mfa program

  • Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    On May 30, I'm on a Northwestern University panel: "Navigating Freelance Writing," from 11-11:50am, with Kevin Davis and Julianne Hill. Come to the event to hear advice from 3 versatile, in-the-mix freelancers; (bios are below.) Free advice, open to the public!

    Kevin Davis is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago and author of the nonfiction books The Wrong Man, (Avon) Defending the Damned, (Atria) and, forthcoming, The Brain Defense (The Penguin Press).

    Freelancer Julianne Hill's nonfiction work has appeared in outlets including "This American Life," "Morning Edition," Chicago Public Radio, PBS, The History Channel, Real Simple, Health, The Round and Writer's Digest. Hill received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Northwestern University, which named her work Distinguished Thesis. An award-winning journalist for more than 30 years, Hill served as a Rosalynn Carter Fellow, awarded to journalists covering mental health, and was named a National Press Foundation Fellow, examining the issue of HIV/AIDS. She has taught journalism at Northwestern University, Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy and Loyola University Chicago.

    Gretchen Kalwinski is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Make Literary Magazine, and Featherproof Books. Her clients have ranged from Crate and Barrel, Orbitz, Imagination Publishing, University of Chicago, and the American Library Association. Kalwinski has appeared as a panelist on WGN radio and Chicago Tonight, and was awarded a Ragdale artist residency in 2009. Currently, she’s editing novels for Curbside Press, ghostwriting an e-book for a startup, and writing travel stories. In 2014, she earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. For more, see

  • "My Writing Process" blog post

    I was invited by the spectacular author/professor Goldie Goldbloom to participate in the "My Writing Process blog tour." You can read Goldie's entry here. Since I'm finishing my MFA thesis and completely reworking how I think about my writing, my processes have done a 180 in the past few months.

    1)    What am I working on?

    I’m in the last throes of completing my thesis for my MFA program at Northwestern University. After four years in the program, I’m ready to be done! It’s 150 pages--about 70 pages are short stories with an urban-decay setting and a magical-realism fairy-tale bent. The other 80 pages are an excerpt from my novel about a young woman who’s grown up at a radical flower farm commune founded by her parents.

    2)    How does my work differ from others of its genre?

    My work takes place in an urban, post-industrial setting but has this fairy-tale backdrop. I’ve been told that the combination of those two things is unusual, I think because most people don’t think of such a bleak setting providing a backdrop for magical elements. But I see the nature and potential for things like curses and spells to take place amidst factories and mills.

    3)    Why do I write what I do?

    The industrial landscape in this current work comes from my childhood in industrial Indiana, on the Chicago border. And I was a huge reader as a kid, devouring Grimm, folk tales, fables, and Biblical stories, so the writing that comes most naturally to me is basically an outgrowth of that.

    4)    How does your writing process work?

    I’ve learned a lot about “how I work,” in the past four years of grad school. I’ve gotten better about procrastination, which used to be a big problem, by doing Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” from The Artist’s Way. Doing the morning pages seems to clear out my mental clutter and get me ready to write the real stuff. I try to write daily, on the commute to my day job and it’s MUCH easier to get back into the work when I *am* writing daily.

    I’ve also recently discovered Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, and the “dreamstorming” process detailed in that book has been helping me a lot lately. It’s best for bigger projects, like novels, and is a way to both inhabit the “dream space” of a novel, while also making big decisions that help move the story forward. (It seems I’m not the only one who gets paralyzed when it comes to making major decisions that affect the whole storyline...but if you don’t make those decisions, you wind up with competing or contradictory threads.)  Dreamstorming is a great way to address this: It helps you tap into the subconscious and figure out what the story is “about” but also rein things in enough so that the amount of rewriting you have to do is minimized. I'm just sad I didn't discover it sooner.

    NEXT UP:

    Mark Rader's first published story was about a spunky one-armed cave boy named Little Runner who saves his clan from a bear attack. It was in a kid's magazine when he was a kid. Now a grown man, Mark's stories have appeared in Glimmer TrainEpochLIT, and The Southern Review, and been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, and inclusion in the Best American Non-Required Reading anthology. He holds an MFA from Cornell University and currently teaches creative writing part-time at the University of Chicago's Graham School. He has a number of long-in-the-making manuscripts nearly completed, he's pretty sure. Look for his post at:

    Dana Norris is the founder of Story Club, a monthly storytelling show in Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis.  She teaches at StoryStudio Chicago.  She has been published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency,  The Rumpus, the Tampa Review, and her stories have been featured on Chicago Public Radio.  You may see her upcoming performance schedule at, and she'll publish her post on her Facebook page. 


  • The Next Big Thing blog chain

    Writer and friend Colleen O'Brien recently tagged me in her post for The Next Big Thing, a blog chain in which writers interview themselves about a project-in-progress. Here are my answers to the ten questions.

    Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

    What is your working title of your book (or story)? It's tentatively called "Ode to Purgatory," but the plot has shifted so much over the past eighteen months that I'm not sure the title even applies anymore. I still dig "Ode to Purgatory" on an objective level, though -- because it refers to the idea that "purgatory:" i.e., biding your time and carrying on while things aren't good, or you're not in a place where you want to be while you work to get to the other side--the working and waiting and figuring out--is actually a gift. It's the opposite of immediate gratification. And whatever else this story is or isn't, I'm pretty sure that at it's core, it's still about that.

    Where did the idea come from for the book? The story idea came straight from setting, and the setting came from a barista in a Chicago bakery I frequented years ago. The bakery itself had meaning for me; it was a Polish one my family had gone to for decades and it was newly gentrified. The barista was talking about this small ghost town in southern Illinois he'd visited the past weekend. He described the town as feeling medieval because it had levees and floodgates completely surrounding it. I immediately went to work and Googled it. My fascination was because it was so perfectly in sync with things I wanted to explore about my own hometown, an Indiana rustbelt town bordering Chicago but psychologically isolated and worlds away from the arts, culture, and beauty I craved. I soon learned he'd been talking about Cairo, on the very tip of the southern Illinois peninsula, and the story just cracked open from there.

    What genre does your book fall under? Literary fiction. At least I hope. During the rough draft phase, let's just say my writing is REALLY rough, and in those moments it feels like bad children's literature. But then, I dig into the language, explore metaphor and hone my dialogue and it does get much better with each draft.

    Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Honestly, it feels like jumping the gun/ jinxing the project to even consider this. I'm 90 pages into the story and still learning about the characters.

    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A young woman with a singular sense of smell begins to suspect an ecological disaster is headed for her southern Illinois commune.

    Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  I'm still deeply engaged in the creative process, so I don't want to make the mistake of thinking too much about the audience or marketing, rather than the work itself. That said, I imagine it ending up with a small-to-mid-size publisher who'll see my vision and let me use an illustrator I love. Maybe someplace like Akashic Books? Back Bay Books? Curbside Press? Featherproof Books? Dzanc Books/Other Voices? Verse Chorus Press? Chiasmus Press? Red Hen Press? But, you know, if Random House or Penguin came knocking, and wanted to have a conversation, I'd entertain that. I plan on scoping out small presses at this year's AWP Conference in Boston.

    How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I've been working on this for the past 2 years, (since Winter 2011), but honestly, much of that time has just been making mistakes, exploring, figuring out how to take on such a huge project in the first place. It's only in the past 6 months that I've laid out a solid outline of the project, gotten serious about mapping my setting, etc. I'm working steadily on it now, and plan to have a full first draft by June 2013, which means writing about 4 pages per day for the next four months.

    What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I AM VERY UNCOMFORTABLE PUTTING THE BELOW BOOKS IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH WITH MY STORY. That said, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is a gorgeous novel that I admire deeply and that story also has a female protagonist seeking to escape an isolated, stifling landscape. Also,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, for the coming-of-age aspects of those novels. And, people who know the plot of my story say I should check out Arcadia, a commune-centric novel by Lauren Groff.

    Who or what inspired you to write this book? I had a story I wanted to tell about overcoming inertia to leave behind the worlds you've known, propelling yourself into unknown arenas, and discovering your community, all things I relate to as a result of growing up as an awkward, self-conscious/shy, secretly bookish person in the industrial, sports-crazed, non-arts-friendly town where I was raised.

    What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? Since the story is set on a radical flower farm that produces essential oils and natural botanical perfumes, I'm having a great time exploring and writing about those interests. I don't think I'm alone in being fascinated by the sense of smell and how it affects our memories and experiences. Also, Cairo itself is so fascinating. It's a ghost town now, (see above photos), but it's loaded with rich, historical details. It was an important Civil War location, and it was supposed to become a metropolis in the early 1900s. But it never really resolved its post-Civil War racial issues, and now it's crumbling and decrepit, with a population under 3,000. What's bizarre, though, is that a huge percentage of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Next up, (in alphabetical order):

    Mairead Case is a Chicago-based writer, editor, teacher, and grad student with recent work in The Unified Field and at Bright Stupid Confetti.

    Nashville-based Todd Dills is the author of the 'Triumph of the Ape' (2012) collection of shorts and the 'Sons of the Rapture' (2006) novel, and he edits and publishes THE2NDHAND online magazine.

    Susannah Felts is a fiction writer, freelance writer, teacher, and the author of one novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books, 2008). She was awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission's Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction for FY2013, and was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, 2012. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and daughter.

    Rob Funderburk is a visual artist in Chicago. His work extends from gestural sketch illustration to large site-specific installations, art prints, and publication design.

    Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a story collection, and the Lit Director of Chicago's 2nd Story storytelling series.

  • "Mapping" a fictional place

    I'm in the process of writing my first novel and it's...daunting. I've never embarked on such a large work and it's taking much more time than I anticipated to figure out how anyone goes about getting started. Beyond simply considering, "what's the story and who are the characters?,"  and "Am I a writer who creates detailed outlines or shoots from the hip?," my professor has REALLY been stressing the importance of place/setting. Luckily, the novel I'm writing about a town on the southernmost tip of Illinois, (where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet), originated by my fascination with that location, but Goldie Goldbloom has been pressing me to work with that in a much more detailed, thought-out way.

    For example, Goldie has tasked me with making an uber-detailed map of my novel's landscape. Not just the simple geography, but also the more "micro" locations in the story where my characters spend time -- interiors of houses, backyards, fields, Main Streets, bridges, etc. Beyond creating maps, Goldie recommends that we find images of our setting and pin them up at our writing desk, and listen to music relevant to the story's timeline and setting,  to get even more engrossed in our stories. Full and complete immersion in story and place, in other words. These things might sound small, or obvious, but they're not, they're huge. After starting these practices, I've begun to feel much more oriented in my story. And I think readers can tell when the writer has a concrete sense of their setting; i.e., "authorial confidence." (Still, if anyone has any idea of what people in southern Illinois might've been listening to in the early 1970s and early 1990s, help a lady out.) 

  • Triquarterly Blogging

    Now that I've settled into a new, full-time copywriting job, I thought it was high time to get more involved with my graduate program; (I'm in the Masters in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University). To that end, I recently started contributing to the blog associated with their literary magazine, Triquarterly Online

    I will be posting one blog entry each week, and it'll go up on Mondays. I've done four posts so far--about NanoWrimo, the Baffler's resurgence, online writing tools, The Chicagoan Magazine, and the Occupy, Writers movement. So far, what I like about this gig is that it's forcing me to keep up with the stuff I'm interested in; i.e., literary and publishing news, and the fiction, poetry, and criticism being published in literary mags. And, having a weekly deadline helps keep me focused on reading the news I'm actually interested in, rather than, say, refreshing twenty times a day or searching incessantly for the perfect winter boot that is simultaneously stylish, warm, and has excellent, ice-grabbing traction. But if anyone's got a lead on that, do let me know.