Monthly Archives: March 2012

When You’ve Made it as a Writer

I was pointed to this list by Twitter a few days ago–I can’t recall exactly, but I think it might have been either Brandon Sanderson or Dan Wells who posted it–and I’d been meaning to share it, but I just kept doing other things instead.  Here it is now, anyway.

I find these sorts of lists interesting because, in general, they come from people who disqualify themselves.  Most of the real writers who talk about what that means just say that you know you’re a writer when you write.  I like this list because it gets to that same point, but it shows all those people who would discount themselves for one reason or another that they shouldn’t be discounting themselves.

The last point is, I would say, the most poignant, and I’d say that if you’re not satisfied calling yourself a writer simply because you write, that point should be your sole metric.


Two Wheels

My essay about bicycles, my father, and growing up, in roughly that order, is now live at Philadelphia Stories, where it appears in their Spring 2012 issue.

You can read the essay here.

The Emlen Street Ruin: History

Ferreting out the history of the Emlen Street ruin from my last post took a little bit of work, but what really ended up breaking it for me was a bit of luck brought on by this week’s warm weather.

The City of Philadelphia has its own online map site, which has filters for park trails, among other things.  While looking for a suitably nearby trail to enjoy on a warm spring afternoon, I noticed that the trail passing by the Emlen Street Ruin was marked.  While Google Maps doesn’t have a good overhead picture of the ruin–theirs was taken after the trees had started leafing–the city site showed a nice overhead view of the ruin.

When I switched the view from Aerial Photo to Road map, a name was suddenly revealed:

The Ruin has a name–a real name you can plug in to Google and get decent search results for.

While I still haven’t found any information about when the Barn burned down, I did discover that the original barn building dates to around 1812–the modern bathroom facilities were a more recent addition.  The cottage which the barn belonged to began as a six-room farmhouse, but around 1890, Henry Houston had it expanded to a 25-room summer retreat for working girls from the city (at that point, West Mount Airy was still quite suburban, and it had been positively rural when the cottage was first built).

Information on the barn is still scarce, and I haven’t yet been able to find out when it burned, though some evidence suggests that the destruction of the bathrooms may have come some time after the main building burned.  At least as recently as the 1970’s, there was a swimming club called the Devil’s Pool nearby for which Buttercup Cottage served as a sort of gateway entrance, and according to the few forum posts I found on the topic, the barn ruins already existed then (and were used as a party spot for the local teens).  That, unfortunately, is where my trail went cold.  I’m glad to have discovered some of the history of this place, but there’s still more to know.  If you have any leads, let me know in the comments, and for my part, I will be sure to post any more information I can find.

The Emlen Street Ruin

There’s a building on Emlen Street, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, which I’ve driven past a hundred times, and every time, I’ve said to myself, “I should check that out sometime.”

When I say building, really I mean the bones of a building.  Tall stone walls and a chimney, slowly being reclaimed by the land, set back twenty feet from the curving road behind a rusting crash-barrier.

Then, one day, my friend says to me, why don’t we go check it out finally?  We’ve discussed it before.  There’s a little parking lot nearby at a little trailhead.  It’s spring, so the undergrowth shouldn’t be so thick we can’t easily leave the path.  It’s just a short walk, and it’s warm enough outside, up from the gray misery of the morning.

The path is easy going, and wide enough for two people in some places, even if they’re not feeling cozy.  We round a bend, and there it is, stark stonework jutting up behind a low thicket of brambles.

From the road, it’s difficult to tell, but from here, when you’re not being tailgated, it’s plain as daylight that what was once a large building is now two disconnected pieces.  It also becomes clear why only the stone walls remain; the ground it littered with bits of charred wood, the only remains following a long-ago fire.

This isn’t some secret, inaccessible ruin visited only by those in the know–you can see this thing from a well-used road.  We’re far from the first people to have been here.  There’s graffiti, there’s litter.  This has been a party spot and more.  Many of the bottles and can strew about the inside of the main space are riddled with small-caliber holes.

A quick look around tells us that whoever was having their target practice here was only using a BB gun, though.

There have been artists, here, too.  One, at least.  While other parts of the building are covered with ugly sprayed tags and splashes of yellow paint, one wall is adorned with an idyllic, impressionistic scene.

So far, out exploration has raised more questions than it’s answered.  The building’s original purpose is opaque to us, more so as we explore further and make another discovery.  In one wall, there is a low doorway, more like a hatch, which opens into a narrow brick passageway containing the remains of some plumbing.

The wall around it is low, broken, and easily climbed, but getting down on the other side is another matter, and I’m unwilling to squeeze through the hatch.  From the top of the wall, two entrances are visible, and the dirty, cracked tile work in this little connected-yet-disconnected shed reveals it to be a pair of bathrooms.  The wall that used to separate the sides has been partially knocked down, so either entrance will work, though one is blocked by thin, tall, spiny plants.

The trash and graffiti are thicker here.  Clearly, this is not where the party’s at.

All around, there are clues as to what the building might have looked like.  Lines on the wall and chimney describe the height and slope of the roof.  Rusting hinges give evidence of the large double doors that once stood at either end of the building, but still the building’s purpose is a mystery.  The area is full of old mills, but this building is too far from the stream, and there’s no evidence of millstones or the machinery to drive them.  The bathrooms just complicate the matter.

On the far side of the building, there’s a set of stairs leading up to a narrow stone balcony that overlooks the road and now the ruined bathrooms.  A difference in stonework also indicates that there was once a door leading inside from this level, and the charred ends of beams inside support the idea of a second floor of some sort, just as they once supported the floorboards.

From the balcony, we can also see a rusting metal flower high up on the outside of the chimney: one more piece of an incomplete puzzle.

My camera’s tiny memory card is full, and while there’s plenty of speculating left to do, there’s not much building left to explore.  Satisfied for now, we turn back, hoping Google will hold the secrets we’re looking for.

A View of Mom Rinker’s Rock

Just a quick post, though I’ve got some exciting stuff to share in the next few days.  Spring has come to Philly, and this year I’m living just a few minutes from the Wissahickon Creek, so I have no excuse not to go out and enjoy the first of the budding trees.

I’ve written several times before about Mom Rinker and her rock.  If you drive northwest along Wissahickon Avenue, crossing Lincoln Drive and Walnut Lane, you’ll soon come to a little side street on your left called Kitchen’s Lane.  Turn there.  At the bottom of the hill, there’s a small gravel parking lot.  If you’re lucky and it’s a weekday, there should be an empty spot.  Park.  Go down the dirt path, and you’ll see a bridge.  If you stay on that side of the creek, there’s a path on your left that leads up into the woods.

If you cross the bridge and turn left onto Forbidden Drive, it’s much easier going.  Keep your eyes up, watching the ridge opposite.  If you’re attentive and if there aren’t too many leaves blocking your view, you’ll see it.  A statue standing tall, surveying the valley below.  The pedestal on which this statue stands bears but one word, “Toleration.”

Nearby, there is a sign directing the view of those who aren’t on the lookout for this hidden little gem, along with a small bit of information, mostly concerning the statue itself.  All it says about Mom Rinker is that stories differ as to whether she was a witch or a Colonial spy.  I like to believe both.

13 Ways of Looking at a Blog Post: 4

Took me a little while, but here we are, finishing what we started.


Write the book you want to read.

This one should be pretty obvious, but sometimes it seems like people aren’t quite getting it.  It’s often pretty obvious when a writer isn’t really invested in what they’re working on.  The question I often ask myself when I see something like this is, “why did this writer see this through to completion?”  I filter this sort of content out pretty quickly in my own writing.  If I’m not into whatever it is I’m writing, I just stop.  You should, too.  Trying to write something you wouldn’t want to read won’t do anyone any favors (unless of course you’re writing a paper for a class, in which case you’re doing both yourself and your grades a favor by finishing).

When you’re interested in what you’re writing, chances are that your readers, whoever they are, will be, too.


Get author book jacket photos taken now, while you’re young. And get the negatives and copyright on those photos.

I can’t really speak to this, since I’m still young, and the part about negatives is becoming more and more obsolete every minute (unless you’re having your picture taken by an artiste).  I will say, though, that if you have a picture of yourself that you think would make a good book jacket photo, owning the copyright can’t hurt; you never know when someone might come out of the woodwork and want money because you’re using a photo they took of you at a party years ago.  Copyright, in this digital age, is more flexible in a lot of folks’ minds, but that’s not really a subject for this venue, or at least not for this moment.  If you want to read something intelligent about copyright, go find an article by Cory Doctorow.


Write about the issues that really upset you. Those are the only things worth writing about. . . . Life is too precious to spend it writing tame, conventional stories to which you have no personal attachment. . . .

This goes along well with point 10, above.  It’s natural to learn a lot about any issue that you’re passionate about, especially if it upsets you, and if you’re really upset, really impassioned about an issue, then chances are very good that your passion will rub off on your readers.  Note that just because something upsets you doesn’t mean it has to be an emotionally fraught subject.  The death of a parent, for example, is very upsetting, personally, and it’s possible to write a very powerful piece on the subject, but such a fraught subject can, at times, be emotionally taxing to readers as well as writers.  Go ahead and get upset, but provide emotional balance, or you’ll turn your readers off and wear yourself out, to boot.


. . . Whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. . . .

Having a final takeaway message here, I think, is irrelevant to the story, but since I’m going point, by,point, I’ll just reiterate something that’s been said by every writer everywhere pretty much.  Don’t give up.  Some people will love what you do, some won’t.  Some people won’t get it.  Among those people, there will undoubtedly be publishers and agents.  Ask yourself, though, if you’re writing for them, or if you’re writing for yourself.  If it’s the latter, you’re more likely to find some success, because when you’re making art for its own sake–when you’re doing it because it’s what you want to do and what you need to do–that’s when you, the artist, will disappear in the minds of your readers.  Then they can see what you’ve done as a whole piece, without the distraction of your being there.

Genre and Literature

First, I just want to say that I haven’t forgotten about the last part of my 13 Ways series, but I’ve had a bit of a full plate recently.  I’ll get back to that in a few days.

Second, let me preface this by saying how much I love any author or essayist who can mention Philip K. Dick and Junot Díaz in the same piece and hold them both in high regard.  Such is the case with Daniel Abraham’s brilliant “Private Letter from Genre to Mainstream.”

These were the battles I tried to fight throughout undergrad, never able to articulate my thoughts so beautifully as this but just as impassioned.  It’s not easy trying to write “genre” for classes, though there are those rare, wonderful professors who really get it, who care, first and foremost, about good writing.  If you’re a supporter of genre fiction, a believer in its power, another weary writer tired of trying to defend a favorite story just because it’s got spaceships/ghosts/monsters in it, do yourself a favor and read this letter.

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