It has come to the attention of The Management that some folks are having trouble accessing this blog. Unacceptable! I’m sure it’s got something to do with the mischievous internet goblins who know that I’m thinking of deleting my Facebook account. More on that later. Anyway, I’ve got a call out to my brilliant web wizard, Julie Feirer. I’m sure there’s something she can do. She must not fail!
A N N O U N C E M E N T N O . 2
I am writing thank-you notes to the folks who donated during the First-Ever PaperGirl Pledge Drive, but I’ve got a problem. You see, if you donated via PayPal, I could simply email you a thank-you, but this is not my style. Your PaperGirl is, perhaps not surprisingly, super into paper. The problem is that I don’t get a person’s mailing address with a PayPal donation, so I am going to have to ask for it. It will be a slight nightmare keeping everything straight, but I can try:
If you donated will you please email me your mailing address? (If you haven’t donated, why, there’s still time!)
I’d like you to use my school email, since it’s separate and it’s funny how after you graduate from a school, you don’t have to really send emails about school anymore. Here’s that address:
m f o n s @ s a i c . e d u
Use no spaces, of course, when you enter that address into your “To” field; I’m just trying to keep the spambots away. (Robots crawl the internet looking for email addresses to spam. You know that, right? If you have a website or a newsletter or anything, don’t put your email address on the screen without funky spacing. I think it’s supposed to help.)
The thank-you notes are being written. I have a huge bag already. It’s going to take time, but it’s important to me that I send you a proper thank-you note. My mama raised me good.
It feels like I need to say “Hi!” again after being away. You look so good to me!! Hi!
First off, I want to say that I see the comments about the font needing to be a bigger and a darker, and I shall make it so. With the server migration, things got a little funky and I agree there are tweaks needed. Julie and I will work on it, I promise. Until then, you can always go up to “View” and click “Zoom” and you can make your screen bigger. Thank you for your patience.
As promised yesterday, I’m going to paste in the painstakingly crafted foreword to the thesis I worked on for so long. Before you read it, you should know what I’m foreword-ing, no?
My 1,512-page thesis was a compendium. It was everything I have published or otherwise officially submitted in two years of in graduate school.
I included all my essays, F Newsmagazine articles, Quiltfolk articles, Quilt Scout columns, other freelance writing, research projects, three lectures, one poem, the materials for the exhibit at the Chicago Design Museum next year, and … every blog post. That’s right: The past two years of PaperGirl is in my thesis. The whole way, May. And what’s really cool is that if you get a master’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, your thesis is bound and kept in the library of the Art Institute. We’re in there, guys. You and me. We’re in one of the best museums in the entire world.
It literally took three 18-hour days to make the two copies of my thesis, partly because each section had its own introduction and title page and also because I hand-stamped every page (of both copies) with a page number using one of those cool auto-advance number-stamper things I think they use in law offices? It was fun, but I still have a bruise on my hand. (Seriously.)
If you’re new to the blog, I promise, promise, promise: Entires are never this long. But most days I’m not writing to you in the week I finish my master’s degree. And to make sure you know I care about the eyes of my readers, I’m going to boldface the whole thing.
F O R E W O R D
Christmas Day, Chicago, 2015. Half-past two in the afternoon.
I was standing at the kitchen counter at my sister’s house, wearing a sweater, jeans, and busted-up fuzzy slippers. Like everyone else in the room, I was drinking prosecco. My younger sister and her husband were both absorbed in something online. My mom and stepdad were playing Scrabble at the big table, picking at pie. Hannah, my older sister, was scrolling through Instagram on her phone.
“So I have news,” I announced to the room, then paused for effect. “I have applied to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
My sister Rebecca looked up at me. “Why?”
Hannah stayed glued to her phone but shifted in her seat and from where I stood I could see the rise of one penciled-in eyebrow. Mark tapped out the score on the calculator he and Mom keep in the Travel Scrabble box. Jack bumped the power cord on his laptop then clicked it back into place.
“I want to study writing,” I said.
It was as if I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk. Except there was hostility in the air, too, like I had announced I was going to the store for a gallon of milk and I had a history of stealing groceries. There goes Mary with her same old dairy-aisle kleptomaniac crap — and on Christmas!
“Well, I think it’s fantastic,” my mom said, and took a sip from her champagne flute. “You’ll be so happy you did it, honey.” My stepfather raised his glass but didn’t actually cheers anything.
“Thank you, Mother,” I said. Then, curtly, to the room: “Am I missing something? Is there something wrong with me pursuing a master’s degree in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?”
I was the only one in my family without a postgraduate education, so the bad vibes were not based in any anti-school sentiment. Something else was going on that made me sad and I felt the ruthless sensation of being alone among my own people.
My throat closed up, but I pressed the issue: Why was me going to grad school not a happy occasion?
It came out that no one had faith in an MFA program for writers. They were a waste of time, Hannah said, and besides, I had been making a good deal of my living as a freelancer for some time. My blog had thousands of subscribers. Why spend all that time and money for a piece of paper?
Rebecca agreed. She pointed out that SAIC is one of the most expensive schools in the country and when she worked in the Loop, she’d have to dodge throngs of SAIC kids every day at lunch. “It’s obviously a good school, but there are a lot of stocking hats and sad paintings over there,” she said. “I don’t think you’d like it.”
For the few brief minutes we discussed it, it was clear that no one was impressed with my announcement because they weren’t impressed with the plan and also because my family was used to this particular family member (me) making splashy life changes every few years. My decision to go to grad school wasn’t earth-shattering; it was simply the latest solution to the problem of Mary getting bored. The tears that stung my eyes were the result of knowing they were half-right, but there was anger, too: The half they were wrong about they were really wrong about. To study writing for real was something I had wanted pretty much my whole life.
Christmas Day three years ago was the first time I would have to defend why I wanted a master’s degree; why I wanted to get that degree in writing; why I wanted to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and why I wanted to do all of this now.
Katherine Hepburn said, “Never complain, never explain,” but Katherine Hepburn never went to grad school. Explaining the reasons why I chose all this was something I would have a good deal of practice with over the next two years.
You could say I’m explaining right now.
* * *
I went to high school in the mid-90s in a small Midwestern town. College prep courses may have been a thing on the East Coast by then, but in Winterset, Iowa, “advanced placement” classes were a novelty. The first one they ever offered, AP English, was offered my senior year. For the first time in high school, I was not dogged by my homework but exhilarated by it.
The teacher taught from one book: the fifth edition of a college-level composition textbook called The Bedford Reader. I loved its tissue-thin pages, how they felt like pages of a Bible or the Shakespeare anthology Mom had on the bookshelf at home. I devoured the readings Mrs. Chase assigned and as I did, I put myself in a kind of conversation with the book, scribbling notes in the margins, drawing goofy doodles and inside jokes for my friends on the front and back covers.
After 20 years of moves, boyfriends, a marriage and divorce, and countless cleaning purges that dispensed with plenty of other books, I’ve still got that Bedford Reader. Flipping through its pages now, seeing all those proclamations and exclamations, is an exercise in facial expressions: I see myself and my brow furrows; my eyes get wide; I wince. The sheer spunkiness of me at sixteen is excruciating. “I love Matthew McConaughey!!!” I write, and when I like something, I draw a happy face saying “YES!!!” When I don’t, there in green ink is, “What does the author MEAN??? Don’t KNOW don’t CARE!!!”
Two years ago, just before grad school began, I purchased a thick, black Leuchtturm notebook. A German-designed notebook of consequence, it was big enough to last through two years of note-taking in writing department classes, workshops, seminars, and advising sessions. I thumbed through it the other day, not long after I had pulled out my Bedford Reader, to reference the bibliography.
Then came the shock: The content of my notes and doodles in my grad school notebook are virtually the same today as they were 20 years ago. It was all right there. The exclamations and proclamations with the same liberal use of exclamation points, the same rhetorical questions to myself, the same conversations with an audience of one … The only difference, really, is a subtle weariness creeping in; as a 38-year-old, I write, now in black ink: “What does the author mean? Don’t know. Don’t care.”
Shocking as it was to see myself so plainly after all this time, there exists a sense of satisfaction in the continuity from one book to the other. I might be an enthusiastic idiot, but I’ve always had a strong sense of self.
But the apparently indelible blueprint brings with it a terrible weight, too. Can a person change? Can she learn? Can she become a better writer or is it predetermined how good she’ll get? We know that women are born with a set number of eggs; is a woman’s portion of writing ability also set at birth? Does studying it allow only for cosmetic changes and nothing deeper? Why, indeed, sisters, did I pursue a master’s degree in writing if, from notebook to notebook, year to year, I’m still holding my pen the same way?
* * *
Oh, please. Two years in a MFAW program has made me way better at writing.
You can’t really chart it. You can’t quantify it. You, the reader, or I may or may not be able to read from one end of this manuscript to the other and see that from August 2016 to May 2018 my sentences get tighter, my references more nuanced, my verbs more precise. You may or may not perceive how I got better at editing my own writing and the writing of others. You’ll see a lot of published work that didn’t exist before, but there’s no way to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that in grad school, the Mary Fons motherboard was rewired and has become vastly more complex (and definitely more expensive.)
Then again, I’m also two years older. That counts for something. This 1,500-page thesis may not be a lot of things, but it’s undeniable proof a girl’s been practicing.
Most of my cohort came seeking an MFAW because they want to teach. Many hoped to assemble an agent-ready manuscript. Some succeeded, and those novels and poetry collections will serve as their thesis, pages polished to gleaming (or gleaming enough) in advising meeting after advising meeting, over two years of workshops and critiques. I, too, took work through that laundering process. When I arrived, I thought that writing and polishing the essays included here was the point of all this. My colleague’s goals were the same as mine.
But as I rode my bike up the street to MacClean in the heat of September; as icy water mixed with street salt seeped through my shoes through two long winters, what I was getting from graduate school and what I’d been seeking changed. I started out making a quilt with someone else’s fabric, you could say, and then I remembered I had this huge basket of my own gorgeous scraps.
More than mastering a single essay — or a dozen of them — I discovered that my task was to understand the kind of writer I am, not the kind of writer I wish I was. My sisters were correct: Grad school can’t teach you how to write. But I learned that grad school can offer the chance to discover how you write. And if you care enough, work ceaselessly, and accept the way you hold your pen, then you can improve. Maybe you can improve a lot. That’s the real — and somewhat hidden — lesson. It was certainly the knowledge I came for, and after I learned it, it was the reason I stayed.
* * *
My family has heartily congratulated me on my accomplishment. Getting a master’s degree — even in writing — is way harder than stealing a gallon of milk. They’re proud of me.
My thesis doesn’t just double as a doorstop: It’s proof of concept. I am this person. I am this writer. If you’re interested in getting to know her, I suggest you get comfortable. You’re gonna be here awhile.
It’s happening. I’ve got one semester left of graduate school before I becomeamaster. Can you stand it??
Classes for spring term, my final term at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) start this Thursday. Exactly how I’m going to wedge school back into my ever-busy schedule is a puzzle, I won’t lie. But I will make it work. I must. I don’t have a choice if I want to bea master, which I do. I mean, I want to get this degree just so I can walk around in Total Mastery and just always know how to do everything and never make mistakes and live in this constant state of having arrived. That’s what I’ve been writing huge tuition checks for, isn’t it? That’s what happens when you get your master’s, right? Total Mastery with Perpetual Arrival?
While we’re waiting for that to happen, wanna know what classes I’m taking??
Sharing my schedule might not sound interesting to everyone, but I’ve personally always loved to hear what courses people select for their school experience. It’s like, “Woah, you got into Advanced Trigonometry for Mid-Oceanic Systems Design? That’s amazing!” or “Wow, they added a section of Shakespeare IV: Advanced Tragedy from 1-4 p.m. on Tuesdays?? I’m in the Elemental Architectural Practicum Seminar on Tuesdays … I wonder if I can switch …”
(No? Anyone? Just me?)
My spring term looks amazing — and zero trig. Aside from having the pleasure of weekly advising sessions with the mighty Jill Riddell and my personal hero (and friend), Jim McManus, I will be taking three delicious courses. Here they are, the beauts, with an excerpt from the SAIC course descriptions:
Writing: Systems of Writing Seminar This course examines writing formulated and structured according to systems of thought and expression, derived from various disciplines and technologies including alphabets, calendars, palimpsests, experiments, collections, and translations.
Art History: Continuing Histories in Fiber This course locates current practice and discourse in fiber and material studies within a contemporary history of the field. Focusing primarily on the period from the 1950s onward, the first part of the course will emphasize important moments in the emergence of Fiber as a field of practice and theory during the 1960s and 1970s, through the presentation of seminal texts, exhibitions, and artist works. We will study the field as it formed in a relationship to related movements in art and politics, and in particular, to craft, minimalism and conceptual art, and feminism.
Writing: ‘What It Wants’ (Workshop) This workshop explores the notion that each piece of writing has its own needs. The writer’s role, then, is to get out of the way and let the piece emerge. As memoirist and poet Patricia Hampl notes, it’s a matter of paying attention to “what it wants, not what I want.” With this in mind, writers/artists … will have an opportunity to investigate not only the genesis of their work but also the choices made along the way to completion.
I’m so stoked.
I’m less stoked to apprehend the fact that this semester requires that I put my thesis together. I’m thinking of printing out the entirety of the ol’ PG and turning her in. This blog is basically a thesis, right? And SAIC is an art school. They might actually let me get away with that.
Maybe if I printed out all the thousands of entries and then all of you wrote something, too, I could put everything in a huge, inflatable binder and then we’d all be famous.
Last summer, when I joined the staff of the student newspaper at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I knew I had scored a cool gig.
What I didn’t know was just how crucial F Newsmagazine would turn out to be in the story of my graduate education. The moment I became an editor there I was given a second, equally-incredible education entirely apart from the one I (literally) signed up for. Also cool is that instead of paying for this auxiliary “mini” education, they’re paying me. Well, barely. But it’s not costing me.
And one of the most surprising gifts I’ve received in the job is getting experience managing a staff. Guess what? Managing people is really hard. It’s exciting, sure. It’s fascinating. And it’s hard.
Someone told me once that in terms of motivations in business, people are ultimately motivated by money or power. That sounds draconian, but I think there’s some truth to it. Ask yourself: Would you like to be in charge at the end of the day — or do you really just want to get your check and head home? Do you feel rewarded being a decision-maker? Or do you essentially want to do a good job and not have to care so much about all the other stuff that in-charge people have to deal with? Obviously, there is overlap and obviously, if you care about power it doesn’t mean you’re a monster. And if you’re a “money” person, it doesn’t mean you’re greedy. This is a broad-stroke thing to mull over, nothing more.
Anyway, I’m a money person. While I very much want to be in charge of myself, in general I don’t need to direct people, lead people, rally people around a common goal. I’m more satisfied with “doing me” and paying my bills and drooling over coats.
But I’m learning how good it feels when you are in charge of doing things in the service of the group, in the service of a staff, however small and rowdy. It’s really cool when people ask me how to do this or that, or what I think about X or Y or Z and then, miracle of miracles, they like, do it? A gal can really feel a different kind of satisfaction when she’s leading the charge — though it’s imperative to remind you that I share the managing editor position with the ethereally-beautiful and embarrassingly smart Irena. If I’m leading any kind of charge I’m charging with this dear friend and colleague of mine, thank the Good Lord.
So thank you, F Newsmagazine Powers That Be, for giving me the opportunity to like, make a meeting agenda. To review processes. To gently remind. To be willing to schedule an important meeting and run it. Thanks for putting me in a position where I can attempt to advise, to correct, to lead, even. I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better.
The stress of making the newspaper on a continual basis is real. There are things I would really like to see change in our process and, if being editor of the paper was my full-time job, I’d change directions in a few key areas. But — and I realize this is going to sound like Cheese City — the job I have at the paper isn’t about me. It’s about the group, and it’s so interesting to practice being a leader.
I’m going to show you a homework assignment. For my Literature of the Senses class this week, we’re to write short pieces on the sense of taste. These are just one- to two-page writing exercises and I’ve put this together. I blogged about ramen noodles some years ago, and I did look back at this entry for reference, but it’s entirely retooled, as you’ll see.
It’s hard to write stuff and it’s hard to write about hard stuff. It’s hard to think about hard stuff that happened. Maybe I should go bake cupcakes or something. Mmm … Cupcakes.
Anyway, here you are.
As a young woman, many times had I fervently wished I could zap my appetite into nothingness so that I could slim down for the summer or whatever. It seemed so simple: Just don’t eat. I was never able to not eat, though, and usually not able to eat even slightly less. My appetite was stronger, in the end, than my desire to own smaller jeans.
But when I was dying in 2008 from failed abdominal surgeries related to advanced Ulcerative Colitis, my appetite really did vanish and it stayed gone for a dangerously long time, entirely without me trying. It turns out that having no appetite is a woeful, morbid thing.
My body knew my intestines were failing, so the appetite mechanism was doing me a favor by closing up shop. If nothing came in, nothing could leak out, internally. But my doctors and my family desperately needed me to eat, even a little, so that I could heal. If I couldn’t manage to start getting some nutrition, a feeding tube was in my future.
It was frightening to want nothing to eat, to snap my head away with a grimace when food came close to my mouth. It was alienating in the extreme that spaghetti with marinara sauce, my favorite food, did nothing to stir my appetite. I desired nothing. I craved nothing. There would be days at a time that I consumed only air and the dry skin on my lips as I chewed them whenever the doctors would call with test results, which were usually bad.
“Mary, honey,” my mother would ask, coming into the living room. “What would you like to try today?”
Every day, it was the same. The proposition of selecting and then trying to get food down was as exhausting as flushing my four IR drains, which had to happen twice a day.
“I guess ice cream,” I’d say, my voice barely above a whisper.
But when the Haagen Dazs hit my tongue, even if it were praline pecan or butter brickle, which in former days I would’ve devoured, I never managed more than two bird-sized bites before I had to set down my spoon and sink back into the couch, weary, baffled, and still unfed, the cream turning sour in my mouth. I was down to 118 pounds, 117, 116 …
We tried bacon. We tried mac n’ cheese. We tried bacon mac n’ cheese. We tried pudding, crackers, chips. Lasagna, Cap’n Crunch, sushi, tacos. Everything was revolting, everything was too much. I missed my appetite, which is to say I missed being part of the human race.
Then one day, when my mother asked me what I might like to try to eat, for some reason I blurted out, “How about ramen noodles?”
I meant Top Ramen, of course. The brick of noodles you get six-for-a-dollar with the flavor packet inside each plastic pack. Mom ran to the store and got a bagful. When she brought me a bowl of the piping hot noodles, for the first time in months, I felt hungry.
The cheap ramen was salty and easy to swallow. It was fun to eat, too, those long, curly noodles and the bullion broth free of bits, chunks, or vegetal matter of any kind. It is a benign food substance, Top Ramen. There is nothing to avoid, nothing to pick out. One can surrender to simplicity, to plainness. It is the anti-foodie food. The nutritional value may normally be in question, but for an invalid like me, the 400 calories of starch and salt were 400 more than what I was getting before and for some reason, my body accepted Top Ramen. I wanted to eat it and eating it did not make me sicker.
Every day, I ate the Chicken or Beef flavored ramen for breakfast (never Shrimp, gross.) The life-force noodle soup was my sole meal of the day. I even looked forward to the moment when my mother would bring it to me after I had had another interminable night on the couch, vomiting into my bowl, leaking sh-t from my ostomy bag onto the covers. Not every night was that bad; some were worse.
It makes me cry to think of my mother, there in her red bathrobe, coming in with a chipper smile and the wooden tray with the big bowl of Top Ramen for me, a cloth napkin, a fork, and a wide spoon. She’d place the tray on the big trunk we used for a coffee table and say, “Bon appetite, sweetie.”
“Thanks, Mama,” I’d say, and I’d start to eat, slowly, bringing a forkful of noodles all the way up, high above my head. I’d tip back and open my mouth, lowering the ramen slowly down onto my tongue and the day would begin that way, looking up at the ceiling, tasting the rich, savory broth clinging to the noodles. I would let it all slip down my gullet, hardly needing to chew.
For those of you who are anxiously awaiting the Second-Ever PaperGirl Essay Contest, you shall have your chance soon; I’m thinking I’ll announce the next topic around Thanksgiving. But I’ll bet that some of you have dreams bigger than a one-time essay, hm? I’ll bet some of you wonder if you might like to start a blog.
Oh yeah, baby.
It’s a cool thing, having a blog. In fact, the ol’ PG is one of the best things in my life and has been one of the best things in my life for many years. Look how dedicated I am! I post 4-5 times a week, most weeks, and that’s while I’m in school and doing All The Things. Writing a blog must be pretty great, right? You bet it’s great, and you should start one of your own if you have been thinking about that. But there are things to know before you start, trust me on that.
Well, if you’ve been thinking about writing a blog — or writing, period, no blog necessary — and if you live in Chicago or can get here without too much trouble, you’re in luck: I’m teaching blogging for the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio again in November! The class meets once a week for four weeks, Tuesday mornings from 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.; we’ve got a cozy classroom downtown, right off Michigan Avenue at the Gleacher Center at Cityfront Plaza.
Doesn’t that just sound great? You, me, classmates, blog writing exercises, reading homework, quick lessons in WordPress, and workshop time? By that date on the calendar it’ll be peak chai latte season, too, and my oversize sweater/cowboy boot/skinny jean game will be on point, y’all. Boom. Fall + writing class + sweater + chai latte = heaven itself.
I don’t know if you noticed, but a few weeks ago, I went slightly dark here on the ol’ PG. I don’t mean that I was making depressing jokes or being generally gloomy; I mean that my posts were spotty and “content-lite,” let’s call it. There was a very good reason for this, but I didn’t even have the energy to go into it.
What was going on is that I was working as a journalist, I guess, writing a piece for F Newsmagazine that took 95% of my time, focus, and energy, both physical and emotional. The story I wrote is something I am extremely proud of, not because it’s perfect — it isn’t — but because I did something I’ve never done before: I wrote a profile of a special person who passed away too early and to do it properly (which was the only way to do it, obviously) required investigation, interviews, historical documents, and intense focus.
I grew to care for this person who passed away in 1988 and I grew to care about the people who cared about her and who took time for me and this story. It all happened because of quilts, but quilts are only the start of the story.
I’d just love it if you read the piece. It’s a feature-length story, so it’s a longer read. But you’ll be rewarded, I promise. And here is the link. Enjoy!
What’s adorable is how many students I see in class or on campus eating lunch they brought from home.
Do you feel me on this? There’s just something about seeing a stranger take a fork and a Tupperware container out of her tote bag and dig into whatever it is she put together before she left the house that morning. It’s hard to explain why it’s sweet, exactly; it just is. It’s comforting to see someone who appears to have thought ahead. Someone who’s not wasteful. Someone trying to be careful with her money, maybe. (Buying a quick lunch in the Loop every day for a week will set you back anywhere from 50 to 100 bucks, depending on whether you want extra avocado and/or a small cup of water, for example.)
Yes, it’s heartening to see someone skipping the lunch lines and taking a seat on a bench, sovereign. It reminds us that there are other ways. We can be adults. We don’t have to hemorrhage money every day on pre-wrapped salads and muffins. There are options.
Today, I took the brown bag lunch option: I made myself a grilled cheese to take to school.
The bread got buttered on both outside sides. The pan got heated up. Muenster got torn into pieces and placed, lovingly, in between the thick slices. Into the pan my sammich went. Once I heard sizzling, I smooshed the squares down a few times with the spatula and then put the lid on the pan so it could get hotter in there and melt the cheese, please.
The flip is hard, not just because the maneuver itself is tricky — and it is — but because it’s hard to know just when to flip a grilled cheese. You really want a nice toast, so you can’t flip too soon. But leave it on too long and you’re movin’ to Scorch City.
Fortunately for me today, the flip was perfect. My grilled cheese looked good enough to be photographed for a slightly off-brand, low-production-value food magazine. I wrapped it carefully in aluminum foil, put it in a lunch bag with a napkin and a cookie, and I got out the door.
It smelled so damn good, and I was so blinkin’ hungry, I ate half of it in the elevator on the way down.
The following is an imaginary convo between you and me but it’s like, super real.
YOU: Why the long face?
ME: I have to read all of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus by Tuesday. For school.
YOU: That’s that one about the guy who sells his soul to the devil for fame and glory, right?
ME: Pretty much.
YOU: And he’s got the good angel on one shoulder and the devil on another, doesn’t he?
YOU: It’s not Shakespeare, is it? Isn’t Doctor Faustus a really old story?
ME: (Sighs.) There are a million versions. Thomas Mann’s was published in 1947 and it’s this classic, scary story, retold in modern times, but it’s also big, intricate allegory for Germany under fascism. It’s incredible. This book is like… It’s a brocade. A tapestry. But all that richness don’t make it fast reading. And I’m only on page 150.
YOU: Out of?
ME: Out of 534.
YOU: (Whistles.) Why are you talking to me, kid? You better this laptop and crack that book.
ME: I’m sleepy and I’m grumpy!
YOU: You’re in grad school! This is how it works! You read long books and you read ’em fast! What do you think you’re paying for?
ME: I have to write a response paper tooooooo —
YOU: Mary Katherine Fons, I am about to take this blog away from you. Go get that book. Get yourself some tea, pull Pendennis into your lap, and quit yer bellyachin’. Mann’s novel is a masterpiece and your heart, brain, and soul are being nourished and enriched with every sentence you read.
ME: Maybe I could sell my soul to Mephistopheles and just snap my f—
School’s starting in two weeks and I am so excited I am vibrating.
Yes, I’m halfway through my graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), the school within the world-renowned art museum in the heart of the Chicago Loop. It’s a heavenly place. My first year was a shimmering dream. Now, that shimmering dream just about killed me — I did 17 gigs last year while managing courses and the newspaper — but I loved every minute of the race. I have every intention of loving the second year’s race even more. You’ll see.
Incredible, how I’m halfway done. Didn’t I just tell you I had been accepted? Didn’t I just go into the wrong building on the first day and hike up 14 flights of stairs in a dress and heels so I wouldn’t be late??* The nature of time itself was one of my reasons for entering into a graduate program: I knew that two years would flash by regardless, so why not do what I’ve always wanted to do? Why not scare myself to death? Why not go into painful debt? Exactly! If the time is going to pass anyway, why not have a graduate degree to show for it? Sometimes, I am right about things.
I’m also getting ahead of myself. I have a long way to go and a lot of work ahead of me before I get to twirl down the primrose path with my diploma. Quite the visual, but they say it’s best to stay present in the moment, so… Can I tell you what classes I’m taking?? Well, since you twisted my arm…
Writing: Seminar: Literature of the Senses — Prof. England* We will look at a wide range of poets and novelists and their explorations of the five senses: Proust on scent; Thomas Mann on music; Lady Murasaki and various poets on color; Colson Whitehead and Arthur Rimbaud on synesthesia. We will also turn to essays in popular science in order to enrich our own vocabularies: Luca Turin on perfume; Oliver Sachs on music. Students will write one critical paper and a variety of creative exercises.
Writing: Process/Project Workshop — Prof. Nugent This is a class for students to work on a single, extended writing project… Your project can be made up of many disparate parts, but those parts should be part of a single whole. [This course is] a forum for articulating and discussing ideas and process… While the class will include presentation and discussion of your work, we will approach it from a process-oriented perspective that focuses on open-ended questioning and exploring, rather than intervention and critique.
Master of Fine Arts: Interdisciplinary Seminar — Prof. Anne Wilson The purpose of this course is to provide an informal critique situation where students from various disciplines meet once a week to present and discuss their work. The faculty leader facilitates the discussion, which is designed to help students articulate a critique of their own work as well as the work of other students.
I’m so excited about the Literature of the Senses class, I started reading the books this summer. The Process/Project class is writer heaven. And the Interdisciplinary Seminar might sound less sexy than the other two, but I’m over-the-moon about it, maybe more excited about it than anything. Professor Wilson is a fiber art rock star (I had a class with her in this spring) and I would follow her to the end of the world. Wilson’s classes are serious: We will discuss complicated ideas, we will be expected to do a ton of work, we’ll read till we drop, and I, for one, will eat it up. I’m in grad school! Crush me with books! Crack the pedagogical whip! Isn’t that what I’m paying for, for Lord’s sake??
Of course, I’m paying for more than that. I’m paying for two of the best years of my life.
This weekend was press weekend for F Newsmagazine (also referred to as “F News” or just “F”), the student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) where I am fortunate to serve as associate editor.
By the way, “associate editor” really just means I edit the F+ section (culture, first-person stuff, listicles, etc.) and do a few items of business that other editors don’t have to worry about. My title sounds fancier than it actually is; I don’t have seniority over anyone, for example. But a) I don’t particularly want seniority over anyone and b) I like sounding fancy, even if I’m not. So I’m keepin’ it!
Press weekend means that it’s it’s time to produce the latest print edition of F News, so the editorial staff — there are five of us — along with the designers and the two faculty advisors sit in the newspaper office at 116 S. Michigan Avenue all day Saturday and Sunday and copy edit and do layouts and spend our only free moments in the whole entire week working on the paper.
Yes, we get paid. We do not get paid much, though. The hourly pay is not commensurate to the talent and love (and hours) that everyone brings to the project so there has to be another reason why we work at the newspaper.
I remember the moment I learned that SAIC had a student magazine. I was in Arizona, in a hotel room near the airport. It was late. I had just finished the gig where my quilts had been misplaced by UPS, a gig that must have been not long after the gig in Buffalo where I discovered sponge candy because I remember that I was eating sponge candy in bed and I was really tired. I was so tired but I was staying up to read the SAIC student paper because by then I knew I had been accepted to grad school at the college/museum and I had been on campus earlier that week to do some paperwork. That day, I picked up a copy of F News while I was in a waiting room. When I understood what it was, I thought, “Well, Mary Fons. I think someone needs to send an email.”
I missed making Quilty. I missed deadlines and sign-offs and editorial meetings. I emailed the paper and asked them if they were hiring. It was summer; they were. I met Paul, the faculty advisor, and Sophie, the managing editor, and I interviewed with them and before too long they said I could have a job on staff, even though I was to learn that the skills I developed as the editor of a hobby magazine were not totally transferrable to a college newspaper. Let me tell you, in case you’ve forgotten: You’re never done learning and you are never done feeling really dumb.
But I’ve learned. My writing has gotten better. My copy editing skills are way, way better. I feel like F News is this other school I get to go to.* It feels like this other class I get paid to attend.
Boy, it’s a lot of work. We all have office hours, a two-hour editorial meeting every week, press weekends like this one, and other activities, which is to say nothing about the job itself, which requires much thought and action. There are times I get frustrated because I’m working on F News stuff instead of doing my schoolwork or working on my book, but then I think to myself, “You can only work at this place while you’re in school. Don’t miss this.”
And I also think about the people. It’s the people at F News who make it worth the time and the not-money. Where to begin?
There’s arts editor Irena, the beautiful art history graduate student whose goofball tendencies are perfectly in balance with her naturally brooding temperament (a fabulous, fascinating mix!); there’s the recently-turned-21-year-old undergrad entertainment editor, Rosie, whose love for her fellow man, woman, and punk rock kid would melt the crustiest, grumpiest of hearts; there’s news editor Justin, my colleague in the Writing department, who has read All The Most Interesting Books and Articles That Have Ever Been Written and whose sartorial choices put mine to shame. And then there’s Sophie.
There are others. I could go on. I should go on. I need to. But I also need to do homework because I was at press weekend all weekend and I’m also still sick.
Thank you, F News, for teaching me better copy editing skills. Thank you for having a great color printer that we are not supposed to use for personal things but that everyone totally uses for personal things. (Thank you for being so great that everyone cares about you and therefore doesn’t abuse their printer privileges often.) Thank you for the staff of people who make you.
Thank you for doing my homework.
*Yes, that’s a dangling participle and if you wrote it, I’d make you change it.
I am at a Peet’s Coffee working on the titanic research project that is due Wednesday for my (amazing) class in the Fiber and Material Studies department. This thing needs to get done no later than tomorrow morning if I am going to retain my sanity.
But I have stopped working on my project to write this — I know, I know — because a) my brain is short-circuiting from so much information gathering and organizing and b) I presently have company.
Two Russian men came in a while ago and took a seat at the table to my right. One of them is dressed in business attire (it’s Sunday — maybe church attire?); one is in sneakers, jeans, and a puffy coat. One of the guys is wearing so much cologne, I am getting a headache. (It’s good cologne; there’s just way too much of it.)
I can for sure identify four words in their conversation, but only three actually count because one of the four words is a proper noun: Sascha. Otherwise, it’s just “iPhone,” “auto,” and “super,” but when the guys say it, it sounds like this: “zu-pear.”
What’s weird — and distracting! — is that there are other, Russian words vaguely familiar to me, not because I know what they mean but because my ex-husband was Croatian and my ex-boyfriend was Russian, and that means I’ve overheard a lot of conversations with parents, siblings and friends in Balkan and Russian tongues and the two languages share a number of similar sounds. Mostly clueless to the content of these conversations until I got the post-call or post-conversation de-brief, I still know these languages when I hear them. (Sometimes Serbian is hard to distinguish from Croatian, but don’t tell any Croatians I said that.)
Here are a few of the words I am picking up from the Russians. I’ll list the word first in Cyrillic, then give the phonetic spelling of at least one of the conjugations/versions in Russian, then a Croatian version of the word (in quotations), then the English equivalent. Don’t worry! It’s fun.
Anyone who speaks any of these languages is going to laugh and laugh at how wrong I am about the equivalencies, but you can at least see what I mean when I say there are similarities:
Добрый — Dobriy — “dobro” — good Не за что — Nyez-ashta — “Nije za ništa” — that’s all right Большой — vyelik — “velika” — too big маленький — malen’kiy — “mali” — small Помогите — Pomogite — “pomoć” — help Извините — eez-veen-eete — “oprostite” — sorry
What we have learned from this is that if I landed in Russia right now, I could possibly say “I’m sorry I am so small. Please help.” But it would sound more like Croatian. Perhaps what we have actually learned is that I am glad I am not in Russia right now — or Croatia, for that matter. I think I’d better just stay right here at this Peet’s Coffee.
By the way, this Sascha person they’re talking about is really in trouble. He did something bad. I don’t think he killed anyone (Russian Guy No. 1 and Russian Guy No. 2’s tones are not hushed in that “Sascha killed somebody way”) but they’re clearly annoyed at the guy.
Okay, it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and get back to work.
It’s been awhile since I was a college student — ahem 15 years ahem — I forgot just how stressed out people get at the end of the semester. It’s pretty tense around here.
At the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), “Critique Week” is, I’m realizing, only the half of it. There are still papers due, presentations to make, big projects to turn in, and if you’re studying painting, I suspect you’ve got some painting to do, too. Blech: painting under deadline. Sounds lousy — kinda like quilting under a deadline. I’ve been there, Picasso. You’ve got this. Just take it daub by daub.
The Student Programming Board at SAIC knows that everyone’s freaking out a little bit — Irena who works on the school paper with me has three papers due tomorrow! — so a few years ago they made the final week of school “De-Stress Week.” The Board provides “pop-up” activities around school to help students relax for a moment or two in this busy, anxious time. There was a hot tea bar yesterday, for example, and they’ve served “Breakfast for Dinner!” at the Neiman Center, our student union-y place.
And today? Today, they offered three hours of “animal therapy!” There were pups to pet! I got to pet pups! At school!
I should’ve done undergrad here, too. This is the life!
There were three therapy dogs at the Neiman Center today and I got quality time with two of them: a Golden Retriever named Sedona and Butter, the Irish Wolfhound in the photo. All the dogs were trained as canine companions. As I stroked Sedona’s soft, rust-colored hair, I felt the knots in the shoulders of my very soul melt away. Petting a dog is sogood. As I watched Sedona’s belly rise and fall (she was laying on the floor, the epitome of chill, while four of us students ooh-ed and ahh-ed and stroked her) I asked her handler about what it means for a dog to be trained for therapy.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “They have to learn the usual commands: sit, stay, and so on. But they also have to learn not to grab for things like medical equipment, for example. Tubes, machines — sometimes those things look like toys or interesting objects to them, you know? We don’t want them to lick too much. And they have to be okay with strangers.”
I was a stranger to Sedona and Butter for less than two seconds. That’s how they both made me feel, anyway.
Wanna know a secret?
I’ve been thinking seriously about getting a pet. More later.
In just over a week, I will have my first-ever, very official, art school critique. I am excited and nervous.
At the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), all classes are cancelled for one week near the end of each term for Crit Week. This is because the formal critique is given great importance here. Every student is assigned a panel of three faculty (visiting artists may also serve on panels) who look at that student’s work the week prior and then critique it with/for her at her appointed time.
My appointed time is Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. I will go into a room and sit in a chair and three people at a table will rip me apart, give me praise, ask me questions, etc. Gah!
Just today, I sent off pages to my panelists. What did I send?
I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you that I am writing a book. I mean a real-life, honest-to-goodness book, you guys.It’s got chapters and everything. It’s a collection of personal essays and I have to tell you: I’ve never worked harder as a writer in my life. There have been times in the past couple years when I got excited about the idea of writing a book — I even sent a proposal to several agents while I was living in D.C. and I did get several letters of interest back — but it wasn’t time and I didn’t have the fire within me.
Now that my quilts and my writing are married like never before, now that I’m exposed to the most extraordinary reading and art I’ve ever known, the fire has been lit. The book is happening. I’ve been working on it since school began. I can’t tell you too much more about it right now because that is dangerous. In fact, one of my advisors said to me the other day, “You should talk less about what you’re writing and just write it, instead.” This is good advice — and he was saying that while holding the latest 15 pages I had turned in that week, so I’m no slouch.
That’s what’s so incredible: I’m churning out pages like crazy because I’ve learned that when you’re really writing a book, it’s like being pregnant. What I mean is, the old saying “You can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant'” seems to parallel the writing of a book if you’re doing it in earnest. If you’re really writing a book, the energy is sort of shocking. There’s no halfway. I feel like this thing is coming — like a baby — and I’m just trying to get to the hospital in time.
True confession: It’s why I’ve been a little slow on posts lately. I’m writing so much but it’s like, where do I turn the hose?
I submitted two excerpts of the book to the crit panel; just over twenty pages. I’ve worked those pages, man. Hours and hours and hours. I’ll let you know how it goes. I thought about posting the panelists’ names and email addresses and so you could all send them super sweet, thinly-veiled threats to be nice to me, but that’s counter-productive: I want the truth. The truth will set you free. The truth is a far better read.
One of the serious, who-does-that?? advantages of getting my MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) — aside from the fact there’s a longarm in the textile department and they want me to use it — is that I have not one but two advisors and I meet with one of them every other week.
Week 1, I meet with Jesse Ball, who is A Very Big Deal. Guggenheim Fellowship, awards coming out his ears, OMG-level reviews in the New York Times, Atlantic, Paris Review, etc., etc. Sometimes I’m intimidated by him because he’s this rockstar type, but aside from one awkward meeting where I felt like a big dummy and didn’t have one intelligent thing to say, we’re peas n’ carrots.
Week 2, I meet with Sara Levine, also A Very Big Deal. Essayist in a bazillion “Best Of” anthologies, professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, reviewed by Oprah…it goes on and on. The truth is, all of the faculty at SAIC is this way and, as Claus told me this spring, it’s practically unheard of that a grad student gets an advisor appointment on a weekly basis.
“This is what you’re paying for,” he said. “And it’s worth every dollar.”
Sara is working with me on my book. Did I tell you I’m writing one? I have been poking at it here and there for over a year, but now it’s happening for real and that’s one part of the reason I’m doing this school stuff. It’s a book of essays about my life in quilting — and so, so much more — and the best way to describe it is to say that if PaperGirl is a snack, Piecing [working title]is a meal. A meal I’m prepping in the kitchen right now. You are gonna freak out when you see what I made you for dinner, you guys — in a good way, as long as I can pull it off.
Sara helped me so much the other day when she read a portion of a chapter and said, “This. This part right here when you talk about pre-washing and then you jump directly into moving to New York — that’s it. That dovetail. I want to see more of these moments. Where else can you dovetail two disparate things in the same way? Think like a woodworker dovetailing two pieces of wood. Does that make sense?”
Ever since she said that, I’ve been writing like an absolute maniac. Most of it is garbage. But it’s important garbage and at least a few chunks are keepable. And everywhere I look, I see potential dovetails; places where two things come together and they just fit, even if they’re not “supposed to” or I didn’t think they ever would.
And then the other night, I closed my laptop and went to the sewing machine. Because there was another dovetail I kept seeing. A fabric one.
I sketched out the paper foundation a couple times. The one up there, that’s the one I like the best. It’s an abstract shape and I’m a pretty traditional quilter, so it’s a departure, style-wise, for me. Do you see it? It’s a dovetail. And I made a few sample units with some sashing in between and I felt happy in a way that I haven’t ever before, not quite like this.
It’s happening. Writing and quilting and art. It’s coming together in this new way.
But that’s my living room table-slash-sewing table-slash-second desk, a.k.a. Mission Control. I’ve got a presentation tomorrow (did a mini one today, too) and so many things due and last week I was in four states. I have decided the best way to keep things straight is to a) focus on one thing at a time and b) take pictures of everything and label them with numbers.
(Just kidding about the second thing except it’ll be fun to do it right now so let’s do it.)
Here’s what’s on my desk:
The “Heart Plus” cloth bucket my friend Theresa made for me when I went to Portland last year and saw her and the gang at the Portland Modern Quilt Guild and Fabric Depot. I use it every day, T. (My sewing machine is about two inches from the frame of this picture, by the way.)
My class readings for The Literary Animal class (orange notebook) and my “citizen scientist” fieldwork journal. We read Virginia Woolf’s “Flush” for this week’s discussion. Do you know that novel? It’s great! Woolf wrote it from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. What a woman!
My Tivoli radio. I have to bang on it to get it to work and that’s half the fun.
A printout of Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Scene,” 1866. I can’t tell you more at the moment, but just you wait. I’m gonna blow your mind later this week when I tell you about this picture! It’s part of an assignment. I’m freaking out!
I went to visit my friend Sophie’s School of the Art Institute (SAIC) studio today. While we were talking, she took an illustration of a girl reading books in a library off her wall and got out a spiral thingy and took out this thing that looked like a cross between a three-hole punch and a paper cutter and she made me a journal. While we were talking and eating generic M&Ms. She knows bookbinding and just like, made me a little spiral journal while I was complaining about needing just 2-3 more hours in the day. This is art school, I think.
To-do list. (Second one today.)
My latest poem: “The Field Mouse.” See No. 5 and stay tuned!!!
My day planner (yep, paper) and a handout that are the exact same color of banana yellow. I didn’t even plan it.
Log cabin blocks that I showed in class today. Yup: all-white. So many things to tell you, so much art to make, so little energy left in my fingers to type it…
High-contrast blocks I also showed in class today. Guess what? Everyone loves patchwork. Everyone melts when they see fabric in pretty shapes sewn together. Isn’t that what we do, quilting friends? We take soft fabric and we make pretty shapes and we sew them together. When you share patchwork in a class full of art people who are getting writing degrees, you inspire like 90 stories or poems or journal entries, etc., etc. I saw it happen. I was there. It was so awesome.
Today, I had my first class in the graduate Writing department and I am in love.
I’m in love with my professor’s incredible brain and I’m in love with her syllabus. I’m in love with the bike ride to campus (six minutes!) and I’m in love with all my fresh new notebooks. What’s wonderful about this place is that when I say I’m a quilter, everyone wants to know more because everyone here loves art, pattern, color, and making things with one’s own two hands (and feet, if you’re a quilter or a potter, of course.)
I am not in love with the elevator situation, however. I had a rather harrowing experience this morning.
Many classes at The School of the Art Institute (SAIC) take place at 116 S. Michigan Avenue and 112 S. Michigan Avenue. These buildings are across the street from the Art Institute itself and they are both very tall. I don’t know how many floors each one has, but I’m quite certain both have at least 14 because I climbed 14 flights of stairs today. Before 9 a.m. With a cup of coffee in my hand, a tote bag on my right shoulder, and a purse on my left one.
Hey, man, I’m impatient. If I’m at the bus stop for too long and the bus is nowhere in sight, I’ll just start walking. Why stand around and twiddle my thumbs when I can move my tushie and get a change of scenery? Besides, bus stops are grody. This impatience applies to elevators, too: I hate waiting for them. If it seems doable, I’ll take the stairs every time. This “don’t wait” philosophy is hardwired in my general disposition, but it also springs from having experienced long periods of my life when I was so ill and so weak I couldn’t walk. I’ve been in hospitals for months and weeks at a time and it’s certain that I’ll be back in those places again. I genuinely do not take for granted when I feel well enough to take the stairs, so I do. Within reason.
The three (only three!) elevators at the 116 S. Michigan building are tiny and date to the Mesozoic period. Seriously, these are the slowest elevators I’ve ever experienced. I think they go up or down a couple floors and then just need to rest or something, maybe make a phone call before they get back to work. And at 8:50 a.m., there are big crowds of students — mostly undergrads — all waiting for them. One is usually out of order and the other two creak open every 5-6 minutes and let in a trickle of people inside before creaking away again.
What floor was my class on, I wondered? I took a look at my planner. Eighth floor. I sucked in some air. Let’s do it, Fons. Boot n’ rally. And I began to take the stairs.
I had to rest at the fifth floor. While I was doing that, a couple undergrads zipped past me, laughing and talking while they were zipping up stairs because they are small children. (Neither of them were wearing heels.) But when I got to the eighth floor, I realized I had made a terrible error: I was in the wrong building. I was in 116 S. Michigan; I should have been in 112. There’s nothing like being out of breath and sad and panicked because now you’re going to be late to your very first department class during your very first days of graduate school.
What was I to do? Wait there for the elevator and take it all the way down, then walk to the other building and then go up another eight flights of stairs? Even I have my limits. Then I realized something. The two Michigan buildings are connected at the 14th floor! This was a good solution: I could just go up to 14 and then back down to 8 on the other side and maybe still make it right on the money. I looked at the elevators through the stairwell door. I looked up the stairwell at six more flights of stairs. I thought about my life. I thought that if I died in the stairwell someone would find me eventually. I took a deep breath, cursed loudly (it sounded awesome with the echo), and began my ascent. Again.
I was in my seat at 9:02. I was sweaty and gross and happy, actually, because that’s how bad I want this.
I’m having anxiety. I haven’t been a full-time student since undergrad at the University of Iowa and that was 15 years ago. Sure, there’s been a Spanish class here, a seminar there, but starting August 31st, my autodidacticism* will have to scoot to make room for real-life teachers who will like, grade my papers and stuff. I make a point to process a lot of information from day to day, but so far I have not required myself to write essays that I then grade and hand back…to myself.
“Sophie,” I said to Sophie the other day. “I’m nervous about school.”
My friend looked at me like I told her I was thinking of changing my name to Bazooka Joe.
We were at my place. I was sitting on the floor in a pool of fat quarters, selecting fabric for a new quilt because patchwork kills anxiety on contact. Sophie was at the table, inking illustrations for her book. She’s got a book deal with a big-time publisher and is headed into her second year of our two-year program. (I think I’ve mentioned she hired me at the paper and made me the best birthday cake of my life. We were possibly separated at birth but now we are together so everything is going to be fine from now on.)
“There are so many unknowns,” I said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Sophie put down her paintbrush. “Mary Fons,” she said, and then she said it again, but in italics: “Mary Fons. Stop talkin’ nonsense. You are about to have the time of your life. You are about to begin the most wonderful, happy, exciting, amazing two years in your life. The writing department, the school itself — it’s fun. It’s so fun.”
Of all the words I’ve used to describe my concept of what this whole thing is gonna be like, “fun” hasn’t yet been one of them. “Thrilling,” yes, “exciting,” yes. But I hadn’t thought about fun. Maybe it was that first tuition bill.
“You will fall in love with all the professors,” Sophie said. “They’re amazing. There’s a constant stream of incredible visiting artists and lecturers. And Mary: It’s the Art Institute. You can go sit in the museum anytime you want and write, or draw, or just be. For free. Every day. I’m jealous that you’ve got your entire two years starting and I only have one year left.”
Since Sophie’s pep talk, I have been less anxious. Writing, reading, learning, asking questions, making things, being challenged, and making discoveries — this is indeed my jam. I’ll figure out where my classes are, get some school supplies (school supplies, how I have always loved you!), and I’ll be okay.
I can’t wait to tell you about my classes! They are so cool.
I applied for a job at the school paper. I have a school paper because I have a school!
The student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute is called F Newsmagazine. This would be a frustrating masthead for a newspaper/magazine if wasn’t an art school newspaper/magazine; fortunately, that’s what fNews is and being what it is, it can be — nay, must be — unconventional. It’s a fine publication; I remember picking it up downtown in years prior and admiring it. I would feel the thick, glossy paper it’s printed it on and look through the illustrations and read stories in never-before-seen-fonts-because-students-invented-them and think, “Wow. The people who make this magazine go to school at the Art Institute. That must be really fun.”
When I got my acceptance letter, I went to a reception and picked up the latest issue on the way out. Maybe could get a gig at the paper to help me pay for school, I thought. I saved up some money from my time making Quilty, but it’s not enough. It’s loan time. I applied to the school itself for a merit scholarship and I’ve done the paperwork for another small grant; the hunt continues. But rather than rely on someone/something else to give me money for tuition, I’m more comfortable rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting a job. This approach to things runs in my family and I’m glad, though I remain ever hopeful that some sane, at least marginally attractive wealthy widower reads PaperGirl and has fallen desperately in love with me and will offer to pay for my grad school in an attempt to get my attention and win my favor. I’m waiting, darling, and ready to coo about how you look in your top hat.
I contacted the F newsmagazine offices and met the people in charge. I was given the chance to audition, if you will, by writing a story on the first-ever, free online course offered by the SAIC. I wrote the piece and they accepted it; yesterday I had my official interview with the paper’s advisor-slash-publisher. The conversation was great and I can’t say I was hired-hired because Paul and Sophie need to put their heads together about exactly where I’m best used. A strong handshake and a “You’ll be working with us in some capacity, that’s for sure” makes me feel like I can even tell you all this.
My grandmother (on Mom’s side) started the town paper in Norwalk, IA. My mother co-founded the most popular quilting magazine in history. My sister Hannah is associate editor at a real estate magazine in New York City. My sister Rebecca writes at her job at the Chicago International Film Festival and has been doing some freelance around town these days. We are not an east coast media mogul family. We’re not a midwest one, either. We’re not intrepid reporters, we don’t keep up on the Pulitzers. But the women in my family, we have ink on our hands.
It’s gonna feel really good to work on a magazine again.
I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.
It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.
I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.
So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.
At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)
I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.
The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.
My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)
I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?
As a rule, I try not to feel embarrassed about anything. Look, we’re all complete idiots. We’re ridiculous. Humans say dumb things, trip on the ice, fart. We act like we know something and we get real loud about it and then holy water do we find out we were wrong — and on and on. So to be embarrassed about something is a waste of time. Don’t worry about it. You’re not that special — in a good way.
But this is all Thirtysomething Mary wisdom. When I was young and even more frivolous than I am today, something happened that embarrassed me so bad I was scarred for many years.
My friend Karen and I drove to New Orleans in 2002. Karen and I were neighbors in the same apartment building. We met because a month after I moved to Chicago, I was crying so loudly in my tiny apartment one night, Karen heard me from across the hall. I’m blubbering and sobbing and I hear this knock on my door. I open the door to find the friendliest, most wonderful, most pure-of-heart person.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking over my shoulder to see if someone was responsible for making me so miserable. She looked back at me. “You want a beer?” And so it was that Karen Kowalski became my friend.
Karen had gone to school in New Orleans wanted to go visit old friends some months later. She invited me, I said there wasn’t anything I’d rather do than go with her, which was true. We got in her red pickup one summer day and set out. It was a fifteen-hour drive from Chicago to New Orleans and we were gonna just go straight through. This was never discussed: not only did we thrill to the idea of being road dogs who don’t need sleep, neither of us could afford a hotel.
We got to the city and I was dazzled. Delighted. I was craning my neck around so much I practically pulled a muscle. We drove straight to Karen’s friends’ house, smack dab on Magazine Street. When we got there, we found that there was a party going on in our honor. Folks were drinking beer on the porch and hanging out in the kitchen. When we pulled up, we were mobbed with people who loved Karen and people who loved me by association. It was great because back then I actually liked house parties.
But I needed a shower. Fifteen hours in the car, remember? I asked the host if I could shimmy upstairs for a quick shower. Of course, she says, and I get a towel and it’s perfect; no one is upstairs and I can do a lil’ rinsey-rinse and go have a beer in New Orleans. So cool. It all seemed so civilized…
Shower done, feeling refreshed, I put on my bra, shirt, and underpants and the jeans I had been wearing. They were in pretty good shape. I head downstairs. I meet folks in the kitchen. I get myself a beverage. Things are good. And I enter a big living room where there are a lot of people sitting around in kind of a (not intentional) circle configuration. Someone says, “Hey, you’re Karen’s friend, right? The Fonz!!!!!”
And just as I’m like, “Yep, that’s me!” and trying to be awesome, the underpants that I had been wearing before my shower suddenly came out the leg of my pants. They had been in the leg of my jeans and now they were on the floor of the enormous living room. Everyone was looking at them. Everyone.
They had gotten shoved into the leg of my pants! What can I tell you? I shoved my leg into my jeans and smooshed ’em down there. As I walked downstairs and through the kitchen, they just moved lower and lower until they had to get out. That thing about wanting a hole in the floor to swallow you up? Yeah. I would’ve been okay with that. I snatched those things up so fast, but it was too late. Everyone had seen my panties come out the leg of my pants and sit in a ball on the floor.
“Heh, heh!” I said, shaking my head, “Well that’s something you don’t see every day! I mean, we see underpants, but you know, well, haha… With the… On the… Okay.” And I left the room, most likely to do a shot.
Today in the kitchen, out of the clear blue, I thought about chasing Bobby Benshoff. Which sounds like a made-for-TV movie.
“A friendship changes suddenly… Love finds a way to last forever… Chasing Bobby Benshoff, tonight at nine on Lifetime Television for Women.”
When I was in elementary school, all the girls in my fourth grade class decided that we “liked” Bobby Benshoff. To “like” a boy meant that you were in love with him. To be in love with Bobby Benshoff meant that you would join a horde of girls who also were in love with Bobby. And if you liked Bobby, you were gonna have to work for it. You were gonna have to chase him at recess.
Someone started a game where the girls who liked Bobby would chase him around the Winterset Elementary School playground. You could practically measure that playground in square miles, so this was no kitten chase. We had an enormous hill. We had the “Tornado Slide” with its attendant jungle gym, monkey bars, and sand pit. We had a basketball court, hopscotch zone, swings, a track — even, weirdly, pull up bars (because second-graders are so into chin ups) and a crazy-dangerous slalom bar thing that no one knew how to properly use. This was our battlefield. For the long weeks that Bobby Fever gripped us, we’d all head out to recess, a girl would yell, “Go!” and poor Bobby would take off running for his life.
Bobby was the fastest runner in our grade behind Joel Loomis, so the challenge of keeping up with him was part of the game. But the giddiness of “liking” him with the possibility of catching him was the main event because Bobby was also the cutest boy in the school. We all thought he looked like a movie star. Dark brown eyes, great smile.** If you looked out onto the playground during Bobby Fever, you’d see a terrified, lone boy just paces ahead of a long line of running girls, squealing and shouting.
The game ended one day, not for lack of interest. Someone had grabbed for Bobby, made contact, and ripped a button off his shirt. It was a red shirt with a black pattern on it, as I remember. Bobby was shocked.
“My mom’s gonna kill me,” he said, dazed. He made part of his shirt into a little wick and tried to poke it through the buttonhole to keep his shirt closed. Not only had he lost a button, his chest was slightly exposed to the hounds of love, all of us trying to get a closer look while inching away to escape implication in Buttongate.
I wasn’t the one who ripped the button off. As I remember it, I didn’t think I was cute enough for Bobby to “like” back. I was popular for two seconds in fourth grade, but it was only because my parents were getting divorced and I was the first one in class that happened to. I was like an exotic zoo animal for awhile until everyone’s parents started getting divorced and wasn’t fascinating anymore, just depressing.
Bobby Benshoff, I hope you’re out there, contented and thriving. If you know anything about Google Alerts, you’ll probably get a notice that I’ve blogged about you — hope you don’t mind. Did your mom get mad about the button? It wasn’t your fault, exactly, though I have to wonder: Didn’t you kind of want to be caught?
**He kinda looked like Yuri, come to think about it.
Though I’ve had to take a wee break, I am still working toward my Master’s degree. My advisors have informed me that Columbia is the place to continue the MLA I began at the University of Chicago; if I can get in, stay put for long enough to do the work and not get sick for any length of time, why, I might just be able to get that ol’ girl done. I have a ways to go but I also will probably not die anytime soon. I’m saying there’s time.
I’m not wasting precious reading hours while I get my ducks lined up, though; there’s thesis research to be done and I’m doing it. I know what I want my thesis to be about after taking several workshops about putting together a thesis: I want write about diarists. Being one, and being a fan of them and (by and large) the diaries they write, I suspect I’ll be endlessly fascinated. As I think more and more about tackling a thesis in my life and as I read more and more, the actual intent and focus of the thesis will be revealed and who knows? Maybe I’ll actually discover or contribute something to a body of study that is pretty robust already. For now, I’m just reading diaries and biographies of diarists and books about the diary’s role in Western literature and that’s my school right now.
And in my para-research (doesn’t that sound fancy) I have discovered a wonderful poet that I hadn’t known about before: William Soutar. English majors may groan and shake their heads that this person was unknown to me, but cut me some slack: I studied theater in undergrad. Can you quote a line from Major Barbara? Ah-ha! Didn’t think so. (Note to self: Look up pithy line from Major Barbara.)
William Soutar was a Scottish poet and writer who had a rather tragic life. Born in 1898, he contracted a virus when he was in his twenties and this went untreated. By the time he was thirty-two, he was bedridden, quite ill, and essentially paralyzed. He spent fourteen years in bed and died when he was just forty-five.
But he was an incredible poet and writer and refused to let his ill-health take his brain or his passion as his body lay so feeble. He read and read and wrote and wrote and had all kinds of things published. It was said that his bedroom was one of the centers of the 20th Century Scottish Literary Renaissance, due to all his work and all the heavyweight writers that came to hang out with him.
He wrote wonderful poems for children (“the bairnrhymes”) but is maybe best known over here in America for his Diaries of a Dying Man. The diaries he kept for so many years are all in a book that you can buy (because the world is amazing) and just this very morning I wept reading a certain entry. It is such beautiful writing. Soutar was human and he has his moments of despair and frustration and angst, but by and large, he’s just crazy lion-hearted and awesome and so freaking smart that you ache for his situation while you marvel at his talent. Yes, I am slightly in love with William Soutar (no, Yuri does not feel terribly threatened.)
Here, to whet your appetite, two passages from Diaries of a Dying Man, by William Soutar. The first one is the one that made me cry a little this morning over my tea. The second is a favorite so far.
“I wonder if fit mortals realise that infirmity makes the most ordinary actions wonderful. A person, like myself, set aside from the thoroughfare of life can often look on life’s manifestation with a detachment denied the protagonist in the market-place. Common acts become isolated from particular times and places and grow, by recollection, into moments of beauty loved in themselves without desire or regret. Thus everyday phrases can bring to such a watcher a rounded image of loveliness mysteriously coloured by the consciousness that he himself can no longer enact them; phrases such as ‘he lifted a stone’, ‘he stood by the sea’, ‘he walked into the wood’.”
“For some weeks past I have found myself, from time to time, putting out an imaginary hand as if to touch the earth in a comprehensive gesture of love — but I do not deceive myself by these vague stirrings of affection : it is so easy to love a ‘thing’ : one must learn to love people first.”