Monday, October 15, 2018


Switching blog sites. New look. New and easier way to follow. If you like writing and the creative life, this is your place.

Please consider following: THE WRITER SHED

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Mini Adventures

They are sometimes called microadventures. The term may have been coined by Alastair Humphreys the adventurer and writer. He's written about taking little adventures, stretching to the challenge of the outdoors in simple, inexpensive ways without having to head off for the Himalayas. 

I've been writing a blog over the last several months entitled Walks With Sam. Maybe you have read some of the posts, essays, if you will, based on a season of walks with my dog. I certainly invite you to. There are more than 30 posts now and I have stopped contributing to the blog on a regular basis because, I believe, there may be a book there. Going forward, I plan to occasionally post a walk or a hike, or something significant in the life of Sam and me. But my season of contemplative walking appears over for now. It has run its course. But I've learned much about me, about Sam, about the creative process, about the neighborhood in its larger sense from the people in the houses to the deer in the woods, to the skunks, and rabbits, and the squirrels. It's all been a series of mini adventures.  

With all those words and all the observations behind me, I have retreated to the writing shed to try to shape something, to figure out how all those walks come together, how they fit into each other, how they resonate, why their collectiveness should mean something bigger than a single walk. I am reminded of great literary walkers and of great books about walking. A colleague suggested I read Ted Kooser's book of poems, Winter Morning Walks. I have started. It's brilliant and beautiful. 

So, here I am, in the shed, writing, shaping, thinking. This, in many ways, is yet another mini adventure. Not a physical walk, but a mental one through all the walks that came before. It's a good place, this shed. With its books and its painting of Dylan Thomas' boathouse, and art and photography from my sons and stepdaughter. 

Some night I will work late in here and maybe sleep inside these walls among all the essentials of a another mini adventure and dream, dream about this story, this book of walks. 

Surely something will rise out of this place. Something will be born here once again. For this is another mini adventure, a search for some tender wisdom, because an adventure, as Alastair Humphreys has written, is "only a state of mind."

Visit: Walks With Sam

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Interview with a Bookstore

I'm stealing this idea. I'll be honest. I don't know where I saw it first. Maybe something on LitHub, the great aggregate of literary news. But wherever it was, I'm offering credit their way. 

The idea was to interview a bookstore. 

My approach is a bit different than the one I first saw. My questions are not the same. My purpose is different. The original idea was to offer insight into the workings of a book selling business. Mine is to highlight one of Chicago's best literary destinations. This is not hyperbole. The Book Cellar in the Lincoln Square neighborhood  is a gem, not only in Chicago, but it stands alongside some of the top book selling venues in America, and has been named one of Chicago's best places to write. 

So, here we go. An interview with The Book Cellar. (Owner Suzy Takacs)

Q: What's your favorite section of the store?
A: The cookbook section and the picture book section. It's a tie. 

Q: What is the bookstore's specialty?
A: I would describe us as a general bookstore. Our bestselling sections are literary fiction, no-fiction, and board books. 

Q: Who is your store's favorite regular?
A: Bill comes by several days a week and always has something interesting to say about the book world. He clips The New Yorker cartoons for us or Chicago Tribune articles. He reads a crazy number of books and was very quick to finish our store's reading challenge.

Q: What's the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
A: The physical store itself. The mechanics of it are such a tool. From light bulbs to leaks, to HVAC to refrigeration, to people driving into our sidewalk cafe, all of it is a constant expensive and problem to deal with .

Q: Tell us about your most memorable author event.
A: I think there are two events that will never leave my mind. Ray Bradbury joined our book club by speaker phone. He had not done any speaking events for a long time, and he and all of us became very teary. The second was the pleasure of hosting Studs Terkel. He was a remarkable person and character of Chicago. 

Q: What is children's book you would want adults to read?
A: Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers and Owen and Mzee by Crag Hatkoff. And also Wonder by RJ Palacios.

Q: How does your store build community?
A: By hosting story time and local author events. Really all events in general. From a spelling bee to Independent Bookstore Day to working with the Chamber of Commerce. They are all reasons for us to be part of the community our store lives in and part of the literary community. 

Last year, Suzy Takacs and The Book Cellar won the Spirit Award from the Chicago Writers Association for its support of Chicago writers. 

The Book Cellar is at 4736 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

To Be Alone

It's been said that writers are loners, angsty artists who seek solitude. We are weirdos who want to be left alone, by ourselves, away from everyone and everything.

Okay. That's fair. And somewhat true. I think.

If you write, do you like being alone? Are you a solitude junkie?

I like aloneness. I'm comfortable with it. Always have been. Too much stimulus can be overwhelming. I can't think. I can't breathe. But that doesn't mean I always like to write in solitude.

I've written here before about the shed I have on my property, the writing space, built solely for that purpose. Built for me alone, to be alone to write. And I love it. Love what it represents and how it functions for me and my work. I am tucked away in a small space, surrounded by books and art. But yet there are times I want to be in the middle of life, not away from it. So, I write in coffee shops, busy one with the whir of the espresso machine, the clatter of ceramic cups, and constant human conversations blanketing the space. But I'm there solely for the sounds of life, not the acceptance of others.

In Rilke's famous correspondence to a budding writer, Letters to a Young Poet, he advises the new artist to stop seeking adoration or affirmation. Never, he says, ask anyone if a work of art is any good. He says the answers are not outside yourself, they are inside. And with this, comes more confirmation that a writer must be one who craves solitude, where he can contemplate his work alone, without the influences of others. The writer, Rilke believed, must find his way through this with his own compass, not the compass of another. 

For years, early in my writing career, I would carry Rilke's book around with me in my work bag. I'd read passages on the commuter train or in my office. I would pull it out when I had doubts, when I needed to tell myself my writing, whatever I was working on, was worthy. With the help of Rilke, I was able to believe in my own art without affirmation from outside, and I was able to accept the aloneness that comes with that process.

Rainer Maria Rilke

So, yes, writers like to be alone. But there's a good reason for this. If we are uncertain, unsure of our own artistry at times—and we are, like anyone who creates—then we need the solitude in order to work things out with ourselves, for we are the only ones we need to convince.

Tell your alone stories. Why is aloneness important to your writing? Or is it? Share.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Best Quotes on Writing

I dislike the many online articles and blog posts that offer a list of dos and don'ts on writing. They are nothing but click bait or shortcuts to the real work of writing. These are the ones that tell you to "start with action," or "show, don't tell," or the "ten rules of writing a novel." They are a disservice to the work, a disservice to the art, a disservice to you as a writer. Are there best practices? Of course. But good writing is not about rules and formulas.


I might not like the articles that tell you to "do these ten things to write a winning novel," but I do love the quotes by writers that suggest a path to follow. Those little clips, sound bites (if you will) of inspiration and support are wonderful.

What are your favorites? Share them in the comments. These are mine.

Here we go...

"The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress." - Philip Roth

"Style is to forget all styles." - Jules Renard

"Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.” - Jack Kerouac

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” - Ernest Hemingway
"To gain your own voice, you must forget about having it heard." - Allen Ginsberg

"Writing means sharing. It's part of the human condition to share things - thoughts, ideas, opinions." - Paul Coehlo

"Writing if an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." - E.B. White

"Art is never finished, only abandoned." - Leonardo da Vinci

"Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." - Franz Kafka 

"I write entirely to find out what is on my mind. what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I'm seeing, and what it means." - Joan Didion

"I think there are a lot of similarities between writing and music. Music is much more direct and much more emotional and that's the level I want to be at when I'm writing." - Karl Ove Knausgaard

"Be courageous and try to write in a way that scares you a little." - Holly Gerth

And one of my very favorites...

"Writing is the painting of the voice." - Voltaire

Got more?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Never Read it. You?

I'm a writer. I write. And writers read. You can't write without being a skilled reader. Reading like a writer is important to understand structure and pace and tone from the greatest of the great. Reading other writers works is a serious endeavor and should be considered important to the craft. 


And this is a big but. 

What if you haven't read some of the books you and everyone else think you should have? I'm talking about the books that are considered essential, books one believes every writer worth his weight should have read—the best of all time, the greatest of a generation, modern classics, or just...classics, period.

Here is a list of books I have not read, or at least never finished after trying to get through them. This, I'll admit, is a confession in many ways. But like a lot of confessions, it is cathartic. 

Ulysses, James Joyce. Started. Bounced around it. Never finished.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. Started. Never finished.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Never read.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Started. Never finished. Lost interest. 

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Never started. 

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. Started. Never finished.

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. Started twice. Never finished. 

Nearly all of these books are on a shelf in my house or office or writing shed. Maybe someday I'll read at least one. Someday. 

There are many reasons for reading great works of literature, the modern classics. They are cannons of the art; they are models of literary brilliance. Knowing them, at least reading them once, helps to understand the world of literature and the world itself. Many say the first great American novel was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Every American novel afterward comes from what Twain started. So, reading a classic gives us insight and perspective into the history of literature and the authors who have contributed the most.

A classic is a book that people most always say they are "re-reading" not "reading." But in reality, many of us are not being truthful when we say this. It just sounds better, more appropriate, more well-read if we say we are "re-reading" Great Expectations than saying we are reading it for the first time. 

I'm a big Hemingway fan, especially his short stories and his nonfiction. But I have never read For Whom the Bell Tolls. So, a month ago I bought a used copy of it. I've read the first ten pages. Since then, nothing. I plan to get to it; I really do. And maybe someday I can say I'm "re-reading" For Whom the Bell Tolls and consider myself a well-read man. 

What classic have you not read? I'm sure you can add to the list...if you dare to admit. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Dog in Books

Been thinking a good deal about dogs in literature. I'm writing a blog these days, one I hope will turn into a book in the future, about walking your dog—for the good of the dog and for me. The bigger theme is the joy of a good walk and how a good dog opens up the mind to reexamine. reevaluate, renew.

John Steinbeck with "Charley" from  Travels with Charley

Dogs in books. Ah, there are so many and such memorable ones. There's Toto of The Wizard of Oz, and Clifford of the Children's books, and Snoopy. Buck from The Call of the Wild is as famous as they get. There's Fang from the Harry Potter seriesArgos from The Odyssey, and Old Yeller. Cujo and Jip from David Copperfield. Every single dog in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. There's Marley and Lassie and Charley, John Steinbeck's traveling dog.

These lists of dogs in books are easy to find; they are all over the internet. What interests me most are not the many lists, not the fact that dogs can be such great characters in literature, but rather that they are such important ones, one to which we are inevitably drawn. 

Humans have a long history with wolves, the dog's ancestral predecessor. In pre-historic times, man kept a few around for protection and they were relatively trainable for hunting. In time, wolves became tamer and turned into the dogs we now know. But why do we keep them around? They cost a lot. They take up a great deal of time. Maybe it's that they just make us feel good. But why?

Some scientists suggest we keep pets, have dogs, because it's cultural. Others do, so we do. But other experts say our love affair with dogs comes from being social creatures. Humans are constantly seeking relationships with others and that also means a relationship with animals. Dogs happen to be the most amenable. We can share our stories with dogs; they can share theirs with us in their own way. We carry on through life together, as friends. And we crave this relationship, just as we do with other humans. Social we are. Social we will always be. And dogs live in the same dynamic.

Sam of "Walks With Sam"
Sharing stories. That's why we love dogs in books. They help further a theme, twist a plot, create emotion, build a narrative. Not only in literature but in our real lives, too.  

I urge you to follow my own dog stories @walkswithsam and the blog Walks With Sam