Reflections - The Arts

The arts, I think, define our humanity. They make us use both sides of our brains, philosophize while expressing emotion, emote while philosophizing, see connections where we used to see divisions, help us understand other ways of seeing and experiencing and enjoying the world. They make us understand how body movement expresses thought, how language conjures up the deep recesses of our imaginations, how musical sound and visual imagery taps parts of our consciousness we never knew existed. We all have an artist somewhere within us. Some of us just try harder, invest more effort, to tap that part of our soul and motivate it to produce something we can share with others. But who does not at least respond to art in some form?

Scene from Bread Loaf Mountain I must have known very early on that language was to be my primary vehicle of expression. In the third grade, I was trying to write a science fiction novel. I might cringe if I saw it today (it is lost to the ages), but the important thing, as it is for all third-graders, is that it was a beginning. It put incipient language skills to work, and they grew. In high school, I took elective classes in both journalism and creative writing. I founded the high school’s Writers Club, which then published an annual literary journal, The Tenth Muse. It was my outlet.

I began my collegiate career as an English major, in an honors program, indulging in subjects like 17th-century English literature. I wrote for the university newspaper and other publications, but it was the Sixties, the end of them anyway, and eventually the issues of the day turned me into a political science major. But eventually that and my community involvement just gave me subjects to write about, and I returned, over and over, to the need to say something in print. Five op-ed pieces in The Plain Dealer had my by-line by the time I left for Iowa, where I acquired a master’s degree in Journalism as well as Urban and Regional Planning. By the time I moved to Chicago, I was regularly publishing free-lance articles in a wide variety of magazines, including The Nation, The Progressive, various denominational magazines, Historic Preservation, Country Journal, and other outlets. I moved to Chicago to become assistant editor of Planning, a monthly magazine at the American Planning Association, thus marrying some of the diverse skills and knowledge I had acquired.  Over the next ten years, I poured considerable energy into two lengthy book projects: Raising Less Corn and More Hell, an oral history of the Midwest farm crisis in the 1980s, and Deeper Shades of Green, which profiled the then emerging environmental justice movement.

During all this, it was important to me to connect with a community of other writers. And not just journalists, though I became a charter member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and joined other journalistic professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. I quickly found and was invited to join the storied Society of Midland Authors, attending its programs, making new friends, and in the early 1990s, taking over the editorship of its newsletter, which we then renamed Literary License, a perky title that has stuck for nearly two decades. One job led to another, and I became the membership secretary, then vice president, then president from 1997-1999, helping usher in the society’s website, which has become a mainstay of its existence over the past decade, allowing easy connection for members spread across twelve Midwestern states. Having not done quite enough yet, I found myself drafted into serving as treasurer for two years after stepping down as president, and have been a board member ever since, in addition to serving for many years as a judge (first in nonfiction, now biography) for SMA’s annual book awards competition. Seriously, folks, I’d rather win the award myself some day, but for now it has been fun to receive this stack of nominated books from publishers every year, most of which find their way to friends and libraries after the awards banquet. (Except for winning entries, which get autographed whenever possible.)
Bed and Breakfast

Never quite satisfied that I have spread my wings quite widely enough, I have made other fruitful literary connections that I have enjoyed immensely. One occurred over 11 days in the summer of 1997, when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. All that precious time attending workshops, having my own as yet stillborn novel critiqued, getting feedback from the likes of Thomas Mallon, listening to readings day and night from authors like Julia Alvarez, Barry Lopez, and Madison Smartt Bell, in essence, learning from the best in a bewitching setting atop the Green Mountains, was as much as any aspiring author could ask from life. But there was more. We had preceded dropping me off at Bread Loaf with a family trip aboard Amtrak to Albany, then drove to the Adirondack Mountains, where we toured for a few days before taking the ferry across Lake Champlain to Burlington, then driving to Middlebury and Bread Loaf Mountain. After a night in a bed and breakfast, my wife took our two girls back to Albany and a return ride on Amtrak to Chicago, which I used also a week and a half later, reading Dostoyevsky on the way home, but with Bread Loaf authors’ books in my luggage.

One experience begets another, and less than six years later, I was accepted for a four-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois, 45 minutes north of Chicago. There, amid the company of a dozen writers, poets, and visual artists, I worked hard on a promising memoir about our experiences as adoptive parents. I put a sizeable dent in the project in that short time, more than 100 pages of reasonably polished prose, but real life has stalled the completion of this book, and it too remains stillborn. More about that appears in another Reflection, Children and the Future. I learned that the toughest writing of all may be that which deals with real life as it is still happening. It is hard to gain the necessary perspective, but sometimes it is also hard to know where the story ends, or will end, or should. I am still struggling with that one. But I will treasure the experience of Ragdale for a long time to come, and hope to return some day, when time and circumstances allow. In the meantime, it shall serve, like Bread Loaf, as an artist’s inspiration.