Interlochen ~ A Temporary View From the Keyboard

So here we are at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Northern Michigan, and before the ICCA Writers’ Retreat starts next week, I have some time to be concentrating on my own writing. A sort of self-imposed retreat while Philip teaches a printmaking workshop.

I’m working on a novel-in-progress that takes place in New Hope, the fictional town where my story collection The Temple of Air is set. Working title is either Sledding the House of God Hill or Climbing the House of God Hill (my apologies, Jaimee Wriston-Colbert, for manipulating the title of your very fine collection: Climbing the God Tree) depending on the day. Some days we go up, some days we go down. You know.

So this desk is in a sweet little cabin in the woods and I have close by those things that are important to my writing: coffee, nuts, books, journal, water, and a wall. I like having a blank wall in front of me while I write, because I can fill it in with the things I need at the time, and I have to turn away from the work of imagining in order to get a real view. Here the real view is to my left and also behind me. Through a screen door and windows I can see the wooded campus and sandy lanes, black squirrels skittering around. On the cabin wall I have a reduction linocut print that Philip made in preparation for his workshop. It is of rocks and stones. Very groovy. I also have a couple of lists from the novel, not something I usually need, but I left this book behind for nearly a year after my brother died last summer, and school took over in the fall, and the work of producing and promoting the story collection swept away winter and spring. These lists come in handy because I move around in time and point-of-view in HOG Hill, and there are three families in the act. Two of these families are quite large, with five children in one, and seven in the other. So in order for me to move forward more effectively, I have had to go through the hundred-plus pages I have so far to gather names, events, what’s been told, when things happened, what I have really already written, and what I just think I have. Not all problems are solved in the list making, but many have been discovered.

If I had been working on this novel straight through from its original conception, I would have been able to carry the story in my head with all of its details–one (or is it two?) of the great joys of writing is living one life and dreaming another on a daily basis. Now, though, I sort of feel like I might at my high school reunion: everyone is more or less familiar, and I know I should know who this is and remember that name, but too much time has passed since the last time we met. And did that really happen the way I remember? Who was there then? What am I leaving out?

An excerpt, then, from the novel. Allison is a blossoming 14-year-old girl at the pool with her sisters but without her stepmother Rebecca. Her father would not approve of this. Lanny is her father’s friend.

Sledding (Climbing?) the House of God Hill – an excerpt from chapter 4, “At the Pool”

“I’m thinking you’re on your own, you girls,” Lanny said. He didn’t look at her but watched people pass, his eyes moving over their bodies, unabashedly taking in limbs. Allison checked him out while he was distracted, this man who was her father’s age. She followed the lines of his shoulders and arms (broad, muscled, the arms of a laborer) and the way his belly went soft and round and spilled over the waistband of his trunks. His hairy legs, nothing remarkable, and the cling of his bathing suit to the spot between his legs, the significant presence of it, the bulge there.

“What do you think?” He said.

“Excuse me?”

“Am I right?  You girls are alone here?” He smiled then, an accomplice’s smile, Allison thought, slightly crooked and—she saw it, she knew it was there—flirty. She remembered times when Lanny would come to the house when the girls were all little. He sometimes would grab them by a leg and an arm and swoop them in wide loops in the living room. She remembered jumping up and down, begging for more, the way her heart lifted in the bottom of her throat when he spun her, the way it thrilled her to watch the room race past her eyes: her father in his chair, Rebecca’s paintings on the walls, her sisters in the doorway, the couch where Rebecca sat looking slightly frightened. And when he put her back on the ground, Allison stood on trembling legs, her body weaving in place, her eyes still shifting, moving, then landing on Lanny’s broad grin. She loved him then.


Nearly ten years ago I had the honor of being Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy. When I returned to my work at Columbia College Chicago and told a colleague about my time writing in a cabin in the woods, he said he would never have been able to stand it–the isolation, the quiet. Poor man. Who wouldn’t want to write here?

Limited spots left for this summer’s Interlochen Writers’ Retreat. Go to for more information. -PMc←

In Brief Memory of Saul Bellow ~ View From the Keyboard

Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915 - April 5, 2005)

Saul Bellow was born 96 years ago today and in celebration of the anniversary of his birth, a few bits of wisdom from the writer (and reader) himself:

“I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

“A man is only as good as what he loves.”

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”

“A writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

“I’ve discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’”


Want to share your own View From the Keyboard? Guidelines at right. -PMc←

On Writing Away ~ Choosing a Writers’ Workshop Retreat

Bolstered by coffee, cookies, and support, a group of four writers gathered together at Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin to take part in four days of writing, reading, manuscript review, and story sharing.

It was my good fortune to direct the June Writers’ Workshop at Shake Rag Alley, a community arts center founded by artists and arts enthusiasts in what looks like a Cornish mining village settled in a century passed. The participants were from a variety of backgrounds and concerns, among them an Op-ed writer from Northwestern Illinois, a mother of four (who also is a working engineer) from Iowa, an early-retired special education teacher from the Galena, Illinois area, and a high-powered business women from Boston. Their stories (the ones they are writing and the ones we shared over lunch and the occasional after-class beer) were diverse in their content and in their ways of telling. From social commentary to pieces on faith and spiritually to raising a multiracial family to fiction that explored grief and childhood in small town Louisiana, the writing done for and in the workshop was topical, funny, and moving.

It is a pleasure to work with such a group of folks who use at least part of their free time to further their own skills and talents. The seriousness of purpose these four brought to the writing table each day helped them discover new moments of story and new possibilities in the work. Pages and pages of writing was done, and since the end of the workshop just four days, and I know from notes I’ve received that the writing habit has taken hold for these writers, despite their busy lives and other obligations and interests.

Sometimes it is just the act of keeping the work going that is the hardest part of writing. Programs like this and the August Journal and Sketchbook workshop at Shake Rag Alley, as well as the upcoming Writers’ Retreat at Interlochen College of Creative Arts can help us develop on-going strategies to get the words on the page. It is so easy to move away from the writing life; why not take the steps back toward it by finding a workshop? Below are some simple steps to choosing the right workshop for you:

  1. Determine your level of commitment. Workshops run in different ways and for different lengths of time. You can spend an afternoon to two weeks or more in a writers’ workshop. How much time and effort can you afford now?
  2. Determine your budget. The cost of these workshops vary widely. Many of the tuition costs don’t include housing or transportation, so look at all of these line items together when making your plan. Housing can vary greatly as well. You can camp near Interlochen, or stay in one of the summer camp-like cabins. Shake Rag has very upscale B&B offerings in town, as well as the perfectly affordable and suitable motor courts and motels close by. Some workshops are held on campuses where you can stay in dorms and in some cases share rooms and costs.
  3. Find a place you would love to be. So many workshops are held in beautiful settings like Mineral Point, WI, and Interlochen, MI. Stonecoast Writers’ Conference is held on Casco Bay in Maine. There are workshops on remote islands and in the middle of bustling cities. What setting will inspire you? And just in case you are unhappy with the workshop itself, you want to make sure that you are in a place you enjoy and can escape to and in.
  4. Research your instructors. It is always a good idea to find out about the work of your instructors. While it is true that a good teacher is one who can respond well and helpfully to each student, you might want to at least know what sorts of things your writing teacher writes, get at least a minimal understanding of their artistic sensibilities. This of course won’t save you from a bad workshop (years ago I attended a workshop with a writer whose work I admired greatly. He was not a good teacher, however, and seemed to take a bit of pleasure in insulting his students and in some cases bringing them to tears) but it will give you some context for the work at hand.
  5. Research the workshop. Most workshops, conferences, and retreats will have quite a bit of information available for you ahead of time. What will the schedule be like? Are manuscripts to be submitted ahead of time? Is the course aimed at generating work, discovering and exploring work? Is it a critique-based course? Are there excursions and social activities embedded in the schedule? Will participants get a chance to read their work to a larger audience? Will there be craft talks and readings about and from a variety of genres? Is there time to write? To read? Not each workshop is all things to every participant, so consider what you want and make your choice based on this. Also, though, be open to a manner of working that might be different from your usual MO. Shaking things up creatively will almost always lead you to interesting work.
  6. Go with an open mind and empty pages. You’re paying for this. Try things out; get your money’s worth. Don’t be afraid.
  7. Don’t talk yourself out of it. How many times have you decided you CAN’T do the things you want to do? The writer Hubert Selby, Jr., gave students at Columbia College Chicago some very good advice a number of years ago. He said it is good practice to say “yes” before you think of all the reasons to say “no.” If you think a writers’ workshop, conference, or retreat is a good idea for your own creative practice, then sign up now.
The garden path at Smejas' Studio in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

There are still spaces left for Interlochen’s Writers’ Retreat that will start in just a couple of weeks. Check it out. For more on Shake Rag Alley, click here. To read an interview with Judith Sutcliffe, one of the founding artists’ of Shake Rag, stop by Philip Hartigan’s Praeterita. And thanks again to my Shake Rag Writers’ Workshop participants. Don’t forget to write! -PMc←




Robert Duffer’s Man Cave ~ A View From the Keyboard

Robert Duffer is one of those writers who spreads himself around. He is adjunct faculty in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, and is one of the original members of the crew of RUI: Reading Under the Influence, a Chicago literary gathering. His freelance work has been published in many venues, among them The Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Tribune and others. In this installment of View From the Keyboard, Robert Duffer (or just plain “Duffer,” as everyone calls him) invites us into his writing space.

Duffer: Space is mental. It’s like money: you always want more but you do fine working with what you have.

I write here at the kitchen table before anyone wakes up. Lots of windows and southern exposure. Sunlight, daybreak, openness, makes it easier to write poorly at the start of the day, when nothing is formed or flowing but anything is possible. I try to get an hour in each morning. Then I’m writing all day in my head, the story is there, and it gives me energy at night to put in another hour after everyone’s in bed. But if the writing waits till the end of the day, I’m ready for it to be the end of the day. I can rewrite at night but clocking in for an hour of new material becomes an obligation so I’m impatient to get to it, which gets me justifiable comments like, “Why don’t you stop being a dick and go write?” That’s not my five-year-old saying that. Yet.

He’s pictured here, in the basement office/guestroom, playing “JoJo’s Fish Fun” or some such nonsense, on a Dell PC from 2002, which is all it’s good for. There are two desks and two chairs. I don’t know where the second chair came from. The office, sometimes referred to as the man cave, is the opposite of the kitchen table: clustered, cluttered and cramped. In it are taxes, insurance, kid work, warranties—generally, the burden of owning shit—and an unpublished novel, a couple unfinished novels, notebooks, a box of clips, a fucking Lego that I step on no matter how much I vacuum (not often), and other collisions of the family and writing life. The basement space is where projects are either completed or buried. I write there for three-hour stretches on many Saturday and Sunday mornings. This is why Wife likes the man cave as much as I do.

I’m currently rewriting a novel, “The Affairess”, and writing a play, “The Breadwinners”, and tending to freelance writing and my weekly man-bit “Experiments in Manhood”.

This [excerpt] is from The Affairess. Lyle has decided to stop stalking The Affairess and instead wipes out on his bike while pursuing her husband, Gary, in his car.


The Affairess (an excerpt)

Lyle couldn’t look at him, kept his scarf bunched up over his face. He was embarrassed and ashamed. Had he slowed down instead of racing the car he would’ve found out where they lived, at a distance. Too excitable, Shelly always said, pressing her hands down as if he were a hyper dog. Lyle pressed his hands down and glanced past the man’s knees; his bike light had smashed into a handful of pieces in the curb before the man’s car. He reached up to where it once was on his helmet and felt a deep welt, warmer than the rest of his helmet and scuffed. Wow. Did he hit the curb head first, or maybe he hit the pole? Good thing his head broke his fall or he could’ve gotten seriously hurt. How would he have explained that to Shelly? Going away from the train station, in the opposite direction of their house? A succession of excuses short fired then sputtered on their illogic. He had to get control of himself, had to leave these people alone.

The man shifted to his haunches. Did he do yoga? Lyle didn’t think he could squat like that. He was able to see around him to the license plate–AH 2748, plates expire in November, guard that said U of M and WOLVERINES on bottom. Lyle was being a fool; this was an opportunity he couldn’t have planned.

“I just need a place to clean up,” Lyle said, looking over his knees back to the patch where he slipped, where the car had turned, seeking out a corollary between the car turning and his accident.

“What about your bike?”

“It’ll take me just a minute to true the wheel. I have my gear. But I can’t go to work like this.” Lyle looked into the man’s eyes, which were wet and expectant—pregnant with pity.

The Non-Cave Workspace of Duffer


For more about and by Robert Duffer, check out these sites: and . Thank you, Duffer, for sharing your space and your work. -PMc←

Punch Line = Kiss of Death ~ Gina Frangello on Endings

Gina Frangello takes time away from her many deadlines (including finishing edits on her new novel) to answer Gerard Woodward’s questions about endings–best ones, preferred ones, how to find one, etc. As a companion to her answers here, why not look at her novel My Sister’s Continent, or her short story collection Slut Lullabies?

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, it may be fair to say that the most frequent kiss of death in an otherwise well-written, engaging story was the “punch line ending.”

You know: that story with a resolution that—once you know “what happened,” all is so resolved that you never really need to read the story again. The story wherein every single line and nuance pointed to an Exit sign, and once the Exit has been revealed, those nuances are no longer satisfying because now we know.

These types of stories (and novels) can be awfully exciting to read on the first sitting. There’s a good reason the thriller and mystery markets are so popular. But, with notable exceptions, they rarely hold up to or invite re-readings. They exist on a tightly wound string that tugs the reader along . . . and once we reach the finish line, the string goes once again slack, never to regain its tautness. Those signifiers don’t point to anything anymore, because the question (the only question) has already been answered. Case closed.

I don’t, if it isn’t already apparent, much care for stories like that.

Like all writers and avid readers, my favorite works of fiction are ones I’ve read over and over again. They are stories that yield a different result depending not only on who’s doing the reading, but at what moment of his or her life. They can be counted upon to yield new surprises each time—not in terms of finding out “who dunnit,” but in terms of a new resonance in the way a detail may serve as a dark echo of an earlier detail; in the way a character’s psyche opens itself up in vulnerable ways that may have seemed flinty and cool on the first read. The way that, say, upon first reading Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, the narrator, Daniel’s, Theory of the Other Couple may have seemed either a startling epiphany or a pitiful grasping at straws, and then, rereading the same novel ten years later in a different political climate and at a different stage of life, may seem precisely the inverse, so that both things become simultaneously True.

In my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, twentysomething Kirby narrates both her own story and that of her identical twin, Kendra, who disappeared some unspecified number of years prior, leaving behind only some journals written during a period of intense instability. If arguably Kendra is an unreliable narrator of her own life, then clearly Kirby’s second-hand narration is more unreliable still. In the end, the stories Kirby chooses to tell about her sister may reveal more about her own desires or demons than they do about Kendra’s—or at least as much. The novel is not without plot twists or surprises, but even in some of those cases, it’s never entirely clear whether a new development is an Absolute Truth, or simply what one of the twins believes happened. While the sisters’ story contains certain immutable facts, much else falls into a gray terrain of “perhaps,” and as such can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.

The way we interpret may, of course, reveal as much about our own desires and demons as they do about the characters’, or even the author’s.

Not all literary fiction must be completely open-ended, clearly. Narratives like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where we end literally with Milkman mid-jump towards what may be his own murder—or Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?” where Connie may be heading out her screen door to be raped, or may be heading out to be murdered as well, or may somehow be unexpectedly saved before meeting her doom—do tend to be more the exception than the rule in literature. Most stories/novels contain some measure of resolution, and that’s fine with me. Unrelenting open-endedness could quickly become almost as formulaic as the “punch line ending” if done to the point of . . . well, formula. The issue is more one of how many ways there are to read a story, and whether the reading is identical to every reader. Does the story offer Truth or truths?

I prefer the latter.

On a closing note: one thing I always remind my students is that every person has his or her own narrative, in which s/he is the star and the one whose actions are “right.” Whether aiming for the perfect ending for a story or whether simply trying to develop characters, a writer can scarcely hold in mind anything more important than the way the story might shift if looked at from another character’s angle. Writing fiction is much more like, say, parenting, than it is like riding a bike or sticking a plug in an outlet or piecing together a puzzle. There is no one right way to do it, but rather a myriad of successful and unsuccessful techniques and approaches that often overlap and intersect, so that a “great” story is not always the same as a “perfect” story just like a great dad may not be a perfect dad. If we struggle towards anything as writers, it is understanding. Sometimes, when I’ve written an open-ended conclusion to a published work, readers ask me what “really happened,” and although I have my own picture in my head, I maintain that my vision—once the story is on the page—is no more or less real or definite than anyone else’s. We are all in this messy, ambiguous and resonant business of fiction, like life, together.

P.S. It’s been such a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with Patty, Vanessa, Gerald and Dennis, and it’s so fitting to end on the note of endings. Thank you, Patty, for including us all in the discussion, and thanks to all my fellow writers for this vibrant exchange.


Gina, thank you for taking part in this conversation. We’ll keep up with your work and ideas about writing on The Nervous Breakdown. And readers, keep checking back for more on the art of endings from Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, and me. -PMc←

“Write Here” ~ A Visit to Lynda Rutledge’s Workspace

Lynda Rutledges forthcoming debut novel Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale will be released in early 2012. She is also author of the Young Adult novel Brave New WandaWith characters quirky and charming, Lynda Rutledge (Stephenson—as those of us in Chicago know her from her time teaching with us at Columbia College) spins tales that are funny, moving, and magical. But don’t just take my word for it…you can find out for yourself when you pick up a copy of one of her books. And to whet your appetite, a little from the author herself:

Lynda: I live outside Austin on the side of a hill in what’s aptly call the Texas hill country.  My office is a little room with French doors two convenient steps from the kitchen. Its big double windows said: “Write Here.”

The view from my keyboard out those windows is the front porch with an honest-to-Gawd porch swing, the 1/2 acre downhill wild area I call a front yard, and the illusion it all creates that I’m all alone in the world with whatever muse that might show up to play with the deer, lizards, tarantulas, and hummingbirds under the sun, sun, sun. Which sounds pretty good until it hits 100 outside, when the two steps to the kitchen and its margarita-making blender comes in mighty handy.  The little dancing figure? It’s a tiny mannequin I contort to mirror how my writing is going. This must have been a good day.

Something you can’t (quite) see: I’m an antsy writer so I have a desktop/laptop set up. I sit; I stand; I do back-flips; I move with the nervous energy. So I have an oversized Mac screen (bottom left) and a wireless keyboard that I hook up to the laptop perched on a pedestal table you see. I can unhook and go when I need to move-move-move.

Something I wrote here? Well, thank you for asking. See the screen? Just in: That’s the first glimpse of the designed title page of my novel coming out April 2012 with Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. It’s about antiques, death, bargains, and God. Of course, it’s the Great American Novel…yeah, okay, maybe not. But you never know what you might find at a garage sale, right? And it begins like this (excerpted):


On the last day of the millennium, after a midnight revelation from God, Faith Bass Darling had a garage sale. Considering she hadn’t spoken to the Almighty in twenty years, and considering she was the richest old lady in town, this was more than a bit surprising. At straight up midnight, though, she’d bolted upright in her four-poster bed, certain she’d heard her name called like soft lightning….

[S]he landed in her bare feet on her hardwood floor with the sound of the gentle thunderbolt still in her ears, and found herself moving through her dark and silent turn-of-the-century mansion, the biggest and oldest in Bass, Texas, gazing at all the antiques in all the rooms of the place where she had lived her entire life….

She continued this until dawn the next morning, whereupon she surprised all her neighbors on Old Waco Road, the tiny old town’s lone strip of mansions built when cotton was king and oil was still gushing, by appearing from behind her big carved doors and hanging a handmade garage sale sign around the neck of her peeling lawn-jockey hitching post. And then—after a last long, strong drag off her first Lucky Strike filter of the day and a flourished stubbing-out of the butt on the lawn jockey’s head—she began dragging the contents of a century of conspicuous consumption onto her long, sloping lawn.

Because she knew what this was about. This was about dying. This was about dying and killing Claude. It was the beginning of times; it was the end of times. And for seventy-year-old Faith Bass Darling, it was about time.

Thanks, Lynda, for inviting us into your space. Looking forward to reading more come April 2012. Meantime, anyone who wants to visit with Lynda a while longer can stroll by her website: And don’t forget, you, too can contribute to View From the Keyboard. Guidelines at right. -PMc←