A Clown and The Greatest Show ~ View From the Keyboard of Michael Downs

A number of years ago–I refuse to fully consider how many–I met Michael Downs at a workshop we both attended in Montana. I remember reading his manuscript one evening, an intriguing piece from something that had a Saul Bellowian title, and thinking, holy sh–, this guy is great. And you know what? I was right. Not just a really, really fine writer, but Downs is one of those people who pretty much everyone likes when they get to know him. He is a generous colleague, a caring teacher, a fun friend, and just a heck of a nice guy. And talented. But don’t just take my word for it; check out the creds: A River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for his book HOUSE OF GOOD HOPE (University of Nebraska Press,) a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose (these are mighty hard to get in these times), and another fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. His forthcoming collection of linked stories, THE GREATEST SHOW, is due out in Spring 2012 from Louisiana State University Press, Spring 2012.

And this is where it happens-

DOWNS: Here is my desk, moments after I sopped up a puddle of beer, which I’d spilled while talking on the phone with a clown.

My desk is in Baltimore. The clown was in Vermont. As we talked, a hurricane was bearing down on her. The same hurricane had already passed over the house that holds my desk. The clown had called because she plans to perform in a promotional video trailer for my next book. She wanted to better understand the book and her role in the video. THE GREATEST SHOW has as its catalyst the true story of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed one-hundred-sixty-nine people and injured hundreds more. Thus, the clown.

In the video, she will say: “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”

I don’t drink spirits when I’m writing. But when the clown telephoned on our landline I’d been outside raking up debris left by the hurricane. And I do, sometimes, drink beer as I rake. So I hurried upstairs to talk to the clown (bringing the beer), and as we were talking, I couldn’t find a pen on my desk (it’s cluttered), and I knocked over the bottle. Suds
puddled on the desktop, which is hard and heavy oak, and soaked into the bound draft of a novel I’m working on. You can see that draft in the foreground of the picture. You can’t, however, tell that it smells like Yuengling.

This, then, is my desk: Where I talk to a clown about one book while spilling beer on another; where a jumble of papers coax me toward blog posts, and a water bottle waits for me to take it along when I play basketball; and a friend’s book reminds me to write a blurb; and my niece and nephew grin earnestly out of school photos; and coffee cups get lost
for days; and imagined people fall in love, and betray each other, and forgive, and die; where I read the news of the world and watch other writers’ book trailers on YouTube.

The oak desk bears all this burden. Once, it belonged in the office of a women’s basketball coach at the University of Montana. When I moved it here to Baltimore, to my second floor office, it took four strong men to get it up the stairs. It is not a desk that wants to be moved. Though it is polished and handsome beneath the clutter of spilled beer and hurricane-lives, constancy is this desk’s great virtue.

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An excerpt from the story, “The Greatest Show,” from the book of the same name

Wartime. July’s worst heat. Hundreds of women and children panting and sticky in folding chairs in the bleachers. Then the tent catches fire. No one knows why. A lot of people die. Some sixty years later, we still try for a better performance in Hartford. We don’t take the blame for history. We’re not Ringling. We’re a chicken-dinner outfit from Branson hired for county fairs and Shriner shows. We feel no responsibility for a gas-soaked rag of a tent that collapsed on a crowd decades before most of us were born. But we’re not heartless. So Hartford always gets a little extra.

“But not today, right?” said Chico, his tongue flicking through the gap in his teeth. “My people ain’t done setting up. Give history a rain check.”

“No rain checks,” said Fritz. “I’ve been on the phone. Home office wants us to cancel the whole Hartford run. Pick up again in Rutland, maybe. It’s today or not at all.”

Renato, the father in our family of aerialists, said no, absolutely not, but Schmautz the Clown wanted to. Chico insisted his crew get its regular take for a full house. “This is charity,” said Schmautz. Chico said, “Charity is when they bring the crippled kids. This is nuts.” And Ursula suggested that if we did charity, we should do it where people were suffering right now.

That got everyone quiet. Then someone said, “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”

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See, told you he could write, didn’t I? Michael Downs is a graduate of the University of Arkansas’ Programs in Creative Writing; he lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson Univerity. Contact Michael at “mdowns at michael-downs.net.” His blog on the forthcoming book, etc: http://greatestshow.blogspot.com/. And thanks again for reading! -PMc←

On Being a Colum Alum

Today starts Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Weekend, and I am delighted to be part of the event. Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24, artist and adjunct faculty member Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching a workshop (Story and Sketchbook) based on a class we teach in the Fiction Writing Department, Journal and Sketchbook.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about my thoughts on being an alumnus of CCC. Do you know this school, Columbia College Chicago? You should. It is a vibrant arts and communication school (with a solid liberal arts foundation) in Chicago’s ever-changing south loop. I won’t give you the statistics of how many buildings we have (around twenty) or how many students we serve (somewhere near 12,000) or what programs of ours are among the biggest and best in the country (film and video, art and design, fiction writing, arts & entertainment media management.) Let me just say that we are a place that is part of the world’s vital discourse about art and culture and creative industry, and that we have Oscar winners, national book prize winners, Emmy winners, NEA awardees, etc etc etc among our alumni, faculty, and staff. Wow.

But what is most important, is the student body. I know. I count myself among them. Because even though I graduated from Columbia in 1988 (and again in 1995,) I still spend an awful lot of time at Columbia learning.

I first came to Columbia in the early eighties as one of those nontraditional students who had already gone out to work in the world, was rather successful without a college degree, but who felt a distinct and aching hole in my identity without said degree. This was fueled a little bit by the knowledge that certain careers would always be closed to me without the credential, but more so by the understanding that there was more I wanted to know, to practice, to experience. So on my way toward my thirties, I stopped in at Columbia College Chicago.

I came here as a radio major. My mother always wanted me to be Barbara Walters, but I knew I was getting older, and by the time I finally got my degree (going part-time as I needed to because of my full-time gig first as a manager of a restaurant and later as a back-office manager at a commodities firm) I thought I would be too old to be the next fresh face on television. So radio. That would do. I could write stories and talk to people and be on the air; and my mother would be proud.

But then, I had to take a writing class in order to fulfill a requirement. And one summer evening, I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of strangers, undertaking word games and telling bits of stories and writing. What a complete and total joy! I had always loved writing, but having this weekly workshop (with the emphasis on “work” not “repair” as many writing classes seem inclined to do) was like a magical thing for me. My anecdotes became stories, my rants became essays, my work became publishable. Oh, and that wonderful, unparalleled feeling of first seeing my work in print! (HairTrigger 9, I think it was…an edition of CCC’s FictionWriting Department student anthology.) I cannot tell you how exciting and edifying that was. It was in these classes that I began work on what would become my newly-released story collection, The Temple of Air.

I switched majors. The Fiction Writing Department, and its Story Workshop® approach to the teaching of writing, developed by John Schultz and fostered by Betty Shiflett, did just exactly what Columbia College Chicago’s mission promised me it would do; it helped me to “author the culture of [my] times.” In fiction writing classes—and in the other classes I took to finally finish my degree (twelve years and three schools after I started) I sat side-by-side with students from all backgrounds and skills levels. There was such a diversity of voices and stories at Columbia, that every class offered each of us new ways to understand the world simply by being part of its complex vastness. One of the things I was unhappy with at my other schools was how very much like high school they felt. And not just any high school, but high school in the suburbs of the seventies. Very white and relatively privileged (I can count myself among this demographic) with a world view that was remarkably similar to my own. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the white-kid-from-the-suburbs’ point of view, but by this time in my life I had lived in Honduras where I gave vaccinations and dental treatments; I had run a gas station in a relatively poor area in an Iowa city; I had bartended in a small town tavern near cornfields; I had sold pots and pans in trailer courts. I’d done community theater and commercials, I’d slung burgers and beers. In most of the classes I took at my other schools, my fellow students hadn’t had jobs other than at McDonalds or babysitting, and most of those were part-time; many of these students were at college because their parents said they had to be. At Columbia, I felt part of a wider world, a place where people worked to support themselves, and went to school to become what they dreamed of being. Writers. Artists. Filmmakers. Dancers.

Today Columbia’s student body has shifted somewhat. By doing what we have always done well (I say we here, because I am honored to teach at Columbia, my alma mater, and to be acting chair of the Fiction Writing Department this year,) offering students education in the creative industries and arts, we have become increasingly a college of choice for kids from the suburbs. We used to be a commuter school primarily, many of us working full-time, learning part-time, taking the CTA home late at night after class. Now we have dorms and lots of deeply engaged full-time students of traditional college age. What we have gained in numbers we have lost some in diversity, it’s true, and I am sorry for that. But what we have earned in reputation and dedication as a college is a good thing. Our students still come to Columbia to pursue those careers and educational paths that are hard to find at more traditional schools. They want to make art, many of them;they want to fill the world with music and words and images and new ways to think, to share, to be. They want to, as I do, author the culture of their times.

And I am thrilled to still be part of this. This pursuit, this education, this passion. This school: Columbia College Chicago.

Images from the internet, WBEZ and Columbia College Chicago. Thanks for reading. -PMc

 

 

The Fantastic Worlds of Scottish Writer Craig Gilbert ~ View From the Keyboard

Another writer friend I’ve made over the wide wide world of the web, Craig Gilbert hales from the gorgeous country of Scotland, a place where magic and the fantastic seem entirely possible. Perhaps this is what draws Craig to the things he likes to write about: new worlds, legends, a landscape both magnificent and menacing. His work leans toward the realm of fantasy–A Wizard’s Tears, Craig’s debut novel was started when he was just 16. More than two decades later, Craig continues to hone and practice his craft through fiction and now poetry.

Soul Shadows is Craig’s first of four books of poetry; his upcoming collection is called A Gathering of Wings. Forthcoming fiction titles include The Dark Shores and The Lemon & Other Short Stories, a semi-autobiographical collection that looks at therapists, young love, running marathons, significant birthdays, and more.

Below, a taste of Craig’s fiction and poetry:

The Dark Shores (prologue, an excerpt)

Jolner looked at Spirit’s Rock now. It stood in the centre of the sea between the two islands, a huge formation of black rock and stone, jagged and inaccessible. At its apex, the formation seemed almost man made, for there was a perfect circle that pierced it, and on the longest day of the year, the sun would shine through this circle, sending a ray of warm light skittering across the sea, glinting off the rock pools Jolner now stood upon with warm energy.

Jolner could not repress a shudder. Every time he looked upon Spirit’s Rock, he remembered the legends of that place. The people of Mykemu, himself included, believed the Rock to be haunted, and many people who had dared sail near its rough cliffs told of seeing a presence there, something that they could not define, but sense. Many came back with differing views: it was a man they saw, made of mist; it was a sea serpent, coiled around the cliffs and as large as the rock itself; it was a woman of ethereal beauty, captivating travellers with her song of mourning. All agreed their sense of fear, the way their hair stood on end, as if being watched, and the sweat that lined their faces, as if they had been through a great ordeal. Many complained of rashes and welts, and marks appeared on their skin, unbidden and without any explanation. People did not travel to the monument any more, and feared it, and cursed they were to look at it.

As Love Erupts

Transfixed, I feel time flow around me,
Essences of atoms sparkle and shimmer!
Dawn greets sunshine, then turns to pale leaves,
Autumn cascades and snow dazzles winters.
Rooted to the spot, I age and fingers curl,
As my soul, bound to this earth, hears the call,
It shudders and draws cold breath: Pearls
Drop like ivory tears into the dream’s thrall.

I feel your heart beating so close, now.
Two pumps of red river entwine and connect,
Coursing through veins and solemn vows,
A stream of souls’ harmonies, my mind collects.
Take my hand, guide me to this new Earth,
Remove me from this dark reality of storms,
I hear the clouds come, fragmenting stars aloft:
Grey and shades caress my land, greenery torn.

The clocks tick in a mutual beat,
Along with humanity’s blame,
The endless lies and deceit,
It is forever bound to be the same.
My watch cracks, splintered as I touch
The ethereal world reaching out to me,
Almost in loving envelops tickling as such:
My sight has gone from memory, but I can still see!

The dream is powerful, and it beckons me thus,
Into a place where the wild flowers bloom,
Exciting colours, fragrances and green lush,
Gentle laughter peals around the mushrooms!
Is this a sought after moment, a beckoning lure,
Devoid of the ravages of war, a place non-corrupt?
This is the place I seek, with you, so pure,
As you cradle me in your arms, as love erupts.

– from the forthcoming poetry book ‘A Gathering of Wings’

Each selection © Craig Gilbert 2011

Craig, thank you for the glimpse into your worlds–real and fantastic. -PMc←

Women and Children First, Chicago ~ Great Books, Great Places

I am trying to remember the first time I went to a reading at Women and Children First Bookstore, and who it was… A. Manette Ansay, maybe? Julia Alvarez? Carol Anshaw? Achy Obejas? It was well more than a dozen years ago. I do remember that the first book I ever bought there was Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin; I think I might have bought Margaret Atwood’s collection Bluebeard’s Egg that day as well. Since then I have been back many, many times, to see readings (recently April Newman and Sheree Greer at the Sapho Salon, and Bonnie Jo Campbell with her new book Once Upon a River) and to buy and order books. When I need to find the perfect something for my little nephews or a friend’s recent arrival, this is the place I go. When I just want to browse, to find something new, I do that here as well. Women and Children First is a great place to find gifts, journals, periodicals, and cards. And, if you’ve visited my site much before you know this too–it is a truly wonderful place to launch a book.

I welcome your input about great places to buy great books. Consider sending me note about and some photos of your favorite independent bookstore. I’ll try to help you get the word out. (Guidelines here.)

As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

Happy Birthday Anna Deavere Smith ~ View From the Keyboard

“I think it’s a fight we need to have.

And I think the American people accept those

values —

But there are some people on the right who don’t.

They look at

At society as a. . . .

In Darwinian terms.

If you succeed in life because you had advantages

God wanted you to succeed

And if you fail

It’s your own fault —

And if it’s your own fault

Why should anybody else have to help you?

And I reject that

I reject that.

It’s inconsistent with my values.

I disagree very strongly with it.”

~Taken from an interview Anna Deavere Smith conducted with Henry Waxman for an early draft of “Let Me Down Easy,” Smith’s play about the United States healthcare system (New York Times Magazine article, September 30, 2009.)

Happy Birthday to a writer and performer who does her best to keep us mindful of the world around us with all of its challenges and its joys.

→Image from Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” Thanks for reading. -PMc←

On Need and the Single Digit Victory Sign ~ DA Kentner’s View From the Keyboard

DA (David) Kentner (aka KevaD) is one of those writers on the front lines of the battle to remind folks how important it is to keep reading. He is a regular contributor to the Freeport Journal Standard, and his column “The Readers’ Writers” is distributed nationwide. Recently, David took the time to share his view from the keyboard.

Kentner: My workspace reflects my work habits – contained calamity. This is my corner of our home, the back part of the living room, the room within a room. Here I can glance at my grandchildren or the memory of a beloved pet, ponder the hand that once carried the barn lantern, visualize the family that read by the oil lamp. The flag sat on my desk the years I was our city’s chief of police. Near it is the clock and plaque my staff presented me when I announced my retirement. The shelves are filled with reference books and novels I hope to read… someday.

Every morning I sit here to write. This is also the last place I sit before I go to bed. Sometimes day and night intertwine. That’s why there are four clocks, so no matter which way I turn I’ll know what time it is. The window just out of view helps me distinguish AM from PM.

I’m a writer. It’s what I do, what I love, what gives me life. Originally I wrote solely for my enjoyment. Then I was told I “needed” to be published. I hadn’t been aware I possessed that need, but bent to the idea. During my quest for publication a professional editor told me my skills weren’t good enough and I would never be published. Wrong answer. The gauntlet was at my feet. I picked up the challenge, and haven’t set the darn thing aside since.

Dozens of stories no one will ever see attest to the fact I still write for my sole enjoyment. But another persona sits with me in the chair now; a writer who takes pleasure in seeing his work in the hands of a reader, in the knowledge we brought a smile to a face or a tear to an eye. There will be some who won’t understand what I do. I write to write. For me, it’s not about profit in a bank account, it’s the profit of joy in my heart. It’s the kind word from a reader that he or she enjoyed one of my stories or an interview with a fellow author.

And it’s about giving that editor a single digit victory sign.

I think the best example of my character-driven style of writing is the short story “The Caretaker.” However, here’s a sneak peak at my current work in progress, “Hearts on a Paper Boat.”

 

HEARTS ON A PAPER BOAT (excerpt) 

Chapter One

Sometime between her first tear and the unexpected rain shower, the flags, the color guard in their white berets and gloves, the blue and brown uniforms of more law enforcement agencies than she could count grayed and blurred. Hannah Preston drew her knees to her chest and shivered in the grove of pines. It wouldn’t be long now. She closed her eyes to wall out the finality and hugged her legs as she had her teddy bear so many years ago in another life where the people she loved didn’t die.

Pop-op. Seven rifle shots masquerading as one reported across the cemetery, over the oats field, up the incline to her hiding place, and bore into her brain as if maggots after food. She gripped her elbows and compressed her body under the onslaught of agony rebounding from bone to bone inside her.

Pop-op. Seven more. She winced and shuddered.

Pop-op. The final volley of the twenty-one gun salute to a fallen brother officer drilled with dental precision through her ears, down her throat and into her belly. A fiery puddle of acid erupted and corroded what little desire remained to live another day.

Like a brass mourning dove, a solitary bugle wept Taps between the raindrops’ patter.

Hannah rested her forehead on her denim clad knees and clenched her jaw, but the chatter of her teeth drummed an erratic beat into her heart vying for a sustainable rhythm. A jolt of unchained sorrow and guilt ached down her spine and numbed every nerve, leaving only cold to ooze through her veins.

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David, thank you for your View From the Keyboard. And thanks, too, for the work you do to keep readers reading and writers writing with your column, “The Readers’ Writers.” To read more, check out: dakentner.blogspot.com. And coming soon, the view from fiction and nonfiction writer Michael Downs and Scottish writer Craig Gilbert. PMc←