Published in The Susquehanna Review: “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father”

Lots of good news! As some of you know, I had a story accepted by the national undergraduate literary journal, The Susquehanna Review, back in June.* This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the launch party for the 2011-2012 issue which means that:

  1. My short non-fiction piece, “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father” (which won the 2011 Bloomsburg University English Department Award for Creative Non-Fiction and 2nd place in The Baltimore Review’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest) is finally published!
  2. I got my hands on a copy of the journal (so excited to read it from start to finish!)
  3. As the launch party was a celebration of the dual launch of both the print journal and the online journal, you can read it for yourself now too!

All contributing writers who attended were granted the opportunity to read their writing to a big room of people. While being video taped.

Have I ever mentioned that I recently developed a slight fear of public speaking? It stems from a really horrific public speaking class I was required to take in college. Before taking it, I liked public speaking the same way I’ve always enjoyed reading books aloud to my younger sister and to unsuspecting passerbyers I can convince to sit still long enough to listen. Not that I was an impressive orator by any means, with long passages memorized, or the ability to speak with a passionate eloquence which could thrill an attentive audience. If I didn’t have the confidence that I was good at it, I at least had the confidence that I could do it and that I had the right to stand in front of people and be heard. So therefore, I had no natural build-up of nerves when I prepared for my first graded speech presentation. That was, I wasn’t nervous until the professor dedicated an entire class period to a never-ending, incredibly detailed list of reasons why one should be afraid of public speaking and the knee-quivering, gut-wrenching, heart-pounding effects that everyone should have. “If you don’t have these feelings,” he told us, “it’s unnatural.”

Therefore, when I stood at the podium (read: music stand) with my printed story in hand, I was more annoyed than nervous when my voice started to quiver and break, when my heart started to race so fast that I was gulping to keep it in my chest, and when my legs started to shake underneath me like an earthquake (not ideal when one is wearing five-inch-high heeled boots). Thankfully, my voice evened out after a page and, since my story is rather emotional, perhaps listeners chalked it up to that. Two really nice students came up to me afterwards to shake my hand, compliment the story, and admit that they had been reduced to tears in their seats. I was still so flustered that my manners failed me and I didn’t do more than mumble an awkward apology for causing them to cry–and I certainly didn’t manage to ask their names–but if you’re reading this, thank you again! [waves through computer screen]

In other good news, I’ve been featured on the Bloomsburg University College of Liberal Arts blog. It talks more about the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, if you’re interested in that. You can read the post here.

*Personal Submission Response Time: 3 months, 6 days.

“To the New Owners of My Childhood Home,” an Excerpt from Weave Magazine

Not the most recent or attractive photo of my house, but the only one currently on hand. You get a glimpse of the colors, though!

I live in a pink and green house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Our living room is orange. Our kitchen ceiling is pink plaid. Every surface in my mother’s bedroom is purple: the rug, the bedding, the walls; she even painted her antique wood furniture lavender. It wasn’t the first house I lived in, but it’s the one I grew up in. In three years, my sister will graduate from high school and my mom will retire. In three years, my mom will put our rainbow of a house on the market and move down to North Carolina.

Even though I’m moving out of my childhood home later this month and across the border to New Jersey, I’m a little nostalgic at the idea of my mom giving up our house for good. I was half hoping she would abandon the idea, so that in a decade or so I can still come home to the same familiar place for Thanksgiving, and can forever look at the wall marked with my sister and mines growing spurts. But last year she bought a house–the retirement house–in North Carolina and she’s renting it out until she’s ready to move. It’s official.

Now accepting that we’ll really be selling our house, I realized that no matter how much we pack and how carefully we clean, we’re inevitably going to leave a lot behind. You can’t help it. For example, when we first moved in, I remember finding forgotten toy soldiers everywhere: buried in mud puddles, in the sandbox, and even shoved into the crannies between bricks in the fireplace. They were a reminder of the boys who used to live there. I decided to write a friendly, theoretical letter to the future homeowners, to prepare them for unusual things my family will leave scattered about the property.

Isn't this cover amazing?

Weave magazine liked the story enough to publish it and, if you’re not already a subscriber, you can order Issue 7 and read the whole story. I gave Weave first publication rights and I don’t want to be disrespectful and publish the whole story online, but in celebration of its publication and the magazine’s arrival in my mailbox today (so excited to read the rest of the contents!) I thought I’d give you all a little taste.


To the New Owners of My Childhood Home

I assure you, it’s in your best interests not to dig in the following places:

  1. The cranny of lawn nestled next to the raised strawberry beds;
  2. Underneath the bleeding hearts in the back yard; and
  3. Among the roots next to the brick walkway.

You will find dead bodies.

Get Writing Inspiration from Your Family’s Dirty Secrets

From left to right, row by row: My great-great-grandmother (nameless), great-grandfather William Guest Hechinger, great-grandmother Theresa, grandfather Theodore and his siblings Viola, William "Dizzy," and Russel.

Secret:  I am totally obsessed with family research on  I love picking family members’ brains for memories, dates, and the vaguely remembered names of cousins.  I love sifting through the scanned census records, copying out tiny details–like that my great-grandfather (a different branch, not in this photograph) worked at a cigar factory in Berks County, Pa–and patchwork piecing together generations of lives.  (The two most exciting moments for me are when I either figure out how a certain couple met and fell in love–job, church, or family friend–or when I dig back far enough to figure out which generation immigrated and from where.)   When I don’t have much information to go on, I love visiting the graveyards where my relatives are buried.  Gravestones, in my opinion, are the greatest short stories, and I love imagining what happened in-between that birth and death date.

My great-Uncle Dick remembers where everyone is buried and took us on a little field trip to Edgewood Cemetery and Temple Road Cemetery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, this past weekend and I was able to trace back three generations in one row of gravestones.

My maternal grandparent's gravestone, at Temple Road. Mildred Bedulia (awful name, right!?) and Theodore Peter Hechinger (shown as a boy, above).

To me, researching family history is like learning the back story to a cast of characters; you dig and read until you understand their motivations, the turning-points, the red and black letter days in their lives.  You learn their occupation, their hobbies, who they lived with, and–ofttimes a surprise–how many times they might have secretly divorced and remarried.  For writers who have a difficult time fully developing their fictional characters, I think plucking someone from your own family tree is a great writing exercise.  Even if you don’t think your ancestors lead terribly important or interesting lives–or perhaps they took all their secrets to the grave–thereby denying you enough materials to write an entire book (such as the super fabulous memoir, Glass Castle, and the historical-fiction-memoir-blend Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls and the less fabulous, but wonderfully titled conversation-style memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness), I’m sure that there’s a family story that has been told so many times that the details are burned into your memory.  It might be small–as small as the fact that my father was a lefty, but got hit by the principal of his public elementary school so many times that he became ambidextrous–but I’m sure it’s enough to inspire you to write a historical short story.  When you have writer’s block, try to integrate a family story.  You don’t have to imagine or think-up something believable, because it’s already done for you.  You probably know your relatives better than you know your fictional characters, so use that to your advantage!

For example, there’s some mystery surrounding my maternal grandfather (see above).  In the top photograph you can see him, his siblings, his father, mother, and maternal grandmother.  The story goes that the mother, Theresa, ran off with another man, leaving William with four children to raise.  Financially, he couldn’t do it.  So he put his daughter, Viola, on a farm and put the boys in the Home for Friendless Children.  It was basically an orphanage, but the Hechinger boys got treated better because their father would visit them once a week and give a little money to the Home.  He didn’t like talking about it so we don’t know what daily life was like.  All we know is that at one point, the three brothers ran away and never returned to the Home.  We don’t know if they made it on their own, or if they moved back in with their Dad.  Isn’t that story just ripe for the writing?

P.S. If you’re particularly interested in family stories, what they mean, and considering writing down all of yours, I’d highly recommend Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, a book I’m halfway through reading and loving.

Chapbook Contest–Poetry, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

On the ride home from work yesterday I got the germ of a new book idea.  I want it to be a collection of creative non-fiction essays organized around a theme.  Aside from basically everything David Sedaris writes, there aren’t many non-fiction short story collection books for sale in stores.  So I was wondering, how does one get them published?  And where do they get them published?  Do you get an agent or go straight to a publisher?  What publishers are actually interested in that kind of manuscript? Obviously everyone is interested in David Sedaris because he’s awesome: 

To me, this book idea feels a little bit like a poetry chapbook, which I’m more familiar with, and I know there are oodles of poetry chapbook contests out there where people can win money and get published all at one, so I figure there’s got to be similar contests for other genres, right?


I found a few fiction chapbook contests–Gold Line Press, for example, has one (deadline 11/1/11) where you can win $500 and publication with an ISBN number–but only one non-fiction one.  They don’t have the deadline posted for this year’s competition, but it’s hosted by AWP and has been an annual contest since 1975, so it seems like a pretty safe bet that the contest will be held again.  If you have a similar manuscript done or in the works–they permit some of the short stories to have been published elsewhere first, so you could try to assemble some previously published stuff into a submission–then read the info below and submit!

AWP Award Series:  The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction

Who/What is Illegible:  The competition is open to all authors writing in English regardless of nationality or residence.   Only book-length manuscripts are eligible.

What They Want:  Poetry-48 pages minimum text; short story collection and creative nonfiction-150-300 manuscript pages; novel-at least 60,000 words.

How They Want It:  Snail Mail.  Manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced on good quality paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Poetry manuscripts may be single-spaced. Photocopies or copies from letter-quality printers are acceptable, but dot matrix is not acceptable. Manuscripts should not be bound or in a folder; they must be binder-clipped or rubber-banded together.  See more submission guidelines here.

Fee?  $30

Prize:  The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry is an award of $5,000 and publication for the best book-length manuscript of poetry. This competition is open to published and unpublished poets alike. The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction awards the winner $5,000 and publication. Winners in the novel and creative nonfiction categories receive a $2,000 cash honorarium from AWP and publication. The Award Series conducts an evaluation process of writers, for writers, by writers. AWP hires a staff of “screeners” who are themselves writers; the screeners review manuscripts for the judges. Typically, the screeners will select ten manuscripts in each genre for each judge’s final evaluations.

Good Luck!

My Burning House Moment: Going Back for the Memories and the Memoir

All 26 notebooks (I'm fond of marble composition books...and plaid ducktape)

I live on the coast of Pennsylvania.  This means that if New Jersey someday sinks into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean, I would have beach front real estate (not that I wanted them to get washed away in the hurricane!  I’m not heartless!).  So for all of you hearing about New Jersey being a disaster zone, don’t forget about the little corner of the keystone state that was hit pretty hard too.  There are a lot of people who still haven’t gotten their power back and had to dump the rotten contents of their refrigerator.  My house was lucky in that we only got flooded and lost our phone/cable/internet for the past 3.5 days (hence why I did not update the blog properly, I’m sure you understand).

But one thing we did have that was rather unusual and terrifying was a Tornado Warning.  This is much more serious than a Tornado Watch.  Though some of you out in the middle states are probably laughing at me for getting so spooked because places like Kansas actually deal with real tornadoes (does Kansas get tornadoes?  Or is this a stereotype I picked up from Wizard of Oz?) my mom forced my sister and I into the basement to “wait it out.”

I admit it.  I was legitimately scared.  It was exactly like that time when I was a freshman in the dorms and there was a fire drill except I thought it was a real fire so I grabbed my teddy bear, my scrapbook, and my computer, shoved them in a gym bag and ran.  False alarm, but still.  It’s interesting to examine what’s important to you based on that panic-driven grab and flee process. On Saturday night, Mom said I had five minutes to drag all my blankets and pillows to the basement.  I spent most of those five minutes trying to decide, a la The Burning House, what I needed to save.  Well, actually, it only took me 30 seconds to decide what was the one thing I could not live the rest of my life without; the thing that I needed to protect from all forms of natural disaster: my memories.

I threw 30+ diaries (dating from 5th grade until present), my middle school and high school year books (these made the cut mostly because they were on the same shelf as all the diaries or else I wouldn’t have thought of them), and my external hard drive in a plastic packing case and, lifting the 50 pound crate with fear-inspired Herculean strength, managed to get it to the basement without pausing or setting it down once.  My scrapbook collection lives in the basement already, so those were already safe. [Edited and added:  forgot to mention that I was practical and also packed my glasses, so I wouldn’t be blind should my flimsy contacts fail me.  You’ve got to think ahead!]

The crate, my diaries and yearbooks, hiding in my tornado-free basement

Once, I misplaced one of my diaries.  It wasn’t even a diary that I had been writing in at the time, it was a few months old.  But I threw a fit, accusing my parents of stealing it to read (something they would never do), and I spiraled into a pit of despair.  I completely blacked out and couldn’t remember what had happened in my life during the few months that the missing diary chronicled. I felt like a huge chunk of me was missing and that I would never get it back.  I’m sure psychologists would have a few things to say about that, but I digress.

What I realized from my grab-and-go was that there is nothing more precious than our memories.  Sounds a little corny worded like that, but whatever.  I just want to encourage a little round of applause for writers who write memoirs, creative non-fiction, plain old non-fiction, autobiography, whatever you want to call it.  You’re preserving one of the most important treasures, in my opinion.

What would you grab-and-go with?