Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Live Lit in Chicago!!

It was a dark and stormy night… No wait, it was a lovely sunny autumn afternoon!

It had been quite a while since I’d played in the sandbox of Chicago’s thriving “live lit” scene. Two years, to be exact, since I’d stepped up in front of an audience at a Chicago Writers Conference “after hours” event to read one of my favorite essays, “Mink Recycling.” (And yes, a hand-me-down mink stole and chandelier earrings were involved that night.) But here I was, hurtling along in three lanes of southbound interstate traffic, headed back to my beginnings in the city of the big shoulders.

A lot stands in the way of getting to Chicago to read out loud very often, most of it made up of more than 120 miles of pavement between my home and my home town. And the occasional stretch of horrible winter weather, always a wild card when planning to show up someplace on time.

But the itch to read in front of a crowd again had been creeping up on me, and when the hosts of the “live lit” series That’s All She Wrote, Angela Benander and Jessica “J.H.” Palmer graciously folded me in to their September event, I was tickled pink, totally excited, and absolutely thrilled. Plus, I had a new book to promote, “When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances,” and it behooved me to get out from behind the keyboard a bit more often.

If you’d asked anybody I went to high school, or college, or law school with, they might die of shock. Public speaking was not only not my long suit, it quite apparently filled me with terror. Difficulty breathing-hyperventilating-unable to get the words to come out without laboring efforts-terror. There’s a reason I’d been so comfortable as a writer for so much of my life—I could hide behind a keyboard and work and rework my words until I got them right, then dispatch them with a keystroke or two to their destinations.

I had striven hard in law school to get this pathological fear and tendency toward panic attacks under control. A courtroom is no place for the faint of heart, and a prosecuting attorney is in court most of the time. I quickly found my comfort zone in the beautiful little Art Deco courthouse I work in on the shore of Lake Michigan. But when the call went out a few years ago at the start-up of the reading series, Essay Fiesta, I sensed another personal challenge was at hand, and dived right in.

Over the next couple of years, I read at several Essays Fiestas held at The Book Cellar, and a couple of “open mic” sessions at The Beauty Bar hosted by the literary magazine, “Two with Water.”

This upcoming night with That’s All She Wrote upped the ante just a little more. Not only had “live lit” expanded into a thriving, competitive scene of occasionally intense physicality and theatricality (e.g. Ian Belknap!) in Chicago…this one was being staged at the upscale Great Lakes Tattoo Parlor on Grand Avenue just west of the Loop. With free beer, no less!
Seriously, you have to admit that the words “live lit” combined with “tattoo” and “free beer” just have a naturally edgier cachet than, say, a bookstore or a bar. Yeah! So into my shoe closet I dived and pulled out my new electric blue suede high heels. Then, like Dorothy skipping down the road in her ruby slippers, I made my way to a section of Grand Avenue I’d never actually traversed while growing up in the city.

I had picked an essay I wrote back when I was still just blogging at Running with Stilettos, before I ever decided to collect my essays into a book…and then two…and then two more. “Cordless and Dangerous” was what I brought to the feast on Sunday, a recounting of my first post-divorce power tool buy, a cordless drill.

On the surface, it told the tale of how I wrestled with fixing a broken pasture fence by myself one day and the series of comic missteps and lessons learned the hard way until the job was done. But it was also about that moment that a divorced woman eventually faces, when there is a crisis at hand that requires a tool kit, and literally no one else to call to fix it, and the only thing left to do is to take up the gauntlet, walk into a hardware store and say—in essence—“rack ’em.”

It is the distance between considering your only tools to be baking pans and mixing bowls, and understanding the difference between a flat-head and a Phillips screwdriver. Between throwing your hands up in despair and wailing “oh no, what am I going to do?” and asking yourself “now where did I put that d—n hex wrench?”

So up to the microphone I stepped, and explained. About myself and the fact I was happy to be back in my home town again. About this particular essay and the emotional journey it represented. And about yet one more thing I valued about the storytelling surge in Chicago.

And that is that as person after person takes their place at center stage, I am drawn back to the same vibes I felt as a parent of young children in grade school. I’ve raised four kids, and so have spent more hours than I can possibly remember sitting in churches, and school auditoriums, and gymnasiums, waiting for recitals, and Christmas programs, and spring concerts, and any number of choreographed performances to start.

And as the lights would dim for the audience and the program of the night was about to start, I remember there would be a collective hush of anticipation and a leaning in, a clutching of the heart as it were, as a tide of good feelings and hope flowed silently toward the stage. Call me a sentimental fool, but that’s some of the same stuff I feel at an event where writers are “reading out loud.”

I was amazed and humbled by the talent and humor and passion of my fellow performers that night!

Angela Benander told of the personal challenges of a solo camping trip, only some of which had to do with the physical tasks of pitching a tent or starting a fire.
Jessica Palmer brought us along on a tenth wedding anniversary trip where she introduced her very urban husband to a former boyfriend and current organic farmer.
Paul Dailing, a journalist who writes the blog 1001 Chicago Afternoons, did a searing stream-of-consciousness journey to the grinding realities of “bond court” in the Cook County criminal justice system.
Karen Genelly, a former Chicago Public School teacher, had us screaming in our seats with laughter at her narrative of teaching “sex ed” every day for six weeks to middle-schoolers.
And in a gosh-its-a-small-world connection, the last performer was Karen Shimmin, who currently co-hosts Essay Fiesta! Karen started us off with laughter at the comic side of setting out to buy a camera lens from a talkative shopkeeper, but then seamlessly segued into a moving reflection on the randomness of horrific events that can happen when natural forces such as gravity and falling ice collide with the man-made forests of skyscrapers.
In yet another “six degrees of separation” moment for me that night, I met Chicago storyteller Lily Be, who co-hosts and produces the story-telling series The Stoop. Turns out Lily goes to the same Catholic church, Maternity B.V.M. on North Avenue, where I made my First Communion and attended all eight years of grade school. Who knew?
I felt my brain synapses absolutely crackling as I finally left Great Lakes Tattoo when the evening was done. Once in my car, I checked my smart phone for a map of how to get back on the Kennedy Expressway from my parking space on a side street, but could make no sense of it.

But…no worries. As a Chicago girl, I am as oriented to the zero-sum significance of the intersection of State and Madison as a homing pigeon, and so I headed eastward, the opposite direction of home and directly toward the Loop. The skyscrapers that had gleamed warmly in the setting sun as I drove in now glittered in the dark like rhinestones in moonlight, a lighthouse beacon of vast and familiar proportions.

Instinct steered me like the North Star to a marker I recognized. Two left turns later, I was on the highway ramp at Ontario, hurtling toward the Kennedy Expressway, delighted to find that the northbound “express” lanes were open in my favor at that late hour.

I gunned my tiny Honda into the express lane, whose steep no-margin-for-error concrete sides felt like the entrance to an Olympic toboggan chute. And then, with the twinkling lights of the Chicago skyline dimming in my rear view mirror, I drove back home to my house in the woods.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"Tagged" in a BLOG TOUR!!

At this age—let’s just say “over thirty”—you don’t get too many invitations to play a game of “tag.” You remember those! Running across summer lawns and darting around trees and bushes, trying to outrun your buddies to get to the “free” zone before someone caught you and then you were IT. But being invited to join a virtual “blog tour” has been just as much fun for this grown-up author…and didn't even require breaking a sweat! That’s what happened recently, just in time to promote my new book, When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances. This would be my “best of” collection of essays from my first three books, and includes riffs on turbo-dating, power tools, shoes, motherhood, and the view from the back of a Harley. I got “tagged” for the tour by author Catherine Fitzpatrick, author of Going on Nine, a YA novel that’s a “coming of age” story set in St. Louis in 1956.
While Catherine and I haven’t met YET, the wonderful thing about the world wide web is how you can get to know folks anyway. I’d describe Catherine as a “dame,” in the sense that Lauren Bacall was a “dame”—accomplished, incredibly smart, talented and FUNNY! As a kick-ass journalist, Catherine was in Manhattan to cover New York Fashion Week for Wisconsin’s largest newspaper on September 11, 2001. At first word of the terrorist attacks, she rushed to Ground Zero and filed award-winning eyewitness reports. A front page of the newspaper edition containing one of her 9/11 dispatches is among those memorialized in Washington D.C.’s Newseum. Now she writes fiction, and she and her husband will be exiting the Midwest soon for a new life in Florida.

THANK YOU CATHERINE for inviting me into this tour! 


“What am I working on”—several things at once! But at this exact moment, I’m under the gun in the next two weeks to create an exhibit catalog for “Resting Places,” a joint art show between moi and artist Erico Ortiz that opens October 4, 2014 at Inspiration Studios in West Allis, Wisconsin near Milwaukee. I’ve developed a minor obsession with taking photographs in small rural cemeteries, and the show will feature twenty-one of my graveyard photos matched up with Erico’s abstract and impressionistic paintings inspired by nature.

After that, I’ll pick up where I left off in writing (1) a YA novel that contains NO vampires, werewolves, mermaids or dystopian societies, (2) a first-in-a-series suspense novel featuring a female prosecuting attorney (go figure!), and (3) a children’s book revolving around a kitten and…oh, I need to keep some things secret!

“How does my work differ from others in its genre?” Well, the genre for all my books up to now would be considered a mashup of slice-of-life essays and memoir. Some are about the happy stuff, others about the heartaches, and all are about what we take away from those things. I can’t remember who he was quoting when I interviewed him many years ago, but Bill Moyers told me that we all look at the world through the lens of our own experience. So while I often say that I write about things that are common experiences—joy, love, motherhood, divorce, reinvention, death, chocolate and shoes—it’s MY cracked lens you’re seeing them through! I've been compared to Erma Bombeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City." Go figure! I'm still trying to figure out the Hemingway thing...

But one thing…there are many extremely gifted writers who peel everything back to the bone when they’re writing their memoirs, and lay bare a lot of ugly and painfull stuff. I tend to focus more on the positives, or at least to draw a forgiving screen across some of the worst. I don't want my readers to wince. Though once in a while they may want to grab a hankie...

“Why do I write what I do?” That’s an interesting question! I have often joked that with these essay collections, I was an “accidental author.” My life as a professional writer started when I was about 21 and began writing for the Milwaukee Sentinel daily newspaper as a stringer. Then I worked for the larger Milwaukee Journal on staff for a while, and turned to freelance magazine when I started a family. Then, years later, the horseback riding accident that broke my back and put me in a body cast for a while turned me toward law school and I thought writing was behind me.

Then the writing itch came back a few years later, and I started working on that novel about the female prosecutor. I got about eight chapters written, but then kept getting interrupted by serial family emergencies, some of which were taking me out of town on a regular basis. The novel got set aside, naturally. But some friends dragged/pushed/pulled me into starting my “Running with Stilettos” blog. I found I could sit and write short stuff, and it kept the top of my head from flying off.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the emergencies are behind me and I can once again pick up a project that requires a long-running train of thought!

“How does my writing process work?” Ha ha ha ha…catch as catch can!! When the kids (who are now all grown up and out of the nest) were small, I would write when they were napping. Or,  if I was really cramming for a deadline, I’d get up at four in the morning to finish a project. Waiting for inspiration to strike while an editor somewhere was tapping her foot on the floor was never a luxury I could afford. Now, years later, I still feel like I’m fitting it in around the edges of everything else—work, commute, pets, yard work, connecting with my children. BUT…if something has to come out, sometimes I’ll just drop everything and write notes on anything that’s within reach. Like the back of a manila envelope in the car. Or  the “notes” section of my iPhone. And I get a lot of inspiration from nature, which I get a slow-motion tour of every day while I’m walking Lucky and The Meatball in the woods.

And NOW, to pass the torch to three other accomplished writers who I am privileged to know and recommend! First at bat…

Angela Lam Turpin, a self-described “California girl” who spends her days
working in real estate and finance and the hours before dawn writing literary short stories,
paranormal romance, crime thrillers, and effervescent women's fiction better known as chick-lit. Her short stories explore the depths of human emotion from hope to despair, and the heroines in her novels fight the challenges of their lives with pluck and courage.  (The literary apples don’t fall far from the tree, since Angela is one of the most resilient people I know!) She is best known for her wry humor, realistic plots, and engaging characters. Her latest book is The Human Act and Other Stories, a collection of short stories that explore sexual identity, poverty, romantic love, parenthood, eating disorders, infidelity, and family relationships, effortlessly carrying the reader from the inner city to suburbia.

Next up,  David W. Berner, a Chicago-area college professor and broadcaster who I first encountered when we were both reading essays to a crowd at The Beauty Bar on
Chicago’s near North side on a Sunday night. David’s first book, "Accidental Lessons," is a memoir drawn from his mid-life decision to spend a challenging year as a public school teacher with kids would could politely be called “at risk” and the profound lessons he drew from it. His most recent book, Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons, is drawn from his 5,000 mile road trip with his teenaged sons as they retrace Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” adventures.  I’ve always been a big fan of time spent in a car with my own children, and the emotional tributaries that reveal themselves when the rubber meets the road.

And finally, there’s Holly Sullivan McClure, who I first met in the enchanted environs of St. Simons Island, Georgia several years ago when I attended my first Scribblers Retreat Writers' Conference as a guest speaker. Holly could be the dictionary definition of “eclectic,” inasmuch as she is an author, a story-teller, a literary agent, a writing coach,
and an ordained priest in the Celtic Christian Church! Raised by storytellers, preachers, and bluegrass musicians, she is a child of the Smoky Mountains with a Cherokee mom and a father whose people came from the Scottish Highlands, Holly draws on her heritage for inspiration. In her latest book, The Vessel of Scion, warrior priests

protect an ancient blood line from an enemy determined to eradicate it from the world. Faith and reality collide as final prophecies come to pass, and two children hold the key to whether good or evil will win out.

Now Angela, David and Holly, officially you guys are “IT”!

Friday, August 1, 2014

When the Shoe Fits... is LIVE!

 When the Shoe Fits...Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances  is now LIVE in the Amazon store, with some lovely reviews and a Discussion Guide for book clubs in the back of the book.
So CLICK HERE  to take a look, read a preview, post a review if you've already read an advance copy, and generally just check out this "best of" collection essays, which pulls essays from my earlier three books and adds some new ones, including "The Limoncello Diaries" and "A Hoarder's Revenge."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Resting Places

I have become utterly enchanted with the art, and the silence, and the poignance of old graves in cemeteries. Whether ornate and well-traveled, or plain and forgotten, off the beaten path on two-lane country roads and beside steepled churches in small towns, these stone markers stand as testaments to the fact that we want to be remembered, and that we mattered, and that we were, above all, loved...


Monday, April 14, 2014

When the Shoe Fits...

Coming soon!! (okay, in late summer...)

Available on AMAZON in Kindle and paperback format on AUGUST 1, 2014!

This "best of" collection of my favorite essays includes the award-winning "Wildflower Seeds and Beer," "May it Please the Court," "Love in the Time of Cupcakes," and "Mink Recycling." And it wouldn't possibly be complete without reader favorites "Turbo Dating--A Year in Review," "Home Fires Burning" and "The Devil on Horseback"!

Perfect for gift-giving, AND the book also includes a back-of-the-book DISCUSSION GUIDE for book clubs. $18.95 U.S. paperback, $7.95 U.S. Kindle.

***Contact the author at runwstilettos (at) yahoo (dot) com for an electronic Advance Review Copy.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Villa Louis Carriage Classic

I was looking for a break from routine, and decided on a weekend getaway to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and the 2013 Villa Louis Carriage Classic. Ah bliss! Of course, I could stare at horses parading past all day long and never get tired. The weather was perfect, and with the Mississippi River rolling by on a warm summer day, you couldn't ask for anything more.