Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What role does family play in your writing? (02/15/06)



Featured writer: Jordan Rosenfeld



Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Christine Falcone
Geri Di Giorno
Gianna De Persiis Vona
Gregory Gerard
Jodi Hottel
Jordan Rosenfeld
Laura Diana Lopez
Marlene Cullen
Nancy Colvin
Susan Bono


Jordan Rosenfeld



Do you want to know about the way my family members lurk in idea-form outside the rim of my creative consciousness, begging to star in my latest essay on Why I Am the Way I Am, only to throw fits of discontent when their real-body counterparts experience the flush of embarrassment at being translated on paper?

Or are you more interested in the way my well-meaning husband shuffles in and out of my room during work mode asking important questions and offering sliced apples, hot tea and snacks until I am ready to hang caution tape across my door despite his kind intentions?

Possibly you'd like a glimpse into how I feel about the stack of my articles that rise precariously over my mother's bedside until she makes a decision to read something and then binge-reads everything and bombards me with detailed questions.

Oh, wait, surely you want to know about my proper German grandfather asking me to "headline" his 90th birthday party with a reading in a roomful of friends and family. The story I chose had the words "shaped like a man's scrotum" in it, but I came upon it too fast to appropriately omit them and had to look away as a blush formed upon his cheeks.

No, surely that doesn't interest you.

The truth is, my family offers itself up to me as subject of my writing and also as support to it. How many times have I met a friend of my mother's only to discover they know every achievement I've ever made, and can even quote lines of my own writing to me (yes this has really happened)? How many times has my father rearranged activities to come hear me read? How much has my husband sacrificed to a woman possessed by the jealous and unpredictable muses with their late-night and very early-morning calls?

Without my family I would have nothing to write about, and no one to share it with. Maybe I would get more work done, and finish a book every six months, Danielle Steele-style, going on to make publishing magic, burning the candle at both ends and never looking back…

But I would be lonely and empty without them, in all their infuriating, strange kindness, and my writing would be the worse for it.

Jordan Rosenfeld is the host of Word by Word: Conversations with Writers on KRCB Radio 91 FM, and a book reviewer for KQED's California Report. Her freelance articles and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AlterNet, The North Bay Bohemian, Common Ground, The Marin Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, The Writer Magazine and Writer's Digest. She will also be teaching an evening class at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on scene writing on March 6.( www.sebarts.org) But don't let this fool you—she's a novelist at heart. Visit her blog: jordansmuse.blogspot.com.

Arlene L. Mandell



You've got to be kidding! The last time a family member displayed interest in my writing was back in 1978 when my mother showed her mahjong group my bylined articles in Good Housekeeping magazine.

In 2003 when I sent a copy of my poetry chapbook, Variations on a Theme, to my son in San Francisco, he said he liked my "little stories" better.

My dear husband, Larry, lets himself be dragged to literary events when I'm reading, but he'd much rather be watching a Yankees game on TV.

BUT as material for writing, they're fantastic! Even my great grandmothers whom I never met feed my imagination. And after the recent record-breaking snowstorm on the East Coast, what better material than Aunt Minnie's wedding, which we walked to through the blizzard of ‘47. Her own 17-year-old son, Danny, wasn't allowed to attend and officially didn't exist because her new husband's family was very religious and would not have permitted Uncle Max to marry a divorcee. . . . to be continued, endlessly.

Arlene L. Mandell, poet, essayist and memoirist, is the Chairman of the Adult Authors Selection Committee for the 7th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival. If you have a literary masterpiece published in 2005/2006, contact her at poetessxyz@aol.com.

Christine Falcone



If my writing life were a river, my family would be the boulders around which the water flows. They shape me in a very real sense—who I am as a wife and mother, how I see myself in those roles—but, with all their needs and schedules, they also shape how and when I write. They determine the course my river takes. They are very supportive of my writing, but only when it suits them. Because of this, the writer in me must dwell somewhere in the stone-filled bottom of the riverbed—very patient, very still.

After I had my daughter, I was lamenting to a writer friend of mine that I never had enough uninterrupted chunks of writing time anymore. Certainly nothing like I was used to. I'd formerly been able to sit and work for six or seven hours at a time with maybe a short break for meals and the occasional potty break. So I was spoiled. I didn¹t know how good I'd had it until all that changed. Suddenly, I was being called upon to breastfeed or change diapers, bathe my child, hold her. I had to let go of the life I once had; those long blocks of time like mineral pools in which I could soak dried up.

This friend suggested that I try to be less rigid about it. You can still write, she told me, you just have to do it in smaller bites. She even suggested putting up a sign in my office to remind myself to be more flexible with my time. I haven't done it yet, but I have imagined it strung above my desk, maybe in the form of Tibetan prayer flags. It has to be something that can shift and bend like a Yogi.

Another writer said that trying to balance family life and the writing life was like being a mermaid. She had come to think of herself as diving in and out of the ocean; the time spent above water was for her family, the time below for her writing. I like the idea of submerging, pictured myself as a pinniped—a seal perhaps or an Emperor Penguin—holding my breath, diving down deep for as long as possible until I was called back to the surface by familial obligation.

So I'm learning to swim at great depths, to navigate a deep-sea-kind-of-life, resurfacing when I must. I am beginning to believe that maybe I can live in both worlds. And I can rest secure in the knowledge that the writer in me, like the riverbed, isn't going away, no matter how much time passes. I believe all of this is possible, if I just keep an open mind.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She is currently working on her first novel entitled, This Is What I Know.

Geri Di Giorno



My family plays a large roll in my writing because I'm writing about my life. My life my family, my poetry. Sometimes they're not happy about what I write. It's my memory and my poem. Right now no one is unhappy with my writing in my family. OR, they're not telling me?

Geri Di Giorno writes about her life in Petaluma, CA. She is the Poet Laureate of Sonoma County.

Gianna De Persiis Vona



My family and my writing gather in the boxing ring. I stand at the sidelines, wringing my hands. I don't want anyone to get hurt. "Is this really necessary?" I shout above the roar of the crowd. The crowd rumbles and sweats, just daring me to call off the fight. The lust for blood thunders in their veins. I am Walter Mitty. They look through me and into the ring. The bell sounds, my writing cracks its knuckles and gnashes its teeth. My family shouts their battle call, "When's dinner! When's dinner!" Panicked, I run from the room and find somewhere quiet to check my e-mail. When all else fails, procrastination is the only one in my life who never let's me down.

Searchlights columnist Gianna De Persiis Vona finds ways to win the fight with her writing in Sebastopol, CA. She will be reading on March 19, 2:30 p.m. with other local women writers at the Occidental Center for the Arts

Gregory Gerard



I often thought of myself as one of the Partridges. They had zany adventures and a big singing career—even though they rode around town in a bus. Nobody ever got yelled at, just talked to.

The Partridges gave me hope that writing fame could happen to a regular guy like me.

I wanted to be one of the VonTrapps. At least in the movie. I could hit the high note in "So Long, Farewell" just as well as Kurt. I was ten years old in 1975 when I saw The Sound of Music for the first time. I was crushed to learn that the movie was also ten years old—I'd missed my chance.

The VonTrapps inspired me to believe that I had writing talent, and taught me to jump on chances when they're available.

While I didn't want to actually BE a Brady, I thought Greg's attic bedroom with the hanging-bead doorway was cool. He had the whole floor to himself, away from his brothers and sisters. And he and I shared a first name.

The Bradys encouraged me to seek a writing retreat within my own home, someplace cool enough to hang out for long periods of time.

The Drews were always on top of things. While Carson earned the family keep and Hannah ran the household, Nancy solved case after case. She was clever, competent, and had lots of friends.

Nancy Drew helped me seek out the mysteries in life, and to surround myself with good friends while doing it.

My own family—Mom, Dad, and five older brothers and sisters—was less dynamic than the Partridges, VonTrapps, Bradys or Drews. Still, they fed me, clothed me, drove me around, and helped me with my homework—all without a TV series, movie career, or fictional wisdom. They shared their lives and their everyday struggles, giving me many things to write about.

I guess they deserve some credit, too.

Gregory Gerard keeps choosing his family in Rochester, New York, and is available at ggerard@rochester.rr.com.

Jodi Hottel



Even though I occasionally feel guilty and try to write about some other members of my family—my father, son, husband or dog, it is my mother who is central to my writing. For that, I am grateful to her. A voice has grown inside of me—not exactly her, but someone like her is speaking through me. See, my mother was interned at the age of sixteen. An American of Japanese descent, she was put in a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. She went to prom and graduated from high school there, never returning to the home from which she was taken.

I always had a hunger to know more but was either ignored, rebuffed or told pleasantries. But that hunger lingered and burned a desire to write in order to understand. How did this experience affect her? Did it contribute to her obsessive compulsive disorder and depression that appeared later in life?

I will never know, but the desire to know has led me on a journey, helped me find a community of Japanese Americans in Sonoma County and been very healing. I also feel a sense of purpose, in that at least some of my writing speaks for those who were displaced and couldn't speak for themselves because it was too painful, who feel bitterness but are too polite to say so, who fear appearing disloyal to the country they love.

Jodi Hottel, Santa Rosa, CA

Jordan Rosenfeld



Do you want to know about the way my family members lurk in idea-form outside the rim of my creative consciousness, begging to star in my latest essay on Why I Am the Way I Am, only to throw fits of discontent when their real-body counterparts experience the flush of embarrassment at being translated on paper?

Or are you more interested in the way my well-meaning husband shuffles in and out of my room during work mode asking important questions and offering sliced apples, hot tea and snacks until I am ready to hang caution tape across my door despite his kind intentions?

Possibly you'd like a glimpse into how I feel about the stack of my articles that rise precariously over my mother's bedside until she makes a decision to read something and then binge-reads everything and bombards me with detailed questions.

Oh, wait, surely you want to know about my proper German grandfather asking me to "headline" his 90th birthday party with a reading in a roomful of friends and family. The story I chose had the words "shaped like a man's scrotum" in it, but I came upon it too fast to appropriately omit them and had to look away as a blush formed upon his cheeks.

No, surely that doesn't interest you.

The truth is, my family offers itself up to me as subject of my writing and also as support to it. How many times have I met a friend of my mother's only to discover they know every achievement I've ever made, and can even quote lines of my own writing to me (yes this has really happened)? How many times has my father rearranged activities to come hear me read? How much has my husband sacrificed to a woman possessed by the jealous and unpredictable muses with their late-night and very early-morning calls?

Without my family I would have nothing to write about, and no one to share it with. Maybe I would get more work done, and finish a book every six months, Danielle Steele-style, going on to make publishing magic, burning the candle at both ends and never looking back…

But I would be lonely and empty without them, in all their infuriating, strange kindness, and my writing would be the worse for it.

Jordan Rosenfeld is the host of Word by Word: Conversations with Writers on KRCB Radio 91 FM, and a book reviewer for KQED's California Report. Her freelance articles and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AlterNet, The North Bay Bohemian, Common Ground, The Marin Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, The Writer Magazine and Writer's Digest. She will also be teaching an evening class at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on scene writing on March 6.( www.sebarts.org) But don't let this fool you—she's a novelist at heart. Visit her blog: jordansmuse.blogspot.com.

Laura Diana Lopez



There exists a multitude of roles and positions regarding my family and my writing. I could not have a more supportive husband—he believes in me, even when I doubt. He supports and loves me, and my writing too.

My aging father wants only for me to be happy. However, the goal of happiness reflects in conflicting messages about how someone, particularly I, should go about doing so. Dad wants me to be a success and get marketing, but also to be careful and play it safe. All of this is grist for the mill, as family always has been.

My siblings form a web of characters, complex in analysis, simple in caricature. I among them, reflecting in their responses to me—often bizarre, and in attempts to be supportive, completely misunderstood. Somewhere between being pigeonholed, and finding my niche, I write because I must. I write to understand myself, the people around me, the world we live in, and to find meaning and beauty amidst what is so often chaotic.

My family generates gratitude in me for contributing to the foundational structures of who I am and how I perceive. Whether idiosyncratic or tangential, authentic or integral, who I am is what I write.

Laura Diana Lopez lives and writes in Novato, CA.

Marlene Cullen



Besides being great topics for anecdotal humor and great material for vignettes? My family members are my star protagonists as well as key antagonists.

Let's start with my husband, whose warmth, compassion, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies provide so much rich material to work with. On a very helpful and practical level he is my go-to man for computer help. Not to mention he is the cause of many computer frustrations since he constantly upgrades and adds new programs, to make our lives easier. Of course.

My oldest son is my long-distance encourager. He always inquires how I'm doing and offers congratulations at my every small endeavor. He's very supportive in meaningful ways.

My daughter is my star supporter. When she lived at home she was the one who would make dinner, clean the house, do the laundry, be chauffeur and Queen of Errands while I pursued whatever I pursued — whether writing or gardening. I keep trying to convince her to move next door to me.

My still-at-home son, while still the baby, is becoming the person who challenges me to quit doing stuff for him so I can prosper in my writing life. The recent joy is that he is writing, also. He successfully finished revising a short story which he submitted for publication. We cheer one another on.

My family plays the important role of supporter, cheerleader and keeping me supplied with material for potentially great stories.

Which I will get to, as soon as I finish this load of laundry. What? They want dinner? Again? Didn't they just have dinner last night? Sigh. . . .

Marlene Cullen, Associate Editor of Searchlights, writes in between folding clothes and cooking dinner in Petaluma, CA

Nancy Colvin



The characters.

The plot.

The conflict.

The resolution, or lack thereof...

On my writing desk is a snapshot of me at age 8 out on a road trip with my aunt and uncle, three cousins and my older brother. We were headed for Sedona and stopped for a roadside breakfast cookout.

I'm standing next to my adored cousin Chuckie in front of his teen-aged brothers, tall and crew cut boys. My brother, shorter than the looming cousins, stands on the other side of my aunt, his jeans cuffed, his smile crooked, looking mildly cavalier. I have clearly chosen the boy cousins over him, which was true then and now. My elegant aunt smiles in her lazy way while my uncle, cigarette in hand, mans the barbeque where our bacon sizzles away.

My parents are missing, as my mother was pregnant, ready to deliver my sister. I was still the youngest and only girl, a wonderful role, I always thought.

Everything is in that picture. The Arizona landscape in early morning, the excitement of a trip, the family I always wanted behind me, smiling, while my parents maintained vigil and safety at home. We were so cute and scrubbed clean, so full of future, so safe that I gaze at that picture while waiting for ideas or solace and it comes. It always comes.

Nancy Colvin finds ideas and solace in Santa Rosa, CA.

Susan Bono



I am an essayist who writes about those little nuggets of truth that fall from the skies and hit me on the head at odd moments. We're talking tiny pebbles, so, for the most part, it's a pretty uneventful and pain-free existence. I may long to visit exotic places and have my epiphanies delivered by foreign waitresses and camel drivers, but these days, even a trip to the circus can prove overwhelming. Like Dorothy, I'm finding there's no place like home to discover life's true meaning. Naturally, then, my family appears in my writing.

Good essays require conflict, not necessarily life or death struggle, just a line of tension running through them to sustain a reader's interest. It's a good thing my husband isn't perfect, at least in my eyes. If he were without flaw, if he understood me instantly, well, then I'd have to look elsewhere for my tension and epiphanies.

Not that my mate particularly enjoys having his unique, and, to my mind, peculiar approaches to life wheeled into the spotlight. He doesn't like me telling the world about his eBay addiction or the dismal state of his garage. He doesn't always appreciate how I try to make him wrong about everything, even though we both know I'm mostly kidding.

My husband's opposition to my version of the truth becomes yet another immovable object against which I push. And while I am pushing and hoping for a little revelatory rain, I find myself occasionally thinking about his feelings and trying to be fair. Is this a true epiphany, or just a cheap shot? And that's the kind of question that forces me to look at myself, which is really what personal essay is all about.

Susan Bono is trying to stop ducking the truth in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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