Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Journey to Planet Write: Happy Endings

by Nancy Stohlman

I asked Gay Degani if I could have the final slot in Journey to Planet Write series for two reasons—one, because I want to properly thank her on behalf of everyone who has appeared in and enjoyed this series. Gay has done an incredible service to our community and created a space where we can all shine. We are grateful to you, Gay!

But there is a second reason. Exactly one year ago I was scheduled to appear in this column when a drunk driver going 90 mph crossed the median on the highway and made other plans for me.

Instead of my Journey to Planet Write, you got my “Interrupted Journey,” a beautiful tribute that Gay and others put together. It meant a lot to me to feel so loved during that process of shock and recovery and now, one year later, it seemed important to not only bring it all full circle and give you that column that never was, but also to end this Planet Write journey on a note of celebration, healing, and hope.

I was 9 years old, living on a military base in Zaragoza, Spain, when I told my mom I wanted to be an author. I wrote my first creation, “Superman: The Musical”, on my mother’s electric typewriter, loving the clack of the keys and the feeling that I was doing something important. Though I attempted to cast it from my class of fellow fifth graders and rehearse in the carport, the musical (including numbers like Lex Luthor’s “I’ll Rule the World”) never made it to the stage, but my confidence in myself as a creative was born.

That same year I discovered the library, and on Saturdays I would volunteer at the check-out desk, stamping people’s due dates. Being a military family we moved a lot, so books became my friends. Nancy Drew was always waiting for me in every library from Spain to Germany to Omaha. Books were a constant in a world that was constantly changing.

Later, when life got harder, books became a way to disassociate; I could leave my body in the midst of everyday reality, escape family meltdowns and divorces and worlds I didn’t want to be in. In college, I read in the dressing rooms of go-go clubs, getting through East of Eden and The Trial while other girls were giving lap dances.

After I dropped out of college, I started traveling the country with the Renaissance Fair, living in a van, putting on a bodice and an English accent to sell turkey legs and pewter goblets. I discovered lyrical songwriters like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and I started journaling regularly with the idea that these were adventures I would want to remember and maybe someday write a book. Sadly most of those journals are gone. But when I eventually got off the road and moved to Denver to finish college, I did so as a writer.

Photo by Lynn Hough
My upbringing taught me two very different things: My military father taught me self-discipline. My artist mother taught me that making art is worthwhile. This combination has enabled to become a rare breed: a disciplined creative.

This story is true. But it’s not the whole story.

While 9-year-old Writer Nancy was stamping books at the library, 9-year-old Performer Nancy was learning the guitar and soloing in the church folk band. At 12 I was competing in pageants, at 15 I enrolled in the Nancy Bounds Modeling Agency, and at 18 I was runner-up for Miss Nebraska. I began college as a theater major, in love with the vulnerability of the stage, that instant gratification of connecting with an audience in the moment.

This story is also true. So how do these two Nancys, these twin passions, connect?

They connect in my art.

In acting school there is a thing called a triple threat: a person who can sing, dance, and act. Much of my own creative process has been finding the intersection of myself as a writer, performer and innovator. The sweet spot where my creative exhibitionist meets my inner world of silence and flow. My writing reflects this intersection and love of innovation—The Monster Opera is an avant garde mixture of performance and writing, a place where the novel metaphorically battles the opera on page and stage. Searching for Suzi: a flash novel was the first flash novel (called as such) and a term I coined in 2009. And perhaps that’s why in 2007 I fell in love and began writing flash fiction: there is an instant gratification akin to the stage that comes from these short, self-contained bursts of story. Here’s a link to a reading of The Fox.

As word-crafters we lay it bare on the page. As performers we reveal ourselves on the stage. They are flipsides of the same coin, the inner and the outer worlds of creation: the private incubation and the public genuflection.

In the end I see no reason why writers can’t also be rock stars. One of these days I will stage dive after a reading.


And that’s probably how this essay would have ended if you had read it last year. But on May 20 of last year, everything changed.


Naked
The scissors slide easily through the thick denim of my favorite blue jeans, from ankle to waist, ankle to waist, as one leg then the other falls away. He slices up the middle of my thin cotton shirt like tissue paper, unwraps me, my pink Victoria’s Secret bra a final ribbon snipped and spilling to the ground, leaving me naked. Exposed.

Are you having trouble breathing? He asks with kind brown eyes.

A little, on one side, I whisper.

We’ll be there soon, he says, gently placing an oxygen mask as the ambulance sirens rattle the warm evening air.


People ask me about my accident a lot. It’s so hard to respond, so mostly I avoid the conversation. But I will tell you here that something happened to me in those moments as they were ripping the car open with the Jaws of Life. Somewhere between the ambulance and the emergency room I had the most important realization of my life: I’m still here.

By the time they were inflating my lung I knew I’d been given a gift—as they were pulling chunks of glass out of my arm I had a choice: become a victim or become a bigger version of myself. Could I learn to be grateful in the midst of such an injustice?

Yes. I had to. I had no other choice.

So this story and my Journey to Planet Write have Happy Endings. I’m here to write another day. But aren’t we all? We’ve all been given this same gift of today. No matter how disappointing or unpredictable or infuriating the world may be, no matter how tragic or even euphoric our lives become, we are here one more day, to write. Our books, our words, our ideas are the friends that accompany us on the journey. And spaces like Journey to Planet Write remind us that we are not alone.

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Nancy Stohlman’s books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories(2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), Live From Palestine (2003), and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010), a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of The F-Bomb Flash Fiction ReadingSeries in Denver, a founding member of Fast Forward Press, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.




Photo by Lynn Hough
By night Nancy straps on stilettos and becomes the lead singer of the lounge metal band Kinky Mink. She dreams of one day becoming a pirate.



















This is the last episode in the series of Journeys that began in January of 2016. Other Journeys may appear sporadically in the future.  If you are a writer and want to share your Journey, please submit to gaydegani@gmail.com.




Wednesday, May 10, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: In Praise of “What If?”

by Tara Campbell

“Did you know the average writer only makes $6,000 per year?”

These simple words from a fellow student marked the first time my desire to write smashed into the wall of the real world. It was 1988 in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were all about to graduate from high school. Most of us were heading to college, either in state or somewhere on the West Coast, the typical migratory path of the sprung Alaskan. But then my classmate John started asking what we wanted to do.

Huh. We had to decide that now? I simply liked school, and I liked writing, so… I don’t even remember saying the words, “I want to be a writer,” but his response etched itself into my brain. It was the first of many times I wondered if it would ever really happen.

My literary drug of choice had always been science fiction. From Asimov to Bradbury to Clarke and on down the alphabet, I was hooked on the question “what if?” Madeline L’Engle’s time- and space-bending A Swiftly Tilting Planet was a revelation to me. I was the nerd who put on a bathrobe and performed a book report on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the form of a monologue by Arthur Dent, timed to pre-taped responses from Zaphod Beeblebrox. For another book report I wrote and illustrated a complete issue of the Paszex Paper, in honor of Nor Crystal Tears (my green colored pencils were pretty worn down by the time I finished that edition). By the end of high school I had written the first few chapters of what would have been a truly cringe-worthy novel. That draft moved with me for decades, across the U.S., the Atlantic, and back, until I felt compelled to shred it a couple of years ago. I couldn’t stand the thought of that document ever possibly resurfacing after my death.

But back to high school: graduate we did, and off to college we went. John went on to become a doctor, and I wound up in a traditional trajectory for a liberal arts graduate: as a grad student getting another humanities degree. Subsequently, armed with an MA in German, I embarked on a career in international education and admissions. I was far from driving a Lexus, but at least I was making more than $6,000 a year. I turned to music and painting as creative outlets on the side, never even thinking about giving writing another go.

Then several years ago my partner (now my husband) and I were looking for something new to do together. We took an intro to fiction class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. For him it was an experiment with something new. For me, it was a return to joy, like picking right back up with a best friend you haven’t seen in years, and wondering how life came in between the two of you in the first place.

When that class ended, we kept working on our stories. We joined a couple of writer’s groups, and I began staying up until the wee hours to “just finish one scene,” or getting up early to write before work. I also started submitting stories. While many people write for themselves, I’m not ashamed to admit that seeing my work out in the world is a huge motivator for me. And when my first story got published—when I realized there was at least one other person out there who wanted to read the diary entries of a fat cell whose community was about to be rocked by liposuction—I was gratified to know there was still a place for weirdness in the world.

I’ve approached Washington DC as my workshop since then, taking more classes at the Writer’s Center and Politics and Prose, hitting up a million Meetup writing groups to continue improving my craft, participating in readings with lowercase and Inner Loop, writing reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books, volunteering with children’s literacy organization 826DC, sampling the business end as a Politics and Prose bookseller, and experiencing the editorial side as an assistant editor with Barrelhouse. With my husband’s boundless support, I stepped away from my full time job to devote myself to writing. And this spring it all came full circle when I stepped up to the microphone at the Writer’s Center, where my writing career began, to read from my first novel, TreeVolution.

But as every author will tell you, getting a book published doesn’t magically change your life
(J.K. Rowling excepted). Our job as writers is to keep working and growing. As important as “what if?” is, “what now?” is even more vital. I’m stretching myself now, working on a completely different project in historical fiction, and completing my first year of the MFA program at American University. I came into the program ready to buckle down and cast sci-fi aside to become a more “serious” writer. But this year I’ve learned a delightful lesson: there is more than one way to create, and there are places where commitment to craft and a little weirdness can meet. Being “serious” doesn’t have to mean forgetting the wonder.

Being a writer means being part of an expansive community. It’s all right to bring in the strange. It’s okay to write about talking flowers, or a chlorophyll-based diet franchise, or an interstellar nursery, or frustrated teeth who abandon their human, or an urban genie in a failing relationship, or even genetically modified trees that learn to speak up and fight back—as long as you can create worlds readers want to inhabit and stories they want to hear. Straying from the realist path can be tricky, sure. And you certainly won’t make doctor’s wages. But as long as you can hold on to the “what ifs,” what more do you need?




Excerpt: from “We Are Twenty-Six” in Chicago Literati

Marko’s teeth swayed. They twisted and rocked and eased themselves out of his gums while he, heavy with that evening’s vodka, grunted and snored in his bed.

On nights when Marko gagged and wheezed in the grips of drink, his teeth longed for their mothers, the baby teeth that had come before them, the first ones to work their way into and out of young Marko’s mouth. The little mothers lived together in the small, plastic box in which the tooth fairy had collected them, and which Marko’s parents gave to him long after he had stopped believing in the legend of the tooth fairy.

And so that night, as a much older Marko slept, his teeth tumbled out of his mouth. 

Click here to continue reading


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With a BA in English and an MA in German, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. She was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2016: the  Larry Neal Writers' Award in Fiction, and the  Mayor's Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. Her first novel, TreeVolution, was released by Lillicat Publishers in 2016. Her second book, Circe’s Bicycle, will be published by LitFest Press in fall 2017.



Wednesday, May 03, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: And Then I Ran

by Lori Sambol Brody

1

When I was preparing to write this, I searched for some old stories I wrote as a teenager.  Not long after we moved into our house, fourteen years ago, I threaded stories into an old UCLA binder.  I recall punching holes through the yellow graph paper my father took from work, sliding into the prongs, college-ruled paper scrawled on with erasable pen; tucking a story into the binder’s pocket, a booklet of flower fairy stories I wrote with a friend in elementary school, its cover a drawing of the fumitory fairy from the Cecily M. Barker flower fairy books.  I couldn’t find the notebook. 

I thought I’d be sad.  That scene in Little Women – we all felt Jo’s loss when Amy burned her papers.  But I actually feel relieved.  Let them go.

I remember some of those stories.  At the time, I wrote mysteries and science fiction.  My first novella was about Chaia Tavruc, the lavender-haired, violet-eyed space ship captain/smuggler (I wrote the first draft after Star Wars came out; I had a crush on Han Solo), framed for a crime she didn’t commit.    

I could probably reconstruct that story, should I want to, I rewrote it so many times. 

I’m not going to.

2

When my sister and I cleaned out my mother’s house after she died, we found a box on the top shelf of the closet in her spare bedroom.  Inside, my stories from elementary school.  In third grade, we turned in a story a week as booklets with elaborate covers: a bejeweled cover (for a story about a gem robbery), chapbooks of “scary” stories.  My youngest daughter laughed because all of the scary stories contain the words, “And then I ran” when the narrator confronts the ghost, the haunted house, the witch, the talking pumpkins.

I avoided the main conflict.  “And then I ran.” 

3

My grandfather told me stories about talking flowers on walks around the neighborhood.  My grandmother told me about the “olden days,” her young brother dying of appendicitis in the back seat of the taxi speeding to the hospital, her grandmother keeping a carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish.  The local library:  I swear I read every book in the kids’ section.  My mother’s shelves full of books.  My shelves filling with books from the used bookstore:  Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys. 

I read Stephen King and noticed how he shortened scenes and cut from character to character close to the climax when he wanted to create tension.  I realized Madeleine L’Engle’s books were linked through recurring characters.  I read André Norton and Ursula LeGuin who created amazing worlds.  My grandmother hooked me on old movies:  I watched Hitchcock, hardboiled detective, any mystery movie.  From Charade I learned that everything had meaning, the passed-over object could unlock the mystery.

I wrote.  No one read these stories.  Mostly.  I showed my mother one story, about a computer program slowly deleting letters from human consciousness – of course those letters were not used in the story.  I waited for her reaction.  She looked up at me, uncomprehending.

One story I still have:  “Dead Men Don’t Eat Sundaes.”  (At this time, I was reading Raymond Chandler, watching Chinatown and The Big Sleep.  The name is an obvious rip-off of the Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.)  As you can see from the picture, some famous writers agreed to give me blurbs.  You’ll also see, in the synopsis, that I’m stealing a major plot point from Charade.



4

I was scared:  I said I wanted to be a writer.  I always said that.  I thought I had no talent.  I took the easy way out.  I went to law school.

And then I ran.

5

After I graduated from law school, I took workshops, both through UCLA Extension and private workshops lead by a teacher from UCLA Extension, Tom Filer.  He’s the little voice in my head inhibiting me and correcting my sentences as I write.  I wrote self-indulgent stories about lonely young women, because I was a lonely young woman.  I published two of those stories in the late 90s.  They were in print, and I am happy they can’t be read now.

I gave my mother my contributor’s copies.  When I packed up her house, the journals were in the basket beside the loveseat in the den.  The spines are uncracked.

I had two daughters, I took a break from writing, but didn’t really take a break, because I was still writing, still meeting with my writing group, still taking workshops, with another teacher from UCLA Extension, Rachel Resnick.  I was just not submitting.  I attended workshops even when I was supposed to be on bed rest, missing only the last class because I gave birth.  At a writing retreat six years ago, Rachel said, looking up from my story about a teenage girl on a tour through Uzbekistan who has the hots for her tour guide:  Everyone has a voice.  You should work on the teenage voice.  You have a knack for that. 

Rachel is the tough-love voice in my head, telling me when things don’t work, but inspiring me to make it better. 

6

For a long time, I wrote about the trips I’d taken.  Moroccan deserts, a Turkish fish farm, Baja whale watching, Russian train trips.  I still write about travelling, but now I also write closer to home, about mother-daughter relationships, being a teen, the canyon I live in.  
  
7

What I’m avoiding, what I’m writing around:  I only start submitting again after my mother died, August 1, 2012.  All my publications – but for three – are in the last five years.  I know there’s a reason, because I hadn’t stopped writing.  Is it because her death was freeing?  That she wouldn’t see herself in every mother I write about, me in every teenager?  Or is it that she wouldn’t co-opt the story, take my success as her own?

And then I ran.



Baby in the Slingbacks

When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks.  In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole.  She peers closer.  A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games.  As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiant into her hand.  When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.

The brightness fades.  The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten.  She almost drops it in her surprise.  The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm.  It has no navel.  Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.

She moves through the house, looking for the man.  Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt.  The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers.  He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies.  While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms.  She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines. 

The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm.  The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent.  The legs and arms stir.

She holds out the baby.  “What’s this?”

He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger.  The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut.  “Looks like a very small baby.  What kind of joke is this?”

She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast.  His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged. 

“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.

“Why would I do that?”

“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.”  The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder.  She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.

“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says.  “What everyone told us.”

The woman looks away.  The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited.  Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.

The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking.  His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent.  She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs.  “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.

“Are you sure?”  The man strokes the baby’s hair.  His fingers graze her arm. 

“Of course I’m sure.”  She holds the baby tighter.  He mews in protest against her blouse.  “What if he changes back to plastic?” 

“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says.  “With kids, there’s enough worry.”

At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe.  The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight.  She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death.  She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls.  But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing.  He roots into her neck, her chest.

She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her.  He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast.  And the entire world focuses on that pain.

(Originally published on Tin House Open Bar)

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Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her family.  Her short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Synaesthesia Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Little Fiction, Third Point Press, and Sundog Lit, among others.  Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions.  Her twitter handle is @lorisambolbrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com/