Writing the Next Chapter, a program in which Patricia Skalka, Joyce Zeiss, and I talk about making the transition to second careers as novelist was warmly received at the March meeting of the Society of Midland Authors. During the discussion that followed, a new writer asked about the limits of the old adage “write about what you know.” “Write about what you want to know,” I suggested. Our curiosity, our urge to understand drives us as writers.
Tom Hayden, political activist, one of the Chicago Seven, said this sometime in the seventies. Back then I thought this was so obviously true that it was trivial. Yet these words stayed with me and have taken on relevance as I’ve gotten older, echoing when I’ve been weak and injured and when I’ve been strong. Today October 24, 2016, Tom Hayden died. Wanting to know when and where he made this silly and profound observation, I Googled these words, and discovered that Christopher Hitchens is credited with this line, in his last book, Mortality, published in 2012. While Hitchens may have written those words, I’ll salute Tom Hayden for expressing this thought.
A few months ago I visited the Chequamegon Book and Coffee Company in Washburn, Wisconsin. Finding Louise Erdrich’s Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country seemed like serendipity, since I was on my way to Madeline Island, or Mooningwanekaaning, in the Ojibwe language. In this book Erdrich ponders the question of why she loves books. She writes:
Having only taken a few inept family photos and one pretty bad class in photojournalism at Northwestern University before I applied for admission into the graduate program in photography at the Institute of Design at IIT, I was lucky to get in. At the time I had no idea that the program, founded by Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus, was legendary. Nor had I any idea that it was tremendously influential in how serious photograph had and would evolved in the second half of the twentieth century. Ignorant as I was, my passion for photography fit happily into the intense, experimental practice that the program demanded.
In 2002, the Art Institute of Chicago put together an exhibition titled Taken By Design, Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937—2001, a visual history with essays. I was included in that show. A Lasting Vision: Photographs from the Institute of Design 1970—2001, picks up where Taken By Design left off. In 2001 the graduate program in photography was shut down. I’m looking forward to seeing the work of those with whom I was trained as a thinker and a photographer.
The exhibition A Lasting Vision opens on Friday, July 31 at Crown Hall, 3360 South State Street, Chicago, IL and will run for several weeks. A catalogue will be available.
The maelstrom around the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set the Watchman (2015), a novel set in a time after that in her To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), has proven how essential books are. Go Set the Watchman was published fifty-five years after Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and became one of the most revered books in America. The book and the movie made from it, starring Gregory Peck as the honorable Atticus Finch, became a phenomenon. Mockingbird appeared on required reading lists, communities read it together. Readers identified with Scout or Jem or Atticus, or with life at that time in small town America. Go Set the Watchmen, which takes place years later, portrays a very different Atticus, an old, bitter racist. Today’s sages are weighing in. What do these two books reveal about race in America? Which book is more honest? Was it a mistake to publish Go Set? Was Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott, the publisher of Mockingbird, a vital creative force? Was Lee manipulated into publishing a second-rate novel? What greedy forces are behind the publication of a novel that is sure to undermine the aura of the first book? That two novels have created so much debate and conversation is exciting. In a time when we are deluged with information from sources that are quickly eclipsed by other sources, it is heartening to see two novels prove how central books can be to our cultural life.
Conventional wisdom says that if you blaze along on the vast federal highway system, you’ll miss what is special or unique about each place that you pass through at seventy miles an hour plus. On a recent trip to the Carolina coast, driving through Kentucky and Tennessee and western North Carolina, I zoomed past exit signs pointing to places that sounded special to me. I wish I’d had time to explore.
• Bat Cave
• Burnt Shirt
• New Found Road
• Stinking Creek Road
• Rarity Mountain
• Clinch River
• Raccoon Valley Road
• Upward Road
• East Flat Rock
Every state in the union has an image. Often it’s a two-faced image. I live in Illinois, the land of cornfields and corrupt politicians. I visit its northern neighbor Wisconsin, the land of cheese-heads and granola-eaters. Ludicrous simplifications, but there you are. Last week I bought a cup of coffee in small cafe in Illinois, then a few days later I stopped in a similar place in Wisconsin. The placards behind the coffee machines in each place expressed such different philosophies that I found a new way to compare these two states.
“Be kind. No act of kindness, however small, is wasted.”
“Don’t Try so Hard to Fit In. You were Born to Stand Out.”
“We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.
“Due to Economic Cutbacks, the Light at the End of the Tunnel has Been Turned Off.”
“If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.”
“Today’s Menu: Take It or Leave It.”
Wisconsin wins on style.
Outside the large urban/suburban/exurban centers of America, the language of the land takes on different slants, depending on where you are. Accents, colloquialisms, cadence, and customary vocabulary vary by region. So does the language of road signs. Here are some legends from signs seen recently in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.