Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year End Clearance

Year End Clearance - you see these words everywhere - on TV, in newspapers and magazines, in store windows, and of course, online. It's understandable that stores are clearing out their inventories to make way for the next surge of merchandise. And for bargain hunters - it can be a veritable feast! With the new year upon us, I decided that instead of resolutions, I would conduct my personal Year End Clearance. Before I can focus on what I'm going to do next year, I first need to clear out all those things that are still in my "inventory" from this year.

First and foremost, I must clear out all of my old teacher-files. I am retiring at the end of this school year, and will no longer be teaching high school. (Big Deep Breath) It's time to clear that part of my life from my plate and make room for my new full-time writing life.

Second, I must clear out the physical clutter in my life. We have been remodeling for the better part of two years and its time to GET IT FINISHED.

Third, I must  clear away any old "hurts" or "slights" (real or imagined) that I have been carrying around inside of me. I must remember what is important and what truly matters. It's a waste of valuable space to keep hurtful words inside of yourself. Clear those away and let love take root in that space.

It's a BIG job, but one with many benefits. While I sift through my inventory, I can reflect on what I want to keep and what I want to throw away or give away. I can also discover what 's missing and what I need to add to my stock. The important thing is to make sure I rid myself of the things that don't matter and only add the things that do. 

In the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder,“The real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.” 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Grave Dressing

Spring is the time of naissance. Stories abound about the rituals and celebrations of spring that bind our human fates with the cycle of nature. It’s during spring that the sun teases the plants from the ground, and the animals fill the barns and fields with their young. In central Appalachia, it’s during this season of birth that the long-standing ritual of grave dressing begins.
Central Appalachia is in the oldest mountain range in North America. In this beautiful and rugged place, that I call home, small towns and communities are the way of life. Small town life taught me to have a strong sense of place and a great love for, and pride in, my heritage. My Appalachian legacy includes its folktales, legends, superstitions, and traditions. One of its oldest traditions is the rituals that surround death.
Family cemeteries, or graveyards as they tend to be called, dot the mountainsides and church yards in this rural part of the country. The number of graves in these cemeteries range from a single family to generations of the same family. In central Appalachia, graves are not kept to areas designated as cemeteries, but can be found on a hillside adjacent to a house or even in the backyard.
Often, I pass by a small lot next to the road; on it is a mobile home that has a grave in the front yard. The teddy bear tombstone claims it is a child’s burial place. Even when the yard isn’t mown, the area around the tombstone is pristine. As the years go by, the absence of toys in the yard and the empty front porch is like a spotlight on the child’s grave. No matter what story I imagine about this place, there are no happy endings.
Funeral services in central Appalachia are still dictated by religious practices and family traditions. As old-fashioned as they may seem to some, in truth, today’s funerals bear little resemblance to those of a hundred years ago, when families took care of the wake and the burial. The absence of undertakers and funeral homes as well as the lack of church buildings made home services the norm. In those days, the women prepared the body while the men hand-dug the grave. The coffin was made by the local carpenter or a family member who was handy with tools, and the women lined it with cloth or a funeral quilt – a quilt made for this express purpose.
Houses were built with a window in the front room wide enough to get the coffin into the house, and the body was always ‘brought home’ to be made ready for burial. If the family owned a clock, it was stopped at the time of death and any mirrors in the home were covered. Often pennies, or sometimes nickels, were placed over the closed eyes of the dead.
When everything was prepared, the wake was held before burial. Since a hundred years ago, ministers in this area were in short supply, there was no actual service. Family and neighbors brought food, and often moonshine, to the home of the deceased. Women were supposed to cry over the dead while the men stayed in the background. At night, family members were expected to “set-up” with the body, because an old mountain superstition decreed the soul didn’t leave the body until twenty-four hours after death; therefore, someone had to keep the soul company and make sure the devil didn’t steal it away.
When the undertaker arrived in this area, death practices began to change. The modern funeral home changed them even more, but some of the old rites are still practiced. Today, funerals may take place at the funeral home or in a church instead of the deceased’s home, but the tradition of ‘setting up’ with the body is still observed. After friends and family pay their respects, a practice now called ‘visitation,’ chosen family members stay with the body all night.
Internment in a family graveyard, instead of a large public cemetery, is still the norm in central Appalachia. Location of the cemetery dictates how the burial takes place. Family plots are often on steep ridges in out of the way places. Some don’t have roads that are passable, making it impossible for a hearse or even a four-wheel drive vehicle to get the body to the grave. In days past, a wagon pulled by a horse or mule would be used to get the coffin to the graveyard. Today, the coffin must be carried to a grave that has to be hand-dug because it is impossible for a backhoe to get to the grave site. Burial is also done by hand, with the pallbearers lowering the casket and filling in the grave.

The old family cemeteries are some of central Appalachia’s most beautiful landmarks because families embrace the ritual of grave dressing. This seasonal activity is especially important after winter has ravaged the landscape. Decorating family graves is as much an Appalachian tradition as eating soup beans with cornbread. For some, it’s a simple affair of mowing grass, removing old arrangements and installing new ones, but to some families, it is a ritual that has become a family ceremony as worshipful as the funeral.
When the grass greens and the sun warms the earth, it’s time to make the trek to the family graveyards. This is an important ritual for my family, and on the appointed day, I arrive at our family cemetery early, so I can wander through the uneven rows of old graves alone. The beauty of spring juxtaposed with death doesn’t escape me. I sit under a poplar tree and look out at my history; the most recent chronicle being the graves of my sister and father. As the breeze, with winters chill still upon it surrounds me, I think of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass”: 

I WAS looking a long while for a clue to the history of the past for myself, and for these chants—and now I have found it;

It is not in those paged fables in the libraries, (them I neither accept nor reject;)

It is no more in the legends than in all else;

It is in the present—it is this earth to-day;

When my mother arrives, it takes some time to spread out the paraphernalia she needs to dress the graves: bottle of soapy water, gallon of freshwater, bottle of baby oil, brush, various rags, and of course, two large bags that hold the new arrangements. I discover she has added a new tool to her arsenal - a pair of small grass clippers, battery operated, and fully charged. I ask her what I can do, but she waves me away while she, “cuts a little grass” around the graves. I watch her for a while, amazed at how she can bend and cut so carefully and methodically when at eighty-nine, she suffers from arthritis and osteoporosis. Her back is bowed from an old fracture to her spine. I know she suffers pain, but it doesn’t stop her; it merely slows her down.
While she cuts, I wander around the cemetery. I see by the cut grass and bright spring flowers that other family members have been there to tend their branch of the family tree, but there are many graves waiting to be dressed, their vases holding weathered Christmas arrangements. It saddens to me that the favored flower, the silk red rose, looks the worst after a winter’s exposure. I find many arrangements whose roses are now the color of dried blood tinged in gray, and I want to change them to spring pinks, yellows, and oranges.
Half an hour later, my mother is ready to clean the grave markers. She lets me pour the soapy water over them and use the soft brush to scrub away the dirt, taking special care to get inside the letters of the names. Mother watches me, instructing me like I have never done this before, and I get the sense that she is making sure I know what to do for the day when the side of the tombstone she shares with my father, bears not only her date of birth, but her date of death. I realize I have accepted the job of grave dresser, even though I was never formally asked.
When the grave markers are rinsed and dried, she lets me apply the baby oil. This is her special trick to make the headstones shine. I rub it over the entire surface, taking special care to get inside the letters of the names. When she is satisfied, I step back and let her put the flowers in the vases. I have not earned the right to do this, not yet. I am merely a grave dresser in training. My mother makes the arrangements herself, and they are beautiful. They are full and lush, but not too tall, so the spring winds won’t blow them away. My sister’s and father’s arrangements are just alike, and in my mind’s eye, I watch her creating these arrangements, bent over her work, counting the orange tiger lilies, pink mums, yellow and orange zinnias to make sure there are equal numbers in each arrangement. There are sprigs of greenery and ivy, baby’s breath, and her signature touch – long green blades that look like sea grass.
While she works, she talks of times gone by, of relatives I barely remember, if at all. As is her way, she speaks of them in present tense, reminding me her brother Roy “won’t eat breakfast without gravy on the table,” and her sister Frieda, “wore my new high heels out to the coal pile and left them. It snowed and ruined them, and Mommy didn’t even whip her.”
Mother tells me of coming to this graveyard when she was a girl. She recalls that every spring, the whole family from all around, gathered for a big dinner on the ground. This dinner coincided with the coming of the traveling preacher. The family would hold a service at the cemetery for the dead who’d been buried in the time since the preacher had last visited. They called this custom of having a funeral after the fact, funeralizing.
While I listen, I stand by, handing her pieces of Styrofoam and strips of florists’ green tape that she uses to anchor the flowers into the vases. I feel like a nurse handing instruments to a surgeon. When at last, she stands back to observe her creations, wondering aloud if they are secure enough, I see her eyes rest of the names of my sister – Jeannine, and my father, Frank. It’s now when she makes a remark that has “missing you” somewhere in it, and I know it’s almost time to leave. This year, her “missing you” remark was followed by “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
At last, she stands for a minute in silence, then picks up a bag and starts packing her things. I help her put everything away and then carry it to her car. I walk back for her and together we walk to our cars. When we get to the road, she turns and looks back at the graves. She doesn’t comment on them, instead points out the kaleidoscope of colors that the cemetery now boasts. When she’s finished, I help her get in her car, seeing the pain on her face as she uses her hand to pick up her leg. We don’t talk about it because she doesn’t complain. The aches and pains of old age she bears in silence. She puts that pain alongside the grief she’s born for twenty years after losing her oldest child, added now to her newest grief of two years, the loss of my father.
I watch her drive away and go back to the graves we’ve just tended. I sit down between them and turn my face toward the breeze. I breathe deeply. My hair blows back from my face. I imagine the wind says, thank you. After a while, I stand to leave and see others moving about the cemetery. I feel a sense of peace like I have been blessed by the hand of God. My heart is full with the blessing of it. I know that one day soon, I will be the one conducting this ritual, and my heart accepts it. I know, too, the day will come when I will take my place here next to my family, and other hands will dress my grave when spring returns to the mountains.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

You Started It!

If there’s one word a teacher hates to hear from a student it’s - FIGHT! 

The word, FIGHT, is always accompanied by a sudden rush of students in the direction of the event, making it difficult for the peacemaking teachers to get to the action, so to speak. In my thirty-four years of teaching, I have seen my fair share of fights, heard about many more, and even gotten in the middle of a few (to put a stop to it). Most of the fights I’ve experienced were half-hearted attempts at violence, with excessive pushing (and cursing) or arms locked around each other in an awkward embrace (and cursing). Occasionally, there's a bloody nose, or the next day a black eye, but that's usually the extent of the damage. There have been a few exceptions.

The worst fights I have ever encountered were not big, hulking, teenage boys, bursting with hormones and full of piss and vinegar. The worst fights I have ever had to contend with were between girls, yes, I said girls. Girls hold nothing back – nothing. They fight to the death, and woe unto the girl who has long hair. Boys generally fight with their fists or the headlock grab. Girls go for the hair – every time. They twine the hair around and around their fingers and PULL with the strength that only righteous indignation can ignite. And girls scratch! They will sink their fingernails in any exposed flesh and rake and scrape. They also bite, spit, and kick.

What causes teens to resort to physical violence? Is it mere teenage angst? I think not. Ninety-nine percent of the time it's over the opposite sex. Ah, love! Shakespeare said it best, "O never say that I was false of heart." Real or imagined, most of the fights among teenagers are because "he said - she said, or she said - he said," and occasionally, it's "they said." These fights are the stuff songs are made of. Every time I hear of girls fighting over a boy I think of Loretta Lynn's song, "You Ain't Woman Enough," but those girls should be singing, "Before he Cheats" by Carrie Underwood. But I digress.

When I was a teenager, I would have never dared to get into a fight at school. I grew up with a brother two years my junior and believe me, we got into lots of arguments, but my mother had a way of nipping our fights in the bud. She hated to hear me say those three words: "He started it!" As much as she hated to hear my brother say, "She started it!" My mother knew just what to do to "finish it." She made us apologize and hug each other, and we had to "mean it" or we hugged until we did! If I had gotten into a fight at school, I have no doubt my mother would have marched into the principal's office and made me hug my opponent.

My goal is to teach my students that their real weapons are not their fists, but their words. Communication - the ability to express yourself with words - written or spoken, will accomplish more than your fists, and it's undeniably less painful. I tell my students that if you  learn how to express yourself, people will listen. In the words of President John Adams, "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." I like to think he wouldn't mind if I added ...and don't fight.

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Recent Interview about Mama's Shoes

I was recently interviewed by Appalachian author Bob Mustin. You can visit his blog "Gridey Fires" and read the interview at the above address. I have also copied it below. Thanks, Bob!


Coal Country and the Strength of Coal Women – An Interview with Rebecca Elswick

This is the third in Gridley Fires’ series of indie author interviews.

These interviews are with authors whose work shows great promise but still haven’t latched onto that larger audience. Hopefully these interviews will give the authors and their work a bit of a shove in the right direction. Rebecca Elswick, the subject of this interview, has had the earned fortune to have had a fine novel, Mama’s Shoes,  published as a result of a Writer’s Digest contest. We think her insights into writing technique – as well as into her work itself – are certainly worth sharing here.
Rebecca Elswick
Gridley Fires:  You’ve written a novel that spans quite a bit of time, including the World War II era. How did you decide to structure it as you did, moving back and forth in time, from the various characters’ points of view?

Rebecca Elswick:  I wanted to begin the novel with Sassy’s point of view at an age when she would become aware that her mother was not like the other mothers in Coal Valley, so I decided to begin the story in the middle, after giving the reader a glimpse of Sylvia at age sixteen. This juxtaposed the world Sylvia anticipated at age sixteen with the world she ended up in at age thirty, leaving the reader to wonder – what happened?

GF:  It seems you’ve given both Sylvia and Sassy equal time in this novel. Did you intend that, or do you consider one of them the primary character?

RE:  Sylvia is the main character, but I wanted the story to be told from different points of view with the primary voice being her daughter, Sassy. I wanted to apply that old saying ‘there’s three sides to every story – mine, yours, and the truth.

GF:  Madge is a character unlike others in your book. How did you come up with her? As you look at her now, did she serve her intended purpose(s)?

RE:  I am the daughter of a beautician and much of my “beauty shop” story is based on my memories of the beauty shops where my mama worked. Like Sassy, I would empty the ashtrays and fold towels and do other jobs, and like Sassy, I would listen to the women talk. There always seemed to be a “Madge” beautician in these places. She was the one who didn’t care what she said or to whom she said it. I wanted to have a character like that who would champion Sylvia. Madge served as my message that family doesn’t always mean blood kin. Madge was as much Sylvia and Sassy’s family as Aunt Hat. I also wanted a character who was more “Appalachian” than the others in her speech, upbringing, and actions.

GF:  Sassy’s friend Kitty and her family are clearly there for comparison to Sylvia and Sassy. How would you characterize this comparison?

RE:   Kitty and her family were important for two reasons: they were the key to Sassy’s   past and therefore, Sylvia’s secret, and they were Sassy’s window to the outside world.

GF:  You also deal with women’s issues, at least by implication. Do you see women’s social conditions as having improved since the time of your novel?

RE:  It was important to me to portray my characters as strong, Appalachian women who were survivors in a place where life was harsh. These women came to the beauty shop when the coal mines were working and their husbands had money, and they stayed away when they didn’t. Getting their hair done every now and then was the only thing they ever did for themselves. I also wanted to explore post-partum depression or the “baby blues or birthing blues” as they were called at that time. I wanted to show how women were expected to bear this quietly or as Madge told Sylvia her mother said you were supposed to ‘suck it up and put your shoulder to the plow.’ Even before Sylvia’s husband dies in the war, it’s the post-partum depression that almost destroys her.

GF:  Were you to place Sylvia in today’s world, how would she be different than in Mama’s Shoes?

RE:  Women have so many more options than Sylvia did in the1940s and 50s. When Sylvia found herself at age sixteen, with both parents dead and nobody but a maiden aunt who lived across the country to care for her, she chose to marry a man almost ten years older than her. Sylvia had no hope of college or even high school in her day.

GF:  I know you live in the southern Appalachians, in “coal country,” as you term it, and your novel is set there. Did you learn much about that area in your research for the novel, and in the writing?
RE:  I did a tremendous amount of research because I wanted to portray this time in history correctly since it was a bit before my time! I researched the WWII information and used my father’s path through WWII for my character Gaines. My father was indeed, General Patton’s driver. I wanted Coal Valley to ring true like the coal mining towns around southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia during the 1940S and 1950s. My grandfather was a coal miner and I had numerous stories to draw from from the people who lived in Grundy during this time.

GF:  Are there more novels in your future? If so, what can you tell your readers about a next project?

RE:  I have just completed my second novel. It takes place in a modern day Coal Valley. Two women meet on the day their daughters start kindergarten. One is born and raised in Coal Valley; the other is from the city, her husband dean of the new law school. Though opposites, they share one thing in common, they want to leave their husbands but for their daughters’ sake they cannot. They make a pact to leave their husbands when their daughters graduate from high school. The character from Coal Valley is the great granddaughter of Granny Zee (the mountain granny woman who delivers Sylvia in Mama’s Shoes). Her grandmother, also called Granny Zee, is a healer, herself. She knows all of the mountain plants and makes healing remedies from them. She also has the gift of speaking to spirits.

This book took an incredible amount of research about the healing properties of the plants native to this area and how Appalachian women used them.

GF:  Reading often gives a writer who reads a lot of different perspectives on what goes into a well-received novel or short story collection. In that vein, what advice do you have for writers trying to enter the modern publishing world?

RE:  Read EVERYTHING. You must read constantly in all genres, and read like a writer. Examine what you read and study how other authors use the language. Go to writer’s workshops and network with writers. The thing that has been such a part of my career is contests! I took the advice of author Silas House who said enter contests. I have won numerous contests and Mama’s Shoes was published by Writer’s Digest as the result of my winning a contest in their magazine.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

My Kudzu Kingdom

High Summer is the time of year when the humidity becomes so oppressive it hangs over the land like a wet blanket; and the cicadas sing loud and long praising the heat. By August, the heat in southwestern Virginia slows everything down to a crawl, and people languish on their porches after sundown, sipping glasses of ice cold sweet tea. This holding pattern in late summer when the days are long and the heat slows us to a crawl, has no effect on one of southwest Virginia's plants. In fact, Kudzu thrives in the heat and by high summer, it has devoured everything in its path.

Kudzu is a trailing vine native to southern Japan and south east China. Its name comes from the Japanese name for the plant, kuzu (クズ or 葛. Kudzu was introduced from Japan into the United States at the Japanese pavilion in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Kudzu, also called Japanese arrowroot, is a member of the pea family. It long coiling vines climb and twine itself around plants and trees. Here in southwestern Virginia, it has no natural enemy and grows like a weed killing other plants in its path by covering them and depriving them of sunlight.

It was introduced to this part of the country as a form of erosion control. It is actually good for the soil, supplying nitrogen, and its deep roots also transfer minerals from the subsoil to the topsoil. But what happens when Kudzu devours every tree and shrub in its path? It suffocates the plant by depriving it of sunlight and oxygen effectively killing its host.
Under this tower of Kudzu is the remains of a tree suffocated by Kudzu.
By August, the trees, hillsides, roadsides and creek banks are covered by Kudzu. Every inch of the countryside is a dazzling green landscape.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Appalachian Superstitions

The following blog was a guest post for "The Bookish Owl."

GUEST POST: Appalachian Superstitions by Rebecca D. Elswick 

Posted by thebookishowl on in Guest Posts
Superstition has always been a fascinating topic for me because of the abundance of them in the Philippines. In Tagalog, we call them “pamahiin” and it has been a constant source of laughter especially when my elders scold me and use pamahiin as their reason.
Let’s welcome Rebecca to the Owl with her very interesting topic; Appalachian Superstitions. 

Screen shot 2013-07-07 at 10.54.31 AMI am a child of central Appalachia, part of the oldest mountain range in North America. I grew up with the lush mountain forests as my playground, and small town life taught me a strong sense of place and a great love for and pride in my heritage. My Appalachian legacy includes its folktales, legends, superstitions, and traditional stories.

In my corner of Appalachia where coal is mined from the mountains, many people, including my family, claim Ulster-Scots, later called Scotch-Irish, as their ancestry. The pale complexion, red hair, and blue eyes are prevalent in this region. Other traits attributed to this heritage are the Appalachian peoples’ religious fervor, clannish behavior and the fierce almost feudal behavior of protecting the family, and of course, the love of moonshine ( liquor made from corn) that came about because of their inherited love of the  Scotsman’s’ and Irishman’s’ love of whiskey. This American product is even more potent in its effect than true Scotch or Irish whiskey.

Much of our language and many of our rich traditions and superstitions are traceable to this ancestry. The term “hillbilly” often applied to the people of this region, may be Scottish in origin. “Hill” comes from the Scottish “hill dwellers” and the Scottish word “billies” meaning “fine fellow”.

For all their staunch self-sufficiency and love of independence, the Scotch-Irish pioneers had within them vestiges of medieval superstition and fear. They believed in fairies, goblins and ghosts and these beliefs crossed the Atlantic with them. Many of our superstitions in Appalachia came with our Scotch-Irish ancestors. Some of them have become so engrained in our culture that we no longer think of them as coming from “somewhere else”.

As a writer, I have incorporated my Scotch-Irish heritage into my writing. People are fascinated by mystery, and what better way to add a bit of mystery to a story than by giving a character a Scotch-Irish background with a belief in the “old-ways” or the ability to speak to spirits or concoct healing remedies from the mountain plants? In my novel, Mama’s Shoes, the main character, Sylvia, is delivered by an old mountain granny woman. Sylvia’s mother had numerous pregnancies, but every child died at birth, even though they were delivered by the coal camp’s doctor. When she becomes pregnant late in life, she seeks out the old mountain midwife that many call a witch, and her daughter lives.

Here are some superstitions from my corner of Appalachia that are Scotch-Irish in origin. I grew up hearing many of them from my grandparents, and my mother and father were well versed in what they considered words of wisdom and caution about the fairies or wee-folk, ghosts, banshees, etc. that are part of our Appalachian culture by way of Scotland and Ireland.

If a black cat crosses your path it will bring you bad luck. Made an X in the air to ward off the bad luck.
It is unlucky to look back after starting out.

Whoever kills a robin redbreast will never have good luck, even if they lived to be a thousand years old.

If one should see a snake, rat or mouse while journeying, then one might as well turn back for no good will come out of the trip.

The shoe of a horse or an ass nailed to the doorpost will bring good luck. But the shoe must be found, not given in order to bring good luck.

If you want a person to win at cards, put a crooked pin in his coat.

When a person sneezes, exclaim, “God Bless You” as a protection against evil spirits, meaning thereby fairies.

Do not open an umbrella in the house, or put new shoes on a table, both actions bring bad luck.

It’s bad luck to bring a shovel into the house because it is a grave tool.

Death comes in threes. Two more deaths will follow the first one.

If anyone stumbles at a grave it is considered a bad omen. If you fall and touch the ground you will most likely die by the end of the year.

When a swarm of bees suddenly quits the hive it is a sign that death is hovering near the house.

When the dead are carried out of the house they must go FEET FIRST so that their souls cannot find their way back in!

When a bird comes in the house, it means Death.

If you see an owl in the daytime, there is going to be a death.

NEVER give a gift to anyone that has a cutting edge such as a knife. The recipient must pay the giver at  least a penny or their friendship will be “cut”.

Bury a jar of nails by your doorstep to keep out evil.

If you go around the wrong side of a pole, you’ll be disappointed.

The Scottish cook knew to never throw away a remnant of bread dough or oatmeal cake. The leftover dough was made into small cakes for children or else there would be bad luck. Even better was to punch a hole into the dough. This is the origin of doughnuts. The hole in the center was meant to keep evil spirits away.

If a knife falls, it means a man is coming. If it’s a spoon, a woman is coming. If it’s a fork that falls, it could be either a man or a woman.

If your left hand itches, it means you will receive money. If your right hand itches, it means you will make a new friend; and if your nose itches, it means either someone is gossiping about you, or you’ll hear news. If the sole of your foot itches, you will walk on new ground.

You should never put on your own veil on the day of the wedding as this brings bad luck. For better fortune, have a happily married woman do the honors.
If you dream of death, it means there will be a birth in the family.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sell Your Heart: When Real Life Becomes Fiction

The following post appeared on Abbott Press blog on June 27.

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Sell Your Heart: When Real Life Becomes Fiction

Sell Your Heart
You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell. 
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I was writing my first novel, Mama’s Shoes, I took great comfort from the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words. Writing a novel is a daunting task. It didn’t matter that I was an English teacher and knew how to use correct grammar, punctuation and syntax, or that I knew how to create setting and plot and put my characters in the throes of conflict. That didn’t make me a writer — at least not one anyone would necessarily care to read; what made me a writer is that in addition to having all the proper elements in a story, I added the one thing you won’t find in a style manual. Emotion.
My Mama  in 1942 at age 17. She is wearing her beautician's uniform. She was the inspiration for Sylvia Richardson in Mama’ s Shoes.
My Mama in 1942 at age 17. She is wearing her beautician’s uniform. She was the inspiration for Sylvia Richardson in Mama’ s Shoes.
As Fitzgerald said, you only have your emotions to sell.  I knew if I was going to write a novel that anyone wanted to read, I was going to have to sell my emotions. In Mama’s Shoes, I dug deep down inside myself to find the little girl who had grown up in a little coal mining town going to the beauty shops where her beautiful mama worked. I had to close my eyes and smell the cigarette smoke and beauty shop chemicals. I had to listen again to the women talk about having babies, husbands who got drunk and beat them, planting gardens and canning vegetables, and trying to raise their families amid the poverty and coal dust. And I had to put those sights and sounds on the page. I had to tell their stories by showing their emotions and mine.
Those women taught me more about life than I ever learned anywhere else. It was their stories that I drew from to find the happiness and love, sadness and grief, and never-ending hope that created the world where my characters lived in Mama’s Shoes. The story is indeed fiction, but the emotion in Mama’s Shoes is real — drawn from the life of a 12-year-old girl struggling to grow up and find her way in a world.
There are rules you have to follow to master writing. All those grammar and syntax rules I mentioned are indeed important, but don’t forget the most important of all — emotion. Sometimes you have to cry and laugh or even bleed on the page. Whatever you do, you have to make your reader hear your voice, feel your characters’ pain, and rejoice in their happiness. When you do that, you’re on your way to being a writer.
Rebecca D. Elswick is the award-winning author of Mama’s Shoes. Visit her website at

Takeaway Tweets

“You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly.” Tweet This
Sometimes you have to cry and laugh or even bleed on the page. Tweet This
Make your reader hear your voice, feel your characters’ pain, and rejoice in their happiness. Tweet This

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Teachers Love Summer Vacation TOO

I am a teacher/writer, and I spent my first week of summer vacation facilitating a workshop for teachers called Strategies for Teaching Writing. As a teacher consultant for the Appalachian Writing Project(AWP), ( I am dedicated to coaching teachers on how to use more writing in their classes regardless of the subject area.

AWP is part of the National Writing Project, an organization networked across the country and anchored in colleges and universities. It's mission: "The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners." (

Fourteen teachers from six different school districts gathered for a week of learning about and exchanging best practices for teaching writing. These ladies had just walked out of their classrooms and into mine. Their jobs ranged from teaching grades kindergarten to high school with subjects ranging from English to Art. They were tired and worn-out from all the duties and responsibilities of ending a school year, but they were ready to soak up new strategies to take back to their classrooms - classrooms they had just left.

Dedication. These ladies are perfect examples of dedicated teachers. They soaked up the new activities, research, and presentations like they were fresh, rested and ready to charge back into the classroom the next day.They shared one of their best teaching strategies and demonstrated how it was used in their classrooms.

We discussed ways to engage our students, and we shared ways to help our students learn how to communicate through writing.

AWP Teacher consultants came to the workshop to do demonstrations they had prepared. We discussed: 

Motivating the Reluctant Writer

Hook, Line, and Reel Them In:  Writing Great Opening Lines

Book Arts (How to make books and journals with our students
Oral History and Writing in the Primary Classroom

Appalachian Literature and Local Authors

Evaluating and Publishing Your Students’ Work 

Making Writing Meaningful  

Boys Will Be Writers—How to Narrow the Performance Gap Between Boys and Girls

We discussed how to use journals as a tool to teach writing and shared topics for student writing.
We even went on a scavenger hunt in the library to "find" poems!

On the last day of the workshop, we used Skype technology to talk to Dr. Amy Clark, professor at UVA Wise and co-author of the book Talking Appalachian. Amy told the group about the research that went into this book, and how we, as teachers, can use it to help our students in Appalachia understand their English is not "wrong". We can teach our students that the language of their region is a "living testament to its rich heritage."
The book contains essays and excerpts from works by authors such as George Ella Lyon and Silas House.
The group left Amy's discussion talking about how to teach our students how to "code-switch" from their "home-voice" to more standard English. By teaching them where their language/dialect comes from, we are empowering them in the classroom and beyond.

Do teachers like summer vacation? Of course we do! But this group of dedicated ladies gave up a week of  their summer vacation to gather a toolbox of ideas and activities for their upcoming classes. They know that the summer will speed by and soon they will be standing in front of a group of fresh faces, ready to learn!