TBT: Ragdale High School Arts Week


A memory from less than a month ago, when I had the uplifting and inspiring opportunity to work with young writers during Ragdale Foundation’s High School Arts Week. What follows below comes from their journals.

I’ve Been Told

A Found-ish Ensemble List Poem

I remember sitting in the backseat, looking through night-stained windows, watching fireworks and driving home.

I don’t remember when I became attracted to morbidity, but did you know that butterflies will feed on carrion?

I’d rather not remember biking home from the train station while it was raining.

I’ve been told it was all his fault.

I remember going fishing on Martha’s Vineyard and catching a bull shark.

I don’t remember all the mean things kids used to say on the school bus.

I’d rather not remember making my best friend cry.

I’ve been told the way home took an hour, but back then it was infinite.


I remember losing a Cinderella balloon.

I don’t remember getting there, and I don’t remember leaving.

I’d rather not remember how I almost failed my 5th grade math class.

I’ve been told that I started to learn how to use computers when I was 1 ½ years old.


I remember Mrs. Melton stealing my stuffed armadillo and telling my mother I was too stupid to read at a first-grade level.

I don’t remember my step-grandma’s face.

I’d rather not remember the thoughts I have late at night.

I’ve been told that alcoholics ruin conversations.

I remember the sound of glass breaking.

I don’t remember what we thought was going to happen in the first place.

I’d rather not remember the water-marked ceilings and zigzag cracks.

I’ve been told I made Mrs. Melton’s life a living hell.


I remember the band that made me fall in love with punk rock.

I don’t remember who hit our car.

I’d rather not remember the way my aunt looked at her viewing.

I’ve been told I once poured white house paint all over myself.

I remember picking up bugs to study and examine them.

I don’t remember when my brother was born.

I’d rather not remember the guys before you.

I’ve been told I ruin every good thing I have.


I remember the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge.

I don’t remember vacationing on Jamaica for the first time.

I’d rather not remember the cracking sound that still echoes in my ears.

I’ve been told we would dance around the kitchen like a perfect family.


I remember your middle name.

I don’t remember getting lost while camping.

I’d rather not remember when I was not the one in the hospital bed anymore.

I’ve been told that I’m smart and will go far even if I’m not an athlete.

I remember my English teacher’s beige heels and yellow dress.

I don’t remember where I put my left sock.

I’d rather not remember the blood dripping from your forehead.

I’ve been told to stay alive. ‘Cause I’ll be something someday, if I can only get there first.

The Writer’s Handful with Paulette Livers

PL standing crpd

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

March is a fabulous month for book launches; there are more than a few new titles I am eager to add to my shelves and to read. Among these is the brand new debut novel, CEMENTVILLE, by Paulette Livers. The stellar reviews and honors are already mounting up for this book, and if you want to join in on its celebration, you’ll find at the bottom of this post a few of Paulette’s book tour stops. Are you a fellow Chicagoan? Then perhaps you’ll want to head over to the wonderful Women and Children First bookstore for Cementville’s Chicago launch on March 20. Guaranteed good time.

Welcome Paulette!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

Yes. Today I am writing (or rather, crowing) on my website/blog about a story collection I just finished reading, How by Geoff Wyss. I haven’t really jumped into the fray regarding negative reviews—that is a debate I’ll leave to others for the time being. The books I intend to write about on the still-new blog page at PauletteLivers.com are the ones that are so good I simply have to tell people. Sure, there’s a place for the underwhelmed review. But the reviews I look for are about books that grab you by the lapels and make you pay attention, whether they snag you loudly or with lyricism or with somber quietness.

In the throes of all the promotion and publicity for Cementville’s upcoming book tour—which, by the way, has given me a deeper appreciation for the maddening task of the professional publicist—taking time out to spread the word of another author’s excellent work is a refreshing breather for me.CementvilleLoRes

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

You mean beyond the scathing diary entry in which I excoriated my mother for not letting me buy a bra for my practically concave chest? The first real attempt at a story that wasn’t high school blather was something I wrote upon finishing my first reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I was 20, an art major, and that book sort of turned me inside out. Pound might disagree with me, but I see Woolf as an imagist; for me she is a painter. I don’t have a copy of it anymore (my story I mean, not Woolf’s, of which at last count I had 3 copies), but I’m sure it was dreadful. In my memory, the thing I wrote turned into a gauzy imagistic tribute to my same brassiere-denying mother.

What are you reading right now?

Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men, which she inscribed for me at her launch a few weeks ago at Women and Children First. It’s making me wonder if I would have had the fortitude to roam the earth at 23, leaving a wake of men behind me, not to mention sporting a pair of really crappy lungs. Frangello’s prose does that lapel-grabbing thing I mentioned earlier.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

When I was a self-conscious teenager, I did that thing of deflecting compliments, the adolescent version of “What? This old thing?” My mother told me, “Paulette, when someone gives you a compliment, just say ‘Thank you.’”  (I’m not sure why the ghost of her is hanging so vehemently around my writing desk today. Maybe because I mention my father more than my mother in a lecture I’m giving later this month at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta?)

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

This answer is given with more hope than certainty. What I hope for my writing to have is all the languid ferocity of a mother lion. (Okay, Mother, you can pipe down. We get it. You are an influence and inspiration.) I think of female lions as having all the necessary capacities: they can run, laze about in the shade, have sex, give birth, nurture and protect, yawn, roar, and scare the pants of people and other animals. They are just badass.



Paulette Livers was born and grew up in Kentucky. She lived and worked in Louisville, Atlanta, and Boulder as a painter, illustrator, and book designer for publishers around the country. Her first novel, CEMENTVILLE, has received the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and accolades from Real Simple, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews along with high praise from her literary peers. She has received awards, residencies, and fellowships from the Artcroft Foundation, Aspen Writers Foundation, the Bedell Foundation, Center for the American West, Denver Women’s Press Club, Key West Literary Seminars, and Ox-Bow Artist Residence. The recipient of the 2012 David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction, her work has also been shortlisted for awards from Britain’s Bridport Prize, Hunger Mountain, and the Sozopol Summer Literary Seminars. Along with Honorable Mentions for the Red Hen Press Short Story Award in 2011 and 2012, the 2013 Writers at Work, and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference’s Gabehart Prize in 2013, her stories have appeared in The Dos Passos Review, Southwest Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she now lives in Chicago.

For more information: www.PauletteLivers.com.

And you can join Paulette Livers as she tromps around the country with her new book:

March 18, Atlanta, Margaret Mitchell House, 7pm
March 20, Chicago, Women and Children First, 7:30pm
March 26, Denver, Tattered Cover, 7:30pm
March 27, Boulder, Boulder Bookstore, 7:30pm

May 18, Sunday Salon Chicago, 7pm

→Thanks, Paulette, for the chat. Have a great book tour! And thanks to everyone, as always, for reading. -PMc←

The Writer’s Handful with Arnie Bernstein

Photo by Jennifer Girard
Photo by Jennifer Girard

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

It is a new year, and we have a whole lot of new interviews with some of today’s most interesting writers. I’m excited to introduce to you a fellow Chicago author who fears no story: Arnie Bernstein.

Arnie Bernstein is author of the new nonfiction book from St. Martin’s Press Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, a history of 1930s American Nazis and how a disparate confederacy of politicians, newsmen, movie stars, and mobsters brought them to an inglorious end.Swastika_Nation_3-210

Welcome Arnie!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?

Besides this? Well, yes and no. I’m working on a new book proposal, so I’ve written notes within the research material I’m using. The kind of scribbling that ultimately grows into bigger things.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

Since I was cognizant I created little comedy sketches, stories, biographies, and comic strips, so pinning an exact piece and age is impossible. Suffice to say, I learned early on that I had some sort of talent for stringing words together in entertaining fashions.

What are you reading right now?

Lots of stuff. Research materials for the nonfiction proposal I’m working on. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism by Gary Gach as part of the proposal research, but also out of personal inquisitiveness. Buddhism is a complicated belief system (contrary to the watered down New Agey versions of Buddhism you find peddled via trinkets hawked at incense shops), and this book breaks down the basic tenets into concepts I can comprehend. Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding; given my own book on Jews bringing down Nazis, I want to see how someone else dealt with similar themes.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

Your name is on it.  Make it the best it can be.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

A chimpanzee. I love to explore new terrains in my writing and figure out how to solve the problems I stumble across, plus I’m driven by natural curiosity. Also, I love bananas. Jane Goodall would have the time of her life watching me when I’m working, albeit I’m not one of those proverbial chimps who could turn out a Shakespeare play if given a typewriter. I’m good at nonfiction, not iambic pentameter.



Arnie Bernstein earned his master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing program.  His book Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing told the true story of a madman who in 1927 murdered thirty-eight children and six adults (including himself) in rural Michigan by wiring the local school building with 600 pounds of dynamite.  Bath Massacre was honored as a Notable Book for 2010 by the State Library of Michigan.  The Illinois State Library has also recognized him for his work.  He is determined to next grab all-expenses paid honors from the State Library of Hawaii.  Arnie previously wrote two books on Chicago history, looking at the city through its movies and its connections to the Civil War; and edited a collection of film reviews and essays written by Carl Sandburg during the 1920s.  He lives in Chicago and teaches freshman composition and developmental writing at Triton College in River Grove and Morton College in Cicero.  Check out his website at www.arniebernstein.com.

→Thanks for the chat, Arnie. And thanks, all, as always, for reading! -PMc←