The Memory Box – A Life In Letters: Short Story

I’d like to thank Alex Grey for her short story submission “The Memory Box – A Life In Letters” a touching tribute to the memories that make up a life gone by.

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is finally fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her poems and short stories have been featured in a range of publications including Siren’s Call, Raconteur, Toasted Cheese, Short Edition and Little Old Lady Comedy.  Alex is married to her long-suffering partner of 36 years; she does not have any children but is “mum” to two fur babies – greyhounds Alex and Saffy. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate – it’s a sweet life.

This story is a fictionalised account of a remarkable life and is dedicated to Renia, Alex’s mother-in-law, whose courage and resilience has always been an inspiration.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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The Memory Box – A Life In Letters

That day, the nursing home’s ever-cheerful Activities Leader told us to use a memory box to reminisce with our loved ones.

I groaned. I knew the Activities Leader meant well but chasing my mother’s memories had become a tedious scavenger hunt as dementia hid them in the distant recesses of her brain and destroyed the clues that might lead me to them.

“We’re going to use the alphabet to think about places that your loved ones may have visited. Remember, don’t ask them to remember…” she paused, waiting for our weak laughter, “just ask them to tell you a story about a place that begins with that letter. Take your time and see how far you get.

I sat at the table with my mother, her blue-veined hands tapping out a tune that only she could hear. She smiled at me vacantly. I knew she couldn’t remember who I was, though she seemed to acknowledge that I was benign, something simple and pleasant like the institutional tea set and the cheap biscuits. My mother devoured them greedily, like a little girl at a rival’s birthday party. The activity room had a dozen tables like ours, covered with cheerful chintz tablecloths and circled with residents and their visitors in various degrees of torpor.

My eyes met those of another woman sitting at our table; her mother slumped in a wheelchair, crooning. We smiled briefly and looked away. You’d think there would have been some spark of empathy between us, but the long goodbye we were enduring was too painful, too personal to be shared.

“OK!” trilled the Activities Leader. “Let’s make a start. As you complete each card, just drop it into their memory box.”

“Look, we’re going to put things in here today.” I said.

I rattled the vintage biscuit tin that we were using as her memory box. I remembered when she’d bought the tin as a souvenir of a rare sightseeing trip to London; we’d eaten the biscuits with ceremony every Sunday teatime for a month. The lid had a picture of the Tower of London and the crown jewels.  When it was empty, she kept her sewing things in there. Every time she reached for it to darn a jumper or patch a dress, she would rattle the tin and laugh,

“Will we find jewels in here today?”

I remember looking over her shoulder excitedly; she always hid a treasure in the tin for us – an amber bead, a tiny rag dolly or a fat toffee wrapped in shiny gold foil.

I shook my head; my mother’s sewing days were over. Today the faded and rusty-edged tin contained some trinkets and photographs from a previous memory exercise. On good days, we would take them out and she would nod, her wandering mind briefly meeting mine at a waypoint. On bad days, we drank tea and stared, the tin a bewilderment of junk between us.



I forced a smile and picked up the first alphabet card. My mother looked the other way, distracted by the conversations going on around her. I touched her hand and she frowned, unwilling to concentrate on the activity. She had always enjoyed people-watching, that was the best part of being in a nursing home, she told me, back when she had been aware of where she was.

“Look, mama.” I said, “Can you tell me a story about a place that begins with the letter A?”

She fingered the card, and then started talking. I wrote little notes on the cards – it helped me to keep track of her disjointed thoughts.

AUSTRIA: My uncle saved me from the slave farm, a miracle; I had a bath, when I was free of filth I was as light as an angel in heaven.

BELSEN: They measured me there, height, hands, head – I was judged – Aryan enough to live, but not enough to be free.

I sighed; she’d been telling us tales of her wartime enslavement all of our lives. We’d always moved her on, embarrassed, but now I was afraid that her mind would be trapped in that nightmare for the rest of her days.

“No mama, don’t think about the war, what about our lovely holidays?”

She looked rebellious, then carried on…

CHECKPOINT CHARLIE: We went to Poland with treats for my uncle hidden in the car seats; frightened, we willed the children not to betray our innocent smuggling.

DULWICH: We made our life there – our own house, large enough to last a lifetime, a green place to raise our children, respectable, rich, peaceful.

EALING: We all went there after the war; we spoke Polish and dreamed of the old country. Some sneered that it was just a new ghetto; stupid people – we had freedom, money, education. I went to college, met my Olek and made a new life.

I missed my father so much; he’d looked after Mama when she first became ill, back when we pretended that she was just tired, that it was normal to forget things from time to time. We told stories to make it alright, but it wasn’t. He died of grief and worry, leaving me with this responsibility.



I realised that I’d drifted off – I held up the F card…

FRANCE: A truckstop on the road to England; so scared; so alone, each girl so alone, together only in body and hope.

“Not the war, Mama, please…”

GHANA: Olek’s business trips, violence, distrust; I worried at home with the children; the money never came home, but Olek did. I was grateful.

HARRODS: The SALE on our doorstep, a proper sale – I bought a fur coat for a song; I was an aristocrat again.

That fur coat! I loathed it, but mama’s friends from the old country wore fur, it was what they did, a symbol of how they’re recovered from their refugee poverty. Who was I to tell her it was wrong when she was so proud? She made me try it on, said it would be a legacy for generations if I looked after it and kept it in the freezer. I cut it up and turned it into dog beds, horrible thing.

ITALY: Our first holiday after the war; We went to the eternal city. We went to St. Peter’s Square where the Holy Father prayed with us. I was so sick, I thought it was the food, but I had been blessed, with YOU my daughter, reaching for life.

Suddenly she reached for my face and looked straight into my eyes. A lump of hope leapt into my chest, I’d so longed for her to know me again.

“Mama!” I said

“Sandra.” She said, “Are you here to cut my hair?”

I turned back to the cards, trying to hide the tears in my eyes, the heat of my hope igniting my anger. She couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth; she really couldn’t help it.

She grabbed the next card…

JAMAICA: Our first Caribbean cruise, the sun so hot, the island so green, the sky and sea so blue.

KRAKOW: We bought amber in the market, dined on Fois Gras in Wierzynek; toured the salt mines, grateful for our freedom; we bowed our heads and sobbed in Auschwitz.

We’d all sobbed there. I hadn’t wanted to go. I still wish that I’d never been there, but Mama said we must never forget. I will never forget. I hoped that she could let the camp’s silent eloquence slip away, but some experiences refused to sink into the pit of her lost memories.

LINZ: The slave market, sold into hard labour; I had a price, yet I was worth nothing.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: The undertaker said Olek should have a magnificent seven burial. I said yes, of course, Olek was a magnificent man, his ashes went to Brompton, where we had joined in marriage – I told him we’d meet again there.

NAZILAND: A plague of evil; they came to the house, took my father, shot him dead in the woods; my beloved daddy, his only crime was teaching the truth.

I willed her memory to reel back to happier days, before the war destroyed her childhood, even if meant that her memory of my childhood would be destroyed too.

ORATORY: Brompton, where we married; where we ate Polish doughnuts filled with rich plum curd.

POZNAN: Home with daddy and my beautiful mother; they were tall, like me. I remember servants.  My sisters played with their dollies, but I wanted to run with my brothers, mother frowned, girls don’t run; daddy laughed. It was always summer in the sunshine of his smile.

QATAR: Olek’s business went international; so glamorous; we sipped vodka in our expat compound and forgot the world.

RUSSIA: Betrayal – they destroyed the Third Reich for you, but we paid the price; the bear steals babies in the night, unseen, you didn’t know?

SEVEN SEAS: The children left home; we cruised the world. Oh, the on-board buffets, food 24 hours a day.

TULSE HILL: Olek left his soldiering behind and became an architect. How hard he worked – apprentice, partner, owner – his business was a lifeline and a legacy for our children.

UNIVERSITY: Daddy said I was too clever to be a girl; after the war, welcomed me, I became a draughtswoman, I became someone.

VICTORIA MANSIONS NURSING HOME: They said I wasn’t safe at home, I pleaded with mother to let me stay, but they took me away. They are kind here, servants bring my tea, mother stands by the desk and watches them. I clean my plate like a good girl.



I let go of a breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. Moving mama into the home had been the hardest thing I’d ever done. At first, she knew where she was, visits were difficult as her eyes accused me, but we were past that now.

“You’re almost there,” said the Activities Leader.

Her voice made me jump. I had been lost in my thoughts, but I felt a touch of satisfaction when I saw how far we’d come. The other old woman at our table was fast asleep in her wheelchair; her daughter had vanished – I could hardly blame her.

I took a deep breath, willing the last of the alphabet to pass quickly.

WARSAW: We went to the old town, it was good as new, as if the war had never been, as if the past had never been torn from the future. We drank coffee in the old market square and laughed.

I flipped the X card over quickly, but mama grabbed my wrist.

XOCHIMILICO: Our first cheap package holiday to Mexico. I never knew so much colour could exist; travel, holidays, it was freedom beyond imagination.

I laughed, she was full of surprises, but I knew from her photo albums that this memory was real, unlike some of her more colourful fictions.

YESHAK: A saint’s school for my children. I wore my fur coat to the school gates so they would know we had money, that my children were not the spawn of poor immigrants; that my children belonged in England.

ZAKOPANE: My uncle’s farm in the lovely mountains; I am there now, skipping with the dogs, mother frowns, girls don’t run, but daddy smiles….

My mother dropped the last card into the box, her transparent skin luminous with joy as her face was lit by sunshine from another time, another place.

The old biscuit tin bulged with cards; her jagged memories captured by my spiky handwriting – her life in letters. Her remarkable life in letters. I kissed her forehead, promised I’d see her next week. Her carers wheeled her to the dining hall; she was already asking about pudding; she’d always had a sweet tooth.

***

To this day, I do not know who she was smiling for when she put that last card in the box.  Maybe it doesn’t matter; I know that my last smile was for her, my beloved mother…



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Chocolate in Summer: A Short Story.

I’d like to thank Lindsay Bamfield of Australia for her short story submission “Chocolate in Summer”, a touching story about the complex relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law. It was originally published in a small anthology in the UK called Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol 2.

Lindsay Bamfield relocated from UK to Australia in 2019. Her mother was Australian and she has always been in touch with this aspect of her heritage. Lindsay is a mother and is now grandmother to an Australian. She has written a number of short stories and flash fiction and non-fiction articles. She has been published in Hysteria 6 AnthologyStories for Homes 2, Reflex FictionGreenacre Writers AnthologyMslexia, Writers’ News and Writing Magazine as well as on a number of literary websites

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Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (Buy it Now)

Chocolate in Summer

Seated at the grand piano, Margot became the woman she might have been rather than the one she was. Gone was the carping woman craving her headache pills; in her place was a maestro.

‘Oh, how wonderful. You’ll have some help,’ people cooed when I muttered through clenched teeth that my mother-in-law was coming to stay. How they thought it was helpful to be driving over a hundred and fifty miles to the airport, with a two-month old breastfeeding baby in tow, I couldn’t imagine.

   She spent the entire six weeks moaning. The bedroom was too hot, too cold, the baby cried, my cooking was terrible, I didn’t iron Patrick’s shirts properly.

   ‘She’s asking for Gentleman’s Relish,’ I said to Patrick. ‘What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of it.’

   ‘Oh yes, she used to love it on toast,’ he said, frowning over our bank statement. ‘She used to put a little jar of it in my school tuck box every term. I’d sell it to one of the older boys because I hated it, and bought sweets from the tuck shop with the money. She never packed sweets. You can probably get it at Fortnum’s.’

   ‘Are you insane? Do you really expect me to high-tail it to London to get a jar of something for her bloody toast?’

   But make the journey I did, for Margot must be appeased, although nothing would ever make me good enough for her son.

‘Have you put Toby’s name down for Patrick’s prep school yet?’ she asked one Sunday lunchtime while I was clearing the table.

   ‘Margot, he’s barely three months old,’ I said. ‘Rather premature, don’t you think?’

   ‘These good schools are subscribed years in advance,’ she said curtly.

   ‘Besides which,’ I said, ‘I do not intend for my son to be sent away to school, even if we could afford it, which we can’t.’

   ‘Patrick, surely you can’t want your son educated in a state school?’

   ‘I rather think I do, Mother,’ he replied. ‘I have no wish to put Toby through what I endured.’

   I didn’t hear the end of that conversation because Toby began to wail, much to my relief.  I hurried off to placate my son who would not be sent away at the tender age of eight when, I hoped, he would still be wanting a story, a teddy snuggled into his bed and a goodnight kiss.

Each year, two months of summer were utter misery. As he grew older, even Toby began to dread the visit from Grandma: her headaches that demanded his utter silence; the outings that were curtailed because she felt unwell; the meals that must be just so.

   ‘Give me a hand,’ Patrick yelled down the stairs one Saturday before the impending visit. ‘I need you to hold the ladder. It’s wobbling.’ I switched off the iron, glad to have respite from squirting steam over the curtains from the spare room, Margot’s room, and plodded up the stairs, pushing my damp hair behind my ears. 

   I held the ladder while Patrick inexpertly painted the room in his mother’s favourite colour.

   ‘She’ll like this,’ he said as he rolled the paint on. ‘She found the greens too bright.’ He was being tactful; ‘nauseous’ was the word she’d used. My carefully chosen two-tone green room disappeared under a coat of magnolia-meets-mushroom. The curtains would look quite wrong now but at least they would be dust and crease-free.

A month later, I heaved Margot’s luggage up to the room. She was already lying on the bed in the delicate pose of a dying martyr.

   ‘Pull the curtains,’ she ordered. ‘There’s too much sun. Where are my pills, I think a headache is coming on.’

   ‘Do you like the new colour?’ I asked as I slid the curtains closed, banishing the few rays of sun to have graced our summer that year.

   ‘It’ll do.’

   ‘I’ve made your favourite cake so pop down for tea when you’re ready.’

   ‘I couldn’t possibly eat cake. My digestion. Some cucumber sandwiches, I think.’

   ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any cucumber. How about tomato?’

   ‘Tomato? With my delicate stomach? Good gracious girl, you should know this by now. Just run out and fetch a cucumber. It’s hardly too much to ask.’

It was when we visited my new neighbour who had invited us for coffee, that the ground shifted. Standing in their airy living room was a grand piano. Enormous, shiny and proud, it took up most of the space. Margot drifted towards it and trailed her fingers on the keys.

   ‘Do try it, if you’d like to,’ trilled the neighbour.

   To my astonishment, Margot seated herself on the padded stool and began to play. Music rippled from beneath her fingers as effortlessly as breeze on water.

   That was the day I first saw her smile.

‘I’ve bought Mother a piano. She’ll like that,’ said Patrick a couple of weeks before the visit the following year. ‘It’s only an upright, because the living room won’t take a grand.’

   Nor would our fragile bank account. I said nothing for I knew he would trot out his mantra: ‘don’t be too hard on her, she had a difficult time bringing me up on her own…’ and I would have to refrain from reminding him that he spent term-time at boarding school and many of his holidays at his aunt’s house.


  

The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley

I picked Margot up at the airport and drove the weary miles home. Toby sat meekly in the back, listening to her interminable moaning. The car was stifling and hot because the fan no longer worked. Her damn piano had taken the last of our spare cash, so the fan would stay broken. I opened the window but she complained about the draught. We sweltered in silence.

   ‘Did you bring me a present?’ asked Toby when we reached home.

   ‘Little boys who ask, don’t get,’ was her reply. His face crumpled. Later, she relented and handed him a package. His excitement was palpable only to disappear on looking at the gift.

   ‘What is it, Grandma?’

   ‘It belonged to your grandfather. Now let your mother put it away safely until you grow up. It’s an heirloom and very valuable so you must treasure it.’

‘She gave him a tie-pin,’ I hissed at Patrick, when we were in bed. ‘Who gives a six- year-old a tie-pin?’

   ‘She means well, don’t be hard on her,’ was all he would say. I turned away from him dreading the next six weeks.

   But that summer Margot played her piano, and I saw a different woman. She taught Toby a few simple tunes and to her delight, he showed aptitude for her talent which had evidently skipped a generation. Their heads bent over the keys, she demonstrated a patience I could never have guessed at. The music allowed the time to pass more quickly and sometimes she smiled. Her pills remained unopened.

   ‘Toby is shaping up nicely,’ she said at dinner on the last evening of her visit. ‘You must arrange professional lessons for him.’

   Thinking of the red figure on our latest bank statement, my lips tightened, but I said nothing.

   ‘This casserole is very good,’ she went on. ‘Is it from the recipe book I gave you?’

   ‘No, it’s based on one from my mother.’

   ‘Oh. Well, even so, it’s very nice. You’re learning.’

When Patrick died in a car crash, she came immediately I contacted her.

   ‘I’ll make my own way from the airport, you don’t need…’ she left the sentence unfinished.

   As we met on the doorstep neither of us spoke but we understood that for the first time we shared Patrick without being rivals.

   ‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’ she said the evening after the funeral when everybody had left.

   ‘Yes, of course, I explained–’

   ‘What I mean is,’ she interrupted, ‘it wasn’t like his father? An accident that wasn’t quite as accidental as it appeared.’ Her voice was quiet.

   For a moment I wondered if she was trying to tell me that she had pulled the trigger when Robert died in a shooting accident.

   ‘It was recorded as an accident,’ she said, ‘but Robert knew guns inside out. He’d been using them since he was a teenager on the estate. They had these shoots, pheasant, grouse, the glorious twelfth. That was common in those days. Robert was dogged by black depressions. Patrick didn’t know about them, being away at school. I tried to prevent him seeing that. I’d send him to my sister if they came on during his holidays. It was when he was away that it happened. Was Patrick ever…’

   ‘No, Margot, I never saw Patrick depressed. Sad, worried and angry sometimes, but never depressed.’

   ‘Thank God. I couldn’t tell Patrick the truth. I think some of our friends may have wondered but it remained unspoken.’

   And then Margot wept and for the first time I felt not resentment but compassion.

She stayed with Toby and me while I sorted through Patrick’s financial affairs and adjusted to a new life just as she had done so many years before. But unlike her, I had no secrets to stifle. My grief was her grief and hers mine, and there was a perceptible thaw between us.

   She told Toby about his father as a little boy, and then told us both her own story.

   ‘I was talented enough to be a concert pianist but I needed professional training,’ she explained. ‘I was to go to the Royal College, but then the war broke out and I worked for the war office.’

   ‘What about after the war?’ I asked.

   ‘We no longer had money for my training. My brothers had been killed and I had to help in the family business until I got married. Then my hands were full. You couldn’t harp on with fantasies in those days, not once you were married and had a child to look after.’

   ‘It sounds hard to have lost your dreams.’ I said.

   ‘Dreams are like chocolate in summer,’ she said shortly. ‘They melt. Besides, I still had my piano and I played at home.’

   ‘Yes, Patrick told me how you played, and that you tried to teach him.’

   ‘He didn’t have the ear,’ she said. ‘Or the patience.’

Toby took to the piano that summer and played non-stop. After Margot returned home, he continued playing and made up compositions. One he called Chocolate in Summer. ‘Because our dreams have melted too, haven’t they, Mummy?’ he said.

   Margot sent me the money to pay for his lessons.

***

Toby’s daughter is playing with his old boxes of Lego that I brought down from the loft. I have just finished decorating her cake with ‘Happy Birthday Sasha’ piped in pink icing and six pink candles. Her mother pours a glass of wine for me. Sasha’s big presents are waiting for when Toby joins us after work so he can watch her unwrap them.

   He arrives on the dot of six o’clock and swoops his daughter up into his arms, giving her a twirl, then he sits at the piano and plays ‘Happy Birthday.’

   ‘Again, Daddy!’ she laughs.

   He pays a slow, dreamy version and then a fast, silly one, delighting the birthday girl.

   I look at him, so like his father in appearance, and wonder if he would have realized his talent without his grandmother’s tutelage that terrible year.

   My heart still bursts with pride as I recall his first concert as a soloist, and wish so much that they had both lived to see it. Only Toby and I knew that beneath his jacket he wore a gold tie-pin that had belonged to the grandfather neither of us had known.

   We eat the birthday tea as Sasha tears open her presents with the enthusiasm of a happy little girl. Not an heirloom in sight.

   Afterwards, Toby sits at the piano again and plays, just as Margot had, whatever comes into his mind, as the mood takes him. He is playing ‘Chocolate in Summer.’

   I never thought I would miss her.


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Going Short by Nancy Stohlman: A Mum Life Success Story

I must say I’m very excited about this particular Mum Life Success Story. I’ve had the pleasure of featuring some truly beautiful, amazing and inspiring Mums through these Mum Life Success Stories and each one of them has had a unique and special story to tell, but never have I featured someone as well-known and accomplished as Nancy Stohlman.

I have to admit that when I received an email from her publicity manager, about promoting her new book Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction I didn’t actually know who she was. That is due more to my lack of time to read and search out great authors (because I’m busy with work, family and this blog) than it is about Nancy’s reputation. Once I googled her name, and announced the upcoming interview on twitter etc, I realised that Nancy was fastly becoming a household name.

After just a little research I discovered that Nancy was not only a talented performer, writer and professor, but that she was juggling it all with motherhood and so naturally, I had to request an interview for the next ‘Mum Life Success Story’ feature. Nancy happily obliged and answered all my probing questions about life, success and family and how she navigates it all. I was truly inspired and knew without a doubt that all of you would be inspired too. If by some off-chance you don’t know who Nancy Stolman is, let’s start with a bit of backstory direct from her publicity manager.

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Who is Nancy Stohlman?

Nancy Stohlman

Nancy Stohlman is the author of four books of flash fiction including Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (a finalist for a 2019 Colorado Book Award), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), and The Monster Opera (2013). She is the creator of The F-bomb Flash Fiction Reading Series and FlashNano in November. Her work has been anthologized in the W.W. Norton New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Macmillan’s The Practice of Fiction, and The Best Small Fictions 2019. Her craft book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction in 2020. She teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Boulder.

When she is not writing flash fiction she straps on stilettos and becomes the lead
singer of the lounge metal jazz trio Kinky Mink.  She lives in Denver Colorado and dreams of one day becoming a pirate.

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is Nancy’s latest contribution to the world of literature. Writer and Teacher Kathy Fish describes it as “The definitive, and appropriately concise book on the flash fiction form”. I have read some of the book myself and I can say Kathy is right, If you’re a writer (as many of my readers are) or want to start writing, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is a resource you want to have on your bookshelf.


Mum Life Success Story

With Nancy being the seasoned writer that she is and needing no help from me to tell her story, I decided to publish this feature in interview format rather than the story form I usually employ. First I asked Nancy to tell us a little bit about her family.

Tell us a little about your family?

I have two kids—Maiya is 22 and just got her first apartment; Felix is 15 and just got his learner’s permit (yikes!). My partner Nick and I have been together almost a dozen years. We’re all creatives: Nick is a classical pianist and Maiya is a visual artist, so I’m proud to have passed down a family value of artistry. My own parents were also creative; I remember musical jam sessions, a lot of clowning in my household growing up.

When did your love for writing begin?

I remember I was 10 years old on the bleachers at a soccer game when I announced I was going to become an author. I was a voracious reader, of course. I grew up on military bases overseas, so books were my constant friends through all the moving and the various cultural and language barriers. After my author announcement my mother let me use her electric typewriter and I wrote a musical: Superman, The Musical (ala Christopher Reeve). I felt so important as I sat there clicking the keys, feeding in the paper. I don’t know what happened to the musical, but I still feel the magic when I sit down to write.

What inspired you to write your upcoming publication ‘Going Short’?

I was inspired to write Going Short about 10 years ago, when students and fellow writers kept asking me to recommend flash fiction craft books. I didn’t know what to recommend—there were almost no craft books aimed at this growing genre (nor by women). So I decided to take it on myself. I thought it would be easy, something I could write in a year or two. Ha. It took me almost 8 years! But I’m extremely proud of the result—I hope this book becomes a friend to the writers and readers who fall in love with flash fiction.

Are there any major obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get where you are now?

Oh yes. Self doubt. Fear. Creative deserts. Jealousy. Self-sabotage. It’s not easy to go for your dreams. There’s so much risk. Every step you think you might be crazy. Every step you expose yourself to…all of it. Not everyone is rooting for you, so you have to cheer yourself on no matter what. It’s not always easy. It takes courage and bravery, not just one time but every time. Over and over. So my challenge is to reach deeper and keep finding that courage. It’s either that or give up—which keeps me motivated on the hard days.

Are there any funny, intense, or inspiring stories you can tell us about your experiences in writing and/or publishing?

For years I fantasized of spending “three weeks on an island all by myself just writing.” Sounds magical, right? Then, last year, I decided to do it. I was already in Italy co-hosting a flash fiction retreat (so amazing), and when it was over I found a super remote island in the Adriatic, rented a renovated wine cellar for $150 a week, and went on my own sabbatical. And I wrote every day. Every blissful day. I mean, I woke up, I wrote, I walked to get coffee, I wrote. I ate gelato, I walked to the empty beach. I wrote. It was magical, and I discovered what I call Holy Boredom. And because of it, I finished this book.

What would you say is your biggest challenge with balancing family life with your career? How do you find balance (if you do)?

Funny, but I think this question is part of the challenge—if I were a man I would likely never be asked this question. Because I’m a woman, there’s an expectation (even from myself) that I can and will do it all: be a loving mother, chef, teacher, partner, friend, housekeeper, nurture all my relationships…oh, AND write books, teach on campus, run retreats, and attempt to dream my own inspiration into being. And, because all women are amazing, we do it. All of it. But I like to envision a world where men are asked this question, too.

The short answer of how I balance it all? I fail. I succeed. Then I fail. I do my best. And sometimes I schedule a weekend to myself and that’s important, too.

How does your experience as a Mother help with your writing and vice versa?

Once I had kids I knew the luxury of waiting for the muse, was over. If I really wanted to be a writer, I had to begin now—there was a little person watching me. So I wrote during nap time and in the evenings after bedtimes. I mean, I wrote entire books during nap times, during pre-school. Later I wrote on trains and buses while commuting to campus. I learned to seize THIS moment, imperfect but available, because the perfect moment is just an illusion. So in a very real way my children forced me to get serious and make it happen.

And writing makes me a better mother, too, because I’m honoring that creative part of myself. I’m more present for my family when I’m present for myself. Put on your own oxygen mask before you help others.

What advice can you give to other women (mothers in particular) wanting to chase their dreams of becoming a professional writer?

Just begin. The perfect time, the perfect location, the perfect idea—you could be waiting forever. The real day-to-day of writing is messy—there is nothing idealized about it. And yet, allowing yourself to be creative is amazingly, imperfectly perfect. On a good day, it’s still just as magical to me as that first time at my mom’s electric typewriter.

Plus, the very best thing you can do for your children is to show them what it looks like to not give up on yourself. They will be watching and learning from your actions far more than from your words.


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