Archive | Becoming a Writer and Author

Entering the Atomic Age

 

In my last blog, I delved into the magic of storytelling–or more specifically, the birth of stories, a subject that came up in my interview with Liz Adair. I promised to share the memoir that came to me in an afternoon, the first story I wrote. The drawings, which i’m embarrased to claim, are a child’s memory.

Here it is

 

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Stagg Field, 1943

 

Every day as I grew up, the Stagg Field wall stretched its length between me and school, between me and home, between me and anywhere. Across the street from the old stadium was the campus backside, a line of gothic stone enfolding and protecting. From the front it was the

UC campus 1

UC campus 1

University of Chicago, set back a pace from the city by the broad green ribbon of the Midway, insulated by parks at either end. One that side, Rockefeller Chapel rose like a crown jewel; our parents took us up into the bell tower, sometimes, on Sunday, but we lived around back, near the field.

In the summer that wall blinding; no tree or shrub broke the glare of stone, concrete, and more stone, and as you looked down its length you could see the heat waves dancing before you pitched through the prickly, airless space. In the winter it was a wind tunnel, roofed by the dirty Chicago sky. It was an empty place, a scar where the University cut herself off from her athletic past.

P1010539

And it was always there. Like a swimmer going under, I’d duck my head for the four times daily trip. Sometimes I was a sea captain, fighting the gales around Cape Horn, or a gallant child-hero dragging my brother safely through arctic wastes; sometimes I was an Arab driving a caravan toward an oasis. But more often I watched my feet, absorbed their rhythm as they matched their monotony to the monotony of the stone beside me, to the steady procession of cracks beneath me, and gave myself into a trance.

When I surfaced at Ellis Avenue, the homeward end, the gray towers ended too. Beyond Ellis was the university backyard, a litter of mismatched outbuildings where, among experiments and service plants, the faculty raised its young. Catty corner from the field was a squat yellow brick box with a Parthenon-like entry stuck to the front, facing campus. They kept sheep behind it. Down the street, if it was summer and the windows were open, you could hold your ears and watch black printing presses screech and clang, and listen to the men shouting to each other over the din. Behind that, surrounded by small buildings that gave off strange smells, the five-story chimney of the heating plant rose to mark the block. Beyond that was our alley.

On the front, the row of six-flats facing Drexel looked like any other row of Chicago six-flats, but in back, the three-story spider web of banisters, porches, and stairways overlooked chicken coops—university chicken coops. We woke to roosters every day, and if you walked with your ear to the board fence, a world of barnyard smells and noises rippled by. Except for that, it was a Chicago alley; we had Dominic, the vegetable man, who gave rides, and a milkman with a horse-drawn wagon, who didn’t—so you had to sneak. An ice cream truck, a monkey-grinder man, an accordion player, a knife sharpener, a brush peddler, a rag man–almost anyone might come through and there was an alley sonar for new arrivals. It signaled when the nose of a dump truck appeared at the end of the alley, inching its way between board fence and telephone poles, leaving mountains of coal to climb.

Between visits, we walked fences, played hide and seek in the web of porches, held secret meetings behind furnaces in dark basements, and tangled in wash lines. If you dropped a ball from a third floor porch, and you aimed right and didn’t hit a crack, it would bounce far enough for a friend leaning out from a second floor porch to catch, if her mother didn’t see her.

Then the fathers came home for dinner and everyone went in. The din that traveled up and down the airshafts faded, and it felt like the place under the carillon where there is a seal that no one steps on. “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolatur;” “Let Knowledge Grow, Life Will be Enriched.” My father sat and thought, and no one interrupted, even for the salt. Then all of a sudden he’d look up. “Al Smith was right,” he’d say. “Do you know who Al Smith was?” And he’d tell the story in a way that made Al’s rightness burn through. Another time it would be, “The Union generals were bums.” And he’d tell about Grant’s drinking or McClellan’s cowardice, even though McClellan was supposed to be a relative of ours. Other days he’d say nothing from the beginning of the meal to the end, and his face and eyes would shift and strain with inward rage—at ritual used to raise emotions and bind people to narrow visions—at failure to acknowledge freedom of the intellect to rise above passion, to search for truth. We watched and knew, for he was likely to turn to us, pare us to our rational bones to discover whether we were becoming what we were to be. He’d ask for answers then, for evidence, and I never had any. My alley self shrunk up or slipped away and left me stranded, unknowing everything I knew. There was no barnyard behind the alley fence; there was research.

And as I made my daily journey down Stagg Field’s length, I became more and more aware of those gothic towers rising across the street.

Hull Gate & pond

Hull Gate & pond

Once I’d made a dash for Hull Gate, the entrance to the quadrangles, aiming for the pond inside as though I owned the place. The dark water under the lily pads hid goldfish and turtles, which you could see if you sat very still on the stone bridge. I knew every alcove where you echoed, exactly how much the bottoms of your feet hurt when you jumped from each wide stone balustrade, which ones you could run down and which you couldn’t. I knew in which square you could find shouting sun and where the shade was very old and shivery. There was a tiny lovely chapel to peek into, but it was always very sad. I knew the hot places in the sidewalk where you could warm your undersides even as the cold bit your fingers. The important question then was deciding whether Mitchel Fountain was better spouting water in summer or covered for winter when you could run up its wooden roof, the echoes of your feet making all the surrounding spires take note.

But even then the sound faded and left the quiet bigger than before; the quadrangles again became scenic easements for the towers of the mind. Botany Pond was there for science.

P1010536So even then I ran back through the gate, away from those encircling expectancies, to the comfortable monotony of the unwanted field. There was a door in the wall, a gigantic, double-leaved iron-hasped castle door that give birth in its midriff, like a laugh, to a little door. On rare days the shell would condescend a peek—the little door would be open. It was the peephole in a giant shadow box, granting a glimpse of a magic world. All I remember were joggers running the track, football teams from other places practicing, but I’d watch spellbound until the empty bleachers shrunk the activity to silliness. Bleachers are usually empty, but these had the dusty sadness of a face no one wants anymore, and I think the field was grateful for that human flurry even as it reduced it to insignificance.

Bits of memory jumped about in my mind, of our alley packed with cars, the din of horns and noisemakers, raccoon coats and pennants, and sitting in a third floor window watching the scoreboard through someone’s binoculars. I’m told I can have no such memory, that the University of Chicago stopped playing football before I was born—but it’s a fitting memory. What could I substitute? The name of Amos Alonzo Stagg? We used to roll it off our tongues, but I saw him once, and he was an old man—little and very wrinkled. A few stale football songs rattling around coffee houses? Some maroon and white football uniforms stolen for Halloween parties? The human sized door was usually closed and my four-times-daily walk a trudge—so I kept the memory.

One morning Pearl Harbor was bombed. We woke to find the adult world steamrolled, trying to shake out, to reorient. The smudgy chalk lines of everyday were wiped away and replaced by pen and ink. The railroads brought long unseen cousins and uncles to our house, all in uniform, pressed, with gold braid and shiny buttons, on their way to war. The living room where my father read was filled with students, gloriously transformed into officers, and then they were gone too. Life acquired new habits—ration stamps, paper drives and tinfoil balls. And songs. Hitler’s voice came over the short-wave, along with German voices singing as they marched—and we learned songs to match theirs. And every Saturday afternoon at the Frolic theater, newsreels showed jackboots marching through the silent streets of Europe.

Then a map went up on the dining room wall so the war could teach us our geography, and the Chicago Tribune produced endless words. And we learned to focus beyond, to comment, to evaluate, to judge. Little, after all, was different.

Except Stagg Field. Stagg Field acquired a mysterious life. How did we know? A child always knows when an adult is hiding something behind his back. Her walls were suddenly too stiff, her doors too closed; there was too much of the wrong kind of quiet—she was no longer empty; she was shut. Every passing school child knew something was going on in Stagg Field, and knew with equal certainty that it was “secret war work.” Every fedora pulled too low became a German, every overcoat too long a Jap, and the comings and goings at the West end of the field inspired new plots daily. The stories were ours, for our entertainment, to liven up the trudge along the wall.

But then one day the castle doors themselves began to open. Slowly. With great complaint. And when they were all the way open, they revealed two Sunshine Laundry trucks. Beside each truck stood a guard with a tommygun. Someone had stolen our spy thriller and turned it into a Marx Brothers comedy. In the days that followed, our nostrils and skins picked up the tension. We stopped telling spy stories.

One day when peeked through the fence to see the sheep behind the yellow brick corner building, I saw an armed guard instead of sheep. When my brother and I came back an hour later, on our way back to school, we stopped before we got to the corner because we couldn’t hear the street. It was missing. Instead we heard marching feet—jackboots come to Ellis Avenue. We crept forward and watched the squad of men that marched back and forth in the street that had taken cover. We ran. By the time we returned from school it was over—it happened and unhappened.

No one would—or could—explain. It was a time of odd silences, of breaks and pauses in adult sentences. So it remained suspended in memory for two years, until I stood looking down at the evening paper and understood.

 

Mushroom cloud

Mushroom cloud

“Fifty thousand dead” “the scientists at the University of Chicago have succeeded”  “the war is over”  “splitting of the atom” “ten thousand dead” “heralds a new age” “Hiroshima” “under the decaying stands of an abandonned football fiels” “death toll” “breakthrough”

Words were blown free, subjects could not find predicates my mind could embrace. If the scientists had fathered fission who had fathered death? For a few days the university herself seemed shaken, turned and looked behind her aghast. At the dinner table, my father said nothing. His face was not abstracted; it was gray.

But it was atomic fission, not the bomb, that was born under the stands that day, and the soldiers were a suicide squad, not the war come home. The towers pulled themselves together and turned around again. “Science must be free and pure, and is in no way liable for the uses men find for its discoveries.” I don’t remember my father saying that; I remember the words as coming from the air we breathed, from the towers themselves, the sound of a congregation chanting its creed.

Sometimes my father stared at the table, but we were of the faith. When it came my turn, I walked the aisle of Rockefeller Chapel and received my confirmation. It’s nice to be ennobled. The dirty belching mill town where I grew up has felt its touch. Picasso’s beast spreads its

Mushroom Cloud

Mushroom Cloud

wings where I remember pawnshops; Alex Calder’s ‘Flamingo’ has lighted in a place I was not allowed to go; seasons are marked by Chagal’s mosaic instead of by the tone of the lake wind. Not long ago the workers of the mills and slaughterhouses, Sandburg’s “hog butchers of the world,” were transformed into Miro’s peasant, pitchfork pointed to the sky. I like to think I’m a part of that, but I know better. I received my monument twenty years after that December noon, when the university ordered the West Stands torn down and commissioned a monument to symbolize science’s gift to the world that day. Henry Moore gave us a mushroom cloud—set in stone. I can still feel the faculty’s shock, my father’s rage at that choice of symbol. They tore down the rest of the field and built a library that towers above that little ball of stone, but it doesn’t change anything. It is still mine, and I’m still standing there where the old field opened her shabby arms and received that bastard child.

 

 

The Magic of Storytelling

 

magic lamp

magic lamp

In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I talked about the origin of stories, and I found myself thinking about its magical qualities. Why, when I sat down to write a story for the first time, did a childhood experience emerge full blown in an afternoon? Where did it come from? What gave it form? Why did a door closed to me for thirty years burst open to let it forth? Why that experience?

 Most writers today don’t talk about their Muse, though the word does express the mystery of the experience I describe above. The question demands a rational answer to a process that isn’t rational, so it must always fail. It apparently emerged from my unconscious, but we don’t, as a rule, gain access to our unconscious by any willful act. And why that story? By hindsight, looking at it, I’d say the experience gives form to my ambivalence about the academic world I grew up in. I witnessed, at ten, the birth of the atomic age, the event that would change the world, shape my adulthood—the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century, but I learned the meaning of that day from the mushroom cloud on the front page of the newspaper. Hiroshima. The adults around me struggled through shock for a response and in the end proclaimed: “Science searches for Truth. We’re not responsible for the uses men put it to.” But my father’s face was gray.

 I can also see that that deep seated conflict shaped my life—and my writing. I lived on the fringes of universities most of my life—as child, student, wife, parent, temporary faculty—without embracing it. I have a deep respect for the education it gave me, but I abhor its arrogance; I love ideas, but I’m no scholar. Indeed, the very experience I describe here gave voice to the person academia suppressed. So the story tells me a lot about myself.

 The story I wrote that afternoon, “Stagg Field, 1943,” is non-fiction, but for me the process of fiction is not that much different. The magic is always its appearance, the ability of the unconscious to give form to such emotional truths in a form they can be shared.

 Next week I’ll share it with you.

magoc book

magoc book

In Memoriam: In Memory of Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport

 

In an earlier blog, I urged everyone who hopes to be a writer to look back and relive their times with those magic people whose influence opened the writer in them. One of my magic people died this past summer. Fortunately, I returned to Ann Arbor this spring and visited her in the living room where she and I often talked into the night. I hope those memories helped carry her through her last days. This blog is for her — in memory of Libby Davenport.

Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport

1918-2012

In Memory of Libby

Few of us find the moment to tell others how important they have been in our lives. Too often such a statement suggests their life is over, so we keep silent. I feel that regret now, and so, late or not, I write this to you, Libby.

Without you, I would not have become a writer, the activity closest to my heart. I knew and respected you first as Chairman of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party and found you a lively and entertaining neighbor and friend. But it was when I discovered that you wrote stories, or when you discovered I aspired to do the same (I don’t remember which came first) that you became such an essential part of my life.

Those countless evenings spent in your dining room, the latest scribbled versions of our stories spread out before us, made the difference for me, between a vague wish to become a writer and pursuing it with a perseverance that surprises even me. Libby, your certainty that I was a writer and your conviction that I had a story worth telling changed my view of myself, and your stories, deeply meaningful and edged with wit, gave me a goal to aspire to.

This is to say nothing of your friendship. Your warmth, support, and above all your ability to make me laugh at a time when life’s events might have swallowed me, sustained me during the tumultuous years of the late Sixties and Seventies. As Director of Student Activities at the University of Michigan, you lived in the midst of the campus revolutions, and your steady humor and experience carried me through as my marriage and my children’s’ lives were caught in the fray. Such friends are not replaceable, and even today, forty years later, I miss you sorely.

Go in peace, Libby, knowing that you have lived fully and counted deeply in the lives you have touched.

Next week, the power of place in creating my stories.

From Writer to Author

The Path from Writer to Author

Many writers claim they only write for themselves. I was one of those once, chiefly because the whole notion of being published was beyond the power of my imagination. However, the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards, won by authors such as Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Marge Piercy, had, once upon a time before the merger of publishing houses, guaranteed publication. Wining two of them catapulted me into another (and unrealistic) state of mind.

I sailed into writing query letters to agents with the wind at my back and smack into the wall of reality. I had no idea how to write a query letter, was a lousy editor of same, and agents were now contending with mega-publishing houses interested largely in bestsellers. This was long before the Internet, where I could Google questions and receive a wealth of information.

And there were other problems. I was by that time self-supporting and the mother of two teenage daughters whose lives had been disrupted by divorce. Between the first Hopwood award and the second (ten years later) I had also lost one of those daughters in a car accident.

But I kept writing. Why? Another easy question. Magic people: Robert Haugh, my first writing coach, Elizabeth (Libby) Davenport, writer and neighbor, who insisted I had a story to tell (and is the subject of another blog), Rhoda Weyr, an agent who singled me out because of the first sentence of a short story, read at a conference workshop, and the members of critique groups who have become fast friends. If, looking back, you have such people in your lives, hold them dear; they anchor your dreams. Rhoda Weyr never liked my novels as well as that short story, nor did she, in the end, take me on as a client, but she remained an ear who was interested. That is what counts.

Writers WorkshopI went to places where writers gather to talk writing. I scraped together the money to go to Bread Loaf, Indiana University Writers Conference, and any local conferences I could. I now find myself in the Pacific Northwest, the most conference-rich place I’ve ever lived. I can, within a two hour’s drive, attend conferences or workshops for some five organizations.  For the first time in my life I have to put myself on a diet—pick and chose the events for the year. My home group is the Skagit Valley Writers League, where I’ve served on the board for some six years and where interaction with writer/friends keeps my pen flowing.

Interested listeners, also known as critique groups, are the next essential. My Ann Arbor group began with Libby and added Toni Fuhrman and Nancy Shaw; I found another group in Santa Barbara after I moved there to teach, and yet another here in Washington State when I retired. They are my most honest critics and my most enduring friends. Most importantly they N Shaw boook coverkept me writing. Nancy Shaw, of the Ann Arbor group, Valerie Hobbs, of the Santa Barbara group, and Norma Tadlock Johnson, of the Washington group all became published authors long before I did, and their success kept publication a reality over some thirty odd years.

Yes, thirty. I look at that number and cringe. Surely any sane person would have conceded they weren’t good enough and quit. Some ornery stubbornness kept me writing and going to writers’ conferences, my third key to becoming an author. They immerse you in a sea of writers talk, others stumbling along as you are, and they teach the necessary craft for both writing and publishing. They give dreams the necessary grit to v Hobbs book coversustain them.

For twenty of those years I taught college writing full time, and I did publish articles on academic writing. Though very different from fiction, that writing and the colleagues who were my collaborators kept the writer in me alive, and publication of a textbook (with colleague Mark Schlenz) put me, finally, in that place called “author”. Thanks to those individuals, critique groups, and conferences, I also kept writing fiction, though the demands of professional development reduced publishing efforts to an occasional spurt.

Johnson book coverRetirement finally brought me the time to focus on becoming an author of fiction. Over those thirty years, of course, the market had become harder and harder for new writers to break into. But that didn’t matter. Or I refused to let it matter. I’d waited too long to quit. By this time I knew the craft of publishing—querying, synopsizing, researching agents and publishers—and I regularly forced myself away from story-writing to do it. Like most writers, I hated it, and three new novels later I had gotten nowhere. For the first time, I began to ask “Why am I subjecting myself to perpetual failure?” At my age, it was surely time to accept the facts of life.

Then came digital publishing and the explosion of small presses and variations on the traditional publishing model. A couple of writing conference sessions on small and micro-presses later, I tossed my list of agents aside and changed gears. Whether they succeed or not, these presses still count the writer, not the bottom line, as their purpose. Yes, they have to survive, and many of them won’t, but finding an ear listening to the story not the market gave a huge dose of oxygen to the writer-me. Whether because of the focus of those presses or my own changed attitude, I don’t know, but within a couple of months, I had an offer—and for that Hopwood novel written thirty years ago, now titled Nowhere ElseNowhere Else To Go cover To Go. There’s something oddly affirming about that, like, “See? I was good enough all along.” For more on Nowhere Else To Go, click www.judithkirscht.com/books.html

Many writer friends are taking advantage of the digital age by going the self-publishing route, but I confess that, after so many years of query letters, I need the industry’s affirmation. An offer on another novel, The Inheritors, came just months after the first saw print and has affirmed my decision to go that route. And to plunge into marketing—which I find as hard or harder than I found writing query letters thirty years ago.

So when you are ready to give it all up, reflect on your path from writer to author. Reach back and touch the memory of those people, groups, and conferences that made you a writer, let their effect on you flow back in and refuel that stubborn, refuse-to-listen-to-failure self.

Next week, a memorial to Libby Davenport, one of the magic people in my life.

 


 

Becoming A Writer by Judith Kirscht, Author of The Inheritors

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtHello, my name is Judith Kirscht (better known as Judy), author of two novels so far:  THE INHERITORS, published in e-book and paper by New Libri Press this year, and  NOWHERE ELSE TO GO  published by Florida Press,  in 2011.  What follows is this writer’s long journey of becoming.

Becoming a Writer

The birth of the writer-me, much less the author, is lost in time. My mother said I wrote beautiful stories as a child, but I remember only snatches—one of an old man who lived at the top of a hill. No more. I have no idea where he came from or what happened to him; there are no hills in Chicago, where I grew up. I wrote a poem for my high school year book. I remember that. About my grandmother and great aunt who never got along. My parents were less than amused when they discovered I’d used their real names. My first lesson in writing.

But the writer was still buried deep under family expectations. Born of a professor father and housewife mother, we were raised and educated in the shadow of the University of Chicago’s Gothic towers, and it shaped our lives. My brothers were expected to aspire to its halls, my sister and I were expected to marry professors and live, as our mother did, in service to their academic careers.

Of the four of us, I was the only one to follow that path. Whether from the weight of those expectations or the heavily philosophical, analytical focus of my university education I don’t know, but it took twenty years of marriage and a therapist’s suggestion for me to ask myself what I wanted to be other than a wife and mother. The answer was waiting for the question. A writer, of course. Where had that person grown enough to demand my attention? My husband told me I’d said I wanted to be a writer years before, but I’d evidently buried that in my subconscious, too.

So I signed myself up to talk to Robert Haugh, creative writing professor at the University of Michigan, where my husband was a professor, then realized he would undoubtedly want to see something I’d written. Duh. So I sat down with a yellow pad and started to write. From my pen emerged the story of my brother and me standing transfixed as a squad of soldiers marched back and forth in front of the old football stadium a block from our apartment house. Though we had no idea what was going on, we were watching the birth of the atomic age. When I reread that story today, I realize it is also the story of my troubled relationship with the halls of academia.

Nowhere Else To Go by Judith Kirscht“You’re a writer,” he said, and so the writer emerged. Professor Haugh took me on as a student, and I began the long process of becoming. My second attempt at a novel won a Hopwood, the university’s creative writing award, and that first yellow-pad essay another, ten years later.

From writer to published author? Another long story, but ironically enough, that Hopwood novel (Nowhere Else To Go) was the first to see the light of day. With a little luck, the four others in the drawer may follow. So if you are an author-to-be, keep writing.

Next week: From Writer to Author

 

Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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