Late Bloomers

Paul Cézanne, Bouquet in a Delft Vase

Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.                                             —Saint Francis de Sales

I’ve often felt like a late bloomer. Not as a kid—I learned to read at age three, and that saw me through for a while, impressing grownups and whatnot. But now I’m grown up myself, I sometimes feel like it’s taking an impossibly long time to get there. I’m not 100% certain I know what there even is. Not fame and fortune. Weeell, maybe a teensy bit of fortune. Maybe a laurel or two. At a minimum, I really, really hope I can quit waiting tables before I’m half a century old. I don’t know if it’s because academic achievement came so easily when I was young or if it’s because our culture is infatuated with youth and early success, but for some time now I’ve had to ignore this refrain that ticks through my head like a very nasty white rabbit: too late, too late, too late. I’m much happier when I forget about time altogether and just settle in to the work at hand.

I subscribe to a “weekly interestingness digest” from a really cool site called brain pickings. This weekend it included a letter from Charles Bukowski to the editor of Black Sparrow Press who offered him $100 a month to quit his post office job and write full time. Bukowski was 49. Seventeen years later, he wrote a thank you: Continue reading Late Bloomers

Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and a Secondhand Sea

sand-dune-with-grass-on-itSand dunes are in my recent past and my near future! I had a lovely sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month, and last week I was invited to the Calumet Artist Residency on the southernmost shore of Lake Michigan for two weeks—from the end of August through Labor Day weekend. It’s in Miller Beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nelson Algren bought a cottage there in 1950 with the proceeds from selling the film rights for his novel The Man With a Golden Arm. Supposedly, Simone de Beauvoir created a bit of stir by sunbathing naked in his yard. Continue reading Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and a Secondhand Sea

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

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

The Names of Things

photo by janetandphil
photo by janetandphil
I like good strong words that mean something.
                                    — Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

I love knowing the names of things. I appreciate knowing, for example, that the birds that shriek and wheel over Chicago supermarket parking lots are ring-billed gulls and the chittering birds in the enormous dry shrub outside the elementary school where I teach are house sparrows—which in a group can be called a host or a quarrel. (I wish I knew the proper name of the shrub.)

All words are names, really. They name objects and actions and interactions and qualities and spaces and creatures and time. They create worlds. As a young reader, I fell in love with diction. It delighted me that Nancy Drew ate luncheon and drove a roadster and the Little House books abounded in johnnycakes, deer licks and calico. For some reason, I remained enamored with the term “fortnight” long after I read Little Women. Continue reading The Names of Things

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

On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch


I’m working on a chapter called “Bad Pen Pal.” It’s going to be chapter 13 in The Saltwater Twin—or maybe chapter 12. The impetus for some chapters is a story, for others an idea. The flicker for this one was friendship. I wanted to write something about how we learn to make friends and how intense friendships can be when you’re young. I wanted to write about the heartbreak of losing a friend and the less intense but still potentially ache-inducing drift that sometimes comes with time and distance. I wanted to describe the way some lost friendships still weigh on me at times, keep me wondering where and how and why we foundered.

The title comes from the first time I lost touch with a friend. I was eight. Actually, my friendship with Bonnie never truly got off the ground. We spent one day together, while our fathers attended a conference. Bonnie lived in a different state, but she suggested we stay friends. We could be pen pals. I liked the sound of that. It sounded exotic to have a pen pal. I liked how letters were little packages. I liked that my name and address printed on the front meant that it would come to my house, of all the houses in the United States, all the houses in the world; it would come to me. I liked the marvelous way envelopes were sealed with spit, their folded triangles, the magical canceled stamp. But the content of Bonnie’s letters left me unmoved—maybe because we just didn’t know each other that well. We hadn’t any history. I recently discovered I have one still in my possession, a Christmas card that reads, Continue reading On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch

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?

For Auld Lang Syne

new years2A new year is an untouched expanse of snow, a freshly sharpened pencil, a blank page. It’s a reminder that our lives begin again and again. Yet in the very first minutes of the fledgling year, many of us will gather among friends and strangers and sing an old song that invites us to reflect on old friends, past loves, our complicated, meandering, fraught personal and collective histories.

With each passing year we ask again, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne?” Continue reading For Auld Lang Syne

Meeting Resistance: On Writing, Workouts and Endurance


I’m out of shape. I’ve fallen out of my not-exactly-Olympian but relatively consistent get-up-and-move exercise habit. I need to get back into it because 1. it’s good for my health, 2. it’s an indispensable mood elevator during long, dark Chicago winters and 3. it builds endurance. That third thing, I’ve found, has much farther-reaching benefits than just logging mileage on the treadmill.

As a kid, I lived very much in my head. I built forts and sandcastles, I swung on swings and climbed jungle gyms—but really taxing, sweaty, whole-body-limbs-and-heart engaged movement, not so much. Team sports sent me into a spiral of panic. I didn’t really come home to my body until I signed up for jazz dance in high school at Feet First! (The exclamation point was part of the name.) Our teacher was pixie-sized; we danced to Prince and Duran Duran in black and electric blue spandex. In college I picked up my roommate’s running habit, bundling up on winter afternoons and running past fields of rasping cornstalks. Continue reading Meeting Resistance: On Writing, Workouts and Endurance