1st Class Artist and 2nd Art ~ Interview with Artist-Writer-Artist Philip Hartigan

I met Philip Hartigan in 2000 at The Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency in Vermont. His British accent and the way he sang Beatles songs during the evening bonfire events lured me in, but his art and his love of story trapped me. You may know this by now: I married the guy. And now I am eager to share with you some of his thoughts on making art, on writing, and on imagination and creation.

PMc: Your exhibition, “The Lucerne Project” is currently on display at Finestra Art Space in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. You describe the project as “A multimedia project documenting personal narratives about people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been.”

There are so many parts to that description I hope you will be willing to speak about. First, can you talk about how you decided to “document” a place and people you don’t really know?

PH: The idea grew naturally from my own studio work, which in the last few years has become focused on exploring memories of my own childhood through prints, sculptures, and videos. The pieces that I made started either from a visual memory, or as a result of actually writing the memories out in narrative form. The final piece of visual art would alternate between a direct telling (for example, through an animation with voice-over), or more indirectly in images and objects that seem to be derived from reality, but which are less easily interpreted.

So that’s my general process. “The Lucerne Project” came about for a number of reasons. I’ve worked on a couple of projects in the last two years, including a public art project, that used text and image to document the memories of other people. I found out, completely at random, that Lucerne, Switzerland was a sister city (twin city, in UK English) to Chicago, where I now live. I wanted to make a very big artist’s book, and I wanted to work on a project that I could add to throughout one year. So all of these things came together in “The Lucerne Project”: a 100 page accordion book of prints, a blog that I added to over a period of a year, an imaginary travel diary, and audio recordings of me reading from the diary.

The Lucerne Project: 100-Page Accordion Book

PMc: You aren’t the first artist or writer who has imagined real places in order to serve their work. Franz Kafka’s novel America comes to mind. It is difficult, though, to make a place you don’t really know become real. Can you talk about how you worked to try to make that happen in both the imagery and the words?

PH: I started with a general plan: look on the internet for images that people had uploaded of themselves on holiday in Lucerne; download them and print them out; make Xeroxes of them, playing around with multiple enlargements, different sizes, different details; print the resulting images in different combinations on printmaking paper, which would eventually be combined to make a very long artist’s book.

So the starting point is a photo of real people in a real place. But through the Xeroxing and printing process, something emerges that I call “damaged photos”: the resolution begins to break down, the meaning of the image (if it was ever clear to begin with) starts to become more obscure. As I printed the images using a printmaking process called paper-litho transfer, I found myself making decisions based on form and colour: alternate pages with faces and pages without; large, dark forms versus linear forms; dark colours and lighter colours. In this process, any narrative connections between the combined images, any stories, are accidental, only implied.

To balance that, I began writing this imaginary travel diary, which is basically a first-person series of vignettes, trying to imitate the feeling of someone arriving in a strange city for an extended stay and writing about what happens to them day by day. I think the first couple of entries started with the prints I had made, but the imaginary diary, which formed the basis of the blog, quickly took on a life of its own. After writing a few thousand words, I started experimenting with different fictional forms – dream telling, rant, journey story, opposite characters – and even putting in some of my own personal childhood memories.

So in the end, the show as it was exhibited created a sense of a place, but it would probably be unrecognizable as Lucerne to someone who has actually been there. But that’s what interests me at the moment, I think: how to work with stories that are somewhere in between the obscurity of the symbolic image, and the total clarity that is possible with writing.

PMc: I know that you are intrigued by and deeply interested in the interplay of text and image, of artists who write and writers who draw. How did you come to this interest? Was it fed at all by your own education first in literature and then in art?

PH: It started there, yes. My BA was in English Literature, and my MA was in Fine Art – Painting. All my life, since the very beginnings of my creative life in my teens, I’ve veered between wanting to be a writer and wanting to be a visual artist. And though I think of myself primarily as a visual artist now, I remain very close to the writing world: married to a writer of fiction, teaching not in an art department but in a fiction writing department, writing about art and the creative process on several blogs. The class that I teach with you, “Journal and Sketchbook”, began with the discovery that many famous writers also drew or painted, either as a way of seeing their stories better, or just as another creative outlet. It’s that idea of the ‘second art’ that fascinates me now, and the potentially important things that this stepping over into another medium has to say for the creative process in general.

The Lucerne Project: Opening Night

PMc: Why do you think you have moved more fully into the visual arts in your work? Why did you decide not to simply follow a writer’s path?

PH: Simple answer: I tried to be a writer in my twenties, got the backing of a very successful London literary agent, got very close to having a novel published, but in the end it didn’t happen. In the same month that my manuscript was finally returned to me, I got my letter of acceptance to the Fine Art MA program. (I had been painting in my spare time, showing in a south London gallery, and had applied to Winchester School of Art on a wing and a prayer.) I took that as a sign, and decided to concentrate my creative energy on visual art.

PMc: Are there artists whose work in text and image you particularly admire?

PH: There are so many. Some writers whose visual art I find compelling: ee cummings, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Maxine Hong Kingston, DH Lawrence, Gunter Grass, William Faulkner. Visual artists who wrote very well: Michelangelo, Gauguin, Delacroix, Kokoschka, Kara Walker. And recently I’ve been interviewing contemporary artists who are less well known than the people just mentioned, but who are absorbed in writing as an important part of their work as visual artists: Dianne Bowen, dm simons, Linda Peer, Helen Crawford, Tullio DeSantis.

PMc: Since this is a writerly blog, mostly, would you mind talking about any theories you might have on the importance of visual rendering, drawing, sketching, in a writer’s creative practice?

PH: My ideas on this have developed from: seeing the effect of drawing activities on writing that takes place in the Journal and Sketchbook class; considering the work of writers such as those mentioned in the last answer. In each case, I think that moving straight from a visual art activity (drawing, painting, sculpting) to the writing produces an immediate heightening of sensory awareness. The writing becomes more imbued with details of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. A deeper visualization often occurs, too: the writers/writing students see their characters better, see better where the story is taking place, and they see the shape or outline of the story as a whole more clearly, too. Perhaps what happens with that last thing is this: working with drawing, something that isn’t directly writing words on a page, takes the mind away from the creative problem for a while, allows it to percolate in the background, so that when the writer returns to the page, an obstacle has been removed, and they have simply been freed to go forward with the material that they were hesitating about before.

Most of these thoughts derive from empirical observation in the classroom, and from reflecting on the work of writer-artists from the past. But a lot of what I’ve said is beginning to be verified by recent experiments in neuroscience, too. Not that I think artists need that ‘verification’, really, but it’s an interesting convergence nevertheless.

PMc: You very often work with narratives, sometimes personal, sometimes more public in your creative expression. What is it about story that compels you?

PH: Hmmm. I suppose it’s that story implies a continuous time, a series of moments, rather than the still moment of a work of art. If I could find a way of telling all that I could about my memories of my childhood in a purely visual form, I probably would. But there must be a reason why I keep going back to the written and the spoken word for that, and it must be because a fully written story is still the best vehicle yet devised for expressing narrative. After all, the word “narrative” derives from words meaning “sequence of events”, and also “to know”.

PMc: Is there more work you are doing with “The Lucerne Project”? What other projects do you have underway or simmering?

PH: I am working on a public art project for the City of Urbana, Illinois, which starts with street interviews and will end with a public installation of word and image in Spring 2012.

After “The Lucerne Project” exhibition ends in mid-November, I would like to go to Lucerne, Switzerland, and work with a community of students or civilians on the reverse idea: work with them on producing their own word-and-image project based on people they’ve never met, in a place they’ve never been. That could be Chicago, or some other imagined place for them. Then I’d like to exhibit the results from both sides of the Atlantic in Lucerne and Chicago. And after that, why not extend it to more of Chicago’s sister cities? In a few years’ time, maybe we’ll be talking about The Shanghai Project, The Delhi Project, and The Vilnius Project.

For more from Philip Hartigan and the artists he knows, admires, and hangs out with, check out his blog PRAETERITA. You can also read his contributions on the art and culture blog HYPERALLERGIC. And if you are in or near Chicago, you might want to stop by Finestra Arts Space, on the 5th floor of Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, to view “The Lucerne Project”. Thank you, Philip, now go feed the cats. -PMc.←

View From the Keyboard ~ Happy Birthday, Doris Lessing

“I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.”

– Doris Lessing, b. October 22, 1919.



→Reminder to my writing friends and readers–View From the Keyboard is accepting submissions. Guidelines here. -PMc←

Writing Through the White Outs ~ James Goertel’s View From the Keyboard

Check out this gorgeous View From the Keyboard of James Goertel, a writer who makes his home in Western New York, and whose debut collection of stories, Carry Each His Burden, I am eager to read. (Even more so now having sampled the book through the excerpt below.) I imagine it is quite lovely where he lives right now, the leaves all colors before they fall and before the snow falls. And falls. And falls. But James Goertel is not afraid of a snowy winter; he just burrows in and gets writing.

James: My beautiful wife, Rachel, grew up on Lake Ontario. After we met, she told me it was a dream of hers to own waterfront property on one of the Great Lakes. I was working in media in Philadelphia and she was teaching in Western New York at the time, so when we got together we decided to live halfway between our families in rural Pennsylvania. Then two years ago we had the good fortune to have our son, Henry. The impetus quickly became for us to relocate near Rachel’s relatives in Western New York, so Henry could grow up around family. On one particular visit to the Great Lakes, we found a small cottage in need of a major rehab on Lake Erie with the beautifully mutable views I now have out the window where I write. We’re still rehabbing, but the memories we are building here as a family have been the sweetest yet of our marriage.

I had been writing professionally for video and film projects for years, but it was here on the shores of Lake Erie that I had the impulse to put together my first fiction collection. Rachel has her PhD in Composition, so with the best and most cost-effective editor so willing, so encouraging, and so close at hand, I dove in last winter and began crafting the stories making up Carry Each His Burden. Did I mention Western New York winters or lake effect blizzards yet? The winters here are long and last year’s began in earnest around Thanksgiving and didn’t have the good manners to leave us until late April. I did a lot of shoveling and a lot of writing. I watched the watery blue vista change from fluid to iced over; took in any number of storm cloud assemblages; peered through the window above where I write unable to see past the pane for the whiteouts endlessly battering our insulation-challenged rehab. By late spring I was, for all intents and purposes, snow-blind, but had finished my fiction debut. The sound of waterfowl and, at long last, lapping waves began to return with the opening of Lake Erie and I could finally push wide the window beyond my keyboard which had been shut tight for five months—and yes, it stuck badly when I first tried to pry it from its weather limbo. I am sure the long, winter days beyond this window, my view from the keyboard, inform the words within the five stories, but a strong sense of space and place is what I have loved most in the stories of my own favorite writers—Dickey, Harrison, Miller, Algren and, I think appropriately, two brothers from Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen. So with winter just around the corner again, I don’t mind if you take a look out my window, my view from the keyboard, the one that surely sits between the pages of Carry Each His Burden.

From CARRY EACH HIS BURDEN, an excerpt from the story “Animal Kingdom”

Unnoticed until now, the sound of peepers and crickets outside filled the silence of the sad, little kitchen. King took another languorous drag of the cigarette and placed both his hands behind his head. It was nearly time for a beer.

A whole lot of everything had passed King by since he was fifteen, when things had still seemed at least possible. But that illusion was shattered by the age of sixteen when he went to live with the neighbors after his mother went mad enough that he stopped being the only one who noticed. It was the inevitable conclusion to the year she refused to speak even a single word to him and communicated only with cryptic notes left here and there about the house. The afternoon he came home from school to find the house locked tight and his mother, completely naked, inside a tent pitched in the front yard, seemed to be a bellwether even his pot-clogged brain could interpret as a sign it was time to move on. The end was a beginning as most ends are and it was next door that he first encountered the man hiding inside himself that he would never be able to outrun. The neighbor’s daughter was only eleven or maybe twelve at the time, but it was hard to remember now and he didn’t want to anyhow. It was time for that beer.

Thanks, James, for letting us get a bit of your View From the Keyboard. Good luck with the new book and the events and readings that go with its launch. And if readers of this series want to find out more about James Goertel, his book, and upcoming appearances and events, stop by https://sites.google.com/site/carryeachhisburden/home . Thanks again for reading! -PMc

On Writers Reading Chicago-style ~ A Conversation with Julia Borcherts

Julia Borcherts is a writer’s best friend. In fact, she is many writers’ best friend. Particularly Chicago writers. For many years now, she has been instrumental in gathering writers together to form communities around the experience of live readings and other literary events. She’s a writer herself, and a teacher, and–dare I say?–one of Chicago’s literati. And even though she is busy coordinating and hosting two reading series, Reading Under the Influence and The Chicago Way; teaching part-time in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department; mentoring young interns and racking up the freelance gigs, Julia took the time to answer a whole bunch of questions for my Conversations series. AND she sent along a picture of her favorite workspace on a Chicago rooftop, so I am going to add this to my View From the Keyboard series as well.

PMc: Julia, you have been part of the Chicago literary scene for some time now. You’re a coordinator and founder of  local readings and literary events, write about writers and writing for various publications, teach writing at Columbia College Chicago. Can you tell us a little about some of the literary events you are part of these days? How were they started? Why do you consider them important to the literary landscape of this city?

JB: In the last few years, the lit scene in Chicago has just exploded, but when we—Amanda Snyder, Rob Duffer, Joe Tower, Carly Huegelmann and I—started Reading Under the Influence (http://www.readingundertheinfluence.com) in 2005, there weren’t really any prose reading series going on around town. Writing can seem like such a solitary pursuit and after awhile, you can start feeling like the crazy lady in the attic or the geek in mom’s basement. We wanted to establish a place where we could read our work and invite others to get out of the house and share, too.

We were influenced by the “collaborative-not-competitive” attitude prevalent in the Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department, where we were all grad students at the time. The idea of community has always been really important to me and that’s always been my aim for RUI—to have a place where writers and book lovers could gather together and get to know each other without the formality and constraints of a library or bookstore reading.

Rob and I are still co-hosting RUI, but we’re now joined by local writers Jesse Jordan (author of the forthcoming “Ghost Hollow”) and Pilcrow Lit Fest founder Amy Guth, as well as our three new fiction writing interns, Erin Nederbo, Kyle Chaney and Ray Lumpp. We usually feature four authors per month and the authors read original work and host themed literary trivia rounds where we give away books and other prizes. And since it’s called Reading Under the Influence, the authors toast the crowd with a shot before they read.

The Chicago Way (http://www.chicagowayseries.com) is different, but also community based. Crime author Michael Harvey (“The Chicago Way”) is a co-owner of the Hidden Shamrock bar and he asked his public relations manager, Dana Kaye, to recommend someone to host a salon-type literary series there. Dana and I are in a writing group together, so she hooked us up. The other co-founders are Columbia College fiction writing MFA alums Mary Beth Hoerner and Scott Miles as well as local author and web designer extraordinaire Quinn Stephens and Columbia fiction writing students Emily Witte and Michael Mullen. We feature different Chicago authors in a “reading and conversation format.” To break the ice, we have a different literary-themed game each month where audience members can win new books by the featured authors and other prizes.

PMc:  Many of the events you work with are held in local pubs and bars. Why these venues?

JB: For better or worse, neighborhood-tavern-type bars engender a sense of community. And while we also attend lots of readings at bookstores and libraries, we realized that there’s an inherent sense of intimacy in a bar that’s harder to achieve in other venues.

When we were starting RUI, the late great Ric Hess—who was a Fiction Writing student at Columbia at the time—offered up the back-back room in his bar, Sheffield’s. At Sheffield’s, we’re able to do a lot of things to break down the barriers between the featured readers and the audience that we couldn’t do in more formal settings. The audience is right at the author’s elbows. We have interactive trivia for prizes where audience members shout back their answers at the authors. We invite audience members to announce their own readings or upcoming book release parties or new lit journals where people can submit and we encourage everyone to pass out cards and flyers. I’ve noticed that all of these things contribute to a community vibe—audience members are no longer shy about approaching authors and people are making friends with other writers or book lovers that they’d never met before that night. And no, it’s not all hook-ups—most of the time, everyone’s talking about stories. Although I did once run into two very attractive young women from the audience who’d just met each other and were making out in the Ladies’ Room. Their romance ended when one of them ran into a stall to throw up.

At The Chicago Way, the Shamrock’s back room has this low stage/platform with couches where we can host conversations with the authors each month after they do short readings so that audience members can get to know them a bit. The authors always make their way around the room, too, to say hello to people and talk books over a beer, and I think that goes a long way towards building a community, too.

PMc: Do you want to talk about the connections you see between books and beverages?

JB: Well, there are the obvious connections to the legendary hard-drinking writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Tennessee Williams, Hunter S. Thompson and Dorothy Parker, whose habit of meeting up for cocktails at the Algonquin Round Table with her contemporaries sounds to me like a great way to start a day.

But in our experience, booze and books make a great combination for a really lively party. But in truth, we’ve had plenty of featured authors and audience members who don’t drink. If I’m on the bill to read at RUI and I’m driving, I’ll toast the audience with a shot of Diet Coke. When Carly Huegelmann was pregnant, we set her up with shots of milk.

PMc: Do you have a funny (or maybe not so funny) story about something that happened at one of your bar-based readings?

JB: We always have loose monthly themes at RUI, and once–when we ended up with six men on the bill–we chose the theme of “All Male Revue.” Best-selling author Marcus Sakey (who incidentally is hosting a crime series on the Travel Channel this winter) got up first, shoved a giant cucumber down his pants in honor of the theme and proceeded to read his work.

On the other side of the coin, when we were first starting out, a writer from one of the daily newspapers who hadn’t attended RUI wrote up a nice but inaccurate story about us and one of the fine-happy watchdogs from the City of Chicago read the article. They slapped a fine on Sheffield’s, claiming that RUI was promoting alcoholism and demanded that RUI be banned.

At that point, Ric Hess showed us what a true hero to the literary community he really was. He fought the charges and refused to stop hosting RUI. We (the co-founders) wrote letters explaining that we were actually promoting literature rather than drunkenness by hosting book release parties, giving away books, partnering with  lit organizations and libraries, providing a platform for established authors and introducing emerging authors to the community. 

It cost Hess $500 in lawyers’ fees but the City eventually said that they would not (ever) prosecute the bar for hosting RUI. We tried several times to give Ric $250 but he wouldn’t accept it. And when Ric passed away last January and I kept thinking about all the great things he’d done in his life, that moment kept coming back to me. We were unknowns; he was our champion.

PMc: What a remarkable man he was. One of the things that is particularly honorable about the work you do is that you use a lot of writing students as interns and helpers for the literary events. How do you choose these emerging writers and what impact does their involvement have on their creative lives?

JB: When I was new at writing, there were so many people in the community who reached out a hand to help (and still do). Hosting these lit series is one way to give back to the community, and I think that mentoring the next generation is a good way to give them a platform to succeed and also to involve them in a really fun way to give back.

For both series, we posted opportunities through the Fiction Writing internship program at Columbia College and looked for students who were not only strong writers but also had the potential to become top-notch contributors to the local literary scene. We’ve showed them the ropes and they help us with all the tasks, including press releases, social media, curating and co-hosting. At both series, we’ve already had one night where the entire evening was produced solely by the interns and we plan to do more of them.

In particular, I’ve noticed that all of them have become more confident—reading your work in public and hosting a forum to bridge authors and audience tends to do that—but I thought I’d ask them about the impact this experience has had on their creative lives.

Ray Lumpp, who’s also taken on the documentation of RUI with some really amazing photos, said, “At first I was just happy to have a reason to pick up my camera again. But the feeling of being a part of an artistic community has given me confidence as a writer. Hearing many different storytelling voices and their effect on a captive audience has influenced my awareness when voicing the words on the page, when talking to strangers. In photographing the audience’s reaction, I’ve felt when humor and authority are pulling people, tried to capture that feeling in their faces. Through RUI I’ve also been given two opportunities to read my own work, which is a startling experience, but externalized that I was a writer. Sometimes I forget the power of spoken words over silence; RUI reminds me that tone, melody, beat and rests are not just musical ideas, that writing is artful communication. I almost made a joke about a picture being worth a thousand words.”

Erin Nederbo said, “I guess RUI has impacted my creative life because, through its wide range of guests and the readings that they do, it’s shown me more of the range of what modern writing can be. I’ve been trying to read a lot of literary magazines lately but RUI gives an immediacy in getting to see what kind of work is being published and by what presses or magazines.  

“As I’m starting to prepare for graduation, I’ve realized that the comfort of a writing workshop (that requires you to produce 60 pages of work) is going to be gone soon. At RUI, it’s helpful to see working writers be successful. To see how the guests that read and the people who attend RUI are able to balance life and writing, that [has] really been helpful.”

The first intern I “hired,” Emily Witte, who helped co-found The Chicago Way, wrote this amazing essay about how she hadn’t felt the need to develop a community outside her workshops to become a writer, but once she decided to dip in her toe, all these amazing things happened. I’ve excerpted a little bit here:

“Since the first event back in March, our readings have been structured with blocks of Q&As, open mics, and audience participation; and while the ‘reading’ portion still exists, it doesn’t take up the majority of stage time. The audience of theChicago Waydoesn’t really have time to be bored with one thing, because we’re quick to move onto the next thing. As it tends to turn out, the Q&As quickly bring listeners in, so few seem to mind if these run long.

“As summer began with the home stretch of my four years ofColumbia, I started attending readings. I of course went to RUI, but also Neutron Bomb, Two Cookie Minimum, the experimental and upcoming Brinksman Press, and later Paper Machete, a salon outside of the Columbia-influenced circle that, while less on the fiction side, still featured culturally-relevant nonfiction. Not only did it feel like an expectation of my internship, I realized that I hadn’t really witnessed my writing peers outside of the classroom.Readingsfostered a different environment—everyone was crammed and jostled together in a crooked bar to listen to a handful of unknowns and semi-knowns read their carefully crafted prose. These were the elements of necessary camaraderie and healthy competition in action.

“Like any literary event compared to another, the Chicago Way held a different vibe. It wasn’t taking place in a dive bar with PBR specials and malfunctioning bathroom sinks, but it was still authentic. It was still about writing. During each event I sat at a table like a regular ole’ audience member and jotted down tidbits from the featured guest that I wanted to remember…The lists I came home with could have easily been mistaken for classroom notes on process and craft and story structure. 

“I applied for this internship because I thought an internship was a thing you did during college. I’m pleased that I didn’t get stuck with the cliché tasks of taking coffee and completing grunt work for free. What this internship gave me was a step in the right direction. It was an introduction of one very particular aspect of the writing world. I can hardly call it an industry, because nobody’s involved in these readings to pay a mortgage. The audience is here because they want to be, and that’s a heavy expectation to live up to. It’s the same expectation I have when I spend money on a book. It’s the same expectation I have when I read or hear the first line of a story. I’m reading and I’m listening because I want to hear a good story, and I’m writing because I want to tell them.”

PMc: It looks like the work these young writers are doing is important to them, something they will value for sometime.

Writers often have to negotiate with family, career, hobbies, etc, in order to find the time and space to write. You are a writer yourself, Julia, but you also have many other hats you wear: teacher, lit events coordinator, newspaper contributor, mentor. How and when do you find time for your own creative work?

JB: You know, I’m like everybody else. Once I’ve gotten done with all the things I “have” to write or read over or edit for others, the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and dredging up all that creative energy again, especially when there’s no guarantee that there will ever be any gratification or reward for the effort. So I have to discipline myself to make time to do that. Through my experience with journalism deadlines–and my fiction writing training–I’ve learned that if I just force myself to write even when I don’t feel like it, I’ll eventually hit a groove.

One thing that’s worked well for me is to journal when I have a few minutes and think about current or historical events or memories or observations or reactions to art that are taking my attention and start asking myself questions about them—what would it be like to be a married dad who’s questioning his gender preference; or, what kind of woman would have tattoos of both the grim reaper and Eve sitting under a cobra eating an apple that looks like a heart; or, what could be happening in that moment when a woman realizes that she’s a failure as a mother? When I try to answer those questions on paper, it sometimes leads me to a scene, which almost always leads to a story.

PMc: What sorts of exciting things can Chicago literary followers expect to see from you and your various projects in the future?

JB: My favorite thing about Chicago is that we have a literary scene unlike any other city and that everyone—whether they’re a best-selling, celebrity author or an emerging writer or just someone who loves stories and books—is welcomed into that community. I’m lucky enough to have been invited to read my own work on November 13 at Two with Water RX, a bi-monthly series with an open mic component at Beauty Bar and also with 2nd Story sometime in their 2011-2012 season. I also enjoy collaborating with Bill Hillmann every spring on the Golden Gloves edition of the Windy City Story Slam, where we work with these legendary boxers and trainers to tell their stories.

At RUI on November 2, out guests are Literary Death Match champion Jill Summers, This Much Is True host Scott Whitehair, Two Cookie Minimum host John Wawrszazek and jazz musician Cortez Bryson. We’ll also be hosting a special RUI at the SHoP (Southside Hub of Production), the newHyde Parkcultural center that’s been converted from an old mansion.

And at The Chicago Way, we’ve got thriller writer Jamie Freveletti (“Running from the Devil”) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bryan Gruley (“StarvationLake”) on tap for October 23rd. On November 20, we’re hosting fantasy writers Tina Jens, C.S.E. Cooney, Patty Templeton and Jeanine Vaughn. And on December 18, we’re hosting Frank Calabrese, Jr., because nothing says X-Mas like “Operation Family Secrets.”

PMc: Sounds great, Julia. Good luck with it all. And thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Engaged in a Civic Discourse ~ Pat and Chuck Wemstrom’s View From the Keyboard

Pat and Chuck Wemstrom make their home in the country outside of Mount Carroll, IL where Philip and I have a part-time residence. The area is filled with kind, friendly, generous people, many of whom are a bit conservative in their world view. Philip and I, descendants of hard-core lefties, took a few years to find like-minded friends in Mount Carroll, and we were delighted to first encounter Chuck and Patty in the letters to the editor page of the small local paper, and their remarks about healthcare and education and equal rights in love and life and keeping things green told us that these were folks worth getting to know. A delightful coincidence was that Chuck was looking to further hone his writing craft just at a time when I was engaged to teach a writing workshop at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point. Since then, we have shared meals and stories with this civic-minded couple, and now I am happy to introduce them to you.

Oh, and you should see their house out there in the country. Full of light and books and art. So good.

Pat and Chuck: We started by writing an occasional letter to the editor. One day, something in the paper upset Chuck and he wrote an especially long letter. He realized that it was too long for a letter, but he sent it to the managing editor, Eric Petermann at the Journal Standard, and he explained that it even though it was too long he wanted Eric to read it. Eric emailed back and invited us to his office. He said we could be “the J-S’s Steve and Cokie Roberts.” No guarantees, maybe once or twice a month, whatever, whenever. We’d all play it by ear. And of course we would not be reimbursed!

We love it. It has been almost a year and a half, and we appear regularly every Tuesday on the J-S’s op-ed page. Patty [W] keeps us honest. She does the editing, the proofreading and sets the standards. No name-calling. No cheap shots. Better sources, more documentation, not just Wikipedia.  Right now she’s on Chuck that Gene Lyons writes better than we do.

We get emails and snail mail, and people stop and talk to us at the grocery store and even at the symphony. The J-S has the column on-line and readers post their comments.

We share the “computer room,” a converted guest bedroom. No sudden noises, no Pandora and no mindless interruptions.  We each have our own space and our own corner to make our own mess. And when it gets out of hand, one or the other of us will say, “Enough!”and we’ll pretend to clean and organize. We share ideas from the very beginning. We’re each other’s critic and cheerleader. When we read each other’s work and the reader says, “Good,” the author has to try and interpret that “good.” Is it a good rough draft, is it a good column which just needs a bit of work here and tweak there or maybe it’s one of the better columns. And sometimes we have to figure out how to say, “Well, for me at least, it doesn’t seem to work very well.”

Patty McNair has come into our lives and is encouraging us to expand our horizons to try different styles and it’s working. Chuck loves to brag that he has a writing teacher. Not quite true, but it makes him feel important.

Why do we do it? It’s fun to put words together, even when they won’t come, simply refuse to come. And when they do come, when whole phrases, even sentences seem to write themselves, Wow! Sometimes our writing seems pedestrian, mundane, and derivative. But when it all comes together it makes us happy. When someone writes and says that they enjoyed our column, that it made sense, that it was well said and they appreciate someone caring enough to write, we feel really good.

Over the years we’ve read about writers, intellectuals, statesmen and just plain folks who believed that civic discourse was important. Others believed in a life of the mind. It’s not about last night’s game, but about what you are reading and thinking about, wanting to talk about.

When we taught, we knew sooner or later it came down to art. Teaching is a skill, a craft, but it is also an art. Good teachers fall short because they’re not artists. They’re not helping to create something in the classroom.  We think writing even the op-ed piece, the personal essay or memoir is an art. And we want to be involved in the artistic process.


An excerpt from Chuck’s work-in-progress:

There is more to school than books, curricula, chalkboards, NCLB, national standards and tests.  School is all about people. I have lots of ideas about curriculum, but my goal is to write about people. This is the beginning of a longer piece, one of a series of stories.

For the first twenty-five years of teaching, I looked forward to the first day. If I had taught summer school, I would have liked another week or so, but I was ready. If I hadn’t taught summer school I was ready by mid-August to get back to school, anxious to get back into the swing of things.

Everybody looked good the first day. Lots of teachers were dressed up. They had lost five pounds of that old winter fat, their clothes fit bit better and they had a little bounce in their step, a tiny swing in their hips as they hurried from one meeting to another. The women looked especially good—a little sexier, a little younger and a little bit more enthusiastic.

That was all destined to change over the course of the coming year. The white teachers would lose their tan, take on a pasty look as the year dragged on. The black teachers would go from the fresh look of summer to kind of a dull, gray, dusty complexion. And at the department meeting, the chair would introduce the new teachers. We’d all wonder, “Were we ever that young, did we look that good twenty years ago?”

An excerpt from Patty’s piece originally published in the Freeport Journal-Standard:

Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo,” popular throughout the fifties and sixties, often satirized public figures. Responding to complaints from readers, several newspapers chose not to run particular strips.

Kelly, when writing a political story line that might draw fire, began sending alternate strips that a newspaper could publish. Called “bunny strips,” the cartoons featured bunnies telling insipid jokes. Kelly told fans that if they saw a strip with fluffy little bunnies in it, it meant that their newspaper didn’t believe they were capable of thinking for themselves.

The Chicago Tribune recently cancelled a brief series of “Doonesbury” strips that made fun of Sarah Palin. The strip repeated statements from Joe McGinniss’ new book, “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.”

In the Doonesbury strips, Fox News reporter Roland Hedley is given the assignment of putting a positive spin on McGinniss’ book, a Herculean task considering the material. For example, a neighbor is quoted in the book as saying Palin neglected her kids. Hedley tweets: “Book: Sarah taught kids self-reliance. So Alaskan.”

In our judgment, the target of the satire in the Doonesbury strip was not really Sarah Palin, but Fox News. Trudeau is saying that Fox reporters distort the news to reflect their own political views.

And yes, Fox News addicts will not agree. But most satire is controversial, and one of the foundations of this country, aside from Freedom of the Press, is Freedom of Speech. Readers should demand the truth and not settle for fluffy bunnies.

To read more from Chuck’s first days in the Chicago Public Schools, stop by and get a view from his window at his blog: http://aviewfromchuckswindow.blogspot.com/. And to read more from Chuck and Patty about ecology, economy, education, NRA Robocalls and ideas for a kinder, better world, visit the Freeport Journal-Standard. (Authors’ photo from Freeport Journal-Standard.) Thanks, Chuck and Patty for sharing; and thank you all for reading. -PMc