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."
 

Tucson Unified School District Reinstates Seven "Banned" Books

The LA Times reports that seven titles that were removed from Tucson classrooms have been reinstated. The Tucson school district banned ethnic studies and virtually outlawed Mexican Studies back in 2011. With this decision, the books were removed from the classrooms.  What followed were hair-splitting discussions about whether the books were officially "banned" (BAD WORD) versus simply "REMOVED" (GOOD-ISH WORD).

The district continually said that they hadn't banned the books, just put them in storage because, well, ethnic studies just aren't good for our kids.  Better to keep the children ignorant of race oppression in our country.  It seems patently obvious that the people fighting to suppress this information are cowards.  Their notion of what it means to be an American is fraught with denial.  One could almost pity them if they weren't so dangerous.  Here's a clip from Al Madrigal on The Daily Show, getting to the bottom of the problem.

The seven reinstated books include, Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado; 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,edited by Elizabeth Martinez; Message to Aztlan by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales; Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” by Rodolfo Acuña; and “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years” by Bill Bigelow.

NaBloMo Day 5:

My husband and our almost 7-year-old daughter were riding bikes last Sunday.  They rode beneath a viaduct, where a man was sleeping. 

"That man doesn't have a home. He has to sleep outside," Martin said.

"Well, at least he gets to have some fresh air," Lucille said. 

 

Support the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Thou Shalt Not Google Thyself.

Day 4.  Confession.  I spent some time this weekend Googling myself.  I do it whenever I am updating my c.v./resume (i.e., applying for a job), and I never fail to find something I've never seen before.  Found a nice nod from Booklist.  This blogger has a deep understanding of Deirdre of the Sorrows, and she really understands the ending of my book. 

An EHow page about "How to Write A Character Analysis" gives this example to erstwhile teen essayists:

Select a character who interests you. The opening paragraph of your essay should introduce who this character is, briefly explain what her role is in the story and why you have chosen to analyze her personality. Example: "The character I have chosen for study from Eileen Favorite's novel, 'The Heroines,' is Penny Entwhistle, a rebellious teen whose mother runs a boarding house frequented by feisty females straight from the pages of fiction. Not only do I personally relate to what it's like having parents who do weird things, but I'm also an avid reader and have often wondered what I'd say and do if my own favorite book characters ever came to life."

I never click on the mean reviews. There's a hint of what they're going to say (or three/two/one stars), visible in the search link, and I discovered years ago that giving myself heart palpitations and an hour of existential angst is not worth it, especially when the snarkiest critics often have no credentials. I was going to link to one for a laugh, but I can't seem to find it...Something like, "great concept, HORRIBLE execution. Terrible writing."  It was a rude awakening back in 2007, when the bloggers amped up their web presence, and anybody could cuddle up with Word Press and annoint themselves a Book Critic.  But now, I take it in stride.  It's cool.  It's kind of sort of funny to read someone passionately hate your work.  Like, dude, mellow out! I'm just a person.  I'm not the enemy.

But there was one discovery this weekend that got my mind ticking.  Professor Sue Schweik from Cal Berkeley called The Heroines a “beach reading novel designed for English majors.”  Oh, boy. What am I to make of that?  She's a brainy beloved Cal prof who specializes in disability studies, and she looks really cool in her picture.  But "beach read" is always a blow, but then English majors as a modifier of the beach read is sort of saying it's a step above the usual chick lit.  I'm making it sound as if I lost sleep over this, which isn' t true.  It's merely this promise to blog every day that's led me to this blather again. What I most want to say is that I wouldn't diss another writer in this blog.  It's just not cool.  I've read books recently that didn't wow me, but I'm not here on the planet to give other writers heart palpitations.  It's a choice. Trust me, I can be as miserably critical as the next person.  But I choose to celebrate the books I dig, and leave the assassinations to others. 

Now it's getting late, and I must say, Over and Out. 

Writing about Fathers

 

Eileen Favorite, fathers, laundry chutePaulette Beete is dedicating her month of blogging to her relationship with her father.  This made me think of an unpublished poem I have, which I wrote around Halloween 2008, a few months before my father died. I hope it gives a sense of his spirit. When I visited him in the hospital that day, he said one thing that I've never forgotten and which always makes me laugh.  He was very proud that I had published a book, and he told the nurse, "You should read The Heroines.  It's a lady book."

 

 

 

 

La Chute

 

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a clock that ticks,

reminding me that time’s passing, the alarm 

will sound, and not the normal daily alarm,

no, I’m talking about the big fat alarm

 

that says your time with this person is up.

I can’t sleep.  The el rumbles across the street,

and the neighbor’s porch light burns all night. 

Are they like me, did they forget to turn it off,

 

or do they leave it on in case someone

comes knocking?  Oh, that makes me think

of the Grim Reaper and not just because it’s almost

Halloween.  Every day my dog rears back

 

and barks at the collection of fake bones

scattered on the neighbor’s lawn. The black-eyed

skull gets my dog’s goat every time. I don’t like

to think of somebody I love in that way—

 

as rotting bones in a cemetery—

why do we fear it so much?  Who cares, 

once the spirit’s soared away, who really cares

about the body?  But my dad’s still here,

 

and six hours later I visit him in the hospital,

where he’s getting a transfusion.  His spirits

are lively, and he’s eager to reminesce about

buying the blueprints for our split-level

 

house from a magazine for fifteen bucks

back in ’61. He borrowed five grand

from a lawyer client to buy the empty lot,

talk about a shoestring!  Then his moment

 

of genius, standing on the second floor,

the rooms framed out, the closets too,

but no walls yet, no plaster, and how he looked

through the opening and saw straight from

 

the second floor down to the basement

and thought, laundry chute! He got a sheet metal

guy from Dolton to hammer out the lining.

When my cousins came over we’d throw

 

pool balls down the chute, making an unholy

clatter that made the grown-ups shout for mercy. 

All my life, clothes fell down that chute,

into a closet that was never empty,

 

bursting with sheets and school blouses,

baseball uniforms, damp towels,

 tube socks and toe socks, pedal pushers

and pantyhose. The mountain never

 

went down, just spilled out of the closet,

onto the basement floor.  When I turned ten

 I started to fish out my own blouses and socks

and do a fastidious load of wash all my own.

 

I was ironing everything: pleats in my plaid

uniform skirt, creases in the sleeves of my

school blouses. The yellowed armpits

gave off a sweat smell even after the wash. 

 

That’s a moment in my childhood I doubt

my father ever knew about because, well,

 a man wouldn’t have, and now’s not the time

to introduce him to those mundane (though formative)

 

facts, because I’m here at Evanston Hospital

to hear his stories, but then my cell rings,

another bell cutting short my time with him.

Time to pick up the baby. I have to go, I say,

 

and my dad starts to cry, worried he’s bored me,

his thin face waxy and pale. He says,

 You’ve heard these stories a million times,

and I say no, I never heard the one about

 

the laundry chute, your stroke of genius,

and he grins, says, Yes, it was incredible.

 I looked right down there and saw it! A way

to make your mother’s life easier. 

NaBloPoMo continues...try not to yawn!

Maybe this is why people follow celebrity culture.  It gives them something to focus on when there's nothing else going on in their lives.  It's Saturday afternoon, my husband's making a pot roast.  I'm happy to be feeling well after a month of bronchitis.  We opened a bottle of St. Emilion because the kids have a play date/date night exchange going on this second day of November.  So I feel only as if I can list the day's events, hoping they may amount to something.

  • Dreamt about my friend's daughter whose been sent away to therapeutic boarding school by her vengeful father.
  • Ate mac and cheese for breakfast, an unusual move (an hour after previously referenced latte).
  • Listened to parts of Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, and remembered an old boyfriend and I singing, "Will you, kiss-a my eyes?"
  • Told children to quit jumping on the bed. Several times.
  • Picked up our box of organic veggies from our CSA Angelic Organics: butternut squash, kale, brussel sprouts, cabbage.  Brassicas!
  • Swung on swings at our new park.
  • Napped briefly, with Alice, but woke when her cool drool dripped down my belly.
  • Read a great short story by Thomas McGuane in the New Yorker. When we were in Bozeman (summer of 2012), we met with a friend of McGuane's daughter.  John Firethunder!
  • Ate pot roast, talked for an hour about childhood issues with my husband
  • Washed dishes while alternating between R & B on WBEZ and folk stage on WFMT.

Over and out!

 

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