Friday, December 16, 2011

Home is the Room

Home is the room my mother uses as a canvas to paint a scene of Adam and Eve in paradise, lions and tigers and elephants and me.

Home is the rooftop of an apartment in the fan where I learn how to smoke cigarette butts from the ashtray while my Dad is in the shower.

Home is where my Barbies sleep.

Home is the quiet dorm where I am in charge of the freshman girls but instead catch my head on fire.

Home is an apartment above a Chianti store and across from a pastry shop when I am 20 and hungry, not for education or knowledge, but for decadence and experience, and also Chianti and pastries.

Home is the second floor with the window that you whistle up to once out of 365 days of waiting for your whistle.

Home is the pyramid of rocks my dad stacked at the top of the mountain where he'd planned to build a home but instead built four foundation posts and a pyramid of rocks.

Home is across the street from the house I've lived in my entire life where my mom moved when I was 15, dragging boxes of stuff in front of and behind her, diagonal, 100 yards, from one front door to another.

Home is the apartment across the hall my Dad moved into while I was at school, as a surprise.

Home is the dark hollow open basement with the fireplace and the view of the horses across the lake and the manual typewriter and the oriental rugs, that my Dad gave me the year he finally stopped moving and I left for college.

Home is the boat my Grandpa kept next to the pier that my Grandma fell off of.

Home is the nursing home my Grandpa thought was a whorehouse where he was the Sheriff in the last few years before he died.

Home is the room that was my room as a child that is my son's room now.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religious (Mis)Education

Now that my son has begun to successfully navigate the world of public education I’m grappling with the idea of introducing him to a religious one. I have my own spiritual connection with the world around me and I pray constantly: Dear God! Thank God! God Dammit! And my favorite, Thank God Dammit! I love folklore and myths and stories and some of the most interesting are found in the Bible--Old Testament or New. But must we leave the gates of our own Garden of Eden for him to gain knowledge about God?

My son, like me, is Jewish because his mother is. And like me, he has more than Jewish blood running through his veins. I’m not sure if the fact that I never dated Jewish men is due to random chance or the Jewish cotillion I attended in middle school where none of my dance partners reached my chin, but like my mom, I married a goy. Whoever and whatever my son chooses for himself as an adult is fine with me. But right now I’m as hesitant to thrust him into the world of religion as I’d be to force him to visit just one booth on Career Day. I think it’s perfectly fine for a person still missing their two front teeth to aspire to be a wildlife biologist, organic farmer and bowling alley repairman in equal measure. And I’m just as hesitant to make him choose a single path to God.

However, as much as I want to spare him the dogma, I worry that he might miss some character building, too. My mother and I attended a New Age Church until I hit puberty when I suddenly found myself at synagogue wearing a Star of David. My first Sunday School teacher, a guard at a juvenile detention center, seemed to derive real pleasure from explaining, in great detail, the labor pains of childbirth. Our teacher the following year regaled us with horror stories about the Holocaust. My next and last teacher dedicated the entire year to suicide prevention, which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea, but not much fun. And, other than teaching me the Hebrew alphabet, I don’t remember our rabbi discussing anything other than the political and socio-economic details of The War in the Middle East.

All of which made the trappings of Christianity on my father’s side pretty tempting. She never said it, but I had the feeling my Grandma wanted me saved, not to be a better living girl, but a better dead one. The trilogy of romantic adventure Jews-for-Jesus books she’d given me when I was twelve were successful as page turners, but not as missionaries. By then I was already studying for my Bat Mitzvah and couldn’t squeeze Jesus into any picture other than the fluorescent velvet one I later bought to hang on my dorm room wall. But I always felt a little jealous of my Grandma’s certainty about salvation, not to mention the endless abundance of lemonade and sugar cookies her church handed out like blessings.

When my Grandma died and bequeathed me- her only Jewish grandchild- the golden crucifix she’d worn for as long as I’d known her, I was touched. I tried to put it around my neck but found that I could not wear it any more than I could belt out the hymns at the Gospel Chicken House where my father brought me once, on a whim. There the hootin’ hollerin’ foot stompin’ good time was almost enough to make me run and dunk myself in the river. But not quite.

And this year as the holidays approach I feel less of a need to shake who I am than ever. I struggle with routine so Hanukkah is eight times more difficult to celebrate than Christmas, but once again we’ll do it all. And though I don’t really think my son needs anyone to tell him what to believe, it’s likely I’ll pass on my almost supernatural love of New Years Eve, when the hope for reinvention and the promise of a clean slate—if only on my calendar— seems even more miraculous then the resurrection.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Give Me Pastries or Give Me Death

My mother, a button maker, used to make a button that said “I was about to end it all when God spoke to me in the form of a chocolate éclair.” I love this because it can be used in so many situations, chiefly “I was about to start jogging when….”

Actually, I did start jogging this week. In the rain and the cold, up hill and down dale, pausing only to blow my nose in a really sexy, athletic way or to yell at one neighbor “Oh GOD! What was I thinking?” I cheer myself on as the real joggers in their real jogging gear leave me behind in a wake of soggy leaves, at last bursting into the house, panting, hotter than hell, feeling terrific and clocking in at a full 12 minutes. Oh Jesus, I think, where are the pastries?

Maybe I was a pastry chef in a past life--- or a pastry. I can’t make them, but I can eat them. And they taste like love. Better, actually.

Donuts, scones, croissants, danishes, tarts, cupcakes, jelly rolls, pies, ladyfingers: the kind of love you can buy for the price of a cup of coffee—and eat with one.

Of course my pastry-tooth comes with a price. The price of my thighs. The price of the jiggle and the squish. The price of the piles of jeans mounting like the dead in the corner of the dressing room stall. The price of the sugar highs and lows. The price of Snow White’s Queen who envies, instead of a step-daughter, her own 23-year-old self who had no idea how beautiful she was- or could be.

When I was 23 and working on a cruise ship in Alaska, the chief steward found a ripped open cardboard box of muffins in the storage closet behind the galley. “What kind of wild animal did this?” he asked. It wasn’t me, but I knew what kind of wild animal it was and could be. The wild animal who craves sweetness when she can’t give it to herself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What I Wear

I wear socks to bed. I'm that kind of girl- always have been. I don't make them match either. I gave up on that a few years ago when I gave up on laundry. If I took my boots off right now you'd see two different colored socks. One might be pink, one orange and green striped, who knows? All in all, socks might be the wildest thing about me. At least from a glance, if you could see through my shoes.

I've just about quit jewelry, too. I wear two pearl drop earrings that I received a free coupon for in the mail and sent my husband to fetch for me as a gift two Christmas' ago. Rings, too, have been whittled away-- other than my engagement and wedding band. When I got married I was more horrified about the idea of having to wear the same two rings for the rest of my life than the idea of living forever with just one man. Both now seem the most direct, straightforward route, allowing for deviation in more creative ways.

I have a collection of beautiful necklaces that go largely unworn. My mother hated to wear necklaces-- she said they constricted her energy. She disparaged her own neck as short and squat compared to mine-- "a swan's" and recently apologized to me for the disparity in how she talked about her body parts while teaching me to think in opposite ways about mine. I think her neck with its scar the surgeon cut like a smile from collar bone to collar bone to remove the tumor that could have made me a motherless child, is beautiful. I don't feel like wearing necklaces anymore either and I think of her as I let my neck stand plain, stand for itself.

Now, most days of the month I'm more pigeon or crow, less peacock. No more orange, magenta and mellow yellow hair. No more vintage purple prom dresses over orange fishnets and ratty combat boots. I try now, as often as possible, to speak for myself instead of hoping what I wear will do it for me. But then, of course, there are those days when all I pray for are feathers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beyond Barbie: Life in the First Person

Life in the First Person: Women’s Stories Uncovered

A novelist. A storyteller. A poet. A freelance writer. A performance artist. A creative nonfiction writer. A blogger.

What do they all have in common?

The first person.

Their experiences and their points of view are different, but their pronouns are the same.

Find out what comes after “I.”

Come out to hear life in the first person with Gigi Amateau, novelist; Denise Bennett, storyteller; Tarfia Faizullah, poet; Julie Geen, freelance writer; Shelia Gray, performance artist; Valley Haggard, creative nonfiction writer and Alex Iwashyna, blogger.

Life in the First Person: Women’s Stories Uncovered will serve as the grand finale in the event series, Beyond Barbie: Piecing Together Today's Woman running in conjunction with Susan Singer’s art opening, “Not Barbie: A Celebration of Real Women,” on Thursday, November 3, at 7 PM at Crossroads Art Center. Tickets can be purchased online at or through Crossroads Art Center or at the door.

Purchase tickets and find out more about Susan Singer's art opening, Not Barbie, and the event series, Beyond Barbie at SusanSingerArt.Blogspot.Com!

Gigi Amateau is the author of the young adult novel, A Certain Strain of Peculiar, a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year. She also wrote Chancey of the Maury River, a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. She recently completed 200-hour yoga teacher training. Visit

Denise Bennett tells personal stories, her original versions of traditional stories and sacred stories often interlaced with harp and vocal music. She is a member of the Tell Tale Hearts Storytellers Theater in Richmond. Master storyteller Elizabeth Ellis has said of her, “Denise Bennett is a storyteller and a musician of exceptional talent. Her work is timeless, and flawless. Her work reminds us of the love that dwells in the deep heart's core.” Visit her at

Tarfia Faizullah is a graduate of VCU's creative writing program, and the former associate editor of Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Daily, Diode, Bellingham Review and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project award, the Ploughshares Cohen Award and a Fulbright scholarship.

Julie Geen writes a monthly column for belle magazine and is a contributor to Style Weekly. She has published essays in anthologies, most recently “Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost.” Along with raising children, dealing with pets and her own mind, she teaches creative writing classes through Hanover Parks and Recreation. Currently, she is turning one of her screenplays into a novel, and from there probably into a face book post. She blogs at

Shelia Gray is a graduate of the VCU Crafts Department, focusing in metal smithing, textiles and glass. She is currently involved in creating wearable art and costumes, as well as performance art and body painting for fashion shows, events and special projects. She’s writing a mixed-media graphic novel which incorporates sculptures and performance pieces. A self-employed gardener, she has winters off to do what ever she likes.

Valley Haggard, the executive director of Richmond Young Writers, teaches creative writing to kids at Chop Suey Books and creative nonfiction to adults at Chop Suey, Black Swan Bookstore and the Visual Arts Center. On the board of the James River Writers, she has written for Style Weekly, Belle, Rhome, V Magazine and Skirt and has published chapters of her memoir in The Writer’s Dojo and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. Visit her at or

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in Philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM (stay at home mom), writer and poet before thirty. She spends most of her time on blogging about life, parenting, marriage, culture and her inability to wake up in the morning and not hate everyone. She also writes for, teaches at the Visual Arts Center and manages enough freelance work to guarantee sexy circles under her eyes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thank You Letters to Bad Boyfriends

Having recently survived our ten year wedding anniversary, my husband tells me that he’s going to write a book about marriage called, “So, I Have to _____ You the Rest of My Life?”

“You’ll open it,” he says, “and there will be only one word inside: ‘YES.’ He laughs. “And then the back cover will say ‘Deal with it!’”

While he’s finishing up his bestseller, I’m hard at work on a project of my own. An old-school letter writer, I’ve saved several trash bags of mail in the attic corresponding to color-coded ribbons by person and place. I’m also a borderline hoarder of stationery with more post-it notes and postcards than notches in my bed post. And so, in an effort to both clean out my desk and apply the principal of positive thinking that suggests one write “thank you” on each bill, including those to the IRS, I have decided a new generation of letters are in order. Not to pen pals or congressman, not to my teen self, my senior self or my yet to be reincarnated self, but to a certain order of human that had a direct impact on my personal evolution. Genus: Ex-boyfriend, Species: Bad.

But why spend time writing letters to creatures such as these when there are bills to pay and books to write? To find closure, to seal the deal, to put a stamp on it. To decode the pattern and find the common thread, the one that runs through me, even still. To get in at last, the final word---in writing, even if the addressee is now unknown.

I need only deviate slightly from standard block form.

Dear Fill in the Blank:

Hi! How are you?? I’m writing to thank you for changing my life! Remember how you whipped out three things on our first date and the only one I wanted to touch was your gun? How, after dating for three months you never learned how to spell my name, how you read my stories and told me I really needed to travel, taped underwear models to your walls because you thought they looked like you, pretended not to recognize me even while running from the police, went to Hooters instead of returning my call, told me I drove a shitty car when I told you that I loved you?

Well, I’m writing to thank you, to thank you for making me the stunningly incredible woman that I am today. Sure, there were bad times, but we had our good times, too. For example, if you hadn’t been exactly who you were, there’s a chance I’d be with you still. If you hadn’t left me- or made me leave you- I would have found nowhere else to go. You gave me something to push against, something to become better than. While cracking open my heart, you formed my character, straightened my spine, and toughened my skin. You illuminated the darkest parts of me, the ones that needed light the most. In the end, not only did you give me something to work on and laugh about; you gave me world class material. To repurpose the famous quote by Tolstoy, “Happy relationships are all alike. The terrible ones will give you something interesting to write about for the rest of your life.”

So, thank you, bless you and God speed. I hope you learned as much from me as I learned from you.

PS: Can I have your forwarding address?

As I lick the envelopes shut, sealing a few with a kiss and cursing the others, my husband reminds me again that water always seeks its own level. This is a bitter sweet pill to swallow, the one that brought me to him. And so now it’s time to write the next frontier of thank you notes-- living acts of gratitude both to him and my son, who remind me on a daily basis that not only are boys red-blooded human beings, but I am too.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Don’t Know

I don’t know if I’m supposed to spend my days in pursuit of my manuscript or my happiness.

I don’t know if my friend’s professor who warned “beware of getting too happy; you’ll never finish your book,” was right or wrong but I know as the mouse I’m hard wired to search out the cheese and to bite and to chew and to search out the cheese again- even if it’s secured in the steel jaws of a trap.

I don’t know if the words I have to say are louder than the voice I have to say them with.

I don’t know which currency I hold.

I don’t know if I can exchange the credit of my writing for the cold hard cash of the spoken word, contracts, whispers, demands.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to spend so much time thinking about tense, point of view, perspective, if I’m allowed to love even the things that I'm sure to edit out.

I don’t know if I should jump off cliffs just to write cliffhangers. I don’t know if I should make major life decisions based on their affect on the arc of my story. I don’t know if I should create stories based on their influence on the arc of my life.

I don’t know if I need someone to fatten me up or to pare me down, to say “eat this child, eat that,” or if I need to lay my cabinets bare, pitching the curd, the chaff, the spoilt, the stale, the last crumbs that I’ve been holding onto, like a hoarder of scraps and words, made fat by leftovers.

I don’t know if I can make linear progress with chapter titles and word counts and page numbers and outlines or if one day the sum total of my jumbled contents will assemble themselves neatly onto the page, like a tidy house that I could actually move into and live.

I don’t know if I can exchange my internal editor for someone’s else’s, a kinder, gentler, slightly more organized, totally balanced internal editor, the way some people borrow each other’s Gods, just to get through.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to know or if it's to ask, to let it unfold, whether answers ever come or just a new line of questions.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Love Is a Vehicle Like Any Other

My husband is more tempted to look at cars than women. Which is good, except when it isn’t. Cars are so hot and heavy on his mind that all you’d have to do is spread one with butter and he’d eat it for dinner. I, on the other hand, know nothing about what I’m driving, other than the color. My current car is orange. In my defense, I can drive stick, and for that matter a horse. I also know my way around a riding lawn mower- with a hot cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And I’m no snob about public transportation either. Some of my most formative hours were spent on Greyhound or Amtrak making my way from one coast to the other. It’s not that I don’t like cars—I just don’t understand them.

When I met Stan, he manhandled ten tons of tires every Friday at an auto repair shop. I, at the time, was driving a '79 Volvo station wagon— white-- that I’d bought from my Aunt Barbara for $400. She tried to talk me out of it but I argued with her and won. Having just gotten off a boat in Alaska, it fit my price range and my life style. That big white Volvo was a huge, sinking ship. I couldn’t have been happier. I didn’t want to drive anything fancier than me.

But when it started dragging its underbelly along the road in a very uncomely way, Stan offered to have look at it for me. I refused. I would take care of it myself. I think that’s when he considered asking me to marry him. I wasn’t the stereotypical needy girl who would count on a man to fix her car-- or her life. Yet.

Things have changed. When a man moves into your house and you give birth to his child, that tends to happen. I now count on him to fix everything— from the broken floor furnace to the pipes that have cracked open in the crawl space under our house. A few nights ago when he took a wrench to the valves behind the wall of the bathtub after rewiring the hot water heater allowing me to take a bath with more than a teaspoon of tepid water, I decided we could renew our vows-- at least for the next ten years. I no longer want to do everything myself. I don’t have time. I have books to read, classes to teach, important metaphysical questions to ponder. And I’m Ok with that. I still have a secret fantasy of being a tough pioneer woman who shoots her own dinner and builds her own house but this life doesn't seem to be heading in that direction. I may not know a single damn thing about home or auto repair, but I’ve gotten a lot better at asking for— and accepting help. And Stan’s gotten better at negotiating.

When my front headlight bulb went out a few weeks ago, I explained to him in great detail exactly how things would go down were I to take matters into my own hands. He eventually conceded, and in the parking lot of Advanced Auto Parts, he had the pleasure of not only changing my bulb but another lady’s as well. And from how he described her car, it sounded like it was just his type.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

JRW Conference 2011

Friday, Saturday, Oct. 7-8
The Library of Virginia
Workshops on Thursday, Oct. 6

Authors. Agents. Insiders.

And you.

Join us in Richmond to pitch your project, learn how to improve your craft and meet fellow writers. Among featured speakers are Robert Goolrick, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Reliable Wife, Tayari Jones, author of Leaving Atlanta, Karl Marlantes, author of the New York Times bestseller Matterhorn, and Kathi Appelt, Newbery Honor Award-winning author of The Underneath. Other noteworthy conference events include these:

Pitchapalooza - Sharpen your pitching skills with national book
marketing experts David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut
Hands-on workshops on query letters, poetry, and pitching an agent
One-on-one meetings with distinguished literary agents
Panels led by national and regional leaders in publishing
New sessions on using Facebook, Twitter and other social media

Find out more and register online at:!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Ancient Art of Camping: Reluctantly Claiming My Birthright

Camping should be in my blood. It should be my birthright.

After all, I was conceived in a tent on my mother’s birthday in the middle of October above the valley that would become my namesake. As a girl, my dad took me on many long trips into the mountains where, between campfires, my friends and I were allowed to run wild, shooting bows and arrows, creating our own battle cries and imaginary worlds. We ate hotdogs and marshmallows, running through the woods in our nightgowns like feral cats. Even when we were miserable, we were happy. I remember cracking my eyes open in the pre-dawn light surprised I hadn’t frozen to death, and on weekends at home directing the AC vents into my face to recreate the feeling.

I was no Girl Scout (unless you count being a Brownie for a year in hopes of getting s special rate on the cookies) but my Dad taught me how to pitch a tent, gather kindling, build a campfire and hold onto the rails in the back of the pick up while he sped down the mountain. My mother too had a taste for nature, giving me a grand tour of KOAs from here to Wyoming, stashing a certain yellow “Homemade Soup” grocery bucket in our tent for after-hours emergencies.

In my early twenties I roughed it with the best of them. I knew how to wash my whole body in one small sink and thoroughly enjoy a meal of half-cooked rice and crunchy beans. Chain-smoking while hiking without coughing was a point of pride. Camping, back then, was cool. And, hiking boots over long johns beneath beaded, ratty dresses, I was the height of cool.

So I’m not sure when exactly I started connecting more deeply with my mouse than other woodland creatures. Or when Netflix, Tivo and Xbox became easier to operate than an oil lamp or a Sterno. Or when G-Mail and Facebook began to offer more lifeblood than sunsets and gargling brooks. Or why my husband is more prone to hunting aliens and zombies than our dinner.

In our most recent power outage (AKA: Armageddon) when I was sent reeling back to my nature-baby-with-no-status update-roots I had a come to Jewish-Jesus moment. I’d been out scavenging like a cockroach for WiFi through the crumbs of Krispy Kreme and coffee grounds. “Why, oh WHY don’t I have a Smart Phone?” I’d keened, feeling dumb indeed. But my son had a different reaction. “Let’s go camping!” he said.

“OK,” I said, because although this sounded about as fun as eating steel wool, my hair had already started to dread, making me nostalgic for the olden days. “If we’re going to be this gross we might as well go camping!” I said. My husband pulled his truck into the yard and we started to throw stuff from the inside out, including the Incredible Hulk sleeping bag that had given me nightmares as a child. We packed everything but the kitchen sink—or anything else that might need to be plugged in.

Even without power, something switched on as soon as we got to our campsite. Instead of feeling dirtier, I felt like a swath of static electricity had suddenly been stripped away. We went skinny dipping in the river and made our own pit for a fire. Although we ate food from wrappers, it tasted better- like we’d earned it. When we finally lay down in our bags, it wasn’t quiet and dark—the moon was bright and the crickets were loud. There was a lot going on in those woods--- a whole lot more than I had remembered. I was glad I’d gotten unplugged long enough to let it soak back in.

And I’m proud to say that I not only survived sixteen full hours away from civilization, but my son, who will turn seven the week of Halloween, now knows how to do everything the Pope knows how to do--- in the woods. It’s his birthright, too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dead Brother & Prom Queen Make Their Debut

It's not as bad as it sounds. It's a lot worse-- and a lot better. When Julie Geen and I read the call for submissions for the anthology Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost we knew we couldn't let the opportunity pass us by. Not when we had such a vast wealth of material to draw from. Not when the editor was Shawna Kenney, author of the cult-classic "I Was A Teenage Dominatrix," the first book I reviewed after calling my old editor from the bathroom of my new job where they'd made me put on an apron, begging to write for him again.

And so, last winter, Julie and I holed up in a seedy motel to write our hearts out. (And eat chocolate.) And re-write our hearts out. And dot the i's and cross the t's splayed across the polyester queen bedspread where we examined a few of those moments that changed us forever-- when we weren't eating chocolate, that is. And then we put the bloody things back together. It was excruciating and it was fun. It was exhilarating and it was exhausting. And in the end, it felt good to get these stories off our chests and between the covers of a book. And now we feel really honored and tickled by the opportunity to read together- twice in the next three weeks. First, at a bookstore that feels better than home and next at Atomic Books: Literary Finds for Mutated Minds where John Waters picks up his mail. Join us, won't you?

Read on for a little taste of each of our stories:

DEAD BROTHER by Julie Geen, an excerpt

I played the dead brother card for years after he died. Weekdays, I waited for the bus to take me from the suburban Colorado prairie, a land made more empty by the tract houses that replaced miles of waving grass, to a city school. My cruel best friend Wendy waited with me. Her David Cassidy haircut, the very best thing a person of either sex could have in 1974, and her ability to smoke at age twelve without coughing, made her my master.

“All you talk about is horses, and it’s boring,” she told me, bringing instant tears. When she rolled her eyes and asked what was wrong I said, “I’m crying about Mikey.” She narrowed her eyes, but she got quiet.

It really only worked once. After that, she said, “You just want me to feel sorry for you.”

We have a home movie of when he was just home from the hospital. He’s a little clay infant, and my mom is trying to breathe life into him. She’s animated and uses her whole body and her mouth moves, pumping him with encouraging words. He has the round, bland angel face of all Downs babies, his eyes unfocused and his body at once stiff and limp. It’s fruitless, you can tell.

My father had a knack with the Super 8. His shots were well staged: he came in late and left early, like a good director should. He captured rainbows, my mom with her arms curved reverently around a lapful of kittens, Christmas trees radiating tinsel, my brother like a little owl in his bouncy seat taking it all in. And, of course, me. My first ecstatic, out of control ride on my new rocking horse, my cakes, my friends in pointed party hats. There is also lots of footage of my mom’s butt. Pretty much every time he picked up the camera he got a shot or two.

I played with my brother. We shared a room in our tiny ranch house, me in my twin bed and him in his crib. He would lie on his back and stare, and I would pretend he was my husband and cook things for him, prattling away, pumping him with my own words. He sucked up all the attention in our house. He needed all the life we had.

PROM QUEEN by Valley Haggard, an excerpt

After driving past a dozen stands on the side of the road selling vegetables to eat, wear or hang as art on the wall, we pass a green highway sign that says “Gateway, Arkansas; Population: 67.”

“This is it,” says Will Jr. “But I’ll have to change that sign.” He laughs. “Sixty-seven plus us. Sixty-nine.”

Going to live with his recently widowed dad in Arkansas seems like a better option than waiting tables in Virginia and living with my mom. On the road, we take turns driving and camping in my little tent with only half its poles. The heat he generates in the sleeping bag is almost enough, but not quite, to make me love him.

Last summer Will Jr. had asked me to marry him on a dude ranch in Colorado. He’d been a wrangler and I’d been a cabin girl, but after getting pregnant, I’d given him his ring back. I was twenty-two and not ready to be anyone’s mother, or wife.

Arkansas, however, with its shaggy fields of bulls and buffalos stretched between doublewides and junk stores, I love instantly. In a new place like this, anything can happen and I pray that it will. Will Jr. tells me that his relationship with his old man isn’t easy and I ask him to tell me any relationships that are. “Us,” he says. “You and me.” But I begin to count cows instead of saying anything back and he jiggles his knee up and down for the rest of the drive, turning at last onto a dirt road that winds through the trees to his father’s farm. Will Sr. is waiting for us on the front porch of a wood cabin, a cigarette dangling between his lips as if he’s been there all day. He is wearing a red flannel shirt, a white t-shirt, blue jeans, leather boots and a cowboy hat. He’s not exactly handsome, but his blue eyes light up bright when he sees us and the white hair swirling around his temples seems a wild sort of distinguished.

“Welcome to your new home,” he says, leading us through the overgrown field to the blockhouse, a small metal shack about a hundred yards past his cabin. A bare double mattress is crammed between raw lumber and a tangle of shovels and rakes. Will Jr. pushes our canvas army sack through the cobwebs under a workbench as I sit down on the mattress and watch dust float up around my thighs.

There is no sink or toilet and I can’t name half of the rusted tools or machines on the shelves above our heads, but at least it’s completely different from what I’ve left behind.

“We’ll take it,” I say. “Home, sweet home.”

Come hear the rest!

Sat., Sept.24
7 pm
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Richmond, VA

Sat., Oct. 15th
7 pm
Atomic Books
3620 Falls Rd.
Baltimore, MD

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Freaks Aren't the Only People Who Come Out at Night!

The freaks come out at night, but so do the writers! For every minute of the 26.2 Hour All-Night, All-Write writing marathon in which we took over Chop Suey Books, someone was up and carrying the torch- or, um- the pen.

Like Alter-Edward and Gerund. Like Captain Obvious and Smurf Lord. Like Slim Ace Bo Peep and Donut Danny. In fact, there are a whole host of people scattered around Richmond I now only know by their alter-ego name.

We wrote together, young and old, in the same room, and when we read our works out loud, we seemed to read from the same page. We enjoyed surprise appearances by old friends, new friends and even celebrities!

We played madlibs and made buttons and constructed zines and wrote stories and sang songs. We found hope in rejection and hilarity in love gone wrong. We laughed at comedians and party buses. We holed up in the Fortress of Solitude and ate our weight in veggie dogs and hamburgers at the 24-Hour Cookout With Your Book Out sidewalk grill. We poured our hearts into "The Fire & Desire Notebook of Bad Poetry" and crafted witty one-liners for the "I Party With the Boogie Man Collection of 6 Word Memoirs." We tried to meditate for the sunrise tribute to 9/11 but "slept" for an hour and a half, halfway under a table instead.

We sold T-shirts, raffle tickets and cupcakes. And we raised, with help from a generous contribution from Chop Suey, over $500 in scholarship money for aspiring poets and writers, playwrights and surrealists. Of course, if you weren't able to donate in person, it's never too late to contribute to our scholarship fund!

And now, an exclusive interview with marathon winner, Georgina Coffey, a sophomore at Maggie Walker Governor's School!

So, Georgina, what would you say you got out of 26.2?
First off, I was able to write over 30 pages of material for various things I've been working on. That never happens! But I guess that there's something about being in a single place where everyone around you is at least trying to do the same. 26.2 was a great place to brush up on some skills as well as discover others I didn't know were there.

What surprised you about the experience?
Probably the 30 pages. I thought that I'd maybe write ten, fifteen at the most. But no! I wrote for nearly all of 26.2 and the time I didn't spend writing I was in seminars that had me to do other activities.

What did you most enjoy?
I really enjoyed the feel of the community at 26.2. Sure, we had some people who just drifted in or out, but there were a few people who were there for ten or more hours. That was really motivating.

What did you least enjoy?
This probably won't sound honest, but truly there was not a single thing I did not enjoy. That was a perfect "day" in my mind.

Would you do it again next year?
Yes, I will! And every year after that!

Richmond Young Writers was asked if we'd do it again: every year, every month, every weekend. We said we'd decide when it was all over and when it was all over we decided we would. After all, writing might not exactly be aerobic exercise, but it is definitely addictive.

Without whom none of this could have been possible, a big huge enormous thanks to:

The overly competent and extremely good looking staff at Chop Suey Books, including Ward Tefft, Andrew, Mark & Tommy
Lamplighter Roasting Company for delicious coffee!
Jason Lefton of GYLo for photography, graphics & technical support
Katie McBride for T-Shirt & poster design
Our fabulously talented workshop presenters:
Studio Two Three
Betsy Kelly of ART 180
Michele Young-Stone
Susann Cokal
Shane Sayers-Couzyn
Richmond Comedy Coalition
PH Balance: Herschel Stratego & Paul Ivey
Eliezer Sobel
Liz Canfield of Richmond Zine Fest

Cookout Organizer & Head Chef: Stephanie Failla, and the outstanding restaurants who donated food to the cookout: Mamma Zu, Sticky Rice, Cafe Ole, Bon Venu, New York Deli, Joe's Inn, Mojos, 821, The Nile, Christopher's Runaway Gourmet, Captain Slappy's & Cous Cous.
Julia Janeczek for the outstanding raspberry & mint chocolate cupcakes!
Betsy Harrell Thomas of Betsy's for the delicious pastries.
Our tireless volunteers: Michael Guedri, Emilie Tweeddale, Andy Brockmann, Robin Silberman, Chris Anders, Katie Harville, Jackson Meyer, Rivanna Youngpool and Jenna Clarke

And last but never least, everyone who came out to write!

See y'all next year!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Olympic Couch Surfing: 26.2, Kicking & Barely Moving At All

Before even the first date with my husband I dreamed we ran a marathon together and at the end, when I collapsed in the dirt, he put his hand under my head to use as a pillow. I think that's when I decided to marry him. And it only took a few short months after that for him to ask me out on our first date!

But until today, when each member of our family will face their own Goliath of the Sports World, our marriage hasn't exactly been rife with athletic achievement. Our son (who I've at last come to realize was trying to kick a soccer ball, not me in the womb) is starting not only his first soccer team, but his first team sport ever, a little later this morning. He's so excited he can barely stand it. When I got him off the bus yesterday he said, "I can't believe tomorrow is finally here!" Well, sort of, I agreed.

Not only is Henry starting his first team today, Stan is coaching his first team, too. After receiving several emails about the head hunt for a head coach, Stan left a message asking what was required for the job. Three days later he got an email thanking him for stepping up to the position. So, after a trip to the library in which he checked out no less than 15 books about the sport including "Coaching Soccer For Dummies," my man is ready to enthusiastically wrangle a gaggle of 6 year-old co-eds. An innate athlete who is great with kids, I think it suits him to a T.

So it's not my boy's athletic debut that worries me. No, it's my own. My motto comes from a line by one of my favorite writers, Natalia Ginzburg: "...if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa."

Nevertheless, today marks my first - and possibly last- marathon. But not the kind where you have to actually move. Oh, no. No way. I'm writing. For 26. 2 hours, thanks to my husband who called me a dummy when I suggested writing for 24. As in: "No, dummy. You gotta make it 26.2," although, at this point, that number is more likely to refer to the number of pounds I'm going to gain eating all of the amazing food Ward & Stephanie are cooking up for their 24 hour cookout (with your book out) in conjunction with our completely insane writing festival of insanity. Did I mention that this is insane?

I'm not 19 anymore (no, really!) and I'm slightly terrified at the idea of staying up past midnight. I turn into a pumpkin and start to both drool and snore hours before the witching hour. So staying up is going to be a challenge. As is! Except honestly, with all of the amazingly stimulating activities we have scheduled around the clock (open mics, zine-making, printmaking, songwriting, slam poetry, comedians, ETC) there are effectively enough distractions to keep me---or anyone-- from writing ever again! My favorite kind of writing of all.

But seriously. We've got a great cause. Scholarships! For the KIDS! And lots of amazing raffle prizes--including a typewriter! And an oil change! And my mother's art! And moleskin notebooks! And alter-ego nametags. And a prompt bucket. And laser-engraved RYW pencils. And totally hot 26.2 T-Shirts. Not to mention the most amazing fortress of solitude upon which I have ever lain eyes.

I would have done it just for the pure pleasure of working with Chop Suey's creative genius Ward Tefft and my own personal Queen among Women, Bird Cox, who is able to hang peacock feathers from the ceiling standing on a chair in high heels! Or, the many talented authors and artists, performers, comedians and poets who stepped up to help us out. Although I'm already a little sleepy, I feel tremendously grateful, connected and in love all over again with my fair city. As scared as I am about this test of stamina and endurance, I'm also excited about each part of this race, start to finish.

My cup runneth over. But luckily I do not runneth at all.

(A big thank you to Sarah Dawes at Richmond Magazine for her awesome article!)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Making Peace With the M-Word

Last year I stood in front of the same judge three times. Even though I wasn’t on trial for murder and the judge looked more like my uncle than my executioner, I burned with shame. I felt like a common criminal, but knew I was actually something worse. A woman who had not only been convicted of speeding in a school zone but one who had no idea how to handle her money.

Like sex and religion, money has always been a vexing, contradictory and elusive topic. It involves numbers which alone endeared itself to me not at all. As a child, even as we shook out couch cushions for spare change, my mother drilled into my head that I could do or be anything I wanted. Living on food stamps was no reason not to reach for the stars. She encouraged me to align my future with my dreams rather than my savings. I accepted a scholarship and early admittance to the college of my choice, which happened to be the second most expensive college in the country at the time.

I arrived at school proud of my scrappiness and ability to make something out of nothing. But eventually rubbing shoulders with children of millionaires rubbed off on me. I wasn’t sure I wanted what they had; I just knew I didn’t have it. Money became an emotional barrier which separated me, at least in my own mind, from certain circles. No matter how many times I tried to balance the relationship between my self worth and my bank account, I always came up short. Eventually I started using credit cards not only to make ends meet but to make me feel a little better about myself. At first it was just a tiny charge, to take the edge off. But like a drug, after repeated use, I became dependent.

Finally, three years ago when I got laid off from my desk job, I quit credit cards cold turkey. But not only did I stop using them, in order to buy groceries, I stopped paying them, too. And it turns out credit card companies don’t like it when you do that, even if it’s for your own good. But rather than deal with the mess I was creating, I hid from it. Confronting my lack of funds meant confronting my lack of worth. I couldn’t see how one didn’t equal the other.

When I got sued- a fiscal version of the DUI- I resisted the urge to bury myself under the covers--- or under the ground. Miraculously, instead, I asked for help. I researched. I made phone calls. I sent emails. I peeked into the dark, terrifying corners I had created, mostly in the top drawer of my desk where stacks of unopened mail teemed like the head of Medusa.

In the end, a friend and former lawyer generously offered me her and her husband’s assistance. But not before I’d sobbed on the phone, admitting how ashamed I felt. “Oh Valley,” she’d said, “Credit card debt? Please! Last year I had two different friends convicted of embezzlement!” If she had been Mother Teresa absolving me of my sins, I could not have felt better. My friend and her husband’s combination of nonjudgmental kindness and belief in “paying it forward” helped pull me out of not only a monetary hole, but an emotional one.

My problems didn’t vanish when I faced them, but amazing things did begin to happen. Money actually started to come in through work that I actually loved. I no longer felt like I was spending my last dollar each time I pulled out my wallet. And I realized I have more to offer than the sum total of my pockets--- or anyone else’s.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to a judge aspiring to be a writer—outside of the courtroom. As we talked literature, I realized I felt neither criminal nor less than. I realized that he and I stood on common ground, sharing equal footing. And that’s a feeling money can’t buy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Alter Egocentric

I’ve always had a thing for alter egos. I use them in my writing classes to explore both the creation of characters and the characters that we already have, existing within ourselves.

When I was a child I had imaginary friends. They’re every bit as real to me now as they were to me then, but now I see them on the inside rather than the out. I use them to navigate different stories as they play out in my life—in my head and on the page.

I am Rachel, the Jewish daughter and devoted cook. I am Bad Valley, refusing to take multi-vitamins and stumbling on and off buses in New York City. I am Madge from DMV wearing mumus and curlers, smoking menthols and burning TV dinners for one in the microwave.

Recently, when describing a few of these characters to my writing students, they explained the difference to me between multiple personalities and schizophrenia. We had a good laugh, but I think writers, to some extent or another, welcome whatever voices they manage to hear.

When I keep my alternate personalities in perspective, they give me great pleasure. When I become all of one and none of the others, my world tilts akimbo like a full dinner plate set on its edge.

Because if I’m right about anything it’s how often I’m wrong about myself. My opinion is often too high or too low, but rarely right on target. Maybe it’s not me but the full-time narrator in my head who gets a little carried away, but even small situations can become full-blown dramas, epic comedies, devastating love stories of the highest order. Greek tragedies play out on my small suburban street. Roman gods converse on my couch. Everyone I know has a Harry Potter double. I mythologize people who then become too big or too small to stay molded into the shape I’ve assigned them, but then too, they get to play some pretty exciting major roles opposite the cast in my head. And who wouldn’t want that?

Recently my husband and I were watching Ice Road Truckers: India and I was struck, as if for the first time, by the statue of Kali they were assigned to haul intact up the treacherous roads of the Himalayas. “Kali,” they explained as the North American truckers danced along with the traditional Hindu ceremony, “drinks the blood of her enemies and then stomps on the body of the gods!” I looked at her take-no-prisoners face lit up with glee and knew suddenly that she exists and has always existed within me, just as surely as the Good Citizen I was awarded for being in the first grade. My mother had kept a poster of her on the inside of our bathroom door in my childhood home and I had stared at her face for years and years, never realizing until this week that what I had been staring at all along was just another character lost and then found inside of me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Cuss in 12 Different Languages or How Much Should a Teacher Teach Her Students?

(Original art by the author, age 7, inside cover, "Rose Colored Glasses")

When I was seven, my mother found a list I’d made of every cuss word I knew. It was a very creative and exhaustive list. It should have been---I’d learned from a pro — her. Later, when I was a teenager, she would lend me her copy of a book about how to cuss in 12 different languages--- but in elementary school I’d have to settle for basic English. Even though my mother was comfortable using her remarkably descriptive tongue around me, she threatened to show the list she’d found to my grandmother— not her own mother, but my dad’s---the woman who dressed me like a girl in new clothes from the department store and taught me how to fold hospital bed corners when I visited her each summer.

I guess my mother had it in mind to teach me the difference between what you did at home and what you did in what she called polite company. In polite company, no elbows on the table. At home,eat on a blanket on your belly on the floor. Etcetera. My list, were it to get out, blurred the line between the two.

I was horrified at the idea of my grandmother being given this intimate bird's eye view into the part of my mind I’d tried to keep hidden from her. She thought I was an angel- albeit a slightly rumpled, dirt-streaked one—and I wanted to keep it that way. I liked being pampered in an immaculate house with the promise of polka-dotted skirts and chocolate chip cookies. Everything about Grandma was perfect— from her homemade biscuits to her aprons to her curls--- except those occasions when she was away in a mental institution for depression and hysteria, of course. But I didn’t know that, then. I just thought if you weren’t a wild and out there artist with a mouth like a sailor- mom, you were a perfect, saintly stay at home nurse-grandma.

Now I realize there are more gradations within the mind and the life of each woman than two. Reading my grandma’s diaries, given to me by my father after her death, helped me understand that. I adored her when I was little, but even more as a young woman when I came to understand the complex emotional life she’d hadn’t let me in on.

As a nonfiction writer with a past— and a present— I no longer have a list of cuss words to show or to hide, but I do have a seemingly endless expanse of colorful, complicated stories that I’m trying to figure out how— and to whom- to tell. Already much has been written about memoirists facing the music after their children learn to read. In fact, on my birthday this year a bookstore friend sent me the link to Dani Shapiro’s NY Times article: “The Me My Child Mustn’t Know.”

But it’s not my own child I’m worried about.

I teach kids. I love teaching kids. I feel called to do it. But it would be more convenient if, on the side I liked to knit or write about home décor rather than grittier topics like loss of innocence and addiction or whatever else I'm drawn to at the time. It would also be helpful if I were a little more perfect, a little less blemished rather than the messy memoirist turning her insides out for scrutiny that I've found myself to be.

But the things I want to write about- the things I feel driven to write about-- extend beyond the reach of what I was able to see sitting on a stool drinking milk in my grandma’s kitchen. They go behind the smile, revealing what I'd sometimes rather hide, what I sometimes wish wasn't there. But it is there and I can't seem to write a true line without it coming out.

I do my best to keep my most personal writing and my teaching separate, but maybe if I ever accidentally let it slip exactly how human I am, my humanity will give them permission to be a little bit more human, too. I could reassure them that it's possible to make a million mistakes when they're young and still turn out OK in the end. I could let them know that what goes on beneath the surface is even more important than the appearance from above. I could show, by example, that flaws, imperfections and mistakes can actually be our greatest assets, our most brilliant teachers and that we don't have to be perfect to be loved, or even to be good. Or, I could just tell them what to do with certain body parts attached to the twelve apostles of Jesus, in Spanish.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Confessions of a Secret Smoker

I smoked my first cigarette on the rooftop of one of my dad’s fan apartments when I was eight and he was in the shower. But I didn’t fall desperately in love with smoking until ten years later when a friend lent me a clove during a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. The next day I bummed a Marlboro Red from a boy I hoped would not only lend me his cigarette, but his confidence. Not to mention his exclusive, intellectual brand of love. He lent me his cigarette. I became a pack a day smoker overnight.

When I decided to quit drinking five years later, I told my mother that I was going to wait just a few more years before I quit smoking too. “Fine,” she said, “but would you rather cut your arm off all at once or bit by bit, in pieces?” I decided she had a point. Instead of using gum or the patch, I used an old wiffle ball bat. Beating my couch senseless and crying hysterically for a month did the trick. I was a non-smoker once again. And after writing a long, heartfelt letter about the necessity of living long enough to be there for his children- and grandchildren- my dad quit, too. Good riddance of a nasty habit, I thought. Other than salivating a tiny bit when someone struck a match on the big screen, I didn’t miss it at all.

Until one morning after a storm last summer when I found a miraculously intact package of Black Clove cigarettes in the street next to my car. They had not only been run over, but rained on. I picked them up, ran into my backyard and smoked the entire pack. And then went out to buy another. I knew it was bad. I knew it was wrong. I knew that I never wanted my son--- or any other young person I knew—to see me smoking. Despite this and despite knowing everything that everyone knows about the side effects of tobacco and nicotine, I couldn’t not do it.

Smoking created a smokescreen that neatly hid the things I was hiding from. It reconnected me to the 18 year old girl I’d left behind and badly missed. It gave me a sense of ownership over my time and space, even if that time and space was stolen in furtive puffs next to the dumpster in my backyard. Best of all, smoking cured me of a nasty case of self-righteousness I’d developed the decade prior.

Other mothers in the neighborhood smoked openly while waiting at the bus stop. Now I could no longer think of myself as more highly evolved than they, but still I wondered how they managed to have no shame at all. Shouldn’t they be crouched down behind their dumpsters like me, trapped in an ever quickening cycle of craving and shame, pleasure and remorse?

I knew I had to quit but the idea seemed in the same vein as moving alone to Siberia in the middle of winter. I couldn’t imagine any other way of introducing such a quick rush of pleasure into my life. And, since there were now other actual people living in my house, a wiffle ball bat was no longer an option. I would have to find something meaningful to not only replace the cigarettes, but the ritual they created. I joined Twitter. When that failed, I dug a garden. I took up running. Slowly, these things and others--- making connections through words and people--- began to seal up the place the smoke had filled. I no longer felt the need to hide quite so much or so often—from others or myself. I didn’t have to wonder if I smelled like an ashtray, what kind of example I was setting for my son or if I was going to hack up a lung after dinner. I stopped being so quick to judge others by their vices, reentering a world defined by its many shades of gray. Still, every time a storm passes over our house, I find myself scanning the street to see what may have washed ashore.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

When Doors Fly and Horses Multiply: The First Three Summers of Richmond Young Writers

In the spring of 2009, a friend who also happened to be the chair of the James River Writers asked me numerous times if I knew of any creative writing camps in Richmond for kids. After assuring her repeatedly that I did not, it occurred to me that I could just go ahead and teach her son. One-on-one. In their attic. Which would have been great--- her son was an excellent writer--- but then I got to thinking. Were there other kids in Richmond who might enjoy doing some creative writing that summer? I called Chop Suey Books and asked if I could teach a class in their art gallery upstairs. They said yes. I invited other writers to come teach special genre specific workshops during the week. They said yes.

I wanted the kids to have a reading at the end of the week so I called the Byrd Theatre and asked if we could use their stage for half an hour on Friday afternoons. They said yes. Each door I knocked on flew open.

I set up a website and four week-long sessions. All four sessions made and were a smashing success. We invented worlds. We created characters and plots and poems. We played with language. We invented alter egos, explored our dreams and went people-watching at coffee shops. We were serious and silly and deep and ridiculous. Middle and high-schoolers who dreaded spelling tests, grammar drills, SOLs, SATs and the infamous five-paragraph essays wrote up a storm. Kids who had begged their parents not to sign them up, thanked them afterwards. Together, in that little art gallery upstairs, we made writing fun.

That I had a sense of the potential of a creative writing camp was no accident. My mother had sent me to the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop when I was 15 & 16 and those summers had changed my life. They’d solidified what I wanted to do, validated who I was and offered me a vision of what I could become At UVA, young writers were treated as “real writers.” We were not lectured or talked down to. We were encouraged to be ourselves, and to write about it. I returned as a counselor for two summers during college, reveling in the joy of giving back what had been given to me. In creating Richmond Young Writers in my own hometown, I followed this lead.

And, in a creative sense, I feel I’ve been right on target. But in a business sense, I’ve only had the vaguest intuitive notion of where we are and in which direction we should be heading.

Then, last summer, I had the great pleasure of meeting another UVA Young Writer’s Workshop alum, Bird Cox. In addition to being a freelance writer, the organizer of the Bizarre Market and numerous other laudable activities, Bird had taught creative writing to kids around town for years and wanted to take her teaching further. Based on my immediate sense of this vivacious, wildly creative and highly skilled woman, coupled with the segment I’d heard that morning on NPR about how two horses are able to carry more than twice the weight of one, I suggested that we partner. And so we did. And it has been one of the best “business decisions” I could have made for Richmond Young Writers. Even though Snopes.Com debunked the horse/weight baring load story I’ve found that two people working together are in fact able to accomplish more than one sitting at home scribbling in her notebook, wondering what in the world to do next.

This year we’ve been able to double our program, running eight sessions with students not only from Richmond, but from Henrico, Glen Allen, Chesterfield, Midlothian, Montpelier, Powhatan, Moseley, Mechanicsville, Afton, Rockville, Charlottesville and Gloucester, Virginia. The scope of our grass roots, relationship based “marketing campaign” has been further reaching than I could have imagined. We’ve even got an email from France and a family that plans to rearrange next year’s vacation from Louisiana to so their daughter can attend!

This year’s teachers, as always, were absolutely amazing, opening up heretofore unexplored worlds of surrealism, magical realism, character, plot, memoir, screenwriting, specificity, werewolves & wizards. I learned as much from their workshops as from any college class (and I loved my college classes! Hello Susan? Hello Melvin?)

Best of all, with the help of a whole bunch of generous people in our community we’ve instituted a scholarship program, awarding assistance to over a dozen kids in the area. A more-often-than-not scholarship kid myself, this has been one of the most incredibly rewarding parts of my year. Don’t be shocked to find me crying over a letter from a young person who wants to spend their summer writing but can’t afford it! That kid used to be me.

Bird and I are still not 100% sure what the future of Richmond Young Writers holds (other than our awesome fall intensives!) but after learning so much this summer, I’m beginning to realize that’s just part of the creative process. We are, after all, in the middle of writing our own adventure.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Who Do I Think I Am?

Being both a mother and a writer poses many interesting questions.

For example, is it totally selfish to wish I was with a girlfriend, a box of chocolates and a laptop in a cheap motel when I am instead taping together rocket ships out of paper towel rolls up to my elbows in animal crackers and soccer balls?

Is it in poor taste to turn down a full time job with excellent benefits in order to keep writing stories just because they are stories I feel like writing?

And, what happens when mommy wants to write about men who aren’t daddy or activities not condoned by the PTA?

As I have spent the last 35 years narrating my life in my head, these questions are not only footnotes, but chapter headings.

Sometimes, I even catch myself blaming my six-year-old for my record low word counts, sleep-deprived metaphors and rambling, directionless paragraphs heading nowhere fast. But my lack of verve is not exactly his fault. In fact, I was pregnant with him when I took the fiction class at the Virginia Museum that got me back into writing after a multi-year hiatus waitressing/hotel-roomcleaning/basketweaving, etc.

And I could barely hide him under my shirt when I wrote my first article that I later had laminated at Kinkos.

And, I just so happened to be offered the job of Book Editor the exact same week he was born.

In fact, I called him my Writing Baby. So it’s not exactly fair to blame him when I’m not writing. He does still need me about 20,000 times a day, but I am inherently the kind of writer who seeks distractions. If it wasn’t him calling my mind from the page, it would be something else. Like the clowns from the circus I’ve considered running off with, for example.

There are a million things that make being a fulltime artist/writer and a mother both so difficult and so rewarding that it would be impossible to choose one over the other without feeling the devastation of losing both. And so, everyday I try to balance the two. I’m in good company. Recently, local blogger, Alexandra Nelson Iwashyna published a thoughtful piece that really nailed it: "Writing As a Mother: The Price I Pay" on her hilarious and thought-provoking blog Late Enough.

Daphne Du Maurier, of “Rebecca” fame took a different approach (paraphrased from The Telegraph): "I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time," she wrote....leaving behind four-year-old Tessa and the three-month-old Flavia....child-free quiet was the only hope for Rebecca....In her daughters' absence she worked quickly...four months after she started work, Daphne delivered her manuscript.

Last week after reading “Rebecca” in a 3-day fever of romantic suspense, learning about the fever with which she written it made me laugh. And hug my son. And demand that he go to community college while living in his room at home. Because the reality is I want him and my writing both together in the big messy soup of haiku and kung fu that makes up our life. Even if I'm thinking about one while spending time with the other.

And so, this week, to mark the end of the first half of my thirties I plan to re-watch the brilliant documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?” focusing on female artists of many disciplines. Artists who are also mothers. Mothers who struggle with questions of selfishness, time-management, how to get paid for their art, balance, family, passion, discipline, figuring out how to do and be it all, without selling either themselves or their children short.

On the days when I feel like a bad mother because I’m a writer, or vice versa, another movie comes to mind: Sophie’s Choice. And I am reminded how happy I am that, somehow, I have chosen not to choose.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Book That Taught Me Not to Judge A Book By Its Cover

During my time as a book reviewer I learned that in order to actually sleep, eat, interact with my family or operate in any vertical way I did in fact have to judge books by their covers. It was brutal. It was unfair. But it was survival. Otherwise, I was sure I would be eaten alive. There was simply not enough time in the day to pay attention to anything that didn’t already appeal to me, look like me, or scream at me loudly enough.

And so, one glance at the distraught overdressed heroine thrusting her cheek away from what was either a plantation fire or a bloody sunset confirmed what I already suspected. I would never read Gone With the Wind. I was torn between dismissing this high strung Southern belle and overly-relating to her. Another melodramatic soap opera, I moaned, but the opportunity to interview the man who wrote its sequel arose and duty called, so I picked up my 959 page copy of the book. And found it impossible to put back down. I read it while I was working. I read it when I should have been sleeping. And it’s the only book I’ve read while driving, balanced precariously from cover to cover across my steering wheel.

Within the span of a week I was a fanatical convert. I inhaled “Rhett Butler’s People” and interviewed its gruff sheepherding author, Donald McCaig, moving on to read biographies about Margaret Mitchell as long as her own lifetime opus. They were all fascinating.

And so, when right around this time, I met former environmental lawyer and journalist Ellen Brown at a swanky literary conference party and she asked if I thought a book about the writing and subsequent success of Gone With the Wind was a salient project I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. But why would this perfectly put together, completely adorable, well-spoken lawyer with unwrinkled clothes value my opinion? We chatted for a while, but then I wandered over to pick at the Hors D'ouvers, trying to control my urge to stuff some rare roast beef into my purse. Later, I learned that Ellen went home and started writing her book that night.

And published it, to great acclaim, two years later. Joining forces with all things GWTW collector and enthusiast, John Wiley, "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey" came out this February and has made it big not only in dozens of bookstores around the country, but also in USA Today, the CBS Early Show and NPR.

In January, I interviewed Ellen for an article about her own writing process. Our conversation was to me, as fascinating as any of the books they were about. The archeological literary discoveries, the wild coincidences, the hard work of writing around the clock and the labors of love that went into the research and writing of Ellen’s book led me through a house of mirrors I never wanted to leave.

But even better, Ellen was kind, generous and humble. She told me ghost stories and hair stories, asking me continuously about myself and my own projects. She offered me suggestions, encouragement and advice that scratched all the right itches. It thrilled me to no end to see that she had quoted a line from my interview with McCaig in her book. I had made it into an index! This in itself was exciting, but recognizing that this smart, tough-cookie and I had more to talk about than we could squeeze into the coffee shop was even better.

And, since today is the 75th year anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, I thought I’d take a moment to remember the importance of not only not judging books by their covers, but their authors as well.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Poor Dirty Virginia Girl Makes Good at Local Furniture Store

For our wedding, my husband and I were given a $60 gift certificate to La Diff, the outrageously gorgeous avant-garde furniture store downtown. While the sentiment was beautiful, the reality was bleak. Would we even be able to buy the leg of one chair? We didn’t know, but we decided to find out.

It just so happened La Diff was having their annual 4th of July sale, in which anyone who sang a patriotic song at the register could receive a discount. I am tone-deaf, but have been able to recite the pledge of allegiance in sign language since 4th grade summer camp so we were able to buy one half of a lawn chair set from the discount room in the back for 20% off. But boy, was that one beautiful lawn chair.

Unfortunately, however, while scouring the three floors of warehouse sized rooms, I’d lost my new husband and had even run out to the parking lot to see if his car was still there. To see if he’d left me, even though we’d just gotten married three weeks earlier. Because, you know, the idea that he-- or anyone-- would want to love me forever was unthinkable in my not-so subconscious. I saw myself as a dirty, poor Virginia girl who wore her heart on her ripped up thrift-store sleeve.

In the car on the way home, my husband gave me a super-hero nickname which has stuck ever since. Fatal Leap. To this day we refer to La Diff as more of a mind-set than a place. “Are you getting all La Diff on me?” he asks if I make a mountain out of a molehill. “Don’t leave me like you did at La Diff!” I say when he goes for milk.

You get the picture.

But yesterday, my first time back to La Diff in ten years, was a little different. I’d been asked to give a 13 minute presentation with artist, Susan Singer by a new Richmond City initiative called i.e., (Innovative Excellence) meant to both high lite and jumpstart innovation, creativity and collaboration amongst individuals and businesses in RVA. The big screen, stage and microphones were on the third floor, but this time I didn’t get lost because I was wearing a lanyard and there were lots of nice people showing me where to go and how to get there.

The room was electric with both smart phones and energy. I’m usually skeptical about words like innovation and synergy, but yesterday I encountered them in action.

The room was full of superstars and suits. World-renowned creative geniuses and mega-business masterminds. Cutting edge entrepreneurs and people who know not only how to balance their checkbooks, but the definition of a stock portfolio. Whatever that means.

When it was our turn, Susan opened with her intention to use her art to change the way the world views women, to honor all body types, not just those with physics-defying dimensions, like Barbie, which led nicely into talk about her upcoming show Not Barbie: A Celebration of Real Women and the seven week event/lecture series that will accompany it, Beyond Barbie: Piecing Together Today’s Woman.

As the backdrop for our talk were Susan’s paintings--- two of me as well as her own nude self-portrait. Directly next to our nude paintings sat the Mayor of Richmond, who had a front row view of both Susan and I a la carte. For a second I thought I might die, but once again I did not.

Instead, I talked about how having Susan photograph and paint me naked helped me confront and overcome one of my biggest fears. That it had allowed me to be more naked, more vulnerable, more honest and more real in other ways, like in my writing. That since our collaboration this February I had written about what a disaster my house is, surviving 6 miscarriages and a hysterectomy, the almost-dissolution of my marriage last year. That sharing these things with others had made me feel less alone, less ashamed, less isolated and less weird, like when you’re shopping for a new orange VW bug and suddenly EVERYONE has an orange VW bug. Like that, but instead of with an orange VW bug, with what I had once considered my darkest, deepest most shameful secrets. There were a million more things I could have talked about had our timer not gone off, but they are future thoughts, future posts, future collaborations, future explorations and conversations that I now actually think I can- and will- have in this city. Not that they weren't happening before- but I had failed to see how my voice could have been strong enough to hear.

Afterwards, when not only people who looked like me, but men in suits came up to shake my hand, I discovered what may already be obvious to everyone else—that their hearts beat, too. The big man president of a big successful company had shared a story about accidentally peeing on himself after a really huge big deal event at a really huge big deal place. Was that story naked enough for you? he asked me. Yes, it most certainly was, I said. Suddenly, this poor, dirty Virginia girl felt like she was on the same floor as everyone else.

So, not only did I not die in front Susan last year, I did not die in front of the Mayor and a whole room chock full of CFOs, CEOs, executive directors, ad execs, musicians, artists and my own mother sitting on very fancy chairs, from La Diff, all for sale, yesterday. And next week, you too can buy those chairs for a song. The important thing is recognizing that you deserve to sit in one.

Thank you, i.e.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What’s Your Name?

Valley Jane Cecelia Yane (Yanpolski) Smith Haggard

1- A baby conceived in the Shenandoah Valley in a tent on her mother’s birthday
2- A name signifying every woman. Jane Doe. Plain Jane.
3- Maternal great grandmother.
4- Mother’s maiden name before and after her father changed it during the Red Scare.
5- Father’s mountain people
6- The name her bridesmaids convinced her to take the night before the wedding

Valley of Death
Back Alley Valley
Valley of the Dolls
Valley Dale Sausage/Valley Dale Weiners

The only other Valley—spelled the same way---- that I’ve heard of living in this town was an African girl working at Hooters.

When I was a little white Jewish girl at an all black elementary school in the east end of Richmond there was one teacher who made me feel completely happy and safe and loved--- my SPACE teacher, John Hunter. He wore a green and yellow crotchet knit cap over his big afro and twirled the fuzz of his beard between his fingers while telling us stories about kids hunting rainbows. He staged a naming ceremony for us in the basement of the school that also served as a gymnasium, a cafeteria and was, we all believed, haunted by the ghost of a dead slave girl. The name he gave me was: Laughing Rainbow. John Hunter has gone on to change the world, give TED talks and inspire kids and teachers all over the country. I understand why. The name he gave me is the one I think of as my real underneath the surface of everything true name to this day.

During the first hour of the first day of most of the creative writing camps I teach I ask the children to write the story of their name. Then, I ask them to create an alter ego or super hero for themselves, writing each name on one side of a folded piece of card stock. The name they turn to face out that day is the name you have to call them.

We didn’t settle on my son’s name until we were checking out of the hospital and his birth certificate was due. I had so many names for him in my mind, having to choose one seemed impossible, limiting. Cosmo, Sterling, Elijah, Jackson, Raymond, Henry. In the end we went with the last, the name of the paternal grandfather who had died the year before, the only grandparent our baby would never get to meet. Although you can’t step into a play area or a library or a school without hearing “HENRY!” from any of the four directions (turns out lots of other grandfather’s were named Henry, too) I’m glad our son carries part of his dad’s dad into his life every single day.

What does your name mean to you?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not Such A Funny Bunny, Honey

I’ve always dreaded the inevitable moment when someone asks, “If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?” I don’t know! I am not fierce like a tiger, strong like a horse or sleek like a dolphin. One friend assures me regularly that whatever animal I am, it’s not a carnivore.

Maybe it’s a bunny.

According to my Chinese Zodiac Placemat I was born in the Year of the Rabbit, “the luckiest of all the animal signs.” But that could have been the fried bean curd talking.

According to a Feng-Shui friend’s annual newsletter 2011 is once again the year of the rabbit which should make sense to everyone in Richmond not living on the top floor of a high rise. Rabbits are everywhere. You can’t get your newspaper without being cut off by Peter chasing Cotton Tale. Rabbit ears plunge upwards out of the grass like picketers at a rally. Each sighting makes me incredibly happy. The near Westend of Richmond is not exactly a nature preserve, so I do feel lucky when I see them.

But, yesterday morning, instead of discovering outdoor wildlife Stan and I discovered that we had not in fact recorded over Henry’s birth video as we’d believed for the last 6 ½ years. For the first time, the three of us watched wide-eyed as our baby opened his eyes for the first time, his cries more like the mews of a kitten than the wails of a human being. In the corner of the video I caught site of the blood-soaked sheets into which he’d been delivered by emergency C-section, the umbilical chord wrapped three times around his neck. I cried for the miracle of it. Henry, obsessed with all things babies, asked if he could start nursing again. I said sorry honey, but no way.

This morning we all had the opportunity to cry again. After brushing my teeth I walked into Henry’s room and discovered on the carpet the still-warm body of a tiny baby rabbit.

Stan! I whisper-shouted. Dead baby bunny on the floor in Henry’s room! Stan snuck in with a cardboard box, which he then hid on the kitchen stove by the trashcan. Maybe we should tell Henry, we told each other.

Oh, how I hate the cycle of life.

Zeus brought it to you, because he loves you, Stan told Henry.

So it’s like when I eat shrimp--- I say thank you and I’m sorry. It’s sad and it’s good, said Henry. Yes we said.

Then Stan put the bunny in its box in our dumpster.

Henry and I decided we should give it a proper burial instead. He found Bread-and-Honey-Bunny, his stuffed animal and wet the fur around its eyes. He’s wet because he’s crying, said Henry.

Of course by then, so was I.

Stan took the bunny out of the dumpster and gave Henry and I shovels. The ground in our yard was hard with stone and clay and roots. We stood outside digging for a long time, messily slopping the dirt from inside the grave to the inside of our shoes. When the hole was finally a shovel’s head deep, Henry let the baby roll from inside the box to the inside of the dirt and then he said the first unprompted prayer of his life. Thank you God, and sorry.

I thought that summed it up pretty well.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pleasure Seeker

Ten years ago I married--- not the first man I was engaged to----but the first man I loved as much in my sweat pants as my wedding dress.

Up until this year our anniversaries have been worthy of mixed reviews. One year our cat died. One year our internet got shut off. One year we discussed who we might prefer to date rather than each other.

This year, since we had failed to budget for vacations that occurred outside of a tent, my mother who commented that our “ten year anniversary only happens once a year” used her barter club to book us an overnight at a luxury B&B in Orange County, Virginia.

At first she tried to reserve us the more cost-effective handicapped room but since it was already booked we were forced to stay in the honeymoon suite.

It was a bit of a shock as I am more accustomed to motels with numbers in their names, even though we'd spent the night of our wedding in a grand hotel and were made to feel special by the valet (“You’re my 8th married couple today!”). This little B&B out in the middle of ma & pa country USA was a real palace.

Marble columns abounded--- even in the bathroom. Crystal chandeliers and porcelain angels dripped from the ceilings like rich-people stalactites. Every shade of white was in attendance--- from the feather bed (that was really a leased out cloud) to the vanilla scented lotion to the cream colored leopard patterned throw blanket on the eggshell love-seat. Not a detail of our stay or our room went unnoticed-- or undecorated.

The owners (imagine the Sopranos discovering the top of a hill in rural Virginia) were eager to wait on us hand and foot. They had me with the chocolate dipped strawberries splayed across a doily on a crystal plate hand delivered to our door but it was the salami and cheese platter that won Stan’s undying affection.

We spent every second of our 22 hour stay napping, eating and indulging in the decadence of achieving nothing. No lawns were mowed or children entertained in the making of our anniversary weekend. Even though we went on a leisurely two-hour kayak trip on the Rapidan River, the hardest I really worked was raising my head to get a better view of “The Hangover.”

It did not take me long to relax fully into the lap of luxury, although I did worry for a few moments that I'd never want to get back up. And with good reason.

I have always been a hedonist.

A pleasure seeker.

In fact, I have spent almost every minute of my entire life desperately seeking the secret to unchecked bliss.

Up until my early twenties I sought it through Boones Farm Strawberry Hill, Mad Dog 20-20, Kalhua, Peach Schnapps, Jim Beam, Marlboro Reds, sex and Krispy Kreme donuts.

As I matured, I sought it through prayer, publication, hypnosis, meditation, double shot lattes, credit cards and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Something though, has changed dramatically in the last few months. I have been getting more pleasure—even actual bliss---from the process of writing and connecting with other people through their writing than through any of the outside stimuli I’ve used and abused in the past. The difference is this kind of pleasure doesn’t cause weight gain, hangovers or bad credit. And it doesn’t come with a price tag.

However, for a little while I hoped that someone would continue to serve it to me on a platter. On the drive home through the lush green mountains of Virginia, I started to regret having set foot somewhere so nice. “Next year we should go somewhere really crappy,” I told my husband. “Like an abandoned trailer park or a maximum security prison. That would make coming home seem really amazing.”

Because coming home was hard. The paint was peeling, the beds unmade, the ceiling buckled, the sink full, the food unprepared and unappealing laying wait in the back of the pantry. "What did I ever love about this?" I wondered. Then I remembered. Reservations can’t be made for the kind of pleasure I’m really seeking. What I want most isn’t available to drink, smoke or rent. It can’t be bought, pre-ordered or reserved, but to my relief, it can be found.