Archive for the 'writing' Category

Mondays with Mike: Little blue pills

I’m old enough to remember when it was illegal to advertise prescription drugs on television. And even if it had been legal, the idea that the commercials would be talking about erectile dysfunction would’ve been a non-starter. As in, on TV? Really? Plus, we wouldn’t have known what erectile dysfunction was.

She's there to help.

She’s there to help.

Of course, a lot’s changed. I’m not arguing it was better then. But it’s not at all clear to me, that when it comes to some things anyway, that it’s any better now.

So we have commercials with bathtubs next to each other and lots of guys with a certain razor stubble of a certain age with women who are of the same certain age but look younger. And the men apparently have a big problem that pills will solve.

The latest round of ads for Viagra has comely women dressed just a button short of trash talking to me, earnestly. As in, if I’m not excited watching this commercial right now, I might have a problem.

“About half of men over 40 have some degree of erectile dysfunction,” says the ad.

Hmm. I wonder if we can define dysfunction, and what the baseline is. Because if the baseline was when I was 16, well, thank God. Because, as Eddie Murphy’s character said in the movie 48 Hours, “I’ve been in prison for three years. My **** gets hard when the wind blows.”

That wasn’t fun. It was crazy, but really, not fun. It’s a lot to deal with for a not yet young-man. So, if that’s the standard, yes, all of we men are experiencing erectile dysfunction. I say bring it on!

More generally, having watched the arc of social change, starting with the brand of feminism that eschewed both bras and makeup, it’s hard to decipher. I mean, it’s cool that men get manicures and pedicures. But it sucks that instead of women’s magazines that obsess on body types and fictional ideals of beauty being put out of business, they seem more popular than ever now, and equivalent men’s publications have sprung up. That was not what I had in mind. Equality of objectification was not the goal.

Oh well.

I feel a breeze.

How old is old enough to write a memoir?

Memoir Cover

This book would likely have been a lot different if it’d been published in my 20s.

Many of the fledgling memoirists who sign up for my 90-minute Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground workshop at Northwestern Summer Writers Institute on July 30 will be younger than the seniors in the memoir-writing classes I lead in Chicago. When I address groups like this, I can count on one of the writers asking what age you should be before writing a memoir. Can a writer reflect on life experiences without putting some distance on them first?

I don’t know.

With that question in mind, though, an essay in the July 6, 2015 New York Times Sunday Book Review caught my eye. Or, okay, my ear. The woman who wrote the essay had a memoir published when she was 29 years old. She says that in her twenties she was convinced that any event in her life that seemed taboo or inappropriate absolutely must be included in her memoir:

So I shared how, at the age of 9, I made out with a neighborhood companion. How at 15, I implored my boyfriend to have sex. How I stole my mother’s lingerie, and wore it while humping a door frame.

Now, thirteen years after her memoir Dress Codes was published, the author says the tell-all nature of her first book is complicating her life as a parent. “For example, if my middle-school-age daughter ever asks me when I lost my virginity, I have to tell her the truth,” she writes.  “After all, it’s searchable on Google Books.”

The essayist concedes that by definition, younger memoirists do lack perspective, but that whatever they lack in perspective, they “make up in urgency, the sense that here is a story that must be told.” More from her Sunday Book Review essay:

If I’d waited to sprout gray hairs before writing my book, I might have eliminated a handful of excruciating details from my text, to the delight of my parents, ex-boyfriends and a few commenters on But I might also have skirted unpleasant truths in other ways too. Being honest about something troubling or taboo is easier when you have little to lose.


I’m a huge proponent of memoir-writing. I know first-hand that getting life stories down on paper can be therapeutic. I was in my twenties and losing my sight when a social worker suggested I get my thoughts down on paper. Writing proved to be cheap therapy for me at the time. The journal pieces I wrote were a priceless resource years later, when I started composing a memoir.

Long Time, No See, was published when I was in my forties, and reviewers commented on how frank and honest my writing was. The book definitely benefitted from perspective — and lots of editing.

So gee, maybe the answer is sure, go ahead and start a memoir when you’re in your 20s. Just don’t publish it until you’re older.

Benefits of memoir-writing

Earlier this summer I spoke at a memorial service for a writer in one of the memoir writing classes I lead at Lincoln Park Village. This week a thank-you note arrived from her daughter, and along with the note she included a copy of an essay her mother had written when I assigned “I Have a Dream” as a topic in class.

The grandmother who wrote that essay in2010 started in this downtown Chicago class. Later she attended my class in Lincoln park Village.

The grandmother who wrote that essay in2010 started in this downtown Chicago class. Later she attended my class in Lincoln park Village.

The writer addressed that essay to her first grandchild, due to be born a month later. That baby’s upcoming birth was already a dream come true, and the writer used her 500 words to outline her dreams for herself as a grandmother, and her dreams for her new grandchild, too.

That grandchild is four years old now and was able to know her beautiful grandmother. What a gift that essay is for that little girl, and for me, too.

Mike read the essay out loud when it arrived in the mail, and it brought back vivid memories of that writer overflowing with joy when she first read it in class. What a joy for me to hear it again and discover just how many of her dreams had come true before she died this year.

That essay in the mail confirmed what I already know – getting our life-stories down on paper not only helps us keep our minds and memories fresh, it also enriches the lives of our families and friends who will have them to cherish long after we’re gone.

All four of the memoir-writing classes I lead in Chicago are back in session this week after a short summer siesta. Both classes I lead for Lincoln Park Village are full, as is the “Me, Myself, and I” memoir-writing class I lead at Renaissance Court in the Chicago Cultural Center.

But wait! There’s hope! You don’t need to attend a class to start writing your life stories, and you don’t even need a computer – a pen and paper will do. But if you’re someone who needs a deadline, or appreciates an assigned topic, or enjoys meeting regularly with other writers to share written stories out loud, the Thursday morning class I lead in Printer’s Row still has three two openings!

That class meets on the second floor of Grace Place (637 S. Dearborn, Chicago) on Thursday mornings at 10 a.m., and the next six-week session starts this Thursday, July 16, 2015. You don’t have to live in Printer’s Row to attend this class – our neighborhood is a cinch to get to with public transportation. You can register on line for the Printers Row class or email me at to find out how to register and pay by check.

Look at things from Sandy’s View

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

If you follow this blog, you already know guest blogger Sandra Murillo. Sandra lost her sight when she was three years old. She has always attended regular public schools, and has known she wanted to be a writer ever since her sophomore year at Thornwood High School in South Holland, Ill.

Sandra’s first guest post was about using assistive technology to vote in her first presidential election, and the last time we published a guest post by Sandra was when she’d just graduated from University of Illinois journalism school and was looking for a job.

Good news! Sandra is working full-time at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind – she is a regular contributor to The Beacon (a weekly radio program on disability issues) and runs a weekly column there.

Sandy’s View features Sandra’s responses to commonly asked questions about the challenges facing people who are blind or have visual impairments. This week’s question was about how people who are blind manage to swim, and Sandra was kind enough to include an excerpt from my memoir Long Time, No See there to help answer that question.

The posts I write here about ways I manage to do things without being able to see always get a lot of comments, so if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you look at them from Sandy’s View. Congratulations on the new job, Sandra!

Can blind people take vacations by themselves?

Some people escape to lake houses, some to cabins in the mountains, others to villas overseas.

Me? When I want to get away by myself, I splurge on a fancy hotel.

That’s Hanni and me luxuriating in a lovely hotel room in Chicago a few years back.

What luxury — a plush robe waiting for me, my bed gets made every morning, clean towels magically appear in the bathroom, and when I walk through the lobby everyone — from the doorman to the people behind the front desk — asks if they can help me. Some even call me by my name. “Hello, Ms. Finke.” “Welcome back, Ms. Finke.” “Ms. Finke? May I help you to the elevator?”

Those of you old enough to appreciate James Thurber (or young enough to have bothered seeing Ben Stiller’s film adaptation of Thurber’s classic last year) will understand why I refer to my hotel stays as Walter Mitty experiences.

Staff at expensive hotels are used to taking care of demanding customers, so I don’t really stick out when I ask for extra help. “Can you cut a corner from the keycard? “ I ask. When I explain how that would help me feel which end to put in the key slot, no one flinches. “Our pleasure, Ms. Finke.” “May I help you with your bag, Ms. Finke?”Of course I say yes. The bellhop escorts most other guests to their rooms, so it feels downright normal to have him take my Seeing Eye dog and me to ours, too.

Once in the room, the first conquest is the phone. “How do I dial downstairs?” I ask the bellhop. “What’s the number for room service?” Next stop? The bathroom. I feel through my bag for rubber bands. “Which bottle is shampoo?” I ask. At one hotel, I washed my hair with lotion. You only have to do that once to learn a lesson. Now I stretch a rubber band around the bottle of lotion to differentiate it from the others.

I put a rubber band on our hotel doorknob, too. When my Seeing Eye dog leads me to it later, the rubber band will confirm we’re at the right place. Before the doorman leaves, I ask one last question. “Is the radio alarm on?” While he checks, I feel through my wallet for tip money and extend my arm in his general direction. “Thank you, Ms. Finke,” he says, and he’s out the door.

Hotel rooms are predictable, simple, easy to get around. The furniture is rugged, sometimes even bolted to the floor. Nothing fragile on the dressers or countertops. I can’t break anything.

Early on in my blindness, I would have never imagined this possible. Me. Spending a night alone in a hotel room. I feel like a grown-up.

And that’s Whitney ensconced before a gigantic rain forest shower that came inside a gigantic bathroom that was inside a gigantic suite we stayed in once.

All of my memoir classes are on hiatus until after Independence Day, and Tomorrow my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I are taking a train to a new boutique hotel we haven’t stayed in before. I’ll spend our quiet time there finishing a manuscript I’ve been working on  —  the one about all I learn from the memoir-writers I work with and how I manage to lead the classes without being able to see. I’m looking forward to the escape , hoping (finally) to finish this manuscript of mine. Time to get packing!

Maps, memoir and food: Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference

Hey, it’s time to sign up for the 2015 Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference, a three-day institute at the end of July that’s dedicated to the creation and revision of novels, short stories, nonfiction, and poetry. From their web site:

The program is tailored to writers of all genres, backgrounds, and levels of experience, and welcomes anyone seeking a fuller understanding of the craft — and business — of writing.

This conference is held every summer on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus, and this year I’ll be giving a workshop at 9:30 a.m. on the morning it opens: Thursday, July 30, 2015.

My 90-minute workshop is called Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground. I plan on giving a couple in-class exercises and discussing techniques to get past whatever it is that’s stopping writers from getting their work done, whether it be worries about writing as a victim, facing issues that come with writing about friends and family, or arranging writing they’ve already completed into book form. The overall emphasis will be on craft and on overcoming the barriers that keep us from writing and assembling our stories.

Each workshop at the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference is limited to 18 participants, and organizers tell me workshops and panels are filling quickly. My friends and fellow published authors Miles Harvey and Audrey Petty are giving workshops at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 30 as well.

That’s Miles Harvey. (Photo by Matt Moyer.)

I met Miles long ago when both of us wrote for the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. His first book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime was a national and international bestseller, and a session he’ll be giving at the Northwestern conference is called Start Here: Get Your Story Started with a Map:

Writers from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ursula K. Le Guin have begun their books not with an outline of the plot but with a hand-drawn map. In this workshop — open to essayists and fiction writers alike — you’ll learn how to establish setting and ignite action through the creative use of cartography.

Miles will also be leading a workshop called “The Instant Essay” where attendees will learn the basics of essay writing and get started on an essay of their own. And as if that isn’t enough, he’ll be moderating a panel about taking a Book from inception to completion, too.

As for Audrey Petty, I was introduced to her in Urbana, too. Audrey taught creative writing there, and she and I took to each other the minute we met.

Audrey was born and raised in Chicago and moved back here with her husband and their daughter a few years ago.And that's Audrey, in a shot taken by her daughter Ella. An oral history Audrey put together of stories from residents of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green (all publicly-funded buildings here in Chicago that no longer exist) called High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing was published by Voice of Witness, the nonprofit division of McSweeney’s Books. She’s had essays published in Saveur and in a 2006 anthology of Best Food Writing, and her workshop for the Northwestern conference is called Writing about Food. Audrey will give in-class exercises and use texts by Laurie Colwin, John T Edge and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor as examples so participants can “venture out and begin their own stories and/or essays about food.”

Check out the conference schedule to learn about dozens of other workshops being presented this year — I hope to sit in on many of them myself.

Their tooth fairy Is A lazy, shiftless hussy

You might recognize my friend Lynn LaPlante Allaway’s name: she is principal violist with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Lynn wrote a guest post here after Whitney and I visited her kids’ elementary school, and your fun comments to that post helped encourage her to start a blog of her own called Backwards and in High Heels. Read these excerpts from a post she published there last Tuesday and you’ll discover that Lynn’s new blog is going to be about more than music:

A photo from One of Lynn’s kids classrooms we visited a couple years ago. I hope the tooth fairy can find them all!

One of the classrooms we visited at Lynn’s kids’ school. Hope the tooth fairy finds them when she needs to!

The title of Lynn’s June 2 post is Our Tooth Fairy Is A Lazy, Shiftless Hussy, and it starts like this:

Oh, the shame! I was walking past my kids’ room last night and on the bedroom door, there hung a note. It was addressed to our Tooth Fairy, that truant little bitch.

Here Lynn inserts a photo of the note her dauther wrote. Seeing, ahem, as I can’t see photos, I was ever-so-grateful Lynn spelled out the words on the note, too. She writes, “If you can’t decipher kids’ scrawl, here it is spellchecked, for your reading pleasure.”:

Dear Tooth Fairy,

Please come get my tooth. I have been waiting for 4 days.

Top Bunk

Lynn speakes out “on behalf of beleaguered Tooth Fairies everywhere” when she admits she didn’t even know Sophie had lost a tooth. “It apparently happened the night I had a concert, so go ahead and throw a big heap of Workin’ Mama Guilt on top of this Shame Sandwich,” She writes. “Our partially-toothless daughter had been suffering in silence, waiting patiently for three nights before she even let us know she had a tooth under her pillow!” Back to the excerpt:

When she finally told us about it, I was horrified and said many nasty things about our Tooth Fairy that I now regret: how she is unreliable; takes to drinking under stress and blacking out for days and nights on end; how after she’s been to the house to collect teeth, I notice little things, like jewelry and loose change, have gone missing. Maybe, in retrospect, I laid it on a little too thick but I wanted her to understand who we’re dealing with here.

So back to me. Is Sophie’s fairy tale ruined for life? Will she start therapy soon? Or does the tooth fairy elbow out the evil mother? Do Sophie’s GPS coordinates finally lead the fairy to the upper bunk? I guess you’ll just have to link to the shiftless hussy blog post on Backwards in High Heels to find out for yourself. Welcome to blogland, Lynnie

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 849 other followers

October 2015
« Sep    


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 849 other followers

%d bloggers like this: