Last week I finally got to take a much-anticipated field trip to the Soda House at Hagley Museum, where they keep the historical DuPont company archives.
Many of the 19th Century powder mill records are available online, but not all. As a descendent of several powder mill families, I’ve been dying to see the ones that have not been scanned, in the hopes of resolving some long-standing mysteries.
We brought my wheelchair so I could lie down if needed, but I opted not to use it – laid my head on the table a lot, and otherwise pushed through more than I maybe should have, but I didn’t want to break the momentum, nor leave without getting what I came for.
Sadly, I did not find the McGuffin I need to unlock history, but I did find a great deal of new information, and came away with a more detailed understanding of the relationship my ancestors had with the mill, spanning multiple generations.
I have to say it was quite a feeling, to handle 160-year-old ledgers, to see my surname in some bookkeeper’s careful cursive, to touch the “x” where a great-great Irish uncle marked his consent, to discover my great-grandfather’s name (which is of course my father’s name) in those pages, earning $4.00 a month at age eleven, fourteen, sixteen, trying to step up to fill the shoes of an older brother maimed in a cooper fire… it’s humbling, and has a way of quieting the spirit.
Speaking of quiet, we also visited the family grave at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, which we didn’t even know was ours until I had some lucky research breakthroughs this past Christmas.
One couldn’t ask for a better day to visit, nor for a nicer spot in the cemetery for the repose of one’s ancestors.
I was so moved by the toning of the churchbell that I tried to record it–instead I missed it, hit record only when I thought I was done, so here’s a clip of me putting my phone down to enjoy the peace of the moment.
The stone is set off by itself beneath a venerable old tree. It has a view of the blue sky and the canary yellow walls of the church. It’s right by the stone walkway leading up to the chapel, where the President of the United States walks on his way to Mass, along with countless descendants of those brave and hard-working Irish who are memorialized at the entrance.
Officially, the grave belongs to two children, my great-great uncle and aunt, as theirs are the only names on the surviving headstone. After much investigative research I’m quite certain my great-great-great grandmother is down there too, along with whatever they buried of her husband and brother-in-law in lieu of a body. Someday I’d like to petition for the right to add a marker with their names on it, but for now it’s enough to have found them, to know they’re there, and to finally have the chance to pay my respects.
It was a poignant time for such a thing, right after Lughnassadh and tucked between my brother’s Fiftieth birthday (just as he begins hospice for Stage Four lung cancer) and the third anniversary of our mother’s death. Family is heavy on my mind these days, for obvious reasons. There’s a part of me that feels as if a race is on to solve all the still-outstanding mysteries, wishing I had all the answers to our family story while I still have family left to tell. Wishing I’d known what I know now much earlier. Wondering WTF it all means, in the scheme of things.
The only thing that separates us from the bones of our ancestors is earth and time.
Trigger warning: description and images of medical procedures, body trauma, and really long obligatory “recap” before I can start adding new content to this blog after such a lenghty hiatus
So, uh. Hi,
It’s been a while.
Halloween is the witch’s New Year, so what better time for a reflection on what’s been going on since this writing blog went quiet?
Where I’ve been:
In my mind, it’s still 2018. Like, honestly, I blinked and woke up an old lady in the apocalypse. (True and also not true. I’ve also lived a hundred years since then, and I felt every minute of it).
2018 was and still is the highlight of my professional life as a writer. Just that year I’d won a creative writing fellowship from my home state of Delaware after multiple previous honorable mentions. A novelette I wrote had recently appeared in a major genre magazine and I was featured as an “industry outsider” in a writing craft mag, both available on the shelves of our local B&N. I released my first full-length book of poetry in collaboration with a noted poet and editor in my field, still floating on the high of my award-winning debut chapbook. I used part of my award money to attend my first AWP Conference as a representative of my own online literary journal, Riddled with Arrows, and I served on the executive board of an international organization of speculative poets, bosom buddies or at least a first-name-basis with some of the best genre writers in the world. I headlined a writing contest for the Philadelphia Writing Conference, got paid to run writing and poetry workshops on topics of my design in my home town, and I performed in museums and literary events throughout Delaware–all while battling a progressively debilitating mystery illness.
(My beloved grandmother died in December 2018. So did my 19-year-old cat.)
Immediately after my final appearance in early January 2019, I collapsed. By that point I had been sick for at least ten years–I trace my symptoms either to the traumatic birth of my son in 2006 (the beginning of my migraines) or to chasing after him in 2008 (the year the daily icy phantom headache set in). After years of bouncing between specialists I’d settled for calling it “chronic daily migraine”, which for a long time I managed with painkillers and grit. But I’d burned off the last of my energy to complete my fellowship year, and now I found myself with nothing left to live my life.
(I honestly thought I would die before they figured out what was wrong with me.)
I’d started losing my vision that summer. Everything outside of a few feet was blurry, and light hurt my eyes. I saw half a dozen eye doctors who all said my prescription hadn’t changed because if I squinted and concentrated I could just make out the letters on the chart. I found a surgeon who said I had cataracts that weren’t “ripe” yet, though he’d be happy to remove them for me, just as the EN&T surgeon had been happy to cut into my sinuses twice before shrugging my symptoms off as allergies.
I took to wearing sunglasses indoors, and ear plugs in my ears to stop the painful reverberations from the slightest sound. I had ringing in my ears as well, and a constant dragging sensation deep in my ear canal and throughout the right side of my skull. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t form words without thinking about it first, and kept saying the wrong thing anyway. I’d been using a cane for months to help with balance and numbness and fatigue, but now I couldn’t walk without holding on to walls. I had a two kids and a thirteen year-old migraine. All I wanted to do was lie down.
In the February of 2019, after asking my neurologist for one last Hail-Mary MRI, I finally got my diagnosis—one that I had floated myself about five years earlier. It’s calledSpontaneous Intrancranial Hypotension (SIH), though in my case there was nothing spontaneous about it. At some point a long time ago I developed a fistula between a vein and my spinal dura, or maybe a tear in the dura that over time became a fistula; in either case it meant that the reason I’d had all these mounting neurological symptoms was because for years I’ve been dumping spinal fluid into my bloodstream—a leaky tap causing my brain to sink lower in my skull. It had gone unnoticed for so long because the body learns to ramp up cerebral fluid to compensate, but as I had demonstrated in my own life, you can only get away with a system like that for so long.
When I got the news that the imaging had finally caught up to what I’d been saying for years, I literally fell to my knees in relief. Not only was my doctor suddenly one hundred percent on my side, he was elated, because, as far as he knew, this was something fixable.
Only it wasn’t.
What I didn’t know was that my positive imaging was just a ticket to the front of a very long line of the world’s spinal leak patients. Positive imaging only means they start treating you less like a drug-seeking hypochondriac now that you can prove you’re not making it up.
The kind of spinal leak I have is not the kind most people are familiar with, including the vast majority of healthcare workers I’ve encountered, including my own surgeons. If you pop a leak from an epidural or a car accident or something like that, in most cases all it takes is a (relatively) minor procedure called a blood patch to seal the wound—not unlike patching a hole in a tire. A lot of times they don’t even have to know where the tear is, especially in an otherwise healthy and “normal” person; in theory the blood migrates to the hole and, as it clots, it seals.
But I am not a normal person. I have polycystic kidney disease, a genetic condition not just of the kidneys but of the connective tissue, which effects all of the body’s structural systems—like the spinal dura.
We are only just learning how widespread and insidious PKD is, just as medical science has only recently developed the imaging technology to track minute spinal leaks. There are only a handful of clinics around the world that specialize in diagnosing and treating them, and each of these sees thousands of patients every year, while every year the number of new entries on the spinal leak forums I follow grows exponentially with people desperate for a diagnosis. A system like this creates a bottleneck, with the few providers struggling to keep up with the glut of need, and a backlog of patients being under-treated or denied any treatment at all.
In amongst these are the zebras—patients like me with rare disorders that make us more likely to suffer spinal leak, and less likely to be fixed.
In spring of 2019 I travelled to North Carolina for my first DSM at Duke University, home to one of the few spinal fluid leak clinics in the world. They diagnosed the fistula and I had my first surgery that summer.
(Two days later, my mother died of polycystic kidney disease.)
I didn’t get better.
That November I had new DSMs and surgery #2 in Los Angeles, with one of the original leading specialists in the field, where they determined that surgery #1 had fixed the fistula but sprung a new leak. They patched the leak and sent me home again.
For a very brief time I had some improvement, and for one night–one glorious family dinner at Red Robin–I felt like my old self again, with a healthy brain and an unspeakable feeling of joy to be alive. But then I went into high-pressure, which is a thing that can happen when a leak is sealed but the body has gotten used to producing mad amounts of spinal fluid to compensate. The longer the active leak, the greater the risk of high pressure.
My patch blew after a few weeks, and by Christmas I was sick again.
(That December my surviving brother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, which had already spread throughout his body and into his brain.)
In March 2020, after surgery #3 I flew home from Los Angeles two days before the world went into Covid-19 lockdown. Within a few weeks it was clear the latest patch had failed; only this time instead of getting better, I got worse. By May 2020 I was effectively bedbound. Outside of short trips to the bathroom and sitting up for meals, I’ve been living on my back ever since.
I was afraid to travel for yet another round of imaging and surgery without a vaccine, so we stayed home. Between my disease and the raging virus I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.
But I did.
In the year of lockdown my kids went to school online, my six-year-old daughter right next to me in the bedroom where I live, every day, my son logging in to his first year of high school from within the dark funk of his lair down the hall. My husband, an #essential employee, made himself #irreplaceable at his manufacturing firm so we could keep up the co-pays on all my medical bills; in the evenings he took his parenting shift and still brought me dinner to order. In short, 2020 was the most difficult year we’ve ever had to endure as a family, as I’m sure it was with yours.
Thanks to the internet gods for Zoom, though, am I right?
Finally in June 2021, Tom and I flew back to LA for a third time—fully vaccinated!— for that long-anticipated new go-round of DSMs. It was an epic (and very expensive) journey involving a wheel-chair that reclines 180 degrees, four private vans, four very special planes equipped with lie-back seats, and one very heroic husband, but sadly it did not end in a successful imaging of my current leak.
In August I had a multi-level blood patch at a hospital in Philadelphia that targeted some suspicious masses of cysts along my spine. Earlier this October my latest MRI confirmed that this procedure also failed, which I knew.
And that’s where I am.
Writing about writing:
During all of this I hardly did any writing at all. Tom built me a folding “lap desk” that I can use lying down, but I had a hard time stringing words together when I could barely read the words on my screen. I tried to stay active in forums, but that was hard on my brain, too. I couldn’t remember words, couldn’t focus, couldn’t even stay awake sometimes while looking at the page. But I had a lot of time on my hands.
In 2020 I read “The Beginning of Everything” by Andrea Buchanan, a memoir by a musician who re-trained herself to play piano after enduring a spinal leak. She had a lot of things going for, including a doctor ex-husband and an otherwise normal dura, and she got better after only like a year, while I was in year twelve to fourteen (depending on where you start the count)—but still. She writes beautifully of what it’s like to be in a broken brain, she gave me hope, and she helped shed light on our sorry little unknown corner of the healthcare landscape. Plus, I took piano lessons for like thirteen years and I’d be hard pressed to play “Heart & Soul” for you today, brain damage or otherwise; so I figured if Andrea can teach her brain to be a pianist again, then I can retrain mine to write a novel.
So I did.
Or, I am. It’s a work in progress.
The brain damage thing is still a big problem. My vision comes and goes, my headache never does, and I’m tired a lot. I have a tendancy to type homophones or to juxtapose the letters and sounds of words I’m holding in my head. I never suffered ADD but I now I lose my train of thought all the time and often find myself zoning out while staring at the page. I have compiled several books worth of material on various projects in the last few years, but I’m a loooong way from finishing any one of them. I’m having a hard time in particular connecting the dots of my current fiction WIP, which is a very ambitious and hugely complicated and would have been a major challenge if I had all my pre-leak capacities. As I am, it’s more like a big Fuck You to the looming specter of my mortality.
But I’m invested. I can still be a writer with brain damage. I can be a writer who lives in a bed. I just need some novel supports to help me get there.
Hence this blog.
I’ve been thinking for a while now that it could be helpful to have a place to:
—organize my thoughts
—articulate, to address, to write to; a real or even imagined audience, rather than the echo chamber of my own broken head
— counteract the dreadful loneliness and isolation of writing, in the absence of the real-world, real-time connections that I miss
—to chronicle what this is like, writing with brain damage from a (yet)un-fixable spinal leak; particularly in the event that the worst should happen and I don’t manage to meet my writing goals before I either lose my mental capacities or die from stroke or something like poetically tragic that. Cuz it just doesn’t feel right that I should work this hard just to have it all disappear with my hard drive someday. The world should at least know I tried
—(vent. This is hard, y’all, and my heart is full of ghosts.)
But I’ve been putting it off, partly because all the plug-ins need updating and regular maintenance and the whole thing needs a do-over which is just, you know, A LOT for a broken brain. But I did get around to some basic housekeeping, and the rest can be done in good time, so I can’t use that as an excuse anymore.
I was also waiting until I heard back from the surgeon’s team in LA, since I was finally able to get a copy of my latest MRI into the mail and they were due to get back to me a week ago. I had set that conversation up in my mind to be “it”, the end of this miserable chapter of just WAITING, the official beginning of the next part where I know. But in keeping with the pattern, I’m still stuck waiting, this time for the surgeon in LA to confer with the radiologist in Philly, after which (presumably) one or the other will contact me with suggestions for what to do next, I guess.
Whatever it is, I’m tired of holding my breath while I wait to find out if I’m ever going to get better. Doctors are not made better people for wielding that kind of power. There’s always a gaff, a dropped appointment, an insurance loop hole, a golf game, a long holiday weekend between me and that desperately-awaited return call, that all-important word. Always one more thing between me and the rest of my life. After this last go-round I promised myself I’d stop living on hold while I wait for it, even if I have to live it permanently in this broken body.
I guess what I’m saying is, there’s really no reason to keep putting this off. Halloween is, after all, a time for crossing over. So.
A Plague of Shadows is the latest fiction collection put out by The Written Remains Writers Guild, my hometown writing tribe, in cooperation with Smart Rhino Publications. By design, all of the stories in PoS feature both haunted places and haunted people—basically ghost stories on steroids. My post-apocalyptic “To Heart’s Content” appears in this anthology, alongside local authors and well-known horror wordslingers in an eclectic joyride of subjects and styles.
PoS Editor and Written Remains matriarch J.M. Reinbold asked me to share a few words about the origins and inspiration of “To Heart’s Content”.
Although it appears as a stand-alone, “To Heart’s Content” is the continuation of a story called “Lost & Found”, which was first published in PerVisions (formerly Persistent Visions) in 2016 and reprinted in the Endless Apocalypse anthology by Flame Tree Publishing in 2018. Both stories revolve around Danae, a young woman whose psychic connection to the landscape has helped her survive in a post-apocalyptic United States.
Illustration for “Lost and Found” (Persistent Visions, September 2016). Artwork by Kathryn M. Weaver http://kathrynmweaver.com/
In “Lost & Found” we first meet Danae in the midst of a spiritual crisis: her powers have seemingly left her, and she is merely going through the motions with her survivalist lover, when she stumbles upon a clue to the whereabouts of an old flame. The story ends with Danae knowingly leading her companions into danger in order to appease the longing of her own heart.
“Lost & Found” was a work that was a long time coming, inspired by my love of the post-apocalypse sub-genre as well as by my own recurrent dreams. I realized even as I was writing it that it was actually the beginning of a much larger story—one I plan to finish, one day, but not yet, as I’m far too busy with mundane life for the kind world-building a book like that would require.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down years later to write a ghost story for A Plague of Shadows and found myself returning to those characters. The first thing to come to me was the love scene under the stained glass, and although much about the setting and even the faces were strange, I knew who they were. I recognized the way they feel about each other, and it all came rushing back. It was an absolute pleasure to write.
“To Heart’s Content” still leaves much of Danae’s story open, but I think it covers a lot of territory in a satisfying way. At least I hope so—I hope folks like it. If enough people bug me about it, maybe I’ll finally write the whole damn book. 🙂
Freshly signed and enspelled, copies of my new book will be flying out from the Newark post office forthwith.
If you too would like a signed copy (complete with personalized spell), you can purchase one here (use the Buy Now button).
Local folks can also pick up a copy from me in person at one of these upcoming events:
A Plague of Shadows Book Launch — Celebrate the publication of A Plague of Shadows with the Written Remains Writers Guild. Readings, Prizes (including a free copy of The Year of the Witch), Food and Drink, Music, Fun, and Dark Arts Gallery Exhibit! Newark Arts Alliance. Saturday, October 6, 2018 ~ 6 – 9 PM
Spelling Our Voices: The Power of Writing Magic and Fiction Witches — A Written Remains Get Out and Write workshop featuring Shannon Connor Winward (me!) at Hockessin Public Library. Saturday, October 27, 2018 ~ 1 – 3:30 PM
Hockessin Art & Book Fair — A celebration of local indie authors and artists at the Hockessin Community Recreation Center. Come visit “The Poets’ Corner” Shannon Connor Winward (also a featured reader), author of Undoing Winter (Finishing Line Press) and The Year of the Witch (Sycorax Press) and Lisa Lutwyche, author of A Difficult Animal (Saddle Road Press). Saturday, November 10, 2018 ~ 11 AM – 3 PM
One year ago, my son started at his new school. This marked a major turning-point in our lives—the end of an exhausting struggle with the local district and state that spanned years and, at times, pushed all of us to the brink of despair. Prior to this, the Kinglet’s situation was so dire, his mental health so precarious, that we’d had him homebound with (largely ineffective) tutors and therapists for most of fifth grade and part of fourth. Even after we successfully argued with the DOE for alternative schooling, it still took a quarter year to find a suitable placement—none of the special ed schools that we liked wanted to take a risk on a volatile (that is to say, “challenging”) child, and none of the ones that would take him inspired any confidence (most were just a step up from juvenile prison).
It was in late April of 2017 that we found a match with a small Philadelphia private school that focuses on higher-functioning ASD kids. The transition was not easy, but philosophical and pedagogical differences between this school and our home public school district were manifold. Over the past year, the Kinglet has made remarkable progress, not just in catching up with the schooling that he missed being homebound, but also with the life skills he so desperately needed but wasn’t being taught. While we’re still not able to fully relax (will we ever?), we’ve never held our breath this long without a major setback, a devastating crisis. Our latest IEP meeting was a (comparative) breeze—the changes are minimal, agreeable, reasonable. In short, he’s doing really, really well.
MEANWHILE, our daughter started part-time preschool in the Fall—an integrated special ed preschool, actually, in
The writer from her sickbed, with guest.
the same district that wasn’t up to educating our son. So that’s fun. Compared to the Kinglet, the Empress’ developmental delay (mostly in speech) is relatively mild. In fact, it’s about as mild as it could get while still qualifying for spec ed intervention—although the nuances of “mild” and what that means in terms of services has already become a subject of debate between her parents and her team. Silver lining, having been through all the fires with the Kinglet we’re neither ignorant of our options nor shy about using them, so the Empress has already had a top-notch third-party evaluation for speech & language, which we are about to bring to the IEP next month. Otherwise, the Empress is blossoming into a hysterically funny and sassy little pixie who knows herself and misses nothing and lights up our world like the miracle she is.
As for me… having both kids relatively stable and out of the house at least *some* of the time is lovely, although it’s not as revolutionary to my life as I’d imagined it would be. I had planned to use this time to work on a novel, and I tried, but by December of last year it became clear that I’m blocked. I’ve been creative in other ways, most notably with my online lit journal, which is very satisfying, but producing work of my own has been incredibly challenging. At times even composing an email was beyond me. I’ve made progress—some blurbs, some poems. But no fiction. Given that the fellowship I won this year is for fiction, this is especially demoralizing.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this block. I spent all of 2018 thinking about it, actually, up until my health took a nosedive in late March/early April. It was actually a relief to think about something else (how sick I was), except then I got so sick I could barely hold my head up, and that scared the shit out of me. Not being able to work, like, at all, not just writing but all the daily things I HAVE to do, like care for my children…
Although my health issues are not resolved yet I am doing much better now. I’ve had some time to catch up with the minutia, and even a few quiet days to consider where I am, and what’s next. Which is what this post is really all about.
I think the long creative block was (is?) recovery time. Enforced by who, I don’t know (and I’d like to have a word with someone about it, yes I would). I didn’t *want* downtime, but the truth is I wasn’t well. Things got better with the Kinglet over a very short amount of time, but the trauma that we—that I—went through before that was intense and extensive and, in all seriousness, could have killed me. That isn’t something you just shrug off, apparently. Why I couldn’t have worked through it with writing, IDK, but anyway. That’s how it went down.
Now I think maybe the sickness was an extension of that. If we’re going to look for existential reasons for things, maybe the creative downtime wasn’t enough—maybe thinking about it obsessively, even thinking about it in terms of self-care—just wore me down until my body couldn’t take it.
Or maybe it’s just a shitty fucking coincidence. Or maybe I’m cursed.
Either way, IDK if I’m out of the woods NOW, creatively or physically. I know I feel different, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know my purpose, or how best to eke meaning out of whatever life I have left. I don’t know why the clock always seems to read 11:11 when I look up. I’m trying to work all of that out.
I’ve given up on NaNoWriMo, once again–although I cleared the metaphorical space to work on a novel this month, my muse has, as yet, declined the invitation to show up. This is not unusual; my muse is not one to perform on demand. He/she is fickle with his/her attentions and requires much romancing and pining from me to return to the writing table after an absence.
Because I am bereft for things to write about, I started carrying my journal in my car. So far, the only in-transit idea that’s occurred to me is regarding the journal itself–so I guess I’ll write about that.
World, journal…journal, world.
I’ve been using this same journal for almost six years now. My writer ex-bestie gave me it to me, but that’s not why I keep it–girlie gave me a journal for pretty much every Xmas and birthday that we were friends (like, we’re writers, I get it. Clever.) It’s that I’ve got a very mild OCD-ish need to finish things that I start, and this one still has empty pages. Also it’s a Moleskin, and Moleskin makes damn good notebooks.
At least I think it’s a Moleskin: the cover page with the logo and “return to” inscription has gone missing. Also the inside spine is broken. The thing is showing its age. Still, it’s holding together pretty well (Moleskin!)–unlike that friendship.
The computer is king these days, but journals are good for scribbling ideas at traffic lights, taking cartoon-littered notes at workshops, jotting down titles to read, etc. This journal comes with me to most critique group sessions and to the occasional coffee shop getaway. Once I left it at the dive bar where they hold one of northern Delaware’s only open mics. One of the other attendees picked it up and held onto it for me (the “return to” page was still intact then). That’s how I got to meet former Delaware poet laureate E. Jean Lanyon (we hung out in her kitchen!).
The earliest entry in this journal is me rambling about not knowing what to write (seems familiar). After that is a scene from a story that’s gone on to be published twice *and* produced by a notable SF podcast, so I guess I should take heart from that. These dry periods don’t last. My muse always comes around.
But in the meantime… since I still haven’t thought of anything to write about (where are you muse, you finicky bitch), I took an inventory–not of what’s written in my journal, but what else is stored in there. To wit:
two Traditional Medicinal Tea box inserts featuring quotes: one by Rita Mae Brown and one by Roald Dahl
an article on former Delaware poet laureate JoAnn Baligit with an unfinished crossword puzzle on the back
a loose leaf paper with the email address of the guy who recruited me to play Anna Akhmatova at a poetry/performance event (the evening my daughter was conceived)
Nothing earth-shattering here, no pearls of wisdom (I’m in the midst of a creative dry spell after all). I just find it interesting how a journal can be not just a thing to write in but an actual creative space, as personal as the person who writes in it. Because a journal stays with me so long, it becomes more than just a notebook–it’s also an archive, a scrapbook… a time capsule. Flipping through it, one could probably learn a lot about me by what I have pressed between the scribbled pages–or at least, one could learn about the writing world I move through.
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Scott Whitaker Reviews
Shannon Connor Winward’s
(From VOLUME 9, ISSUE 6 // THE BROADKILL REVIEW – November 2015)
Shannon Connor Winward’s Undoing Winter, from Finishing Line Press, explores the relationship between self, myth and history. And for Winward, the past and the self are the wet earth, and the dead. Winward identifies the chthonic impulses that pull on our psyche. Family, the unexpected pain of loving children, these are but some of the themes lying in the winter setting of Winward’s chapbook. And it’s frightening. Thrilling, even.
Perhaps it’s the October chill in the air, and the pull of my imagination towards dark places, but Undoing Winter begins wielding dense and eloquent Dionysian tropes, the kind of musical mythic notes one hears in Plath, Sexton, and Bishop–on occasion, and in more contemporary artists such as Sharon Olds, Jean Feraca, and Beth Bachman. The iconic image of wet rich earth, so tied up with death and sex, is a primal murmur through Winter. And Winward becomes the throat for oracle, wearing a mask, and invoking poetic theatre.
The title poem “Undoing Winter” opens “I went into ground for you. I faced the guardians/of the gates of hell./I gave away my jeweled bracelets/ and marched naked to the cat-calls of the dead/ all to rescue your sorry ass/ and here you are,/ huddled on your mildewed throne/ speechless as a shrug.” The high and low registers of her voice contrast, a kind of static. The music of the “huddled…” and “speechless…” characterize the musical cadence of the poem.
Sonically, most of the chapbook echoes the title poem, they are poems of incantation, for lack of a better word. A catharsis, yes, but also transformative. The latter more important than the former. There is love and solace in her work, and levity, but for the most part Winter is an incantation, a purring engine of anger, desire, and loss.
“I Visit Your Heart” a speculative gem, hums with the kind of glamor a beautiful predator purrs from a long graceful throat. “Your heart on ice is useless to you,/ so while you were sleeping/I had them cut it out, encase it in plastic/ and set it on a platform/ with a plaque that reads: choices.” The heart later becomes a “trophy valentine”, the physical remains of what had been a relationship, a “paperweight.”
What makes Undoing Winter dazzle is the sensuousness of its language. Poetry is, on some level, supposed to be sexy, dark, and dangerous. There are few character hooks in the book, and Winward plays her cards close to her chest, so we don’t have any idea if she is writing about real or imagined events or people. The emotional landscapes of the poems could as easily be from memory or from imagination. Winward does a poet’s’ job and makes the unpoetic dangers of life poetic and mystic, joining in the broad and great opus that is American letters.
Last year (according to Goodreads) I read a whopping THREE books of fiction.
There was a time (in another life, in a galaxy far, far away) when I never went anywhere without a novel at hand. I’d pull that baby out at stoplights, read over meals, in the bathroom, standing over the printer at work—you know how it is.
Their absence now is an icky symptom of an over-extended life; what time I have for reading—in between parenting, writing, and other madness—is pretty minimal. I DO read for pleasure, but it’s mostly of the online, ephemeral variety, lately. A poem here. A story there. Nothing I can write home to Goodreads about.
While I’m telling you this partly because I have a free writing day for once so OF COURSE I want to spend it lamenting about my lack of time, I also want to make the following point:
My Dear, Darling Authors: when I go to my stack of TO READS and, out all the books I could possibly pick, I choose YOURS to bring with me to a four-hour-long appointment at the salon, it is a complement. Nay, it’s an HONOR. (Diana Gabaldon, YOU’RE WELCOME.)
I feel compelled to make this point because (1) it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote a blog post, and though I have good excuses as to why, I still feel pretty lousy about it, so deflecting the issue by shedding light on the responsibility that authors have to their readers (i.e. me) to NOT SUCK seemed like a good strategy… but MORE IMPORTANTLY (b) I did actually, recently, so honor an author (no, not DG, she’s amazing) who so thoroughly DID SUCK that I feel personally insulted.
Now I have nothing to do but sit here, grumbling, getting high on hair dye fumes. THANKS A LOT, Mr. Terrible Authorpants.
I mean, really. I invested time in this book (not much, it was really bad, so bad that after a dozen pages I almost threw it across the salon. But I didn’t bring another book to read instead, so there’s four hours I COULD have spent reading someone else.) Also, I invested money. Or, rather, my in-laws did—the book was an Xmas present off my Amazon wishlist)—which is kind of even worse.
Anyway. I will not tell you which book sucked so very much. I will not gift this “author” with any attention, even bad attention. But let me tell you this:
There is a reason independent authors and publishers get a bad rap. Yes, yes, yes, there are excellent self-published and small press books out there (I’ve been in some of the latter, and I’m about to wax poetic about the former, so please bear with me). BUT, so very many of them are badly edited, self-indulgent space wasters. There’s no accountability. There’s no gate-keeping editorial staff, no publishing house with an established reputation and at least some marketing dollars and savvy to back an indie author up. Some self-published and garage-published books at least have the decency of using fifth-graders as cover artists to clue you in to how much they suck, but often there’s no way for a potential reader to know if the random indie book they’re about to pay money for/invest time in (or select above all others to lug to their hair appointment) is going to be worth it.
Which is why I don’t buy a lot of indie books. (Could ya tell?) When I do buy one (or download one, let’s be honest, Indies give their books away in promotions all the time) it’s because I know the author, or else the book comes with the recommendation of someone whose judgment I trust.
THIS book, though. What upsets me most about how much THIS BOOK sucked was that it tricked me. I didn’t know it was indie-published. I came across it by expressing interest in similar books on Amazon or Goodreads or some such. It looked good. It sounded good. It was published by a “Society” that sounded Literary and Important and Knowledgeable In Such Things, and had garnered good reviews with words like Intelligent and Challenging and that referenced other Authors I Like.
But, no, this book was overwritten, self-indulgent, purple prosy, dense, badly edited crap which, upon closer inspection, was published by a “Society” of which the author is the “President” and which exists to bring literature to the masses by, like, hosting open mics at a venue the author owns. And stuff.
Oh, and those reviews? The author personally responds to each and every one. Especially the bad ones. At length. (I really wish I’d noticed that before I clicked “Want to Read.”)
So let that be a lesson to you, Good Readers. Or let it be a lesson to me, I guess. Someone should learn something from this experience.
But although I am still feeling ill from the bad taste this BOOK I SHALL NOT DIGNIFY BY IDENTIFYING left in my reading mouth (yes, that’s a thing), I’d like to use the remainder of this space to raise a metaphorical toast to a book far more worthy of your attention.
For our recent family weekend camping excursion, I selected the next book in my READ ME queue: LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING, by Franetta McMillian, a Delaware author and acquaintances whose work I discovered at a local literary venue. Ms. McMillian has a captivating voice and a quietly stunning performance presence. As many open mic enthusiasts can tell you, lots of people can read fiction to a room full of people, but very few can tell a story. Not to mention, the story she read—THE FALL OF ROME (Gargoyle Magazine, Fall 2014)—was freakin’ awesome. So guess what? I bought her book… and then kept it in my SOME DAY pile for a year and a half before finally breaking the seal and exploring those words. And after my recent experience, I admit, I was wary.
Let me assure, you. Franetta’s got this.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING (2013), represents everything good that an independent book can be. Set in the “shattered States” of the mid-to-late twenty-first century, this collection of interwoven stories explores the tenacity of love, spirit and human goodness within one of the ugliest possible imagined futures. Mired in catastrophic global pollution and entrenched economic corruption, McMillian’s eclectic cast of survivors, visionaries, and misfits are surprising and compelling. Her writing is clear, evocative, and—lo! —clearly well-edited. Her storytelling is creatively non-linear, transporting the reader across time and geography in what seems at first a random set of “Quantum Leaps” but eventually reveals itself to be a clever pattern within the novel’s haunting and beautiful mosaic.
My only (only!) issue with LOVE was a bit of chronological confusion which may or may not be iron-out-able but, in the end, doesn’t really matter. (And I can’t remember the last time a book made me go back, take notes, and do the math, so there’s that.) With elements of science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream, McMillian’s stories hold appeal for lovers of genre fiction, yet they also maintain a consistent, resonating literary tenor that, in my opinion, has the strength to cross boundaries and affect a much larger audience. I can see her work fitting in the highest tier magazines or, with luck, backed by Big Name Brick and Mortar Inc. Yet Ms. McMillian embraced the Independent Publishing model, and more power to her. You can see her creative vision in every aspect of the book, from the cover art (her own) to the composition and scope (there’s a sequel, she informs me, so watch for that!) Which, I suspect, was entirely her point.
While I abhor a badly executed self-published book (particularly one masquerading as something else), I acknowledge that there is, absolutely, well-written, entertaining, and important works out there to be discovered. I bemoan the lack of filtering in the modern book market that subjects sensitive souls like me to total, time-wasting dren, but let it be said that there ARE ways to sniff out the good stuff beyond just random point and click. Getting to know the local talent is a big one (and supporting your local artists can’t hurt). Also important? Recommendations by people you love and trust—like, say, me!
So trust me on this one. LOVE is worth it.
— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.
My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing. My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today. But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.
I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.
I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late. Hahaha – no, really.)
And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully. But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable. It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch. And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom. That my words could go places I’d never imagined. So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.
A budding young author circa 1993 – haha, look at me pretending to be straight-laced.
It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.
So when I heard that the Delaware PTA needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.
In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging. Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.
Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD. Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy. I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.
I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis. Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.
I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades. Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.
I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days. This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems. I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.
In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.
I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate). A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it. Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.