Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee, an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids...a little more. Her essays and articles have appeared in Sasee Magazine, Richmond Family Magazine, Scary Mommy, and twenty-one volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.
My children spot their grandparents’ vehicle from an upstairs window. They drop their iPads and tablets and run to the front door where they press their smiling faces against the glass. My mom gets out of the car with her bag of treats and walks toward the front porch.
“Where is Pop?” Delaney asks Evan.
“Maybe he’s getting something out of the trunk,” Evan replies.
“I don’t see him,” she says.
My mom rings the doorbell and the kids open the door and ask, together, “Where’s Pop?”
“He’s playing golf,” she tells them. “It’s just me today.”
“Aw, man! I had some things I needed to show him,” Evan says.
If my mom is offended by the overt snub, it doesn’t show. When Pop is around, he is the star, the rest of us just extras. My children compete for his attention and work to impress him with the most recent trick they’ve learned: a cartwheel, a cannonball in the pool, or a knock-knock joke.
“Pop! Come watch me ride my bike!”
“Do you want to play outside with me?”
“Pop! Let’s go to my room and look at stuff!”
They hold his hand, sit in his lap, and wrap their arms around his neck. When each visit comes to an end, they cling to him and beg him to stay.
“Just a few more minutes, Pop,” Delaney says. “I need to show you one more thing in my room.”
He agrees and climbs the stairs to my daughter’s room where she shows him her belongings with the detailed explanation of a museum curator. He examines the tiny bottles of glittery nail polish and cat figurines with awe and pretends to be seeing them all for the first time.
“On your way out, can you just look at something on my bike?” Evan asks.
“I reckon I can,” Pop laughs.
“See this attachment? Now when I pedal my bike, it sounds like an engine! Listen, Pop!”
Evan speeds across the yard and shows Pop his tricks. He stands, then lets go of his hands, as he escorts Pop to his car.
“Please. Take me with you,” Evan begs. “I won’t talk or even make a sound. I’ll just sit in the corner.”
“Not this time,” I tell him. “I want to see Pop by myself.”
I don’t do it often, but sometimes I need to visit my dad alone. We eat take-out and chat about the pandemic, world issues, and a personal situation that is bothering me. I don’t need him to fix this particular problem, only listen. He does, and I feel better immediately.
There were times when I did need my dad to fix things, though. He once climbed under my bed to console me when I was a child, and he waited patiently through teenage sobbing to tell me that no boy was worth my tears. He made small repairs to my car each time I came home on college breaks and checked the air in my tires before I left again. He helped me move into my first apartment and stayed a few days to assemble, straighten, and adjust my new furniture.
Even as an adult, a visit to my house usually includes my dad tightening a wiggly door handle, repairing an appliance, or fixing a grandchild’s toy. When it comes to household items and my spirits, my dad simply makes everything better.
In this stage of our relationship, I value my dad as both parent and friend. I am grateful for his humor, wisdom, and calm demeanor, a part of my life that has remained constant when few things have. I am glad he and my children are close, and I understand, better than anyone, when they complain that visits with him never last long enough.
***Previously published in Prairie Times, Nov. 2020.
While I do provide some grammar instruction in my English 10 courses, Kris Spisak wrote the book on it. Literally. Her first book, Get a Grip on Your Grammar, was published in 2017, and it is a handy and clever reference book for those who want more information or would like to double-check commonly confused words and phrases. It’s excellent, and I often use it for grammar icebreakers in my classes.
Earlier this year, Kris published The Novel EditingWorkbook (Feb. 2020), and this month, she is releasing her newest project. It’s such an exciting time for her, and I’m so happy to have Kris here for my November Coffee Chat. Fill up your mug, and join us as we talk about unusual jobs, grammar pet peeves, and claiming the title “writer” once and for all.
Me: I may have assumed you were a coffee drinker. Are you? If so, how do you take it?
Kris: I absolutely am. Coffee is my #5amwritersclub fuel. A natural vanilla creamer is my usual go-to.
Me: What is a job that you’ve had in the past that people might not know about? Any interesting stories from it you can share?
Kris: I’ve had way too many strange jobs, but it helps in the writer’s life, I suppose. I was a “security guard” in college. I worked the front desk of the kinesiology department building, ensuring no one unauthorized went into the labs where dissections took place—and, you know, making sure cadaver parts never left the building. That’s a bit strange when I look back on it, but it was a great place to catch up on my homework!
Me: Oh, wow! That was an interesting job! In your newest book, you mention that many people are afraid to claim the title “writer.” When did you first consider yourself a writer? Was there a defining moment when you realized this is what you were meant to do?
Kris: Why is it that so many people are afraid to call themselves a “writer”? If you write, you simply are one. No publication credits are required.
My ownership of the “writer” title came through my membership and participation with James River Writers, an amazing writing community that has bolstered my personal and professional life for the past fifteen plus years. I remember sitting in the audience at one of their events years ago and hearing someone make this point. Prior to that evening, I had said that I “liked to write” or that “I wanted to be a writer,” but something in the air that night shifted my perspective. I stopped “wanting to be a writer” and simply owned the fact that I was one. And I haven’t looked back since.
Me: What are some writing routines, quirks, or habits you have? What are some items you must have in your writing space?
Kris: As I mentioned in your first question, I try my best to make it to the #5amwritersclub on Twitter as frequently as I can. It used to be daily, and I’m working on getting back into that routine, though everything that is strange about 2020 has disrupted that regularity for me. Sneaking my writing time in first thing in the morning, when my house is quiet and my coffee is in hand, always improves the rest of my day. Plus, starting early in the morning when my coffee hasn’t yet kicked in lets me play a bit in my not-quite-awake, not-quite-dreaming state, where my creativity often flourishes.
What do I need in my writing space? Coffee just keeps coming up here, doesn’t it? And perhaps my cats. My family calls them my “gargoyles” since they’ve been known to perch on opposite sides of my desk while I work.
Me: What is your biggest grammatical pet peeve? Care to comment on “irregardless?”
Kris: “Irregardess” is simply not a word. I don’t care that they’ve added it to the dictionary. They’ve also added “literally” to the dictionary, meaning “figuratively,” as in the opposite of “literally.” There’s casual use, sure, but we all have our lines. “Irregardless” is absolutely past that line for me.
That being said, I’m not sure I have grammatical pet peeves, per se, anymore. There are so many details that writers and speakers just simply don’t seem to understand. An editor’s work is never done! But I’m of the school that we all need to support each other where we can. If people ask me for help, oh, I’m all in. But I’m never going to call out or correct someone’s mistake. That’s unnecessary.
Me: What is your favorite word?
Kris: My favorite word is “posh,” but not for the reason you might think. The meaning of “posh” is fine and all—and who wouldn’t want to own that one?—however, for me, it’s my favorite because it’s the first word I remember learning the etymology story for. I remember the story hitting me, feeling startled yet wanting to learn more. When history meets language meets sociology, I’m fascinated every single time. I might have been around ten years old. I never would have guessed that my life would be shaped upon such language stories, but here we are—and I love my work so much.
Me: What are some of the pitfalls of knowing the rules of proper grammar?
Kris: Wait, there are pitfalls? Just kidding. Well, you could argue that I pay attention to language far more than I need to. For example, in this question, you used the word “pitfalls,” which has its origin connected with literally falling into a pit. I’m suddenly happy that I live in a world where I don’t truly have to be concerned with “pit falls” of that nature, only the simpler kind that might be referenced in a question like this.
Knowing how to actually use a semicolon feels like a super-power sometimes, but knowing doesn’t mean we should criticize or judge others. That’s the biggest pitfall I see in the grammar conscious. We all need to try harder (at so many things!) but the world would be better without the grammatical anger that’s out there. I try to avoid that at all costs.
Me: What was the inspiration for your new book?
Kris: When my last book, The Novel Editing Workbook, came out, we had the idea about the next one in line. The original plan was going to be “The Memoir Editing Workbook.” Everything I focus on is about empowering our words and our storytelling, and this seemed to be the best next step. Yet as I created writing prompts in the spring of 2020, urging writers (whether they claimed the “writer” title or not) to write down their stories, because we were living through history, I was shocked by the response. People had so many tales that began pouring out of them—stories of 2020 but also stories of hard times in years past, both their own and their family’s.
Thus, my next project shifted, and The Family Story Workbook was conceived in its new form, designed for anyone who’s ever wanted to write their life story, anyone who’s wanted to connect with their family members in a new and profound way, or anyone who’s wanted to capture their family stories before they’re lost.
So many people want to write these stories, yet they never do. The Family Story Workbook is the tool to preserve these histories.
Me: What is a family story you have that you want to make sure is never forgotten?
Kris: I think I’ve been trying to write one of my family stories since elementary school but never really found the right way to tell it. I’ve played with it in poetry, in short stories, in first-person narrative nonfiction, and in novel form. Hopefully, I’ll have updates on my most recent attempts at it soon, where I’ve pulled my family’s Ukrainian World War II stories into fiction. Stories of bravery, heroics, and survival can take so many forms. These are the family stories that impacted me young and still ring out so powerfully for me. Some stories are too meaningful not to share, but more on that soon
For readers interested in English language news and trivia, my monthly newsletter is packed, including the most recent updates on my writing tips blog and language-focused podcast, “Words You Should Know.” You can sign up and learn more about my books (Get a Grip on Your Grammar, The Novel Editing Workbook, and now The Family Story Workbook) at Kris-Spisak.com. The Family Story Workbook will be released November 12, 2020, and is available for preorder here.
This month we are chatting with Mary Helen Sheriff about her debut novel, Boop and Eve’s Road Trip. Available at your favorite retailer on October 6, the novel has already been gaining momentum with reviewers. Boop and Eve’s Road Trip was recently named to Buzzfeed’s 12 Most Anticipated Books of Fall list and it received a 2020 American Fiction Award in the Coming of Age category! So exciting!
Pour some coffee in your to-go cup, and let’s chat with Mary about her inspiration for the novel, writing advice, and the importance of seeking treatment for mental illness. Maybe Boop will put in her two cents on occasion, also!
Me: Can you tell us what your novel is about?
Mary: Eve Prince is done with college, with her mom, with guys, and with her dream of fashion design. But when her best friend goes MIA, Eve must gather the broken threads of her life to search for her.
Desperate to visit her sister, Boop, a retiree dripping with Southern charm, hijacks her granddaughter Eve’s road trip.
Along the way, Boop hopes to alleviate Eve’s growing depression—which, she knows from experience, will require more than flirting lessons and a Garlic Festival makeover. Nevertheless, she is frustrated when her feeble efforts yield the same failures that the sulfur-laced sip from the Fountain of Youth wrought on her age.
The one thing that might help is a secret that’s haunted Boop for sixty year. But in revealing it, Boop would risk losing her family and her own hard-won happiness.
Their journey through the heart of Dixie is an unforgettable love story between a grandmother and her granddaughter.
Me: Is there a coffee stop on Boop & Eve’s Road Trip? What might they order?
Mary: They have coffee twice in the book.
Boop: I drink my coffee the way nature intended, black. Eve, though, bless her heart, drinks hers with milk and enough sugar to fill a Pixy Stick.
Me: Describe your coffee habit.
Mary: I have one or two cups a day with a splash of milk. When I go to coffee shops, I like to splurge on fancy flavored concoctions.
Me: Can you give us additional hints about the novel’s setting? Any fun pit stops?
Boop: We hit the road from Eve’s college on the Gulf coast of Florida. Then we swing through St. Augustine, FL, Savannah, GA, Sunset Beach, NC, and end up in Richmond, VA. We take a few pitstops along the way.
Me: What was your inspiration for the novel?
Mary: My grandma Hootie passed away when I was pregnant with my first child. She lived a difficult life and made some significant mistakes, but the lady I knew was this amazing, loving grandma. I couldn’t help wishing she were still around when I was sitting in a dark place, and then I thought maybe she can be there for Eve. Enter the character of Boop.
After having babies, I struggled with postpartum depression. Part of my healing process was writing this book and attempting to capture what it feels like to sit in a dark place and to feel like you hadn’t earned the right to sit there. I think as a society we are empathetic when depression meets grief but bewildered by depression that we can’t explain. Eve was born from my journey from depression to recovery.
Like Eve and Boop in the novel, Hootie and I shared a daydream about renting an RV when I turned sixteen years old and taking a road trip together across the country. For many reasons this road trip never happened in real life—in large part because neither of us was capable of safely driving an RV across the country. Writing Boop and Eve’s Road Trip was a way for me to imagine the road trip that never was.
Me: What do you and Eve have in common?
Mary: We’re both creative types that don’t deal well when we lose our creative outlet. Also, Eve’s tendency to beat herself up, is a reflection of my own dark side. That irrational and negative voice is real in so many people’s minds, but it certainly isn’t something most of us want to admit to. It’s hard to silence a voice that we pretend doesn’t exist.
Me: What are three objects that are significant to your novel?
Mary: a mailbox
Me: What is it that Boop wants more than anything? What about Eve?
Boop: To come to terms with my past.
Eve: To find the courage to follow my own path.
Me: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Mary: Even as a kid I played with creative writing. Serious aspirations came along 21 years ago when I was in graduate school for teaching. In my Teaching Middle School Social Studies class, the professor suggested a geography project for our students and asked us to complete the project so we’d have a sample to show our students when we assigned it. Somehow my sample became a novella. The professor loved it and suggested I get it published and a dream was born. Twenty one years…it’s been a long road.
Me: Do you have a regular writing routine?
Mary: It depends. When my life has regularity, I do create patterns that maximize it. They adapt to my family’s rhythms. The pandemic threw regularity out the window since now the entire family is working and schooling from home. Now I do what I can when I can.
Me: What is the most useful piece of writing advice you have ever received?
Mary: We use different parts of our brain when we type and when we write by hand. I usually begin writing a scene by hand and then move to the computer once I’ve gotten going. Then I move back to paper if I get stuck. Going back and forth between the two helps grease my creativity wheels.
Me: What would you like readers to know about depression? About mental health in general?
Mary: One in six people will experience depression at some point in their lives, but as a society we don’t act like it’s that pervasive. Depression isn’t a character weakness, it’s a chemical imbalance. In most cases, doctors have effective treatments that can greatly improve quality of life for those suffering from depression. Hiding it is an ineffective treatment that hurts the people who love you and can have long term consequences. Please see a doctor if you think you might be suffering depression.
Boop: This world we live in ain’t real sympathetic ’bout mental illnesses….Seems to me we’d all be a little less nuts if we spent our energy dealing with our crazy instead of hiding it.
Buy a copy of Boop & Evehere, and sign up for Mary’s newsletter at her website. Connect with Mary at the links below!
For this bonus coffee chat, I’m talking with my firstborn, Evan. He is the kid who made me a mom and gave me tons of writing inspiration. He also gave me the need for excessive amounts of coffee in those early years because he wasn’t the best sleeper. He was sick a lot as an infant with many ear infections, bronchitis, and those really fun viral infections that never had a name or a cure – other than time.
My memories of those first years of motherhood are rather hazy, probably due to a combination of pregnancy hormones and sleep deprivation. Fortunately, writing has served me well where my memory has failed. Because I wrote a lot about my experiences when I couldn’t sleep, I have some pretty cool and detailed stories of Evan’s infancy and toddlerhood.
Evan was born with a strong moral compass, curious mind, and sense of maturity and compassion that many adults haven’t developed. It is a privilege to be his mom, and I am so grateful to have spent all of this quarantine time with him.
Fill your mug, prop up your feet, and read about what it’s like to be the focus of many essays and now a book, all in the words of nine-year-old Evan.
Me: Do you like coffee?
Evan: I’m not that big of a coffee drinker, but I do like mocha frappuccino.
Me: How do you feel about being the subject of many essays and now an actual book?
Evan: I think it’s really cool. I like to be in the book, and I like knowing I’m in something that people might read.
Me: Is there anything that you would prefer I not write about in the future? Anything you might find embarrassing?
Evan: Not really for me. But there are some parts about Delaney’s trouble making that are embarrassing!
Me: Do you enjoy writing? What do you write?
Evan: I already have ideas. I like writing about my life. I wrote Frog Dog a few years ago. It’s a comic about a creature who is bullied for the way he looks. Then he becomes a superhero. I read it for people at the library.
Me: What is it like to have a mom who writes?
Evan: It’s really awesome. I’m the son of an author, and I think that’s so cool.
Me: What is your favorite essay I have written?
Evan: “Baby Evan”, definitely. I like that it reminds me of when I was a toddler. It’s about when I was little and I couldn’t say my real name without “baby” in front of it.
Me: How have you helped with this project?
Evan: Well, I was there at the big reveal when you opened the box of books! I also passed out bookmarks at your signing and at the library.
Me: What do you think people should know about I Love You More Than Coffee?
Evan: People who are planning to be mothers or fathers should read it. It’s goofy and silly and they will know what parenting will be like.
As Evan gets older, I am increasingly careful about what I divulge in my writing and what I keep to myself. I know that sharing stories is a great way to reach others and make people feel less alone, but I never want to do that to my child’s detriment. My new policy is that I read essays to him before I hit submit. So far, he has given me the green light on everything!
If it weren’t for both of my kids, I wouldn’t have an essay collection. And if it weren’t for Delaney, it probably wouldn’t be titled I Love You More Than Coffee. When she was about three and a half, Delaney climbed in my lap and asked me if I liked her more than cookies, then candy, and finally, coffee. When she got to the last item, my absolute favorite beverage, I pretended to not be sure. Then we both had a good laugh. I knew at that moment that she had given me an essay title and a way to package my entire parenting collection.
Since then, Delaney has been gifting me with humor, sarcasm, and writing material on a daily basis. And since she is instrumental to this collection and to my writing life in general, it only makes sense that I interview her for one of this month’s bonus coffee chats! So here you go, friends! Fill your mugs; sit back, and enjoy a little Q & A with six-year-old Delaney Face and me!
Me: During the pandemic, you had your first coffee experience with a frappuccino. Can you tell us what you thought about it?
Delaney: Fraps taste really good. I like them. I don’t like them as much as I like you. They’re good.
Me: Why did you ask me if I liked you more than coffee?
Delaney: That’s a hard one. I was just seeing if you care about me more than you like coffee. Recently, it’s like you do.
Me: How do you feel about being in a book and having your picture on the back of it?
Delaney: Can I explain standing up? Okay, I want to feel more famous. I want people to know me more, like me more, and know who I am.
Me: I’m going to read an excerpt from one of my essays about you. Then I want you to tell me what you think.
Me: “…Delaney told me she had to go to the bathroom. She has been working on her independence in this area as well, so she goes in alone, and I check on her as necessary. After the sink had run for about five minutes, I knew it was time to check. I opened the door, and Delaney jumped. ‘You scared me!’ she said. I told her it wouldn’t be scary if she weren’t doing something wrong. Delaney had her Doc McStuffins doll under the faucet, face upright. I wondered if she had been learning about water torture in preschool…”
Delaney: (laughing hysterically) How old was I then?
Me: You were three. Do you remember that day?
Delaney: I don’t remember going upstairs and getting my doll. I remember everything else, though.
Me: What do you think I should write about in the future?
Delaney: I think you should write about me doing homework and Evan playing Minecraft. Wait. No. I think you should write a gummy bear book and say do you love me more than gummy bears.
Me: In the past, you’ve had a few problems with candy, like sneaking it, hiding it, and eating too much of it. So, I think it’s only fair if I ask you if you like me more than candy. Do you?
Delaney: Yes. I do. I love you more than candy because you’re my mom. You’re my favorite. More than candy.
Me: What do you want to do when you grow up?
Delaney: I want to be a famous person like JoJo Siwa. I don’t want to copy her. I don’t want her to think I am better than her. I also really like crafting. I like to make stuff and give it to people. It makes my life more happier. I want to make money so I can eat.
As an English teacher, it pains me greatly to not correct Delaney’s double comparison in her final response. But as a mom, I treasure her grammatical errors, malapropisms, and made up words. She often still calls a blanket a “banquet”. She uses the word “comparently” for apparently, and the tangles I comb out of her hair are “pringles”.
I’m not correcting her sayings because I know they won’t last long. All of the phases of childhood pass so quickly, and I don’t want to lose anything, including those little baby teeth, before I have to. I want to hold onto all of the cuteness as long as I can. That is a big part of why I write.