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Aloha Vaudeville Doll / Ariana-Sophia KartsonisThis month's giveaway: A copy of the freshly released chapbook by Poppycakes herself: Aloha Vaudeville Doll, from Dancing Girl Press. Comment on any February post or share it on Facebook or Twitter to be eligible to win. 

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    Why not? An exercise in finding the comfort zone of your short story

    Sweetcakes is teaching a community education class at her local university and alma mater. The class is focused on writing, rather than workshopping, which I decided to do as a radical act, in that I firmly belive the hardest thing for many writers to do is to show up, put your ass in the chair, and write, write, write. So I am saying no to the workshop for now and focusing on writing exercises, and talking about writing, and having the students set their own goals. We talk each week about how they're meeting those goals, and chat about ways to keep the momentum going. I've been happy with the way the class has unfolded.

    The following exercise should help you figure out the best length for your story. Give it a whirl.

    Claire Guyton, in her essay “No, You do Not Have to Write A Novel” says “All I want to do in this world is write just one perfect short story.”

    It’s a noble goal, and what I love about that quote is this: it allows the short story to be the goal. So much of what we as writers hear is that a novel is the only way to pay the rent, to make it as a writer. Fortunately, we live in a time where the short story is receiving the attention it deserves as “the most courageous form” (Lorrie Moore).

    Still how do you know how long your short story should be?  It’s easy – try this experiment to determine your story’s comfort zone.


    Arnold, Bay, Carline, Dalyn, Effie, Grace, Hugh, Isabelle, Joe, Kristof, Leif, Marisol, Netta, Oliver, Prax, Quinn, Rhett, Sal, Ursula, Violet, Wanda, Xavier, Yerba, Zoe

    Towns (borrowed from this list)

    Beauty, KY, Best, TX, Bountiful, UT, Carefree, AZ, Celebration, FL, Friendly, WV, Happy Camp, CA, Happyland, CT, Ideal, GA, Lovely, KY, Luck Stop, KY, Magic City, ID, Paradise, MI, Smileyberg, KS, Success, MO, What Cheer, IA, Boring, OR, Dinkytown, MN, Eek, AK, Embarrass, WI, Flat, TX, Greasy, OK, Gripe, AZ, Hardscrabble, DE, Hazard, KY, Oddville, KY, Okay, OK, Ordinary, KY, Peculiar, MO, Sod, WV, Why, AZ


    Character seeks to harm someone, helps them instead; the worst moment just passed; soccer player bites ear; soldier returns home, his dog has been sold; invisible friend is missing; both people left, neither of them know it; boy wants girl who wants alien; both characters are wrong and lying; ignoring the warning sign; someone knows someone else’s secret; actor turns down most-coveted role because of illness; children go for a drive


    Pick one-two characters from the names list, one town, and one situation

    • Write a single-paragraph story. Make it complete.
    • Now write that story in six words.
    • Now rewrite that first paragraph as if you were setting the stage for a novel.
    • Now rewrite it as if you were writing a 10-page story

    Study the different approaches you took with each assignment. What works well, what doesn’t? What did you learn differently about the characters, the setting, the situation in the different openings/stories?  Did you pull the view out wider for the longer format? Did you choose words differently? How did you decide what not to include, what to leave out of the shorter formats? Did you change point of view? Shoud you? Which format feels to you that it has the most energy?

    Follow-on exercise:

    Pick one of the longer formats and keep working on it to complete a full longer story.


    Springing Back with the Intrepid Crocuses

    Greetings Tasters, It's April, five days into National Poetry Month from which I am usually scrambling away at a daily something.  Not this year. Mostly it involves honing what I have and tending to the new project that will ask form and brevity as its fuel. And the life I legally linked to Mr. Poppycakes and the life I have been trying to heal in the rescue-Persian cat given to Mr. Poppycakes one year to the day that I lost my last major rescue effort (and twelve-year dearest companion) Gladys, the last of my Tuscaloosa life.

    April brings extra challenges this year: work-related and the leftover weariness from a winter too long and severe.

    But the bulbs I planted last year are daring a glance out and the snowdrops and crocuses have been blooming and all of that makes me feel excited for summer.  During a walk by the reservoir, we found a tossed-away plywood ramp that when turned upside down has made a great new flowerbed. (I just painted it fern green and hyacinth blue for the interior.) When it's ready, I'll share it with all of you.

    Finally, Mr. Poppycakes and I are getting the bass boat ready to taste the thawed-out reservoir. It came with a name: My Highlander that seemed to be erased away to: My High. Yesterday, Mr. Poppycakes announced he was renaming the boat. Today, after volunteering we Menards-as-a-verb for a mailbox and some paint and stencils to spell-out: the Addie Pray.

    So what poetry will I bring to April? I have decided to try one form each week and to aim it towards the two projects I am trying to complete: The Guts and Glass Tooth of it is a chapbook of art and nature. Said like that, it sounds cheesy, but if you look at the work of Char Norman, Erick Swenson and Kit Vasey, you'll see how jagged can that geode-inspired title can get. I love jagged.  So for April, each week, I produce a poem in form. I am thinking to begin with The Golden Shovel as invented by Terrance Hayes in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks and rocked by LaWanda Walters in Goodness in Mississippi (I'll include the full text of her poem below.  I will be realistic in my summer goals, teach my minimester class, roadtrip to Florida to see my neice and nephew with little Ms. Addie Pray in tow and I will hit several new cities along the way. All of these are worthy goals, and none of them make me feel bad about not doing my annual poem or stanza a day. Stay tuned for what poetics I will manage. I am excited to report back: Lanternes and Golden Shovels in tow. 

    Goodness in Mississippi

    After Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,”
    with thanks to Terrance Hayes

    My friend said I wasn’t fat but she was, and we
    would go on that way, back and forth. She was my first real 

    friend, the kind who changes everything. Her mother was so cool,
    didn’t shave down there for the country club pool where we

    sat beside her. I saw a gleam of her secret, silver hair and was left
    dreaming of lime floating in a clear drink. I started saying hi at school

    and people smiled back. Smile first, my friend said, and we
    were a team. The cheerleaders who would always lurk

    by the field, showing off their muscled legs—of late
    I’d hardly noticed them. We talked about art, we

    attended science camp in Gulfport. That’s where her mother got struck
    by a car the next year. She must have thrown the new baby straight

    as a football to save her. Their family was on vacation, and we
    found out at Sunday School, waiting for the choir to sing.

    She was so good she comforted me. People saying, “It’s just a sin,”
    her mom like Snow White under glass, red lipstick, platinum hair we

    knew was genetic. You’ll still look young, I said. I think you’re thin. 
    We’d skip lunch, drink Sego (“good for your ego”). Last year I drank gin

    and called her ex. “She passed,” he drawled, like it was the weather. We
    tried powdered donuts with the Sego, sweated to the Beatles and jazz.

    Her whole life was beginning. We moved away from there one June,
    Mississippi tight-mouthed as a lid on fig preserves. And we—

    we white girls—knew nothing. The fire-bombed store, the owner who died
    for paying his friends’ poll taxes. Anorexia would be famous soon.

    (The Georgia Review, Winter 2013)



    10 Observations on Teaching Creative NonFiction

    Sweetcakes has been teaching a course in creative nonfiction through the nearby university’s lifelong learning program. It’s been rewarding, and fun, and a little tough, what with that extra-full-time job of mine. The students are top notch, interesting, and willing to challenge and be challenged, and good writers, the lot of them. I feel incredibly lucky, and though the class is short (just five weeks) I am satisfied with where we’ve been able to go and how much we’ve been able to cover.

    Here are my observations from the first three weeks of class:

    1. A good rule: Let the conversation do the teaching. Also, the more controversial topics spur the most intense conversations. Take the role of fact and truth in creative nonfiction. So many writers cover it well – Dani Shapiro, Ann Patchett in her convocation address to the Miami University of Ohio in 2005 (reprinted in “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”), this conversation in Brevity’s blog, for example. Still, these students, tackled every complexity of the topic. I was so proud.
    2. Each group of students I’ve taught seems to carry its own tenor, mood. Especially in community eduation programs. My current class is quite ambitious and willing to tackle a lot of work in a short timeframe. This is quite satisfying.
    3. I’m negotiating the difference between workshop and write-shop. Haven’t found the line yet, and I suspect observation #2 will dictate the balance in each class I teach going forward.
    4. I’m having fun setting up each week’s lesson plan. Just as much, I look forward to the day when I repeat this class and already have the lessons set up, so it’s a little more efficient. I like efficiency.
    5. Next semester, I’ll be teaching a fiction class. See #4. Someday.
    6. I’ve found a great combo of working texts – for this class, I’m using Tell it Slant, 2nd Edition, by Brenda Miller and Susan Paola as the go-to source for navigating the elements of the form; The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed for in-depth examples of each week’s topic; and The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely for exercises galore. Toss in some inspiration from Brevity Magazine, Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg and Creative Writing the Easy Way by Heather Hirschi, and I have a wealth of great resources.
    7. I have too little time to cover everything I’m excited to discuss about writing the fourth genre. Isn’t it always so?
    8. A tangent – it makes me incredibly sad/angry/disheartened when I think how the adjuncting of the English department has obliterated my (and so many talented writerteachers’) ability to earn a living doing this. Living within this world makes it easier to write, to find time to write, to support the community of writers, et al.  Instead, I currently have to love this like a hobby. It’s not enough. I am hungry for more.
    9. I hope I never get over the awe I feel when I hear students read their work aloud.
    10. More, please. More.



    Plunging (Ice-coldily) Into 2014

    What began as a neighborhood rumor (begun a year ago when my husband and I attended the annual small gathering of neighbors and the smaller contingent counting down the new year before running into the O'Shaughnessy Reservoir,) came back to haunt us. I had just been proposed to. Mr. Poppycakes had just done some proposing. Both of these were lifetime-firsts for us. We were shocked, overwhelmed, maybe even giddy. We were in love with this crazy little country home and the horseshoe of neighborhood of independent but bonded and community-driven neighbors. We felt fortunate, brave, foolish--everything a marriage requires--and one of us (let's blame The Mister, shall we?) must have said, "Next year we join you!"  Neither of us remembers any such declaration. New Year's is after all, in December falling into January. January in Ohio is rarely well-behaved and this year it has been particularly impolite.
    Still, when the rumor came to us that we were said to be participating in the actual plunge, and when I heard that in the twenty-four years of this event, one very inebriated woman had actually ever gone in, it was set, I was doing it. My friend and neighbor, Ms. Brightcakes joined us as we headed over in clothing meant to be discarded quickly and underclothing meant to be soaked with water so cold that ice had to be broken-out to allow our entry. At the final minute before midnight, we began taking off layers enough to be ready for the final countdown. Four-Three-Two-Runningintothefreezingwater-ONE-RUNNINGOUTTOTHETOWELS&DRYCLOTHES  The mud was slimy and so cold, the stars were so clear and clean they seemed to have been made that night. We were exhilerated. Back home, I made us a quick St. Germain cocktail with the incredible elderflower liqueur mixed with champagne and in our dry, warm clothes we toasted. We gathered-up the rum balls I made for the party after the plunge and headed over to he home of the neighbor who so many years ago had started the tradition and whose home is one of the only remaining original lake cottages (and my favorite house in this neighborhood or most).
    That we had done this  little thing was significant in ways that only those dealing with chronic and terrifying health scares can fully understand. Suffice it to say that Mr. Poppycakes and I know more about the "in sickness and health" part of our vows than any newlyweds ever should. Each week brings a challenge and fear. On the edge of that dark, icy reservoir, the oldest-child-neurotic that I am had tried to tell Mr. Poppycakes to hang back, and as I began to suggest that it might be best, I saw a resolve in him and let it drop.  To make someone who feels compromised feel like an invalid seems cruel and unwise.  Into the water we went. What we pulled from it was something small but necessary: the will to go back outdoors, draw back some of the darkness we'd been basking-in and do something light--as in day, as in the opposite of heavy, but lively somehow, every day. The next night we walked out into a brutal chill and back to the reservoir where we watched its black waves whipping about like an angered ocean. The next was a visit for the last of the zoo's Wildlights display and a snowy walk through all of the trails by our home where we identified slopes for sledding. Having none, (sleds, that is) we drove to the drugstore where cheap plastic runners and discs were on sale. He chose a bright blue plastic sled and I chose a bright orange disc and today, we took them out. The snow had melted some and our attempts were mostly a gesture. But we didn't mind. If the snow wasn't all there yet, it would be. All the effort just to stall out after just a few feet of careening was worth it. The gliding feeling even for a moment, a shot of needed, longed-for light. 
    Here's the recipe cribbed and then re-tooled from perpetuallychic.com follows. I made two versions, both swapped out the bourbon for rum. One used a combination of vanilla wafers and the most snappy of gingerbread snaps that I could find.  That cookie version was made without pecans. 

    Gingerbread Bourbon Balls

    3 cups pecans, toasted then chopped fine
    3 cups Cascadian Farm Ancient Grains Granola, chopped fine
    1 cup of dried Turkish apricots, chopped fine
    1/3 cup of Bullet bourbon
    1/2 cup powered sugar, plus extra for dusting
    5 tablespoons of full-flavor molasses
    3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
    3 teaspoons ground ginger
    1 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon each of ground nutmeg, allspice and cloves

    Prepare a large baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper. In a small pan, toast the pecans until lightly browned. Chop the first three ingredients, separately, using a small food processor. In a medium-sized bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Then add the bourbon and molasses and using your hands, combine well. Using a tablespoon, scoop out heaping spoonfuls, placing the mixture in the palms of your hands and patting and rolling into balls. Place each ball on the parchment-lined baking sheet. If your hands start to get sticky, sprinkle them with water in between rounds. The recipe should make about 3-4 dozen balls. Finally, dust each ball with powdered sugar using a handheld fine-mesh sifter/strainer. No baking or refrigerating required.




    What should you be?

    A grumpy old guy at a bar, who was familiar to me, but I could not place. In one of those morning dreams where you incorporate the noise of the day into the dream, and Mr. Sweetcakes’ snoring became the beat to techno-pop that roused customers to dance – in this dream, this guy I almost knew was drilling my tablemates on what they wanted to do with their lives. As if we were sixteen year-olds, waiting to take on the world. But it was present day, and we are more than old enough to have sixteen-year-old children. And some of us do.

    And when he got to me, he insulted me. Called me a boy. Put me on edge, then started drilling me: do I want to be a mathematician, an engineer? When I told him I had a book of poems, and one of stories ready to be published, he ignored me, kept rattling off a his list of science professions. I said it louder. My friends repeated it, too. He just looked at me, scoffed and said, “What, you think you’ll be famous?”

    When you wake with that sort of question pulled fresh from dreamland, it seems obvious that you need to answer it, though it’s an easy answer (eh, it’s not the goal) and, not, I don’t think, the point of the dream.

    Yesterday, I read a Facebook post from Elizabeth Gilbert, asking the question: what are you willing to give up to follow your dream? That’s the question. That’s the why for having had this dream. That bitty nugget has been carpet tackling me for months.

    All through the spring and summer when I worked on these poems about science (astronomy) and the journey from my childhood with two religions to finding my way for a good while as an agnostic, and now, being happy to hold firmly a belief in the lack of any higher being, all through this book, I have struggled with finding the time despite the other priorities that call me. It’s constant and sometimes it overwhelms me. It makes me angry and sad, and resentful. And it makes me feel petty, too. Because I have a lovely life, filled with an amazing family, a good marriage, an interesting and challenging career. I am, to borrow the word back from the benevolent world that I no longer claim, blessed.

    But the question hangs, always here, pressing at me. Its force is strong.

    And it’s not the first time this question has asked me to dance. Though it’s never a nice waltz when we do. It’s torrid, and aggressive. It’s flemenco dancing with a bear.

    And this morning, I find a quote from St. Catherine of Seina, and within it, a possible title for what comes next (a novel).  “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire.”

    And just now, a character is talking to me, needing her say. So I know: the world answers loudly, just as loudly, and obnoxiously as the crabby guy in my dream.

    Time to put on my best dress, dance this brutal dance with the angry ursine. And be crazily, blissfully happy that I can. Because of, in spite of, everything else calling me today.