Seeking Home: One Writer’s Journey

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” – C. S. Lewis

Jessica Evans Writing

Jessica Evans Writing

Cincinnati native, Jessica Evans and I share a few things in common that stretch beyond a love of words. Yes, we both have MFAs in writing from Spalding University, and we both write poetry, as well as fiction. Yet early on, it seems, Jessica began to examine the ways in which “life is impacted by socioeconomic status.” She was standing at a particular place of experience, and she chose to look, to notice, to see things others may have overlooked . . . to consider and try to perceive life for those standing in a different place of experience.

This aspect of her character, this reflection of the sort of person she is, and as a result the sort of writer she is, resonated with me as I am compelled to explore other views, to write about those who are different, misfits, those who live on the periphery, those who have lived lives I can only try to imagine, yet with whom I have much in common. I love exploring what life might be like for these people. Another deep connection I have with Jessica.

That is why I asked her to be a guest blogger on Write Side Up. The post, which is in interview form, appears below. I hope you’ll spend a little time with Jessica here and then explore her website and her work. Her latest book, the novel Hippie Mafia, is set in her hometown of Cincinnati and “examines humanity through an unconventional lens.”

In my humble opinion, those lenses often offer the clearest vision.
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Life, Love, Death, Dreams, Hope

We Must Ourselves Become The LightI picked up my cell phone just now to text a friend. Then I remembered, she’s gone . . . two weeks already. It’s the fifth time I’ve done that. An idea sparked a laugh, made me think of her, made me want to share a chuckle.

That’s how it was for 28 years, since long before cell phones.

But that’s the thing about the love we have for friends, for family, the way we want to share it, the way we continue to share it . . . even after they’ve gone.

Aside from my mom, Jeannie read more of my writing than anyone. Always supportive. Always reminding me that this thing I love, this thing that is part of who I am, is important. That I need to share my voice. That I owe it to myself, and to others.

Of course, she always added that she’d love to see more happy poems, more happy scenes. She didn’t hesitate to ask, “when are you going to write a poem about love?”

And I would remind her, that is how I try to live my life – full of laughter, of love, of positive thoughts. With my writing, though, that’s me exploring the darkness, the underneath. Trying, at the very least, to understand. To throw light upon it for others to explore.

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”  – Mary Oliver

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What’s In a Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" - Shakespeare

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – Shakespeare

It’s true, I suppose. We could call a rose by another name, Armadillo for example, and it would smell as sweet, would look as beautiful.

We would, on certain occasions, be tempted to procure a dozen armadillos for that special someone. Tenderness and love would be implied by that single armadillo on your pillow. Those armadillo petals strewn throughout the house—a romantic path one would surely want to follow.

I get it. And yet, we do call a rose a rose, which is why armadillo feels so wrong in the same context. In part, of course, because it already has its own meaning, its own connotations, its own identity.
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Making Time for Our Passion

Flower in Sunlight on Island

Flower in Sunlight on Island

“Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones,
as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.” – Francois de La Rouchefoucauld

I think this is one of the reasons so many people get to the middle of life and feel unsatisfied, disillusioned, restless . . . as if something is missing. Because something is missing.

We tend to learn to put our passions aside. We learn to quiet them, to ignore them.

And for those “mediocre” interests, the ones that may have caught our interest, but haven’t come from the soul, this absence does seem to diminish them.

Fence Textures

Fence Textures

For those passions that are part of who we are, however, the going without, the denial, actually fans the fire consuming us sometimes from within.
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Humor Saved My Life

"smile" by kennymatic

“smile” by kennymatic

“You’re only given one little spark of madness.
You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams

I think it’s safe to say that laughter saved my life.

Not in a keep-the-body-working escape-death sort of way, but in a keep-the-spirit-soaring sort of way, a feed-the-soul make-it-all-worthwhile sort of way.

Most of my early health issues took place between the ages of just arrived and six-years-old, and the biggest near-death moment of my youth happened at thirteen. I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent my teen years utterly terrified of death. Well, I’ve been thinking about that a bit lately – death itself, but also that paralyzing fear I had back then.

For some reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about humor.

How rejuvenating it can be, either in the moment, or cumulatively. How life-changing, life-preserving laughter has been for me.

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

Lafayette Wattles as a Boy

I honestly don’t remember having much of a sense of humor before we moved. Before everything changed. I was nine then.

When you move, it’s often like hitting reset on a game. Sure, you’re the same person you were before you got in the car that took you from one spot to another. It’s not like we transform in a matter of minutes or hours.

Yet, in a way, we do.
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Bedtime Stories and Snatched Books

"Bedtime Story" by Chris Nitz Photography

“Bedtime Story” by Chris Nitz Photography

When I was a boy, you would have needed one of those super-powered commercial staple guns to keep me in place for longer than a few moments.

And those rare times when I did pause (like in the photo below of my sister on the stairs) you’d probably think I was up to something. That I was mischievous. I wasn’t (glowing halo appears over head). I prefer the terms curious (you know, about what might happen if say my sister sledded down those bumpy steps) and persuasive (an occasional ability to talk that same sister into trying crazy ideas that popped into my head).

I prefer the term imaginative. Yeah, imaginative!

And I blame it all on my super-hyper-can’t-sit-stillness.

Crazy thing is, I would spend hours every day in my room, alone, playing with some toys, sure, but mostly playing with my hands and imagining that they were monsters and heroes and all sorts of things. I remember my parents whispering about my habit of playing without toys more than a few times.

But, see, my hands could become anything. My “action figures” were much more specific – G.I. Joe, and Cornelius from Planet of the Apes, and so on. I spent those hours making sound effects for the adventures and the battles.

I spent hours creating my own stories.

That may seem odd since I didn’t read books. And since I don’t ever remember having bedtime stories read to me (not by my parents or by any of my grandparents). It took me at least two more decades before I could slow down long enough to read stories on my own and I know how much they have impacted my life since then.

I can picture myself as a six-year-old who couldn’t wait each night to climb into bed and to have stories read to me. I have a feeling that would have been very important to me: the special time shared with mom or with dad or with one of my grandmothers, and also the stories themselves, the characters and the absolute wonder of being transported to other worlds.

I imagine if someone snuck into our house and the only thing they snatched was my favorite bedtime story, it would have been worse than if they had stolen my bed or my food.

Lafayette Slows Down Only Long Enough To Think Of New Ways To Terrorize His Little Sister

Lafayette Slows Down Only Long Enough To Think Of New Ways To Terrorize His Little Sister

The idea of such an undertaking doesn’t stir up a sense of danger, really, nor feelings of lost safety that come from someone sneaking into your home and taking things. The idea of story books being stolen, of someone only targeting those secret passageways to other worlds and other lives seems so much more intimate. So much more personal.

But the reason behind the act is even more powerful. Why would anyone do such a thing?

Helen and Thomas Docherty explore that question in their wonderful picture book The Snatchabook which I’ll get to shortly.

I mostly write poetry, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction, but over the summer I started envisioning story concepts for a dozen different picture books (characters, obstacles, etc).

Some people might think, well then you’ve got your book, only writing a picture book isn’t as easy as that. As a matter of fact, I recall the time in grad school when everyone in the program was given the assignment of writing a picture book, and the novelists and poets and playwrights, most people I encountered during residency, found it to be the most difficult task. Much more so than they had ever imagined.

So, this summer, I spent some time reading as many picture books as possible. Actually, I have three out from the library right now.

I’ve looked at a few classic stories, but mostly contemporary books, popular books, award-winning books. Books with a fair amount of prose (since I tend to be long-winded) and wonderful wordless books like Journey and Flora and the Flamingo (which I wrote about here). I highly recommend those, by the way.

I haven’t found too many rhyming picture books. In part because publishers have been shying away from them the last several years, or so I’ve been told, since getting the right rhyme and rhythm is quite challenging. Then I came across a book that had an endearing protagonist and, I suppose you’d call the little book thief an antagonist of sorts, but a sweet antagonist. The book – The Snatchabook – had wonderful illustrations and a beautiful story

The Snatchabook by Helen and Thomas Docherty

The Snatchabook by Helen and Thomas Docherty

The story takes place in the woodland world of Burrow Down where all the forest creatures and families enjoy their bedtime stories.

But one by one, the books start disappearing.

Turns out there’s one creature in the forest who has no family. No one to read to it. At least not at first.

Since the story is, in some ways, about fitting in and about being part of something (whether it’s a family or a community), I was immediately drawn to the characters. The Snatchabook is not only an adorable little creature that is, it would seem, alone, but it’s also a misfit. It’s unlike every other character in the book, except for one thing at least. It loves stories.

If you have kids or grandchildren or you just love picture books, I’d recommend checking out The Stachabook. I found the concept behind the story very clever and the verse and pictures a lot of fun. For a little information on the team from the UK who created the book, writer Helen Docherty and artist Thomas Docherty, check out some of the interviews I did with them below.
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Under The Bus

Jules Verne by mac.rj

Jules Verne by mac.rj

“Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed
when what you’re reading was written for children.” – Ruth Graham

That was the subtitle to the piece published in Slate back in June titled “Against YA.” In the piece, Ms. Graham doesn’t just throw YA fiction under the bus. She stops and backs the bus up and throws any adult who reads YA under it as well.

According to her, if you’re an adult who reads YA, you should feel ashamed.

I guess you might want to find some secret, special, hideaway place to do your reading where no one will find you (like the image above).

What a bunch of hooey!
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Being Receptive – Creative Sparks Take Many Forms

sparkles on water

Children are extremely perceptive and absorb what goes on around them long before they can talk or even comprehend language. They are like finely tuned receivers that pick up much more than is merely said. They are receptive and attuned to every mood, feeling, and change that goes on in people around them.”
– Theodore Isaac Rubin

I just got back from an amazing week in Historic New Harmony where my friend Terry Price and I led a week-long retreat for writers called West of the Moon Retreat. It was our third year doing the retreat and, somehow, each year tops the last.

One of the underlying intentions for the week was to encourage the writers to be RECEPTORS or RECEIVERS (i.e. to more RECEPTIVE – like those old Pioneer and Bose receivers that allowed stereos to pick up so much extra musical goodness that was bouncing around the stratosphere).

We invited them to be OPEN to whatever sort of inspiration might present itself rather than going into each writing session with preconceptions about how their inspiration would come to them.

There’s a need to approach each writing session with a specific intention, a focus, but we discussed how writers often go into a session expecting their inspiration to come in a specific way. As a result, we set our dials and tune in to that one way and we tend to dismiss so many other signals instead of recognizing that our body and our unconscious mind reach out to us in a variety of ways.

After showing the writers a series of yoga poses (not to be confused with ninja moves) put together in a brief sequence for the purpose of opening them up for those myriad signals (any image, color, word, sensation, etc), I finally had my own chance to walk the walk, so to speak. And what a walk it turned out to be.

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The Best Things I Learned From My Dad

Lafayette & His Dad Listen,” my dad said. “Be a good listener.”

I grew up as a fan of superheroes, sure, and of mountain men, and of good-guy gunslingers who disappeared after the town was saved, and of self-less soldiers, and of super-sleuth detectives (and we can’t forget NINJAS), and of all sorts of heroic types my dad and I watched together in movies . . . and of amateur and professional athletes, of course, but for me there was really only one true hero. Only one adult of whom I was the biggest fan.

MY DAD!

I’m not just talking that common boyhood idolization of someone who could do just about anything. It wasn’t just about his physical strength or his vigor, nor his confidence, nor his ability to figure things out, nor his super-fine motor skills which he demonstrated on the field and the court and the course.

All those things certainly influenced the level of awe and admiration I had for him (and still have).

But it was more than that, really, much more, that made me look up to my dad so much.

He never went to college. Back then, most people didn’t. He did, however, have specialized training in several areas – first while in the Army years before I was born, then after he got back home as an apprentice in a trade that required the use of mathematics and intricate measurements on a daily basis, not to mention a lot of physical labor.

My dad worked hard for most of my life. Actually, from the get go, that’s all I knew him as – this hard-working man, this talented athlete and this great coach (for me and for several teams over the years), this very loving father.

My dad has also been (and still is) one of my greatest teachers.

Not about books or academics, but about life, about living. Things that have shaped me. That have even shaped my writing (not to mention my chasing my dream in the first place).
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Dear Mom

Lafayette's Mom Who At 18 Was Named Miss Lake Street Bridge

At 18, Lafayette’s Mom (pictured with some fan mail and news clippings) Was Named Miss Lake Street Bridge

Mothers are fonder than fathers of their children 
because they are more certain they are their own.” – Aristotle

Gotta love that Aristotelian wit.

Though, doubtless, there have been many moments when my mother has scratched her head and wondered that very thing.

Last week I wrote about being different. Well, there’s no way I’d have survived being different if not for my mother, not to mention the fact that she’s been one of the people encouraging me to be different my entire life.

I never told my parents (or anyone at all) about the things I endured during Middle School. But hey, that’s the beauty of being a writer. I get the chance to do that every day now with the hope of making similar odysseys a bit easier for misfits today who might find themselves on the periphery, belonging to some degree perhaps in every group, but not quite truly belonging to any.

This post is a rather informal ode to my mom.

She has an expansive heart. She’s extremely loving, caring, conscientious, empathetic person. Someone who tends to put others first. Though that can get in the way of her own happiness sometimes, it’s just who she is. It’s not intended as some noble thing. It’s not something for which applause or praise are expected.

Truth is – if she didn’t think about how this or that might impact everyone else, she simply wouldn’t be being herself.

Below I’d like to share a few thoughts about what a mother is, and about my mom in particular, and I’d also like to share a poem I recently wrote especially for her.
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