“The Last” — Advent Ghosts 2014

Photo by P. Koskela, Finland

Photo by P. Koskela, Finland

Earth was silent, dark, dense beneath the enormous frame.

Heartbeats grew further apart, the slight tremor of ice shards like glass in long lashes and shaggy coat. A dozen bitter winters, this the first when it is too much to stand.

Thump.

An eyelid raises, cracking its frozen seam to see a bright line in greenish-yellow against the sky’s ink.

No sound or scent of footed life, only the patient gathering scrapes of talon and wing.

The eye is open, the chest is now silent. He draws a breath.

The circle tightens. The sky’s line glows.

One soul rises, absolved.

###


This is an exactly 100-word flash fiction piece for a tradition of writing ghost stories on Christmas Eve. We acknowledge a sinful and hopeless world, and welcome the dawn in full awareness that Christmas day brings us light.

Advent Ghosts 100 Word Storytelling is put on by Loren Eaton at I Saw Lightning Fall. See other entries there.

River Town Holiday #buzznuggets!

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Oh. and there’s this. River Town makes a nice holiday gift . . . You can buy it here. And if money is tight, you can follow the authors on Twitter. That’s like gold to us some days, too!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

Every storyteller has his own style, her own approach, and a unique way of operating a character. To see the same characters driven by different people was like seeing the same person from other perspectives. The characters’ personalities were fuller and better developed. I got to know them better than I could have if they were all written by one author. I was hooked.

— editor/Author Eric Douglas

Rufus had a lot to say, but he’d only say it if he trusted you. That was the way of River Town in general.

— Author Eric Douglas

From “Hayden’s Return” by Katharine Armstrong Herndon (@kaherndon)

Hide in the woods?
For a minute he wondered if the Captain could get him off the boat without being seen. But then he remembered Jack had seen him, and the old woman, and probably someone else he hadn’t even recognized.
It was too late for hiding.

 

From “They Hold Down the Dead” by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher (@ElizGaucher)

The two adventurers walked in silence for a few minutes. Then Hayden said, “You’re brave. I thought you were. I really came up here to find out if you want to see something I found, but it’s not for cowards. Do you want to see it?”
Lillian realized that, no, she really did not want to see something like that, but it was too late now.
“I’m not a coward, she said. “What is it?”

 

From “Racing Miss Jayne Marie” by Eric Douglas (@BooksbyEric)

Glancing up from his log book, JD saw Winthrop, the owner of the Miss Jayne Marie, standing on the dock with his personal secretary, Phiillips . . . “Phillips” was all JD ever heard Winthrop call the man. JD had never heard Phillips speak.

 

From “Being True in River Town” by Jane Siers Wright (@JaneSiersWright)

Dawson nodded. He was in Julia’s debt and it was clear to him she was about to call in the favor.
“I have another such student who needs to reach Parkersburg in order to catch the B&O train to Harper’s Ferry.”
“Why Parkersburg and the B&O? She could go south to Beckley over land to catch a train from there.”
“A southern route would not be the most convenient for this passenger, Captain.”

 

From “Hearing the Past” by Shawna Christos (@ywrite) of James River Writers, “Hearing the Past”

His hands shook as he hunted for the latch. Andrew tried to remember if it had made any sound when he entered ahead of his captor.
He couldn’t remember but it didn’t matter. He had realized there would be no turning back. None for the man his father had hired, and none for Andrew on his present course.

 

From “Wail” by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller (@GeoCamFuller)

At his oak desk in Mr. Winthrop’s house — for the last time, in all likelihood — Francis Treet Phllips swings the ledger closed and runs his palm across the aged leather. A full accounting. The pieces are all arrayed in their places, each and every one. To Mr. Winthrop, the game begins tonight, after the race, but Phillips knows it is already finished.)

 

Enjoy these snippets? Read more here: http://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.

West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow: Writing an American Vignette

vignette (vɪˈnjɛt) – n.
1. a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter
2. a short graceful literary essay or sketch

I’m in good company having been rejected by Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (see “Wooing Brevity”); nonetheless, I dream of joining that other, smaller party — the one with writers who have wooed and won some DInty W. Moore love. Brevity is where a lot of CNF types like me hang out and admire fine writing. The journal publishes writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.

My 750 words were bounced back about two years ago, and I can say with confidence that my work has improved since then. I have a long way to go, but when I look back at what I sent to Brevity, I see one of my most egregious writing flaws glaring back at me, the tendency to stay in my own head and talk to myself on paper. I struggle with setting, with scene, with grounding events and people in a tangible world. I am learning how to create a place that a reader can enter and experience.

In Andrea Badgley’s call for submissions on the Brevity blog, I saw an opportunity.

Andrea Reads America: A Literary Tour of the USA is Badgley’s  effort to read literature by authors in all 50 states. She writes, “I want to see the state from different points of view. Whenever possible, I would like to read authors who are native to or are longtime residents of the state they set their fiction in, for whom the land is a part of their psyche.” American Vignette is the creative nonfiction component of her journey.

My vignette is about some of my experience growing up as a West Virginian. My family spans generations of Appalachian people. I have a loyalty to the state and an affection for it despite its many flaws that is difficult to explain. I’ve blogged about my feelings and their complexities on Esse Diem before, but with American Vignette I captured some of my favorite elements from a longer work. I also tried to make the narrative more reader-inclusive — to “teach the reader something” as one of my professors said — and not be satisfied with an internal monologue that just happens to be written. The original essay had ragged emotional edges. I was in a lot of pain when I first started writing about West Virginia, and it shows in my the early drafts. Revising those drafts and consolidating them into a sharper piece helped give me closure in some ways. My experience is still there and unchanged, but it has been tempered with time. I am becoming able to reflect and engage outside of my own distress.

For me, my essay is about losing my grip on an important place. It’s about hard questions and unknowable answers. I anticipate some people might be unhappy with this vignette and think that it is unfair or unkind to West Virginia. This is about my observations, experiences, and decisions. It is in no way intended to be the final word on anything, or even the only word. I hope my essay will generate online discussion. West Virginia is complex and contradictory. At times it is an unbearable series of shouts off a mountainside, the caller waiting for a response that seems never to come.

But we linger a little longer.

(You can read my American Vignette on Andrea’s blog project here.)

Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain.

#MyWritingProcess

Today is my day on The Blog Tour, where writers and authors answer questions about their writing processes. My friend Suzanne Farrell Smith posted about her work last week. She is a wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent writer’s writer, and I urge you to check out her process here: http://suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/my-writing-process/

An absolute must-read is her collaborative work with Cheryl Wilder in the journal Hunger Mountain: The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life. I can do no better describing The Blog Tour than to quote Suzanne:

“We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook… ”

I am an enrolled graduate student in my second semester pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College; my concentration is in the Creative Nonfiction genre. You can read about my published and soon-to-be-published writing projects in detail here, Elizabeth Gaucher. My Twitter handle is @ElizGaucher.

What am I working on?

My MFA work is my primary focus right now. In my first semester I worked closely with Dr. Eric Waggoner, whose take-no-prisoners rock and roll style became a viral sensation nationwide when his essay about the Freedom Industries chemical spill appeared in The Huffington Post. This semester I am mentoring with Professor Richard Schmitt whose work, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” was chosen for The Best American Essays 2013. I am truly humbled by these opportunities.

I write personal essays throughout each semester, and I continue to search for the unifying element that will thread it all together.  I thought it would be experience in the natural world, but that hasn’t been it. I thought it might be some family history stories, but that isn’t exactly it either. I think I am avoiding something major, but that hasn’t shown itself. For now I keep writing and revising, waiting for the mystery to reveal itself; sometimes I think that’s all you can do, be patient and persistent and wait for The Muse to talk to you.

I am also working on my second River Town story. My first story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16-year-old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. The story I am working on now is called “The Letter Opener.” This story is a prequel to the first and is about Lillian’s mother, Lorraine, not long after the Civil War. 

Me and River Town!

Me and River Town!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of my work blends childhood experience and spiritual awareness. I started an online publishing project called Essays on Childhood, and through that I help other writers find their voices for some of their untold stories.

I’m also digging into the experience of leaving my home state of West Virginia. I left it a long time ago to go to college and stayed gone for over ten years, but I came back. Why I did that and why I left again, for good, is the focus of some recent essays. This idea of place — what it means and why we return to it and why we let it go –fascinates me.

I’ve been told that my work is “unsentimental” and that that is a good thing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it the first few times I heard it, but then in one of my MFA seminars I heard this: Your work is sentimental when it gives the reader only one way to feel. 

I am glad I’m not doing that! That’s just plain boring.

Why do I write what I do?

This question was harder to answer than I expected; and I think it’s turned out to be very simple. I want to understand life, and I want other people to have moments of understanding and connection through my work. In a self-centered way I hope my writing will allow others to know who I am, and in the Big Picture I hope that my writing will add to a body of work that connects all of us through those recognition moments in human experience . . . those moments when you are reading and for awhile you feel less alone.

How does my writing process work? 

I do a lot on a laptop computer. When I wrote A Rebranded Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness, I went down in to my parents’ basement to do the work. In that place I could be isolated and in complete quiet. It also had the unintended but I think powerful effect of putting myself, quite literally, in a place where I lived long before I became ill. Physically being in that place amplified my feelings of loss, of grief, but also of safety and love.

a-spiritual-life1

When I was writing “They Hold Down the Dead” for River Town, I started using the cloud computing available through Google Drive. Drive touts itself as “One Safe Place for All Your Stuff” and I have found that to be true. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the terrifying world of saving my drafts on a hard drive that may or may not want to work with me tomorrow!

I need quiet surroundings to write well. I love to be alone, but life rarely affords any of us not residing in a monastery total peace, quiet, and solitude. I like to get up early before the sun and I work as much as possible when I have my house to myself.

I’ve finally given myself permission to just write without self editing as I go, crazy random “mental shenanigans” to loosen up that part of the brain that has things to say that are so often censored. Here’s a brief insight into this exercise:

What if one of the things you can never stop doing is thinking about James and the Giant Peach? And how in the library of your mind the book cover is gone and that becomes your new hallmark of a great book and there’s a guy from high school who will never shut up about some animal he trapped when you try to tell him about the greatness of this book?

It’s like he is everything that is wrong with the world and doesn’t even know it. And your coverless book is everything that’s right, this worn out old crazy book about a peach carried by spider’s or was it silk worm’s strands high, high, high above the ocean by greedy seagulls who a little boy risked his friend to trick into being snared by the silk threads.

About how he escaped his alleged family who hated him. About how even though the peach was only a peach after all even though it was giant and would one day disintegrate or be eaten like every other peach in the world, this one was giant, and carried a child to a new and luminous and distant life. I can’t stop thinking about it.

This kind of early a.m. writing puts me more in touch with the parts of my mind that want to say things I don’t usually let them say. Those subjects, when drafted and revised and shared, can be elements in the most effective stories.

Finally, there is a saying, “The best writing is re-writing.” I’ve come to see revision as an act of love for my work, not as a grueling task. I believe it is a privilege to receive readers’ feedback and to earn their honesty when something is not working. I think it’s essential to listen and respond to those kinds of things in order to grow as a writer.

NEXT WEEK

Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is her first book for adults. She blogs about death and grief’s role in culture at www.rachaelhanel.me. You can find Rachael on Twitter at @Rachael18.

I invited Rachael to The Blog Tour because she is a dedicated professional writer, frequent blogger, and generous with her talents. We can all learn from her self-discipline and willingness to engage and share in the writing community.

Shauna Hambrick Jones is a native daughter of West Virginia and a proud graduate of WV Wesleyan College’s MFA program. She has been published in Vandalia, Wesleyan’s literary journal; Connotation Press: An Online Artifact; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and DaughtersShe’s a self-described grateful wife and mother; lover of words, Texas Hold ’Em, Prince’s music, and reading in the bath until her toes are waterlogged. Connect with Shauna on her blog, Mental Shenanigans, or on Twitter, @ShaunaGJones.

I invited Shauna to The Blog Tour because she is a personal friend and we studied together in the WVWC MFA program. She also has an attraction to baring her soul through her writing. She is devoted to her work, and she takes amazing risks that pay off. She’s someone to listen to, someone to read.

Vernon Wildy, Jr., is a resident of Glen Allen, Virginia. He has published his work on sites such as Esse Diem for the Essays on Childhood, The Man Cave Podcast, Intentional Walk Review, and his own poetry blog, I Got Something to Say. He published his novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Connect with Vernon on Facebook via his author page, and on Twitter, @VernonWildyJr.

I invited Vernon to The Blog Tour because he understands that writers need community. Every Wednesday (just about) on Twitter he tweets a Happy Writers’ Wednesday (#WW) to his writer friends and associates. It touches me that he is so loyal and so constant in his efforts to thread us all together, even in a brief occasional social media moment. He also brought up a story about his adolescence that was painful and real and honest for the Essays on Childhood project. Read his essay, The Jersey, and get to know this authentic storyteller.


“Vacancy” — Advent Ghosts 2013

Vacancy

Raking his fingers through his hair, he paused at the temples. She was silent, eyes tight with increasing pain.

Filthy, really, where he’d sent her to finish but he couldn’t have her bleeding inside. And maybe she was a screamer. No one wanted to hear that.

His animals were circling, facing the doorway where the woman entered. He saw them from his bedroom window. He could see everything. He pulled a blanket over his head to shut out the light.

Tomorrow, that woman and whoever else was with her now had to go. He would make sure they were gone.

(Read more 100-word creepy stories from a range of writers on I Saw Lightening Fall’s Advent StorytellingCheck out my stories from previous years here.)

The World Blanches before Winter: Preparing for Advent Ghosts 2013

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2013, the fifth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my third year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

Last year, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

This year I am again using a sacred story in “Vacancy.” I’m curious to know if you can identify it. Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post on Friday, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!