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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

Essays and Making Sense of Our Lives

This morning at the YMCA, a man I didn’t know asked me, “What did Mr. Cheever write?” I had no idea how this man knew I had any knowledge whatsoever of John Cheever. “I read the quote on the back of your shirt,” the man said. I realized, then, I was wearing a tee-shirt from the Young Writers Workshop we run at Ohio State University. On the back of this shirt is the quote: “It seems to me that writing is a marvelous way of making sense of one’s life, both for the writer and for the reader.” It’s true [...]

By |2018-09-24T08:42:42+00:00September 24th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Something Happens: Constructing a Scene

It’s a rainy day here in the Midwest, a perfect day for staying inside and doing. . .well. . . doing nothing. It’s the sort of day that doesn’t make good material for a narrative. A sleepy day with not much from which to make a scene. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, our narratives invite a reader along on a journey by presenting scenes of dialogue, description, history, action, and consequence. So on this rainy day, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on scene construction. Consider, for example, the opening of this scene from Eric Puchner’s story, “Last [...]

By |2018-09-10T06:50:21+00:00September 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Ten Quotes for Writers on Labor Day

On Labor Day, I like to give thanks for the fact that I’m able to spend a good portion of my time moving words about on the page. When I left college between my junior and senior year, I worked for a year and a half in the press room at a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I burned my arms on the presses, I breathed silicon fumes, I worked ten hour days, I came home so tired in the evenings that often all I could do was bathe, eat, and fall asleep. I can’t tell you how much I admire [...]

By |2018-09-03T09:49:36+00:00September 3rd, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Beginnings and the Work Ahead of Us

We’re making the turn to autumn, and with it many parents are sending their children off to college. For them, it’s a thrilling time, not unlike the feeling we writers get when we start a new project. The beginning is also just a bit nerve-wracking, and at times downright scary. It comes with equal measures of possibility and uncertainty. My neighbor reports that her daughter, after three days, is unhappy because she’s not making friends. “Give it time,” the neighbor told her. “It takes time.” Nothing could be more true when it comes to writing. Those new projects? They’re thrilling, [...]

By |2018-08-27T07:47:43+00:00August 27th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Ten Tips for Constructing Plots

I've just returned from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers' Conference, where I taught a workshop in the art of the novel. So much of writing a novel involves the shape we find for our material. I'm sharing this post from two years ago in hopes of helping those of us who are wrestling with this form of storytelling, a form Henry James called a rough, shaggy beast. A friend of mine, an excellent poet, was talking to me recently about plot. He didn’t understand, he told me, how we fiction writers did it. It was beyond him [...]

By |2018-08-20T08:41:27+00:00August 20th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments