Mortified in Photos

Thanks to everyone who came out to Mortified Chicago to “share the shame” with me as I presented a collection of high school poetry and song lyrics affectionately titled Angry Young Man. As I navigated through the music-inspired personas I put forth, I shared such titles as “Downhill,” “Get Off My Foot,” and “My Bleeding Soul.” I had a blast and can’t wait to to do it all over again.

Photos by my fabulous cast mate Jill Howe who shared with us her take on The Crucible by way of Alanis Morrisette.

UPDATE: Listen to the audio at Soundcloud.com!

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My inner Robert Smith and I.

Mortified 2

Giving the Censor Board a piece of my mind, yo.

My air guitar and I "sing" about a love that's gone "Downhill."

My air guitar and I “sing” about a love that’s gone “Downhill” from 8th grade.

Mom's "moody one."

Mom’s “moody one.”

I Am a Master!

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I started this site/blog during Grad School Phase 1 at IUSB in 2008. Five years and two addresses later (and of course our triumphant return to Chicago), I finally have that Masters. Cool. So a huge THANK YOU to everyone who’s been a part of it along the way. All my profs and peeps at Indiana who encouraged me and worked with me and helped me dive back into academia after a ten year hiatus. And to all my DePaul MAWPers (graduates and near future graduates alike) who I already miss even though it’s been only a little over a month.

Onward in life and art and scratching things off our summer to-do lists.

Cheers!

Inspiration from Disintegration

The following was originally written in November 2012 for my coursework in DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing program. Here, I examine literary editing, writing, and revision by way of The Cure’s 1989 album Disintegration.  Enjoy.

Disintegration

Amongst a certain segment of the music-loving population, The Cure’s 1989 album Disintegration is one of the best albums ever recorded. I count myself as part of that population.

As I thought about the art of literary editing and revision, I wondered how I could glean lessons and reminders from a master work of art as I work on both my own art and the art of others. For writers, music is often a huge influence on mood, story, and evoking time and place, among other elements. Here, I draw inspiration from the album’s individual song titles and their content and the album’s overall mood and history. While it might be jarring to think of our work in these terms, doing so may give us the editorial distance we need to make it successful. Much like changing a story’s font to trick the brain into seeing things clearly again.

The following is an in-order track list. Don’t worry, I won’t include the B-sides.

Plainsong. The album begins on the quiet, subtle note of tinkling wind chimes, which ultimately sets the tone for the next seventy-plus minutes. For the first-time listener, the chimes might invoke a curious wonder; for long-time listeners, chills of anticipation. This minimalist beauty soon erupts into a keyboard-laden symphony set to a slow drum beat. Then finally, a single guitar guides us to the edge of the world where singer Robert Smith evokes images of rain, cold, and smiles.

The song is a brilliant beginning to the album, and the song itself could begin no other way. As writers, we all strive for the perfect sentence, image, or action with which to begin our stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. And then the perfect follow up. Plainsong offers an alternative to immediately banging the drums and hitting the guitar: striking minimalism opening into grand lushness. On the micro level, we can shape the words until our brains bleed. But in the bigger picture, our choice of beginning sets forth the entire structure of the piece: Is this a linear story? Or circular? Or plotted by short vignettes? The beginning also conveys tense and point of view.

In editing a current short story in progress, my original painstakingly crafted opening moment has found its way much further into the story, leaving me with a new beginning to finely comb over. If I keep changing my mind, at least I’ll have several well thought-out passages to  make up the whole. I think of how if The Cure had decided on a different opening track might that have changed the entire album? How might our relationship with this song have changed? Valuable questions to ask as we edit our own and others’ work.

Pictures of You always reminds me of my friend Chris, the one who is thankfully to blame for my obsession with The Cure. He nudged me out of my Bon Jovi box all the way to buying me my first copy of Disintegration (on cassette) for my fifteenth birthday. When we had a brief falling out a few months later, I pined away listening to this song, thinking about the loss of a best friend. In other words, I pictured a person. A character. I see Chris as he was then, as he is now. The details of his various haircuts, the depth of his voice, the way he wanted to change his name to that of the deceased by suicide lead singer of Joy Division. I know the relationship he had with his mom before and after she died. I know the taste of his mom’s Jack Daniels that he convinced me to try.

I may write a short story or personal essay about Chris or about a part of Chris. Or inspired by Chris. I may use his name-change desire or not. Regardless, I’d have a pretty full picture to work with—something we need, even if we don’t use it all (and we never know what will come in handy.) On the macro level, we need to decide whether our characters are right for the story we want to tell and to make sure they are consistent, sufficiently motivated, and avoiding caricature or cliché. We also need to take care not to be blinded by the “real” person, especially in fiction—but also in writing nonfiction. A picture is only a single moment of a person anyway.

On the micro level, it’s helpful to think of the song’s video. The band set up palm trees in a snowy, rural part of England to make it look as if they were performing in a desert oasis in the middle of winter, thereby oddly juxtaposing different climates. While the idea was that on camera snow and sand can look the same, the band is still wearing heavy coats and throwing snowballs at each other and the crew. In choosing this premise, the band chose not to go the literal, sentimental story route. The song and video are an unlikely paring. As we shape our characters and character relationships, thinking about the jarringly juxtaposed details may open us up to many possibilities.

Closedown.  Sometimes it’s best to just close down the literal or figurative laptop and walk away. There’s that feeling of staring at a first draft—something with an actual beginning, middle, and end—and feeling a sense of relief from accomplishing this milestone. But then you stare a moment too long, and the draft begins to mock you. You start to feel “out of step”(as Smith sings) with your story. Both you and the story suffer an identity crises, and you don’t know who you are or who you are to each other. The faults in the story become personal faults. Close that laptop!

I’ve already mentioned a couple ways to achieve objective distance: changing the font, and filtering your story through other works of art (as in this analysis.) But sometimes all we need is time. And we need to decide how much is right for us. Do we wait a day or two tops to keep the momentum going, or do we wait weeks or months to gain a fresh perspective? Both are valid. For me, when it comes to time, I tend to go the longer stretch approach. Though sometimes that’s more of a matter of my self-diagnosed “writerly ADD” than a precise decision. Deadlines (for class, for a show, etc.) are great because they don’t allow me too much time.

At the end of the song, Smith just wants to fill his heart with love. However much time we take, we owe it to ourselves to open the laptop back up—while in a good, physical, emotional place—and take advantage of the momentum and perspective we’ve gained.

Lovesong. A gift to Smith’s high school girlfriend and new bride, this song is The Cure’s biggest hit (reaching #2 in the US on the Billboard Hot 100 chart). But at the time, it was also derided by some “real” Cure fans (i.e. Chris) who perhaps were still digesting this new entry into the band’s discography. Within an overall atmospheric album, this song has the most pop sensibilities. In terms of the editing process, here I think of intention and audience. Asking ourselves what we want out of a story—what we’re trying to say, who we might be trying to reach, what kind of character or message we want to showcase—can help us solidify the piece. While Smith has written lyrics from different personas, this song is clearly and publicly him. His message of “I will always love you no matter what” is obvious—there’s no vague symbolism or obscure literary reference here. Perhaps that was the turn off for some fans. Yet it also helped attract new fans. Initially, music executives where scared of the perceived inaccessibility of the album. So Smith, having been in the business for a decade at this point, included this song perhaps as a way to appease any anxiety. About to turn 30, Smith wanted to create an enduring masterpiece by this milestone. Yet in this first decade of the Cure’s tenure, Smith was also known to say that if they ever had a #1 hit, he’d break up the band. Lovesong to me encapsulates all the things we need to “worry” about as artists. They’re all valuable, but to stay sane, we need to separate them into their respective times and places.

Last Dance. While Lovesong isn’t a dance-happy pop track, it’s still upbeat. The track that follows Last Dance, Lullaby, is a playful if terrifying single again incorporating more pop sensibilities. So here, the band transitions back into (and out of) atmospheric somberness both in the arrangement and the lyrics (a colder, flatter Christmas falling late being a central image.) With this song, I think about transitions—and with a title like this, endings too. The rambling guitar riff that drives the intro makes us subtly convulse in place before the bombast of the keys takes over. At the end of the song, Smith leaves us with the image of a girl standing alone as the music fades to three seconds of silence. In that audio equivalent to white space on a page, we are left deeply thinking about the girl’s place in the world before the pluck of the next song kicks in.

In the context of the album, the song is a chill palate cleanser between singles. We can take this song’s example as we transition between paragraphs, sections, chapters, or stories. What do we want to leave the reader with (even for just a moment)? What tone or mood to we want to establish or continue? How will the next section connect yet be different?

Lullaby. Lyrically story based, this “lullaby” tells tale of a spider-man about to eat the narrator for dinner. “Rock-a-bye Baby” turned horror story. This song makes me think of language. The song juxtaposes opposing images, giving us a new way to think about lullabies and nightmares. The song’s images induce us to be creative in how we render in words our own images we seek to create in our readers’ imaginations. We should look for ways to get the most mileage from the relationship between our images and to maximize its subtext. Whether by making sense out of an unlikely pairing (such as my mother’s death and an early ‘90s power ballad), or by using multiple meanings of a word at once (in an essay about playing with toy guns, I used the word legends to refer to stories while nodding to its cartographic meaning and alluding to an R.E.M. song.)

Editing language also means freshening up clichés and other hyperbolic language and replacing any vague or overused adjectives and adverbs—or by taking familiar language and turning it on its head. In Lullaby, Smith whispers the opening line to Mary Howitt’s well known cautionary poem from 1829, “The Spider and the Fly.” Editing language makes sure that it properly conveys the action to your reader, both in logistics and intended effect. Thinking in terms of song lyrics, we can be inspired to give our stories in our prose the focus inherent in the lyrical form. And given the horrific nature of the song’s story, we can think about the brutal but freeing act of “killing our darlings” in order to make our language and overall stories as clear as possible.

Fascination Street.  For this song, the band was inspired by the mood and spirit of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Lyrically, the song features a couple in reckless abandonment, cutting real conversation and not worrying about what they do or say. The song’s stand-out bass line literally pounds us into this underworld, and the guitar and keys create a psychedelic atmosphere where flashes of color blur in front of us through the smoke.

This song in particular makes me think of setting. As we edit, are there moments where the characters feel like they’re lost in space? Or was there a jarring transition from one place to another that yanks us out of the story? Do the details relate to the characters or create appropriate mood? If we’re basing setting on a real place, has the clear picture in our heads fully translated to the page for the readers who have never been to, say, our grandparents’ house? Are the traffic logistics of your street that are so central to your story rendered clearly for the reader? And how can we break away from the “real” place in a work of fiction? Handing over our stories to others will reveal any vacuous and inconsistent sections. Likewise, as we edit others’ work, their success and pitfalls are clear to us. How can we learn from them?

The specifics of time and place in our setting are ways of establishing character, mood, social milieu and everything else. How can we mix the Detroit of the 1980s with the universal? How can music inspire us to create our settings, whether with references to actual songs or with riffing on the stories and settings of particular songs and albums? My first Cure purchase was the Fascination Street cassette single, summer 1989, with Chris, at a Detroit suburban mall. And…go!

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That’s All She Wrote

Hey Friends! I’m helping launch a brand new Chicago live lit series called That’s All She Wrote.

I’ll be premiering a brand new story called “Blaming Richard Marx.” I know you want to find out what that’s all about.

Details:

Sunday, October 14th at 8:00 pm at Swim Cafe in the West Town/Noble Square neighborhood — 1357 W. Chicago Avenue. Food is available for purchase and the show is BYOB (Lush Wine & Spirits is just up the street!)

Line up includes Jessica Palmer, Angela Benander, Keith Ecker, and Tom Wolferman.

Can’t wait to see you there! 🙂

The Snackpot & School

Hello! Finally taking a second to catch up on a few things around here. School is finished for the year. This quarter thing took us into June, so after a while it was like What are we still doing here? But I rallied and did some solid revisions for my Speculative Fiction class (taught by the fabulous Rebecca Johns) which was a whole lot of nerdy fun. I knocked out my essay revision discussing nostalgia in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story for my Independent Publishing class. I also finished my work for a Small Press Sampler project we’re working on. My essay on Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago plus other contributions will be included. A website for the project will soon launch, and eventually it will all come out in e-book and possibly print form. More to come! I also got an A on that Language and Style test I told you about in February. Winter also saw my interviews with Stroger Hospital trauma nurse Ernie Purnell all come together for a Chicago youth violence project. The narratives will be featured in a published anthology and a Steppenwolf Theatre production. More to come on all that as well! Finally, my play, Coffee Boy was included in the DePaul English Department’s Thresholds 2012 lit mag. Way cool!

So. The Snackpot.  I’ve been pestering my Facebook and Twitter peeps with links. But now finally, the official MichaelVanKerckhove.com announcement! 🙂 The Snackpot is a way cool new snack and culture site I’ve been writing for these past several months. The site is the brainchild of music publicist Jacob Daneman. I was recruited by the fabulous Keith Ecker to be part of the inaugural writing team. I’ve been reviewing snacks all winter and spring in preparation for the May 2012 launch. I’ve covered things from strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups to Maple Nut Clif Bars. The tone of the site is a healthy balance of information and snarky humor. There are news bits and longer form writings. I need to figure out some essay ideas for sure. The snacks I take on are little writing prompts which have also taught me a few things. It’s food writing with an edge. I’m digging it. To check out my contributions, visit my author page. Note: as of this posting, only the ten most recent reviews show up. Hopefully the interwebby content field thingy (a technical term!) can be expanded to fit everything. All reviews are available in the reviews archives. The site has been doing well, and I’m proud to be part of such a cool project. Please check it out and share with all your peeps. That’d be awesome.

Looking ahead to the next couple months, I’ll be catching up on various projects, reading, revising, and hopefully generating some new CNF material to share with the Chicago Storytelling scene. A little traveling and playing with my new “stupid” iPhone. 😛

Have a rad summer. More to come. Cheers.

Radio DePaul Reading & Interview

Hey friends, it’s finally this site’s official Radio DePaul post!  On January 20, 2012, I joined hosts Colin & Marcy and my classmate Bethany for this term’s second edition of DePaul Student Writers Series.

I read two of my personal essays, Dance of the Ring and More Than Words. Following the reading, we discussed the pieces and the writing process.  Definitely a cool way to spend a wintery Friday morning.

Listen via the show’s new site Welcome post, or go directly to the site’s embedded audio.  Please Note: the first couple minutes featuring announcements got clipped, but the main event is all there.  Also, I’m second guest in the line up.

It’s been a busy quarter, and I should be studying for my Language & Style test right now.  But I still have time.  I’m also involved in a really cool project for my Art of the Interview class.  More on that to come!

Be well, and enjoy the show.  Cheers.

Warning: Reader Crossing

Originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, September 13, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

reader crossing

I bought this post card about 11 years ago at a bookstore in Paris (jealous?!).  Speaking no French at all–and really only surviving that leg of my trip with the help of my dear friend Erwan–I looked for things that were either in English or had no words at all.  This little piece of art work speaks many-a-word in all languages. The road itself, the urban street-scape of varying opportunities for bustle, the little indie bookstore. The red and white triangular crossing sign.  We know it.

And I am totally that guy in the street sign.  I am a street reader.  I even often dress like him–especially come this time of year. Brimmed snap hat, a blazer or flannel jacket. All that.

I moved to Chicago in 1998, away from the car culture of various Michigan cities and towns.  And I discovered this brilliant thing: Commute Reading!  A valuable resource of time in my increasingly adult world–and increasing computer staring habits.  In addition to home, Caribou Coffee, and the Golden Apple diner, I could read on the El platform, at the bus stop, in the public transport vehicle of choice.  And even, the walking portions of journeys connecting my various apartments with my office and restaurant jobs! I was totally that guy with his head down in his book, walking the side walk and cross streets, looking up occasionally from Wicked, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I Know This Much is True, or my Joe Orton plays anthology to make sure I didn’t smack into fire hydrants, sign posts, and other non-reading pedestrians.  Once, shortly after emerging from the Grand Avenue Red Line station, a gaggle of tween girls passed me on the opposite sidewalk.  I looked up just as one snapped my photo with her disposable Kodak–the single muted flash of the throw-away Paparazzi made me wonder who she thought I was.  A reader in the wild.

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Viggo Vagnby’s Wonderful Copenhagen (1958)

Since buying this card two years after my move, it has been a constant companion, taped up for easy inspiration in every bedroom or home office since. It evokes a world of possibility in which we readers are just as municipally protected as deer and children in our quest to get to the other side!  Where cars and pedestrians alike brake for us, where children laugh with us instead of at us.  Imagine a world where the ducks of the iconic Wonderful Copenhagen poster are replaced by a  line of readers of various shapes, sizes, and ages crossing the road with a police officer holding back a happy crowd of onlookers (and a palace guard?) cheering for them, turning the person next to them saying. “Look, they’re reading! We can do that too!  We can be that important and revered!” We don’t have to be ashamed or make excuses or feel like we’re getting in the way.

When my partner Ernie and I moved to South Bend, Indiana in 2006, we had to buy our first car together as we had returned to urban-suburban-rural car culture.  No more Commute Reading for us (we would see South Bend buses rumble down our little street but were never quite sure where they came from or where they were going.)  Even the four and a half minute walk from our house to my restaurant job wasn’t substantial enough for street reading, and I drove to the area IU campuses for class (both teaching and as a student). I felt the loss of my valuable resource right away and had to readjust my reading  habits–or else.

Back in Chicago since 2009, I found another restaurant job right away whose commute is a 15 minute tops bike ride–and barring a major blizzard, I pretty much exclusively take advantage of not having to wait for late night buses.  So my Commute Reading didn’t return to its full glory.  Now that I’m at Open Books regularly for these late summer and fall months–and now that I have class in DePaul’s Loop campus–I am once again able to enjoy my train reading.  Sure, I’ll text Ernie that I’m on my way home, or if I’m feeling a little brain dead I’ll try to beat that level of Angry Birds I just cannot get past, but more likely my time will be spent with whatever real life paper book (or classwork…) I have in the queue.  And I’ll keeping going on the walks between by day- or street-light.  And in a world where people think it’s okay to text and drive, maybe folks will give me–a fading relic slipping into the nostalgia of a golden age–safe passage.

Post Card: Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Originally posted in Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 19, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

1249721546_290146af98_zSo I recently took a week away from my Open Books internship desk for my annual trip with my partner Ernie to Stratford, Ontario, Canada for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Ernie has been going since he was in-utero. My first time, however, was during our first summer together in 2002.

Arriving at Niagara-On-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival for the first leg of this first trip together, it was time to get our former Theatre (and English) major nerds ON.  The highlight at Shaw was an amazing see-through set production of Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story, a play in which I had a brief comic relief character role at the top of Act 2 as a freshman in high school. In 2003, we dove into Stratford exclusively and with almost a vengeance.  Starting in 2004, we’ve “double-dated” with Ernie’s parents.  Stratford has become our equivalent to other families’ lake houses.

Over these ten summers of Stratford, I’ve seen a lot of plays with amazing actors and production values. While not every production has been five star, a less than stellar Stratford production is still pretty good quality.  Stratford has given me the opportunity to see plays and authors I’d read and/or learned about in college but never had the chance to see, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, John Webster’s The Dutchess of Malfi, Sartre’s No Exit; plays I’ve seen before and love Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; plays I’ll never see again for either their randomness or for my opinion of them…. These ten years have been a valuable continuation of my theatre and literary education, one that we hope to pass on to nieces, nephews, and any other little ones that may enter our lives.

I’ve learned a lot in this continuing education: aesthetics, tolerance, emotional reactions, a sense of history.  I’ve learned that I have a strong reaction against Shakespearean male chauvinistic protagonists (King Cymbeline anyone?) and that even Will has a clunker or two in there (Henry VIII, while containing brilliant moments, is just not a very good play in my humble opinion.)  I’ve learned that I can’t stand “crying girl” characters who are supposed to be funny, and that I just don’t like Hello, Dolly! (I blame the “Thornton Wilder Effect” for that one).

I’ve also reconnected with the beautiful power of theatre, what makes it all worth it.  Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending left us emotionally raw, and made a star (in my eyes) of Stratford diva Seana McKenna.  The final moment in last year’s Peter Pan had us sobbing into our playbills.  Our second row view of the Ascot Ladies’ appearance in My Fair Lady still makes me gasp.  Shakespeare & Fletcher’s more random The Two Noble Kinsmen is pretty awesome (especially the scenes with the jailer’s daughter!).  AND the lighting for the 39 lashes scene in this season’s Jesus Christ Superstar (looking to stop in Chicago before a Broadway run!) is what live theatre can be all about.

Me & Ernie this year outside the Studio Theater.

I have also realized that I appreciate some things more than I like them, and have debated with myself whether or not that’s enough.  AND I’ve held on to my preference for seeing over reading plays.  Which maybe I shouldn’t admit here, even if reading plays is still enjoyable and crucial, and you should totally stop by the theatre sections of both the online and brick-and-mortar Open Books store!  Growing up, Ernie’s parents said he could see anything as long as he read it first—a good combo that has  probably made him the only fourth grader ever to do a book report on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

For a comprehensive list of all the plays we’ve had the opportunity to see together in our ten years (so far) of Stratford, go HEREIf you plan a trip, be sure to have coffee at our favorite haunt Balzac’s (as in French writer Honoré de), have dinner at Down the Street and Pazzo, and for your book shopping addictions go to Fanfare BooksThe Book Vault, and the Book Stage. If you’re not so much into making the eight hour drive (from Chicago) and dealing with border crossing, Chicago of course has a vibrant theatre scene. From Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier to suburban Writer’s Theatre to historically-minded Timeline Theatre.  To get the kids in our lives interested in theatre early so that all these institutions can carry on, Emerald City Theatre gives you plenty of read-then-see opportunities (full disclosure: Ernie is the current Artistic Director)!  Then maybe they won’t be so afraid of Shakespeare and may ask you “Hey, what’s this Stratford thing all about…?”