Yeah. Small Miracles. ~ View From the Keyboard of Christine Rice

CHRISTINE RICE is the founder of HyperText, an on-line literary journal that kicks some serious butt. Really. Check it out. More than that, though, (and that, those of you who know about these sorts of things can attest, is pretty huge in itself) Christine Rice is one helluva a writer and a teacher of writing. For many years now, she has been the faculty advisor/managing editor for Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s award-winning literary journal Hair Trigger, and has coordinated the same department’s Young Authors’ Contest and Conference. In short, she supports the work of others–writers just starting out, and those who have been plugging away for a good long time.

Okay, that said–some months ago we had a little soiree at our apartment (we do these salons a lot here, with writers, artists, musicians, performers) and it was Chris’s time to read something. She pulled this single sheet of paper out of a back pocket or something, and flattened it out on her thigh, and then began reading. Sweet Jesus. We all leaned forward, listened hard, barely breathed until she finished. You’ll see what I mean when you read an excerpt from that piece here. (I’ve asked her to bend my rules a little and give us a longer excerpt than I usually post. She’s doing double duty here, because the piece was inspired by one of my daily journal prompts.)

And now we get to see where this sort of wonderful stuff happens.

CHRISTINE: We converted this room into my office after our youngest daughter outgrew her crib.  It’s tiny but uncomfortably fits one sixty-pound dog, two attitudinal cats, four stuffed IKEA bookcases, two file cabinets shoved into the corner under the window, a printer, an amazing bentwood stool I found in a dumpster (now covered by about fifty pounds of books), photos of my kids/husband/mom, my dad’s WWII War medals and my flea-market art.

In this photo, you can see my favorite find:  an angel praying with stars swirling around her.  It’s like stained glass on paper — really simple but lovely.  Sw. Krzysztof meczennik, who, apparently, is the Patron Automobilistow, hangs next to her.  In the foreground, there’s a little shelf with a bottle full of origami doves I found washed up on the shore of Montrose beach.  Behind that, there’s this awesome little watercolor (given to me by Liz Yokas) of a lady I call ‘Enid.’  Next to Enid sits a favorite toy I’ve kept since I was a kid:  a ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ PeePul Pals book and its accompanying doll.

What you can’t see are the books that inspire me.  I set up a little shrine of books by writers I know and admire to help me through those days when folding laundry/cleaning the tub/watching 30 Rock seem like attractive alternatives to getting my butt in the chair.

This summer, for the first time in a very long time, I was able to write from 5:30 am to 10:30 am.  Why?  It’s the first year that my 9-year-old has slept past six am.

Yeah.  Small miracles.

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Photo by Bruce Davidson

An Excerpt from “Solid-State Reactions” by Christine Rice

This is how they get you:  your whole life they chock you full of stories about princes and poison apples and kindly dwarves and animals that chitter secrets in your ear and bunion-inducing glass slippers and just-right ruby slippers and needles that prick and the frog prince and a nice girl falling in love with a beast and, the next thing you know, you’re in the backseat a Monte Carlo with him pushing into you and all you’re doing is looking out the back windshield, into the blackness above the hill top, wondering what’s next.  Not what’s next after he pulls out but what’s next.  What’s really next, you know?  Next for you because, as you’ve been thinking for an awfully long time, you’ve gotta get out of here.  As that thought hits you full force, his torso pounding against the backs of your thighs and him asking, begging, really, ‘Can you, can you, can you?’ and you not even listening to or, for that matter, feeling him, because the promise of something bigger than his football player love, bigger than this town fills you with such possibility and hope, that you push his sweaty body off, climb through the bucket seats, pop open the door and dance naked into the starless night.

“What’s wrong with you?”  He’s hopping on one foot, pulling up his jeans, buttoning his fly.  He’s got Astrid’s jeans crumpled in a ball under his armpit.  “I mean, really?  What is wrongwith you?”

Below, the lights of town cast a dim glow against the rime of clouds so close and thick that Astrid wants to reach up, pluck off a chunk of that marshmallow-crème and pop it in her mouth.  Let it fill her.  Instead, she throws her arms above her head and twirls toward him.

He’s laughing, now, as she grabs his hand and dances the way her folks used to dance on New Year’s Eve:  all arms and knees and twists and claps.  She barely feels the cold.  Not yet.  Not as her bare feet slip on the icy tracks made by countless other pick-ups and vans and souped-up Chevelles and Camaros.  Any other guy, she knows, would be pissed.  But not Paulie.  He’s crazy about her.  Dopey nutsy head over heels in love with Astrid crazy.

Astrid knows this.  She doesn’t take it for granted.  Or him for that matter.  But he’s dumb as a stick.  Dumb.  Dumb.  Dumb.  They both know it.  He with a certain resigned sadness.  She like a knife-prick to the ribs.  He’s so beautiful, though; so gracefully stunning when he moves on that football field, the crowd cheering his name as he steps into the pocket, scans the field, assesses every moving part, fakes, twirls, stutter-steps, throws; the slow arc of his hand as the ball explodes in a perfect spiral.  Some day, she hopes, his brain will catch up with his body.

Won’t it?

He’s been a pig to slaughter.  Ever since his mom realized he could throw like that it’s been football, football, football.  Astrid tries to help.  She reads his Shakespeare assignments out loud, acts out the parts, emphasizing the fact that Desdemona is a woman.  He nods, leaning against his headboard, fingers laced behind his head, through the honey curls, eyes closed but, when he opens his eyes and she asks what he’s learned, he only says, ‘You’re so beautiful, Astrid’ or ‘I love you, Astrid’ and she becomes furious with him.  FURIOUS!  And rants about how he’ll fail the Shakespeare test on Monday morning and how his brain is the size of a walnut and how she’ll go off to an East-coast college and screw brainy boys whose parents summer on Martha’s Vineyard, for God’s sakes, away from him, away from his football-addled brain, away from his posters of Ronald Reagan’s disembodied head floating over the American flag and ZZ Top and Bob Seger and Boston and Queen and Styx and Grand Funk Railroad and he’ll be stuck throwing and throwing and throwing at some Midwestern university with corn-fed girls who’ll wear him like a bracelet.  She says all of this in a single breath and, when she finishes, he moves over to where she sits at his desk, twirls her toward him, snakes a hand between her knees to spread them apart and, as his hand moves into the middle of her, he looks into her face and makes her promise.

“Promise.  Not ever, Astrid. I’m telling you.  It’ll kill me.”

“It’ll only kill you if you let it, Paulie.”

“Then I’ll let it,” he says as his face disappears in her lap like a child.

When Astrid walks into her house after ski practice that Tuesday afternoon, her skin ripples in gooseflesh.  It’s dark and, without her mother’s usual greeting from somewhere in the sprawling suburban ranch, ominously still.  As she turns into the family room, the only light comes from the television:  Walter Cronkite detailing the conclusion of the Iranian hostage crisis and listing the names of the freed hostages.   Not even his voice can sooth the sandpaper feeling scratching her conscious.  She turns down the volume and feels something sticky and wet on the RCA’s silver knob.  She rubs her thumb and forefinger together and knows, without consciously knowing, the weight of that liquid, the metallic smell of it, the dark burgundy color of it.

She’s turning, now, leaving behind the family room’s green shag carpeting, fireplace and paneled walls, walking briskly through the kitchen, over the foyer’s dark slate, down the long hall with every school photo — K through 11 — framed and hung, lining both walls, her image watching her, to her mother’s bedroom.  It used to be her parents’ bedroom until her mom couldn’t take it anymore and kicked him out.  She knows, even before she turns into the bedroom that her mother is gone.  Gone is the way she’ll refer to her mother’s absence.  Never suicide.  Never dead.  And only to herself.  She’ll never say it out loud.  She’ll never humor the shrinks and counselors and social workers and teachers who try to draw her out.  They’ll lure her with tempting morsels; dangling guidance and mentorship and happiness and healingbut she’ll know they’re all full of shit.

She stops in front of the king-size bed, next to the mahogany tallboy dresser that once held her father’s socks and boxers and Munsingwear golf shirts and that Mexican mug full of coins and business cards and feels an overwhelming emptiness.  He’d cleared everything out, bit by bit, whenever her mother wasn’t home.  Astrid would sit on the bed, her knees under her chin, watching her boyishly lanky father fill suitcase after suitcase until every little bit of him was gone.

But now she’s afraid to move, afraid to turn that corner into the master bath because she sees a trail of blood — small dots getting bigger the way the highway’s yellow line disappears beneath the Caprice — leading into the bathroom.  She’s started moving again and, as she does, something begins ringing and ringing and ringing until she can’t tell if it’s the roaring of fear or something more familiar but it propels her into the bathroom where she sees her mother’s feet and, for an instant, tries to convince herself — within that moment of sheer terror — that her mother’s pumps, lying sideways on the light blue tile, her feet crossed demurely at the ankle, look normal.  But there’s the empty prescription bottle next to her mother’s knee and the slime of blood trailing over the sink, down the white cabinet to the floor that finally puddles around each of her mother’s wrists.  She’s landed on her side with her head bent abnormally against the shower glass; her eyes open as if she might be looking under the cabinet for a missing earring.  Her right palm, with the phone ringing next to it, rests next to her thigh.  There’s a long vertical slit beginning just above the wrist, the blood frilly and dark purple now, edging the vein.  It’s the vein Astrid used to trace with her pinky finger, the dark one that bisects her mother’s narrow wrist.  The other arm crosses her chest so that her palm rests just below her shoulder.

Astrid’s trying to process all of it but that ringing is incessant and time has ceased to exist, like crossing into another dimension where everything has happened that she’d always known and feared.  She kneels between the cabinet and her mother and her first instinct is to wrap her palms around those cuts, staunch them somehow, but the ringing keeps up and that single strand of pearls looks so beautiful against the olive skin of her mother’s neck, just falling above her clavicle, her black hair tumbling in corkscrew curls onto her cashmere v-neck, that Astrid thinks she couldn’t possibly be dead.  Could she?

She’s afraid to touch her but something finally snaps her to and she walks back into the room to pick up what she recognizes, now, as the phone and it’s Auntie, her mother’s oldest sister, whose voice sounds frantic as she asks, Astrid?   And Astrid manages to say something like, There’s so much blood, and Auntie asks, Where?  And Astrid says, On mama and the floor– but Auntie cuts her off as if she knew all along how she’d answer and, before she hangs up, says she’ll be right there, that she’ll call an ambulance so Astrid kneels next to her mother and does what she’d wished she’d done when she’d found her:  wraps her palms around her mother’s wounds.

The next thing Astrid knows there’s pounding on the front door and paramedics rushing down the hallway, knocking her school photos off the wall and, when they get to the bathroom, one of them picks up the empty prescription bottle and says, loud enough for Astrid to hear, Barbiturates and a razor blade?  Jeezus, she didn’t leave anything to chance, and one medic tilts her mother’s head back and lowers his face to hers and the other fills a vile and prepares a needle which he punches into her mother’s upper arm, right in the muscle, and it’s this gesture that finally makes Astrid’s knees buckle, standing there on the threshold, her hands gripping the door frame until she feels her nails digging into the wood to hold herself up.  As quickly as it starts, it seems, the flurry of activity ends and the medics push themselves up off their knees.   Auntie and Uncle rush in and Auntie stands with one hand over her mouth, a string of creamy-red Rosary beads looped over her index finger, the other resting on the counter in her sister’s blood.

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→All right, you can breathe now. See what I mean? Thanks so much, Christine Rice, for the visit to your space and the time in the company of your words. And to everyone, thanks again for reading. -PMc←

A Room of One’s Own, Swedish Meatballs, and a Love Letter ~ View From the Keyboard of Jessie Morrison

Today we get a glimpse of the writing space of Jessie Morrison, a recent MFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department. This woman can write. Her stories are filled with Chicago–her hometown–and the things that make us ache and want. She has had quite a bit of success already in her writing life, among them having been selected for coveted spots in The Chicago Reader’s fiction issues. Jessie was also chosen by Writers’ Digest to pen their “MFA Confidential” blog in 2010-2011–a regular publication about what it is like to be a candidate for a Creative Writing MFA.

I was fortunate to have Jessie in one class during her tenure at Columbia, and I can tell you first had that she brought a sense of purpose and delight to her work. I can still remember a presentation Jessie did on Stuart Dybek, with whom she carried on a brief and (to her) embarrassing email correspondence to gather research for her report. If you read her work in the archives of Writers’ Digest, you will see how much she admires and respects writers and the writing life, and you will likely find a bit of inspiration from her friendly and accessible posts about her own writing life.

And now we get to see where it all happens.

Morrison: My writing space is in the second bedroom of my Old Irving Park apartment.  It’s the quietest room in the house, with only one narrow window, so when I close the door, I really feel like I am imprisoned or, at the very least, solitary.  I used to write at the dining room table, but last winter, my mom, aunt, and I made a pilgrimage to Ikea in Schaumburg.  None of us had ever been there (and by “there,” I mean both Schaumburg and Ikea), so we dressed in comfortable shoes, hooked up the GPS, and loaded the car with a cooler full of snacks.  My aunt, fearing the Christmas crowds and the Scandinavian efficiency, took an anxiety pill.  But it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as we expected, although the Swedish meatballs in the depressing food court were cold and greasy.  We spent all day there, and the desk and chair you see here were one of our purchases, along with a napkin holder, toilet brush, tea candles, and a shoe organizer.

I thought if I bought a desk—if I created a “room of one’s own”, I would write better.  But like many visitors to Ikea, my enthusiasm for my new purchases evaporated when I came home and saw the assembly instructions.  My writing desk languished in its unopened boxes all through the winter, until one day I came home and saw that my fiancée had assembled it for me.  As a way to say thank you, the first thing I ever wrote at this desk was a love letter.

Excerpt from story-in-progress:

By the end of the reception, the bleeding was almost over and Frannie’s back ache was only a small wisp of smoke in her spine. For the last dance, the DJ cut the lights and turned on a strobe that spattered light across the floor and ceiling and gave the sensation that the whole wedding party had been moved underwater, the clear surface of the world undulating above them. The men in their dark suits were shadows, but the women were like bright fish flitting around the sea. On the perimeter of the dance floor, or crowded around the bar for last call, were the bachelorettes: eager and doing their mating dances in bright pinks and purples and blues, shiny satin and spiked heels. Turning around the center, like a perfect pearl in the oyster’s mouth, was the bride, her sequins diamond lovely, sparkling in the swaying light. Then there were the mothers, a little wilted in muted prints, some sitting at empty tables with sleeping children sprawled across their laps, others dancing with dutiful husbands. Frannie sat at a table of half-eaten cake slices and watched them all go by. The problem with being a woman, she thought, was that you were always trying to be one of these things: the maiden, the bride, the mother. There was no room for any other kind of fish.

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Thanks to Jessie Morrison for inviting us into her space. Looking forward to more writing to come from this talented, funny, and industrious new writer. As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends ~ Another Wonderful Book by a CCC Fiction Department Alum

It’s Tuesday night, AWP starts tomorrow, and the literary happenings are starting to happen in Chicagoland. We just got back from a fabulous release party for the brand new book by Stacy Bierlein, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-BoyfriendsThere were beers and wine and goodies and books and t-shirts and people. Lots of folks gathered around a few rooms of a really gorgeous house in Evanston owned by Amy Davis (The Writers Workspace) and Lee Nagen (Fisheye) and we celebrated the new book, its author, and publisher (also mine) Elephant Rock Books. Stacy read the title story; we laughed and we sighed, and it was really a very, very good time.

And here’s the thing. Stacy Bierlein was a student at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Writing Department some years ago. We had a class together when we were both younger women. Amy Davis took classes there, too. In fact, Amy was involved in a really fine literary journal called Fish Stories, the first lit journal I was ever published in back in the day. Lee printed the journal. Jotham Burrello, the founding father of Elephant Rock Books, came to Columbia College as a graduate student in Fiction Writing after having worked for The Atlantic Monthly. Dan Prazer, editor for Elephant Rock Books was a graduate student in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College, too.

You might think that what I am getting at here is something akin to nepotism. But that is not my point. Not at all. My point is this: the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago grows great writers, publishers, editors, and literary folk. It was so very many years ago that I was in class with Stacy, years and years since Jotham and I became colleagues. Amy published me in the 1990s. But it isn’t like we’ve been all hanging out together smoking dope in a basement and putting out little newsprint paper zines full of a bunch of half-baked stories by our buddies. We’ve grown up. We teach and we write and we cultivate writing communities in Chicago, in California, in Connecticut. We make good and real product. Books that are reviewed well, work that we are all very proud of.

You may recently have become aware of some confusion around the future of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago; you may have heard that the long-time chair of the department, Randy Albers (a mentor to so many) recently was informed that his chair contract will not be renewed. There is no scandal here, by the way; Randy has been praised highly by the administration and by his colleagues and his students.

But I don’t really want to get into any of this right now. What I am really trying to say is that I sat in this living room with a bunch of folks I have known for a long time, and some I’ve only come to know recently (Bill Shunn of Tuesday Funk Reading Series, Mare Swallow of Chicago Publishes podcasts), and some I don’t know at all, and we all leaned in to listen to Stacy read, to hear her story, to witness this first book launch of a fine debut. And it dawned on me that we were all there because of the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. We might have become teachers and writers and publishers even if we hadn’t gone to Columbia, but we did, and we are. And as Amy added to Stacy’s thanks to us all for coming, she mentioned this Fiction Writing connection, and really, I hadn’t thought of it before then. But then I thought how much I wished that Randy might have been there to celebrate with us (he had his own presentation going on at Columbia tonight) and how good it would have been if our college dean knew about all of this fine and important publishing stuff by past students, how good it would have been for the provost to hear, too, and the president. Because this is what happens when you have a good, strong, writing program. You help produce good, strong, writers, publishers, editors.

Congratulations, Stacy. Congratulations, Elephant Rock Books. Congratulations, Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago–you did it again.

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

 

 

Beating Back Writer’s Block ~ Jack London’s View From the Keyboard

Last week the new students in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago gathered for their orientations and welcoming events. So many bright faces, so many eager new writers. I am excited to get the chance to work with them this next year.

A question came up more than once: “How do you get over writer’s block?” This might be a subject for a longer post another time, but for now, advice from Jack London:

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Thanks, Jack. Well said.

→Coming soon, Megan Stielstra’s View From the Keyboard, and that of DA Kentner (KevaD) as well. Thanks for reading. -PMc←