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.