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Semi;Colon

Semi;Colon

The Meaning of Mystery

March 22, 2018

What songs the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.
                                                                                                                                               —Sir Thomas Browne, Urn-Burial   

                           

Edgar Alan Poe fans will recognize this passage as the epigraph to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first detective story and—by many critical interpretations—the first detective story by anyone. Poe’s proto–amateur sleuth, the addled but shrewd Auguste Dupin, has spawned almost two centuries of imitators, including Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nick and Nora Charles, and Nancy Drew. These detectives all share a methodology. They piece together what is not known from what is. The investigator assembles the available clues and testimony, often at a remove from the crime scene, and at an even greater remove from the crime itself. They are unarmed; their only weapons are their wits. They ascertain action and causation, crime and motive, and their acts of reconstruction and mythmaking are the preoccupations of literature because these stories are works of fiction. When we substitute nonfiction for fiction, then the very act of reconstruction confers greater responsibility. We all assign meaning to the events of our lives. We draw larger inferences and make assumptions based on brief bits of conservation or body language. As observers, the reality we seek to convey is necessary subjective, and we leave it to the reader to judge.

It is significant that the creation of the amateur detective coincided with the creation of professional police forces in the teeming cities of Europe and America at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. With the shift of social order from church and monarch to more secular, democratic structures, a literate bourgeoisie may have been comforted by the imposition of a refined, intellectual sensibility upon a hard-knuckled bureaucratic enterprise such as police work. Or maybe it is just that they welcomed the opportunity to escape from their disordered lives into the pages of a mystery.

Dan Chaon’s protagonist in his most recent novel Ill Will, a therapist named Dustin Tillman, tells his patient, “We are always telling stories to ourselves about ourselves.” The novel is an intricate reflection on the idea of murder as a much as upon the individual murders detailed. The author draws upon the “satanic panic” of the 1980s when even the most casual followers of sensational murder cases were eager to find evidence of the occult in crime scene clues in order to assign meaning to the most senseless acts.

Chaon sat down with Timothy Parfitt for Punctuate earlier this spring, and the interview appears in this month’s issue. Also in this issue, Desiree Cooper describes the agonizing toll Alzheimer’s has taken on her mother’s capacity for speech, Alyssa Quinn assembles a theological lexicon following her loss of faith, and Sharon Goldman contemplates pictures of relatives lost in the Holocaust and wonders if the institutions, traditions, and values that have traditionally insulated us from facing such horrors are adequate to our current reality.


Ian Morris, Managing Editor

Semi;Colon

February Fire and Fury

February 15, 2018

Reading Michael Wolff’s account in The Hollywood Reporter about how he got access to the West Wing while writing Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House got me thinking about Lillian Ross, the longtime writer for The New Yorker, who died last fall at the age of ninety-nine. Ross’s dictum, “Your attention should always be on the subject, not on you,” was most famously on display in a profile she wrote for the magazine in 1950.

Ernest Hemingway—who had just turned fifty—and his fourth wife, Mary, were stopping over in New York on their way from Cuba to Italy. In the time Ross spent with the pair, they shopped for an overcoat, drank Champagne at ten in the morning in their suite at the Plaza hotel, and listened as Marlene Dietrich—who lived at the Plaza and who had just turned fifty herself—described her typical evening spent babysitting her grandson, cleaning her daughter’s apartment, and then taking a cab home to the hotel, with the young family’s dirty laundry. Continue Reading

Semi;Colon

Writing? What is that?

February 15, 2018

People say you can’t teach talent, that not everybody has the ability to be the next Toni Morrison or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or someday play for the Cubs, or become a famous musician. And perhaps this is true. But if we stop trying to be an esteemed author or a star athlete or a world touring musician, we will awaken these talents that quietly live inside of us. Maybe we won’t be The Best, but we will be enough.

Writing seems intimidating. When I stare at a blank page where I am supposed to build worlds and lives, I think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this after all. But if I start with something, with one thing, everything follows.

 

In fiction, it always starts with a place.

A suburban street where the sun is always shining and families grill in their backyard.

An empty hospital basement where the fluorescent lights reflect off the linoleum floor.

A kitchen at nighttime with only the light from the moon.

Then characters start to appear.

A little girl with scabbed knees.

A doctor with blood staining her sea-foam-colored scrubs.

A girl with short blonde hair sitting on the counter, and another one with longer hair sitting at the table.

They will start to feel the temperature.

The warmth of the sun is so subtle that she only notices it when she rides beneath the shade of a tree and feels its absence.

The air conditioning raises goosebumps on the doctor’s skin.

The kitchen warms up from the blowing heat as one of the girls pulls off her sweatshirt.

I start to discover what the characters want, no matter how simple or complex it may be.

The little girl wants to see how quickly she can ride her bike from one end of the sidewalk to the other.

The doctor wants to change out of her dirty clothes and drive home.

The girls want to talk about what the next move in their relationship is after they’ve seen that their love is fading.

In nonfiction, it starts with a memory.

Sitting on my grandma’s lap with an I Spy book while we waited for pizza to be delivered.

Driving to Missouri at nighttime while I lied in the backseat, watching the different car lights pass outside the window.   

Lying in bed with my girlfriend while the heat in my house wasn’t working, whispering to each other under the covers about our lives, with only the orange light from the streetlight quietly peeking through my window.

The memory can be insignificant, just a fleeting moment, but it is enough. If it stuck with you, it’s almost certain that it will stick with others.

There is a thought that writing and pain go hand in hand, that you write about what hurts. There will always be a feeling of pain that might linger in writing, but if story after story is about suffering, it gets old and repetitive. I’ve written about pain, and suffering, and lost love, and after a while, all of my stories were the same. So I started writing with a feeling of hope. My characters started to love again. They pulled open the curtains; they danced on hardwood floors in their living rooms; they kissed on street corners, and I started to love again. My chest started to expand as I breathed in, and I started to hope again. Writing isn’t just for pain. It is a way to reawaken old memories and see them in a new way as the words meet the page. It is a way to feel again, the good and the bad.


Tabitha Chartos, Assistant Editor

Semi;Colon

Defining a “True” Writer

February 15, 2018

Close your eyes and imagine a writer. Where are they? What are they like?

When I used to think of a writer, I would think of a person sitting at a mahogany desk, or maybe at a Parisian cafe, or maybe a really Brooklyn-esque cafe (you know, with like slabs of wood for tables, and loose leaf tea, and no drip coffee, just espresso, and milk crates, but like trendy, expensive looking milk crates, for chairs, and music playing via a cassette tape). The writer is content in these places, the writer fits right in. They are writing by hand, in a leather bound journal. In cursive, probably. Poetry, or something poetic. They love symbolism, and coming up with it comes easily. As they write, they talk around what they want to say in a complex way that paints a beautiful picture for the reader. Next to them, on the table, sits a book, their favorite book. It is one of the classics. The writer loves the classics, and understands the language in them easily, on the first read. The writer is deep, serious, passionate, and inspired.

Can you see it? Is this close to what you imagined, too?

According to this image, I am not a writer.

According to this image, I have never been a writer.

But I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I thought that maybe, I could become a writer. However, this image of The Writer haunted me.

Here is what I think of when I think of myself, writing:

Girl sitting in bed, violently typing words onto a page because they are due in probably an hour. Playing very loud music over Spotify. Deciding that she needs to treat herself and eat a snack, even though she is not that hungry and her work is due in probably an hour. She is writing something incredibly blunt, probably exposing herself for one of her many flaws or a strange way in which she perceives life. On the floor next to her, there is a stack of books of essays, mostly by contemporary female authors, that she thinks are interesting and funny. She has read each of these books probably five times in the past year, and all of them have coffee and food stains all over their torn and creased pages.

I am not The Writer, and so I always believed that I could not be A Writer.

All throughout school, I took creative writing classes, because I enjoyed them, but told myself that I didn’t fit in and wasn’t good enough to be there. Everyone in the classes would read their beautiful poetic work, and our homework would be to read from the classics, and that was writing and those were writers.

But I loved what I was creating, and I loved to create. I just knew that this creative outlet was not for me, and so I tried to find a new one.

I came to Columbia College Chicago my freshman year of college to major in comedy. I figured that, since I liked to have fun with my creativity, comedy was the right place for me. First semester, I took one creative writing course, as an elective, and was nervous to attend because I just knew that I would look like a fraud among all of the other real writers in the class, the way that I always felt in all of my other writing classes.

However, when I attended the class, something truly magical happened.

Every writer was different, and my teacher encouraged each individual style of writing. He assigned us wide ranges of readings and prompts and forms to write in. Everyone brought something different and everyone was creating beautiful content. No one in the class was The Writer.

I thrived in this class, and it was then that I realized that I could, in fact, write, that there was nothing wrong with me for not fitting into this mold that I had imagined I’d needed to fit all of my life. After that first semester, I changed my major to Creative Nonfiction Writing and have felt so in the right place and so happy since.

With the rest of my life, I obviously want to create, but I also want to teach. I want to be the teacher that I had first semester of college who showed me that I could be any type of writer I wanted to be. I want to show students that there is so much to the world of writing, that not everyone is the same, that there are so many different paths and journeys you can take to become a writer.

Writing is incredible. It makes you feel things. There are so many different feelings to have and so many different ways to get those feelings across. I want to encourage more variety, I want everybody to find their creative niche.

If I could share one message and really drive that message home with students, it would be that everybody has a story to tell and everybody deserves to tell that story.


Lauren Antonelli, Assistant Editor 

Semi;Colon

Auld (and New) Lang Syne

December 20, 2017

Tyrell Collins at Book Expo Chicago, 2016

Our December online issue features advice on the holidays by Dawn Downey, an interview with poet Camille Dungy, and a view from within the Un dia sin Latinos march in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Paula Lovo.

A commonplace observation of the holiday season is that it is a time when people come together. Of course, in order for people to come together, some of them must leave somewhere else. Such is the case with Tyrell Collins who has served as Punctuate’s assistant managing editor for the last two and a half years. He has earned his MFA in Fiction Writing here at Columbia College Chicago and will be returning to New Orleans.

Originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia, Tyrell attended Dillard University, a historically black institution that boasts Coretta Scott King and Garrett Morris among its alumni. Among Tyrell’s literary accomplishments are a poem that he wrote and sent to the White House in recognition of the inauguration of President Obama. In return, the President sent Tyrell a letter thanking Tyrell for the poem. We, too, are grateful for his contributions. Tyrell was with the magazine since we began operations, and therefore he will be particularly missed.

Benjamin Williams, a graduate student in Poetry, in the English-Creative Writing Department, will be taking over for Tyrell as assistant managing editor for Punctuate as we move into our third year of publication.


Ian Morris, Managing Editor

Semi;Colon

Capitals in Summer

December 20, 2017

Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts

I wish I could tell my high school self: keep doing exactly what you’re doing.

I began writing when I was a wee little kiddo. I started out writing songs and making up scripts to act out with my siblings. My mom came up with this amazing stage name for me, but that will die with the both of us. Then, in early teenage years, I tried writing romantic fiction (you know, what all teens try to write when they are starting to feel feelings for the first time). That didn’t last long because I tried to rewrite Twilight once, and then I was out of ideas. But there was a trend, you know? I was using writing as a tool for understanding the world around me. I was gaining ground to becoming a writer of some kind, I just hadn’t found my niche, yet.

So I went to my high school guidance counselor and begged for help. I asked to be put in any class where I could write creatively. Sweet old woman that she was, she dug in the course catalog and fished out a class that hadn’t been taught in over ten years, but still technically existed. It was labeled Creative Writing. Good enough for me. I spread the word. The class met its headcount, and it was resurrected.  Continue Reading

Semi;Colon

Learning Before Teaching

December 20, 2017

Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. To me, teachers were some of my favorite people growing up, both in real life and on TV. When I got confirmed during my freshman year, my seventh grade English teacher was my sponsor. When I think back to my childhood, Ms. Frizzle and Mr. Feeny are as much ingrained as my mother and father. When it comes to writing, I can’t imagine one day not teaching the next generation about the thing that I love so much, which is storytelling. 

If I were to be teaching a writing class right now, the most important thing that I would want my students to get out of my class would be to allow themselves freedom when it comes to the page. From middle school up until halfway through college, I never allowed myself to be true to who I am when it came to writing because I was afraid of embarrassment. Throughout that entire time, I wasn’t writing at all, save a few terrible poems I wrote for a boyfriend that I repressed the moment that I gave them to him. The idea of writing something bad that it felt like the whole world would read, terrified me. That fear kept me from pursuing something that I really enjoyed just because allowing anyone to see into my brain mortified me. Continue Reading