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Rachel McCumber: A Bad Blog Post by a Bad Writer

November 5, 2019

It is often frowned upon in art school to say your work is bad before you present it. They say “you are setting yourself up for disappointment and you should appreciate whatever you create.” While I agree with that statement, I also don’t.

Before I present this blog post I would like to say: I am a bad writer and this writing is bad.

I don’t like half the words I put on a page. I don’t have great grammar skills or a sophisticated vocabulary. I am writing for a blog called “Semicolon” and I don’t even know how to use the damn thing. I don’t read as often as I should. There are days where the pages in my journal are as empty as dorms during winter break. My work often lacks emotional vulnerability and contains a messy structure. Pure chaos lies between the one-inch margins of every paper. My heart twists its way into my stomach each time I have to read my words aloud. Embarrassed by my voice and by my words, I want to crawl into the double-spaced, 12pt font and die. 

I am such a bad writer that my fear of exposure prompted me to skip class the day this blog was due. I was afraid to let my classmates and my professor know that I’m a poser. I walk around with my caffeine addiction and yellow legal pads, but I’m not one of them¾I’m not a good writer. So instead of embarrassing myself, I sat in Grant Park staring at my blank word document and felt it staring back at me. The glowing white screen was blinding. Occasionally, I would type out some insecurities with my writing that didn’t make my skin crawl. But it never felt good enough. 

I closed my eyes and put my hands on the grass behind me and leaned slightly back. I tilted my head upward to stare at the sky between the tree branches above me. The sky was so blue that day and I knew Chicago winters would soon take away sunny days like this. My friend sitting next to me was writing like a machine. The words were flying out of her fingertips and I wished I had that confidence. She poured life onto the page with reckless abandon. 

I asked how she did it. I read the first couple paragraphs of this blog for her and said I was embarrassed to turn it in.  She said that I would always be my worst critic and that no one will ever hate my work as much as I do.

I loved that. It sounded like a challenge. 

As long as I hate my work the most, no one’s opinion will ever touch me. Maybe that mindset won’t be helpful long term, but it got me to start writing again. 

I procrastinate writing even though its my true passion. The writer Gaby Dunn said her therapist once reassured her during a session that “Procrastination is a part of the creative process”.  Maybe I needed to wallow in self-pity in Grant Park that day. But procrastination and doubt can only hold me back for so long before I start writing something I hate again. 

__________________________

Rachel McCumber is a student currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing with a focus in Nonfiction at Columbia College-Chicago. This will be her first published work, but she has made some really funny tweets and Instagram captions. However, she also enjoys writing personal essays that explore her ethnicity, pop-culture, and the reasons she is in counseling. 

Semi;Colon

Brigitte Riordan: On Writing and Food

November 5, 2019

 

The Tasting Menu Reads Like a Novel

I haven’t read many books this past year, but I’ve read countless menus. I’ve learned something about storytelling through eating. 

Eating from a tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant is like reading a novel: it’s divided into chapters that linger and carry on into one another. The experience will begin and build and end. 

It begins with the menu. 

A well-written menu is withholding many key pieces of information. Many fine dining restaurants list only the ingredients of the dish with no words for preparation or hints toward texture, or flavor of the ingredient. The cooks and chefs I work with tell me this is intentional. No jargon, no nonsense, nothing for guests to wonder about. The work done in the kitchen should be mysterious. I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” as I eat delicious food while knowing nothing of who prepared it. People should only question the craft if the food is so divine that it seems impossible. The well-written menu will leave a guest guessing and hungry. 

The amuse-bouche, French for “mouth amuser,” lights up the palette. In a book it is the prologue, or even a review written by Maya Angelou printed in italics on the first page. It is what reads,this is going to be interesting, this is going to be good.It is simple in its focus: to prepare. It touches on the range of flavors, hints at reach and ability. 

The first course is designed to be light on its feet. It introduces flavors and makes a statement. It is a thesis statement. The first course establishes voice, so to speak. 

Some tasting menus will have ten courses, others just three. The basic parts do not change, they may just be drawn out. Either way, there’s a beginning, middle, and end. The entrée courses are plot peaks, climaxes. They are typically rich, flavorful proteins. The main components may be familiar: lamb, beef, fish. A good restaurant will use this stability and tradition to play off of and be creative. In writing, it is the classic plot arc, where toward the end of the book two characters might learn they are in love with one another, or where a character hits rock bottom and has to come to terms with his situation. The story is familiar but is special in its context. 

The dessert (I think many would agree with me) is the best part. Some flavor from the beginning of the meal lingers and appears again. Fennel from the first course appears dressed in fruit compote. Motifs dance on the tongue in harmony. Dessert can’t be too sweet. There may be many textures and they must play well together. 

When I leave the restaurant: get up out of the seat, stretch my legs, and refocus my eyes. I adjust to my immediate reality. I process¾I talk to my dining companion about the details or I just think about them. My senses have experienced new combinations of colors, smells, tastes, and feelings and my mind has yet to fully acknowledge them.  

__________________________

 

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