Lit Fest Lowdown: 2020 highlights

Last year’s festival dinner view.

This year has been (among other things) one giant exercise in imagining. Imagine this is a regular writing workshop. Imagine enjoying this poetry reading in an art gallery (instead of in your bathrobe). Imagine actual happy hour. But if we writers are good at anything, it’s imagining.

So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favorite literary festival, the literary highlight of my year, the 2020 Fall Literary Festival hosted by Lit Youngstown (Ohio), was a great remote success. I was incredibly impressed at the quality of the craft workshops, readings, and community spirit–even from a few hundred miles away.

From the festival description, “This year’s conference [was] centered around the theme In Many Tongues, a conversation bringing together writing and publishing, literary inclusion, translating and translation…and the generational, political, ecological, and experimental elements that add to the wider literary conversation.” Whew!

If only I could have attended each and every session, heard each and every voice. But, there is only one of me, so I picked and chose from the many literary offerings. Here, I’m happy to provide highlights in the hopes I whet your appetite for next year’s festival–or a literary event in one of your favorite places in the world:

Jacqueline Marino, who edited two anthologies focused on the stories of Youngstown, Ohio, titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables, taught a craft workshop, Write Your Rust Belt Story. You know I was there. The journalism professor and writer talked about crafting place in our stories, establishing voice, and finding the moment of connection in a piece. With a little free-writing, I started on a piece about my own Ohio hometown.

David Giffels was this year’s keynote speaker. In his talk, “Thank you Cleveland Good Night: How the reluctant writer becomes a performer,” Giffels shared his own personal story–from a shy, bookish kid to a newspaper columnist to the award-winning author and essayist–and spectacular storyteller–he is today. His latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America is an on-the-ground look at Ohio and its people and place in American politics. For the first time, Giffels narrated his own audio book, and he related ideas of (actual) voice and (literary) voice. You write “the way you wish you could talk,” he said. And, as for writing about place, he recommended looking for what’s odd about your spot. Further, explore “a question you know you can’t answer.” (Oh, so many questions.)

Writer Quincy Flowers’ craft talk, On Polyphony: Writing a Novel and Making Meaning in Dialogue with Others discussed incorporating texts, including historical and para-texts, along with documents real and imagined, into our fiction. For this historical fiction writer, Flowers gave me a lot to think about, including, when does historical invention cross the line into untruth… and why haven’t I read more Percival Everett?

Dr. Ken Schneck, an author, editor, and professor of education, led a session called Shameless Self Promotion, which focused on helping us writers market our work–and ourselves–to build our audience for our books, journals, or even (ahem) blogs. Top takeaways: writers need a thing to market (not themselves) and a measurable goal; writers need to know who’s doing the kinds of writing we’re doing (our “comp” writers); and writers need not shy away from self promotion. Most helpful: Schneck’s discussion on the importance of our “elevator pitch.” You know, the succinct, pithy answer to “What do you do?” (I’ll share mine in the comments.) This talk also inspired me to update my About page at this blog–let me know what you think.

Fiction writer, playwright, and teacher Toni Thayer led a session called Finding your Voice in the Voices of Others, in which she urged us participants to carefully consider short pieces by “a diverse range of writers to fuel playful, creative imitation, with the end result of expanding one’s own style.” I studied a poem by Ohio poet Hanif Abdurraqib, in which music dictates the sound and the meaning of the piece–and applied some song to a WIP of my own. Refining your own voice through imitation is such great exercise!

Keynote speaker David Giffels talked shop in Relatively Speaking: Writing about Family in Personal Essays and Memoirs, and I’m happy to share some of the best tips for my writer friends here. What’s tough about writing about family, said Giffels, is we know too much. And also too little. Our own memory of an event is only the beginning. What comes next? Research. Interview family members to get their take; research events on YouTube; refresh your memory through photos and artifacts and by revisiting the place. But the bottom line in how NOT to get in trouble when writing about family, Giffels said: “empathy is everything.”

And there was so much more literary goodness over the 2+ day festival–even a happy hour.

Have you attended a literary festival or conference in this age of Zoom? What was the highlight? Any tips to share? Do you write about family on your blog or elsewhere? How do you avoid the pitfalls while telling your story? Do you have an elevator pitch at the ready, when people ask, what do you write about, what do you blog about?

Interested in Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices. Let’s connect!

Don’t forget to stretch: A lit fest rundown…with not-pro tips

Nope. Not a churchy post. Hang tight, folks.*

It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).

Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)

Read more

Rust Belt Girl guest: Maresa Whitehead with “Layers”

Screenshot_2018-10-24 Just another WordPress site

What’s this? A guest spot?

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:

Layers

Once, this city forebode,
dormant, suppressed
by charcoal snow,
glaciated, atrophied,
bitter as if poisonous
until thawed.

Now, defrosted,
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,
succulent, unexpected
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!

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.

Making the most of a literary conference…with a card and a queen

On my writing desk sits a small box filled with even smaller business cards I ordered for the Literary Festival I will be attending next month. These cards are, in effect, the professional “me.” On one side is listed my freelance biz; on the other (shown below) my creative writing credentials.

My two-sided business card mirrors the divided roles I play in this writing life of mine. This is the gig economy in action, folks, and I am a 2 inch-by-3 inch fraud. OK, no, there are no untruths on my business card, but still I feel like a fake sometimes.

It’s natural, self-doubt–especially when pulled in many directions–and inherent in this introverted writer. But business cards? Networking? I mean, networking is no less than 5,000 miles away from my natural habitat. So, what to do to make the most of my time at a literary (or any other kind of) conference?

Come along for the ride…

First, strike a power pose. What does that look like for an introverted writer? Particular pose aside, power-posing is all about boosting your confidence and is key to overcoming “imposter syndrome,” says super-talented career coach and humor blogger, Becca–who encourages those of us who unjustly feel like frauds to “Fake It ‘Till You Become It.”

OK, so I’ve got my business card. And practiced body language (time to break out the full-length mirror I don’t have!).

Second, follow a three-tier plan for getting what I want out of this conference (and by extension this writing life, but…baby steps).

Let’s be clear, I’m attending this festival for the backside (ahem), the creative side of me. With so many talks, readings, and panel discussions to choose from, I need to choose wisely to return home not exhausted but ready to write.

Craft: outside of an online writing workshop or two, it’s been a good while since I took part in a proper fiction workshop, so this tops my list of must-dos.

Connect: one big reason I started Rust Belt Girl was to connect with writers writing from and about the post-industrial Midwest, and I’ll have ample opportunity at this Ohio event; I also hope to meet a few of the many literary journal editors who will be there–always helpful to hear what they’re looking for in submissions.

Soak it in: with a schedule full of creative readings–from poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers–I hope to come away inspired enough by the stories of others to return, re-energized, to my own.

And then there are the side-perks of discovering a city I’ve never visited before and of being close enough to an Ohio site I want to research for my WIP that I can make the weekend a two-fer.

But, even before that, there’s the preparation*, and I don’t just mean packing “serious writer” outfits and a wrap for cool conference rooms. And, of course, having my own stuff together for my creative reading and appearance on a panel about publishing from the writer’s perspective. I mean reading up: not just writer bios, but the book of collected stories from the keynote speaker, Leslie Nneka Arimah; and poems from the Ohio poet laureate, Dave Lucas.

Many thanks to super-knowledgeable blogger, Lorna, at Gin & Lemonade for helping me to develop this plan for slaying it (insert power pose here) at the literary festival and for passing along this post with helpful tips for making the most of a conference as an introvert: “Breathe” is a good one to remember. So is: “Grab People’s Business Cards.”

If all else fails, I’ll just summon my inner Ally McBeal–yep, showing my age here–and come to the literary festival ready with an inspirational song in my head.

With the recent death of Aretha Franklin, followed by the singer’s Detroit funeral that included a procession of 130 pink Cadillacs (more details on that here), I thought I’d take a confidence cue from the Queen of Soul. So many powerful songs: “Respect,” “A Natural Woman.”

My fave: “I Say a Little Prayer”

Have any tips to share for making the most of a conference–literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear them!

*Update: One more item to prepare before a conference–literary or otherwise: the 30-second elevator pitch. Do you have one? “It’s a good idea to have one of these prepared for your art,” says poet and former marketing executive Danielle Hanson, in a wonderfully-informative article in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which is pretty much the bible for literary writers. Your elevator pitch should answer the question: What do you do?

Here’s my working elevator pitch: I write fiction. I’m interested in exploring the idea of the American Dream in place–both during wartime and at peace. My historical novel manuscript explores lives on the WWII home-front and tells the largely unknown story of the internment of Italians in America during that time. My short stories explore the contemporary American Rust Belt, with many set in my native Ohio. I also blog at Rust Belt Girl to connect with authors, photographers, and readers in the region and beyond. There I feature discussions on “ruin porn,” author interviews, and my own craft essays, drawn from my experiences as a writer and as a former college writing instructor.

What do you think? What am I missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Poetry…

Dear poetry,

It’s not you. Really. You’re great, if sometimes hard to read.

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Sun setting on my poetry romance (er, over Lake Erie)

OK, poetry and I were never very serious. But I want to try, try again.

Last year, a great friend (and great poet) turned me on to Marie Howe (the Stevie Nicks of poetry, am I right?) through several of Howe’s poems from her book What the Living Do and this amazing interview from On Being. I listened to that interview with Howe (the former Poet Laureate of New York) over and over, thinking, if I can “get” the poet, I can “get” the poems. She’s a woman, a mother; she was raised Catholic. Check, check, and check. I’m still working through her Magdalene, from which the poem “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” may be my fave. Do I get every single reference? Probably not? Do I still feel like a fiction writer in poet’s clothing? Sorta.

I don’t expect you to be easy, poetry. Really, I’m trying to meet you halfway here.

I recently came across the work of Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas, who grew up in Northeastern Ohio, like this girl. Check. And he had something interesting to say about writing about place:

For a lot of writers, there’s a realization: I can write about where I’m from, about what I know.

He says more in this interview here about “de-mystifying” poetry and about liking food and beer. Check and check.

I mean, we’re on the same wavelength now, poetry and me.

I’m looking forward to hearing Lucas read at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. Here’s Lucas reading his poems “Midwestern Cities” and “River on Fire” from his 2012 book Weather. I’m also hoping I can get up the gumption to see if he’ll answer a few questions for the ol’ blog here!

If I imagine you in your underwear, poetry, maybe I won’t feel so unworthy.

Humor can be an entry to literature, even poetry. Right?

I saw the poet Billy Collins read several years ago. My twin boys were infants and I remember feeling so free–and literary–leaving my brand new, screaming offspring with my sleep-deprived husband to hear poetry at a downtown theater by myself. Collins is a huge deal, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, the “most popular poet in America.” Is he read by “serious” poets; I don’t know. He’s read by me. The Rain in Portugal. Come on, that’s brilliant.

Is Collins funny and wise? He was that day, as much as I needed those things, sitting alone in that theater, contemplating the senior citizens around me who’d raised their kids and made it to older age with their sanity intact, it seemed.

The poet smiled and rubbed his bald head and read poems about his cat. I like cats. Check.

Maybe I’m the one who’s easy, poetry. Let’s try again!

First poem you loved? Last poem you read? And…go!

 

Like this post? Give a girl a “share.” Thanks! ~ Rebecca

*image my own

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rust Belt Girl roundup for July 15, 2018

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We’re at the midpoint of the middle month of the summer, in my view. (We warm up early here in Maryland). And I’m feeling like I’ve only just begun to check off items on my summer to-do list. My boys filled out a summer bucket list on the last day of school. (Thanks for setting me up to fail, teach!) I have yet to pen my own. Top of the list would be “visit the Lake Erie shores and islands with fam.” (Yes, there are islands in Lake Erie–something for everyone, unless you’re allergic to ferries.)

That’s where we’re headed, my boys and me, to visit with family. Picture us in the scene above. So, I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog, but not from reading and writing. That never happens.

On the work front, I made a deadline last week, handing in a 4,000-word feature story (I think I rocked it; I hope the editor agrees!). There will be edits. Oh, there always will be edits.

A creative item of note: I found out earlier this week that I will be a presenter at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival, and I’m so excited! In addition to doing a creative reading of a flash fiction piece of mine, I will sit on the Writers’ Publishing Panel–to talk about the ol’ blog. (Maybe see a few of you there!)

Thanks to my followers and friends here who encouraged me to submit a proposal. Your support means so much!

On my upcoming vacation, I hope to catch up on all I’ve missed recently on my WordPress Reader and to finish the books I’ve started: on audio (for my WWII list) Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone, a friend, former fellow MFA classmate, and all-around major literary talent); and in book form (for my Rust Belt list): The Weight of Heaven by novelist and memoirist Thrity Umrigar, who lives and teaches in Cleveland. (I’m interested to see if any Rust Belt sensibilities rub off on her characters.)

Mostly though, I am hoping for boat rides and swims at the pool and backyard fish fries and back deck-sitting with family until the mosquitoes drive us inside. Bucket list done and done.

Here’s to summer.

~Rebecca