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.

Spotted: Mayor of Chicago Gets Coffee

Rahm Emmanuel, Eileen Favorite, fameI was recently in the Corner Bakery (Wabash and Monroe), and who should I see?

"Look," I whispered to the woman waiting for coffee next to me. "It's Rahm Emmanuel."

"I don't know who that is. I'm from Wisconsin," said she.

"The mayor of Chicago? Former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama?" Ring any bells?  She shook her head.

I resisted the urge to say hello to him, because a gal's gotta let a man get his coffee.  When I told a friend about the event, she said, "Did you talk to him?" I answered in the negative. I felt odd enough snapping a picture (thus the mediocre shot at left). Oh that I were a bold Hibernian who would demand a selfie with the mayor!

The event reminded me of a story my brother Phil Favorite told me about.  He lives in Portland, Oregon, and one night he was at a show for a local band. Standing in the crowd with him was Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Phil's mouth dropped as they locked eyes, then Eddie Vedder slowly raised his finger to his lips and said, "Shhh."  Phil nodded.  Let the man listen to some music. Ever since Phil told me that, I've always given "celebrities" wide berth when I've spotted them out in the world. 

Day of Mourning

I found this picture while paging through a photo album a few weeks ago, and it stopped me cold. I had forgotten it.  At the time, I was probably more interested in capturing an image of the Brooklyn Bridge, which always had the air of cathedral to me.  The shot was taken in September 1991, a full 10 years before the attacks.  I hesitated to post it.  I worried, "Is it show-offy?"  Don't the survivors of the people killed in the attacks get traumatized every time they see a photo of the World Trade Center towers?  I would. Yet even as it worries me, the image proves something about how life is ephemeral, how these things we take for granted, that we might see simply as background, are actually full of power and life. 

 

A few years earlier, when I lived in Brooklyn, I often stood on the corner of Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues, and from miles away, the towers were the size of two cigarettes. They symbolized to my grad-school self unattainable Manhattan:  Wall Street, power, money, a Shangri-la for an aspiring writer.  To the attackers, they symbolized something similar, but for them money and power were also about something utterly American, something oppressive, something to destroy.  There’s absolutely nothing redemptive I can say about that.  Things have only gotten worse since then—domestically and internationally.  What should we be commemorating?  I have no idea.  The only people who truly know the devastation of September 11, 2001, are those that died, and those who loved them. 

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Stephanie Friedman for inviting me to participate in the blog tour about process #MyWritingProcess. I shall answer the following four questions with as little feebleness as possible.

 

Question #1:  What am I working on now?

I finished a draft of my novel, The Worship of Storms, last October, while I was on a one-semester sabbatical from the School of the Art Institute.  I sent the manuscript to my agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of William Morris Endeavor, at the end of the month. Sheesh, I just Googled JRW and really, having my humble manuscript in her hands is like gaining a visit with the Queen.  She's a rock star, people, who never comes off as one.  I trust her so completely, and her feedback was right on the mark: thoughtful, unrushed, and totally doable.  So I am back in revision mode, hoping to have the novel tidied up by the end of the summer. 

 

My life, Chicago 2014. The only selfie this year.

I'm also at work on a personal essay about friendship/sexual assault/travel/bigotry.  That range of topics tells you that it's a sprawling out-of-hand mess right now.  But it might get there. 

Question #2:  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It's always thorny to call "literary fiction" a genre, but that's what I write.  How to define it?  Try this.  Lord help me if I get slotted into the Women's Fiction genre again. Male writers get called literary with great automaticity, whereas women who write about relationships, domesticity, or LOVE, get elbowed into that ubiquitous realm of Women's Fiction, which ranges from romance novels and chick lit to Oprah-redemptive stuff, but also includes the work of Nobel laureates (Toni Morrison) and National Book Award winners (Louise Erdrich).  I haven't read the work of Jennifer Weiner personally, but I love this piece by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker about Weiner's mash-ups with Franzen and her struggle for legitimacy.    

Because literary fiction is not formulaic, I can't say how my work differs from others of its genre; rather, I can  say which authors I strive to emulate: Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Bronte, Ricki Ducornet, Flann O'Brien, Dostoevsky, etc.

Question #3:  Why do I write what I do?

Figuring out  "why"  I write what I do feels like a chore. Such an act of self-analysis or self-psychologizing makes me nervous. Sitting down to write requires a leap of faith, a leap into the unconscious.   That's why answering the question, "What do you write about?" or "What's your new novel about?"  makes me squirm.  I can't sum it all up in two sentences, and sometimes I just want to say, "I don't know what it's about! You tell me!" Actually, don't tell me, because the whole writing business is this massively vulnerable act, and you'll probably tell me something about myself that makes me feel embarrassed, and the only way I can avoid self-censorship is to pretend that none of this has anything to do with me and that no one will actually ever read it, and if they do I'll just don a fake mustache and Groucho glasses and go out to smoke a cigar.  And, hey, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!

Question #4:  How does my writing process work?

My writing process goes in fits and starts.  Sometimes I'm rocking and rolling on a near-daily basis, with word-count requirements and great vats of coffee. Other times it's completely stalled by student papers, reading books, too many compulsive Facebook and email checks, having to pick up children from school, bagging half-sandwiches, switching loads of laundry, shoveling, napping, snack breaks, phone calls, Fresh Air, text messages, gossip about the local park, and having to keep up some semblance of a blog presence, like I'm doing right now.

 

Phew.  Here are two writers whom I've invited to join this tour...still waiting to hear from the third (I'll add if she gets back to me). 

 

Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed is the author of the short story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and the novel Little Known Facts. She lives in Evanston, IL and teaches for Northwestern University and the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. She is the visiting writer at Columbia College Chicago this spring semester, 2014.

Her website is www.christinesneed.com/blog

Laura Durnell

Laura Durnell's fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Antigonish Review, ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), Room of One's Own, and Journal of Experimental Fiction. In addition, it has won awards and fellowships from the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation (National Fiction Award), Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Playboy. Currently, she works as an assistant editor at Narrative magazine and teaches at DePaul University, where she was recognized as a 2013 Women of Spirit and Action by the DePaul Women's Network, and Wilbur Wright College. She can be followed on Twitter and connected with on LinkedIn

https://depaul.digication.com/lauradurnellportfolio/Home//

Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwest. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and taught aerobics. Today she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing of Columbia College ChicagoMcNair’s short story collection, The Temple of Air, was awarded Book of the Year in Traditional Fiction by the Chicago Writers Association, Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and a finalist award in Adult Fiction by the Society of Midland Authors. It was called “violently creative” by the Chicago Sun Times, and “plainspoken yet imaginative, complexly unnerving” by Booklist. She is currently at work on a novel, Climbing the House of God Hill.  Find her at

www.patriciaannmcnair.com

 

 

Irish Philosophy

 This morning I was explaining the Irish philosophy of life to my friend, a Hungarian Jew.  "Get out of bed and get over yourself." 

"What would Freud say to that?" he asked.

"Freud said the Irish were the only people who couldn't be psychoanalyzed."
 

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