A Short Story Collection: From the Heart

It is always a special experience to read something written by a friend. It is even more special to follow the fledgling ideas from Facebook chat and email conversations as they spread their wings and soar across the pages of an honest-to-goodness book. In From the Heart, I was, once again, blown away by the way Jamie approaches heavy, serious, and even dark material with an honesty and humor that makes his characters irresistible. It makes me wonder if all authors put this much of themselves into their stories. Jamie’s gentle way of making you think just a little bit differently, to question a little bit more, to experience the weight of every moment shine through in his collection of short stories.

Two of my favorite stories are contained in this collection, Glasses and Hearts. Reading them again, I found they still raised questions for me, still made me think about them long after I was finished reading. I think I am drawn to these two stories because they focus on what it means to be vulnerable and how we truly connect with others. In this wide, messy world it is so easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and these stories bring that reality back to the forefront of my mind.

Somehow I always seemed to have my back to the sun anyway.

When I re-read Glasses, I found myself wondering: What if we could see each person we encounter, not as flesh and blood, but as the people they truly are? What if our connections and experiences make a lasting mark on us and someone else could see that mark? And what if we’ve carefully kept ourselves from connections and experiences in order to preserve ourselves, only to discover that isn’t really preservation at all? I discovered the answers to these questions right alongside “Jonas” as he experienced the magic of the glasses and watched the colors come to him.

A little bit of grief, a little solitude, and a dash of could-have-been.

A single drop slid down the side of the glass and fell to the counter; like a lone tear, or a leap of faith.

It had been so long since my first reading of Hearts, that I didn’t remember how it can catch you off-guard. It’s one of those stories whose meaning doesn’t dawn until a few pages in and suddenly your mouth is hanging open and you really have to focus on breathing. Imagine if we walked through this world with our hearts, literally, on our sleeves. What if everyone we met knew what we felt about ourselves, our lives, even about them? And what if we couldn’t recognize the significance of our words without the help of a friendly barkeep who knew how to mix us just the right drink, while fighting off demons of his own?

If you want a quick but meaningful read, a collection of lovely and intentional stories, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of From the Heart. You won’t regret it!

 

 

 

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The 2017 Reading Challenge

Last year I signed up for a reading challenge. It was a disaster. I don’t think I read a single book from the recommended list. And I didn’t feel bad about it. The books just weren’t interesting enough to hold my attention and that’s not anyone’s fault but mine. I needed something more. So, in the wake of that failure, I searched high and low for a list that might actually work for me. It had to be something slightly fluid, something I could make adjustments to as I needed. Because things change pretty regularly around here and I feel pressure to complete something if it’s in list form. When I found the Better World Books 2017 Reading Challenge, I knew it was something that would work for me. Even better, it includes works by POC and WOC, which is something important to me. So, without further ado, my 2017 Reading Challenge list:

2017 Reading List

PS. If this seems like a challenge you want to be part of, grab yourself a printable form here and let me know what books you decide to put on your list!

My Grandfather’s Hands

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       He towered over the other mourners, his shiny head bowed low to his chest. He had been undefeated in the boxing ring during his Korean tour, his large, meaty hands protecting him from blows. Today his hands were useless to protect him from the pain; they hung limply at his sides or twisted his flat-brimmed hat until it resembled a wrung out dish towel. He had been unable to read the eulogy he had composed for her; shaking his head, he pressed the slip of paper into his brother’s hand. He had held himself in check through all the well-wishes, handshakes, and casserole deliveries but later that night, in front of an old black and white movie, the tears soaked the collar of his button up shirt while he talked to me about the old days. How he had loved her from the moment he saw her behind the perfume counter at Gimbels and how she refused his suggestion for dinner that night, because she needed to wash her hair. But her spunk was no match for his determination and six weeks later they were married at the Presbyterian Church on Elm Street. She wore gardenias in her hair and her pearly nailed matched the delicate shade of her cheeks. He liked that people were confused by their marriage; a strange mix of contented silence and heated bickering over, say how to mix the perfect Manhattan. He smiled to himself a little, remembering how he liked to start arguments with her; she was so lovely when she was angry, eyes snapping, cheeks flushed. His chest heaved when he remembered the morning he had woken up and felt alone; that something was missing. How he sat with her, holding her hand and taking his time to say good-bye. “Sometimes I think I’m a bad Christian,” he murmured, breaking eye contact, “cause I don’t much care about seeing Jesus. I just want to see her again. Do you think that’s a sin?” And as he looked at me with those watery blue eyes, troubled behind the thick lenses of his glasses, I realized that we should all be so lucky to be loved that way: the way my grandfather loved my gram.

Copyright 2016 Katharine Brown

Photo: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr

Abandonement by Numbers (an exercise)

 

abandonment

As some of you may know, I participated in the MOOC from Iowa Writer’s Workshop again this year. I actually wasn’t able to finish due to some demands on my time but I did wind up in an online writing group with my friends from last year. It has been wonderful to reconnect and be able to give each other feedback, suggestions, and support from the comfort of home. I wanted to share an exercise I completed in the group because I think the prompt is pretty challenging and I had a lot of fun writing this. Let me know if you attempt a numbered writing – I’d love to read it!

The prompt required each sentence to contain a number, 1-10. They are, of course, not in order.

I was nine when I watched the family station wagon lurch down the drive, spraying mud when it dipped in low. I wasn’t surprised; I’d seen it coming for six months or so but, from my mother’s hiccuping sobs I could tell it had broadsided her. My father had never really been in the picture, popping in for a birthday when I was three and popping back out for what felt like forever, always ready with an apology and a stick of gum; like that would make everything better. I felt bad for my mom; she always believed the best, even after two divorces and three kids. But the reality of our situation was that none of us would ever find a way to make him stay; though there were four of us to love him, it would never be enough. I remember standing under the light of the Christmas tree, begging for just ten minutes to talk with him, to make him understand how he made us feel, made my mom feel. But Santa or God or whoever was supposed to be up there never seemed to hear the prayers of an eight year old boy who needed a father, not just for himself, but for his brothers and his mom. Not one of my desperate kid prayers was answered. So I watched the lights wink, three, four, five times in the distance and then fade away to nothing. I slipped one arm around my mother’s waist and draped the other over my seven-year old brother’s shoulders; we would be fine, we would always be fine.

Copyright 2016 Katharine Brown

The Girl Who Dreamed

In our first week of class, we were required to write a piece featuring a female protagonist. It was important to pay attention to voice and identity because so often we can reveal what we want known through interactions and what is left unsaid rather than directly coming out and speaking it over the character. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote for class. Hope you enjoy it!

Once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed. She didn’t dream of flying or being free or other happy things. Instead, she dreamed of faces she had never seen, of people facing challenges that she had never heard of, obstacles that she didn’t understand. Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost and she watched it all play out in her head in black and white.

The first time she told her parents about her dreams, they encouraged her to forget them. The daughter of an innkeeper shouldn’t be bothering herself with such fantasies, they would tell her. Get on with your chores. While the dreams became more regular, her confessions of them became less frequent until she stopped sharing them all together. Her parents were relieved, believing the dreams to have stopped, as they had hoped for. Her friends wondered why she didn’t wish the faces away, or take something to help her sleep a dreamless sleep. Why did she care what happened to strangers she would never know? And so she soon ceased to confide in them as well. No one, it seemed, could understand how she felt.

Because the girl had come to love her dreams and the people she saw there. She kept a sketchbook of their faces under her mattress; a testament to their struggles, a memorial of their outcomes. She rejoiced when the strangers were victorious and she wept when they were overcome. She felt as if she were taking part in the drama of a life that was bigger and more meaningful than the one she lived out in her small village. And her life was more exciting than most since all the strangers that visited their hamlet had to pass through her father’s inn. Even the travelers from across the lake were not as exotic as the people from her dreams.

Until one day, when the face in her dream was a familiar one. And the obstacle, which seemed so trivial, was not overcome. The girl awoke in a panic, tangled in her sheets, her face wet with tears. She felt that she must tell the blacksmith’s wife what she had seen, but was unsure of how to go about it. She was distraught. For days she prayed for a happy ending, tried to convince herself she’d seen the wrong ending. But each time she looked at her sketchbook she knew it was only a matter of time. She wrote a letter and then another and another and then burned them all and finally went to seek the counsel of her mother.

Her mother seemed deeply bothered by their conversation, refusing even to look the girl in the eyes while she pleaded for help regarding the best approach.  She offered no comfort or counsel and, as the days passed, seemed to avoid the girl altogether. Even during the funeral, she still refused to meet the girl’s eyes and the two became like strangers.

© 2016 Katharine Anne Brown All Rights Reserved

Book Review: The Far Corners

the-far-corners

I have always rather enjoyed stories that feature talking animals, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading CS Lewis and Brian Jacques and the moral dilemmas, fears, and triumphs of Mr. Tumnus, Reepicheep, Bella of Brockhall, and Martin the Warrior aligned so closely to my own. Though I may not have been out tramping through the woods looking for foes to defeat or sheltering little lost humans, I did struggle with understanding my place in a world much bigger than me. I wanted to be brave enough to stand up for the things I knew were right, and these talking animals showed me that integrity and bravery were their own rewards. Reading these books up in my bunk bed late at night, or out on the front steps in the summer sun, are some of my favorite reading memories!

Imagine my delight when I picked up The Far Corners, by my friend Elaine Gartner and discovered that her plucky, young protagonist is a ginger-furred talking squirrel! I felt an immediate connection with Willoughby Elmsford (as a fellow redhead this was to be expected) and was hooked on this story from the moment he heard the words that would forever change Elderbrook Forest:

I want to know when the night becomes the day.

With this simple sentence, Gartner sets the stage for an adventure that will redefine not only Willoughby’s friends and his woods, but ultimately the entire world as he knows it. Drawing heavily on myth and legend, the story features quests, gifts bestowed by benevolent spirits, an old wise sage as guide, and the understanding that the natural world is very much a part of us, of our destiny. I found this book magically captivating with the perfect blend of old and new. The conversation of our relationship with nature so often follows the same path but here, we come to understand its importance in an entirely new way.

Mother Earth gave our forest its natural magnificence and splendor, but Father Sky gave people their curious minds and expressive hands and hearts. A great union between what nature could offer and what man could fashion flourished.

 I would highly recommend getting yourself a copy of this book as it was made to read aloud. The chapters are nice and short, perfectly manageable for bedtime. The animal characters are captured perfectly – just their names and description of their clothes or voices had me matching them up right away! And the empowerment of the feminine (an important element for me)  is also quite clear throughout the book, with the legend being passed from female to female and a neat tip of the hat to Virginia Woolf (see chapter 3). I found the story so wonderful that I read the entire thing in one sitting and I’m sure you’ll do the same!

Sabbatical

Blank notepad and pencil

If you come here often, you may have noticed that it’s been just about six months since I’ve written anything at all. In fact, it was exactly six months on the 21st and I had every intention of posting this then and making a big deal out of it, a fresh and exciting start! But that just didn’t happen. There are lots of reasons, but behind them all I think I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to stick with it, that I would let it fizzle out again because life is pretty crazy right now and lots of times, I feel overwhelmed.

That’s when I realized that writing actually takes away some of the days worries and stresses. I have a safe place to release my feelings about things and doing that is making me a better writer. After all, practice makes perfect! So what can you expect to see over the next few months? There are actually a lot of exciting things coming up!

October:

Right now I am taking a class through the Iowa Writers Workshop called How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women. I am really, really excited to be taking this class and even happier to find that all my dear friends from last year are taking it with me! There is just something about being in a group of like-minded creatives that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We are only one week in and I am already learning so much about how to craft stories. I am hoping for some great short pieces to come out of this that will be perfect for publication!

I am polishing some pieces that I wrote over the summer and planning on sending them out in the next few days. It’s always scary to face possible rejection but it’s a necessary evil so I’m learning to cope! That being said, if any of you dear readers are available to read short pieces and make suggestions, please feel free to contact me! I need all the help I can get!

November:

As some of you know, I’ve been participating in a fall writing competition that started in August. In round 1, I placed 9th out of 30 competitors and earned some bonus points for round two. The announcement for this next round comes on November 1st and I am hoping for a great start to the month!

November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to us writerly nerds) and I will be working on a story idea that had been in the works for the past three years. I am crossing my fingers that this is the year it comes together in a little more orderly fashion. Ideally, I’ll be able to spend a good part of December and January editing and revising and getting it ready for the publishers.

So that’s where my head is at for the next sixish weeks. Be sure to stop by again as I’ll be posting here with book reviews, snippets of fiction, and random musings!

 

2016 Reading Challenge

This new year found me in a sort of predicament. After moving to a new home and welcoming a new baby, I felt the urge to write coming on strongly. The only issue was that we weren’t able to get the internet at our new place. We’ve been “netless” since October of last year and it has come with its own challenges and freedoms. Now that we are able to connect again, I have had to determine how to move forward with this space. I have been working through a reading challenge, presented by Modern Mrs. Darcywhich is, I think, as good a place to start as any. If you are looking to read more this year, I highly suggest you take a look at her list. It’s only one book a month which is totally doable for me, especially after adding another little to our brood. Stay tuned over the next few weeks while I play catch-up on my book reviews. Maybe you’ll find one that will tickle your fancy!

2016 Reading Challenge

A Year In Review

I can’t believe how quickly this year flew by! It seems like just a few days ago I was sitting here plotting out a year of blog posts and looking forward to some great creative projects. While I faced some unexpected challenges this year, I also learned a lot. It seems that my lessons always come disguised as what feel like catastrophes and this year was no different. An unexpected pregnancy, the promise of a new home and its subsequent loss, a little one off to school, family members moving across the pond; 2015 took a lot of getting used to. But my goal this year was to embrace the chaos (since it comes anyway) and I am really pleased with the outcomes of that approach. I feel like I am heading into the New Year with more confidence, a new set of skills/tools, and a better plan for what I want my writing to look like. I can’t wait to see what opportunities present themselves this year and I hope you are here to be a part of them with me. To 2016 and a year of possibilities!

An Exercise: Using Character to Produce Frame and Arc

Our “prompt” this week was to write the same scene from two differing viewpoints. A fun and challenging assignment.

Scene 1:

Judy entered the room slowly and gently closed the door behind her, making sure she heard the soft “click” of the knob falling into place. She breathed quietly in through her nose to steady herself and then turned and smiled at Marilyn. As usual, Marilyn was seated serenely behind her large, mahogany desk, not a hair out of place, her posture the envy of British royalty. Judy swallowed hard, suddenly aware of her shabby pantsuit and the fly-away hairs she could see in her peripheral vision. She knew she should have spent a few more minutes getting ready, after all, as Douglas said, a well-put together woman walked with confidence. She would have more confidence if she cared more about such things, she was sure. After all, Douglas was always right about these things. Maybe, if she’d had more confidence, she would still have him, too.

She sat down at the edge of the cushioned chair, making sure not to slouch, smoothing the fabric of her slacks down over her bony knees. She smiled again, an awkward shaped thing, and counted to three while looking Marilyn straight in the eye.

“Hello, again, Dr. Pond. I guess we should get straight to it?” It was always so awkward returning to the therapist’s office. By the time she felt comfortable just talking and sharing, it was time to go and she had to spend the next six days talking herself in to another session.

Marilyn nodded her head and smiled, offering some generic pleasantries and asking a few innocuous questions and Judy responded. Once the social etiquette had been met, Judy began where she had left off last week, with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Douglas Egan.

“It’s just, I can’t believe it’s really happening. I tried so hard, I really did, to do all the things he wanted me to. And he didn’t really ask a lot, you know. He wanted what was best for me. I know that. A man of his social standing, well, he had appearances to keep. And of course, I didn’t know anything about that life. When we met, I didn’t even know he had that kind of life! I’d always thought we’d settle down upstate somewhere and raise a family.” She stopped for a moment and then, almost to herself “I think he told me he sold insurance…”

She looked up at Marilyn, who was busy writing notes on a yellow legal pad and nodding. Judy wasn’t sure that Marilyn was the best person for her to be speaking to about these things. She’d probably never had a problem satisfying her husband’s expectations; in fact, he’d probably needed to adopt quite a few new skills just to be able to participate in her social circles. She was just the kind of woman that Douglas would have been drawn to, thought Judy. And suddenly, she didn’t like Dr. Pond all that much.

Scene 2:

Marilyn shook herself from her reverie as she heard the door slide open across the carpet of her office. She straightened up in her seat, her shoulders throbbing from hunching over her desk all day. She’d forgotten about Judy Egan, socialite, and immediately wracked her brain for memories of their last session. She should have had the receptionist pull her notes, but then, she should have remembered who her appointments were for the day. Suddenly, Judy was speaking to her and she lifted her eyes, making sure a smile warmed their tired depths.

“Yes, yes, how are you feeling this week, Judy? Have you been getting any sleep?” Their last session had been brief, Judy seemed distracted no doubt planning some charity ball or benefit show and Marilyn hadn’t been able to get to the heart of the issues bothering her. This week, however, Judy was eager to get started and was already chattering on about her husband, Douglas.

As Marilyn listened to Judy describe her life since marrying the wealthy Egan, she couldn’t help but draw parallels between her own failing marriage to Oliver. She reached for a legal pad and tried to focus on what Judy was saying, finding herself increasingly angry at Douglas and frustrated with Judy. She couldn’t understand how such a smart and sophisticated woman had let herself become so enamored with a man who seemed to like nothing about her. And she couldn’t wrap her head around men like Oliver and Egan who thought that money gave them a free pass to degrade the women they claimed to love, requiring more and more of them and then discarding them when they were all used up.

Marilyn realized she was still writing despite the quiet in the office and she looked up to meet Judy’s gaze. She felt her eyes misting over as she looked at her patient, wishing she could reach across the desk and hug her and suddenly realized that she liked Mrs. Eagan very much.