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Work Samples

"The Jelly Women"

excerpt from "The Jelly Women," CALYX, Summer 2016 -- “How many cherries are enough?” I’d gotten fast into jelly making. Bish looked hard at me as cherry juice sluiced over my new calluses and into a substantial wash pan where we pitted a bounty of cherries taken from a small wormy tree. Even as the pits pinged against the pan’s aluminum sides, the out-of-doors ruckus continued. We’d stolen what was ours from a flock of angry jays. We watched through the kitchen screen as they dive-bombed—who?—and the air turned the bright blue of stained glass. Bish looked hard at me, not bothering to say we had more than enough for our needs. --- Project: GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR
PDF icon "The Jelly Women"

"Between the Rows"

excerpt from "Between the Rows," Existere, Summer 2015 -- The head is a very dark place. This according to Uncle Jess. From that, and a little more of his talk, I can picture a shadowy world: a thicket with trails snaking off to places folks shouldn’t go, but can’t help when they do. Then Grandma butted in, saying, “Don’t pay him mind. Jess’ head is total dark. Nothing celestial to light the way.” I’d never heard her sound so disgusted, as if there might be something wrong about him, which was hard to believe, as he was the one who’d brought me here, to a place I never could have imagined in my wildest mind. Now all three of us stood at the top of a wooded ravine, the night sky nearly squeezed shut by tree branches roped with fireflies. It was better than any Fourth of July show, but then Grandma said, “I don’t want the two of you together out here alone. Time we got back to the house.” That was the start of all of it, darkness having its hold on me. --- Project: GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR
PDF icon "Between the Rows"

B.2016.Salamander proof.44-49.pdf

excerpt from "When Desire Can't Find Its Object," Salamander, Winter 2015 -- Five mobiles hung from the loft’s railing. Twenty-eight plastic snowflakes, each the size of a giant cookie, cascaded at odd angles just above our heads. Free-flying metal birds, paper fishes, ceramic squares and ovals, and red and gold embossed paper dragon parts floated from above. And Tibetan temple bells on a rope. I found the stepladder tucked behind the sofa and unfolded it. Iris laughed—not that mindless shrill that trips from the tip of a girl’s vocal cords, but a bird song that resonated from the ground swell of her being. She needed my help. She squeezed my hand. I gave her a boost. One step and then the next. Though cautious, at first, carefully examining and polishing the center of the nearest snowflake, she was quick to reach higher, wider. She was three steps up when I stepped in behind. The painted bracelet, a gift from my last visit, slid from slender wrist to slender forearm and stuck. I thought of Becky without longing. A snowflake twirled, and then another. We sneezed recklessly, elbows beating the air. And then the dust cloth dropped away. All began to swirl—snowflakes, birds, fishes, squares, ovals, dragon parts. I held her closer. There were strings and wires and a sudden marriage of fish and birds. Then a burst of light as a serrated edge of the dragon’s tail caught my eye. I ducked sideways and its disembodied head, legs, torso, swung wildly after me. Bells rang. I felt dizzy. Faces asserted themselves from dark shadows. Apparitions. Eyes—eyes hung at eye-level. Accusing eyes. Mocking eyes. Studio portraits. Mick, kindergarten to graduation. Glen in pinstriped suits. There is a final crash, a lamp, a vase, maybe. The ladder drifts. We are in a violent struggle. I am whimpering, “Becky wants to divorce me…” and then we are not moving at all. We are suspended, draped and bound in broken, twisted wires and strings. --- 2014 Salamander Fiction Contest, Jennifer Haigh, judge. Project: WHEN DESIRE CAN'T FIND ITS OBJECT: STORIES ABOUT CONFUSED RELATIONSHIPS
PDF icon B.2016.Salamander proof.44-49.pdf

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About Margaret

Margaret Osburn is a nonfiction and fiction writer.   She is the writer/cinematographer of a documentary film, ONCE THERE WAS A CITY, which aired on PBS, the recipient of state (IN) press awards, and a winner in the 2014 Salamander Fiction Contest.  In 2015-16, her short stories appeared in Salamander, Existere, and CALYX.   Margaret's current literary projects include a collection of short stories about confused relationships, WHEN DESIRE CAN'T FIND ITS OBJECT, and a hybrid... more

GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR: A Hybrid Novel: linked stories, prose poetry, and jelly recipes embedded in an overarching narrative that is part thriller, part brain science, served southern style

In 2016, CALYX (29:2) published “The Jelly Women,” an oddball story featuring a lusciously strange setting (a jelly and used goods, found objects store in fictional Pavo County, Georgia, a destination spot on the state tourism map because of the store's notorious prize-winning jellies); an entrepreneurial grandmother; and a 13-year-old granddaughter, Emily, who’s seeking answers to life’s questions, most especially the whereabouts of her daddy.

...From the editors at CALYX: This is a wonderful, witchy story. The voice is delightful and very well developed...the narrative deepens our sense of each of the characters. The folk elements are done well, and the story is edgy enough that it won’t alienate the more urban audience...one woman changes the whole area and their economic outlook. Not many stories with that at the center. Like how it comments on storytelling. The narrator comments that it might/could be told a different way. How we tell/change stories to keep a community together, with the jelly moving the plot.

GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR incorporates as back story "The Jelly Women" and seven other short stories about the Bishop Family. The novel's present day narrative starts with middle-aged Emily’s pre-op psychological exam and her participation in a surgical trial to study the effects of an implanted chip to stimulate the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and Emily’s consequent discovery that the study’s principal investigator is her missing brother.

As the peripheral narrator of “The Jelly Women" and the central narrator of the other stories, Emily speaks from the distant past. As she listens to the stories her grandma tells, and to those the store regulars tell, she tries to better herself: “Right off, I asked Grandma Bish the hardest question, and she answered back, not saying, but saying she hadn’t seen my daddy since before I was born. And, since I hadn’t seen him myself for nearly that long, I gave up my asking. I was thirteen. I needed a fresh start.”

From the story, “How Un-Lucky Are the Dead,” the reader learns the significance of storytelling from the literary ghosts who inhabit the store, which is wallpapered with their book jackets: “When a book left the HERE WE HAVE IT, it left stripped down, shrouded in brown paper...book jackets stayed in memoriam, a term Aug Bone, who was county coroner, was fond to use. He preached that even the most unlikeable of characters was meant to be remembered.”

Through the full set of stories, with their flashes of quirky humor, we see Emily listening to, observing, studying, and imitating her grandmother, eventually becoming a masterful story teller herself. But, in the title story, “Gold Fish Circling on a Wreath of Hair” Emily confides: “Unlike the stories my grandmother blessed things and people with, my stories didn’t please. Where I sensed heat and pus, I pulled up and ripped off scabs. My stories seeped with regret.”

Alongside china tea cups and saucers and antique oddities, such as clay marbles and a wire toaster for holding a slice of bread arm’s length above a flame, like you were toasting a marshmallow, there were several cloisonné pieces: a key ring with a thumb-sized green and yellow fish that wiggled in linked sections, a pill box, a pair of earrings, and several bangle bracelets. All used. All with a story. It was the telling of a story that resulted in the sale. *** “Bangles…Take a look-see…” said the mother and nudged the girl toward the display. Instead, the girl, whose name was Briney, like salt water, pressed closer. She was skinny white with arms and legs that squeezed like tentacles. Finally, her mother gave her a thump and the girl opened her eyes from inside her mother’s ribs to twist around toward me. Her eyes were the color of amber. Her eyelids, pink and thick from what I guessed was crying, were droopy, sad, like a blood dog’s. *** I suppose I could have said something nice that day about those bangle bracelets and about how all the girls at my school wore them...

Emily speaks to her own heartbreaks in “Between the Rows” (Existere/34:2, York University, Toronto), “Sofa Collectors,” and “The Stormy Sorrows" (under different title, Passager/issue 49, University of Baltimore).

Eight stand alone stories demonstrating the nature of memory and the power of storytelling create the back story for the novel, GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR, and support the stage for an even wilder ride awaiting the grown Emily inside the Atlanta Brain Science Institute.

WHEN DESIRE CAN'T FIND ITS OBJECT: Stories about Confused Relationships

As regards a collection of stories about confused relationships--aren't all relationships confused? Perhaps not as much as the relationships in the collection WHEN DESIRE CAN'T FIND ITS OBJECT. The title story is about a young man--settled and successful by most standards--who has a craving, a hunger for life that doesn't get satisfied: in his search to find meaning, he takes up drugs, road trips, and photography (as if to better see what eludes him), finally circling back to the woman who most intrigues him, his best friend's mother. ...Other representative stories include "Pictures of Alligators"--about a family's struggle to be present after their son is diagnosed with AIDS during the 1980s epidemic; "Hazel"--about a woman who inherits her lover's detestable dog instead of his house; "All That Twinkles"--about a gay couple who adopt a friend's mother--a former Vaudevillian child star-- after the death of her 50-year-old daughter, a window dresser at the department store where they work. ...

ARTIST STATEMENT: On Burning Down the House

Just the other day, a neighbor stopped me on the street. He mentioned reading a couple of my short stories, and his eyes locked mine. His gaze, so fixed, portended the expectation that if he stared hard enough he might be able to see a panorama of oddball objects and people, fractured desires, oily possums and resurrection ferns, like a shower of floaters drifting off the back of my retina. “I’d sure like to see inside your head,” he said softly. He is a therapist.

My own desire to see inside heads has plagued me from childhood and motivated me throughout my writing career. It is also what gave me pause mid-way to think that, despite competence as a writer, perhaps I could accomplish a greater good as a therapist.

As a talk therapist, I could put my interviewer skills to work, closely listening and asking questions that supported individuals like myself who sought talk therapy as a way of finding answers hidden in their life stories. So in that season of rethinking, I began to re-school, to prepare myself for the pursuit of advanced degree(s) in psychology; this, even as I continued to write for a living. Then something providential happened, I participated in a fiction writing workshop at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) with minimalist writer Mary Robison and thereafter was invited to teach in the JHU Odyssey program and then the Osher and then the undergraduate programs. Then Smithsonian Associates called. ...My vocation had found me, even if “lecturer” or “adjunct” and “honorariums” didn’t pay the bills. But from that time, my life as a writer would evolve to higher levels of literary inquiry and emotional richness as a teacher and coach. And writing, as my student writers are quick to point out, is cheap therapy. So I feel I am helping people accomplish what’s worthwhile.

Over the past 30 years I’ve listened to and read, and read again, astounding stories by people who have lead the most wildly adventurous, calamitous, inventive, or normal of lives. I’ve encouraged and counseled. I’ve squiggled and marked up pages like a zealous Jackson Pollock, providing honest, perhaps tough feedback, pushing new writers to improve their craft, and encouraging seasoned writers to take bigger artistic risks. With every story, I want the writer to know her tools, make decisions, take control. Plumb the depths. Find insight. Experience epiphany.

Tall orders, yes.

And, at the very least, I want the writer to know and remember that she has permission to write. That the reward to writing will be more than the remembering and recording. That with any luck at all, she will discover an element of surprise, a personal insight--and there will be a thrill to it.

I’ve incorporated into my own writing process, much of what I teach. So let’s say I know the tricks for getting a piece of writing started, have gotten to know my story characters, decided on a story problem and, probably, have conceived of a basic design or structure, which will help me with how I approach and develop what I feel is of greatest importance to the story, even before I know the story’s actual course of events (unfathomable, I know, but not).

For my short story, “When Desire Can’t Find Its Object,” I chose description as the primary development strategy. In writing about identity and desire, not necessarily romance, the visual images (the objects) provide the psychological subtext, a changing venue of ephemeral, unrealized connections (amphetamine enhanced, given it’s the 1970s and the photographer has dropped a few tabs during and at the end of a fruitless 2000 mile drive to find the holy grail). There is a nuanced arc of opposing forces: the central character is unsatisfied with the things he has (a wife, a job, a house, a car that is paid for) and beset by the inability to fulfill even his niggling hungers: the egrets lift away like kites; his best friend’s mother, Iris, lacks appreciation for the poem he’s written her; he wants a pastrami sandwich, a White Castle hamburger, an old woman’s hand to hold--all withheld; his darkroom supplies have been tossed by his wife; in fact, there is a litany of beautiful, mysterious images he’s been unable to capture on this fateful journey, then Iris makes a point of saying he’s not allowed to photograph her; he tries to help Iris with the ladder, holds her steady (a connection), is mocked by the photographs of her son and late husband; his wife wants to divorce him; and finally, life as he knows it literally and figuratively unravels in “broken, twisted wires and strings.” This is a risky story because I rely on the imagery with help from the story title to supply needed clues to what is at stake.

All objects and places are haunted. This becomes clear in GOLD FISH CIRCLING ON A WREATH OF HAIR, in which the entrepreneurial grandma attaches stories to the for sale items in her store. In this course of storytelling, objects are exposed and prized for their past lives.

Throughout my writing process, which includes throwing words out on their ears when they don’t sound quite right or don’t add meaning, I keep peeping into that flotsam that blurs my street vision to pull out curious bits--don’t ask me where they came from. It’s dreamlike in there and bits are shape changers. But I’m happy to examine each for texture and substance and then watch and listen as one bit mixes it up with the others. Mostly, it’s after I’ve given the bits an essential work methods pep talk (that everything will be ok, that it’s ok, that it’s really ok, that it’s good to take risks) that surprising, unknowable things will happen. And that’s the beauty of it--the surprise of how far the subconscious will push itself into your story. For instance, there is nothing in these stories that I’ve written that is true about me. Or is there? I’m still sorting that out...

One last confession, a practical matter really: before I sit to write, I must find a comfortable writing chair, all the while resisting the temptation to jump up and burn the house down for all its distractions.

My house’s out of the ordinary
That’s right
Don’t want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house

TALKING HEADS, "Burning Down the House," Speaking Tongues album


FALL 2018 Memory & Imagination: Writers' Weekend Retreat

3rd Annual MEMORY & IMAGINATION: Writers' Weekend Retreat
2018 October 5, 6, & 7 --Friday 3 pm to Sunday noon

Memoirists, novelists, and poets live and write at the intersections of memory and imagination. The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Memory and Imagination Writers’ Retreat provides a cloistered writing environment for exploring these intersections. Writers participate in three-days of writing workshops, mini-lectures, discussion groups, and readings--with time for writing alone and/or mingling with fellow writers, and strolling the grounds to enjoy the scenic landscape. ... The site of the retreat is a 1930s Georgian-style mansion that sits high on a cliff overlooking the Susquehanna River. The 40,000-square-foot mansion is equipped with modern meeting rooms, sumptuous writing and reading nooks, bountiful libraries, and spacious single-occupancy bedrooms. ... Enrollment is limited to 15. Registration begins July 1. Hopkins affiliation is not a pre-requisite for enrollment. To learn more, call the JHU Odyssey registrar at 410-516-8516.

Margaret Osburn, retreat co-founder/organizer, teaches memoir and fiction writing through the Odyssey program and the JHU Department of Advanced Academic Studies.

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Margaret's Curated Collection

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