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.
How are you? Three words. That’s about all we need to say right now, or during any period of grief, isn’t it? Then listen to the answer. But, let’s chat awhile. Really, what else do you have going on right now?
True story: lots of the typical emotional terribleness happened to me after my mom died, but there were some bright spots, too. Among them my induction into the Dead Mom Club.
OK, it’s not a real club–or maybe it is and my invitation’s been lost in the mail for 14 years. But, suddenly, I had a monumental thing in common with many people. However, being 30 at the time, I wasn’t friends with lots of those people. Most of my friends still had both their parents. But my husband had a couple friends who’d lost a parent on the youngish side–and suddenly we had this life-changing fact in common. That’s heavy. Whether we wanted to be or not (I choose not!) we were members of the same grief club.
Now, here we are in 2020, suffering from grief as a global entity. It’s a much bigger club no one gets out of belonging to. Let’s just hope the dues don’t skyrocket.
Sure, it’s grief we’re feeling–not that I recognized it as such, right away. It took something novelist Amber Sparks (a fellow native Midwesterner) and the funniest writer on Twitter said:
I just thought ‘I should call my mom, I need a mom right now,’ and I felt immense relief, and then I remembered my mom is dead and I am my own mom now.
Amber Sparks @ambernoelle, author of AndI Do Not Forgive You
Oh, it’s grief alright–even if the symptoms manifest differently for each of us. Even if we’re grieving different stuff on our own micro level. For me that’s missing experiencing the regular-level penitential stuff of Lent, rather than this penance on steroids. That’s taking part in a spring Lit Walk in my old ‘hood of Richmond, VA. That’s watching my kids play with friends that are not their twin. And don’t forget eating anywhere besides my own house.
Yep, what started as ennui is making its way through the ol’ stages of grief named by Kübler-Ross and co. Don’t believe me? Ask Harvard.
Now that we can name this heaviness, maybe we can do something about it. In the Harvard Business Review piece, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” writer Scott Berinato interviews David Kessler (one of Kübler-Ross’s and co.) for ideas on how to manage our pandemic-induced grief. My top takeaways and my own spins:
“Acceptance…is where the power lies”
Don’t ignore your anxious thoughts, but “find balance in the things you’re thinking”
Let go of what you can’t change, and focus on what’s in your control (i.e. washing your hands for the 512th time today)
Pull meaning from grief–for instance, appreciating the connections we can still make through the miracles of tech (i.e. what we bloggers have known all along!)
Allow your feelings to happen
I’ll admit it took awhile for this grief to hit me. I was busy figuring out how I was going to manage my kids’ schooling on top of my work and the care and feeding of boys all day. I got lost in the minutia. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Bricks of song. Follow me here: my choir director reached out with a choral piece on YouTube to share–because we choir members have been unable to share our voices with each other. So, I listened to the gorgeous choral strains and ugly-cried all over my keyboard. And then I felt a little better.
I’m not going to pat myself on the back for reaching the level of acceptance, because grief isn’t linear. I know that all too well.
But I also know that we’re in this club together, and for that I’m happy.
So, how are you? How have you been keeping? What have you done this week that’s made you smile? (Around here, we traveled in the way-back machine to introduce the boys to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Last night it was The Muppet Movie–I highly recommend.)
Have a little time on your hands for some more reading? I’ve been busy with my editing gig at Parhelion Literary Magazine, and wrote a short essay here. It’s light and optimistic and nature-y. If you like that, I encourage you to read around PLM’s Winter 2020 issue, with short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and nonfiction for every literary taste.
The holy water font had brown cardboard over it–a haphazard lid to signal emptiness. The water had been drained from all the fonts at the church entrances but not the baptismal font. Not yet anyway; somebody said there was one baptism after Mass that morning. I saw the baby–rosy-cheeked in his mother’s arms–on my way out of church. My last Mass, maybe for all of Lent. My last time singing with the choir. I haven’t sung a note since, as if doing so would signal that this is the new normal: sad, bad impromptu soprano solos locked in my home office, dressed in my bathrobe, alone.
Gone was the singing in communion, the holy water, the hand-holding, and hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace. The next week, there would be no Mass at all. Should we shake some of our holy water around the house? My husband and I brought bottles home from Knock, Ireland, the only shrine I’ve ever visited, which we did for a day on our honeymoon, in between pubs and church ruins. We may have a bottle around still, though it might have gone moldy. We’ve been married 16 years as of yesterday. We got carry-out to celebrate, our first since we started playing keep-away from everybody we don’t live with, and it was wonderful. Every stranger-interaction–even picking up carry-out at a curb–seems imbued with a little holiness now, or grace, or gratitude in communing, however you like to see it.
Maybe I’d been spoiled by the choir voices around me, the Signs of Peace aplenty, a whole church full of, if not all friends, congregants–the whole of us choosing to be in the same place at the same time, for the same reason, more or less. I try to remember that it only takes two or three gathered in His name, but there is comfort in a crowd. In Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, a title that just keeps feeling more and more prescient, author Nick Ripatrazone says, simply: “Catholicism is a communal faith.”
In his book of essays, Ripatrazone unveils the role of Catholic storytelling in the American literary cannon. He takes the reader from Flannery O’Connor through Andre Dubus to living writers, like Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott–and Phil Klay (whom I’ve yet to read)–among others. Raised on the Mass, these writers share some sensibilities: the idea of faith in community, of liturgical seasons–rituals a comfort. Says Ripatrazone, “Catholics raised on a religion of mystery, image, smell, and song are particularly vulnerable to the pull of sentimentality.” Can me sentimental then.
Another modern novelist, Ann Patchett, has credited the Catholic faith for giving her “a boundless capacity for creativity and appreciation for metaphor.” If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Catholic church you can probably see that: everything is imbued with meaning. From Ripatrazone:
Catholicism is an assault on the senses. The thickly sweet smell of incense clouding a church. A finger dipped into the holy water fount; the almost otherworldly touch of it. The feel of a back against the hard pew…The Rise and refrain of hymns…the silence of prayer…the high drama of Lent.
It all means something, more than one thing. And certainly, there’s a performance aspect to the faith that isn’t lost on this Catholic kid raised on church and ballet–pretty much in equal measure. I recently, mistakenly, called the altar “the stage,” and it’s no wonder why. There’s the Mass’s “script,” with its accompanying ritualistic movements–very much body-centered–a reverential dance of signs and postures. There are “costumes” whose colors are filled with meaning. Right now, we’re penitential purple. Are we ever.
Which might be why that piece of ordinary brown cardboard over the drained holy water font bothered me so much–the lack of performance or ritual. Or, preparation. Ritual takes preparation, and none of us had any rehearsals for the effects of this pandemic.
So, my hope today is that we all lean into the rituals that provide us some comfort and connection–even if virtual.
What are you reading? How are you dealing? What rituals are you keeping or instilling in your household as you physically distance yourself from others?
Looking for a new author to read, a poet or memoirist? Check out my handy categories above, where you’ll find my writer interviews, book reviews, essays, writing advice, and more.
Let’s connect socially: find me on FB and @MoonRuark on Twitter
It’s been a minute, or much more than a minute, since I checked in with my blogger-reader-writer friends. How’s it been? Around here, work and family life have filled every spare moment of mine this past month, except for a few precious minutes before bed–that I give to reading (just finished Dominico Starnone’s Trick, trans. by Jhumpa Lahiri–and I’ll definitely be blogging about it).
Any creative writing I’ve been doing has been mostly in my mind. One thing I’ve been mulling over: why do we write about what we write about? Some write to excise their greatest anxieties. (“Write toward your fear,” go the writing prompts.) Some write to work through a conundrum, to better understand. Why do we pick the subjects we pick? Love, sex, parenthood, sickness, birds, flight, death, water, dance…
An artist chooses his subjects. That is the way he praises.
Why do you create what you create? Why do you write about, what you write about? What compels you? What are you writing–or reading–this weekend? I hope it’s a good one!
Want some more writerly advice? See my categories, above. And, as always, you can also find me at FB and @moonruark on Twitter.
This year, I’m resolved to enjoy this writing-and-blogging community, the slow slog meditative process of writing and publishing, and the paths down memory lane I take as I write. And while I typically craft fiction–find some of it here at stories–I responded to a nonfiction call from the editors at Ruminate Magazine for readers to ruminate on “The Everyday.” That prompt led me to think of the joys of special holidays–like the baptism of my guys 10 years ago–and the joys of the mundane: Ordinary Time, ordinary time, and a warm piece of bread.
If you have a moment, my short essay (the second of the readers’ notes) is a two minute read–as are the other ruminations from readers around the country. But you might just want to stay a while, so we can, as the magazine’s About page says, “practice staying awake together.”
Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’sInternet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.
She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…
Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.
Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)
Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:
So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…
Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”
The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.
Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:
I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.
How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:
[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.
Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.
If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”
“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:
Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?
Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.
This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.
I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.
Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?
Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?
Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!
Remember daydreaming? That old creativity-inducing distraction? I do–if just barely.
Now, even our distractions are automated and customized and curated by an algorithm that seems to know what we should be daydreaming about before we can even get to it. What’s more, the rabbit holes we find ourselves distractedly falling down end not in a constructively weird place–but all too often in a place that might be weird but probably will cost us money. So, a destination that leaves us both distracted and poorer. Happy 2020! From a fun piece by Kathryn Schulz from 2015 in The New Yorker. She saw it coming:
How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land [in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland], evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves.
Thank you for Internet-ing right here, this Monday morning, when there are so many rabbit holes clambering for us, desiring to drive us to distraction–to forget our intentions, our destinations, our worth, even ourselves.
Can I tell you I’ve been distracted?
While others have been setting down their 2020 resolutions, and even committing them to blog post (and, as such, according to the court of blog, making them treaties never to be broken!), I’ve been distracted. While others have been new-decade-to-do-ing and vision-boarding, I’ve been distracted.
Two weeks of 2020 in the crapper already, and I’ve made a word cloud. (See above.) Well, not me, but a website. OK, I plopped in the words–from my novel-in-progress–and out came a word cloud. I did pick the shape and the color scheme: blue.
Here’s another thing: I found a website, literature-map, that will show me (in an attractive visual-thesaurus web sort of way) which authors are most like my faves. A new-to-me fave:
Which reminds me of The Princess Bride. What a movie. Inconceivable! Who was that actor? He’s still alive, right?
You see what I mean? This exercise in rabbit-holing isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with distractions, or daydreams, but that I might be better served by being a little more intentional. You know: dreaming with intention, design, volition, even, dare I say, a goal.
So, I’m goal-setting-lite, meaning with enough wiggle room for constructive rabbit holes and even breaks. (Like, “intention” comes from the Latin intentus, meaning “a stretching out,” also “a leaning toward, a strain.” I mean, that sounds like exercise, which is never supposed to be easy, right?)
I’m reading with intention–right now Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan quartet of novels by the highly-acclaimed Italian author–to inform my historical novel about an Italian family in WWII America. And I’m back over at Goodreads, where I’m going to try to keep better track of what I’ve read–outside of Rust Belt authors.
I’ve also been taking some lovely reading detours–having read over the last month a children’s book, a literary thriller, and a sci-fi screenplay–for friends and fellow bloggers who are highly-acclaimed in my eyes. And reading thinker-blogposts, like this one “On Breaks and Connections.” And next up on the ol’ TBR is a book of poetry–because poetry is the best kind of distraction.
Writing? OK, I didn’t use my Christmas break to gain great headway on my novel-in-progress (outside of the groovy word cloud)–what with Christmas and Christmas carols, cookies, and more cookies. However, I did get another chapter down. And then, in response to a call from a journal I admire, I wrote a thing–a creative nonfiction piece about Ordinary Time and ordinary time and making the everyday a holiday worth singing about and feasting over; and finding the blissfully mundane in a holiday. It’s a working rabbit hole, anyway. And the novel draft will be out of my brain and on paper, come June (wish me luck).
And editing. I wore that hat a lot over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, last year. My 2019 saw me shepherd three book reviews, five essays, and an author interview into the world, plus I conducted two interviews, and penned a piece on finding “twin skin” and solace in the essays of Randon Billings Noble. I adore this PLM gig and hope you’ll check me out over there, too. More good stuff to come in 2020.
Of course, it’s publishing that’s considered to be the big win, the brass ring, the dream destination for us writer-types. The agent querying continues, but I did have a couple short stories published last year in journals I love. And, lest I forget that this writing thing is about the path, and not the destination, I read this post for a different kind of “Resolution,” today.
Goals. I’ll get on it. I will. Right now, you’re here and I’m here, which means we’re in the very same rabbit hole (#bloggoals), if for only a few minutes–and that’s a win these days. As was being nominated for the Bloggers Recognition Award by one of my favorite blogging friends, Silvia, from Italian Goodness, who, when I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to hop on the nomination train, said these wise words: “Life is busy. Family comes first. Never stop dreaming, but prioritizing is the secret of happiness.” Truer words, folks… Thank you, Silvia! (And go make one her Italian recipes and make yourself so happy.)
Here’s to more connecting and dream-making in 2020–by a little luck and a pinch of intention.
Have you recovered from the Christmas cookie coma? New Year’s resolution-failure guilt getting to you, or is that just me?
Care to social media rabbit-hole together? You can find me at FB, on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark, and at Goodreads, where it appears as if I’m just getting the hang of this whole literary thing.
I can’t think of a better way to wrap up the year than this compilation of blogging successes from WordPress. Among them is my take, which I hope captures my sincere appreciation for this blogging community. Thank you for connecting with me and my blog in 2019! See you in 2020, friends. ~Rebecca
Last month, we asked you to reflect: How has 2019 unfolded? Have I met my blogging goals? Are we on track to meet our business goals? We wanted to know what your site has helped you achieve this year. Over the past several weeks, we’ve received thoughtful responses here on Discover and across our social channels — here are highlights.
Finding one’s place in the world
Thanks WordPress, for giving me a platform to stand on.
It has allowed me to develop many friendships from around the world thus greatly enriching my life. I’m totally blind and live alone with just myself, my now aged retired guide dog, and a half-wild cat who comes to eat, get petted, then leave to traverse the world in the way only a tomcat can do, and I would be lost without the WordPress community and the work I do.
Nope, not a post on eating, or on embouchure (a new favorite word meaning lipping, or using the lips, face, tongue, and teeth to play an instrument–including our first instrument, our voice). But close.
Today I’m going to talk about singing. Yep, on a reading and writing blog. Stop me. You’ve heard me say here before that my next-life career plan is to be an opera singer. I feel pretty confident my lack of planning for the rigors of this job isn’t going to bite me in the ass, since I’m pretty sure my next-life ass will be incorporeal.
Lack of planning for this-life careers can hurt, however. Which is why I want to talk about the glories of hobbies and my new hobby. Wait for it…
Backstory: I was never one much for hobbies. By the time I was in middle school, ballet had progressed from hobby to vocation, as serious as a religious calling in my mind: all time-consuming and all identity-consuming. I was not a girl with hobbies but direction.
When injury knocked me off that career path, I briefly considered going to culinary arts school. I mean, I liked to cook–it was fun. Why not make a job of it? (Truth be told, I think I was just excited to, finally, eat.)
Next stop: English major. And here I am, writing for my job-and-passion.
However, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve been able to start separating job-and-passion and realize I don’t have to make a gig of everything I’m passionate about.
So, we arrive at singing. My mom and her mom both enjoyed singing, both sang with their church choirs, and plied Christmas carols at the piano on the eve. (Can you hear my children groaning at the very thought?) Neither woman conspired to rise in the ranks of the choral world or make a single cent off their voices.
Is it me, or does today’s gig economy-mindset encourage us to turn any talent, penchant, or hobby into a job? To monetize passion. And in doing that, does the passion remain? (I’ll let you know from the afterlife how the opera goes.) Here and now, I have to say, I started this blog as a little passion project and have rejected the idea of making money from it–maybe, partly, because it would make blogging a job. (And I have one of those already.) Do hobbies now smack of privilege?
They say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life—but what if what you love becomes nonstop work?
From “The Truth About the Gig Economy” by Julia Tache
Who has time for hobbies? Maybe none of us. Maybe we all should be striving to monetize every facet of ourselves. But, really, no one is ever going to pay me to sing.
Yet, that didn’t stop me from belting out the carols as the newest member of the soprano 1 set in my church choir. (Don’t laugh–or do. Either way, I loved it.) I loved it, even when I messed up the last few stanzas of “Come Join the Angels Singing.” I loved it when I probably didn’t quite hit the high note in “Carol of the Bells.” I loved it so much that when my boys hugged me after the concert, I didn’t think to turn the moment into a photo op.
So…jobs, passions, hobbies, gigs. What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
But first, Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. I hope that all the voices you hear sing sweetly as angels!
For a blog focused on the idea of place in all the stories we tell, I can’t think of a better person to talk to today. I met author and professor, Matthew Ferrence, at a writers conference in the spring, where I picked up his memoir, Appalachia North — the first book-length treatment of the cultural position of Northern Appalachia.
Matthew and I are from similar places. But more than a book of essays exploring geology and place, Appalachia North is a very personal memoir that allows the reader to journey alongside the writer as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. From the book jacket:
Appalachia North is an investigation of how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written, and also a reckoning with how a body always in recovery can, like a region viewed always as a site of extraction, find new territories of growth.
Matthew, how did you come to write this book?
I wrote through a somewhat circuitous path for Appalachia North. The project began with a rejection, for a collection of essays I’d been working on for some time. But that opened up a conversation with Andrew Berzanskis, who was then editor-at-large for WVU Press (he’s now a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington Press), and a contract to write a book about northern Appalachia. While we both knew this was to take the form of a memoir, what we didn’t know is that I was going to be banging on the keys and finding some dreadful resistance. I’d recently finished treatments for my brain tumor, and I wrote an essay called “The Foxes of Prince Edward Island,” which was all about that. And I knew that I really wanted to write about recovery and brains and foxes.
So, one day I just decided that I’d do both, and see what happened if I tried to simultaneously write the book I had a contract for, and the book that was gnawing at me, somehow as one book. With that, the writing started to open up, and I began to see the connections between geography and self, between recovered bodies and recovered regions, of how erosion could function as a reframing metaphor of beauty and hope. Then, draft done, I had to tell Andrew. Who, much to his credit, looked at this new book he hadn’t bargained for, saw what it could be, pushed me to revise toward directions I’d neglected, and Appalachia North came into form.
I love the idea of mapping — both of your native geography and (the native geography) of your body. Could you describe the process by which you came to “see” the terrain of your journey enough to write it?
Mapping as a literal act came with the earliest versions of the book, that I would seek out the corners of the official parts of Appalachia north of the Mason Dixon line, to sort of survey and consider the delineations. As I did that, I was surprised by the recurring mutability of the lines that seem so permanent on an actual map. Most of all, I was struck by how the three counties of northeastern Ohio included in the official Appalachian Regional Commission map were late entries, “becoming” Appalachia forty-some years after the ARC put out its first map. So I became preoccupied with thinking about ways that map lines just don’t work. That connected with my figurative sense of self as an Appalachian exiled by birth, simply by the fate of being from Pennsylvania instead of the parts that usually count as Appalachia. This has bugged me for a long time.
For the body, I experienced the way clinical treatment exiles a person from a sense of self, because your body becomes defined by blood test numbers, and MRI scans, and radiation beam coordinates. Your sense of self becomes a cartography of medical rationality, and that makes you feel, well, not yourself really. You get lost the more you’re mapped. Somewhere in that irony, you start to get a sense that you’re tired of letting other people draw the maps.
In your essay, “Conduits,” you discuss those who make geographical maps — generally, those people in power. By writing about place, you do feel you’re map-making? Do you see this as a way to wrest some control over your native place?
For sure. Like, just the other day, a colleague was saying they didn’t really agree with my “claims” that Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia, because they spent a lot of time in “real” Appalachia in the North Carolina mountains. I was sort of stunned, frankly, because even the official maps back me up on this one! But at the same time, this is the tyranny of cartography: that people can draw lines for whatever reason they want. Money. Politics. Taxes. On and on. And there was some weird power exercised here in this very moment, about who gets to actually lay claim to the definition of a region…and in this case, as is often the case, the person making the definitive claim was not from the region and “correcting” someone from the region. We don’t even get to draw maps of our own places.
Yet the terrain — I love that word! — just doesn’t care. Trees grow. Dirt erodes. Mountains emerge. When you’re walking in the woods on many borders so clear on a map, you really can’t tell where the line is, since terrain is fluid. Really, there is no line. So in looking around at places on the ground where the lines are supposed to be, I started thinking a lot about all the lines that people try to place on our lives: healthy and not, for one, or legit Appalachian or not. Maybe because I’m on the “wrong” side of both of those lines, I became determined to refuse the lines altogether.
You challenge the conventions of regional dialect in one of your essays. As in, we’re supposed to say “Appalachia” a certain way — to prove we’re an insider in the region. Why this struggle for Appalachian authenticity, do you think? Why does it remain a region so intent on staying true to its roots? What does it mean for you?
I get the hard and fast claims for rightness in saying App-uh-latch-a, because lots of people have been made to feel small and unimportant for being themselves. Authenticity — including accent — becomes a way to fight for your own sense of worth. So on one hand I totally root for that, and I kind of relish the way Appalachians can smack down the folks who don’t know anything about the region. But at the same time, well, I don’t want to be kicked out of where I’m from. That’s the trouble of the northern part, for sure. We can feel sort of absent. Another one of my pet peeves: all sorts of people (again, who are not from here) keep telling me this is the Midwest. And I’m always thinking, fuck off on your Midwest. They’ll make some claim about jello salads or politeness, but it all comes with this sense of diminishment. Because they usually mean this in the context of explaining either how they’re from more sophisticated spaces not the Midwest, or as a way to deepen their disdain for northern Appalachia by refusing to even acknowledge it as being a place with its own claim to regionality.
I want to be clear, I don’t mean this to disparage the Midwest, but very much to defend how places like it, and like Appalachia, have to stick up for themselves as legitimate locales, as distinctive and meaningful, because everyone basically says over and over, fly-over country. So, on pronunciations, I love the variance of Appalachia, which has a whole spectrum of pronunciations, which is another way of saying it’s a place of vibrancy and nuance. I’m not going to give away my corner of that, so I’ve become comfortable using both the soft and hard vowels, but will still totally make fun of someone from outside the region who pronounces it wrong. The nice thing is, I can make fun of them no matter what they say. Cruel, I suppose.
In your memoir’s preface, you say, “So many writers…seek to make a declaration: this is what a place is.” You, like a good essayist, seem to be happier delving into the ambiguities of place. You also seek to reclaim your native place for the next generation — your own kids among them. How do you do this without defining that place?
Yes! This is what we love, I think, ambiguity and gray edges and journeys. I say this a bit cheekily: essayists love to squirm away from anything declarative, relish the provisional, even as we love to make big claims…which we then overturn and twist and turn inside out. On the matter of place, the big thing to me is that it matters, but when a place seems to carry rigid definitions — Trump Country, Red States, Fly-Over, all that — such restrictions wind up wrecking a place. That’s when we become totemic monoliths or, really, tools. So, for me and for my kids, I long for a vibrant connection to terrain and geography, with a sense that what a place means can also evolve and contradict and carry the fluidity the essayist loves. I want my kids to love a place, but I want them to be able to live in it with a sense of reciprocal love. I’m frustrated and angry, these days, by how places redouble their restrictive sense of who counts, who looks or loves or behaves the “right” way. That’s the wreckage of definition, as it crushes back to stereotype and turfiness and xenophobia and trope. Ambiguity, I think, invites inclusion and expansiveness. Because we can’t say this instead of that.
The language of geography and of the body — especially around medicine — can get really technical; yet, you do a lovely job of softening both of these languages. Instead of unapproachable moments of medical jargon, you note the moments of “mercy” between you and our doctors. You call it: “The precise language of medicine facing off against my growing recognition of life.” Yet, as a writer, language is your tool. Did it ever feel useless? Did you ever think, I don’t know how to write about what’s happening to my body in my language?
The veer to the metaphorical helps, for me at least. The peripheral look, the askance view, the detailed description of some concrete object that suddenly emerges with a new dimension of meaning, well for me, that’s how language becomes the only way to make sense of the ineffable. The biggest example is my recognition of the geology of my home, that it’s a dissected plateau instead of a worn out mountain. My Dad filled me in on that, part way through the writing, and it was a literal geological process that changed everything for me, metaphorically. Suddenly, I could see the post-surgical me in a different way, not as something grand that is now worn out and wrecked, but something shaping into a new form that can carry its own beauty. The metaphor was everything. On the flip side, cliché strikes me as the enemy of health writing, because it’s almost all you get from people when you’re ill. Directness felt better, on the page, that this happened and that happened. Combining the direct with the cascading metaphors helped me use language very much as the tool for narrative recovery.
In your essay, “The Molt,” you compare your emotional state, traversing your medical condition, to molting, as an animal does. Through your sickness you waited for “the hardening,” for a new shell, as it were, to help you bear up. Yet, the best writing, I believe, comes from exploring those times before the hardening, don’t you think?
I agree. Totally! I guess the hardening is the lived desire, that you just want things to stop being difficult, to end, maybe to stop feeling, at least for a little bit. Because things are so difficult. But, no, the hardening is a false desire, because actually developing it would be catastrophic. Maybe the essayist’s stance is to write about the moments when hardening fails and, more so, to write as an act of resisting hardening. Writing softens us up, so we can actually find the substance.
What’s your favorite thing to teach students in your college courses — about nonfiction writing and about Appalachian Studies?
About Appalachia, it’s pretty much always a combo of you’re in it and you are it. Up here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there aren’t a lot of people who actively think about themselves as Appalachians, nor who have had any reason to think deeply about the region. Yet close to half of our students are from places that are literally in Appalachia. I love the immediate shake-up that provides, which I shared. First you think, that can’t be right. Then something like, but I’m not… And then, …but wait I am. So what we all think about Appalachia is…not accurate!
That moment of recognition and depth is what I love most about nonfiction itself, that we find new avenues constantly, so long as we cultivate a practice of curiosity and attention.
I love helping students unlock the potential in two disparate personal narratives, or figuring out how oblique research can deepen a complicated narrative line. Most of all, I love getting to spend time with a group of students all committed to the deep reflection of the world we walk around in. And language. Maybe this is really the best part: helping students understand the power of the lyric sentence, how the gestures of poetry and art, applied to real experience, yield the best nonfiction.
In thinking about your take on place, I learned that you’re taking a run at the PA House in 2020. In what ways did your writing get you to this decision?
Without a doubt, part of the motivation stems from writing books that have allowed me to dive deeply into how my home turf has been used and exploited by politics. That’s part of the framing of my candidacy, in fact, that there are stories that we tell ourselves over and over again that never turn out well for us. So let’s write new ones. The incumbent, as well, has not been, shall we say, a friend of the arts during his decade-and-a-half in office. My rallying cry, I suppose, came from his remarks suggesting that the state shouldn’t give student aid to people majoring in “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” Well now. Hmmm. That didn’t sit with me. Even if we want to stay in the spheres of practicality and economic policy, the arts sector is huge, and can have a tremendously positive impact on rural areas like ours. And at the same time, I long for a politics that doesn’t limit its vision to the spreadsheet. Politics is about people, in fact is the people. We talk about vision in politics, but we rarely see candidates who want to run on creativity and possibility.
I’d say the brain tumor factors in here, too: for one thing, I saw first hand what it means to get sick and suddenly see how expensive staying alive is. I was lucky, because of my insurance. Many other people would be bankrupt now, if they’d faced what I did. That’s not right. Then, existentially, I’m tired of living in a world attenuated by the small-minded nightmares of regressive politicians. Part of the after-effect of having a brain tumor is the relative ease at which I find myself saying, fuck it, and doing the thing that matters to me that’s the sort of thing we all have a tendency to be afraid to undertake. Running for office is that. I refuse to leave Appalachia to the troglodytes. The national narrative tells us that’s who we all are, and we most definitely are not. I want to stand up and write it differently.
What’s next for your writing? What should readers look out for?
I have two projects I’m wrestling with right now, each in very early stages. One is fiction, which is taking shape as either a novel or a collection of linked stories. Appalachian. Eco-futurist. Focusing on the possible presence of magical creatures in nighttimes threatened by a radical growth in light pollution. The other is an essay project, more or less the writing of a Catholic Mass, to address the ways I am simultaneously deeply lapsed from the Church yet unable to shake the feeling of mystical deep spirituality I find within it. In both projects, I’m trying to find a way to toggle toward radical beauty, to write of dark things but with gratitude and joy. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s work in both poetry and nonfiction here, and how moving I find his devotion to that serious artistic stance. More and more, I find myself wanting to write toward hope and goodness, particularly as the world churning around us seems to only call us to critique, which is vital, but also wearying. Art helps us imagine new futures, and I long to imagine my way toward hopeful ones even when most of what we see suggests dystopia as our fate. Maybe we can write a better future into being.
Matthew Ferrence lives and writes at the confluence of Appalachia. He is the author of Appalachia North: a memoir and All-American Redneck, a well as numerous essays published in North American literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Allegheny College and in 2020 is vying for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing Crawford and Erie Counties.