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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Listening to the Sounds of the Midway [Playlist]

It’s been a month since Sideshow was officially launched and I cannot thank you all enough for the amazing response my little book has received so far. I poured a great deal of my heart into that novel and I’m so glad to see that it has resonated with so many of you as well. For this week’s blog post I’ve put together a little thank you gift.

Mixed tapes used to be one of my favorite ways of expressing myself back in the pre-ipod days. I used to spend hours and hours deciding exactly which songs fit the mood and message I was trying to convey, putting them in exactly the right order, designing the label with my giant set of different colored Sharpie markers, etc before bequeathing it to the intended recipient. Those days are pretty much gone now as most people I know wouldn’t have the means to play a mixed tape/CD, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still gather songs into a playlist and obsess over creating the exact right message with them. So, without further ado, I present to you the playlist I have been obsessing over for the past month: “The Sideshow Soundtrack!”

The Birthplace of Rock & Roll & Abby Amaro: Cleveland in the 1950s

Starting this week, we will begin our look deeper into the world of Sideshow with explorations of the setting, plot, characters, and the research that it took to get them right. Enjoy!

Looking east down Superior Avenue from monument sector of Public Square, July 1950.
Public Square -1950 [Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery]
Sideshow begins in Cleveland, Ohio. This seemed a natural choice to me. I honestly never even considered setting Abby’s beginning anywhere else. Continuing the world of “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” meant continuing a story set in the 1950s. That was not a problem. As far as the writing of historical fiction goes, the 1950s have a ton of interesting themes to mine and I’ve only begun to crack that surface. Using Cleveland as a backdrop for the opening scenes just seemed to slip right into those themes seamlessly.

In the 1950s, Cleveland, like the rest of the world (and the Amaro family – I’m sure the reason for the gap between Abby and Leon is painfully obvious) was trying its best to move on from WWII. The world was still in turmoil, but Cleveland was trying to forget.

The post-WWII manufacturing boom definitely helped. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city, for better or worse.

Abby’s father, like many other Cleveland fathers of this decade and decades prior, worked in a steelyard. It was hard work but would have provided well for the growing Amaro family  and allowed them to live in a house between the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Coventry Village (a one time “planned” community for Cleveland’s wealthy Protestant elites which began growing in ethnic diversity around this time). Natale and Abby both work and are concerned with money, but they would, unlike their parents, have been able to finish out their high school years in relative peaceful enjoyment. They would have likely attended a local Catholic School such as St. Marion’s (which would close in the 1960s, so the younger Amaro children would have to be sent elsewhere).

Cedar Lee Theatre
Cedar-Lee Theatre [Courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society & Cleveland Historical]

A critical intersection, both to Abby and Sideshow is that of Cedar and Lee roads. Abby spends her evenings after her music classes working at the fictional (though loosely based on a one time burger joint known as Mawby’s) Cedar Lee Diner, the existence of which was inspired by local Cleveland landmark, the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

The Cedar-Lee opened in 1925 and anchored the ever changing commercial center around it. It’s still there today, albeit a little different than Abby would have known it.  Though Abby and Marjorie likely preferred the East Side Drive In (especially during the summer), Cedar-Lee would definitely have held a special place in her social life.

Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS.
Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS. [Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History by CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society]
Speaking of social life, Abby would likely have also frequented dances held by Italian-American social clubs and teen organizations. As a music lover, Abby’s adoration of everything from opera to folk to, of course, rock and roll would mean seeking out places where she could hear the music she loved. In Sideshow she mentions to Suprema that she listened to Moondog every night. This is a reference to Cleveland disc jockey Alan “Moondog” Freed often credited with coining the term “rock and roll” leading to Cleveland’s beloved moniker. [I will discuss this particular aspect of Abby’s life in further detail in a later post.]

The carnival the Amaro family attends on that fateful day in late July would likely have been held in Gordon Park on the lakeshore or somewhere similar to it. These areas were casualties of that manufacturing boom mentioned earlier as the lake struggled through environmental degradation. That would have allowed McClure’s Amusements the ability to rent their time on the land cheaply, however. As seen in Sideshow, they do not always get the choicest locations, but they make the best of it. (Gordon Park’s Beach is also where I envisioned Abby’s breakup with Frank.)

The 1950s in Cleveland truly do provide an incredibly rich backdrop in which to paint the story of Abby Amaro’s early life and launch her into her later adventures with McClure’s amusements. This real and vibrant city that is more than it appears on the surface was, in my mind, the only place to begin.