Monday, December 23, 2019

Get to know them

I have always been curious about people and their inner worlds. What does my doctor enjoy doing in her free time? Is the actor playing a villain a kind soul in his daily life? What goes through the mind of a rock climber when the rock underneath his foot gives in? Why did my sister preferred reading books to playing with me as a child.

I met Beth Finke, an award-winning author of Writing Out Loud, teacher, and journalist when I took her memoir class for seniors in the Fall of 2018. Flattery may take you anywhere, but a lie about my age got me into her writing class. And so it began, an unexpected fascinating journey into the lives of retired Chicago folks. With every writing assignment, a different layer of a personality revealed. Vulnerability gave way to openness and intimacy. Strangers shared personal stories for no other reason but reflecting upon life and passing on their legacy.

In these classes Beth taught, guided and encouraged us writers, yet rarely shared much about herself. I challenged the status quo and asked Beth for an interview. On a crisp January morning Beth and I found ourselves in the cozy recording studio of Story Corps’ where I tried to get to know her better.

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. I wrote about the experience a few months ago. Recently StoruCorps’ launched an on-line archive and now you can listen to my interview with Beth - 42 minutes of shared life experience I deeply cherish.

In the middle of this Holiday Season, I invite you to give the gift of your time and attention to the people in your life--family, friends, strangers. Get to know them! And you might open a door into a world of marvel.

Today is Beth’s birthday and I dedicate this post to her. Happy birthday, Beth!


4:12 When Beth was 25-years-old she started seeing spots from diabetic retinopathy and eventually became blind. She got married at that time too.

6:40 Iliana asks what advice Beth has for people when going through early stages of trying to save their sight. Beth says she should have gone to Europe with her husband like they had planned but instead she kept having surgeries for naught and didn't go. She says not knowing what's going to happen during the surgeries was the worst part.

8:15 Beth talks about writing her memoir and learning only then about what it really felt like to learn there was no hope for her sight. She says she felt relief to give up.

14:30 Iliana asks if teaching senior citizens memoir writing is difficult knowing they could die. Beth says it happens. She keeps them alive through their stories. She says the essays they write in her class are often read at their memorial services.

20:00 Iliana asks what Beth would like Smartphones to do for blind people. Beth suggests a way to translate sheet music.

33:00 Beth says it's a gift she lived part of her life sighted because she can understand both pretty well. Beth says, "I feel watched a lot. I'm still me but I'm not me because I can't see anymore so it's hard to figure out sometimes how to act. I think getting older I quit worrying about it and I'm just me."

Monday, December 09, 2019


My parents wanted me to be a wife and a mother,
My school wanted me to be a straight-A student, and not a bother,
My bosses wanted me to get the job done, quick and well ,
My friends wanted me to be like them or go to hell,
My boyfriends wanted me a little slimmer, a little taller,
My country wanted me to be obedient and loyal.
I gave them all the finger, laughed and I left.
Life and I alike are so bereft
of perfection!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Guest post: Fall Return

It is my pleasure to introduce to you John Caruba, a true Chicagoan, and his memoir essay “Fall Return” - the first guest post on Life On the Go. It is as much of a memoir story as it is a travel adventure.

Fall Return
by John Caruba  

It was an ominous-looking Autumn day. The crisp cool October wind whirled through the trees: Nature’s original leaf blower was in full force.

Whitecaps cast highlights on the waves that rhythmically rolled rapidly onto the Shore and crashed into the sea walls. Reluctant to face the elements, yet fueled by the passion of necessity, we headed down to the harbor for the fall trip to take the Panache back to dry dock.

We boarded the Islander 36 and began to make ready for our journey. The procedure, similar to pre-flight check-in aviation was quite methodical. First, the Shore power was cut, and the power cable was neatly wound and placed in its designated hold. Next, all of the lines were brought in and secured. This was followed by the engine start, radio check, life preserver check, placement for easy access, and a final check on weather conditions on the lake.

The marine forecast promised a steady rain and choppy seas with waves up to six feet. We untied the docking lines and disembarked to verify firsthand the validity of that forecast. It was accurate!

As we headed out of the harbor, a light rain began to fall, and the small wind-driven droplets stung my bare exposed skin like scorpions. We cleared the mouth of the harbor and ventured out past the breakwater. The waves increased substantially in height and intensity challenging our sea legs, our fortitude, and our courage. Periodic swells washed over the hull and across the bow, violently jostling us about.

When we rounded the point at Navy Pier a strong gust of wind took command of my cap and blew it into the raging sea. I struggled to pull the hood of my jacket from underneath my coat over my head. Tying the cord below my chin while steering us through the chop was quite a struggle. Maintaining my balance while standing at the helm proved most challenging at times, particularly in the larger swells.

We had now past the 31st street harbor; the last remaining port of refuge between our original dock and our destination some 20 nautical miles away with about 10 miles to go. The only crew I had on board was my good-hearted neighbor who had responded to the post I had placed on our condominium bulletin board. She was seeking adventure. This was only her second time out on the Panache and her frightened expression screamed louder than the four words I knew were spinning around her head: “What was I thinking?”

As we continued our journey, Iliana started anxiously anticipating our arrival, keeping a close eye on google maps. As she charted our progress and kept me apprised, hope and optimism slowly displaced fear and uncertainty. At last, we passed the breakwater at the entrance to the Calumet River. Just beyond the breakwater, the lake calmed, the winds subsided, and we watched in wonder as the first draw bridge was raised to allow us passage. After passing the second bridge we pulled into dock one final time that Fall.

Monday, July 29, 2019

From ESL classes at the YMCA to publishing a novel—one exophonic writer’s journey

Daniela Petrova's debut novel, Her Daughter's Mother, hit the stores on 18 June 2019. The intriguing part for me is that Daniela learned English and took writing seriously after arriving in the United States. I am thrilled to speak with her about her journey and share her experience with ESL writers everywhere.

IG: Hello Daniela. First of all, congratulations on your book!

DP: Hello, thank you.

IG: Tell me a bit about yourself and when did you first start writing?

DP: I first started writing as a kid in Bulgaria. I believe I was in 3rd grade. I wrote my first poem by chance. We had an assignment in school [to learn a poem by heart] and I forgot all about it until the night before. Lying in bed, wondering what to do, I made up a short poem, four stanzas. When I recited it the next day, I was shocked that nobody noticed that it wasn’t an actual poem. I had a great time so I continued to write poems. As a teenager, I wrote some short stories. When I moved to the US in 1995, I had to give up on my dream of becoming a writer because I barely spoke any English. Going back to school seemed impossible. Having the opportunity to write one day seemed inconceivable.

IG. What came first, improving your English just to speak better, or the motivation to be able to write? 

DP: Writing was not the first thing on my mind, but the two—improving my English and writing—kind of went hand in hand. I kept writing poems even back when I barely spoke English. I look at them now and it’s embarrassing. I couldn’t even string words together into a proper sentence. The audacity of youth, you know. I wasn’t thinking much. I was putting down on paper thoughts and impressions in the form of poems. Writing wasn’t quite on my mind, but writing poetry just happened, especially as it didn’t require that much time.

IG. How did you go about improving your language skills and your writing skills. I am asking this on behalf of a writing group with ESL adult students I lead. I often hear that my students would like to share their stories, but that they are intimidated by writing.

DP: When I was finally able to go back to school, I went to Columbia University, where I decided to major in Philosophy. In my last year, I was finally brave enough to take creative writing classes. It was very humbling. Surrounded by writers who were native speakers and also beautiful writers, I felt very intimidated at first, but I kept taking classes over the years and wrote on the side. Eventually, in 2006, I published my first essay in the Cristian Science Monitor, that was huge for me. And then, a short story here and there, little by little over the years, it took a lot of time. I first came to the States more than 24 years ago.

IG: How were you accepted in your writing classes, the ones outside of college, where most students are native English speakers? Any judgment on having an accent?

DP: I never felt that. Everyone was supportive, even too nice. I was very self-aware of my limited English at the time, but people were very supportive throughout the years. Maybe I have been lucky. I definitely notice that, because I have an accent (I came to the USA at the age of 22), some people outside of the writing world sometimes assume I’m less intelligent because of the way I speak.

IG: What was most instrumental, most propelling for you in the process of making it as a writer? Who gave you the most encouragement - a teacher, a fellow-writer, agent, editor a friend? How did you choose your publisher? For beginners who are not confident and are more cautious, where should they look for support, nurturing environment to write and go on?

DP. Again, I was very lucky. I had wonderful teachers who have been very supporting. Leslie Sharpe, whom I met at Columbia, invited me (after I graduated) to join a writing group she taught. It was very very helpful, very early in my career as a writer. Everyone in the group was so encouraging, it helped build my self-esteem. My writing teachers since then have been also very supportive. For example, I took a class at the Iowa Summer Writing festival with Curtis Sittenfeld, who was very encouraging of my writing. Years later, when I interviewed her about her latest book, Eligible, she asked me if I had an agent and recommended Lisa Grupka, who eventually became my agent. The last class I took was last year with Taylor Larsen at Catapult. She was very supportive and instrumental in helping me fine-tune the latest version of Her Daughter’s Mother, before I submitted it to my agent. I also took a class on writing essays with Susan Shapiro who is also extremely supportive of her students and their work. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of so many wonderful teachers.

IG: Now that you are a published author, would you go on with classes and continue developing your writing skills?

DP: One can always learn, right? I don’t think you suddenly stop learning. Just like Olympic athletes don’t stop practicing after a gold medal. It’s a constant learning process and we continue to develop as writers. I still read books on craft and hope to join a writing group again. Writing is such a solitary experience; it’s good to have feedback from other writers and readers. In fact, having feedback from readers early in the process is very helpful.

IG: What does it feel like to be published, especially in English, and making your dream comes true?

DP: It feels wonderful. It’s amazing if still a bit surreal. It’s three weeks today since the publication of Her Daughter’s Mother, and I'm still in the clouds. Busy with promoting the book. It’s incredibly exciting.

IG: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in the process of writing your book?

DP: Her Daughter’s Mother is told from the point of view of three narrators in two shifting timelines. My greatest challenge was arranging the chapters in a way that didn’t compromise the suspense but on the contrary—it strengthened it.

IG: Why suspense and crime as a genre?

DP: For this particular book, the suspense story line was perfectly suited. Because when trying to get pregnant, month after month for years, you never know what’s going happen. It’s a mystery. Will you get pregnant? If you get pregnant, will the pregnancy stick? Or will you miscarry? I thought this process parallels suspense stories. I also happened to love suspense novels, psychological thrillers and mystery novels. I like solving a puzzle.

IG. Is there any writer alive who you would be thrilled to meet and talk with about their writing process?

DP: So many! I’d love to meet Joan Didion; she is a beautiful writer and I adore her writing. I’d love to meet Tana French, whose books I love. And Lisa Jewell, one of my favorite suspense writers. I was lucky to meet Megan Abbott at an event in NYC but it was very brief. I would love to learn about her writing process. But there are a lot more authors I’d love to meet.

IG: What would you tell other ESL aspiring writers? Any word of advice?

DP: I very much recommend taking classes or joining writers groups. But most importantly, read a lot, online and books. We learn so much from those before us, it’s very helpful. Just work on the craft and read as much as you can.

IG: What do you work on these days? Are you already working on your next book or are you still enjoying the energy of the moment, the marketing, the fame, this is your moment, right?

DP: You are right! I’ve started working on my next novel and am looking forward to getting back to it after I finish promoting this book.

IG: Daniela, it is really exciting for me to have met you and spoken with you. You are such an inspiration for ESL aspiring writers. Thank you for your time and again congratulations on your first book! 

DP: Thank you!

Friday, May 24, 2019

42 minutes with Beth


Innately curious about people, I invited my memoir teacher, Beth Finke, for an interview at StoryCorps. Beth is a Chicago-based award-winning author, teacher, and journalist. She is the author of two memoirs, 'Long Time, No See' and 'Writing Out Loud’. She happens to be blind.

Read about my interviewing experience on Beth's blog (original post) or here.

The first time I stumbled upon StoryCorps I was meandering through the Chicago Cultural Center. I was drawn by their bright red, cursive sign. After listening to a couple of stories about love and forgiveness, I left the place charged with hope. I was reassured that despite our differences and how diverse our lives are, we all want the same: to be loved, accepted, and understood.

Since then, every time I pass by the Chicago Cultural Center I would try to think of someone I know that has a story worthy of sharing with StoryCorps. In anticipation of taking a memoir writing class with Beth Finke, I read her memoir Writing out loud. A few chapters in, the light bulb in my head went off. What a spirit she is; she would be a great StoryCorps guest. Luckily, she agreed to be interviewed.

I really wanted to do this. I worked diligently on thinking up good questions for the interview. I ran them by a teacher I had for an interview class. Yet, there I was on the day of the interview, nervous, questioning if I was right for this.

When Beth arrived to StoryCorps we first had to fill out some paperwork. I offered to help. The last question on the form, “How would you describe yourself in a sentence or two,” was a perfect segue to our interview.

The recording studio is in essence a wooden cube with a three-yard long side. Stepping in felt like jumping in at the deep end. Once in, however, it’s dimly lit, incredibly quiet ambiance gave a sense of intimacy and safety. I began asking questions in the order I had them written down. But interviews do not always follow order. I skipped, returned to, and improvised questions.

I’ve been taught to be an active listener, to nod occasionally, keep eye contact, smile and use facial expressions, but Beth wouldn’t see that. I’d like to encourage the speaker with verbal comments like ‘yes’ and ‘uh huh’, but the StoryCorps facilitator warned us the microphones are very sensitive so when one of us speaks the other must be quiet. I was struggling to adhere to the rules.

I reached the more personal questions. After hearing the first one Beth paused, adjusted in her chair, looked right at me and responded with honesty. I could see this was emotionally taxing for her. This was exactly the bravery that I was hoping to hear about, the strength to deal with life’s unfairness, the resilience in the face of adversity. The life experience gets relived briefly, the feelings from the past may resurface for a moment, but the story of the human spirit’s strength is told. It’s stories like this that inspire and encourage us.

It was an honor to interview Beth for StoryCorps. I doubt the 42 minutes we had in the recording booth would do Beth’s story justice, but I’d like to believe I gave it a chance to be heard by sharing some of her experience, highlighting her incredible ability to take things lightly, and proving that attitude and humor make life a bit easier.

I hope the interview piques the listeners’ curiosity and they read her books, take her memoir writing class, and maybe, hopefully, make Beth’s dream — to teach her Memoir Teacher Masterclass around the world — come true. I, personally got to know Beth better and that is something to cherish.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

18-word memoir

My entry for the Gotham Writers’ 2018 18-word memoir contest. Underappreciated.

         Fifty moving boxes—single life's ending.
         I worry.
         He winks. 
         Is third time the charm?
         We shall see.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A 40-year-old virgin

First-time sex for most Americans happens at around age 17. Yet, recently I met not one, but two men who remained virgin late in their 30ies. One of them shared his story.

The first mention of sex was his father’s “drunken sailor” talk and uncomfortable off-color jokes. Pornographic movies, school, and media expanded his sex knowledge throughout adolescence. “Watching porn felt naughty, but I was curious”. Yet, sex was among many topics of curiosity.

It was a long road. High school would have been the easy time to make out, but he wasn’t the coolest of kids. He went to college and connected with people, but soon he left off to start a startup company. “It was a different environment. There were a lot of hot women, but they were much older and inaccessible.”

Ten years later he moves to Chicago. Most of his new colleagues are married, which isn’t boosting his social life. He admits he was not keen on pursuing social interactions just for the sake of it, not obsessing about sex, even thinking it wasn’t worth the effort. Pressure from different sides added up. 

A shred of regret in his voice tempts me to ask if he ever felt peer pressure, sadness or depressed about his virginity. No, he perks up, because nobody knew. I start to believe that it was all circumstantial - people assume he is like everyone else and he lets it be- a convenient protective shield. But he adds something that links to the beginning of our conversation. 

“During my time at the startup, things could have been different, but the co-founder was over the top always trying to impress - sexually and otherwise, he reminds me a little bit of Trump.” 

He chuckles. I am careful, “You mean that in a putting off way, he was giving sex a bad name?”

What he adds after a pause is more to reassure himself rather than talking to me. “Yeah. It definitely feels like a number of things were tilted in different directions, just happenstance”.

But he liked a coworker. When he learned that she was engaged, with a quite healthy sex life the light bulb went on – the lack of sexual experience might be a block in pursuing a relationship of his own. Seeing a sex therapist and a dating expert came to the rescue.

Having sex for the first time later in life was neither a choice nor a condemnation. He was comfortable with focusing on his business first and letting sex enter life in its own time. Sexually active for a few months now, he finds it hard to disentangle sex and being in a relationship - he is dating his first sexual partner, and that’s big for him. 

“It’s really not that difficult if you find somebody that is willing to go through that first experience with you. And it’s ok, it’s not like you are going to be a million years behind everybody.” – he smiles.