I am not a poet, though some of my prose has aspirations. However, if writing is about invention–and re-invention–maybe my prose knows something I don’t.
How glorious to reinvent ourselves through our writing, over and over, on the page (or screen). I do find invention the most exciting part of being a fiction writer, blogger, and even a marketing professional–well, second only to the excitement of connecting with likeminded creative folks.
Remember in-person literary events? I’d almost forgotten that some of my favorite writerly faces can been seen in the literary wild, outside of their confining Zoom boxes. For those of you readers who’ve been around these blog parts for a while, this festival gave the pleasure of meeting several of my Rust Belt interviewees in person for the first time: memoirist and poet Robert Miltner, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and novelist Margo Orlando Littell. Also, in small-literary-world news, a writer friend I made while attending a writing retreat in Virginia in the spring made it to the fall conference (hi, Rebe!).
So, what exactly goes down at a literary festival? The “gathering in” night at a downtown art studio included a cookie table, a local tradition. And, not only did I cookie, but I also put on my brave writer pants and read a short piece at the open mic (following maybe some of my best advice for speaking–or singing–in public).
The first full day of the festival, I moderated a craft session on writing memoir; attended a panel discussion on rewriting women into history (take that Jack London–just trust me); attended a poetry discussion on transforming grief into a gift; and took an epistolary poetry workshop. Yes, me, the non-poet. At the risk of total embarrassment, here’s my epistolary poem from the class:
A hotel bed big enough for the four of us, but it sleeps only me. I could say I wish you were here,
but Youngstown, this place I only discovered when I was no longer young, feels like mine
alone. Here, the people talk like me, the nasal accent that cuts through a crowd. You will love
a campus like this someday, a place that will watch you become a stronger you, tempered
like the steel of this place. Your Youngstown might be Annapolis or College Park or Cambridge.
You know we can't afford the Ivies, right? Do your homework, get a good night's sleep, and know
I love you.
One of the coolest aspects of having a literary festival on a college campus is the other arts to be found. A short walk took me to a university art museum that was featuring an installation by artist Diane Samuels. My photos don’t do her work justice, so you’re going to want to check out her site. Here, you see Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Overstory–with every word of those texts hand-transcribed on various materials. The quilt-like pieces are gorgeous from afar or up close, where you can read every word.
From the art museum, we then had dinner–pierogi and halushki–at a local, historic stone church, where after, in the sanctuary we heard from a jazz trio before the evening’s creative readings. (See pics above.) From there, I followed the locals to a tiny jazz and blues club where we heard, you guessed it, live jazz and blues–some originals and some covers of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and other sing-alongable songs. And my weekend just kept getting more art-full.
The second day of the conference, I played hooky. It’s true. Rule-following me. Of course, before that I did my duty as part of the planning committee and worked at the book fair (which was a lot of fun!). I also took poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry workshop about writing from family history (one of her best tips: to avoid sentimentality, get very specific and use details sparingly); I’m still working on that poem. And later, I took a poetry workshop on the Golden Shovel form (news-to-me: it has nothing to do with a shovel shape). And then, I played hooky.
For the several years I’ve been attending this literary festival, everyone’s told me I must make it to the Butler Museum of American Art, a short walk from the conference venue. This time, a couple writer friends and I made it, took the tour, the whole thing. Reader, there was an Edward Hopper. I knew I was in the right place. (Pictured: Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, William Gropper’s Youngstown Strike, Henry Martin Gasser’s Intersection, Grant Wood’s In the Spring, a name-that-abstract piece I didn’t take a good enough picture of the id card, Peter Maier’s Horse-Power (Ben)–a floor-to-ceiling rendering of a Clydesdale painted on metal–and Alfred Leslie’s High Tea.)
After my fill of American art, I enjoyed dinner (Italian, if you’re keeping track) and literary conversation that alternately had me jotting notes (the TBR pile grows ever taller) and laughing. There again, my idea of heaven. To cap off the final evening of the festival: another reading (at another downtown art gallery), this time by Jan Beatty–raw, real, and revelational! I can’t wait to dive into this one, too.
Huge kudos to Lit Youngstown director Karen Schubert and outreach coordinator Cassandra Lawton, the board, and planning committee folks–for another successful literary festival. It felt like a miracle that was over too soon!
Have you ever been to a literary festival or conference? What were the highlights for you? Did you stay in your literary lane or reinvent yourself in a weekend? Do you enjoy creative readings? What makes a reading memorable for you?
I’ve been terrible about keeping in touch, but I hope you’ll check in here. What are you reading, writing? What authors have moved you, lately? Are you getting out to any in-person activities?
Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca
Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.
The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”
Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.
Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:
Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?
I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.
When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:
What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.
Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?
It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.
I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought,how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?
David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.
One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.
The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.
Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.
In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?
Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.
The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.
From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.
Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?
The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.
I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.
Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
In Part I of this interview, Eliese told us a story of the steel mill that didn’t make it into her memoir and about how being a female steelworker helped her find her strength. She talked about hope and despair and holding on through tough times. And she talked about her current work, teaching writing to college students, and about how she shaped the narrative we’re all talking about. If you missed Part I, be sure to catch up, here.
Today, I’m happy to invite the author back. Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020.
“…Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Eliese, your debut memoir was published to lots of praise and national attention. One reviewer compared Rust to Hillbilly Elegy. How did that sit with you? How do you come down on the Elegy issue?
There are definitely parallels between Rust and Hillbilly Elegy. They’re Midwestern memoirs—and Ohio memoirs, in particular—and both stories try to capture the spirit of a misunderstood place through the people who inhabit it. I think readers have a lot to learn from any account written by a native-born soul, especially when that soul is writing about “forgotten” places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, so I don’t begrudge the comparison. I do, however, fear that some of the generalizations and moralizations made in Hillbilly Elegy aren’t as nuanced or productive as they claim to be.
In addition to memoir, you write essays. And I read a hysterically funny piece of dark humor you wrote published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: “An Open Letter to Everyone in the Event of My Likely Demise While Hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Can you tell us what inspired you to write the piece—and where you learned to write funny? Also, can you tell us a little about what you are writing, now?
I’ve always had a little bit of a funny bone buried deep inside. You wouldn’t know it when you meet me. I’m really shy and reserved at first. I smile a lot. I don’t say much. New friends always assume that I’m nice and uncomplicated, but then I’ll land a zinger out of nowhere. People always do a double-take. “Did Eliese really say that? She’s always so quiet!” Humor writing is the perfect way for this unabashed introvert to say something funny. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed clicking through the pages of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It never fails to make me laugh. When you read enough of something, you kind of internalize the prevailing tone. From there, you can experiment with your writing and go wild.
In truth, though, I have to give my best friend credit for lighting the spark behind this particular piece. I was actually making plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail at the time, and my friend and I started joking around about all the things that could go wrong. I’m pretty sure we were mostly talking about bears. “This should be in McSweeney’s,” she said. The rest is history. I immediately set to work writing. I submitted the draft a few days before setting out for Springer Mountain, and I got the acceptance letter while crashing at a hostel in Georgia. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it very far on the trail. I fractured my heel bone, which made walking pretty painful, but at least I have a little humor to show for it!
As far as current projects go, I’m a little leery of jinxing myself. The process of hammering out my next book idea has involved a lot of dead-end drafts. A few months ago, I told people, “I’m writing a book about X!” Then X changed to Y, so I said, “I’m writing a book about Y!” Now Y has changed to Z and I’m all out of sorts. I’m hoping that Z will stick, but I don’t want to press my luck. We’ll just say that the next book will likely involve a lot of research, although it’ll still be grounded in my personal experience.
For us avid readers, could you give us some recommendations? A few recent favorites from authors in the Cleveland area or beyond? A memoir? Creative nonfiction? A novel or story collection? Poetry?
Admittedly, I’ve been diving deep into the research component of “Book Project Z” lately. Most of the reading material on my nightstand is pretty old-fashioned. St. Augustine. Emile Durkheim. David Hume. I’ve also been immersed in A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which is both riveting and gut-wrenching. I strongly recommend it. When it comes to all-time favorites, I always mention the work of David Giffels. Barnstorming Ohio was an absolute pleasure. Another must-read. And I have to give a shout out to poet Damien McClendon. We both read at an event a few months back, and I was just so taken with his words. Have you ever felt sapped as a writer? Maybe the inspiration has run dry.
Maybe the ideas aren’t flowing. Maybe the cursor on the computer screen fills you with dread. Then, all of a sudden, you hear another writer create something beautiful with language and you feel like you can keep going.
That’s what Damien McClendon’s poetry did for me. I was slogging through my writing at the time, and his words gave me a much-needed dose of inspiration.
Of course, this is a reading and writing blog, Eliese, but we need fuel to do both. Also, I’m always longing for food from home. So, what’s a hometown food you can’t live without?
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
[Read in your most guilt-laden “Mom” voice] “Oh, 2020. It’s not that we’re mad; we’re just disappointed and maybe a little sad.”
Scratch that, of course we’re mad, too. But rather than stew, let’s do the old superlative list to close out this dumpster fire year. It was a weird one here at the blog, but I’d say that’s par for the course.
2020 Most Liked (you know, the popular girl): On *Not* Writing (with thanks to Stephen King) garnered 112 likes, so it seems I wasn’t the only one who was finding it hard to put pen to paper, this summer.
2020 Surprise Finisher (the scrappy underdog): for being a bummer of a post, The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief got quite a bit of traction (172 views and 63 likes)–though I wish it hadn’t. Next year, let’s plan for “lessons in joy,” shall we?
Special shout-out to the WordPress Editors, who brought back WordPress Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts helped me chronicle my family’s isolation at the beginning of the pandemic and also helped me connect with other bloggers–now friends. My most-viewed: my response to Day 2’s prompt, open: Open…water, heart, art
Top author interview was my 2020 two-parter with Sonja Livingston, Rochester NY native and award-winning memoirist. In addition to being a fantastic interview subject, Livingston’s latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions Into Devotion, was top on my list of favorite nonfiction reads, this year.
Top book review was my 2020 review of Pittsburgh-area native Margo Orlando Littell’s second novel, A Distance from Four Points. Telling a beautiful mother-daughter story, the setting of post-coal country, Pennsylvania, adds a gritty realness that makes this book a standout. Also, among the prettiest book covers of 2020, for sure!
Reading superlatives: I read more in translation in 2020 than any other blog year (there have been 4), concentrating on Moomin-famous Tove Jansson, whose literature for adults informs my current WIP, set partly in Finland. Favorite novel this year: Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. Favorite backlist novels: a three-way tie (I know, I’m pretty terrible at superlatives) between (the very different) The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling; and The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, which I read with a book club. Favorite memoir: Rust: a memoir of steel and grit by ElieseColette Goldbach. As for poetry, I haven’t been reading many collections, but I have been getting good daily doses over at Parhelion. Poet Clay Matthews, especially, drew me in.
In other creative writing and editing news: I backburner-ed one novel in favor of concentrating on the new one (55K into draft 1–so I’m beginning to see the light). I’ll have exciting news from short story land early in the new year (woot!). And I’ve been trying my hand at a little essay writing, which has been a nice change. (I keep my About page up to date with my published pieces, if you’re interested.)
I was promoted to associate editor at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I’m also the features editor. I was proud to help introduce 15 features to the world, including one by fellow blogger, Lani V. Cox, and a few I wrote myself. Not to mention three issues of the magazine, including the latest holiday issue, which has some fantastic fiction, flash, CNF, and poetry for your holiday enjoyment.
One of my fellow bloggers, over at You Can Always Start Now, is doing a #2021wordchallenge, and without really thinking about it, I lit on my word: still. Of course, there’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Still, still, still,” which might have been running through my head at the time. But more than that, “still” is a word of resilience. I’m still here, still writing and connecting. Which makes “still” a kind of promise. And then there’s the act of being still–of inviting silence and space for inspiration and creativity, whatever that looks like that day. I want more of that.
I wish for more of that–stillness in all its forms–for both of us, in 2021.
Meet me there.
Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Start here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
We are a thing-ful culture. A quick scan of my writing desk, and I realize I’m awash in things: a mouse that needs batteries, a coffee mug, an old manuscript in a box, a calendar, a laptop with more calendars inside, kids’ immunization records, a rolodex (I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century), a mouth guard for teeth-grinding I need to boil and use, a note card with an illustration of the Eiffel Tower (a really big thing made small), a recorder that also needs new batteries, a birthday card leftover from June, a fabric-covered box with love notes from my kids inside (things inside of thing)…
Paper-things many of these, but things, nonetheless.
For a minute, Marie Kondo’s less-clutter-more-happy idea made me disdain of my multitudinous things. Pandemic 2020 made me happy for them again, especially the stacks of books I’m still reading. I guess you’d call this relationship with things complicated.
Which brings me to my spot of writing advice for today, which was inspired by today’s feature over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I was recently promoted from features editor to associate editor. I encourage you to check out this short essay; in it the essayist, Darcie Abbene, calls upon authors and poets, including Ray Bradbury, Terry Tempest Williams, and William Carlos Williams to help her with her own writing. In turn, her essay helped me in my thinking about my writing–and it might do the same for yours.
As for those pesky things…Williams was a poet, whose most famous poetic phrase (probably) remains:
No ideas but in things
William Carlos Williams–from his poem “A Sort of a Song” and repeated in his epic collage titled Paterson
As a leader of the movements of modernism and imagism in poetry written in English–it makes sense that the poet was concerned with things. Of course, my things are not his things, just as yours aren’t mine. Williams was a physician, and I like to imagine how his professional things–and place things like a hospital or even (ahem) a red wheelbarrow–informed his thinking. So, things before ideas.
I’m paying close attention to things in my reading today. Working down my stack of withdraws from my local library ($1 each–sad, but lucky things for me), I’m currently reading Spy of the First Person, Sam Shepard, playwright, musician, and novelist’s, final fiction. So far, I’m flooded with things: a rocking chair, a beach, a cot, corpuscles both red and white… But I’m having trouble seeing the forest for the trees (the idea for the things?). I’ll keep working on it.
Which brings me to my own writing (Lord knows something should!). I’m back at it, my novel-in-progress, working in fits and starts, but working. And for all my anxieties over the things of my current state of life: 3-ply masks, school uniforms, new kids’ sneakers… It’s things–those concrete simple images set down on paper–that keep me writing.
Maybe it’ll work for you, too?
What are you writing? What are you reading this week? Any exciting weekend plans?
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Who even am I? Is pandemic time throwing anyone else’s writing for a loop? Just me then?
Really, I remember thinking to myself way back in March that I was going to use the time I was no longer spending driving my kids to and from school to write. I definitely wasn’t going to fill that time with shower-cries or deciding if I’m a chocolate-loving, peanut butter-loving, or original goodness-loving sort of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups connoisseur.
I have, despite these pandemic extracurriculars, been writing some–but certainly not the same as I was. Fiction has been tough-going, but I’ve written some short essays and snippets someone really nice (or related to me) might call prose poems. I’ll say it again: I am not a poet.
And while I’m not a big fan of Zooming as substitute for activities I was engaged with, pre-pandemic; I’ve enjoyed new Zoom opportunities, in particular two writing workshops I wouldn’t have made in person because of distance.
I thought of these workshops, one I attended just yesterday, when Lorna over at Gin & Lemonade mentioned writing prompts. (You’re going to want to visit her if you don’t already.)
Ah, writing prompts. Controversial stuff, right? I’ll admit to assuming most of my writing teachers who started every class with a prompt were using the time to lesson-plan on the fly. Maybe some were. I know I did just that, once I began teaching. As a student, however, I generally used writing prompt time to work on whatever short story or novel chapter I was mulling over, largely ignoring said prompt.
Prompts were for memoirists and poets always gazing longingly out the window for inspiration.
What a stubborn idiot I was. Sure, some prompts don’t hit you right, some work better than others. But the best ones flip a kind of switch in your brain to get at often-forgotten and sometimes really-weird-good material in there. I’d wade through a million mediocre prompts, now, to come across the best ones.
That said, there was no wading in either of the workshops I took this spring–both of which included several generative writing prompts. So, here are a couple of my favorite prompts and my responses.
Maybe one of these will flip your writing switch today?
You might remember that I interviewed poet and editor Jessica Fischoff, just the day before I took her Persona Workshop. Over Zoom from her home in Cincinnati, Jessica discussed persona poetry and character in prose–and then let us writers loose, scribbling to her prompts. Jessica is a prompts queen, but the one that flipped the right switch for me was to…
Use an inanimate object as the persona of a poem or prose piece, and here’s my attempt:
Figures the Ferris Wheel
If I could count, I would tell you
how many proposals I've heard
proposed at the apex of my grand wheel.
How many rings dropped, how many squeals
of delight, and how many women murmured
under their breathes, looked down at their bare fingers
gripping my bar, and said something like
"I have to think," softly, as if they knew I was listening.
I am always listening.
If I could count, I'd tell you how many boys scared girls,
and girls scared boys, shaking my cars, pretending they would
break a spoke, heave this wheel, and make it all come crashing down
to the ground, where they would keep falling out of fear.
How many times.
Yesterday’s workshop with memoirist, essayist, and writing professor Sonja Livingston, who I interviewed right here and here for Rust Belt Girl, was also just what I needed to get out of my own way and write for an afternoon: new stuff, which is gratifying (especially when at work on a novel). New starts mean the writing well is not dry, folks! One of my attempts came in response to a prompt inspired by the work of Ross Gay. (If you’ve been here a while you know I’m always, always inspired by Ross Gay.):
Write about a “delight” or a list of “delights” and I picked one of my little guys:
My Son's Buckteeth
the orthodontist wants to fix
the goofy faces he pulls with them
the way his cowlick makes his blond hair stick up
hair that will go dirty like mine
and fall out like my brother's
the fact he still gives a good squeeze I don't have to take
the fact his hugs put him at my chest height but
he doesn't yet think this is weird
What weird and wonderful stuff have you come up with from a good writing prompt? Let me know if the comments.
What are you reading and writing this week? Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
If you’re well, I hope you’re reading. If you’re reading, maybe you want to consider your reading arc. I never really had before. But, a Twitter contact, @MattWeinkam, associate director of Lit Cleveland, proposed a fun exercise for us reader sorts:
Chart your reading arc from childhood to present day in 10 books. After a bit of thinking, here’s mine:
A Very Young Dancer>Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret>Their Eyes Were Watching God>Come to Me: Stories>The Innocent>The Fortunate Pilgrim>Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir>Bel Canto>Magdalene: Poems>The Book of Delights: Essays
Of course, there are so many books I love that I had to leave out. If I had 11 slots, I would have added a craft book: maybe Stephen King’s On Writing, which was probably the first craft book I read; or maybe the classic, Donald M. Murray’s The Craft of Revision, which I return to again and again, of course; or maybe the recent Meander, Spiral, Explode (I talked about that one here) by Jane Alison, which upended so many writing “rules.”
What does my reading arc say about me? A lot you already know.
I was a dancer, myself, and a Catholic, drawn to the story aspects of both, I suppose. At 19, I moved from Ohio to Virginia–I left out my Tom Robbins obsession (remember Jitterbug Perfume?). College days brought courses like African American Autobiography and opened my eyes to stories outside what my mom had on her bookshelves from college in the 60s.
Short stories were my entry into the craft of writing–and Amy Bloom is one of my favorite story writers. (Good story collections are great writing teachers.)
Grad school left little time for pleasure reads, but when I could, I liked early Ian McEwan and books that informed my own writing.
If it’s not dance, song in story is a running theme. And for this writer who managed to get an MFA without writing a poem, I read a lot of poetry these days–and essays and hybrids of all sorts. And I think, you could say, I’m arcing toward joy in my reading habits.
I hope that means I’m arcing toward joy in life. I need it now more than ever.
So, show me your reading arc–in the comments or on your own blog. You might be surprised at what it reveals about your reading and your life.
Let’s read together. Check out my categories above, with Rust Belt author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. Are we social? Find me at FB and at Twitter @MoonRuark
When did I stop thinking about my hands? I used to gaze over my hands with petal-fingers at the end of a port de bras, dancing. I wrote about how my hands are my mother’s hands, long-fingered and veiny, when my grief for her was fresh. A mother, myself, I watched my hands hold infant sons–one arm a sling, one hand cupping the back of a downy-soft head. Then I made a church and steeple of my hands for the toddler boys who needed entertainment in the pew. “And here’s all the people,” I would whisper, wiggling my fingers.
Mostly now, my hands are tools to get my thoughts on the page, tools to turn a page, to scroll and swipe. But I don’t think of them much. I think of my knee that grinds, my ankles that pop. I think of my hips, which sometimes hurt, and which I baby. I am pillow-between-my-knees-as-I-sleep years old.
Maybe I’m thinking more about my hands now because I’m washing them so much. This morning, my dad called to tell me that a bit of dish-washing liquid and water works in the foaming hand-soap dispensers. Just in case. We are all worrying over hand hygiene now. Do we glove-up or not? Wash, dry, repeat. Palmolive, he said. And I thought of those old commercials. “Soft on hands.” Palmolive was my mother’s dish-washing liquid.
Remember the George-as-a-hand-model episode of Seinfeld?
What’s the sound of one hand clapping? That’s from a Zen koan or philosophical riddle and is also a line from one of Van Morrison’s songs I like to sing. I neither chop wood nor carry water with my hands, but maybe I should.
This morning, over English muffins, my boys and I prayed a special one for Holy Thursday. I took little notice over how my pair of hands fits so neatly together in prayer, fingers interlocked. It took a pandemic for me to stop biting my fingernails–I’ve noticed that.
Then, beginning my writing day, I flipped through poet Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which I highly recommend whether you think you like poetry or not. I came to his “ode to drinking water from my hands,” which you can read in its entirety here at poems.com. (Or just buy the book to hold in your hands.)
As Gay’s poem begins in a garden, you won’t be surprised that, today, the first day of the Triduum, I had in mind another garden, the Garden of Gesthemene. Maybe Gay did, too. And maybe this small snippet will quench your poetic thirst and make you consider your own pair of hands, as I am now.
and I drink / to the bottom of my fountain / and join him / in his work.
From “an ode to drinking water from my hands” by Ross Gay
I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”
Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”
Issue No. 8 from Barren Magazineis out, and features my story, “The Virgins,” among among so much fantastic poetry, prose, and photography for your weekend entertainment. (Thank you to the editors for letting my story sit among such great company!) See also my friend (and Rust Belt Girl follower) DS Levy’s flash fiction piece, “Tengku,” my fave poem of the day, “Barrels of Fruit,” by Caroline Plasket, and more gritty, rusty photography–along with sweeping skies and far-off places–than a girl could shake a stick at.