The Bus Ticket

Her eyes lit up. Blue. Pale. Her skin was dirty, skin weathered, chin sunburnt, and a huge genuine smile that broke you open again. Again. Linda, you’d chatted a few times on Main Street over the months. Her and the backpack, talking of camping in the park out of sight. “I’ll be alright, won’t I?” she’d asked and you’d said yes. You think she was.

You waved at her this morning. She was walking slowly up State, the farmers’ market out in force. She stopped at your voice. She lit up seeing you. You chatted, glad she was okay. Then she asked you for money for a supposed ticket. Instinct kicked in and you said “no, I can’t help.”

But you gave her $3.25 in quarters from your front pocket.

“I’m going home to my mom. I need to catch the bus today, that’s what she said. She worries about me for some reason.”

“They do that,” you joked.

You talked about how much the bus ticket was – $35, how much she needed – $8 total, and perhaps she could ask at the market? Feeling shy today, she muttered.

She again asked for your help. You lied. You fucking lied to her.

In your back pocket was $25 in cash. You never have cash. You’d just bought and eaten a fresh ham and cheese croissant for $4.50. She’d only asked for another $5 for a ticket home to her mom and you’d lied? For fuck’s sake, Sleam. You chatted a bit more, crossed the road together and then she walked to the bus stop anyway.

You walked away.

The sun beat down.

Hot day ahead.

Your cool apartment.

Fans blurring the edges.

Fridge full.

Cash in pocket.

Croissant crumbs on your tee shirt.

And

You’d lied to Linda.

You walked around Bear Pond Bookstore, tempted by another collection of essays that you don’t need. You walked out. Linda sat on a concrete bench in the shade of an Ash tree, stretching out one leg, pack at her feet. You called her name and gave her a fiver.

Her face lit up. You chatted together. Again.

You walked away, crying. You? You… No, me, but you knew that, right? Yes.

I had lied to Linda.

Wishing her a safe trip home, I turned home and began to cry again because I’m so fucking angry at the world and life and me me me and for fuck’s sake, someone asked for help and you didn’t want-that is, I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone and I couldn’t shut down and so my heart broke again and I cried. I am now. I’ve been there: Broke. Homeless. Reaching out. And helped by strangers for their own reasons.

Linda gets to see her mom.

I wish I could see mine one more time.

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Review: Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner

Sugar Land is the story of one hell of a character called Miss Dara. The novel starts in Midland, Texas, in 1923 and it spans her whole life, divided into three sections. We meet her as a 19 yr. old when she falls for her best friend, Rhodie. The attraction is mutual and they spend a few weeks together in bliss before being caught by Rhodie’s mother. The local preacher is brought in to deal with the girls. Rhodie, the girlfriend, leaves town for college and Dara takes a job in the local prison, Sugar Land, as a cook. Once there she becomes close to Lead Belly, the historically wellknown blues singer. He is determined to get out, legally, and does by singing to the Warden and Governor who grant him a release. Lead Belly makes Dara promise to leave as well, to follow her own passions.

The second section, Nana Dara, is the shortest with only 44 pages, and is focused on her time after marrying her way out of prison. Her husband is the Warden, an easy-going man, with two young children of his own. It’s a surprisingly happy marriage despite knowing she’s gay and missing her first love.

The last section, Mrs. Dara, the longest one, is also the funniest and most engaging. Mrs. Dara is a widower, full of herself with a wonderful inner logic and attitude to life. She’s grown into a mischievous character:

‘Now I was an older lady–a widower even–I felt somehow above the law. “I’m going to sneak in and take the pictures down.”

“This is criminal behavior we are discussing here.”

I tsked and pulled up the leg of my coveralls to scratch my knee.’

Stoner writes such great character descriptions that stay with you the whole way through the book. You’ll not forget these images for example Stoner opened Sugar Land with Dara describing herself:

“I wore a dress that made me look like a curvy brown sack and I couldn’t stop burping up the oatmeal I’d had for breakfast.”
The tone, voice, and Dara character all are given to us immediately so lightly and vividly, it’s great. Later on, Dara described her husband, the Warden, as a “big-chested man with precisely trimmed sideburns.” Again, the description of when they’re first married, Dara said, “he held me all night long with his forearm as warm as butter on my belly.”

Stoner’s use of language is so precise and perfect for the time and era, for these characters. This skill shows up in the chapter titles too, such as ‘The Preacher said sit down, so I did,’ ‘Pepto Dismal’ and ‘Hairnet.’

The simple sentences suit Dara and her inner monologues catch her emotions in a few words.

When Dara receives a love letter from her girlfriend soon after taking the job in the prison, and still a teenager in love, “I didn’t care about making my bed. I didn’t care about pie.”

Later on, when Dara faced another painful moment with her step-children, she said, “a tumbleweed rolled across the empty space inside my chest.”

I’d expected more of a harsh tale about being gay in that time frame given how the blurb on the back cover had mentioned how Dara discovered that life ‘outside isn’t all sweet tea and roses.’ It was instead a light read, generous spirited, and satisfying in many ways. The friendships and relationships were done with such humor and witty observations that you couldn’t help but like them all, even the fussy daughter, Debbie, the useless but well-meaning Fiddler who moves in to her trailer for a while. Dara describes him by the results of him helping out:

“By the end of the first year I’d lost three clocks and two phones and had to have the oil seal on my truck redone, God bless him.”

There are great moments of slapstick done in a deadpan voice and this is what’s so magical about this book– Dara’s voice. You want to stick with her, hear what she gets up and you’re never that surprised, in a good way, like when she breaks into her daughter’s place and utterly fails. “I was lying in the exact location the Rottweilers visited every evening to relieve themselves of what must be high fiber meals.”

Stoner has written a book that is heartfelt and tender. The relationship with the step-children and their own challenges come across without fanfare but depth. The budding relationship with Mrs. Tanya May Rogerton’s is wonderfully awkward and sweet. Her hand “burned a mark on my thigh the same way holy water marks the possessed–deep, hot, and permanent.”

These characters linger and are quite unforgettable. It’s very much a Southern book in language and with Stoner’s observations that are wry and thoughtful. Sugar Land spans decades in a well-told, easy going manner and I finished the book with a satisfied smile.

Red Hen Press, California

Tentative Pub date: 10/23/2018

Price $16.95,  334 pp.

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What happens in Texas stays in my head: Families belong together

RAICES

Too much coffee. Not enough Monday. No. Wrong way. Confused. Broken mind. Church bells ring. Head pounds. Guilt and shame. Sin and redemption. Couldn’t sleep. Images of kids screaming in holding cells in Texas. Guards laughing. On repeat. German. English. Nazis. Republicans. Same game. Blame game. Policy. History repeats. America First slogans. No escape. Nights long and lonely: Toddlers left in dirty diapers. Mothers. Fathers. Torn nails. Punched guts. Silence inside. Shut down. Head pounding. Rain falling. Sleep gone. Shame to be in America. Helpless. Voiceless. Powerless. And simply terrified that I’ll be deported again. I’m scared to speak out. I’m ashamed of my silence. I’m lost in these sheets of rain and rage.

Donate here: RAICES organization

Show up here: ACLU events

Review: Bigfoots in Paradise by Doug Lawson

Doug Lawson’s upcoming collection of short stories, a review.

Book Review: Doug Lawson’s collection of short stories is set in and around Santa Cruz, California, between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. There are eight stories, each about 20-30 pages, and many have been previously published in journals such as Gargoyle, Glimmer Train, and Mississippi Review amongst others.

Doug Lawson writes with confidence and his prose is lyrical, poetic and he comfortably blends dark comedy and empathic observations. Lawson pays attention to those details that sum up characters in only a sentence or two. A car belonging to the boss in Catch The Air has “empty Starbucks cups, a stained Stanford sweatshirt, a pair of heels, a familiar lace bra, a dismantled circuit board.” I can picture Helen now and it’s also telling of the narrator as to what he notices within the chaos of her cluttered vehicle.

In Jersey Devils, Alpo is described with such vivid specifics: “With a string-haired, rounded head, arms the seem just a little too long, and small wrinkled hands clasping a shopping bag.” The image lingers as I read of their job visiting farms, innocuous enough sounding yet isn’t. These stories often take wonderful unexpected turns and I found myself reading one story after another, wanting more.

Opening lines bring you in fast: “Several weeks before he died, my father showed up for my wedding on time, riding a meticulously restored World War II army motorcycle with Jessica, his nurse, in the sidecar.” Don’t you want to know more about this dad? I did.

There are also moments of such tenderness that made me sit back and absorb them before moving along, especially at the end of House on Bear Mountain. There is an unexpected and funny turn when Claire stands up for herself and then ends with a gentle truth of how she “found her true voice.” You’ll have to find it for yourselves, and read the story she tells her daughter about the dogs’ dinner times. Sweetly done.

Lawson knows the territory and it comes across, I picture the landscape and personalities. The environment is clearly described and the characters could only live there, it’s a unique world he’s created and shared here.

Wonderful work.

Big Foots in Paradise

Doug Lawson

Fiction

Red Hen Press, CA.

Tentative Details are

Pub Date: 10/16/18

214 pp $15.95

MFA in Writing: is it worth it?

May 2017-2018: In the last year, my writing life and career has taken off incredibly. Why? It all started when I moved across country to start my MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I thought I’d list the changes here. This isn’t for bragging rights but to say thank you for all who support me, encourage me, and all that good stuff. You know who you are. So, thank you.

  • MFA writing program began in Vermont and from there…
  • Met so many inspiring writers, building a sense of community, peers and friends.
  • My own writing has opened up in new ways and forms.
  • Discovered a joy in writing short-shorts/ micro-memoirs.
  • Short stories published.
  • Book reviews pubished.
  • Director’s Award (MFAWP).
  • Vermont Book Award Fellowship.
  • AWP Mentorship.
  • PGWC partial scholarship.
  • Merit scholarship (MFAW).
  • Honorable mention – Glimmer Train – short story.
  • Top 25 finalist – Glimmer Train – flash fiction.
  • Top 5 finalist – Writing by Writer’s contest.
  • “Headhunted” by the top US Land Rover magazine, Rovers North.
  • Started Wanderlust-Journal, learning how to run an online journal, using Submittable, marketing, growing an audience, and with over 19,800 views in six months.
  • Editorial work with Upstreet and Hunger Mountain Reviews.
  • Developed a stronger social media presence to create a larger community of writers, especially via Twitter.
  • Learned how to develop a teaching philosophy/ lessons for workshops and lectures.
  • Written professional CVs and resumes, a media kit, updating regularly.
  • Created a professional submissions letter which has rewarded me with many a rejection (68 to be exact) plus all the new accolades and scholarships.
  • Connected with various indie presses and publishers, and I plan to stay in touch with a few of them.
  • Written artist statement/ letter of intentions for applications which serves to focus my goals as a writer.
  • I’ve had some encouraging conversations with literary agents who decided not to take me on saying the writing was intruiging and solid but my aesthetic/ voice wasn’t their style.
  • Two new novels written and are being revised alone and in workshops.
  • Over 100 short stories written and currently being collected/ revised/ played with.
  • Joined the South West Writers Association and have a profile on their website.
  • Reached out to the Sante Fe Writer’s Project/ Quarterly, they’re going to publish a book review in July.
  • Set up a writer’s retreat at my place in NM via Wanderlust journal website and submittable.
  • Pubishing on Medium.com with travel essays.

In other words, for me, the MFA has been more than worth it and I’m only just finishing the first year. I’m switching to a low-residency program so that I can live and study from home for the second year. I’ll be able to continue working freelance, writing, and putting into practice much of these new skills. My only concern is losing that sense of a writers’ community when I’m back in New Mexico and so a large focus will be for me to reach out and maintain connections and conversations with other writers and creatives.

I feel like I’m about to take off and fly. Thank you my friends. For all you have done for me, for believing in me, for wanting me to succeed.

Sleam

Craft: Writing Prompt

How to find the themes that you are drawn to writing about.

Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

I did.

It’s funny how the same things repeat in my work that I’d not consciously chosen. Obvious to some but I’m only just being aware of myself as a writer and this is the incredible benefit of my time in the MFA program, being a conscious writer.

Well, there you go, try it, free write this morning with your coffee and the sunshine.

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

Don’t analyse but write. It’s a fun little game for your own pleasure in word associations.

 

 

 

Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

 

There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

stevie

  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.