One of my friends received a proposal recently. Not a marriage proposal, more like a plea for help thinly disguised as a business deal.

Fame Awaits

She’s an accomplished writer whose memoir was published by a prestigious academic press. She teaches writing at the university level. A stranger called and asked her to write his memoir. Someone had given him her name. An elderly fellow without much money, he couldn’t afford to pay her, but he knew Hollywood would be interested in his story. She would share the payoff when it was optioned.

I happened to be with my friend when she got the phone call. I listened to her explain that she had too much work to take on his project. She added gently that ghost writers are paid thousands of dollars to do what he was asking. The possibility of a Hollywood payoff wasn’t enough.

Why not write the story himself, she suggested. There were local writing groups that cost nothing to join. He swept the idea aside. Transportation was a problem for him, and anyway he just wanted to someone to put his story on paper. It was a tremendous story. Hollywood would snap it up.

The man kept ignoring her tactful refusals, so it took her awhile to get off the phone.

My first reaction is disdainful amusement. How could anyone be that naive? And nervy—to think an accomplished writer would spend hours and hours of hard work for the chance to share his pipe dream.

Some people.

Then empathy kicks in. Here’s a person whose story will never be told because he lacks energy and resources. I imagine him living in some ramshackle house in the country, dreaming of Hollywood. Poor and elderly and maybe sick, he has asked for help. I feel sorry for him, but not sorry enough to offer myself as his ghost writer. Time and energy are too precious. None of us knows for certain how much we have left. The older I get, the more I treasure mine.

Writers face frustration and failure all the time. They work day jobs and forgo a social life to write in the evening. They solicit agents and get perfunctory rejections or no answer at all. Once they find representation, the agent might not put much effort into placing the manuscript, especially if the first few editors show no interest. If the manuscript is accepted, the writer waits a long time for publication and receives little promotional help from the publisher. This process—from querying agents to seeing one’s book in print—takes years.

And seldom does Hollywood notice the book’s existence.

Another Forlorn Place

Writers who decide to go indie have their own set of problems. They become responsible for every aspect of publication—editing, proofreading, layout, cover design and creation, promotion and marking. Only a few writers master all of these tasks well enough to meet professional standards and only a few have the money to pay professionals to do everything. So they produce the sloppy books that give indie authors a bad reputation.

As an indie author, I’ve cheaped out and overestimated what I could do. In some ways I’m ashamed of the first edition of Talion and wish I could make every copy disappear. Instead, they remain out in the world, hard evidence of my ignorance and overconfidence. Like everyone else, I learn from my mistakes and move on.

Seeing the guy with Hollywood dreams from this angle, I’m not so sympathetic. He doesn’t want to create anything. He wants the fame and money that occasionally come from creative work. And he expects someone else to do the work, to spend time and energy on a project likely to fail.

And when it does, he has lost nothing.

That's me on the upper left.

On May 31 I retired from the teaching position I held for more than three decades. Last month the English department at Eastern Illinois University had a party for the three of us who were retiring. Actually, the department has two parties every year – at the end of fall and spring semesters – whether anyone retires or not. They’re pot luck affairs, and since many of my colleagues are excellent cooks, I look forward to the food. (And yes, I plan to keep showing up.) The department chairman and his wife host the May party. They have a beautiful house with a large backyard, a lush spread of grass where children can run and play. Because people bring their children, it feels like a family event.

In many ways I yearned for retirement. It meant more time to write and publish books — both my own and those of other authors— through Cantraip Press. More time to blog. More time to play Scrabble and ride my horse. But as the days counted down to the semester’s end, I felt anxiety and sorrow and couldn’t understand why. I wanted to retire! At the party the answer came to me.

I loved teaching in the English department at EIU. Most of the students are a delight, and the world stays fresh when you work with nineteen-year-olds. My colleagues are also friends, better friends than I expected to find in life. I had a schedule that fit my work rhythms and the freedom to design a syllabus that fit my style of teaching. And thanks to our union, a decent salary.

So many people work year after year at jobs they detest, and many others would be grateful for any job at all. I’ve been lucky.

There were generous and thoughtful gifts for us retirees. My colleagues gave me the iPad on which I’m writing this blog and two silver charms that symbolized my two loves, teaching and writing.

Retirement has been good so far, but it’s not without pitfalls. For an introvert and computer junkie like me, social isolation might become a problem. Connecting on Facebook and Twitter is fun, but not the same as interacting with people face to face. And sitting at the computer all day doesn’t make for a full and satisfying life. I’m grateful for my husband, my writing group, and my other good friends. Grateful enough, hopefully, to lift my butt out of the desk chair and spend time with them now and then.

Connected to my penchant for glomming onto the computer is my reluctance to change out of pajamas. Why get dressed, I reason, when nobody sees me except the computer? Oh, and of course my husband, Joe. This habit of mine drives him nuts. He was brought up to believe that naught but worthless slugs lounge through the day in PJs. It’s no use bringing up Proust. Joe will only point out that he’s not married to Proust, he’s married to me, and I should get dressed. NOW! So I put some thought into collecting an at-home wardrobe of pajama-like attire: yoga pants and sweatpants and baggy shorts, oversize T-shirts, and caftans. I even found that mythical garment, the comfortable bra.

But I have no intention of lounging through the day. I have novels to write.

Photo by Casey Sutherland

My thanks to author Cherie Reich for hosting her 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. The contest rules required a story of 300 words or less beginning with the words “lightning flashed.” If you haven’t already read the six finalists and voted for your favorite, please click HERE and then come back!

I signed up for the event in a burst of enthusiasm and immediately had misgivings. Flash fiction isn’t one of my strengths. Long ago I wrote a three-page story that a snarky colleague described as “a tour de force without the force.” The guy was an asshole, and not only because of his snipe at my story, but it still hurt.

As May 21 neared, I considered not posting any story. With so many other entries, who would miss mine?

But entering an event and then blowing it off would make me a flake. A flake is worse than any kind of loser. So I wrote a story about a woman who kills her lover and spent quite a while trimming it to 300 words. The result was “Lorelei.” After posting it, I began hopping from blog to blog and quickly realized “Lorelei” wasn’t going to win the contest or even make the finals. My competitors were good writers, and most of them understood better than me what flash fiction is.

Participating has taught me something about the form.

First of all, a flash fiction piece should tell a story with some kind of conflict and resolution. “Lorelei” does that. But the conflict is presented indirectly through the dreams of a mentally disturbed narrator, which makes it less immediate and dramatic. Second — and here’s the hard part — the story should fit the form. In other words, it’s a story that can be told completely in 300 words or less. The six finalists chosen by Reich meet this requirement. “Lorelei” doesn’t. It really needs to be longer.


Along with teaching me more about my craft, the contest has brought readers to my site. More people dropped by to read and comment on “Lorelei” than on any other post. And everyone had kind things to say. Not one snarky comment. Best of all, though, the blogfest has led me to quite a few interesting blogs and talented writers.

My story lost, but I came out a winner.


Lightning flashes in the hospital window. The sign it will happen tonight.

They bring a capsule that you tongue against your gums to keep it dry as you suck water through a straw. Alone in the dark, you hide it with the others. Without the capsule you can dream.

His shoulder brushes yours in the motel lounge. The swimming pool sparkles without end. He climbs on the bar and executes an elegant dive. You follow, butterflying in the blue water. As you reach for him, he turns on you with a demon grin. You spin away from him, cocooned in water, unable to call his name.

You perch on a rock overlooking the sea, emblematic, like a woman on a vodka label, smearing your breasts with lipstick. And shriek with joy, knowing he will come.

You drink with him in smiling communion. The goblets, the table, everything is made of glass. Shattered by his laughter, it cuts you to pieces. You kneel on the hotel bed. The mattress is a shallow bowl brimming with lotions and cosmetics mixed in a lurid soup. You plunge in the bowl and begin to swim and then realize you’re covered in blood. Even in sleep you feel it, sticky on your skin.

You crushed his skull with a lamp, they say. In your rage you smashed his face to pulp. They say you had a motive, as if you understood what that is. But you’re not guilty, only broken.

You tremble between sheets that nothing can soil or soften, that contain all kinds of suffering and death. The time has come. No more dreams, no more storms, no more addictions or pride. While the nurse works her Sudoku and the stomach pump stands helpless, you’ll swallow the capsules and set yourself free.


“Lorelei” is my entry in Cherie Reich’s 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. To read the other entries, please click here.

Snjezana Marinkovic’s powerful memoir Born in Sarajevo tells two stories: (1) how the beautiful and venerable European city is destroyed by war and ethnic cleansing and (2) how the author loses her home, sees her friends killed or lost to her, and has her family torn apart in the conflict. Integrating the two narratives is a difficult obstacle, one the author hasn’t completely overcome.

Her personal story is compelling and heartbreaking. As a person of mixed heritage, she doesn’t belong with any of the warring groups. She lacks a secure place even within her family since her mother abandoned her and father remarried, and neither he nor her stepmother seems to care about her. Only her paternal grandmother, who raised her, gives her real love. The bond of affection between them is, for me, the soul of the story. It explains how the author survives so much cruelty and destruction without losing her compassion and hope.

Marinkovic is a passionate poet. Her poems, written while she was just a teenager, express her loneliness, anguish, and yearning for home. While a refugee in Czechoslovakia she writes:

I will draw a world without hunger,

without wars,

without anything that I can’t call by the name of love

I will draw the world for you, world for me

world with peace for everyone

The larger story, the tragedy of Bosnia, never quite comes into focus. It’s hard to blame the author since the history of the Bosnian war is complicated and largely unknown to most Americans. She gives a very brief explanation at the beginning, but it isn’t enough to orient readers. During her personal story – the body of the book – she relates horrific events. Often, though, I don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening in the larger context of the war. Granted, it’s difficult to move back and forth between her subjective experience and an objective account of the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

In the concluding chapter, the author finally provides some history and analysis along with a plea for peace and understanding between all peoples. Though frequently moving, the chapter meanders from topic to topic and dissipates some of the energy created by her personal narrative.

But in the end, the strengths far outweigh the shortcomings of this memoir. Those of us who live in peace forget how fragile our world is, how suddenly it could be destroyed, and how human nature looks for someone to blame. And punish. Nine-eleven gave Americans a taste of this truth. Born in Sarajevo serves readers a bitter dish sweetened by Marinovik’s enduring belief in the goodness of people.





I’ve almost finished a novel titled Darkroom about a woman who tries to find out what happened to her missing friend. This rainy day would be ideal for writing toward the final page, but Final Exam week looms with a pile of research papers that must be graded. So instead I’m stealing a few minutes to post a short passage from Darkroom.  Kelly, assistant curator at a small museum, is looking at the portfolio of the photographer who becomes her friend and eventually draws her into a nightmare.

The challenge of this passage was to show how good the photographs are. I wanted to convince readers that Day is as talented as Kelly thinks she is.


Day had talent and skill. Her sense of composition seemed effortless and unerring, and her darkroom technique was above average. Some of her black and white photographs were stereotypes – brazen street kids and elderly men with cartographic faces, derivative of the street photographers of the 60s and 70s. But her best photographs broke through all preconceptions and discovered the secret of each face, its elusive life, so that each became the portrait of an intimate you had yet to meet. She caught the souls of her subjects the way super-fast shutters caught raindrops in mid splatter or hummingbirds in flight.

Several pages were devoted to two women as they partied with different men in the cluttered rooms of a bungalow. The most compelling shot showed the women alone, a fleshy blond and an emaciated redhead. The blond sprawled on a sofa, one leg flung over its low back and the other dangling. Her thighs bulged beneath her skimpy shorts, and one huge breast had slipped from her halter top. Eyes staring upward, unseeing, her face echoed the slackness of her breast. The redhead knelt on the wide sofa arm opposite the blond’s head. Damaged by too many days on the beach, her skin was lined and blotched with freckles that had coarsened into age spots. The skin identified her hair as red, even in black and white. She gazed at the blonde with a faint, contemptuous smile. Her eyes gleamed with hatred.



In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.

After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.

In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.

In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.

While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.

In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.

Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:

Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.

Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.

Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.

I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.

Me and Steve

My brother was born fourteen months after me, and we played together all the time. We invented characters and acted out stories, making up the plots as we went. We kept our fantasies going for weeks at a time. I think our make-believe began when I was six and Steve was five, during the time our parents’ marriage was self-destructing. It went on for years. We stopped when Steve reached adolescence and became embarrassed to play with a girl.

When I was seven, we wrote down and illustrated one of our stories in a blank coloring book. I remember the paper, pulpy and slightly yellow. I can almost picture my childish lettering and the map of our imaginary country drawn in crayon. But I can’t recall the story. In fact, I can’t recall any of our stories. Since the book was lost long ago and Steve is dead, there’s no way to jog my memory.

This make-believe was a large part of my childhood. It connected me to my brother. Losing it feels like losing part of myself.

An article in the March issue of Wired reassures me that I never had any permanent memories to begin with – not in the sense of having an accurate recollection of our fantasies and the times we spent together creating them. In “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever,” Jonah Lehrer reports that scientists have isolated the chemicals that create memories and the chemicals that erase them. Great news for post-traumatic stress victims, drug addicts, chronic-pain sufferers, and other people whose lives have generally sucked.

But right now I’m interested in recovering a few memories. Science offers less hope in that direction. It seems none of our memories are accurate anyway since, Lehrer explains, “the very act of remembering changes the memory itself.”

The brain has to synthesize a lot of proteins and fire up lot of neurons every time it creates a memory. As Lehrer puts it, “The past has to be wired into your hardware.” You might think that once the wiring was there, it would stay put. Not really. Various unsavory experiments involving the torture of innocent rodents show that “every time we think about the past we are delicately transforming its cellular representation in the brain, changing its underlying neural circuitry.” In other words, each time you recall something, the brain rewires the memory, but not quite in the same way.

Illustration from Wired magazine

Nuking a Traumatic Memory

Think about it: every time you remember an event, it becomes less true. If by true you mean what actually happened. The implications are unsettling. Most of us construct a self based on our past – a past we think is real. “That sense of authenticity,” Lehrer says, “is the biggest lie of all.”

It follows that “every memoir should be classified as fiction,” but I disagree with Lehrer’s dismissive conclusion. I think the point of memoir is to bring some stability and permanence to the flux of memory. Once written, the memoir is no longer subject to the vagaries of brain chemistry. At least it records what was true for the writer at the time of writing.

I want to remember the make-believe between me and Steve. So what if it’s not a precise recollection of what happened all those years ago. I’ll take images reduced to ghosts by too many washings in brain enzymes. I’ll take illusions.


Illustration from Wired



I have a friend with amazing talent who is ready to stop writing. Her reasons are complex and personal — as reasons for life-changing decisions generally are — but at their heart is despair. Though she has published numerous stories, she cannot find an agent to represent her, and without an agent she has no access to commercial publishers. She has the disastrous luck of seeking publication during a seismic shift in the publishing landscape. The popularity of e-books is soaring, bookstores are closing, and independent publishers are proliferating. Agents and commercial publishers are looking for sure-fire bestsellers — nothing too quirky or original.

I understand the despair. I’ve been writing fiction a long time. Two reputable agents have taken me on, yet none of my novels found a publisher. In the end, I published one novel myself and discovered how formidable the process of promotion and distribution can be.

My friend might argue, “At least you found two agents.” But what does it say that neither of them could sell my books at a time when publication was easier than it is now? Maybe I’m horribly unlucky. Maybe I’m not quite good enough and never will be. Yet fool that I am, I keep trying because writers without readers are alone in the world. And writers do need validation. Very few can persist without encouragement from somewhere, even if it’s the memory of a high-school teacher who said, “You know, you’ve really got talent.” Most need more than that, but not all need the validation of commercial success or critical acclaim.

Photograph by Claudia Nagel

The deeper question is whether writing is necessary, whether life would be too empty and painful without it. In that case, the writer has no choice but to continue working and seeking receptive readers. Once in a while I reread parts of a little book called Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The authors examine the fears that can prevent artists from creating or doing their best work — including, of course, fear of rejection. There’s a passage I’ve gone back to more than once:

Courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work.

I take a couple of lessons from this passage. First, doing my work, becoming the best writer I’m capable of being, is what matters most. Second, if I’m going to put power in the hands of anyone, it shouldn’t be a stranger who’s looking for something to sell. There are a few people whom I trust to tell me whether I’m making progress, whose honesty, good will, and judgment I trust. They get the power.

In the end, the artist has to decide whether to keep creating. Nobody else can force the decision. But my friend should know that others believe in her talent and hope she’ll come back to her writing.


I love finding new words. As a Scrabble player I see each one as another way to score. But as a reader and writer I value a word for its sound and texture and nuances of meaning. Certain words amaze and delight me when I first come upon them. This happened more often when I was young, less after I grew up and became a teacher. Task-oriented reading has a way of squashing delight before it is born. One is less likely to pause and savor a word when one has five dozen papers to read (which right now, thank the moon and stars, I do not). Anyhow, here are three words that amazed and delighted me as an adolescent reader.

Apoplectic Chestnuts

Apoplexy is stroke – a blood vessel starts leaking into the brain, causing all kinds of dire symptoms up to and including death. But the adjective apoplectic may be used in a figurative sense to describe someone who seems on the verge of having a stroke, or something that causes a stroke or resembles a stroke. Charles Dickens uses the word a lot. In Nickolas Nickleby there is “an ancient butler of apoplectic appearance” and in A Christmas Carol he describes “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I love the way the word sounds, the plosives one after another, popping off like a chain of fireworks. I imagine an apoplectic person as red-faced, bad-tempered and chronically frustrated – like a huge pimple on the verge of bursting.

Anger by Thomas Perkins

Apoplectic Man

Never Drop a Mercury Thermometer

Mercurial means volatile, unpredictable, fast-thinking, imaginative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Originally such qualities were associated with the god or the planet; the sense is now usually understood to allude to the properties of mercury the metal.” As a teenager I loved Greek and Roman mythology, so I associated mercurial with the wing-footed god. Then there came the incident in chemistry class. Mr. Hawks, our teacher, warned us to be careful with the thermometers. A hopeless klutz, I usually let my lab partner handle the equipment while I wrote the report. I was good at the writing reports. But one day I somehow ended up holding the thermometer. And of course I dropped it. The mercury hit the floor and scattered, then drew itself into tense little beads that seemed alive, as though any moment they would slither together and form a pulsating blob that would devour us one by one until it filled the entire classroom. Mr. Hawks confirmed this impression by ordering us to stand back as he vacuumed up the perilous beads.

A Colder Kind of Snotty

A phlegmatic character is the opposite of mercurial. He’s the guy at the party who sits like a lump watching TV and never cracks a joke or laughs at anyone else’s joke. She’s the gal who never dances and falls asleep after one glass of wine. As the OED puts it, being phlegmatic means “having, showing, or characteristic of the temperament formerly believed to result from a predominance of phlegm among the bodily humours; not easily excited to feeling or action; stolidly calm, self-possessed, imperturbable; (with pejorative connotation) sluggish, apathetic, lacking enthusiasm.” There are four bodily humours, or fluids, thought by the ancient Greeks to influence health. One of course is phlegm. The others – blood, yellow bile, and black bile – have words associated with them as well. Sanguine for blood, bilious for bile. But phlegmatic is the most fun of the humourous words. It sounds as though somebody spliced phlegm to automatic to create Phlegm-o-Matic, the amazing new snot-producing machine. I guess that would be just about anybody with a bad cold.

Quack, quack!Sometimes I feel unlucky.  Then something happens to remind me of the good fortune in my life

In the early ’70’s, I attended Knox College, where I earned a B.A. degree with Honors in creative writing. Back then, Knox had one of the few undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Now you can thumb through any issue of Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle and see ads for dozens. But Knox’s program continues to stand out.

Earlier this month, I read twenty-four stories by Knox students and chose the winners for two contests, the Proctor Fenn Sherwin short Story Award and the Davenport Literary Prizes in Fiction. I travelled to Knox and met the eight writers whose stories were winners or runners up.I asked these students why they chose Knox College. All eight of them declared they came because of the creative writing program. It has a national reputation. Catch, the student literary magazine, has won four prestigious prizes in the last six years. The stories I read confirm this excellence. All showed talent and craftsmanship. It was extremely difficult to narrow the field and select the winners.

Clearly Ma has better things to do than garden.Two weeks ago I blogged about a reading I would be giving for the Knox Writers’ House. I had no idea what to expect. Here is what I found. With help and guidance from their advisor, Monica Berlin, students travel throughout the region and record writers as they read their own work and that of writers they admire. The students also conduct interviews, asking biographical questions and questions about place – the rewards and challenges of being a writer in a particular place. They asked me about Charleston, Illinois, where I’ve lived for years. (I couldn’t find much to recommend Charleston except that I belong to a great writers group here and the town offers few distractions. And this area has some  engaging quirks as the photographs show.)

Eventually the archives of the Writers’ House will be posted online as a public resource. It’s an ambitious project, but these students have the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to make it happen. Those were qualities I observed in nearly all the student writers I met. They want to work. They enjoy reading. They love literature and writing.

Free eats!

Their teachers deserve some of the credit for that. The creative writing program has grown to a core faculty of seven, with as many visiting and/or cooperating faculty. Two were teaching when I attended Knox – Robin Metz and Robert Hellenga. It was wonderful to see them again. Others were new to me, but all have the same devotion to writing and teaching. Some writers see teaching as a gig, an easy way to make money. Not the faculty at Knox.

My appreciation for my alma mater has grown through the years as I came to understand the value of what I learned there. Returning has reawakened my love for the place and my dedication to writing. It has reminded me who I am.

I’ve been asked to take part in a project called The Knox Writers’ House.  At this point I don’t know much about the project, only that  it’s associated with my alma mater, Knox College, and that I’ll be interviewed then recorded as I read two selections – something I wrote and something by a writer who inspired me. Choosing my own work was easy. I decided on “What Love Is,” a story about childhood sweethearts whose love ends in disaster. It’s the right length and reads well  out loud. The other choice was harder. So many writers have inspired me at different times in my life.

My first idea was to read the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel shocked some people when it was published in 1955 because its hero is an unapologetic paedophile. But any literate person knows we’re not talking about porno. The tale of Humbert Humbert’s love for thirteen-year-old Lolita is a tragi-comedy written in elegant prose, lyrical and satiric, razor-sharp in its intelligence. It begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Lolita is the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but I also love it for personal reasons. Two courses shy of graduating, I left Knox and moved to Chicago, where I moved in with a friend and looked for a job. I was deeply depressed and drinking a pint of vodka every day. Unsurprisingly, the only job I found was waiting tables at a seedy restaurant, the sort of place where I wouldn’t dream of eating now.  I was fired after a week or two. Not that I cared. Now I had more time to go out drinking. Remembering some of the crazy things that happened then, I feel like I’m channelling someone’s else’s nightmares. During the day I slept and watched TV. Only friendship kept my roommate from kicking my ass out.

One day I got sick of soap operas and picked up a book. It happened to be Lolita. I was awed. I remembered something I’d forgotten – that a writer creates meaning from the chaos of experience, and I knew chaos would swallow me unless I escaped. A few days later I took a train back  to Galesburg and moved in with Joe Heumann, now my husband. I forgot to warn Joe I was coming, but that’s another story.

I owe my life to Lolita, but in the end I decided to read “The Grave” by Katherine Ann Porter instead. For one thing, it’s brief. I can read the whole thing, not just a chapter. For another, it’s an unforgettable story with a kick-ass opening sentence: “The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.” Right away the reader knows that some things don’t stay buried. But most of all, I couldn’t have written “What Love Is” without having read “The Grave.” Porter showed me how a story can span decades in a few pages and that buried memories are the most haunting.

I feel incredibly honored by the invitation to help with this project and look forward to telling you more about The Knox Writers’ House. Meanwhile, you can find “The Grave” in The Virginia Quarterly Review and “What Love Is” in The Scream Online.