My Happy Writing Detour…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I write creative nonfiction. It’s hard for me not to write nonfiction, unless I’m writing about Rocko Rocket. I finished the final edits on a children’s book called, Rocko’s Big Launch in 2012 while completing my MFA. My dad was dying, writing my craft lecture felt like it was killing me, I was overwhelmed at work, and my asthma had gotten so bad that my lung capacity was at less than 60%. Ultimately, I finished 150 pages of my memoir, my MFA requirements and had a successful kickstarter campaign to self-publish one thousand copies of the children’s book I wrote and my husband illustrated. I attended my MFA graduation ceremony, and my dad died a week later. I had about three more chapters to expand and complete my memoir about the death of my four-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t seem to write them. I still haven’t. I’ve focused on Rocko Rocket instead. Rocko is a boy with a big head full of ideas, big eyes full of dreams, and a big smile full of the happiness I’ve needed to take a break from reflecting on loss.

When writing a picture book, like writing any book, there must be a conflict. With a picture book, however, the main character generally has a problem that can be solved. Rocko’s persistence gets him to his goal. He has a dream that readers can believe he can achieve, and he has a passion that makes his readers want to reach out for something amazing. This kind of book works on not only kids, but also adults.   Kids need to believe that anything is possible for them. Having that belief early on sparks the confidence to set goals and accomplish them. Adults need something that keeps them from focusing on the things that don’t go right in the world. Picture books remind adults of how it felt to be young and expectant of a happy ending.

I wrote the first few drafts of the Rocko Rocket series over eighteen years ago for my oldest daughter who we will be attending her first year of college less than a week from now. Yet, when I revived Rocko’s story and re-wrote it, I did it mostly for me.

This summer I have had so much fun sharing Rocko’s story with adults and children. It has been inspiring to see how my 48 page story about this little boy can make people smile. It’s been a great summer, and although the best books I’ve read have often brought me to tears, there is nothing wrong with taking a break to read or write something that can put a smile on your face.

 

 

Read these! Our contributors’ (and then some) work from around the web

Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review

“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS

A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.

Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.

Jeffrey Schrecongost, another Converse grad, whose post was highlighted a few weeks ago, has a short story–“Mouthwash” up at Gadfly.

Poet Melissa Dickson Jackson is the author of Sweet Aegis and Cameo. Another Converse alumni and she has a blog post up at North American Review titled A Poem in Flight: Memory and Truth.

Check out contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson’s children’s book Rocko RocketRocko also has a Twitter account. Lots of good stuff happening here!

Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal

 

Four Quotes on Love That Can Save Even the Worst Romance Novel

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

 

     The truth is: I’m not a fan of romance novels. My dislike of the genre mostly lies with the fact that the title gives away the plot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading a book that leaves me with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings. I do. It’s just that before I open a “romance novel,” I know it will be filled with “I love you’s,” and a series of clichés to follow. They meet, they fall in love, they’re happy, and then there is a conflict. The conflict is resolved and they are reunited and live happily ever after, or fate keeps them for living happily after, or one or both of them die.
I’ve learned from reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, however, that no matter how predictable the features of a love story, or any story for that matter, it is the writer that makes the difference. Reading about two people truly in love can be thought-provoking and inspiring, and this can happen if the writer writes about love in the way Jan-Phillip Sendker does.
     Yet, it does help that Sendker works to avoid predictability. His story begins with a daughter who is looking for her father, and on her quest for answers, the daughter and the reader are eventually and unexpectedly led into a romantic love story. She finds answers through a man who is shrouded in mystery. He not only tells her about her father’s past, but he tells her a love story. And since the love story is told through the lens of the past, the reader is able to allow for some of what sounds like legend, so nothing appears overdone. Finally, Senker doesn’t have the characters in the story dialogue about their love. He shows what their love looks like through the specific actions of the characters. If a romance writer could incorporate the following four passages or anything like them into his or her story, he or she would win more hearts and minds.
     Sendker makes the reader consider the power of love early on by avoiding clichés about the things that attract one person to another.
     “I have often wondered what was the source of her beauty, her radiance. It’s not the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s lips or eyes that make one beautiful or ugly. So what is it? Can you, as a woman, tell me?
I shook my head.
I will tell you: It’s love. Love makes us beautiful. Do you know a single person who loves and is loved, who is loved unconditionally and who, at the same time, is ugly? There’s no need to ponder the question. There is no such person.”
      Questions are posed to the daughter and the reader so there is time for reflection.
     “How can anyone truthfully claim to love someone when they’re not prepared to share everything with that person, including their past?”
      The narrator illustrates how this particular love he speaks of in this story is authentic while elevating it beyond the common physical and mental weakness that makes one out of control to a spiritual experience that strengthens both members.
      “Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person ─a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
      And lastly, he explains how most people lack the understanding of true love and that these two lovers shared an understanding of what most do not.
“We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes as uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize.”
      This love story was not just about the two lovers from the past but about love itself. I found that after reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, that there were so many levels to peel back and take away. I was not only left with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings, but by the end, I was also met with surprise and inspiration.

Marking Time

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

In Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller paints an eclectic collage of her parents’ life in Africa using photos and stories of their experiences, successes, failures and tragedies. All the stories work to reveal the unique personalities of her parents who live as white farmers in different parts of Africa, particularly Zimbabwe when it was ruled by a white minority. They are the last of their breed and are there to see things change despite the violent wars and internal struggles to maintain things as they once were. The story, however, mostly focuses on Fuller’s mother, a colorful and candid character who admits she is not mentally stable.
Besides Fuller’s wit and her vivid storytelling, what works in this book is Fuller’s use of time markers. Fuller is not a linear storyteller, and in writing creative nonfiction, it is sometimes difficult to give readers markers of when certain events actually happened since the writer is dealing with memory and shaping time into meaning instead of into a biography or a historical account. Fuller solves this dilemma by telling specific stories in the order that will achieve her goal which is to show her readers how her parents developed into the people they have become. She does in each chapter by grouping a set of stories with a photo and a date that help to present theme and setting.
The book is divided into three parts, and at the beginning of each chapter in all three parts, she includes a picture with a date and caption. For example, the chapter entitled, “Nicole Huntington Learns to Ride” includes a picture of her Fuller’s mother in Kenya at about age seven or eight in overalls, standing barefoot on the saddle of a white horse. This chapter shares how her mother’s love of horses began. Yet, she doesn’t begin talking about a horse; she begins with a story of a donkey who meets a terrible fate outside her mother’s’ convent school.
The stories jump around weaving in and out of time and place, so the dates beneath the captions beneath the photos help the reader keep track of time and place. When making these shifts in time, it helps to have something to ground the story. The construction of her chapters and inclusion of photos help to do this.
Fuller shares lots of wild and interesting family stories that make up over fifty years and three generations on the continent of Africa. It is easy to get lost in time while reading. Through each chapter, however, the reader is able to navigate the past and the landscape of the continent through the eyes of the Fuller family.

Lit mag roundup

Support literary magazines–they need you!

River Teeth Journal–publishes non-fiction

Wips Journal-Works (of fiction) in Progress–focuses on fiction.

Superstition Review-publishes art, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction

New Ohio Review-publishes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction

Contributor Gabrielle Freeman has started her own website–Lady Random. Her tagline: “Writing is your mistress. Submit!”

Also check out Rocko Rocket–creation of contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson

 

Forty-three Ways to Play with Barbie

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For over fifty years, the Barbie fashion doll has been put in the hands of millions of little girls and over time, the doll has become a pop icon that has sparked controversy. Barbie is sometimes charged with promoting an unrealistic standard for beauty, but over the years, she has also inspired many creative works. In Denise Duhamel’s collection of poetry entitled, Kinky, the doll is used in parody. What works about this collection besides its obvious cleverness, is that it gives the reader a myriad of vantage points on the same subject. All forty-three poems connect to Barbie, but each takes you in a different direction to contemplate the history, associations, and implications of what was intended to be simply a teenage fashion doll.
The collection is divided into four parts: Lipstick, Powder Blush, Mascara, and Eye shadow, representing all the things needed to keep Barbie’s face and image beautiful. In the first part, there are poems focused mostly on the cultural history of the doll. Duhamel pokes fun at Mattel’s attempt at cultural and ethnic sensitivity. In “Hispanic Barbie”, she writes: “Born in 1980, Hispanic Barbie looks exactly like Black or White Barbie. You can pretend she’s Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Chilean, or Venezuelan. ..” My favorite poem, “Native American Barbie,” is a one-line poem that acts as a punch line: “There is only one of her left.”
The title poem, “Kinky” begins with Barbie and Ken switching heads in an attempt to “spice-up” their relationship. All the poems are free verse. Some employ dialogue while others employ narration. She uses specific details and word play to bridge the real world to Barbie’s imaginary one. Other titles include: “Anti-Christ Barbie”, “Buddhist Barbie”, “Literary Barbie”, “Barbie’s Molester”, and “Afterlife Barbie.”
In this collection, Duhamel does a comedic critique of society. She uses Barbie to cover topics such as sexism, feminism, racism, war, love, sex, exploitation, and religion. Her cleverness with subject matter and language can lend to deep contemplation and discussion, while other poems are just laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the truth of her observations can be arresting, especially in poems like, “Manifest Barbie” where you learn:
In the Philippines
Women workers in fashion doll factories
Are given cash incentives
For sterilization

Facts like these are hard to swallow, so Duhamel makes sure to add humor. Satire works here along with every other connection to the doll and her well-known moveable and detachable parts. After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at the Barbie doll the same.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky. Alexandria Virginia: Orchises Press: 1997.

The End

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Coming to the ending of a piece of writing can be challenging; no matter the subject, genre or word count.  I remember in elementary school every one wrote, “The End” to signal that his or her story was finished.  We learned this from the fairy tale stories we often read or heard. Yet, as I matured as a reader and writer, I noticed that the best books I’ve read always concluded a chapter or the book in a way that made me re-read or reflect for a few minutes. The endings often led to a new connection or a new appreciation of what writers and language could do.

I recently finished Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It is a story about how Schwalbe and his dying mother maintained a book club of two during her visits to the hospital for chemotherapy.  The book is definitely about the power of books and about what happens for readers at the end of them. In fact, each chapter is titled after a title of a book and includes a synopsis, quotes and sometimes a informal review. Yet, the book is mostly about the journey to the end, in this case, the end of the extraordinary life of Schwable’s mother.

I think each writer goes on his or her own journey to the end as well. Writers must make careful choices about what they want to leave behind for their readers. A writer may choose a quote, an anecdote, a strong declarative sentence, or maybe a combination of styles to connect the reader to the story and its characters. Endings should provoke thought or emotion, allow reflections, spark debate, or echo a theme or idea a writer wants to share. For Schwalbe’s book, he consistently uses a reflective strategy for the end of his chapters.  The end of each chapter is an echo of the beginning or to the theme of the book presented. This works to connect the books being presented to the main storyline and allows his readers to reflect on and connect to the experiences of the main “characters” in the memoir.

In his chapter titled, The Uncommon Reader, named after the novella by Adam Bennett, Schwalbe laments that his mother’s grandchildren would miss out on “the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.” At the end of the chapter, however, he reconciles that he could help them learn more about his mother by sharing the books she read and loved. Then they, like her, “could all become readers, and maybe even uncommon ones.” (130)

Just as the end of a life well lived can lead to a combination of sorrow and admiration, the end of a great chapter or book can sometimes lead to a bit of sadness, but it should always lead to satisfaction and admiration for a job well-done.

The End

 

Schwalbe, Will. The End of Your Life Book Club. New York: Vintage Books.2012. Print

 

Fifth week round-up

Fifth week round-up highlights posts in the last few months:

May’s roundup

History and Humanity in Summary

A Different Sense of Place: Where a Story Begins and Ends

I Want Every Poem to Change My Life. No Pressure

Blogs You Should Be Reading

Winging It

Down the Rabbit Hole: Growing Strangeness in The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club

The Snow Child

Barry Hannah’s Monstrous American Hero

“Words that burn”: Honesty in Denise Duhamel’s Blowout

June’s round-up:

Writing Tips to Get You Through the Summer Doldrums

Diamond Mining

Biblical Allusion in Flannery O’Conner’s The Violent Bear It Away

Just Breathe

July’s round-up:

Lines That Linger

Repetition in Tanya Olson’s “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series”

The Threat of Violence

Werewolves and the War on Terror: A Literary Snob on Betrayal

Literary Magazine Highlight-Glimmer Train, Slice

Lines that Linger

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  It was on his summer reading list. The book is narrated by Death and there are three sentences in the narration that my son was compelled to write down and memorize.  Death says, “In war young men think they are running toward other young men. They are not.  They are running at me. “

Now there are many great lines and scenes in that book, but these are the lines my son wanted to keep.  It impresses me that good writing has the ability to get people to copy whole lines and paragraphs down and memorize them. I love that language can do this. Now, I don’t have the ability to memorize most of my favorite lines from the best books I’ve read, but I do write them down.  They are in pages of letters, old journals, or blog posts.  I, too, am unable to leave some lines behind. I want to reflect on them and share them with others long after I’ve left the pages of the book.

What are the characteristics of these lines that linger, and how does one write them? I think one answer is: If they speak to a universal truth.  If they ring true universally to the human experience but reveal truth in a way that is fresh or unexpected. Another answer is: If the words defy what is commonly accepted.  These are things that make the reader take pause to reflect or re-read.

 After reading, “On Morality” by Joan Didion, I contemplated the idea of morality in a way I had not done before. She writes “good” or “moral” was a “monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.” It aligns with the popular saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”’ We can shape “moral” into anything we choose, including a stone to murder a woman who is accused of adultery.

In Comfort, Ann Hood writes, “Time doesn’t heal”, which is the opposite of the popular quote, “Time heals all wounds.” And knowing that there are some traumas that people do not recover from, the reader understands why Hood challenges it. Her words stayed with me because they were true for me as well.

My son doesn’t know why those three sentences in Zusak’s book stopped him, but I do. He found the truth in them; a truth he didn’t expect to find but knew he wanted to keep.

 

 

 

History and Humanity in Summary

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

Gary Fincke’s, The Canals of Mars is a memoir mostly about Fincke’s childhood during the fifties and sixties where he was expected to fiercely avoid weakness of the mind, body and spirit at all costs. His grandfather’s drunkenness was a public embarrassment, so his parents worked hard to force a habit of hard work, morality and spiritual righteousness into their children. Besides learning about Fincke’s family life during this time, the reader also learns about the educational, social, and political climate of the time through well-crafted summary.

 When telling a story with so many characters, so much history and so many connections to a larger story and universal theme, the nonfiction writer has to rely on summary.  Fincke summarizes numerous scenes in summary to impart information and provide a new thread to his rich layered tapestry.  Summary is an art worth practicing in order to avoid getting bogged down with so much relevant material.  

In one paragraph he writes about three-hour church services but on the same page, he informs the reader about the Captive Nations Resolution and Nixon’s trip to the then, Soviet Union.  He writes, “I didn’t care about Nixon’s trip, but I worried that my father would announce there were evening church services to ensure the community’s compliance with prayer. That the government edict would end up with me enduring a week like the one before Easter…” (55). 

Fincke covers so much in 229 pages. Through short summary, the reader also learns about how danger seemed to be all around him as he grew up through radiation and bomb scares, polio outbreaks, and threats of rape and even murder by boys who were much bigger and stronger than he was.  His father, who tries to force perfection on himself and his family represents the struggle to avoid weakness. This is what much of the book’s theme centers around, the idea of human weakness and how no matter how we pray or work to find ways to avoid showing weakness, we live in a world where there is always something or someone much bigger or stronger than we are.
After reading this story, I found there were so many things that have changed since the fifties and sixties, but so many things were familiar. We still have bullies, diseases, wars, and we still fear the effects of radiation.  And people still use religion to instill fear or to control the minds and behavior of others. 

Fincke shows the reader one unique childhood in a unique time in history but his use of summary shows us so many other things that allow his story to work as a reminder and warning to all who think that they can avoid the things that plague us all.

 

 

Fincke, Gary. The Canals of Mars. East Lansing: Michigan University Press, 2010.