Tag Archives: Newspaper

To Brockport, From Goddard, With Love

Goddard College Clockhouse

Goddard College Clockhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t traveled much in my lifetime.  I can count the times I’ve been out of the country on one hand, and most of those trips were hour-long drives to Niagara Falls, when I’d squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath over the Rainbow Bridge.

I love Vermont.  During this residency at Goddard College, my MacBook is on its last leg, and I had too much Sauvignon Blanc last night.  I’ve never been to France, and I can’t do that accent, so I practiced “Sauvignon Blanc” over and over, meaning to order it without sounding idiotic or pretentious.  Practice doesn’t make everything perfect.  I can hardly get the keys on my Mac to type words I’ve spelled since first grade.

Yesterday, I tried to get to the RocRoots page from my aging Mac to see a story I’d written for the Democrat & Chronicle about Edgar Coapman and his dog.  It took me an hour.  I managed, and the piece looked like it had when I sent it out, familiar in many ways–not just in the way that it was my work, but in the way that it was my place, as though I can peer into the depths of this village I call home, all the way from Goddard, the place I call home for this week.

I’ve been out of town for a few days, and since, life has gone on in startling ways–my brother gave birth to kidney stones, my sons have become still more articulate (and are getting along), my uncle has come to visit from Florida, bringing with him a larger sense of home than can fit between the boundaries of our village, our house has glimpsed, perhaps, its new owners, and I am here, on the outside, gathering reports like I do during research– only reporting from decades later–preparing to write some story, some thing that can hold tight to pulp of human life.

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The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

What’s better than being both compelled to, and compliant in, sharing your work as a writer?

A vintage ice cream truck

A vintage ice cream truck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you, Lizz Schumer, Goddard Alum, for tagging me, linking me to your visceral writing that awes me and scares me at the same time.  I will tag two people to do this who are so alive with writing energy: Anne Panning, an award-winning writer of fiction, my writing mentor, and unofficial life-coach.  And also Sarah Freligh, whose poetry rips me away from myself, and whose Poetry Bootcamp rocks my world.

I’m lucky to have them in my writing community.

Writing, for most of us, the sitting at a keyboard, pecking away at keys and at our brains, is solitary–and almost looked down on for being solitary.  I love the solitary act of writing, but writing is not engaging unless the writer does some real work, investigates their presence in the world, becomes a private eye–not just to their own lives–but to the mysteries of the lives and places around us, what’s between the shingles and the dry wall.  To use a bit of my father’s love of the insulation world, to jump into the fiberglass and the cellulose until you’re itching in your sleep and you wake up with bleeding nail scrapes and hard scabs for picking.

So here it is: a way to propose what we plan to offer, a way to support writers whose work we admire and whose process we are curious of.

What is the working title of your book?

My project is a collection of short fiction based on news articles unearthed from archives in Brockport, NY, so I have an inkling that the title will arise from one of the stories that I am in the process of writing.  The title is important because it cannot alienate those who aren’t from Brockport.  These are stories inspired by a history that all towns have lived through.  It just so happens that I’m obsessed with examining Brockport as a way to explore the human condition, how a small-town university, a canal, a former center of industry, how all of these things unique to my own roots, creep into the world.  That said,  I’ve considered a couple–The Local Rag, From Where I am, but ehh, it probably won’t be either of these.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Wartime housewives, untethered college students, rogue pets, and barnstorming doctors wave up from the history of a town, each meeting, and often battling, life on their own terms–in grief, anger, tragedy, surprise and love.

How long did it take you to write?

It is still in the works, but as far as I’m concerned, this love of community and sense of place has been growing since I was child beneath the noontime siren of the village and the ding of the Skippy truck’s bell or the mesmerizing spill of the bubbled puddles that fell from rain outside of the Kleen Brite factory.  I can’t honestly say that I can separate any part of me from this project.  It is as much in my bones as marrow.  I linger extra long in Java Junction’s restroom to read the newspaper ads from The Brockport Republic that plaster its walls.  I nearly slept with a collection of local ghost stories called Valley of the Ghosts under my pillow when I was ten.  I refuse to leave SUNY Brockport, the college I attended for six years because I love earth beneath it.  I, admittedly, have spent hours researching the lives of strangers on Ancestry.com simply because they were “murdered” by a dog in Brockport’s Erie Canal in the 1930s.  So I guess that is how this all started, as an obsession that I finally realized.  These are the stories that inform my writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See above.

But I have two little boys for whom I want to preserve every bit of their history–family, local, anything to do with where they come from–just for them.  I want to be sure that writing, which keeps me away from them physically and mentally, comes back to them to show how the people we love are not as bound up in place and time as we might think.

Also, my husband, who is just completely supportive and way more generous with patience (and I am ashamed to say this) than I am.

My family is supportive of  me writing a book, and the energy that I devote to it, even though I am sometimes skeptical of it myself–a recognized addition.  Though my mother does wonder why I am consumed with people who are already dead.  For me, there’s real guilt there.

What genre does your book fall under?

Realism.  I struggle with labeling it as historical fiction because it spans from the 1920’s-1980’s, which feels almost too recent to consider history.  But, I can’t deny the historical research I’ve had to do in order to write these stories, so yeah, of course, there’s history.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a move rendition?

Ha.  My favorite character in any of the pieces I’ve written so far is, strangely enough, the college-aged version of Joel Rifkin before he “became” the serial killer.  He attended SUNY Brockport for a bit in the late 70s, and stole bottle of soy sauce from the Convenient Mart next to the train tracks.  That was the only thing on his record when he was arrested for murdering 17 women much later.  I imagine his character to look like a cross between Wes Bentley  from American Beauty and Michael Cera.  Their impossible love-child.

What else about your book might pique readers’ interest?

These are the quirky anecdotes that have been lost in everyday life.  These are the stories we wish our great grandparents told us.  These are the parts of our world that we don’t know enough about, so we have no option to forget.


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.