National Blog Posting Month--Why not?

I've taken up the challenge by Paulette Beete to blog every day in November for National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo).  My reasons for doing this are semi-suspect.  First of all, I finished my novel and it's now sitting with my agent and I have nothing to work on. Well, I should be writing essays, but that's easy to procrastinate.  I've long resisted blogging, feel as if I don't have a bloggerly voice.  The great, who cares? looms and then must be swept aside.  I'm at least curious to see what happens when I blather about my "day." 


Woke at 5:30, got up easily, as the thought of the beautiful latte I could make with my Rancillo espresso machine always drives me from the bed.  Cravings. cravings.  I swear my biggest addiction in life is to Illy espresso and steamed milk.  I did a bit of cleaning in the a.m.  Cleaning either gives me an enormous satisfaction--look how that faucet gleams!--or fills me with despair--I'm wasting my life!  Today my cleaning impulse was robust and highly satisfying.  It was the first day of a bronchitis-choked month that I felt something close to my usual energy.  By 6:30, children had risen and were begging for Halloween candy for breakfast.  Just one,  I said, with mock sternness.  By 8:30 I had two other children in the house for a play date, and a third arrived at 9:30 with gigantic croissants. Wow, do those croissants create collosal quantities of crumbs!  (alliteration overload.)  Out with the vacuum for more satisfying shoveling. 

What did I read today?  A review of the new Norman Rockwell biography.  Who knew he was a depressive with major anxiety and received therapy with Eric Erickson?  It amazes me that some people's anxiety and depression renders them chronic underachievers, whereas others overcompensate with prodigious output.  Rock on, Rockwell! I used to have, hanging in my bedroom, a Norman Rockwell reprint of a doctor holding a stethoscope to the chest of a little girl's doll.  "What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?" read the caption.  I can't deny that the phrase has echoed in my mind over the years. I wish I could be around to see what critics say about Rockwell's work in 100 years.  Artist/illustrator/propagandist/sentimentalist/genius?  Where will his work fall?


I also read about this  crazy drug-trafficking tunnel (pictured above) discovered in San Diego.  Here's what Liam Dillon reported in the New York Times

"The tunnel discovered on Wednesday was about four feet high and three feet wide, the authorities said, and zigzagged on its way across the border at about 35 feet underground, likely because the builders veered off course several times during construction." 

Four feet high?  That means they were crawling through that thing with coke and weed.  I used to live in San Diego, back in the nineties, before the trafficking got seriously scary.  Nowadays my friends  never go to Tijuana, but back then I thought nothing of jumping in my rusty 5-speed Honda Civic and cruising down to TJ to buy silver bangles and lapis lazuli  earrings.  Or we'd take the trolley down to drink margaritas and eat tacos from the street vendors.  The children selling Chiclets, the men with their plaster-of-Paris Bart Simpsons . . . I know, I've been told, border towns are not the Real Mexico.  And let's not forget the night a Mexican national was stabbed on my San Diego stoop in what the cops called "a drug deal gone bad."  Awakened by unearthly moaning, we ran outside to find a man clutching his stomach, pools of blood on my staircase.  My knees went noodly and I almost fainted.  I never regarded American casual drug use the same way after that.  Over and out.

More on Kevin Barry

I just dig this author photo.  It's the best, silliest author photo of all time.  And here's a string of priceless dialogue from the story, "Doctor Sot."

Last into surgery was Tom Feeney, the crane driver.

"It's the man below, Doctor O'Connor."

 "Do you mean, Tom..."

 "I do."

  "He mightn't be doing all you require of him?"

                                      "It's not that."


                                      "It's the opposite of that."


                                      "I'm in a state," the sixty-year-old crane man said, "of constant excitement."

                                      Dr. Sot prescribed a week's Valium and the taking up of a new hobby.

My Favorite Book of 2013 Is "Dark Lies the Island" by Kevin Barry

I haven't been so thrilled, enchanted, and daunted by a book in a while.  This story collection by the acclaimed Irish writer Kevin Barry has everything I'm looking for in a book:  killer dialogue, pathos and humor in equal parts, and an every-sentence-is-a-marvel precision.  Yes!  The cast of characters includes a man who extracts bull semen, a cutter girl, junky Travelers, IRA bombers, a poet, elderly female kidnappers, and on and on.  My favorite story is "The Fjord of Killary," which tells the story of a flooding bar in at 17th-century hotel where the barman/poet engages in antagonistic wordplay with his disinterested clientele.  The floodwaters rush in, forcing the denizens upstairs into the fully stocked disco and where our disheartened narrator finally experiences his first sense of connection with the West of Ireland natives. Then there's a man with the well-deserved moniker, "Dr. Sot," who's  drunk from crack of dawn till nighttime, swigging "naggins" of Jamesons.  Here's his version of doctoring:

"Ellie Troy had that grey, heartsick look but she was seventy-two now and she'd had the grey, heartsick look since she was forty: it was a slow death for poor Ellie."

I don't use LOL very often, but it was a delight and relief to hear my husband LOL as he read this book.


New Session of Writing Workshop Begins September 12

 I can't wait to kick off the fall season with another session of the writing workshop.  I found in the last session that teaching both fiction and nonfiction worked perfectly fine, and we topped off the session with a rocking reading at Beans and Bagels.

I'm continuing this new writing venture for many reasons.  The primary one is that I love to teach stories and writing to adults.  Yes, of course, I love my undergraduate students as well, but there's a real freedom in teaching people who've chosen to take a class--there's somehow more risk and adventure at hand, when people decide to add a new activity to their lives. I hope to attract people who can't put away some nagging creative inspiration and perhaps to even grow a community.  So often my students are only with me for 16 weeks, and then it's over.  I relish the chance to develop longer relationships with student-writers. 

Generative exercises are an essential component of a fiction workshop. In beginners’ workshops, I include in-class exercises, to help launch a student’s work, which can later be refined and edited and then brought forward for class discussion. Exercises also have the effect of leveling the playing field and diminishing students’ competitive impulses or fears, because no one student ever succeeds or fails at every exercise. I stress revision as the most crucial step in the writing process. Click here for details!

Lean In: Don't Dismiss It

I approached  Sheryl Sandberg's  book Lean In, with a certain skepticism.  Janet Maslin's positive review in The New York Times encouraged me, especially when she said the book "will open the eyes of women who grew up thinking that feminism was ancient history."  I frequently encounter this point of view when I teach undergraduates. "Nothing's holding us back!" shout the privileged Millennials who haven't actually worked a real job.

When my women's business group, The Square Circle, discussed the book as part of a monthly meeting, the question, "Are you a feminist?" tore a comet through our discussion.  The women in the Square Circle are small-business owners, attorneys, designers, academics.  We have a yoga studio owner, a telecommunications analyst, a fundraiser, a photographer, an event planner, a landscape architect.  That so many said, "I wouldn't call myself a feminist" surprised me.  Didn't they believe in equal pay, equal status for women?  "Of course!"  But when pushed, they admitted that their vision of a Feminist equaled a Bra-Burning Man Hater.  "You've absorbed the patriarchal view of feminism!" shouted the self-proclaimed feminists in the group (OK, maybe that was me shouting). 

I was won over to Sandberg's message because she shows how women have stalled in their progress toward equal pay and equal representation in leadership positions.  Some critics have claimed that she puts too much of the burden on women to improve their situation.  I think that misses her point.  What she's really saying is, How do we hold ourselves back?  Why do we hesitate to self-promote and advocate, and why do we self-deprecate?  I absolutely agree that we need national policies that support working mothers and fathers, including affordable child care and extended maternity and paternity leaves.  I'm all-in on that. But what I admire is how Sandberg examines the deeper more intimate question about what's holding women back--our lack of entitlement, our fear of speaking Our Truth.  I've often avoided speaking about my children in work situations for fear of being labeled as "just a mom."  Yet after reading the book, I decided I had to speak frankly about my child-care expenses with an employer.  I was being asked to do additonal unpaid work that wasn't part of my contract.   That alone is unfair, but it would cost me money to do the work because I'd have to hire a sitter. 

Leaning in on that issue felt uncomfortable at the time, but it worked, and I don't have to be resentful or bitter toward the employer.  And I still have the job. 

Reading by Plume Workshop Participants

 Happening Wednesday, June 26!  Come on out. 

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Our Andromeda, by Brenda Shaughnessy

Reading Hilton Als's review of Brenda Shaughnessy's new poetry collection, Our Andromeda, left me full of shock and wonder.  The collection details the birth of her son, Cal, after a difficult labor that left the infant with multiple disabilities.  In the middle of National Poetry Month, I finally purchased the book and read it in the kitchen, gobbling up poems between boiling pots of water, setting the table, wiping down counters, and ordering my children to help with these tasks.  One foot balanced on my thigh, I stirred a pot, laughing and crying as I read the breathtaking/heart-breaking poems.  

I met Brenda in 1995, when we both attended a poetry conference led by Billy Collins in Galway, Ireland.  She was a graduate student at Columbia, I was a newlywed.  I'd scrimped to get there.  Brenda and I connected over pints of Guinness, salmon plates, and hikes through the Burren (I published a poem about it in Spoon River Quarterly--Brenda's the one with the "Japanese eyes"). On a rocky ferry ride to the Aran Islands, we stood out on the deck, and Brenda and another woman, Elizabeth, (pictured here with Billy) sang "Closer to Fine" by The Indigo Girls  so beautifully that a school of dolphins started trailing our boat. I swear to God. We wore rain ponchos and braved the mist.

Though we fell out of touch after the trip, I always had fond memories of our time there, and I knew exactly what she meant when I read this poem:  "Billy Collins, have you any idea how important you were to my twenty-five-year-old self? You weren't Poet Laureate yet, You were just a teacher I had in Ireland.  You were expansive and you believed in me."

In the title poem, "Our Andromeda," Brenda imagines life with Cal in another constellation, where he'll "get the chance to walk without pain," and where all the "doctors are whole-organism empaths."  She blames herself for his condition, "I wasn't careful enough" and "I joined that cult of expectant mothers who felt ourselves too delicate and optimistic to entertain the notion... of something going wrong with the birth of my child."  She indicts her friends who failed to provide the support her family needed, "Why on earth would it be the closest, dearest friends to shit the most toxically on a sad new family struggling to find blessing where blessings were? I wondered." Yet in the final stanzas she returns to hope, exultant, stating that Cal is a "joyful boy who may never talk who ruthlessly teaches the teacher the truth about where children really live." He's a "tough, funny beauty of a boy who holds my hand and blinks his eyes until I'm excruciated, mad with love."  She says, "I cannot beat my own heart anymore.  Cal, shall we stay? Oh let's stay.  We've only just arrived here, rightly, whirling and weeping, freely, breathing, brightly born."

Brenda, thanks for sharing your story, your truth, and your inimitable way with words. 




Happy St. Patrick's Day--Whatever That Means to You!

Every St. Patrick's Day when I was at St. Jude the Apostle school, we'd adorn our plaid Catholic school jumpers with Kiss-Me-I'm-Irish buttons, shamrocks fashioned from green pipe cleaners, Erin Go Braugh pins.  We'd tie up our pigtails or weave our braids with green ribbons. We'd pull up our kelly-green knee socks to ward off the March wind. Sometimes on Fridays during Lent, we'd score the bonanza:  Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and Shamrock Shakes from McDonald's.

Years later, I would wonder, what does any of this have to do with St. Patrick or with Ireland? 

Not much. But we had a lot of fun.

St. Patrick was captured as a young Briton (resident of present-day England) by marauding Irishmen and sold into slavery to a shepherd.  He endured terrible hardship tending sheep on those lonely Irish hills--hunger, cold, loneliness. One day he heard a voice telling him to go forth, to escape his harsh life.  He headed toward the sea, and after days of travel he found a ship heading back home and was snuck on board by some friendly sailors.  Back in Briton, he didn't fit in (his Latin was poor; he was rough around the edges).  He returned to Ireland later after becoming a priest, to convert the Celts to Christianity in what might be called a Velvet Revolution.  Not a drop of blood was shed in this conversion act.

So what does this have to do with green beer?  Or a river dyed green?  Not much. But there's something to it...

My maternal grandparents came from County Cork in the early 1900s.  They both came from huge families of 10+ children, and neither owned the land their families farmed.  My grandmother would often shake her fist and curse, "The 'lord"--short for landlord, not God above, whom she honored by attending daily Mass at St. Rita's, even after she'd been mugged on the street. My grandparents owned a two-flat in Woodlawn, and my grandmother worked in the employee cafeteria at Marshall Field's after her husband died suddenly in 1943.  My grandmother was only 17 when she came over.  She died at 95.  So most of her life was lived in Chicago. What the Irish immigrants to America forged was an identity that incorporated something Irish, something American.  They never lost sight of their roots, and yet the way their ethnicity was expressed morphed into something different.  Celebrating St. Patrick's Day was a way to distinguish themselves from the Italians, Poles, Greeks, etc.--all the other dominant ethnic groups in the major U.S. cities.  To remember the Old World in a New World fasion.

So I'll be celebrating St. Patrick's Day  with my large extended family at the North Side Irish Parade, and we'll drink Bailey's and eat mint brownies and my daughters will wave Irish flags and jig.  For however little this celebration may have to do with the saint himself or even the country of Ireland, it means something to us as Irish Americans, honoring our ancestors and our survival, handing down a love of poetry, song, and dance. 



Heavenly Residency at the Roger Brown & George Veronda Home and Studio in New Buffalo

Eileen Favorite, Roger Brown, WritingI just completed a two-week residency at the Roger Brown and George Veronda home and studio in New Buffalo.  What a break after the holiday hoopla to settle into this quiet place, surrounded by nature, and have a luxurious studio space to sit and take a wider view of my novel-in-progress.  Since I hadn't written (according to my log) since October 16, it's no wonder I felt as if I would never be done with this book.  In fact, once I settled into my desk and contemplated the sunlight on the snow outside, I discovered that I'm much closer to the end than I'd realized. The studio has two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows and a big wall for tacking up whatever you want.  (The visual artists use it for painting, sculpture, etc.).  My current concern has been about the structure of the book.  Serendipitously, I grabbed Madison Smartt Bell's anthology, Narrative Design, on my way out the door.  The drawings of Freitag triangles (eek!) inspired me to roll out a big sheet of artist paper in the studio and plot out the novel. There are two parallel story lines: one when the protagonist, Maggie Flynn, is twenty; one when she's 45.  I've been struggling to visualize how/when/where the story lines should intersect.  So I grabbed a sharpie and drew a crazy narrative line, which looked a bit like a bunny-level ski slope.  The whole drawing got messier as the week went by, but it helped me to get the big picture.  When I write, it's always with short, at best, 2-hour intervals, so I'm constantly working on a postage-stamp sized moment in the book.  This luxurious time let me see that there were thematic links between the narratives that emerged in an unplanned way.


I thank my employer, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for granting me this respite. What's terrific about this experience, for me as the mother of small children, is that I'm allowed to bring my family along.  Since I've had children, I've had to forego residencies at other artists colonies because my children were too young for me to leave them for several weeks.  So here they are, hanging out (Martin's the photographer), while I was in the studio...writing away. We all benefited from being surrounded by Roger and George's wonderful art collections, watching flocks of geese fly over the river, and looking for deer tracks in the snow.  We took walks to the lakefront and watched Lassie Come Home.








Revisting Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters

Eileen Favorite, Brontes, Austen, Jane Eyre, Wuthering HeightsI just finished teaching a humanities seminar on four novels by these three English writers. I called the course, The Marriage Plot, and we read Austen's Northanger Abbey and Emma; Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. My copies of the novels were so old (Wuthering Heights dated from my high school Honors English class) that pages dropped from the binding as I turned them, and not a cover withstood the semester's abuse. How intriguing to reread these classics and to view them as a writer with a bit more of the long view.  Austen gently guides her heroines to happy endings (marriage), but the Brontës made those ladies and gents suffer, suffer, suffer. 

Quick Takes 

In Northanger Abbey, a satire of the Gothic novel, the heroine Catherine Morland's naïveté wore a bit thin.  I've become fatigued by narration that involves both the author and I looking down on the protagonist. (Too much of this in contemporary American fiction, but that's another subject.)

With Emma, Austen said that she was going to write a character whom "no one but myself will much like."  I like that she took on the unlikable-character constraint.  A flawed character is an interesting character.  My issue is with the perfect hero, Mr. Knightley, who's very name is like a hammer blow to the skull.  Cue the Prince Charming music.  My perfect-hero gripe applies to Henry in Northanger Abbey as well. Did Austen see women as more naïve, proud, and vain than men? Not always. These guys made me jones for Mr. Darcy

Rereading Jane Eyre inspired this woeful cry, "Why didn't  I have Jane Eyre appear in The Heroines?"  When I sold my novel, my Scribner editor asked if I would sliver an Austen character into the manuscript.  Alas, I told her, they don't fit my constraints: the heroines have to be in dire straits in order to warrant a stay at the Prairie Homestead. Jane Eyre would have figured in perfectly.  I adored the trouble and pain that Charlotte Brontë made her character endure.  Rock on, Rochester, you flawed but sexy love interest.  Their flirtatious dialogue, full of gentle ribbing, was so so fresh. My new all-time favorite novel.

Reading about the dysfunctional antics of the Earnshaws in Wuthering Heights felt like watching a reality show set in Appalachia, complete with drunken sots, religious zealots, and spiteful feuding. Yet the text is written with the most elevated language and has awesome ghost scenes. I'm not much of a horror or fantasy reader, but I loved how Emily Brontë walked that supernatural fine line, making those elements just believable enough.  Did I actually tell my students that Heathcliff reminded me of the guy in "Creep" by Radiohead?  Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff played a big part in my novel, The Heroines, so I'm ever indebted to Emily Brontë's public-domain, posthumous gift of her characters for my humble appropriation.