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Semi;Colon

On Process: Andrew Gregory Krzak

May 6, 2019

Process should be the most important part of any artistic endeavor because creativity needs surprise to thrive. One cannot be surprised if they are too rigid in the creation process. As a result, I believe a writer should leave intentionality and structure and all of that behind until enough sculptural material is generated to truly shape something: It is through editing that the essay or story is truly created. I write across myriad genres and formats, from the personal essay to the script, and I don’t start off by thinking (for example), “Ok, now it’s time to write a radio show.” My process is what ultimately reveals the form a given work will take.

Whenever I write, I start with a fresh legal notepad and two or three number-two pencils, which I keep perfectly sharpened throughout. I don’t give myself any prompts or criteria besides a time limit—usually an hour a day. I’ve never had writer’s block or lacked material, and I attribute this to the lack of constraints. I will generate new material for a week before even typing anything up.

The time of day I write can be as early as 5am or as late as 10pm. I cannot write, or do much of anything, between the hours of 2pm to 4pm—inevitably my sluggish time of day. I like to experiment by writing in different positions or environments. Sometimes I’ll write standing up, but you can also find me laying on my bed. I’m a people watcher, but I can’t work when things are too loud or crowded. But I won’t write or look at screens by the time midnight rolls around because I’m trying to decompress.

Throughout any given day I’ll be recording notes or sentences on my iPhone using the Voice Memos and Bear apps. I also keep a sketchbook and a journal with me, and write in those daily. Once a week I transcribe the audio notes and recopy what I’ve jotted down in my notebooks, sketchpads, or random sheets of paper into my free-writing legal pads.

About twice a month I will type up everything I’ve written. This pattern isn’t arbitrary; it’s when I’ve accumulated enough raw material and realize that to write any more I’d become overwhelmed with all the material. When I type up my work, it’s not in a standard way. I’ll set my Word document to landscape, create columns, and change the font. In this way, material I am already slightly familiar with becomes new again. This is a technique I learned from my thesis advisor at Columbia College’s MFA program, Dr. Jenny Boully.

As I type everything up, I do slight edits—clear up random thoughts into sentences and discard anything truly bad–half-formed thoughts or obvious clichés come to mind. Finally, I’ll place this document beside a blank document with a standard layout and font, and retype it.

Utilizing this process, I can come up with drafts for two or three pieces concurrently. I also become aware of thematic concerns or recurring references to people or places—all the things that have preoccupied my mind in the preceding weeks. If all these concerns can be stitched together into one longer draft, fine. If not, they can each be shorter discrete drafts.

Only after this am I able to truly start editing and crafting the material into a draft. Editing, for me, is a drastic process. It is about radical, even violent, revision. I end up killing some seventy-percent of my darlings by determining what material is doing no work. But this is fine because as one of my mentors, Aleksandar Hemon, is fond of saying, “That stuff isn’t writing; it’s typing.”

Only after all this do I have a working draft, and that brings me to a point where most other people seem to start from! It’s what works for me, though, and spending so much time on process truly gives me the foundation I need. Any writer one speaks with is bound to have a different methodology, but it’s important to try many different one out to find the right fit. Figuring out what has become my process took a good two years of math – adding and subtracting elements I experimented with along the way. I wish you the best in discovering your process!


Andrew Gregory Krzak is a Nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. He is the producer of The Don’t Call Me Sweetheart! Show on WLPN, 105.5fm, Chicago. In addition to writing, he is fond of directing plays, illustrating magazine covers and children’s books, and playing accordion.

Semi;Colon

Introducing the latest issue

March 18, 2019

 

It seems fitting that our issue is being released this week because this Thursday is Persian New Year. For Iranians, Noruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is something I have always loved. If the new year that began in January isn’t really turning out so good, if all those promises I had hoped to keep for myself end up dropping one by one like rotting fruit on trees, then that protracted year was ending (in some sense) and I could get a do-over, a whole other New Year to try again. In March, on the first day of spring no less, I was given a second chance to reinstate the resolutions I couldn’t conquer before: quit biting my nails, write more, eat healthier, write more, spend less money, write more (you know how this goes).

 

Springtime also represents renewal and change, a reminder from the entire Earth to celebrate growth. Punctuate.has also been growing, and changing, and we eagerly look for what summers will follow our springs. But first, we’d like to thank T. Clutch Fleischmann for being a critical resource and dedicated reader as our Book Reviews Editor from 2015-2018. We’d also like to thank Ian Morris for his tireless work as Managing Editor and congratulate him on his new position as a writer at Coalition Technologies.

 

Since 2019, Cora Jacobs has handled Punctuate.as our Managing Editor and continues to manage Columbia Poetry Reviewand Hair Trigger, which are some of our sister publications. This year we also have Juliana Ravelli (Assistant Managing Editor) and Andrew Krzak (Editorial Assistant).

To celebrate Noruz, Iranians lay out a sofre. On the sofre, which is usually an elaborately embroidered cloth, my family sets out seven items such as apples to represent health and beauty; eggs (which we also decorated for Easter) to represent fertility; and a small green plant called a sabzi for rebirth. Taken together, all the items represent some aspect of spring and the wishes we hope will come true in the new year.

 

In this issue, our sofre is laid out with different prose to convey how expansive and ever-evolving the nonfiction genre can be.

 

We are privileged to be publishing Elizabeth Kadestsky’s first nonfiction comics, which is accompanied by a Q&A with Juliana discussing how Kadetsky rediscovered visual, semi-textual modes of storytelling. Jane Babson’s “Lost and Re-Found” maps the terrain of memory alongside a meditation on her son’s Chromosome 7. In “Birth Story,” Kirsten Voris juxtaposes her birth with a disjunctive timeline of her mother’s life. Our last feature “For Sale: Death and Coyote Jaws,” by Laura Manardo, is poignant and powerful as she recounts the time her therapist advised her to do something that scared her.

 

“Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air” are the last lines to Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” and Columbia College Chicago alum Negesti Kaudo interviews Piper J. Daniels (also a CCC alum) on Ladies Lazarus, her award-winning collection of essays from Tarpaulin Sky. They discuss Daniels’ relationship to Plath and how her collection of essays, too, went through several rebirths — from suicide note to monograph to hybrid work.

 

If you come back on April 1, we’ll also be publishing two book reviews: Gretchen Lida reviews Randon Billings Noble’s Be with Me Always(University of Nebraska Press) and Kelsey Hoff covers The Collected Schizophrenias (Graywolf Press) by Esme Weijun Wang.

 

Another thing I love about celebrating the Persian New Year is that it conveys a certain looseness to time. Although it is 2019 in the Gregorian calendar, one can also follow the official calendar in Iran, the Solar Hijri, where it’s 1397 (that is, until March 21, 2019, when the year turns to 1398). Additionally, the new year is never fixed on one day, but rather, the new year changes because the first day of spring always changes. More specifically, the new year oscillates between the March 19-22 range. In this sense, time (or Time) is not an absolute; instead, it embodies and is embodied across a spectrum where one can shift through different modes and interpretations.

 

Genre, I believe, works similarly to time. Although the concept of “genre” can be used as a totalizing force, as yet another method to create, retain, and even reify the salience of categories, nonfiction reveals again and again that its variation cannot be contained.

 

In conjunction with our book reviews, interviews and blog posts, we want to work with our writers and readers to cultivate this endlessly growing field of nonfiction. We hope you join us.

 

Noruz mobarak!

S. Ferdowsi

Assistant Managing Editor, 2015-present

Semi;Colon

Drawn In

September 18, 2018

In the September issue of Punctuate, we reflect on the power of the hand-drawn images to evoke emotions and a sense of history. We interview Ken Krimstein and review his graphic biography The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which deftly captures how highly educated and perceptive citizens can be caught off guard by their country’s descent into totalitarianism and how the refugees who fled that menace can imbue the national sensibility of their adopted country with a conscience. Chip Livingston’s essay “I Remember Joe Brainard’s Cock Pictures” appears alongside one of Brainard’s works. The drawing, titled  “Self-Portrait Number 2: My Underpants November 14, 1966,” has the exuberant, boyish, subversive quality of an R. Crumb comic. Both the image and the essay recall the self-chronicling tendency of the New York School and the AIDS crisis that changed everything forever. And Mary Livoni’s charcoal drawings reveal the palimpsest of Chicago’s industrial past that lies beneath its gentrified veneer.

In “Naked,” Robyn Allers confronts photographic evidence of an early, unhappy marriage though the lens of her live today, while Liz Rose realizes too late how she and her star-crossed Palestinian lover are not like the Montagues and the Capulets. And Victoria Anderson seeks context for her friend’s illness in the private lives of bees. It is an issue that we hope reflects the range and possibility of nonfiction today.


Ian Morris, Managing Editor

Semi;Colon

Under the Summer Weather

July 25, 2018

Memoirs about illness and overcoming illness are so popular that they have become a genre unto themselves. The reasons for this are clear. Many, if not most, people have either experienced a serious illness or know someone who has. Therefore, there is a broad pool of potential authors whose stories can be inspiring, heartbreaking, and familiar, all at the same time, and there is an even deeper pool of potential readers who may be facing a medical crisis themselves or know someone who is.

 

It has been said that the well and the sick live in two different countries without a common language. In our July issue, we have a memoir in verse by Marie Harris chronicling a son’s tortuous path back from a bad car accident. By contrast, in “Has to Go” by Rich Furman and “Venous Lake” by Leila Philip, we have two essays that capture the quotidian interactions we have with our bodies and the casual care and worry we apply to them. Also, in this issue are two travel pieces by Joan Connor about the trip to a conference in New Zealand and a memoir by Courtney Kiehm about a family trip to Florida where hell is other people.


Ian Morris, Managing Editor

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