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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Quotes I Like

This photo shows a woman sipping coffee against a red wall and red booth

I was going through some old Word documents and found a file with the same title as this blog post. When I opened it up, I found the quotes below.

I’ve collected quotes for as long as I can remember. I love the following quotes still, and think I had saved them for future inspiration. I’m sharing them here to get the creative juices flowing again.

“The pause is as important as the note.” – Truman Fisher

“I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” – Roger Ebert

“We hold it all for a little while/Don’t we/Kiss the dice/Taste the rain like little knives upon our tongue/We can do no wrong when the lights go on/And the music plays/And we take the stage like we own the place/As if time were cheap/And the night forever young.” – Seven Shades of Blue, Beth Nielsen Chapman

“If we are to ever evolve into a peaceful society, we must be at peace with many things we disapprove of or cannot fathom.” – Cary Tennis

“The basic idea of the film is that what identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others. You are your area, rather than you are yourself. If someone describes you, that description becomes part of your area, whether you like it or not.” – Ryan Trecartin, quoted in “Experimental People” by Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker, March 24, 2014

Do you collect quotes, too? Which are your favorites?

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

Decline

“Would you be interested in taking your grandmother’s dining room table?” my father asks.

I pause, and switch the phone to my other ear. Many others must have already declined, as I am by no means the first in line for an acquisition such as this, and I quickly count at least six older relatives who could have claimed it before me. I realize, mid-count, that my father is still talking.

“It wouldn’t be just the table; it also comes with a lovely hutch. I think whoever takes it will have to take the both of them, as a set.”

I try to picture the table. It is rectangular, I can recall that much. Long—dominating my grandmother’s (admittedly small) dining room. Most likely designed to seat six to eight comfortably, although when we were there it often had ten to twelve people crammed elbow to elbow around its perimeter. So many side to side that if your seat was against the wall, opposite the door, you knew you were in for the night. My sisters and I, at younger ages, would take bathroom breaks or steal time outside by escaping under the table, crawling below, past denim and sneakers, pantyhose and heels, to make a run for it.

The visuals fail me. Instead, the sounds at the table come forward, large and loud. Not to verify a stereotype, but with ten-plus Irish-Italian New Yorkers and Jersey residents packed in a small space, the conversation quickly went up in volume, and down in decorum. One year, after my aunt recalled a childhood story that depicted Nana in a less-than-flattering light, Nana called her an asshole in front of the crowd – all in good fun, of course. Insulting (and politically incorrect) nicknames from my father’s childhood inevitably would be used (often as a term of endearment) before the meal was through. And during the multiple simultaneous conversations, there was always the additional cacophony of silverware clinking on plates, new dishes to pass—family style—from the kitchen, more drinks to pour.

Memories of sound give way to recollections of taste. What stands out about Nana’s table, despite the years, was what was always served on it. There were rules to the menu at Nana’s, unchanging, regardless when we visited. Whether we made the trek to suburban New Jersey from Pennsylvania on the day after Christmas, or a random July afternoon during our summer vacation, we knew there would be some variation of the standards:

Roast pork with sauerkraut and “new” white potatoes (extra salty from a can), coated with so many drippings from the meat that their undersides turned dark.

Spaghetti with meat sauce—the meatballs and sausage variety, not the ground beef/Bolognese style. Green salad was served after the main course, as a palate cleanser, and always with crusty Italian bread to dip.

A side dish of pickled beets with pickled onions – regardless of entrée. For many years, I would try to get to the dish before my sisters, so I could devour all of the beets myself, only realizing in my later childhood years that Nana and I were the only ones who would partake.

Red jello, strawberry or cherry, served in parfait cups or with individual servings scooped out of a casserole dish.

Chocolate sheet cake with white icing. Each square slice was then to be cut in half and inverted so the icing would be on the inside, like a filling. This would then be eaten with one’s hands.

And, for most of my childhood, a thick fog of cigarette smoke hung over the table, curlicueing up from several ashtrays placed strategically around the spread, seeping into our clothes and hair, so that our pillow cases, the morning after our visit, would smell of smoke. Gradually, over the years, the number of smokers dwindled, until my step-grandfather was the only one – and even then, he would often go outside to light up.

It had been years, though, since I last had a meal at my grandmother’s house. In fact, the final time I had sat at the table, there hadn’t been anything from the standard menu at all.

It had been about a decade ago, on a trip to New Jersey with Andy, my then-boyfriend, now husband, for the sole purpose of introducing him to my paternal side of the family. It was a rare visit without my parents or my sisters. And I had called my nana a few weeks in advance, told her we would be in the area, and asked if we could have a meal with her.

“No,” was the unexpected answer. “I’m just not up for it.”

We hadn’t known it at the time, but the initial signs of Alzheimer’s were starting to show. She knew it. Her husband knew it. But she didn’t want us to know it. And if she were expected to cook a big meal, everyone else would discover what was, at that time, her own private realization.

So instead we went to her home for a low-key visit, buffered by my cousin and his wife, presenting a dozen doughnuts and a carafe of coffee we picked up on the way over. The six of us sat at the dining room table. It seemed excessively roomy, with plenty of elbow room and more than enough space to stretch out. No one smoked. The room I associated with noise and crowding was oddly quiet and spacious, and I found this otherwise-normal setting bewildering.

Or, truthfully, perhaps I worried because of her initial rejection, wondering whether I had offended her and her husband, if somehow, by coming with a partner and not my parents, if I had upset the natural order of things.

We snacked off paper plates, no silverware needed. Bob, Nana’s husband, showed Andy his latest woodworking creations, several of which were displayed on the neighboring hutch. Nana told Andy a few stories about me as a toddler – stories I had never heard before. And after about an hour, we left.

The phone line is quiet as my father waits for my response.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Let me think about it.”

Read the full essay at The Grief Diaries.

Ain’t no party like a Twitter party…

This photo shows a person checking a smartphone

Hi again, writers!

Great to see you at the Muse today!

As Hannah and I mentioned during our Muse and the Marketplace panel, we’d love to host a Twitter party with all of you in the near future. Featuring live website critiques, Q&A, and additional social media tips, our Twitter party will give you a chance to put your new social media skills to work!

Before we can get going–and send you a proper invite with details–we need a little bit of feedback. Please take a few minutes to share your feedback in our Twitter Chat post-Muse survey. We’ll compile the preferences and follow up — more to come!

Take the Finding and Growing Your Online Audience/Twitter Chat Survey here.

#muse15

Photo courtesy Death to the Stock Photo

Finding and Growing Your Online Audience

This photo shows Hannah Harlow and Sarah Pascarella, presenters at the Muse and the Marketplace 2015

Looking to increase your presence on social media? Here’s the presentation that Hannah Harlow and I put together for the 2015 Muse and the Marketplace:

FINDING AND GROWING YOUR ONLINE AUDIENCE

as well as the list of resources every writer should use when getting started online.

Have further questions? Tweet to me @PascarellaSarah or Hannah @hhharlow!

 

 

Social Media Resources for Writers

This photo shows a pair of glasses by a keyboard

In advance of tomorrow’s Muse and the Marketplace panel, I wanted to share a few helpful resources toward finding and building your online audience. Fellow writers, bookmark these for future reference!

Of course, this list is by no means comprehensive — it’s just a starter to get things going as you start promoting your work and building your online readership!

Which social media and online promotion sites have you found particularly helpful? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

Photo courtesy Death to the Stock Photo

Come to my Muse and the Marketplace panel!

This photo shows a man typing on a laptop

Hey there, writers! No plans on Friday, May 1? Say around 11:45 a.m.?

Come to my panel with Hannah Harlow, Finding and Growing Your Online Audience, at the 2015 Muse and the Marketplace at the Boston Park Plaza! We’ll be discussing author websites, which social media platforms make sense for you, how to build your social community, and more.

We’re also planning to do a live critique of fellow authors’ websites. If you’d like to submit yours for consideration, tweet your website link to me @PascarellaSarah and we’ll consider it for inclusion in the panel!

Photo courtesy Death to the Stock Photo