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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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.

What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.

Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.

pavement stains

Flash Fiction: Pavement stains. I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that.

I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that but your fingers were like antennae and my skin split. The mess, it’s all mine, and now that stain on the sidewalk won’t wash away. I tried, I did, I hosed it down. I’d even bagged you up, stuffed into a grocery bag from Trader Joes, and you bled, still dead on the sidewalk’s dust and time screamed slow down under foot pushing me back into those glorious guts that didn’t bring you back. Jealousy’s a killer, isn’t it my love, that burn of shame and those black-outs drowning with desire and desperation and I’m thinking of how all the stupid things I’ve said are now caught inside but I never meant to cause you trouble or do you harm or kill you, not really, sorry love. Your belly button and all its fluff tossed me sideways alone and alive with me begging you still breathless wrapped up in arms. You bled me dry scraped on pavement and nameless and numb without eyes. Confusion steeps in the clouds pouring down in the drizzle like chilled tea. What if you’d wanted me back? You’d waited too long to leave: I blame those flying broken dreams. My landlord won’t return my deposit now there’s yet another stain in front of my home.

Book Review: Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

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.

 

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