Fallen Jackdaw’s of the Past: Reviewing Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt had one astonishing life. In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, McCourt recounts his tumultuous upbringing in glaring and finite detail. Replete with minute and harrowing details about his treacherous youth, Ashes will leave you gasping, crying, and laughing throughout its pages.

The main elements of his life that McCourt seems to focus on are the relationships he has with his flaky and eccentric father, as well as the close, though taunt, one with his mother. We are also treated to poignant and often absurd thoughts on McCourt’s beloved and loathed home of Limerick, Ireland during the late 30’s and early 40’s, as well as the role Catholicism played in his day to day life during this time. The best part, it’s told from a child’s point of view. More precisely, it is McCourt’s view of the world as a young boy; a youth who is struggling to carve out his own path in an often hostile and endlessly perplexing environment.

Young Frank’s father, Malachy McCourt, is one strange bird to say the least. His idea of a good time is to take all the money he has earned that week, blow it at all at the pub getting sauced, come home stinking drunk singing songs of Ireland’s glorious fighting past, and corral Frank and all his brothers out of bed so that they may pledge – to the death – their allegiance to Ireland and no one else. Malachy cannot control his drinking. In a particularly low point in his addiction, he even sells his recently deceased daughter’s baby corpse to people who “do experiments on them” in exchange for drinking money. I’m not sure it’s possible to get much lower than that.

The family leaves New York City for the greener pastures of Limerick, in the South of Ireland. The family hopes that Malachy will be able to find steady work there, and with steady work (hopefully) sobriety will follow. As you might guess, Malachy never really sobers up and the family moves deeper and deeper into poverty. This is not to say that Malachy did not love his family, he did. A man that will suck out the coagulated insides of his sick infant’s nose surely cares for his family. He was just a waif carried on by the wind, and the wind eventually led him to England to work in a factory from which he never fully returned, save for a few brief instances that led to absolutely nothing. The burden to keep the family going was never on Malachy’s head anyway. That illustrious job was for mom, Angela.

Angela McCourt is a trooper. She will do just about anything to keep her kin with her and alive. Death is something that she has dealt with far too often. With the passing of her daughter Margaret, her son Oliver, his twin brother Eugene, and her husband’s un-ceremonial exit from the family, Angela became as tough as leather.

 She waits in line for food coupons from the St. Vincent de Paul society, vowing never to go lower than that to get food, which means visiting the local Dispensary, which she inevitably does. She moves the family from house, to house, to house, etc… all in hopes of giving her loved ones (and herself) some better quality of living than they had before.

At one of these houses, she sleeps with her benefactor, a disgusting man named Laman Griffin. This may seem like a base and vile act, but I argue Angela is doing the only thing left that she can do to save her family from the streets. Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t see it like that and sets off on his own.

Frank thinks that Laman Griffin is “not in a state of grace after the excitement [with his mother] and he’s going to hell.” In fact, Frank has many thoughts on religion. How could he not though? The morals and ethics on Limerick were all based upon Catholicism. McCourt’s meanderings on religious acts and practices are sometimes extremely funny. When young Frank receives his First Communion, he has a bit of trouble with the wafer: “It’s on my tongue. I draw it back. It stuck. I had God glued to the roof of my mouth.” Or afterwards, when he throws up his First Communion breakfast, his Grandma cries “Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in my backyard.”  Other times, though, Frank’s Catholic beliefs leave him cold, sad, and self-loathing.

Frank loses his virginity to Theresa Carmody, who’s a young lady that is shut-in by her “walking consumption.” Shortly after this, Theresa dies and Frank feels responsible for sending her soul to hell. He thinks “Theresa is a torment to me…Every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me…There he is, there’s Frank McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell.” He’s confused about his burgeoning sexuality (he’s a teenager now), even afraid to confess his “sins” to the local Priests. He says they’re always preaching about “millstones and the doom,” and that he “will have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea” for his transgressions. The culture of Ireland just ain’t right for Frank; America is the place for him, and he scrounges and saves, and eventually makes it back to the land where he was born.

I wanted Frank to leave Ireland – I needed Frank to leave Ireland. I believe McCourt’s first-person style, from his younger self’s point of view, made me feel like I was Frank’s closest friend and confidant. Basically, when Frank was leaving Ireland for good, I was leaving Ireland for good. I really got wrapped up in Frank’s character and felt emotionally invested in his plight. It’s no wonder the book won the Pulitzer Prize – it’s an absolute treasure.

I wonder if, when McCourt received his Pulitzer, he felt that he’d finally killed all those Jackdaws hovering over Oliver’s grave. After all, this whole memoir is a field of mocking Jackdaws attempting to harangue Frank into a life he was never intended to live, or into a grave he was never meant to fill. I think that bag of rocks is empty now Mr. McCourt, and the graveyard is, indeed, littered with the fallen Jackdaws of your past.

Oh, and what’s a Jackdaw? I can’t give everything away, now can I…

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The 3 most frustrating books of my college career (so far…)

Endless hours of studying the same chapters over and over; bleeding highlighters dry; hating your prof. for submitting you to such torment and agony; pounding your fist raw at 3am because you have no idea what on earth you’ve been staring at all night long; sound familiar? During our time at college we all encounter a few books that make us crawl into a cave and pray for death. These are mine:

I.

Merchants of Culture

I was excited to read this one. The cover looks great and I really wanted to learn how the publishing industry works… but not that much. Whew! Thompson is going to school you something fierce on the history, the current state of, and the future of the publishing industry. I can’t call this a bad book, and it’s insanely thorough with the subject matter it handles, but 21 pages on the ‘virtues of being a small publishing house’, and I truly mean dense pages replete with graphs and abundant statistical analysis, is enough for any English major to grab his/her Hot Pockets and head to that nice little business school down the road.  Take this one on only if you are absolutely determined to know everything about the publishing biz. Have fun keeping your eyes open.

II.

Aquinas

When some young theorist starts talking to me about philosophy, I start talking to them about literature:

Him -“I think Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative was deeply seeded and abetted by the Stoic view on mortality and ethics, though there is a tinge of the Peripatetic in there as well, at least that’s what I gather from reading Cicero.”

Me – “Interesting. I’ve always thought that Queequeg was more of a reflection on Melville’s yearning for a wild innocence in the new world, as opposed to the commonly held belief that he was written as a subversive comment on the evils of ‘The White Man’s Burden.’

What ensues is the greatest stare-down you will ever have. Try it.

Kidding aside, I do enjoy hefty doses of philosophy at times. But Aquinas was a gob-smack for me. The style of this particular book  was easy enough to understand. Basically, it’s formatted in the question-answer-objection-reply to that objection manner, but the content is rough going. No matter how many times I would work through a problem posed by Aquinas, I could never understand what his real answer was. Maybe I didn’t have the mental astuteness to gleam all the knowledge he was throwing down, or maybe I couldn’t follow the train of thought he led me on, but something made me throw this book out of my office window. Certainly the most frustrating book I’ve ever read. Probably, because I wanted to understand but just couldn’t. Like I said, frustrating.

III.

The Art of Fiction

I’ll probably get some heat for this pick, but that’s fine with me. Man, I simply couldn’t stand this book. Gardner’s style of writing about writing is pompous, arrogant, and horribly glib. He comes off as a pinky-in-the-air intellectual that knows everything better than you do. Do you really want to sift through page after page of a know-it-all’s advice? I sure didn’t. In fact, I stopped reading half way through because I couldn’t take Gardner’s attitude any longer. Some writers I know swear by this book, and there is some good advice if you can slog past all the erudite belittling Gardner dishes out, but those little nuggets of wisdom pale in comparison to the totally miserable read that this book actually is. I simply don’t have time for that.

What do you think? I’d love to hear about the books that made you beat your brains out in the wee hours of the early morning. Hate my choices? Fire away!

 

5 Writing Reference Guides That Will Help Any Aspiring Writer

With so many writing reference and guide books out there, and I mean thousands to choose from, it can be hard to pick the right one for your needs. Maybe you don’t even know your needs as a writer but you feel it’s high time you got some guidance for your craft. I’ve listed 5 books that have helped me along tremendously with my literary journey. Some were required for college, and some I sought out on my own, but each one of these is a goldmine of knowledge for the aspiring writer:

Writers market

Writer’s Market is simply a must have for anyone that hopes to be published. Period. Not only are there thousands of listings for agents, book publishers, magazines, and trade journals, but each listing describes what each source is looking for and how to get in contact with them. There are also a ton of essays in the beginning of the book that go into detail about how to get published and just about anything else that pertains to getting your work out there. I’ve used this one time and time again, so should you.

show-your-work-cover1

With the feel of a bathroom reader and the soul of the absolute best reference guides, Show Your Work! is a quick shot to the brain that will teach you how to build your platform. Eye opening to say the least, consider this your bible on how to build up your media presence and make it stand apart from the pack. I didn’t know how to blog; I didn’t know how to garner a following with social media; I didn’t realize that they were all connected – now I do. If you’re trying to navigate the confusing world of platform building, this is the book for you.

Sci-fi Fantasy

The genre writing book. Everyone should have one. I picked this particular one because I was writing mostly Sci-Fi/Fantasy at the time. These books will get you into the nuts and bolts of whatever genre you are writing in. I’m a big proponent of breaking away from established tropes and clichés in my writing; these people are, too. But to put your original twist on a tried and true format, you really need to know why these forms are so trusted and popular. All the ones I’ve seen have described in detail what makes these established genres so beloved and how you can contribute your own, original piece of the pie into the equation. Get one, read it, and spin the literary world on its head.

The Craft of Research

Let’s face it, we all do some sort of research when we’re developing our stories. The Craft of Research will show you how it’s done. There’s a lot more to the type of research you need to do as a writer than just Googling your topic and scrolling through a couple of pages. These guys tell you how to do it, step by step, and line by line. We all may dread the research part of the writing we are about to commence, but if you use this guide then things will become much more tolerable. You might even begin to like the whole process – the mark of any truly great reference book.

And lastly,

Oxford

I know, I know. “It’s a crutch!” and Stephen King is turning over in one of his literary graves right now. But I think differently. Sometimes you simply don’t have the right word for what you are trying to convey. This one will lead you to it (and you can now stop pounding your face off the keyboard because you finally found the word ‘erumpent’ and all is right with the world.) What I love about this thesaurus is, first and foremost, words are listed alphabetically. That makes my life so much easier. It also has some style and usage guides in it, as well as quick little “reflections” on a particular word from established authors that will help illuminate what they should actually be used for (my personal favorite is David Foster Wallace’s reflection on ‘feckless’ which he described, among other things, as a ‘totally great adjective’.) I won’t sit here and lecture you about the correct way to use a thesaurus but if your going to get one, put this at the top of your list.

So that’s it, my fav. 5 so far. You probably noticed I didn’t put any “Art of…” type books on this list, really because I haven’t found one that I liked yet, but I’ve got Kings “On Writing” and Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” on my list for this year. This is by no means an all-inclusive list either, so chime in and let me know what guides are an absolute must have in your book (no pun intended.)

 

 

 

 

5 Tips For Your First Writer’s Conference

So you’ve signed up for your first writing conference and are all sprinkles and glitter about the upcoming event. Then, directly after you register, you fly into fits of panic because you realize you have no idea how to prepare for what’s to come (at least that is exactly what happened to me.) Fear not my friends, it’s not that hard if you do a couple of simple tasks ahead of time and cultivate a certain mindset before you present yourself to your literary peers. This is what I recently learned at my first writer’s conference (Hippocamp 2016.)

1. Memorize your pitch!

You don’t want to whip out a note card when an editor or agent summarily asks you to pitch your work. The pitch itself should be somewhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes long. Yes, this is an elevator pitch, and, yes, you can do it! I stumbled with my first pitch, apologized, and kept moving along. The agent didn’t mind and the pitch was a success. Remember, the agent/editor needs content and that’s exactly what you provide. Think of it as a conversation between two colleagues, because, in essence, that’s really what it is.

2. Bring a query letter, the first chapter of your novel (or sample pages), and a business card with your face on it with you.

This is your ‘packet.’ If you need to learn how to write a query letter I firmly suggest picking up a Writer’s Market and using one of the successful query letters in the book as your template (that’s what I did.) Of course you need sample pages, and if it’s for a novel they should be from the first chapter. If you don’t think your first chapter has enough ‘zing’ or ‘hook’ to it, then maybe your not ready for this yet. A business card is a must, and if you put your face on it you have a better chance of being remembered by that so sought after agent/editor. I used Vistaprint where I spent around $15 for 500 of those suckers.

3. Introduce yourself after the opening keynote.

There will certainly be an opening keynote speech at the conference, and the Q/A session afterwards is golden. This is your chance to get on the microphone and ask whomever just presented that burning question that has pestered you for months.  Your question should be formatted like this; “Hi, I’m Don. I’m writing a memoir about my experiences in the military and was wondering if you ever asked permission to use certain people in your memoir?” So the event I went to was for NF, but the same would apply for fiction. I’ve accomplished three things here: I’ve introduced myself to everyone in the crowd, I’ve let everybody in attendance know what I’m working on, and I’ve got my question answered. This takes the pressure off going up to people and meeting them face to face right of the bat. After I did this, four or five people came up to me and introduced themselves. Mission accomplished.

4. Ask questions in the breakout sessions.

You never know who is listening. An agent was sitting in on one of the breakout sessions I attended and heard me ask a question. Again, I said who I was and what I was working on and asked my question. She liked what she heard and approached me about my project. Enough said.

5. Write about your experience!

Get on your blog and post about it, quick! Tag the people you met, the presenters, and the keynotes if you can. Follow up with emails thanking people for their presentations/speeches/time. It’s just the courteous thing to do.

So again, here are my 5 tips for a successful first writer’s conference:

1.Memorize your pitch!

2. Bring a query letter, the first chapter of your novel (or sample pages), and a business card with your face on it with you.

3. Introduce yourself after the opening keynote.

4. Ask questions in the breakout sessions.

5. Write about your experience!

So how’d I do? Are there any tips you would share for the newbie at the conference?

Hooks and pitches, and query letters, oh my! The scene from Hippocamp 2016.

To all the desperate raconteurs plying their trade in the dim and hot rooms at day’s end, I’ve some advice for you; get yourself to Hippocamp!

Whew! Now that was a weekend to remember.

Like many others that attended Hippocamp 2016, this was my first time attending a writer’s conference. In fact, it was the first conference I had ever been to. I did my research before hand: what to bring, what to wear, how to pitch to an agent/editor, how to get the most from the sessions I would be attending, and most importantly how to introduce myself to a bunch of people I didn’t know (perhaps the hardest job of any new writer.) What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the incredibly warm and welcoming atmosphere the conference had. In other words, it was just what I needed.

Friday night kicked off with an extremely inspiring keynote speech from Ashley C. Ford. She showed us how to stay true to ourselves, our perspective, and our stories while not compromising what we are in the process. At the end of the speech I went to the microphone and said; “Hi, I’m Don. I’m writing about my experiences in the military and I was wondering if you ever asked permission from the people you use in your stories?”  She chuckled and let out a resoundingly slow and booming “Nooooooooooo.” Rookie….. With this simple question I accomplished two goals: confirmation that I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to use them in my memoir, and introducing myself to everyone there. As I was leaving the room I was stopped by four different people that introduced themselves to me. Some even gave me drink tickets, though they may be saddened to learn that I never take a drink anymore, but the gesture still stands.

Next up was the evening readings and every single author that read kicked ass, probably because they all felt so comfortable with the people in the crowd. Comfortable, that would certainly be the one word I would use to describe this conference.

Saturday was the nuclei of the event, and in my opinion, the high water mark as well. The day began with a panel of debut authors that described for us how they got published. You better believe we were all glued with rapt ouey-bluey to what they had to say. I mean, that’s the goal, right? Whom better to learn from than the folks that just did it. What was fascinating is that each person walked a different path to the published world. I learned that there truly isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of going about it. Sure, there were certain standards they all adhered to (query, pitch, etc.), but each one of them found a unique way to get their work out there. It was all encouragement here, and there wasn’t a soul among us who didn’t need to hear what they had to say.

Then it was time for the breakout sessions, the meat and potatoes of the event. For the rest of the day, until dinnertime, you had your choice of eighteen different sessions in three distinctive tracts to choose from. How about POV in Memoir, or Writing about One Experience Across Multiple Platforms, or even Writing Creatively with Science (I was positive that could not be done until Jeanine Pfeiffer blew my mind!) There were so many astounding subjects covered in these sessions that I bled two pens dry from furiously taking notes on it all. Honestly, each one had a workshop feel to it and I could tell that the presenters only goal was to help us succeed. My only regret is that science had not yet found a way to split a single human being into three people in advance of the conference, because only then would I have been able to cover it all.

After the sessions concluded it was time to get out and explore Lancaster, PA. What did I know about Lancaster? Amish country….. yep, a horrible stereotype is all I knew. But I found out that it was just small enough to find your way around, yet it had all the cultural feel of a much bigger city.

I wandered into a restaurant that served cuisine from India and Nepal. Though I had made connections during the conference, I never asked to join anyone for dinner. I sat at a table, by myself, and was immediately scooped up by other conference-goers and asked to dine with them. The same thing would happen to me at lunch the next day as well.  That was big to me, and humbling, too. Yes, I’m certainly an introvert but get me in a crowd of like-minded people and I’ll tell you my life story. And that’s what I did, and that’s what everyone else did. Talking about what we were writing led into conversations about ethics and philosophy and craft and the human condition. In short, I was home.

The key note that night was Mary Karr, and boy, she is a rock star in these circles. Not only was it one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, but the level of intimacy and candor in which she spoke with was downright sublime. I wish I could tell you what I learned from her speech, but I was just so wrapped up in the cadence of her voice and the power or her prose to remember it all. It felt like, though, that I was having coffee with someone on the order of Flannery O’Conner or Tobias Wolfe. She was funny, witty, heartbreaking, and damn solid. She was leading us all by example, and you couldn’t help but want to work that much harder to get on her level. Excellent.

The final day started off with a few flash sessions from writers in very diverse writing genres/backgrounds. That word ‘diverse’ kept creeping into my mind as I surveyed the scene. There were people from other countries, other lifestyles, other customs, etc. and they were all convened in this one place, and I was in the center of it all. We were all in the center of it riding a wave that we hoped would never crest, and it never did.

There were a few more panel discussions in the morning and early afternoon, until those dreaded gatekeepers of the publishing industry took center stage; agents and editors…

….and they were fucking cool! These weren’t the shrew, money hustling, knives-in-your-back-while-you-slept wolves that I had read about. They were people, doing their jobs and bringing the brightest of the literary world into the spotlight. This epiphany quelled any remaining apprehensions I had about the industry, and it proved to me that being published is not a far off fantasy, but a real world possibility. I was beaming when they started talking to us on a personal and casual level. What more could I ask for?

How about a pitch session? You got it, bub. The first pitch I gave to an agent wasn’t even scheduled. She had heard me ask some questions during a breakout session in which I must have briefly described the plot of my book. Whatever I said had struck a chord with her, and she summarily asked me to pitch my book to her.  I did. It went better than I could have even hoped for. Man, I was erumpent! I couldn’t believe that I had been searched out by an agent just because I asked some questions. That’s the power of the writers conference; you never know who is listening.

The second pitch I did was a scheduled one, and I was nervous as hell for it. But I remembered the agent/editor panel, and that these were ordinary people just like me. So I calmed myself the best I could and fired away.

This agent loved it as well.

Hazaa!!!

Hippocamp 2016 was exactly the refuge I needed, that we all needed. All that’s left to say is a thank you. Donna, you did it. May we make you proud someday.

 

 

Plot Buckle. Hey, I earned it!

This was my belt buckle for most of my career in the Submarine Force. I got it shortly after I qualified in Submarines, which is one of the those rare, banner-days in a Submariner’s life. I remember my LPO coming around the boat with the order forms and everyone was signing up to get their rank/rate put on it, or their nickname, or whatever profane designation they could dream up, but I just wanted my last name. To me, the rate and rank and all the other stuff didn’t matter, it was only my last name under those so-sought-after dolphins that I wanted. Yes, you can’t tell, but those two blurbs of metal on the left and right are supposed to be dolphins, and that steel tower in the middle is a submarine. It’s the Submarine Warfare insignia, and dammit, you’ve got to earn that SOB. I call it “Plot Buckle” because all of the etching is pretty much faded away because my waistline was constantly rubbing up against the navigation plot where I was stationed as Quartermaster. The “plot” simply means where the charts are laid out and worked on, and even though all navigation was done digitally, it was still there. I like to look at it here and there, pick it up, feel its grooves and lines, because it brings back that tactile sense of all those years I spent on the boat. Especially now as I write my memoir about that time, I need any physical connection to the boat that will rejuvenate my mind and heighten the memory. And, I’m just damn proud of it!

Field Trip!

That’s right, I went on a field trip! We (my class and I) visited the Beaver County Times to see a bonafide newspaper in action. It’s been 20 years since I went on a field trip ( I believe my last one was to some colonial era village in PA), so I really didn’t know what to expect. I have to say though, field trips as an adult rock!

I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect from a modern newsroom. Part of me knew that it would most likely have the same look and feel of any other modern corporate office I have ever visited. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s just that I carry this romanticized vision of 20’s era fast talking reporters yelling and screaming at one another while billows of cigarette smoke careen between the walls. That’s the newspaper I wanted to see. Of course, my first description is more accurate, but still, the men and women that run the paper are dedicated to their craft and certainly are passionate about what they do.

The Chief Editor gave us the tour and was more than accommodating to any of our request. She split us up into groups and we traveled around to all the separate stations that make a newspaper possible. We met with the sports guy, the lifestyle and entertainment girls, and just about every other person involved with getting all the separate sections put together for print. Most of the journalist were either out or not in yet (the real action, I’m told, happens later on in the evening when they are approaching their midnight deadline), which was fine because it was my editing class that was there, not a journalism class.

Featured imageOne part of the tour I found absolutely fascinating was the “old” printing press they used to have on-site. The machinery was long gone, as were the jobs running the press, but I still got a feel for just how immense this operation once was.

There is a loading dock on the bottom right hand side where workers used to wheel in huge drums of paper that came straight of the train line behind the building. When the cargo containers were spent, they just wheeled them back to the track and the next train that came along would pick them up. What a setup!

Looking at it now, though, you really wouldn’t know about all that – or even what the space was used for. It just felt eerie, like I was viewing into America’s cultural past from the modern day. Something in me longed to see all those freshly minted papers running up the belts, with the acrid and fresh smell of hydraulic oil and hot ink permeating the air. I guess I wanted to feel the nitty-gritty of it. Perhaps that’s just me looking for something familiar in an unfamiliar environment, but the newspaper of today is just that: modern.

There really isn’t that much else to say about it. The modern newspaper is ran just like a modern business, because that is exactly what is. And even though I didn’t get to see the newsroom of old, it was still a fantastic trip! I felt like a kid again. A sense of wonder sparked within me, and that, for any adult, is priceless. Thank you again to the men and women of the Beaver County Times, you have just made me a life-long subscriber. Keep up the excellent work!