Category Archives: Nonfiction

We write in place: My students and I in a hallway at school

From our school announcements of 23 February: 
Matt Hagemann decided to let his creative writing students feed the muse, so they left their classroom and sat in the north-facing second floor hall facing away from the windows. “It was a free writing assignment,” Hagemann said. “I told them to write about whatever they noticed.”
Hard at work were Hagemann, Riley Lodico and Cody Thompson. Noah Mershon and Angel Aguirre were taking notice at the time the photo was snapped.
Photo and caption by Vicki Snyder-Chura.

Where and when: In RTHS hallway outside Counseling Center, 2nd floor, facing windows to the north, Tues. 20 Feb. 2018, 8:31 a.m., 1st hour

I’ve never sat here and written before, but here I am, with a creative writing class. There’s a featureless gray sky — though there look to be a few horizontal features off to northern horizon. Most of my students sit on the radiator across the hall. They’re facing south — I wanted to see north. A woman holding what looked like the phone cover to her ear while the phone bounced alongside. It seems odd. Maybe I didn’t see it well.  There are reflections — well, silhouettes — of my students on the floor. There are waves in the reflections — the terrazzo floor’s not quite flat. Phone-ear woman and a young woman leave the Counseling Center together. Two people wearing glasses and carrying books come in thru east-end doors, walk a bit, then run into Counseling Center.


Where and when: In RTHS hallway outside Counseling Center, 2nd floor, facing wall to the south, Tues. 20 Feb. 2018, Noon:50 p.m., 8th hour

There’s water splashing on the rubbery roof over the student entrance — same place I saw ice last week. Mr. Oldenburg just passed me headed west to the teacher lunchroom. I don’t eat in lunchroom. … I heard a shout or shriek from the student-lunching area, a shout-shriek. … I see a couple fans spinning above the student commons. Some fans aren’t running. There’s a thereness to this school building — it doesn’t have to do anything (like any object), like I feel pressured to do when I’m here at school. C. and N. are sitting at the left and right sides, respectively, of the top half of the sans serif T shape painted on the wall. I forgot about these letters when I was sitting on that side of the hallway. It’s kinda funny to see these partial letters and to realize that these letters aren’t written to me but to someone much further away, that we’re too zoomed in to see what’s being spelled.

Mind floating above ideas: Ideas as process during the week of 11 to 18 Feb

Junco on a deck rail. 11 Feb.

I took some pictures today of birds in snow at my house and of snow drifts at the prairie preserve, but I don’t feel I can tell which pictures are worth sharing — I’m too tired to judge quality. I can experience this time of not-caring instead of just wishing I cared. 11 Feb.

Contour lines on my deck. 11 Feb.

Getting enough food, being healthy — these are so fundamentally important that we don’t mention them as goals or ambitions. 12 Feb.

Morning fog, Route 72 west of Stillman Valley, about 7:15 a.m. 12 Feb.

Maybe I carry in my mind a thinking project most days? Today’s thinking project: asking why I don’t seem to care about my usual interests and why the big questions I normally am interested in are so easily dismissed when I’m sick. 12 Feb.

A beggy dog at fries time. And a veggie patty in a cheeseburger. 12 Feb.

Thinking of these things I have — photos, ideas — not as made but as found seems a low-ego approach to creativity. To find things is also to stay particular rather than speaking generally or universally. 13 Feb.

Prairie grass and lumpy snow, JPC, Byron, Ill. 11 Feb. 2018

Finding out — that basic mental hunger. When we’re presented with a puzzle or question, we’re compelled to seek the answer [though maybe we’re not as compelled to seek answers to open-ended Qs?] This is the curiosity impulse — showing people something new and enigmatic, and letting them (students, readers) dive in. This is behind the compulsion to read or watch mysteries, or to want to get to the end of the story or the nonfiction book — to want to know. I’ve been asking and attempting to answer my own questions — show these to students/readers? Show readers a contradiction? That’s a kind of puzzle. 13 Feb.

Near trees look brown or gray, but look bluer off in the distance on this overcast day. 13 Feb.

Find things — read my journals with several editing options in mind (edit to show an idea, select a quote, take an interesting description, etc.). Read with a mind to edit. 13 Feb.

Icicle off the Jarrett Prairie Center, Byron, Ill. 11 Feb.

I now know that I don’t need to boil my ideas down to mere banalities. Let the writing that’s done be the writing that gets published. Things take what they take. We read writing. 14 Feb.

Rock River from Byron Bridge, looking west, 13 Feb. 2018. Contrast to this pic from a month earlier.

Does the plant stand (holding a bottle of baby wipes) at the pharmacy counter, or a photo I might take of a roadside snowbank, matter? Of course not, yet of course. It’s helpful to get out of pattern mind and stop and look. 14 Feb.

Driving thru a fog cloud in the morning, camera held out car window. 14 Feb.

Lying down for a few minutes in the middle of my work day, I thought how I don’t need to label a mindset, and I don’t need to attach my attention to any idea — float between ideas! 14 Feb.

Frosted trees, but only for the lowest 8-10 feet. 14 Feb.

Trapped by ideas in math class — math as a set of rules of ideas that cohere and reinforce each other. It can be valuable for students to learn how to think within a logical realm, sure, but we can step outside that idea-set and think that way, too. 14 Feb.

Grayscale. Snow against glass, 11 Feb.

I often have ideas (opinions, judgments, action plans) but don’t want to hold any of these too tightly. I seldom devote myself to them, any of them. With the editing ideas I have had recently, I would have to commit to one — or maybe I could not? 15 Feb.

Foggy February day at school, view east about 10 a.m., math wing. 15 Feb.

Writings where the mind doesn’t need to settle on one idea! Writings from a mind floating among ideas. Your published ideas don’t have to settle on an idea. Having a point to make is needlessly restrictive. (Arguments don’t even seem socially or politically useful these days.) Don’t settle into the rut of an idea but float between or above ideas?! Also, why give others advice? They don’t need it. How conscious are anyone’s choices, anyway? I’m not sure I believe in consciously directing my mind to follow advice. I could be editing and freewriting less abstraction, fewer issues and ideas, and more natural, in-time brainwork, in-experience language! Ideas not as results but as process! 15 Feb.

My Orange Julius look: White shirt over safety-orange t-shirt. 15 Feb.

How weird some people get on Friday the 13th, or when they see “666” — there’s iconic resonance there. These are particular ideas that resonate, that grab our attention even if we don’t subscribe to the superstition. Perhaps these things are analogous to why certain stories from the Bible, certain myths, like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, are simple stories that stick out in our minds. Somehow these things resonate with us. 15 Feb.

Crumbled snow, smooth snow, lumpy snow, at Jarrett Prairie Center, Byron, Ill. 11 Feb.

I saw pines reflected in a puddle on the park path. I smelled my dog’s neck fur. Maybe these things don’t need to be connected to bigger abstractions at all. Nor do I have to explain why each experience is cool. This is related to the previous idea about not telling messages or making points or arguments in my writings. 15 Feb.

More contour lines. 11 Feb.

I could refuse to define my writings, but even that feels too much like a decision made. 16 Feb.

Newly fallen flakes, 17 Feb.

My dog Sam’s as cold as a snowbank — because he’s been lying in a snowbank, I said when he came inside from our deck. I called him a “snowbank denizen.” 16 Feb.

Snowbank denizen. 17 Feb.

Using the things I already do as my art — my journals, yes, but also maybe the photos I take of my journals (to make digital copies of them). Publish whatever you want — see if it can be cool. 17 Feb.

‘Love is Fake News’: Exquisite Corpse poems, Spring 2018

Here are this semester’s Creative Writing classes’ poems written in the Exquisite Corpse method.  What I love about these lines is how they were created almost randomly but have a kinda of weird logic. I like how some of these seem almost brilliant, in an obtuse way. See here for previous semesters’ poems.

Mysterious is what my relationship goals are not.


My future is the best artist.


The kid who’s rude, he is not all people.


Massive pencils write words fastly.


Night and day are different colors.


I is a letter in the corner that was like nothing.


Greatness exists only in the darkest of nights.


Summer is when I am always struggling to spell out the reasons why.


It was a weird feeling, like the wind understood I was very discombobulated.


Words can make everything interesting.


Writing makes me wanna sleep in your bed tonight in the moonlight under the enchanted sea dance at the red light at the end of trains.


I loved and I lost: one mitten, orange, with the help of shoes on the old person of interests.


Birds are all flying to be or not to run from the police who started at me, a person who loves the cold pillow during the hot summer night.


Time stills in the silence.


A golden mountain lived a long time before the end of the end of the day.


Great people make life worth my time.


You are dumb, even though he can remember his own death.


When I woke up in the sky — tonight is before tomorrow — I will sleep in time.


I watch way too much of what we say.


The picket fence keeps me safe from me.


Coat is all bloody when she hits the baseball bat hard.


Eerie quiet came after I went to Heaven and Hell.


Slowly the body decayed — until the last minute.


The way the waves slide over the next few years.


Stuff is a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff can be really annoying.


Father, why are we fighting chickens?


Always play along with the other people.


In the front of the lonely rowboat that couldn’t go too far away from dogs today, it’s finally Friday.


You are the best person who is good at that.


Sleeping with the fishes is why she left him.


Sentences are fun when you swim with sharks.


Nothing to do with her smile brightens the room.


To love is to live as though you are fairytales.


Integrity is an important attribute of fire.


Cake is the best kind of pizza.


So I learned a new chapter in life: you only live once. Or twice.


It became real to secretly speak to her.


More people will die if I can fly high and eat fresh prince.


My friend, your desire to pass physics class is boring.


Songs are fun to jump off the stairs from.


Light mayonnaise is the best taxidermied pigeon I’d ever seen.


To hide the children, have a secret language.


Pumpkin pie is a good dessert eagle.


Galaxies are very extra around here.


Food is the best thing that looks yellow.


Time something that is priceless.


My sister hit a judge. I am not guilty.


Circles are so dang round like a circle.


Please enjoy the hemoglobin because my mom said no.


The pie is done and now I can really be true and false.


Safety belts out a loud burp.


True feelings are definitely not sure if it’s correct.


My life story is not aloud at Walmart.


I love to sleep like a baby who finds a big kite in the sky.


I went to eat everything in my house, family, love, laughter.


In my best friend is crazy bread.


That an old lady is old and dying seems like quite an apple pie: sugary, delicious.


I can’t breathe. Slow down your thinking.


Yesterday, all my troubles seemed awfully sketchy to me.


With stars I dance.


Parties never really end well.


Dance is fun when you will never know why.


Purpose is just an illusion of dreams and desires.


Hidden talents are just ways to drown a rock.


Hats and cats don’t rhyme like dogs and cats.


A cat is a bad idea when your head is gone.


Yesterday it feels like I’m the very best liar we have. Come over and you’ll see if this makes sense.


Consequences are not needed anymore.


Awesome is a boring word that rhymes with time.


Crazy people are very fun games to play.


Novels are neat, tidy, and clean lawyers.


Bombs make strong enemies.


Love is fake news.


The dog is to cat as if I were Little Red Riding Hood.


Jobs are not done by the water.


Boxers get paid money and let the rest happen.


Fruits and vegetables aren’t healthy because everyone likes different things.


Good apples aren’t good bananas.


Rabid weasels don’t know what’s up.


Poop is a common side effect.


You don’t have to say that this is weird.


Hairless cats are really awkward and hairy men.


She won the medal for sleeping like a teenager.


On top of a mountain is where we fell down a mountain.


My favorite item that is very overpriced is everything everywhere.


My tummy growls when you are a class that is music always on replay.

Message-Writing Versus Mind-Writing

In my personal writing, I’m not usually responding to existing texts (by reviewing books or responding to others’ arguments or making pointed allusions), and I’m also not usually making new texts that present an idealized, heightened reality or consciousness (such as poetry that uses language intensely, or novels that depict some mythic struggle). Instead, I’m usually trying to take my text-making into the world, writing about where I am and what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking (examples here, here, and here).

Yesterday at school, as I was writing my own poem as my creative writing students made theirs, I’d thought of an earlier poem of mine, and how it was good — it was special, it felt poetic — because it used language intensely. Poems could be thought of as having a certain intensity of language that one doesn’t hear in most daily conversations. That’s why poems are fun to read — they’re heightened, intense, just as stage plays and fiction show characters and situations that are more heightened and intense than daily life. And that’s the attraction — I enjoy O Brother and Jesus Christ Superstar and “The Raven” and Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird because these works show things that are stylized, that go beyond my common experience of reality. Even certain nonfictions, too, are heightened — breathless news stories, gloriously polished literary essays.

But I’ve also questioned the values of thinking of my own life in this heightened way — seeing my life and thinking it should be more dramatic or funny or whatever. I suppose one could try to live an intense life — one could cause drama, live outside the law, do drugs, hitchhike.

Literary works (and maybe art works generally?) that convey a sense of a world heightened, a reality made fantastic — this is generally considered a sign of “good” poems, fictions, and nonfictions. It’s a world that values artifice and revision-unto-perfection as a way of pushing texts away from real life.

It wasn’t that long ago that I questioned the need to revise — there’s a whole other value system, I’m learning, that values artifice less and spontaneity more — not improvisation, exactly, but particularity. How did a person (each person?) live? What did someone do and think at the time, from in the midst of the action, or soon after — It’s a value system in which the daily journal is preferred over the end-of-life memoir.

Literary texts are often judged by a standard of how heightened they are, how well a novel compresses life, or gets to the story. My objection to stories (such as here and here and here) has been that stories are artificial and arbitrary. Even when I make a story of some experience from within my lived life, that’s not a necessary story but merely one interpretation by my mind at that time.

In “good” texts, the writer is supposed to hide the effort required to make the text (as a Taylor Mali poem puts it: “I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.”) But if I’m writing as myself, about the particulars of my recent experience, I am going to discuss the work of writing — as Steinbeck kept a journal of his process of writing The Grapes of Wrath.

When someone writes an intense poem, others can sense the quality, perhaps intuitively — maybe because we are trained/acculturated, from an early age, to appreciate language and stories — and we must be trained to appreciate new art forms. And I feel the writings I’ve done from particular places and dates , these don’t feel as valuable. Maybe I need to train my readers to see the value (as no doubt people had to be trained or taught to appreciate Ulysses). I’ll sometimes read to my students segments from my journal writings done in particular places as if these segments depicted something intuitively funny. I’ll read a quote or something I think is funny or absurd, etc. — for example, the discussion of dog-mating in my writing done at Washington Square Park. That’s OK, but it reduces the rest of the freewrite to excess writing that could be cut. I told a student to edit some things out of her recent essay, as these things seemed unrelated to her essay’s thesis. But in a place-writing, in any particular writing-as-myself freewriting, there is no thesis to guide the writing, so there is no off-thesis material!

There’s no organizing principle but the writer’s mind, the writer’s consciousness. This is what I’ll refer to as mind-writing, as distinct from message-writing: a discrete text, containing its own introduction/beginning, conclusion/ending, message, and justification for that message being important or entertaining. The mind-writing doesn’t need or imply the existence of readers the way message-writing does. The mind-write doesn’t seek money or approval. It may seem standoffish but it’s independent. As a blurting of the writer’s mental voice onto paper, it’s actually more intimate than the message, which is prepared for — and may pander to — readers. The mind-write is just the author talking (and before I would publish one of these, I may edit out the parts I don’t want to share — which option I need to have in order to be open and honest during the writing — but I also don’t need to revise the mind-writing, so the text stays as close to what was originally written as possible).

Several years ago, I read part of a writing-advice book that said aspiring writers should not write journals, as these are too self-indulgent, but should write letters, as these are written to a reader. At the time, that advice felt right, as if this advice were from the only correct perspective on how to write. But now I’m better at seeing the arbitrariness of judgments, or, let’s say that judgments made by comparing any particular piece of writing to a certain standard aren’t arbitrary, because judgments made in accordance with standards are necessary — what’s arbitrary is accepting any particular standard.

Mind-writings aren’t trying to impress readers or make a case that they’re important or that they have a “good point” to make. But when I have a message, I gotta explain why the message is important/valuable, or how entertaining my movie or novel is. I don’t need to hype my mind-writing — the most I could say to advocate someone read a piece of my mind-writing would be, I guess, “spend some time with my mind” — which doesn’t make any promises to improve anyone else’s life.

I have posted to this blog texts that I think make “a good point” — heck, even this post now, which appeared largely in this form in my journal this morning, is making a point, spreading a message. But my criteria of what’s valuable are, as explained above, arbitrary. I do sometimes tell my students certain ideas or methods that I think will help them as writers — and I don’t think my advice is bad, though I know it may not be what each of my student-writers needs to hear.

But I find it kinda cool that it’s possible to step aside from the normal standards by which we judge most creative writings. I now see that I’ve tended to judge my own journal-writings (mind-writings) by message-writing standards, so in considering this distinction, I’ve freed myself to see my mind-writings on their own terms. I can see that I don’t need to make points, or to boil down my writings to summary messages. I don’t need to argue for my ideas or defend ideas against others’ argument. I’ve felt that was right for a long time without understanding why that was OK.

But if I’m not writing to anyone else, why would anyone else read my mind-writings? I’m not sure, though I still feel there’s value in reading them, even if I’m not sure what that value would be. My answer at this point: People could read my mind-writings to get a sense of what it’s like to be alive in a particular time and place as a particular writer, a particular mind in this world of particulars. I’d love to find the mind-writings of those who lived as settlers in my home state 200 years ago, for example — and hear what it was to walk through unplowed prairie or ride a stage coach. And I hope to find journal-writings done by these people. When I’ve read some of Thoreau’s journal, the writing there seems so much more intimate and up-to-date — like he’s a real, relatable person — than he seems through Walden.

And even if readers don’t find mind-writings all that compelling, I will keep writing them because, well, it’s a fun part of being alive.

Some Links for Historical Research of Land

My students are doing research on particular properties in our local area, and we’ve turned up some helpful links. Some are specific to Ogle County or to Illinois, but some are national.

Maps and Aerial Photos

1937-1947 Illinois Historical Aerial Photography. It’s like a time-travel experience to look at these images from 80 years ago and try to orient oneself. Overview link here, link to Illinois counties here.

Ogle County GIS maps.  Look for property/tax ID numbers and much more at this link.

Illinois early historical maps & discussion here.

More historical maps of Illinois and other states.

Illinois highway maps archive.

Property history

Illinois Public Domain Land Tracts — original purchasers from the federal gov’t.

General Land Office Records, U.S. BLM  — click here to find original patent letters granting ownership of federal land to first buyers. These include info about the person awarded the military warrants.

History of General Land Offices in Illinois here.


Let decaying dogs lie: Some stories are better not told

Marley and Me is a 2005 book by John Grogan about his poorly behaved dog, and how it becomes part of his family and how it dies. It later became a movie in 2008.

In 2010, John Grogan wrote in Parade magazine that when Marley “died in 2003, I buried him on the edge of the woods at the house where we then lived,” and then, when he moved to a new house, he dug up the dog he’d buried “five years earlier.”

Grogan writes, “we found his remains—still neatly packaged in the heavy black plastic we had buried him in—and carefully lifted them out of the ground. ‘You didn’t think we’d forget you, did you?’ I said aloud.”

He’d worried that “exhuming our beloved bad boy sounded like the kind of behavior I normally attribute to ‘those nutty dog people,'” but as a sort of nutty dog person myself, I think this goes a little beyond the pale. I didn’t dig up my beloved dirt-bound canine when we moved a few years ago — dead is dead. I imagine that after five years, Marley was decomposed down to bones, or maybe, wrapped in plastic, Marley was a stinking, rotting cadaver.

I’d first read this a few years back, and in recent weeks it came to mind as I was telling my students that Marley and Me was a sweet and sad movie that ended with a dog’s death, as a lot of stories about beloved dogs seem to end. And then I told my students how creepy it was that the dog was dug up after five years of putrefaction. (A video of that in the DVD extras would surely change the tone of the movie.) So I’m posting this “he really did that?” story here to remind students to think about what stories of themselves they’d really want out in the public.

I don’t mean to tell Grogan how to feel or what to do with his dog’s long-dead carcass, but I do think that maybe telling this story makes him seem a little more ghoulish than average “nutty dog people.”

Saying things can influence other people

It’s B.S. to declare things, like, for example, those people who declare they’re not gonna eat meat any more, or they’re gonna bike to work every day. But the attraction to doing this — I’ve felt it — is in having something bold to say. To make such a declaration is an act of artifice, of course; you don’t need to declare something like this — you can just do it. But I’m also thinking of all those writers who do stunts — The Year of Living Biblically guy, the Paper Lion project.

And this brings me back to the point about everyday living. Why not describe the normal world around you? Let’s find the words, the forms, that will convey this — the beauty of a calm world, the non-magical thereness, which is itself kinda magical, of every real thing in your there-place: the wood of the table I’m writing on, each scratch and worn spot and stain (there’s now a strawberry-colored circle-stain, apparently from where I set a tea cup on a pink Post-It note).

I put on my Byronfest “SECURITY” t-shirt and I thought of the lady at my Pensacola hotel pool who shouted “security” as a joke, but in her accent it sounded like “seh-KYER-tee,” and I thought that it’s not just that she said it that’s funny — it’s that it was really happening around me — and readers won’t have that sense if I, as I did in my 3rd hour creative writing class last Wednesday, merely repeat what I heard. I need to convey to readers something else, maybe that I was there in that real palace on an average day, and suddenly this weird event breaks thru my expectations, breaks thru my consciousness, draws my attention, disrupts my calm mind filled with expectations. And the world is so often interrupting/disrupting.

And now in these two paragraphs above, I’ve created a spectrum, a pair of opposites, a paradox, or something. I’ve talked about wanting to convey the (how to name it: the calm magic? the blunt thereness?) of the things around me, and I’ve also talked about the disruptions of these expectations. But these aren’t actually opposites at all but versions of the same thing — things that are real, are really happening, near me. That’s a terribly dull, vague way to say this exciting thing (this type of writing that excites me, anyway). I’m trying to convey to readers who aren’t present what’s so amazing about here and now — maybe what’s really amazing is my mindset when I’m looking and writing [see here and here for examples], and that mindset would not be shared by the person reading my words. That reader would be in an abstraction (words, ideas) mindset while reading, not looking around himself/herself.

All I can do thru ideas is point out that one could be looking around. Write a text where you say “stop reading this text! Take five minutes — a full five — to look around you! Then come back later” — a text that points away from the text. It’s possible to do that, sure, but it’s dull as a text?

It’s easier to say anything than do it. Saying’s still valuable, of course, as it can influence others. I write to an audience of people like myself — like my younger self. But my younger self would eventually go on to learn these things anyway (as I have done just today). Well, if I give a leg up, then that next young person could surpass my learning, and that’s kinda the goal, I guess. Each teacher, each creative artist, would, if being honest, like his/her followers (audience) to surpass his/her accomplishments? Else it’s just an ego wish to be loved.

I thought this morning, while doing my daily back-stretches, that it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps I do. It’s not like if I count to 15, then suddenly my body is triggered to, say, do some reset of all bones and muscles to perfect alignment, like resetting a computer to get back to a clean slate.

Words — no physical thing in the world responds to words. There’s no “open sesame” or “abracadabra” (though I guess there’s starting to be — you can talk to your Siri, your Echo, and it’ll do some things for you) by which things react. Words only work on other consciousnesses — people, dogs, and computers, which, OK, are not exactly conscious, but they approximate consciousness when they respond to voice commands or to keystrokes, for that matter. Printers do things in physical world when we press keys — so do computerized cutters, robots — maybe that’s not conscious awareness but it’s a form of consciousness?

Of course, conscious beings don’t need to be told what to do, either. Responding to verbal commands is only one of our handy features.

Why I normally tell stories is because the story relates something unexpected happening. So why would I tell something that’s not surprising? Well, maybe to establish a baseline? or to be calm, convey calm? I’m not sure.