Two weeks ago we went to Boswell Book Company to see writer/artist Austin Kleon, who wrote a really nice book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, published by Workman this year.

The book’s premise is contained in this T.S. Eliot quote in the preface:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Joan Didion, from the cover of The White Album

Steal Like an Artist does not condone plagiarism; Austin Kleon means something quite different. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere,” he says. “All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

This statement should bring relief to the writer, painter, poet, designer, musician. It does to me.

I know it’s an old notion, but look at Lady Gaga, who’s often accused of stealing from Madonna. If she had held out for a truly original idea, she’d still be waiting and maybe have produced nothing. Millions of people would have missed out.

I’m not a fan of Gaga, but that doesn’t matter. What I admire is the sense (or nerve) she took to be influenced and to press forward. “All creative work builds on what came before,” says Austin.

He goes on to paraphrase writer Jonathan Lethem, who “has said that when people call something ‘original,’ nine times out of ten they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”

John Cheever, from the cover of The Wapshot Chronicle

For Lady Gaga, Madonna is a reference, an original source. Madonna in turn had her sources. If we were to trace back through them all, as Austin maintains in his book, we would see that their ideas have a history.

Whether Gaga has stolen, defaced, imitated, or turned what her sources did into something better or worse, I will leave up to you to decide for yourself.

The point is: There is a lot of magnificent stuff worth stealing. Identify it and who does it. Study those people, their work, figure out how they do what they do. Then practice it until you feel your own voice come through.

In his visit to Boswell, Austin told us about the eight, nine artists and writers he copies. He has pictures of them hanging in his workspace. He encouraged us to do this too.

Going up in mine: John Cheever and Joan Didion, without a doubt. Stephen King too, who is often dismissed as a genre writer. But his writing is clean and vibrant and beautiful and I would love nothing more than to be able to write like him someday.

Centuries of time have passed. We in 2012 have no hope of creating anything truly original anymore. But we can take from those artists we love, and bend, twist, and shape what they do into something that reflects our voice, our aesthetic.

Who are your heroes?


02. May 2012 · 1 comment · Categories: Events

This month it’s my turn to pick out the next Octodea meeting location, time, and date. The email went out yesterday: we’re meeting May 17, and in honor of Cinco do Mayo we’ll go to Riviera Maya in Bay View, a hip neighborhood just south of downtown Milwaukee.

I first heard about Octodea from co-founding member Ron Faiola, a videographer and producer. We met through my husband John, who’d known him since their younger days in the music scene. In a conversation one night, Ron and I discovered we’re both in the same business.

“You should come to the next Octodea meeting,” he said. “I’ll tell Joe about you and have him send you an invitation.”

He went on to tell me that the group was formed in 2003 when he and some colleagues—Joe, Pat, Scott, and Dave, along with a few others—banded together as a partnership of creative professionals who refer each other to clients and bring each other in on the projects they’re working on.

“We’re always looking for more good people,” said Ron.

The word Octodea comes from parts of other words that were combined to create it. Members are independent graphic designers, product development and branding experts, Web developers, writers, editors, videographers, photographers, directors, and producers working in print, multimedia, and business theater. Dave has taken to nicknaming the group “Octodemons.”

We discuss a topic at each meeting. March, it was social media. Last month, we were interviewed by a college student writing a paper on entrepreneurship. All of us have been in business for ourselves for a long time, and it took a while to remember why we started what we started all those years ago.

This month our topic is the new AMC show “The Pitch,” a competition that pits one ad agency against another. In the first episode, the client is Subway; in the second, it’s Waste Management. By the time May 17 gets here, a few more episodes will have aired, so we’ll have a lot to talk about.

We always do. Last month, after we got that slow start talking about ourselves, things picked up and became more fluid. After the student thanked us, the discussion broke into three or four smaller conversations. At one point I looked up and felt a vibration, an energy, a brightness that only comes from people who love what they do.

“It seems easy compared to some of the other groups you belong to,” said my husband. “You seem to really like it.”

It is. And I do.

Ron came in January but hasn’t been back since, with good reason. A few years ago he shot and produced a documentary called “Fish Fry Night Milwaukee,” showcasing the city’s fervent love for the Friday night tradition. While out shooting “Fish Fry,” he discovered that the supper club is alive and well too, so he shot and produced his film “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience.”

Then Ron went to Chicago and got himself a book deal for Wisconsin Supper Clubs. He had to excuse himself from Octodea while he traveled around the state interviewing supper club owners and patrons. And eating things like Monte Cristo sandwiches on French toast, and Cajun Alligator. When last I emailed him, he was visiting supper clubs “#44 & 45 of 50!” so he should be home any time now, if he isn’t already.

See you soon, Octodemons.





27. April 2012 · 2 comments · Categories: Events

This morning on my way to Gravity Connect, the elevator in our building stopped on the fourth floor. When it opened there was a bike leaning up against the wall.

“Oh,” said a young woman I’d seen before but never talked to, “is there room?”

“Sure,” I said. I scooched over into the corner and held the door open for her.

“How are you today?” she said.

Truth was, I was tired and my stomach a little upset. “Doing all right,” I said. “How are you?”

“Good,” she said. “Great, as a matter of fact. It’s nice outside. It’s Friday.” She  accidentally knocked the bike helmet she was wearing into the wall then giggled. “Yeah, I’m great.”

Normally I would accuse someone like this of being overly cheerful. I don’t like overly cheerful, especially in the morning and being a little cranky myself.

“So do you go to school? or do you work? or both?” I asked somewhat reluctantly.

“I do two things. I sell bicycles. And I work as a personal chef.” She grabbed the handlebars of her bike as the elevator neared the first floor. “It’s kind of a mish-mosh, but it’s what I do.” She sounded a little apologetic when she said the last part.

The elevator doors opened.

“I understand  that,” I said. “I work for myself too.”

I should have held the front doors open for her, being that she was the one with the bike, but she opened them for me instead, deft and graceful, then pushed her bike through, and we both spilled out into the street.

We talked about the freedom, the flexibility, the independence that comes with working for yourself. Not working 8 to 5, in the same place, every day. Having more work some weeks than others. Being able to combine two loves into one career such as, say, selling bicycles and cooking for other people, if that’s where your heart leads you.

I told her I’ve been doing what she’s doing for a little over twenty years now, and I wouldn’t do it any differently. It felt good to be reminded of that talking to this young twenty-something in the nascent phase of her career, whom I strongly sensed would not last long in a cubicle.

“That is awesome,” she said. “I’m Chrissy, by the way.”

We shook hands. I took off across the street, she hopped on her bike and rode up the sidewalk. Two women, at different points in their careers, both on their own, starting work today a little later than most people, because that’s the way we like it.


24. April 2012 · 6 comments · Categories: Events

After spending hours reading and writing yesterday, I needed to clear my head, so I went for a walk. The sun was high, the sky bright blue, the temperature mid-50s.

When I turned toward Lake Michigan, I was immediately struck by its beauty this day: bands of sapphire, foam green, and light beige, its horizon as definitive as a black line in a coloring book.

The beach was empty with the exception of a woman in a long black coat walking ahead of me and a young woman with her dog. The wind stirred up large waves that rolled onto shore one after another. I sat on the sand at the water’s edge, trying to line up the horizon with the edge of my iPhone, and began snapping shots of the waves, seagulls, the lake, the dog.

After a while, I stood up, dusted off, and walked along the shore. The lady in the black coat was way off in the distance now. At the end of the beach, where the sand met a mass of tall grasses and trees, a young man, big and buff, lay on the sand with his shirt off, his dog next to him. I thought about what it would be like if the young woman and her dog encountered the shirtless young man and his dog.

I left the beach, spilling out onto the sidewalk and passing the woman in the long black coat. I smiled and said hello; she said hello back. The lake’s swaths of blue, green, and beige had grown wider, the blue much darker. I walked toward large white rocks piled up at the water’s edge and took more pictures. The lady in the black coat walked on ahead then stopped. As I stepped back on to the sidewalk, she said something. I took out my earbuds.

“Are you a professional photographer?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m just taken by the lake’s colors today.”

I explained that I am a writer and like to use my own photographs on my Web site, when they turn out all right.

“That’s marvelous,” she said. Her coat was so long it almost touched the ground. The wind blew her hair and the sun filled her face with light. She was seventy, maybe seventy-five.

“I love to come down here and look at the lake,” she said. “The colors change every day.”

She’s right. I told her about the series of photos I’ve taken of Lake Michigan out of our dining room window, which are framed by the same building below and the same two buildings on either side in every single shot. It’s like looking at a perpetually changing work of art.

“Monet learned to paint looking at the water,” she said. “I would love to come down here and paint, except it’s too cold right now.”

We walked together, talking about art, painting, photography. Every once in a while she would stop and touch my arm to make a point.

“Sometimes I am so taken by the beauty of the lake, I just have to tell someone about it,” she said. “Once, I couldn’t help myself and said to someone, ‘The colors are spectacular today, aren’t they?’ and they looked at me like I was nuts.” She brushed her hair out of her face. “They just don’t see it.”

We walked a little farther together.

“So you take the pictures for yourself,” she said.

“I do.”

“Does your husband like to talk about art and things like this?”

“Yes,” I said, “he does.”

She stopped. “Mine just isn’t interested. I got to the point where I told him ‘I’m not going to wait for you to come down here with me anymore.’ Some things you have to do for yourself. That’s what I’m doing. I do this for me.”

She squeezed my arm. “I cross here,” she said. “I wish you luck with your pictures and writing, dear. Take care.”

“You too.” I thought about giving her my card.

She smiled, her face made even more glorious by the sun. I wanted to hug her. I reached out my hand instead. She didn’t hesitate to slip hers into mine.

“Thank you for talking to me,” I said. “I greatly enjoyed it.”

“Thank you too, dear.”

“I hope to see you down here again sometime soon.”

“Me too.”

We let go of each other and parted, she across the boulevard, me up the hill. Halfway up, I was filled with overwhelming love for every woman who has ever nurtured me well: My grandmothers, especially Dot. Miss Gluntz. Jan. Women I’ve encountered for five or thirty minutes and never see again. And on good days, my mother. I wished I’d given the lady in the long black coat my business card. Next time I come to the lake I will look for her and do just that.

19. April 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Events

This past Monday night, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, a memoir about the 1,100-mile solo hike she took on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death, came to Milwaukee.

Extra chairs were set up last minute at the event at Boswell Books. As Boswell’s Stacie Williams approached the mic to introduce Loyal Mehnert, a “travelanthropist” from Milwaukee who spoke first, Cheryl stepped out into the wings.

There’s something about looking into the eyes of people who’ve survived remarkable things in their lives. As a writer on assignment, I’ve looked into the eyes of a couple who lost everything they owned save for the clothes on their backs in the tornadoes that obliterated parts of Oklahoma City in 1999. Two days a week for an entire semester I looked into the eyes of a student whose boyfriend murdered their infant son; I found out about it when I read the first draft of her final essay.

Just this week I looked into the eyes of a friend at his mother’s funeral who’d buried his brother two months before, as well as a WWII vet who two months ago found his wife dead on the floor between the sofa and the coffee table. She wasn’t feeling well and went out to the living room to sleep because she didn’t want to bother him.

Then there’s Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose mother died seven weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Cheryl, in her twenties at the time, went into a tailspin, divorcing her husband and stumbling into promiscuity and heroin use. “My mother was the center of the family,” she said at Boswell. “I felt acutely alone, an orphan in the world. I was at the bottom of my life.”

Crater Lake (Oregon) from the PCT. Photo: Eric Valentine

During a trip to REI, a copy of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California caught Cheryl’s eye. A year and one backpack full of REI gear later, she entered the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mojave Desert. Her hike ended 1,100 miles and three months later at the Bridge of the Gods, which connects Oregon to Washington at the Columbia River.

“Everything I needed was on my back,” she said. “There was a wonderful completeness about it.”

On the PCT, she began sorting out her life. “When I started, I was all mixed up inside,” said Cheryl. “I thought about how I was going to gather myself into the person I was supposed to be. When I came out the other side, I was less mixed up.”

At Boswell, Cheryl read from Chapter 11, in which she describes an encounter with Jimmy Carter (“no relation”), a reporter for the Hobo Times who mistakes her for a hobo. When I reached the front of the book signing line, she extended her hand.

“Hi, I’m Cheryl,” she said. “How did you find out about Wild?”

I told her I first heard about it when I saw her speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference & Bookfair in Chicago in March.

“Plus,” I said, “my mother died of cancer, too, in November, ten weeks after she was diagnosed. I wanted to see how you handled that in your book.”

“I am so sorry,” she said.

We chatted about a number of things. Mothers. Being writers. Writing about mothers. Not worrying about what family members think. Writing about it for yourself first, not a publisher.

Cheryl Strayed

“There’s nothing else to write about, really,” she said.

When I asked if I could take her picture, Cheryl immediately offered to take one with me. She put her arm around me, I put mine around her. This is a woman who has survived remarkable things, I thought. We were still talking as the photo was being taken.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Music kept going through my head. This post. The things Cheryl said. My mother, and how I can’t believe she is gone, and there really is nothing else to write about. It was a fitful night, like my second night at the AWP conference, when I didn’t sleep at all thinking I’m a miserable failure, I’m not learning a damn thing, what am I doing here?

When I rolled out of bed in Chicago later that morning, all of a sudden everything started clicking.

Lately, it feels like so much has been taken away from me—my best friend Greg, who died suddenly of a massive coronary two years ago, the chance at finally having a halfway decent relationship with my mother. I figured it was time to give up a few things on my own. Certain angers and blames. Certain fears. The short story I’d been holding on to a few months too long, compulsively working and reworking tiny parts of it.

The morning after Boswell, I woke up, made a cup of tea, turned on my laptop, accepted the story for what it is, and submitted it to the first of four literary journals I think are a good fit.

Time to let go. Time to get a move on.


Loyal Mehnert’s current travelanthropy project, Hike for Hope 2012, takes place in Europe and benefits the Catalyst Foundation, which works to fight child trafficking.

Cheryl’s next book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from “Dear Sugar,” her column on The Rumpus, is coming out this summer. Contact your favorite indie bookstore to pre-order.


12. April 2012 · 4 comments · Categories: Events

Central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library

I’m more than halfway through Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her three-month solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death from cancer. The goal is to finish it before she comes to Boswell Books next Monday, April 16, (7 p.m. CT). Milwaukeean Loyal Mehnert, another adventure traveler, will also be there.

My husband John and I have been living on Milwaukee’s East Side, a vibrant urban neighborhood a mile from downtown, nine years now. We walk so much we got rid of one of our two cars.

Last Friday, after emailing two stories to a client, I decided to take the afternoon off and walk to Calvary Presbyterian Church on 10th & Wisconsin, where I was hosting the labyrinth, then walk back. Six miles all together. As I threw a peanut butter sandwich, water, and Wild into my Urban Outfitters backpack, I pictured Cheryl Strayed scoffing.

Nonetheless, it was a beautiful day and I was excited to get out and walk and think. I left early to stop by the Central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, across the street from Calvary and home to a used bookstore, The Bookseller, which sells hardcover and paperback books for anywhere from 25 cents to two bucks.

I’ve copped to collecting grammar books. Well, I’m afraid I also collect cookbooks. Old ones, from the 1950s to the mid-70s. One of my first times in The Bookseller, I pulled a 1958 cookbook from the shelf whose wispy illustrations of women in aprons, steaming casseroles, sliced fruitcakes, and crown-wearing pigs took me right to my mother’s kitchen drawer where she kept the food coloring, the Fizzies, a few hundred loose recipes, and her McCormick and Cutco cookbooks with those same illustrations.

My brothers and I had two parents who cooked, and did it well. They taught us how to cook and bake well too. One of us is even a professional baker and organic farmer.

As a kid, I pored through those two cookbooks of my mom’s, fascinated. When I saw that 1958 cookbook at the library, I had to have it. I make it a rule to stop by whenever I’m in the neighborhood. I’m now up to 27 cookbooks.

That Friday, I climbed the steps of the library behind two women. A guy sitting on the steps was hollering something at us. One woman pulled on the door. It didn’t budge.

“Dang,” she said. “What’s going on?”

Her friend pointed to a sign taped to the window, and then I saw the sign taped to the window: “In observance of the holiday, the library is closed Friday, April 6, and Saturday, April 7.”

“Dang,” said the other lady again.

The labyrinth (and sanctuary) at Calvary Presbyterian

Crestfallen, I headed to the church, early. A good-looking middle-aged man who walked the labyrinth very slowly tacked a note to the prayer request board that read: “Humbled and grateful that Jesus died for my sins.” A young couple with an entourage stopped by to scope out the sanctuary for their wedding. An elderly woman walked the perimeter of the labyrinth and said her prayers out loud, but not too loud. Every once in a while she stopped and raised her hands toward the faraway rafters of the tall neo-Gothic church.

On her way out, she stopped and asked some questions: what time is service, is there an Easter service, would there be communion? She sounded like she was from somewhere else, New York City maybe. Before she left, she cupped my face and said, “Aren’t you the prettiest thing?”

Very middle-aged women love hearing this.

On my way home, a man on Wisconsin Ave. said, “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said, “how are you?”

“Oh, not so good.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He looked at me in my leggings and Merrell boots and the coat I got for 20 dollars at Goodwill and the hat I found on Juneau two winters ago after the spring thaw. I had a feeling he was going to ask for money next.

“You look sexy,” he said.

Hmph. I’ll take that too. Call the city what you will, it’s entertaining, good exercise and, on certain days, just plain good for a girl’s ego.

07. April 2012 · 6 comments · Categories: Events

Sydney Hih in downtown Milwaukee, soon to be torn down.

Last Wednesday night, the Milwaukee chapter of the Media Communication Association – International (MCA-I) hosted the 4th Annual Student Video Cirque at Marquette University.

I was about a half hour late because of two things: Sydney Hih and I forgot my lipstick.

I’d decided to walk the three miles to Marquette from our place on the East Side and catch a ride back home with my husband John, who was in class at the law school that night. About four blocks from home I realized I forgot my lipstick. I turned back. Yes, I am superficial like that.

As I crossed the bridge to Old World Third Street, I saw the Sydney Hih building down the Milwaukee River, for the first time. Friends had been talking about it on Facebook, and I wanted to take some pictures. “How long would it take?” I thought.

Sydney Hih fascinates me, one, because of that “Hih.” Nobody seems to know what it means, but say it’s pronounced “high.” It also fascinates me because the building – which in the 1970s, 80s, and into the 90s was home to artists, musicians, shops, record stores, restaurants (including a Thai restaurant that served “Fried Holy Basil”), and a much-beloved nightclub, The Unicorn – is being torn down within a month. And I know a lot of Milwaukeeans who are very sad about it.

The building butted up against I-145; window panels are painted bright colors and “Sydney Hih,” all in caps and rather erratically spaced, wraps around two sides of the building at the top. Today, I-145 is gone (torn down ten years ago) and scaffolding is being built around Sydney Hih as we speak. It won’t be long before it is gone too.

I’m from Cleveland originally and didn’t move to Milwaukee until 1997, so was never inside Sydney Hih. But I understand the heartbreak. We Clevelanders still rue the loss of the original Agora. Pirate’s Cove. The Big Egg.

I got my shots of Sydney Hih and arrived at Marquette later than I’d planned but not too late. Some of the students were very nicely dressed, a few girls had their hair up. They were enrolled in video production and film programs at three universities in Milwaukee, and this was a big night. The lights came down, film began to roll.

It didn’t occur to me until halfway through that I have a blog now, and if I want to blog about this, I better get out the notebook. There were 20 films and videos; some entire programs were three minutes in length; others were three-minute clips from longer programs. Each school played to its strength: University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, film/drama; Marquette, television; and Milwaukee Area Technical College, documentary. After each viewing, the student who produced it (and in many cases, wrote, directed, and acted in it) stood in front of a panel of three judges.

Each student received immediate feedback from the judges – professionals with years of experience in shooting, writing, directing, lighting, producing, film, video, and broadcast. For the most part, the students were gracious, and smiled and said thank you even when the criticism wasn’t exactly warranted.

“I think what you want to do,” said one judge, “is arrive at some kind of resolution by the program’s end. A sort of happy ending is always good.”

“I’m a huge fan of open-ended,” I whispered to Patrik, the animator sitting next to me.

“Well, the story did sort of end the same way it started,” he said back.

Yeah, but that’s the way some stories go. Characters can start out one way and go through a whole lot, and then, either because they’re afraid or someone got in the way or they go back to their crumb-bum spouses, they’re back where they started. I’ve read some very good stories that happen like this. They’re sad. I like them.

A student named Rachel from UWM showed a short drama about the Haiti earthquake. She used b-roll from the BBC, reenacted things like hands underneath rubble, pools of blood, furniture tipping over, and did her own soundtrack, which consisted of cries and screams layered over a child softly and sweetly singing the Haitian national anthem. When the lights came up, I put on my glasses to hide the fact that I was still crying.

The judges liked Rachel’s film, a great deal. With every entry that was shown after hers, I gauged what the judges were saying and if she could stay on top. By the end of the competition, I thought she still might be.

Things ran late and I had to leave before the awards were presented to catch my ride home. I grabbed my bag, put on my coat, then slipped into the row behind us, where Rachel was sitting.

“I can’t stay for the end and I wanted to tell you before I go that I really loved your film,” I told her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I started crying right after it started and cried the whole way through,” I said. “It touched me deep inside. I just wanted to thank you for that.”

Rachel straightened in her chair and put her hand to her mouth. “It means so much to me that you’re telling me this,” she said. “Out of everything I wanted to accomplish, that is what I wanted most.”

We hugged, there in the dark. “I wish you all the best,” I said.

The next day I found out who won. Rachel was not one of them. But the winners were brilliant and deserving: Tony Hunt, UWM, took first place; second place went to James Gale, MATC; third place was shared by three students/two programs: Marquette’s Andrew Frede and Lauren Stolz, and MATC’s Morgan Smith-Kauphusman.

Congratulations to all the winners. And to Rachel. It was a kick-ass, inspiring night. At the 5th Annual Student Video Cirque, I want to talk to more of you.


For more on the history of Sydney Hih, visit Razed in Milwaukee. Or follow two shooters as they take a look inside at Fading Nostalgia.  

I joined the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) last year after subscribing to its magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, for a year or two. On February 29 I took the train down to Chicago from Milwaukee to attend my first-ever AWP conference, which ran March 1-3. Wow, was it fantastic! The conference locations were on the Loop at the Palmer House and Chicago Hilton, about six blocks apart, a really vibrant part of town. Among the panels I attended: “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction”; “The Place at the Heart of Story”; and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (But Some of Us Will Be Fine),” which covered all the tools writers use to create buzz about their works. Last night I started going through the pile of literary journals, magazines, books, catalogs, bookmarks, and business cards I brought home that have been stacked on our coffee table since I got back, and I haven’t even begun reading through my thirty-some pages of notes. For now I will say that the 2012 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair was most impressive, and I will be back to post about I learned there. Already looking forward to next year, when the conference will be in Boston. And Seattle after that. And LA after that. The 2012 photos aren’t posted yet but you’ll find shots from past conferences at