To Not Flinch

Sacramento is in a quiet golden literary age, in my opinion. We enjoy an embarrassment of riches of independent booksellers, a poetry community, regular spoken word, poetry series and open mic events, and a bunch of critically acclaimed, courageous, badass writers doing great work.

I say it’s a quiet golden age because Sacramento is not famous yet for being a hotbed of literary courage. Yet whenever I attend Sacramento Stories on Stage on the last Friday of the month, or a book launch at Time Tested Books, I leave inspired and amazed that I share at least a day job zip code with these authors.

Last week I attended an event at Time Tested Books celebrating the release of Jennifer Pashley’s novel Scamp released by Tin House Books. Sacramento’s own Jodi Angel introduced Jennifer, reading a story of her own as a warm-up act. You should buy their books.

I’m pretty open in my admiration for Jodi Angel’s work, specifically the short story collection You Only Get Letters from Jail. Her work encapsulates a certain hardscrabble young male experience in our culture that in literature is largely misunderstood or ignored. She is unsentimental in her perspective of how rough life can get for people who struggle on a basic level for survival, yet somehow remains respectful of her characters even in their lowest moments. Her writing is gorgeous and spare at the same time. I don’t even know how that happens. I read and reread as a study.

At the end of the evening, the authors invited questions from the audience. Someone asked them why they wrote about people who were poor and came from such difficulties. Jodi Angel said that what she and Jennifer Pashley had in common was a willingness to look at the reality of how hard life is and not flinch. I am probably paraphrasing inadequately, but not flinching was definitely in there.

As a writer I can think of no higher aspiration than to be willing to look at reality that as a culture we would rather ignore.  In my own stories I try to figure out what happens when:

  •  a recovering drug addict man and an Iraqi war veteran woman get married and have to navigate his Irish Catholic family that just wants everything to be nice.
  •  a meth-addicted lesbian teenager from a homophobic family steals her ex-aunt’s car to visit her girlfriend in Oroville.
  • an aging man’s grip on reality grows increasingly fragile as his grown son absconds all responsibility for himself or his pregnant girlfriend.
  • a good man in love with his wife finds himself attracted to the troubled but gorgeous wife of his arrogant older brother.
  • an aging matriarch struggling with cancer treatments faces a ride home from radiation therapy with the one daughter-in-law she can’t stand.
  • during math class a ninth grade girl miscarries a pregnancy that no one knew she was carrying.

Jodi Angel and Jennifer Pashley achieve the thing I’m going for. I’m lucky to have their stories to read. I’m lucky to live in a town with independent bookstores that welcome writers with integrity. I’m lucky to write about people who aren’t lucky with such cool authors to read for encouragement.

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Click on the covers to link to Tin House where you can buy their books which you should.

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