Inducting Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe accepting the Fuller Award, 2012. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

In 2012, it was my privilege to help develop a new award for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, the Henry Blake Fuller Award, honoring a living author for their outstanding lifetime contribution to literature. We honored Gene Wolfe with the first Fuller at a beautiful ceremony at Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington Hills on March 17, 2012. My account of the evening is here on my blog. It was magic.

It has been almost a decade, and Gene is no longer with us. Tomorrow, on Sunday, September 19, 2021, we will induct him into the Hall of Fame proper, along with Carlos Cortéz, Jeannette Howard Foster, and Frank London Brown, in a ceremony at the City Lit Theater in Edgewater.

I will be presenting Gene’s award to his daughter, Therese Wolfe-Goulding. Kathie Bergquist will be our emcee, and there will be speeches by the other presenters, Tracy Baim, Carlos Cumpián, Kathleen Rooney, and those accepting the awards on behalf of the other inductees. While it won’t be broadcast live, there will be a recording of the event that will be up on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website later.

My tribute to Gene, along with rest of the program, will also be available on the website after tomorrow. (I’ll add it to the post here.)

It was challenging to find the words… actually, it was challenging not to go over the word limit for what we had the space for in the program… to celebrate this wonderful writer who contributed so much to literature and whom I was honored to call my friend.

I miss him, his anecdotes and unusual facts; his stories about growing up, writing, and convention adventures; his kindness, his smile, and his sense of humor. I treasure those conversations, and I will be so happy to present the award to Teri.

I hold onto the fact that I have those memories, and we have his wordshis stories and novels, his letters and interviews. It makes me happy to know that he will be joining the ranks of other important writers who have called Chicago home, and who have previously been inducted in the Hall of Fame, including Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, L. Frank Baum, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert, and Mike Royko. The full list, along with biographies, is on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website.

One of my favorite photos of Gene with his daughter, Teri at the Fuller Award Ceremony. (Photo by Carl Hertz)

I’m going to share a video that I stumbled upon when I was doing a little research. In 1982, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Isaac Asimov appeared on a show called “Nightcap:  Conversations on the Arts and Letters” hosted by Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin.

At the time Gene was 51, only a few years older than I am today. It was interesting to see this younger Gene, just over a decade into his career, and yet he’s much the same Gene I got to know at 80. 

 

We don’t often to get to know and love our literary heroes. It’s definitely a gift when we do, and I think it changes us for the better, but the rest of that I’m saving for my speech tomorrow night.

xxo

 

Art in the Time of Quarantine

Time. Time is one of the threads that everyone seems to touch on these days in their tweets and posts. We have long been guided by schedules of work and school and other constructs, and then this virus hit and everything changed, slowed down, stopped, went out of sync. 

Each of us is going through this surreal shared moment in time, viewing the world through our own lenses, with our unique combinations of challenges and privileges, maybe sharing that view with the people we are living with or talking to. My experience is enmeshed with that of the kids. Most of the day we’re all doing our “work,” but then we have a lot of dinner-table conversations, and I cherish those, a chance to check in with one another after the day of work and school work—a time to ask about “How Things Are Going.” 

Some days the answer is: not great, frustrated, scared, lonely, restless, angry. Some days the answer is better, ok, not bad, better. So much depends on who we have (or have not)  interacted with, and how we have related with them during that day. So much depends on what we’ve heard of the news. So much depends on how the kids are doing.

When trauma typically happens at schools (and the current generation of elementary and high school students have had too much experience with this), we call in counselors. We have talking circles and support groups. We make allowances for ordinary responsibilities to allow some room for processing and healing. We try to help the kids because most of them don’t have the tools they need. Right now, those systems are not really in place to help them—even with teachers and parents trying the best they can. 

The kids have been doing the best they can, and I’m of the philosophy that we need to temper our expectations right now. If many of us, the adults, are not ok, how can we expect the kids to be? 

So they do their homework and they miss their friends; they try to connect online and on the phone, watch movies and read, and have their own creative ways of dealing with it all. 

My son, Liam, is a musician and composer, and he decided when the shelter-in-place started that he would write a new song approximately every other day. 

I’m reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman’s keynote address for the May 17, 2012 commencement ceremony at The University of the Arts. He said: 

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

“Make good art.”

This is something I often quote to my kids. Creativity is a tool we have when we need it, when we can use it. It’s not always possible. Sometimes we have to wait for life to give us a window. Sometimes we have to make that window. Sometimes we make good art.

Liam has made some good art. His EP was released today and is available on Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes, and Amazon music. I’m really proud of him. His piano compositions are like soundtracks to our life right nowthey are complex and sad with surprising moments of joy. I’ve been working while listening to them in the background, and I’m excited to share them with you right now. 

His professional name is Hyrix, and the EP is titled Insomnia. I think you’ll be moved by its beauty.  

You can listen to the EP on Spotify:

Or on Soundcloud:

Everyone is wondering when things will go back to “normal.” Will they ever?

I don’t think we can know what normal is going to look like. I do believe that this time will irrevocably transform our children and what they do to shape their future in ways that we cannot even imagine. I feel like Liam’s music and the other things people are doing right now to express themselves, to connect creatively with one another, to be as present for one another as possible—these will be the touchstones we have to remind us of this time and why we reshaped the future accordingly, hopefully for the the better. 

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Wyrd Words Moonrise 2015 (photo by Stephen H. Segal)

In my last blog entry, I wrote about the song that my kids and I worked on together for the Amanda Palmer Blackout songwriting challenge–our first collaboration, my first songwriting lyric attempt, my 12 year-old-daughter’s first time singing in a public space, my son’s first time working with lyrics for one of his compositions. That’s a lot of firsts.

I’m not a singer, and my daughter enjoys it, so I asked her to be a part of this because it’s summer and I wanted to try making something together; but the truth is, I would have sung the lyrics myself (however poorly) if she hadn’t wanted to be a part of this.

Full disclosure: I’m terrified of singing in public. I have not sung in front of strangers since I was a child and my family teased me about performing “Dites-Moi” too dramatically in the choir at St. Pascal’s grammar school. I think I was 9.

I only started singing in small, private settings in the last few years, ever since the kids were born and I wanted them to feel comfortable singing. I tried to model for them that not having a “good voice” shouldn’t stop their love of making noises and expressing themselves. But have I ever done Karaoke? Nope.

Still, for this, I would have sung.  So what had changed? It’s not the fact that it’s recorded, because the idea of something living online is even scarier than a live performance.

This thought was fresh in my mind after we posted our song entry, when Lana and I started to go through the hundreds of comments to see how other people had responded to Amanda’s challenge. I continued to peruse them last night, and something struck me.

Again and again I read versions of the following in the Patreon comments:

“I’m really nervous…” “I’ve never done anything like this before…” “I only sing in my shower…” “I can’t play an instrument…” “English is not my first language…” “I’m learning how to speak English…” “I’ve always wanted to write a song…” “I was so inspired to try…”

Hundreds of people responded with song lyrics that they wrote, many of them sung into telephones and computers with little or no musical/recording experience. In a week. They made art and shared it with strangers.

There is wisdom in the modern proverb, “Do not read the comments.” Too often, strangers are not kind to those who reveal their vulnerability in a public way. It can be scary even for those those of us who look to have an audience for our voices and ideas. Here were people taking up the challenge to be creative and post it publicly. Even if they couldn’t play an instrument or were afraid to sing or if knew that they would be disqualified because they didn’t fully follow the instructions, still they posted their words and sang their songs.

Why?

Surely many wanted the opportunity to share something with the artist who has given them so much joy and comfort and inspiration. Amanda’s relationship with her fans is special. She works hard at it, and as a writer mama, I respect the way she’s trying to make time for the many relationships in her life now that she’s raising her young son Ash, including the relationship with her fans and collaborators.

It’s a contest, and so some were inspired by the prize and potential recognition, and yet in other contexts, competitions can get ugly. To date, this one has not.

I believe there’s more to it than fandom. Amanda has cultivated her community with a desire to connect, to share unapologetically her life and her self online and in person. Her community of supporters is built on her foundation of vulnerability and acceptance. She does it in a way that is bold and and performative, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s a message that reaches a lot of people looking for a safe place to be themselves, to be seen, to be heard.

The wonderful Brené Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly,  “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

It’s interesting, because when a friend heard our song, she told me that she was struck by how vulnerable Lana sounded. She’s right. Hearing our finished song, I felt both protective and proud, and I think it’s because of that creative vulnerability. I asked Stephen his thoughts, and his response was that this community was likely to be mutually supportive–that Amanda Palmer fans weren’t going to tear each other down over a prize.

We’ve all heard stories of how kids get cyber-bullied. I’ve been protective of the kids growing up because of the way that the internet *can* bring out the worst in people. But Stephen was right, this really is different.

Looking at the songwriting entries from all over the world, I was heartened to read people saying supportive things to strangers, offering to help one another. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of poison out there now, and it was good to see a few more examples that we can do better. I know there are other such communities and online sanctuaries, and I’m grateful to be a part of a few of them; but it’s also easy to get weighed down every day by the many places where we need to work harder to make things better. This was a small moment of hope, and I just wanted to share.