Epic Win for the Cubs and a Reluctant Fan Goes All-In

So, my family has been Cub fans my whole life. I have always, in some ways, attributed my becoming a writer to the Cubs. My brothers watched the Cubs almost every day in the summertime. Because we only had one TV, I had to find alternate entertainment, as I didn't have the patience for those long games, those inevitable losses. My dear brothers ranted at the TV and each other. "That was the worst play in history!" one would say. "No, that play against the Pirates in 73 was way worse!" Ad infinitum. Shoes were thrown at the TV and at each other, and I quietly opened a credenza where all the books my other siblings had accumulated over a decades of literature classes came tumbling on the tile floor. That was where I found old copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Ordinary People, Readers Digest Condensed books (which puzzled me because I didn't know what condensed meant). Everything from Victoria Holt romances to Future Shock, and an issue of Catcher in the Rye that actually had an illustration of Holden in his red hunting hat standing outside a Manhattan club. I'd creep up to my room and read my way through another losing Cubs season.

This year, 2016, as the Cubs advanced through the playoffs, I was, at first, thrilled primarily for my brothers, sisters, mother--the family. Yes! Their dreams are coming true. It felt like my devoted family was finally getting a chance, and as much as I'd always run away from the emotional turbulence of being a Cub fan by seeking the solace of books, I suddenly was sucked in.  I was chanting "Go Cubs Go!" with sentimental gusto. My daughter crushed on Kris Bryant. My shocked French husband heard me shout phrases like, "He made the sacrifice fly so the man on third could score!" How did I even know this stuff, he wondered. "Osmosis!" By the ninth inning of game 7 I was curled in a semifetal position with butterflies in my stomach. I'd been texting for hours with four of my sisters. When Kris Bryant threw the easy out to Anthony Rizzo to make the third out in the bottom of the 10th, I actually started to sob. Eyewitness reports state that I actually took flight off the couch like a stunned bird who'd hit a pane of glass but was ready to soar again. 

Yes, I did very little reading and writing this week! 

 

The Letter Campaign, Initial Parameters Set

 So, the Letter Campaign launched this week with my first letter sent to my brother Phil. I worked out the parameters to the first batch of letters.  Here's the "cover letter" text: 

You are being invited to participate in my Letter Campaign….

I am writing letters to friends and family with whom real correspondence has declined since the late ‘90s, thanks to email and messaging and all that good stuff that has its place and which I’m not wholly against but…

For some reason I saved letters/postcards/cards from you over the years, and I would adore being able to add to this collection from you!

Rules

1.     You are under no obligation to write me back.

2.     But if you could maybe just drop me a postcard sometime in the next decade, I’d be delighted.

3.     Don’t feel like you have to match my output. That’s one thing that’s always kept me from writing people back. The Pressure to match their word count or something. Don’t feel that way, please please please.

4.     Forgive me for typing, but it’s how I think now. My hand cramps too much since I’ve passed a “certain”  age and there’s more fluidity between thought and word with the keyboard. (I’ve always been a wickedly fast typist.) I’ll try to decorate with my elementary-school-level doodles.

I’ve decided to write to everyone about the same things:

  • First sighting or memory I have of you
  • Last sighting or memory I have of you
  • What your letters tell me
  • What my day was like on the day I’m writing to you again

 

These parameters may shift.I hope to write one such letter as this per week. 

Letters, A New Project

 So, a funny thing happens when you "finish" a novel and you're trolling for an agent (a long, lugubrious process). You start, rather I start, organizing. What I've discovered is a trove of good old letters and postcards. Remember those? Maybe you don't. But back in the olden days people used  to write things on paper, on postcards, on stationery. So I've been bundling them up, and I have a plan. I'm going to find these people who wrote me and get their home addresses. I'm friends with most of them on Facebook, so this shouldn't be difficult. I want to write them back--letters or poems, I'm not sure what.

I want to tell them about their old selves, about my new self, and I will cross my fingers that I'll wind up eventually with another bunch of letters to bundle in ribbons and keep in boxes.  I've already discovered some long-forgotten not-so-impressive moments from my past, but also lots of love and silliness, too. And yes, ironic Reagan postcards, and postcards of Woody Allen before he was scandalous, and a card from the former USSR that says, "Cheers, Eileen, Now the KGB has your address. Love, Jim." 

Stay tuned!

 

 

Latest Activities on the Writing Biz Front

I had a wonderful time on September 24 at the Chicago Writers Conference listening to writers' practice pitches for agents. This was a super fun activity for me, one for which I may be a natural (a surprise to me). Nervous/confident writers told me their plots, their angles, and their target markets, and I helped them to narrow the scope of their three-line pitch. Maybe this is new career possibility! I had some sweet follow-ups, as well:

  • "Your help on how to prepare a pitch was very beneficial, and you gave me plenty of wonderful recommendations on how to improve it so that I felt well prepared for my pitch to an agent."
  • "I want you to know that your advice on framing/telling the story of my dark comedy was invaluable. I boiled it down, told it clearly and concisely.  . . . Four of four agents asked for manuscript.

My review of Harley and Me, by Bernadette Murphy, for The Rumpus

Check out my review of this memoir by Bernadette Murphy, who, at 48, decided to buy a Hog, leave her husband, and begin living a more "authentic" life. She looks at risk-taking behavior, the influence of hormones on decision making, and briefly discusses how her difficult childhood contributed to the woman she became. Her vivid descriptions of the rush, brutality, and exhilaration of the ride might make you tempted to take a wild ride yourself. 

Must Read: Swarm Theory by Christine Rice.

I loved this novel-in-stories, Swarm Theory, by Chicago writer Chris Rice. This is a fierce and brave collection about a Michigan town peopled by GM execs, farmers, and outlandish transplants. The adolescent characters--whether drag racing, tossing footballs, or being led astray by their junkie moms, are sometimes resilient survivors, sometimes tragic losers. An intense, must-read. And you have to dig the publisher's name: University of Hell Press.

"On Fertility" published in The Butter, Roxanne Gay, editor

Thanks to Roxanne Gay for publishing this essay in The Butter. It was accepted on Sunday, and published a week later. That's the kind of speedy production process that sends my head a-reeling.  I so appreciate the chance to share my experiences with other people.  This is a picture of me in the graveyard in Milford, Ireland, where my great-grandparents were buried (though this isn't their plot). I miscarried about a week later.  1998.

"All the years you took from her..."

 I keep listening to the gorgeous song, "Children of Children" by Jason Isbell. This lyric gets me every time:

You were riding on your mother's hip,

she was shorter than the corn.

All the years you took from her,

Just by being born.

I heard that he and his wife, Amanda Shires, are expecting their first child.  What strikes me about that line, which weds lyric and music so perfectly, is that I love it and disagree with it. In my head I'm thinking, "All the years you gave to her, just by being born." Because to be a mother is to have this gift, this entree into so many experiences that I would have hated to have missed. At the same time, yes, there's so much I haven't been able to do since my first daughter was born 8.5 years ago.  But during the years that I thought I might never be a mother, I longed to be part of all the child-rearing challenges. Even when I've been frustrated, struggling to balance a creative life with the domestic life of motherhood, I'm so glad not to have missed this experience. I read a piece about why millenials don't want to have children. Parenthood isn't for everyone. It definitely isn't for someone who's only going to emphasize what they're losing by having children (all the years you took from her). Rock on, Jason!  I hope fatherhood expands your already sensitive worldview. And Amanda, here's to an excellent birth experience. I hope it's amazing.

 

 

Mother's Day 2015

I woke this morning, smiling at all the happy pictures of Facebook friends with their mothers:  mothers holding them as babies; black-and-white photos of their glamorous mothers of yesteryear; wizened crones holding infants. Friends wished me well, wished that spa certificates were coming my way--all that.  Then I saw a post that really gave me pause. It was a shout-out not to all the accomplished moms of the world, but rather to all the people who lost a mother, who lost a child, who longed to be a mother. I thought of my friends who lost children to cancer, to bad custody battles.  I thought of all the motherless children I know, who even as adults still longed for their mothers.  And I remembered myself, for ten long years waiting to have a child, and how every Mother's Day during that decade, I felt so left out. I felt like a failure. Two of my miscarriages occurred within a week or two of Mother's Day, and I remember my mother telling me, and my aunt Betty telling me, and even the nurse in the hospital in Limerick, Ireland telling me, "You're a mother too!  Your babies are up in heaven praying for you right now."

I got lucky somehow, because I woke up this morning to catch my 8-year-old daughter in the act of making me a smoothie. She handed me a beautiful book of illustrated poems,and she gave me a big hug. I know that it all worked on in the end for me (so far, so good), and I also know that it doesn't always work out for others, and I wish to honor the longing and the loneliness this day can create for people. And if they feel like celebrating when Monday comes, I don't blame them a bit.
 

Artist Statement

When applying for grants or positions, one must write one of these, so here's mine:

My current work in both fiction (The Worship of Storms: A Novel) and nonfiction (“The Best Revenge” a personal essay) addresses the concerns of women coming of age, specifically, self-discovery through sexual encounters and friendships with men and women. Sometimes fraught with conflict and misunderstanding, these interactions have the power to destroy or to heal. Tidy redemption does not interest me, yet I also reject an easy cynicism. Depicting alienation without moments of connection strikes me as a biased, false-serious approach, which bears no resemblance to my own experience of life.

 

When I write, I strive for elegance and beauty, but lyricism can be as deceptive as cynicism. Writing beautiful sentences about traumatic experiences creates a powerful and haunting dissonance. I do not wish to romanticize trauma, but to convey honestly difficult experiences that influence a character (or myself) and that crystallize identity. By writing visually and with sensorial clarity, I hope to make the reader feel empathy and connection with my characters and with myself. This specificity leads to catharsis and recognition of basic universal truths that transcend my own experience to reach a broad range of readers.  

 

When writing nonfiction, the principles laid out by Philip Lopate in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay are always foremost in my mind. The essay, according to Lopate, is a way to show the mind at work. To essay is to make a run at something without knowing whether you will succeed. This notion appeals to me, as experience is thorny and puzzling, and the essay form celebrates ambivalence. I also study closely the work of Ariel Levy for visual language; James Baldwin for wrestling with complex thinking; and George Orwell for a model in studying the self within historical contexts. 

 

As a novelist, my influences are wide-ranging, and as I’m currently writing a first-person narrative, I study writers who practice in both prose forms.  Margaret Atwood is a model for writing about women’s issues, specifically her novels Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin.  To capture the lyric and the comic, I look to Vladimir Nabokov’s novels and as well as his memoir, Speak Memory.  For inspiration in writing about Ireland, I look to James Joyce for a critical eye on Catholicism; Rosemary Mahoney, for magnificent descriptions of setting; and to contemporary Irish writer, Kevin Barry, for spot-on dialogue.  

 

In a culture where snark and sharp-tongued retorts are the dominant discourse, I strive in my writing to capture less aggressive craft: I want to write beautiful sentences; I want to show how love connects people in miraculous ways, despite death, destruction, and pain.

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