Study Hall, April 12: When You’re Stuck

Writer’s block isn’t a major issue for me—maybe because I am always struggling to find enough time, what with health issues, family, and activism, to write all the stories going on in my head—but there are times when I know a particular character or plot point needs underpinning, though I can’t quite suss out what’s missing. I have two main methods to address these quandaries. One is to take a relevant workshop with a writer I admire. If I’m having trouble, say, with a particular character, I know that if I take a character framing workshop with a good writer, I will likely hear something that will help me round out the person in question.

I am having trouble with a beloved story that isnt getting quite the juice it requires. I suspect the issue is that my main character isn’t quite “bad” enough to show a really great learning curve in the story. So this month I’ll be taking a workshop on ”The Mighty and Flawed” from a very successful writer, Tommy Dean, author of the fiction books Covenants and Hollow, and editor at ”Fractured Lit.” Tommy is a pretty modest guy, so his workshops are “pay what you want”—irresistible to a senior writer like me. He has a bunch of short workshops coming up this month; check them out at https://www.tommydeanwriter.com .

My other method? It’s a writing prompt exercise I do now and then to spur my subconscious to write what my conscious mind won’t allow.

I’ll post a video of that prompt in a separate posting. In the meanwhile, happy writing to you!

Study Hall: April 5, 2022–Wordsmiths

Word games are a great way to start a writing session, especially at times when you don’t feel inspired. Pastimes like crosswords, word scrambles, and, yes, Wordle, can get us out of our everyday vocabulary and help jumpstart ideas. A favorite strategy of mine for such times is to make a list of nouns and verbs, then try to combine them into description without adjectives or adverbs. One of my favorites is the term ”jump master.” It’s vivid and provocative. There is a military designation using that term, but how about an eight-year-old jump master?

Wordle 290 5/6

⬜⬜🟨⬜⬜
🟨🟩🟩⬜⬜
⬜🟩🟩⬜⬜
⬜🟩🟩🟩🟩
🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩

Today I’m not feeling my manuscript, but playing around with words for a while may get me over my doldrums and into full scribe mode.

One of my early academic administrators, Dr. Dan Bern, called each of us on his grantwriting team “wordsmiths.” I love the idea that we’re crafting words through the crucible of inspiration into writing that soars, spins, serves. (There’s a reason they call political operatives “spin doctors.”)

Do you have a favorite word game that gets your writing dreams flowing? Drop me a line—I love to know about ways to cherish words!

Study Hall, March 29, 2022

Had a wonderful meeting this morning with members of the European Institute for Roma Arts and Culture. It was excellent to place names with faces and hear wonderful ideas about integrating Romani artists (including writers!) into the mainstream culture to replace negative stereotypes about Roma, and about connecting elders to young people through traditional customs and artistry. So I am all revved up about creating today!

The dogs photobombing my happy birthday photo. Like my crown? I wear it often now (but only in my bedroom,)

Also, I am exchanging chapters of the new novel with one of my fairest and fiercest (You can be both!) critics, Linda. So good to read her latest and also get some respected feedback on my work.

What about you? What has you excited? Who helps move you along? Do you have a writing group or terrific beta readers to help vet your work? Talk to me, loves—then get to work! I’m always thrilled to hear from you!

Roma in Ukraine: Too angry to write, too sad to stop writing

Roma, Europe’s largest and poorest minority, are discriminated against in all of Europe. Ukraine is no exception. While most of us admire the Ukrainians’ brave defense of their country, we must address the effects of unsavory elements among them who do harm to Romani women, children, and the elderly as they all flee. The stories of terrible treatment are mounting.

The crisis of Roma at the Ukraine border deepens every day. Both border officials and local volunteers are discriminating against Roma, who have suffered pogroms, police brutality, and intense discrimination inside Ukraine, as in all of Europe.

We have reports of Roma who are fleeing burning cities being denied entry, volunteers refusing food and water to them, officials segregating them because white nationalists among the refugee population are threatening them (Punishing the victims, the age old story.) Roma get the worst temporary housing, are left unprocessed for better housing, even as their children are denied the same food and water allotment as white Ukrainians.

Much of this has been documented by journalists such as Mauricio Lima, photographer for the New York Times, the nonprofit Roma Nation, Roma News, Romedia, and others. Google any of those names and “Roma” and you should find the details. My friend Sonya Jasaroska has posted a good bit on her Facebook page.

Our larger organizations such as the European Roma Rights Centre and the ERGO network seem to be expecting the UN to do something about this. They aren’t. They never have. Nor has the European Union addressed this current crisis among Romani Ukrainians in any meaningful way.

One organization addressing issues on the ground is the Foundation Towards Dialogue (Fundacja w Strone Dialogu) in Poland. Their web site is http://www.fundacjawstronedialogu.pl.

They are hiring buses to move Roma away from the temporary housing and to other major EU cities and countries where volunteers have given their spare rooms, their apartments, any space they have to the Romani Ukrainian refugees. They are serving as a clearing house for such housing. They are seeing the people get adequate food and water.

What can you do? Clearly we Roma must take these issues into our own hands. But you don’t have to be Roma to know this isn’t fair and want to help. Do you know lawyers or medical personnel who will help? do you own and/or know owners or spaces where people can be housed? Do you know restauranteurs who will donate food and water? Please send them to the Foundation’s page to volunteer. Or have them contact me and I will direct them to the Facebook page where volunteers are working.

Will you donate money to the Foundation Towards Dialogue so they can purchase what is needed? Below is their banking information. Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, who chairs the foundation, has a good track record. This is where I’m putting my money.

We are collecting funds as donations to help accommodate Roma refugees coming to Poland. If you wish to support it, this is our internet site (basic information are also available in English) http://www.fundacjawstronedialogu.pl.

Thank you so much for your interest and thoughts! Please help before we have a humanitarian disaster within a disaster.

Life and Death and Why

“Think about it: One moment, you’re a sexually spent adult; the next, you’re a budding youth about to enjoy life all over again.”

Virginia Morell’s brilliant essay, which you can read by clicking the graphic above, perfectly fit my mood this week. A week from last Sunday, my fourteen-year-old grandson was killed in a car crash in Kansas. If you have read my previous post, you know that. What Morell made me think about is a portrait of a family in grief and why we want to be remembered when we’re gone.

Not everybody does want to be immortalized in some way. Some people fade away, alone and unnoticed, but they may wish it were otherwise. On the other hand, some affect (I think it’s an attitude born of resignation mixed with fear?) a cavalier attitude.

“I don’t care where you put me,” said my mother, not wanting to discuss arrangements near the end.

Others, like my husband’s wonderful Aunt Rosemary, met her end with joy. ”I’ll see my husband and Mama and Daddy again.” Her faith in an immortal afterlife was strong.

Yet when we are faced with an unexpected, untimely death, something in many of us rebels. My grandson, yet to live his life in full bloom. The Ukrainian victims of Russia’s hellish thermobaric bombs, their lungs suddenly collapsed mid-step. All those many young Black men and women killed in our streets. The Native women who are simply vanished, too often unsought. And, of course, recently we have all seen or read about so many untimely deaths in the Covid pandemic. If any of these things or something like them has happened to you, I am very sorry for the wounds you have suffered.

I am old enough to regret the misspent hours of my youth. Not the time spent socializing with friends or even a few misdirected acts of mischief. No, it’s the self-denials I regret: the opportunities I passed up out of fear of rejection, the degrees I didn’t get, the the times I didn’t take a chance on love. Still, I did tend to dive in now and then, I did find true love, I did learn a lot, and, okay, I didn’t achieve my goal of being a dedicated scholar, but I did all right and so I have no lasting agonies of remembrance.

Except for one: My nineteen-year-old son killed himself. His was a unique, difficult personality, and I gave birth to him much too young to know how to cope with parenting well. I was still learning about that when he died. The logical part of me knows that he was bipolar and unmedicated by choice and that he refused the psychiatric help I arranged for him. The part of me that is a mother, that had, I thought, an unbreakable bond with him, still chafes and struggles at the unbinding, still wonders why he didn’t let me help him more. Still regrets his absence from our lives. Wonders, now and then, what he would have said about—something, anything. Sees him in every Christmas ornament, every place set at the table, every glimpse of a young man in a hoodie.

That part of me spools a thread between my own heart and that of any parent who loses a child. Recognizes that expression of sudden, desperate acknowledgment of what has happened. It’s that part of me that led me to go to a wake for my young optical technician, whom I barely knew, to hug her father tight and whisper assurances that one day the pain would not be so acute. It’s that part of me that would crawl over hot coals to get to the mothers of Ukraine and Chicago and Los Angeles and Myanmar and Sudan, to hold them and whisper whatever may help.

One of the persons I admire most is Fred Guttenberg, who has turned his grief over the death of his daughter, Jaime, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, into a public reckoning with the reality of losing thousands of children each year to gun violence. He does not hide his tears or his agony while he demonstrates that one can make the end of violence a mission that is not impaired by mourning. And then there is Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, who has sat through hour after agonizing hour of court trials, of watching that video of her son’s last moments over and over again. Who refused the Justice Department’s shameful plea bargain agreement and insisted on a full trial, which ended in the world seeing what the consequences of racial hatred should be.

Truly, I never wanted any immortality except my children. In my Romani-Native, deeply Scottish mountain community, children are everything, our life’s blood, the consequence that must be considered before we spend any resource, make any move, take any decision. All of our lives are about them. Without them, our lives have no lasting purpose, no matter who we are or what we achieve personally. It is not about blood, but about community: our children belong to all of us, and all of us must take care with them. They will carry forth the meaning of our lives and braid something new with our strands.

As I read Morell, I thought that perhaps we humans can only achieve immortality by eschewing violence, by giving up our right to defend resources to the point of war, by putting our children’s lives above all other motives. Maybe her jellyfish and other examples have somehow achieved more than we, with our larger brains and volatile weapons.

When You Cannot Say a Word

let your work speak for you

Weaver’s Knot is going dark today due to the death of my grandson in a car crash. But we cannot be silenced! I am thinking of words to contain all this grief. What do you need to spill onto the page? Be well and love well until I’m back. As always, I want to hear from you—please leave a comment below.

Study Hall, Tuesday February 15: My Book Shelf

What’s on your imaginary bookshelf?

Connie May Fowler has several volumes on my Inspiration Shelf.

I have several special bookshelves in my office. One holds my inspiration books, volumes by writers I admire, whom I turn to now and then to figure out a writing issue or to get ginned up on words in preparation for a writing marathon. Another special shelf holds all the lit mags and anthologies where my work has been published. One very special shelf is part reality, part imaginary—the place where my own books, those I’ve already written and published, and those I hope to publish in the future, reside. However, all those volumes have names:

My book shelf:

Eve’s Garden

Sa-co-in-ge/blue smoke: Poems from the Southern Appalachians

Bird Talk

Chocolate and Roses (also known as The Man Who Loved Chocolate)

The Fruit of Queens

Provenance

A Journey of Moths

Weed Sugar and Other Stories

A Gypsy Poet Walked into a Coffeeshop

Mountain Girls Play Jazz

They’re not wholly imaginary. The first three are reality, already in print. Each of the others have at least an outline, while the last two are collections of poems ive published separately over the years, for which I’m now seeking a publisher. Weed Sugar is, similarly, a collection of short stories and hybrid forms.

I really want to know what’s on your bookshelves. Do you also keep an inspiration shelf? What’s on your future dream shelf?

This one’s a reality.

Study Hall, Tuesday, February 8: Writing While “Gypsy”

What are your building blocks?

I’m always going to prefer bright colors and a little bling. My characters will likely always be dancing and singing and maybe making a stew. There will be romance and adventures and a touch of magic.

Sure, some of these things are stereotypes, or representations of some vitsae (clans) and not others. But they are my reality.

Every woman I know is not going to be thrown out of her clan for being educated and writing, like Zola in the book of that title by Colum McCann, which is a thinly disguised portrait of Bronislawa Wajs, or Papusza, as she is known familiarly—a famous and somewhat tragic Romani poet. (One agent told me my characters weren’t Roma enough, like the ones she read about by McCann, who is not Roma, but did a hell of a lot of research, so respect to him. Still . . . No, the Scottish and English Roma with whom I’m familiar are not the same as the Roma who live in Poland, in several ways.) No, some of my characters will be treasured daughters and will get in entirely different kinds of trouble. We are not all tragic or have to leave our families in disgrace for beings ourselves.

Some, like the character Ruth in my second novel (yet to be published) will be the children of Holocaust survivors who lived through the most harrowing circumstances, but still know how to dance, and laugh, and love. This experience is not one the world wants to allot to Roma, as our recent experience with Whoopi Goldberg showed, since she and her network left us out of her apology and apparently still fails to recognize that we are not white. A streaming service, Netflix, chooses still to air comedian Jimmy Carr’s special, His Dark Material, in which he calls the Nazi genocide against Roma and Sinti a ”positive”—that is, justified. Roma and our friends are calling and cancelling our Net flix subscriptions. Will it help? Will they pull his show? We’ll see. In the meantime, I will write Ruth as true to the life of those I know as possible.

My point is that we are all working within a set of societal expectations, and as writers we can show the people behind myths like dancing ”Gypsies” or tell real though fictional stories based on history, like Ruth in the Holocaust, or we can break out of those expectations altogether and write something entirely new to us, or about people the likes of which we’ve never met, like the wonderful science fiction characters in books by the incredibly talented Caren Gussof Sumption, who happens to be Roma. Would that video game makers and other speculative fiction writers would consult her about being ”Gypsy” while morphing into other life forms.

Whatever we do, whatever we say, we are accountable for it to ourselves and our readers.

What realities or rebellion against reality are you working with or againt?

And if you’re so inclined, the number for Netflix is on the image above.

Study Hall, Tuesday, February 1

Write with an aim, I tell myself nearly every day. I am mostly past the point of needing prompts, because I have so many projects on deck. (However, I think prompts are a great idea to generate new work, and even to plumb the depths of what genius ideas might be lurking back there in the semiconscious mind.)


Above: The cover of my first chapbook, Bird Talk (Wild Dove, 1998)

Today, though, I’d like to recommend a different idea: Write for a project. Let me show you what I mean.

Chapbooks are, of course, small books or “booklets,” traditionally put together to showcase a portion of a poets work, sometimes while we’re on the way to amass enough work for a longer volume. However, these days chapbooks have branched out to include “hybrid” forms that may include poetry, but also short or micro fiction pieces. This is a great way to put together many short pieces and get them into print, extending your published work, and giving new circulation to short pieces or poetry already in print. Also, there are many chapbook contests now that might give you an in at a press that otherwise may be difficult to break into, or a first book that moves you up the writing ladder toward a full collection or volume.

So, today, here’s a thought: Do you have a small body of work, say, 30-50 pages, that might go well together in a chapbook, perhaps with a common theme or genre or point of view? Maybe you have that little cache of horror or fantasy or “space” items that hovers in the back of your mind. Or perhaps you write often about your garden and could easily pull together a collection based on season turnings and work based on garden observations. Or maybe you live baseball and have been writing about it for a time. All could work well in a chapbook. Maybe you need to add one or two new pieces to an otherwise stellar collection?

There are many chapbook publishers and contests. You can find them on Submittable.com. Here’s one that’s open now. Got anything to send?

New Delta Review is thrilled to announce our eleventh annual chapbook competition. For this contest, we’re looking for manuscripts of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or hybrid work. We’re particularly interested in works that challenge traditional understandings of genre and form, though exceptional work of any aesthetic tilt are absolutely of interest.


Entry fee: $8

Final Judge: Dorothy Chan

About the judge: Dorothy Chan (she/they) is the author of most recently, BABE (Diode Editions 2021), in addition to Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets(New Delta Review, 2017). They were a 2020 and 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, a 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University. Their work has appeared in POETRYThe American Poetry ReviewAcademy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Editor Emeritus of Hobart, Book Reviews Co-Editor of Pleiades, and Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Honey Literary Inc., a 501(c)(3) literary arts organization. They are this year’s Resident Artist for Toward One Wisconsin. Visit their website at dorothypoetry.com.


Grand Prize:

  • Publication of chapbook, 25 author copies, and feature in New Delta Review issue 
  • $250



Eligibility: 

  • All manuscripts must be received by March 3, 2022.
  • All submissions require an $8 entry fee and must be entered as .pdf, .doc., or .docx, through Submittable.
  • Manuscripts should be 20-35 pages in length and should include a title page with contact information. While individual pieces within the manuscript may be published elsewhere, the manuscript must be unpublished as a whole. If individual pieces have been published, writers can include an acknowledgments page at the end of the manuscript.
  • Multiple submissions are allowed but require separate entry fees. Simultaneous submissions are welcome on the condition that writers notify NDR of another acceptance as soon as possible.
  • Current students and faculty of LSU are ineligible.

Treason, Reparations, and Other Just Ends

How Arlington Cemetery Came to be and Why Reparations are a Good Idea.

From History.com comes this information about one consequence of the Civil War:

Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate was confiscated by the Union and turned into a cemetery during the war.
As war descended on Virginia, Lee and his wife Mary fled their 1,100-acre Virginia estate, known as Arlington, which overlooked Washington, D.C. In 1863 the U.S. government confiscated it for nonpayment of $92.07 in taxes. Meanwhile, Lincoln gave permission for a cemetery to be built on the property, including a burial vault on the estate’s former rose garden. The idea was that, should Lee ever return, he would “have to look at these graves and see the carnage that he had created,” according to his biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor. After the war, the Lees quietly looked into reclaiming Arlington but took no action before they died. In 1877 their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the federal government for confiscating Arlington illegally; the Supreme Court agreed and gave it back to him. But what could the Lee family do with an estate littered with corpses? George Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000. Over time, 250,000 soldiers would be buried in what is now Arlington National Cemetery.

I’m betting most of us have never known this whole story. When coupled with the general knowledge that Lincoln, like Jefferson and Madison and others, thought that freed slaves should be sent back to Africa, or, in Lincoln’s case, perhaps to a colony in South America funded by the federal government, it prompts some thought.

What is revenge and what is mercy, and how are they connected?

A view of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from public view in Charlottesville, VA in 2019. Photo by NBC News.


I have no tears for Robert E. Lee. His own diary entries show that he knew he was committing treason and would be punished. The fact that he did not try to regain his plantation shows, perhaps, that he accepted the punishment of confiscation. Also, I would imagine that a man who knew the full weight of treason and exactly how he led so many troops to slaughter by dastardly attacks could not face the prospect of looking at the graves of men who died as a consequence of his actions.

As to sending freed African Americans to another continent, one has only to think of the limits to empathy of even brave and intelligent men. Why did they never think to ask the people what they wanted? Why, if the government could fund a colony, did they not think of confiscating more plantations and redistributing the land to those who had built the plantations and worked them? Not even minimal reparation payments?

What this shows me is that the trouble we have with punishing treason may be our wish to wipe away the guilt so that we don’t have to punish people with whom we otherwise agree. Also, that our empathy may still lie with those who commit the act rather than with those who are its victims. Do we empathize with those whose feelings we can fathom rather than with those we see as fundamentally different from us, having survived almost unimaginable horrors?

This past week included Holocaust Remembrance Day. The German government paid reparations for Nazis confiscations and murders to many Jewish families who suffered. It took that same government several decades after the war to admit that Roma and Sinti were also targeted for genocide rather than being the ”asocials” the general society considered them to be, people who perhaps deserved what they got. Roma and Sinti still have not received reparations for Nazi acts during the war. Could it be that White Germans still cannot empathize with an Indic people whose history was impacted greatly by past and present acts of oppression?

I have no trouble with severely punishing those who committed violent acts on January 6, and giving punishments severe enough to cause second thoughts in those who “only” trespassed into the Capitol. Even though they had to have seen violent acts committed to give them entry, they weren’t caught participating in any. Maybe they were there for show, enjoying the drama. Maybe they thought their side would prevail and there would be no consequences. A good story to tell your kids on the porch some summer day—“I was there when the rebellion began.”

What about the officers and their families who suffered from the violence of January 6? Do they not deserve some compensation for the bravery that prevented the mob from overrunning our Capitol?

We trivialize treason and cruelty at our peril. We can see this in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the potential political power and prosperity of many freed slaves was wiped out for generations by Klan acts of barbarity that backed up the Jim Crow laws, and in continued hatred aimed at Black people. I can see it today in the casual acts of racism I witness often in my home state of South Carolina. A place that could be so beautiful, a paradise, but it won’t. At least, not for those who weren’t born into opportunity.

I believe in reparations for horrible systems that citizens allow to exist. I believe that treason should be punished as much because we don’t want future monuments to the perpetrators as because they threatened our safety and wellbeing. And I believe that mercy should go only to those who truly repent, the bulk of our empathy going to those who suffered unjustly.

Punishing traitors and making reparations often go hand in hand.

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