The Air of Ideas ~ Edith Wharton

“The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing,” Edith Wharton.

There are more elegant photos of Wharton all over the internet, but this one appeals to me in that it is evidence of a long writing life, one that spanned decades and crossed from one century into another. Below is a short excerpt from her story “The Long Run,” published in 1916, when she was in her fifties:

“Merrick was still handsome in his stooping tawny way: handsomer perhaps, with thinnish hair and more lines in his face, than in the young excess of his good looks. He was very glad to see me and conveyed his gladness by the same charming smile; but as soon as we began to talk I felt a change. It was not merely the change that years and experience and altered values bring. There was something more fundamental the matter with Merrick, something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable: Merrick had grown conventional and dull.”

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PBR and Rejection Slips ~ Gina Frangello on “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers

Gina Frangello answers fellow conversationalist Vanessa Gebbie’s question about whether or not writing the short story is training ground for the novel. While Gina’s latest book is a collection of short stories called Slut Lullabies, her first fiction work (besides editing projects,) was My Sister’s Continent, a novel. (Begs the question: What came first, the novel or story? Or maybe it doesn’t. Sorry.)

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, from 1997-2007, I regularly got phone calls, letters and emails from writers I’d published, wanting recommendations as to where they could submit their collections of short fiction. Basically, their situations went like this: “Every story in the collection has been published in a good journal—some have won awards—but I can’t even get any agent in New York to read it.” Agents kept telling these writers that short fiction “didn’t sell.” Even if, on occasion, an agent read a writer’s work and loved it, the agent’s brand of encouragement was often reduced to, “Please get in touch when you have a novel.”

Reactions to this attitude can be varied, of course. There are many young writers out there who do “begin” with short fiction—often because it is the traditional form for university creative writing workshops—with the implicit assumption that they will write a novel “someday.” Of course, even these writers rarely enjoy hearing that their short fiction is totally devalued by the publishing industry. Writers who write both short stories and novels are not any less attached to their short fiction—work no less hard on it and believe in it no differently—than writers who write short fiction alone, and so even these writers (myself among them) have experienced many frustrations regarding the market’s attitude about the short story. Our agents often don’t want to submit our stories until/unless we’ve had a “big” novel first, for example, and we may spend four or five years toiling on a novel that never reaches those heights while meanwhile we have a collection literally collecting dust in the proverbial drawer.

But let’s forget those writers—writers like myself—for a moment. What about the writers out there who don’t write novels at all? How does it feel to be constantly told that your art is a mere training ground for some other form in which you have no inherent interest or drive? Isn’t this a bit like going to audition for the New York City Ballet only to be told that you’re amazing, but to come back when you’re ready to tap dance?

If agents and book publishers have so little interest in the short story form—and this has been true now for almost two decades: the entire careers of many working writers today—then doesn’t it necessarily relegate short story writers to that beautiful “ghetto” of literary magazines, essentially guaranteeing them that they will never find wide readership, much less make money, for their craft?

Most of us in the literary world (or certainly the independent publishing world) would readily admit that literary magazines are the gatekeepers for some of the best writers in the country. The vast majority of these magazines, print or online, are freer from marketing concerns than book publishers are. All but an elite few subsist mainly on arts grants and donations, so while of course all journals want subscribers/readers, the model of “making money” on a literary journal is all but completely passé, especially in this era where so many journals are free online. Therefore, to some extent the only thing that matters in these publications is “quality.” Nobody gets rich running them. Nobody has to answer to corporate shareholders. Lit magazines are rarely “crowd pleasers,” as most people . . . well, barely know they exist. What they aim to do, quite simply, is to rock the worlds of their own small audience. They have scant interest in publishing something simply because it seems marketable, hip, palatable, crowd-friendly—their editors strive to fall in love, and once smitten they don’t have to pitch anything to the marketing department for approval, they simply send an acceptance to the writer. Sure, some editors tend towards the incestuous, publishing all their friends or only reading solicited work while everything else languishes in the slushpile, and this can lead to homogeneity or compromised aesthetics . . . but those things are true in “big publishing” too, perhaps to an even greater degree. So in many senses, literary magazine publishing remains our purest and perhaps our highest quality forum for literature, and many writers are very content to build careers on these pages, perhaps eventually coming out with a collection from a university or indie press after they are already a “big name” in lit journal circles. They don’t necessarily hanker for more. Their small audience adores their work, and they are home.

But . . . what about the short story writer who yearns for something else? The big deal? Even the medium sized book deal? How about just a freaking agent? Well, unless they’re from a trendy country with which the United States is having some highly publicized skirmish; unless they’ve already published a successful novel; unless they are at minimum an Iowa alum with a bunch of fancy blurbs, Pushcart Prizes, and a short story in the New Yorker—probably they’re shit out of luck.

I’ve seen more writers go through this process than I can count. Even my co-editor at Other Voices, a talented fiction writer whose stories were being widely published in journals and anthologies in the 1990s, met with a similar fate. After spending years polishing her collection, devoted to her craft, she could not find an agent to represent her and was told so many times to “write a novel” that—for a time—she stopped writing anything altogether. Though she did eventually find an agent, even he pushed her to write something more commercial, i.e. a “women’s fiction” styled novel. Is it any wonder that so many gifted writers of short fiction end up focusing primarily on editing, teaching, or some other aspect of the writing world, giving up their early publishing dreams?

In the end, there is this: on a craft level, the short story is not a training ground for the novel. They are different beasts. That said, writing is training ground for writing. If you write enough short fiction and you get to be pretty damn good at it, chances are you could also write a novel if you truly want to and you work long and hard enough. And so, while much can be made and dissected (as we have, to some extent, already done in this blog series) of the difference between the story and the novel, the real difference here—the essential difference—has to do with what a writer wants out of his or her career vs. what the market wants. The short story can be mere “training ground” for the novel if the writer sees it that way. However, such writers should keep in mind that writing a novel is no neat guarantee of selling a book for good money at a big New York house either. Deciding to write “to the market” is a risky endeavor—one that can drain your pursuit of its passion yet not lead to an end-goal reward of fame or fortune with anything resembling predictability. Even if a writer is willing to forego all aims of writing literary work and crank out chick-lit novels or thrillers . . . well, think about it. If you think there are a lot of unpublished literary fiction writers out there, when hardly any Americans even read literary fiction and literary fiction writers make crappy money, just how many unpublished thriller writers do you think there are? Would you like to have Dan Brown’s money? Yeah, so would everybody else.

If there’s any moral (well, other than “the publishing industry sucks a little”—but what industry doesn’t?), it always comes down to the same thing. Write what you love. If you love novels, write one! If your only love is short fiction, stick to that. Your audience may be smaller. You may never make a living. You may never even publish a book, instead remaining in the mags forever, and for many ambitious young writers that can be a bitter pill to swallow. But if you were in this for money and the guarantees, you’d have been an attorney, or an options trader, or a doctor, or even a plumber. If you’re writing for guarantees, for money, or to be what the market wants, you’re probably at the wrong party anyway, and you should leave while you have a chance, because the party on the next block might have some caviar, and all we’ve got over here is PBR and rejection slips wallpapering our walls.

In the end, I got so many of those calls, letters and emails from my writers at Other Voices magazine, that I ended up launching Other Voices Books (www.ovbooks.com), where I have been honored and privileged to publish some of these brilliant short story writers myself, like Tod Goldberg, Corrina Wycoff, Allison Amend. We don’t make much money. Sometimes we lose money. We can’t publish all the books we want to publish, because we’re poor with a tiny and overworked staff. But you know what—we’re proud of every book we put out; we’re passionate to live, eat and breathe these books and their writers for a good year-plus of our lives. We no more see our work as, say, training ground for an editorship at HarperCollins, than writers of short fiction should see their work as a training ground for anything at which they do not wish to be trained. We do it because we love it. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Uh, unless you’re starving and living in your car. Which kind of brings me to my next question. As a publisher/editor as well as a writer, I notice that my answers often involve “industry” or market concerns, which invariably do end up relating to money. I tend to take a combination jaded/idealistic view on that front, essentially boiling down to the fact that, yeah, we all need to eat, but if you’re writing for the money you could really have found a simpler way to make ends meet, and that writing needs to be primarily pursued for the passion of it. Not everyone agrees with this, clearly. So, for our next question, particularly since we all write short fiction, a form that is now (as opposed to in Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s time) notoriously underpaid: What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?

 

 →Thanks, Gina. Well, the question is back to our conversationalists, Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, Dennis McFadden, and me. Money? Fame? Real jobs? Hey, don’t forget to troll around on the website here for some other cool stuff like John McNally’s writing nest and Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile. And Faulkner half-naked. And Dorothy Parker on lingerie. -PMc←

Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile ~ Another View From the Keyboard

Here’s what Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply had to say about Volt, Alan Heathcock’s short story collection debut: “The stories in VOLT are intense, suspenseful, and utterly compelling. Heathcock writes about violence and bad luck and bad choices with a cool, grim eye that recalls Cormac McCarthy, yet he also approaches the hard lives of his stoic Westerners with great empathy and compassion and heart–a kind of miraculous combination.  By turns hair-raising and tender, the tales in this collection draw you into a tough, bleak, beautiful world that you won’t soon forget.”

Some very high praise, I’d say. Not really a surprise, though, when you think about it. Alan has had fiction published all over the place, and his stories have been selected as part of The Best Mystery Stories anthology. Volt is published by the very fine Graywolf Press, and has received favorable and even starred reviews from a number of those periodicals we all wish would review us so well. Originally from Chicago, Alan now teaches at Boise State University and is Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise and a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho.

Beyond all of this, Alan has one of the coolest writing spaces I’ve ever seen. Below is his description.

Alan:  My writing studio is a 1967  Roadrunner travel trailer that for most of its life was an Idaho State Police surveillance vehicle, and is now packed with books and trophies and random oddities–in style, it’s urban-redneck-gypsy-writer chic.  Having a wife and three kids, it’s perfect in that I can actually leave the house to go to work, to be out of earshot, to be away from someone asking me to open something or find something or wipe something, but also be close enough to come in to have lunch with the family, and get wifi from the house.  Inside, there’s old beautiful wood paneling, which smells like woods and feels like wood and feels cozy and connects me with the past.  With my wife’s help, I took pages from my favorite books and decoupaged them over the kitchenette area, so every time I get a drink of water, or heat up some tea, Hemingway and Joyce and James Dickey and Joyce Carol Oates stare me right in the face, daring me to bring my A-game.  I’ve hung framed letters I received from authors I admire, my prize being a type-written letter Joy Williams wrote me after she’d read my book.  Another favorite piece is a picture of “The Preacher” from the Charles Laughton movie, The Night of the Hunter.  The Preacher hangs over my head, glowering down over me, H-A-T-E tattooed across one hand, L-O-V-E across the other, him always watching, always making sure I’m writing what’s right and righteous.  In short, the VOLT-mobile (what my kids call it) is a magical place, a space that transports me from my side-driveway and deep into the recesses of my imagination, into all its fear and whimsy, its questions and concerns.

Excerpt from the story, “Peacekeeper”

At the back of the house, Helen entered the master bedroom.  A canopy bed with mahogany posts filled most of the room.  Helen gazed out the bedside window at the flooded world, the dark roofs of houses spread wide like barges on a big river.  Everything smelled of soil and fish.  So much water, so much washed over, but perhaps when they’d start anew everything could be better, everything forgiven.  Perhaps God would allow the girl to be dredged up by the flood and found, her parents granted their closure, yet the unrighteous cause of her death kept a gracious unknown.

Helen walked to a bureau and searched the drawers, one filled with scarves and nylons, the next with panties neatly folded and separated by color.  She moved to the closet and shone her light over the clothes; pants at one end, then blouses, then dresses.  Sweaters were on a shelf above the hanging clothes.  She pulled the red sweater from the middle of a stack, unfolded it to be sure it was the right one.  The silver thread of the embroidered snowflakes twinkled in Helen’s spotlight.  She held the sweater to her face; it smelled faintly of Connie’s perfume.  It was an impulse, and Helen could not explain why she needed it other than to say it was something clean and lovely in a world of mud.  She hugged the sweater to her throat and lay down on the bed, the mattress soft and pulling her in, her boot heels flat and heavy on the water-logged carpet.

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→Find out more about Alan Heathcock, read reviews of his stellar, award-winning collection Volt, get information about upcoming events and readings where you can hear from the author himself; visit his website: alanheathcock.com. Thanks so much, Alan. Writing readers, don’t forget, you, too, can submit your work and workspace for inclusion in View From the Keyboard. Guidelines to the right. PMc.← 



The Long and The Short of It ~ One Writer’s Training

We were out at our house in Mount Carroll, Illinois for a quick turnaround weekend away. Mount Carroll is a small town just ten miles away from the Mississippi River, a quiet place where we try to step out of our city lives. Where we try to slow down.

So there I was in my writing room, a small space on the second floor with an artist table a great-great-great (or so) aunt stored her paints in and my mother used as her bedside table; a remarkably heavy “portable” typewriter made more than half a century ago; books, shelves, and an array of gewgaws mined from family items, antique shops, and auctions on the now (for decades) defunct college campus in town. I was nursing a cup of coffee, rocking in my overstuffed, secondhand easy chair with a gold velveteen re-upholstery job, looking out on our huge European Larch tree that a local tree expert told us must be over 200 years old. Our house was built in the 1890s. That means the tree was there long before the house was. (I know I’m a writer, but I can still do a little math—see? Oh, and this reminds me: the novel was around long before the short story.) My journal was open and I was trying to figure out a way to gather my thoughts together in order to finally answer Vanessa Gebbie’s question posed a couple of weeks ago: Is writing short stories training ground for writing the novel? And even as I scribbled, I found my mind wandering, going over the lists of things I had to do before we packed up and headed back to Chicago, the things I had to do when I got there, the things I have to do tomorrow, this week, the rest of this semester, this summer, and before school starts again in September. Oh yeah, and in September, too.

This all actually has to do with what I want to say about short story writing, about novel writing. It does, I swear.

At Columbia College Chicago where I teach in the Fiction Writing Department, we are always assessing and evaluating our curriculum. Part of this work is to consider new courses, often proposed by other faculty members. And recently, different ideas for a class with the subject of Flash Fiction has come up. “Writing the Short-Short.” Or “Fiction Writing Topics: Flash Fiction.” Something like that. And here’s the thing: I hate this idea. I hate the idea of making a whole class out of little, tiny stories. Of teaching students to write short. (As though people who text and tweet and blog and shorthand through most forms of communication need us to encourage them to keep it short!)

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I love the perfect short-short. Adore it. Think “Bucket Rider,” by Franz Kafka; “The Porcelain Doll,” by Leo Tolstoy; “The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin; “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway; “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid. These are stories I turn to often, stories I learn from and I use in teaching. I have my own short-short stories, too, in The Temple of Air. “The Joke.” “Deer Story.” “Hand Thing.” But you know what? I had to write hundreds of pages in order to write these two and three page stories. I had to write long long long in order to really do the short-short thing.

So you’re thinking I’m just slow, aren’t you? You’re thinking only someone simple-minded would have to learn how to write long in order to write short. But here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that a writer needs to allow herself the time and room to enjoy the deep distraction it takes to find even the smallest nugget of story. My story “The Joke,” was a page from the 200 + pages that became my thesis. I had to write that novel in order to write that short story.

So maybe I’m saying what Dennis said a couple of weeks ago, the novel is just as much training ground for the short story as the story is for the novel. Yeah, that’s part of it. But there’s something more. And it has to do with sitting in my overstuffed golden velvet chair in the quiet hours of early morning with trees and horses out my window, and not being able to see any of that very clearly because my mind is spinning and spinning and spinning. Our desire to jump from one thing to the next, to click the link, to change the channel, to scroll through the headlines should not be the thing that moves us to read short stories; and perhaps more importantly, it should not be the thing that compels us to write them, flash or otherwise. In order to combat the shortening of our attention spans (real or imagined) it is essential that we lose ourselves in story, dive in deeply, fully, submerge ourselves. For two pages or for 200. A fine story does that, it draws us into—as John Gardner called it—the “vivid and continuous dream.” We come to after the last paragraph, at the final punctuation mark, blinking against the stark light of not reading. And we cannot create this dream state for others if we cannot experience it ourselves at the keyboard.

And that is what we need to train for. Creating the “vivid and continuous dream.” A novelist I met once spent years on a novel that she eventually abandoned and grieved for. She just couldn’t make it work. So she palpated the manuscript until she found its pulse, determined the size of the alive part of it. From there she discovered the story, and it was a short one. Still, she wrote it, published it, and received accolades for it. Here’s the truth of the matter: page count isn’t important; story, writing, is. And yet, I’d wager that Tolstoy, Kincaid, Kafka, Chopin, Hemingway, and even John Gardner each wrote many, many, many pages in order to write the perfect few.

And that (if you’ll indulge me) is the long and the short of it.

And just in case you are interested, an excerpt of my novel-in-progress-of-trying-to-find-a-publisher (Alice in Cuba Land) is here on the “Excerpts” page. And by the way, Gina Frangello has more to say about this as well. This short story – novel thing, that is. Coming soon.←

Is the Short Story Training Ground for the Novel? Vanessa Gebbie says “No.” Er, “Yes.” Er, “No – Yes.”

A short while back Vanessa Gebbie posed a question to our writers in conversation, and now it is time for her to answer her own question. Vanessa?

 

 I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel?  Is it?

I posed this question initially without really thinking, expecting my own response to be ‘of course not’… but after consideration I’m now not so sure. Quite apart from the fact that any piece of creative writing surely has some small bearing on the next, being a step on a journey, I thought short fiction and novels were so different, that the one would have little direct influence on the other.

But I have just spent the last five years writing a longer work – at the same time as producing enough short stories to fill two collections and plenty over. And I am now convinced that the answer to the question is not as simple as a straight ‘yes, it is’ or ‘no, it isn’t’. At least, for this writer – the only one I can speak for.

In some ways, being comfortable with creating short fiction has not helped me make a coherent piece of long fiction. I am avoiding the word ‘novel’ now – because that conjures ideas of lengthy narratives with several side alley explorations. Side alley explorations that are not actually vital, but which help to pad out the page count. Don’t they?  No? How many novels have you read (as a writer yourself) without wanting to reach for the red pen – ‘Why is this here? What’s it got to do with…?’ And I must admit, I would not at this point, consider writing one of those single main narrative works, because I don’t enjoy reading so many of them for the very reason outlined, so why would I?!

As an aside – I have just re-read a very well known novel written within the last few decades. A novel studied for ‘A’ level English by one of my sons not that long ago. And one I thoroughly enjoyed on first reading – already a modern classic. Reading with a writer’s eye, I wonder if it could easily be 25% shorter, and be better for it?  So says I, the short story writer! And thank the lord for subjective opinions.

However. Inasmuch that successful short fiction has no room for extraneous material, my skills as a writer of shorts, such as they are, did not exactly help when I wanted to produce something they call a novel. And although it might have been perfectly possible to go in depth into each deliberate gap, (those gaps that render short fiction successful reading experiences as far as I’m concerned) to fill them with matter, flesh out the prose, add lengthy descriptions where naturally, I might have given a single word or phrase or even nothing – this was not right for anything that had my name on it.

My response to the problem was to create the only sort of long work I can imagine I will ever do – one that could be approached in the creation stage as individual short stories. Sure, the settings were the same, and all the characters wandered in and out of each other’s stories at will, gate-crashing their parties. In this way I made twelve facets of the same thing. And just as working on a stand-alone short, where I would go deeper but sharpen at the same time, I split them again, each one becoming either two, or three distinct stories – until I ended up with over thirty in all. Two timelines, same setting, different generations of the same families.

So far so uninteresting – another writer blathering about their process, which may or may not have relevance to yours. But. The point for me is this – it was this approach that actually led the project in more ways than one. Not just structural issues emerged.

I do not plot when I write a short story. I start with a character who fascinates me enough to want to spend time with him/her and a problem, and the story finds its own direction and shape, after time. Careful revision sharpens the whole. I couldn’t imagine approaching a longer piece of work, say 100,000 words, in the same way, without there being a lot of meaningless meandering, and one helluva lot of pruning as the thicket was tamed. However. As I wrote The Coward’s Tale each story informed the next, in more ways than one. It was not just the characters who appeared again – it was the distinct shape of each story – the rhythms in the bigger sense.  And, most importantly, the theme.

Joan Didion is credited with saying, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I have to say I never understood that. Of course we know what we think! But we only know what we think if we are addressing an issue consciously. Each of my stories, as they appeared, was singing the same song in a different key. Of course, there needed to berestructuring, to undo the story arcs – I was in danger of leaving it as a series, not a coherent whole…but it was only when I was able to look back at the almost finished first draft that I could see what I’d been doing. The minor and more accessible themes were rising and falling fine – but the overarching one only became clear after Id finished the first draft – during the year I spent polishing and shaping the final structure with the help of the wonderful and perceptive writer Maggie Gee, thanks to an Arts Council Grant for the Arts. I needed to have it pointed out to me.

That structure was the hardest thing to get right – so that no longer would each section be stand-alone as well as part of a whole. So that the main threads of the narrative were sharpened here, moved there, echoed, and echoed – and the tapestry that started full of holes ended up good and whole.

So what are the understandings and craft skills I think helped The Coward’s Tale along, learned at the knee of the short story? I think I will start with a nebulous one – the real respect that the short form has for the reader – not requiring them to spend a long time on a voyage without at least giving them the confidence up front that the voyage will be worthwhile. Delivering the goods, on time, and in time. It works both ways – a short story creates a need for a careful reader, not, as is so often trumpeted, one who wants to charge through a short narrative in a grabbed twenty-minute space between train rides, on a busy station. If anything, a worthwhile short story is LESS suited to today’s freneticism and short attention spans than other forms… (but maybe that is another topic?!)

Perhaps the most important direct craft skills for my novel, learned in short fiction, are as follows: characterisation, wrought by a word, a glance, a single attribute – where lengthy descriptions are so often de trop, best left to the reader’s imagination. Allied, the use of dialogue, which works so hard and so effectively on many levels. Constant awareness of pace and weight, of each and every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and their effects on the reader. Awareness of thematic coherence – aiming for a holistic creation in which everything fits, matches, sings the same song. I could go on – the importance of a strong and intriguing opener. And a hundred thousand words later, an ending that lifts, makes the heart beat a little faster – an ending that seems the only ending possible.

What am I doing, listing some craft issues?! You know them all, and plenty more. My point is, I relied on those, and The Coward’s Tale is OK. And I answered my own question [in and earlier post] instinctively, without thinking.

“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, when they finally do, I wonder if they might write a better novel than they would if they were not short story writers first.”

 So actually – not a very good training ground, as that assumes a natural effortless slide from one to the other. The slide from short fiction to long fiction, in my case, was definitely not easy, but I am happy to put my name to the end product. I tip my hat to writers who are able to create successful long single narratives – and I celebrate our differences. And I can’t wait to get back into writing a stand-alone short story!

Why The Short Story, a Conversation Among Writers continues tomorrow with thoughts on Flash Fiction and the Continuous Dream. Thanks for reading! ←

Gail Wallace Bozzano and The Crystal Blast ~ A View From the Keyboard

Gail Wallace Bozzano has lived in many places around the world, among them China and Thailand. Her work often settles in those places, as in her excerpt below written about the tsunami in Thailand a few years ago. Now Gail lives in the Chicago suburbs, and her writing is inspired by memories and friends from far away, as well as her everyday life as mother, wife, and daughter. Her writing–as you’ll see–is both calm and urgent, compelling and moving.

Gail: This spot, on the second floor of the Northbrook Public Library, is one of my favorite places to write. To get writing time, I pay a babysitter to watch my four-year-old son while my two older children are in school. It’s always, always worth it.
The windows look out on the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. This corridor attracts an astonishing variety of wildlife: ducks, hawks, great blue herons. Once I watched a muskrat building its house in the mud along the bank. Another time, I saw a pair of river otters rolling, tumbling and playing in the water, eventually making their way upstream.

I know, I know. I’m supposed to be writing, not gazing out the window. But gazing out the window, checking out the trees and clouds and critters, taking a moment to daydream and just be, is how I drop into that magical, creative state where the words flow.

Here’s something I wrote in the Northbrook Public Library (an in-progress work of fiction):

“Afterwards, when you tally up your numerous mistakes, you will realize your biggest one. You thought you had more time.  You actually thought you had time to walk, not run, away from the water because the water was still so far away. At least you are moving off the beach; there are many who are still sleeping under brightly-colored umbrellas, sun hats covering their faces, and the Thai masseuse is still making her way around the chairs and towels that crowd the sand. At least you are heading in the right direction.

But it happens so fast.  A quiet sky and dry sand in one instant, and in the next, everything is white water and rushing noise.  A crystal blast hits you from behind, harder and faster than anything you could possibly imagine, sweeping you away from Tamara. Some detached part of you admires the brutal efficiency of the wave, the strong, gorgeous force of it. How nothing can stop it or even slow it down. How it moves as if it knows exactly what it needs. And it’s not scary or painful, not really. There is no time to be afraid.  No time to think about anything but keeping your head above water, looking for Tamara, looking for something to hang onto, trying to avoid trees and buildings and half-submerged power lines.  No time for anything but now.  There are things you will remember later and these are a few of them:  how the sunlight sparkled on the clear, warm water.  How the sky was still so blue.”

Thanks, Gail. Lovely, really lovely.  -PMc←

The Kindness of Strangers ~ Tennessee Williams at the Keyboard

Finally, a writer who looks a bit like the rest of us: disheveled, a little bleary-eyed, and a mess of papers on his desk. Here Tennessee Williams is hard at the writing thing (or so it appears.) The kindness of strangers–this time folks on the internet who posted this image for me to find–bring you a peek into the writer’s space of an American legend.

It’s your turn now; check out the View From the Keyboard Guidelines and send in a photo of your writing space and a bit of your work. John McNally did. Why don’t you?