Do You Write in a Library?

For two hours on the last three Mondays I was in my element teaching a class on creative writing at Fairhope Public Library.

Nine wonderful library patrons paid the $20 refundable deposit and showed up for “Great Readers Make Great Writers: A Crash Course in Creative Writing.” It was a true crash course as each two-hour session covered creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

Creative Nonfiction

In the first class, we got to know each other a little. My students ranged in age from thirty to ninety. The ninety year old is writing a gossip column for her community newsletter. The youngest is a coworker, sculptor, and installation artist. Many were retired, including several teachers, but I also had a stylist from a local salon.

Students enjoyed “Somehow Form a Family,” a personal essay by Tony Earley, and learned some lessons on craft from “On Keeping a Notebook,” by Joan Didion, and “This is What the Spaces Say,” by Robert Root.

The writing exercise I gave them for the first class was to skim through their notebooks, journals, or diaries, find an entry (a word, fragment, sentence, paragraph etc.) that interests or intrigues them and start writing.

“Reading fuels writing,” I said. When we read we are consciously and subconsciously learning and absorbing things we like and dislike. In this way, I believe each writer gleaned something from the readings and incorporated that little something into their writing, whether it was pop culture, a small detail, a setting, or a historic moment in their life.

For the next writing exercise, I handed out postcards from my collection and asked students to write to someone. After they finished writing, I told them to give the postcard to the person on their left. I instructed them to use the postcard given to them by a classmate as inspiration for a fictional writing journey for the next class.

Fiction

The fiction reading list included major amputee characters, a subject near and dear to my own heart.

“The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” from Robert Olen Butler’s collection Had a Good Time, was enjoyed by all the students for its humor but “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor drew mixed reviews, mostly for being a bit too depressing. They did enjoy O’Connor’s ending.

We read aloud Chapter 3 from The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. “The story of a turtle.” I told my students, but it’s so much more. I called it “Steinbeck’s three-page metaphor for living.”

The flash fiction I assigned left most readers confused. Perhaps this was due to my selections, or the newness of the genre. In very short fiction you have to be able to make leaps in the reading and that’s something difficult to do, even for me.

The fictional pieces from postcards, which is how Butler wrote his collection of stories, Had a Good Time, were fabulous.

They used the postcard images (Cape Cod and Tiffin Motorhomes) or the words on the back to write an account and most of them responded to the writer in a letter, but with a fictional spin about blacksmithing, dieting, and traveling.

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Poetry

Students gave mixed reviews on a chapter from The Odyssey, by Homer and translated by Robert Fagles, and the nature poems by Robert Frost.

“Facing It,” by Yusef Komunyakaa and a “Poem Guide” from The Poetry Foundation, is where we spent the most time. Having the guide helped students understand the depth of poetry upon a close reading of a few lines.

In addition to Homer’s epic poetry, the nature poems of Frost, and the ekphrastic poem of Komunyakaa, I chose works from two actual amputees.

“Invictus,” Latin for unconquered, by William Henley was written from a hospital bed after doctors believed Henley, who already had one leg amputated, was at risk of losing the other. They saved the leg, and Henley went on to achieve what I can only dream of. With “Invictus,” he became a one-hit wonder, but to his friend Robert Louis Stevenson he was much more. Henley became the inspiration for Long John Silver in Stevenson’s classic pirate novel, Treasure Island.

Jillian Weisse’s poems of her amputee childhood brought back some memories of our experiences in “Below water,” and some humor in “Holman, Age 10,” from her collection, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex.

Read, contemplate, imagine, think, reflect, write.

Many said writing the poem was the most difficult exercise but they used song lyrics, humor, civil rights, rhyme and repetition to discover how writing is a form of artistic expression.

These never happen in order, but having a few steps to get the creative writing process going is useful to all artists, including creative writers.

I heard recently that creative writing is no longer offered at many public schools. While this saddens me, I would like to keep creative writing classes alive in the public library, an idea that dovetails with my Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.

Let me tell you how fortunate I am to offer these programs. The leadership of Fairhope Public Library, recently named a “Gold Star” library by the Alabama Library Association (ALLA), encourages staff and patrons to share their expertise, hobbies, and passions with their communities. Sharing knowledge and information is the cornerstone of public libraries and I believe growing these learning, artistic, and continuing education opportunities is the future of public library programing.

Do you agree? If so, check out  Fairhope Library for what’s happening soon (Phil Klay author of Redeployment), and watch the “Events Calendar” for my summer creative writing series. I love sharing what I’ve learned with others, but there’s nothing more rewarding than hearing those voices read writing they have created.

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What Can You Learn From Steinbeck’s Classic?

Our book club, “Drinkers With a Reading Problem” met at Fairhope Brewing on Sunday evening. Thirteen of us, a large turnout for our group, came to discuss John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

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We agreed to let Betty take the lead for this book. She immediately suggested we go around the table and air our impressions.

Irene talked about Steinbeck’s “marvelous descriptions.”

I mentioned that I had read the book in high school. It’s been thirty years since I read the book, and I explained to the group that the movie “clouded my memories of the book, especially the end.” I praised Steinbeck, as most did, and compared him to Hemingway and Sinclair.

While I could not recollect any memories, feelings, or reactions when Rose of Sharon lets a dying stranger suckle from her breast, many book clubbers commented on the scene.

Bob mentioned that the title of the book was a verse from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and The Bible. He offered some Midwestern sensibility by suggesting that Rosasharn, if you are from the Midwest sounds an awful lot like rose is sharing, demonstrating the epitome of the word in that final scene.

Bob also felt that the Joads “lost a human scale,” once the tractors arrived.

A newcomer to the area and the club, who had not finished the book, used the opportunity to network. She’s in need of a job teaching High School English.

Judy talked about the significance of the turtle in Chapter 3 and it’s larger meaning for the Joad’s and humanity. She pulled out some notes about the shrub, rose of Sharon, and it’s horticultural properties, many of which aligned superbly with the character traits she was given by Steinbeck.

Betty quoted the scene with Casy the preacher and the roadside burial of Grampa.

This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died   out of it. I don’ know whether he was               good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An               now he’s dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says             ‘all that lives is holy.’ (144)

Wilson had started to read the book for a second time but got derailed by “the dialect.” He wound up listening, then playing his guitar and singing some Woody Guthrie tunes.

Robert called the book the “consciousness of America during the Depression and the labor movement.” He recommended another book by Steinbeck, Travels with Charley.

Donna praised the novelist for his, “use of description and for the evolution of the characters.”

Suzanne, and a few other, noted how depressing the book was, but empathized with the characters, and so continued to read. Despite these tests or perhaps because of them we read because we all endure.

After we all had a chance to comment we listened to Guthrie’s “Tom Joad, Part One and Two.” I think it was our second Bob, from Kentucky and a fan of Guthrie, who called the song another form of “Cliff Notes.”

I mentioned how the book was banned and how literature transcends the arts as The Grapes of Wrath is told in music, first through Guthrie, then Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which was covered by Rage Against the Machine, a song I carry with me on my phone.

Elliott, the club’s founding member, selected this month’s book. He arrived late, but quickly dove into the music conversation.

When I left the meeting, I didn’t know what to write about. It was my own fault that I was stumped. I didn’t bring one of my favorite scenes for consideration. In this scene Tom Joad and his brother Al meet a slovenly man with one eye. Tom doesn’t give a crap about his disability. Fix yourself up, get clean, put a patch over that eye Tom says. Then he tells the junk yard man a story.

Why, I knowed a one-legged whore one time. Think she was takin’ two bits in a           alley? No, by God! She’s gettin’ half a dollar extra. She says, ‘How many one-legged           women you slep’ with? None!’ she says. (179)

My regret was not hearing from others about this scene, given that I’m an amputee. After some reflection and distance from our wonderful discussion on a literary classic, I found my notes, and stuck my nose back in the book.

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It turns out that Tom needed to learn that all living things, the turtle, the one-eyed man, and the one-legged whore are all holy.

Then I reread this oft quoted passage where Tom Joad, who is hiding out in his own wilderness, is telling his Ma what he learned from Casy.

Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul an’ he foun’ he                 didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he just got a little piece of a great big           soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good           less it was with the rest and was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was               even listenin’. But I now know a fella ain’t no good alone. (418)

The wilderness is where we do our thinking, if we are lucky to have the inclination, freedom, and time to do so. You can’t spend your whole life in the wilderness.

I can’t say for sure whether I’ve got a soul when I’m alone, thinking, and wandering around in my writing wilderness. I know I need that time, but I know I can’t stay there forever. I’ve been going to the “Drinkers” book club off and on for more than five years because I enjoy the fellowship.

We need time to be alone and together. Solitude for thinking and public areas for conversation are the fuel for community.

As we were leaving book club, I mentioned that I work at Fairhope Public Library.

A woman said, “I’m in the library four times a week and I’ve never seen you.”

I didn’t say anything, but later on I thought about how the rest of the conversation between Tom and his Ma went.

Next time you come in, look for me, I’ll be there.

Grapes Back

What’s a Bikes, Beer, and Airbnb Travelogue?

I recently learned that I was not selected to write a beverage column for a local publication. However, as the “close runner-up,” I wanted to post the sample column, and include a few photos, for my blog readers. It’s also a great tie in for my upcoming library program about last year’s vacations to Oregon and Asheville, North Carolina. Come to the Fairhope Public Library at 2 PM, on January 29th to see pictures, hear stories, and learn about my airbnb experience. Although we will not be doing any Day Drinking, I’ll be giving away some souvenirs during and after the program.

2014: The Year of Magical Drinking

On Christmas, I was pouring tastes and offering pulls from my bottle of Lucky Buddha, a beer my brother Mark brought for the festivities.

As I took a sip of “Enlightened Beer,” I pondered. Then I began to count my 2014 blessings. It really was a year of magical drinking.

Portland, Oregon (Or-y-gun)

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Ten days of vacation in a walkable, bike-able city like Portland is pure bliss. And that’s before we even had anything to drink. Portland’s called Beervana for a reason. We were within walking distance, less than a mile, to about ten breweries/tap rooms, six distilleries and a few micro coffee roasters. I’ve written about Oregon before, but here are a few places not to miss.

Base Camp has great beer and the best water dispenser. The water line empties into a keg that’s hanging on the wall and you tap your own water.

Cascade Brewing is a sours only brewery. These tart barrel aged beers use wild yeasts from the air, or left behind in aging barrels to help ferment the beer. The wild yeasts are unpredictable, and time consuming as many sours can take up to two years from barrel to bottle.

Oregon Brewers Festival 

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So many beers, so little space. Here’s my list of favorites with brewery, style, and a few choice words.

Anderson Valley, Summer Solstice, summer cream ale, Not your Father’s.

Boulder Brewing, Shake, Chocolate Porter, You can taste the cacao.

21st Amendment Brewery, Hell or High Watermelon, Wheat, a picnic in a glass.

While sitting with some people we met during the festival, drinking a Laurelwood Pale Pony India Session Ale, we witnessed a Portlandian moment. A man in a Darth Vader helmet was riding a unicycle and playing the bagpipes. He’s obviously doing his part to “Keep Portland Weird.”

As we were leaving someone was handing out samples of hop soda. The Proper Soda Company makes a crisp, refreshing, and thirst-quenching soda, and it’s made with cane sugar and hop extracts.

Where would a congenital below-knee amputee like me, go to get coffee around Portland? Why Stumptown, of course.

It was summer so I ordered an iced coffee, but this is Portland, where they’ve melded coffee and beer brewing techniques together. Stumptown’s cold brewed iced coffee is infused with nitrogen.

They also fill growlers of this nitrified coffee to take home. (Read my recent post on Fairhope Roasting here.)

Willamette Valley (Wuh-lamb-it, rhymes with damn it)

Susan and I left the city for the valley and stopped at the Sokol Blosser Winery. After sampling some very fine wines, bought a bottle of the 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, made in the Alsatian style with rich and spicy tropical fruits with hints of fig and grapefruit. We intended to take it home but on July 26, after a day of whale sightings and lighthouse climbing, we opened it on our balcony and watched the sun sink into the Pacific.

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Take a detour to Rogue Farms. There’s something special about seeing the hops budding and being near the ingredients that make it into my pint glass.

Asheville, North Carolina

Henry the VIII deemed hops “a wicked and pernicious weed,” when brewers began adding it to beer. The beers at Wicked Weed are amazing, full of hops and yet delicate as flowers. They have managed to fuse bitter hops with the grace of grains to create a complex medley of balanced brews. From floral aromas and drinkable session IPAs like “Feral,” to their dank, hoppy beast, “Freak of Nature,” a double IPA, the beers at Wicked Weed do not disappoint.

Do you know how fabulous it is to find a list of craft beers on tap at a concert venue? Asheville lives up to it’s nickname, Beer City, USA. The Green Man Porter was delicious, especially while singing and dancing, (well grooving) along to “Time of the Season,” by The Zombies, at The Orange Peel.

B-Ham

On a trip to Birmingham (for the Y’all Connect Social Media Conference) I had time to visit the good people, at Good People Brewing. I sat at the bar and enjoyed my first Oatmeal Stout.

What’s better than a brewery and tap room? A brewery and tap room with the best BBQ two doors down. That along with some fine beers is what Avondale Brewing has got going on, especially with their saison. We ordered up some Saw’s Soul Kitchen and brought it back to the taproom. Trunks Up!

Gulf of Mexico

My sister Laurie was in town around the Fourth of July. Six of us piled into a Suburban to watch the Blue Angels air show over Pensacola Beach. I only had my five toes in the sand, but it was a hot day! For a tiny moment, a grain of sand in the hourglass of eternity, a Pepsi “made with real sugar” quenched my thirst.

Fairhope

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As the winning bidder for an Alabama Coastal Foundation Fundraiser, a group of us had a personal tour of Fairhope Brewing (celebrating their 2nd anniversary this weekend) from Head Brewer Dan Murphy. We were an inquisitive bunch and I seem to remember him saying something along the lines of it being one of the better tours he had given at the brewery. Dan walked us through the naming of each beer while talking up the tasting profiles of each ale. He gave us the scoop when he announced that the brewery was expanding their production and then showed us what was in store for the future. He had obtained several wine barrels to begin experimenting with sours.

The bottle of Lucky Buddha was returned to me, alas, empty.

Never one to let his little brother down, my brother Steve went to the fridge and poured me a glass of Blue Pants Chocolate Oatmeal Porter.

I can’t wait to sip what the future holds.

Are you Board with the Same Old Brew?

Walking in the door of Fairhope Roasting Company, I was greeted by Roast Master Hanson Eskridge and Mackenzie Chandler, his marketing expert and logo designer. I wandered around, pumped a cup of coffee into a logo-ed mug, and got caught up with the personal and creative lives of my Southern Bloggers Jubilee friends.

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A graduate of Fairhope High, Hanson went off to “experience” college, and then headed north to pursue his passion to roast coffee. A talkative, animated, and single guy, Hanson worked at Bull Run Roasting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Last summer he was back in Fairhope pitching his investment idea of a roaster, the first on the Eastern Shore, to Will Carlton. It turned into a “good combination” with Hanson as owner/roaster, Carlton the local investor, and Mackenzie, Will’s daughter, handling all the marketing.

Three roasts were available, and I sampled them all. Morning (light), Medium (Fairhope), and dark roast were all delicious, and I found myself going back for the Fairhope, as it seemed to have the viscosity of a stout, a beer style I’ve been enjoying lately.

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Hanson led us to the roaster, which is located in the more industrial wing of the operation. We heard the Probat 1989 roaster whir to life. If Hanson had a nickname for his roaster, he didn’t mention it, so I’ll refer to her as Brassy, as that’s the way she looks, and may be what she’s made of.

“Timing and temperature,” Hanson said are critical in the roasting process. As the gas-fired roaster reaches the correct temperature, it’s filled with Honduran beans. During the roasting, he pulled samples at intervals to show us the darkening of  the bean. During the early part of the roast, the aroma filling the air was not the familiar scent of coffee. It seemed a bit more dank, a little peanut like, actually. Then we heard Brassy. Not a “pop” but a tiny blast. Hanson called it, “First Crack,” and it sounded like damp wood burning in the fireplace. After he spilled the beans from Brassy, the more familiar smell of coffee vapors filled the air. After cooling in Brassy’s spinner, he transferred the beans in a high-tech Rubbermaid bucket to the grinding and packaging area.

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Fairhope Roasting plans on doing cupping sessions soon, according to Hanson, and they already have plans to purchase a sample roaster specifically for these sessions. Cupping sessions are like wine tastings. Hanson will take people through each roast taste by taste, and encourage feedback and discussion. Until then, he plans to post dates and times on social media when he’s roasting so current and future customers can see how the green bean is transformed.

I was surprised to learn that, like a peanut has a red shell, a coffee bean (it’s really a seed) has a chaff. During the roasting of 20 pounds, Hanson said he loses about 15% of the weight in chaff and water. We each got a bag of Fairhope Roasting to go, which was very generous.

Fairhope Roasting Company coffee is delicious, fresh, and available locally or you stop by their location at 361A Commercial Park Drive. If you want to learn more and sip some local roasts, Hanson will be at Mobile Green Drinks at Fairhope Brewing tomorrow from 5-7. The two companies have fused their brews and a Coffee Painted Black India Pale Ale will be available.

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In my mailbox at the library later that day was a manila envelope. At first, I thought it was something from a coworker. Then I noticed it was addressed to me. I still love sending and receiving handwritten mail.

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The couple at the flea market saw me eyeing it.

“It still works,” the woman said, adding that it originally belonged to her mother. Her husband showed me how it collapsed and even included a wedge to make sure the contraption didn’t spring open in transport. Patricia said she had no room for the ironing board now that she and her husband were full-time RVers.

“Thanks for the story behind the board,” I told her before slipping it under my arm and carrying it away like a surfboard. I didn’t think much about the scraps of paper that lingered on the bottom. Until she mailed the label to me!

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The Rid-Jid ironing board, also from Minneapolis sits open in front of my office window.  Yes, I also use it to iron my clothes. I even went out and bought the most manly looking cover I could find. As advertised, the board still does not, “wiggle, wobble, jiggle, joggle, slip or slide.”

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On Saturday morning I brewed Fairhope Roasting’s coffee through my new Hario V60 slow pour coffee kit. When I visited Stumptown Coffee in Portland, my appreciation for the taste of coffee, not the cream, truly evolved. Since then I’ve become a big fan of slow coffee. The slow coffee movement is where you, the drinker, control the ingredients, time, and temperature of the brewing.

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I didn’t roast the coffee. I didn’t make the iron or the board, but there is something satisfying in participating in these rituals with new tools and techniques that harken back to old ways. I brewed a quality, fresh cup of coffee from beans roasted locally. My shirts are ironed on a board made in the 1930s. Whether you use new, bright, and shiny, or antique, dull, and rusty, the way we get things done affects us emotionally and opens us to change. As I pour the coffee, press the wrinkles, or push the ink onto the page, I think about the people who  made the coldest day of the year quite personal, comfortable, and warm.

What are Your Favorite Books, Movies, and Music from 2014

Here’s the list of titles that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading, listening to, and watching over the last twelve months. My list includes some old, some new, and some rediscovered titles and authors. Follow the links to read my previous posts related to my annual list of favorites.

Books

Nonfiction

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty

Smoke

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester

Novels

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Picture Books

New: The Book with No Pictures, B.J. Novak

Classic: The Hat, Tomi Ungerer

Ebook by a Classmate

Life with Charley: A Memoir of Down Syndrome Adoption, Sherry McCaulley Palmer

Self-Published Local

Salubrious Climate, Alison Holt Knight

On Creative Writing

Expressive Writing, Kathleen Adams

The Plot Chickens, Mary Jane Auch (Picture Book)

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Songs

“Sail,” AWOL Nation, Megalithic Symphony (Explicit)

“Drive-In Movies,” Ray LaMontagne, Supernova

“Heaven Knows,” The Pretty Reckless, Going to Hell

Album (Vinyl)

Odessey and Oracle, The Zombies

Cold Fact, Rodriguez

Sun Record Company Volume 1, Various Artists

Album (Digital)

Mandatory Fun, Weird Al Yankovic

Movies

Based on a Book

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

Docudrama

Parkland

Documentary

Bones Brigade

TV Series

House of Cards: Seasons One and Two (Netflix)

True Detectives (HBO Series)

Boardwalk Empire Season 4 (HBO Series)

YouTube

Viktoria Modesto’s video is a provocative and compelling mash-up of film, music, modeling, and performance art. She’s billing herself as the first amputee pop artist. Follow the link below to watch.

Prototype/Channel 4

How does an Amputee Librarian Celebrate the Holiday Season?

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Win a Book!

Building the book tree at the Fairhope Public Library was a team effort. Cheers to Rosalie, our nonfiction book club member, for suggesting the contest idea to us during our discussion of This Town. Guess the number of items in the tree the next time you visit the library. Even Cheryl the Builder doesn’t know how many items were used. I’ll be counting them after the new year, and the winner will be announced January 5. The winner picks one popular title that was used in the book tree.

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A Christmas Story Display.                                                                                      (Donated to the Fairhope Public Library by Pat Herndon)

The 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, is based on Jean Shepherd’s 1966 short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Shepherd helped write the screenplay and it is his voice narrating the movie.

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Stump’s Merry Mash-Up.

The photo was inspired by Josh Sundquist and Leo Bonten. Sundquist’s Halloween photos are leg-endary and Bonten actually turned his amputated leg into a lamp. Last year, with the help of an app, I was Grinched.

Next Week: Stump: the Librarian’s 2014 list of books, movies, TV, and Music. Until then, Read the 2013 list.