Category Archives: Storytelling

Prairie Lights and Literati Bookstores

rairie Lights Reading

One of the pleasures of book writing is the opportunity to enjoy the company of folks genuinely invested in the culture of books and in developing a community of readers.  In short, I can meet fellow book geeks whose passion and curiosity is engaging!  So, earlier this month, it was great to spend time with event planners Kathleen Johnson of Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City and John Ganiard of the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor who arranged and hosted my two readings.

My connection with Prairie Lights is a long one.  I bought my first books as a graduate student from the store at its first site on North Linn Street.  (I even played basketball, if my memory is to be trusted, with founder and former owner Jim Harris at a weekly pick up game in Halsey Hall.  The small gym was across from the dance studio where I watched the rigors of ballet between games.)  To return to the bookstore now that it is a kind of mecca for writers astonishes me.  Having grown up in northwest Iowa, I can tell you that it is a remarkable trek from hand-work to word-work.

iterati Sign Board

Literati is striving to generate a tradition similar to Prairie Lights in downtown Ann Arbor after the closing of the well-known Borders Bookstore.  In their blog, co-owners Hilary Lowe and Mike Gustafson write, “As Michigan natives, we both have fond memories of childhoods filled with books. Curling up late at night. Long, sunny afternoons, beachside along one of the Great Lakes, reading until the sun went down.”  So, hearing of what happened with Borders, they decided to move from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor to start Literati.  In John Ganiard, they have an ideal events coordinator.  (John has an MFA from the University of Michigan.)  His introduction to my reading was genuinely moving–not simply because it represented significant time and thought (when I am sure other tasks were calling his attention) but also because it clearly reflected a deep understanding of the book.   John reminded me again of how important critics/reviewers are to the life of storytelling.  He made me see how my story was more than my own.

And so this homage to Prairie Lights and Literati, to Jim, Kathleen, Hilary, Mike, and John.  Entering an interlude in scheduled readings, I also think of and wish to thank Gloria Tiller at Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo who kicked off this series of late March and early May events with “Talking of Autism” at her Parkview store and, most recently, Debbie Thompson and Jennifer Clarke at the Kalamazoo College Bookstore.

iterati Book Display

Iowa

As you drive through northwest Iowa, the land flattens.  Unplowed and unplanted, the fields are like the earth’s floor; the sky is a window shade–doubling as a painter’s canvas–pulled to the horizon.  On this land, Iowans know that, as evening moves to dusk, you can walk off the porch, steep some tea or brew a cup of coffee, and still have time to ponder the various chapters of the sunset.  No hurry.  If the sky clouds up or the phone rings, the colors will be back for a rereading, the brushstrokes slightly revised, in the next day or two.

owa Landscape

In early April, I returned to my home state just as it was sloughing off its last big snowfall.  (By the end of the trip, the drifts were gone from county ditches; and, down the hill from my parent’s home, East Okoboji Lake had transformed from a rough table of pocked ice to waves and whitecaps.)  The landscape reminded me of how important it is to my writing.  In fact, I think we drove by a raised mound of earth, the last remnant of a farm place that I wrote of in my book: “Driving to and from [my wife’s] farm, I passed [an old home]: a first generation homestead that had taken on the color of tree trunks and, at sunrise and sunset, collected the unbroken light shooting over corn tassels.”

At Pomeroy and Pocahontas libraries, I spent a morning and afternoon reading from An Archaeology of Yearning.  The Pomeroy Library was across the street from the community building, the site of my wedding reception.  In the audience, I met (and re-met) folks who still recalled my wife’s, Mary’s, math homework and other childhood accomplishments.  And, sitting in rows like genealogical lines from our own Genesis, Harold and Pat, Vickie, Debbie, Aunt Rose, Herb and Elaine, Steve, Mary…People, who, I suppose, we’re more beholden to than begat from.

omeroy (audience 2)omeroy (family 1)

Looking over the pictures, I think of all that gets unsaid and remember the way the field opens up again and again to the routines of both work and witnessing.  There is a strength in the daily stroll that we call quiet patience.  Sometimes, though, we have to put words to things.  It felt good to carry a book back to this place, to let it get tilled into the rows of listeners.

owa.Grove tree

Youngstown

During the first part of February, I experienced a writer’s dream: the chance to bring my book to an audience, a big one!  Over the past few years, as part of its community Outreach Program, Etruscan Press–through the vision of Phil Brady, its executive director–has brought numerous authors to Youngstown high school students.  As part of this initiative, I spent parts of three days visiting East High, Choffin Career and Technical Center, and Youngstown Early College.   In addition, I did a distance-learning class with individuals at a women’s and men’s prison–until the connection got cut off at the break!   Before the visit was over, I stood before over 400 people and signed hundreds of books.

So that is the spread sheet kind of info, the facts and numbers that gesture toward space and place.  Here is the pulse of it.  The voice of surprise from an East High student, his hand holding up the book, “So this is you?”  The confessions from students at East, Choffin, and Early College, told in a large group or at a small table, “I have a cousin…” or “I have a brother…” with autism.   The questions,  communicating a desire to be heard by someone who has the audacity to believe that language and story is worth the time.  And, the television-framed faces of women and men in a prison classroom, listening to me talk about my family in ways that must have violated the psychological realities of incarceration.   Fragments tugging to be named and shaped.

To all of you who let me tell my story, who ultimately said, “I’ll listen,” because you sensed something urgent in my voice, I extend a thanks.

Michigan Public Radio Interview

One Michigan Family’s Journey with Autism

Earlier this month, I had a chance to sit down with Cynthia Canty from Michigan Radio.  She hosts a popular show called Stateside that covers Michigan events and policy issues as well as cultural/arts news.  Cindy did a wonderful job guiding the conversation in relation to my book.  The interview–entitled “A Michigan Family’s Journey with Autism–was aired yesterday.

One thing that she understood is how my story was in part about discovering how to frame the life one leads, how to find the narrative to make sense of what may be chaotic and confusing.  Of course, there is so much that impacts our individual ability to live with hope.  In my own life (and in reading and hearing of what others have experienced), I know that what happens is not always something that can be transformed or simply erased through some magical narrative.

…and yet too much has also affirmed my belief that memory needs the imagination, that what has left a mark or uplifted us calls for a constant story-making and story-telling.  It is one thing to call something a burden; it is another to let it gain destructive power over time by how we weight the experience, stone by stone, with words and memories that break the spirit.

To be healed, perhaps, is not to dismiss or overlook the harshness of the burden; it is to understand that we have the power of stories to remember and reshape.

Autism & Visual Art: The All for One Exhibition

During this past fall, Professor Bill Davis of Western Michigan University taught a class that brought together college artists and area students on the autism spectrum.  My son, Jacob, was lucky to be one of the participants in the project.  Last week, the class had their exhibition featuring WMU students′ art as well as work from Jacob and his peers in the Young Adult Program at the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA) West Campus Building in Kalamazoo.  I invite you to visit the website describing the project/class.  The site has links to the publication (Autism & Visual Art) produced from the class.  (See the Program Outcomes link .)  The front page of the book includes Jacob’s dinosaur drawing.  On the exhibit image, he drew Peanuts′ characters, Snoopy and Woodstock, on the back of the dinosaur.   Smiling, he explained that they were his “cave-dog” and “cave-bird” figures!

I was also interviewed for the project and the site includes a brief part of the discussion.  In the excerpt, I try to express that, in the rich range of human neurodiversity, we are all somewhere on the spectrum.

Thanks to Bill and his class for this wonderful initiative!

Chelsea Public Library Reading

This past week, I had a chance to do a reading at the Chelsea Public Library, hosted by librarian Emily Meloche.  It was a beautiful venue, receiving the Best Small Library Award from the Library Journal in 2008.

During the discussion after the reading, I was reminded of the many ways people come to the “story” of autism: as parents, care providers, professionals, neighbors, and relatives.   From a number of parents, I heard briefly of their experiences.   Since the event, I found myself thinking of a past exchange, one that I tell of in the chapter entitled “Flood Plain”  in An Archaeology of Yearning.  Not long after my son had been diagnosed, in the mid-1990s, I was waiting for him at his school.  Having just dropped off her own son, a woman sat beside me, and we began a conversation.  But, called to her meeting, she had to leave.  In the book, I write: “… I think back to the woman′s eyes and the healing pause of a hesitant recognition, a shared longing, a hunger for the retelling or a new telling of a story she well knew.  It was what we both needed, this amending, this wash of words.”

I do think that the finding of language, the wrapping of words around the chaos of experience, can be healing.   We just can′t stop doing it.

Telling Stories

In my life as a teacher, I often offer a class that focuses on short stories.  On the first day, I remind people that we live in story.  We are constantly making meaning of what we have experienced by giving order or shape to our memories.  In other words, the past must be narrated to be remembered and understood.  Likewise, we project our desires (and fears) forward into time, imagining scenarios that have not been lived so that we can move into the future without losing our way.  In fact, we can only exist fully in the present through the stories we tell of what has been and what might be.  And, of course, our personal tales of the past and future inevitably draw from what we have heard and read.

Writing An Archaeology of Yearning reminded me of this powerful source of strength: the right stories (or rightly understanding what has been lived or read) can provide a way forward.  This blog, then, will be a continuation of this process of storytelling, this incessant desire to remain vigilant and wakeful.