In Total Silence and Usually Alone ~ A View From the Keyboard of Chicago Author Renee James


Today’s View From the Keyboard comes from Chicago author Renee James. I met Renee at the celebratory event for Chicago Writers Association’s 2012 Book of the Year awards. Her debut novel, Coming Out Can be Murder, was named Book of the Year in non-traditionally published fiction. Christine Sneed, author of the newly released and highly praised (think front page, New York Times Book Review, people!) Little Known Facts, was the CWA judge, and her comments on the book will give you some insight of Renee’s well-deserving work: “Coming Out Can Be Murder is a memorable and strong debut novel…In addition to being a thriller set in a vibrant contemporary setting, it is a moving story about sexual identity, loss, and friendship.”

Renee James is a writer to watch, friends. She is funny and smart and absolutely fearless; you’ll see that soon in her work, you’ll discover this if you get the chance to hear her read or speak. (Read her. Listen to her.)

Renee: A little over four years ago I swore off working for large corporations and became a full time free-lance writer. My little office evolved after that decision. I picked up a lot of magazine writing and editing work and filled my spare time working on a novel (Coming Out Can Be Murder, which was released June 12, 2012).   Renee James

In a few months I was developing arthritis-like symptoms in my hands from working on a laptop, so I invested in an ergonomic key board and desktop system to go with it…and had to find a place to park everything.

My little corner in our loft-like second floor landing is the best workspace I’ve ever had. It is quiet and intimate and it has a window with a view. Never mind that the view is of a yuppie suburban subdivision, it has natural light, access to weather, and I get to see neighbors strolling past.

I spend 50 to 60 hours a week in this little nook. Over the four years or so, I’ve written about 50 magazine columns, maybe 20 magazine features (I swore them off in 2011 to spend more time on my book), roughly 140,000 words on my first novel (edited to about 110,000 in several stages as a service to humanity) and about 90,000 on the one currently in progress… not to mention maintaining intimate relationships with 1,000 Facebook friends, trying to understand why anyone finds LinkedIn valuable, and periodically Googling the title of my book to find new reviews of it. I also edit and produce a monthly newsletter for a Chicago transgender organization and occasionally write posts for my blog.

I would not be able to hang out here if my passion was splitting atoms, so I feel lucky.

The photos of this space reveal many truths about me. I am messy—even worse than what you see here because I cleaned off my coffee cup, water bottle and cereal cup before shooting the shot. I’m also lazy—the art behind my computer screen has been waiting to be hanged for months. I love it and I view it often, but I have to stand up to do so. I’m also old—the art above my computer screen is a sunny day/rainbow scene made for me by one of my grandchildren.

Also, I share this space with my wife’s passion—doll houses. Each of them is elaborately assembled and decorated, including lights that work and plumbing that (thankfully) doesn’t. They are almost inhumanly seductive for small children of either gender while my nook is beyond boring for them.

I work here in total silence and I’m usually alone. My dog curls up under the desk when we have thunderstorms and our various guest dogs sometimes lay at my side so as to make sure I remember to take them for a walk in the woods when I get back to earth from my scholarly deliberations. But I’m never lonely here and never aware of the silence because the band is playing in my head.

Excerpt from Quetico, the story of two Vietnam-era lovers who reunite 40 years later on an island deep in Ontario’s Quetico wilderness.

Prologue: February 1, 2009

When his first email popped up in her mail box her jaw dropped in disbelief and her pulse rose. His image projected into her mind, its dazzling colors a blinding contrast to the black mid-winter morning she woke to. She became oblivious to the stillness, to the searing dryness of the air, to the chill that no heating system could remove when winter held the Canadian Shield in the jaws of a thirty-below-zero deep freeze.

She had thought about him many times over the decades, and even more so recently, when the long Ontario winter nights left her restless and feeling empty.

“” She stared at the address line. Then the subject: “Hello from long ago.”

Long ago. Indeed. She could still see his intense schoolboy face, eyes widened, cheeks flushed, as they argued about war and politics, morality, literature. Jesus, they argued about literature.

And as much as she could see his face she could always see him walking away, walking down the sidewalk from her building. After she cast him out. Walking away and not looking back. The crimson of his ratty sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves, the blue of his ratty jeans, the dirty white of his sneakers. Getting in his junk car and not looking back. Rust and yellow on black tires, pulling away from the curb. Driving away and not looking back.

That was 1968. Forty years ago. She blinked in surprise. Where did the time go? Forty years!

She sat back and stared out the window where the opaque blackness of the early morning hid her lake from view.

She was surprised that he remembered her. She no longer thought of herself as a woman a man would remember. Not for years. She thought of him, but that was different. Somewhere along the way when she wondered what he was doing and what life would have been like if she had followed her heart, somewhere in there he became more of a symbol than a person, a way of realizing the disappointments of her life.

Then she smiled. He’s alive. She had always wondered. She had resisted the temptation to find out because it would have been heart-breaking either way. Either he died somewhere in Vietnam, or he made it back, married some bimbo and was now a fat balding insurance salesman.

She almost erased the email unread, just to preserve the fantasy. But in the end, she couldn’t. In the end, she had never loved anyone the way she loved him, young love, so wild, so mindlessly reckless, with such passion. Reading his words now was a prospect far too seductive to ever resist.

Heart pounding, tears welling in her eyes, she clicked on the message, and opened the door to a chapter in her life she could not have imagined five minutes earlier.


Thanks so very much, Renee, for sharing your work and your space with us. Congratulations again on your BoTY Award! … And friends, keep an eye out for Samantha Hoffman‘s (What More Could You Wish For?) View From the Keyboard, coming soon to a blog near you (er, this one, actually.) As always, thanks for reading! -PMc


Today is the Seed Time ~ View From the Keyboard of W. E. B. Du Bois


“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” -W. E. B. Du Bois (2/23/1868 – 8/27/1963)

The Pleasure of Writing ~ A. A. Milne’s View From the Keyboard

A. A. Milne

On the anniversary of A. A. Milne’s birth, this:

“For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand, I could have copied out a directory. That is the real pleasure of writing.” –A. A. Milne

And this:

“Tiggers don’t like honey.” -A. A. Milne (18 January 1882 – 31 January 1956)

→As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

A Place for The Night Sky ~ The View from the Keyboard of Sarah Hammond

Sarah Hammond is a hot new YA and children’s author who lives in the UK and studied in Bath Spa University‘s impressive and very successful MA in Writing for Young People. On my last trip to England, I wanted to buy a few copies of Sarah’s brand new debut novel, The Night Sky in my Head, and so I stopped in at Waterstones. Sold out. I walked around the corner to Mr. B’s Book Emporium where they told me they had just sold three copies that morning, and only had one left. Success! Occasionally compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, this book will be enjoyed by not just the young adult audience it was originally intended for, but by readers of all ages. (You may have noticed Night Sky on the table of our last View contributor, Shawn Shiflett.) 

Beyond being just a fine, fine writer, Sarah is an active supporter of writing and reading for young people. She is a regular visitor to schools, and supported a young person’s writing contest to coincide with the launch of her new book. We need writers like this, don’t you think–the kind who give back to the community and encourage a love of reading and writing in us all?

Let’s take a peek, then, into Sarah Hammond‘s writing space.

Sarah: Here is a picture of my desk, my writing space. Well, to be utterly truthful, this is a slightly misleading statement. It’s one of my writing spaces and perhaps not even the most important of them either. Of course, my computer is here and I have tapped out lots of words and stories on the keyboard at my desk. However, I find that different stages of the writing process require different spaces. Does that sound strange?

When I first hatch a story idea, I am on the move, not sitting at a desk at all. I’m just observing life and responding to things and people around me. Story ideas grow from life, it seems.

Even when I’m ready to put something on the page, I still don’t head for my desk. For a long time I had a serious office job and this has left me with an unhealthy reaction to sitting in a formal office: it makes me too left-brain analytical. When I try to capture the essence of a new character or story at a desk, I sort of seize up or edit myself so harshly that I can’t write. So the second phase of writing, for me, is to sit somewhere comfortably, looking out the window perhaps, half-daydreaming to encourage the story to come out. My place of preference (much to my chiropractor’s horror – I have a bad back) is sitting on my bed, computer or notebook on my lap. In all honesty, this is my favourite writing space.

Once I’m a little more certain of my story, the process moves to my study as shown in this photo.

This is where I wrote a lot of my debut teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head, which was published by Oxford University Press in July 2012. To find out more about my writing, why not visit my website ( or ‘Like’ my Facebook page for my news and events (

Anyhow, here’s a little taster of my writing from the desk in this picture in the meantime…


Extract from Chapter One, The Night Sky in my Head

Timmer and me have been locked out again and I’ve forgotten my key, so we’re going to spend the night in the shed. I bet Mum thinks I’m already in bed but I’m not – we went for an extra-long walk today because Timmer is four today. He wags his tail. He likes it in the shed better than in the house. I do too. It’s quiet and safe in there. I don’t have to listen to lots of noises jab jab jabbing in my head.

The moon is a bright white eye in the sky tonight. It makes the night-garden different to the day-garden. There is scuffling in the shadows. Things are hiding in the dark. The leaves on the apple tree are silver and they whisper secrets to each other when the wind blow. I shiver, even though it’s warm, because I know about secret things.

Timmer barks once and walks down the garden, wagging his tail. He wants to go to the shed but I have to check on Mum first.

The windows are like silent TVs in the dark. I stand and watch. I can see Mum at the kitchen table. There’s make-up down her face so she’s got long black tears down her cheeks. She’s drinking beer out of a bottle. She’s got the photos out again and she’s wobbling. I hate it when she’s like this.

I take a step closer and put my hands on the glass.


(Sarah’s top tip: the Book Depository – – offers free shipping worldwide if those outside the UK would like to read more of the story.)

→Thanks so much, Sarah, for taking the time to give us this little tour. So looking forward to reading more from you. Oh, and for those of you who want to support Mr. B’s in Bath, you can also order Sarah’s book from them. As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

Warming the Flue ~ Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard

Today’s View From the Keyboard is something special. ANNE-MARIE OOMEN, a very dear friend of mine (and of many, many writers, young and old) shares with us a glimpse into her workspace, The Think House. Up in Leelanau County in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Anne-Marie divides her time as a teacher in the Solstice Low Residency MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts and at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts high school that lures exceptional young writers to its Creative Writing program.

When not dedicating her time to her students, Anne-Marie is writing, writing, writing: essays, poems, plays, and recently her first published short story. Two of her memoirs published by Wayne State University PressPulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, were selected as Michigan Notable Books. Her plays, poems, and essays have been collected, anthologized, produced, published, and honored with many awards; among these literary accomplishments is her well-received poetry collection Uncoded Woman (Milkweed Editions), An American Map: Essays (Wayne State University Press) and the recent play, “Secrets of the Luce Talk Tavern.”

Yes, she has the chops. Yes, she is a very, very good writer. She is also a very good person. Anne-Marie Oomen’s work is often in service not just to her art and not just to her students, but often to the community in which she lives, to the land and waters that surround her.

And, she’s a total babe. 

Here then, is Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard essay, “Warming the Flue,” in its entirety, reprinted (with permission) from An American Map.


Warming the Flue: 

The Think House, Empire, Michigan

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Elliot. Four Quartets

Tucked as it is in a Michigan woods thick with tall maple and ash, the Think House eddies with chill in winter, and remains too-cool and shaded in the summer.

So I build a fire in the woodstove.

A decade ago in Leelanau County, my David and I built by hand this sixteen by twenty cabin out of mostly recycled, damaged or deeply discounted goods.  As a result, each autumn we seal leaky windows with plastic and stuff insulation strips around the eternally peeling though still partly brilliant red door.  The small black Jotel perches in the corner—inadequate against drafts—and dusty pine bookcases filled to bending line the walls—doing double duty as insulation when the cold comes on. A butcher-block table views the insect-spotted window, a second-hand desk holds a newer computer, a school chair leans toward the woodstove.  Here is a Depression era rocker, three dictionaries—two unabridged, one belonging to my grandmother, and more books—revealing an obsession for having them as much as for reading.

I wad newspaper into rough coils and place them side by side in the chamber. I pile shards of pine and scrap walnut on the wasted news, criss-crossing them like highways on a map.  Then I realize it’s so cold that I have to warm the flue before I start the fire.  I roll a full sheet of newspaper into a long crinkled tube. I light one end with a wooden match, hold it into the firebox, seeking that small invisible place where a hint of draft should pull.  I sit back on my heels.

In this room, turkey feathers tuck into cracks, lake stones rest on sills, Petoskey fossils serve as doorstops.  The place is rough on all its edges, messy with piles and it lacks any plumbing—though the electricity works most of the time.  It is too quiet—except for wind, the voice that always enters this place.


Here is the place where the stories and poems take root.  But even before that, where does the process begin?  At what point is the imagination sparked?  Just as there must be fuel to warm the cold stove’s firebox, there must be inspiration for the imagination to warm.

Will the fire take?  I wait in the cold.  Sometimes when the chimney is too cold, the warm smoke is trapped and backpuffs, filling the cluttered room.  Then there is only coughing and ugly haze.

I’ve worked in this room for years, fired this stove every cold day that needed warming.  I know the ways of this stove I bend to:  I also know how my thinking goes.  It doesn’t always work, this attempted combustion of air and tinder—or its parallel in imagination and language.  The writing doesn’t come from nowhere.  Other routes, like the tube of flaming paper to channel fire and warm the flue, must warm the mind.  The fuel of travel, the experience of other places and their people inspire me.

For me, this desire to seek out new places is not simple; despite an innate curiosity, I love home and isolation.  Solitude.  The chill of the Think House, the wind against it.  In contrast, the intensity of New York City unnerves me, the Mexican border disturbs me,  Culebra’s wild surf shakes me.  Always I feel uncertain and often lonely opening the door on new territory, following new routes away from old roots.  It feels blank and nerve-wracking and yes, I thrive on it.  I pack.

The tube of old news flutters, unwilling. I bend to it.  Fire grows from fire, small to large.  But nothing happens without the air, the oxygen drawing across it to feed it.  I blow a little.

Lately I have been thinking about how discrete places, and perhaps country with it, might become place-less.  No, not place-less, for that is more or less impossible, but how places might lose their individuality, lose their meaning.  I sense the disquiet, the loss of place, the unplace-ness that may be happening in my America.  Will we one day alter Pete Seeger’s melancholy anthem:  where have all the places gone?

Are they still out there—places where meaning and geographies are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity, that make us a people?  We can still find them, can’t we?

I imagine the inside of the chimney, the clash of warm air pushing against the cold air still holding in the upper regions of the pipe.  Fire too has this restlessness in its nature, the built-in imperative to move into unexplored space, to taste new air.

The tubed flame, held into the firebox like food for a shy pet, is accepted at last. With sudden decision, the draft pulls, the drifting smoke is routed all at once, a poof into the flue and up to the open, its heat warming the cold chimney, warming interior chambers with its draw, preparing it for fire.

Metaphor arrives, its small miracle puffing.

I am rooted in place in my Think House with its warming stove.  I follow routes of place out into the open.  But I also root out places—as the farmer pulls plants to understand growth—and I root as a baby does, paradoxically seeking the nourishment from—not a mother—but from places all over the country, the mother country.

Through the writing, I enter still another form of rooting out, of making and remaking these places in language, in words that seek to fire the imagination of others.  Place-making.  And in reimagining the faraway places here at home, I root out, through my own mother tongue, what place might mean, not simply a specific place, but the idea and meaning of place.  Place-meaning.  And in this process, discovering, thinking, and writing, rooting out place and places in my America, feeding the fire, my anxiety eases.  I can work. A kind of compassion comes.

My country ‘tis of thee…


Reprinted from An American Map by Anne-Marie Oomen. (c) 2010 Wayne State University Press

→Anne-Marie, thank you for letting us into your Think House, and Wayne State University Press, thank you, too, for permitting this reprint. Everyone else, thanks, as always, for reading. -PMc←

Not A Nature Writer ~ An Update on John McNally’s View From the Keyboard

John McNally, the very fine writer of After The Workshop, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, Troublemakers (one of my favorite short story collections) and lots of other books, shared his View From the Keyboard with us quite a while ago. Since then, a number of things have changed in John’s life, among them his View. Generously, John has agreed to let me share this brief glimpse into his new space with you all.

John: The view from my new work place at home: a big-ass tree. (This is why I’m not a nature writer.)

→Thanks again, John, for letting us in. -PMc←

View From the Keyboard ~ Happy Birthday, Doris Lessing

“I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.”

– Doris Lessing, b. October 22, 1919.



→Reminder to my writing friends and readers–View From the Keyboard is accepting submissions. Guidelines here. -PMc←

View From the Keyboard Guidelines

I invite you, my writerly friends, to submit to me a picture of your writing space. I’ll call this segment of the blog “View From the Keyboard,” but know that I am not limiting submissions to those of you who write on a keyboard. Whatever space you write in, whatever tools you use to write, whatever trinkets or photos or books or animals or libations, etc.,  you surround yourself with can be part of your photo. I’d also like to know what you are writing. And once I start to gather these submissions, I will begin to post them now and again, and share your spaces and your writing with others as well.

The How:

  1. Take a photo of your writing space (with or without you in it.)
  2. Write a brief description/explanation of this space. Say whatever you want about it. Some ideas–why this space? What little thing here inspires you? What can’t we see in the photo? How much time do you spend there? What time of day do you write? And so on. You get the idea.
  3. Submit–if you are willing–no more than 250 words of something you have written in this space.
  4. Self-promote anything you might want to here. Website? Publications? Etc.
  5. Make sure to let me know how to contact you in return.
  6. Send jpeg of photo. Cut and paste text into an email. Send to
  7. In your email, please put the words “I agree to let Patricia McNair edit this submission for publication on her website/blog.” And don’t submit if you don’t agree to this. I will respect your work and your words as best I can.

The What Next:

  1. Be patient. I will respond as soon as I can. I am hoping to use each submission I get, but may have to discriminate along the way depending on number of submissions and their appropriateness.
  2. I will contact you if I use your submission on my blog, but may post it before you receive and respond to the notification (see #7 above.)
  3. Check back regularly to see what others are posting. Share the site with friends. Expand this community of writers.


  • Thanks in advance to everyone who participates in any way, either by submitting, reading, or sharing. Looking forward to hearing from you!