Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
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
It’s been a minute. Or, many minutes over several days, minutes made long and weighty—even by coronavirus standards—by the turmoil raging across the U.S., in cities as close as Washington, D.C., and as close to my heart as Richmond, Virginia, and Cleveland. Racial turmoil that’s been roiling since, well, always in America, has erupted in protests.
And so the world grieves, again, more. But then, for many Black Americans grieving over human and civil rights injustices and violence is a constant. We writers like to tout our empathy, but while I’ve known grief, I’ve never known a grief that never subsides. So, what do I know?
As a reader and writer my instinct is to do just that: read and write. I read to know what I don’t know. I write to figure out what I do know and to raise new questions. And repeat. But between the reading and writing, we’re engaging—not just with text in an academic lit-crit way, but with the human being behind the words.
To engage with the community of readers and writers in the American Rust Belt and beyond is why I started this blog more than four years ago. I hope to keep this up, because I love connecting readers with the writers behind some of the literature I love most—poets (like Akron, Ohio, native Rita Dove, above), novelists, essayists, and memoirists—from a place I left behind but am still drawn to.
This blog is not a big platform, and my voice is small, but we bloggers do have the power to amplify the voices of Black writers and poets. There are many ways to do this. First, read Black authors. Thank you to novelist Courtney Maum for making me aware of a couple helpful hashtags to hone in on books for all ages by Black authors: #BlackBookReleases and #ReadingBlack.
If you’re looking to make taller your TBR, here’s a list of highly-anticipated 2020 releases by Black authors. If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you might expect that the 2020 release I’m most excited about this year is Ross Gay’s Be Holding: A Poem. Put a new book on your TBR today. Buy books, and buy them from Black-owned bookstores, if you can. Review these books. Share the work of Black authors whose work you love. I’ve been doing that over at my FB page. Maybe join me there?
Most of the poets and writers I’ve interviewed for Rust Belt Girl I met at literary festivals and readings, oftentimes fairly homogeneous events, if I’m honest. For my part, I aim to seek out more Black voices from my native Rust Belt to feature here. If you consider yourself among this group, I hope you’ll reach out when you can.
Keep safe and sane, everybody, and keep the stories coming.
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
It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.
Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.
But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.
That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays
About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)
Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:
…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.