Beautiful Sentence #11 ~ Nathan Englander

Author photo by Juliana Sohn
Author photo by Juliana Sohn

“And Author, who has played bigger and larger, who has, under all the pressure in the world, executed such evenings with aplomb, wipes his nose on his sleeve, takes a deep breath, and–leaning down close to the little book–reads on with all he’s got.” -Nathan Englander, “The Reader,” from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.

The Writer’s Handful with Christine Sneed

christine sneed

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

Christine Sneed is enjoying a good run. Her fine collection of short stories Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry has won a bunch of incredibly impressive awards. Her new, funny, and smart novel, Little Known Factsis generating great buzz. And just a little bit ago, Christine was named recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award. This, folks, is a huge deal.  LittleKnwn_jac

Welcome Christine!

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

I did write, but only a little because it was a day of travel too (home from vacation, boo.)  I managed to put down a few words for a novel-in-progress.

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

I really can’t remember!  But I know that in fifth grade, i wrote a whole book of bad poetry for a young authors contest at my middle school in Libertyville, IL.

What are you reading right now? 

Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel.

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

If you don’t really love writing, do something else with your life.  You have to love it because the rewards – publication, money, etc. are very hard won for most writers.

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

A monkey!  Because monkeys are playful but smart.  (Those are the qualities I aspire to when I’m writing.)


Christine Sneed has a creative writing MFA from Indiana University and has lived in Chicago and Evanston, IL since 1998. She teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and Pacific University, and will be Fiction Writer in Residence at Columbia College Chicago in 2014. Her story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, first-fiction category, was named the Chicago Writer’s Association Book of the Year, and has been chosen as the recipient of Ploughshares’ 2011 first-book prize, the John C. Zacharis Award. It was also long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and named one of the seven best books of the year by Time Out Chicago. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Short Stories,PEN/O. Henry Prize StoriesPloughshares, Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Notre Dame Review, and a number of other journals.

Portrtspprbk →Thanks to Christine Sneed for taking the time to chat, and thanks to you all for reading! -PMc←


July 3, 2013: Florence Update

One week away from our first Journal and Sketchbook class here in Florence. Everything groovy except that the wifi doesn’t seem to like to post photos to my WordPress blog. So for now, and for an experiment, I am linking to a slideshow from Philip’s blog and of student work from our last Journal and Sketchbook class in Chicago:

So bear with us while we sort out these glitches, enjoy the slide show, and be prepared to perhaps follow a link to the photo/prompts if we can’t get WordPress to cooperate!

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Ciao (for now)–PMc


Sometimes You Do Things ~ A Journal Prompt Response by Cyn Vargas

Image from Soy Cuba
Image from Soy Cuba

Every now and again visitors to my blog share with me the writing they do that comes from the site’s daily journal prompts. I have posted a number of these pieces in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. It is very satisfying for me to know that some little thing I might do can drive others to the page. So here is a small part of one of these responses. Cyn Vargas, who graced these pages once before with her contribution to View From the Keyboard, told me that she wrote a short-short story based on this prompt, and I twisted her arm into letting me post just the opening of that story here. She is shopping the full story around, so keep your eye out for it. I think you will want to know how the story ends.

SOMETIMES YOU DO THINGS – an excerpt by Cyn Vargas

Sometimes you do things because you want to. Other times it’s because you have to. That Sunday when the first frost covered the windows like frozen strands of cotton candy, when the branches no longer swayed in the stiff wind, I did the things I did because I had no other choice. It was me or him and a month before, hell even a day before, I would have chosen him, but not that morning. I made a choice to tell myself I had no choice, so I did those things and I haven’t seen him since. …

→Thanks again, Cyn, for letting me post this piece. Let me extend the invitation to readers to post their journal prompt responses to the comments section of these pages. And as always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

He Played the Guitar ~ By Lindsay

Mr. Mayor and the Highballers
Mr. Mayor and the Highballers

He played guitar. In a small string band. On street corners with his panama straw hat upturned on the ground before them hoping to collect small monies from those passing on Catfish Street. I kept my window open all summer, the smell of the river drifting in on the air, and my ears sharp for the sound of them, the sound of him.

From where I was I could watch the band without being seen. I could dance to the music that they played, my feet skipping lightly across the wood floor and my whole body swaying. Like trees sway in a warming wind and taken this way and that by no will of their own. From where I was I could watch him and only watching him I could imagine that he was the perfect one.

He had no name that I knew and no character and no flaws. None that was known to me, and so he could be anyone. He could be Ted or Tom or Terence. And he was a schoolteacher by day, in my head he was, and he taught kids with special needs and he had the patience of a saint and a warm heart. And there was this one kid and she stayed back after class just so she’d be noticed, just so he’d say her name and smile. And he did. And it was enough.

And Terence was the singer in the band and the songs that he sang set the feet to tapping if you were old and dancing if young. And people laughed and talked and touched each other’s hands without recoiling. And I watched the difference he made on Catfish Street and how he nodded at everyone as if he knew them and he smiled, like he did to the girl who stayed back after class.

And I imagined then that I was the girl and it was my name that was in his mouth and I laughed when he said it and he laughed too and the whole world laughing then. And he said it again only it was like singing this time and the band playing and I couldn’t help it, couldn’t help dancing there in the classroom, dancing for him, as birds of paradise dance to catch the attention of a mate.

And the days were long and the sun slow in going down and it became a regular thing, the string band on the corner of Catfish Street and a crowd gathered and clapping and singing along and a summer to measure all summers by. And Terence saying my name in a song and me dancing for him till the music stopped, dancing breathless in my room with the window open and the smell of the river hung on the air.

But all of that in my head, except the music and the singing and me dancing where I could not be seen, dancing in the front room of my ten dollar flat and the dog looking at me funny and Terence smiling at all the girls in the street and small monies dropped into his hat. Enough for a drink afterwards and bread and a plate of gumbo. And he blows the girls kisses and I see that, he does not blow me one, not ever.


→Another delightful journal prompt response from Lindsay. You’ll find her work all over this site. I am thrilled she shares it with us. If you feel so inspired by a journal prompt and would like to share it with the readers here, please submit via the comments section. And as always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

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: 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