Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go


Not my apartment. Photo from the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London from

I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.                                                                                                       —Freddie Mercury

Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty.                                                                                                                        —Saint Francis of Assisi

Allow me to paint you a picture:

Take a one bedroom apartment—vintage—that is to say, not rehabbed and fancy with a subway tiled bathroom and stainless appliances but cozy and cute with perhaps a little rust on the white, metal kitchen cabinets, some peeling paint on the window sills—let’s just call it patina. Add a mishmash of furniture dragged from alleys or selected at your finer Chicagoland thrift stores and one beautiful couch purchased brand spanking new from a real furniture emporium. Live in aforementioned apartment for eleven years. Enjoy the companionship of several four-legged creatures who make the sorts of messes four legged creatures are wont to do. Buy books until your shelves overflow. Buy holiday dresses, bathing suits and birthday candles. Make a Halloween costume every year; save them all because you might want to be Aphrodite, an owl or a ‘50s diner waitress again. Attend to living your life. Don’t get rid of any of the thrift store jeans you keep buying without trying on that don’t quite fit.

Now, fall in love and ask your girlfriend and her dog to move in with you. Continue reading Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go

How to Do What You Love

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

Law of the Jungle

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, from Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking it’s time for an excerpt. This is from a chapter called “Law of the Jungle.” It was published last year in The Chattahoochee Review. I suppose it’s not surprising that there is a fair bit of animalia in a book called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, but this chapter, in particular, investigates some of my fascination with the four-legged world.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle—
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
                  – Rudyard Kipling


They’d been tucked between the electric hued running shoes and the prim ballet flats: a pair of Coach wedge sandals the color of cognac. They were almost seventy percent off. And they were leather—which is why I shouldn’t have tried them on in the first place and why I’d been carrying them around for a good quarter of an hour trying to make up my mind whether to take them back to the shoe department or up to the register and accept that I was a hypocrite. Continue reading Law of the Jungle

A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

I make lists. I’m soothed, in particular, by the kind where you eventually get to cross things out or check them off. But I make other kinds of lists, too. Lists are containers; they are maps, taxonomies, blueprints. As a kid, I listed ways to make money, things I wanted to have when I grew up, things I needed to pack for vacation, boys I liked, books I liked, songs I liked.

I like writing that’s based on lists. I liked the litanies we said in church when I was a kid—Heart of Jesus, Lamb of God, pray for us. Nowadays I often used list-based writing in teaching.

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right… Continue reading A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

Confessions of a Messy Writer

photo by Jennifer Pack
photo by Jennifer Pack

When I was growing up, our next-door neighbor had a plaque in her car that said Bless this Mess. The Mitchell’s house wasn’t messy (because they had a housekeeper)—but Mrs. Mitchell’s car overflowed with cigarette butts, soda cans, gym bags and papers. I thought it was kind of badass to be so messy. No place in our house was as messy as that car—with the exception of my bedroom, which was typically a jumble of books, stuffed animals, clothes and maybe an art project or two in progress. The chaos didn’t bother me. It actually felt kind of comforting and safe. I stubbornly resisted my mother’s exhortations to straighten things until she threw up her hands and just ordered me to at least keep my door closed.

I think it’s interesting that my mess didn’t bother me as a kid. Because now it certainly does. It’s not so bad when things are a touch untidy. Lived in, I think, would be the euphemism. But it’s a slippery slope from an unmade bed, a sweater draped over the back of a chair and an unwashed plate in the sink to a bedroom strewn with clothes and a leaning tower of dishes in the kitchen. An article on the website apartment therapy titled “What Does Your Home Say About You?” claims that a healthy home says, “Welcome. I am taken care of, can I take care of you?” If my home could talk, it might be slightly less solicitous, somewhat more disgruntled and maybe a little under the weather. I’m not confident it would have all good things to say about me. We don’t always get along. Continue reading Confessions of a Messy Writer

Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

photo of Kerouac's scroll by Thomas Hawk
photo of Kerouac’s scroll by Thomas Hawk

I used to read one book at a time. These days I seem to have several going at once: a novel, perhaps, for bedtime and dog walks, another for my book club, something for research on the chapter I’m writing and a biography I started in the airport over Christmas but haven’t gotten back to.

My writing is taking a similar tack. I’m careening toward this self-imposed deadline of completing The Saltwater Twin by the end of March, and feeling quite a lot of anxiety about making it. In the past, I’d work on one chapter at a time, revising again and again until it felt finished, a process which typically took several weeks. However, as this deadline hurtles into view, the notion of x-ing off March 31st on my calendar and having one or two or three chapters not even sketched out feels daunting. Nauseating, even. Continue reading Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

I’ve been jittery ever since I found out my essay “The Saltwater Twin” would be published in Creative Nonfiction this summer. peering through curtainI know that’s the objective: I want stuff I write to be published, to be out in the world and part of conversations and all of that. But I don’t think about that while I’m writing, I just write. I sort things out, I investigate what troubles me, what makes me curious and what I don’t understand. Sometime later it sinks in that people are going to read what I wrote and that I’ve written about real people, living and breathing in the world, people who might also decide to read what I’ve written. Continue reading Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

On Writers, Egos and Truth

Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
The writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.                   
                                               – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I was thinking about two things on my bike ride down to Logan Square. Well, three. One was a feeling, really: how blissful it felt to be pedaling by the river, music ablaze in my ears, sunshine ablaze on my shoulder blades. Two was contemplating this odd task I’ve taken on of writing about myself – spending hour upon hour thinking about my life, traveling through my past. I was puzzling over why I feel driven to write about myself in this way. Are writers, specifically memoirists, monologuists, poets who draw on their personal experience, everyone who writes about themselves, are we all raging egomaniacs? The third thing I was thinking about was truth. Because when I think about why I write about myself, my life, it comes down to wanting to tell the truth. And I wondered what makes the truth so important.

I put the egomaniac question to Roger, with whom I’ve been meeting to share work and critique. We sat at a bar; I had a beer and a Cuban sandwich (which blessedly involved both plantains and pickles) while the sweat cooled on my skin.

“Are writers in love with themselves?” I asked. Continue reading On Writers, Egos and Truth