Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Talking Through the Trees with Tracy Chevalier



Tracy Chevalier Interview
Cover image of At the Edge of the Orchard; http://www.tchevalier.com/
 
 
At the Edge of the Orchard (release date March 15th, 2016) is the latest novel from Tracy Chevalier, the NYT best-selling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring. Within this settler saga set amidst the juxtaposition of opportunity and struggle in the mid-nineteenth century, the quests for survival, growth, and flourishing in unforgiving and foreign landscapes, belong as much to the varieties of trees as they do to the individuals that foster them. 
 
Like the inner rings of the trees increasing over time, there is an internal ripple effect stemming from the dire discord of James and Sadie Goodenough, coming to bear as their youngest, Robert, must finally choose a course for his own destiny.
 
Rich with cultural and mythical symbolism as an “origin fruit,” the apple beats as the heart of the story with its timeless dichotomy of sweet and sour connotations—redemption, health, eternal youth, love, knowledge, sin, death, temptation and destruction. Apple trees were one of the first specimens of trees to be actively cultivated, and over millennia, have journeyed around the world.
 
As we in our native MA interview Chevalier who resides in England but is  returning to her country of origin on a visit  for her US book tour, it seems fitting to note that the earliest apple orchard in North America was planted by British settler, Reverend William Blackstone (Blaxton) right here in Boston, MA. At the Edge of the Orchard travels across the Atlantic to take root in our hearts and minds just in time for spring.
 
Coinciding with the book’s release, we are featuring this excerpt from our interview here on Inscribing Industry, our magazine’s associated blog. Our full interview will appear in the magazine website’s spring-summer anniversary issue due out on May 22nd which celebrates eight years and eighty countries. (See magazine link following interview excerpt)
 
In the exchange below, we ponder the formative uses of adversity in nature and man, gain perspective about the power of our roots as we place ourselves along the continuum of the past, and sift truth from myth through the textual history of the unsaid. 


Interview with Tracy Chevalier by Nicole M. Bouchard


             On parallel catalysts for growth applied to nature and mankind
 
In your soon-to-be-released novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, apple trees and sequoias flourish in environments far from their native lands. There is a dedication at the beginning of the book—“For Claire and Pascale, finding their way in the world”—that could easily also speak to a number of the protagonists in your novels who come into themselves once they cross oceans, city lines or thresholds, reminiscent of your own journey toward destiny from America to England. Plants and trees require space and light to grow. People require the kind of space that delineates their identity, be it a literal distance traveled or an interior journey precipitated by change,  inviting 'light' or 'illumination' of insight. Yet, another key component of growth, is metaphorically reflected in the findings of your research for the novel that revealed how sequoias require fire to not only release their seeds but to gain access to nutrients that help them sprout and develop. Further seemingly destructive forces that benefit plant life include lightning and lava. It begs a question about the seemingly destructive agents of change that benefit us. Given the dynamic forms of change that your memorable characters encounter, the internal and societal obstacles they overcome that shape them, do you feel that in likeness to trees and plant life, that the greatest growth of an individual is achieved by “space,” “light,” and  trial by fire?

Wow, that’s a good way of putting it! I admit, when I write a book, I do it by instinct, and analysis comes after. But that makes a lot of sense. One of the fascinating things I learned about redwoods and giant sequoias, for example, is that they actually NEED forest fires—the heat makes the cones burst and the seeds disperse. Plus fires clear the undergrowth and create nutrients (such as carbon) in the soil that helps the seeds to germinate. Now that we are controlling forest fires so much more, there are fewer seedlings growing in sequoia and redwood groves. That means further down the line there may be fewer trees to replace the old ones that die off. Interesting, eh?
 
In the same way, I suppose you could say that people grow through adversity—the old adage that “Suffering builds character.” I could never write a novel about characters that just are as they are—that would be boring. At least one character has to change, to grow—usually through suffering in some way. Robert Goodenough, the protagonist of Orchard, certainly does suffer. But that is how he grows.

             Pertaining to roots
 
Whereas the question above addresses change, travel and formative growth, roots are what anchor us; roots are a constant we carry and if the rest of life is a journey, roots that we set down are ultimately a destination we choose. The next to last few sentences of At the Edge of the Orchard seem to connote the idea of patience in the quest to find one’s place in the world: "Seeds could keep for a long time. All they needed was the right place to take root." Ella Turner of The Virgin Blue discovers the right place to take root when she returns to and embraces her original French roots. The story was inspired by your own family’s reunion and familial lore about fleeing religious persecution in the 16th century. You discuss on your website the concept of the stories, the “hopes and tragedies and obsessions” that are carried as emotional baggage along with the literal in moving place to place over the centuries. In terms of emotional inheritances, how do you believe one should go about embracing and learning from their roots while not being held by the heaviness of them so there is choice in where new roots are set down (as with Robert Goodenough in Orchard)?

I think our relationship to the past is always tricky. As you say, you want to know about it, learn from it, but not be weighed down by it. I do think that gaining an understanding of the past is crucial to becoming a more rounded person. It makes you place yourself along a continuum, and you become less self-centered once you realize you are just a speck along that line. It’s humbling, but it’s also freeing, because it’s not all about you! Once you step away from being the main actor in the play, you naturally lighten and can enjoy everything around you so much more.

•             Human truths in historical fiction
 
You’ve discussed wanting to include a more realistic, true-to-life portrayal of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) in Orchard after learning what lay beyond the commonly accepted myths of him. Michael Hirst (writer/producer of the Tudors series and writer for the film Elizabeth) shared in our 2010 interview his process of expressing the multi-dimensional humanity of historical figures, and how he ultimately found his Queen Elizabeth when he discovered the part of her that had not been portrayed, the unknown image of a young, vulnerable girl before the iconic queen all in white was painted with every previous portrait destroyed. He said, “I don’t choose subjects—they choose me.” A life-size portrait of Henry VIII taken from the set of Elizabeth resided in his office before he knew he would do The Tudors. In a similarly serendipitous vein, you came upon Nicholas Tournier’s work while writing Virgin Blue, his work fitting your story prior to your discovery of him. In your TED talk “Finding the Story Inside the Painting” you discuss the framework of what’s said in fact and what remains unsaid, our quest to fill in the answers/gap. Do you find that it is the historical fiction writer’s task to share their human interpretations of historical figures, attempting to use fiction to get closer to the unsaid, unspoken emotional/psychological truths—and, in the words of French New Wave cinematographer Robert Bresson,  to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”?

Yes, exactly that—I couldn’t have said it better myself! I love using historical figures to “anchor” my books, but I always look for the gaps and silences or the curiosities in a biography, and see if I can fill those gaps or tease out those curiosities. I probably never would have written Girl with a Pearl Earring if we had known loads about Vermeer. But the very sparsity of biographical detail (including who any of the people in his paintings were) made him much more tempting.
 
As for Johnny Appleseed: well, his story of spreading the healthy joy of growing and eating apples always seemed a little too good to be true to me, even as a child. Though I was pleased to hear that he did indeed go barefoot and wear a tin pot for a hat, I also loved the fact that he was quite a shrewd businessman, anticipating where settlers would go next and being there to sell them apple trees. He was also a Swedenborgian, one of life’s strange religious sects, and he plowed his profits back into spreading the word. Best of all, the trees he sold usually produced sour apples only good for making alcohol. He wasn’t spreading healthy eating, he was giving people the means to get drunk so they could get through their hard-scrabble lives. The truth is always more interesting than the myth!
 
Join us at The Write Place at the Write Time (www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org) for our spring-summer anniversary issue due out May 22nd to read the full interview!
 


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Guest Post on Writing Less to Say More

Silences and Whispers
 
by Carol Smallwood
 
"What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers." —Logan Pearsall Smith
 
"Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines." —Jorge Luis Borges
 
We want readers to understand what we write but often the best writing is only hinted, indirect. A writer can establish a level of trust with the reader by letting the reader know they assume the reader is capable of not needing to have everything spelled out and has enough sensibility to enter the writer's world. The balance is a delicate one; if the writer assumes too much knowledge on the part of the reader, it won't work. As a reader I enjoy sensing what the writer is saying by subtleness and the employment of nuances. That's what the best actors do: they don't shout what they're thinking, but a slight movement of a hand tells more than a long dialogue. The Mona Lisa's smile is a whisper that has kept viewers coming back to the painting. In classical music a few notes of a motif holds movements together. Rembrandt used light and shadow. Photographers use filters.
 
John Galsworthy in his 1915 Foreword to Green Mansions, the acclaimed novel by William Henry Hudson,  notes: "Style should not obtrude between a writer and his reader; it should be servant, not master. To use words so true and simple that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind, and yet by juxtaposition of word-sounds set up in the recipient continuing emotion or gratification . . . ." It reminds me of what another writer, Ernest Hemingway who would follow him, said about writing being true and simple. One of Hemingway's contemporaries, William Faulkner, wrote (a sentence I pondered for a long time) in Light in August: "Memory believes before knowing remembers."
     
Writers are lucky to have so many other writers to study and learn from and yet we must devise our own style, our own method of reaching readers. Each of us will have a different audience in our minds while writing and to this person or persons, we set our relationships. Our own understanding of what we are writing will guide what we say and how well the reader grasps it. I believe writers must think about what they want to write, spend most of their time brooding, hashing out things, and then write. By the time we get to putting words down, we should be ready so every word isn't like that saying about being as difficult as pulling of teeth. The Old Man and the Sea was written in a very short time because Hemingway said he had it in his mind before putting words down: it came easily. This classic has many layers, many whispers, and the reader easily enters the writer's world as he portrays his characters.  Maybe the whispers and silences are what Herman Melville meant in another classic, Moby Dick: "But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.  It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
   
John Galsworthy is the writer I keep reading because each time I read a novel of his, I get something new from it. It could partly be because my frame of mind isn't the same but largely it's because he encourages the reader to share the subtle shades, atmosphere, and complexities of the world he creates. Work gently: less is more.

 
Bio- Carol Smallwood's most recent books include Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); Women, Work, and the Web (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Writing After Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014); Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014).  Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction and In Hubble's Shadow are forthcoming from Shanti Arts. Carol, multi-nominee for the Pushcart, has founded, supports humane societies.

This is a guest post kindly contributed to Inscribing Industry. Content rights and responsibilities remain with the author.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Story for the Holidays

Photo: "Warmth of the Season" by Cathy McLain
 
 

Bethlehem on Madison Street

by Anita Solick Oswald

Staring at the ceiling didn’t help.  I tried lying very still under the silky magenta-colored down comforter, but it was no good.  I rubbed my feet on the sheets and tossed around. Counting sheep didn’t work.  Finally, I whispered to Barb.

“Still awake?”

“Yes, I can’t sleep.”

“Me neither.”

Although we usually pushed our bedtimes out as late as we could, Christmas Eve was different.  We’d donned our nightgowns without an argument and gone to bed early, hoping that we would fall asleep, wake up and it would be Christmas Day.  But our little girl excitement about the holiday and the gifts and visiting with family was proving to be too much.  We were both wide awake and Christmas Day wasn’t arriving any sooner.  From the living room, we heard the muted sounds of Rosemary Clooney’s Christmas carols coming from the television that Mom left on to keep her company when Daddy was at the firehouse.  Mom dozed on the couch; between the Coke and the M&Ms, she never slept well when Daddy was not home. 

Madison Street was quiet; a heavy, blowing snowfall muffled the sounds of the streetcar on its way to the barn.  Occasionally a car would drive by—maybe a fireman or policeman taking a few hours off to spend time with his kids?  Last minute shoppers had carted their packages home hours ago.  The shops and restaurants along our street always closed early so that the employees could spend Christmas Eve with their families. 

BZZZZZZZZZZ!  The buzzer squawked announcing a visitor.  I heard Mom mumble, “Who the heck is that now?” and shuffle down the long hall to the intercom.

“Who’s there?” Mom’s standard greeting was to the point.

“Who?  I can’t hear you.  Noreen?”

By then we’d snuck out of bed.  Barb and I peered down the hall, the thoroughfare that connected the rooms in our apartment.  Mom was in her nightgown, robe and slippers, hair in pin curls.  She’d lit a cigarette on her way down the hall.  She took a drag, pausing for a moment, and then yelled back in the intercom.

“Noreen, c’mon up.  I am going to buzz you in.” 

Mom hit the intercom buzzer that opened the heavy oak door in the tiled entryway to our apartments.  She walked to the front door and opened it.  By then we weren’t hiding—we wanted to know what was up.  We followed her to the door and waited to see who the nocturnal visitor was.  Mom leaned over the railing at the top of the stairs.  This was our extra security system.  If we bent over the banister at just the right angle, we could see people coming up the stairs before they saw us, giving us plenty of time to run in and slam the front door before they reached the top.  Mom often said, “If anyone wants to climb those three flights of stairs and steal something from this dump, they can have it.”  The heavy oak door of our apartment was impregnable and we always felt safe on the third floor. 

Slowly, breathing heavily, holding onto the banister for support, a tall, thin woman holding a paper sack in one hand ascended the stairs.  In the other, she held the hand of a little girl, smaller than Barb and I, but not a toddler.  Each step the woman took seemed more difficult for her.  When she got to the second story landing, where Mom could see her better, Mom hurried down the stairs to help her.  Mom took the child’s hand and the paper sack and led them up the stairs to our apartment.

Noreen stood in the entryway, perspiring, near the big walnut desk that held the telephone and served as a reception area for our guests.  Her coat was a thin, worn, loden green cloth coat, not much protection from the bleak Chicago winter outside.  She had no gloves or boots, and a rayon scarf was tied over her head and knotted at the chin.  Her daughter was dressed in warmer clothes, a snowsuit, mittens and boots.  The little girl yawned and leaned against her mother.  Noreen hesitated, embarrassed.

“I don’t want to get your floors wet.”

Mom replied, “Aw, don’t worry about this dump.  Come on in.  Stand on this rug while I get you some slippers.  Anita, go get the little girl—what’s your name?—a pair of your slippers.  I’m sorry, what’s your name, honey?  Christine?  Oh that’s pretty.  A pretty name for a pretty girl.  Your nickname is Cookie.  You’re my Christmas Cookie.” 

I ran to the bedroom closet and pulled out a pair of my old slippers, Chinese silk backless beauties with a rose embroidered across the toes that I had saved long after I grew out of them.  Gram and Gramps had purchased them for me when we visited San Francisco and I could not let them go.  I had huge feet that grew quickly for a small girl and, pretty soon after we bought them, my heels were hanging off the back of the slippers, so I put them away in the closet.  They were too big for the little girl, but I thought that maybe we could stuff them with toilet paper.

By the time I came back with the slippers, Mom had ushered our visitors into the living room, hung their coats in the bathroom, and was offering them goodies.

“Do you want a Coke?  How about some Christmas candy?  Some chips? Dip?”

Mom was no cook, but she always had a great supply of snacks available.  Noreen shook her head and declined softly.

“No, thank you, Helen.  We’re fine.”

It was pretty clear they weren’t.  The entry hall was dark but now I could see Noreen in a better light.  She was tall, very frail, and seemed timid.  Her hair was a mousy brown—once it must have been much lighter, and the hairstyle was dated, like the styles I saw in Mom’s old photos from the 1940s.  I thought she had a nice face, kind, with high cheekbones and she could have been attractive, but she was so slight.  That was saying something since our Mom was always skinny and prided herself on her petite frame.  Noreen wheezed and coughed, but her breathing seemed less labored now that she was resting on our sofa.  Her daughter, cheeks still rosy from the cold outside, curled up in the corner and promptly fell asleep, smiling, wearing my slippers. I poked Barb and gave her a knowing look and nodded. Mom won’t even let us sit on that sofa.  She must like this woman.  Some old friend?  No, she’s too young.  She looks familiar, though.  She seems to know me. 

Mom left us for a few minutes while she went to the kitchen to heat some coffee—she could drink coffee night or day.  Noreen smiled at Barb and me.

“You girls have gotten so big.  Do you remember me?  I used to play with you and read you stories sometimes.”

Then I recognized her.  And I felt shocked and sad.  Noreen lived in the apartment next door when Barb and I were tots.  She was a teenager then and had some kind of live-in arrangement with this couple that had two small children.  Even though I was quite young, I remember wondering why she wasn’t in school like my babysitters, and why she didn’t live with her parents.  I asked Mom one time and she said that Noreen’s parents were “drinkers and couldn’t take care of her” and that she’d been passed around to different relatives who did not want her.  Noreen was always nice to Barb and me, and when she was not working for the couple, she’d play games with us or read to us on the back porch or on the landing in between the two apartments.  Mom always had a soft spot for any person down on their luck, and she took a special interest in the young woman, giving her clothes and slipping her money sometimes, when she could afford to. 

Mom came back into the living room with the coffee and suddenly we were on her radar again.

“Why are you two up?  Get back in bed—NOW!”

We wanted to hear Noreen’s story, too, and why she was at our house on Christmas Eve instead of her own, but that was not going to happen.  Mom shooed us out of the living room and back to our bedroom.  It didn’t occur to me then, but she wanted to protect Noreen’s privacy and her feelings.  We would not hear her story until later.

I strained to hear what they were saying but the walls were thick and I couldn’t hear anything clearly without getting out of bed.  Mom had x-ray vision and she would know that I got up so I figured it was pointless.  Then Barb and I saw her walk down the hall and come back with a nightgown, blankets and pillows. 

I guessed that Noreen and Cookie would be staying the night.  That was no surprise.  We’d had many visitors staying with us over the years.  Mom always found the room.  We became aware of hushed conversations over the years between Mom and Dad. 

If someone was in trouble, if someone needed money or a place to stay—folks knew they could turn to Mom.  Daddy might protest a bit—“Helen, I can’t afford it.  I’m busting my butt now”—but he always came through and his second job at Bantam Books down by the Chicago River helped bail out those in need.  I don’t think my parents ever got the “loans” paid back and they never asked for repayment.  Mom had time for everyone.  All the down-on-their-luck men who lived in the flophouses along Skid row and haunted the bus stops in the Loop knew her by name.  They’d wave and call out, “Helen!” and for a moment a smile would come over their faces.  She knew all their stories; she loved to talk and always had a few bucks for every one of them.  It made her feel good to give.

I was drifting back to sleep when a thought alarmed me—we had no presents for Cookie!  I panicked.  What would we do?  It was too late to go shopping; the stores had closed hours before. 
Barb must have had the same thought, too, because she whispered, “Maybe we could give her some of our presents.”

“Barb, that’s a great idea.  Good thinking.  But what should we give her?  We don’t know what’s in the boxes.  They’re wrapped.”

I pondered this dilemma for a moment and then had a brainstorm.

“OK, listen, how about this?  We sneak in before Mom gets up and rip the tags off the presents and give them to Cookie.”  Barb agreed this sounded like a good plan.

“You know, Aunt Camille always gives us a nightgown or pajamas, and that little girl has no pajamas.  We’ve got a bunch.  Mine would be too big for her, so you get your box from Aunt Camille and rip off the tag.  Grandma Lillian always gives me a book, so I will give her mine.  But ya know, those aren’t very fun presents.”

Barb spoke softly, “What about a game?  We always get a game or two for Christmas.  There has to be a game under the Christmas tree.  Those Milton Bradley games are all the same shape.  We’ll be able to find it.  She doesn’t have any toys with her, so she’ll need a game.”

“Yes, that’s it.  Now, listen—if you wake up first, wake me up, and if I do, I will wake you up.  We are going to have to be really, really quiet.  Mom won’t hear us because she likes to sleep late, but Noreen and her little girl might wake up.  We don’t want them to see us—that would spoil the surprise.”

Barb and I were soon off to sleep.  We could rest easy now that we had Christmas presents for Cookie covered.  A few times I was roused and thought I heard coughing, but went right back to sleep.

Next morning we were up early.  We dressed in our matching quilted robes, but left our slippers off, and tiptoed down the hall to our living room.  Noreen was on one sofa, in one of Mom’s best nightgowns; while Cookie lay on the other sofa in exactly the same spot she had fallen asleep.  Someone had covered her with a hand-knit baby blanket.  Mom probably.  Barb, the artist, had cleverly brought her supplies—a little round-edged pair of scissors for cutting off the gift tags, and a colored pencil for printing Cookie’s name on the newly assigned boxes.  We worked quickly in silence.  We located the boxes and Barb cut off the gift tags and shoved them in the pocket of her robe.  I had the best printing, so I wrote the new greetings right on the paper.

“Merry Christmas, Cookie, from Santa.”

I didn’t believe in Santa, although I still made my annual trip to Madigan’s Department store to tell him what I wanted, but this is what Mom and Dad always wrote on our presents, so I thought I would do the same.  Cookie was pretty young and I bet she would not recognize my handwriting.

“Let’s go back to bed.  We’ll have to wait until they get up or we’ll blow it.”

Barb crawled in my twin bed while we waited for what seemed like forever for the rest of the household to get up.  Finally, the Babies, Donna and Jackie, started to make some racket in the back bedroom and I heard my mom moving around in the kitchen, making more coffee in the old aluminum percolator she used every day, and dialing someone on the telephone.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  Mom was always on the phone.

“It’s safe.  Let’s get up.”

We ran into the living room, festooned with Mom’s decorations, tinseled tree—Daddy’s pride and joy—mantel covered with ceramic holiday figures rubbing elbows with the oriental knickknacks Mom collected then, and gas fake fireplace aglow.  It was a glorious scene.  The Babies were all over the presents and started tearing the gift wrap off anything they could reach.  Noreen and Cookie gazed from the sidelines, seeming a bit overwhelmed. 

Then Mom was on the scene, putting a halt to the mayhem.

“Hold on.  Your father is on his way.  He has a few hours off today and he wants to see you unwrap your gifts.”

"Awww, Mom.  He won’t be home for hours.  Can’t we open some, puh-leeze?"

Mom caved in—it was an unusual Christmas anyway.  “OK, but you have to save some of the big ones.  He’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get to watch.”

This gave me my opportunity.  I poked Barb and we grabbed the presents we’d regifted for Cookie.  The little girl had slid off the couch where she slept and was snuggled close to her mother now.  We marched up to her and, unceremoniously, presented her with the boxes.

“Here, Cookie.  Santa left these for you.”

The little girl popped off the sofa, still wearing my slippers and reached for the gifts.

Noreen protested quietly to Mom, “Oh no, please, you’ve done enough for us.”  She bit her lip and looked as if she might cry.

Mom spoke up, “This is their idea; I didn’t know anything about it.”  But we could tell she was pleased with her girls.

While the Babies tried to derail the Lionel train set up under the tree—a gift from Gramps—we all snacked on Pillsbury cinnamon rolls straight from a tube.  Mom had managed not to burn them this time and the spirals, dripping with thick, sugary frosting, tasted pretty good with the Fannie Mae chocolate Santas from our stockings.  Barb and I set up what turned out to be a Captain Kangaroo game.  I read the instructions to Barb and Cookie, and we all played a few rounds.

Mom turned serious for a moment. 

“You girls get dressed.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan are coming over.” 

We hurried to the bathroom to wash up and then to our bedroom to get dressed.  I wondered what this was all about.  Mom was pretty friendly with all the priests and nuns in our parish but they usually only came to the house on special occasions like Holy Communions, weddings, and to give Extreme Unction.  I thought they’d be busy saying Christmas Mass or something.  Wasn’t this one of their big days?

Now this was long before anyone thought of the War on Poverty and safety nets for women and children in need just did not exist.  Many destitute mothers and children fell through the cracks in those days.  Jobs were few and opportunities very limited for women.  Many would turn to their families—but what if there was no family?  We knew Mom was there for anyone who told her they needed help.  She loved St. Mel–Holy Ghost Church.  She grew up here and was married in this church.  She supported St. Mel’s and the church was there to back her up.  I realized the early phone call must have been to the priests who ministered to our parishioners.

The doorbell rang again and Mom went to welcome the two priests.  Father Shaughnessy greeted us and Father Riordan patted me on the head.  She offered them coffee and Pillsbury rolls, but they declined.  They were still on call to say Mass.   Father Shaughnessy, the young energetic, activist priest who headed all the youth programs in the neighborhood, hair prematurely thinning, looked dapper in his Roman collar and black suit.  He removed his fedora as he stepped in the door.  Father Riordan accompanied him.  Wire-rimmed glasses, dark hair graying at the temples; he was the more mature of the two.  Mom saw the older priest as a father figure; he’d married Mom and Dad and baptized me. Mom often turned to him for counsel.  She introduced them to Noreen and Cookie and then shooed us out of the living room. 

“OK, you two, get outta here, go play with your presents or something.  I need to talk with Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan.”

We knew better than to argue.  This order from Mom signaled adult conversation and we’d better move it.

We overheard some of the conversation from the front bedroom.  Mom telling the priests about how she knew Noreen, how Noreen had been baptized Catholic, but not raised in the Church, something about a deadbeat husband and nowhere to go, and how she needed their help.  Noreen’s faith did not matter to the priests; they were here to offer aid.  I thought I heard someone crying very softly.  Then just as quickly, the priests were off, back to their holiday duties at the church, but not before they gave us all a blessing and wished us a “Happy, Holy Christmas.”  Father Shaughnessy said he’d be back a little later to pick up Noreen and Cookie.

Mom went to work; she requisitioned a small suitcase from the hall closet where all the large items, including a stove, were stored.  Rummaging through closets and drawers, she pulled blouses, sweaters, skirts, stockings, a hat and gloves for Noreen.  It was a challenge since Noreen was much taller than Mom and nearly gaunt, but Mom found some clothing that would work.  She dug through the cedar chest and located some pants, skirts, and blouses I had grown out of for Cookie.  She’d been planning to pack them up and send them to my cousin Kim; and Barb was so petite, it would be years before they would fit her.  And then Mom pulled a mouton lamb fur coat from the closet. 

Noreen protested, “No, no.  I can’t accept that, Helen.  Your fur coat.”

“Take it—it’s cold out there and I’ve been after Jack to buy me a mink.  Now he’ll have to.”  Mom laughed, but it would be many years before she got her mink. 

It seemed like he’d just left, but the buzzer rang, and Father Shaughnessy was buzzed up again.  His
big, black, donated Cadillac was parked at the curb downstairs in front of Solick’s Restaurant.  One of the perks for a lifetime of service, his Caddy was a shuttle bus for anyone who needed a ride.  He picked up the suitcase in one hand and carried Cookie in his other arm downstairs to the car. 
Noreen stopped for a moment on the landing and gave me and Barb a kiss on our cheeks.  Then Mom walked Noreen downstairs and we watched Mom as she hugged Noreen and waved goodbye as they drove off with Father Shaughnessy. 

The decorated lamp posts and the Solick’s restaurant sign were so glittery and festive.  The neon Christmas trees decorating the sign that blinked by turns in a row made it seem like an enchanted forest.  But that morning, the holiday trimmings seemed to highlight the fantasy world we lived in, and even to my child’s eyes, were a stark contrast to the harsh reality that had entered our safe house that Christmas Eve.

When Mom came back upstairs we badgered her with questions.

“Are they coming back?  Where did they go?  Where is Father Shaughnessy taking them?  Are they going to have dinner with us?”

Then Mom told us that Noreen and Cookie would not be coming back soon.  She said Noreen was very sick and had to go to the hospital.  “TB,” she whispered.  The disease was dreaded, especially among those of Irish descent.  Mom had many relatives who’d succumbed to tuberculosis and she was paranoid every time we caught cold, even though we insisted our Bohemian blood would save us.

“Noreen’ll be away for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan found some nice people who have a lot of kids and they are going to take care of Cookie while her Mom is getting well.”

“But what about her dad?”

“Cookie’s dad was not nice to them.  He hurt them.”

We couldn’t imagine it—Daddy and Grandpa treated us like little princesses, and never got angry with us.

“Girls, be thankful for what you have.  Noreen had a very hard life.  She lived with one family after another who did not want her after her parents took off.  She got married young—don’t you ever do that—and the man was mean to her and her daughter.  Then she ran away from him, but she’s been sick.  She told me she was just walking the street last night in the snow, no money and no food, and then she saw our lights on and rang the bell.  Thank God she did.”

We nodded our heads in agreement, although we did not completely understand the gravity of Noreen’s situation.  Then Mom said, “I was so proud of you, giving Cookie your presents.  You are my stars!”  Praise from Mom was the best present of all. 

Later Daddy would come home and watch us open some gifts while he grabbed something to eat. He then went back to fight the inevitable holiday fires.  Gram and Gramps would come by and Gram would cook a feast for us all to eat together.  Gramps would slip us a “sawbuck” when he thought no one was looking.  Barb and I would play with our toys until we got sick of them. The Babies would get into all our gifts and rip up more wrapping paper, making a mess of the living room, and Mom would laugh.  A pageant of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends would stop by our apartment with gifts to wish us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  But somehow I knew this holiday was even more special and that I was a very lucky girl.


Years later we moved from our beloved West Garfield neighborhood to a small bungalow on the Northwest Side.  I was in a Catholic girls’ high school now and had grown at least a foot.  Barb was a freshman at the same high school.  Donna and Jackie went to the local parochial school and Mom had gone back to work.  It was a nice Saturday in spring; the trees were budding and my allergies were kicking in.  The doorbell rang; I thought it might be the postman and ran to see if my new Beatles magazine had come in the mail. 

A young, nice-looking woman holding a baby boy stood on the stoop.  A girl stood next to her.  

“Are you Anita?  Oh my gosh—you’ve grown so much.  Is Helen—your mom—home?”

By then Mom was behind me.  “Noreen, is that you?  Oh you look great!  Is this your baby?  He’s beautiful.  Look how big he is!  How old is he?  Hi, sweetie.  Is this Cookie? You’ve grown up!  What grade are you in now?”

The young family was ushered into our tiny bungalow living room and provided with Mom’s favorite treats for guests—Coke, potato chips, and onion dip.  Mom and Noreen chatted. Noreen caught Mom up on her life after she left us that Christmas Day many years before.

She said she’d been very ill and was hospitalized for a long time.  Father Shaughnessy and Father Riordan arranged for her care at no charge.  She’d lost a lung.  While she was in the sanitarium, a very nice family cared for Cookie, and when Noreen came out, they helped her get on her feet.  It was this couple who introduced her to a cousin—a solid, considerate young man who became her second husband, the father of the new baby. 

“He’s an engineer.  We have a nice house now and he loves Cookie.  I am happy, Helen.  I bumped into someone from the West Side last week and they said you’d moved up here, so I thought I’d take a chance and see if you were home.  I don’t feel like I ever thanked you enough.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t taken me in that night.”

“I’m just happy to hear everything worked out for you and Cookie, Noreen.  I am glad to see you healthy again.  I’ve thought of you many times and prayed for you.”

“Helen, I will never forget you or your girls or what you did for me.  You changed my life.  Your apartment was like Bethlehem on Madison Street that Christmas Eve.”


Bio- Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. She’s written a collection of essays, West Side Girl, that are written from the point of view of her younger self and chronicle the colorful, diverse and oftentimes unpredictably eccentric characters and events that populated Chicago’s West Side neighborhood during the 50s & 60s. Her writing has appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, the Faircloth Literary Review, The Fat City Review, and Avalon Literary Review.

Anita grew up in the 3rd story apartment above her family’s Bohemian restaurant on Madison Street, daughter of a fireman and a housewife/frustrated writer, and comrade of a ragtag brigade of migrant children who trooped into and found both themselves and the world-at-large on their neighborhood’s streets. Her essays, set in Chicago, celebrate an era, a time of change, an urban childhood, ethnic neighborhoods, girls’ empowerment, and the benefits of growing up in a culturally diverse community.

Anita studied journalism at Marquette University, earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and her M.S. in Management and Organization from the University of Colorado. She is a founding member of Boulder Writing Studio.

Anita lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Ralph, and her cats, Figaro and Clio.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Twitter Tales Ending Art Set Votes


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winners from Words in Art


Winners from The Creative Coalition


Friday, February 20, 2015

Twitter Tales Art Component

In the September 10th post, "It Takes a Village: A Storytelling Experiment Utilizing Social Media" (http://inscribingindustry.blogspot.com/2014/09/it-takes-village-storytelling.html), you read about the origins of our thrilling Twitter Tales activity, its participants and saw 23 of its posts. Now, you will read about the dynamic visual arts component involving the digital collage site of Polyvore (a social community with users spanning the globe and as of May 2014, about 20 million unique visitors each month). A contest was held between two art groups for two weeks, during which time artistically inclined users were encouraged to create art sets inspired by the first eleven individual Twitter posts from the story.

The idea was simple. We had our wonderful group of emerging and established authors, skilled storytellers, instructors and professionals that had generated the words, the engaging content from the 1st eleven posts. Having been on Polyvore for a number of years, I knew of the immense, diverse artistic talents of users, their incredible abilities for allegory and creative, soulful interpretation. 1+1=WOW. Yet we, I, couldn't have anticipated how amazing the results would be. The results from this synergistic combination of talented writers and amazing artists were nothing short of awe-inspiring and the reaction from entrants around the world was profound. Well over 100 Polyvore art sets were entered with enthusiasm, creative passion, emotion and dedication.

Contest entrants chose individual posts that resonated with them and created artistic digital collages based on the words. We had a number of instances where entrants ended up making one set for each post. They created powerful imagery that brought our story to new life through varied perspectives across continents and age demographics, showing the significance of unity—art and words, writers and artists, creative mediums and people combined. You'll get to read more about the activity and some of the participating writers' great reactions to the art component in upcoming posts.  

Together, we—writers, artists and the readers commenting/supporting along the way—are all making a bit of history here that has implications for the future of art and writing in the digital world. Thank you for coming on this adventure. (Note: Stay tuned for the final Twitter post! We will be inviting everyone to vote from amongst three options!)

What you will see below are listed winning contest entrants with links to their winning sets (we also plan to have separate blog posts with slideshows of the sets). Some entrants have provided statements/quotes or replies to questions about the activity. The two groups the contest ran in were The Creative Coaltion and Words in Art. Deep gratitude is extended to group moderator, Jennifer Glass Wright (@colbysma) for the use of the groups during the two week period, her assistance, enthusiasm, support, time and insight. The sets were carefully judged according to how they reflected the posts they corresponded to. It was a terribly difficult task to do the judging. There were so many fabulous works of art made! In each group, there would typically be one set chosen to represent each individual Twitter post. As there are 12 winners to a group and there were only 11 posts to choose from, there were a few posts that had two winning sets. Again, sets from the two different groups were chosen based on how we felt they best illustrated the words of the individual posts (not limited to style or literal interpretation). We honor all of the entrants and also have collections of other entries we admired.

Enjoy reading the perspectives of our winners and seeing their work!

From The Creative Coalition group:

@sisilem (set: http://www.polyvore.com/all_metal/set?id=130172967&lid=3857202)
@blue2mato (set: http://www.polyvore.com/find_lock_key_fit/set?id=130230947&lid=3857202) 

@incogneato (Joyce B.): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/lepetit_protector/set?id=129109860&lid=3857202)
"My art is formed predominantly by the natural world along with fantasies of possibility."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

The writer's sentences stimulated a creative interpretation, unlike contests where the subject matter is named and defined.

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

Most of the writings were scintillating suggestions of a plot. The most attractive ones remained abstract, giving the artist full creative license.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

That is a difficult question. Often reading is a highly intimate process, where one is given an opportunity to see into the author's thought processes and experience. It is like a pact, based on a premise of anonymity, where the writer is allowed full reign of expression. As such, the reader also interprets the writing based on his own ideas and experience. I have not experienced participatory
literature and art in the manner you suggest.

~Would you like to see/enter more contests like this?

Yes! I think this was stimulating for the artists as a group.

@mdesigns2012 (set: http://www.polyvore.com/pictures_worth_thousand_words--the_shield/set?id=129269644&lid=3857202)

@ellen-hilart: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/old_memories_haunt_me/set?id=129241300&lid=3857202)
"What a fascinating concept. You gave us all a reason to think out of the box and create such interesting sets. I'm proud to have my entries in this collection. As I said before, this was a most interesting, intelligent and challenging contest. This story is getting very exciting. I can't wait to read more and see the fusion of art and literature!"

~How did you find the contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

I thought the integration of the polyvore contest and results [winners] being included in The Write Place such a great innovation. This concept has made being on Polyvore and creating, in my case many years (six), a validation of all that I have done here. I feel like I am being acknowledged for the creations I have made. Thank you for that!!!

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretation of what you read?

Trying to make the visual fit the words in an abstract way without being completely literal. That was a real challenge to me, being the traditionalist that I am.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

Yes. I love to read books and magazine articles, but sometimes when I'm reading instructions, manuals, etc. I tend to skip over much of the text. In this case, I had to actually read the entire excerpts to know how to proceed with the artwork. So, yes, I was more invested.

~Are you interested in following this story to read more of it and/or learn more about the writers?

Yes, I'd love to see how it ends. And, of course, would love to know more about the writers.

@niwi: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/2237_my_mind_raced/set?id=129738503&lid=3857202)
"This was one of the most interesting contests--what a fantastic adventure. I'm very happy I had time to take the challenge."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

I love words, I love to read and I'm amazed about how different people can visualise events, places and characters out of a novel or a short story in so many different manners. I loved this contest because it allowed us to express and materialise what the words put into our minds.

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

I loved that I had to pick up clues out of the texts to guess about the characters, environment, era, country, etc... I loved the fact the story took place in these interwar years, sending us to the golden age of detective stories and Hollywood film noirs.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

Yes, probably because for once I was allowed to express what this text evoked to me in a visual way, and collage is a very specific means of expression. You have to cope with what you find to express yourself; it is not like when you are able to draw or paint exactly what you have in mind.

~Are you interested in following this story to read more of it?

I'd love to know what happened to Mark, indeed, and learn more about these women in the story. 

@gabrielle01: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/how_could/set?id=129376279&lid=3857202)
"I enjoyed the challenge very much and I like the new postings of the story on Twitter."

@ausie34 (Kris Rozelle): [note- This polyvore user's new account is @ni-ke; their original set on their former account was one of the chosen winning sets]: 

"I'm an artist, poetry writer and art teacher for kids. Ever since I was five I have painted, drawn and used my gifts in art for others."

"Let me just say how honored I was to be a part of such a beautiful undertaking; thank you for your soul-wrenching effort putting together such a heart and soul gripping work readers will be transported in.  When I first came upon the contest, I thought now there it is...all of my polyvore art is 'a picture worth a thousands words,' if you only spend the time to see the hidden meanings. I have always been told my art is a picture with many stories, but to illustrate others' work was an incredible experience."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

This contest tied into the notion all art is based upon; a picture being worth a thousand words and illustrating a story; but it came alive through the illustrations, extrapolations and interpretations of others. In essence we got to peek into the minds of others as we all interpreted the same written words. This contest was both powerful and gripping!

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

For me personally, most of my work is inspired by music, which is a series of lyrics on a page. Likewise I was inspired by the words of the story for the same reason—they were powerful and heart-gripping and I wanted to illustrate the story because I felt connected to it.

~Do you feel that written works are made more powerful by being combined with visual art?

Definitely, ALWAYS! The more senses one can capture the better! Adding a visual component to TwitterTales made them come more alive! Art breathed more life into those literary words and gave them wings to fly in our imaginations.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

The writing hooks you in and of itself, but the art takes you to a whole new level and it becomes more alive. I would have been interested and invested either way.

@ritadolce: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/picture_is_worth_thousand_words/set?id=129831971&lid=3857202
"The contest was unique and challenging. I have it heard said,'that a picture speaks a thousand words'! Written works are made more powerful when visual art is added. I would like to see more contests like this."

@jennifer (Jennifer Mayr): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/as_silent/set?id=129051472&lid=3857202)
"I'm a science teacher at a boarding school, looking for artistic outlets wherever I can find them."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

The challenge of working with someone else's story appealed to me, merging two art forms.

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

The words were vivid, yet mysterious, since I didn't know the entire story.

~Do you feel that written works are made more powerful by being combined with visual art?

I still love illustrated books. Maira Kalman and Peter Mendelsund have the right idea.

@leotajane (Jane Donnelly): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/answers/set?id=130162740&lid=3857202)
"This was the opposite of how I create so it was a bit difficult, however looking back, I had a great time.  It was a learning experience and challenge that I appreciated the opportunity to be a part of with all my Polyvore artist community members."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

This contest was unique in comparison to other contests by the fact we were given prompts about what we needed to portray in our sets. A story. Most contests do not have a narrative that continues as you create. The parameters of most contests involve using colors, a designer, an emotion, or  express a particular event, feeling or sentiment.

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

We had words to use specifically and I enjoyed trying to incorporate these words with the images by using everyday objects to mesh the words into the piece, like visual metaphors.

~Do you feel that written works are made more powerful by being combined with visual art?

Depending on the story, what medium, what media, and how it's presented. I have been involved with artists who have asked me to create art for poetry written specifically for the art piece.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

Yes, I felt responsible for giving the readers an idea of what is happening by my work of art.

Blog: leotajane.blogspot.com/

@aunt-kiki: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/had_to/set?id=128806317&lid=3857202)
"By day I am a freelance editor, but my real passion is art & art history. I do consider myself an amateur artist who dabbles in a variety of mediums including: poetry, photography, collage, mixed media (a la Polyvore). I feel most alive when I am creating and feel like I am wasting away if I don't express myself artistically in some form or another every day."

~How did you find this contest to be unique?

I liked trying to come up with a set that conveyed a few words and make it interesting and artistic, keeping true to the writer's intent while staying true to my own artistic vision & aesthetic. So that it's simultaneously theirs & mine, if that makes sense.

From the Words in Art group:

@incogneato (set: http://www.polyvore.com/an_element_decline/set?id=129329786&lid=3857145)

@tinky5870 (Tina Shearin): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/tick_tock-find_lock/set?id=129014776&lid=3857145)
"I'm a 40-something woman who believes in possibilities. A woman who has seen, for herself, that fate can pluck you up from one circumstance and plunk you right down in the middle of your heart's desire. If only you believe."

"I'm drawn to art because I think it's a unifying medium. When we look at a piece of art that speaks to us, we are not only seeing into the soul of the artist, but into our own, as well. We are all humans, struggling on our dark days and basking in the light of our good days. Art, more than anything else, in my opinion, can reflect the vast array of emotions that each and every one of us experience. The
result? We know we aren't alone in the human condition. Someone else feels what we feel, sees what we see and has put it out there for ALL of us.

However, I found that the story came alive to me (due to the intriguing plot and brilliant contributions to the story-line) and so I needn't have worried--it just came about naturally :) Thank you for this opportunity to grow, learn and express myself."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

I found that having a story already evolving was an entirely unique experience. With other contests, you have a theme or idea to leap from, but in this contest, you were drawing from someone else's imagination, so to speak. I found myself hoping that my set would reflect how that particular writer saw that scene in his or her own mind.

~Do you feel that written works are made more powerful by being combined with visual art?

Yes, I do. Some people prefer to be free to visualize the story in their own way, but others are benefited by visual aids, which results in their being drawn more deeply into the story.

~Are you interested in following this story to read more of it and/or learn more about the writers?

Yes, I'd love to follow it and intend to. I would also very much enjoy learning more about the writers.

@purplepandora (set: http://www.polyvore.com/mourn_later/set?id=128944683&lid=3857145)
@artfreak04 (set: http://www.polyvore.com/things_to_be_remembered/set?id=129519250&lid=3857145)
@kikilea (set: http://www.polyvore.com/untitled_1087/set?id=130045733&lid=3857145)
@niwi (set: http://www.polyvore.com/2238_how_bizarre/set?id=129761043&lid=3857145)
@eileen-d-mooncat (set: http://www.polyvore.com/picture_worth_1000_words_beginning/set?id=129340610&lid=3857145)

@chellcouture (Michelle Elsmore): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/right_then_it_hit_me/set?id=129522906&lid=3857145)
"I found it a great pleasure to participate in the contest. To be honest, I loved every minute creating for this contest and I could do it all over again. I find art very relaxing, it's like speaking without actually saying anything, you can express so much through art. Creating art to go with a story had me creating for hours to try and get the perfect theme to go with the words; it's like when you're reading a favorite novel... You always create the pictures and characters in your head. I really can't express how much I enjoyed taking part. I had so much enthusiasm, once I started I couldn't stop. It's amazing how many creations you can actually come up with for a few words..."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

I felt you had more variation than it being a certain theme; having the words to go by in the creation made it feel like my own little movie in pictures.

~Are you interested in following this story to read more of it and/or learn more about the writers?

Yes, I found the story very interesting. Would love to read more of it, and it would be great to learn about the writers.

@my-time-is-now (Joeanne Meyes): (set: http://www.polyvore.com/red_flags/set?id=128829441&lid=3857145)
"I'm a 50 something year old woman who was able to legally marry the woman I love last May. I love to restore furniture, write (poetry, poems & stories), photography and of course Polyvore."

~How did you find this contest to be unique in comparison to other contests?

I found the competition unique because it made me think of the writer and how I might interpret their words. That was something different and challenging.

~What did you enjoy most about the concept of being inspired by the words to make art sets that represented your interpretations of what you read?

What I enjoyed most about the competition was that there were so many different kinds of ways you could do a set to interpret the words. Refreshing!!!

~Do you feel that written works are made more powerful by being combined with visual art?

I hadn't really thought about it before, but with this competition, when I saw all the different kinds of ways the words were interpreted by people's sets, I was amazed; and I do now believe that in this case, the pictures (sets) did make the words more potent and delivered the messages well.

~Did you feel more invested/interested in the story and what happens in it by being able to participate/respond to it through art?

In a strange way I did feel more invested in the storyline. Maybe because I had the chance to participate and therefore felt more invested. I have looked in on the story a number of times checking where and how the story line was progressing.

Thanks for a unique and most enjoyable, not to mention challenging, endeavor.


@beggarmagik: (set: http://www.polyvore.com/untitled_2933/set?id=129953291&lid=3857145)
"The illustrations can enhance the author's vision. The words become clearer...the focus stronger. Gives a delightful added touch."

@texaspinkfox (set: http://www.polyvore.com/oh/set?id=130286293&lid=3857145)
@leotajane (set: http://www.polyvore.com/get_truth/set?id=130234247&lid=3857145)