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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.
Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)
The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.
“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.
Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.
Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.
Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.
In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.
Review by Sarah Leamy.
Sarah is an award-winning author of the novels When No One’s Looking and Lucky Shot, and the travelogue, Van Life. She has recently received the Director’s Award from VCFA, the Vermont Book Award Fellowship, the Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Scholarship and the MFA in Writing Merit Scholarship. She writes short stories, articles and creative nonfiction. www.sarahleamy.com
What if I told you that some days I’m scared to write? And others I’d cry if I didn’t? What if I told you that attention makes me want to walk the hills with notebooks and pens stuck in the truck at the bottom of the trail. What if I told you that I love to write but when I don’t, my world wobbles, days drag out, and a damp depression creeps in like a mold? What if I told you that even when I’m listening to you, making great eye contact, smiling, making jokes with you, I’m also wondering how Ernest would talk to you, and what would Janice say right now? Where would she sit? Would she want to chat to us or would she stay away, distracted by someone behind us? What if I told you that my head hollows out when you tell me the same old story of what you ate for breakfast, watched on TV, saw on the drive over, blah blah blah. What if I told you that I don’t get it, the usual conversational flow of back and forth, yet some times it feeds me a spark, an idea, and then imagination takes it out by the hand and sets it as free as a kite in a breeze tethered lightly by my attention. What if I told you that when a tropical storm slams that kite into the air and if I blink or nod or respond to you in any way, I’ll lose sight of that flash of color in my mundane life of eat, sleep, walk and write. What if that kite flies in a sky and no one looks up?