Go Big or Go Home

“Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives.”

Jenny Forrester interviews Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse’s debut novel, Call Me Home, is just out from Hawthorne Books! We were lucky enough to get an interview with her during this busy book-launching time. Catch her on her epic book tour this spring.

What do you think you learned about your own philosophy of love when you were writing Call Me Home? Did the act of writing this story clarify your notions of human love?

For so much of the time that I wrote this novel I was adrift, trying to write, trying to live, not sure if I was succeeding at either. My characters were drifting in more overt ways, and I do think that guiding them through the mire and the dark helped me to start to define what is important to me, what it means to love each other and how to bridge the distance between ourselves.

I have always resisted dichotomies of good/bad, right/wrong, and I think that this novel was a chance for me to look closely at that. Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives. I think of my character Jackson, who is escorting in Portland, and that work gives him a brief feeling of power, of control that he hasn’t had in his life before, and affords him the things he needs. And the work hurts him, too, in some ways, but at this particularl moment in his life, he finds the net worth to be positive. Our choices aren’t always easy, but we have to come to terms with them. To love someone, I think, means to believe that they have made their choices for a reason, and to trust that your own experience doesn’t determine how someone else should live.

Beyond believing in each other’s choices, or at least acknowledging them as valid, I think that writing this novel was a reminder to me that we have to hold on to the people who make us want to consider ourselves. When you have found the people who keep you affixed to your life, the people holding the invisible tethers you can feel through the dark and across distance, it is your job to hold them close, to recognize the power of that connection, be thankful for it, and nurture it as best you can.

The landscape of this book is so integral to the storyline. I know some of the places in the book are places you have lived or known intimately. Did you return to those when you were writing? Do you have to be in a geographical place to write about it? Or do you write place from memory?

I spent the entirety of my twenties moving from place to place across the country. I had always thought that I would find the place I belonged–that it was out there somewhere, if I only looked hard enough. But I kept getting older and the people I loved were getting deeper and deeper into their own lives while I kept searching, and I finally began to realize that finding your place was only possible if you also stuck around.

I began writing this novel when I was living in Montana, and finished large parts of it in Texas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Even as I was searching for the place I was meant to be, I was writing about the land I grew up on in Washington. As I wrote it, it was so vivid–steep banks, deep creeks that filled in winter, curtains of root and dirt and fallen trees that my brother and I knew as well as any suburban child must know his or her cul-de-sac. After I finished the first draft of the novel, I decided rather suddenly to move back to Washington state for the first time since I was seventeen. It’s only as I’m writing this now that I think those things had something to do with each other–that writing this story of home and belonging and recognizing how much that land is a part of me made me understand that my home was there all along. All of that writing was from memory, and that meant something; it made me realize the significance of that place.

That said, I’m still prone to restlessness and drifting. I blame it a little bit on poetry. I’ve always been haunted by the one-two punch of Elizabeth Bishop asking, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/Where should we be today?” and Mary Oliver chiming in, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve written about places I’ve lived and known intimately, I’ve decided I need to raise the bar–the novel I’m beginning to work on now is set in the Midwest in the years following World War II. I haven’t quite figured out how I will handle that process, since the setting of Call Me Home was written entirely from my experience of place and time. Go big or go home, I guess.

Do you have a particular audience or reader in mind for Call Me Home? What do you hope people came away from it feeling or wanting to do?

I dreamed of a lot of different readers as I was writing this novel. It began as the story of a young queer man trying to make his way without a clear path, trying to establish who he was by feeling with blind courage and hope. I hope that the audience for the novel begins to think about the relationship between place and identity–to consider that there are queer people making lives outside of urban centers, where the way is hazier, and where, despite so many gains, the world is still not a safe place.

I hope as well that people come away from the novel thinking about violence, and paying attention to its echoes around us. In the three years that I worked for a domestic violence intervention program, I began to see it everywhere–the way that an abuser can move into your path like a rock into a river and divert your life elsewhere. You can spend your life running from someone, or from the shadows they have cast on your life. I know that the experience of the family in my novel is only one story, but it is important to me to acknowledge that those stories surround us all the time.

Finishing things is difficult for some writers – what would be your advice for finishing?

I recently taught a class at Hugo House in Seattle called Seeing it Through: Finishing Your Novel. I went in to the course feeling like I didn’t have much right or enough knowledge to tell people how to go about completing a project, but over the course of those two days, I realized that I do have some strategies that I subscribe to, things that have worked for me.

Above all, writing this novel made me recognize that writing only really works if you understand it to be a long game. This wasn’t a very easy realization for me. I remember finishing the first draft of Call Me Home while I was on a residency in rural Minnesota in the spring of 2012, and sending it off to an agent. For the next week or two I marched purposefully around town, waiting for the call to come about how she wanted the book, and on top of that there was already an exorbitant offer or three. It didn’t come then; in fact, it was another few weeks before I heard back that it wasn’t a good fit.

It was a particularly lonely time in my life. That had something to do with being in an isolated place, but more to do with what I’d done to myself. I’d made myself believe that to become a writer was like watching your number come up in a lottery–that it would happen, and then the answers for everything else would fall into place. I thought my life would start when the book was published, and then someone would tell me how to live.

Instead, it was two years before the book sold. The things I began to work on during the early months of defeat have become my current projects, and my slow revision changed the novel remarkably. I think of that Alice Munro quote from The Moons of Jupiter: “They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” This a roundabout way to explain that I think the secret to finishing is recognizing that this is your writing life. You have to take away the timelines and the expectations–you’re doing it now, and you’ll be doing it tomorrow.

The other piece of advice I kept touting like a pundit in my recent course was to be greedy with your writing practice. This goes along with the idea that writing is a long game, with no clear endpoint. I believe in playing to your strengths and desires; write today what you want to write–as long as you write. I’m never going to be someone who writes each day from 6-7am, but maybe I feel like writing at 2 in the morning or maybe not today but tomorrow instead. Don’t let anyone fool you into how it’s supposed to be done. Be kind to yourself–that’s different from letting yourself off the hook.

You have an MFA. What advice would you give others about getting an MFA or not? If a writer does want to go the MFA route, how important is choosing the right program?

I know that there are hosts of opinions out there about the MFA–essential or useless? Homogenizing or inspiring? I think you should be clear to yourself about what you want to gain from a program, and where you’ll be coming out of it; those expectations should dictate if you enroll, or in what kind of program. I’d always been drawn to Montana and what I viewed as a Western voice–storytelling with a strong sense of place, of space. I tend to make decisions quickly and with great resolve, and the University of Montana was a wonderful spot for me–to be teaching and writing in a small town that felt analogous to the rural, tumble-down vistas I’d grown up in. I did struggle, as I think a lot of people do, with hoping that the path will become clear post-MFA; I was–and maybe still am–underemployed for a long time. I think that the choice to complete an MFA needs to be a conscious one. You can go and do it, and you can make it sustainable with teacherships, but don’t do it unless you can say to yourself honestly that this is a step along a path you’ll be on forever. The act of writing is what makes you a writer. I remember being nineteen, finishing up my first “novel,” a 250 page Jeanette Winterson lesbian fiction rip-off. I was so certain that I would turn a corner and suddenly be someone. It was exactly the same feeling I had in Minnesota, waiting for the agent to call about Call Me Home; it had taken me another ten years to really understand that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t matter what the milestone is–a first terrible novel, or an MFA; you work and work and then you get there, and it feels wonderful or anticlimactic, but regardless you keep going.

How much time do you spend on social media promoting your writing? How much do you think social media helps or hinders writers?

I used to be a super-weirdo about social media. I was really cagey about anyone knowing where I was or what I was doing, and I think I wanted to control peoples’ impressions of me. I remember demanding loudly of someone I was at dinner with, “Why on earth would you want to tag us here??” As time has gone on, I got over myself a little bit. I recognize, even if it’s still difficult, that you can’t control anyone’s opinions of you, beyond being certain to be a basically decent human. Once I let go of that, I started engaging more on social media. And here’s the thing–I cannot imagine going into this novel publication without that community. I have been tremendously lucky to have the support of so many incredible writers, friends and family, and the team at Hawthorne, who have been my greatest champions from day one. Social media is the forum where I can feel all of that support now, a place to reach otherwise nebulous, far-flung communities. Once I began to think of social media as a clearinghouse for sharing information and victories and questions about writing, my angst about the platform fell away.

This question made me think of the other day, when the news about Harper Lee’s second novel started circulating. I realize that there are still many questions about the publication which need resolution, but I bring this up purely as an example of the role of social media in my writing life now. I woke up and I heard the news, and because I am surrounded by writers and readers, my entire social media feed was on fire with it. I ran down to Georgetown in the weak winter sun to grab lunch with a friend and I was full with a rare joy for the whole world– a sense that we could all come together and be awed by something. I was grinning wildly at cars, thinking Harper Lee! As silly as it sounds, I know that feeling of connection is spectacular and rare, and if social media provides it, I can’t discount it.

Megan Kruse grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, writing about lonely places and our faulty, beautiful hearts. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and she recently completed residencies at the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska and the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota. Her debut novel, “Call Me Home,” releases from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She currently lives in Seattle.

New Work by Cynthia Bostwick

FISHING

by Cynthia Bostwick

After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother’s memory of that night must be vivid. As she’s gotten older, she tells it more often. She awakens in the night, in her upstairs bedroom, to find her father in her bed. He’s drunk. She’s a teenager. She says the worst thing was he threw up on her new bedroom rug.

My sister and I share a glance. What the fuck was her father doing in her bed? Drunk? So drunk he threw up? The story is endlessly shocking, even on repeat telling, because it always ends the same way. My mother gets a far off look in her eyes, and she giggles a little, “I really liked that rug. I was so mad.”

I was so mad. But she was never mad when he kicked her, breaking a rib. Or when he broke a date’s nose when she got home half an hour late. Or when he called her a bitch in heat and made her smoke a cigar with him. After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother shrugs. “Well, he was strict,” and she looks into the distance, “but he loved me.”

I have never told her about him exposing himself to me in a rowboat, with my brother. Well, I must have told her when it happened, unless my brother convinced me I shouldn’t. I never told her about the recurring nightmares I had about that time, how I would never again go fishing with my grandfather, how my dreams had me getting hit in the head with a rock, and my grandfather telling me not to tell my mom, because I had gotten blood all over my blouse and she would be very, very mad at me. I no longer know, clearly, what part is the dream and what part is real. But I know what I saw, and I know my brother said, “Grandpa, your snake is showing.”

I am awakened by a mooing sound outside my bedroom window. I know it is my grandfather, and we are going fishing today. I am six, maybe seven. My parents had a party the night before, and it was pretty loud. They are still sleeping. I get dressed. My brother is already in the kitchen. He hands me my straw hat. We walk down the front lawn to the lake, and there is grandpa, with his khakis, his old cotton shirt, a burning cigar, and our poles. He has a grownup version of my hat on. His wire-rimmed glasses are perched on his nose. In the boat is a cardboard cylinder, I know there are squirming worms inside.

My grandfather waves his cigar, motioning us into the boat, and he steps in. The boat rocks a bit, next to the dock. He stumbles a little, and we take our seats. Me in the bow, my brother rowing, and my grandfather in the stern.

The sun is low, below the trees, the summer day is just beginning. My grandfather unwraps biscuits, cut in half, buttered and put back together. I can smell my grandmother’s Estee Lauder perfume on the handkerchief he has them wrapped in, the sun shines through the soft cotton. The water is still, just the ripples around the oars as they dip into the water, in rhythm. The galvanized catch pail sits waiting. He tosses a biscuit to me, and I catch it with one hand. He eats one, smiling at me.

We’re out just before the weeds, over the bluegill beds. He puts the biscuits back in his pocket, and take a pole from the seat. He lifts it up, and lets out a little line to unhook the line and sinker from the rod. Reaching back sideways, he casts the line over the beds to catch a fish. The red and white bobber sinks slightly, then rights itself on the surface. I bite into the biscuit, the warm butter drips out the side of my mouth. My brother tucks the oars into the boat and readies his line. There’s no rod for me, I am just along for the view. A pair of mallards swims into the reeds.

My brother casts, and I duck—he is close enough to hook me and I am dreadfully afraid of fish hooks. Last week, my brother hooked Andy, our neighbor, as they were casting from the shore. The only way to get the hook out of his back as to push the barb through his skin and cut the barb off with a pliers: Andy tried to be tough, but in the end he cried as the barb pushed through his pale skin and my father clipped off the barb.

I right myself and look at my grandfather. I see that his penis is hanging out of his open fly like a long sausage. My brother sits between us and I poke him. He looks at me, and I point. My brother laughs. “Grandpa, your snake is showing.” I giggle. My grandfather looks right at me. It seems like forever, but finally he tucks it back inside his baggy khakis, the ones he always wears fishing.

That night I have a dream, the first of my many recurring instances of the dream. My brother and grandfather walk me up the shore to our house. Blood streams from my head, and I am wearing my favorite blouse, a white and blue sailor’s blouse, what they called a “middy.” It’s soaked in blood. I cry. My brother tells me to be quiet.

“Mark threw a rock out of the boat and it hit me in the head,” I sob. My grandfather orders me to take the shirt off, and he puts it in the catch pail. I go to my room. No one else is there, and I am still bleeding. My brother tries to wipe away the blood, and my grandfather says I can’t tell anyone what happened.

“But my middy blouse,” I sob, “Mom will be so mad.” He says he’ll get the blood out, but I think how can he? My blouse is soaking in the fish pail with hooked bluegills.

Years after my grandfather died, I ask my brother about this dream. I tell him I’ve had it so many times, and ask if he remembers anything. We’re both high from the joint we’ve shared. “Never,” he says, “that never happened, Cin.”

I tell him not to call me that. I hate that nickname. He looks shocked. “But we’ve always called you that,” he says, incredulous.

“I know, but I am not a Cin,” I say. I feel the fear and sadness rising. “I am not a Cin and I don’t want to be called one.”

He holds his hands up, as if to fend off a blow, “OK, sure. No worries.” I pass the joint back to him. I never have the dream again.

A couple of years ago, I asked my mother about the events in my dream. “Mom, I have this memory of getting hit in the head with a rock Mark threw and bleeding all over my middy blouse. Do you remember that?”

“You loved that blouse. I loved you in that blouse,” my mom says.

“I did love that blouse,” I say. “But did that ever happen? Do you remember that?”

“Your brother was always throwing rocks,” she says, “and you put your hand through two windows,” she says.

“But do you remember if he ever hit me in the head with one? I think we were out fishing with Grandpa.”

“No, I don’t remember that. I do remember Daddy coming and mooing at your window to wake you up to go fishing,” she says. “He loved you kids.”

And that’s the end of it.

*
Cynthia Bostwick lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she learns new lessons everyday from her ten year old son, her spouse, Linda, their dog Henry and the sad and angry people she meets in her day job as a lawyer.

Midlife Teen Mama Trauma

Mid-Life Teen Mama Trauma
By Nina Packebush

 

Last night a text came in from my girlfriend’s ex-wife saying that their 13-year-old daughter was in the ER with difficulty breathing.

Of course my girlfriend went into Mama Panic Mode and prepared to head straight to the hospital 30 minutes away. She went into our bedroom to grab her shoes and wallet.

I followed and, as I opened my drawer and pulled out a clean, long sleeved shirt to hide my tattoos, I reminded her to change her clothes. I made sure my jeans were reasonably clean, free of holes, decently fitting and that my Chuck Taylors were the newer ones, rather than the tattered, dirty ones.

My girlfriend was wearing Friday-night-in-a-partnership comfortable clothes, meaning she was a little sloppy. The colorful Vans she chose weren’t the right shoes for an almost 50-year-old woman.

She turned to me with confused irritation. “I’m not changing my clothes. We need to go. It’s just the hospital.”

It’s just the hospital.

I looked back at her with anxiety building; my mind trying to figure out the best course of action. She was stressed and frantic, but she looked sloppy–cute queer sloppy for sure, but certainly not respectable and well-kept. I didn’t want to insult her or tell her what to do, but I was genuinely confused. The hospital hasn’t been just a hospital to me since I was eighteen-years-old and went in for my first OB appointment.  I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. As I navigated doctor appointments, playground politics, ER visits, and even everyday trips to the grocery store I learned that I wasn’t the right kind of parent. I looked away when people stared.

I learned to laugh when the pediatrician joked, “So you know how this happened, so it won’t happen again, right?” while he weighed and examined my infant at his first well-baby check-up.

I pretended not to care when people asked me if my son was my little brother.  I quietly answered when complete strangers asked me how old I was and “Is the dad still around?” It didn’t take me long to learn that presentation mattered. Words mattered. Image mattered.  A lot. And it especially mattered in the presence of authority.

I’m a queer mama with three children; 28, 24, 17, and I’m co-raising my eight-year-old grandson with my middle daughter, who also happens to be a teen mama. I have spent my entire parenting life as too young while navigating different levels of broke, poor, or lower-middle-class, and most of the last thirteen years queer single parenting. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is a 49-year-old mama of a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Her son is essentially the same age as my grandson.  My girlfriend has spent the majority of her thirteen years as a parent partnered in a solid lesbian relationship, living a solid middle class life.

My girlfriend and her ex-wife had been diligent and intentional on every step of their parenting journey. They had picked out sperm donors and paid for insemination. They had a house, financial security, and a stable relationship before they started their family. My family began on one of several drunken nights collecting sperm the old fashioned way from my spandex-wearing, wispy mustache toting, heavy metal boyfriend. My pregnancy brought tears, canceled abortion appointments, subsidized medical care, and not one second of preplanning. Her journey into motherhood included celebrations, fulfilled dreams, and genuine happiness.  Our parenting experience was night and day.

I was quiet on the way to the hospital that night.  I rubbed her neck and I reassured her that everything would be fine, but that brief exchange standing in front of our dresser was heavy in my mind.  Of course I had always felt that teen mama was an integral part of my identity, but until that moment when I stood face to face with my girlfriend, I hadn’t fully realized just how deeply that identity and experience had shaped me.  I’m 47 years old, in the beginning phase of menopause, have adult children, and am a doting granny, but I’m still a teenage mother. Teen Mama will be an identity that I carry for the rest of my life, right alongside the scars and tools for survival that the experience gave me.

When we got to the hospital nobody looked twice at my girlfriend. She was a mama who had rushed out the door to be with her kid. She was the right age, the right socio-economic background, her kid had private insurance. While I sat alone in the waiting room that night I noticed a sign that read, this is a safe place to leave your newborn. In my exhaustion and stress I had to fight back the tears. I know what it’s like to be young, pregnant, and afraid. I can imagine the scenarios that would drive someone to make the choice to drop their infant off with strangers. Yes, adult women sometimes drop infants off, but the average age of a mother relinquishing her baby to an Infant Safe Space is nineteen. I took a picture of the sign, and when I got home I showed it to my daughter.

She shuddered, “This makes me so sad. I can’t even imagine…but I can.”

And that’s the thing, we can both imagine because we have both felt the shame, confusion, marginalization, and loneliness that being a teen mama is. We have both faced judgment and we have both had our parenting questioned for no other reason than we were too young, despite the fact that we are damn good moms.

I said to my daughter, “You know I can imagine being eighty years old and still reaching for the long sleeve shirt and clean shoes before going to the doctor, the ER, the hospital.” She nodded.  She knew exactly what I was talking about.

Becoming a mama before I became an adult shaped who I am, and although there are a lot of scars associated with that, those scars make me who I am today. Those scars are evidence that I’m damn strong. Those scars have left me with a deep empathy for other people and an ability to creatively survive and thrive. I’m a queer. I’m a writer. I’m a granny. I’m a wanna-be-urban farmerand an unschooler. I’m a lot of things, but mostly I’m a teen mama and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even a good credit score and the ability to go the hospital in rumpled sweats and a tank top.

Nina Packebush is a rad, queer, zinester granny living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of alternative publications and websites including Hip Mama Magazine, Mutha Magazine, The Icarus Project, Literary Kitchen, and the anthology My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Nina is currently working on a young adult novel. You can find more of her writing and some of her audio at: thegrannychronicles.com

 

Mai’a Williams

Mai’a Williams is a poet, editor, community journalist, a run-into-the-middle-of-the-fire-revolutionary, homeschooling single mama to a brilliant seven year old, backpacking traveler with a very messy passport, currently living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s a journalist for this latin american news agency, while doing the single mama thing, looking for a nanny, and she keeps coming back to writing and editing no matter what comes up.

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?

Most of my creative writing is in notebooks while sitting in restaurants with a glass of wine or a bottle or two of beer. There are plenty of days that I don’t want to write poetry after spending all day in a crowded news office writing about other peoples traumas. Like what more do I have to say after I’ve written about war in gaza, in syria, in iraq, in ferguson? And yet, there are days and nights when I still have ink and energy to spill on the page.

There are also plenty of days all I want to do is have a drink, curl up in bed and watch Netflix, when I just want a conversation that isnt about work. Plenty of days when I want to just lose myself because I feel so trapped inside my own head. My own skin.

So yeah I don’t have a regular routine. I am just trying to get it all done in a single day, a single week. Make it somewhat close to the latest deadlines. Let this writing be a prayer, be a balm, be a knife to cut the poison that still lingers inside of me.

My daughter just came in to the bedroom to give me a hug and show me her favorite timer, a plastic hourglass with blue sand. ‘It’s quicker than a minute!’ she exclaimed.

What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?

It seems to me that writing is the least tool intensive art form. Like paper and a pen. Sand and a stick.

But the writing that I most enjoy is honest, raw, simple, direct. Show me what it feels like to be inside this human skin. Show me how complex it is to keep breathing in a world being destroyed. Show me how there is still love in the midst of war. How there is anger in the beatific moments.

What motivates you to write?

I write for the girls like me. Like us. For the girls who are fighters and are too afraid to fight. For the girls who are strange and awkward and too observant for their own good. For the lonely girls, the angry girls who aren’t allowed to be angry. The good girls who are don’t feel so good inside. I just want to say, I see you. I see you and I will fight for you, so fight for yourselves, because I swear it may not get better, but you will get better at this fight. It may not get easier, but it will be worth it. And when you are down on the ground, once again, wiping the spit or tears off your face, remember that no one has the right to define your life, but you. You give it meaning. And no one else can do that, no matter how much others may tell you that they know what your life means.

Again and again I come back to the desire to tell the truth of my experience. To push back against the narratives that say that there is only way to have experienced this life. To say, yes, we can survive this too. And not only survive, but understand it and live through it and get stronger and more vulnerable to life. Sometimes I am walking down the street and I hear a line just drift across my head and I think that’s the beginning of a poem, that could go somewhere. Sometimes I even stop to write it down. Sometimes I hear a rhythm in my head and I think. Yes. That’s how that story should sound.

And I write to touch you. It’s that simple. I want to know that I am here. And that you are here.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?

God, yes. It’s embarrassing, right? Because I have read so many writers say there is no such as writers block. Hell, I’ve said that before. Maybe its not writers block, its just that my mood doesn’t match the desire to write. Often times it really is because I don’t want to go there emotionally, you know? Like, do I want to spend the next couple of hours remembering how heartbreaking life is? To record these days of loneliness and uncertainty. The reason I want to write about those moments is because I want to give you the emotional truth of this life and at the same time, it’s fucking painful.

And all I can do is say to myself, okay, look, ten minutes. One page. One paragraph. You’ll get to the heart of it. Stand up and dance for a few minutes after you get that first page done. Just spill words on the page. You’ll go through it later and edit and make it work. Your readers, those girls who are like you and want to read the truth so they can know their lives are real, those girls are worth it.

Just tell the truth. Get it off your chest. It really is more painful to hold it in than it is to put it on the page. Once you write it, then you wont have to write it again. It will never be harder than it is right now. So just write. One more time, just get it down.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Dear writer, its not about you in the end. You are just writing. Think of it as taking dictation from some voice that happens to be in your brain. Just write the words. That’s your job. Don’t take it personal. They are just words, just images, just rhythms. They aren’t you. They barely describe you, because you are not words. You are life. So just write and let the words and sentences fall where they may.

What is/are the message(s) in your writing work? What are your readers’ reactions to it?

A couple of nights ago, I was hanging out with a friend, 2 o’clock in the morning. The night had grown chilly. He sang in Arabic for me, since singing is his first love. He was showing me how close Arabic music and prayer are in terms of melody and structure.

Then I recited the poem I wrote, a decade and a half ago, when I was 20 years old and it was spring in DC and the cherry blossoms had fallen to the grey sidewalks. It’s still my manifesto in many ways. In it I say, this life is an art form and this poem is a testimony to the survivors of suicide.

What I write is full of music and melody at its best. It comes out of jazz and blues and hip hop. And all I am asking the reader, to girls like me, to not give up or give in but to go on and live this one beautiful life, because in the end that is what we got. Do whatever gets you through the day. Make this survival meaningful.

Hold on, I have to run downstairs and run water through the washing machine. I washed laundry a few days ago, and then just let it sit in the machine for days, so now I have get that sour smell out, that smell of mildew, out of the clothes. I am running out of clean clothes and have to go to work tomorrow, so I have to run them through it the machine again…

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

It took me years to get to the place where I am now with these two little books of poetry.

First, I learned to keep writing. To keep editing. To keep reaching toward that sound or image that I had in my head when I first began. I have read those poems over so many times. I learned to keep reading them until I am sick of them. Put them aside and then come back to them a week or month or a year later and do it again. Tenacity.

And I learned the power of outside readers and writers. I had amazing readers and editors. As many times as I’ve read these poems, I almost couldn’t hear them any more. And then I had outside editors who read them and taught me what the poems really sounded like on the page, what they said to someone who wasn’t me, who hadn’t lived through them. Openness.

Trust my voice. Trust my ear. Trust my vision. Trust.

My daughter just looked up from her computer game to tell me that she has just passed all the levels in one stage! She jumped up and clapped for herself.
What are your current / future projects?

I just put the finishing touches on the two chapbooks of poetry. We, the editors, are in the last week of editing the Revolutionary Mothering anthology that has been five years in the making.

And for about a year I have been coming back to a book that is tentatively called 2011, which is about well, they year 2011, and the egyptian revolution and heartbreak and fighting for freedom no matter what.

There is a book on midwifery that is half way done.

You can read more here and on my tumblr.

What book(s) / author(s) have influenced you

Let me tell you what music has influenced my writing

Lately, it has been Sam Smith’s album on repeat in my headphones.

Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind

Lauryn Hill, especially everything she has produced since the Miseducation album

Angel Haze, especially the way she will take a Drake beat and kill it

Fairouz, which is the sound of dawn and smoke

Um Koulthoum, which is the sound of evening and dark coffee

Billie Holiday, for my father

Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, for his wordplay

Dead Prez, Hip Hop

Tupac, for embodying the many layers of Thug Life

Biggie, for telling us a million stories on a single album

Kendrick Lamar

Aretha Franklin

Ella Fitzgerald

Marvin Gaye

Rakim

Miles Davis

Valerie June

 

 

Two Powerhouse Portland Literary Community Builders

A.M. O’Malley has been the Program Director and Certificate Program Director at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, a literary arts non-profit in Portland, Oregon, since 2007.

 

 

 

Martha Grover is the author of One More for the People (Perfect Day Publishing), and has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, for ten years.

 

A.M. and Martha got together to talk about what it’s like to build community through storytelling.

 

 

M: You’ve made the IPRC your hub for many years, but you also teach in a men’s prison and at PCC. How do these other teaching jobs inform the work you do at the IPRC?

A.M.: The work I do at the Prison is actually an IPRC program. There’s a publishing element that really defines that project. I also offer my former students a membership to the IPRC when they’re released from prison. The IPRC really supported me when I spearheaded that project, which is a blessing, because it takes a lot of time and effort. As for the PCC classes, for the most part, they are all taught at the IPRC in partnership with PCC and are a way for the PCC community education population to check out the IPRC and use its resources. I have had a lot of autonomy to build what my job looks like over the last eight years. I am a teacher first and an arts administrator/program director second, and all of that somehow fits under the umbrella of empowering folks to tell their stories which is what I feel passionate about.

M: What does community mean to you? Can building community be a goal in and of itself?

A.M.: Man, oh, man! This is a big question. I feel that community is a really important aspect of being a creative person–whether you’re a visual artist, writer or performer–because the community offers a mirror, a support network and a reminder that you aren’t just shouting into a well. It’s a chance to connect which is essential because so much of creating, for me, is a solitary occupation.

M: One of the skills I’ve noticed in you is that you are a great networker – meaning, you always try to help connect people you know with opportunities that would help them. If we were in the 1950s, I can picture you sitting at your desk with three telephones on it and the biggest rolodex you’ve ever seen, calling people up and connecting them with other people. Is this something that is premeditated or does it come naturally as an element of your personality?

A.M.: Ha! I do really like to make connections between people I think would work well together. I think I do it out of a natural matchmaker instinct. It doesn’t stop with working life, it carries forward into friends and family too. I like to start things and organize things. My husband would say that is because I like to boss people but I like to think I have a natural talent for organizing.

M: Can you talk a little bit about the projects you are working on right now? What was doing the kickstarter like?

A.M.: The Kickstarter was a wonderful moment when I realized that I have a wide and supportive community. It was humbling and heart warming. I am working on taking a trip to Vietnam to research my estranged father’s tour of duty there in 1972. Writing about his absence from my life and the long-lasting impact of war on future generations will hopefully be the last section of my book-in-progress. I have also been writing a long epistolary poem to my brother who has a developmental disability from oxygen deprivation at birth.

M: How does working in the Portland literary scene help or hinder your own writing?

A.M.: I have to be very careful about time management and balancing work and my own time. It is difficult to be a facilitator of other people’s creativity and expression and also have energy left to facilitate my own creativity and expression. That said, in many ways I feel indebted to the IPRC for injecting me into the center of a vibrant and thriving literary scene. I know a lot of writers and that is due in a big part to my work at the IPRC.

M: How do you find that balance between facilitating other’s work and having the energy to do your own stuff?

A.M.: It is indeed hard, I tell my students to pay attention to every piece of criticism they hear in writing workshop, whether it’s directed at their work or not, and think about it when they are revising their own work. This advice is something I try to follow as well. I think the act of talking, teaching and thinking writing does, in the end, help my writing.

A.M.: You’ve been making Somambulist Zine for years now, how has that project evolved over the years? Do you make the zine for the same reasons? Have your feelings about it changed?

M: I started Somnambulist Zine on a whim. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. At first, it was exhilarating to get my work out there and to have readers. Over the last ten years, I have asked myself these same questions: Why am I doing this? Does it still matter? But this last year, volunteering for the Portland Zine Symposium, I was just really overwhelmed by the amount of joy and meaning I still get from producing my work and being part of that community.

Something I keep coming back to is that, firstly, the zine is always a place that I can try out new ideas and it’s better than a blog or a website, because it feels special and contained. And secondly, I’ve really grown to appreciate my audience: the people who subscribe to my zine year after year and look forward to getting it in the mail. That’s my audience, and I feel like I write the zine for them. When I got really sick with Cushing’s Disease, it became apparent that, partly because of the zine, I had built myself this life raft. I knew that there were people out there I’d never met who cared about me! It was an amazing and humbling experience. Anyway, I have fallen in and out of love with doing Somnambulist, but it’s lasted longer than any relationship I’ve had in the past, so that is saying something!

A.M.: Your work is incredibly honest and revealing–which is part of why I’m such a huge fan. What advice would you give to the apprentice writer who is afraid of being too vulnerable on the page?

M: In a lot of “guidebooks to writing” etc., they always say something like “Write what you are afraid to write,” however; when teaching, it’s not my job to tell people what to write about. Everyone has their own path. It’s funny because that lack of honesty and vulnerability always shows up in the work. It’s flat, or boring, or doesn’t make sense. In discussion of the work however, the truth always comes out! The student will say, “Well, I wrote it this way because I feel that I have trust issues…” (or something like that.)  And they usually come to the realization that their fears and vulnerabilities are the real driving force behind their writing. If you’re not getting into that stuff, then what’s the point? That’s what makes it interesting. So I guess my advice would be: resistance is futile! In the end, you’ll end up writing the stuff you were too scared to write.

A.M.: Have you ever had negative pushback from people you’ve written about? If so, how do you respond to that?

M: I get negative feedback all the time! I just had a discussion today with my sister about what was okay to share on my website and what wasn’t. I figure as long as you don’t approach it from an extreme point of view, then you are being respectful. For instance, I don’t believe I have the RIGHT to write about anyone, in any manner, that I want, and on the other hand, I’m not so scared of other peoples’ reactions that I am going freeze up and not write at all.

A.M. : Is there anything you want to talk about or are excited about that I haven’t touched on?

M: I run a monthly storytelling event at Tad’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplins on the Sandy River in Troutdale, OR. It’s been a lot of fun and it has really helped me build a little community around this event. I have made connections in the stand-up, acting, education and music communities. It’s been awesome, and very gratifying.

More about A.M.: ‪A.M. O’Malley has been writing and publishing on various planes since 1994. She has recently been published in The Newer York, Poor Claudia, Phenome, UnShod Quills, The Burnside Review, in the anthology Untangling the Knot (Ooligan Press), Jerk Poet, and The Portland Review. Ms. O’Malley teaches writing at the Columbia River Correctional Institution as a Writers in the Schools Resident Artist and at Portland Community College.

More about Martha: You can read more of Martha’s work and buy a subscription to her zine at : somnambulistzine.com, P.O, Box 14871, Portland, Oregon 97293

Sage Adderley, Sweet Candy Distro and Press

Sage Adderley runs Sweet Candy Distro and Press which features over 200 zine titles, books, and a variety of DIY items. She the author of the perzines, Marked for Life, Tattooed Memoirs, Eye Candy Magazine, and FAT-TASTIC, a body-positive zine. She published her first book, a YA novel called Invoking Nonna, last winter.

Who are you? What do you do/what have you written/published, do you have a blog, etc.?

I’m a mom to three humans and two cats, an artist, a zinester, a witchy lady, a writer, a publisher, and a publicist.

At Sage’s Blog Tours, I help authors sell their books. I run an online promotional company called Sage’s Blog Tours.

I am resurrecting the blog on my website: sageadderley.com

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?

There is nothing regular about my routine. With kids, I have to write when I can, which is not much. If I want to accomplish anything (oh, but I do!) I have to schedule writing into my schedule. I enjoy writing in the mornings. Usually during or after my first cup of coffee. I like quiet. I like my apartment. I’m not a public writer.

What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?

You must have something clever inside of your imagination that you are dying to share with others, some thing that you need to weave into an interesting plot with colorful characters. You also need thick skin.

What motivates you to write?

I have to write. I don’t recall there ever being a time that I wasn’t writing – letters, diary entries, zines, and now fiction stories. It’s what I am here to do.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?

Yeah, sadly I have those times where I stare at my blank computer screen. I just roll with it. I don’t force anything, but I do try to jump-start the creative juices by doing small art projects or writing postcards or letters. If all else fails, I take lots of naps and do some self-care things until I can hop back into my writing pants.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Write as much as you can. Even if you’re only jotting down ideas or dialogue. And read. Challenge yourself to read outside of your comfort zone. Prepare yourself to make mistakes and be open to critiques.

What is/are the message(s) in your writing work? What are your readers’ reactions to it?

I want to write about taboo things and shed light on them. I’m a weirdo and like to write about the outsiders of the world. They are who I relate to.

I’ve received some really positive feedback about my book. Readers seem to enjoy that I didn’t focus on teen romance and instead wrote about the dynamics between a mother and daughter. I also think people liked the fact that I wrote about witchcraft in a truthful and realistic way.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Oh, yes. I learned that I should have taken more time in the editing process. Nothing is more heart wrenching than printing your book and finding errors. After reading my first print copy and finding a few typos, I was depressed on my couch for two days. I felt horrible, but then I reminded myself that I wrote a book. I didn’t talk about it or plan it – I did it and nothing is perfect. Bestselling authors from around the world have errors in their book. We’re human. Mistakes happen. You learn from them and use that on your next project.

What are your current / future projects?

I am currently working on my second book. It’s the next book in my Triple Goddess Series. I am super excited about sharing more of Maggie’s story.

I’m also working on the fifth title for Sweet Candy Press – Ofrenda: A Zine Anthology by Celia Perez. It’s a compilation of snippets from Celia’s past 20 years of zine writing! I am so excited about this project. Celia Perez has been one of my favorite zinesters and I was honored when she approached me about publishing her work.

Here is a link to the Indiegogo campaign where you can learn more about Ofrenda, scoop up one of the many awesome perks we’re offering or simply preorder yourself a copy: http://bit.ly/1usTuCT

What book(s) / author(s) have influenced your life and writing?

I grew up reading Ann M. Martin, V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. I thank them for introducing me to the magical world of books. As a writer, I find myself being influenced by Sylvia Plath, Tomas Moniz, Henry Rollins, Ariel Gore, and Kathy Cano-Murillo. I resonate with their writer’s voice.

 

Milcah Halili Orbacedo Interviews Wendy C. Ortiz

 

Wendy C. Ortiz’s searing new memoir of growing up in Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s, Excavation, unearths the complicated legacy her five-year relationship with her charming and flawed teacher 15 years her senior. Her teacher — now a registered sex offender — encouraged her passion for writing while making her promise not to leave any written account of their dangerous sexual relationship. Excavation is just out from Future Tense.

You could make multiple twitter accounts from the different voices you use in your writing. In the business world, lacking a singular voice makes one less marketable. What drives you to write in your multiple voices when writing in a more singular voice may promote more traditional success?

If I stuck to one voice when in reality I contain a multiplicity of voices I wouldn’t feel like I’ve maintained the integrity of my work (and possibly my identities). Writing memoir specifically, it feels essential to me to unleash as many of the voices as possible (the ones I have access to, anyway). I also prefer a world where our multiple identities are given free range—which flies in the face of a singular voice and making one’s self “more” or “less” marketable. (The 28 year old in me is reading this going, Just how “marketable” have you ever been, and has being marketable ever really motivated you? for example.)

Excavation: a Memoir was just released this summer by Future Tense Books. Your next book, Hollywood Notebook, will be published by Writ Large Press in fall/winter. Will you offer readers of Hollywood Notebook a voice similar to Excavation? What should we expect next?

Hollywood Notebook takes place in Los Angeles after I’d spent eight years in Olympia, Washington in two separate serial monogamist relationships. I landed in my studio apartment in Hollywood, single, living alone for the first time in years. The voice spans the ages of twenty-eight to thirty-three and is very much influenced by the books, people, music, and experiences of that time. I call it a prose poem-ish memoir, as it contains eighty-some short chapters in the form of paragraphs, lists, and stream-of-consciousness passages.

After Hollywood Notebook I’m interested in returning to other works-in-progress: a book of music-themed essays, poetry centered on my mother and grandmother and our entwined relationships, a memoir based on my Modern Love column, and a memoir about the period in Olympia between the ages of 20-28 which I think of as a long gestation, and some other secret things.

If you could blend two of your voices together from any of your works (On the Trail of Mary Jane, Excavation, your essays at The Nervous Breakdown or Specter, etc.) which two voices would complement each other the most? Do you have a masterplan to eventually merge all your voices? Or you do enjoy the compartmentalization?

I’m fond of the voices that find themselves in my fiction (like “Black Car Land” in Specter, and some other fiction I’m working on)—there’s a starkness to the voices I feel both comfortable and very uncomfortable with. In some ways I blend the voices together when I put two stories next to one another, as I’m doing now with some fiction. The themes start to emerge from placing the work together and paying attention to whether the voices are complementary or not. The only master plan I have to is to see where the voices go, any of them, all of them.

No matter the voice, your writing is always very corporeal and visceral. You are very generous when it comes to material and emotional details, and it balances out very well. What are the physical drives that take you to the corporeal and visceral in your writing? What about the body and the emotions it manifests inspires you to write in such a way?

As someone who has struggled, then learned, then forgot, then remembered to stay in her body most of her life, focusing in on the corporeal and visceral feels necessary. It’s also what I enjoy about some of my favorite writers, how they bring me back to my body with their texts.

What would you say is the over-arching theme of your writing, the heart of your work?

I hesitate to say there’s one over-arching theme. If we think of a heart, the human heart with its four chambers, I might say abandonment (from others, of others, and of self); embodiment (of identities that help one to survive, however ‘survive’ is identified); exploration and troubling of the idea that there are only two sides to every story (which I don’t believe—I think there are many); and transformation. (It’s important to note that this is what I think today; if you asked me this yesterday or ask me tomorrow, the answer might differ. It’s not always static.)

Spitboy: An Interview with Michelle Gonzales, by Breezy Barcelo

I recently had the lucky chance of interviewing Michelle Gonzales, author of Pretty Bold For a Mexican Girl: Growing up in a Hick Town, former drummer and lyricist of the 1990s female punk band Spitboy, and creator of the zine Spitboy Rule. Check it out!

 

On the first page of your zine, you mention that being in Spitboy was one of the most formative experiences of your life – that you gained confidence, self-knowledge, etc. When did you realize that?

Michelle: I think I knew all along that I was gaining these things: I especially remember getting really comfortable during interviews, speaking articulately and confidently about women’s issues, and I was only between 21 and 26 during my days in Spitboy. I remember realizing at one point that I was able to answer interview questions more easily and clearly than when we first started. The self-knowledge grew over time, as it tends to do, but Spitboy spent a great deal of time reflecting on our experiences, processing out loud and being mindful. That was a good practice to learn in my twenties that served me well when I went back to school, became a mom, and began teaching community college.

In “The Spitboy Rule” story, it cracked me up when you said, “For some reason we always broke down in Wyoming. Wyoming was Spitboy’s Bermuda Triangle.” When I was 18, 19, and 20 and traveling with a bus full of punk and hippie kids, we always seemed to break down or get stuck with no gas money in the middle of Wyoming or Nebraska! Of all the time I’ve spent in big cities or camping in the middle of nowhere, and not feeling scared much, I was genuinely scared a couple of times in those states. Were you ever super scared in those breakdowns?

Michelle: You’re not the first person to comment on that Spitboy’s Bermuda Triangle line. I do remember being scared. In fact, I remember not opting to be one of the people who walked/hitchhiked to a service station to get help. Karin, our guitar player did that, and Paula too, since she knew how to work on cars, to talk parts. I stayed back with the van and read a book in an attempt to calm myself. I grew up with a lot of chaos, so I wasn’t always a lot of help in situations where I couldn’t imagine the outcome. People would usually look at us weird when they’d stop to help us or when we’d come sputtering into their service station, but on that first tour when it was just the four of us – four women – people were very willing to help us, even if it was in that “What-seems-to-be-the-problem-little-lady?” sort of way.

I can just picture “Huggy Bear Boy.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I dated him. Were there a lot of odd balls you had to interact with after your shows?

Michelle: Huggy Bear Boy was a nice guy. I just didn’t want to hug him or anybody else I didn’t know. Most people we met on tour were super nice. I do remember that there was one guy in particular in, I think, Savannah, Georgia, we were pretty freaked out by. I don’t remember his name, but he organized our show. We played in what seemed like sort of a biker bar, but it was an all ages show, since that’s all we would play – all ages venues. We went to the guy’s house before the show, and he had a bunch of reptiles, and the place smelled terrible. He was also the leering creepy type, and we were supposed to stay the night at his place after the show. We lied to him telling him that we had to leave that night because we had a long drive in front of us. We drove somewhere near the beach, slept in the van, and went to the beach in the morning before leaving for our next show. This is probably an example of one of the many ways being a band of women is quite different than being all-male.

After you made your statement on stage: “We’re not a riot grrl band,” did you have to explain yourself a lot? How did you, and how did you feel about having to do that?

Michelle: Everywhere we’d gone prior to making that statement, people had asked us if we were a riot grrl band. We had really grown tired of it. We did make enemies. A lot of riot grrls really hated us for it, which didn’t feel good at all, but we couldn’t really blame them after I had been so undiplomatic. Later, when we put out our “Mi Cuerpo Es Mio 7”, a riot grrl accused us of cultural appropriation. I’m writing a piece about this right now. I don’t think we would have been accused of cultural appropriation if I hadn’t said “We’re not a riot grrl band” in public. The accusation was a low blow and misdirected too since I’m a Chicana and the name of the 7” was my idea – a way for me to have the band represent an element of the band that we had never represented before – my Chicanisma.

You said at the end you would have gone about things differently, but not much differently. I’m glad. We needed girls like you in the scene to get the ball of change rolling. I mean, my boyfriend is a total feminist, so I’m glad you said that.

Michelle: Riot grrl was a really important movement, but it wasn’t our movement. Spitboy formed before riot grrl became a national movement, but I’m still really glad that they existed, but we existed too.

Just one last question before you go: What would you say to a young, feminist artist who is at that stage that you were when you first got to school and first met Adrienne? You mentioned that you didn’t know what you wanted to do and didn’t even know if you belonged in school.

Michelle: Since I’m now a community college English instructor, I think I have to say that you shouldn’t ever rule out school. I believe that too, that if you’re not ready for school, you can always go back later like I did. In fact, I know that I got a lot more out of college since I went back full-time in my late twenties, and I brought the confidence that I gained in Spitboy and the life experience to my classwork, which really helped all the studying, tests, and essays feel relevant and real-world. When I first went to college, I had no idea what I was doing, how to apply what I was learning, or how to navigate the complicated system of academia, and I also wanted to be making music. Some people can do both, but I wasn’t one of those people. If this young female artist is a true artist who does her research and engages in an artistic community, that can be an education too.

Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and to make your zine! Where can we all read MORE?

Michelle: The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Female Punk Band zine can be ordered for $4 plus shipping from Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/PrettyBoldDesigns?ref=si_shop
or $3 plus shipping via Paypal: profesora.gonzales@gmail.com

Additional Spitboy Rule pieces can be read for free at http://pretty-bold-mexican-girl.com/

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Breezy Barcelo loves to write, make crafts and hang out with kids (including her own). She is currently working on a zine with her teenage daughter called Motherkin.