A few years ago, while organizing my computer desktop, I changed a folder name. I know, I know, riveting inciting action, right? But stick with me.
I changed the name of that folder from “PR”–forgive me, I’m a marketing professional–to “Writing in Community.” There was little in that folder at that point, but I was starting to get out there, as in sitting on a panel and doing a reading at a literary conference, and figured I should be organized about it. Out there meant knowing there is a public side to writing and publishing that this introvert would have to get used to.
That folder grew when a publishing opportunity turned into an editing opportunity, and I started working for a literary magazine–and working with dozens of writers, so far. For some, I interviewed them about their new books; for others, I served as book reviewer; and for still others, I helped hone essays that got their stories, you know, out there.
There are lots of platitudes like: the best gift to yourself is to give of yourself; there is no “us” without “u,” I don’t know. So, insert your favorite one here. We bloggers know that connection with community is everything; it just took me a while to think of the writing life–one that’s often depicted as solitary and broody–in just the same way.
And that “Writing in Community” folder keeps growing: writing groups and beta readers live in that folder, as do notes on classes, conferences, and group retreats (again, someday!)–a whole lot of writing “us.” Recently, I was asked if I wanted to serve on the planning committee for my favorite literary festival, and of course I said yes.
So, here’s where the magic happens, where our folders could hang out together. Even better, we could hang out together–do all the writerly stuff, like in actual person! It’s two days of readings, craft talks, and panel discussions. In other words: writerly nirvana!
Here’s the pitch: Are you–or do you know–a terrific writer, reader, teacher, lit community organizer, or publisher? Please help me spread this call for proposals for Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival, with the theme of “Our Shared Story,” to be held in Youngstown, Ohio, October 7 – 9, 2021. Simply share the link with your literary-type friends (on social media, over email, on your blog) anywhere in the vicinity of Youngstown–which is halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
One last thing: read carefully, my gracious, frequent followers, and note the visiting writers at this year’s conference. (You see what I mean about good things coming to those writers who commune!?)
Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival October 7-9, 2021 Youngstown, Ohio Conference Theme: “Our Shared Story” Visiting Writers: Ross Gay, Jan Beatty, Bonnie Proudfoot & Mike Geither
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!
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.)
It might not feel like it today, when we’re supposed to top out at 95, but fall is closing in. And even though I’m more than 15 years from being in the classroom–first as a student, then as an instructor–the change of seasons still signals a renewed sense of dedication. And I’m ready.
It’s also a good time to re-focus this blog. If you remember, I met a poet and a memoirist at the last writing conference I attended (click for conference tips)–both from Rust Belt places. I love nothing more than picking the brains of my fellow writers and presenting their thoughts to you, here. So, I’ll be keeping up the interviews–and the reading required to conduct thoughtful queries.
Funny interview story for you: a few years ago, I thought I’d parlay my interviewing skills for the blog–and managed to convince essayist, memoirist, and journalist, David Giffels, into talking to me here and again here.
For the first interview, I had read–and loved–every word of David’s book of essays. But, breaking one of my own rules of interviewing, I hadn’t read David widely (yet). A music journalist and Akron, Ohio, native, David also wrote the rock biography, We are Devo!, with Jade Dellinger. Akron is famous for a few things. Among them: tires, Chrissie Hynde, Lebron, and that safety cone-hatted band, Devo.
Disclaimer: I’m not from Akron. Still, I should have known but didn’t. And, so… when I had David fact-check our interview, which I’d recorded, among his local cultural spokes-heroes appeared Steve-O, the stunt performing comedian known for Jackass. Not, Devo (as it certainly reads now).
David didn’t ask that I pull the interview or even laugh at me for my mistake (at least not to me). I was mortified…but mortification can instruct (when it doesn’t kill).
Here we still are. Thanks for sticking with me.
For me, fall also means another season of literary festivals, my favorite of which–Lit Youngstown’s–will take me home to Northeast Ohio. Last year, that festival inspired my post: 3 Reasons to Connect with Your Writing Community… And I’ll be sure to cover the event again this year, when I’m not reading my own fiction, sitting on a panel of editors, and moderating a couple sessions. It’s two full days of literary conversation–and my idea of heaven.
Of course, as our fall weather turns a bit cooler and the evenings darken sooner, my twin guys start discussing Halloween costumes and plans. Last year they played a rather nondescript, skull-faced “death” and a soccer star, which sounds like a good title for a horror movie. Stay tuned.
With darker evenings comes darker reading, as my editor gig with Parhelion Literary Magazine has had me reading fiction for a themed October issue. And I’ve been so inspired! I hope you’ll stop by for your fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or photography fix. The summer issue is live now. You’ll also see what fun I’ve been having as features editor there.
Now, it’s your turn…What’s on tap for your fall? Pumpkin or literary festivals? Local wine or craft beer tent? Hike or bike? Write or read?
In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.
Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.
As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).
My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.
Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.
How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.
I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.
My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.
It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”
I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.
As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:
Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
Pick a pivotal scene.
Sensory description lets the audience in.
Humor helps, when appropriate.
Use your own voice (accent be damned).
I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.
Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?
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.
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.
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.
Not just something required that was maybe a tad-bit outside of my wheelhouse (to use my fave maritime-inspired jargon). No, something that required guts.
Guts I’ve got when it comes to my kids. (Ask any mom.) Birth twins sans drugs–sure, got that… Forget my introversion (and the book I’m dying to read!) to introduce my toddlers to fellow toddlers on the playground–because, go figure, humans aren’t born knowing how to make introductions… Stick up for my kids when confronted by bullies… Overcome elementary math phobia to become a math club coach to teach kids that math is cool. Done, done, and done. Brave-ish Mom strikes and strikes again.
Now, can I be brave for myself? And can I be brave, when there’s no paycheck attached to it, when I’m the only one relying on me? Can I be creative-brave?
OK, let me back up to say that one reason I’m a writer is that I’m a nervous public speaker–and sometimes even not-so-public speaker. I’m just better on paper (you’re welcome). It’s one reason that I have five times the number of WordPress followers as FB friends.
And, funny thing, I taught freshman and sophomore-level college composition courses (yea, essays!) throughout my MFA, but teaching is different than speaking. Reading is different, too, if still a little scary. (Best done in a closet, as I was when I recorded my story, “Recruit.”) Reading my work before a group, letting my “weird” accent hang out–this I haven’t done in a while.
So, on my gutsy creative to-do list, this week: send my first, long-awaited literary agent query (first stop on the publishing road map) for my behemoth historical novel manuscript; and, even more to the bravery point, apply to present at a fall literary festival in my home state of Ohio, where much of my short fiction is set. This is new literary territory for me.
Part of my nervousness is due to the fact that to present at this festival really will be going home, and there’s a fear that I will be looked at as an outsider. (After so many years south of the Mason Dixon, I do say “ya’ll,” after all.)
Still, I’m going to submit my proposal. Worst thing that can happen is that they say no. Second worse, they say yes, and then I need to start stewing with nerves until September!
So, help a girl out, readers and writers:
Ever been to a literary festival?What do you look for (besides free books–yeah, I’m with you there)? What do you want to hear? Learn? I have no wares to hawk, no tsotchkes to share. It’s just me. And, in the immortal brand slogan of L’Oreal and imitator memes everywhere, I’m worth it.
What’s on your gutsy creative to-do list this week?