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Context and Subtext: Making Dialogue Count

Last night, Cathy and I were driving up I-71 on our way into Columbus for a holiday party, and she was whistling “Let It Snow.” She stopped and said, “When you whistle, do you blow out, or do you suck in?” “I blow out,” I said, “but when I first learned to whistle, I sucked in.” We rode along in silence for a while. Then I said, “I could never whistle with a blade of grass between my thumbs.” “I couldn’t do that either,” she said, “and I never learned how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth.” I [...]

By |2018-12-10T07:11:21+00:00December 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Persistence in Spite of Evaluation

Welcome to the end of the semester, that time when desperation is palpable among my undergraduate students, and who knows, maybe even my MFA students, too, but they’re too cool to show it. Relax, I want to tell everyone. You’ll get everything done, and you’ll do it well, or maybe not so well, but you’ll do it, and that’s the important thing. It’s the effort that’s most valuable. The result is, for the most part, immaterial. Here’s the thing no teacher should ever say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Those final grades? When it comes to a life [...]

By |2018-12-02T10:25:34+00:00December 2nd, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Turning Writing Problems into Opportunities

Cathy and I were watching one of those holiday baking shows on the Food Network last night. The final challenge in this episode was to make a cream puff Christmas tree. In the midst of the preparation, the host threw a curve ball at the contestants. They would also have to make a chocolate topper for their trees. Isn’t that the way it always goes? You’re moving along with a plan—let’s say you think you know exactly where your story or novel or poem or essay is going—and then, bam, you run up against a challenge you didn’t see coming. [...]

By |2018-11-26T04:01:23+00:00November 26th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Thankful

After struggling to complete my junior year of college, I withdrew from school, went back to southeastern Illinois, and got a job as a pressman in a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I ran presses that molded rubber into plugs or patches. Day after day—eight hours a day, and sometimes ten—I loaded my press with slabs of rubber or sheets of patches, and “cooked” them until they were done. Unloading each batch of plugs was the worst part of the job. I wore protective sleeves on my forearms and two pair of cotton gloves on my hands. I had to tip [...]

By |2018-11-19T04:15:00+00:00November 19th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Subtext: The Story beneath the Story

Our living is full of subtext. In a work of fiction or nonfiction, a writer is wise to pay attention to Henry James’s advice: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” The writer’s job is to know the story taking place beneath the observable story. Often the resonance of a piece comes from the moment in which the deeper story emerges. Perhaps, its appearance startles the main character—suddenly someone knows something previously unrecognized, whether deliberately or ignorantly. At other times, the awareness belongs to the reader who now knows something the main character still doesn’t. No [...]

By |2018-11-12T03:29:03+00:00November 12th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The Surprising Image: A Writing Prompt

In advance of this week’s midterm election, I find myself recalling an Election Day from my childhood. I must have been somewhere between five and seven because we still lived on our farm in southeastern Illinois. These were the years in the aftermath of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands and turned him into an angry man. I have wonderful memories of my childhood, but I also have memories of my father’s temper and the rage he brought into our home. To add to the difficulties, this was around the time that my mother lost [...]

By |2018-11-05T07:54:09+00:00November 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

In Order to Live: The Necessity of Stories

At dinner last night with a group of our neighbors, the story and joke telling began. We’d already discussed the unsettling state of the country in a time of hatred and intolerance. We’d shaken our heads and sat in silence in recognition of the tremendous feeling of powerlessness that so often steals over us these days. The sole objective now was to make one another laugh, and, lordy, it felt good to laugh during a frightening and unsettling time. We’d just ended a week of pipe bombs addressed to prominent liberal Democrats, and the day had brought the horrific news [...]

By |2018-10-29T08:55:25+00:00October 29th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Stories from the Heartland

Last week, I was on the road for a few appearances: The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, the River Styx Reading Series in St. Louis, and the public library in my home county in southeastern Illinois. Whenever I’m in this part of Illinois, I spend my days writing on a laptop in the library’s genealogy room. It’s a room at the end of the library, relatively secluded, and for the most part, it’s quiet there. I find it a place of peace that allows me to disappear into the world of whatever I’m working on. Distractions are minimal, and [...]

By |2018-10-22T08:26:04+00:00October 22nd, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Let’s Pretend: Alter Egos and Creative Nonfiction

Yesterday, Cathy and I went bowling with some of my MFA creative nonfiction writers. I’d told everyone in advance that they’d have to arrive with assumed names—bowling names, if you will. They took the task seriously, and just like that we created our alter egos. In other words, we created second or different versions of ourselves. When we write memoir or personal essays, whether lyric or narrative in nature, we consciously or unconsciously speak from a certain aspect of our personality—some part of the self that we sense is necessary to the exploration of certain subject matter. We’re made up [...]

By |2018-10-08T08:17:31+00:00October 8th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Does Your Mother Know You’re Reading That?

Here at the end of Banned Books Week, I’m reminded of a time when my mother bought two boxes of books at an auction and shared them with me. This was in the town of Sumner, Illinois, population 1,000. I went to a high school where there only thirty-seven kids in my freshman class. By the time we graduated, there were only twenty-eight of us. Seven of the original thirty-seven had dropped out; another two had moved away. It was a small, mostly working-class town, where reading wasn’t always valued. Where would it get you when it came time to [...]

By |2018-10-01T07:43:32+00:00October 1st, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments