Today’s Book-Love Triangle…

Photo credit: me, on my recent writers retreat with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

We know we must read–and “read enthusiastically and omnivorously”–to become better writers, and better everything else-ers, really.

Yet, for this reader, it sometimes feels like directionless reading. Oh, I have my reading piles: one to inform this blog, one to inform my completed historical MS; one to inform my new MS; one for pure pleasure, which typically dwarfs the others out of neglect.

And, so, to experience a moment of reading kismet, when one book I love references another book I love, is a thing of beauty: a book-love triangle, if you will. This particular book-love triangle also happens to connect my blog reading with my pleasure reading, making me feel on this cold and dreary “spring” day a little more whole.

Enough lead-up, here it is: In Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons In Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, he quotes a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

There are as many reasons Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has long lived in Idaho, would quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson, who was born in and has set stories in Idaho. Doerr and Robinson share more than external landscape; they share a sensibility, an exploration of the internal landscape of the spirit, spirits accustomed to the miracle of the everyday.

Any parent of twin infants will tell you (if they’re being honest), one baby at a time would have been sufficient. Because I am a twin parent, myself, Doerr’s memoir was recommended to me, though it didn’t make the tough moments in the memoir easier to read from having gone through similar ones myself. Still, it always seemed, the fog of nursing, holding, walking, changing and bathing sleepless little people would eventually lift, if for only a fleeting moment.

In one such moment of sleep deprived twin-parent frustration, the fog lifts for Doerr by a baby’s “first,” one of those little everyday miracles in the life of a parent: the first finger-squeeze, first smile, first crawl. In this instance, one of Doerr’s boys says “Ciao” to a Roman man passing in the stairwell. His first “Ciao.”

One of “a thousand thousand” reasons… And we could spend time here talking about the meaning behind “sufficiency” and behind “thousand” for Doerr, who quotes Robinson, America’s most famous living religious author–who, no doubt, uses “thousand” as the Bible does, to signify a multitude, a vast abundance. You can read my thoughts on Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the first time only recently, here. You can read my initial thoughts on Doerr’s memoir, which I tandem read with The Gondola Maker–for a centuries-spanning “trip” to Italy–here.

But here is where I stop, today, to return to reading, for the multitude of little miracles that happen when we make connections across the piles of tomes of words that are waiting for us.

Have you experienced a book-love triangle you’d like to share? A baby’s “first”? A fog lifted? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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a bit of writerly advice for #NaNo day 13…

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Read.

Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).

Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.

Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.

So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.

Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!

How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?

Feeling social? Let’s connect on FB and Twitter. Like a post of mine; I hope you’ll share with your friends–both social and otherwise!

 

 

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

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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

In praise of twice-tolling timepieces and other miracles of invention: reading A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)

Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):

When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…

Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)

Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching,  my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?

But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.

An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…

Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.

Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.

A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)

Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.

All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)

Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.

What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

Me, my selves, and Mel Brooks

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, and personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.

Mel Brooks

Amen, Mel. (Ahem, with the addition of “her skin,” “her ability,” and “with her,” thank you very much.)

Ever have one of those weeks (or months) when you feel like you’re juggling too many balls–but also too many names, identities, and personalities? And not only on the page.

I am a creative writer (“dang it,” she pounds fist on desk), but I am also a writer and editor for modest pay universities and etc. It is this latter personality that lately has taken precedence over the former (because the fruits of this personality can buy actual fruit, or veggies, or ice cream from the truck that smartly parks itself at our neighborhood pool.)

Fear not, one of two looming work deadlines met, I am seeing the light. (Sometime, I’m going to see how many myriad scads of mixed metaphors I can cram into a single post!) Back to my creative endeavors I WILL BE (soon-ish).

In the meantime, I enjoy my work that allows me to pick the brains of academics young and seasoned and learn things I’d never come to on my own, like the powers of biofilms, the miracles of flexible solar cells, what rotorcraft even is. Really, I remind myself, it’s all creative, right? Who knows, maybe this work will create burgeoning new identities in my fiction.

I talked in my last post about list-making, reining in those cows. (Another metaphor gone awry.) I’m trying to be better about writing it all down, so I see what I must do, and what I AM DOING. (Sleeping past 8am, now that the kids are out of school, for one. Big, big win!)

Creative right now:

Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow (read me gush about it on my FB page.); next up, Warlight

Listening to: Above Us Only Sky, audio novel by my uber-talented author friend from my MFA program days, Michele Young-Stone

Submitting: yesterday, a travel-ish short story of mine set in India to the literary travel mag, Nowhere; agent query submissions coming soon (see next line)

Editing: that last 40 pages of my historical novel manuscript–woo to the hoo!

How’s your creative list looking? What are you reading, writing, loving right now? Let me know here or at FB.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are what we read

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OK, I don’t buy that entirely, but I do believe in “garbage in, garbage out,” in most things.

That’s why I try not to read crap. I mean, no one tries to read crap, but the older I get the less guilt I feel for starting a book and not finishing it.

What I’m saying is…books have a great power over me. For this reason, I expect a lot from them, as I would from any encounter that will suck up, what 6, 10, even 12 hours–for a doorstopper.

I ask a lot from a read, which generally has to tick 2 or more of these boxes: subject matter I want to know more about; believable characters; language that I envy.

Truth is, I have become an old man (as far as reading habits). I am that crotchety guy at the bookstore who wants to get his history, his humanity, and his poetry all in one tome.

Is this asking too much of one of my fave genres, historical fiction? Of course, as soon as you say, “genre,” literary types are thinking, well you might get your history and your humanity, but the language won’t sing. On the other hand, historical fiction buffs don’t want their story bogged down by MFA-grad-style poetic language acrobatics. Walking a tightrope indeed!

Am I oversimplifying. Of course. Are there novels that tick all the boxes? Yes. Since we’re talking historical fiction (in which I’m up to my eyeballs, as I’m working on a historical novel manuscript), I’ll throw All the Light We Cannot See out there as pretty stellar. In the WWII vein, I’d also add the less recent Snow Falling on Cedars. What do you think?

This weekend I hope to finish Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, which ticks two of my boxes, and that’s OK.

Let’s chat books. What are you reading? How many of your boxes does it tick? Is it informing what you’re writing?

 

 

 

 

a bit of writerly advice

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

Hart Crane

Where I am, we’re soaked in more than words today (flood watches and warnings galore), and I’m happy for sump pumps and hopeful for drier weather, tomorrow.

As for the world of words, I abide by Crane’s advice to flood oneself with words–but I didn’t always. It used to be, I was careful to read one book at a time, careful that it not remind me too closely of the one-and-only-one WIP I was drafting, revising, or editing. These days, I’m not so careful. I’m usually reading three or more books at a time: one craft, one novel, one story collection. I’m usually working on my novel manuscript and a short story concurrently. And, of course, brainstorming the next blog post.

And this doesn’t include the research, reading, and writing I do for a living–for universities and health systems. It used to be I kept this work separate in my mind from the “creative.” But, words are words–and being awash in words of all kinds seems to help this writer pull “the right ones” out when needed (mostly, kinda).

What about you? How best do you write? Any tips you can share?

 

Hold up, wait a minute: Rust Belt Girl on ice

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Lake Erie, iced. One of the Lake Erie Islands (Green Island), is in the distance. (Thanks for the pic, Dad!)

Hold up, wait a minute. Hold up, wait a minute…

Nope, you haven’t stumbled on a 90s music blog (but if you now have that old club song in your head, you’re welcome!)

Here at Rust Belt Girl, I promised a new thread this new year: a journey into the terrifying abyss that is the world of book publishing. That’s agent querying, novel synopses, novel submitting, etc.

How’s it going so far?

Um. Yeah, that.

Let’s just say, like so much of the Rust Belt at present, this Rust Belt Girl is on ice–at least as far as that project.

What happened?

Shall I add another metaphor into the mix? Well, I got the cart before the horse (ie: the agent query letter, synopsis, etc.) before the manuscript itself. And, really, the horse is a little bit lame. Not so much that it has to be put down or even put out to pasture. (Yep, I’m just running with this metaphor.) But maybe re-shod, rested, exercised–certainly made stronger. Race horse strong.

Who says?

A former writing teacher of mine, an author and editor whose feedback I trust wholeheartedly.

What now?

Thaw out? Get back on the horse? (Can I stop talking about ice and horses?)

Really though, I’m revising my novel manuscript (yet again) because I only get one chance with agents, and I don’t want to blow it. I’m really trying to “re-see” this story that’s been with me for years; these characters that I’ve known longer than I’ve known my own kids, which is a little crazy. It’s not an easy task to really re-envision an 86,000-word manuscript, and so I can’t rush it.

“Time is a great editor,” said my editor friend.

So, bear with me if this thread takes its time.

I mean, there’s an order to things–like seasons and horse-drawn things, right?

In the meantime, more writing advice I pick up from experts along my way; more reading (and emulating!) great books; more author interviews.

And…in the publishing vein, more submitting short stories to journals and magazines. Keep your fingers crossed (and frost-bite free) for me.

Happy weekend! What’s on tap for yours? ~ Rebecca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Partridge in a Blog Tree”: a 2017 sing-song wrap-up and 2018 tease

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Image courtesy https://blog.cheapism.com/where-to-see-new-years-eve-fireworks-15226/

“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true self gave to me…one healthy kick in the pants.”

Is that right? Are we already on the fifth day? I’m still languishing in a sugar cookie stupor. Still digging out from leftover potatoes au gratin. Still trying to convince my family of the legitimacy of stale crackers and cheese rinds as a basic food group.

Sure, I will disconnect the sugar IV, menu plan, and get back to the proper care and feeding of my brood. I might even exercise. I will resolve! But it’ll probably be next month–which is next year.

In the meandering meantime, I will look back on the 2017 fun we’ve had here at Rust Belt Girl, you and me, thanks to inspiration from my native Rust Belt and its storytellers keeping it real.

Sing along to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” if you like.

In my first month of blogging, my Rust Belt gave to me

a blog borne from necessity (I didn’t say the cadence would be right)

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