Friday, November 21, 2008

Visiting Writer: Eric Morris

Where to begin? Eric was a senior Chef and Restaurant Management student at the Career Center when I began teaching in 2002. Now he is a first year Northeastern Ohio Universities Masters of Fine Arts student in the consortium. Among other things, Eric is a self-proclaimed failed rock star, teacher at the University of Akron, and (perhaps most importantly) appreciates a good hot deli Italian sandwich.

Eric braved the elements to visit my fiction class at the Career Center. The class felt very comfortable asking questions, and Eric was as comfortable answering them. The students appreciated Eric’s down-to-earth-ness, his Rural Mythologies, and his beard. At my request, Eric read a portion of his mythologies piece titled “Religion,” and chose his favorite—“Tomatoes” in which we were made to feel the difference between a hound and a dog, and learned that even though Eric might not like tomatoes, he writes a lot about them…whether hitting them (hopeful baseball-sized rotten fireworks) with bats, or in the form of ketchup-packet body calligraphy.

Eric’s poems are like multi-course meals for the head; they’re stacked with startling imagery, hilarious moments, clever turns, and distinct voices. In Morris’ poems we’re as likely to meet a sword swallower as a seemingly broken man in a powder blue tuxedo singing a tearful “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to his own reflection. Above all, Eric’s poems crack, sizzle and cook with originality.

If y’all can stand the cliche—Eric’s visit provided some much needed soul food on a dreary day. You rock Eric. Thanks for the reading!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Visiting Writer: Matt Harpster

Matt Harpster resides in Medina, Ohio where he teaches night classes at the Medina County Career Center. He grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ohio and is still comforted by the scent of manure freshly spread onto a field. In his former lives he has been a farmer hand, waiter, maintenance man, construction worker, security guard, youth minister, counselor and coach. He loves to sit down and learn the story of other people’s lives. Occasionally, Mr. Harpster writes primarily for his own amusement. He is loved by his wife Ingrid, daughter Ellie, and Springer Spaniel Susie.

Matt Harpster visited my fiction class on Friday. Matt read a family piece that was loaded with symbolism and sensory language. When Matt had finished reading I asked if there were any questions. Tim (pictured below) said that the story answered all of his questions. We asked Matt about his process and he said he started drafting the piece by writing all the powerful memories associated with his uncle. The story is chocked full of symbols. For instance, we pass over a bridge under construction in the very first paragraph-an indication that we're traveling to the past, yet the landscape of the past has changed. Harpster uses something as simple as a sand dollar as a way to bring gradations of death and hope into the story.

Harpster's Creative Non-Fiction Writing 101

1) Have fun.
2) Don't be afraid to embelish on memory.

Portals into Memoir-

Write two pages of something you can’t deny.

Write two pages of what got left behind.

Write two pages of something you wrote or did that you no longer understand.

Write two pages of apologizing for something you didn’t do.

Write two pages about a physical characteristic you are proud to have inherited or passed on.

Write two pages of what you had to have.

Write two pages of humiliating exposure.

Write two pages about a time when you felt compassion unexpectedly.

Write two pages of what you have too much of.

Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.

Thanks for your reading, Matt!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Visiting Writer: Jeremy Sayers

Being a former carpentry student at Central Hower High School (class of 1977) Jeremy Sayers could appreciate the building trades wing of our school, and it was obvious he held a special appreciation for the animal care and management barn. Thanks to Jeremy, this city slicker now knows that piebald describes a horse of two colors.

The purpose of Jeremy’s visit today was to give a reading and hold a Q & A session with my fiction class at the Medina County Career Center. Jeremy read the short story “Consequences” from his thesis—a collection inspired by family histories. “Consequences” was taken from his father’s involvement with the Civilian Conservation Corps. “Five dollars was a lot of cash then,” Jeremy said, regarding the opening scene in which CCC members are receiving their pay, the wrinkled dollars green as Christmas candy. The Civilian Conservation Core “was one of Roosevelt’s more optimistic programs” that encouraged vocational training. It was downright spooky how the vocational atmosphere of the Career Center helped to conjure the spirits directly off the page—suddenly we found ourselves walking down a mud path, barely discerning the names on headstones in a ramshackle cemetery.

Jeremy, when asked what inspired him to write, responded, “I grew up around storytellers.” To hear Jeremy read is to know you are in the presence of a true storyteller. The students were dazzled by the dialogue in “Consequences” and marveled at how he was able to get it “just right.” When asked the question, “How did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Jeremy responded that he had held stories in for so long they had just needed a reason to come out. Jeremy praised the NEO MFA as being one of the reasons he decided to put his stories to paper. The students appreciated the transformative power of the language, and admitted they felt as if they “were really there.”

(No one was ready for this picture-the best of the series.)

Thanks for your reading at the Career Center, Jeremy!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Fiction Means to Me

I’ve recently been asked by a student, of all the types of writing, why fiction? Why not non-fiction, or poetry? The truth is that I see value in all forms of writing, but my particular sensibilities drift toward fiction. Why?

I reject the idea that fiction is purely escapist. I think there are a fair amount of those kind of writers, and those type of readers. I have been one in the past and will probably be one at some point in the future, but the idea that fiction only provides a means to escape reality is an opinion held by those who do not, or perhaps cannot, take the printed word seriously. Serious fiction has a way of awakening the right type of reader to certain truths that stated otherwise, might seem absolutely absurd—like this blog entry is starting to sound kind of absurd…if I were any kind of fiction writer, I might be able to think of a metaphor or allegorical anecdote involving a chicken and a peacock, but at this point, I don’t think it’s possible because I’m still defining (by writing the truth of how I feel) my position.

Serious fiction is emotional autobiography; it may be a dream crafted to communicate a period of intense turmoil, joy, disappointment, fear, love, etc. An experience that has gestated in the writer’s subconscious. A good example is Tim O Brien’s The Things They Carried. Tim O’ Brien carried around his experiences from the Vietnam War until he was able to find a method to give them voice. The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, and it amazes me to this day that Tim O’ Brien a) doesn’t have children b) made up the story “On the Rainy River.” Many books of fiction have been written by individuals who have survived war (it seems the most literal example of an intensely emotional experience that I can think of right now)—A Farewell to Arms is one, For Whom the Bell Tolls is another. Someone learning to appreciate serious fiction (sometimes it’s hard to appreciate an experience like A Farewell to Arms because emotionally, it’s second, and just barely, to being kicked in the privates) might ask why didn’t Hemingway just give us the facts?

Maybe that’s just not how he was wired up. Maybe he spent so many years as a journalist, that he arrived at a certain contempt for what Bob Pope might call “truth unflavored.” I suspect that Hemingway, and all other fiction writers, just liked making things up.

The “facts” of our days are warped by our subconscious into dreams at night; so it probably goes with the writer of fiction. I imagine most writers, established and emerging, choose fiction because they see it as somehow more honest than truth. In most cases, the story’s probably much more interesting.

What do the rest of you think?

What are the arguments for non-fiction?


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Friend and Neighbor

The freezer

My neighbor Dennis had to move out of
his mother's house when she died.

I liked him because he looked in on my grandfather,
and was a refugee of the drug culture

He told me once he was prosecuted for owning a marijuana
plant. The prosecutor in his case was brought
up on Murder One months later when
a cocaine deal went bad.

When his mother died, Dennis had to clear out.
"You want that freezer?" It was old and noisy.
"100 bucks, and I'll refund half your money if it
dies within the year."

I looked at Dennis's thin arms and legs.
Call it charity. That thing wasn't budging for
anything more or less grand.

The wheels rolled off the dolly halfway to my house,
a friend and I carried it the rest of the way
in humid rain, like a coffin, on its end.

Now it buzzes on my back porch, and even
though it sounds as if it is near death, it
keeps on.

I sit and listen while I write this
wondering what the hell this life
is supposed to teach us.

- Summer 2007

When I graduated college, Dennis came to my party. He gave me two frozen pork chops from his freezer. "Congratulations, Mr. Skarl," he said, and grabbed a Silver Bullet.

"How's it going, Dennis?" I might hail from my porch, from yardwork. "Buzz on!" Dennis might reply with one arm in the air. All was right with the world.

Dennis owned (I think it was) a 1967 Olive Green Corvette. It sat broken down in his mother's garage for years. One day, the tentative heartbeat of its powerful engine carried out to me. The Corvette was old, blowing smoke, but running. In his younger days he drove it cross country, from California to Ohio and back. The speedometer boasted 160 mph. "More like 140," he said, knowingly.

According to Dennis, the best defense against wild coyotes is peeing a ring around your campsite.

His cat, Tuscarawas, was black and white. He didn't own that cat. But he did feed it.

Dennis, here's to you.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


“What kind of artist wears a beret?” I asked.

“The kind that uses a Polaroid,” she said.

And she was right. There was no process—just snap, bang. It was too easy to be art, and the beret was just a pretentious little joke we never tired of.

How the camera worked was a mystery.

She claimed the batteries were in with the film. “Just point and click.”

I should be able to make something of it, that old gift. I suppose that if I tax my brain, the meaning will come shooting out of my mouth like a developing print.

I suppose what frightens me most is the possibility there is no meaning.

Before, we used to write the date on the back of each picture and keep them in order. In a book.

Life as a clear sequence of events.

Life like pearls on a string.