a bit of writerly advice…for International Women’s Day

banner-2748305__480
Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Write from the specific knowledge that you have that nobody else has.

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Yep, lots of writers say this, but I thought this was a good reminder, coming from one of my fave women writers–on this day celebrating us.

Above, I’ve linked to a great (2016) article written by Julia MacDonnell at Philadelphia Stories. In it, she talks about meeting and learning more about Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. MacDonnell also details the specific knowledge Campbell draws on to write her award-winning fiction. In short, the Kalamazoo, Michigan, born and bred author:

“grew up on a farm, learning how to milk cows and castrate pigs. She rides, she runs, she rows. She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, hitchhiked across country, and organized cycling tours throughout Europe. In other words, she has plenty of specific knowledge to use as material.”

Whew!

What’s your material? Do you use it, mine it, shy away from it?

 

Name your bliss

paper-romance-symbol-valentine-159526.jpeg

 

Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid or other love.)

Really, I can’t close without sharing some of the language I love most at the moment. If my mom were still alive, I would call her and read aloud this following passage. It’s from Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

In The New Midwest, author and critic Mark Athitakis says Campbell’s stories “operate as both reportage and intimate human portraiture.” It’s this combination of stark tale and depth of character that draws me to Campbell’s work. But a well-turned phrase certainly doesn’t hurt. Try this on for size, this Valentine’s Day:

From Campbell’s story, “My Bliss”:

First I married the breakfast cereal in its small cardboard chapel, wax-coated, into which I poured milk. Then I married a cigarette, for the gauzy way the air hung around us when we were together, then a stone, because I thought he was a brick or a block, something I could use to build a home.

From my home to yours, wishing you a Happy Valentine’s, a Good Lent, and bliss in love and language, every day.

For the love of…dog

hemmingway
Papa Hemingway and one of his muses cats.*

Cats get a lot of love in the literary world–and not just in my writer-filled Facebook feed.

Last month, the The Guardian posted a creative writing Top Ten that went viral: “Buy a cat, stay up late, don’t drink: top 10 writers’ tips on writing.” (Two out of three ain’t bad, Hemingway.)

No. 10 on the list: get a cat, from writer Muriel Spark (or, a character of hers, anyway) who says:

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.

Amen, says this writer, who admires the clean and aloof companionship provided by a cat. One better: I could do more than acquire a cat (or cats, as I have in the past); I could steep myself in the literature of cats, of which there is plenty. Here, from bibliophile blogger Bookish Beck, would be a good place to start.

Instead, I must delve into the world of dog. Why?

Because, people, I am about to be overthrown. Yes, this cat-lover is on the cusp of acquiring a dog.

And so, at a time when other people might be researching breeds or stocking up on carpet cleaner or dog chow… When others might be drawing up a contract to divvy the responsibilities between one Rust Belt Girl and the men with whom she shares a household–one regular and two pint-sized… I’m doing what I’ve always done to confront a problem.

Stare it down? Address it head on? (Have we met?)

I read around it.

D-O-G. Sounds simple enough, right? Feeding, caring, sheltering. I mean, I have done this before. As a kid, my family in Ohio had a beagle mix named Anne (after my best friend–sorry, friend). But Anne was an “outside dog” with a dog house. Before you start to worry, yes, she was allowed in the house on snowy days and nights. But no one would have thought for a second to let her onto the couch much less into a bed.

However, my current cohabitants don’t want an outside dog; they want a new member of the family. And a puppy at that.

And so…I delve into the literary world of the dog, which, I have to say is much more playful than that of the cat. Not better, just very different.

There’s a lot of outside–away from writing implements–that happens with dogs in print (and on screen). Here on WordPress, one blogger finds her faith strengthened on hikes with her dog, Belle, a Border Collie mix. Another blogger, at Poppy Walks the Dog, does just that with his Japanese Chin, Mimsy. Meet her here.

Poppy provides the upside to the supposed downside of severing oneself from the current WIP (chapters 1 and 2 revised, only 16 more to go, if you’re following), poop bag in hand to walk around the block:

Ambling yields the real benefit to these walks. Time. Time to think. Time to contemplate the news and social media that I left behind in the house. Time to remember and reflect on friends and family.

Time. Remember that thing? Could it be that I might find more time–more head space to create–by acquiring and walking a dog?

The reflecting on family part sounds especially intriguing. After all, this dog will be a joint responsibility, right? Right?

And so the reading around the dog question hasn’t stopped with me. Together, my boys and I listened to and loved the audio version of One Dog and His Boy, a “canine classic,” according to this review.

And then, in the middle of my reading of Bonnie Jo Campbell‘s latest story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, I met Roscoe, a stray dog who arrives at the home of a pregnant woman who decides to take him in:

…here was a living, breathing creature who needed me now, and in my fifth month, maybe my hormones were talking, too.

Or maybe those hormones were screaming, as the pregnant protagonist comes to believe that Roscoe is her late, handsome, philandering fiance, Oscar, come back to life as a twenty-pound mutt. The story is a wonder of intelligence and, well, wonder: mystery.

So, that’s where I am in my literary dog journey preceding my actual dog journey. Can’t say I’m not a planner–if only in (literary) theory.

Do you have a cat muse? A dog muse? Help a girl out here. I need advice.

Closing with the literary cliche that isn’t: a boy (mine) and a dog (neighbor’s). Stay tuned… ~ Rebecca

IMG_1247

 

*Hemingway photo courtesy of beekman1802.com