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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Thank you, Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali courtesy of Brett Jordan

Muhammad Ali courtesy of Brett Jordan

Imagine showing up to grad school, embarking on a journey toward that thing you love, chasing after your passion, and in the process moving closer to your deep down self . . .

Imagine being in the lobby of the historic hotel that will be your dorm for the next ten days, downtown Louisville . . . and you’re standing at the elevator between lectures, just standing by yourself, waiting, when this man shuffles by, slightly stoop-shouldered, moving slower than you might imagine him to move, and you think, is that . . . no, it can’t be . . .

and the man who has passed now, stops, shuffles back . . . he stops his own journey, pauses, and shuffles back to see you. This man who is somehow older than he is, somehow larger than he is, as if he is able to swell up out of himself just by being . . .

and he smiles, then puts both trembling hands up, thick fingers balled into fists and there is no doubt, frail as he almost seems, there is no doubt he has the strength to do whatever his soul wishes . . .
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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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Hope, The Stuff of Dreams

“Hope is the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tunes without the words –
and never stops at all.” – Emily Dickinson

Those lines form one of my favorite stanzas by Dickinson or anyone really, not for the meter, the rhythm or the rhyme, not for the way the thought is said at all, but for the thought itself, the meaning behind the words.

I’ve been a positive person as long as I can remember. Spending most days with a smile that comes from an appreciation that’s difficult to describe. I’m a genuinely happy guy.

I joke sometimes and say I’ve had an octogenarian’s outlook on each new day ever since I was thirteen and nearly died. But it’s not really a joke. I spent each day over the next four years (my entire time in high school) absolutely terrified that my time had run out, and every night when I went to bed I was palpably afraid that would be the end, which is also why I greeted each new day profoundly thankful for another chance.

I’ve been praised for my outlook, and thanked by those around me who have drawn on my positive energy, and ridiculed by some of the latter as well.

“People who smile all the time,” I’ve been told, “are just putting on a face for others, hiding the pain and the frustrations of life.” Well, I suppose if one pretends there is no pain and that there are no frustrations, then that might be true. Except, I’ve found that choosing to acknowledge the pain and frustration to myself, assessing what things I can change and what things just are the way they are, and then approaching the moment with an attitude of hope, that is the reason I tend to smile.

And, most days, most of the time, no one else needs to be made aware of my pain or my frustrations.

Anyone who truly knows me also understands, that’s part of the reason I write. I see the darkness. I feel it emphatically. I am a very empathetic person, too much so, perhaps. And I’m also a very sensitive person when it comes to the struggles of others.

Read one thing I’ve written and you’ll get it. I focus on the shadows, the storms, the unpleasantness of the human condition in nearly every poem, in every single piece of prose. But, I do so from the perspective of hope.

I’m that way in my relationships, that way with my work, and also with my dreams though I did put those on hold for a long time. I believe that hope is an essential ingredient when it comes to making dreams a reality.
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The Things We Learn From Kids

JOY by Symphony of Love

JOY by Symphony of Love

Not intending to downplay the words of wisdom my parents have shared with me over the years, but I recently realized that all you have to do is study a child to learn everything you’ll need to know about how to live. Truly live, that is.

I’m not talking about elements of survival like how to get your own food, but more about how to be happy.

Of course, when you’re a child the last thing you’re going to do is intentionally study one of your colleagues to learn a thing or two. The whole center of the universe thing can get in the way of that and is, perhaps, the one downside to my theory.

But before we chuck it altogether, consider what follows.

As an adult, I have been reminded about some of the essential ingredients to living a happy, fulfilled, compassionate life.

Here are just some of the things we can learn from kids:

Unbridled Joy
Love
Kindness
The Essence of Play
Anything is Possible
How to Live Creatively

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Family, Friends, and Our Stories: Continued

famsmallIn the beginning, FAMILY is pretty much all we know.

While we’re infants, they’re perceived as an extension of us (in regards, mostly, to how they meet or neglect our basic, inherent needs).

Most of the early truths and discoveries we make are learned through our experiences with family. Our values, our beliefs and attitudes, are influenced by them (as we grow to accept or to resist theirs).

As we age, as we approach and then navigate the muddy waters of adolescence, our FRIENDS assume a much larger role in shaping us (or at least in influencing how we shape ourselves) into the people we’ll become.

All of this may be true. All of it may, and does, and will influence our stories.

But, as Willa Cather stated: “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” I can say that most of my personal stories, most of the memories I draw upon when I write, are from that time in my life. They’re related to experiences I had with my family, and adventures I had with my friends back then.

A few of them, in particular, have in some way influenced the novels I’ve been working on recently, but not in the ways you might think. Not for the events themselves, in most cases, but for something more.

Here are a few specific events I recall from when I was between six and nine years old:

The Great Carpet Incident
Broken Bones & Concussed Noggins
Shattered: Or Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Body
The Land of Up & So Much Falling
Climbing the Walls
Rooftops & Hurricanes

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Family, Friends, and Our Stories

Lafayette Wattles & His Little Sister“Other things may change, but we start and end with family.”

What is family? For some, it is the heart, the marrow, the soul. For others, the dragon, the demon, the darkness. If we’re lucky, family is a light that guides us toward our own light, the one inside us.

I’m one of the lucky.

I don’t feel guilty for that, but I AM hyper-aware that not all families are created equal, and that when it comes to family I struck the mother-lode (and father-lode and sister-lode, so to speak).

I don’t come from money. My parents didn’t go to college. They got jobs after high school (before and after the Army for my dad, before and after my sister and I were both school age for my mom) and they spent their entire adult lives working extremely hard.

I was lucky because my grandparents never felt entitled. My parents never felt entitled. My sister and I never had a reason to feel entitled.

We did, however, feel happy! And loved!
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Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving by Hammer51012

Happy Thanksgiving by Hammer51012

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments
when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

Thanksgiving is more than a time for gathering with family and friends, it’s a time for giving thanks.

It’s a time for remembering. And for expressing gratitude.

I have much to be thankful for this holiday season, especially related to my writing, my friends, and my family. Unfortunately, I’m battling a little vertigo at the moment which makes it difficult for me to look at my computer, which means there’s something for you to be thankful for – a short blog post.

I’m working on a post about family and friends and how they influence our stories, but I’ll save that for next week.

As a result, below you’ll find the very first poem I ever had published in a print journal.
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