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Inheritance, the new book by Dennis Finocchiaro, details the life of his grandfather, Rosario “Charlie” Finocchiaro, from 1920s Philadelphia to World War II, all the way up through his retirement in Havertown. I sat down with Dennis to ask him a few questions about the upcoming memoir to learn everything from his process to what his family thinks of the new project.

Many people hear the stories from their grandparents, but not many take the time to actually put the stories down on paper. What made you decide to do it?

Well, it all started out as a graduate school project. I’ve always been a fiction writer but had to take a nonfiction class, which meant stepping out of my comfort zone (something I think everyone should do from time to time). I was having trouble coming up with something to write about when we had a family party and my grandfather told one of his famous stories. When he finished everyone was laughing and that was when the idea hit me. So I brought a camera over one day and recorded our conversation.

How did he feel about having a camera recording what he was saying? 

I thought he would feel awkward, but he acted like it was an audience. He was VERY comfortable talking in front of a camera. I was surprised.

What was the most fascinating thing you learned from this experience?

Probably some of the war stories. I never had any idea of what he’d been through. The most surprising was the story he told about an attack on a harbor and the huge explosions that took place when a tanker was hit. But I don’t want to give too much away.

Your story is written in less of a linear, chronological fashion, and more of a jump-around kind of way. Would you say this symbolizes the way we remember our own pasts? What was the inspiration behind writing in this way?

At first I tried doing it chronologically, but that ended up in the trash. It took a few tries before I figured out the best way to do it. I wrote it in the same way people tell stories. They jump around, and a story will sometimes trigger a totally unrelated story. And yes, it definitely is written in the way we remember our own histories.

Did you ever find it difficult to write so personally about someone so close to you?

Not at all. I guess as comfortable as he was in front of the camera, I was at the laptop. I asked permission on a few items that people said, of course, to make sure they didn’t mind.

I think the hard part was refraining from putting him up on a pedestal. I didn’t want him to sound like a saint, because he wasn’t. He had his negatives, just like anyone. As a matter of fact, in the first draft I turned in, the main comments were that it was too positive, too much of an “I love my grandfather” story. So I talked to a few people who would remember some of the negatives and added to it.

Has becoming so in depth with your grandfather’s past help you to understand your own life more? Have you discovered parallels?

Wow… that’s a tough question. His life was so different from what I’ve gone through. He was a contractor; I’m a professor and writer. He went to war, and we don’t really have wars that have that aura of importance like WWII, you know? But knowing his past really taught me a lot about him that I never would have known otherwise.

How do you think this story can inspire others?

I think it’s really important to sit down and get to know our elders. They are a major part of our history and everyone I talk to since the book came out says “I wish I’d done this with my grandparents.” And hell, I did it with one, and still regret not doing the same with all of them before it was too late. But if my dad and uncle learned things about him they didn’t know, then of course I think everyone should do something similar. Even if it isn’t with a camera, even if they just take them out for lunch, or tea, or whatever. Get to know them before it’s too late!

Finally, how has your family responded to the project?

They adore it. Part of the epilogue I wrote even has my uncle’s email that he wrote after reading it while he was writing my grandfather’s eulogy. As a matter of fact, the daughter of one of my grandfather’s cousins wrote my dad and said how amazing of an idea this was. Then she shared some of her own stories about her dad, so I guess it’s already inspiring some people.

Inheritance is a publication by WragsInk and is Dennis Finocchiaro’s third publication, following The Z Word and Capturing a Moment. The book can be purchased on Amazon. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, be sure to look for upcoming promotional appearances for this and other WragsInk publications.

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Yesterday, on the unseasonably warm April day in Philadelphia, I cleaned out my closets. Or, really, I cleaned the clothing racks that hold my wardrobe, since I don’t actually *have* closets (the downside of living in what used to be a warehouse). This is a relatively annual ritual, something I do around this time every year. Spring-cleaning, as they say. Out with the old and unworn (or worn too much), in with the new and fresh. As my past roommates can attest, I used to be terrible at this activity, clinging on to clothes well past their due date, ones that I hadn’t worn in months and wouldn’t wear for months, if ever again, just for the possibility that maybe (just maybe) there would be the off-chance that I’d wear it again. Someday. In the future. Assuming I’d still be the same size, that is. (Read: not happening.) In any case, I like to think in recent years I’ve gotten better. For instance, today I managed to rid myself of plenty of old clothes, being diligent and restrictive to what would constitute my new spring and summer wardrobe. It left me feeling freer, lighter, infinitely less cluttered. My bedroom itself looks like it just took a large breath, as if the life it once had was finally flowing through it again.

Of course, I’m not writing this to discuss my wardrobe. (A collective sigh of relief from the audience.) I’m writing because as I was de-cluttering and breathing new life into my apartment, I got to thinking about the current novel-length writing project that I’ve been working on since January and, it can be said, still have a ways to go on. It’s the one piece of writing that has consumed my thoughts for months. Sixty thousand words in, I’ve hit the proverbial wall. Though I’d say it’s a small one, small because I haven’t crashed into it headlong yet, small because it’s more of a turbulent bounce than a scrap-the-whole-project obstacle. It’s more of a mini hurdle. I won’t bore you with the specifics, as I assume if you’re reading this it means you’re taking a break from your own writing, or thinking about your own writing, or anxiously awaiting the time you can get back to your writing, etc. Suffice it to say, my issue has to do with chronology and timing and all that fun stuff that could, frustratingly enough, make or break the entire thing.

But as I was on my “out with the old” tirade, I had a thought. Perhaps what I’d needed all along with my wardrobe was a bit of perspective. A stronger voice to say, “No, Alisha, you won’t wear that green dress you’ve clung to since college. You know why? Because it no longer works for you. And it probably still has remnants of a 2009 keg party, for that matter.” A voice to argue down the notion to hold out hope for the day in which the green dress will finally “work” again. Because it won’t. It will just hang there, dying a slow death, unworn and fading, until I finally do give it away, frustrated that I hadn’t months before when I should have. 

Which brings me back to my story. I’ve written before about realizing when things no longer work and accepting the challenge of changing your story (small or drastically so). What I discovered today was that my piece needed was a bit of spring-cleaning. A slightly more awakened perspective. A change in my thought process. And with this new, revitalized sense of being, I answered my own question about what I should change in my story. It is, in the long run, a simple change, and one that will be easy to fix (thankfully), but is, as I realize it now, incredibly necessary.

So this is what I leave you with: like the clutter that we hang on to in our lives and in our apartments, such is the clutter that we keep with us in our writing. We may not realize it until the decision is made to rid of it, but afterwards we wonder why on earth we kept it for so long to begin with.

I propose a challenge. Take your story. Whatever isn’t working, whatever it is you’re fighting so hard to make right, instead of being witness to the words you’ve written slowly dying on the page, breathe a little life into your story by taking a chance. By this I mean, look at it differently and change what’s not working. With any luck, you’ll open up the doors to something completely new and exciting, something you wouldn’t have even considered a few weeks ago. As for the old stuff, unlike clothes (unless you have big closets, in which case I’m envious), you can always save it and come back to it some other time, though I think you’ll find you were right by cleaning it out in the first place.

As always, you can follow me @alishakathryn.

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The Greatest Love

Story Ever Told

(in My Opinion)

by Dennis Finocchiaro

Love stories come and go. Most anyone can say they cried reading The Notebook. And let’s face it, The Princess Bride is probably the actual greatest love story ever told, or we can at least agree to disagree. But whenever I think of true love, I think of a small segment of my favorite book of all time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Of course, these days, everyone has heard of the book because it’s now a movie, or they’re just finding out the movie is based on a book as they read these words. Surprise! (This surprise is only for the misinformed, and I doubt that includes people who end up on this blog). But no, while this book is about the love between a mother and son and in no way romantic, a story within the story is the absolute purest form of love ever created.

I am writing about, of course, the fairy tale Oscar’s dad tells him, of The Sixth Borough.

In this tale, there was once a sixth borough of New York, an island that nobody remembers. Every year they had a big party, the climax being when a man famous for jumping would jump the small amount of water between NYC and this sixth borough. Once year, he finds he can’t make it across. And the next, he jumps and lands in deeper water. At first, the people think the logical: the jumped is getting old. But he insists he has not lost any of his jump (haha) and so they measure the distance only to find that the island is moving away from New York City.

And, of course, this doesn’t sound romantic at all, does it? The story continues past this celebration to two children, a boy and a girl, who are in love. The boy lives in the sixth borough and the girl across the small amount of water. They chat through cups on a string, which of course is absolutely adorable in and of itself. But as the island escapes the mainland, they have to keep adding to the line.

The string from his yo-yo.

The pull from her talking baby doll.

The list goes on. The two kids slowly destroy everything they love just so that they continue talking until, one day, they realize it’s going to end. The boy asks the girl to say “I love you” into her can and captures the words on his end, sealing the cup and placing it on a shelf so that, to this day, as the sixth borough has ended up in Antartica, “On a frozen shelf, in a closet frozen shut, is a can with a voice inside it.”

Why do I think this is the greatest love story of all time? Maybe I don’t, maybe I just absolutely adore it and couldn’t think of another story that gave me the same feeling as this one. But whenever I think of the sixth borough, I get chills. I even went to NYC once and took pictures that reminded me of the tale. Jonathan Safran Foer told a hell of a story in ELIC, but he also made up this fairy tale that made me fall in love with New York and the romantic side of the city. The purity of the love between these two children is described with the diction of a master, and hell, maybe I just have a soft spot for fairy tales.

But then again, there’s always those terrible moments in novels, and let’s face it, not everyone can write a good love story. Vonnegut, for instance, is without a doubt one of my favorite writers. But his stories tended to sway from romance, which was smart. He knew his genre and what worked with his stories; but one of his greatest unrecognized traits was that he avoided what he knew didn’t work. Brilliant. But not everyone is as intelligent as that; ask anyone who reads the Twilight books.

They are my example of romance that doesn’t work for me. And trust me, it’s not the teen angst aspect of the story, I eat that shit up when it’s well-written. But those books were just plain terrible. I know it’s become cliché to make fun of them, but the writing isn’t even any good. Many people ask me how I can love Harry Potter but hate Twilight, and that’s so simple: it’s the writing. J.K. Rowling is one hell of a writer. Her imagery creates moments in my mind out of things that are purely fiction. Like I know what a thestral is, right? But her words describe it and I imagine it. That’s what’s missing from all of the scenes, not just the love scenes, in the Twilight saga.

I can willingly admit I am a fan of a romantic novel. Nick Hornby has written a few that I love. Caprice Crane has, too. But they are artists, working words into stories that grab the reader and pull them in. Twilight just didn’t do that for me. I could never understand Bella’s love for a vampire, nor could I see the attraction. And trust me, I’ve even admittedly read books like The Notebook and A Walk to Remember (would anyone believe me if I claimed they were read for a class?), and as embarrassing as it is, I will admit that I fell in love with the characters. Jamie Sullivan from the latter was written with such a love of life and a purity that I couldn’t help but adore her.

That’s what was missing with Bella Swan and her boys. There was no real reason to care about them, to connect with them or to even want Bella to clearly be with either Jacob or Edward. Readers chose a side with no real reason. Or because they thought one actor was cuter than the other.

So there you have it; I admit, I enjoy a nice, mushy, well-written love story sometimes, but it has to have some literary merit. Is there anything wrong with that?

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Ahh, February. The month of looove. For some, it’s that special time when you curl up with the one you care about (or a book) and whisper sweet nothings to him or her (or it, a book), take him or her out to dinner (or it, the book, though I’ll say, it need not be a special occasion for me to take my book out to dinner). For others, it’s just another month in the long stretch of winter when we’re forced to plan our immediate futures and more importantly, spring shopping, around a groundhog. In some cases, it’s both. (Come onnn February, how can I possibly sit through an extra day of you this year?)

Whether you love it or you hate it, February holds that key day that has the ability to be somewhat fun, but mostly very annoying, all at the same time. You’ve guessed it: it’s Valentine’s Day. In honor of the special looove day, Den and I have teamed up to present something special to you. No, it’s not flowers, or chocolate, or lingerie. Though we thought about it.

Instead, we present to you our first-and-probably-last-ever-edition of: What It Takes To Write A Really Freakin’ Good Love Story (Or Scene), And How (Unfortunately) Possible It Is To Really Suck At It.

Check back Monday and Tuesday for Parts 1 and 2 of our series, as Den tackles the beautiful, sappy, mushy love, and I go in for, well, the other stuff.

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By Shawn Proctor

“I hate writing, I love having written.”
―Dorothy Parker

For many writers the thrill and pride of a finished work, refined and polished, motivates them. They feel pride in the accomplishment. Like Dorothy Parker, they are happiest looking at their body of published work.

Not me.

My stories divide into two categories: published and active. When a story has been committed to print part of me celebrates that it has been completed, part mourns its loss because I know what happens next. The piece goes out into the world to readers. It is not mine anymore. And other stories, ones I am still writing and editing, take its place. Like a friend who has moved far away, the story becomes less familiar over time until one day I no longer feel connected to it. The spark of inspiration vanishes. I can revisit the story, see its merits and flaws, but the experience is as a reader, not as a writer.

Active stories, like Anthology Philly’s “Heartwood,” excerpted from my unpublished novel The Sugarmaker’s Son, stay a part of my active imagination. I ponder them in quiet moments. I see reflections of their narrative arc when I read fiction or watch a movie. They are companions and friends.

My favorite moments as a writer come from the rush of finishing a first draft, the struggle of revision, and the craft of editing. Each stage presents a different challenge and reward. It’s the thrill of finding the just right detail or turn of phrase that keeps me writing. But I don’t hate “having written,” as Ms. Parker says. Publication ends my attachment to older stories. It clears space in my mind for the next short story, the next novel, the next character who will tiptoe close and begin to whisper.

Shawn Proctor is one of the authors from the upcoming book Anthology Philly. He can be followed on his blog and his twitter is @shawnproctor.

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Why I Love My Typewriter

Wragsthinks blogger Dennis Finocchiaro will be discussing his love of typewriters and why he thinks they’re making a resurgence. Here’s a little teaser video, a special news piece that ran on CBS last Sunday.

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After having just written my twenty-thousandth word in my novel, part of me feels like I should have a petite celebration. It is a time for celebration: last year at this time I couldn’t imagine writing this many words, let alone completing a one-hundred-thousand-word manuscript. Instead I’m stuck, still feeling the latent effects of my Writer’s Guilt Hangover. You see, this is my second attempt at a first novel. After having written nearly sixty thousand words in a first draft, I did something many seasoned writers and college professors tell you not to do: I shelved the thing. Allow me to explain.

If you’ve ever been through an M.F.A. course, or if you’ve talked to a self-righteous or inexperienced writer (or both embodied in one person, a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, not that rare) you’ll know that the last thing you should do is quit your novel, especially if you’re more than, say, 40 or 50k into it. A few months ago, I’d agree whole-heartedly. I’d have been one of the inexperienced self-righteous Master’s students spewing some kind of “Keep going! You can do it! If you quit you’ll never finish anything!” adage. Oh, how we grow.

I’ve now realized that saying that to a talented yet struggling writer can be more detrimental than helpful. (Or perhaps I just figured this out now while every other inexperienced/self-righteous/M.F.A student knew this already… we writers are a conniving bunch, aren’t we?) But let’s think about this. Truthfully, if you’re that far in to it, it does seem to only make sense to keep pushing through, fix whatever problems there are and at least finish the damn thing.

  But what about the instances when your baby turns into a behemoth without a plot and with too many characters? What about when the problems that you’ve known were there all along become irrevocable? Or even worse, what if you lose the passion you once had for it? After all, when you decide to write a novel, you’re doing it because you have something to say, right? There’s no “Oh, I have this half-assed idea that I’m only semi-interested in.” Of course not. There’s rarely a plan without passion. (If this is the case, you should probably question your career choice. Unless you’re an ex-politician or B-rated actor, I suppose.) There is, however, the far more common passion without a plan. And that’s what we, as writers, need to work through.

What I’ve realized with my writing style: I’m a character gal. I love my characters. I know everything about them. I think about them: what they would think in certain situations, how they would act, what they would feel, what they would say. The problem that occurs for me: I focus so much on my characters that I completely neglect a plot. In my story, because I had lost the plan (or, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, only had a vague idea of a plan to begin with) I in turn began to lose the passion.

It didn’t happen all at once; in fact it was quite gradual. It’s almost like being in a relationship with one person while fantasizing about someone else; I found myself drawing up new characters and (for the first time) forming a plot that actually made sense, though it had nothing to do with my current one. I dismissed the stray thoughts and continued pushing forward with my original story, writing another thirty thousand words of dialogue, character portrayals, and even a few racy scenes in an effort to add spice to what was quickly becoming inconsequential dribble. It was to no avail, and did nothing more than add another limb to my story that didn’t really connect with anything else. Still though, in the back of mind all I could think of was what my group of writer friends would say. They’d been with me, reading and editing and giving feedback on this story for months. I knew they wouldn’t let me “quit.”

Then one day, I got over it. It kind of just happened. I hadn’t written anything for a few days, and what’s worse, I had turned apathetic towards what I’d created, having no idea where to go with it. So, I let my guilt go almost completely. But before I told anyone, I began writing. The first ten thousand came easily, and after that I knew I had more momentum than I’d ever had with the first story. Many of the characters from the original molded themselves into my new characters, but as it stands, the new characters couldn’t be as fully thought out without the first round of characters to draw from.

Finally, riding on the confidence of that early writing surge, I told my friends. I let them each know individually, nervously over explaining and over gesticulating in an effort to win their approval and avoid the disappointed faces and forced encouragement to “Keep going!” because “It’s good! You can fix the problems!” What I received from them in return was an overwhelming sigh of relief: they were just as pleased that I was moving on from the story as I was. One lovely but honest friend said, “Not to offend, but I think you came to the end of your rope with that one.” Which was exactly what I needed to hear. The next day I put my old story in its own folder, where one day I may return to it, and moved on with my new one.

One final thing, from one struggling writer to another: being a writer is not easy, as most of you already know. It is lonely, it is time-consuming, it is stressful. But the reality is, if you’ve resided yourself to being a writer, you already love it, and you don’t need me to remind you of that. I’m not saying to bow out at the first sign of trouble. If that were the case, no one would be published (I guess except for F. Scott and the many others who wrote while relatively wasted).

The point is to recognize when trouble is occurring, and assess the damage. Can you still fix it? More importantly, do you want to still fix it? Only you know the answer. Don’t let the guilt get to you, because this is your story. Would you rather complete something you don’t really like, or take a few more months (or years) to finish something you truly care about? My advice: don’t waste your time with a ship that has already sailed. Break up with it. Chances are, it won’t call to beg you back, and if your friends are any good at all, they’ll be pleased to see it gone, too. Remind yourself that you were never that happy when it was around anyway, and move on to the one that sends you bouquets of roses when you least expect it.

Alisha Ebling is a writer and blogger living in Philadelphia. You can read her blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/hettiejones and follow her @alishakathryn.

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