Kentucky: a place of inspiration

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Author Ellen Birkett Morris

When I think of Kentucky, I think of scarred mountain tops and brother fighting against brother, gorgeous green hills and rich food and folkways. When I started a story cycle that dealt with a photographer from Boston documenting the bicentennial, I wasn’t surprised to find that I set the stories in Kentucky.

My stories are Kentucky stories. They deal with rich and poor, bitter and sweet. I knew that with stories set in Kentucky my protagonist would find a beautiful but broken landscape, characters who defied expectations and a place steeped in tradition, but ready meet the challenges of modern life.

My stories encompass the contradictions of Kentucky, our love of and connection to a land that has been ravaged and our aspirations for a better life. My protagonist Jasper Macks takes photos of a mountain top ravaged by mining as he listens to Hal Emerson tell the story of a coal sludge flood that devastated an entire community.  Jasper befriends Terri, a young waitress with a depressed mother, who reads poetry between serving up plates of food at the diner and dreams of working as a librarian. He joins estranged brothers on a hunting trip and witnesses a ritual burial that links the men to the land.

Kentucky stories are stories of connection and community. There are stories in my collection about the desire to be a part of a community, including the title story “Religion,” in which a virgin accidentally joins a breast feeder’s group and decided to stay. There is “May Apples,” in which a grandfather teaches his artistic grandson to love the land.

He picked up his paintbrush and mixed a yellow, the color of corn silks,

for her hair. His grandfather had taken him into the cornfield when he

was small. He held David level with the plants and taught him how to

check for holes left in the stalks by sugarcane beetles.

Kentucky stories are about coming home and finding home. In another story, a young boy from Vietnam lays his demons to rest in the Kentucky countryside as a burning barn recalls the death of his parents in a fire. In another, a mailman longs to be part of the culture change of the 60s, but finds the hippie life he aspires to may not match his expectations.

I’m proud to be a Kentucky writer and tell stories that draw on the complex and rich heritage of the Bluegrass state. I’m proud to add my voice to those that came before Berry, Mason, Kingsolver, Lyon, Naslund and so many others.

On April 25, Kentucky Writers’ Day, writers across the state will be celebrating their own Kentucky stories and those that have come before. It is an honor to have this day set aside to recognize the artistry of Kentucky writers. I plan to share the work of my favorite Kentucky writers that day via social media. I hope that you’ll take a moment that day to read and share the work of Kentucky writers and continue to do so long after the celebration is over.

Stories from Ellen Birkett Morris’s unpublished collection, “Religion & Other Stories,” have been published in Antioch Review, Shenandoah Review, Notre Dame Review and South Carolina Review. “May Apples” from this collection is the winner of the 2015 Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction.  

Categories: Other

When love is (sometimes) enough: the writer’s relationship with the word

Spriggs Headshot

Author Bianca Spriggs

Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Last year around this time if you had asked me about the elusive definition of that word Parker used, ‘love,’ I might have said something to the effect of, “Whatever it is, love don’t keep the lights on.” Lately, however, I’ve been revisiting the idea of love. Lost love. New love. And this month in particular, because April is National Poetry Month, I find myself reflecting often about the love I have for my vocation. But even loving what I have written is often not enough.

No one told me when I signed up to be a writer about how hard it was going to be, how lonely, not only to wrestle content to the ground but to learn how to balance process with product, to answer a lot of awkward questions about what it is exactly that I do anyway. Then there’s the commitment to being consistent with my practice despite periods where I’m not inspired or super productive, or even if I am, no one’s necessarily falling all over themselves to pick up what I’ve thrown down.

In my workshops with novice writers, I often begin with an introductory exercise I borrowed from Frank X Walker. I ask students to introduce themselves and their relationship to writing, as though writing were a lover or someone they’d been involved with romantically. I give them an example: “Writing and I fell for one another pretty hard in college. We got married soon after we graduated. We had a couple of kids a few later and this year, I’ve got twins on the way!” When the giggles die down, we go around the room, and investigate each student’s relationship to writing using this metaphor. And if we have time, we might even craft an ars poetica out of the exercise.

I love hearing new writers’ relationships to their writing. Newly minted appreciation for narrative and language is so exciting! Listening to them reminds me why I got started and why I’m still all in. To be a veteran writer is still about finding the right word, the thrill in the right arrangement of multiple words, yes, but it changes. For me, now, it’s more about how pure the message is that I am trying to convey. Am I getting as close as possible to what I originally set out to say? Inspiration doesn’t come saddled to lightning so much anymore. I’ve learned, over the years, to create the conditions for lightning. I’ve learned that I am the lightning and the lightning rod and the bottle to carry it home in. I’ve learned that true inspiration is as necessary to find as it is rare, but it is in the editing process, the sifting through these flashes for intention and the subsequent arrangement of that intent is where the real work happens.

Like any relationship, a writer’s bond with her craft is going to evolve the longer they’re together. Gwendolyn Brooks once said, “Art is that which endures.” In order for me to continue to hone, experiment, and enjoy generating new material, I have to basically fall in love with writing again and again at every juncture of our mutual growth through revolving interests, life and content changes, aesthetic, stylistic, and voice changes. I have to remind myself to forget the gigs, the books, any accolades. At the end of the day, writers write. Writers endure.

For the past several years, I have used the cruelest month to court my muse and remind her I still care the way I did in the beginning, going on 16 years ago. And I’m not alone. In April, poets all over the world go overboard sharing prompts and poems from their own cache or favorite works by other poets. Me? I’m writing all month. Some years I get to 30 poems in 30 days; other years, I am just glad I have 14 more poems that I didn’t see coming than I did at the beginning of the month. Or six. Or just one.

I try to write closest to my core in April. I work through problems. I try to understand concepts. I process everything and everyone I encounter through the lens of a poem. No filters. No holds barred. All I see and witness and experience is fair game. This month, I am not obliged to put my pen to use for any performances or public projects or collaborations or even with the intent to publish. I’m basically just doing a lot of porchin’ (Kentucky writers know that “to porch” is a verb) because for me, poems have always lived on porches. I don’t even have to wait long, sometimes less than even a few minutes, before one comes sidling up to investigate my ankles with its antennae. I learn something more about the earliest stages of the writing process this month than the rest of the year combined, with every poem I write, whether I’m stumbling or sailing through it.

Sure, love may not keep the lights on, but there’s still a lot I can do with it. I can measure things with it: time, for instance. Distance. Maturation. I can keep some things alive and for others, to love them the most is to let them find their natural end. For me, one way or another, love in general has become about surrender. If applied to writing, to love writing is to surrender to it. Word by word, letter by letter, to love writing is not so much about keeping the lights on but letting love, in all of its incarnations, lead the way.

Affrilachian poet, Bianca Spriggs, is the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship in Poetry from the Kentucky Arts Council and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the managing editor for pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, poetry editor for Apex Magazine, and the literary arts liaison for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. You can find more about her work, including her latest collection of poems from Northwestern University Press, Call Her by Her Name, at www.biancaspriggs.com.

Categories: Other

Ky. author Gwenda Bond on going pro: ‘I knew I wanted a career, not a sale’

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Author Gwenda Bond

One of my favorite memories of childhood is riding my bike or walking to the public library on summer days and spending hours wandering through the aisles browsing book jackets and picking out what I wanted to read next. There was freedom and adventure in this four-block jaunt. I spent a lot of my time in the “juvenile” section, what would now be called young adult (YA), looking for just the right book to match my mood. I read it all from romance to horror and back again. To this day, I remember the names of many of those writers – Cynthia Voigt, Ann M. Martin, Francine Pascal, Judy Blume, Richard Peck, R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike – whose works I disappeared into during those long summer days and nights.

If I made that same trip to my hometown library today, I would certainly run across the name of Lexington writer Gwenda Bond, author of the young adult novels Lois Lane: Fallout and Girl on a Wire, among others. I first met Gwenda in 2006 when I went to work in the communications office at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. She was my supervisor and became my friend. Gwenda has had tremendous success during the last few years, and I have no doubt that will only continue. So in celebration of Kentucky Writers’ Day, I thought it would be fun to ask her a few questions about her craft and her responses did not disappoint! Enjoy!

— Emily Moses, creative industry manager, Kentucky Arts Council

Emily Moses: I know from reading interviews you have conducted that you are very interested in the processes that writers employ in doing their work. I’d like to talk about process, but not necessarily as it pertains to the actual writing, rather in relation to planning your career as a writer. I recall, as I was fortunate enough to work with you during the time you were completing your MFA and then writing your first novel to be published (Blackwood), that you seemed to be following a plan. Since then, you’ve published several books and most recently you ended your career in state government to write full time. Obviously, there are steps you have taken to advance your professional writing career, to achieve the writer’s dream of turning craft into career. Can you talk about that a bit? Was that intentional, as I believe it was, and what went into developing your career plan? (And, of course, how awesome is it to be doing exactly what you want to do?!)

Gwenda Bond: I’m glad it all looks intentional! And definitely some of it is strategy, but luck also plays a role in any successful career in the arts. But I always say that you have a much better chance of being lucky if you’re working hard. Some of it is just being in the right place at the right time. In a lot of ways, I benefited from not being particularly focused on getting rid of my day job, at least not early on. While I was probably overworked (okay, definitely overworked) and very rarely got a weekend off, having a steady source of income with reliable(ish) hours that used a different part of my brain than writing enabled me to come home or get up in the morning and do my writing work. So it was only when I honestly began to struggle to do both well without burning out that I realized it was time to go full time. So far, so good!

I guess what I would say is that my plan was always to work on the next book/project. I knew I wanted a career, not a sale. Which is a good thing, because as you know it took several years after I got a literary agent to sell my first book. Since then, we’ve sold a lot more. That’s because I’d developed good habits while working toward that first sale. When book one didn’t sell, I wrote book two. Rinse, repeat, trying to get better at my craft and be open to new ideas and opportunities at the same time. A lot of success in the arts comes down to who sticks around, to sheer perseverance.

EM: To say you’re very active online is inadequate. Truly. You have a blog that you update regularly, you have Twitter conversations as if you’re talking to someone sitting next to you, you’re super active on Facebook, you host special online events, and so very much more. Can you talk about how your online activity has helped you develop your own community and how that community has benefited your work and/or career?

GB: I strongly feel that writers should only do the social media they enjoy. Otherwise, everyone will know and it won’t be fun for you or anyone else. For a lot of years, social media was my primary way to connect with the writer part of my life—my friends elsewhere, moaning about deadlines, etc.—on a daily basis. And so it’s become a big part of my process in and of itself. The writer’s water cooler. I really enjoy interacting with readers and other writers and making friends online. I have to be more cautious in some ways than I used to (we all do), but I hope I’m always able to be accessible online. Also, I routinely assess what I’m doing and whether I am still enjoying it or how I could enjoy it more. For instance, I recently moved from a more straight-up promotional-style newsletter to doing a weekly tinyletter that’s much more of a personal rumination on the week that was, with a little news dropped in at the end. I really miss the days of the tighter knit blogging community, where I felt like we shared those sorts of things in a deeper way than we seem to be able to on Twitter or Facebook. I can already tell this is a good substitute for that, so while it’s technically more work than a quarterly newsletter, I also think it will be more useful and enjoyable for me and for the people reading it.

EM: Are you a list maker? We’re going to end with a list, so I hope so. I’m always interested in the advice and assistance artists can offer to other artists. Will you share with our readers five online resources they should check out that could help them in their own writing careers?

GB: Of course!

  • I love giving advice and so does my agent, Jennifer Laughran; she has both a website and a Tumblr where you can find lots of excellent guidance if you want to get into YA or children’s lit as a field. She cares a lot about making sure authors don’t get ripped off and are getting GOOD advice. You can find her old blog with lots of great stuff here: http://literaticat.blogspot.com and she has a Tumblr with an open ask box here: http://literaticat.tumblr.com.
  • Author Chuck Wendig has a fantastic (somewhat profane, be warned) blog where he gives tons of good writing advice: http://www.terribleminds.com.
  • Likewise, author John Scalzi’s blog is great for writers, but especially The Big Idea—which is a great place to find new books to read, sure, but also to hear how writers develop their novels: http://whatever.scalzi.com/category/big-idea/.
  • For industry stuff, Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly are the big trade resources—I highly recommend signing up for Publishers Marketplace’s free daily newsletter Publishers Lunch (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com) and Publishers Weekly’s twice weekly free Children’s Bookshelf newsletter (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/index.html).
  • The Carnegie Center! Seriously, my first good local writing group came from a meet-up they held for writers and every program I’ve participated in there has been great. This might not count as an online resource, but check out their offerings. They do good work: http://carnegiecenterlex.org.

 

EM: Thanks, Gwenda! I certainly appreciate you taking time out of your super busy schedule to share with our readers.

To learn more about Gwenda, visit her online at www.gwendabond.com or @gwenda on Twitter.

The Kentucky Arts Council celebrates Kentucky Writers’ Day on Monday, April 25, with public readings from current and former Kentucky poets laureate. Readings begin at 10 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort with a public celebration to follow. For more information, visit the arts council’s website.

Categories: Other

Birth of a Little Free Library

This is a short, little story about relationships and coincidences.

First the relationships: My son turned 5 on March 16 and my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary on March 25. Five and 10 seem like big milestones to me, so I wanted to mark the occasions by doing something well…big.

Now the coincidence: literacy had been on my mind quite a bit. The partial significance of age 5 is that my son will go to kindergarten in the fall. At the same time, Frankfort Independent Schools recently declared a “literacy emergency,” as 70 percent of third graders in this district can’t read at an appropriate grade level.

LFL-Appalachia-2Another relationship: Kentucky Writers’ Day planning was and is still happening at the Kentucky Arts Council. Throughout the month of April I am constantly – and with pleasure – exposed to Kentucky’s remarkable literary tradition. This celebration is also an annual reminder of the special relationship between the writer and reader, which can cross distance, time and any other seemingly insurmountable barrier.

Another coincidence: Little Free Libraries (LFL) were back in local news, as a Lexington-area family’s nationally famous lost library had finally been returned. It was an unexpected happy ending to a story that had already inspired people to create LFLs all over the country.

On a walk down by the Kentucky River – where and when I do my best thinking – it all came together. We should have a commemorative LFL at our house. Although I am sure there are some out there, none currently appear on the LFL map in Frankfort.LFL-Donations-1

We’re creative, but we’re not terribly good with power tools. So we improvised by purchasing a waterproof storage bench. Our house is at the top of the hill, so people may be grateful for being able to sit a spell.

I barely had to ask for books. Donations flooded my office. Yet another coincidence, as people welcomed the excuse to do some spring cleaning. I went all the way to Booneville, Ky., and was greeted immediately (across five counties) with a stack of books.

Our official LFL charter sign should arrive in four weeks from registration, which is – coincidentally – right on Kentucky Writers’ Day. The Gaschmittie Little Free Library is now open.

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Categories: Other

The two-decade path to a writer’s first novel

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Author H.C. Bentley

The writing bug hit me early in life. First I wrote for fun, then I wrote to win. I wrote stories for a contest that was open to entries nationwide, taking home several prizes and copies of my work in the magazine that sponsored the contest. After seeing my work in print, I knew then that I wanted to be a writer.

That was more than 20 years ago.

My first book came out this month. You’re probably thinking that 20-plus years is a pretty big gap. And you’d be correct. Two decades is a long time to wait to see your dream come true.

But the fact that it did is nothing short of amazing for me.

You see, I started writing when I was in middle school. I dabbled in short stories and poetry. Going into high school, my mother and I sat down to create a plan for my classes. Writing classes, honors English, journalism…all classes to get me where I wanted to go. But by now, I wasn’t writing as much for me as I was for school. After graduation, I joined the Army, hoping to get college money and a coveted job in the journalism field. Only to be told that there were no available slots open in training for journalism, and being told to choose another field to pursue.

That’s when my writing was completely pushed aside.

Years later, I’m a civilian again, married and raising kids. But something kept telling me I needed to get back to writing, to sit down and put pen to paper, to record the stories that are forever floating around in my head. After about a year of the same story pushing at me, I finally gave in. I sat down, and began to write. And write. And write some more.bentley-cover

The result, after another year of editing, revising and rewriting, is my very first book.

I tell you all of this for a very simple reason. It’s never too late to start going for your dream, no matter how old that dream is. If your dream is to write, then write. Push and kick the obstacles aside and go for it. I say this from experience. I submitted my book to more than two dozen publishers and agents, and every single one of them rejected my book. So, I decided to self-publish.

I’ve spent the last two months promoting my book ahead of its release. Reaching out to bloggers, reviewers, interviewers, local media…anyone who would listen to what I had to say and help me spread the word. I’ve worked social media, day and night, with quotes and pictures and teasers. All tasks that may have been handled by a publisher or agent, had someone picked up my book.

Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s a lot of work. And yes, it’s worth every minute of it all.

It’s worth it for the moment when you open the box and hold the first print copy of your very first novel for the very first time, knowing you made it happen. There is no feeling like it in the world, because you put your heart and soul into the pages you’re holding, and it’s real. You are literally holding your dream.

If you want to be a writer, go for it. Sit down with pen and paper, or at your computer, and write. Don’t try to control the flow, don’t stop to correct the spelling or grammar or punctuation. Worry about that stuff later. Ride that creative wave as long as you can and then dig into making it more polished. Decide from there where you want to go with your work. Don’t let anyone make you take a detour once you know where you want to go.

This is your journey. You choose the path. Follow it and get your dream.

H.C. Bentley is a veteran of the U.S. Army. Her life is filled with books. She not only writes but is an avid reader, surrounded by books in her job at her local library. She is writing her second novel, and resides in Kentucky with her husband and two daughters.

Categories: Other

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