Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Summer According to Instagram

It's almost the end of July and I haven't had the chance to post here nearly as much as I had hoped.  But this behavior wasn't born out of laziness; it's been a busy summer of concerts, shopping, parties, and, of course, reading.  Here are a few of my favorite moments so far, in all their filtered glory.

1 // Wayyy back in June, I took home seven books for under $30 from Printer's Row Lit Fest.  I've only had a chance to start The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and even though at 100ish pages in I'm having trouble keeping myself invested in the characters, I'm determined to finish it and as many other books from my Printer's Row loot as I can before the end of the summer.
2 // Even though I'm not a sports fan, it was exciting taking part in the Chicago madness following the Blackhawks' victory, and I could not get over the adorable helmets on the Chicago Art Institute lions.
3 // In a fit of artistic inspiration, and craving a fresh look for my bulletin board to start off the summer, I decided to collage an ode to Chicago out of cut-up city maps.
4 // I've seen few things more picturesque than the view from the high-rise apartment where I spent the 4th of July, watching countless firework shows take place all across the skyline as soon as the sun began to set.
5 // With most people away from school for the summer, I've found dozens of cozy outdoor reading nooks around my quiet campus.
6 // My favorite Creative Writing buddy Izzy and I had to buy these matching word nerd rings, if only just to use them as an excuse to model our attempts at nail art.
7 // I was hanging out at a friend's apartment when I noticed her copy of Breathless, one of my all-time favorite French films.  When she offered me a second copy of the DVD that she had received as a gift, I freaked out.  I'm sensing a Godard movie marathon in my future.
8 // Finally, this past weekend I had the chance to volunteer at Pitchfork on behalf of the organization I intern for.  The whole festival was a blast, but MIA was easily my favorite performance.

Summer in Chicago is seriously the best.  Follow more of my adventures on Instagram @elizabethshere.

Happy summer,

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Coraline Generation, or The Book That Made Me Want to Write

A few nights ago I met one of my greatest role models.

I have been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing since first reading Coraline when I was ten years old.  My memories of growing up with this book still play like a montage in my head—I remember how I was running errands with my aunt, wandered into a children’s bookstore, and was handed Coraline by a salesperson after I told her I wanted something scary to read; reading the book in a matter of hours that afternoon; my aunt buying tickets for us to hear Neil Gaiman speak during his Coraline book tour a few weeks later, and after the Q&A, eating stale Altoids and reading brochures on summer creative writing classes to pass the time as I waited for an hour and forty five minutes to get my copy signed; reading the book at least five more times over the next few years, throwing it in my backpack before school, and dropping it in the muddy puddles on floor of the bus, the stains of which are still visible on the pages of my warn, battered, beaten copy.

Coraline is a badass.  In the story, she travels through a mysterious door in her family’s new flat and meets her Other Mother, a woman with black buttons for eyes who wants to raise Coraline as her own.  Coraline escapes, but after the Other Mother kidnaps Coraline’s real parents in order to lure her back, she returns to her alternate universe to rescue her parents.  Coraline dreams of being an explorer; she scavenges through overgrown gardens and abandoned theatres, is stalked by rat circuses and left to spend the night in a closet haunted by the spirits of the Other Mother’s former victims, and outsmarts every monster by the end of the book.  What ultimately made me fall in love with the book was its message that children are capable of more than they’re given credit for; even just the fact that the story is so scary compared to other children’s books proves that stories don’t need to be dumbed down for children.  Reading it, I felt like I was being taken seriously, like I was being treated like an adult, which at ten years old, is all a child really wants.

I read everything I could find by Neil Gaiman over the next several years.  But even as I grew up, I always came back to Coraline, and everything it had taught me about the power of books.  I began taking creative writing classes, and decided I wanted to learn the craft of fiction writing for myself, so I could someday create art that I hoped would affect readers in the same way Coraline had affected me.  So when I saw that Neil Gaiman would be doing his final tour for his newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in Chicago at the Music Box Theater on July 9th, nearly ten years after I’d met him in Minneapolis, I knew I had to go.

I was counting down the days until the signing, when I saw an interview with Neil Gaiman online titled The Book That Made Me Want to Write.  In it, he begins talking about a signing recently held in Cambridge, and says, “I found myself meeting a lot of really really nice young ladies… who were incredibly keen to see me.  And they were, you know, 19-21 years old… and I realized that this was the Coraline generation.”  When I saw this video, I almost screamed.  Not only are there other girls out there who have been affected by Coraline in the same way as myself, Neil Gaiman is aware of these girls.  The thought of a “Coraline generation” is inspired, it proves the affect a really good book can have on a child, even years into the future.

The reading at The Music Box was perfect, as expected, but the most memorable part of the night for me was when I made it to the front of the line to have my book signed.

I had brought my beat-up copy of Coraline and showed it to Neil Gaiman, explaining that I’d met him about ten years ago.  “I’m studying creative writing now,” I told him, “and I consider this the book that made me want to write.”

He reached out and took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Thank you for telling me that.”  Then, glancing at the rat drawing he’d made ten years ago, sketched a second rat in my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  “There,” he said, “now this is the only copy of Ocean with a Coraline rat.”

There are dozens of people I admire and would love to meet, and this isn’t the first time I’ve pledged my admiration in shaking, broken sentences to an author at a signing.  But as I was leaving the Music Box that night, I realized that there was no other author who had had the same lifelong impact on me as Neil Gaiman.  I will always be a part of the Coraline generation.

These are only some of the Neil Gaiman books I own; back in Minnesota, I have Good Omens, Sandman Volumes I and II, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, Fragile Things, and two books on the making of Mirrormask.

Read On,

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Currently Reading: Short Stories

It’s a little embarrassing that I’m told to write short stories in almost all of my fiction writing classes, yet I rarely read short stories that aren’t homework assignments.  With this in mind, I decided to pick up a few collections by authors I admired.  What surprised me most (but probably shouldn’t have surprised me at all) about reading these collections was how many trends and reoccurring themes I found in each author’s work.  Even though I might have at first thought, “Really?  You’re using that same trick again?” as I was reading, I ended up really appreciating how much I was able to learn about each writer’s distinct voice.  Anyway, I decided to share what I loved about each of these collections below.

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore – Lorrie Moore is able to get her readers deep inside the heads of her characters, oftentimes by writing in the second person, so that by the time I finish one of her stories and take a step back I’m surprised to realize that I would probably hate these characters in real life.  She writes about everyday people and events, but with enough details that their worlds always feel colorful and tragically deep.  I loved her novel Anagrams as well and will definitely try to read more of her work.  (I also really want to mention that there’s an episode of Gossip Girl where Blair tries to get Lorrie Moore invited to a party to impress the editor of a magazine, and as I was watching it I freaked out thinking Lorrie Moore might cameo.  She didn’t.)

Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel – I first heard about this book from my high school writing teacher who liked to talk about how much fun this book was to read in public due to its self-help-style cover, making it ironic that I read it back-to-back with Lorrie Moore’s collection.  Even though I avoided the comments of, “there, there, don’t jump,” he claimed strangers would make on the train, I loved reading the collection that included one of my all-time favorite short stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.”  Even though I didn’t totally understand every story in this book, many of the stories contained such beautiful, thought-provoking passages that I often found myself going back a few pages just to re-read them.  There aren’t many characters in her stories, and hardly any dialogue, and I was immediately impressed that any author could pull off this much self-reflection without it feeling at all amateur.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell – Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! was one of those books I initially had mixed feelings toward, but haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I read it over a year ago, so when a friend told me that the novel was actually inspired by the short story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” that starts off this collection, I knew I had to read it.  She pulls off magical realism perfectly, writing stories that remain in the realm of reality but always feel just a little off.  Most of her stories contain adolescent main characters, but wouldn’t at all fall under the genre of YA, allowing adult readers the chance to reflect on the mysterious, fantastical, often twisted ways young people see the world.  Considering how much success Russell has already had at only 31 years old, I’m looking forward to the amazing work this writer is bound to produce in the future.

I think I’ll take a break from short story collections for a while, but I already know Tenth of December by George Saunders is next on my list.  For now, these collections have given me plenty of inspiration to continue working on some short stories of my own. 

Read on,

Monday, July 8, 2013

New Lit Mags: The Pros and Cons

There’s a scene in the first season of HBO’s Girls that often gets forgotten among the much more GIF-able quotes from the show.  In this scene, Jessa meets up with an ex-boyfriend, who begins to brag about his new, older girlfriend.  “She’s a publisher,” he says, “She has a small press.” To this, Jessa instantly replies, “Have you ever looked into that?  She could just be running off copies at Kinko’s, and saying she has a press, but who’s to say that she actually has one?”

I love this quote because Jessa is actually touching on a fascinating trend in the contemporary literary world.  With the rise in online- and self-publishing, several people do claim to be published authors, when in reality, they’re working with nothing more than a printer or a WordPress site.  And one of the most common places I’ve noticed that writers are finding to quickly publish their work is through small online literary magazines, dozens of which pop up every week. 

As someone who loves the idea of DIY and underground art, I think it’s amazing that nowadays anyone can get their work out into the world.  But not everyone shares this view, especially when taking into account the many potential issues that can come along with submitting to just any online magazine.  Brandon Tietz’s column, "Author Beware: New Lit Mags," gives a cynical heads-up to writers looking to submit to a new lit mag.  As Tietz writes, “here’s the reality: anyone can register a domain and designate it as a lit mag. Anyone.” So in many cases, the editors actually have no experience or credibility in the literary world.  In addition, he goes mention how “a large percentage of new businesses fail within the first year, and lit mags are no different,” meaning submitting to one of these mags could easily be a wasted effort.

There are other potential issues that can arise when submitting to just any magazine too.  Victoria Strauss's blog post, titled "Submission Guidelines to Beware of: Midwest Literary Magazine," points out a few more red flags to watch out for, including publications with anonymous editors (giving them no credibility), and publications who claim the right to publish work at any time in the future, with or without the author’s input.  In extreme cases, publications may even ask for copyrights to the piece, or could eventually make money off of it without ever compensating the author.

Yet despite the potential dangers that come along with sharing one’s work with the world, there’s something very cool about submitting to a brand new lit mag as well.  Creating, supporting, and submitting to small lit mags can be a great way for writers to network and take part in a community, assuming they’re still maintaining ownership of their writing, even while accepting that they may not receive any major recognition or compensation in return.  After all, every project has to start somewhere, and there’s nothing to say a certain publication won’t one day lead to literary success.

My personal rules for submitting are that I’m not comfortable sending my writing anywhere that doesn’t grant me full rights to my work, anywhere where I don’t either know the editors personally or know them to be qualified, or anywhere that asks me to pay to submit.   These are some of the biggest issues I’ve come across while exploring the lit mag world, and I’m only just learning the ropes myself.  However, I think it’s important for every writer to acknowledge these potential dangers, in order to start to develop their own personal set of rules when it comes to submitting.

Write on,

Sunday, July 7, 2013

In Defense of Print Books

As e-books and e-readers continue to rise in popularity, I’ve noticed comments on the death of print slowly shift from outrage to halfhearted acceptance, as if this next step in literature is totally inevitable.  However, I refuse to accept that print books will one day be a thing of the past, to the point where I wrote my final research paper on the subject for my Freshman Rhetoric class.  Now, looking back over my notes, I can’t help but smile at the dozens of reasons I was able to collect in support of the survival of traditional books.  Maybe they won’t be around forever and ever, but here are a few reasons why they also won’t be dying out anytime soon.

First of all, readers like the physical look and feel of books.  Traditional book pages can be flipped through, corners can be folded over, notes can be written in margins, and back covers can be dramatically slammed shut.  Everyone loves that old book smell, not to mention the look of a dozen colorful bindings stacked on nightstands and bookshelves.  Sliding a finger across a single e-book’s touch screen is hardly the same experience as cracking the binding of a new volume.
Readers also love the experience of vising bookstores.  Even when setting out for the bookstore with a single title in mind, almost everyone ends up wandering, browsing, and exploring the shelves before making a final decision.  It’s fun to hear about new releases and recommendations from the salespeople at bookstores, who are almost guaranteed to be book lovers themselves.  And the rise in technology is only causing booksellers to become more creative with their services: many bookstores host events such as signings and book clubs, or develop unique gimmicks for their bookstore that only further cultivate the reading community.  My favorite bookstore from home has pets, including birds, rats, fish, a tarantula, cats, and even a chicken that freely wanders the store.

Finally, the rise in technology doesn’t automatically mean the death of print books.  TV didn’t kill radio.  And in many cases, new technology has improved the sales of books.  In addition to using blogs, web sites, and social media to promote and sell new books, publishers and booksellers can track orders, allowing them to only print and order as many books as would sell.  In the past, publishers would be forced to go to such extremes as burning entire warehouses of books because there was no efficient way of keeping track of sales.  As someone who loves both print books and technology equally, I for one am fully convinced that these two forms of media can co-exist.

Read on,

Saturday, July 6, 2013


Reading and writing are often seen as solitary acts, in constant clash with the energy and excitement of city life.  But when I chose to move from my comfortable Minnesota suburb to pursue creative writing in Chicago a year and a half ago, it was with the hope that the city itself would serve as my inspiration.  I have not been disappointed.   Every new person I meet, or event I attend, confirm my belief that it is possible to infuse the grit and energy of city living with a passion for literature.

As I shed layer after layer of clothing with every rising degree of the thermometer, I'm just beginning my first summer in Chicago, where I plan on taking on the calendar full of projects and activities that my break from schoolwork, fantastic new internship, and cozy city apartment are bound to help me accomplish.  I don't pretend to be an expert on the literary world, but that won't stop me from documenting my thoughts on my favorite books as well as the industry as a whole, alongside some notes on my everyday life.  Buzzed on caffeine and blinded by the city lights, I can't wait to get started.