It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.
Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.
But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.
That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays
About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)
Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:
…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.
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!)
Did your mom say that nursery rhyme upon returning home (with our without the fat pig?). Mine did, and now I do the same, fully expecting the eye-rolls from the kids in the back seat.
So, I promised a photo-filled post of my trip home to Ohio, and I’m finally delivering. If you came here looking for writing advice, reviews, or interviews, please see the categories above. Or, take this advice: returning to your childhood home with your children for the first time can feel daunting, but it’s good for the soul–and stories.
One of my boys said he’d expected my childhood home, below, to be in a small town, but we were out of town on a country road.
A trip through town, and the boys got to see my old high school; and the town square with the library, movie theater, and elementary school where my mom worked, and where the annual Geauga County Maple Festival is still held.
We also visited with my childhood best friend and her super funny and smart 3-year-old–and my boys got to experience Cleveland for the first time.
Of course, we went to the West Side Market–with it’s colorful produce hall, meats, cheeses, pastas (don’t miss the pierogies), baked goods, herbs and spices. I left with an armful of the some of the iconic tastes of Northeast Ohio: smoked Hungarian paprika, pepperoni bread, and mish-mosh bialys (not to be confused with bagels).
After a lunch of bratwurst sandwiches for the grownups and hot dogs for the kids, we treated ourselves to Mitchell’s Homemade ice cream–and the boys got to see it being made right there in the Ohio City shop.
For the country leg of our city/country day, we headed east to the Holden Arboretum, 3,500 acres of gardens and natural beauty. The boys’ favorite parts: the bridge 65 feet above the forest floor and the 12-storey high tower we climbed to look out above the canopy of trees–for miles, all the way to Lake Erie. (My apologies to any park guests there for my sons’ unending questioning at such heights: “Think we’d die if we fell from here? How about here?”)
From Northeast Ohio, we headed west to my dad’s hood of Port Clinton, Ohio, where we spent the rest of our vacation in Lake Erie Shores & Islands fashion. More heights–we ferried to Put-in-Bay, the ubiquitous party village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, and captured from atop Perry’s Monument views of the lake (no filter, btw), along with other islands and even mainland Canada in the distance.
Best view with your brew award, this trip, goes to Twin Oast Brewing (those tower-looking things are the oasts), which overlooks a 60-acre farm estate with apricot trees forever (and plenty of lawn for a couple boys to throw a football).
Of course, into each Ohio vacation some rain must fall (sorry, Longfellow)–or else the boys wouldn’t get to visit Ghostly Manor, with their favorite arcade and roller rink–where they had their first V.R. experience (see below).
Whew! God bless all you travel bloggers out there. This post took me forever! May all the weekend and vacation-time forces be with you.
Now, it’s your turn: how are you recharging this season? Taking any trips? Returning home? And, if you have kids, have you taken them to your childhood home? What was their reaction?
If you’ve been visiting Rust Belt Girl a while, you know I have a thing for urban photography, especially of the kind that shows the patina of age–and soul. In a recent post, Michelle Cole, photographer and blogger over at Intensity Without Mastery, has captured the spirit of her Rust Belt place of Lima, Ohio, in the year 2000. I hope you’ll check out her post, and blog–where she also features nature photography, along with thoughts on “…family, faith…and life after depression.” If you follow her page on Facebook, you’ll find even more wonderful photography. Want to learn more about Michelle? Search by her name or under “Photography” on my blog for the 2-part photographic interview I did with her in 2017. Happy viewing, all! ~Rebecca
My photo archiving project continues. I decided to make albums of some of the photos on my Facebook page. The images for this blog posts are screen shots of an album that features photos I took in Lima in the year 2000. Back then I used one of the Sony Mavica cameras that recorded images onto floppy discs. I could fit just 10 images per disc, so I had to carry a baggy full of a dozen discs to make it through a photo walk.
Alas, I don’t have the originals files of these photos. All I have now are online copies, and the website where I uploaded them 19 years ago only has 500×375 or smaller versions of the images. I know that some of the photos had an original resolution of 1024×768 (if I felt bold enough to just take five pics per disc!). Lesson learned: back up…
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!
Whether you are from the Midwest or not, this essay by Michael Perry is so engaging–a wonderful weekend read, if you’re so inclined. “A friend said Prince created his own creative world around him, something many of us in the Midwest have had to do in one way or another. When I heard Prince, when I saw Prince, I felt moved to be more than I was.” I just love that! Don’t you? My first memorable Prince moment was hearing his “Raspberry Beret” in an arcade on vacation in French Lick, Indiana. Somebody with more quarters than I picked that song on the jukebox (yes, this was the 80s, not the 50s) and played it over and over. I discovered something new each time it played. For those of you celebrating Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S., I have no cute tie-in with Prince–go ahead and suggest one–and to everybody else, the world over, who still gets goosebumps at the Prince of the Midwest, read on… ~ Rebecca
You’d never dream it looking at me, all doughy, bald, and crumpling in my 50s, but I owe the sublimated bulk of my aesthetic construct to Prince Rogers Nelson, circa Purple Rain. The film and album were released the summer after my fresh-off-the farm freshman year in college. I sat solo through the movie a minimum of four times, wore the hubs off the soundtrack cassette, draped my bedroom with purple scarves, stocked the dresser top with fat candles, and Scotch-taped fishnet to the drywall above the bed. Intended to create seductive shadows of mystery, it wound up a pointless cobweb.
I started blogging for a couple reasons: to connect with the writing and writers of my native Rust Belt and for fun. Two years later, and a couple other things have happened along the way. I’ve improved my personal essay-writing skills (that is what so many of our blog posts are, really) and I got “out there.” Not “out there” in a huge, platform-developing way for the nonfiction book that’s coming–because, of course, I’m a fiction writer–but out there connecting with you awesome people who keep coming back here. Not sure why, but I love you for it. So…I’m excited to share my news. I hope you’ll check out Parhelion Literary Magazine. Now, it’s your turn. What have you gained from blogging? I’d love to know your take. More soon. ~Rebecca
I have big news, folks! Today I’d like to introduce you to our new Features Editor, Rebecca Moon Ruark.
I’ve wanted to add more “regular” content to the magazine for a while. I’ve probably been thinking about it since last summer. Darren and Leeta and I have talked about this with great enthusiasm, but because we were so busy, we never seemed to come up with any of this imagined content despite our good intentions.
Rebecca submitted a story to us back in November 2018 that we published in our February issue, called Scooter Kid. And then I started stalking her online (yes, I look at the links people send me). I started connecting Rebecca with this content idea. I thought about contacting her for a long time—since the end of last year, and she stayed stuck in my head, swirling around in there, so finally, I just asked…
Issue No. 8 from Barren Magazineis out, and features my story, “The Virgins,” among among so much fantastic poetry, prose, and photography for your weekend entertainment. (Thank you to the editors for letting my story sit among such great company!) See also my friend (and Rust Belt Girl follower) DS Levy’s flash fiction piece, “Tengku,” my fave poem of the day, “Barrels of Fruit,” by Caroline Plasket, and more gritty, rusty photography–along with sweeping skies and far-off places–than a girl could shake a stick at.
Saturday, I attended Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference organized by literary magazine, Barrelhouse, chock full of practical lessons from published literary authors, editors, and publishers. Note: I said practical. (Leave your insta-agent-three-book-deal fantasies at the door.) Really, it was like transporting myself back to my MFA program for the day–complete with the insecurities and boxed wine! All right in my world.
Advice: The first of three panels/workshops I attended featured a memoirist, a novelist, a nonfiction writer, and a poet who all engage with the past–and endure much historical research–for their writing. Some of the most helpful advice suggested writers utilize first-person accounts to better instruct our characters in how to engage with historical fact. There was also an interesting discussion exposing the differences between creative nonfiction and fiction when making meaning of historical events. In fiction, the research must become a part of the narrative arc; in nonfiction, the journey to understand can become another part of the story, a knew way of knowing.
Beginnings: For my second session of the day, I attended a hands-on craft workshop on developing short story openings that grab a reader’s attention. Flash Fiction author, instructor, and editor Tommy Dean led us workshoppers using four prompts for four different story openings. All the prompts started with character/setting/conflict, then added another element to complicate the story start–like subverting the setting or flipping a normal, everyday activity. I am not a prompt person, relying instead on the ideas that fly at me and then stick–usually long about 4am–but even I came away with a few solid story starts, a real win.
Connections: MFA programs are a wealth of information on the art and craft of writing. But then what? How do we get our work out there, and just where is there? Enter the literary journal editors with hands-on experience in the world of literary publishing for a 10-minute editing session, a la speed dating. I took a flash fiction piece of mine; however, I knew going in, I wanted to use that precious time to ask advice of the editor on the other side of the desk. My question was about chapbooks (short collections of poetry or stories). But the point is I used my 10 minutes to connect with someone I could learn from. Not to leave out my fellow conference attendees, time waiting in line for the editor session was a good chance to meet local writers (shout-out to Sonora!).
Inspiration: With the growing popularity of spoken-word and oral storytelling heard on programs like The Moth Radio Hour, today’s creative writing readings are not the cure for insomnia they once were. The featured author readings at C&C did not disappoint. Going in, I knew of the work of only one of the authors, essayist Randon Billings Noble, who I connected with in an online critique group years ago (the writing world being both huge and small). I was delighted to be introduced to the poetry of Kyle Dargan and the fiction of Ivelisse Rodriguez and of Gabino Iglesias, who read their work with such passion–the highlight of my day and very inspiring.
Books…and more books: Want to make an author (and their small press publisher) happy and earn your good literary citizen card? Buy the book. I came away with autographed copies of Billings Noble’s essay collection, Be With Me Always; Iglesias’ horror/crime novel Coyote Songs; Matthew Ferrance’s memoir, Appalachia North; and the poetry collection, Haint, from Cleveland native (yes, we are all over) Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who sat on the panel for the third of my three sessions, focused on publishing and offering great advice on connecting with the local literary community. (These last two authors, I plan to talk about more here on the blog!)
For writers across genres, and for bloggers alike–there’s a conference made for you. This one was a good fit for me, and I’ll be back next year.
Do you conference? What are your top tips? Have you read any of these books? How was your weekend? Comment below–I always love to hear from you… ~Rebecca
When I was 9, the Ohio state tourism slogan became: Ohio, The Heart of it All, and I felt vindicated, this little girl who dreamed of the bright lights of big, cosmopolitan (coastal) cities. Maybe, after all, the middle was the sweet spot! And now here comes another HEARTLAND… I’m still reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR…, when this author interview found my inbox. Thought I’d share with you what might prove to be an interesting historical perspective of the American Midwest. More soon. ~Rebecca
The American Midwest is hard to define. Even which states can be considered “Midwestern” depends on who you ask; is it what lies between Ohio and Iowa? Or does the Midwest stretch further west across the Great Plains; north into Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas; or east into parts of Pennsylvania and New York state? Perhaps part of the confusion over the term is rooted in the idea that the Midwest represents far more than a geographic space — it represents a vision of the country as a whole, and is a stand-in for nostalgia, despite the fact that the reality of the nation, and the Midwest along with it, has always been far messier than any myth.