Why I Write

ink jar and quills (image by Charles Stanford)
(image by Charles Stanford)

I have been dealing with what I’ll call anxiety induced malaise of late.

As such, my creative work has stalled.

There is a school of thought out there that says anxiety, depression, and the like drive the creative person to make better art. I’m not going to say this is 100% wrong. When a person is sensitive and able to feel things deeply, that can be a gift. I have experienced that. However, it can also be paralyzing. Lately, I have been paralyzed.

I have especially struggled with my writing. I had a number of projects in the works, but suddenly that shifted. One novel I was working on (a sort of companion to Sideshow) seemed frivolous and unnecessary. Another novel seemed precious and overwrought. You get the picture. Each time I sat down to work, it all seemed to be without purpose. I wanted to do something important, but nothing seemed important enough, so I did nothing.

I’ve been here before. It’s far from the first time. I have always been a person deeply affected by the world around me and my effect on it (or lack thereof). I often struggle with being productive when I think that what I’m doing isn’t useful or helping anyone, and at times, it paralyzes me. Who am I? What do I have to give? When I run through my talents, I usually find myself coming up sort (blame the anxiety and some lingering threads of that teenage angst), but there is one thing that still remains: stories.

I write historical fiction not simply because I love history.  I do love history, but more importantly, I love the stories of history. So often in a history class we are taught to memorize names and dates, but we see these people as far away and nothing like us when in reality, we have so much in common with them and knowing their stories helps us to see that. Knowing their stories helps us to understand our own world as well.

When I wrote Sideshow, I initially struggled with trying to explain why I set the book in the in the time period that I did. The 1950s are a polarizing time to write about. They are so easy to romanticize, what with the poodle skirts and roller skating car hops and the birth of the American teenager, but under the surface of all that, there is a lot going on, most of which would bubble over quite fiercely in a short amount of time. I wanted to address these issues in a story of what is often portrayed as an “idyllic” time. I wanted to write a story that talked about some of the parts of that time that still ring true in our world today.

Additionally, I included the flashbacks because just as I do not exist solely in 2017, but also in 1992, 2001, 1988, 2010, etc as the years I lived through helped shape who I am today, the same is true for the people of the past.

Take for example the flashback to the incident with Abby’s mother. This is a history that Italian-Americans did not often talk about or acknowledge to their descendants. I myself had to learn about something similar happening to one of my own ancestors from archival documents and not from anyone in my family. This story as well as the others included in Sideshow were important to me because just as these events shaped Abby’s perception of her own identity, there were events happening in the world around me that I knew where shaping the identities of myself and everyone else for years to come.

So…the telling of stories…

It may not be much, but this is what I have give the world. So…I suppose I must find a way to continue.

Are some of my projects frivolous or precious? Yeah, probably.

Do I feel weird mentioning them on social media when so many more important things are happening? Definitely.

Do I think my words are even close to enough to change anything? No. Not really.

But deep down I know it is one of the few things I have that can help anyone (as self-centered as that may seem), so I have to keep trying.

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Historical Strongwomen

Fellow author and lovely person, Michelle Osgood (author of Better To Kiss You With) requested a further look into my archival research about historical Strongwoman. I couldn’t decide which one of these awesome women to focus on, so…I ended up writing a combination post. Unfortunately, a lot of the early strongwomen suffer a similar fate as a lot of women athletes (a lack of documentation), but here we have some of the gleanings I used in my research. So many of them would make fascinating studies for books all their own. I’m certainly considering it. To say otherwise would be a lie.

 

Minerva

Josephine Blatt (née Schauer) (1863 – 1923)

JosephineBlatt-PoliceGazette.jpg“Having been informed that Victorina, the female heavy-weight lifter, is eager to compete in feats of strength with any woman in the world, I hereby challenge her to arrange a match to lift heavy-weights and catch cannonballs from 10 pounds to 50 pounds for $500 to $1000 a side and the female heavy-weight-lifting championship of the world.”

-Letter signed Josie Wohlford, National Police Gazette. 3/28/18911

Precious little is known about the specifics of her early life.  Much of what exists in secondary sources is not officially confirm-able (though Jan Todd’s excellent essays in Iron Game History gave me far more insight into her life than I had imagined possible. )

Though contradicted in her public biography (which is the case with many early performers), Minerva was likely born in New Jersey and joined the American vaudeville and circus circuit in the 1890s as strength acts were beginning to take hold as an audience draw. (Also like many performers of the era, there is evidence to suggest that she used her talents as a means of escaping an unsatisfying marriage.) For many years she was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records  as having lifted the greatest amount of weight for a woman: 3,564 lb with a hip and harness lift at the Bijou Theatre, Hoboken, N.J., on April 15, 1895. (1895 reports indicate that this weight was closer to 3000 lbs than 3564, but hey, that’s still a feat!)

 

Vulcana

Kate Williams (1875 – 1946)

Vulcana1900.jpg

A Welsh strongwoman known for her combination of femininity, strength, and the use of her talents to perform heroics. Perhaps the real first superhero, Vulcana is credited (among other tales) with stopping a runaway horse in Bristol in 1888, rescuing two children from drowning in the River Usk in 1901, and rescuing another performer’s horses during a fire at the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh in 1921.  She and her long-time love interest, Atlas Roberts, formed the Atlas and Vulcana Society of Athletes in which their children often performed as well. Though the society was charged a few times with exaggerating their lifting abilities, Vulcana’s feats were truly spectacular even so. She was authenticated as bent pressing 124½ lbs with her right hand  and an overhead lift with a 56 lb weight in each hand.

 

Charmion

Laverie Vallee (née Cooper) (1875 – 1949)

Charmion 1897.jpgThough most of my research into Charmion ended up more inspiring Della and the other burlesque girls than Suprema, she was one of the many performers who considered themselves both strongwomen and acrobats. This is not surprising. Acrobatic and gymnastic talents require incredible strength that the viewing public does not always consider.

Charmion was born in Sacramento, California and made a name for herself with her controversial trapeze disrobing act.

 

Kati Sandwina

Katharina Heymann (née Brumbach) (1884 – 1952)

Katie Sandwina (the Lady Hercules).jpgBorn in Vienna and one of 16 children, Kate began performing in her family’s circus at the age of 2. After earning herself the title of “Europe’s Queen of Strength, Beauty, and Dexterity” she traveled to the United States and began an illustrious career with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, continuing to perform with them until she was in her 60s.

Her stagename, Sandwina (essentially a feminine version of the name Sandow), came from that of famous strongman Eugene Sandow who she defeated in a contest of strength. She was especially known for lifting her husband, acrobat Max Heymann, bending steel bars, and resisting the pull of several horses.

 

Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton

Abbye Eville (1917  – 2006)

Abbye Stockton lifts a barbell as other women look on

“In those days, lifting weights was thought to be unfeminine. The misinformed think if women strength-trained, they’d become masculine looking. We laughed knowing they were wrong.”

-Abbye Stockton as told to Sport’s Illustrated

The original “Queen of Muscle Beach”, Abbye was one of the first “true” professional female body-builders, and was a trailblazer when it came to normalizing the idea of athletic women. Abbye was not part of the circus circuit, but I included her in my research because her work would have had a significant influence on Suprema; she would have been someone that Suprema looked up to.

For 10 years (1944-1954), Abbye wrote a column in the magazine Strength and Health entitled “Barbelles” which discussed women’s fitness in ways that were far from the norm at the time, focusing on strength training rather than simple calisthenics and including profiles of other strongwomen like herself. After her husband Les returned from WWII, he and Abbye founded one of the first women only fitness clubs.

Joan Rhodes

(1921 – 2010)


The strongwoman that Suprema would have been most aware of and probably most want to emulate would have been one who started gaining fame for her performance right when Suprema was beginning her act: Joan Rhodes. Famous for her vaudeville act in which she tore telephone books in half, bent steel bars, and lifted various audience members, she began touring with Bob Hope and appearing on television around 1955. She would later go on to appear in a number of films as a stunt performer and sometimes acting as herself.

These were just a few of the wonderful and amazing strongwomen throughout history and hopefully I will get the chance to feature more of them in the future.