Monday, December 10, 2012

A Place of My Own

I've been thinking a lot about writing spaces. I'll be moving into a new place in late January, an older home with great classic woodwork and big windows, hardwood floors and a claw foot bathtub. And with this move, a chance to create my own writing space again.

In the small apartment where I now live, there is no room for such a space. I've done quite well writing in cafes and coffee shops, the white noise of conversation and espresso machines acts as a sort of blanket to the world, softening the real noise the sometimes can block the writing. I love working in good coffee shops, ones with funky chairs and odd corners. But, that special space in my home has been missing.

So, how do I proceed?

I went back to search out my favorite photos of my favorite writers' spaces: Hemingway's room in Key West, Dylan Thomas' small, austere cabin in Wales, Thoreau's hideaway in the woods, Kerouac's tiny bedroom and desk in Florida where he wrote The Dharma Bums, a space I had the great opportunity to live and write in during a writer's residency in Orlando a couple of years ago. A long-time neighbor of Kerouac's reminisced once about hearing the click and clack of typewriter keys into the early hours of the morning, the sound emanating from the bedroom's open window. One thing I quickly discovered about all these favorite spots: simplicity. Each one is small, some bare and empty, with a simple wooden desk and maybe a few books nearby on a shelf or stacked on the floors. The spaces are austere, but not unemotional. There's something brilliantly uncomplicated about each one. And that's what I want to take away from those spaces and bring to mine.

If you write, you certainly have thought about a space of your own. And it has to be YOUR OWN. Take suggestions from others you admire, as I have, but still, make it your place. And it does not have to be fancy. Get your desk at a yard sale, repair a chair tossed to the curb for the garbage pick-up. Light the space as you wish, clean and bright, or soft and dim with candles. If you feel good and secluded and centered, then it works.

There's romanticism in writing spaces, yes, but practicality too. But it's the mix that makes it worth the effort and time to build your own and begin to cherish it.

If you're looking for more thoughts on the subject, here's a recent NY Times blog entry that puts wonderful insight on the subject.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Poems in Unlikely Places

I do not profess to be an expert on poetry. But I know what I like. I'm a big fan of Billy Collins, mostly  because I appreciate his accessibility and his wonderment with the everyday. But I also love Lord Byron, and Dylan Thomas, and Keats. I guess that also makes me a romantic, at least when it comes to poetry. (Although I like to think I'm a romantic in other ways. I hope I am.)

But I wonder about how poetry reveals oneself, and others.

I recently had a wonderful conversation over coffee with a thoughtful, spirited person about the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and a new favorite of mine - Craig Finn, the lead man and songwriter for the band The Hold Steady. Finn put out a solo album not long ago that is marvelous, mostly because of his incredible lyrics - his poetry. In one song - New Friend Jesus - he tells a wonderful story of how he wished he had been a better man for the woman in his life, the one that got away. On the surface, you expect this song to be about spiritual rebirth - and whether that is something Finn has experienced or not, I don't know - but as the song progresses you realize it's really not about religious or spiritual renewal, it's about how he wished he'd been a in a better place -- "knew Jesus" -- when "you (she) loved me (him)." The superbly unexpected nature of this song is what makes it, for me, poetry. And that kind of thing sends chills up my arms, forms tears in my eyes. (Does that make me a romantic?)

My coffee partner felt the same way about poetry in song lyrics. And that, I believe, made both of us lovers of poetry -- we had no need to be experts.

I urge you to read poetry. Go to a bookstore (a good independent), a library, look on Amazon, and browse, find something that resonates  -- buy it and read it; read it out loud to your friend, your lover.


Friday, May 11, 2012

If You Write Personal Stories...

I'm a fan -- no that's not true - I'm not a fan. I am an admirer, better word, of Phillip Lopate, the great essayists and literary nonfiction writer. (If you have not read Confessions of a Shusher, please do. It is a masterpiece in personal essay writing.)

Why do I not describe my interest in Lopate with the word "fan?" Well, "fan" implies that I devour his work, covet it. That I do not do. I have read a lot of Lopate, but he's not one of my favorite authors. However, that said, I hugely admire him and how he shapes a piece of work. He is to be studied, to be read, to be listened to.

Here's your chance.

If you know Lapote's work - and love it - then you'll love this interview. If you are new to Lopate, well, you'll love this interview.

Poets and Writers-Interview with Phillip Lopate. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Top 10 Most Read Books

These surveys come out form time to time and always at the top is The Holy Bible. But some of the  books on this top ten list certainly, in my mind, could say a lot about our world, culture and ourselves.

Here is a neat little poll. Take the information for what it's worth. But it's okay to read into what you may. I did.

Top Ten Most Read Books: (Based on sales over the last 50 years.)

1. The Holy Bible
2. Quotations from Chairman Mao (The number of Chinese in the world may have bumped this one up; plus, maybe a little "mandatory" reading.)
3. Harry Potter (the first)
4. The Lord of the Rings
5. The Alchemist
6. The Da Vinci Code
7. The Twilight Saga (That should tell us something!)
8. Gone with the Wind
9. Think and Grow Rich (That should also tell us something!!)
10. The Diary of Anne Frank

Here's the full story.

Top Ten Books in the World

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mindful Writing

Sometimes writing is simply for discovery, writing to let it all out. Whatever IT is. It can be a cleansing process or one of wonderment. But going deep into this can also be tenuous, a bumpy, winding road.
Ah, but what the heck. It's worth it!

This new book - THE PEN AND THE BELL - is about that kind of writing - mindful writing - and I recommend it highly.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Labels - Be Gone!

Reading so many blogs, notes, Facebook posts, literary reviews, and articles in journals and newspapers on the subject of creative nonfiction and memoir, and I have come to this conclusion: DUMP THE LABELS.

It seems the only reason we have labels in the art of writing is to categorize work for the sake of an editor and the shelves of a book store (brick-and-mortar or virtual), but in reality, it doesn't really matter, does it? Oh sure, we want the reader to "know" what he/she is getting, but I wonder if that really matters anymore. Good reading comes from good writing, and labeling what genre it is just doesn't seem relevant in today's world.

Memoir crosses the boundaries of journalism, fiction craft, and personal anecdotes. Creative nonfiction has elements of fiction writing, memoir, essay, journalism, and scene sketches. Fiction, as it always has been, many times (even if just partly) coming from personal experience that somehow enhances, exploits, makes bigger, becomes more poignant in order to create an imagined story. But all of it - every bit of it - comes from one place - the human experience. The lines are so blurred now, does it matter what silo we drop our stories into?

I can't tell you the times I have written a piece - be it memoir, essay, fiction, journalism - and the reader or and editor asks me -- IS THAT TRUE? That question arises no matter what the genre. Sometimes I say "yes" - sometimes I say "partly" - sometimes I say "well, a little" - sometimes I say "I think so, but it's MY truth. Others may think differently." So, if the question is always the same - IS THAT TRUE? DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? - why put a label on it. The reader's reaction is the same.

Dump the labels and write; write what is in your heart, what is relevant, emotional, passionate, telling, engaging, compelling. Drop the categories and tell the good story, one that resonates over and over again, true or not.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012


It's an old cliche, but spring is for renewal. And that's what I've been thinking a lot about.

First - it's time to renew my commitment to this blog. I have been back at Columbia College with a number of projects underway, including the publishing of my short-short fiction book - AFTER OPIUM. (Kindle version)

I'm happy about getting these works out in a collection. Some have been previously published, but now it's out for good. And getting some decent reviews. Thank you all!

A number of significant things have occurred since we last connected - here's a link to many, including Mike Wallace, memoir writing, and the state of the publishing world...all of which struck me as interesting, telling moments about writing, journalism, authoring, and our culture and society these days...

On other notes - I am honored to be speaking this week at a University of Wisconsin-Extension Educators conference about my memoir, ACCIDENTAL LESSONS. Also honored to be asked to judge personal essay writing for the Southwest Prairie Literary Festival, and to conduct a writing workshop at the LaGrange, Illinois library in late April.

Here's what I leave you with this time around - a quote I recently came across --

"Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Where the Hell Have You Been?

Yeah, I know. It's the pattern of a blogger sometimes. Try to stay on top of posts, and you really do try and really are committed, but - -

Anyway, I'm back. Trying to get into the pattern of writing these blogs again.

Just some updates might be the best way to start...

1. I'm getting ready now - at a coffee shop in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago - for a performance, a reading at Stage 773 for the storytelling series "Here's the Story."

2. Been involved with a number of the reading/storytelling events - Story Club, This Much is True, Essay Fiesta. Wonderful stuff!

3. New short-short story collection is out - AFTER OPIUM. Kindle version now; paperback soon to come. Please check it out...

4. I'm involved in a great new storytelling venture called "Cowbird." The website - - is a small group - although international - of storytellers. Check it out. It's a beautiful site.

5. I have to run - to get to Stage 773. I'm going to try super hard to stay on top of his blog. :)