In my last post, I talked about how we mythologize the loved ones we’ve lost–in my case, Mom.
I also asked the pressing question: Who the hell is Walt? The references to this mystery guy were plenty in Mom’s high school yearbook, which recently came into my possession.
Well, it’s been a long year but so far it ain’t been too bad. It’s been great knowing you this year. Be good and keep ahol’ of ol’ Walter.
After last week’s post, I received emails from my mom’s sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, and best friend–a veritable social media reunion!–filling me in on bits I’d forgotten or never knew about my mom’s younger years. Spoiler: Mom did not keep ahol’ of Walter.
If you haven’t guessed, that’s him–the elusive Walt–up there with Mom, king and queen of the 1963 senior prom. I’m wondering if my mom’s Grandma Rose, a seamstress, made Mom’s dress. I’m also thinking not all the ladies in the court look pleased. I now remember my mom mentioning this “crowning,” saying it was only because she was the girlfriend of the king–that this was an automatic appointment to royalty. Until I saw this photo, though, I’d forgotten all that.
Really, some of the pleasure of remembering those we’ve lost must come from the selective forgetting, or curating–to use a popular word–of their personal narrative.
Because, as much as it is painful to forget, it is also painful to remember too much. To hold all the memories of my mom’s life, sickness, and death with me everyday would swamp me. So I am selective. As selective as I would be if I were writing her story (which I’m not–or not in major way, anyway).
I am aware that I gravitate to Mom memories from BC (before cancer), because cancer pisses me off and doesn’t deserve a starring role in my favorite Mom stories.
Which brings me back to photographs and those images we save and frame and hang on our walls for all to see. And the images that remain tucked away, like in a yearbook that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.
I know many bloggers use photography as inspiration for blog posts. Do you? Have you ever used an old portrait as inspiration for a poem, essay, or story? Let us know, below!
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In another month, I’ll celebrate my mom’s birthday–for the 12th time since her death. A dozen years, a milestone of remembering. With the day comes a sort of dread, that I will forget–that I’ve already forgotten how the back of her hand felt under my fingertips, how much she liked her hair brushed, how she looked while telling her favorite jokes (I can’t repeat in polite company).
Am I remembering all that right?
Since my last post on the myths–and reality–we make around boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about the myths we create to remember. And I realize I’ve done that with my mom, picked key memories to cobble together her story–one to tell myself, over and over–because we don’t forget a good story. And forgetting is the most frightening thing.
And so it was with relief that I got ahold of my mom’s high school yearbook, senior year, 1963–all skinny ties and strands of pearls–knowing the photographs and notes from my mom’s teenage friends would bolster the Mom-myth I’d written (providing supporting backstory, if no surprises).
My controlling Mom-narrative: Mom as earth mother-type, who, after marrying my dad, Bill, in 1969 moved out to the country where they would care for the house and garden, a goat named Esmeralda, ducks and chickens, and, finally, us kids. Let’s just say, before the term “granola” became popular shorthand, my mom made her own. Of course, she had a life before the 70s, as a college co-ed, the only girl in her family to go. Before that, she had a childhood she smiled through, if sometime just barely. Did she want to forget?
Only truth would be found within these yearbook pages, says the so-serious foreword, complete with classical (mythical) epigraph:
I flipped through the book, its barely-yellowed pages telling me my mom hadn’t done this, hadn’t looked back on her teenage years.
Would she approve of my snooping?
Me, if I ordered my own senior yearbook, I don’t know where it would be now, and I can’t imagine I would have shown up on any pages. I didn’t “do” senior photos or homecomings or proms, busy with ballet. Really, here’s the whole truth: when my husband and I were engaged, I took him to my 10-year reunion. “Why aren’t you talking to anyone?” Mr. Popular asked me. I realized then we’d had polar-opposite high school experiences. “I was too shy to talk to them then. Why would I talk to them now?” And that was the end of my reunion-ing.
Maybe I could live vicariously though these yearbook pages of my mom’s. I mean, look at all the notes from friends, sharing in their Annette Funicello-esque experiences of senior year. French class was a big thumbs up; gym class was a big thumbs down. No surprises there. Mostly, my Mom-myth was supported through cursive messages extolling her sweetness–even if she didn’t smile enough (sorry, Dick).
In the teenage years, when a girl could be expected to live only for herself–her future husband and children not even blips on the horizon of consciousness–my mom seemed already to be living for others. Maybe even us, her future family. I mean, if she can’t be here for us now, could she have made up for this lack by being there for us back then–even before there was an us?
Then there are the bold declarations from the guys, with their heavy-rimmed glasses and flat-tops: “P.S. I love you,” says Rog; “I would flirt with you, if only…” says Timothy, otherwise known as Dudd, Cisco, and Bones. Axel, aka Axl, tells my mom in his note that he’ll drop her a card from Paris.
There are surprises though. Did Mom–Barb–really go by the nickname Booge? And why? What’s the story there? “Best Looking” superlative? She never told us that! All her poopooing her looks when we were kids. A show of modesty–or solidarity when we girls endured bad teenage skin and heartache?
Then, there came the real surprise, just one mild-mannered, four-letter word, but one I swear I’d never heard from Mom before. A serious high school boyfriend? “Take care of him,” one note says…”I’d flirt with you if not for…” and “good luck with…”
Who the hell is Walt?
Best of luck always to a real sweet girl. It’s been fun getting to know you this year in dear old Carlo’s class and also our great (?!) gym class. Good luck with Walt, he’s a great guy and you make a wonderful couple. Have fun this summer…
Reader, stay tuned…
But first, tell me how you remember? How do you create the stories you tell yourself about those you’ve lost? And…did you save your high school yearbook? Were you at all surprised by your teenage self?
When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.
In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).
Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.
Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.
What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.
Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.
Today, my boys are almost 10. You see, I managed to keep them alive and come to love them–even if we never fell in love (eww). My boys are neither animals nor princes, but they are their own individual, forever-blooming selves, as they approach the cusp of adolescence recently coined tween-hood. They don’t require me every second of the day and night anymore; but we still share a lot of time, and it will come as no surprise that much of our shared time is spent in books.
We’ve found we all have a thing for myths–not surprising since the apple doesn’t fall far… and since the boys have been steeped in Catholic traditions (redolent with myth) since before they could talk. We have fun tracking myths–a Greek whale and a biblical whale. Same for the big flood. And same for the taboos that pop up in the myths we read about. God bless children’s authors, especially Rick Riordan, who, as the narrator Percy Jackson, manages to provide a wonderful introduction for middle-grade readers to the Greek myths without creeping me–or my kids–out. Yes, even those filed under “taboo.” [Great academic article on “The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels,” here.]
Yep, even the doozy: the Oedipus myth. You remember, boy grows up, kills dad, and beds mom. Maybe it’s because–and not in spite–of my Catholic upbringing that I am drawn to such taboos, as put down in literature. (For instance, I like Nabakov’s Lolita, because it presents the writerly challenge of a morally despicable main male character, and I like a challenge.)
Which brings me to the last book I read, Ed King (2011) by David Guterson, which presents the reader with a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Here, the author presents: “…the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.” [Read the rest of the fairly positive Guardian review by Viv Groskop here.]
As always, Guterson’s writing is clever, but what interested me most about the novel was the challenge of knowing exactly where the story is going from the start–because the plot follows that taboo Oedipal path we all know so well. The question the reader asks is not: what happens next? But just how will it all go down?
Go down it does. “Most of all, though,” says Groskop, “it’s a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy.” Yes, idiocy. What’s that saying?… Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is insanity? I’d stretch that to lunacy–or idiocy. And isn’t that what we do when we retell myths? Go down the same well-trod narrative path? (Good on ya, brave Guterson.) Call me crazy, but I had fun following Ed King meander from myth to taboo to eww. Less the making of a man but the unmaking of one. Even a cautionary tale (dressed up in really fun literary fiction)–and isn’t that just what taboos are meant to do? Beware all ye who enter here.
Which brings me to my own writing, as I return to my work-in-progress and pull in myth–not as a plot device but to provide powerful images for my female characters. Sorry, boys. While the Greek and Roman myths, with which we’re all so well acquainted, often figure males in the leading roles, I’m discovering more female-centered myths in Finnish folklore, particularly in the tales set down in the Kalevala. I’ll keep you–and my avidly-reading boys–posted on my mythical meanderings.
Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite myth? What’s your favorite myth retelling? What are you reading right now?
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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.)
DAY 1: I was in the hot-seat on the first morning of the conference, when I read from my novel-in-progress, choosing three scenes that feature my three female MCs in or at the water. I called it “Women at the Water’s Edge” and introduced myself and my writing as always returning to water. I guess I flow downstream or maybe the Cuyahoga River-burning jokes on my home city of Cleveland really got to me as a kid. Either way, water wends its way into much of my writing, and in the case of a reading, provided a good overarching theme.
Not-pro tip: when reading longer works aloud, try to capture a mood and tone with language–over concentrating on plot and character development. Think like a poet, and focus in on strong images.
I was more than happy to play the opening act for poet and author David Swerdlow, who read after me–passionately and powerfully–from his new novel about a school shooting, called Television Man.
Last year, I must have appeared composed enough to be asked to moderate a session, this year. So, I had the pleasure of introducing culture critic, radical educator, and writer, Erica Cardwell, who traveled from New York to present at this conference. Her creative nonfiction workshop was a real high point of my weekend.
Grounding her session with the James Baldwin quote–“Home is an irrevocable condition.”–we participants mined our personal pasts and notions of home for material. And this fiction writer (moi) got nonfiction on the page, which is really something!
Other highlights of my day included conversations with published authors about the writing process and the after-the-writing process of publishing. And, instead of coming out of these conversations focusing on what feels impossible (agent querying, anyone?), I came out refocused on the writing, itself–the reason I do this whole maddening thing. Not-pro tip: return to the writing.
As for that church pic up there…how’s that for a reading venue? Both poet Philip Metres (pictured) and Erica Cardwell, along with a young writer and scholarship winner, read their work in the sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church, an active partner of Lit Youngstown. And after…the world’s most glorious lemon cake. Not-pro tip: enjoy amazing cake after readings.
Just as I did when attending last year’s literary festival, I like to sprinkle in some research side-trips when in Ohio. This year, I didn’t have to travel far to get a taste of the 1980s music scene–just a few minutes to visit with my new friend Sonny Boy Hopchek, local musician, and owner of Underdog Records (the place to be if you want vintage vinyl!) since 1975. (Shout-out to John for the introduction.)
As for after-hours…how does the saying go? “Into each writing festival a little hotel HGTV must fall?” Or, maybe that’s just me. Really, though, a full day of festival-ing can be a lot for an introvert. Not-pro tip: take time to recoup.
DAY 2: Recoup I did, and the next day began with a fiction craft talk conducted by Michael Croley, author of short story collection Any Other Place, which I’m loving. Talk takeaways: to get at emotion put your plot in motion; meaning, construct a plot to reveal your characters. The author and professor also talked about acute and chronic tension in our stories–the tension in the front and back story. But are they really front and back? Croley quoted Grace Paley: “Every story is two stories communicating with one another.” After learning that it takes Croley about 10 drafts to discover the plot of a story, I left that workshop feeling ready to revise (and revise).
The panel I sat on (along with the editors of Youngstown’s own journal, Volney Road Review) and the signature editors panel, titled “Cultural Identity in Writing & Publishing,” covered some of the same terrain: How can writers find publishing venues to realize their work (and, by extension, selves) in the world? On the other side of the desk, how do we editors (of journals, magazines, and even blogs) seek out and publish a diversity of voices? Tactics ran the gamut: from reading submissions blind (no names attached) to soliciting work solely from people of color. Is any tactic going to ensure that our compilations of creative voices–lit journals, mags, and blogs–represent the diversity of experiences of our writing communities and wider world? It’s a big question but one worth discussing and aiming for. Not-pro tip: be open to new strategies to find new voices.
The second evening of the conference, we took to the streets–or the sidewalk, anyway–for the Words Made Visible sidewalk project, a year-long collaboration between visual and literary arts. Four poets read from their work featured on four permanent sidewalk slabs: two on the lawn of St. John’s and two in the sidewalk of downtown Youngstown. Talk about making your mark, right?!
At this point of the festival, I was limping. And I don’t mean figuratively. All the writerly stretching I’ve done since last year’s festival: publishing and querying…starting a new novel…featuring poets on my blog… interviewing authors here and for Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I became features editor…working with other writers so their voices shine in articles, book reviews, essays, and stories…and I’d neglected my vessel.
This vessel-body of mine, I’ve written before, was once my creative instrument, when I was a student of ballet. This body of mine that birthed two more small ones almost 10 years ago…is oftentimes too still now, housing as it does a mind anchored to paper and keyboard. Not-pro tip: move the mind and the body.
So, I was happy to close out my weekend, sitting, late-night with friends, and listening to live music to inspire my writing. Also, the hazy IPA (my first) didn’t hurt…
But not before final readings–from former Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon (below right), and R.W. Franklin, this year’s runner-up for Lit Youngstown’s Short Short Fiction Open contest. Congrats to all for a wonderful literary conference. Can’t wait for next year’s!
And last, but not least, my autographed book haul: Christopher Barzak’s novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing; Jessica Fischoff’s poetry collection, The Desperate Measure of Undoing; Karen Schubert’s poetry collection, Dear Youngstown; and David Swerdlow’s novel Television Man. Not-pro tip: bring a big bag.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your festival of choice–literary or otherwise–held during the fall? What’s your favorite swag to take home?
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It starts with fire sirens, so loud the littlest children clap their hands over their ears. But not my guys, old enough now to tough it out–and join the parade on their decorated bikes to cheers from neighbors lined on both sides of the street.
Only … this Fourth of July Parade, one boy returned after he’d finished the short parade route, red-faced and sweating. The other wasn’t with him. “Where’s your brother?” was answered with a shrug. The street was empty. And I had the feeling of dread every parent knows, that hollowing out, followed by cold palms–on a very hot day.
I had to wait only a minute. A minute, and I spotted his smiling face, which I’d never loved more. He’d taken another lap around the parade route, winding up riding between a couple of police cruisers, utterly safe.
Still, I thought later about the hair’s breadth that separates joy from fear–and how that razor’s edge feeling works in life and on the page, to heighten our senses, arrest the world, and focus our intentions.
A part of us–the primitive brain part maybe–delights in the gooey sweet center of darkness. You know: the rickety roller coaster, the scary clown, the creepy circus music.
Which brings me to my latest summertime thrill-read: GLORY DAYS, a novel in stories by Melissa Fraterrigo, which I initially selected for my sister, who likes “creepy circus books.” It’s not creepy, but it is dark. And, if it’s important to eat with the season, I figure why not read with the season. What better season to settle into sticky-hot, unsettling stories set around an amusement park than summer?
Reading this book feels dangerous, like the Tilt-A-Whirl ride gone wrong when I was maybe 8, my brother 6, the safety bar broken–when I felt sure the centrifugal force would send him flying. No one flew, but still that dangerous, ecstatic feeling remains written on my middle-aged heart.
Glory Days feels like that–decidedly thrilling. Like being a mom or a roller coaster junkie: one in the same.
From the summary on the back cover: “At the center of this novel is the story of Teensy and his daughter, Luann, who face the loss of their land [to developers] even as they mourn the death of Luann’s mother….When Glory Days–an amusement park–is erected,” the past of Midwest ranchers and farmers is beat out by new money, drugs, and greed… “In Glory Days Melissa Fraterrigo combines gritty realism with magical elements to paint an arrestingly stark portrait of the painful transitions of twenty-first-century, small-town America.”
If you loved Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, a National Book Award finalist, you’ll like Glory Days. If you like novels in stories… If you like your summer reads with a side of eerie… And there’s the amusement park seer, Fredonia the Great, a great conceit and even better, heartbreaking character.
This book–set in its fictional Nebraska town of Ingleside–contains a multitude of envy-inspiring invention, like a roller coaster named Tornado. But it’s the language that arrested me. Fraterrigo is full-on gritty, without going too spare. She lets us settle into this unsettled landscape of new haves and historic have-nots–a tinderbox for conflict.
From the titular story:
Fredonia recalls the sound of the balers, dust rising up from the till. Back then Ingleside had dirt roads and banks of trees and always the river with its green fertile scent. She wakes with a start and remembers all over again that the fields have sprouted new weekend homes, and not too far away stores that are as big as football fields stretch out where corn tassels once swayed. Still, it is hard to look and not see the farms cowering. Now there’s the chatter of rides on their tracks, screams clinging to wind.
Now, it’s your turn. What are you reading this summer? Do you look for a light read? Dark? Is it just me, or are suspense and horror novels popping up more and more on the What to Read this Summer lists?
Looking for a poem to start your day? A flash fiction piece over lunch? Short story or essay at bedtime? We’ve got you–over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where there’s a brand new issue up for your summer reading pleasure. I also encourage you to check out our Features section, edited by yours truly–for essays, reviews, and interviews. (For you writers out there, submissions are always rolling!)
And it’s not as dire as that, I’ve just been busy. Busy with my freelance writing work, with family–it’s my husband’s birthday today–and with moving forward with my creative writing process: create, recreate, revise, edit, submit, repeat. And that’s only for my short stories. As for my completed historical novel manuscript, I’m taking a break from querying agents. After receiving some constructive feedback, but no offers of representation, I will be back to the editing desk, come fall. For now, what better impetus to get a second manuscript under my belt than a little healthy rejection?
So, I’ve been working on my latest WIP, a multi-generational novel–and spiraling. Spirals are a shape I’ve had in mind for a while, since reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland (my take on that book, here) with her potent imagery of Kansan funnel clouds. (And, we had our first tornado warning of the season the other day, here in Maryland.) As it happened, the book I picked up as a tandem read to Heartland was Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, a fascinating craft book that takes the traditional story arc (or wave) shape–ya know, rising action-climax-falling resolution–to task. Or, at least suggests various other shapes our stories can take: spirals, webs, radials.
This led me to thinking about the “shape” of my creative process, which feels very much like spiraling. If you picture a funnel cloud spiraling, I’m the still eye in the center (most of the time). Of all the swirling ideas around a theme, say song and singing (one of the major themes in my WIP), I need to grab hold of the ideas that might fit and let the rest blow on by. Thus far, I’ve grabbed onto Finnish lament singing and folk songs; American Blues; Christian hymns and spirituals; and the best of the 80s radio hits: Whitney Houston, Wham, Elton John. (As you can see, I’ve held onto more than I’ve let go.)
Yet, such amassing of material around a theme–this kind of gathering research–I find much more freeing than the longitudinal historical research I did for my completed novel. Following along a historical plot line (albeit with fictional characters) was a bit constraining. And I’d thought it would have been the other way around: plot line laid out would free me to explore the other elements more fully: character, theme, setting. And maybe it did. But I’m having fun, this time around, creating in a freer way.
Now, it’s your turn, how do you capture ideas for your writing? How do you construct a post, a story, or book? Do you follow a forward-moving path? Do you regress? Do you turn in circles?
Of course, narratives move forward–the stories we create and the stories we are. But, I’m finding, we don’t always have to push them forward quite so hard. In fact, I will have a wonderful opportunity to look back on my own personal history soon. My boys and I are headed to Ohio, and I’ll have the opportunity to show them the house on the old country road I still think of as home.
I was thinking about our trip as I had a funny exchange on Twitter with the novelist Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories. (She was a featured author and read at the Barrelhouse literary conference I talked about here.) A Cleveland venue where she was appearing blurbed her as a young writer and she corrected them. I joked that maybe we’re all young in Cleveland. But then I got to thinking that I always feel young when I return to Northeast Ohio, maybe because I left at 19 and time for me, like my memories, has frozen in place. Let’s just say, I’ll be glad to get back, feel young, and look afresh at my native place through the eyes of my boys. Maybe we’ll turn around in circles a few times–even get a little lost.
What are your upcoming summer adventures–in reading, in writing, in travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.
I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.
Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…
I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.
As it happened, I heard Ehrenreich, who is a pretty big deal and author of NICKEL AND DIMED, (a book for which she went undercover among the American poor), speak at Johns Hopkins University–to a group of us communications folks. I remember thinking the statistics and stories she shared that day seemed to me like from another world–foreign–and yet her research centered on the poor of Baltimore, not far from where I live now.
In contrast, there was no going undercover for Smarsh, born into a family for whom there were no bootstraps big enough to change their class: working poor. From the book flap summary:
I can’t say I loved this book, because it’s not a book to be loved. It’s not easy to read about statistics writ personal on the author’s immediate and extended family–generation after generation–in the way of teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and domestic violence.
Smarsh is born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, and yet, instead of each generation doing better, it seems the opposite was true. Such is the power of the stranglehold of poverty–as destructive as the tornadoes that so often whip through the author’s home state.
I come to memoirs looking for at least two of three elements: a story worth telling, with logic to support, and emotional resonance to make me feel. That HEARTLAND is Smarsh’s story, which she supports through sound journalistic research, and narrates in such a lyrical way, made this a very satisfying read.
The swirling clouds were just above my head, reaching down with little arms…They spun around a middle void, stretched and grabbed at one another, pulling back into themselves–the beginnings of a funnel.
A supercell, as meteorologists call it, swirling over the plains is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Note: I didn’t say the memoir was an easy read. Passages that begin “Being broke has a way of separating families…” made me recall the ups and downs of my mom’s upbringing, born just 15 years after the worst year of the Great Depression. The last of four kids, she was sent away for a time to live with relatives, something not all that unusual then. And then there was the emotional poverty in families touched by the Depression and the use of alcohol as a balm. In this way, Smarsh’s story feels like a story out of time, like something from high school history stories of the Dust Bowl. But no. The story of American poverty and its tendrils is, unfortunately, evergreen.
How to break the cycle? How to scale that steep slope representing the hierarchy of needs? For Smarsh, like so many others, the answer lay in “getting out,” getting an education. Of course, it’s not as easy–or easy on the heart–as all that. Because getting out means leaving behind.
…as college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a similar disconnect with power. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.
Smarsh’s HEARTLAND and so many stories coming out of the American Midwest right now are sounding the alarm. Let’s hope we wake up.
Now it’s your turn? Have you read Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND or another book on the American Midwest, on class? What are you reading right now?
This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.
Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”
This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.
I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”
Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to
those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I
wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a
real person—that insult, “trash.”
We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”
Sarah Smarsh in Heartland
And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.
Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?
And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours
from me and mine…
Yet, for this reader, it sometimes feels like directionless reading. Oh, I have my reading piles: one to inform this blog, one to inform my completed historical MS; one to inform my new MS; one for pure pleasure, which typically dwarfs the others out of neglect.
And, so, to experience a moment of reading kismet, when one book I love references another book I love, is a thing of beauty: a book-love triangle, if you will. This particular book-love triangle also happens to connect my blog reading with my pleasure reading, making me feel on this cold and dreary “spring” day a little more whole.
Enough lead-up, here it is: In Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons In Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, he quotes a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
There are as many reasons Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has long lived in Idaho, would quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson, who was born in and has set stories in Idaho. Doerr and Robinson share more than external landscape; they share a sensibility, an exploration of the internal landscape of the spirit, spirits accustomed to the miracle of the everyday.
Any parent of twin infants will tell you (if they’re being honest), one baby at a time would have been sufficient. Because I am a twin parent, myself, Doerr’s memoir was recommended to me, though it didn’t make the tough moments in the memoir easier to read from having gone through similar ones myself. Still, it always seemed, the fog of nursing, holding, walking, changing and bathing sleepless little people would eventually lift, if for only a fleeting moment.
In one such moment of sleep deprived twin-parent frustration, the fog lifts for Doerr by a baby’s “first,” one of those little everyday miracles in the life of a parent: the first finger-squeeze, first smile, first crawl. In this instance, one of Doerr’s boys says “Ciao” to a Roman man passing in the stairwell. His first “Ciao.”
One of “a thousand thousand” reasons… And we could spend time here talking about the meaning behind “sufficiency” and behind “thousand” for Doerr, who quotes Robinson, America’s most famous living religious author–who, no doubt, uses “thousand” as the Bible does, to signify a multitude, a vast abundance. You can read my thoughts on Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the first time only recently, here. You can read my initial thoughts on Doerr’s memoir, which I tandem read with The Gondola Maker–for a centuries-spanning “trip” to Italy–here.
But here is where I stop, today, to return to reading, for the multitude of little miracles that happen when we make connections across the piles of tomes of words that are waiting for us.
Have you experienced a book-love triangle you’d like to share? A baby’s “first”? A fog lifted? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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!)
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.