This week’s tandem read…

I spent the loveliest Sunday celebrating St. Patrick’s Day–my own way. After Mass and brunch at a Greek restaurant, I found the sunniest spot on my porch, enjoyed a Bailey’s, and started in on this week’s tandem read: Pulitzer-prize winning (Cleveland, OH, native) Anthony Doerr‘s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World and art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli‘s debut novel, The Gondola Maker.

Do you do much tandem reading?

Tandem reading provides many such textual mirrors and prisms. I highly recommend it.

Writer and Book-seller Michael Berger

This book pairing is pretty obvious: both are set in Italy (the first in the 2000s Rome; the second in 16th-century Venice), with all the inherent romance an Italian setting prescribes–from fine literature, art, and architecture to finely-honed craft and familial trades passed down through the generations. And there will be your standard romance to come–more in Morelli’s tale, I’m afraid, than in Doerr’s memoir. (Like Doerr, I suffered from sleepless nights due to twin boys, only not in Rome.)

What’s 400 years between stories? I’m enjoying the tandem view of Italy spanning centuries, geography, and outlooks.

So far, I’d recommend both books.

With humor and his trademark attention to detail, Doerr chronicles his family’s year in Rome, where he begins work on his novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–when he’s not distracted by the writing of Pliny, the Elder; struggling with his Italian phrasebook; or carting his twin babies around an ancient city not meant for hulking twin strollers.

My favorite excerpt so far:

Jet lag is a dryness in the eyes, a loose wire in the spine. Wake up in Boise, go to bed in Rome. The city is a field of shadows beyond the terrace railing. The bones of Keats and Raphael and St. Peter molder somewhere out there. The pope dreams a half mile away. Owen blinks up at me, mouth open, a crease in his forehead, as though his soul is still somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to catch up with the rest of him.

In The Gondola Maker, Morelli’s expert research makes Venice more than a vibrant backdrop but a fully-fleshed-out character among the cast of this historical coming-of-age novel. I find her description of the craft and trades surrounding gondolas fascinating. (I’m eager to read her latest novel, The Painter’s Apprentice.)

My favorite passage so far:

I begin to absorb the unspoken language of Venetian boatmen, a complex set of hand gestures this cadre of men has developed over generations to communicate silently to one another across the water. Some of the signals are easy to divine: twirling fingers for “Let’s met for a plate of pasta at the midday meal” or a left thumb over the right shoulder for “incoming tide.”

Communication–through language spoken and unspoken–is another bright thread that binds these two books and makes this tandem read interesting and relevant to my writing right now. Tomorrow, I head to a writers retreat where I will continue working on my latest project, a multi-generational novel, featuring, among other related characters, a young woman who is losing her hearing–and must gain the ability to communicate in new ways. (Best advice to bear the long wait after querying agents about the first novel? Work on the second!)

Quick shout-out to my new followers who found this blog by way of my second WordPress Discover feature, My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas. And thank you for getting me past the 1,000 follower mark!

With other interviews, as well as book reviews, story excerpts, essays, and other musings on reading and writing the Rust Belt (and beyond), I hope you’ll stick around. See my categories above for more.

Now, it’s your turn. Are you a serial monogamist when it comes to reading books? Or, are you a tandem- or poly-reader? If so, what’s been your favorite tandem read so far? Comment away! I always respond.

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Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

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In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?


All One Big Happy Hustle

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Thanks to a couple of my favorite bloggers*, I’ve been thinking about the “side hustle” lately. Seems the popular term for side job has shifted from “gig” to “hustle,” and with it, comes a more pejorative connotation.

Let’s start here: once upon a time, when graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, I learned of an opportunity to do part-time contract work in internal communications—for the credit card company headquartered nearby. Not for a hip advertising firm. Not even for a nonprofit with a compelling cause. Nope, this job would require clocking in and out for the Fortune 500 company sometimes referred to around town as “the devil.”

Internal communications for the devil meant digesting leadership meeting notes on risk management and summarizing and synthesizing said notes into digestible PowerPoint presentations. (Oh, the myriad PowerPoint presentations!) And then came the fun of organizing the presentation highlights into multi-colored graphs on oversized Excel spreadsheets that required a special printer. This job was the opposite of every vision I’d had of my post-school self, teaching creative this and creative that.

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Powerful conversations and an essay by Melissa Ballard

A nuclear power plant near home

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.

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The Game of (Writing) Life

At historic boardwalk arcade, Marty’s Playland*, in Ocean City, Md, the Crane Digger machines date to the 1940s. But what do games of chance have to do with the writing life?

Yep, It’s All Fun and Games Until December.

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.

Will we win or lose at the Writing Life? Even the Fortune Teller can’t say.

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.

Vintage arcade games

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.

Sport in the Art of Place

I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.

And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.

No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).

There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).

At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.

It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.

Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.

 

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At Cooperstown’s Farmers’ Museum’s 19th-century Historic Village, a lovely way to spend an afternoon with the kids

For its small size, Cooperstown is a place with impressive arts offerings, but it is known far and wide for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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A note on perseverance in writing…and everything else

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This is not an inspirational blog.

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…

 

 

 

 

3 Reasons to Connect with Your Creative Community; 3 Words of Thanks; 3 Inspiring Writers

The writing life is often, necessarily, an isolated one. To create a world on paper (or screen) takes holing ourselves up, cutting ourselves off from the myriad distractions of modern life.

For our writing to matter to anyone outside our own heads, however, we must connect.

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3 good reasons to connect with your creative community:

To find readers: Not surprisingly, most of the followers of this blog are other bloggers; the readers of my short fiction are other writers. You will find readers in writers, and v.v.

To research that next WIP: Let’s not research entirely online (pleads this former college composition instructor). Speaking of research, heartfelt Kiiitos paljon (Thanks a lot!) to all the wonderful folks at the Finnish Heritage Museum and to Lasse Hiltunen, president, in particular for the wonderful tour and background information on everything Finnish! (If you ever find yourself near Fairport Harbor, Ohio, don’t miss this gem of a museum.) Lesson-learned: take your research on-site, when you can.

 

To gain inspiration: How inspiring is that library carrel? As delightful as isolation can be, even the most introverted writer needs to get “out there” once in a while.

While online writing communities and critique groups, library databases and catalogues have been invaluable to my perspective, there’s no substitute for the in-the-flesh writing community.

I’m a writer interested in exploring place, specifically the U.S. Rust Belt (more specifically, Ohio), and yet I no longer live in that place. No, the irony isn’t lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog–to connect with readers and writers and photographers in my native place.

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But virtual connection is not enough. Sometimes one has to be boots-on-the-ground there. And so, after some preparation to make the most of the conference, I drove my proverbial boots the five-and-a-half hours to attend Lit Youngstown’s 2nd Annual Literary Festival this past weekend. 3 inspiring festival highlights–not just to plug this literary festival (but do come next year, if you’re in the area; I plan to) but every and all such excuses to communally share our stories:

Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate and author of Weather: Poems, presented a piece about the mythic in poetry for an audience of fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and poets. (Poetry not your thing? I get that, and have talked about my on-again-off-again relationship with poetry. But Lucas is all about finding the poetic in the everyday; he talks about that here–from about minute 8 on).

Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of the amazing short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, read a few of her stories and graciously shared a little from her formative years. Arimah told a story about visiting the public library in summer with her sister, where they would each check out the max amount of books–50–and when finished with her tower, trade, and read her sister’s. Sure, Arimah read literature with a capital “L”, she joked; but she also read romance novels and fantasy, and continues to do so today–and her literary short fiction is all the more playful and magical because of it.

Jon Kerstetter, read from his memoir, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, which chronicles a life begun in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin to a life in business before Kerstetter pursued his dream of becoming a physician. When his days as an emergency doctor weren’t proving exciting enough, he volunteered for tours as an emergency military medic. After three tours in Iraq, Kerstetter returned to the U.S., injured, but this was only the start of his stateside struggles, as he suffered a stroke–leading to his reinvention as an author through the writing of his life’s story.

 

Inspiration abounded at this literary conference–and not just from the big names but from the poems and stories bravely shared by writers at all stages at open-mic and in conversation.

Me, I braved the mic to read a flash fiction piece of mine set not far from where we sat, amid the rolling hills and history of Northeastern Ohio. I also took part in a publishing panel to extol the virtues of connecting through traditional and nontraditional publishing, including sites like this blog–when we can’t connect in person.

And today I returned to my writing desk feeling inspired and connected in a meaningful way to the stories of home. Thanks a lot to all who made it happen!

Have you done the conference thing–for writing, blogging, or anything else? What are the benefits to in-the-flesh arts and literary communities?

Are you a Rust Belt author, blogger, or photographer? I’m always looking for stories to share.

 

*Photos from top down are of Youngstown, Ohio, buildings, the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, and interior shots of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngtown, where the Arimah and Kerstetter readings were held.

 

 

 

 

Where are we going, Where have we been?*

I am not the most introspective person. A dash of denial, a handful of escapism, maybe a pinch of penchant for intrigue, and my past is folded into the stories I write–about other people in other times.

I don’t feel drawn to answer the personal questions that pepper the blogosphere: fave book, town, TV show, ice cream flavor (OK, chocolate. There.)

I’d rather ask these questions of other writers or answer these questions in the guise of the characters I’m writing. Because, honestly, introspection and exploration of my past for its own sake, for my own sake–and not for a WIP–feels a little bit fruitless…

And time consuming. And, really, who’s got time?

Me. You. Everybody. Even if we have to make it. (Even if the process of making time for one thing and not another sometimes feels “shitty.”) Or, so says novelist and short story writer Dave Housley in his essay I’ve been carrying around in my head like a mantra:  “Baby Steps All the Way: Making the Time to Write a Book” featured on The Millions.

So, when the lovely Jennifer Kochak at Unfold and Begin asked if I’d like to answer questions about the end of my dancing life and the beginning of my writing life for her Starting Over series, I made the time.

And it wasn’t just not fruitless. It was really and truly meaningful, to me, and hopefully to those who stopped by the Starting Over interview: “A New Way to Express Her Creativity.

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That’s me there! For once, I was on the answering end of an interview, which was a nice change. I’ve talked here before about the need to ask good questions to get at good answers, and Jennifer did just that.

Truth is, it had been a long time since I’d given 19-year-old me much thought, and I think she needed it. Jennifer’s questions got at the grief I felt at giving up ballet, the art form I’d practiced since I was five, and the relief I felt at finding another creative outlet: writing. And, as I will have my own 19-year-olds in just a decade, they need me to engage in a bit of memory dredging and examining, too–even if they don’t know it yet.

The point is, in order to know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been.

Novel-writing folks fall into two camps: outliners and pantsers. I’m among the latter. Think: exploration without background knowledge, map, or compass, but a decent sense of direction. And while I like being guided by in-the-moment intuition, I realize this isn’t always the best way to lead a life off the page, especially since my real life also leads the real lives of other, pint-sized people.

So, I urge you to check out Unfold and Begin–not only for Starting Over interviews but for all kinds of roadmaps, like vision boards, that can help us navigate our paths ahead.

Where are you going? Do you consult your past before setting out?

In the near-term, I’m headed to Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Youngstown, Ohio. I’m excited at the prospect of spending a couple days with fellow writers, along with accomplished authors, editors, and academics on this many-peopled writerly path I’m traveling. So, this will be my last post for the week.

And, since we’re getting personal, I’ll leave you with a photo from deep in my personal archives (an old album of yellowed images and copies of newspaper clippings). Excuse the poor quality, but you get the gist. That’s me in the middle at age eight. If not properly dancing, I’m moving, and expressing something, anyway–look at that cavernous grin–and relishing it! A memory to remember and build on…

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*Title is a nod to Joyce Carol Oates’ frequently-anthologized short story, one of my all-time faves, the plot of which is nothing like where I’ve been, thankfully.

Sounds of silence; tastes long gone

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I’ve started a new WIP, which is a little like falling in love all over again. New plot lines and characters make for new discoveries. All a little exciting; all a little frightening.

Some of those new discoveries come from background research. Many others come from my own memories resurfaced.

As lots of writers will tell you, if I’m talking about it, I’m not writing it. So, I won’t go into great detail. But I was inspired by Lorna at Gin & Lemonade to post on a fall food memory. Think: food memory; think: taste. Right? The first thing I thought was sound.

See, one of my most potent fall food memories is the sound of my mom stirring soup on the stove top as I woke from a dead sleep after some kind of dental procedure, I think it was. The backstory is blurry, but the sound of the steel spoon on a steel pot forever rings in my memory. It’s the sound of care and comfort, warmth and frugality (no doubt there were dried beans aplenty in that soup.)

But back to my WIP and one of my main characters. An eighteen year old girl on the cusp of entering college–and life, really–is losing her hearing.

Imagine losing one of your precious senses.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, pondering what sounds I could let go and lose forever. For one, I could stand to forget my yelling-at-my-kids chest voice–one I didn’t even know I had before parenthood. (Lots of interesting discussion on this topic in fiction and nonfiction lately, from Lauren Groff’s story to Lydia Kiesling’s essay.)

Some sounds I couldn’t stand to lose: the sounds of a quiet house; my kids’ voices; and my mom stirring a pot of soup as I awake from a silent sleep.

There is no true silence; I’ve learned that much about hearing loss.

There’s a woman in town here who has lost her sense of smell, and with it, her sense of taste. I feel a little bit like that. I try to remember what my mom’s soup that long-ago evening might have smelled or tasted like, but I can’t–at least not yet.

I regret that I don’t have my mom’s recorded voice, with the nasally accent she passed down to me–along with her veiny hands, her love of puns, and the cookbook of family recipes she made, one for each of us kids, when she was sick.

That soup recipe is likely in there; without knowing it, I may make it for my family this fall.

What are your favorite foods of fall? What foods take you back to your native place?

My native Rust Belt has some distinctive Tastes of Home, if you’d like to explore!

Want more Rust Belt fun. Check out my FB page.

Interested in trying your hand at food-writing? Lorna at Gin & Lemonade found these helpful: for-real from Writer’s Digest and for-funny from the New Yorker.