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A Writer’s Journal

Of Autumn, Publishing, and Choral Memoirs

With author and memoirist Dani Shapiro at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron, Ohio, Oct. 9, 2019.

 

 

An excerpt of an essay written for my newsletter, "A Word from Marci," on October 27, 2019.

 

Have the trees changed color where you are, or do you live in a land of palm trees and sea breezes? Here in Ohio, the foliage has been ablaze for several weeks. Soon the trees’ gold and red flames—one by one, hundreds by hundreds, then myriad by myriad—will be extinguished, their dark branches left vulnerable and exposed by the gusting.

 

This is a good season in which to publish a book, I think. While autumn generally is equated with the end of life, I like the idea that I'm going against the grain—bringing something new into the world that did not exist before, giving birth in an otherwise dying season.

 

And yet … publishing can leave a writer feeling, well, slightly vulnerable and exposed. Will people find the book? Will they read the book? Will they like and appreciate the book? Will they share the book?

 

It was in that frame of mind that I drove with my husband to Akron earlier this month to attend a lecture by Dani Shapiro, one of my writing teachers. It was a comfort to be in the presence of this remarkable artist—the success of her newest memoir, Inheritance, has surpassed anything she has done in her unquestionably successful career. I'm deeply happy for her, proud to know her and call her a friend, and grateful for all that she has taught me.

I met Dani when I enrolled in her memoir-writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown five years ago. She taught me so much, as did her excellent book about writing called, aptly, Still Writing. I took so many notes from that book and from her class, rewrote them in the small commonplace book that I purchased upon my return home—a purchase inspired by a practice of Dani’s—and I remain in touch with my classmates through the Facebook group “Women Still Writing,” continuing to learn from them, too.

 

I recently found this quote, which I must have jotted down in Dani's workshop and rewrote in my commonplace book, shown above with Dani's book: “Autobiography is not about story. Memoir is about story. But you must choose the window you're going to look through.”


A Choral Memoir

No one was more surprised than I that the window I peered through for my first nonfiction book ended up being the city of Elyria at midcentury. My plan was to write a more personal childhood memoir—and although there are many elements of my childhood in this book, the window that chose me is far larger than that of my living room on East Fifteenth Street. I say the window chose me because all of this feels provident and unexpected and perfectly natural. My vantage point was a window opened to a specific time and set in a specific place, but my field of vision contained multitudes. Because of my research and interviews, Looking Back at Elyria became a city's memoir, and a memoir of everyone with whom I spoke. In another context I told someone I thought of the book as a “multi-voiced memoir,” but I have since heard another description, in another context, that I find more poetic: a "choral memoir." (Wish I'd written that down in my commonplace book so I could provide attribution for the phrase.)

So this is how I view my book now: as a choral memoir, and many members of the chorus will be with me to celebrate its arrival on Friday, November 8.

I have invited people whom I interviewed, and who are still living in Northeast Ohio, to join my family and me at a private reception at the Lorain County History Center. There will be other, more public events (I've added more to my calendar), but this one, my “book launch” is my way of giving back to those who shared their stories and photographs with me, who let me guide them back in time to remember.

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My James River Writers Origin Story

Note: This essay was written at the request of James River Writers, and appeared in its monthly newsletter on September 6, 2019.

 

 

It has been nine years since I made my circuitous way through Richmond and its baffling one-way streets to find the offices of James River Writers, which were then located on Hull Street. I had just moved to RVA from northeast Ohio, leaving behind harsh winters, a cozy home, and the cozier security of a full-time job to begin a new chapter with a new husband.

 

That job was in the communications office at the small liberal arts college where I had earned my bachelor of arts degree, in English and creative writing, when I was in my thirties. I wrote press releases and articles for a living, and I was good at it. I felt tethered to the school since that's where all of my intellectual awakenings had taken place. I could still bump into my former professors crossing the town square. I joined a book club with other like-minded friends and colleagues. Saying goodbye to all that left me feeling unmoored. It was in that frame of mind that I embarked on my quest to find a new community of writers and readers. And it was in that frame of mind that I first met Anne Bryan Westrick.

 

Anne, JRW's administrative director, was busy at her desk when I arrived but had been expecting me. She was my introduction to the Richmond writing community, and could not have been more welcoming and reassuring. To say that Anne and I clicked is like saying that the earth orbits the sun. Her warmth and genuine interest in me and my work led to an immediate bond that still holds fast, even though nearly ten years and 500 miles now separate us. She encouraged me to join JRW, of course, but she also made me feel as though I were already a part of it. She suggested I volunteer at its upcoming conference and attend some of the writing shows. In subsequent months Anne introduced me to Meg Medina, Gigi Amateau, and Virginia Pye, and just like that, I was part of a new community of writers and readers. A new community of like-minded people.

 

I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial all of this was to me. It was a lifeline during that first year in Richmond.

 

Although my undergraduate bona fides were solid, I did not go to graduate school. James River Writers was my de facto MFA program. I learned about such mysteries as "dialogue tags" and Pitchapalooza (Hi Arielle! Hi David!), and how to converse intelligently with a literary agent, write a query letter, and hone a five-minute book pitch. Perhaps more than anything, I learned that there was life after the security of full-time employment. Through JRW I gained the confidence to start my own freelance business (KeyWord Communications, LLC), begin a blog, and cold-call the Richmond Times-Dispatch to suggest stories.

 

Fast-forward to an August evening in my writing office at my home in Avon, Ohio. The papers, books, and binders on my desk and surrounding work areas only slightly approximate something called organization. Sandy, our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, lies in her usual spot on the floor next to me, snoring softly. The waning sunlight shimmers through the leaves on the Bradford pear tree across the street.

 

I am two months away from seeing my first nonfiction book appear in print. The History Press, an imprint of Arcadia Publishing, is releasing a book based on articles I've written for my hometown newspaper about Elyria, Ohio, the place where I grew up. For more than two years, I've researched, reported, and written the articles and the book—a labor of love and a startling departure for me in terms of subject matter. As my breathing winds down and I settle into the final lap toward production (approving the cover, preparing to proof the final manuscript) I realize there exists the smallest of intervals before I must tend to the details of life after publication (book promotion and launch party, readings and interviews and the like). Then, far off on the horizon, so small that I might miss it if I didn't know I wanted it to be there, waits the next unchartered territory. Let's call it "The Next Book."

 

It has been six years since I left RVA and returned home to Ohio. And although I've joined a writer's organization in the area, I maintain that there is nothing, nothing like James River Writers. It is unique. It is a community that inspires a writer's commitment—not only to the act and art of putting words into sentences, rearranging them, and stringing them into a coherent narrative, but also to a sort of reverence and respect for the profession.

 

Whatever your genre, whatever your place in the publishing cosmos, it is a wonderful thing, when asked, "So. What do you do?" to be able to reply:

 

"I write."

 

James River Writers, I thank you.

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The Midlife Second Wife

Latitude Adjustments

 

Geographically speaking, 10 degrees separate Oberlin, Ohio (82˚) from Richmond (72˚), at least on the longitudinal scale. In 54 years—my entire life—I never lived anywhere other than northeast Ohio. Then, last September, I moved to Richmond. On the life-experience scale, the degrees separating my old life from this new one might as well be 10,000.

 

Here's what happened: I fell in love.

 

You hope for these things; you don't plan for them. It never occurred to me that one day I would meet someone with whom I was meant to spend the rest of my life. Or, if I did, we would surely live in Oberlin, in the house I'd bought after my divorce.

 

I'd come home from my job at the Conservatory of Music, and we'd cook food that we'd bought together at the Farmer's Market on Main Street. We'd attend concerts in Finney Chapel; on Sunday mornings we'd go to church at Christ Episcopal, then have brunch at the Black River Café. My son and his girlfriend would come for dinner. His sons and their girlfriends would come for dinner.

 

This would be my life, and it would be idyllic: shared with the man I loved, in the town I loved, with a job I loved.

 

But that's not what happened.

 

Four months after I said yes to the man who asked me to marry him (over omelets at the Black River Café), he was offered a job. In Richmond.

 

Things were about to change.

 

Reader, I married him in August. Since then, I've cataloged 14 life stressors on the Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale. There's the remarriage, which added not just a husband but also two fine stepsons to my family. I retired from my job, albeit in name only. (Happily, I'm too young to collect a pension. Unhappily, the extra cash would be nice.) I started my own business, drastically altering my work hours and responsibilities along with my career. I lost a dear friend to cancer. I have celebrated major holidays. I have changed my residence, my name, my living conditions and my social activities. I also have had the flu, but the marvelous thing is, I have not done any of this alone.

 

My husband is my life partner in every sense of the word, pitching in to help with all the myriad tasks that these large-scale life changes entailed. He not only cooks, he cleans up the kitchen after I cook, which, if you know me, is no small feat.

 

Wonder of wonders, he loves and supports me unconditionally.

 

With this kind of backup, it's been true each of the 783 times that I've said, "It's all good."

It was all good when I endured the whiplash of selling my house in a buyer's market, and when the temperature spiked to 93 degrees on our wedding day in an Oberlin chapel so historic that it didn't have air conditioning.

 

It was all good when I realized that most people in Richmond share their walls with their neighbors and their cars with the elements, and when I learned that although you can't buy stadium mustard at Martin's — or find it at The Diamond — you can buy it online.

 

It was truly all good when I discovered, in no particular order: James River Writers, Richmond CenterStage, the Henley Street Theatre Company, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Carillon, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Carytown, the Byrd Theatre, and Ellwood Thompson's.

 

It has been true with each new friend I've made, even while missing my old friends with an ache in my heart that might never diminish.

 

It was true when my husband's sons joined us for an early Christmas; it will be true when my son and his girlfriend visit us in May.

 

I've apparently learned two things from this whirlwind of a year: First, life is best when lived as part of a pair.

 

Second, degrees of separation aren't necessarily as innumerable as one might first imagine them. After all, it is said that there are only six degrees of separation between us and everyone else in the world. I've already met five people in Richmond who have ties to my hometown. When I meet the sixth one, I'll write again and let you know.

 

 

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