SWR 2012 put to bed

March 14, 2012

Another year, another Story Week Festival of Writers, another issue of the Story Week Reader buttoned up.

As we have since 2009, my wife and I designed the book. Ann took the photograph on the front and designed the cover; I did a final copy edit and flowed the stories into a template she designed in InDesign.

This is, to my knowledge, the most international edition yet. Though filled with stories from Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department, the authors include folks from as far away as Singapore and Siberia.

I just sent the stories to be placed on the Fiction Writing Department Publishing Lab’s website, so check back soon to give it a read. In the meantime, browse as far back as the 2006 issue. I hear this guy Daniel Prazer  had his first non-journalistic publication in that one.

This morning I had the pleasure of presenting at AWP on how to sustain your writing after you’ve left your creative writing program. I shared the stage with some of the most inspirational people I know: Sheree Greer, James Lower, April Newman, and Ilana Shabanov.

In case you didn’t make it to AWP or the panel, we’ve put up a website chock full of great resources to maintain your writing and foster the creative, editorial, administrative, and marketing aspects to your writing. If you write, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Judging by the turnout—my guess would be between 250 and 275 people—and the enthusiasm of our audience, I’d say it went really well. Probably twenty people thanked us and congratulated us on not having a stiff presentation. One old friend from Columbia College said, “Really, I came just to be nice, but that was great. I learned a lot.” And really, what else could you hope for?


Randall Albers, the Chair of the Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department, has left an indelible mark on me as a writer and as a person. Now, I understand through various social media platforms, that his contract as the chair has not been renewed.

As an MFA candidate, I was taking his Advanced Fiction class when I made the longest strides on my thesis, and he helped me craft it into a tight manuscript that’s making the rounds of publishers and agents as I type this. He and I worked closely on two Story Weeks, and I wouldn’t trade any of those meetings and experiences for anything.

Randy, whether you know it or not, you were instrumental in putting me on the career path I’m on now, and I can’t thank you enough. I can’t overstate how much I love my job, and it took me two years after graduation to get here. This is thanks to your call from Prague to speak to my character. I owe you. I owe you a lot. Randy, anything I can do to help you or support you, please let me know. You’ve had my back. I’ll have yours.

The bright side of this is that it seems Randy will be teaching full-time; anything that puts him in front of more students is a good thing for students. Knowing Randy, I’m confident that he will never stop advocating for Fiction Writing students.

Now. That said, the panic and furor over this decision has gotten out of hand. The news is still raw and people are acting on emotion. Rumors are flying. If there’s one thing I learned in my years as a reporter, it is to calm down, divorce yourself of emotion, and see the picture for what it is (it’s worth noting that under Randy’s guidance, I honed that skill).

What this isn’t: The first domino to fall in the dismantling of the Fiction Writing Department; we don’t know that, not yet. Is caution warranted? Sure. But neither is panic. We don’t know much more than we do at this point. Ever heard the phrase, “It moves at the speed of academia?” Massive decisions like about changing departments probably haven’t yet been made, and if they have, they certainly haven’t been announced. Nothing is going away. Or, more accurately, we don’t know that anything is going away.

What this is: A time for cooler heads to prevail. Take some time, take a breath, and make sure you’re calm before you begin spinning like a dervish. This is the time to take the high road, to stand up and support Randy, but to do so in a dignified way that makes him, and the entire Fiction Writing Department, proud. AWP starts in a few short days. Now’s the time to show the rest of the writing world what Randy and the rest of the teachers in the department have helped us become—great writers, great people, ones who may disagree, but do it respectfully. That’s the only way our community is going to see this through.

New Flash Fiction on the Web

February 14, 2012

HYPERTEXTMAG.com’s Valentine’s Day issue just went live, and it’s packed with great writers. I’m thrilled to be part of this issue with a piece of Flash Fiction, “Dutch.” You know. Splitting the cost of a date, or in this case, a morning-after pill. Read it here; it won’t take long. In fact, it made me realize I need to trim my bio.

When I said it was full of great writers, I wasn’t exaggerating. Sheree L. Greer, with whom I’ll share a panel at AWP in a few weeks, Chelsea Laine Wells, Cyn Vargas, my farming buddy Jotham Burrello, Megan Stielstra, who has a new book out, Everyone Remain Calm, and Geoff Hyatt, who wrote a truly heartfelt, funny, sad, and amazing novel that you should buy, Birch Hills at World End.

New essay on the web

January 27, 2012

My essay, “Firefighting,” is up on Knee-Jerk Magazine’s website. Those folks found fit to give it a spot as a one of two runners-up in their inaugural essay contest, and for that, I thank them.

If you want to lend a hand to the magazine, they’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds to help offset the cost of printing Knee-Jerk Offline Vol. 2. You should pitch in; literary journals hold a mirror up to our society. They’re crucially important. So help one out. As of this posting, they’re over halfway to their goal of $500.



December 19, 2011

I feel awful that I’ve let this blog fall by the wayside.

Yesterday, though, I got news that my essay “Firefighting” placed as a runner up in the inaugural Knee-Jerk Magazine Essay contest. If you click the link (and you should), you’ll see that not only is it a placement in a writing contest, a publication, but money. Money! For writing! Gasp!

So I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the judges. Because it wasn’t an easy essay to write.

It started off as a series of vignettes about covering house fires when I was a journalist. I wrote it during the summer, and eventually, it dawned on me what I wasn’t writing about: my dad sold firefighting equipment for years—as long as I can remember, in fact—so that got folded into the essay. And it’s impossible for me to write about my dad without getting into his decline into alcoholism and eventual suicide.

So like I said, not easy to write. But what story worth writing is easy to write?

When I was a senior creative writing and journalism major at Miami University, I had the fortune of taking a week-long writing class with Richard Bausch, which was a beautiful week that made me much more cognizant of my own writing. I have a journal full of things he said during that week, and he’s since started posting pearls of wisdom on Facebook. This is one of my favorites:

You don’t have to be so terribly smart, or fast. You only have to be willing. You get smart going through it and through it after being open to what it is tending toward. Don’t worry about what you will finally say; it will tell you.

This happens every time somebody sits down to write. It certainly did for me in my essay. The key is to let the story tell you what it’s about, not the other way around. Try to manhandle the story, and it won’t ring true. So when you sit down today to write—a fictional story, a blog entry, a piece of breaking news—remember this. Let the story tell you what it has to say.

Birch Hills at World’s End

September 3, 2011

My good friend Geoff Hyatt has a new book coming out on Vagabondage Press, Birch Hills at World’s End. And you all should read it. I had the pleasure of reading it while it was still a manuscript, and, if I do say so myself, in my first fiction class at Columbia College Chicago, I offered up the words “flask” and “poinsettia,” which got Geoff going on what turned into a great scene—years of work later; it’s not like I’m taking credit for anything here.

Birch Hills at World’s End has a release party at Reading Under the Influence, and if you’re in Chicago next week, you should go. The theme is “apocalypse,” and the lovely writer Ilana Shabanov will also be reading, among others. Seriously. Go.

“Gratitude. Gratitude.”

September 3, 2011

My good friend Cheryl Heckler has a saying that she often puts on her Facebook page: “Gratitude. Graditude.” Usually, it involves the small things in life, and she’s one of the kindest, most wonderful people I’ve ever had the chance to meet.

Her mantra comes to mind every morning when I’m waiting for the bus to work.

You see, every morning, I walk a few blocks to the corner of Campbell and Lawrence Avenues to catch the 81 bus to the Red Line on my way to work at Fisheye Graphic Services. The last bus I can catch and make it to work on time comes around 8:25. Across Lawrence Avenue, every morning, there’s a line of people standing outside a nondescript building, the only hint of its contents is a small sign that says “Illinois Department of Employment Security.”

This office opens at 8:30 a.m., and today, I saw a line of at least thirty people, some holding umbrellas to shelter themselves from the late summer heat. They have it hard, as do millions of other Americans.

But seeing this, I can’t help but feel incredibly thankful for my job—my new job; I’ve only been there since the beginning of July, and I can honestly say I love going to work every morning. I get to use my design experience, my ability to put out fires as they come up, and I get to smell printing ink again, like I did when I was a reporter at the Chillicothe Gazette. I’m incredibly fortunate, and each morning, I’m reminded of that.

So to quote Cheryl, “Gratitude. Gratitude.”

Another publication

August 19, 2011

Back in the spring, I wrote a piece for a nascent web journal, Hypertext Magazine, arguing for the ethics of hunting; for me, it’s like going to the farmer’s market. It just went live, and you can read it here.

So this year’s AWP Conference is in my adopted hometown of Chicago, and for all those who fancy books and writing, it’s a hell of a good time. This year it’ll be even better, since I’ll be sitting on a panel with some of my favorite writers and best friends.

Our panel—no date or time yet—is dedicated to helping writers keep the momentum once they’ve left their writing programs. Its title: A Writing Life, After the Workshop.

From our proposal:

This intensive presentation covers what your MFA program might have missed: how-to organize and sustain a writing life in today’s economy. Our event showcases planning ideas, technology solutions, and tools for writers to be more in control of their career and maintain a writing lifestyle long-term. The approach is engaging to the audience, displaying the websites and tools to promote one’s work. The audience will come away knowing their own resources and an action plan for their writing life. A Q/A session follows.

On the panel with me will be Ilana Shabanov, equally amazing on the page and as she is with food; April Newman, who wrote an amazing book of creative nonfiction called Broke Love and teaches online writing and pedagogy courses; James Lower, with his velvety radio voice and powerful Southern-tinged writing; and Sheree Greer, one badass writer, who has a collection out for Kindle called Once and Future Lovers, which is only $5. $5!!!

Great publishers and creative writing programs are everywhere, but this is the place to be if you’re interested in either. I went the last time it was in Chicago, and ended up with a half dozen literary magazine subscriptions (discounts!) and had a hell of a time going from one stimulating panel discussion to the bar (more discussions) to another discussion. If you’re in Chicago and like any of this stuff, by all means, get yourself to the conference.


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