I was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where I still live. I'm a writer, with four novels and several short stories. You can find all that information on my website, at sarahwillis.net. I'm writing my fifth novel now, and teaching creative writing at John Carroll University, Hiram College, and Cleveland State University. I'm happy to talk with groups about just about anything you can think of. I'm not shy. Just ask.
I'm also happily married, have two great kids, and a fat cat.
How To Start a Writing Group
Sarah Willis, founder of The East Side Writers, will share her advice on starting and running a successful writing workshop. This class will be helpful even if you are already in a writers' group. Register
Saturday, January 26
Fairview Park Branch
Thursday, January 31
the day's heat lessens, birds cry out calls of ownership, love and need, all
mingling together into a clamor of I’m here! Right here! Stay away! Hello!
Hello! Find me. Love me! We’re starving! Feed us! Hurry!
Mom! Mine! Hello!
Stay away! Hurry! Hello! Hello!”
Indigo Buntings scissor the air with
high pitched song. Blue Jays arrow from
branch to branch, announcing their flight, more important than anyone
else. Crows gang up on bigger
birds. Want to fight? Come on, come on, want to fight? Sparrows, the white trash of the bird
kingdom, serenade more sweetly than expected.
Mourning Doves pretend to be owls in the distance. Chipmunks (not birds, but want to be their
friends even though they are often ignored because they are like the boy who
cried wolf) make an annoying sound like a nail being hammered into tin, over
and over and over again. Cardinals only
speak to each, so much in-love that they must stay in constant contact. Hawks, high above, whistle like a tea kettle
in the heavens. And robins sunbathe,
waiting for a moment of silence before bursting into full fledged song, putting
the rest to shame.
Then by nine or so, they begin to
quiet, and the world belongs to louder voices coming from inside houses built
too near each other, the narrow alleys encasing the echoes, holding on to them
until morning when they finally drift upwards with the fog, leaving pressure on
eyes, aches in throats, and dreams in tender hearts of a sweeter song,
somewhere, sometime, long ago.
At the age of twelve, I’m
at school in the cafeteria when our neighbor approaches the table. I turn to my friend and say, “My father’s
dead. I got to go. See you tomorrow.” I will put this scene into many of the
stories I will write, over and over again, until I am only a character.
mother remarries three years later, we move, and I’m furious. I’m also flunking everything. (It will turn out I’m dyslexic, undiagnosed
back then, even though I spell words with the last letter first, and vowels are
only strange little shapes that make no sense at all.) One day a teacher gives me an F on a paper
and asks me to come to his office. His
office is dark and small and he sits behind the desk as I stand. “Do you know why I gave you an F?” he
asks. I shrug. I’m good at shrugging. “I take off a full grade for every three
I haven’t a chance then and merely
nod. But on an impulse I ask, “What did
you think about what I wrote? Is it
okay, otherwise?” It’s about the Civil
War. I did a lot of research. I’m beginning to get interested in the Civil
“I won’t discuss that until you fix the
spelling,” he says. I look at him. He’s serious.
I walk out of the office, out of the school. I go to a public phone and call my
mother. It’s cold out, November, snowing
“I’m never going back,” I tell her as we
drive home. There’s silence for a
while. She thinks before she speaks, not
“Fine,” she says. “It’s your life, but what do you want to do?”
Oddly, I still want to know more about the
Civil War, science, what’s in books, poetry.
I find a place called Friends Free School.
school is in a gold dome Temple, three bus rides across town, an hour
away. Tim, my English teacher, is indistinguishable
from the students who all wear torn blue-jeans, tie-dyed shirts and long hair. One day he asks me to read one of my
poems. I do, blushing, trembling, head hung
down. I have been here less than a week
and want nothing more than to impress everyone because they are all so cool,
even though some don’t show up at school often.
I do. I come every day.
is the poem.
Laugh at me
and I will laugh along
we’ll all look gay
someone passing by
Thirty-three years later Tim–who has
moved away and hasn't seen me since that year at Friends–will come back to
town, find me, and take me to lunch.He
will have this poem in his wallet.
This is why I write. It’s how I talk. It’s how I make friends.
Once, a long time ago, I thought I'd write a memoir. Here is a piece of that experiment.
My brother and I sleep on green canvas cots in the barn. My
sister, who is only six, sleeps in the house. In the early morning I awaken to
a trembling on my chest: it's a chipmunk! I scream, and it scurries off. My
brother throws a cow bone at me for waking him, but he’s sleepy and it clashes
against the slats of the barn wall. He has a collection of cow bones from the
neighbor’s pasture. He’s trying to make a whole cow, but he will grow up and
drill gas wells, leaving the pieces behind.
My brother and I eat Special K for breakfast. My sister eats
only white toast. No one forces her to eat vegetables or fruit, get some iron
in her blood. There is, at this moment, a freedom at home, an agreement to let
some things slide.
My father has hung a long rope from a high branch of the sturdy
maple in our front yard. At the bottom of the rope is a dowel from a broken
chair, tied to the rope with knots I will never learn. I sit on this swing, an
Olympic contender. There are specific feats I must perform, exactly right. I
pull back, push off, lean back, pump, point my toes, hold one arm out, fingers
cupped together. On the back-swing I must switch hands. I do this very well.
The trees applaud.
Inside, my mother cooks cabbage soup, my father’s favorite,
although he won’t eat today. The house and her clothes will smell bitter for
days. My mother stands over the soup and stirs, and only now that I am a mother
do I know that she wept into that broth no matter what she made us believe.
In the woods, I tie my sister to a mast. My brother makes me
walk the plank. The trees oblige: there are so many masts, so many planks, so
many places to hide. My brother dares me to eat currants that grow along the
back field, and I do, even though I know how bad they taste. My sister eats
only one, but doesn’t spit it out, and we tell her how good she is. She doesn’t
understand much yet, but she will.
We keep our voices low at dinner. Upstairs, my father coughs.
My mother excuses herself, and doesn’t come back down for a long time. We do
the dishes. Afterwards we sit in front of the black and white TV. We watch the
pictures of our planet, sent down from the lunar orbiter. We see the ball of
our earth, the tattered cover of clouds, the shadowy shapes of continents. My
mother comes downstairs and sits between us on the couch, laying an arm over my
brother’s shoulder. Later we go outside and look up, but can’t find the moon.
From outside we hear that cough, and I count the repetitions like the seconds
My brother and I sleep in the barn. A branch scrapes against
the roof, prying at the shingles. We pretend we’re in a cabin in Alaska, wolves
pawing across the roof. We play at being alone. In time, we’ll be perfect at
this. We’ll be fine.
Bottled water, matches, flashlights, batteries. Rice, beans, lentils. Canned tuna, chicken, salmon. Canned fruits, vegetables, soups, milk. (What else comes canned? What am I forgetting?) Chocolate, hard candies, sugar. Salt,
flour. Sharp knives, can opener. Candles, hurricane lanterns, kerosene. Bandages, gauze, duck tape, antibiotics. These are the words I go to sleep by, or
that, more likely, hold sleep at bay.
has been with me since I moved out of my family’s house and into my own home—at
the age of seventeen. I left my family
but I brought along my mother’s fear of the end of the world, and her fantasy of
surviving by keeping a well-stocked basement hidey-hole, a room you don’t show
your neighbors. And I brought along, no matter
how many times I moved, her love of apocalypse writing.
poem I can remember my mother reading to me when I was about six is “The Wreck
of the Hesperus” by Longfellow. “Come
hither! Come hither! My little daughter /
And do not tremble so; For I can weather the roughest gale / That ever the wind
eyes lit up as she read it! Although my
father was the actor, and she was never interested in the stage, she delighted
in reading aloud the gloomiest tales. I
grew up with Poe and Shakespeare. In my
childhood, and even now, reality was a tricky concept. Pretend was rehearsed and memorized, and performed.
belief in the worst to come, and our survival, lay in the basement, behind a
wooden door. (Even she must have known
that door should have been made of steel, not flimsy wood.) It was the time of the cold war, and books
like Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank sat
on our bookshelves like bibles.
see what was really coming—the death of her husband, the father of three. She had no weapons, no provisions, to save
him from cancer. We survivors, tied
together at the mast of loss, held on. Apocalypse
stories must have lost their appeal. Instead,
Anne Tyler, with her stories of odd characters finding redemption, filled the
bookshelves, along with bestsellers of the worst sort—with rich women getting
revenge on the world.
is dead now, of cancer, the same kind that took my father, lung cancer. They both smoked cigarettes, the invisible
gun of their youth. I have inherited a
dozen hurricane lamps. Nobody needs that
many hurricane lamps, except me. I will
take all the help I can get. Because I
believe in my mother, and my mother believed in me. I will continue on, come hell or high water.
ARCs. I read a lot of ARCs—which are bound galleys—uncorrected
proofs of books--and are not for sale but are sent out by the publisher to potential
reviewers at newspapers, magazines, libraries, bookstores, blogs, etc. Basically, if you’re lucky, your publisher
prints a good deal of these. They want to
get a buzz going. The people who might
be most interested in your book get to read it first. And therein lies the rub.
lot of work goes into the final book, rewrite after rewrite, and we writers want
readers to read the perfect gem we have been working on for years. Pull you into our story, captivate you with
the characters and plot, keep you in our dream world. Show you how brilliant we are. It’s a piece of art, worthy the reader’s
time. We don’t want you to see the
imperfections, the missing or misspelled words.
are a lot of words in a novel or book, and up until that last, hopefully perfect
version, we do make mistakes. The words
are in our heads but haven’t made it to the page, or we’ve typed boot
when we mean boat but just haven’t caught that mistake yet because the word
boat is in our head and the mind wants to see boat, so it
does. It takes agents and editors and copy
editors to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Ah, you screwed up here. Did you notice?” And we thank them.
the process isn’t done by the time that ARC is printed, and sending it out to readers
that I really want to impress makes me wince.
Because I know when I’m reading an ARC for a review, I see those
mistakes, and suddenly I’m a line editor, not, say, a charming and verbose
kidnapper, or girl waking up in the future.
here’s the question, for those of you who do read ARCs. How forgiving are you? Have you ever read the final version after
reading an ARC? Is an imperfect version
of a piece of art not a big deal? Or, am
I making too much of it all?