it stick-to-itivness. Call it sisu, if you’re in with the Finns. Please just don’t call it grit. (Am I the only one sick of that word? People: meet thesaurus; thesaurus meet people.)
All that’s to say, sometimes one (me) has to stop bitching and start working, which for this story writer looks like: composing, revising, editing, more editing; and lastly, the dreaded submitting.
The tale of my most recent story submission goes like this. (Here’s hoping it’s mildly inspirational.)
It was a story that I had to tell. While I generally enjoy a football field-sized writerly distance from the characters I explore in my fiction, this one hit much closer to home. Call it cheap therapy, but my mom was battling breast cancer and I was a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride away and English major-angsty. What to do with all that anger at the plain meanness and stupidity of cancer for targeting the one person who “got” me?
I wrote about it. I framed my confusion into a story about going home to be with the fictional her at the end and about how a cancer death–the coagulating of so many errant cells–made the fictional me dream of growing another kind of ball of cells, which would turn into a kid (or kids, as it turned out) of my own.
Like much fiction, there was truth in this story (along with much artifice). And it felt good to get my truth on the page, and then into the ether, and maybe even under the nose of a literary journal editor–or 58 (yep, I just counted).
Fast-forward a dozen years or more, and a much-revised version of this story will see the light. I received the glorious email with “acceptance” in the subject line a week after logging three rejections of other stories.
Some stories come easily; some take just a couple revisions before I’ve deemed them to be editor-ready. Not this story of my mom and me and breasts and death as beautiful as birth.
My story of writerly perseverance, by the numbers: revision No. 15; story title No. 3; 1,200 additional words since first draft, written for English 666 (no joke); and 1 fewer mention of the show, Friends, and also 9-layer dip, since that first draft (phew).
You get the gist. The story grew with me, and I with it, but I didn’t let it go–just like my little guy up there on the rock wall. I could have, but I didn’t.
More to come on my story’s new home, journal information, and issue launch.
Want more writerly advice? I’ve got a category for that.
Want to follow me on FB? Twitter? Let’s persevere together in all the social fun…
A few years ago, while organizing my computer desktop, I changed a folder name. I know, I know, riveting inciting action, right? But stick with me.
I changed the name of that folder from “PR”–forgive me, I’m a marketing professional–to “Writing in Community.” There was little in that folder at that point, but I was starting to get out there, as in sitting on a panel and doing a reading at a literary conference, and figured I should be organized about it. Out there meant knowing there is a public side to writing and publishing that this introvert would have to get used to.
That folder grew when a publishing opportunity turned into an editing opportunity, and I started working for a literary magazine–and working with dozens of writers, so far. For some, I interviewed them about their new books; for others, I served as book reviewer; and for still others, I helped hone essays that got their stories, you know, out there.
There are lots of platitudes like: the best gift to yourself is to give of yourself; there is no “us” without “u,” I don’t know. So, insert your favorite one here. We bloggers know that connection with community is everything; it just took me a while to think of the writing life–one that’s often depicted as solitary and broody–in just the same way.
And that “Writing in Community” folder keeps growing: writing groups and beta readers live in that folder, as do notes on classes, conferences, and group retreats (again, someday!)–a whole lot of writing “us.” Recently, I was asked if I wanted to serve on the planning committee for my favorite literary festival, and of course I said yes.
So, here’s where the magic happens, where our folders could hang out together. Even better, we could hang out together–do all the writerly stuff, like in actual person! It’s two days of readings, craft talks, and panel discussions. In other words: writerly nirvana!
Here’s the pitch: Are you–or do you know–a terrific writer, reader, teacher, lit community organizer, or publisher? Please help me spread this call for proposals for Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival, with the theme of “Our Shared Story,” to be held in Youngstown, Ohio, October 7 – 9, 2021. Simply share the link with your literary-type friends (on social media, over email, on your blog) anywhere in the vicinity of Youngstown–which is halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
One last thing: read carefully, my gracious, frequent followers, and note the visiting writers at this year’s conference. (You see what I mean about good things coming to those writers who commune!?)
Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival October 7-9, 2021 Youngstown, Ohio Conference Theme: “Our Shared Story” Visiting Writers: Ross Gay, Jan Beatty, Bonnie Proudfoot & Mike Geither
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…
Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.
Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance. The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:
Can you really go home again?
Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”
In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.
The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.
Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.
The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.
The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”
The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.
I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.
That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?
I’ll let you read to find out.
In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com
Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:
Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…
From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points
Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.
Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. What are you reading and writing this week?
Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?
Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.
I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.
And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.
I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)
Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.
Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.
What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.
That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.
Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?
You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…
Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:
Figures the Ferris Wheel
If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.
If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.
Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):
Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:
My Son's Buckteeth
the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird
What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.
What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Though I’ve been writing creatively (and otherwise, believe me) for a long time, I’ve always balked at journaling. You know the kind: the unfocused early-morning stare out the window at the lifting fog and write until the well runs dry kind of thing. The stuff of dream revelations, unlocked memories, and Hallmark card feelings.
I take notes, sure. Furiously jotted questions to research; those in-shower aha moments for revision; essays to read; agents to query. But if I’m writing, I’m not engaging in stream-of-consciousness free-writing exercises. I’m not unlocking a poet’s chakra I didn’t know I had in me. I’m really writing: characters, scenes, story arc, conflict, resolution.
Then came this pandemic.
Shutdowns and closures haven’t meant isolation chez this girl. They haven’t meant I get quiet time and space in which to research, write, revise, edit, repeat, and submit, submit, submit. Those with school-age kids are nodding their heads right now. Shutdowns have meant the exact opposite. We’re fine around here. We’re lucky. We have jobs, our health, a house and a yard. We’re also stressed and frustrated and not sleeping well and are really missing normal. Let’s just say it’s a little bit of an Isolation Circus–and this ring leader is tired.
But I can’t not write.
Writing is how I remember and process. It’s the way I make sense of things–especially things that make zero sense. So, when the world shuts down, abnormal is normal, topsey is turvey, and all else fails. What is this writer to do?
Kind reader, I journaled.
No, not at dawn, while musing on lifting fog. More like right now, on this blog. I mean, what else is this but journaling? Color you disappointed, maybe, but these are my innermost thoughts.
I’ve said it before, strange times call for taking strange measures. Some advice that’s been working for me: Stories not coming? Try it as a prose poem. Stuck on the next chapter of your WIP? Begin an off-the-book essay that utilizes some of your research. Stuck in your own head, arrange to interview a writer you admire. Don’t journal on some strange and cynical principle? Try it! (Trust me.)
And, forever and ever, read everything you can. Buy books from your local bookstores or straight from the author. Join in with the virtual book clubs popping up online. And let’s all work together to keep the book world from shutting down, too.
Know of an author whose book is releasing during these pandemic times? Share the title in the comments. I’ll start, as I have two books arriving soon I’m super excited for: Amy Jo Burns’ (who I interviewed here) novel, Shiner; and Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s memoir, What You Become in Flight.
Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark
When a sculptor lives across the street, you get these kinds of curves. You get to see them form. And, yes, when your little kids visit the artist’s studio, the boys get to enjoy a different kind of anatomy lesson than the kind they get in school.
This afternoon of isolation, some of my boys’ science schooling is happening in the yard, where they are helping my husband plant a hydrangea bush. After some exercise and vitamin D, they’ll complete their science projects on the skeletal and muscular systems of the human body. As they were introduced to these systems, I marveled at their inter-dependency–both the systems’ and the boys’.
You would think they’d get sick of each other, my little guys, weeks into our isolation at home; yet, they don’t seem to. They have known each other–curving into one another, entangling their limbs–since the womb. And they still do this. The horseplay and wrestling–those are embraces. They’re not fooling me.
I’m grateful they have each other, and that I have them. And I’m hopeful that before too long our world will open back up again–to experience art and everything else.
For now, please check out Rick Casali’s art at his website, on FB, or on his YouTube channel. And thanks, Rick! *Image credited to the artist and used with his permission.
The wonderful editors at WordPress Discover are instituting a new thing, starting in April. I’m not typically one for writing prompts, but then there’s been absolutely nothing typical about these pandemic days–or my literary (or non) responses to them. Maybe you’ll join me in responding to one or more prompts. Maybe we’ll discover something new, hopeful, or even joyous together. I hope so… ~Rebecca
Odds are that your world has changed quite a lot in the past few weeks, whether it became more chaotic, more challenging, or more limited. Writing is a way to process complicated thoughts and feelings — especially when we write as part of a supportive community. So we wanted to help.
During the month of April, we’ll publish a new writing prompt every day right here on Discover. If you’re struggling to find the time or focus for your blog, prompts are a quick, low-friction way to get going. And if you wish to connect with other writers and bloggers around the world, with prompts it’s easy to find new readers and extend your community.
Hmm, writing prompts… say more?
For anyone looking for quick instructions, we have a cheat sheet just for you.
It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).
Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)