My Favorite

Like parents and children, writers aren’t supposed to have favorite works, right? Each piece holds its own special place, the result of a unique hybrid of ideas, experience, workshops, feedback, revisions, more revisions, pitches, and (hopefully) acceptance and publication. Each work is a snapshot of the writer at a particular moment in time, and reflects the writer’s state of mind up to and at that point. Writing is too subjective a process to rank what’s produced. How can one piece stand apart from the rest?

Yet having said that… my short story, Acquaintance, is my all-time favorite piece I’ve written. Originally part of a larger novel, it was able to be coaxed out and morphed into a smaller work. Sometimes you work on something big, only to find that distillation is what’s needed. In that case, while the effort and result may not be matched in volume or size, the alignment between labor and product lies (hopefully) in resonance and meaning.

Thanks, ink&coda journal, for publishing my favorite.

Read the full story here.

Photo courtesy Jonas Boni via Flickr Creative Commons

Sneak Peek: What I’ve Been Working On

About this time last year, my uncle approached me. He had been working on a graphic novel based on his mother’s life, and he had writer’s block.

Would you help me write it? he asked.

I thought about it. It’s a difficult story, one that would be painful to research and write. I knew it would be upsetting, both for me to work on and for others to read.

But it’s also a good story, one with all the big themes: Love, marriage, family, regret. Freedom of choices and social expectations. Religion and morality. Kindness and cruelty.

I’m in, I said.

08

We knew we wouldn’t be able to find answers to everything we wanted to cover. We’d need to fill in some gaps.

So we decided to fictionalize–keep the core of the story intact, while changing names, places, and details as needed.

We got started in earnest in January 2016, and took three months to research, interview other family members, plot out a timeline. In March, we had a title. In April, we created an outline. I wrote from April through August, and we revised collaboratively along the way.

page15

Here’s the potential jacket copy:

For most of his life, Rick’s mother shared nothing about her childhood. While she never spoke of her years before marriage and motherhood, her frequent depressive episodes, use of corporal punishment, and erratic behavior betrayed a foundation of abuse, neglect, and vulnerability. Like his many siblings, Rick attempted to connect with his mother any way she’d allow, and resigned that he’d never learn about her past.

But unexpectedly, in the summer of Rick’s 30th year, Pat asked him to serve as her executor, and traveled to spend a weekend at his home to complete the paperwork. During that visit, she poured out her memories, never heard before—or ever again afterward.  

Stony Road is a story of lineage: the mysteries of our parents, and the desire to understand the forces that shaped them (and, by extension, us). It’s a story of regret and acceptance, resignation and survival. And—despite appearances—it’s a love story, the maddening, persistent, confounding love that only comes with blood and family.  

In September, Rick started the artwork.

page22

More to come…

All images copyright Rick Stromoski

Life-Changing Art: Carol Shields

This photo shows a pile of stones in all different sizes and colors

In December 2012, I finished grad school and, months later, was still astonished at my newfound free time. Evenings and weekends were now mine; gone were the days of syllabi and required reading, papers, and the dreaded thesis.

By June, my student loans had kicked in. The bills were anticipated, but it was still a shock to my early-twenties salary. Budgeting was essential. So reading–as entertainment, as community, as mental stimulation in the absence of regular classes–became more important than ever.

After years as a student, I now had the freedom to read books of my own choosing. So I eagerly re-entered the “reading as pleasure” world, taking time with each new book, feeling a bit stunned on reading each one for its own sake, and not being required to dissect each one for a grade or presentation.

At my non-taxing day job, I often had NPR’s “Fresh Air” on in the background. On July 18, they re-aired an interview with writer Carol Shields from the previous year. The occasion? Shields’s passing, the day before.

Shields’s voice grabbed me first–her assured timbre, her authoritative eloquence. Within a minute, I had stopped working and was completely under her spell for the entire half hour.

I had found a new subject for independent study.

That evening, I went to the library and took out The Stone Diaries, and tried not to devour it. It was more than I could have hoped for, a quiet yet sweeping whole-life story with exquisite prose. The interview had been just a prequel to Shields’ fierce intelligence and insightful perspective–and I now had a whole stack of Shields’ books to get to know her better.

Thirteen years later, I’m still working my way through her canon, slowly and deliberately, knowing it’s finite.

And yet, I always and repeatedly go back to the “Fresh Air” interview. Perhaps the enduring appeal lies in Shields’ vulnerable and honest answers throughout the conversation; perhaps it’s the warm and engaging match of intelligence between Shields and interviewer Terry Gross. But it’s not an exaggeration to say I consider this conversation my master class in writing, work, and a well-lived life. I listen to it several times a year–whenever I need inspiration, feel discouraged with my own writing, or just need to be grounded.

I don’t have many regrets, but one is that I discovered Shields after she died, and never got to attend a reading.  And so with that, this interview (and her books) will have to do.

Listen to the full interview here:  https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1340226/1340227

Photo courtesy Carol Van Canon via Flickr Creative Commons

Right Palm

This photo shows the palm of a hand

The itch began on Caroline’s right palm as she changed her bed linens. Stuffing a pillow into its newly laundered case, she felt a tickle swirl around her wrist, then dart up her life line and back. She ran her hand across her jeans, still stiff from the dryer, thinking the taut fabric would take care of the itch, yet it persisted. By mid-morning, it had continued to the point of irritation.

“Isn’t there an old wives’ tale about an itchy palm?” Caroline said to her husband, Joe, the fingernails of her left hand gently raking the flesh of the right. The Sunday paper was just-finished folded, its shuffled-order stack ready for the recycling bin. Joe stood at the sink, still in his rumpled pajamas, and rinsed their coffee mugs. “It’s reminding me of something my mother used to say, but I’m not remembering it correctly. Something about if the left palm itched it meant you were going to come into some money. And if the right palm itched, then …”

“Maybe you’re going to owe someone else money?” Joe shrugged. He shook some kibble into the dog’s food bowl, then filled its companion with fresh water. “That sounds vaguely familiar. Or, you know, it could just mean you have an itchy palm.”

She nudged him aside at the sink and stuck her hand under the cool faucet. Caroline could feel the memory receding even as she tried to recall it, the adage’s details growing fainter as she tried to grip them in her mind’s eye. She dried her hands with a dishtowel. “No matter. Maybe I’ll remember it later.”

She whistled for Tony, then clipped on his leash and headed out toward the park. Outside, on the sunny path, she extended her palm upward to get a closer look. No mosquito bites, no poison ivy, no rash of any kind. She rested the leash’s end in her hand, letting the friction gently tease out whatever was plaguing her, just under the skin’s surface.

While Joe had speculated, the truth was that she did already owe money. And while he knew this in theory, she alone knew the total amount: Three months of student loan bills accumulated in her desk drawer, unopened, unpaid, the fourth anticipated to arrive this week. Three months had been relatively easy to ignore, and easy to justify: no job, no means to pay, she’d pay next month once she had started working. Deferment, though, was no longer an option. Time for a new story, or an actual plan of attack.

Read the full story in the debut issue of Inklette.

Photo courtesy jamelah e. via Flickr Creative Commons