I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how they spend the day.

The Book Cellar, Chicago, 8-16-22


May 1, 2023: Rachel Swearingen


Rachel Swearingen’s How To Walk On Water is fresh and exciting and one of the best collections I’ve ever read. Nine brilliant gems featuring art and female bodies and terrific sentences. My favorite is “A Habit of Seeing” with this first sentence: “The energy of the baby shower reminded Julia of Twelve Angry Men.” This story alternates between the summer Julia is pregnant and the summer, three years earlier, when Julia first met Sharon. The excerpt below is from the earlier summer, and the two are walking home one night with Sharon talking to Julia about negative space.

[I]t was all she saw now–great odd shapes between buildings and tree branches, the city made up of Hitchcock stills. “It’s like everything is reversed.” … [Sharon] squinted at a row of lit storefronts, dark alleys between. “You should try it. It will freak you out. It’s just a habit of seeing. Once you do it, nothing will ever look the same.”

Julia squinted and what she saw then was the world moving on without her, the street already a street from her past.

This next excerpt is also from the summer three years earlier. Julia and Sharon are sitting and talking in the alley behind Frankie’s Piano bar.

“I’m getting out of here, Julia. I hate this place.”

“When did running away ever solve anything?” [Julia] said.

“You ran away.”

“I moved. I got married. it’s different.”

“Sure,” Sharon said. “Whatever you say.”

Amazing how this little bit of dialogue opens the story wide instead of keeping it between the pages of the book.

Here are a couple more sentences I love. From “Mitz’s Theory of Everything Series,” this line, “She practiced disaffected like Mitz practiced sane.” And from “Edith Under the Streetlight,” this slanted line full of so much feeling, “It wasn’t Edith’s fault that she had gotten old.”

Rachel is a master of compression and can tell a whole story in a paragraph. Look at this example from the title story.

I’ll show you the backside of your soul. That’s what Arvel Wilkes told Nolan’s mother, Sigrid, the night of the attack. Nolan had found a manila envelope with a smeared carbon copy of the original police report inside. Sigrid had been just twenty-six when it happened, younger than Nolan now. The report didn’t note what his mother said in response to Wilkes, just that there were “minimal defensive marks on victim.” They had been living on the north side of Seattle at the time, his father away on a business trip, Nolan asleep in his crib.

In a recent interview at The Erie Reader, Rachel said she is “drawn to characters on the periphery and weird situations… I’ve always loved atmospheric stories, and genre tends to inform my work. I love mysteries, things that are a little spooky, and things that are strange and off-kilter.”

How To Walk On Water received the New American Press Fiction Prize, was a New York Times Book Review “New & Noteworthy Selection,” and was named the 2021 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year.

Rachel grew up in rural Wisconsin and now lives in Chicago. She has taught writing and literature at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, The School of the Art Institute – Chicago, and Cornell College. Last spring, her new story “Clown School,” about a middle-aged woman on the L in Chicago on the way to clown school, won first place in the Berlin Writing Prize, which came with a month-long residency at the Circus Hotel in Berlin.


Come back on MAY 1st to read how RACHEL SWEARINGEN spends her days.