Writing-and-reading is a reciprocal relationship. Of course this is true, if I sometimes forget it, as I write. Bestselling American author and comedian David Sedaris makes it plain:
Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.
And don’t we love those books the most? The ones that invite us to bring our “stuff” to the narrative? To bring our anxieties and passions, our joys and fears? How else to truly connect with story, if we don’t add ourselves to the mix?
I recently finished Tove Jansson’s (autobiographical) novel, Fair Play. (Yes, my Jansson fascination continues.) Those who have read any Jansson will not be surprised that it is a quiet story–a story of two women, partners in life and art–that feels incredibly brave at the same time it is a meditation.
Written in short chapters accumulating in just 100 pages, the reader watches the artists–one woman is a writer, one a visual artist–go about their daily lives of work and play, as the two remain open always to creative possibilities. Yes, there are arguments and bickering; they don’t always agree on their art or their life’s comings and goings. But the space they give each other to be the artists–and humans–they need to be, is more touching (and romantic, really) than any standard-fare romance could be for me.
The space to create is at the heart of this engaging read–and I’m going to hold onto that feeling as I write. Readers aren’t a byproduct of writing; they’re partners in it. They are a vital part of the creation.
Which is why community–no matter your art–is so important. Thank you for being here!
What are you reading? What are you writing this week?
Did you read any of Jansson’s famous Moomin books for children, when you were a child? Have you seen the trailer for the first full-length film based on Jansson’s life?
Interested in author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time both drags and flies by. And even us rabid readers find our towering TBRs just keep growing taller. Anxiety and ennui make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, making it tough to hold a long story in the imagination.
Short story to the rescue.
I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from the world on fire. But short fiction? As you might imagine, the novel beats out the short story collection in sales, everywhere. Sure, there are popular short story collections. But, as this Guardian article notes: “Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint).” Even when sales of short story collections surge, as they did in 2018, they’ll never beat out the novel.
But right about now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft–for those of us who write fiction–and also, and maybe most importantly right now, for connection with other readers. One of the most delightful virtual connections I’ve made in these pandemic days is with a book club (hosted by jesuit.org if you’re interested) that meets over at FB. The last book we read was, you guessed it, a short story collection, Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.
At the moment, I’m reading short stories before bed (“they” say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). I’m still working through short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign and inviting and cool. I save novels for daytime reading: right now that’s Jansson’s Fair Play; and Pete Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which is a Rust Belt novel if I’ve ever met one, and I plan to discuss it here.
Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.
Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: famously, Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella (OK, not quite as brief as a short story but he’s adapted a lot of those, too): “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” A little more recently, there was Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, then there was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which inspired a movie that released 86 years later–testament to the lasting power of the short story (or, at least, short stories by masters, like Fitzgerald).
I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction (that many of us seem to desire in a novel: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years–and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.
Take Raymond Carver’s famous story “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to write it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same big American Lit 101 tomes as the classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, O’Connor and Kate Chopin, and more modern short story masters of the world, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel. (And it’s totally not how I write, but aspire to.) Let me know what you think of it, if you read it!
Do you read short stories? Write them? What’s your favorite? Need a suggestion for some pandemic escapist short story reading?
Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
First off, let me confess right here that I have read one and only one Stephen King book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I know. I could promise you that I will change my ways, and pick up Carrie or maybe the epic, The Stand. But I’m not about to make a promise I know I won’t keep. Time is short and my TBR is a leaning tower that grows taller by the day.
While it’s been a while since I read On Writing for a grad school class, one scene from King’s craft memoir sticks out in my mind. It features a young King up after the rest of his family is asleep in their trailer, using a washing machine as a writing desk. I can picture him hunkered over it, writing his horror-inducing, future-bestselling heart out.
Now that scene stands as a sort of gritty yet romantic image of the aspiring novelist who will stop at nothing to write–everyday–no matter what.
And, it’s an image that can serve us writers well–and ill.
Because, hear me out, there’s more to writing than the writing part. Novelist Lauren Groff put it better than I could on Twitter several days ago, and she went on to explain herself in a thread. But the initial tweet rang true for me, and maybe it will for you, too:
I don’t know who needs to hear this today (I do), but the vast majority of the time one spends writing a book isn’t spent in writing the book, but rather reading, dreaming, running, walking, experimenting, restarting, writing things that gradually bring you closer to the book.
Lauren Groff via Twitter
Something like 3.5 thousand retweets of Groff’s tweet later, and let’s assume quite a few writers needed to hear those words.
Boiled down: a lot of writing a book isn’t. It’s researching, reading a ton, writing around it, writing “off the book,” as they say–even if there’s no book yet.
And I’m going to venture: a lot of writing a book is about living with the idea of the book for a little while.
I was writing in the spring, even as my pandemic-anxiety shifted into gear (and sometimes overdrive). I wasn’t writing the book, but I was writing short reflections here at the blog that–from a distance–I can see thematically inform my book. I was reading–a lot–and connecting with writers I admire through interviews and reviews. I participated in a couple writing workshops, and even wrote a little “poetry” (note the quotes). (If you’re really paying close attention, my little guy’s buckteeth haven’t been fixed yet. “Soon and very soon,” as the hymn goes.)
Over the summer, which is not over quite yet, I lived, albeit safely and distanced–that’s my boys’ sailing class above, each kid to their own boat. I swam and ate Lake Erie perch and Maryland blue crabs and read and laughed and sang and read some more. Finnish author Tove Jansson is my current read-around-the-book obsession, and I’m loving her The Summer Book!
Reader, my tank is full, and so is my plate.
It’s my busy season as a development writer by day, but I’m writing the book: not 1,000 words a day, but it’s coming, because I was ready to write the book.
What are you reading this week? What are you writing? Are you a write-everyday-no-matter-what-writer? I admire you! #nextlifegoals
Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
We are a thing-ful culture. A quick scan of my writing desk, and I realize I’m awash in things: a mouse that needs batteries, a coffee mug, an old manuscript in a box, a calendar, a laptop with more calendars inside, kids’ immunization records, a rolodex (I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century), a mouth guard for teeth-grinding I need to boil and use, a note card with an illustration of the Eiffel Tower (a really big thing made small), a recorder that also needs new batteries, a birthday card leftover from June, a fabric-covered box with love notes from my kids inside (things inside of thing)…
Paper-things many of these, but things, nonetheless.
For a minute, Marie Kondo’s less-clutter-more-happy idea made me disdain of my multitudinous things. Pandemic 2020 made me happy for them again, especially the stacks of books I’m still reading. I guess you’d call this relationship with things complicated.
Which brings me to my spot of writing advice for today, which was inspired by today’s feature over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I was recently promoted from features editor to associate editor. I encourage you to check out this short essay; in it the essayist, Darcie Abbene, calls upon authors and poets, including Ray Bradbury, Terry Tempest Williams, and William Carlos Williams to help her with her own writing. In turn, her essay helped me in my thinking about my writing–and it might do the same for yours.
As for those pesky things…Williams was a poet, whose most famous poetic phrase (probably) remains:
No ideas but in things
William Carlos Williams–from his poem “A Sort of a Song” and repeated in his epic collage titled Paterson
As a leader of the movements of modernism and imagism in poetry written in English–it makes sense that the poet was concerned with things. Of course, my things are not his things, just as yours aren’t mine. Williams was a physician, and I like to imagine how his professional things–and place things like a hospital or even (ahem) a red wheelbarrow–informed his thinking. So, things before ideas.
I’m paying close attention to things in my reading today. Working down my stack of withdraws from my local library ($1 each–sad, but lucky things for me), I’m currently reading Spy of the First Person, Sam Shepard, playwright, musician, and novelist’s, final fiction. So far, I’m flooded with things: a rocking chair, a beach, a cot, corpuscles both red and white… But I’m having trouble seeing the forest for the trees (the idea for the things?). I’ll keep working on it.
Which brings me to my own writing (Lord knows something should!). I’m back at it, my novel-in-progress, working in fits and starts, but working. And for all my anxieties over the things of my current state of life: 3-ply masks, school uniforms, new kids’ sneakers… It’s things–those concrete simple images set down on paper–that keep me writing.
Maybe it’ll work for you, too?
What are you writing? What are you reading this week? Any exciting weekend plans?
Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?
Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.
I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.
And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.
I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)
Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.
Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.
What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.
That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.
Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?
You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…
Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:
Figures the Ferris Wheel
If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.
If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.
Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):
Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:
My Son's Buckteeth
the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird
What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.
What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Just stack ’em up, any which way. Or, spend an hour creating your poem made up of titles you’ve read during the COVID-19 situation. (This doesn’t include my Google books, and does include books that I’m perpetually reading and a journal issue in which my words appear, but you get the picture.)
I didn’t come up with this idea, (shout-out to fellow blogger Lani, for introducing me to Steph @pieladybooks) but I think you can take a bit of license: add an article or two, play with punctuation and line breaks, of course. I went all ee cummings-lowercase, so the capitalization didn’t distract from the meaning. And my apologies to the late Sherwood Anderson, but I couldn’t help myself. Here it is, my poem of isolation reads. How about that near-rhyme at the end, right? Watch out, poets! And go ahead and suggest a title, if you’ve got one.
the heart is a full-wild beast, longing for an absent god
ruminate the everyday: old brown shiner, winesburg
o, find me!
magdalene, the virgin of prince street.
what you become in flight?
a catalog of unabashed gratitude, the book of delights
I’d love to see your poem of isolation reads! Still working on your reading arc–I’d love to see that, too.
I’ve done my best to chart and reflect on my family’s isolation here, even as restrictions begin to ease. Recreational boating is allowed again, so my guys will be back in Aqua Dove, that most glorious dinghy, soon. Maybe I’ll write a poem about it. Maybe not.
Want to read more of my isolation posts? I responded to WordPress Discover Prompts in April!–and you can, too. There’s no such thing as late work in blogging.
If you’re well, I hope you’re reading. If you’re reading, maybe you want to consider your reading arc. I never really had before. But, a Twitter contact, @MattWeinkam, associate director of Lit Cleveland, proposed a fun exercise for us reader sorts:
Chart your reading arc from childhood to present day in 10 books. After a bit of thinking, here’s mine:
A Very Young Dancer>Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret>Their Eyes Were Watching God>Come to Me: Stories>The Innocent>The Fortunate Pilgrim>Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir>Bel Canto>Magdalene: Poems>The Book of Delights: Essays
Of course, there are so many books I love that I had to leave out. If I had 11 slots, I would have added a craft book: maybe Stephen King’s On Writing, which was probably the first craft book I read; or maybe the classic, Donald M. Murray’s The Craft of Revision, which I return to again and again, of course; or maybe the recent Meander, Spiral, Explode (I talked about that one here) by Jane Alison, which upended so many writing “rules.”
What does my reading arc say about me? A lot you already know.
I was a dancer, myself, and a Catholic, drawn to the story aspects of both, I suppose. At 19, I moved from Ohio to Virginia–I left out my Tom Robbins obsession (remember Jitterbug Perfume?). College days brought courses like African American Autobiography and opened my eyes to stories outside what my mom had on her bookshelves from college in the 60s.
Short stories were my entry into the craft of writing–and Amy Bloom is one of my favorite story writers. (Good story collections are great writing teachers.)
Grad school left little time for pleasure reads, but when I could, I liked early Ian McEwan and books that informed my own writing.
If it’s not dance, song in story is a running theme. And for this writer who managed to get an MFA without writing a poem, I read a lot of poetry these days–and essays and hybrids of all sorts. And I think, you could say, I’m arcing toward joy in my reading habits.
I hope that means I’m arcing toward joy in life. I need it now more than ever.
So, show me your reading arc–in the comments or on your own blog. You might be surprised at what it reveals about your reading and your life.
Let’s read together. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark
My gratitude stops short of thanking the tiny tick I found on my hip. But if this period of isolation and fear due to the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s taught me to value the small things.
There are the gardening gloves given to me by one of my boys–for Mother’s Day, last year, I think. They are actually a little small for my long fingers, but they are also a beautiful turquoise. So I admired them as I weeded the flower beds around our house, yesterday afternoon–for a short time only, because my husband is a fastidious gardener, which is not a small thing.
Then there are the lilies of the valley I picked, which haven’t been overrun by the hulking hostas, this year, and whose little bells smell so sweet.
And then there’s the tree swing made by my dad, upon which I had a good swing after weeding and flower-picking–yep, this lady swinging away. It didn’t even make me nauseous, which is a pleasant small thing.
Today, it’s a soggy mess out there. But yesterday it was warm and clear and it seemed every neighbor was out cleaning his gutters, mowing the grass, or weed-whacking: in-town sounds, a minor suburban symphony.
My husband was in the veggie garden. Our boys finished their school work and came outside to join us, and eventually my little family lay down in the grass, feeling the springtime sun on our faces.
Enter the tick.
Many thanks to the WordPress editors for providing daily WordPress Discover Prompts in April! They helped me to chronicle our isolation. This post was in response to Discover’s daily prompts: List and Grateful. Read others’ responses here. My other prompts responses:
Don’t be a stranger. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark
Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark