The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.
Print editions are for sale at eveningstreetpress.com.
My newest story, Of Course, I Didn’t, has been accepted for publication this fall in the online literary magazine, Rock Salt Journal. Told in the first person and weighing in at just 800 words, it’s a quick, thoughtful read. Themes of isolation resolve into the quiet comradery of kindred spirits.
Look for Of Course, I Didn’t in the October 2022 edition of Rock Salt journal at rocksaltjournal.com. While you’re there, you’ll find a curated selection of short fiction, creative nonfiction, and photography.
I have a friend I’ve never met in person. We found each other through a writer’s critique group that communicated solely via e-mail to accommodate a hearing-impaired writer among us who struggled to feel comfortable with in-person groups. Over time, most of our members drifted away, but I kept writing to JP, occasionally exchanging pieces and becoming close through letters describing our hopes, dreams, and setbacks. She trusted me with her manuscripts, and I read them, a chapter at a time, sharpening my skills. We spoke once on the phone, but it was awkward. Writing was more natural. This fall will mark three years of my correspondence with JP. Attached to our e-mails are dozens of pieces we’ve read for each other, along with the responses, the rewrites, and shots in the dark.
Despite all this, it took me years to realize I have a pen pal. It’s such an old-fashioned idea. When my grandmother died, my mother found her yellowed love letters tied in a blue ribbon, a romantic gesture from a bygone era. In my childhood, I was paired with a pen pal from an elementary school in New Jersey. We were twelve; our letters didn’t last long. Now, I am writing every week to a person I couldn’t recognize in a crowd; we’ve never exchanged photos. Though we use emails instead of parchment and quill pens, we are the most old-fashioned of pen pals.
And the letters, even if they’re digital, are something special. They remind me we can say more in writing. In spoken conversations, especially on emotional subjects, our words drown out much of what we hear. Planning what to say next takes precedence over careful listening and tendencies to anticipate the other’s response undermine deep connections. Letter writing allows us to speak uninterrupted. We preserve the flow of our thoughts without distracting questions, digressions, and outside muddling. In letters, we choose our words with care, re-writing, adjusting, re-phrasing for emphasis and clarity. We can reread them for deeper meaning and cherish them when we are lonely.
For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader. Responses will be full of the same honesty, humor, and snark. Especially if they come from a fellow writer.
Annie Krabbenschmidt writes, in their introduction, “This project started with a question: ‘Why is it so hard to come out of the closet?’… why is it that for some, we can more easily picture killing ourselves than living full and happy lives? ‘… What does it take to feel free?’” With these questions, they reach out to the reader they can’t believe is really there. From the first page, they address us directly. Midway through, they wonder if any of us have made it this far. At the end they thank us, their “dozens of readers,” for listening. Self-effacing to the last page, Annie knows they’re telling a story not everyone wants to hear. Their humble words belie how often people have turned away from them.
Annie is charming because they are trying not to be charming. No doubt, they hate charming people. But in their honesty, complete though never brutal, they draw readers into their story. Whether or not they want to, they charm us. That’s the tension in this narrative. Annie shows their flaws, but their messy, mixed-up coming of age is a shared story among humans. Though they have faced ugly criticism and emotional harm, they’ve emerged, not in self-satisfied triumph but in burgeoning self-knowledge that shines a light on our humanity.
Fred: An Unbecoming Woman is a book of hard-won insights and long-pondered problems. Through the lens of their LGBTQ+ experiences, friendships, and romances, Annie tackles the feelings of “otherness” that dog humans on their way to authenticity and fulfillment. Their sexuality magnifies the ostracism they face; they can’t ignore the tangled strands of their life. Their fight to be free will inspire many who do not share their specific challenges. Betrayed by labels like “privileged,” “introvert,” and “lesbian,” they attack stereotypes and share their journey, even though they’re pretty sure a lot of us will tune them out. In their unrelenting self-awareness, they dare us to keep going. The reward is a story of resilience, a life lived with intention, and a human being still on the road to their truest self.
Every writer hears, “Write what you know.” And what every writer knows is writing, its intricacy, weight, and solitude. As a writer building credits, I am relentless about creating and submitting my work. Week after week, I submit to literary reviews and magazines, noting various guidelines. They often include lists of subjects editors will accept. Or dismiss. Once or twice, I’ve been surprised by journals who reject pieces about writers. “We’ve read enough stories about the writing process,” they say. “Your readers are not exclusively other writers.”
True. But any well-written story will find readers. I am not a WWII vet and yet I am swept away by Kurt Vonnegut’s novels based on his war experiences. I’ve never been to a bullfight, but Hemingway draws me in like few other writers. Vonnegut’s troubled author, Kilgore Trout, appears in several of his most applauded novels. Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises is an American writer for a Parisian newspaper. I’ve placed two stories for publication in the last twelve months featuring writers as main characters. (Check out the latest one, Real Writer on East of the Web) Did the editors who accepted them forget their readers are not necessarily writers?
The literary world is full of stories about writers. Novels by Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Virginia Woolf place writers in leading roles. Readers love these books for their authenticity. In their fictional worlds, the writer’s struggle is emblematic of the larger human quest to find peace and order. Hollywood relies on authors, too. Movies as varied as The Shining, Sideways, and Almost Famous are adaptations (by writers) from books about writers. Shonda Rhimes’ recent Netflix series, Inventing Anna, tells the dual narrative of an infamous con-artist and the writer who made her famous. Writers may risk seeing no farther than their own keyboards. But editors who refuse to read stories about writers chance throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
As writers, we have plenty of models for transforming our writing lives into interesting stories. Check out the lists below of the most loved books and films about writers. They speak volumes to audiences everywhere. And if you find editors who’ve already read enough about writers, submit elsewhere.
Douglas Bullis is not a medievalist. If he were, we’d know how and where he uncovered every piece of the LeFief Family puzzle. Remembrances of Things to Come would begin with baptism records retrieved from long-forgotten chapels. It would progress through land grants, letters, and diaries. Notes in the margins of books, inscriptions on gravestones, church registers; medievalists use these sources to walk back in time. They’re the hallmarks of well-founded research where speculation fades, and every assertion stands as sturdy as a barrel vault.
In Remembrances of Things to Come, Bullis tries something much more readable. He promises to transport readers to a lost world. Stories of domesticity, celebration, and despair emerge without strings of citations and sources. Instead of a scholar recording LeFief origins via medieval documents, Bullis is a tour guide conducting readers through the landscape. In 1003 CE, a land grant is given by a local lord to a family without a surname. “When the family was later confirmed in the church by the lord’s bishop, the lord attended the observance but would not yield to them permission to adopt his name. They therefore took unto themselves the name of the fief itself, to last as long as the family should live.” (Remembrances of Things to Come, D. Bullis. pg.4) We don’t read it from the church annals. It’s not drawn from the inscription on the first LeFief’s tomb. It wasn’t uncovered in a 1000-year-old ledger. It simply happened. The rest of the book follows the family up to modern times, recreating one day for one LeFief across successive centuries.
Remembrances uses art for its reference points. Hundreds of high-quality reproductions taken from period manuscripts illustrate the scenes of daily life in Bullis’ narrative. The art inspires him to recall the sounds, smells, colors, and customs familiar to the LeFiefs as they navigate nine centuries in the Loire Valley. He invites readers into the kitchen, the field, the country lane. These flights of imagination dispel the illusion of distance between the LeFiefs and us. Bullis reminds us that French baguette smells the same today (and is made in much the same way) as it did a millennium ago; in a thousand years, unless bread is no longer baked, it will be as fragrant. It’s a touchpoint, a memory we can share of the past, present, and far future.
I’ll admit, the whole idea of banning books makes me nervous. Challenges to school library collections, attempts to prosecute librarians, and cries to ban dozens of titles worry me. Legislators and parents’ groups say they’re keeping kids safe from inappropriate content. But defining such content is a prickly proposition.
Recent ban requests include the 20th century classics To Kill A Mockingbird (H. Lee), The Handmaid’s Tale (M. Atwood), and The Bluest Eye (T. Morrison). These prize-winning novels tackle tough issues of racism and sexism. Efforts to ban them may fit into a larger cultural conversation. Many current critics, uncomfortable with the way earlier generations expressed themselves on these topics, undervalue the preservation of these literary testaments to how far we’ve come.
Other ban efforts target 21st century titles whose authors speak to youth seeking race and gender equality. Motions to remove these titles attack young adult books like Not Every Boy Is Blue by George M. Johnson and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Art Speigelman’s Maus draws criticism for its frank depiction of the humiliation, degradation, and violence of Nazi Germany. I wonder how today’s students will find their way forward if we erase records of the past.
Advocates for freedom from censorship are speaking up against the proposed bans. Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter quote Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, in a recent New York Times article. “‘If you look at the lists of books being targeted, it’s so broad,’ Ms. Nossel said. Some groups, she noted, have essentially weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse reading material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.” Parent’s associations use social media platforms to spread one-sided information on challenged titles. Concerned parents may be unfamiliar with the debated material or shy away from depictions of marginalized people. As controversy swirls, it’s hard not to notice that most of the titles in question discuss BIPOC, LGBTQ+ experiences.
Fractured politics tarnish the conversation as opposing sides line up with little hope of compromise. After tense meetings with salacious excerpts read out of context, librarians and educators suffer along with their students. School districts in several states registered criminal complaints against school librarians for distributing pornography to minors. In the case of Not All Boys Are Blue, Flagler County, Florida filed charges against the book itself.
The good news is that these censorship initiatives are failing. “So far, efforts to bring criminal charges against librarians and educators have largely faltered, as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.” (Harris & Alter, NYT 2/8/22) Many school boards who approved the removal of books in recent months have since walked back their bans, restoring materials to library shelves and reading lists.
Book bans are nothing new. From ancient times, power elites have sought to suppress cultural disruptors. But readers take interest in books that raise questions, inspire controversy, and move the conversation forward. Book banners, past and present, are the instruments of their own demise when they draw attention to the titles they oppose. What better book to read than the one accused of explicit content? How better to challenge the powers that be?
Peruse the lists and articles from the links below. Find a book; support the authors, publishers, school districts, and students you care for most.
“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
Rain fell on the roof of the cottage where Harriet lived with her parents. She sat at the window while they bickered in the kitchen. “Thin soup again,” said Father.
“Earn more; we’ll eat better.”
“A good wife makes the smallest sum suffice, stupid woman.”
The rain on the roof said, “Harriet, I’m at the garden gate.”
Harriet ignored the voice and passed a quarrelsome evening at home. When she asked for butter, Mother smacked her. “We have no butter, Fool. Why ask and humiliate me?”
In bed, Harriet heard the rain falling. “Meet me at the gate at dawn,” it said. Harriet left the house early, a string bag over her shoulder. On the gatepost, a sparrow stood hopping and chirping. Harriet followed it from tree to tree, winding along the lane, until they came to a marshy place.
There, a ferryman waited, a lantern on a pole behind him, mist rising from the swamp. “One coin to cross,” he said.
“I have no coin and no wish to cross.”
“Move on, then.”
The sparrow lit atop the lantern pole to groom its feathers and jerk its head to the far shore. “I shall cross after all,” said Harriet, “And instead of a coin, I will give you this lion’s tooth.” She offered a long yellow incisor hung on a leather string. “My father traded for it in the marketplace, a totem of courage and valor. One night, as he snored before the fire, I stole it. Since then, I wear it for bravery.” The ferryman accepted and stood aside as Harriet boarded.
Passing through the reeds Harriet saw, submerged in the shallows, a sleeping girl. Hair swirling in the ferryman’s wake, the maiden smiled to herself at her own sweet dreams. On the bog bottom lay another world, pond grasses swaying in a forest of roots and branches.
The craft bumped firm ground. The ferryman handed Harriet ashore with a stern word. “I leave you in a cursed kingdom whose unjust ruler prides himself on his cunning. Be on your guard.” The sparrow perched on the branch of an elm overlooking a path into green fields and golden meadows. Harriet thanked the ferryman and shouldered her string bag.
The path became a track, the track became a road, the road became a street, and soon Harriet found herself at the palace gates. The sparrow rested on the battlements, calling over the din of the town. “May I enter the palace?” Harriet asked.
“No one may enter whom the king has not summoned.”
The sparrow disappeared over the wall. “I am expected,” said Harriet.
“Not by His Majesty.”
“I bring a gift.”
From her string bag, Harriet drew a fine prayer book bound in gilded leather. “I received this from the bishop at my First Communion. I wish to give it to His Highness for comfort in these trying times.”
The guard inspected the volume, its soft vellum pages, and intricate illuminations. “I accept this gift on behalf of the king. An attendant will prepare your room.”
Harriet crossed the courtyard to a room with rich hangings and a bright fire. The sparrow, entering the window, landed atop a lavish mirror. Harriet shook out her clothes and straightened her hair. “You are as plain as a rag doll,” said her attendant before retiring. “His Majesty will see through you; better keep your wits.”
Harriet faced the mirror, wondering how she might improve herself. From above, the sparrow shook its wings, dropping gilded feathers among the combs and brushes. Its beak was full of silver ribbons and strings of pearls. These it wove into ornaments for Harriet’s hair and adornments for her drab clothes.
In the throne room, the king admired young Harriet, as elusive and lovely as a bird. “Dear Maid, why do you come before me?” he asked.
“I bring a gift, Your Majesty.”
“I left it at the gate.”
The king folded his hands and leaned forward on his throne. “I’m told your name is Harriet and that you are a maiden. Is that right?”
“I am a king in need of a maiden to carry sons and secure my line. As such, I declare you will marry me.”
“I will not, Sire.”
“You are unknown to me, Your Highness, and I’ve heard talk of a curse in your kingdom.”
“There is a curse,” said the king, “A vile dragon who lives above us in a mountain cave where he hoards treasure and demands a maiden to devour, lest he destroy my kingdom.”
Harriet trembled but kept her composure. “I thank Your Majesty for this audience,” she said. “Let me trouble you no longer.” She bowed to leave.
“Young woman, you may not refuse my proposal,” said the king, “But because you are fair, I grant you a chance to save yourself. You have three days and three nights; each morning you must set me a riddle. If you outwit me, you are free to go. But if I solve your riddles, you belong to the dragon and my kingdom is free from its curse.” A whisper went among the courtiers at this pronouncement. There could be no riddle clever enough to confound their sharp-witted king.
Guards whisked Harriet back to her room and left her to consider her fate. She wept, the sparrow at her pillow, knowing nothing of riddles or any way to avoid her doom. She pondered death and railed at the sparrow whom she’d followed to this cursed kingdom. When the storm of her crying passed, she was tired, but it was time to present the king with her first riddle. She missed the lion’s tooth, once worn round her neck for courage.
In the throne room, rain spattered the leaded windowpanes. The sparrow settled itself on a finial of the throne. “What riddle do you have for me, Maid Harriet? No doubt I will solve it in an instant.”
At this, the rain spoke to Harriet, tapping the roof and walls. She repeated every word it said. “Your Majesty. A murderer condemned to death must choose from among three rooms. One is full of raging fires. One harbors traps rigged with poison darts. The last is a den of lions, starved for three years. Which room should the prisoner choose?”
The king’s eyes flashed. “You must do better than that to outsmart me, dear girl. Of course, the prisoner must choose the lions’ den, since the animals died of starvation.”
The sparrow flew from the room as guards led Harriet away. Sobbing into her pillows, she despaired. If the king solved the rain’s riddle with such ease, nothing she might contrive could save her. She prayed through the night, missing her First Communion prayer book, begging guidance and mercy from God. At dawn, a miracle. A riddle came to Harriet at the washbasin, an answer to her prayers. Perhaps with divine inspiration, she might fool the shrewd king.
“What is your riddle, Maid Harriet? I hope you’ve brought something worthy of my intellect.”
Harriet stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness. I am greater than God and worse than the devil. The poor have me, the rich want me, and if you eat me, you’ll die. What am I?”
The king reclined on his throne, fingers to his beard, rings flashing in the morning light. He leaned to a golden table at his side where Harriet’s gilded prayer book lay; he took it up and thumbed its pages. “You impress me, dear girl. This is a better question. And yet you have given me the answer.” He held up the prayer book. “An apt gift for a king with perils at his doorstep. From it, I learn nothing must be the answer to your riddle. For nothing is greater than God or worse than the Devil. The poor have nothing, the rich want nothing while eating nothing leads to death.”
Guards again whisked Harriet away, the king chiding her to do a better night’s work if she hoped to live. In her room, Harriet burned candles one after another, pacing before the fireplace. A hundred ideas came and went, but nothing to save her life. The sparrow had gone and did not return while Harriet scribbled her efforts in vain. In the morning, she hadn’t slept and saw no sign of the sparrow.
“Maid Harriet, today you must save your life or go free; either way, we will be parted. Can you outwit me?”
“Your Majesty, I have no riddle.”
“No riddle? I’m disappointed. You’ve exhausted your chances.”
In a rush of air and soot, the sparrow appeared from the chimney, its feathers singed and beating as it swooped around Harriet’s head. “My Lord,” she said. “I know a riddle. Tell me, what is easy to lift but hard to throw?”
The king looked at Harriet with a furrowed brow. “A question so simple won’t do, dear Harriet.”
“Sire, what is your answer?”
The king frowned and rose to pace before his golden tapestries. First an hour, then three, then six hours, Harriet waited, the courtiers drooping as the sun shifted across the sky. At last, the king cried out. “The answer, girl! I must have the answer.”
“Does Your Majesty mean he cannot solve the riddle?”
“I have solved it. Tell me your answer and I will tell you mine.”
“Free me, Your Majesty.”
“My answer will prove correct, and you will go to the dragon.”
“You do not know the answer,” said Harriet. Guards reached for her, but Harriet felt the sparrow alight on her shoulder. Under its feet she transformed into a breeze which flowed out through the window, a feather falling to the floor in her place. The court gasped, and the king raged. He grasped the feather and threw it with all his strength, only to see it spiral and fall.
“A feather,” said the king, the answer coming too late, leaving him to search for another maiden with which to save his kingdom while Harriet found freedom and lived content for the rest of her days.