Why Are All the Characters Named Jack or Emma?

Years ago—decades, really—I bought a book called “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” published in 1991. I bought it not to name a child, but to name the characters in a story I was writing. I was in middle school in the early ’90s; yes, I’ve been writing forever.

I discovered “The Baby Name Personality Survey” at my then-beloved local bookstore, the Tudor Bookshop. In 2008, the Tudor closed it doors for the last time, citing “rent issues and the economics of independent bookselling.”

The Tudor sat at the corner of Wyoming Avenue, a main road in my Pennsylvania hometown, and East Union Street. Today on East Union Street, there’s a new-ish Italian bakery called AmberDonia, and whenever I’m “back home,” Stanton and I usually stop by here for a lunch of their Romeo and Juliet wood-fired pizza. To get to AmberDonia, we pass the old site of the Tudor.

Growing up, I loved the Tudor. I spent hours of my childhood browsing the titles on the bookshelves and poking through the display of charm bracelets, and corresponding charms, up front near the cash register. Back at my parents’ house, in my childhood bedroom, one of the dresser drawers (top left) still holds a charm bracelet from the Tudor.

If you’re a fan of “The Office,” there’s an episode (not sure which season, unfortunately) in which a coffee mug featuring the Tudor’s logo is on one of the characters’ desks. When I first saw that episode, I nearly burst with pride for my little bookstore, which was located about 20 miles from Scranton, the location of the fictional, Michael Scott-managed “Office.”

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Bookstores still stock baby-name books, but not “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” from what I can tell. It’s been years since I turned to “The Baby Name Personality Survey” myself. I did think of it the other day, though, as I worked on a story I’m writing.

I needed to name some new characters. They’re secondary characters, and I tend to give my secondary characters more original names than my primary ones. They’re not quite as essential, so more wiggle room exists for creativity (kind of like middle names).

I think this is true for a lot of authors. For example, the name Jack. How many main characters have you read whose name is Jack? “Jack” is relatable, an everyday guy, a “good guy.” Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books): Jack Ryan, Jack Taylor, Jack Irish.

Historically female names have a little flair, are a little more fun, are a little varied. While we won’t find a Mary or Emma, say, leading the action in 9 out of 10 plots (not like Jack), we probably will find a female protagonist with a similarly short-and-sweet, not-too-unique moniker: Olive (Kitteridge), Lisbeth (Salander), Eliza (Sommers). To be fair to all the Marys and Emmas out there, though, yours was the name of choice for the heroines in classics like “Mary Poppins” and “The Secret Garden,” as well as “Madame Bovary” and Jane Austen’s aptly titled “Emma.”

In my last published piece of fiction, my main character was Heidi.

Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books)…

So I was working on this new story, and I needed to name some secondary characters. As I have for many years now, I turned to Nameberry, which bills itself as “the world’s biggest baby name database” (online, of course). Maybe you yourself used Nameberry as you prepared to welcome a child into your family (or, like me, tried your hand at fiction).

Nameberry is a fun website, and it easily can become a time suck and rabbit hole. Out of curiosity, you might click on the link “Vintage Baby Names.” Thirty minutes later, you find you’ve “Joined the Conversation” on “Unfortunate initials?” or “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn?”

OK, admit it: You have an opinion on “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn,” don’t you? 😉 No worries, friends; I do too. (Katharine.)

Thanks to Nameberry (with an assist from the Social Security Administration’s “Top names of the 1980s” list), I found what I needed for my story.

The majority of the characters in my story were born in the 1980s. I also was born in the 1980s. (Side note: Melissa comes in at No. 7 on that Social Security Administration list, after Jessica, Jennifer, Amanda, Ashley, Sarah and Stephanie. I’m a product of my time, friends. A product of my time.)

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself (for example, born in the same decade, generation cohort, etc.) is that readers sometimes think the character is the author. This is especially problematic if the author is the same sex as the character, or grew up in a similar setting as the character, or has the same job as the character.

I’ve never been the character in any of my stories, friends. I wasn’t Heidi, for example. I made up Heidi; Heidi is fictional. Experiences from my real life informed my development of the character Heidi, but Heidi does not equal Melissa Leddy, the author.

Still, there are folks who don’t believe authors when they try to explain this. That’s OK; that’s just how it goes.

Because of this issue, though, I try to make all my characters different enough from myself so that people don’t say, “You were Heidi, right?” when they read my work. I also would never name any of my characters Melissa, even if it would fit the story. For an ’80s-bred female character, it’s easy enough to simply go with Jessica or Nicole (No. 8 of the ’80s, according to the Social Security Administration).

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself … is that readers sometimes think the character is the author.

My children are going back to school, very soon. We’re all excited about this…and we also know it’s possible (probable?) that school will need to close again and go remote again, at some point. And at this point, the girls will be back home with me.

My goal, then, is to finish this story before that happens. Finish it, and then get it accepted for publication somewhere. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I would love to get it published somewhere big.

For the moment, however, it’s a work in progress—all of it, from my story to back-to-school plans.

I’m sure there will be a plot twist or two. Conflict, of course. Always some conflict. And somehow, in some way, things will wrap up; “The End.”

Every good storyteller knows the ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it has to be satisfying. Maybe Jack or Emma didn’t get what they wanted—or what they thought they wanted—but there was a journey, there was growth, there was change.

Change for the better we always hope, in both stories and real life.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

Fast Food, Slow Walks and the Kindness of Strangers

On New Year’s Day, the girls wanted to go for a walk. What they really wanted, actually, was to walk to the nearby Stewart’s for ice cream. Ice cream on January 1—sure, sounds good.

Stanton decided to stay home, so Grace, Anna and I bundled up and headed out. It was about 40 degrees and sunny, a beautiful day for winter. The girls ended up riding their bikes, myself walking a bit behind.

Quite a few people were out on the Rail Trail too, and we all exchanged “Happy New Year’s.” Where I was in the world felt fresh, and crisp, and kind.

Stewart’s is locals’ go-to convenience store in upstate New York, similar to Wawa in the Philadelphia region. The girls left their bikes and helmets in the park next door; we walked inside.

We bumped into some people we knew. Everyone’s wardrobe of choice on New Year’s afternoon seemed to fall into the ever-popular “athleisure” category, and I fit right in with my fleece sweatpants and oversized tunic. #winning 😉

The girls ordered kiddie cones of chocolate-chip cookie dough (Grace) and rainbow sherbet (Anna), and I got coffee, of course.

The three of us sat at a table alongside a window. Not long after, an elderly woman sat nearby. We smiled at each other, chitchatted a bit. “Nice the coffee’s free today, for New Year’s,” she said.

I smiled again and nodded.

Grace tugged at my arm. “Was your coffee free, Mom?”

“I’ll tell you later, honey.”

When we were back outside, my older daughter reminded me that it was “later.” I explained to her that no, the coffee wasn’t free, but I thought the folks working at Stewart’s hadn’t charged the white-haired woman for it.

“Why?” Grace wondered.

“I think they could tell she was older and probably didn’t have as much money as she used to.”

Grace smiled. “That was kind.”

I agreed. Stewart’s had been kind. It hadn’t cost them much at all, but it had made a difference to someone.

Where I was in the world felt fresh, and crisp, and kind.

Bearing witness to acts of kindness, no matter how small, is always encouraging—to me, at least. In this week alone, I’ve seen so many acts of kindness. For example, the girls and I were at Hannaford on Monday before dinnertime, and it started to sleet just as we walked back outside to the parking lot with our groceries.

A manager whom I know appeared out of nowhere and asked, “Do you need help getting to your car?” He was very kind, and I thanked him. Although I didn’t take him up on his offer because I knew we’d be OK.

After loading up the car, I maneuvered to exit the parking lot. I was waiting to make a left-hand turn to get in one of the lanes to turn onto the street, when the car opposite me gestured for me to go ahead. Now, I know this is a little thing, but I so appreciate when other drivers do this because making a left can be tricky.

Within five minutes, two acts of kindness. Kindness is there in the world, if we open ourselves to see it. This is my perspective, anyway.

My whole life, I’ve experienced beautiful acts of kindness. I’ve also experienced ugly acts of unkindness. I try to pay forward the kindnesses and focus on the good things, with the belief (however naive it may be) that everything happens for a reason, and comes full circle in the end.

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One of my favorite parts of my Christmas vacation was sitting with my grandmother the Saturday after Christmas. My Grandma resides in a nursing home. She has a cozy room that my mom has decorated with pictures of our family—mostly my girls.

Half a wall is covered in full-color printouts of Grace and Anna, with a sprinkling of my brothers, sister, our cousins and me thrown in.

To the right of all these pictures, a TV is mounted on the wall. That Saturday, Grandma had the Penn State/Memphis football game turned on when my mom and I arrived. I would never choose to watch sports on TV, but if Stanton or, in this case, Grandma has a game on, I don’t mind sitting there and watching it too. I enjoy simply being there.

I totally enjoyed doing just that, being there, with my Grandma that day. She reclined on her bed; I sat in an armchair to her right. To my right was a table displaying the Christmas cards she had received, as well as a box of chocolates—yum.

“Could I have one of these, Grandma?”

“Oh, sure, have as many as you want. Your mother’s been eating them.”

I laughed and looked at my mom, who may or may not have rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Grandma.”

My grandmother was delighted to share her candy with me, and I loved her for it because she doesn’t have very much at this time in her life. What she has, pretty much, fits in her comfy yet small nursing-home room.

After I hugged Grandma good-bye, I reached over to give her another hug. These days, I’m very conscious that I never know when a good-bye might be the last one.  

My grandmother was delighted to share her candy with me, and I loved her for it…

Stanton, the girls and I cherish the time we spend with both our families during the holidays—Thanksgiving with his, Christmas with mine. The past couple of years, we’ve made New Year’s ours—just him, me and the girls—and we’ve especially appreciated this time together too, just the four of us.

On New Year’s Eve, the girls and I stopped by the library to pick out a DVD to watch later that evening. While we were there, we also got some books.

“This is the nonfiction section,” Grace told Anna, pointing to a stack of shelves. “These are the true stories.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to true stories. Listening to them, reading them and—later—writing them. Discovering meaning in things that really happened.

In telling any true story, though, we need to start somewhere. So we pick a beginning, whether in relaying an anecdote to a friend or drafting an article for a magazine. Beginnings can be arbitrary.

Memory isn’t an exact science either. But we do the best we can with our true stories, in the remembering and the telling.

When I write for my website here, I have two main goals. First, I want to tell a good true story. I want to represent life, combining equal parts honesty, humor and inspiration. If my story makes someone reading it smile or laugh out loud or simply feel, then that’s my biggest joy.

Second…I want to remember. I want to remember that we watched “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on New Year’s Eve 2019, after eating homemade French-bread pizza on our good china, which we don’t use enough. Not every detail, and not a vanity project of blog posts…but some of the true stories that meant something to me, that I found meaning in and thought others might enjoy too.

“These are the true stories.”

The girls and I took our time heading back home from Stewart’s. I had some coffee left in my cup; it kept my hands warm as I walked.

The girls would ride their bikes a bit, then stop to examine something on the ground, or chase each other around a bench.

“We’re taking forever,” I finally noted.

“Yep,” Grace and Anna agreed. They were in no rush.

A joy everyone experiences when they’re young—the feeling of having all the time in the world.

No matter how young or old we are, we can appreciate the good things that abound, from hot cups of coffee to slow winter walks and unexpected kindnesses. And our stories—the ones we tell at Christmas dinner tables year after year, where everyone gathered knows the punch lines…the ones we write down, in diaries or online posts…the ones yet to come.

May the best be yet to come.

Happy New Year, friends. ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art

The chrome escalator wound up three floors. On the third floor, Tinseltown-inspired red carpet flowed forward, toward the hallway of smaller theaters. Life-size posters of the latest blockbusters and box-office bombs lined the walls: “Toy Story 4,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Men in Black International.”

Stanton and I had come to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s newest film. The last time we had seen a movie in a movie theater together was—shake your head if you must, friends—more than four years ago. Little kids, work, Saturday-morning soccer games, visits with family and friends…all good things, but movie-theater date night had tumbled toward the bottom of our list of priorities, right there with meticulous personal grooming. 😉

I shared all this with the bespectacled young woman at the ticket counter. “The next time we’re here, it will probably be four years later,” I added. She smiled politely, and slid our two admission tickets across the counter.

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Stanton said, as we walked away hand in hand. The pervasive, ultra-buttery scent of movie-theater popcorn seemed to fall into step with us.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Maybe a title for a blog post?”

“Mel, no.” Stanton gestured around—just a regular day in our life. “This is not a blog post.”

Instantly, we looked at each other, eyes wide. Stanton smiled, sighed. “OK, that’s a good title.”

And it was, until Grace and Anna told me they liked “Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art” better.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers…”

I try to update this, my website, with new writing (in the form of blog posts) at least twice a month. I’m always working on longer pieces behind the scenes…er, screen. These pieces take more time, though: fiction such as short stories, nonfiction like corporate press releases. I want to keep my site as fresh as possible, which Stanton knows. Thus, he knows that I often “think in blog posts.” What a cool quote, cool launching pad for my next post.

I don’t want to exploit my life for my art. It’s a common dilemma among writers, musicians and artists of all kinds. Personal experiences spark creative turns in our professional work. An aha moment hits us, and we try to create something from it without debauching the beauty of our real world.

Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. No doubt. The conscientious writers among us, however, recognize that some stories aren’t ours to tell, no matter how much we camouflage the identifying details of our characters. (We also balk at starting family feuds, or being banished from friends’ speed dials.)

Sometimes, I wonder how many bestselling plots and million-dollar lyrics never saw the light of day (or pages of The New York Times Book Review or Billboard Hot 100).

There’s art, and there’s life.

Then there’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

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I’m not a film critic, so I won’t share an amateur-hour movie review here. All I’ll say is wow. Talk about conflating life and art—this quasi-historical, pop-culture fairy tale centers on Sharon Tate and the Manson Family murders, with a twist…actually, several twists. Totally engaging plot, complicated yet relatable characters, and white-hot, feels-like-L.A. lighting.

And oh, yes…Brad Pitt. Wow again. Wow for both churning out a super-cool yet charming performance and—sigh—still looking mighty fine at age 55.

For our first Valentine’s Day together, back in college, Stanton gave me a “Fight Club” poster featuring Mr. Pitt in all his shirtless, prime-of-life glory—pretty super-cool and charming of Mr. Leddy himself, I’d thought. My college boyfriend turned standing Friday-night date knew I was a fan of the two-time Sexiest Man Alive, as well as “Fight Club.” (I’m not a rom-com girl, which often surprises people. Give me David Fincher, QT, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson any day…although, like everyone else, I do enjoy Nancy Meyers features for the interior design inspirations.)

Coincidentally, this past weekend I stumbled upon an old photo album from college. And there, in the album, was a picture of my very first, freshman-year dorm room. And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

That was 17 years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

Seventeen years. How did that happen?

And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

I believe very strongly in living in the present, making the most of the here and now. From time to time, though, I can be sentimental. I can have a moment of nostalgia.

I had a moment then, friends.

I flipped through a few more pictures. Smiled at the late-teen/early-20s faces of some wonderful college friends, who grew up to become wonderful life friends.

There was another picture, of myself with a good friend who passed away much too soon. He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

This person actually introduced Stanton to me, and meant a lot to us both individually and as a couple.

I held the picture out to Stanton. He looked, and gave me a little smile. Half happy (for the memory) and half sad (because we’d never again have more than that).

“We were all so young and happy,” I said.

“Yes.”

He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

The girls and I were at our town library three days in a row this week. It just kind of happened; there was no grand plan. One day, we returned an overdue DVD; another, we stopped by after playing at a nearby park (and stumbled upon an outdoor concert on the green, complete with complimentary popcorn and temporary tattoos for the kids).

The girls marveled at our good luck. We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The guitarist was strumming the chords to “Edelweiss,” from the classic motion picture “The Sound of Music,” and singing along, the lyrics coasting across the library green: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…”

I said hello to a librarian I know, and mentioned that we often ended up at the library.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” she replied with a smile.

I smiled back. “Totally agree.” (I knew I’d put it in a blog post.)

Where do we end up? What are we doing? How does it all happen?

These can be hard questions, but at least one answer is easy: It all happens fast.

We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The girls go back to school after Labor Day. “Summer went fast,” Grace noted. “I remember the first day of summer vacation.”

Tell me about it, girl. I mean…I remember college. I remember my “Fight Club” poster; I remember 17 years ago.

Once upon a time, we were all so young and happy.

I’ve had some dark days, but overall, I am happy. And incredibly grateful. Not as young as I used to be, though.

I wrote much of this post freehand, old-school in a notebook with a pen, at a park this week, while the girls were playing. It was a picture-perfect summer day, and I did snap some memories. As I did, a quote crossed my mind, and it beautifully sums up the message I’d like to share today:

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” (Gerard Way)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

This Will Be a Funny Story Someday

Summer weekends are made for road trips, and this past weekend, Stanton, the girls and I drove two hours east to Connecticut to visit with family there. We set out on Saturday morning.

Grace and Anna had insisted on packing their own bags. Grace had filled her Little Mermaid suitcase (it had been mine, 30 years ago) with books, toys and some of her favorite clothes. Anna, meanwhile, had stuffed her entire underwear drawer into her striped backpack. Just underwear, and a box of Band-Aids. I had some extra things for both girls in my own big bag.

Five minutes into our drive, as if on cue, Anna asked if we were there yet. Not yet, we told her. “Here,” Grace added, passing Anna a coloring book and crayons from the Little Mermaid suitcase. “I brought you an activity.”

“Yay!” Anna got busy.

I turned in my seat. “Grace.” My older daughter smiled. “That was so thoughtful.”

Anna stopped mid-coloring. “I brought Band-Aids.”

“You’re so thoughtful too, Anna.”

Summer weekends are made for road trips…

We drove across the Castleton Bridge, the Hudson River below us glistening bright blue in the hot sun. The radio station had been static-y, but then Elton John’s voice glided through the car.

“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…”

We had a lovely visit with my cousin and her family. Because we were in the midst of a heat wave, we stayed at their home for most of the day, enjoying catching up and playing with the girls. There were burgers and, later, takeout pizza from the family’s favorite local spot (every family has one), complete with Funfetti cupcakes that the girls got to frost and decorate.

We were all thankful for the time.

Stanton, the girls and I stayed at a hotel overnight, and then headed an hour north to Amherst, Mass. One of the beauties of New England is that so many cool places exist within just an hour or two’s drive. Our next destination: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

We wanted to have lunch before getting to the museum. “Can we find a McDonald’s?” Grace asked.

I groaned, but Anna cheered. “I want a McFlurry!”

“Why don’t we look for a cool little local place?” I suggested. I glanced at Stanton; he shrugged. He would have been happy with a Big Mac himself.

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We ended up stumbling across Atkins Farms, which perfectly fit the bill of “cool little local place.” At the deli, we ordered grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches for the girls, and Italian grinders for the grownups. We sat at a four-top with a view of the expansive country market: wooden cartons of rainbow-colored produce, fresh flowers galore, the aroma of freshly baked cider donuts everywhere.

“I love this place,” I said.

“You say that about every place,” Grace said.

After lunch, Stanton, the girls and I had such a good time at The Eric Carle Museum (just up the road from Atkins Farms). Stanton truly could have stayed another hour or so, working on a collage in the Art Studio or making music on the large, outdoor xylophone in Bonnie’s Meadow. But friends had recommended we check out the nearby Beneski Museum of Natural History, and the girls wanted to see the dinosaur skeletons and footprints there. So we hustled over and had another fun museum visit.

“I don’t think we could have planned a better road trip,” I said, as the four of us climbed into the car and began the 100-mile drive back home. Soon after, the girls fell asleep in the backseat. I sighed, content.

And that is when the air conditioning in the car stopped working.

We sat at a four-top with a view…

Around 5 p.m. Sunday on the East Coast, the heat index hovered around 100 degrees. Stanton pulled over into a service plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I woke up the girls and got them out of the car, while Stanton popped the hood.

“What’s going on?” Grace wondered.

I explained that the AC wasn’t working. The girls asked if Dad could fix it. I glanced at Stanton, who appeared to be consulting Google for auto-repair tips. Hmm. “I don’t know.”

We entered the service plaza, and walked right into a McDonald’s. The girls’ eyes lit up. “Mom, can we get McFlurrys?”

“OK,” I said.

Grace pumped her fist. “Best day ever.”

Right-o.

Grace got an M&M’s McFlurry, while Anna opted for the new flavor, Galaxy Caramel. (Just FYI, the Galaxy Caramel McFlurry is extra sticky.)

After a while, Stanton joined us. He shared the unsurprising news that we wouldn’t be able to fix the AC then, and would need to drive the rest of the way with the windows down. Not the end of the world, we both agreed.

Back in the car, we put the windows down and started home again. Grace observed that the ride was noisy. Anna pulled her sneakers off, then aimed one toward the window.

“Don’t throw that out the window,” we all yelled.

“I’m just pretending,” she said.

Stanton glanced at me. “This will be a funny story someday.”

“Today is not that day, but yes, someday,” I agreed.

“Best day ever.”

Once, Grace asked me what kind of stories I write, when I submit fiction to literary magazines. Usually, stories about families, I told her. Of course, each family is imperfect in some way, because nobody wants to read a story about a perfect family (or a blog post about a perfect road trip 😉 ).

The truth is, the best stories are the ones from our own lives, from the times with our own families. Even when things didn’t go exactly as planned, or veered off course toward the end. Possibly especially during these times of adjustments and off-road adventures.

One thing I know for sure: The best stories happen when we’re with the ones we love.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Mom, Stinky Is NOT a Good Nickname

A sign of your closeness to someone else often is a nickname you have for them. These terms of endearment range from the classic (dear, darling, love) to the more creative (boo) to the downright delicious (honey, sugar, sweetie pie).

The ones we love best, we rarely call by their given names. This is based on my personal experience, anyway. I love my husband’s unique first name (Stanton), but hardly ever address him with it, instead using the shortened form “Stan”…and some other pet names that I won’t embarrass him with by sharing here.

Both our daughters’ names are deeply meaningful to us. Still, I usually shorten the already-short and sweet “Grace” to “G” when I greet my older daughter. We call Grace “Gracers” too. I’m not sure how this silly but affectionate habit started. And I have no clue when or why I began calling my younger daughter, Anna, “Stinky,” which may be as silly as you can get.

The other day, I overheard another mom call her daughter “Turkey.” I had never heard that one before, and it made me smile. The mom told me that, like “Stinky,” “Turkey” just kind of happened…and stuck.

Soon after, Anna looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, ‘Stinky’ is not a good nickname.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I promised to try to stick to “Anna” or “boo,” my other frequently used phrase for her. Then we headed to Perfect Blend, our favorite local coffee shop.

The ones we love best, we rarely call by their given names.

Right now, one of the seasonal blends at Perfect Blend is Kenyan Peaberry. It’s really good. I ordered a medium size for myself, and a couple of other items. Then I opened my wallet to pay, and saw my credit card wasn’t in there.

Note to self: Do not let the girls play Grocery Store with my wallet again.

“I might have enough cash,” I told the young man behind the counter.

He kindly told me not to worry. “We could start a tab for you,” he said. “You’re always here; you could pay next time.”

I thanked him for being so kind, and I did pay then. I did have to laugh, though. Was I really always at Perfect Blend?

“Yes, Mom,” Anna told me. “This is your favorite place.”

Sometimes the ones we love best know us better than ourselves.

I do love Perfect Blend. As a good local coffee shop should, it provides a warm, welcoming space for folks to gather, to replenish.

Many times I stop by with one or both of my daughters. Sometimes I meet friends there, or go alone to write.

On our most recent visit, Anna was rummaging through my bag. She pulled out a My Little Pony mini puzzle, Owl Diaries paperback, and handful of notebook paper. Anna waved the paper at me.

“What’s this for?”

I sipped my Kenyan Peaberry. “Mom always has paper in case she comes up with a good story idea.”

“Did you, Mom?”

“Well, the pages are still blank, Stinky…Anna.” (Life is one long lesson in humility, as J.M. Barrie once said.)

Anna stuffed the paper back in my bag, and got to work on the mini puzzle.

“This is your favorite place.”

Sometimes when I’m out and about, I overhear snippets of conversation that strike me. I don’t set out to eavesdrop (really!), but every now and then, my ears perk up at an especially quote-worthy moment, and I wonder about the rest of the story. For example, an older gentleman at Perfect Blend once said to the other older gentleman with him, “Now that was a good fortune cookie.”

Months later, I still wonder…what did that fortune cookie say? I wonder too…did the fortune come true?

(Let this be a lesson to any of my local friends who may be reading this: If you see me at Perfect Blend, and I’ve got notebook paper with me…lower your voice, lest you end up in a blog post. 😉 )

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Yesterday evening, both my daughters and I went to another of our favorite places, the Rail Trail. We took a walk and ended up at a nearby park. The girls started playing hide-and-seek.

There are lots of good hiding spots—behind trees, benches and stones. I watched for a while, and then the girls begged me to hide. “OK,” I agreed.

“One, two, three…”

I hid behind a stone. Seconds later, Anna found me. She laughed with delight and then said, “Now we get to chase you!”

“What!” I laughed too, and ran away.

Grace caught me easily enough, and the three of us collapsed on a bench, still laughing.

Anna rested her head against my chest. “Wow,” she said. “I can really feel your heartbeat, Mom.”

I didn’t have any notebook paper with me, or my phone or laptop. But that sentiment—I can really feel your heartbeat—struck me, and I knew I’d incorporate it into a piece of writing.

(Here goes.)

In my writing life, my goal is to get one piece of work published every year. Just one…at least one. A short story, an essay—anything to keep my portfolio current, and my standing as a writer credible.

It’s June now, and that hasn’t happened yet this year. One literary journal editor did email me one of the nicest rejection letters I ever received, and I appreciated his encouraging feedback on the short story I submitted. Still…no publication.

It can be easy to feel down when things don’t go according to plan. It can be easy to default to doubt.

I’d been feeling some doubt.

Then Anna told me she could really feel my heartbeat.

As unexpected as it seems, there’s amazing grace in hide-and-seek. There’s awesome energy in childlike games like that. Moments that allow us to really feel our heartbeat.

Moments in our favorite places, with the ones we rarely call by the names we first gave them.

Anna’s right, though. “Stinky” is not a good nickname.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

The Best Job I Ever Had

This past month, I edited résumés for a few folks. As I was working on the documents, I marveled at their array of jobs and experiences, the different, sometimes divergent steps along the way that led to now…and the next steps that were to come.

I thought, too, about my own professional biography—the various positions, the circuitous career path, the pauses that have come with parenthood. I’ve done a bunch of things, as you probably have too. My favorite thing? Working as a tour guide at my college, in Richmond, Va.

My official job title was “student admissions representative.” I served as an SAR from my sophomore through senior years, and I earned minimum wage, if memory serves. Something like $5.75 per tour, and each tour was about an hour, usually a little longer.

A few times a week, I walked prospective students and their families around the college campus. Showed them around, gave them local restaurant recommendations for lunch or dinner at the end. The SAR position allowed me to be with people, tell stories and spend time outside—my ideal trifecta.

Beforehand, the students and their families would have heard a presentation from the school’s admissions officers—facts such as application deadlines, number of majors and study-abroad programs, “where are they now” regarding notable alumni. Data. My job was to add the flavor, the feeling, the inside scoop…and I loved it.

I don’t know how many tours I gave in all, and I don’t know, either, if anything I ever said, on any of those tours, made a difference to anybody. I can say that parents seemed to trust me on my restaurant recommendations; I probably did drum up some business for Palani Drive, Mary Angela’s and Strawberry Street Café. Beyond that, though, I just don’t know.

It was fun while it lasted.

My job was to add the flavor, the feeling, the inside scoop…and I loved it.

During my senior year, I started thinking about what to do next, post-graduation. I was majoring in English, and had wrapped up an internship with a novelist, Erica Orloff, herself a graduate of the University of Richmond. Erica was gracious, instructive, inspiring—an amazing role model. How cool it would be to be like that, I thought.

I thought, too, about how much I enjoyed people. Being around them, hearing their stories and sharing mine, and—when I could, and when it was needed—offering a word of encouragement, some positive energy. I began researching graduate programs in counseling, and marriage and family therapy.

Every program I looked at required undergraduate courses in psychology and statistics, and I never took those classes. As much as I loved college, I didn’t want to prolong it with an extra semester (or two). So I stuck with writing.

My underlying goal with writing, though, is to encourage, as I would have done in a counseling setting. Whether through a mini essay like this, or a work of fiction, or someone’s résumé or business proposal—my hope is that the finished product is something that brings positive energy to the world.

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I happened to read an excellent Atlantic article, “What I Learned About Life at My 30th College Reunion.” Maybe you read it too. Writer Deborah Copaken notes, first and foremost, “No one’s life turned out exactly as anticipated,” and I had to smile because…#truth.

I also smiled at her second observation (teachers and doctors seemed happy with their choice of career) and chuckled at her third (somewhat the opposite for lawyers). Then I had a chuckle at my own expense regarding No. 5, “Speaking of art, those who went into it as a career were mostly happy and often successful, but they had all, in some way, struggled financially.” (I recently joked with a friend that my e-book royalties alone won’t cover the cost of the girls’ college tuition.)

Copaken’s No. 13 struck a chord too: “Nearly all the alumni said they were embarrassed by their younger selves, particularly by how judgmental they used to be.” Life is eye-opening, and humbling, and I’m a better person now (stretch marks, cellulite and all) than I was then.

Education, medicine, law, the arts and so many other fields—so much to choose from, so much we can do. After dinner one evening, Anna (age 3) toyed with some career choices, astronaut and firefighter among them. “I want to be the boss,” 7-year-old Grace announced. Stanton and I exchanged a glance: mm-hmm, sounded about right.

Life is eye-opening, and humbling, and I’m a better person now (stretch marks, cellulite and all) than I was then.

I write every day, almost. Sometimes I get paid for the work I do. Other times I don’t. Now, for example, I’m writing my first novel; my goal is to sign a publishing contract with a small press by the time Anna starts kindergarten. Along with what I take care of for our family life these days, I still try to honor my writing life. Because if you tell people you’re a writer (and I do), you should write. You should aim to get published too ( 😉 ), but you definitely should write.

Once Anna joins Grace in elementary school, I’ll be sending out my own résumé. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to find a job that’s a good fit. I’m excited to have colleagues and co-workers again. I’m uncertain (scared?) of what hiring managers will think of my current “title” of freelance writer/editor, which (not coincidentally) began shortly after my first child’s birth. I have no clue how everything will work out.

But one thing I know for sure.

College tour guide? It’s going to be hard to top that.

P.S. If you’ve never been to Richmond and happen to find yourself there…go to Palani Drive, and get the Shenandoah wrap. Grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, apples, Gouda and sherry walnut dressing—one of the best flavor combinations ever. You’ll love it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Female Persuasion.JPGDuring my last semester in college, as an English major, I did an independent study regarding creative nonfiction about motherhood. I researched and wrote about the ways in which women, in particular mothers, represent themselves through memoir writing. Books…magazine articles…blog posts such as mine.

That was 2005.

Three years later, Meg Wolitzer published the novel “The Ten-Year Nap,” a fictional account about some of the topics I had explored as an undergraduate. I read it, and I remember really appreciating her witty, on-point observations about everyday life. I felt the same way about “The Interestings,” which came out in 2013. The stories themselves—”The Ten-Year Nap,” “The Interestings” and now “The Female Persuasion”—are…well, interesting.

(An example of a that-sounds-right Wolitzer observation from “The Female Persuasion”: “the international symbol of female food: yogurt,” page 259).

Meg Wolitzer writes grand, sweeping stories that span years, decades even, featuring flashbacks and flash forwards, underlined with plot twists that are at times startling, at times delightful, and always engaging. She is an ambitious writer; she is a timely writer. However, her storytelling—and I mean this literally, her telling of the story—can get lost in her far-reaching, detail-heavy narration, as I fear it did at times in “The Female Persuasion,” which unfolds across 450 pages, multiple characters, and places as varied as New England, Las Vegas and Manila (yes, the Philippines).

[Meg Wolitzer] is an ambitious writer; she is a timely writer. However, her storytelling…can get lost in her far-reaching, detail-heavy narration, as I fear it did at times in “The Female Persuasion…”

Still, “The Female Persuasion” is the quintessential book-club read for this year, 2018, following the horrific news about Harvey Weinstein (and too many other men in power); #MeToo and Time’s Up; and TIME magazine’s naming The Silence Breakers as their reigning Person of the Year. The copy I bought came, in fact, with an official-looking gold-colored Barnes & Noble Book Club Exclusive Edition sticker on the front. And certainly, unarguably, with “The Female Persuasion,” Meg Wolitzer gives us a piece of literature that is both well-thought-out and thought-provoking.

Through the various characters’ perspectives (straight, gay, male, female, powerful, powerless) and the stories they live out, Wolitzer explores gender and power against the backdrop of an evolving women’s movement. She assesses (objectively, I think) the compromises that people (men and women) make once they achieve power, and along the way. An excellent moment of this: Greer, a vegetarian, hides her aversion to meat from Faith Frank, her feminist mentor, when Faith grills steak for Greer and their other colleagues. Greer explicitly reveals she doesn’t want to disappoint Faith, and implicitly (we gather) wants to stay close and get closer to this powerful woman. “‘Yum,’ Greer said” (page 176), swallowing the steak.

Wolitzer also takes a look at the ethical shades of gray that organizations find themselves navigating once they grow from grassroots to mainstream (in this story, that would be Faith’s scrappy, early-’70s feminist magazine, Bloomer, compared to her present-day women’s foundation, Loci).

However, on the topic of characters… The main character, Greer Kadetsy, felt a bit boilerplate to me: self-important though meek (at first), idealistic yet impressionable. Greer reminded me, in some ways, of the title character from Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Like Wolitzer, Tom Wolfe is (was) another writer I have long admired and read (and even had the pleasure of meeting once, at an event in Richmond, Va.).

Now, Greer and Charlotte are different characters. But their coming-of-age stories share some similar settings (a college campus) and circumstances (sexual assault at said campus) experienced through the lens of a young woman who is white, heterosexual and aspirational.

I felt much more originality and energy from Wolitzer with her supporting characters of Zee Eisenstat, Greer’s activist friend who self-identifies as queer, and Cory Pinto, Greer’s first-generation-American, high-school boyfriend. When I “met” Zee and Cory in this novel, I thought, Wow, I’d love to know these people in real life. They were unique, multidimensional, compelling.

Greer, on the other hand, read like someone I had met before.

When I “met” Zee and Cory in this novel, I thought, Wow, I’d love to know these people in real life.

During a conversation with her partner, Noelle, about halfway into the book, Zee listens as Noelle shares her take regarding what amounts to the themes of “The Female Persuasion”: “‘But sometimes the way to get involved is to just live your life and be yourself with all your values intact. And by just being you, it’ll happen. Maybe not in big ways, but it’ll happen'” (page 256). This philosophy resonates with me, personally, and by the end of the story, after Greer’s fallout with Faith, I wondered if Wolitzer places some credence in it too.

By the time I arrived at page 310, I jotted a note in the margins: “lots of telling, not showing.” It’s an old writing guideline, right? Show, don’t tell. From that perspective, I feel as though Wolitzer does a lot of telling, especially around page 310, where the reader finds him/herself in the middle of Faith’s flashback, which began back on page 266 as Faith was being chauffeured to a massage. Wolitzer provides us with so…much…information and so…many…details, but rarely within these 50 pages of text did I feel as though I were there, in the scene, in the story, with Faith.

Instead, I felt (during pages 266 through 310, as well as in other places) as though I were reading a character’s biography, or the aggressively anti-CliffsNotes version of a major historic event. Perhaps, though, I’m simply a product of my generation, with an affinity for “conversations” that consist mostly of emojis, and an appreciation for lean narration. Perhaps.

It’s an old writing guideline, right? Show, don’t tell. From that perspective, I feel as though Wolitzer does a lot of telling…

Overall, “The Female Persuasion” is timely, ambitious storytelling. Undeniably.

It is witty. (Another example: “If you ever wanted to get an accurate picture of who you were, Greer thought years later, all you had to do was look at everything you’d Googled over the past twenty-four hours,” page 72.)

It has some captivating character development. Zee and Cory are beautiful supporting characters, and I think Zee (or even Cory, ironically) may have functioned more powerfully than Greer as the main character.

(If you read this book, Cory’s explanation of his video-game idea, SoulFinder, on page 420 is amazing, and worth waiting for: “‘When a person dies we say that we lost them,’ said Cory…It feels that way to me; like they’ve got to be somewhere, right? They can’t just be nowhere.'”)

Lastly, “The Female Persuasion” strives mightily to challenge us to ask new questions about big ideas. Here’s a passage I found particularly profound and moving, spoken by Greer’s mother, whom Greer (initially) views as a failure, about Cory: “‘…I’m not the one who’s been working at a feminist foundation. But here’s this person who gave up his plans when his family fell apart. He moves back in with his mother and takes care of her. Oh, and he cleans his own house, and the ones she used to clean. I don’t know. But I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right?'” (page 377).

Witty. Captivating character development. New questions about big ideas. Yes, “The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer is a good read.

Does it live up to all the hype? I don’t know.

I can’t shake the feeling I’ve met Greer Kadetsky before.

Photo credit: Riverhead Books

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too

I shut the top lid and press “on.” The old coffeemaker grumbles awake and begins brewing several cups of my favorite blend.

From the adjoining breakfast nook, my daughters are bickering—something about whose turn it is, or isn’t, to use a certain stamp. I poke my head around the corner. “Share, girls,” I say.

My older daughter crosses her arms. “I have been sharing,” Grace says. “She hasn’t.”

Rather than pleading her case, my younger daughter says, “Mommy! Hold me!”

I give Anna a hug and then settle her back beside her sister. “Girls,” I say, “there are a million things you can do in here. Color. Play with your Shopkins. Finish your cereal, maybe. Do something while I pack up your book bags.”

My 3-year-old frowns. “I don’t want to go to school today,” she says.

“You’ll have fun once you get there,” I reply.

She shakes her head. “No, I won’t. I want to stay with you, Mom.”

“I don’t,” Grace announces, for the record. “I want to go to school.”

My coffee better be ready soon. “Look,” I say. “Everyone has to go to school today, because Mom needs to write and Dad is working too. So…” I gesture to the crayons, construction paper and myriad amusements covering the table. “Please do something while I get your things ready for school.”

Anna sighs, but picks up a crayon. I return to the kitchen.

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For all I have to do to secure my writing time—the two different school drop-offs, snack and lunch preparation beforehand, the pleading (and, occasionally, yelling) for the girls to get along and remember to brush their teeth and, of course, find their shoes—I wonder if it’s even worth it. Especially considering that the majority of the writing I do now—essays submitted to literary magazines (and not always accepted), short fiction that I self-publish on Amazon, every post on my website here—is creative, a.k.a. not that lucrative.

The coffeemaker sputters to a stop. I pour myself a cup. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, the sun rises. The thought flickers across my mind, again: Is this even worth it? Or should I do something different?

“Mom. Look, Mom.”

Anna’s voice draws me back in. I turn; I look.

She’s smiling, proud. And she’s holding up a piece of blue construction paper, marked here and there with lines of crayon. “I wrote a story too,” she tells me.

I take in a breath. Then I smile; I kneel down. I look at the paper. “Wow,” I say. “You did.”

“Just like Mom,” Anna says. She drops her story at my feet, then runs off.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling. Just like when we visited the local firehouse for a field trip, and the girls spent the rest of the day pretending to be firefighters.

I hang her story up on the refrigerator, with Grace’s soccer-picture magnet from last season.

I could never not write creative nonfiction, or short fiction. I simply love telling stories, both those that are true and those I make up. It makes me happy when someone reads something I wrote, and lets me know it moved them in some way—made them laugh, or encouraged them during a difficult time.

And during difficult times in my life, writing has been healing to me. Either in helping me to make sense of my journey and to find meaning within the pain, or in escaping, for a moment, to a world of my own making. Often it’s easier to give fictional characters’ “Aha!” moments, rather than to stumble across our own.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling.

Originally, I submitted a version of this essay to a literary magazine I really like and read. Yesterday, the editor let me know it wasn’t a good fit for them right now. During dinner that evening, I shared with the girls what she said.

“What was your story called?” Grace asked.

I told her: “Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too.” (Based on a true story, as all good stories are. 😉 )

Grace smiled sympathetically. “Awww, that sounds cool, Mom.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, honey.”

Eventually, every creative type has a come-to-Jesus conversation with him- or herself. Is what I’m doing worthwhile?

I’ve been thinking about this, and the answer is—like many of the answers I arrive at—yes and no. Pros and cons for everything, shades of gray everywhere. But for sure, more “no” than “yes,” friends.

I want to contribute more financially meaningfully to our family’s life. E-book royalties and token payments for magazine pieces, while holding out hope for a big break à la Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, don’t go very far toward summer camps and retirement savings.

Worth and value can be subjective, and are, but bottom lines don’t lie.

I’m excited, then, to dedicate more time to seeking out the kind of contract work I’ve done before, proposal editing and copywriting. I’m good at that stuff; I can do it. Fingers crossed, I can do it from home.

I’ll still do the creative writing I love, just more on the back burner.

Yet…Anna’s story still hangs on the fridge.

Kids…love…stories. We grow up, and we still…love…stories. We tell stories every day—from our quickest conversations with our neighbors, to our end-of-day heart-to-hearts with the ones who know and love us best.

I believe there is unity, and understanding, and love in storytelling. Deep down, we all might believe that.

That’s why I’ll never give up on it.

In the meantime…if you know anyone who could use some editing or writing help, send ‘em my way. 😉 ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

My First Reading

My First ReadingA few weekends ago, my church hosted its annual talent show. Beforehand, the coordinator asked if I would read one of my essays to help round out the program. I wasn’t sure if the audience would be interested in hearing anything I wrote—after all, others were scheduled to play the piano, dance and do comedy routines, all more entertaining and “talent-y,” in my opinion—but I said yes, I’d be happy to help.

That evening, I read my recent post, “The Secret Lives of Moms.” There were some chuckles from the crowd, which made me happy. I love when a story I tell evokes an emotion in the reader (or listener), especially laughter.

My friend Liz kindly took this picture of me up on stage. At a couple of points during my reading, Anna ambled up the steps to give me a hug and a kiss of encouragement. I so appreciated her sweet, 3-year-old affection.

I believe this was the first reading in my writing career. I was nervous, but I enjoyed sharing my work with the group gathered there that evening. I’m not sure when my second reading may come, but this first one will hold a special place in my heart.

Photo credit: Liz Cartagena

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Check Out My New E-book, Grace Notes!

grace-notes-cover-1-1-17Confession: I’m not a morning person. Maybe you aren’t either. Or maybe you are, but you could use another boost of energy as you sip your favorite blend from the “World’s Best Mom” mug your preschooler hand-painted last week.

This is the purpose of “Grace Notes: Start Your Day on a Positive Note.” “Grace Notes” is my new e-book, and I hope you’ll check it out!

Part creative nonfiction, part personal growth, “Grace Notes” brings together some of my most-viewed recent blog posts, each with a message of positive energy. I hope that these pieces give you the momentum you need to start your day with a hearty, hope-filled, “Yes!” Here’s to a truly “Happy” New Year, friends.