My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sou'wester, Carve magazine, Flock literary journal and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My (nonfiction) articles appear in university magazines and other nonprofit publications. An Ohio native, I received my MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. I currently live in Maryland, where I am at work on a novel and a collection of short stories about vision and visions in the Rust Belt.
I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.
There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.
“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.
Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.
So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.
My mom wasn’t a hippie, though she lived on Hessler Road as a college student–a Cleveland street where hippie power still reigns. Late 60s, with my bearded dad at the wheel of their VW bug, they looked the hippie part, anyway. Enough to be stopped by a police officer, as they traveled country roads to my mom’s parents’ house in upstate New York. The checkpoint was in a little place called Woodstock. The officer tapped on the driver’s-side window. “Going to the music festival?”
“What music festival?”
Alas. My lovely parents weren’t hippies, but they weren’t content to become carbon copies of their parents, either. Starting fresh, newly-married, they moved to the country, where they would raise a few ducks, some chickens, a goat named Esmeralda, and eventually us human kids. What veggies she couldn’t grow in her lush garden, my mom got from the natural food co-op she helped to run. We had a local honey man and a pumpkin man. None of this struck us kids as any kind of resistance against the powers of 80s consumerism powered by…well, power.
For that reason–a kid’s obliviousness to her mom being anything but Mom— her bright yellow No Nukes! t-shirt stands out in sharp relief when I think of her. A child of the 50s, my mom would have recalled the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War. She would have remembered Love Canal, not just as the famous environmental disaster, but as the working class neighborhood 45 minutes from where she grew up.
And so, as I was working recently on a new story set in Ohio in the 80s, my thoughts–and research–turned to that familiar landscape and those looming cooling towers, pictured above, belonging to the local nuclear power plant: the site of my mom’s protest days. Did she carry a sign at the gates of the power plant? Did she chant or yell? I don’t know. She never took us kids. Did she join a small group of Sierra Club members who planted spiderwort flowers–with white petals they said would turn pink if exposed to radiation–at the plant gates? Did they turn pink? There’s so much I never asked her.
Today, my dad’s lake view is marred by the cooling towers of yet another nuclear power plant, less than a couple hours west following the lake shore. And so, in a small way, nuclear power has followed our family. In a much greater and tragic way, it has followed so many other Ohio families, including writer Melissa Ballard’s.
On each visit to a nuclear site, Dad wears a badge. After the visit, he turns the badge over to a technician. The film in the badge, when developed, measures his exposure to radiation. When his cumulative numbers reach a certain level, he has to stay out of the plants for a time.
“Wow, Dad, do you glow in the dark?” I say, teasing.
“No, dear. It’s safe,” he says.
I hope you will read Ballard’s moving essay about a father-daughter relationship–one fraught with struggles of power on several levels. While you’re there, check out some of the best in regional reporting and writing–on offer from Belt Magazine–via my native Cleveland. Thank you to the editor for allowing me to sample Ballard’s essay here.
Is it safe, nuclear power? I’m in no position to debate such things. Such things do color a place, I can say that. Such things do much more than mar the lake view with hulking towers. They change the conversation around power–actual and figurative–that are carried on within families and communities. And we remember and carry the conversations further–those we had, and maybe especially those we should have had with the family members we’ve lost.
We research and write and connect and converse.
What is your impetus to write? What do you wish you would have asked a loved one you’ve lost?
*Image of a nuclear power plant in Perry, Ohio, by Eric Drost.
I’m talking about getting the creative writing out there, into the great wide open–beyond the blog, and into news outlets, magazines, and journals–and so are a lot of other bloggers. So, I thought I might start a convo here, where we can collect some pros, cons, and lessons learned.
Sound good? I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am no expert. I have an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt (along with a lot of Xmas cheese); yet we rarely discussed in short fiction and novel-writing courses what to do with our pieces after we’d written them–past the Sisyphean process of write-edit-trash-revisit-rewrite-edit, that is. Really, a piece of writing may never be “finished,” but eventually, it’s good to let it go. How do you know if your writing might be ready to submit?
How’s that for hyperbole? If you’ve been here a while, you’re probably guessing that by great I mean middling and by experiment I mean absolutely nothing scientific. Still, looking at the year’s blogtivities–what you liked*, what you liked less–could help us all achieve blog bliss in 2019. It could happen. But, first, some preliminary stats, because numbers are fun so long as WordPress is doing the crunching.
I published a perfectly round 100 posts in 2018 (not counting this one) to receive 9,736 views from 5,434 visitors. Thank you for being here; without you, I’m a complete narcissist. Likes: 2,515, and my favorite thing in the world: Comments: 924. (Yep, they still count if I’m the one commenting.)
Your Favorite Posts from 2018 (in descending order, based on views)
The Sunshine Blogger Award: Woot (if tardy)! featured my take on 11 probing questions and my nominations of 11 blogs that are totally worth your time. (Bad post timing? Too much in your reading queue? Are we tired of the award posts? What do you think?)
OK, I’m no statistician, but I’m seeing a trend: gimme more writerly guests, you say. I’m so glad you asked! Coming up in early 2019, I will be featuring an interview with Ohio’s Poet Laureate and hopefully one with a small press publisher. Inquiring minds and all…
So, next up on the old arcade Love Meter: Uncontrollable! I can’t picture just what an uncontrollable blog looks like, but you can help me get there. The American Rust Belt is a big place with a lot of worthy lit–stories real and imagined, memoir, poetry and more. Know a Rust Belt writer with a story to tell? Let me know in the comments.
Other bloggish lessons learned in 2018
Share the work of others and you will be recognized (see above). It’s not just about garnering views, comments, and followers–the stuff of stats. It’s about being a good citizen in this writing life, wherever and whatever you write. I’ll never forget the blogger who responded to one of my very first blog posts by saying something along the lines of “blogging isn’t just writing, it’s communicating.” This is two-way street stuff. This is our blog.
Because I truly believe that, I spend a lot of time out on the WordPress Reader scoping out new blogs; I drop comments; and I share what I love. Case in point: WordPress Discover shared their 2018 roundup: A Year of Great Writing: The Most-Read Editors’ Picks of 2018, which is a great list btw, and in conclusion the editors asked for our picks. I didn’t have to think twice before hyping in the comments Ella Ames’ blog Not Enough Middle Fingers (and not just for the name). I was thrilled to maybe send a few bloggers Ella’s way for funny, poignant, deep, and daring writing plus her homegrown illustrations. Know what happened next? My comment drew visitors–and even a few new followers–to my site. (Welcome!) So, let’s all spread the blog love in 2019.
Will next year be the year my writing hits Uncontrollable on the Love Meter? I don’t know. But, together, we can make connections that count for a lot.
All the best to you and yours for a safe, happy, and healthy New Year!
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
This felt like appropriate writing advice for the season, so I thought I’d re-post this gem from Annie Dillard today.
Over the past few days, my writing energies have been poured into Christmas cards. (Yep, I still do those.) It’s the one time of year I connect across the many miles with family and friends who don’t do social media (which was me, too, until just a couple years ago).
It’s the one time of year I “give it all”–braggin’ on my boys and sharing declarations of affection, longing, and even shared loss that might feel sappy at any other time.
Which gets me to thinking about something a friend of mine posted (on social media) about not being afraid to speak of those we’ve lost over the holidays. This is my twelfth Christmas after my mom’s death. The cynical and deflecting part of me thinks I could make up a funny song about my grief–to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas…” (Or maybe something along the lines of “Goodly Mom I lost looked out on the feast of (what rhymes with Stephen?)” Instead, I share her stories with my boys, carry on tying the family ties, and speak her name.
“…give it, give it all, give it now.” That seems like good writing–and living–advice, during this and every season.
All the best and sincerest holiday wishes to you and yours,
P.S. Pics from my family’s “Thanksmas” celebration: the obligatory sister and me in the kitchen selfie; a nearby beach looking not at all Christmas-y; and one amazing elf.
Thank you to Writer Side of Life for nominating me for this award (ages ago). If you haven’t yet checked out Kim’s blog, please do. There you’ll find engaging posts about books and the writing life, inspirational interviews with New Zealand authors, lessons learned from “dragging” her kids to France for a research excursion–and much more.
So, as I said, I am tardy, actually more than tardy, to my own award presentation. Imagine one of those big show venues, with all the glitz, glamor, and champagne–after it’s stripped down. The place echos with emptiness, and next up for the venue is, I don’t know, the opposite of glamor, maybe a taxidermy show.
Welcome, folks, to my stuffed dead things award presentation. (See what tardiness gets you?)
1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog so others can find them.
2. Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.
3. Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
4. Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
5. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post and/or your blog site.
What is your favourite place in the world? (“Favourite” spelling Kim’s)
I have extolled many of the wonders of my home city of Cleveland, Ohio, here on the blog. For those who don’t know, Cleveland has long been the butt of jokes, and while it might have lost a little of its sheen from its Gilded Age, industry-fed glory, C-town today is where you want to go for sports, arts, outdoors, and popular culture when you’re in the Midwest. List of major attractions here. From the home of the Cleveland Browns (who won yesterday!) to one of the premiere art museums in the U.S.; and from the Metroparks system to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there’s no place I’d rather be. And…Paris is also nice.
What do you want people to get out of your blog?
I hope my blog helps people come to know and appreciate the literature–poetry, fiction, memoir, and more–coming out of the U.S. Rust Belt, generally, and Ohio specifically.
It’s pretty arbitrary, really, the turning over of the calendar page to the next month, the next year.
We writers and readers would do better to stay on track to achieve our goals, every day, all year long, rather than make December feel like the last, flash round in a game of Writing Life. Of course, it doesn’t help that this is the time when we round up the year’s favorite reads; I weighed in on one of these myself, here. We log our “win” (or “loss”) at NaNoWriMo, the contest with the aim of churning out 50,000 words in the month of November. We chart our year’s submissions-to-acceptances ratio on Submittable; our agent query stats on Query Tracker. And we plan to do better–and more–next year. As if, in doing all this, we will reach some Writing Life finish line, win the game–and the fortune that goes with it.
Only, as I’m finding through listening to more experienced writers and authors, there is no finish line. There are stats and figures we can attach to our progress, sure. If you care, my NaNoWriMo “loss” stands at 9,738 words–the start of a new manuscript that is coming along; my 2018 short story submissions-to-acceptances is 29-to-2 (stay tuned for publication news in January); agent query-to-rejections: 4-to-1.
There are book contests and award shows. There are book coaches and pitch wars. Though it can feel like it, the writing life isn’t a game but a life, a way of connecting with the world through the written word.
We can make a game of the writing life. But, if we’re here, we’ve already won.
I have to say I get a little overloaded by all the prescriptions for gratitude this time of year. However, to be living any kind of life that involves art–whether of the literary, visual, or performing variety–in a shared community is an immense blessing. I’m glad we can hash this stuff out together.
So, now it’s your turn. What’s your take on the Game of (Writing) Life? What does your 2019 fortune hold? Maybe even more importantly: skee-ball or pinball?
*On our annual off-season trip to the beach, we had one day of sun and one day of rainy arcade fun. More on Marty’s Playland here.
Revived from my Thanksgiving food coma, my family made our almost annual trek to the beach for off-season rates on a boardwalk-front room, rainy trips to the arcade (we can all agree on skee ball), and reading to the tune of some pretty good surf (or so I was told).
With November and its captive, NaNoWriMo, losing their grip, I turn to logging some of my best reads of 2018, including Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas’s book of poems called Weather, which (trust me) is a perfect name for a collection including many place poems set in Northeast Ohio. (More on this poet soon, I hope.)
Seems I’m “on” again with poetry, a reading practice which helps the fiction flow. But I haven’t stopped mooning over my fave novel I read this year, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which I talked about here. (Expecting some kind of twice-tolling timepiece this year, Santa!)
So when my favorite writing- and book-blogger from New Zealand, Kim at Writer Side of Life, asked for 2018 fave books, I couldn’t resist singing the praises of that very Gentleman. Here is Kim’s entire list of Bloggers’ Picks: Best Reads of 2018, which includes historical and modern novels, the literary and popular, a memoir and even a murder. Of that list, I’ve read three–including Charles Frazier’s Varina, which I talked about here and Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, which I…um…didn’t. What would you add to this Best Reads list? Comment here or on my Facebook page.
And since we’re heading into gifting season, what are your fave books to gift–for children and adults?
*For those of you who pay attention to my nonsense, my new muse in stone (likely actually Zeus or Heracles/Hercules) has been (diplomatically) dubbed: Grateful Edgar deVacca and titled muse of resourceful NaNo writers everywhere. (More on NaNo lessons learned coming soon…)
Remember them? Doug and Wendy Whiner (played by Joe Piscopo and Robin Duke) from Saturday Night Live? Get a healthy dose of the 1980s favorite whining sketch comedy duo here. Don’t miss the one where New York City Mayor Ed Koch gives the couple the key to the city and they whine ungratefully, “We wanted to go to Toledo.”
Sometimes I can’t help myself. All the fullness of life–the blessings of busyness with family. A full table. Work that fulfills me. Friends who get me. But some days, I just want to go to Toledo. You know what I mean, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to Toledo. (I’ve been there; your city has a lovely zoo.)
So, I’m taking a moment before I get caught up in the bustling cornucopia of life that is Thanksgiving Week here in the U.S. to say that I’m thankful for you.
…And also for my new marble muse in recline, above. (Thanks Momentmal at Pixabay.com.) Suggest a name for this old guy below, and I’ll reveal the winner once I recover from my food coma on Friday.)
Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).
Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.
Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.
So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.
Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!
How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?
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