Friday, December 19, 2008

Visiting Writer: Emily Dressler

Emily Dressler obtained her MFA in 2008 and teaches writing courses at the University of Akron. Emily was copy editor for the Buchtelite as well as editor of the Akros Review for a number of years. Emily served a brief stint at Brown Mackie College and the International Institute. She is currently a fiction editor for the national journal, Barn Owl Review. Emily was runner up in The Atlantic Monthly college fiction contest and was recognized as a Coulter Emerging Writer by the University of Akron. Emily's story "The Bloody Nose" will appear in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. Emily lives in Kent with her boyfriend Rob, cat Potato, and turtle, Spike. For a brief time Emily cared for a black baby squirrel. Emily was a vegetarian, but because she was too poor to afford to discriminate, she now considers herself a Freegan—someone who prefers free food*

Matt pointed out that his brother's turtle is named Soup. Emily felt this was a superior name.

Emily read the story "The Drought." The story was one in a series of stories following a central character, Helen, through childhood, young womanhood, and eventually, adulthood. Emily emphasized that the collection was not a novel and while perhaps the storyline would be more complete if it were conceived as such, she's not ready to write a novel, nor does she want to think of the Helen stories as a collection aspiring to be a novel.

"The Drought" follows Helen during the summer after her mother moves out. It is a story that has both a first kiss and a dead body. Helen spends a lot of her time with a boy named Alan, with whom she shares the kiss. They swim often in a pond behind the Edgerly's house. It is here where the kiss happens; it is here where Helen and Alan view Mr. Edgerly hanging from a tree, socks inside out. "It's not a mystery story," Emily said. Sometimes people stop loving for no reason at all, whether they stop loving a spouse the way Helen's mom stopped loving, or the way Mr. Edgerly stopped loving life itself.

Tony thought the awkwardness of Helen and Alan's first kiss was very romantic.

Emily talked about how she came up with the story. She admitted the spark came partially from reading two plays: one called "The Quare Fellow," which made her think of the phrase "hangman's daughter."

"It stuck with me," Emily said. Another play gave her the image of a man waiting by a hearth. Emily admits that the creative process is mysterious and urged the fiction students to use their own method of storytelling: "Even if it isn't a strategy, if it works for you, go with it."

Tony liked the story, and admitted that Emily must be very creative to have conceived "The Drought" in such a way. Tony confessed that most of his stories come from dreams, though he is working hard on a story about real life. Emily agreed that this was a good idea.

Emily confessed to writing a story that centered around Mrs. Edgerly after her husband's suicide. In the story Mrs. Edgerly sets out all her dead husband's things for a neighborhood garage sale.

We discussed in-class writing exercises, and because I have a tendency to assign a lot of them, I asked Emily if she thought they were a waste of time.

Emily agreed that all writing, formal or informal probably informs your serious work, but felt that a lot of in-class writing assignments could be crossing the line. Emily credits Eric Wasserman with assigning an in-class exercise that helped her understand her own story "What it Means." The exercise is: Imagine your character as the opposite sex. What do they want?

We discussed workshop. Geneva felt that sometimes workshop can be discouraging. Emily replied, "So can driving to work in the morning, getting out of bed, showering, tying your shoes. Especially tying your shoes."

* red meat, free or not, is out of the question.

Thanks for your reading, Emily!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Visiting Writer: Rick Strong

Rick Strong taught high school English at Padua for two years, and Junior High English at Columbiana County. Rick went to Law School at Case Western Reserve University. He was a trial lawyer representing doctors, hospitals, rail roads and car manufacturers for many years, and recently completed his MFA. Rick taught composition during his MFA process and now teaches composition at The University of Akron and writing at the law school. Rick’s wife taught first grade in the Brunswick school district, and his daughter works for an environmental organization. Rick has one dog (Casey), one cat, and drives a Toyota Prius.

I found out more about Rick’s fascinating life over a Greek Salad in the cafĂ©. Rick worked in an aluminum foundry, an emergency room, and at a McDonalds, among other places.

Though Rick considers himself a writer with a lower case “w,” he read a piece composed in a Cleveland State workshop under the guidance of Sheila Schwartz titled “The Shovel.” The assignment was to write about an object. Rick’s piece opens with a man who has fallen on some icy steps and hit his head. The individual, we discover, is a retired lineman who had taken some things before bowing out: a chainsaw, a picnic table, a coal shovel, among other items. He tells the reader that he took the items because he felt as if they were his due. For service. For instance, he was once almost crushed by a falling tree while clearing debris after an ice storm. It becomes clear that he sees his rights to these items as some form of hazard pay.

The narrative is retrospective, so we learn that he came to repent and feared reprisals of the spiritual variety, therefore under twinges of conscience, gave the stolen items away either to Goodwill, the Haven of Rest, or, in the case of the picnic table, a needy boy-scout troupe. The coal shovel, on the other hand, was chucked into a river. It’s a shame, we’re told, because those shovels last forever. It’s also a shame because the narrator had used the shovel to clear the ice from his steps, and its absence is the indirect consequence of his fall.

It seemed as if the short showed a man who had felt his duty as a linesman entitled him to certain perks. It’s unclear if the story is a morality tale or not—if we are to interpret it as such, “though shall not steal” seems to be the proverb that rises to the top, yet it’s the narrator’s conscience that seems to get him in trouble. If he hadn’t felt rotten about taking the shovel in the first place, he never would’ve felt the need to toss it into a river, and his steps would not be icy. Such a clever Catch- 22 for such a short piece.

Rick designed an in-class writing assignment for my fiction students. Students chose objects from a box—items included a mini-flashlight (my item), Christmas candy, a gold coin (“Can I keep it?” one student inevitably asked, but returned it all the same at the end of the period), a mini-cassette, a cell phone, a small hammer, a yellow Livestrong bracelet, a chew toy, a tennis ball, etc. The students were directed to write a short that revolved around the object (I think of Chekhov’s ashtray) and were encouraged to use a character they know well from their other stories. We wrote for a good 20 minutes, and I’m looking forward to see what comes from the exercise.

In the meantime, Rick, like the rest of us, is working toward being a writer with a capital “W.”

Thanks for the reading and the lesson, Rick!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Visiting Writer: Dawson Steeber

Dawson Steeber has a degree in fiction writing from the Northeastern Ohio Universities Masters of Fine Arts Program. Dawson was accepted into the Academy of American Poets in 2008, and was awarded a Coulter award for emerging writers in 2006. Dawson is a fiction editor for the Barn Owl Review and teaches for the University of Akron. A little known fact about Dawson is that he once traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon in the trunk of a ’77 Pontiac Grand Prix (see interview). Dawson is originally from Western Pennsylvania, and has spent the majority of his life wandering in a nomadic fashion. He has recently settled in Akron where he lives with his wife and son Giovanni.

Can I say this about Dawson? He fits in. He seemed more at home in my school than me! …and I’ve been there since 2002. To know Dawson is to know exactly what I’m talking about. He seemed old friends with the hall monitors, knew a visitor in the Cosmetology lab, and chatted up the graphics and auto body instructors. Anyway, Dawson, a lifetime laborer, seemed very at home within a vocational school; he asked the assistant diesel instructor some questions that might take a few hours on the Internet and a couple volumes of Chilton’s service manuals to decode.

Dawson read a new story called “In the Coming Days” to my senior fiction writing class and allowed them to offer constructive criticism. The story follows a character, Nelson, through a difficult time in his life. We learn that Nelson struggles with drinking, and that his pregnant wife has left him.

Geneva said the story was “Very descriptive. Like a snake.” Geneva compared the beginning of the story with the movie “The Mist.”

Matt said the narrative thread of the story was that the “wife left.” Nichole thought the narrative thread was Nelson’s drinking problem. Someone pointed out that the story was pretty long, and Dawson put his head down and sighed. “This is one of the shortest things I’ve got!” Nichole said she enjoyed the story so much she’d read more.

Someone said “More action!” Casey pointed out that this piece starts in the middle of the action, with a fallen tree, and the fact that Nelson gets cut on a broken bottle of bourbon created the potential for metaphor… He bandages his cut hand (with gauze and duct tape), yet tears the wrapping off before the wound has healed… by following the advice of another older character in the story, he “lets it bleed.” Casey pointed out that this could be considered evidence that Nelson has difficulty acknowledging the severity of old wounds and therefore has difficulty healing.

I appreciated the phrase “let it bleed,” and though The Byrds are mentioned, we get an echo of the Stones.

When prodded later over a “not just any” turkey sandwich and a cup of “dueling cheddar” soup, Dawson credited his interest in books (dirty realism in general) with the German born American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. Dawson claimed to have disliked reading until he encountered Bukowski. “If it weren’t for books, I’d probably be dead,” he said with a sardonic grin. “Or in prison. Books saved me. Well, books and my wife.”

Thanks Dawson! The reading and conversation was essential!