Still Spiraling

Photo by iSAW Company on Pexels.com

Because spinning sounds like losing control.

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!

P.S. Want more Rust Belt? I’m always on at FB. Want the best in lit? Check out Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I am the new Features Editor.

The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

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Trash on Easter

“Tie-dyed variety this year–cute, right?

This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.

Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”

This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.

I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”

Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a real person—that insult, “trash.”

In my tandem-reading way (find my last tandem read here) I consulted Sarah Smarsh’s well-researched HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR OF WORKING HARD AND BEING BROKE IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (a finalist for the National Book Award) in which the journalist author examines class in America through her own personal lens, having grown up in a working poor family in Kansas.

We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”

Sarah Smarsh in Heartland

And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?

And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours from me and mine…

~Rebecca