Trawler Scrawler: Midwest Writing Center Artist-in-Residence Felicia Schneiderhan Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 27 February 2008 02:30

Felicia Schneiderhan Freelance writer Felicia Schneiderhan - the Midwest Writing Center's artist-in-residence beginning March 1 - is currently at work on a nonfiction book detailing her first married year with husband Mark. The endeavor, which focuses on the Chicago author's adjustment to her new home, is still only in rough-draft form, yet you can likely get a sense of the finished piece by visiting ( and reading the entries that are flush with Schneiderhan's newlywed spirit, including "Peeing in a Bucket," "Why Our Shit Don't Stink," and "You Want to Put It Where?"

"It's a 38-foot trawler," says Schneiderhan of the Lake Michigan residence she and Mark share, "which is a powerboat that sits on the water.

"So it's not like a sailboat; we're not living in a cave," she says with a laugh. "It's fun!"

Still, it wasn't exactly a slight adjustment when the Moline native with almost no previous boating experience agreed to join her husband-to-be in his aquatic dwelling, where he'd lived for two years prior to their introduction. "We were gonna get married, and we were trying to figure out where we were going to live," says Schneiderhan, "and I just decided, well, we could try it, and see what happened."

What happened was the writer growing to love life aboard the trawler named Mazurka - "To live in Chicago this way is great, because you see nature every day," she states - and sharing her experiences in a blog titled "Life Aboard Mazurka." "When I first started dating Mark," says Schneiderhan, "I would write a lot about what was happening on the boat because it was just so strange, and interesting. And people kept asking me about it, so I started keeping a blog, and now I have people who read it all across the country and in Canada." (Laughing, she adds, "I get really strange questions about repair.")

Yet Schneiderhan also found the trawler the ideal locale in which to forge a successful career as a freelance author and instructor; on March 1, she begins teaching two four-session Midwest Writing Center workshops, one for middle-school students ("How to Write an Essay - the Fun Way") and one for adults ("Building a Novel from the Ground Up"). Happily surprised at her ability to, as she phrases, "cobble a living" as a full-time writer, Schneiderhan marvels, "I still feel like every day is a blessing. I didn't think I could do it!"

A 1993 graduate of Moline High School, Schneiderhan says that her interest in writing began while a student at Roosevelt Elementary. "I just loved to read and write," she says. "In grade school I had really good teachers who helped to foster that, and all through junior high and high school, I had so many teachers who helped me. Like Richard Collins, who is the brother of David Collins [the Midwest Writing Center co-founder]; he was my eighth-grade English teacher. In high school, Tim Curry was my AP English teacher. I took every English class offered by Moline High School." (By her senior year, she adds, "all I did was take English.")

At the time, however, Schneiderhan was equally interested in acting, and eventually received a bachelor's degree in theatre from Northwestern University. "But, like, halfway through," she says of her undergraduate years, "I decided, ‘I'm not gonna be an actor. I really just want to write.'"

After her 1997 graduation - and what she calls a subsequent "year of fumbling around" - she changed career paths, earned an MFA in fiction-writing from Chicago's Columbia University, and went on to teach occasional workshops there while also employed in the University of Chicago's advancement department. She supplemented her income with assignments for such publications as the Chicago Gazette, but didn't embark on a full-time writing career until six years later.

"I was teaching a fiction-writing workshop," she says, "and my department head at Columbia called me up, like, the week before classes were gonna start. And he's like, ‘Can you teach this freelance-writing class? We don't have a teacher for it.'"

Schneiderhan laughs. "I decided, for some reason, to do it, and I did something really smart - I just stocked the syllabus with guest speakers. For 10 of the 15 weeks we had a guest speaker, and people just came out of the woodwork. I had, like, beginning freelancers all the way up to Greg Kot, who actually got his start at the Quad-City Times and is now the rock critic for the Chicago Tribune, and writes for Rolling Stone. We just had the gamut of people.

"And listening to them, week after week, I felt like I found my people," she says. "Like, that's what I wanted to do."

Schneiderhan began submitting - and eventually had published - stories and essays for the literary journals Slow Trains, Mars Hill Review, and Big Muddy: The Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. Yet the writer's exposure to the authors in her freelance course sparked an interest in nonfiction, as well, and following the familiar literary dictum "Write what you know," Schneiderhan did just that - writing travel pieces for, among other publications, the Chicago Sun-Times.

"We do a fair amount of traveling," she says of her and Mark's time off the Mazurka, "and we do kind of unusual trips. Like, we did a trip to Hawaii - we went to the island of Kaua'i - but we took our bicycles and backpacks, so we did, like, a more adventure style of Hawaii. And I just did an article for them [the Sun-Times] on ice-climbing. Basically, you hike to a frozen waterfall - we go up north, to Lake Superior - and you have crampons and ice axes, and you're in a harness, and you climb up the waterfall.

"It's kind of unusual," she admits with a laugh. "You'd never think to do it in a million years, and then you're there, and it's like, ‘Wow. I just climbed a frozen waterfall.'

To hear Schneiderhan tell it, writing about her travels is nearly as satisfying as the adventures themselves. "I like travel [writing] because I can combine the first-person-essay experience with actual, practical details on how to do it. Like the first-person ‘Here's what happened to us ... ' kind of stuff, but also the ‘If you want to do this, here's what you need to know ... ' stuff."

Mark and Felicia Schneiderhan Yet even for a seasoned author, Schneiderhan admits that the writing process itself can be daunting. "The hardest thing for anybody, I think, is getting yourself in the chair, and just sitting down with a piece of paper," she says. "Sometimes I just have to remind myself, ‘Okay, just sit down for an hour. Sit down for an hour and just write something.' [But] what do you do when there's nothing there? Or what do you do when there's stuff there but you're like, ‘What do I do with this?'"

Such practical concerns are the planned focus of Schneiderhan's Midwest Writing Center workshops. In "How to Write an Essay - the Fun Way," designed for students in grades six through eight, the author says she will "start with them writing instances - just moments - and then take them into research, and how to have fun with research, and then writing what they're learned. A lot of people just cringe when they think about an essay, but they're one of my favorite things to write."

Meanwhile, the adult students in the "Building a Novel from the Ground Up" workshop will work on creating compelling characters, scene development, and, Schneiderhan says, "how to actually build a narrative arc through scenes.

"I focus a lot on process," she continues. "How do you get through the rough points? What do you do to get yourself moving again when you're not moving? That's the overall goal of these two workshops. I mean, they're not gonna come out with a novel in two weekends, but they will come out with a heightened awareness of their process. We also do a lot of reading aloud, so the kids and the adults can hear their work and see an audience reaction, so that they know if it's working."

Following her tenure with the Midwest Writing Center, it's back to the trawler for Schneiderhan, and a return to both her nonfiction-in-progress and its Web-site inspiration.

"I've had, like, really good luck with it," she says of "Life Aboard Mazurka," "and it's really helped my writing because of the constant demand of an audience. Even though it's a blog audience, I know they're there, and people will e-mail me if I haven't updated in a while. ‘What's going on? Write something more!'"


Felicia Schneiderhan presents the workshops "How to Write an Essay - the Fun Way" and "Building a Novel from the Ground Up" on March 1, 2, 8, and 9 at the Midwest Writing Center. For more information, call (563) 324-1410 or visit (

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