Archive for the 'writing' Category

She poured out her heart

My husband Mike Knezovich and I have written posts about our writer friend Jean Thompson many times before – everything from the one I wrote about how she introduced herself to me decades ago from the barstool next to mine at Champaign’s Esquire Lounge to the one Mike wrote after Who Do You Love? (One of her collections of short stories) was nominated for a National Book Award.

Jean was in Chicago for the Printer’s Row Lit Fest last weekend. Her session was scheduled at the same time as the memorial service Mike mentioned in his Mondays with Mike post earlier this week so we didn’t go to hear her panel. Lorraine Schmall to the rescue! Lorraine is a writer in the weekly memoir class I lead in Printers Row. She went to Jean’s panel at the Lit Fest and reports in here for our Safe & Sound blog readers. Here’s Lorraine’s guest post:

By Lorraine Schmall

If you haven’t made it to Lit Fest, a/k/a The Printer’s Row Book Fair, mark it on your calendars for next year. This pageant of poetry and prose has been around since 1985, and it’s really fun.

From left to right, Julia Keller, Jean Thompson, and Vu Tran.

From left to right, Julia Keller, Jean Thompson, and Vu Tran.

The crowd is happy because vendors give away a myriad of free shopping bags and sunglasses. There are a million gorgeous books, and they’re all on sale. There are writers hawking their work, and young optimists handing out pins that say “every poem is a revolution.” There’s food and drink. There are high-class live events featuring the two hundred some invited authors, like movie star Ethan Hawke, Gourmet Mag Editor Ruth Reichl, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet Tracy K. Smith.

It was ninety degrees all day Saturday but the streets were packed, and the bars were crowded: nothing like a short story and a Sangria.

I started my day with a session called “Do We Ever Escape the Past?” an intriguing question, but one left unanswered. The panel of superstar authors with Chicago connections chose to talk more about their art than psychology. But it was worthwhile, nonetheless.

Jean Thompson lives in Urbana and teaches at the U of I. She Poured out Her Heart is her twelfth book. She shared a dais with Julia Keller, a West-Virginia transplant who’s got a condo in Chicago, six best-selling books under her belt, and a Pulitzer Prize for writing (as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune) a “gripping, meticulously reconstructed account of a deadly 10-second tornado” near Starved Rock State Park. I remember the stories and got scared again just reading that in her bio.

Joining them was Vu Tran, born in war-scarred Viet Nam shortly after his father was airlifted out with the U.S. troops as Saigon fell. Vu is now a University of Chicago professor who has written a noir crime thriller featuring 1970’s Vietnamese refugees and an insider’s look at Las Vegas.

They were a stellar panel, all three with books positively reviewed in the New York Times, so they had a prestigious time slot –late morning — and a plush address: the Shedd Room at the Blake Hotel (many other authors had to carry on under tents in the mind-bending heat).

It was a fast hour and a half, listening to them. Funny Jean told us “It’s so much easier to write about bad sex than good sex. Everybody’s had that.” When asked if she starts her books with a plan, she said her characters created themselves. “This time I really wanted to write about higher love. But every day life and ordinary people got in the way.”

Jean’s biggest fan, humorist David Sedaris, claims “no one is beneath her interest…or beyond her reach.” I can’t wait to read her books.

It was exciting to meet Vu Tran, since I just came back from a visit to Viet Nam with my daughter. I assume his book will never be sold in his native country, which regulates speech and art as strictly as a red light camera controls us scofflaws. He said his first novel Dragonfish had a life of its own. “I didn’t know the ending until a week before I turned it into the publisher.” Not surprisingly, this brainy academic said all his characters suffer from a great deal of anxiety, like their creator. “That’s tough for them, but great for me because it’s fascinating to write about.”

Besides his neuroses, was anything else from his past in the book? “I was in a bad relationship at the time. All that menace and anxiety fell onto the pages of my book.”

Julia Keller, a television and radio commentator, was an upbeat moderator, who is happy that people write, read, and love books. “Print is back!” she crowed. She ended the session by quoting Phil Ochs, when she ruminated about why anybody would try to write at a time in history when all hell seems to be breaking loose: “In a time of such ugliness, the true protest is beauty.”

Guest post by DJ Mermaid: Sew Good Students

School is out now, which means DJ Mermaid has time to blog for us again. Hooray!

A lot has happened to DJ Mermaid since her last guest post. Most importantly, she had a birthday. Ten-year-old DJ Mermaid has been in a casting program the past couple months. She still has casts from her hips down to her ankles on both legs, and she’s told me many times that she “doesn’t let her physical disability stop her from doing anything she wants to do.” Her guest post today proves exactly that.

by DJ Mermaid

Hey guys, DJ Mermaid here! I’ve gotten back on the guest-blogging trail and I thought this post would be a good way to start off.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a program with Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University. This is a program dedicated to creative design that changes people’s lives for the better. I requested something that would help me with sewing. Two groups of students were assigned to help me with the following problems:

  1. Driving the fabric efficiently through the sewing machine
  2. Creating an innovative way to use the pedal

I am unable to use the foot pedal because it’s hard to push with my foot. I usually put the foot pedal on the table and use my hands while mom drives the fabric through the machine. The groups came up with two different solutions to the same problems.

Solution One: Sew Good

  • The Sew Good group came up with a guide constructed of metal to help me drive the fabric. All I had to do was pushpin the fabric onto the guide and keep my hands on the frame in case the fabric started veering off.

    That's the feed control box designed by the Sew Good group.

    That’s the feed control box designed by the Sew Good group.

  • The Sew Good group also created a way for me to use the “foot pedal” with my hands. The students created a box that was able to go to three different speeds simply by turning a knob. The best part about it was that it kept going at a consistent speed I set without any adjustments. The students also painted the box pink and purple, I like those colors. They even used glitter for the writing. I was wowed!

Solution Two: SewMates

  • The SewMates group made a voice operated sewing “pedal” — it’s a box I plug into the sewing machine. The box has wires and a chip to record and receive my commands. The students had to use coding to program the commands. The commands are “Robot, Go, Slow, Slower, Fast, Faster and Stop.” I speak into a little microphone on the box, and, magically, the sewing machine goes. It is high tech and I am impressed that they used coding. Coding is awesome and I do it all the time!

Last Saturday I was eager to try them out. They worked! I sewed a headband by myself with very limited assistance from mom.

And then, guess what? Mom broke the sewing machine. Nice Going, Mom! It may be a while before I am able to try my devices again!

Well, that’s a wrap!

-DJ Mermaid

Getting that memoir off the ground

Lots of people have interesting life stories to tell. The hard part? Getting those stories down on paper so that others can read — and reread — them.

As the writers in the memoir classes I lead for the City of Chicago, Lincoln Park Village and at Grace Place in Printers Row master the art of writing about their lives, they find themselves with a new challenge: assembling finished stories into book form.

Our Thursday Lincoln Park Village memoir class celebrated Anna Perlberg's book over lunch at the home of writers Bruce and Anne Hunt yesterday.

Our Thursday Lincoln Park Village memoir class celebrated Anna Perlberg’s book over lunch at the home of writers Bruce and Anne Hunt yesterday.

Mike wrote a post last week about The publication of Anna Perlberg’s memoir The House in Prague. Anna Perlberg is a writer in my Thursday afternoon Lincoln Park Village memoir class, and her success is motivating other writers to think about getting their memoirs published as well. Their questions about publishing inspired me to put together a memoir workshop for The Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference this year on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus.

This year’s conference starts July 28, 2016 and runs until July 30, 2016.

My 90-minute workshop, called Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground meets from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 30, 2016. 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 people we love, or figuring out strategies for organizing the raw material of our lives 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 you can take advantage of early bird registration rates through June 30, 2016. I’ll be participating on a panel at this year’s conference, too — it meets on Friday afternoon and is something new for me:

Writing from the Intersection of the Personal and the Political
Beth Finke, Jarrett Neal, Nnedi Okorafor
This panel will explore the implicit and explicit political response and/or motivation behind fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

I haven’t met either of my fellow panelists yet, but from their bios I know that Jarrett Neal has had his poems, fiction, essays, and reviews in publications like the Good Men Project, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Chelsea Station, Best Sex Writing 2015, Requited Journal, and New City.

Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Nigerian immigrant parents, and she’s an international award-winning novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Nnedi is also one of the keynote speakers at this year’s conference. I am honored to be selected to appear with these two accomplished writers. Trust me, I’ll be doing a lot more listening than talking during that panel.

Something you should throw away…but you probably never will

A ratty old handmade afghan. A Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original stationary bicycle. A batik flamingo. A collection of broken watches. A 49-year-old steam iron. That list is a small sampling of the precious items the writers in my memoir classes wrote about when I assigned “Something I own that I should throw away…and probably never will.”

There's the Tunturi Executive that lives on. And on.

There’s the Tunturi Executive that lives on. And on.

Writers had all sorts of reasons for keeping their treasures. Kathy grew up in Kentucky, and when she moved to Chicago as a young adult she realized she was afraid to ride her bicycle in city traffic. “But a stationery bike! A Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original! That could be the answer!” With a convenient bookrack on the handlebars, she was sure she could shape up her “post-4-pregnancies-body” while simultaneously upgrading her “literary bona fides.”

You can guess the rest. For nearly 50 years now, Kathy’s Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original has sat idle in one room after another. eBay calls the Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original “vintage” and offers one for $50. “But eBay will never get mine!” Kathy declared in her essay. “It isn’t exactly new, but it certainly isn’t used! I will use it someday. Just call me a cock-eyed optimist.”

After going on a special tour of Chicago’s Field Museum and seeing thousands upon thousands of relics stashed away in “huge mausoleum-like chests of drawers where no human is likely to accidentally see them,” Al reasoned it is absolutely fine for him to squirrel away dozens of old dead watches in a drawer at home. He wears his father’s elegant Bulova Watch from time to time. “It’s accurate at least twice a day.”

Mary Lou’s brown, rust and orange-colored afghan was made by a cousin who contracted polio when the two of them were ten. Her cousin Susan wore a back brace and used a wheelchair, but she had enough mobility in her hands to take up crocheting. Susan was especially fond of Mary Lou’s father, and he was the first to receive one of her handmade afghans. “A great fuss was made at the presentation,” Mary Lou wrote. “So now you understand why I will never discard that raggedy afghan.”

Lorraine’s essay described the two-foot tall shocking pink flamingo on black silk her husband gave her when their first baby girl was born and said it still reeks of the ‘80’s, cigarette smoke and all. “If it had been a jacket instead of a wall-hanging, it would be on sale at Etsy Vintage for $32.” Lorraine’s husband died when their baby girl was seven years old. “Flamingos no longer decorate cool bars and chic eateries or loft apartments.” Lorraine wrote. “They are as scarce as they are in real life. I still have one.”

When Regan’s baby Joe was born, her mother gifted her with an iron so she could iron the baby’s clothes. “My mother, Agnes, went to church at the ironing board,” Regan wrote, describing how ironing had calmed her mother’s nerves – and relieved her mother’s hangovers – when Regan was growing up. “As she conquered the wrinkles at hand her furrowed malcontented brow smoothed out,” Regan wrote. Wondering why she’s held on to the iron her mother gave her all those years ago? Find out by reading Regan’s essay in its entirety. Regan publishes her essays on her own Back Story blog.



Vidal Sassoon

Bob Eisenberg, author of today's guest post.

Bob Eisenberg, author of today’s guest post.

In my previous post I mentioned that one writer chose Vidal Sassoon’s death as one that had made him particularly sad. A Blog follower left a comment saying she’d love to read that essay, and writer Bob Eisenberg graciously gave us permission to publish it here.

Bob Eisenberg is still styling hair after 60 years in the business, but he takes an afternoon off every week to join our Monday Lincoln Park Village memoir class. Here’s his essay.

by Bob Eisenberg

Sitting next to my favorite celebrity at a Beverly Hills hotel bar was one of the most exciting experiences in my life. I was in California for a workshop, and when I saw him there sitting alone I walked up to him and said how much I appreciated his talents. “I’ve followed your teaching for years,” I said.

He asked me to have a seat at the bar and have a drink. I was overwhelmed. This man was the best-known celebrity in the hair styling industry: Vidal Sassoon.

We talked for the longest time about the salon industry, our exciting salon businesses, and then went on to talk about philosophy and spirituality. I told him he was my mentor and that I’d been following his teachings for many years.

My hair styling story started years before when I was 20 and just got out of the army. I took my girlfriend to fabulous Vicks beauty salon, and while I was attentively watching the stylist cut her hair, a flash went through me. “I could do that,” I said to myself.

I had been drawing faces of classmates all my life and got disciplined in high school for doodling instead of paying attention to the teacher. It would be exciting to style hair around a face. The next day I enrolled in a neighborhood beauty school.

As I was getting close to graduating, my neighborhood friend Lenny Messeli came up to me and asked, “Bob, what are you going to do after we graduate?”

”Just look for a job,” I said with a shrug.

Lenny said his uncle had a beauty salon called The Magic Touch in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. “He wants to sell it for $1500,” Lenny said. “We could buy it for $750 a piece and be partners.”

”I’m just out of school!” I told Lenny. “I don’t even know how to do hair yet.”

Lenny had an answer. “My uncle say’s you don’t have to know how to do hair at his salon,” he said. “All you need is a good joke, and they’ll keep coming back.”

So Lenny and I became partners. After two years of joke telling and $3.50 hair cuts, I became burnt out. I saw an ad in The Hairdressers Journal that advertised a Vidal Sassoon workshop. It said I could learn a method of hair styling that doesn’t require any ruffing, teasing, hair spray or heavy gels. I attended the workshop and found my place in the salon industry. After a number of work shops I discovered a new approach to styling hair. I attended Vidal Sassoon workshops all over the country. Soon I put a sign up in the window of our salon:

Bob’s hair cut and style $25.00 including personal consultation.

I was on my way to becoming a real high end stylist, someone who could design a hair style according to someone’s life style, bone structure and face shape. A hair style that requires very low maintenance.

Vidal Sassoon has been a powerful influence for the entire hairstyling industry, but especially for me. I will always be grateful for the direction he has guided me.

Write about a celebrity’s death that made you really sad

Mike’s post last month about using Facebook to mourn for Prince motivated me to ask the writers in the memoir classes I lead to write about a celebrity’s death that made them really sad. “The celebrity can be an author, an artist, an athlete, a musician, an actor, an actress, a political figure, anyone who is famous and died,” I told them, urging them to write about themselves and their circumstances. “If the person you’re writing about is famous, your readers will already know about them,” I said. What I was after in their essays was an idea of how old they were when that celebrity died, what was going on in their worlds at the time, why the loss was so significant to them and how they grieved.

My downtown class, the one with Wanda in it, is taking a few months off. Writers in my other three memoir classes came back with essays about Vidal Sassoon, Grace Kelly, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Wiley Post, Will Rogers, Van Johnson, Mary Travers of “Peter, Paul and Mary.”

Two of the younger writers wrote about the death of musician John Lennon. Michael admitted that John hadn’t always been his favorite Beatle. “He seemed aloof, mean, and sarcastic.” He wrote that the “seemingly cheerful Paul and George” were more his type until later on, when he realized the Beatle’s songs he loved to play on his guitar were Lennon songs.

Lorraine fell in love with John Lennon the first time she saw him on TV. “I wouldn’t say John and I were intimate,” she wrote., “I was only 13.” She confessed she never liked Yoko Ono. “I was jealous,” she conceded, describing John Lennon’s murder in 1980 like this. “He was walking down the street with Ono. Of course she didn’t save him.”

For one student in class, FDR was THE PRESIDENT.

For one student in class, FDR was THE PRESIDENT.

Kathy wrote about John Lennon, too, but she wasn’t a teenager when she first laid eyes on him. “My lack of knowledge of pop culture is a monumental failing. But even I knew about The Beatles!” In 1980, Kathy was the mother of four and the volunteer Executive Director of the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control. “Our political action was sorely hampered by the small size and homogeneity of our membership,” she wrote. “And then Mark Chapman pulled out a handgun and fired four bullets into the body of John Lennon.” Chicago scheduled a memorial event eight days later at Lincoln Park’s Cricket Hill.

The Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control created bumper stickers that said Imagine a world, along with an arrow pointing to the words without handguns, and volunteers handed out flyers with information on how to order a bumper sticker for a dollar. From Kathy’s essay:

December 15 was clear and cold. 3000 Lennon mourners gathered for the program and the 10 minutes of silence that was observed around the world. We handed out our flyers as participants departed. In the days that followed, hundreds of orders with crumpled dollar bills arrived in my office.

Membership information accompanied the bumper stickers and a surprising number responded. Some of the respondents became the organization’s most effective leaders. Diversified and energized, the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control organized their first annual Walk Against Gun Violence in 1982 as an effort to educate people and encourage widespread advocacy efforts. “I think John Lennon would have approved of us,” Kathy wrote.

In the end, more writers wrote about presidents than musicians. Most presidential essays were written about John F. Kennedy. One writer was in Paris when JFK died, another was supposed to celebrate her first wedding anniversary on November 22, 1963, and a writer who worked at Life Magazine accompanied a photographer to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. to cover the president’s burial there. Another was in high school when he got the news. “When he died, everything slowed down,” he wrote. ”We watched on color TVs, some of us, but it all seemed to be in black and white.”

Hugh said he was moved by the death of President Kennedy, “but I was an adult in my 30s then, and I understood what it was all about.” He was only 13 when President Roosevelt died in 1945, however. “I had never dealt with the death of a famous person” he wrote. “For me, Roosevelt was THE PRESIDENT. He was first elected in the year I was born and went on to be elected for an unprecedented four terms. I knew who he was. I heard his distinctive voice on the radio and saw his big grin in newsreels.”

Mary Lou was playing hopscotch with friends the day FDR died and knew something was wrong when she came home and found her mother at the front entrance of their Chicago two-flat. “We never used the front door unless company came,” she wrote. “So I was very surprised when I saw Mommy at the front door of 4523, still wearing her apron and using it to pat her eyes.”

Regan wrote about a president, too, but not one who died. She’d worked on Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, and when he won, she relocated from Chicago to D.C. to work in his administration. “In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected,” she wrote. “Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.”

Regan turned on the radio in her DuPont Circle townhouse one morning in 1995 and learned Jerry Garcia had died overnight. “I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia.”

Regan started sobbing again when her friend picked her up for work that day. From her essay:

Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”


Regan Burke started a blog of her own after she joined the memoir-writing class I lead in Printer’s Row last year. You can read her entire Jerry Garcia essay , along with other fabulous essays she’s written — at BackStory Essays – Short Essays from Chicago Writers.


Everyone tells me she takes sensational photos

When I write about the older adults in the memoir classes I lead in Chicago, I never describe what the writers look like. Now you can find out for yourselves!

Our day at the opera: That's me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene Schweitzer.

Our day at the opera: That’s me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene.

Darlene Schweitzer, a writer in the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead in downtown Chicago, played around with something called Adobe Voice and came up with a 60-second photo collage of writers in that class. Darlene narrates her Please Make Dreams Come True collage, and even if, like me, you can’t see the photos, it’s worth linking to her Adobe Voice project just to hear her sweet accent.

Today is the last day to take a minute and vote for the “Me, Myself & I” writers in those photos to win the Lyric Opera of Chicago contest — voting ends at midnight tonight. We’ve been stuck at fifth place for the past week, and I’m afraid that’s probably where we’ll stay. Sigh.

Eyebrows up! The whole experience didn’t cost us a thing, four writers from class got VIP treatment from Lyric Opera staff the day Wanda and Audrey were filmed for the video that promotes memoir-writing, the contest inspired Darlene to learn to use adobe Voice, and it motivated me to finally, finally dip my toes into the Twitter world to tweet for votes.

Once I hit the “publish” button on this blog post, I’ll head over to ChicagoVoices and vote for “Me, Myself and I” one last time. You never know — maybe all the first-place Croatians will be celebrating May Day today and unable to make it to the site for last-minute voting!

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