March 2016


Why We Write
 
Sometimes we are compelled to write. About someone - some thing - some place. And in that act of writing, we come to understand the why of such compulsion. Here, Diane Douiyssi (Bloomington, IL) shares her why.           --Mary Kay Shanley
 
I've found many reasons to write in my life. I've written while traveling alone, staying at hostels across Italy and marveling at the vibrant kindness of strangers. I've lived in Morocco and Argentina, and I've written through culture shock and through not speaking the language, desperate I'd never understand.  I've also written through the loneliness of moving to new places, following family for new opportunities, and leaving friends
Diane Douiyssi
 and comfortable spaces behind.  
 
I've written through the exhaustion and worry of becoming a new mother, when I placed so much weight on my shoulders I wonder how I stood up every day. I've also written to try to catch my girls' fleeting childhoods, hoping to hold as many whispery memories as I could before they slipped away - the scent of their soft hair, their little mittens reaching for snowflakes.
 
There were many times I wrote through gritted teeth. I'd decided I wanted to be a Writer, and I had to create something. There were also many times when I didn't write. Although after awhile, I'd always somehow find myself writing about not writing.
 
Lately though, I've sensed a shift. I delight in putting a scene together, watching the images appear at the very moment I need them. Time disappears as I race to catch the words of a sentence. I like playing with words, too, rummaging around to find the perfect one. It could be "sapphire" or "cerulean." Or maybe it's simply blue. I love to tinker with the order, too, making the phrase sound just right, and I get a delicious thrill when a sentence clicks into place.  Sometimes when I write, I am filled with awe, momentarily taken aback at the beauty of an image. Other times, I feel a sense of wonder. Like a child, clapping her hands. Look at how pretty that sentence is!  
 
My sister and I used to spend long afternoons in our room, spinning stories onto loose-leaf paper and hurrying to read them aloud. Now, it seems I've found my way back there again, creating characters and dialogue, playing with sentences and words. I'm enchanted by writing, and when I pull out my notebook and begin to write, I move into joy. I write because it makes my soul sing.
 
If you are sometimes compelled to write, consider sharing your "why" with us. For more information: 

The Iowa Short Fiction Award & John Simmons Short Fiction Award

eligibility, requirements and submission. Entries must be postmarked between August 1 and September 30. 


 

Greetings from Mary Kay Shanley

If you've never gone to a funeral in the Midwest, followed by lunch in the church basement, you can't understand the legendary power of Jell-O. Until perhaps the mid-'90s, church ladies lovingly set serving tables laden with cold meat sandwiches, deviled eggs, chips & dips, and a plethora of salads, including Jell-O.

These days, church ladies have day-jobs so lunch is delivered from the grocery store deli. If you grew up on comfort food (meat, potatoes, green beans, corn, iceberg lettuce and Jell-O), the seeming demise of a dish that shimmers is just one more nail in the coffin (so to speak).
 
But one can feel melancholy about a growing-up staple just so long. I'd about reached my limit of melancholy when friend Robin Kline sent me Lora Smith's article, Electric Jell-O/Refrigeration Brought the Jiggle to Rural Appalachia from Gravy, a quarterly publication. Smith's article discusses oral histories now preserved in Gathering the Stories of Appalachian Foodways: An Oral History Project, archived at Berea (KY) College.
 
Did you know? Jell-O is a powder made from ligament and bone. It's been around since the early 1900s, including cities in Appalachia, but not in the rural areas, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia. People there weren't hooked up to electrical grids until the early '50s, with refrigeration and Jell-O not far behind. Women in the oral histories project mentioned a "Fancy Jell-O salad," reserved for holidays...as a modern dish that became a family tradition."
 
Which takes me back to Uncle Frank and Aunt Frances's Iowa farmhouse for all my growing-up Thanksgivings. One year's experience ended up in my essay in Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie/Midwestern Writers on Food:
 
"Being Midwestern, we still passed the staples well into the 1980s: strawberry Jell-O with shredded carrots, lime Jell-O with crushed pineapple, and occasionally, orange Jell-O with miniature marshmallows. Then one year my mother's bowl of Jell-O deviated from the family norms. Majorly. Cherry Jell-O with little white balls suspended throughout. The bowl joined the endless procession, following the potatoes and gravy and corn around the table. But the procession stopped abruptly when somebody handed the bowl to Jerry, who looked into the shimmering maroon to wonder at those little white balls. "What the hell's in this Jell-O?" he asked.
 
"'Jerry, hush?' his wife said.
 
"'No, really, what's in this Jell-O? Who made Jell-O with white balls?'
 
"'Jerry, hush!'
 
"'I did,' my mother leaned forward. "From a recipe in Better Homes and Gardens. You soften some cream cheese and make little balls out of it with a melon-ball scoop. I had to go clear back to Hy-Vee just to get one of those scoops."
 
"'Your magazine said to put cream cheese in the Jell-O? You are kidding, Irene."
 
"'Jerry! Hush!'
 
"'Yes,' my mother replied. 'I think you'll like it. My bridge club did.'
 
"And so did Jerry because, by this time, my mother had become the matriarch of our extended family. In fact, she's most likely the reason the grandmothers were finally eating with the men."
 
To read Lora Smith's article:
 
The Appalachian Foodways Oral History Collection: