I’m typing this on the Peter Pan bus, en route to Logan Airport after a sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard. While there, I read, to a lovely audience at the West Tisbury Library, an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin that chronicles my failed attempt at becoming a cheerleader and my lifelong quest for genuine good cheer. There were other storytellers, and there was coconut cake and prosecco. Also, I got to visit with my friend Jennifer Tseng who is a poet, a librarian at the West Tisbury Library and now a novelist to boot. I reviewed her debut novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness last month on The Island Review. I thought I’d like to interview her about the novel and her writing process…so without further ado, I give you Jennifer! Continue reading In Which I Interview Jennifer Tseng about Writing a Novel
Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students
The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.
Dear All City Ensemble,
I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.
This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.
Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.
I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.
I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.
I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”
I’m gonna get by when the going get rough I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up And when I go down I’mma go down swinging My eyes still smiling And my heart still singing
Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.
Have a beautiful summer, young artists.
Summer Reading, 2015
I’ve tried my hand at a book review. It’s up on a really cool site, theislandreview.com, which I stumbled across when I was looking up something about an island, real or imagined—probably Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii, Avalon or Neverland. The book I reviewed, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng, was the perfect fit for the site, since it takes place on an unnamed island on the northern Atlantic seaboard of the U.S inspired by Martha’s Vineyard, an island dear to my own heart. Jennifer is a librarian and poet on Martha’s Vineyard. We met in college and stomped around Chicago together for a trimester, drinking espresso, eating samosas, reading feminist theory, writing poems and learning about gentrification and social justice. And thrifting!
My own book, which is undergoing yet another revision this spring, now begins with this passage: Continue reading Summer Reading, 2015
Come out tonight! Tellin’ Tales Theatre’s Food for Thought, tonight at 8. Prop Thtr, Chicago. Tix here.
In an epic journey that spans continents and decades, I seek the root of my sweet tooth, resolve to put the kibosh on sugar once and for all (except for birthday cake, and, um, maybe a few other things) and practice the art of savoring.
7 Things I’m Looking Forward to This Summer
Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. —Henry James
Even though the official start to summer is solstice on the 21st and even though I like the idea of kicking things off with a nice pagan ritual and bonfire, the real onset of summer feels like the last day of school. And it’s here! My fourth graders at Morton performed their superhero stories, we said goodbye and now it’s onward ho to long days, leisurely dog walks and summer adventures. Here are a few things I’m excited about this summer:
1. Writing, writing, writing.
I’ve got two essays that are a hair’s breadth from being ready and four that still need a fair amount of elbow grease. Then, at last, I can start querying agents.
One of the essays I’m working on is called “Sweet Tooth.” At this stage it’s essentially a collection of notes on the topic of having a sweet tooth and sweetness in general. As an initial step, I decided to try to catalog my history in sweets, remembering things like— Continue reading 7 Things I’m Looking Forward to This Summer
A Handful of Residencies
Regular readers may remember I resolved to finish The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures by the end of March and also that that was going to be a tall order. Well, I’ve made significant headway, but I’m not there yet. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of my students’ work. I’m currently teaching five residencies with Chicago public school students who are creating theatrical performances from scratch.
On Saturdays I’m directing the CPS All City Theater Program which brings together teens from across Chicago. For this performance, we’re investigating maps. I was inspired by the fact that the students in the program come from neighborhoods all over the city as well as this quote I came across in my initial research for the residency: Continue reading A Handful of Residencies
New Year’s News
Another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures appears this month! It’s called “Law of the Jungle” and it’s featured in the current issue of The Chattahoochee Review, “The Animal.” I described the process of writing that chapter in March of 2012 (see “wild truth” and “finding the trail”). The issue’s not available online, but the curious can get their paws on a copy here.
Stories Stories Stories: Live on Stage!
Well, “Live in a Bar,” anyway. Chicago area folks, I’ll be reading at two upcoming story nights: True Story at Four Moon Tavern on September 17 and Story Sessions at The Dog’s Bollox on September 22.
True Story at Four Moon Tavern starts at 7:30 in the back room. There will be craft beers on tap, dinnertime options and stories about reality TV, spiders, neighbors, Peter Pan and Kenny Rogers. It’s the inaugural show for this brand new series and it’s free!
Story Sessions at The Dog’s Bollox is a themed show called “Creature Comforts.” All the stories will be about animal encounters. I’m reading about this guy:
The Dog’s Bollox has many things to eat and drink, there’s a house band (called Dog 1, but I think that’s just a happy coincidence) and of course stories! It’s at 7 pm, it costs 7 bucks and you can get tickets here.
If you come out, come say hi! Hope to see you soon.
Missed Connections: Meet me in a field of snow.
I started this blog to document the process of writing my first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. If you’ve spent time here, you know I mostly write about what’s going on in my brain as I write, revise and obsess over this massive project. I spend as much time as I can on the manuscript. But in the meantime, a girl’s gotta eat. So, today I’m going to share a story from my day job. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wait tables a couple nights a week. But by day I’m an interdisciplinary teaching artist, which means I work with students, teachers and community members in schools, healthcare centers and jails on all kinds of writing and performance projects.
I’m currently working with a seventh grade class at a Chicago public school on the South Side through one of my favorite arts ed organizations, Urban Gateways. My students are creating a performance that investigates connection – the people, places and things they feel connected to and how they are impacted by that web of connections. Seeking material to inspire student writing, I started thinking about the missed connections ads in the classified sections of local papers or on websites like Craigslist. I thought that could be a fruitful place to start an exploration of connectedness. A little digging brought me to a beautiful site called Literary Bohemian, an online journal of travel writing where I found a prose poem called “new york craigslist > personals > missed connections>” by Megan Falley.
My students and I talked about the concept of a missed connection ad. I likened it to a flyer you might see stapled to a telephone pole or tree for a missing pet or person. We talked about the people we might miss a connection with – a friend or relative who died or moved away, a fictional character we could never meet in real life or someone we hadn’t yet met, but hoped we would someday. We talked about dreams and being weird and how in poems you can use images that are dreamlike and surreal to say something about a relationship that is hard to say in words. Here are some of the poems they came up with. I think they’re pretty brilliant. We’ll use these poems and more to compile a script the students will perform at the end of May. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Continue reading Missed Connections: Meet me in a field of snow.
Why I Write
I don’t remember learning to read and write. The way my mother tells it, she discovered me at age three reading an ancient copy of Fun with Dick and Jane I’d unearthed somewhere, and I’ve been writing almost as long. Reading and writing were a continuum, not separate from one another. I loved the shape of letters – the teepee of A, the crawling snake of S. I loved stringing them into words and sentences. I loved the escape of books. They were magical objects, portals into other worlds. I didn’t think about how they came into being, the mechanics of someone sitting down to think about character and setting, cross things out, scrawl notes in the margins of typewritten pages. I didn’t dream of writing. I just wrote.
I put on plays in garages and backyards. Frankly, the audience was kind of secondary. It was the characters I was in love with. I practiced getting their voices right.
Tom Sawyer said, “You there” and Dorothy sounded plaintive; Peter Pan was cocky and Hook flamboyant. I wrote poems, too, about zebras and the ocean and pollution.
I liked meter and rhyme. I liked typing and illustrating. Writing poems was play.
As a teenager, my poems moved from paeans to bubblegum and spring toward more personal subjects. I was polite, though, correct. I wrote for the A even when I was writing for myself. My journals were wilder. Sometimes I swore like a truck driver. I detailed dreams; I wrote blush-worthy, cringe-worthy things. In these pages, a different, darker, truer kind of writing began to take shape. I took just one writing class in college – poetry. I wrote pretty terrible stuff. But I was practicing. And I continued to read voraciously. I started to think I’d like to write and teach. For a long time, when people asked what I did, I put it that way, as verbs. I write versus I’m a writer. I wasn’t ready to identify as a noun. Continue reading Why I Write