Writing about home, passage of time

East Side author shares excerpts from collection of essays, the Good Slope

Posted 7/6/23

Looking through her round tortoise shell glasses, Elizabeth Rau read aloud from her sticky note laden copy of The Good Slope, a collection of her personal essays.

These “snapshots of (her) …

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Writing about home, passage of time

East Side author shares excerpts from collection of essays, the Good Slope


Looking through her round tortoise shell glasses, Elizabeth Rau read aloud from her sticky note laden copy of The Good Slope, a collection of her personal essays.

These “snapshots of (her) life over the past 20 plus years” share a combination of her childhood memories, tales of motherhood, stories and descriptions of her neighborhood and work experience– all with humor and poignancy.

“They’re about home and community and although the landscape is the East Side of Providence, I think a lot of people can relate to them,” Rau added. “The themes are universal: passage of time, family, joys of children, pets and neighborhood characters.”

On Monday June 19, Rau gave a live reading of a few of her essays at the Warwick Public Library, one of her many readings since the book’s release party was hosted at Books on a Square on May 6. Though the process of compiling more than one hundred essays and publishing it in book form took nearly 2 years, the content was decades in the making.

Rau, who has lived in Rhode Island since 1988, started writing her first personal narratives while working for the Providence Journal and covering a range of beats and bureaus including Westerly and Warwick with a focus on City Hall. At the time, she read a lot of fiction and drew inspiration from “spare writing” that was “realistic and understated.” She recalled publishing her personal pieces in the essay section of the Sunday Journal magazine and getting put on the rotation. Some of these early essays made it into the collection.

“Essay writing is freer for me,” Rau added. “Sometimes journalistic writing– nuts and bolts news writing– can be very constraining. One of the things I like about essay writing is the ability to meander. You have to just have faith with the reader that they’ll stay with you until the end.”

She has no doubt that her background as a journalist impacted her writing style. Rau described it as a “thrilling way to make a living,” especially if you’re a curious person. “I learned that a lot of success in journalism is hard work, perseverance, paying attention, listening and really valuing your stories,” she added.

After taking a short break from essay writing, Rau rediscovered her passion for it in 2000 with two small boys at home. She submitted an essay about her family trying to track down Brown football player Zak DeOssie to the former East Side Monthly and began what she described as a “decades plus adventure” of publishing with them once a month. Most of the essays in her collection come from this pool of published essays.

Children a source of inspiration

Her children became a source of inspiration for her writing. For example, the titular essay of the collection, “The Good Slope,” tells the story of her then 4-year-old son, Peder, coming of age and Rau, as a parent, “happy for a child’s independence,” all while searching for a good place to sled. Rau added that often, motherhood connected her back to memories of her own childhood growing up in Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis.

“Being a parent, you think about your own childhood and your own experience and journeys and adventures,” Rau said. “That all came back to me in very vivid detail.”

Childhood, to Rau, is “really a memory and it’s not necessarily a place, it’s more in your head, something that you always carry with you, and you will always try to get back to.”

Typically, Rau writes her essays nonlinearly, but she chose to organize her collection chronologically, so the reader could watch her sons– and Rau– grow up.

Peder Schaefer, her eldest son, said that he read most of the essays for the first time when they were in book form. He is currently a reporter at the Buffalo Bulletin in Wyoming and said he particularly enjoyed reading the first couple essays in the collection about his mother’s experiences in journalism because they were relatable.

“Newspapers and writing and books were always around the house 24/7, so I think I pretty naturally gravitated towards that,” Schaefer added. “Also, my mom was the person who taught me how to write, more than any of my teachers at school.”

Schaefer said  it was “really powerful and touching to read” about a younger version of himself through his mother’s perspective. While there were some stories that he described as embarrassing in the way baby photos are, he approached it with the attitude that “this is what growing up is about.”

“I think she does a really amazing job of capturing, through her eyes, what it’s like to see kids grow up, and I think that’s really beautiful,” Schaefer added. “Sometimes I have quite the emotional reaction to some of the essays because it’s amazing that that was a part of who I was back then.”

Jean Plunkett, editor of the The Good Slope, said she started reading Rau’s columns in the East Side Monthly and was especially moved by the way she described motherhood, relating it back to the “obvious joy and fun.”

“She has a wonderful way of writing about things that are tender and funny and interesting,” Plunkett added.

Dry, quiet humor

Plunkett, who also wrote for the Providence Journal, was reintroduced to Rau after she edited the memoir of Rau’s late neighbor, Tom Hunter. She added that “it was very easy” for her to edit Rau’s collection because most of it had already been published.

Plunkett also noticed that “over the years, she has developed a wonderful style of dry, quiet humor and lovely writing and she looks at what seems ordinary but is day to day life.”

For her essays, Rau said she’s often drawn to beauty and poignancy in smaller moments. Throughout her life, she’s been observant to details, a skill she honed as a journalist.

“I love finding the off-beat detail,” Rau added. “Maybe the color of someone’s carnation or the color of their boots or how they fiddled with their hair during the interview. Those are the details that really are so important because they are true and they complete the person, but most of all they’re true. If you convey that to the reader, then the reader believes in what you’re writing.”

Rau added that inspiration often strikes at random times like when she’s driving down the street or lying in bed at night, and she often maps out the story in her head.

“I would write the essay in my head,” she added. “I don’t sit down at the computer and think ‘what am I going to write about in the future?’ No way.”

Advance praise emphasized that her writing’s relatability elicits emotional response. Barry Fain wrote that her “well-crafted narratives produce smiles of recognition regardless of where one lives.” M. Charles Bakst, retired Providence Journal political columnist, said that Rau “takes you by the hand and welcomes you into her world.”

Rau plans to keep writing, maybe branching out more into fiction. She said that she’s willing to “go anywhere” for a reading from The Good Slope. The collection is available at Barnes & Noble for $21.99.

Rau’s next reading, hosted by Wakefield Books, is at 6 p.m. July 20 at The Kingston Free Library, 2605 Kingstown Road, Kingston, RI.


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