Unilateral

A neon-red anatomical heart wall hanging sits behind a steel grid

When I was growing up, my mother had a paper wall hanging, a scroll unfurled between two wooden sticks, featuring a dusky rose against a yellow-and-gold striped sunset. On the top, in thick dark letters, it read, “If you love somebody, tell them.”

In my newest short story, Structures of a Heart, Jonah can’t quite follow these simple instructions. For those who know him best, though, his reticence may not matter.

Thanks to the women of SWIG and Andrew Wagner for reading multiple drafts and always offering helpful feedback, as well as to the editors at Chestnut Review, and especially D.E. Hardy, for their care with this story. Read – or listen to – it now in the Autumn 2021 issue.

Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

Letter to a Ghost

A sandy path between dunes leads to the hillier dunes in Provincetown

I first encountered Richard McCann, poet, essayist, novelist, professor, in the mid-90s, in Writers in Print and Person, a literature class at American University. His name, a guest author on the syllabus, accompanied the required reading of Ghost Letters, his poetry collection. It was a modest gathering, maybe fifteen undergraduate students, and on the designated day he took a seat at the head of the discussion table, maneuvering his swollen abdomen into a too-small chair. He had a mottled complexion, large hands, thin blond hair that brushed his eyebrows and earlobes. Ice-blue eyes that concealed glaciers of sorrow.

Before we delved into the Q&A, he charmed—and disarmed—us all with a few witty, self-deprecating jokes. Still, even in laughter, his eyes were the saddest I’d seen, then and maybe still. He’d been through the unbearable: he was the last person standing in his family of origin, his partner lost to HIV. The multi-decade culling of his community; his own health crisis. He’d seen some shit. He wrote it all down. He polished the retellings, so what would stagger or even fell others became poems. He made the profane beautiful, and the beautiful sublime.

I learned of his death, Monday, January 25, 2021. I knew he had been chronically ill since the nineties. I knew he was 71. But it still stunned. He was the endurer. He was the recorder. I texted an old friend, who had also studied with him: It’s like the witness isn’t supposed to be mortal.

The spring semester of my junior year, I registered for McCann’s course, Literature of AIDS. This was 1998, and while the pandemic may have been somewhat muted compared to the previous decade, it still loomed and threatened. “Who signs up for this—are you all masochists?” he asked the small group of us, maybe twelve, on the first day of class. Perhaps we were. I only knew that, while we were heading into some dark places, I trusted McCann would be a revelatory guide. He was. Here were instructions on how to live with pain. Templates on how to declare one’s worth. Introductions to artists-as-warriors: Mark Doty, Jean Valentine, Tory Dent, David Wojnarowicz, Paul Monette, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, voices that howled and wept and celebrated and refused to be silenced, even in death. Here were participants and witnesses, each class session such a shock wave of love and loss that we often stumbled out into the university quad, stunned into post-lesson silence.

Over the years, what I found enduring and remarkable was McCann’s invitation to witness, to have given our small collective a glimpse into how to stare down what tries to come for you, to break you and your loved ones, your whole community. The betrayer mattered not and could take many forms: a pathogen. A policy. Your own pathology. What mattered was, even in the midst of the attack, one could still say, I can create from this. I must create from this. McCann wrote and taught about the body—the ailing body, the desirous body, the decaying body, his own and others. How strange to think he has finally left his – to have at last cast off the source of frustration, creation, betrayal and beauty – and now leaves only a body of work.

At our last class, the appointed hour came. McCann said something poignant and kind to wrap up; I don’t recall the exact words, just the commingled sadness and gratitude that comes when any meaningful experience concludes. What I do recall is no one moved or spoke, as though we could will more time into existence. Of course, who knew better than McCann that we couldn’t? He looked at us, immobile and mute, and waited.  

“Go,” he finally said, and we did, reluctant, reverent.

Photo courtesy jenny k via Flickr Creative Commons

Stuck in the Mud

A man stands on a beach in front of a beached whale that has washed up on the shore

Going into 2019, I was a bit depleted creatively. I struggled with a long-form fiction project and was out of ideas. While I did not want to take any time off, I also did not feel inspired.

I remembered I had purchased a prompt book, Judy Davis’ A Writer’s Book of Days, while on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, a few years earlier. It had sat on my shelf, unopened. I retrieved it and skimmed the intro and its basic premise: a prompt a day.

That could be a good New Year’s resolution, I thought. Daily prompt, no pressure, no editing, no time limit or word count, just the practice.

I kept at it and didn’t miss a day. I wrote longhand. By the end of the year, I had a stack of notebooks filled with potential stories.

In 2020, I used the notebooks as starting points, with a new resolution: 12 short stories from the prompts, one per month.

Time and Tide, newly published in MudRoom magazine, is April’s story, although the process was much longer than that:

  • April 2019: Original prompt
  • April 2020: First draft of the full story
  • April – December 2020: Two workshops with the SWIG writers’ group, plus additional helpful feedback from Robert Scott and Andrew Wagner
  • January 2021: Pitches, final revisions
  • February 2021: Publication

For more details, MudRoom editor Maiasia Grimes generously invited me to discuss the writing process in the magazine’s newest interview.

Thanks for reading!

Photo courtesy Sue & Danny Yee via Flickr Creative Commons

Short, to the Point

A waitress in a diner stands in profile silhouette in black and white

Thank you to the team at Levee Magazine for publishing my newest short fiction, Embolus.

A bit of process notes on this one: Embolus went through multiple revisions over the years and received mixed feedback, both from my writing workshops and editors at literary journals. It certainly mystified me as I worked on it. I knew I wanted a mood piece that spoke to something the main character considers unspeakable, something she knows but prefers as mystery. Something intimate and also foreign.

I’ll say little more, just that the timing of Embolus’ publication in Levee’s fifth issue, in the throes of the novel coronavirus, and the rash of high-profile diagnoses this week, seems a little too timely. Can we ever really acknowledge our vulnerabilities?

Photo courtesy Tyler B Dvorak via Flickr Creative Commons

The Ancients

capilano_suspension_bridge_vancouver

In 2018, I traveled to Vancouver, B.C., and spent an afternoon at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. After a few hours crisscrossing between the treetops, we descended back to the ground to exit, and passed a display titled Our Biggest Guest.

It told the story of a November night in 2006, when a storm-felled Douglas Fir tree nearly took out the bridge, and the harrowing means to clear the giant: “The park had to be closed for 3 months in order for the tree trunk to be safely removed. With 17 tons of weight on the bridge, the trunk could not simply be lifted otherwise it would create a spring-like effect shooting the bridge, tree, and any one on it up into the air. Instead, small slices were removed one at a time while pulley systems carefully lifted and swung the remaining tree from its perch.”

This story was my main souvenir from the trip. From it came my newest short fiction, Arabesque, now available to read on Fiction Southeast, or check out the audio version on Audiomack.

Thanks for reading or listening!

Book of Days

cranes_overhead

In 2019, my New Year’s Resolution was to work on a writing prompt every day, using A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves as my guide. Whether I had five minutes or five hours, the goal was simply to make it a daily practice. I wrote longhand each day, sometimes in plain notebooks, other times in fancier leather-bound journals. I alternated between drugstore ballpoint pens and bold purple inks. I made it the whole year.

In 2020, my resolution has been to work through those prompt exercises like a miner, extracting useful nuggets, in an attempt to produce a polished short story each month. Nearly five months in, I’ve been keeping at it, although “polished” may be a relative term.

A bit of validation, though: I’m pleased to announce the first of my prompt stories has found a home. Check out my newest published fiction, Serotiny, in issue 6.1 of The Maine Review. (Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, nearly nothing from the original prompt exercise made it into the final draft.)

Thanks to editor Rosanna Gargiulo for her thoughtful edits, as well as the incredible readers of SWIG and Andrew Wagner for their invaluable feedback.

As always, thanks for reading!

Photo courtesy Matthew Macy via Flickr Creative Commons

Winter Into Spring

My husband tells me the first day of spring is tomorrow, yet the forecast for my morning commute is a brisk 28 degrees. Not quite there yet…

Fitting, though, that “Seeking Warmth”, the latest excerpt from our graphic novel, Stony Road, was just published this week – and by a publication in a place that’s always warm, no less.

Seeking Warmth screenshots

Check out the story on the Aquifer: The Florida Review Online website.

Thanks for reading, and here’s to warmer days.

When Armchair Travel Isn’t Enough…

Australia State Library Melbourne

If you know me well, you know I love books and travel in equal measure. In fact, books often inspire my travels. So it was a great pleasure to research and write my newest travel story for Fodors, Beyond the Page: 10 Fascinating Destinations for Bookworm Globetrotters.

Given the ample options for our literary destinations, it was tough to narrow down the list to just 10 places, but my editors and I did it! Our literary locales include such far-flung places as Melbourne, nicknamed the City of Literature, and as close by as the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, a favorite author gathering spot that’s also featured in many a novel.

Take a look and, if you’re so inclined, drop me a line and tell me your favorite literary-inspired destination!

Read more

Photo courtesy s2art via Flickr Creative Commons

Little by Little…

Patty by Rick Stromoski

My uncle and I have been working on Stony Road, a graphic novel, for about three years now. We took a year to research and outline, a year to write and illustrate, and a year to revise and pitch agents and publishers.

In addition to pitching the entire book, we’ve also been pitching excerpts as stand-alone short stories. Patty, the first excerpted short story, is this week’s lead piece in Booth literary magazine.

As a writer, I found it a fascinating exercise to storyboard this sequence, to think visually to convey the scene, rather than relying on language to walk the reader through the story. In a way it was quite freeing: Before working on this project, I never had the opportunity to have artwork do the heavy lifting. Having a new medium to help shape a reader’s understanding was new and novel; I quite enjoyed working in this format.

Hoping to have more updates on this project as we continue to pitch. In the meantime, many thanks to the team at Booth!

Image copyright Rick Stromoski

Even Weird Stories Can Find a Home

This photo shows the subway platform at Sullivan Square in Somerville and Charlestown, Massachusetts

I am a creature of habit, always heading to the same spot on the platform to catch the train, and this macabre progress check became routine: Get off the bus. Swipe my monthly pass. Head to the left, down the stairs, toward the three billboards. Check for the rabbit. Get on the train.

Dead rabbits, subway trains, and the passage of time…I’m pleased to report that even weird stories can find a home. Check out my newest short story, “Sullivan Square,” now up on Scout Somerville.

Photo courtesy The West End on Flickr Creative Commons