The Greatest Show ~ A National Short Story Month Recommendation

Did you know that May is National Short Story Month? Did you? Well, it is. And despite what publishers say about these things, there are many, many readers of the short story out there, and many, many fine writers and collections of short stories. Lately, a number of short story collections have gotten the recognition they deserve by making the short list and winning some pretty important awards. Olive Kitteridge, for example–Pulitzer Prize winner (when they actually awarded fiction writers with Pulitzers. Remember?) American Salvage short-listed for the National Book Award. My own collection, The Temple of Air, just won a finalist award from the Society of Midland Authors (more on this soon.)

Like I said, there are some damn fine collections out there.

In honor of this month, every few days I am going to give you a title of a recent short story collection that you really must read. And for those of you who don’t think you like short stories (come on, that’s like saying you don’t like ice cream; who doesn’t like ice cream?) I will ease you into this practice of reading story collections by suggesting some collections that are linked (recurring characters, places, themes) and some that are considered–ahem–♥a novel-in-stories♥…that category created by publishers, probably, in order to trick folks into buying story collections.

Today’s title? THE GREATEST SHOW by Michael Downs. You may remember Michael from his recent contribution for this site’s View From the Keyboard, where he actually allowed us a small glimpse into his writing space and his brand new book. Well, I have the book now, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is. Downs has turned a broken and burned world into something beautiful, a place full of longing and love, of grief and grace.

Two boys take a pair of motorcycles out for a joyride in “Son of Captain America.” Tearing through the streets of late-night Hartford, they run from what they can see, and toward what they cannot. Read this: “Then they ran easy through the city, the night air cold, the engines hot, and Franco imagined the envy of people stuck in clumsy cars or forced to walk–so slow–while the lights of storefronts and crosswalks flashed in his peripheral vision, fleeting constellations, and Franco riding the rocket.”


Please read this book.

And as always, thanks for reading. -PMc

On Politeness (and its Absence) In A Writing Life

Years ago, when I was a recent graduate from the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, I sent my newly minted thesis out to a small (but not tiny) press. I’d met the managing editor at a conference, and shared a nice conversation with him about books, writers, and the nightlife of Chicago (where the conference was being held.) He encouraged me to send him my manuscript.

♦Sidebar: I was in my twenties and taught aerobics as an avocation. I was wearing a short black skirt, smoky tights, and high heels. Perhaps this combination of things is what really compelled him to invite me to keep in touch.♦

I sent the manuscript with all the high hopes of a new writer. I will be discovered; I will be reviewed well; I will win prizes; I will beat the odds and even make some money here. Someone will buy the rights for the book and make it into a smart, poignant, slightly edgy independent film. The film will be reviewed well, win prizes, etc., etc., etc.

You know what happens next. Months pass without a word. Finally, though, a fat packet of manuscript pages comes back in the mail stuffed in an envelope addressed by my own hand. The dreaded SASE of days gone by: the one we had to pay the extra postage for so our manuscripts could be returned (no electronic submissions in those days, no discs or easy, cheap printing and photocopying. Each manuscript was precious, costly, and re-sent.) In the pages of the manuscript was also this note—not, by the way, written by the publisher who kept glancing at my legs when we met, and held my hand a little longer than was necessary when we shook hands goodbye—“Blah, blah, blah, no thanks, blah blah blah.” (Okay, those quoted words aren’t accurate. The message is, but the words are paraphrased.) What was really said, though, in the note written by someone I am rather certain was a summer intern, a slush pile reader (judging from the snarkiness and odd formatting of the typewritten page) was this: “While it is clear that you care deeply for your character, your audience cares less.”



At a party (no, make that many parties, conferences, literary gatherings) and I am excited about the upcoming (or recent) release of my short story collection, The Temple of Air. I tell friends and anyone who might be interested, and many other folks who probably will not give—as they say—a shit. Still. It is a big deal. These stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, have garnered nominations and won awards and have been collected, sifted, re-sorted, reworked, and rearranged, inserted, excerpted, tweaked, covered in coffee stains and ink, been made into a nest by the cats to sleep on in the sun. A whole lot of work went into this book. And my publisher, Elephant Rock Books, is a new kid on this block, just starting out, trying to take its place and make its mark.

All very exciting stuff, yes?

So when I tell folks, I do get the wide smile, the hearty congratulations. And then I get this:

“Who’s doing it?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Who is the publisher?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Did you (will you) make any money?”

In literary-circle talk, that might mean “Is this somewhere I can send my work?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this a big deal?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Have you broken through?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this an important book published by an important press?”

The question is the literary equivalent of turning a plate over to look at the hallmark, of checking the label in a fancy dress, of glancing at the price tag inadvertently left on a gift.

The question—“Who’s doing it?”—is, in my opinion, rude. Especially in this day and age when publishers can be found in the most inauspicious places, when book lovers are doing all they can to make books live, when little known presses are making big, important or highly-desired and widely-read books like The Lord of the Misrule, American Salvage, Go the Fuck to Sleep, The Time Traveler’s Wife and so many more titles. Rude especially in this day and age when big publishers—the ones who can make those folks who ask the “Who’s doing it?” question draw breath, smack their lips, bat their eyes and follow you around once they know you have an “important book” coming out from an “important press”—when these big publishers are spending thousands (millions?) of dollars of their acquisitions budgets on books by celebrity darlings and abstinence ex-witches and governors going anything but rogue.

What matters—what must matter if we who love and write and read books get to be part of the equation, the occupation—is the publication, not the publisher, yes?


A reader who asked me if she could read one of my published stories, and more recently, another reader of my book (which, by the way, she did not pay for but won in a readers’ website giveaway—clearly she had not read the description of the book or perhaps she would not have entered the contest, would have cleared the way for someone who did want this sort of book to win it) told me (and others) what they didn’t like about the work. One told me directly, as in: “I really didn’t like the magic at the end of the story. It isn’t the kind of thing I go for.” Another wrote a review (if you follow me on Facebook, you probably have seen my comments on this) for the readers’ website about the overuse of cuss words and drug use. She gave it two stars.

She is, of course, entitled to her opinion. (As is the woman who said what she said about magic in the story.) Some might say that this is merely honesty. I would posit that it is in fact, rude. If a person baked a cake and you asked for a slice would you tell that person that you thought it was too rich? That it was not to your liking? If you answer yes to this question, let me break it to you—you are not being helpful or constructive, you are being rude.

You say: “Thank you.”

You say: “I don’t usually eat pistachio,” if you must.

You say: “Wow. There is a lot here. I’ll save the rest for later.”


That’s all I’m saying. I’ll save the rest for later.


As always, thanks for reading. -PMc←

The Week that Was

A quick glimpse back at the week just passed: 






Interview by Alison Cuddy on Chicago’s NPR station WBEZ for the morning news and culture show 848.

Tuesday Funk at Hopleaf, with fellow readers Emile Ferris, John Klima, Hanna Martine, Jody Lynn Nye, and Bill Shunn.






Indie Pulp publishes my “1X1 One Writer, One Question” essay “The Heartbeat of Your Story.”

Opening of the Christmas Book Giveaway of THE TEMPLE OF AIR on Goodreads.



Shelli Johnson, author of Small as a Mustard Seed, recommends the THE TEMPLE OF AIR and calls it a “beautifully-written collection of linked stories” in her interview with Lissette E. Manning.


→Thanks for reading! -PMc.←



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



The Pointer Sisters and Me ~ I’m So Excited!

Today is the day! Tonight I will read from THE TEMPLE OF AIR in front of friends and family and perhaps–if I am lucky–some new acquaintances who enjoy listening to writers read their own work. I am very, very excited about this event to be held in this lovely place, Women and Children First Bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, and I feel as though I should write something here today that is deep and profound. But my body is full of butterflies, the back of my head is buzzing, and my toes are curling; there is no quiet space in me to find the deep and profound words this occasion might warrant.

I keep hearing the Pointer Sisters singing:

(sorry about the commercial; the song is really there!)

See you tonight!

The Temple of Air, book launch at Women and Children First (image above from Google), 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago. 7:30 PM, Friday, September 9, 2011.←

On the Shelf with THE HELP


It would be hard to express how very exciting it is to see my book, THE TEMPLE OF AIR, in the window of Women and Children First in Chicago– a bookstore I have admired and supported for many, many years. And look, it is right next to the New York Times Best Seller THE HELP. What is it the realtors say? Location, location, location.

Hope to see you at the launch on Friday, September 9, 2011, 7:30 PM. Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark Street, Chicago. TimeOut Chicago dubbed the reading a “Critics’ Pick” event!