The Great Unknown | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Great Unknown 

Catherine Scherer is one of the city's most prolific and accomplished writers. That doesn't mean anyone has ever heard of her.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Chicago's greatest unknown writer is waiting for me at the only occupied booth at Jerry's Snack Shop on the northwest side. It's a Thursday afternoon deep in Polish territory, though a flyer posted outside seeks a lost cat in Spanish as well as English and Polish. The greatest unknown writer sits with a soft drink and a library copy of Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, wearing a bright blue T-shirt from last year's Chicago Public Library program Reading Is Art-Rageous. She works part-time as a page at the Jefferson Park branch, for a couple dollars over minimum wage. She has a BA in sociology from Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest and an MA in sociology from Fordham University, and has completed some doctoral work in anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York (her abandoned dissertation was on the revival of the Irish language). She's also taught college and served as a teacher's aide in Head Start, and until recently she was a volunteer cleaner of candle wax--a "handmaid of the altar"--at her Catholic church. She lives in a house near Jerry's, with two domesticated cats and a feral one that just visits.

Jerry's is where she writes a couple of hours a day, and where she operates as "A Spy in the House of Old Age," as she titled an essay broadcast on WBEZ in 1998. Her name is Catherine Scherer, and she is 58. She was in my writing group for many years, brought in by a wonderful, not-so-unknown Chicago writer, Peggy Shinner, who'd met her in a class. A few years ago I was complaining to Scherer that I had published so many short stories--two dozen or so--and still couldn't get my collection published. I was whining probably. I asked her how many stories she'd published.

About 60, she said.

There were eight of us in the group, and on one end were the traditionalists. Scherer was on the far opposite edge, dishing out swoons of language--metaphysical, metaphorical stuff. She played with words like no one else in the group, and you had to use your intuition and not your intellect to understand them. In her writing, what is spoken becomes visible. Her stories remind me of the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon. Whatever he drew with that crayon became real. In Scherer's work, words that are trapped inside a person find release. "Where do the words go on a cold morning?" she asks in "The Desired Word: For John, on the Second Anniversary of His Death," published in the MacGuffin in 1998. "Perhaps they burrow underground in the mistaken belief that dead lips, warm in their graves, will speak them warmly again."

The story continues: "Pity all the words confined to dictionaries, labeled Obsol., Arch., Dial. For ever so long they haven't felt a warm mouth around them, they haven't been bandied on a living tongue for so long. They haven't been chewed between bites at the breakfast table, rushed out of the mouth on the flavored breath, garbled between mouthfuls, spilled out of full mouths that shouldn't speak but do. Before the breath has a chance to catch itself. When there isn't time to be polite. To wait turns. To raise hands as if again at school. Are these the secret pleasures of living words?"

Scherer tells me that when she was five she would dictate stories to her mother. She went on to write them down herself, then stopped writing altogether when she was about eight. Why? "I haven't answered that question to my satisfaction." Things in her family got out of hand, she says. Her brother, who was three years older than she, became violent at an early age. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He threatened to kill himself and not go alone.

A good background for writing, I note. "One would hope we don't have to go through that," she replies, adding, "I think a lot of my motivation to write did come out of that. At one point I thought it would redeem it, it would make it have a meaning that otherwise it wouldn't. At one point I guess I thought--this is not a nice thing to say--a lot of writing was anti my mother: 'Well, I'll tell my truth as opposed to her constant versions of the truth.'" Her mother's version was that her father was the villain, and after Scherer's brother did commit suicide the story was he'd died in a hunting accident, in a war, in a car crash. The family didn't talk about him unless asked.

Her brother died the summer before Scherer's senior year at Rosary. A few years later, when she was away at the New School, her father had a heart attack, and she came home and stayed. She tried to work on her dissertation and had a "quiet nervous breakdown." Her father died. Her mother had a stroke, then a second, and Scherer stayed home with her, too. One day in 1975 Scherer was in the dentist's office and happened to pick up a neighborhood paper, where she saw an ad for a writing class. She thought about signing up. Later that day she found a $100 bill on the sidewalk. "I mentioned it to the beat cop and he said to keep it. I used it to pay for the class."

It was at Mel Livatino's house in Skokie. Since then Scherer has taken about 30 classes with him, most of them English 241, the creative writing course he teaches at Truman College. She's one of about a dozen writers who've taken the course once for credit and keep returning as auditors. "She has an exquisite sensibility," says Livatino. "She's extremely well educated and very bright. She may be introverted as all hell, she would be the first to admit. Socially she's not what you'd call a whizbang. As a reader, she's thrilling. As a writer she just has a real gift and a quality of determination that is absolutely necessary if you're going to get somewhere."

She reminds him of eastern European writers. "Many of them have what we think of as an odd, introverted take on things. They don't come at anything the way we do in western Europe and America. They come at things weirdly, and so does Cathy. It takes immense courage to do that stuff. People want to be accepted, learn how it's done, then do it that way. Cathy doesn't do it that way."

Livatino refers to a successful middle-aged writer whose work is not as interesting as Scherer's. "If Cathy had that kind of ambition and moxie, she would be at least as well-known" as that writer, who has published several books with major presses. "A whole hell of a lot of writers, good writers, never get beyond the little magazines," he says, but then he notes that those little magazines offer some of the best reading he's encountered. Scherer has published in some of the better-known examples--Mississippi Review, Chicago Review, Kenyon Review, Exquisite Corpse (Andrei Codrescu's magazine), Conjunctions, New American Writing--as well as the more obscure: Sweet Annie & Sweet Pea Review, First Intensity, Membrane, Java Snob Review. In 1992 she won a $5,000 fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council, and she's also received two $1,000 awards from the council for stories published in Illinois journals. Her work has appeared in two chapbooks and four anthologies.

Livatino has hope for Scherer's current projects. She's writing a family memoir and another one called "Paging: A Year in the Life of a Chicago Public Library Branch." She also has a collection of stories she hasn't sent out much, but that material is autobiographical and is displaced by the family memoir, she says. She has a second collection of stories, some based on the lives of artists, and hasn't sent that out much either.

Scherer has never tried to get an agent. She knows she should send her work out more. For ten years local editor and teacher Sarah Lauzen sent it out for her and didn't tell her about rejections unless they included positive comments. Scherer's just learning now, under the mentorship of writing teacher Nancy Beckett, to revise. She admits she is paralyzed by fear of rejection. "I should be more independent," she says. "Take my career in my own hands."

One of her award-winning stories is "Three Fragments," published in Farmer's Market in 1997. The first fragment gets at the emotional truth of living with a mother who disapproved. The narrator lies on an operating table. Her mother is the chief surgeon. "They have slit me open and are unstuffing me as they would unpack a trunk. Everything they take out is a clock, hands and a face and a circle of number[s]; Big Bens and Little Bens and Westcloxs and the chimes of Westminster cathedral. There is even a horse with a clock in its stomach and a clock shaped like a stomach with a clock in its stomach. The ticking is constant a[s] the chirring of grasshoppers. The clocks are rubbing their legs together, hands and legs are the same to a clock. My mother holds each clock up by its feet and smacks its bottom and pronounces it the wrong time."

In another fragment she writes: "I lie on my bed. My dead brother is lying on top of me. He is stiff and cold. He is taller than I.

"My dead father is lying on top of him.

"My dead mother is lying on top of my father. We are stacked like plates in the cupboard.

"They are a heavy weight. I cannot shift under them...."

She visits the same territory in her memoir: "My mother is dead and safe from me, but in my anger against her, I want to smash her with my fists. Sometimes I see her as flat like a piece of paper that I tear into bits, my hands unable to tear her fast enough so that I must use my teeth to rend her into scraps."

In our writing group, she was quiet and didn't say much about other people's work. She dropped out a few years ago. I asked her why. She said she was intimidated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by S.L. Wisenberg

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Bernhardt/Hamlet Goodman Theatre
September 14
Performing Arts
The Great Leap Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Upstairs Theatre
September 05

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories