Keynote Address for In Print 5 Year Celebration

Thank you for inviting me here — and congratulations on five years of connecting writers to readers…to visual artists through Word of Art…and for connecting writers to each other. Anyone who writes knows how lonely it can be sometimes.

Before I continue, I’d like to know how many writers here made it past the gatekeepers and got published. First, how many people have a traditional publishing contract?

How many have a “hybrid” or self-publishing contract?

It’s good to see writers getting their work out there. I’m excited to be joining you next month when my first book comes out. So I’m speaking to you, not only as a journalist who covers literature, but as a novelist…and both of these perspectives will inform my comments today.

In five years, In Print has become the #1 resource for Rockford-area writers, with author interviews appearing on Mendelsohn Club’s radio station — and an affiliation with the Chicago Writers Association. Through Word of Art 1 & 2, you bridged the gap between written and visual expression, proving that authors and artists can create a powerful experience when they collaborate. Being a judge for Word of Art 2 was a great honor for me, and it truly opened my eyes to the depth of talent we have in the Rockford area.

When I started the WNIJ Book Series — four years ago — I had it in my mind that I would discover the “literary voice of northern Illinois” or the “Rockford writer’s voice.” I was looking for that…thing…that makes writers here unique. To be honest, I was envious of the attention southern writers get because of their unique voice and sense of place. I kept thinking of a phrase I heard about the south, and this phrase so captured my imagination that it came to symbolize my search:

“The South is a place. East, North and West are merely directions.”

Anyone who ever read southern literature understands this, and the unique qualities of the people and culture below the Mason-Dixon Line — qualities you don’t find in other points on the compass.

But that phrase, “The South is a place. East, North and West are merely directions,” is especially notable for what it ignores:

The MIDDLE. We who live in the “fly-over states.” Why don’t more people in New York or LA…or even Chicago…care about what’s going on in the smaller cities and rural towns in the Midwest? How come it’s so hard to pitch a story set in your neighborhood to an agent?

Concerned that I might live in a place where the people and their stories might never be heard by those on the coasts…or in the mountain states…I decided to go and find the “voice of the flatlands” in the WNIJ area. And I did find it in a guy named Chris Fink.

Chris chairs the English Department at Beloit College. A few years ago he wrote a collection of stories called Farmer’s Almanac. In it, he writes about Wisconsin dairy farmers struggling with low milk prices. He writes about a fur trapper who’s being cheated on the prices for his pelts…L and a train engineer who’s haunted by the memory of killing someone at a rail crossing.

Many of Fink’s stories were inspired by real-life events he covered as a newspaper reporter.  After reading his book, I felt like I understood the working people of Wisconsin a little better. And I felt that my project was off to a good start.

But the more authors I interviewed, the more I realized how many transplants from those other compass points are here in our territory.  I started meeting authors who brought their own “sense of place” with them. Kelly Daniels, at Augustana College, wrote a memoir called Cloudbreak, California, in which his beach-bum father tells him – when Kelly is eight – that he killed a man and has to flee the country. After graduating from high school, Kelly also leaves, bumming around Mexico and Central America until – many years later – he has a bittersweet reunion with his dad on a southern California beach.

Not a Midwestern tale, but a really a good one – and I included his book in the series. At the time, though, I was a little confused: Where does this leave me and my “mission” to capture a regional voice, or sense of place?

So I had to rethink what a “sense of place” is. Is it completely made up, like Lake Wobegon – “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children above average?” Garrison Keillor is a master at putting you in a place that feels so familiar – yet I’ve been to Minnesota and I never saw anything resembling Lake Wobegon. Maybe Garrison is remembering something that existed sixty years ago…something he longs for…and THAT’S why he created it.

Once I viewed Lake Wobegon as a response to nostalgia, I began to look at “place” differently. I started looking at the spaces where people gather, and the stories they tell there, and slowly I understood that people make the place, not the other way around. And it didn’t matter whether those people were in a bar or a virtual chat room. They gathered because they were hungry to tell, and hear, stories.
Now, in an ideal world, the people telling these stories make a decent living telling them… so they’ll be encouraged to tell more stories. But for far too long, writers toiled away in isolation, not getting informed feedback, not getting a decent edit — and not learning how to write a decent press release, which makes groups like In Print so important. After all, news editors are always looking for stories in their community. A local writer with a well-written and well-edited book makes a nice feature for a newspaper or a radio station. And we all understand how important these interviews are for building an author’s platform.

Of course, sometimes the interviewers need a little schooling.  During my first Book Series, I was really focused on that “sense of place,” and tried to label one of this area’s best fiction writers as a “Midwestern writer.” Her name is Molly McNett and the interview was about her debut story collection, One Dog Happy. Now, in fairness to me, all the stories in this book were set in Illinois. And Molly lives on a farm in Ogle County that’s been in her family for five generations. It doesn’t get more Midwestern than THAT, right?  So I presumed she would want to promote a kind of “regional identity.” But during the interview she gently redirected me away from that. We had a nice talk, and it sounded good on the radio. But it could’ve been better if I just let Molly be Molly. A year later I interviewed her again, and I did just that, and we had a great interview about her latest story, which was about (pause) a music teacher in medieval England – a story that’s as far as you can get from the modern Midwest…and one that was included in the 2014 Best American anthology next to stories by Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle and Ann Beattie.

By the way, Molly practices Buddhist meditation so in that first interview she resisted being labeled by NOT resisting – by being the stone that, when dropped in water, just keeps displacing water as it heads to the bottom. Only in this case, Molly rose to the top of American letters.

So my mission keeps evolving. When reading for the Book Series, or just reading for pleasure, I’m always on the lookout for a writer who transports me to a different patch of earth…or who helps me discover something new about the place I inhabit.

Occasionally, I have time to read the best-sellers, and I’m always amused at how many of them are set in New York City, with young, sexy people living the “New York lifestyle” (whatever that is).

Obviously, that’s because the big publishers are located in Manhattan and the people who work for those companies like reading about themselves. But…more and more publishers are starting up in those large, square states – and here’s where I think we’re on the verge of a literary revolution.

As more and more editors and publishers locate here, more and more stories get published here. With competition in the marketplace, you’ll see writing contests offering bigger prizes.  Who knows?  Maybe these companies will start offering advances, and authors can quit their day jobs to write full-time.

Of course, we’re still talking about book publishing which doesn’t help the writer trying to publish a short story, or poem or essay. Which brings me to a point I want to make. Not so much a point, but an exhortation to plan for an even greater literary future. If you’re looking for a soundbite from this speech that you can post on your website or Facebook page, here it is:

In Print…start a literary journal.

There is enough writing talent – here in this room — to fill a quarterly magazine of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. And I suspect there’s a good amount of editing talent here. Best of all, it would be so much fun — think of all the icons of Rockford history you could use when naming the journal: The Screw City Scribbler. Or maybe, Cheap Screed. Or, if you want something a little edgier: Die, Sock Monkey, Die.

In Print, as it is now, is a place where Rockford-area writers can share their stories and learn how to be better story-tellers. When you become a journal, you’ll become an even bigger space because writers from all over will want to join you – to be a part of the creative vibe we have here. As a result, every writer who appears in this journal will be taken more seriously by editors and publishers across the nation.

Think about the knock-on effect it will have. Once Rockford gains a national (or even international) reputation as a place for great writing, people who read will wake up and realize what they’ve been missing — here in their own back yard.

And maybe, just maybe, someone will open a bookstore again.

WNIJ can’t make this happen, and neither can the Register Star.  In Print can, and I want to reiterate: you have the talent here to do it. And the money’s out there, in the form of grants or donations.

What’s more, the media attention is out there. When you take your service to the next level, and do something truly ambitious…that becomes a news story. WNIJ and the Register Star, and the Rock River Times, will all pay attention because it’s been a long time since Rockford had a literary journal. And, just between you and me (and the video camera there) news editors and reporters all have a secret desire to write the next Great American Novel. I’m willing to bet they’ll be among your first story contributors.

So, when the In Print Literary Journal (whatever it’s called) has its launch party, I look forward to sharing the news with all the readers, and writers, who listen to WNIJ.

And finally…we’ll all be able to say, “The Middle is a place. East, West, North and South are merely directions.”

 

Thank you, In Print, for inviting me. And here’s to the next five years!