Fiction

“Writing in the Digital Age” – My New Online Class Starts Monday!

I’m so excited to start my new online class, Writing in the Digital Age: Blogging, Social Media, & More, through Writers & Books, the amazing nonprofit in Rochester. Classes start this Monday the 31st, and it’s not too late to register – spread the word!

Writing in the Digital Age: Blogging, Social Media, & More (Online)

blogging

Instructor(s): Becky Fine-Firesheets

Beginner Beginner Beginner

In the digital era, writers are no longer afforded the luxury of focusing solely on creation; agents and publishers are now seeking sellability in addition to quality. This four-part class will concentrate on creating and maintaining a writer’s blog (parts 1 and 2), developing your social media presence (part 3), and general self-promotion (part 4), with a focus on efficiency and affordability.

REGISTER ONLINE NOW.

If you would like to make a request for any accommodation, please email us at accommodation@wab.org.

Photo “blogging” by Eden Osabel / Creative Commons

Bookworm on the Beach


Summer is officially here! Time to bust out the books, bikinis, and sunblock, set up on the beach then refuse to leave until you’ve finished your entire reading list three months later. That’s my plan, at least.

I know I already shared my summer book recs with y’all, but I’m too busy READING ON THE BEACH right now to write a brand new post, and the internet has ruined our ability to remember things from last month, anyway. And to make myself clear, I’m so super serious about #1. Elena Ferrante forever.

5. The Girls by Emma Cline – C+
This book has all the summer trash – sex, murder, drugs, rock-n-roll – but there are some real trigger warnings surrounding rape, so beware. I picked this one up because of its hype: a debut novel by a female writer in her 20’s that quickly became a New York Times best seller but was also heralded as a beautifully written novel. And yes, there are many gorgeous sentences here. But for me, the language actually got in the way of the story. Definitely an interesting choice to pair gorgeous, flowing descriptions with an honest, ugly look at teenage girls getting sucked into a cult (loosely based on the Mansons), but I was overall glad I read it – the story especially shines when we get inside the main character’s painfully realistic, confused little head. James Wood gives a much more thorough review here in The New Yorker.

4. You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein – B-
This book is brutally hilarious, often self-deprecating in a way that leaves you feeling like Klein is now a strong, confident woman with that rare ability to make fun of herself without getting down about it. As a celebrated female in the male-dominated comedy industry, she offers readers an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look complete with running commentary that doesn’t back down ever; this openness is welcome and brave and definitely drives the novel. Mixed in with the laughs are some deep reflections on our patriarchal society, revelations that most women will appreciate but then will also appreciate the comic relief that follows. However, while Klein’s voice is strong, consistent and easy to access, it’s clear that she writes sketch comedies, not books; the individual sentences are lacking, the flow is choppy, and the overall structure feels forced. There’s even one anecdote repeated in the last few chapters. Still, a fun and thought-provoking ride.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – B+
I reread this novella for a Capote semester I taught last fall and fell in love with it all over again. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off by the Hollywood ending; there are a handful of major differences between the two, and the book is definitely more rooted in reality. Absolutely gorgeous writing (as always from Capote), a smart and breezy plot filled with New York fun and a touch of darkness, plus one of the most delightful, complicated characters in American literature. Also, only 100 pages.

If you haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, it’s not a traditional summer read but is absolutely stunning, and also the progenitor of the true crime genre – a must-read (or reread!) at some point, though perhaps a better fit for the winter.

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – A-
Everything Ann Patchett writes is gold. Just beautiful, easy to read yet highly intelligent, carefully constructed sentences throughout all of her novels. Commonwealth tells the story of a nontraditional family as they grow from rascals in California to adults spread out all over the world. There’s some darkness here, but it never gets too heavy. While not as impressive as Bel Canto or as deep at The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth masterfully treats a large family unit as the main character, jumping through time and switching points of view to give us a thoughtful and enjoyable reflection on love, loss and growth.

5. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – A
These books are amazing. I’m on the third right now and CANNOT GET ENOUGH. The characters are so real and distinct and easy-to-love despite their many faults. The depth and complexity of female friendship is at the root of these novels, but Ferrante weaves so many other characters (including the towns and cities which, through her vivid descriptions, feel like characters themselves) in and out with such ease that the overall plot never feels stuck on the two leading ladies. In fact, everything always feels like it’s moving somewhere, even when the characters are sitting still, which brings me to the most dazzling aspect of these novels: Ferrante’s musical writing style. I literally get the rhythm of her sentences stuck in my head like a pop song.

My Summer Reading Recs

beckyreadingascousinit
Guys, I have good news – my reading bug is back! It wasn’t that having a baby necessarily killed my reading bug – I still very much wanted to read – but more like having a baby made my brain so full and tired that it was impossible to read. My eyes felt sticky and glazed over, I’d fall asleep before even finishing a page, and if I somehow did make it farther than that, I’d have no idea what was going on and no patience to reread. In response, I turned to the more manageable length of short stories, but I really missed reading novels. As author Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” Sure, love affairs are fun, but I’d been happily married to literature for decades when we were suddenly thrust into an unavoidable and sad period of separation. But then, a year after returning to work as a new mom, something clicked; I picked up a hardback my friend had given me, tore through it, picked up the next one, and kept going.

So now, six months later, with sunny beach days right around the corner, I’m filled with joy and pride to give you my summer reading recs. And please share yours with me – I have two bug-less summers to make up for!

5. The Girls by Emma Cline – C+
This book has all the summer trash – sex, murder, drugs, rock-n-roll – but there are some real trigger warnings surrounding rape, so beware. I picked this one up because of its hype: a debut novel by a female writer in her 20’s that quickly became a New York Times best seller but was also heralded as a beautifully written novel. And yes, there are many gorgeous sentences here. But for me, the language actually got in the way of the story. Definitely an interesting choice to pair gorgeous, flowing descriptions with an honest, ugly look at teenage girls getting sucked into a cult (loosely based on the Mansons), but I was overall glad I read it – the story especially shines when we get inside the main character’s painfully realistic, confused little head. James Wood gives a much more thorough review here in The New Yorker.

4. You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein – B-
This book is brutally hilarious, often self-deprecating in a way that leaves you feeling like Klein is now a strong, confident woman with that rare ability to make fun of herself without getting down about it. As a celebrated female in the male-dominated comedy industry, she offers readers an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look complete with running commentary that doesn’t back down ever; this openness is welcome and brave and definitely drives the novel. Mixed in with the laughs are some deep reflections on our patriarchal society, revelations that most women will appreciate but then will also appreciate the comic relief that follows. However, while Klein’s voice is strong, consistent and easy to access, it’s clear that she writes sketch comedies, not books; the individual sentences are lacking, the flow is choppy, and the overall structure feels forced. There’s even one anecdote repeated in the last few chapters. Still, a fun and thought-provoking ride.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – B+
I reread this novella for a Capote semester I taught last fall and fell in love with it all over again. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off by the Hollywood ending; there are a handful of major differences between the two, and the book is definitely more rooted in reality. Absolutely gorgeous writing (as always from Capote), a smart and breezy plot filled with New York fun and a touch of darkness, plus one of the most delightful, complicated characters in American literature. Also, only 100 pages.

If you haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, it’s not a traditional summer read but is absolutely stunning, and also the progenitor of the true crime genre – a must-read (or reread!) at some point, though perhaps a better fit for the winter.

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – A-
Everything Ann Patchett writes is gold. Just beautiful, easy to read yet highly intelligent, carefully constructed sentences throughout all of her novels. Commonwealth tells the story of a nontraditional family as they grow from rascals in California to adults spread out all over the world. There’s some darkness here, but it never gets too heavy. While not as impressive as Bel Canto or as deep at The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth masterfully treats a large family unit as the main character, jumping through time and switching points of view to give us a thoughtful and enjoyable reflection on love, loss and growth.

5. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – A
These books are amazing. I’m on the third right now and CANNOT GET ENOUGH. The characters are so real and distinct and easy-to-love despite their many faults. The depth and complexity of female friendship is at the root of these novels, but Ferrante weaves so many other characters (including the towns and cities which, through her vivid descriptions, feel like characters themselves) in and out with such ease that the overall plot never feels stuck on the two leading ladies. In fact, everything always feels like it’s moving somewhere, even when the characters are sitting still, which brings me to the most dazzling aspect of these novels: Ferrante’s musical writing style. I literally get the rhythm of her sentences stuck in my head like a pop song.

Ella, The Man and The Dog

An original short story by Becky Fine-Firesheets

Motherhood filled Ella’s days with meaning yet also made them meaningless, made the whole world meaningless. How much this little creature needed her, how every task served a clear purpose of keeping him alive, yet how unimportant this actually was, how it absolutely didn’t matter to the greater planet or its billions of inhabitants if her baby lived or died. Late at night when she was awake despite the fact her baby and boyfriend were sleeping, this awareness of her own smallness and futility terrified her. But most of the time, it was relieving. Freeing, even.

snowmountain

— ◊ —

The sharp yip of the neighbor’s dog. Ella came to and immediately scanned the room for Dylan, found him on the floor nearby with his manic grin, his fat hand clutching a Lego.

“Oh my God, oh my God, honey.” She stood up – a rush of vertigo. Fighting through the dizziness, the fog, the fear, she stumbled to her baby and collapsed around him. He screamed and kicked; she’d interrupted his game. She released her grip and rolled onto her back, heart pounding so hard she could feel it banging against the hardwood floor beneath her.

It had been over a decade since she’d lost time like this, and then only once and only because of The Man.

— ◊ —

After it had happened, after The Man had leaned in for a goodnight kiss but instead forced himself into her apartment and then into her body, she dreamed of poisoning him. It would have been so easy, just a quick dash of almond syrup in his morning latte would have been enough to trigger his allergy. The key would be to fix her lips into the same tight food service grin she faked every day, to control her shaking hand as she offered him the drink, to turn to the next customer like nothing was out of the ordinary. But she felt sure she could pull it off – her anger gave her confidence – and she even came close enough once that she’d unscrewed the cap and gripped the bottleneck in her fist.

He was asking for it, she would say afterward, just like she’d overheard him say about her. But doubt rushed through her, and then she lost time and her job and never saw him again.

futile

 — ◊ —

The relentless barking. Her head pounded with it. The dog had barked all day long before the baby, but Ella was working a 9-5 office job then and hadn’t noticed. Now that she was a stay-at-home mom, her life split into blocks of play, eat, sleep, repeat, the barking was ruining her life.

My God, she thought, how much did I lose? Misty, her old therapist, had sworn this wouldn’t happen again, but here she was after all these years, and alone with the baby no less! If only the dog would shut up so she could think. Ella pulled back the curtain of her kitchen window and scanned the neighbor’s yard – watching the poodle shake in desperation, completely immersed in his own anxious hell, gave her some satisfaction (at least he, too, was miserable) – but she didn’t see him anywhere. So why the hell could she still hear him so clearly?

— ◊ —

Of course the original time loss had coincided with a double at the cafe. And of course she got fired for running off and never explaining herself. But she was okay with that; brewing the espresso, steaming the milk, pouring it out into the shape of a flower then handing it over to The Man with his reeking cologne and thick fingers was killing her day by day, and she knew that despite the holes in her plan (what if he spat it out? what if he had an Epipen?), she was going to do it one day. And then what? Losing the job was for the better.

Still, it took three months to mention the time loss to anyone. It wasn’t meant to be a confession, just a distant, asking-for-a-friend kind of thing during her annual gyno exam, but the doctor’s probing fingers, the questions about her sex life, the sticks and brushes twisting inside of her unleashed a flood of anxiety and suddenly she was rambling like a child about the missing hours. The doctor suggested she find a therapist then said that otherwise, she was well and healthy. Ella was shocked; she was sure the markers of her pain were glaring from her every pore, much less the inside of her vagina.

Another month passed before she mustered the courage to go to Misty. Their first appointment was strained, but Misty was naturally kind, and her cardigans and baggy pants, hoarse yet soothing voice, her wrinkled hands and eyes, made Ella feel safe enough to let it all out by visit number two. She hadn’t spoken about The Man to anyone, hadn’t even allowed herself to think of it as a rape, and the realization that this had actually happened to her was nauseating and exhausting. By the time she got around to the missing hours, she’d gone numb.

“This kind of thing is scary, yes, but also within the range of normal. Many people disassociate when they’ve experienced a trauma like yours. Together, we can work through it,” Misty said with so much certainty Ella almost believed it.

But later that night, as she rolled the word ‘disassociate’ around her tongue, examining its different parts and what they meant for her, Ella did not believe. She tried out the idea that her brain had become disjoined, dispartnered itself from itself, and now it was her job to bring it back together. But how? She stared at the two shitty choices splayed out in front of her – to get over it or to get lost in it – and the fear of succumbing to the latter while attempting the former left her paralyzed.

severedheadsintoaster

— ◊ —

A knock on the door, aggressive, urgent. Ella opened it to find the poodle’s owner, a well-intentioned but neurotic old woman, frantically turning a wrinkled napkin over and over in her fingers. “I can’t find Moxi she’s been missing for hours have you seen her?” she asked in one rapid question.

Ella felt high, fuzzy; only bits and pieces of the words reached her brain. She focused in on the patch of blue nail polish remaining on her thumb, tried to slow down her heart beat.

“Did you hear me? Moxi is missing!”

“That’s awful,” she replied, voice steady despite the knot gripping her throat.

“She’s never run off before, never. And the craziest thing is that I haven’t even heard a peep from her. For hours now! I just don’t know what I’d do without my dog.”

Ella opened then closed her mouth. The dog was still barking, she could hear him barking. What the hell was going on?

“Dog!” Dylan shouted from the floor, a word he’d never said before. “Dog dog!”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll keep my eyes open,” Ella managed to say.

“Please do, I’m just desperate. You have my number, right?”

Ella nodded and shut the door, leaned her back against it, slid down to the grainy welcome mat covered in ink from the pen Dylan recently broke.

“Dog dog dog,” he repeated. Then, “Mama. Mama dog, mama dog.”

— ◊ —

Eventually, Ella believed. She talked and sobbed and shouted her way through it, and even though the missing hours never came back to her, she emerged with The Man safely in her past and the shocking ability to fall in love with another man when she wasn’t even looking for it. Motherhood was similarly unplanned, but she was tough, a survivor, and her boyfriend was the good kind who massaged her feet and brought home flowers and cooked lasagna, her favorite, at least once a week, so Ella allowed herself to relax and balloon up with hope.

When Dylan first heaved out from between her legs, slimy and pruney and shrieking, Ella felt the strange twist of unconditional love deep inside her gut. Becoming a giver of this kind of love transformed her so intensely that she was positive everyone she came in contact with would also be transformed in its presence. But no one, not even her boyfriend, reacted to it, and the long stretches of motherhood with so much downtime yet also no break sent her mind on a freefall (thus the ruminations on meaningful meaninglessness), and then one day not so long ago, she found herself in a ball on the kitchen floor, absolutely repulsed by the fact that she’d still love Dylan even if he raped someone.

— ◊ —

Ella scooped up her baby and slid him into his high chair. She had no answers to any of her questions (how long was she gone? why had she gone? where the hell was the damned dog, and why could she still hear him barking?), and the anxiety was getting harder and harder to breathe away. She turned to the island in the middle of the kitchen, grabbed an apple from the silver fruit bowl and instinctively reached for her favorite knife in the block, but its slot was empty. She looked in the sink, the dishwasher, on all the countertops. Where the hell could it be?

Yip yip yip, throbbed in her ears. “Just shut the fuck up!” she shouted, then, turning to Dylan, “I’m sorry baby, I’m fine, we’re fine. I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her with an unfazed smile and said, “Mama dog, Mama dog, Mama dog.”

Photo credits:

  1. 39: Høgevarde by Norefjell / Creative Commons”
  2. Futile by ~Morgin~ / Creative Commons”
  3. “Toaster Oven” by Me 🙂

We Need More People Like D. Watkins

d watkinsIf you don’t know who D. Watkins is, get to know him. He’s smart, brave, strong, funny, and dedicated to teaching kids and the country at large about the realities of growing up black on the streets of Baltimore. This drug dealer turned teacher and writer tackles serious issues head-on in a completely relatable way, even if you (like me) grew up in a very different place. But don’t worry, he’s not all drugs and death; you’ll definitely laugh a little, too. Read him, listen to him, be grateful for people like him.

Check out his newest memoir, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, and his 2015 release, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

Photo taken from NBC News.

Seriously, If I Log Out, You Won’t Forget, Right.

This week’s events got me thinking about the ways in which we communicate with one other. Social media and the Internet in general can be great resources that we should be using, but they too often take the place of important face-to-face interactions that are necessary if we’re going to make any real change in this country. Here is poet P.K. Harmon’s meditation on the topic.

Untitled
By: P.K. Harmon

Do you ever yes.
Do you ever want
to let invented words
to score on Words
with Friends. Yes.
Do you ever log out.
I don’t. I mean, Yes.

My son, or maybe me,
turns his face to the
book. You know what
I mean. Seriously, if
I log out you won’t

forget, right. Right
now I am writing
a life and it’s the only
reason. Yes. Yes.
It’s like we are chatting.
You. We. Are you
online what time is it

there there. It’s ok.
There you are, ok.
I can’t like what
you share enough.
Enough to keep me
though I am no where.
Do you. I guess I do too.

logout

Flash Fiction with Babies

IMG_4348

My College Years in Sunglasses

Our first kiss was in Chinatown, red and yellow and boring. At the age of 41, he was ashamed about loss. It was an easy joke: a possible husband. We had a few summers, a cute story. Door signs to another future. As I rode the express train that took me away, I didn’t even pretend to feel sad.

***

One of the most amazing things about my life as a new mom is the Mamas Writers Group I belong to. These two women and their adorable boys have kept me motivated and inspired during the past few months, which in turn has made me a more fulfilled person and a better mother. Our biweekly meet-ups include hang out/play time with tea and chocolate and milk and rice puffs, commiserations about the difficulties of being a creative mom, some type of writing exercise that we take turns leading, and a round of goal-setting for the upcoming two weeks. The boys chase the cat, grab our pens, rip our papers, and generally have a blast. Somehow, we actually manage to get shit done. I look so forward to these Monday afternoons.

At a recent meet-up, I led an activity inspired by a workshop with Thomas E. Kennedy in which each person tears up other peoples’ writings then makes a list of words that pop out at them from these torn pieces of paper (we used the leftover copies from my latest ESL class, which included fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and grammar IMG_4344worksheets). The writers then use this list to write something (anything) in a set amount of time (our time limit was flexible as we were also trying to keep our babies alive). From my understanding of the original workshop, the idea is to push yourself outside of your typical boundaries as a writer, to engage with English in a new way, and to use a process you would normally never consider. It can be quite inspiring and also revealing; I think this type of exercise shows us parts of ourselves we may not encounter through our regular writing. As a novelist, it also felt really good to sit down for 20 minutes and come out with a product. I’m the first to confess that I don’t understand flash fiction, but I felt okay enough with the way mine turned out that thought I’d share (plus, I needed a good excuse to post these adorable photos).