Ever get olfactory déjà vu, and you think: this place smells like home? Or, a person’s accent takes your mind to the street where you grew up? Or the way a loved one squeezes your knee or tucks your hair behind your ear ignites your primitive brain and takes you there, wherever that is, home.
I write fiction to get my characters–and by extension me–home.
I generally start writing when I have that first, budding image of my main character. Before I sit down to write, I feel a sense of unease, even anxiety, rising as I begin to imagine this character’s problem. (There has to be a problem.) Sometimes, I’ll also imagine the final image, problem righted, character home (if not in geography, in body or mind or spirit.)
Between the beginning image and the end is the journey–home.
Wow, when I write it out like this, it sounds simple. (It’s not simple.) But maybe thinking about the fiction-writing process in this way can ease the actual writing part just a little bit, whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or not.
And here’s a writing advice gem in the TheGuardian from an author with quite a few books under her belt, Kate Pullinger. So, she’s reached home a lot. This quote speaks to so many aspects of my life, really:
Writing is a kind of confidence trick – you have to con yourself into thinking you can do it, into thinking that what you are writing is the Real McCoy.
What’s NaNo? NaNoWriMo, if we’re being formal, is a kooky little challenge, whereby one writes a 50,000-word novel draft in the month of November.
You see, this past weekend was the first weekend (before monsoon season returned in force) that felt like fall. Crisp, sunny, sweater weather. I tossed a baseball with my kid, twice, and it was like a Hallmark card. Forgive me if I couldn’t hole myself up 24/7 in my office to bang away on my keyboard, but I’ve written before about the importance of living to writing that is not-so-sucky. Yep, dreams.
Another excuse for my lackluster NaNo progress: this manuscript I’m beginning is historical (in parts), which requires research, which is SLOW, but not un-fun. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been researching Finland–it’s Winter War (which began in 1939) and its culture (then and now), which I believe would have slapped me hard had I wasted my glorious fall weekend indoors–NaNo or not.
There are method actors, right? I think I need to be the next method writer. (Just imagine how clever I just thought I was coming up with that idea; until I googled and found this, and this, and this.) Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
However, speaking of sun, why not, in addition to getting inside my characters’ heads, get outside in an environment like that experienced by my characters. In short, this novel may require me to brave some colder temps this fall–maybe even some cold-weather swimming (up to my knees, perhaps!). In doing so, I hope to find my sisu (a Finnish term for stick-to-it-iveness, fortitude, guts) and maybe also find this novel.
You want numbers? NaNo is a numbers game. Well, I admit I started with several thousand words prior to Nov. 1 and have hit 7,115. A good chunk of it I wrote outside, Sunday, using up that extra hour given to us by the Fall Back gods here in the U.S.
I’ve also finished reading one book on Finnish culture, and the pertinent parts of another on the Winter War against the Soviets (which is all kinds of David vs. Goliath awe-inspiring). As I research, I keep adding books to my TBR: a book on Finnish fairy tales; a translation of the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala; a book about the Lottas, the female version of the Finnish Defense Corps. (Special shout-out to my Finnish blog followers (of which I believe I have two!))
And thanks to all for sticking with me on this blogging journey and NaNo detour. Here’s hoping the destination is sunny.
Are you doing NaNo? How’s it going? What’s your word count? How many research books have you added to your TBR since Nov. 1?
Give me a painting of a shipyard over a regatta, a work boat over a pleasure cruiser. Give me the smell of diesel, sweat, and fish. Might not be pretty, but it works.
For me, art that works–that shows scenes of toil and industry, of creating and crafting–appeals more than art that features placid scenes. Sorry Manet, Monet, and pretty much anything on a rou de someplace.
Why? Well, there’s the Rust Belt influence, the legacy and lore of waterways that sustained the heavy industry that built places like my native Cleveland, Ohio, along Lake Erie, and like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with its three rivers.
And, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the late artist, Donald Stoltenberg, was born in 1927. Stoltenberg was new to me, until a recent visit to nearby Annapolis.
While I gravitate to industry and toil in art, I look for the same in the literature I read–and write. To me, a character is never more him- or herself than when working. Why? Simple. Work breeds conflict and conflict drives story.
Some of the best advice I received as a writing student was to introduce characters to readers by showing them at work. This gets the characters out in the world, acting and reacting–and soon (as we all do) facing big problems, problems that will need to be, ya know, worked out.
So, as I think about the characters of my current WIP*, I’m putting them to work, testing their mettle, and seeing what they’re made of. Works for me, and I bet it’ll work for you.
What are you working on right now? A blog post? A story? A piece of art? What works for your characters? For you?
*Speaking of my WIP, I’ll be taking much of the month of November off from actively blogging to focus my attention on research and work for my WIP, as well as submitting to journals and agents before the end of the year. But I will be back! In the meantime, please see my categories above for writing advice, author interviews, publishing journey woes and successes–and keep on reading and writing (the Rust Belt and everywhere else).
So, I don’t know…maybe fantastical literature fell under the heading of “books and games to be avoided”–along with Dungeons & Dragons–in the C.C.D. program directed at us Catholic middle school kids. Or maybe it was my mom, for whom a talking spider and talking mouse, in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, respectively, were fantastical enough.
Whatever…it took me a long while to appreciate fantasy, or magical realism, as the genre is called among the literary fiction set.
It wasn’t until I had my kids that I began to really like fantasy–because those stories were the ones that kept my restless elementary-age boys rapt at bedtime, that kept them from becoming distracted enough by their bodies to turn to wrestling each other, thereby gaining a second wind that would keep them–and me–up past my bedtime.
The Chronicles of Narnia served as our gateway children’s fantasy. Lately, Susan Cooper stories featuring ghosts are our typical m.o. And on their nightstand at the moment: Endling #1: The Last by Katherine Applegate. Myth and mystery… The maybe-end of a rare species of dog-like creatures… A wobbyk named Tobble. (Hello, alliteration!) Really, I enjoy the characters and language as much as my kids do; but what I really love about the middle-grade fantasy I’m now exposed to…
Of course, as a fiction writer, I’ve been building worlds for a long time–even if they look and act like our world. But I’d never called it that. I constructed settings for scenes, putting a character in a concrete time and place. However, because those places were recognizable, I didn’t give this process enough attention. It was scene-dressing.
At Lit Youngstown’s fall literary festival, author Lesley Nneka Arimah read a few stories from her debut short story collection, titled What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky: Stories. Arimah’s gift with language–she crafts sentences that are graceful and slyly, darkly witty at the same time–and her knack at exposing the tender underbellies of familial relationships are enough to make for truly memorable tales.
For me, what sets her fiction apart is the use of fantasy. She builds worlds we know–the stories are set in the U.S. and Nigeria. (Arimah was raised in the U.K. and Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager.) But these worlds are slightly tilted, set off kilter through the introduction of myth or fable or superstition.
Being born under the wrong star, as the main character was in the story, “Glory,” is much more than a young woman having a run of bad luck. Still, the main character operates in a place we can recognize, a Minneapolis call center where she listens to an endless litany of foreclosure complaints from distraught homeowners. Here we have familiar, realistic world-building. Likewise, in many of the stories in this collection, the “magical” in the realism isn’t in the setting.
Not so in the stunning titular story. In “What it Means…,” Arimah creates a world of the future, a time riven by natural disasters and wars between the classes. The solution this society has devised to create order: a mathematical formula to fix people, even those who have suffered tremendous losses, by allowing some specialists to devour others’ grief.*
“When things began to fall apart [Chinua Achebe nod?], the world cracked open…into the vacuum stepped…[a mathematician] who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe was infinite, and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension humanity had no end was exactly what the world needed.”
Then, the formula faltered…and I’ll let you read the rest for yourself.
At her literary festival reading, Arimah spoke about her literary influences. She talked about the trips she took to the library as a kid and the reading she did: across all book types and genres–and absolutely voraciously.
So, here’s to fantasy, even in the uber-realistic Rust Belt. (I am currently reading Stephen Markley’s novel, Ohio; do story elements count as fantastical if they’re drug-induced? That’s a question for another day.) Here’s to inventive play in all the elements of story.
Thank you to Lesley Nneka Arimah for allowing me to post her picture and feature a snippet of her story. Please visit her author site for more information, and go buy What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky at your local bookstore.
Do you write fantasy or magical realism? Do you blog about it? Do you read it to your kids?
*As I schedule this post, my heart is heavy. Condolences to the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where on Saturday 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prayers for the dead and for the grieving, today and everyday…
Yes! I am thrilled to introduce you to Maresa Whitehead, a talented writer and poet I met at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival last month. From her website:
Maresa writes poetry which explores the beauty in darkness and dark images, particularly as they relate to nature and place.
Maresa currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing–Poetry from Chatham University. I count myself so very fortunate that Maresa agreed to share with us her wonderful Rust Belt-inspired poem. Whatever season you’re experiencing where you live, I’m sure you too will appreciate the unfolding and discovery going on here:
Once, this city forebode,
by charcoal snow,
bitter as if poisonous
it’s pungent as it ripens,
unfurls petals, entreats
pollination from swarms
which spread its seed.
Each season peels its rind,
extracts the pulp of Pittsburgh,
like the creamy black-specked
marrow eclipsed at first
by the green-tipped pink
husk of the dragon fruit.
by Maresa Whitehead
Thank you again to Maresa for allowing me to publish your poem here at Rust Belt Girl!
All, please help me share her voice far and wide—on the social networks of your choice. Visit Maresa Whitehead’s site for her complete bio and more of her writing.
Have a favorite seasonal poem? One that celebrates all you love—or don’t—about your town? Share in the comments!
Around the house, there’s laundry prep and meal prep.
For the kids, there’s book report prep and school uniform prep (see above laundry prep), and don’t forget tomorrow’s lunch prep. If I’m really on the ball, there’ll be breakfast smoothie prep. But let’s not get too excited, kids.
That’s just today.
And that leaves out me. Yep, even pantsers require a bit of preparation.
For work, there’s interview prep and invoicing prep. For committee A, there’s spreadsheet prep; for B, there’s list prep. For this blog, there’s reading prep and photo credit prep.
For my creative writing, there’s research: that’s composition prep. There’s writing group meeting prep.
Then comes the age old litany of publication prep. In other words: revise, revise, revise before a piece has a shot at finding a home in a literary journal. And all that’s before submission prep.
The process of submitting to literary journals and magazines has changed in recent years. (I’ve talked here about how sites like Submittable are making it easier to submit your poetry and fiction.) Still, it remains a time-consuming–albeit formative–exercise to close in on the right journals to which to submit, to discover the dozen or two or three (out of the thousands) of journals and magazines that might work for your creative work: (i.e. your veritable guts on the page).
For my creative writing friends out there, here’s where the submission prep gets a little easier.
It’s called Literistic. From their website: “Every month, we collect an exhaustive list of deadlines for submissions to literary publications, contests and fellowships and send out an email.”
What sets Literistic apart, as far as I can see, is that, hailing from Canada, they collect deadlines for publications, etc., from the U.S., Canada, and the UK, so this may be helpful to some of my writerly friends across the pond.
That’s Literistic’s deal. And if you decide the deal’s for you and you subscribe to their list of literary deadlines using this link, I’ll get a little compensation.*
So, happy house-, kid-, creative-, or whatever other kind of prepping you’ve got going on, and Happy Monday!
I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.
And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.
No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).
There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).
At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.
It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.
Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.
Rebecca here: I just recently got a cell phone that takes real photos, which I can actually get off my phone and post on the ol’ blog, when they’re worthy. It seems I’m edging toward the 21st century at last. However, my point-and-shooting can hardly be called photography. And so I am indebted to those artists who can truly capture the glories of their natural and man-made landscapes and am re-sharing some with you today. Do you live in a Rust Belt-ish place? Do you take photos? If so, let me know. I’d love to connect here!
The great thing about blogging is the connections you make.
In a post a while back, I called for photos of the Rust Belt–and was subsequently linked to Howard Hsu, a photographer living in Seattle, who was kind enough to let me feature his work on my site. This post, and my previous post, feature photographs Howard took on his Rust Belt tour in 2014.
Been to any of these places? Were you as surprised as I was to learn that Toledo was once a major glass-making hub? Visited any of these spots since 2014? How have they changed.
Here’s what Howard Hsu, photographer, wrote about his Rust Belt visit:
Transition and reinvention in the U.S. rust belt in 2014–Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Toledo.
The former bastions of the 20th Century industrial machine–empires built on auto, steel, glass, rubber and large-scale manufacturing–that changed the modern world but…
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…
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!
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.