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Local Lit: Sharon Solwitz's troubling experiences



Sharon Solwitz wrote her first piece of fiction at age 12--a long adventure story about a girl who masquerades as a boy and stows away on what she later discovers is a pirate ship. Her teachers loved it, but their praise made Solwitz uncomfortable. "It wasn't very good, but it was good for a 12-year-old," she says. "I'd made it up, based on all the best parts of my favorite stories. But I felt bad because I didn't feel like it was real. I came home and told my father about it. He said whether or not you can draw on your own experience will determine whether or not you'll be a writer."

She picked up writing again while at Cornell University in the 60s, where she enrolled in a creative writing course each semester while working toward a degree in English. But her stories didn't come together the way she had hoped. "I never really put together any sense of how to write a story," she says. "I just sort of wrote them and did well. When I graduated I thought I had no life experience. I just had to know the world better."

She "went underground," as she puts it, embarking on a series of adventures that included living in a commune in upstate New York, getting married, and traveling to India "and coming back unenlightened." She and her first husband started teaching elementary school in the Chicago public school system, eventually buying a movie camera and making a documentary about her husband's kindergarten class called K-AM. The movie won a prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, but Solwitz decided not to be a filmmaker "because it takes too much money and too much organization."

Single again at 27, Solwitz realized she should probably settle on a career. She enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she received an MFA in lithography and an MA in writing while waitressing at R.J. Grunts to support herself during the mid-to-late 70s. In 1982 Playgirl published "Eggshells," a story about a woman who goes to her ten-year high school reunion with something to prove, her Zen-master boyfriend in tow. Solwitz went on to publish stories in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and other publications, and has won three Nelson Algren Awards.

Bits and pieces of Solwitz's earlier experiences make up the backbone of Blood and Milk, her first collection of short stories. The characters are mostly women and couples in their 30s, such as a married couple on a tense camping trip in Wisconsin, a woman visiting Iraq who has fantasies that her child is going to be kidnapped, a college student who has been raped but not broken, and a documentary filmmaker who unwillingly recalls an unnerving trip to India at the behest of her current boyfriend. She began most of the stories while still in graduate school. "Some people write a story and if it doesn't work they toss it," she says. "For me, if something doesn't work I put it aside for a while and go back to it."

These days Solwitz lives in Wrigleyville with her twin sons and her husband, poet Barry Silesky, with whom she coedits Another Chicago Magazine. She earns a living as an adjunct professor at Loyola University, and has also taught writing workshops out of her home and at River Oaks Arts in Oak Park and the School of the Art Institute.

That last experience is chronicled in "Fossilized," in which a writing teacher must contend with two sarcastic twentysomethings who dominate the classroom, as well as with a Korean student who concludes the first assignment with a disturbing paragraph about picking maggots out of a garbage can. "One thing I tell beginning writers that works well is to look for that part of their experience that still troubles them, that they don't completely understand or keep coming back to, or that they don't even want to think about. I tell them to use something about that part of their lives as part of their story."

Solwitz herself starts writing with a scene or image in mind. "When you start writing, you don't know what you mean. You may have a picture or a character or a scene in mind, but you don't know what the point is. You write to discover the point. And if you write moments that are troublesome, you will write something worth reading, rather than diluted Anne Rice or watered-down Stephen King."

Other stories draw on experiences people have told her. "Milk" concludes with an unforgettable scene in a strip club in which a stripper who has recently become a mother shucks off a pastie and sprays an unruly customer with milk. "My former husband told me the anecdote about his former wife--it actually happened--and the image hung with me for five or six years. I wrote 'Milk' primarily for the pleasure of being able to describe that astonishing, luminous event," she says. "In a way it might also have been some kind of revenge on my first husband, to write about what happened with him and his wife."

There's a learning curve to writing, just as there is to life, Solwitz explains. "I think there's a certain time in a person's life when you get to the end of that interest in yourself as central to the universe," she says. "Your perspective gets wider, maybe from having a family or getting older or seeing yourself as part of a continuum as opposed to the center of everything. Along with that, your craft has to evolve, and you have to use style and a sense of form where you really invent the thing."

Solwitz is currently working on a novel about four modern-day teenagers who enter into a suicide pact. "I was never particularly suicidal," she says. "I have to think like a modern teenager, not a teenager from the 50s and 60s. It's a whole different thing to write about something you don't know. In a way it's harder, but it's so satisfying, so interesting. It's real creation."

Solwitz will read from Blood and Milk at 7:30 on Wednesday at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark. It's free. Call 773-769-9299. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sharon Solwitz photo by Randy Tunnell.

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