A note on perseverance in writing…and everything else

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This is not an inspirational blog.

By that, I mean you will find no images and taglines here that you could use to make into a poster for your conference room. No cute kittens of mine will ever tell you to “hang in there”–or anywhere. (That’s my kid, above; my arms hurt just looking at him.) If I were to make such a poster, it might say, “Bitch a lot, and hope for sympathy–or at least free coffee.”

Still, I am not totally, cynically immune to pep-talks, or at least subtle reminders that bitching gets us nowhere, usually not even heard. But perseverance can get us writers, bloggers, and do-ers of all kinds off the starting block (or whatever tired motivational metaphor you prefer).

Call it perseverance. Call it stick-to-itivness. Call it sisu, if you’re in with the Finns. Please just don’t call it grit. (Am I the only one sick of that word? People: meet thesaurus; thesaurus meet people.)

All that’s to say, sometimes one (me) has to stop bitching and start working, which for this story writer looks like: composing, revising, editing, more editing; and lastly, the dreaded submitting.

The tale of my most recent story submission goes like this. (Here’s hoping it’s mildly inspirational.)

It was a story that I had to tell. While I generally enjoy a football field-sized writerly distance from the characters I explore in my fiction, this one hit much closer to home. Call it cheap therapy, but my mom was battling breast cancer and I was a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride away and English major-angsty. What to do with all that anger at the plain meanness and stupidity of cancer for targeting the one person who “got” me?

I wrote about it. I framed my confusion into a story about going home to be with the fictional her at the end and about how a cancer death–the coagulating of so many errant cells–made the fictional me dream of growing another kind of ball of cells, which would turn into a kid (or kids, as it turned out) of my own.

Like much fiction, there was truth in this story (along with much artifice). And it felt good to get my truth on the page, and then into the ether, and maybe even under the nose of a literary journal editor–or 58 (yep, I just counted).

Fast-forward a dozen years or more, and a much-revised version of this story will see the light. I received the glorious email with “acceptance” in the subject line a week after logging three rejections of other stories.

Some stories come easily; some take just a couple revisions before I’ve deemed them to be editor-ready. Not this story of my mom and me and breasts and death as beautiful as birth.

My story of writerly perseverance, by the numbers: revision No. 15; story title No. 3; 1,200 additional words since first draft, written for English 666 (no joke); and 1 fewer mention of the show, Friends, and also 9-layer dip, since that first draft (phew).

You get the gist. The story grew with me, and I with it, but I didn’t let it go–just like my little guy up there on the rock wall. I could have, but I didn’t.

More to come on my story’s new home, journal information, and issue launch.

Want more writerly advice? I’ve got a category for that.

Want to follow me on FB? Twitter? Let’s persevere together in all the social fun…

 

 

 

 

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a bit of writerly advice

Dug up this this writing advice from a while back–as I close out the week a little early to spend some time with my guys. I might take a day or two of vacay from the blog, but never from books–my constant companions and my kids’. We are a family often drenched in the written word, as Hart Crane would say. I’m reading no fewer than four books right now–a couple books of poems, one non-fiction history, one non-fiction self-help. Just finished Nico Walker’s novel CHERRY, which knocked the wind out of me for fiction for just a moment. (My pseudo-review is under…well, you guessed it.) Happy word-soaking and happy almost-weekend, all!

Rust Belt Girl

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One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

Hart Crane

Where I am, we’re soaked in more than words today (flood watches and warnings galore), and I’m happy for sump pumps and hopeful for drier weather, tomorrow.

As for the world of words, I abide by Crane’s advice to flood oneself with words–but I didn’t always. It used to be, I was careful to read one book at a time, careful that it not remind me too closely of the one-and-only-one WIP I was drafting, revising, or editing. These days, I’m not so careful. I’m usually reading three or more books at a time: one craft, one novel, one story collection. I’m usually working on my novel manuscript and a short story concurrently. And, of course, brainstorming the next blog post.

And…

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CHERRY has Me Seeing Red: an Unreliable Book Review for an Unreliable Narrator

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Image courtesy of goodreads.com. (Can you see what’s looking at you?)

Let’s preface this pseudo-review with the fact that I am a dogged Northeast Ohio booster, clapping the backs (but not lining the palms, sorry) of any and all creative ventures to come out of my native place. Lifting it up, bearing as much as I can its failures and successes.

I love the Cleveland area as only a daughter at a distance can—with rose-colored glasses adorned with sparkles of half-memories of a cherished childhood I can’t forget or relive.

This got me thinking prodigal daughter. Or, prodigal son. Yeah, let’s start there, with one of the most memorable and infuriating stories of the Bible. Shall we? Let’s do, because this is a shared knowledge: You see, Nico Walker, author of this memoirist fiction, and I (and so many Cleveland natives) have Catholicism in common. What pisses off us well-behaved Catholic kids about the story of the prodigal son? The guy did everything wrong and got lauded for it. The party and the fatted calf, or maybe it was a goat or a lamb. (I said Catholic, not Methodist.) Anyway…

The cursory summary: Cherry by Nico Walker follows an unnamed young male narrator (ahem) from a failed semester of college and young love in Cleveland; to Iraq, where he is “a cherry,” a new guy, in military jargon, and then a warrior medic; and back to Cleveland, where he ends up addicted to heroin. When he turns to robbing banks to support his addiction, he gets caught. Walker wrote this book from prison.

The author’s note:

This book is a work of fiction.

These things didn’t ever happen.

These people didn’t ever exist.

Genre: er, memoir disguised as fiction, which is perfect for this creative-Cleveland booster, because now I can’t be mad at you, author Nico Walker. For writing a story that glorifies misogyny and drunkenness and drug abuse and so much self-harm I read this book through my fingers, shielding my eyes. Because I’m not just a reader; I could have known you, Nico Walker; we could have driven down Mayfield on the same night—me, home from grad school, you, in high school. We could have hung out on Coventry, eaten Presti’s doughnuts at 2am. We could have sat in the same church pew at Midnight Mass. Only, when I was feeling sorry for the well-behaved older brother of the prodigal son, you were taking notes on the younger rebel.

If I sound mad, I’m not. Maybe just disappointed. (God, didn’t we hate to hear that from our Catholic parents?) I’m disappointed in the man, Nico Walker, but not the author. I’m disappointed–or maybe just plain scared–because I’m not just a reviewer; I’m a mom of boys who will be young men too soon, and the world carries one frightening epidemic after another, threatening to eat our bodies or our souls or both. Or, maybe I am angry at author Nico Walker, because there’s no hope in the life of this book. Lives are wasted and the stories are stupidly tragic, and it makes my skin crawl like no book should. Or should it? (My head is not in the sand: last year, my Maryland county suffered 214 deaths from opioid overdose.)

Language: graphic, crude, slurs, at once up-in-your-face spitting and detached, cold. Generation Kill kind of stuff, but more removed. Lots of second-person, addressing the reader, “you,” when the narrator means himself. Once in a while quite staid.

…everything dismal as murder.

…you couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. [Note: it wasn’t rain.]

And we smoked cigarettes as we were wont to do.

Style: spare, reportage-ish, which belies the unreliable narrator. The young man on the page doesn’t spin tales to get you to like him. He doesn’t care if you do. He reads Vonnegut. Hemingway-esque, other reviewers have said of the author’s style. Denis Johnson resurrected. What saved me was the humor, that kind of sad laugh that leaks out at funeral jokes. Nico Walker is damn funny; irreverent doesn’t begin to cover it.

The ornaments were stick figures depicting the Stations of the Cross, metallic stick Jesuses hossing the crosses around. Sometimes Jesus would have the cross about upright. In other places He’d be about collapsed under its weight. I said to Emily that it looked like a man suffering an accident while setting up a basketball hoop.

And…

If you’re known to rob things people will just give you guns. It’s kind of like sponsoring missionaries.

If this were truly fiction, I’d say the author was glorifying the basest of our natures, and I’d close the book. If this were truly memoir, I’d cry for the lost lamb. But, this is creative-limbo-work here, expertly written, and ferried by way of editors, publishers, and publicists who have set this in my lap. There will be a film deal.

A book is a thing without a soul to be critiqued—separate from the teller, even of memoir, which this isn’t. (Or is it?) Published. The author still in his 30s. By a major publishing house. Am I jealous? Hell, yes, and never ever.

It’s early in the book when the narrator describes a church’s Stations of the Cross: Jesus’s bearing up and falling down under the weight of the cross on his back. The young protagonist’s descent mirrors for me Jesus’s falling. Would-be Nico Walker falls the first time for a girl (aren’t we the root of it all still, Eve?); then for the masculine ideal of the soldier, he never really inhabits; then, after war, for that faux-savior opioids. Only, Jesus was falling for the rest of us.

And I can’t. Or I could–maybe I did–do a proper review and talk about layers of meaning here.

And a sophomore effort from the author: I hope for one, because I hope for Nico Walker, the man, to rise after so much falling.

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

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

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

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3 good reasons to connect with your creative community:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Where are we going, Where have we been?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a bit of writerly advice…for Sept. 13, 2018

All the moments that make up a human being have to be written about, talked about, painted, danced, in order to really talk about life. –Rita Dove, Ohio native, Pulitzer Prize winner, and former U.S. Poet Laureate

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

The above quote is from an old interview with Rita Dove in which she talks about her background and her decision–not until college–to try to become a writer. “I always thought [writing] was something that you did as a child, then you put away childish things,” she said. “I didn’t know writers could be real live people, because I never knew any writers.”

There it is, isn’t it? This writing thing: childish, right? Ever feel guilty about writing? I do. Especially the writing I do that doesn’t buy groceries. Why? Because it’s unnecessary, a luxury, an escape, mere child’s play.

Or is it?

Maybe writing, as Rita Dove says, is essential to this life we’re all living here–necessary to becoming part and parcel of this existence.

What do you think?

Now…go write.

But first, sample Rita Dove’s poetry here at Kenyon Review with “Concert at Hanover Square” and try–I dare you–to forget the gray mice image!

 

Sounds of silence; tastes long gone

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Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine losing one of your precious senses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re all Welcome to Join HistorianRuby on a Trip to the Museum!

Rebecca here–I’m on the best trip–to the museum with HistorianRuby, who is a wonderful tour guide through history. If you enjoy history–or maybe especially if you think you don’t–take this special blog party for a spin. Discover some great posts and maybe follow another special blogger through heritage and history. Enjoy!

HistorianRuby: An Historian's Miscellany

HistorianRuby invites you all to participate in a blog trip of your choice!

You don’t like history? Really? You may be surprised at how many ways we can consume history – if you’re not sure, take a look at my post The Many Ways to Consume History.

Did you stop to look at that statue that had a bird on its head? Did it make you smile? There’s always a story behind a statue . . .

How about a little family history? Do you like to reminisce about a fishing trip with your dad and uncle thirty years ago? Or did your grandmother teach you to bake?

What about when your favourite football team won the cup for the first or last time and you were there to see every nerve-wracking minute of it. It’s all history.

Or how you hated history at school as they made you learn about…

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Re-blog: Buffalo’s Incredible Historic Train Station

Rebecca here–happy to highlight the work of Rust Belt photographer Johnny Joo, who captures the remains and the history of historic landmarks–like Buffalo, New York’s Central Terminal, an art-deco jewel of an old train station.

I have a soft spot for Buffalo, the Rust Belt city near where my mom was raised and where much of her side still lives. If our winters in Cleveland were tough (and they were), winters in Buffalo were tougher. This seemed to increase not only my relatives’ struggles, there, but their grit to overcome them, along with their infectious wit and humor to laugh through them.

Joo’s type of photography is called “Abandonment Photography,” but by recalling these places, he resurrects them, in a way, as he resurrects wonderful memories for me. Certainly, this Buffalo landmark should not be forgotten, and I will follow its story, as the city around it is enjoying a renaissance.

Joo reports, “In October of 2017, the World Monuments Fund selected Central Terminal as part of it’s 2018 World Monument Watch List – one of only two selections from the United States, and one of 25 selections total.”

Updates on the restoration of Buffalo’s art-deco train station can be found here: buffalocentralterminal.org.

Are there any architectural landmarks that have been forgotten in your town? Anyone doing the hard work of resurrecting them?

Architectural Afterlife

Buffalo’s Central Terminal was an active train station from 1929-1979. The structure was built in Art Deco style, designed by architects Fellheimer & Wagner for the New York Central Railroad. The main building stands 15 stories (271 feet) tall. The station had sat abandoned and almost forgotten for years, but with the incredible work of an amazing preservation group, new life has been brought back through this incredible piece of Buffalo history. Most of the photos shown below show the derelict, decaying areas of the former station. I will update this piece later with photos from inside the area undergoing renovation. 

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Abandoned East Central Station Buffalo New York Abandoned East Central Station Buffalo New York

Construction of the station took place from 1925-1929. By the late 19th century, the city of Buffalo was home to several railroad stations, but people desperately wanted a single union station to be constructed. Plans were…

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Submit, submit, submit

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It’s that time again: submission season.

It’s the season when we writers polish up our prose and poems and novel MS synopses to send out into the world, fresh-faced and optimistic, imbued with loads of potential–in the hopes of being published. I wave to them and smile (a little smugly). “I’ve done good,” I tell myself.

And then proceed to shudder in fear.

Oh, wait.

Maybe that’s my kids. Yep, silly me. September is also back-to-school season, when I send my actual offspring out into the world, fresh-faced. I wave and smile…Well, you get it.

Here’s the thing.

Let’s not confuse our creative offspring with our actual offspring, our stories with our kids. Really, I’m talking to myself here. Is it just me? Am I the only one who’s ever uttered: “That manuscript is my baby.” (Note that I had not yet endured screaming twin infants when I said that.) No, I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m pretty certain there’s a country song with that title.

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