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.

Time flies when the earth goes around the sun

I know. I’m lazy. But I made myself a New Years resolution that I would write myself something really special. Which means I have ’til December, right? – Catherine O’Hara

Maybe it’s a casualty of having a January birthday, but I’ve always found myself a little bit delayed when it came to reviewing my past year and thinking about the next one. I can never seem to get up the energy to do that on January first. I always think to myself, “That’s a birthday thing anyway.” This year especially, because, despite my best efforts to think of new years and birthdays as nothing more than ephemera, it’s hard for me not to acknowledge that I’ve got a whole decade to look back on. Not just a year.

2015 was a weird year for me. There were moments of sorrow and joy, just like any year, but I think this was the first year that I truly began to consider myself “an adult” (sort of). Several events stand out as the reason why, but I think I’m going to highlight one in particular.

In February, my beloved grandfather passed away at the age of 93. He had lived a long and loved filled life and looking back on this has caused me to reevaluate a lot of my priorities. For a long time, at the top of my life goals list, were fame and admiration of others. I wanted to be liked, but not because of who I was, but for what I had accomplished. I thought that the only way to get people to like me was to be the 100% absolute best at what I did; to have a high profile career, etc. My grandfather worked in a dairy. None of you know his name. But there’s nothing wrong with that. His life was still a beautiful story of love, struggle, and triumph. From this I have two new goals for 2016 and the next decade of my life:

1. Better cultivate and care for my relationships with my family and current friend groups and be more open to making of more friends and joining of communities. 

Even if that means I have to start using facebook again.

2. Do the things that make me happy. Live life with joy and be less concerned about the perceptions of others.

I realize that both of these things sound tremendous wishy-washy, and believe me I do have a large set of more specific and concrete goals taped above my desk. I just want to highlight that January is a lovely month. It comes with its own refresh button.

Also, sometimes, it snows.

Summer Festivals and Summer Love

CoshoctonTribune-Carnival-
The Coshocton Tribune (6/8/1919) p. 1

When I was a teenager there was a show out called Gilmore Girls. My mother and I had a running joke that while we certainly did not live in New England, our town was Stars Hollow. Whenever a new festival would pop up, she would inevitably say, “Welcome to Stars Hollow.” It was nice/amusing to see a place (even a fictional one) as into festivals as the place I grew up. And there were plenty of festivals to choose from. There’s one almost every season of the year: harvest festivals, winter festivals, festivals based around various fruits and vegetables, countless founders festivals. It’s truly an impressive array.

The even more exciting thing about the place? It’s always been that way! Small town Ohioans have always loved an excuse to party. While doing research in old local papers, which is one of my many nerdy hobbies, I came across issues of a The New Philadelphia Democrat which was the local paper in the mid 1800s. Without even delving too deep, it listed the following festivals: The Democratic festival (12/22/1865), Albany School Festival (1/12/1866), Presbyterian Festival (4/13/1866), Wool Grower’s Festival (5/25/1866), Baptist festival (8/10/1866), not 1, not 2, but 3 ice cream festivals in 1866 alone, and this doesn’t include neighboring town, Dover’s Ice cream and Oyster festival listed on 10/11/1867, and countless fairs and festivals held by various fraternal organizations.

The Daily Times 2/8/1968 pg. 7
The Daily Times 2/8/1968 pg. 7

I grew up loving and adoring these festivals as well as marking my summers by them. Summer cannot begin until Canal Days descends upon downtown. It cannot end until the close of the Swiss Festival. I suppose no one should be surprised that when prompted to write about a summer romance, I would set it amid one of these festivals. (Not to mention that I have at least 4 festival date/romance stories of my own, though none are quite like Ruth’s.)

“The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” was specifically inspired by (and loosely based on) one specific festival that is very near and dear to my heart: The First Town Days Festival held annually over the first week of July at Tuscora Park. [The park itself, built in 1907 in the hopes of creating a local Coney Island, is a special place full of it’s own fascinating lore, and I may post more extensively about it in the future.] First Town Days was meant to be a fundraising endeavor for the park, in particularly to fund the restoration of the gorgeous Hershel-Spillman carousel on the grounds. Over the years, there have been a wide variety of contests, parades, pageants, shows, and interesting vendors, some local others involved in the traveling carnival scene, that have passed through The First Town Days Festival and left their mark on the local consciousness. In mine, this festival is one of the first I remember going to. I don’t remember much about those early days, of course (except being awed by the “princesses” aka the high school girls participating in the local festival queen pageant,  finding fireworks way too loud, and the french fries made of pure heaven), but it’s something I always come back to. In my mind, if not physically.

It makes sense then that Ruth, too, would walk the same midway, even if it would have looked very different to her than it has to me.

By (WT-en) Mayor Pez at English Wikivoyage (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Carousel At Tuscora Park (Home of First Town Days)

Meaning in the Mundane

When doing genealogy, you often come across little insights into the lives of people you loved that make you pause. For example: my great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother died both died in November of 1961. Every time I see those dates, I get a small pang, thinking of my great-grandmother who I knew to be a very dear and amazing woman dealing with the loss of her husband and then turning around and having to bury her mother two weeks later. Census records, obituaries, and grave markers can never truly tell me how she felt that November, but I knew her enough to have some idea.

Due to recent events, I decided to do some genealogical work on my paternal side and came upon a cache of digitized newspapers from my grandfather’s hometown. I was blown away. First, by how mundane some of the details included in a daily newspaper were. I mean, I learned that in July of 1944, my great-grandfather fell off a bale of hay and broke his arm and then proceeded to fracture his elbow a week later. I read about their dinner parties with family and various neighbors. I read about my great-aunt who died when I was a year old’s wedding. I read about the day my grandfather left for war. I read about the day he came back for a visit. I read about the day my great-grandparents buried their first child, only 10 days old. I read about the time the family had a garage sale and how my grandfather did in a bowling tournament. I cannot even begin to explain how much reading all these tiny paragraphs meant to me. It was like this window into the world of someone I’d lost.

From this a thought hit me:

I wonder if in 80 years if someone’s going to feel the same way about our blogs, and facebook and twitter accounts. Sure, they seem mundane now, but so did a random farmer’s dinner parties in 1930, I’m sure. I wonder about the archiving of our own digitally documented lives and how that will play out in the future. I don’t have any concrete thoughts, but it really goes to show that we have had the urge to document our lives both the big-ness and the small-ness for a very long time. It may not be social media’s fault.

Our lives are more than numbers.

Census records, obituaries, and grave markers can only tell us so much. After all.

What do you guys think?

Hunger Games Trilogy Hits Home For Me

The Appalachian region of the United States, while abundant in natural resources and rich in potential, lags behind the rest of the Nation… its people have not shared properly in the Nation’s prosperity. -The Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965

“The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination.” Editors of the New York Times, 1912. [Lovely. Thanks a lot, NYT.]

I’ve been super excited for the new Hunger Games movie and today I was asked why.

“It’s a kids book,” I was informed. “Love triangles for teenage girls…”

I shall save the rage about the dismissal of the YA genre for the moment (that’s a whole post in and of itself) and give you a reason for my love of this series that you probably aren’t expecting.

I could get into the fact that it addresses the crazy celeb culture or desensitization to violence caused by reality tv or elitism, all those deeply important issues that I love to see addressed, but it’s simpler than that.

I love this series because they are the first pieces of media I have ever consumed that take my home seriously.

I don’t know if I can give proper voice to how that feels.

You see, I come from a place referred to as Appalachia, a chronically depressed and exploited region of the United States. The history of my home is a long story of being servant to outside companies who come in to take the resources that should have made the region and its people quite wealthy. In the past that meant dangerous mine shafts and black lung. It still means those things, but now we also have the added benefits of ritualistic destruction of our mountains, piles of coal tar left haphazardly about, and the paying of criminally low amounts to put poisonous natural gas wells in our back yards.

I went to graduate school to study about information management in communities and one of the papers I did while there focused on the effect of digital divide on the rural poor. I had a professor argue the entire concept of the digital divide with me. He would not believe me that the entire world was not covered by a 4G network.

I tried to argue. Plenty of the worlds people (including some where I grew up) do not have smart phones; or cell service; or computers in their homes; some do not have running water. He would not believe me. 

But living here doesn’t just mean extreme poverty, lack of access to technology and resources, and absurdly high cancer rates, it also means cultural shaming almost every time your home region is shown in the media.

Appalachia is, believe it or not, rich in history and culture. I mean, have you ever heard a song played on a mountain dulcimer? It is a true melting pot region, every bit as much as New York City. We have music, folklore and dialect that is influenced by a huge variety of ethnic groups as well as a flavor all it’s own. Our culture makes me proud to be from this region.

But whenever I see Appalachian culture mentioned in movies, television, or other places, it is always the same: banjo playing “hillbillies” with no teeth and a shotgun aimed at intruders.

[imagine an image of Fuzzy Lumpkins from Powerpuff Girls here. I loved that show, but…yeah…that guy made me uncomfortable.]

There used to be a joke between my mother and I that whenever the state or national news came to interview someone from our town, they would tell them to put on the worst thing they owned and to pretend they were high on meth before they would agree to talk with them about current events. People in my town were poor and struggling, but their conditions were constantly played for a laugh.

When  I read Katniss’s annoyance in The Hunger Games that people from District 12 were always sent out in coal miner’s uniforms, I couldn’t help feeling a sting of familiarity in my gut. The people of District 12 were my people. I recognized their world and the ridicule that they knew.

As I read this trilogy, I could see that the home I love despite all it’s flaws being portrayed in a new way. These people weren’t bucktoothed half-humans hopped up on moonshine, they were strong and scrappy. They sang mountain airs and healed with the herbal medicinal traditions that we’ve passed down for generations. They struggled with their exploitative jobs and the trilogy even portrayed very real and troubling “please, sir, can I have some more?” attitude of a region that has been kicked so many times that it will take whatever it can get.

I love The Hunger Games trilogy because it did the one thing I had been begging media to do for as long as I can remember, even if I had never actually voiced this desperate plea: portray my home with the respect it deserves.

Reading to Cats

My recent radio silence in the online writing the community can be explained in two ways:

  1. I am working on a side project that demands I complete it before I can rest or work on anything else writing related.
  2. ImageImage

My recent adoption of two shelter kittens has probably been one of the most enriching things I’ve done in a long time. My two new babies have required a lot of work and attention (especially since one must be hand fed), but they are both worth every second.

Until I went to college, there was a cat solidly in my life from the age of three when my mom brought home her aloof and somewhat temperamental orange tabby, who had been living with her parents. Since then, many a feline has crossed my path and taught me about love and life in different ways: from the fat cat who had to tame his wild ways, the orphan rescued from abuse who would only respond to me, the cynical and emotionally bruised calico who could never love another cat again after her best friend’s death, the orange baby whose survival instinct knew no bounds, the clingy calico diva, the regal tabby who played fetch and hunted like a king, to the splotchy tabby with an odd interest in clothes.

Out of the roommate life and on my own, I knew I wanted a cat for my companion, but I struggled with feeling ready for it. Now here we are. I sit on the couch, reading Devil in the White City with a cat on my lap and in the crock of my arm and I find myself reading out loud. I know that may put me firmly in the “Crazy Cat Lady” camp (a moniker I could rant about for a variety of other reasons), but they seem to like the sound of my voice even if they don’t know what the words mean.

…which considering what I’m reading is probably best. No need to give them nightmares for goodness sake.

They so love taunting me…

Quite frankly, I’d be remiss if I let it pass entirely without mention. After all, nothing really sums up my life’s dilemma’s quite so succinctly. I mean, of course, the OSU vs. UofM football game.

Sure, I’ve always been more of a baseball fan, but I challenge anyone to grow up in a small town where football rivalry with your neighboring city is a way of life and try not to get affected by it. Then, I further challenge you to do as I have done, balk tradition, and go to the opposite school. It has led to more than one entertaining family gathering with my uncle showing off his OSU fight song cheese grater, forcing me to produce my “Hail to the Victors” ringtone, and finally my aunt (a OSU and MState grad, double hatred there) to sing a satirized version.

I spent the weekend itself working on the multitude of projects that graduate school has bequeathed me, but I have to admit part of me was hoping that just maybe the rabid little rodents would pull it off. I could tell by the cries of despair from the apartment upstairs that I am in for yet another holiday season of riddicule.