Something Besides Latte-Making ~ Chris L. Terry’s View From the Keyboard

Each year, The Chicago Reader publishes a fiction issue of its weekly newspaper. The editors get hundreds of fiction submissions, and have to choose a very small numbers of stories to publish. This year, Chris L. Terry’s evocative and tasty story, “Red Velvet,” is among those editors’ picks. Chris also happens to be another of Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department’s very fine graduate students. I’ve had the great privilege to hear him read a number of times, and to be invited to be part of his Chicago reading series, Neutron Bomb. And now I am pleased that he has invited us in to his work space for a View From the Keyboard.

Chris: This is the desk where I write when I’m not in my living room, where I’ve convinced myself that the WiFi doesn’t work. My girlfriend Sharon ( and I have lived in this Uptown apartment since we moved from Brooklyn in 2008. The realtor told us that this third bedroom was an office because it was “too small to count as a bedroom.” Only in Chicago, man. She edits her videos in the second bedroom. We brag on GChat about which cat is in our respective laps. I try to bang out at least an hour of writing every morning, the time of day when I’m sharpest.

On the left, the orangey photo leaning against the records is of a church in Granada, Nicaragua, snapped by Sharon moments before a late afternoon thunderstorm. Nicaragua is one of the few places we’ve been where people recognized the Caravaggio  tattoo on Sharon’s back and asked, “Es ‘esu’, y Maria?” instead of, “That your baby?” At the bottom is a postcard of one of my favorite writers, James Baldwin, looking summer-fresh in a white polo shirt.

I got the lamp in 2004 when my old roommate Johnny Fink and I were moving out of the bottom floor of a farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia. I was going to Brooklyn to use my English degree for something besides latte-making and he was heading west to work in state parks. These days, he’s a park ranger at Yellowstone.

Speaking of making lattes, the red and pink painting on the top right is by my old friend Jonathan Vassar. I met him while working in a Richmond coffee shop. Below that is a print called “Arrival” by Neil Burke. It’s the first piece of visual art that I’ve paid for, unless you count tattoos. Both Jonathan and Neil are talented musicians. I’m a huge music fan and spent my teens and twenties touring as a punk singer. I dig people whose creativity is multidisciplinary, bleeding over and making their entire life an act of creation. Painting guitarists, writing chefs…

I’m working on a fictional young adult novel about a 7th grade boy whose father figure is in the process of coming out of the closet, and a series of nonfiction stories about my own half black/half white biracial identity. The excerpt below is from an in-progress nonfiction piece, about the difficulties of finding a hairstyle when you’re nappyheaded, and everyone around you has straight hair.

For more info about the punk-themed reading series Neutron Bomb that I co-host with two other Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing grad students, please visit


When Mom cut off the mullet, I got her to leave a rat tail. It shot out from the back of my head like six inches of cinnamon jet exhaust.

When braided, the rat tail curled in like a pig’s tail on a barbecue sign. So, I slid on a wood bead and twisted a rubber band onto the bottom. My hair finally hung down and I was a rocker. To the sounds of “Night Train” by Guns ’n’ Roses, I’d turn my head fast to feel the rat tail lift with centrifugal force, like an amusement park ride. The lyrics, “Take the credit card to the liquor store,” intended as a sign of seedy decadence, seemed quotidian to suburban me. I’d seen Dad take the credit card to the liquor store before. No biggie.

If I turned my head, the rat tail would snake around my neck and rest on my shoulder. In my quest for coolness, I ignored the fact that having your mother show you how to braid your rat tail, or beading it with leftovers from your arts ‘n’ crafts box was inherently uncool. But, I knew something was awry when the other black kids at my school frowned in confusion at my styles.

→For more of Chris L. Terry’s words, check out Columbia College Chicago’s Marginalia, a graduate student blog. Thanks, Chris. And thanks for reading. Oh, and if you feel so inclined, vote for this blog (All Things Writerly) for a Best Writing Blog Award. Link to the right! -PMc←

Egg Salad Stains and Holden Caulfield ~ J. D. Salinger and a View From the Keyboard

60 years ago, J. D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye, the American classic that made many of us want to write our own stories and tell the secret societal truths like Holden did, while we hid our anguish with urbane and witty banter. Today, as a celebration of this remarkable work of fiction, I bring to you a delightful poem by Billy Collins.

Marginalia – Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”


Image is of Salinger in 1952. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Getty Images, found on The Guardian website. -PMc←