The 2017 Cleveland Inkubator + Writing Habits

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

Yesterday, I went to the 3rd annual Cleveland Inkubator, a free, day-long writing conference put on by a local nonprofit Literary Cleveland. This organization began about two years ago, and in a sense, I’ve been there from the start—though I’ve only taken one of Lit Cleveland’s paid workshops, I’ve attended all three Inkubators and participated in workshops on fiction and non-fiction with a number of local writers whose work I enjoy.   My face is even front and center on their marketing materials (see above).   Yet sometimes I still ask myself: am I truly a writer? Or is that just what my business card says? If I’m feeling particularly flat on any given day, I follow that up with: and why did I list “writer” on my business card in the first place?

This year at the Inkubator, there were a number of suitable workshops for “agnostic” writers; that's how I like to refer to people who can’t decide if they’re writers. Another workshop could stoke my interest in the paranormal and occult. I started the day with a workshop on “Facing the Blank Page” a.k.a. the true story of my every effort to write fiction. I followed that up with “The First Page of Your Novel”—this workshop focused on how good the first pages of famous novels are and how to make your first page good enough to convince a publisher to keep reading. The last workshop I did—“Tarot for Writers”—suggested using tarot cards as a tool when you’re stuck. Not as a crutch, but as a way of brainstorming from one choice about a character to the next. All of the instructors gave practical exercises that could be applied in any situation, and they also gave advice for continuing along a writing path.

Around the time that I was in middle school, a local independent bookstore near my town sponsored a yearly short story contest. My middle school English teacher had us write short stories for the contest every year—she would choose the best two or three stories from the class and then submit them to the store’s contest. I’ve written before on this blog about how, as a small child, I wrote stories all the time, but this contest was different. We came to expect it. We let ideas marinate over time knowing when the contest would again become the subject of our lessons. The most beautiful part? We were allowed to write about whatever we wanted, and this teacher, like many other writers I’ve met since, encouraged us to write what we knew.

What I knew as a fifth-grader was that I really loved my cat, Mayflower, and I wanted him (yes… him) to be some kind of superhero. So I wrote a ghastly short story about an alien cat with superpowers, to which my heroic teacher responded with unmerited grace and kindness. It did not make the final cut for the store’s contest.

What I knew as a sixth-grader was my then very active passion for medieval history, the remnants of which now mostly serve to inform my consumption of Game of Thrones. This knowledge, combined with an especial interest in the Black Death, meant that my protagonist was a young girl, about my age at the time, who began the story by walking the streets of her village as a cart rolled by with a man yelling, “Bring out your dead!” This, too, did not make the cut, but was more successful as a story.

And what did I know as a seventh-grader? My tremendous interest in grisly moments in history remained, and this time I wrote my story about the Salem Witch Trials. Again, my protagonist was a girl, around my age, forced into nearly impossible circumstances. And this time, my teacher chose my story to move on to the store’s contest.

The bookstore has since closed, and I am not aware of any similar opportunity for kids that age in the area. But while it lasted, it meant that there was at least one time a year when a routine could be followed, a story cranked out and put up for review. It meant that, when my high school English teacher made a similar demand for a short story, it was a matter of flexing a muscle that’s already in shape. When she asked specifically for historical fiction, I wrote a story about a little boy who accidentally becomes embroiled in the Black Sox scandal—in that case, baseball was what I knew.

My point here is this: writing is a habit, and one that you need to practice and hone. Anyone will tell you that, but it’s one thing that I knew for certain when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t always fool around with daily word goals, at least not until finishing was almost at hand. I did, however, make sure that for as many days as possible I was in the library trying to write between 3pm and 8pm—these were the hours I did best at writing. The words usually flowed the best when I had been reading all morning and could actively rework the thoughts and concepts I had just read.

Today, in my morning workshop, I had a long-needed moment of epiphany—a moment so clear that I can’t even remember what triggered it now. But I understood that I do, truly, know all the habits and techniques that it takes to write, whether that’s a novel or a non-fiction book.  Or blogging on a regular basis.  Or finally admitting that maybe it's time for me to go back to that dissertation, which I loved.  I just need to get that muscle back in shape.

Call me Nancy. Nancy Drew.

I recently picked up a project that involves detective work.  Not traditional research, really, but detective work.  A local organization has a very large slide collection that they wanted to digitize and then upload to an online database.  The slides came from photographs taken by staff members over the last thirty years, and while some are clearly labelled with a building name or maybe an address, most of the slides have less information to describe the picture.  

My role in this project is tracking down information about the photographs in preparation for posting them online.  For example, if I have only the street name, can I find out which cross streets it's between?  Can I find a specific address and the building's date of construction?  Can I tell which direction the photographer was facing?  I try to establish this information in addition to suggesting why it was important to the photographer to take that photograph.  Perhaps there's an architectural detail of interest or a recognizable highway bridge swooping through the background, emphasizing the high-low topography of Cleveland's industrial districts.  I assign meaning to these images through the captions that I write.  Though this work can be irritating at times, it satisfies me.

I love detective novels.  When I was little I devoured Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, and all the other mystery series for kids where each book wiped the slate clean and presented a new adventure.  When I was older, I got into Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers books, and I added some more hard-boiled fare with John Grisham novels and Dennis LeHane's Boston crime thrillers.  I've seen every episode of Law & Order.  I like watching these fictional characters piece together information, finding clues and reaching conclusions.

I've realized that this process also thrills me more than anything else I do on a regular basis.  When someone calls the office with a question about their family history, or we find mention of a name or business or building that we can't immediately place into context, my heart starts to race as I flip through pages of city directories, rifle through binders of obituaries, and comb through genealogical records on the internet.  I feel a little bad about how often I turn to my office mate and proclaim the amazingness of my newest discovery.  Connecting the dots is what excites me; finding out what whole picture they make up is only an extra bonus.

As I'm thinking through what I want in a long-term alt-ac career and, on an even smaller scale, what I want to do from day to day, I'm also thinking about what books like Wishcraft say about trusting what you love to do.  If I can't be Veronica Mars in my day job, I can find ways to do my brand of detective work after hours.  I could be like Gemma and Abbie in The Keepers and put that detective work in service of a cause (and first, maybe I should write my long intended post about my thoughts on The Keepers).  I am resolving, now, to think more in the coming weeks about why I am drawing a distinction between detective work and research and also to determine why that distinction matters to me.

Embracing Cleveland History Krejny Krejny

I live in the Greater Cleveland area, which, at this moment in time, overwhelmingly means two things:

  1. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won an NBA Championship and thereby released our city from decades of cursed sports team.
  2. The Republican National Convention is almost upon us, an event which seems likely to bring our beloved city to ruin.

It is not difficult to see how there might be conflicts between these two narratives.

Conflict, in fact, seems to be what this area runs on - a mess of contradictions that make its inhabitants who we are.  And we are wounded creatures of habit, capable of maintaining a cautious optimism to bear us through the crushing circumstances of failure and loss that govern both our sports teams and our regional economy.  We build art from nothing or from discarded materials in an effort to improve our surroundings.  We try to build new neighborhoods from the hollow facades of our history.

As part of Cleveland's efforts to welcome the aforementioned Republicans, banners have been hung all over the city that provide "fun facts" about the city's history - first stoplight, birth of Superman, and so on.  They're strategically placed near historic buildings or places that they refer to, where possible.  When not possible, they're placed where people are sure to see them.  One example of this is pictured below - this banner, which references John D. Rockefeller, is part of a line of banners that cover windows of vacant shops on a once-prominent street downtown, near the central Public Square and many places convention-goers are sure to be.

Rockefeller Banner.jpg

This street, once the home to Cleveland's richest and most glorious people, homes, and commerce, now full of vacant shops and buildings whose windows have long been smashed out.  This street that is now lined by positive reminders of the past and near some of the city's finest reclamation projects of the last ten years or so - the abandoned bank turned into a destination grocery store, the department store turned into a casino, etc.  It can never be said that Clevelanders give up easily.  And so, It is my faint hope that, when the convention is over and the visitors head home, they will think of this city as a place that is using its history to transform its present and shape its future.  Until then... we wait.

Collecting the Painful Present

Recently, the news broke that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) had expressed interest in preserving the gazebo, then set for demolition, in the Cleveland park where Tamir Rice had been shot.  A few days later, the NMAAHC stepped in again—this time to set the record straight.  It was not preservation that they were after, and there would be no space in their museum for Rice’s story, not yet anyway.  They had intended to intercede on behalf of Black Lives Matter activists, and some vague wording, with the Smithsonian name behind it, had been misunderstood by the media and the city of Cleveland.

The backlash started right away.  One contingent expressed outrage that the gazebo should even be considered for preservation, though for different objections.  They felt either that it is perhaps insignificant in the scope of human history or less significant relative to the Smithsonian’s other treasures.  They may have felt that it provides such a grim reminder of a terrible event, more fit for a memorial than a museum.  Of course, there were people arguing the opposite—that Tamir Rice’s story is worthy of preservation through the gazebo, that it is a crucial cornerstone in interpreting recent African-American history.  One smart friend of mine raised the question of why preserve anything related to this particular case.  In the rash of recent police violence against African-American men and women, why would Tamir Rice’s story be singled out for interpretation and preservation?

Well, she didn’t use the word interpretation.  At that question, asked before the NMAAHC reneged on its supposed desire to preserve the gazebo, my museum brain kicked in.  Why would the NMAAHC want to preserve the gazebo?  What does that say about their collecting mission?  What does it mean that they, as a history museum, would be purposely liaising with a community of activists that is exerting their power at this very moment?

For one, it’s ballsy.  The museum hasn't even opened yet, but they would be exercising an exceptionally powerful influence, in the name of the Smithsonian, to intercede and successfully preserve an object freighted with both emotional baggage and the logistical concerns of space, weathering, etc. that come with managing museum collections.

Besides that, the process of building a collection means taking into consideration a variety of factors that include, and are certainly not limited to: history, psychology, diversity, and, critically, availability.   By availability, I mean two things: 1) the simple fact of existence—do objects, documents, or other items exist to be collected that tell the stories a museum is interested in? and 2) will the people or institutions who currently hold these objects sign on to the mission of the museum and donate these objects to that institution? 

For museums that have not yet begun to interpret histories of their diverse communities, the problem may often be that they simply don’t have the collections items available to tell those stories in a credible way.  Though such objects once existed, the museum did not then pursue them, and no one interceded to collect or preserve them before their consignment to the rubbish pile.   If someone or some community did intercede, or saved items for personal enjoyment or interest, they may not understand why a museum would want to have them.  The act of approaching a museum staff to offer an object from a culture that is underrepresented by that institution may be tremendously intimidating.  Enthusiastic museum staffers may or may not understand how to respond in a way that gives respect to the donor and does justice to the significance of the object.

In this sense, the question of “worth” in collecting can very much function as a question about race and class.  Museums and their curators and educators may tend to avoid difficult stories of racial unrest when there is not an accompanying narrative of uplift, an inspiration or achievement in the face of tremendous prejudice or other difficulty.  This can be especially true in museums that carry a federal endorsement like the Smithsonian.  Phillip Morris, a columnist for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, indicated the trouble with these oversights in his own discussion of the events surrounding the gazebo's preservation.  Though he says he is not advocating for preservation, he writes: “a case can be made that Tamir's story mixes coherently with museum artifacts depicting the extraordinary complexity of the African-American experience in the United States. That's a call for museum curators and historians.”  He’s right. It does.  The gazebo may be undesirable to its current community, but that doesn’t mean it should be torn down before a reasonable assessment of its potential role in history can be made.

And here’s what else: if the NMAAHC stood by its statement of interest in exploring options for preserving the gazebo, it would mean setting a standard for the value of artifacts related to stories like Tamir.  It would clearly state that black lives matter to museums and that artifacts of the movement and its precipitating tragedies belong in museum spaces to aid in educating visitors about how they do fit within historical legacies of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  It would clearly mark museums, and especially the NMAAHC, as institutions that can be trusted to guard these artifacts and tell these stories.  That would be an example that should be set.  Since the NMAAHC backed off, it’s not that they can’t do that and it’s not that they won’t, but it could be much harder.