Explorations in the Sociology of Writing

by Ben Frerichs

A stranger in an even stranger land………the land of the writers. There are many worlds, each its own reality. I entered the world of the writers as an elder with no illusions. I found my way into the world of words through the portal of a catastrophic disaster. By way of Louisiana.

For six months in 2006, I lived in a motel room in either Baton Rouge or New Orleans. I worked for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) assisting coastal communities plan for their recovery from what Katrina and Rita had wrought. And work we did, our contracts were for 72 hours a week, occasionally authorized to exceed that. But that’s a story for another time.

I would send back reports of my experiences, reactions, observations about what could be seen, some as travel writing, some about living life in a small space for weeks. Friends and family encouraged me to be more serious about the writing. When I returned home, I enrolled in writing classes at Whatcom Community College’s Community Education program.

I was an actual writer before, made a career of it, in academia, in state and municipal government, and consulting for real estate, community and economic development, but did not think of myself as a writer. I thought of myself as an economist. An economist who produced analyses, memos, reports, strategies, policies, programs, plans, proposals etc. etc. I may have written 750,000 to 1,000,000 words in technical reports over half a century. In some ways those reports wrote themselves: I was given a question(s) to answer – so the report was a narrative of what we did, how we did it, the results, the limitations and implications and what the client could or should do as a result.

Much different from my new world of “creative writing” which starts with a blank page confronting one pen (or one keyboard) being driven by one brain, may be operating in the right hand side of one mind. Usually having to think up the question. Writing is a response to one person’s creativity. But not a one-person activity.

I entered this new world, wanting to explore the right hand side   of my own brain after being schooled in and operating in the left, linear, logical, sphere. Two realities quickly confronted me: the need to activate and accept the left hand side of the brain and secondly the realization that I had entered   a community, a sub-population, a network, an industry and an art form: the world of the writer.

Writers’ world is peopled with self-defined writers, some lucky or good enough to be market defined for others it is a job, a profession or a hobby. Why don’t we refer to ourselves as authors? Maybe that title should be reserved for writers who are actually published. Now that self-publishing is practical that criteria may not work so easily. There are plenty of people and organizations to help you, to improve you, to stimulate you, to critique you, to publish you, to help you publish yourself, even sell you books to help you write books, usually they want money to do this. Other organizations and subscriptions are there to inform you, support you, connect you and network with you, provide a place to go when you need one, provide you a place to go to perform your work solo or in a group.

Another head-scratcher: why are local writerly events and activities dominated by females? In the classes at WCC, at the annual Chuckanut Writers Conference, for Village Books’ readings look around you, these are peopled largely with women. Curiouslly, if we look at the listings of bestselling writers in the NYT Review of Books as a ‘quick and dirty’ index of writerly success by gender, the gender loading is substantially more men than women. I have no answer for my “why?” question. Also of note, but more easily understood, notice how many of the writers you meet in the Fourth Corner who are retirees?

At a workshop for what Myers-Briggs personality styles imply for writing, the leader asks the “I” – Introvert revealed people to stand on one side of the room; the “E” – extroverts on the opposite side. Very few Extrovert styled people identified themselves as writers. This supports the mythology that writers are prone to scribbling alone during a solitary creative process; but we also know that writing requires interaction: critique, support, editing, feedback, empathy, and interaction, so not so solitary…….so while you can be an introvert to write, to be successful, to get recognition, you have to interact successfully with all manner people, especially the “market”.

More travel writing from this stranger in a strange land to come, maybe some answers.

 

Ben at Goldbergs 8-5-09 pabBio  Ben Frerichs, of Bellingham, is reinventing himself as a creative writer. He likes to balance the creative freedom of fiction with the truthiness of non-fiction and welcoming do-ability of short forms. He participates in two writers’ groups, takes writing classes and has volunteered with the Chuckanut Writers Conference for five years. Four of his short pieces have been accepted for publication in local collections; he has a novel 2 -3 chapters short of a whole; and has completed half dozen scenes for a quest memoir. (Contact: fben7@msn.com)

 

 

IN PRAISE OF OLDER WRITERS

Mary Wesley published her first novel at the age of 71, and then a dozen more before she died in 2002 aged 90. Her brilliant coming-of-age World War Two story, The Camomile Lawn, has been adapted for British television. I hope we see it here soon.

Wesley is an inspiration, but I would not have been able to follow – if haltingly – in her footsteps were it not for the revolution in publishing that has taken place in recent years. Frankly, I don’t have a decade to spend on pitches at writing conferences and query letters to agents, and I have no wish to paper my walls with rejection slips. I published my first Sarah McKinney mystery independently in 2013 when I was 64, and the second came out in 2015. These novels now bob along on an ocean of similarly self-published works, garnering a few appreciative reviews but not enough sales to matter to the taxman.

I don’t care. At last I have realized my childhood ambition: to be a Writer!

Writing is one of the few fields in our youth-centered culture (department store Santa might be another) where age is actually an advantage. I no longer have the distractions of school, raising children or working a sixty-hour week. I have time and my pension. I also have a hideaway above the garage that I call my writing studio. More importantly, I have a lifetime of experience to draw on, as well as a lifetime of reading.

Reading books is where writers go to school. Nothing equips a writer better than deep and repeated immersion in literature. After you have read a few thousand books (I calculate I have consumed about five thousand so far) you know when a character is convincingly drawn, or the narrative arc is complete. That is not to say I always get it right in my own work, but when a member of my critique group points out a flaw, I recognize it; it just didn’t feel right when I wrote it.

So what do I like to read? Mysteries, of course, and I find it encouraging that two of my favorite authors, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, continued to produce first-rate stuff well into their eighties. It’s also comforting that characters I fell in love with years ago – Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick come to mind – mature, get promoted and even retire from the force without losing their appeal. In contrast, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone has survived twenty-four adventures without aging out of her thirties.

Age does have its problems. Have you ever picked up a book with relish only to find (maybe several chapters in) that you’ve already read it? Nancy Pearl, everyone’s favorite librarian, says you never read the same book twice. The second time around, the reader brings an increment of experience and understanding which – if the book was worth reading in the first place – enriches the story. I certainly find this true with classics like Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. When I first read this novel, I was living in Atlanta and new to the States. I admired the construction of parallel narratives, but I didn’t really get it. Now, living in the West and thirty years older, I weep for the narrator confined to his wheelchair, regrets piling up around him. After forty-five years of marriage, I understand the resonance of the title.

My reading feeds my writing, and my writing informs my reading. I have become a more critical reader over the years, less willing to plow on with a book I’m having a hard time with, even if I spent good money for it. Another Nancy Pearl ‘pearl’: you owe it to the writer to read the first fifty pages; subtract a page for every year you are older than fifty! I’m looking forward to the day I can toss a tome aside (probably the large print edition) after a mere ten pages.

I’ll finish with another book recommendation from an older writer. Our Souls At Night was published in 2015 after the author Kent Haruf’s death. It is set, like his earlier novels on the plains of eastern Colorado, and in spare, eloquent prose tells the story of a couple in advanced age who come together to talk about their lives and assuage their loneliness. A young person could not have written this book; a young reader might find it depressing. I found it full of tenderness and hope.

marian_exallAfter a career as an employment lawyer, MARIAN EXALL now writes what she loves to read: mysteries! Like her heroine Sarah McKinney, Marian was born and raised in England. She lived in Atlanta for thirty years before moving to Bellingham where she hikes, gardens and does grandparent duty.

www.marianexall.com

Twitter: @mysterymarian

www.facebook.com/mysterymarianexall

Teller of Tales, Lover of Life

Ask me what I am, and I’ll tell you I am a storyteller. That hasn’t changed over the years.

When I was just a child, my mother had to wait patiently for an answer to what she believed a simple question.

“Why did the principal of the kindergarten call saying you were very persuasive?”

A big word for a four year old, but I simply told her that, “When my teacher asked me to invite the other class to join us for a snack, I mimicked their birds voices, showed her the pink flower petals, and the picnic table. By the time I had finished, the entire school was outside. I guess the teachers thought it was a good idea too.”

At fifteen, when my older sister and I went out for a drive in Miami Beach, our new home, we arrived home past midnight. My sister sent me in with my version of the night. My mom listened with experienced skills, trusting my view. I explained that arriving late wasn’t accurate. We had made good time considering how my sister had driven up the exit ramp on the freeway in the wrong direction, and I had to slip below the seat to push on the pedal as my sister went into reverse, backing off the ramp. You see she was so upset that her leg was shaking and couldn’t find the pedal. And then when we turned right off Collins Avenue—the parking lot was the beach and the tires to our car got stuck. “Good thing Harriet called the tow truck, and had me explain to him that we had no money to pay.” My story kept us from being punished that night and has reminded me that the true story is in the “spin.”

For a time I made my living crunching numbers, a bookkeeper for forty companies. I read between the lines of numbers to discover fraud, rainy day sales, sloppy methods of ordering, waste of materials, and discontent. Patterns spoke to me with stories behind figures, truth that exposed characters, settings, and plots. Honest owners took my advice as I was their editor, their conscience. Dishonest owners fired me.

Each morning begins the same. I wake early and make my latte, prepare to work. I write quick notes to my husband who remains asleep. First thoughts jotted down before the critic’s analysis. A flittering feeling attached to words, future lines in a poem, chapter, or discussion. Non-sense, with heart and brain synced with the aromas of a new day.

My mother passed away last year. To her I was the “little bird.” How fitting that a hummingbird feeder hangs in front of my kitchen sink. Each rapid flutter of their wings reminds of stories not yet experienced or told. Love never ends and neither do stories. The more I see, the more people I meet, the more places I go, I still begin the same. I spin facts to gain perspective, to share stories.

Join me here: If you’d like to see my morning notes please visit my website and subscribe to Abbe’s Notes.

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Author Bio:  Abbe Rolnick grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. Her first major cultural jolt occurred at age 15 when her family moved to Miami Beach, Florida. In order to find perspective, she climbed the only non-palm tree at her condo-complex and wrote what she observed. Here history came alive with her exposure to the Cuban culture. This introduction to the Latino Culture proved fortuitous. At Boston University she met her first husband, a native of Puerto Rico. Her first novel, RIVER OF ANGELS, stems from her experiences during her stay in Puerto Rico.

Stateside, she capitalized on the knowledge she gained as an independent bookstore owner and worked for one of the finest bookstores, Village Books, in Bellingham, WA. More recently she opened a healthy foods cafe.

COLOR OF LIES, her second novel, brings the reader to the Pacific Northwest where she presently resides. Here she blends stories from island life with characters in Skagit Valley.

Her short stories and travel pieces have appeared in magazines. Swinging Doors won honorary mention by Writer’s Digest. Her next novel, FOUNDING STONES, will be the third in the series, continuing the stories of characters from the two previous novels, introducing new themes that connect Skagit Valley to the larger world.  

Her recent experiences with her husband’s cancer inspired, COCOON OF CANCER: AN INVITATION TO LOVE DEEPLY. Presently she resides with her husband on twenty acres in Skagit Valley, Washington.

EMBRACE THE JABBERWOCK!

Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! –Lewis Carroll

After I turned in the final drafts of each of my books–From Paradise to Puddledub (Coughing Dog Press 2002) Little Bookstore (2012 St. Martin’s Press) Public Health in Appalachia (McFarland Press 2014) Fall or Fly: the strangely hopeful story of Adoptions and Foster Care in Coalfields Appalachia (Swallow Press 2017)–my agent Pamela, a diplomatic woman of great gentleness, would drop hints: “Working on anything?” She doesn’t push, she just . . . asks. Every once in a while.

It’s very effective.

Lest poor Pam bear the brunt, I have WANTed to be writing again almost immediately after each successful manuscript delivery. (Following the requisite three days of sitting in a dark room staring at the wall.) A vague idea has swirled into semi-solid form, and the little pin prickles of desire, of inspiration–of guilt–have grown into claws that reach out to pull my butt back in the chair.

Those of you out there who write know what it’s like: toy with an idea, write a scene, think, daydream. Start to build. Force yourself into the chair and silence your internal critic’s voice: “This is stupid. This is crap.”

Beware the jaws that bite.

Then that half-formed beast of an idea eats at you, bite by resisting bite, and you’re hacking at it bit by resisting bit, until you’re dropping social engagements left and right to get another hour with your characters. You never want to leave that chair.

It’s not unlike being in love.

Last weekend I fled to a quiet place for two days of butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. It’s funny how writing begets writing in the same way that exercising first exhausts you, then energizes you to exercise more. First your brain goes into a post-writing meltdown where you have nothing to say; every last spark of creativity gone, you curl into fetal position under a quilt. Lying in the dark, you start to think “what if he…” and you’re up again, fingers on keys, butt in chair.

And then you hit a bald patch, or the characters take over and drive you into a corner you can’t see a way out of, and you pout and fume and go back under the quilt, and a mental image comes to you, and up you get, and so it goes.

Perhaps it’s less love than lion taming. You don’t want to completely subdue the beast of an idea, but you can’t let it take over, either.  Partnership rather than dominance; you need it and it needs you. Plus you and that roaring beast have swallowed each other whole by now, so you’re in it and it’s in you.

I’m not sure the chair-quilt swing is a healthy lifestyle, but oh glory, it’s fun. When it’s going well. And when it’s over. It’s fun the same way half-way through the marathon is fun (my running friends tell me) even though every step is pain. Sometimes it’s about the moment you’re in. Sometimes it’s about the goal you’re reaching.

But it’s always, always a thrill when those claws reach out and catch you, and you see in your mind’s eye what’s going to happen next, and you’re just waiting for the chance to put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and hear that beast you can’t quite tame roar again.

RWB wendy welchBio: Wendy Welch is a writer who with her husband owns a bookstore in rural Virginia. Her books tend toward memoir and journalistic storytelling set in Appalachia. She is currently working on a memoir about rescuing cats in the bookshop. The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap was published in six additional languages and brought visitors from many interesting places to visit the shop, plus no one threw a brick through their window, so she considers that memoir a great success. 

URL www.wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com

I’m Writing a Book

by Anneliese Kamola

I am writing a book. Well, trying.

Should I admit to this?

For context, I am a 29-year old, college-educated, white, bisexual, privileged woman from an upper-middle-class background. I only paid for my education through lack of sleep and stress—my parents paid the dollars. In the six years since graduating, I have worked steadily in order to live paycheck-to-paycheck. I want kids, a dog, and a home, so why spend my time writing?

I have tried living my ideals, but am losing my idealism. I am incensed that my vote is eradicated by a handful of rich people. I am disgusted to recognize that, yes, I have been indoctrinated by fear-based racism and sexism and that I have a lot of work to do. I am bitter that I cannot receive preventative health care at a reasonable price. And I am mad as hell that my food is poisoned without my consent.

As my voice is silenced every where I turn, and I obviously do not matter to the system, then why even attempt writing a book?

Ironically, the Divine Powers At Be gifted me with the calling of Artist. I tried denying it but only got depressed and physical ill. Voice is my jam; I don’t have a choice.

Of course I’m writing a book, because that’s how I’m programmed.

Recently, I had ‘That Moment’ artists describe, when family members spew, “Stop being stupid. You’re wasting time. You’re young, delusional, and shortsighted. Go back to school, get a job, get safe, and write in retirement.”

Let me tell you, it sucks being stabbed by other peoples’s judgments and fears. I’m a strong person, but I slumped big time. Imploded, really. Are these Voices right? Am I stupid? I watched myself deflate, crawl into my suit of self-doubt, and walk around like that for weeks.

Book? What book?

And then I attended the Washington State Democratic Caucus. (I know, it’s a non-sequitur. Hang with me.) Still wearing my self-doubt suit, I sat quietly on a gray folding chair amidst 50 precinct neighbors. We waited for our votes to be counted. When the precinct volunteers announced that Hillary needed one more vote to earn a single delegate, the group became democracy-in-action. A 50-something woman advocated pro-Hillary, mentioning decency. A 40-something man declared pro-Bernie, fist-pumping for brotherly love. A 60-something gentleman generally thanked us for attending.

It fell silent. We waited.

And then a gangly teenage girl walked quickly forward. Nervously—gripping her waist and raising her shoulders to her ears—she told us her story:

This was her first caucus. Only seventeen, she would be eighteen by November. “In my heart, I want Bernie, but I voted for Hillary because she can beat the Republicans.” She looked directly at us and asked someone to switch their vote.

The pro-Bernie crowd exploded into applause. We didn’t cheer for her idea—we cheered for her. We cheered for her bravery. For stepping into her budding power. For being young, giving a damn, and saying so.

My heart soared. “This,” I thought. “If she can do it, then I sure as hell can, too.”

In a mere 45 seconds, this young woman pulled me from my funk. Who the hell am I to stay silent? Why am I moping around? Sure, those Voices suck. And, yes, they’re going to stick around and will probably take every opportunity to disembowel my courage. My family may never affirm my writing. I’ll likely mess up, and I may not change a single heart or mind. But I won’t be slaughtered or raped for speaking out, like so many other women around the world.

Get over it. It’s time to grow up.

Younger generations deserve role models for creative living; humanity cannot afford anyone’s apathy. I might wobble, but this is a spiritual contract that cannot be broken. It is time to pull out every single root of internalized, silencing patriarchy. It is time to stand and give Voice—my voice—to what actually matters.

Yes. I am writing a book. And a damn good one at that.

RWB AnnalieseAnneliese Kamola is a multi-media storyteller from Bellingham, WA. She began performing with the Bellingham Storyteller’s Guild since 2008, and began training in Viewpoints Theater Technique with director Drue Robinson in 2010. Kamola wrote, produced, and performed two solo storytelling-theater shows exploring connections between womanhood, patriarchy, and eating disorders. And yes, she is currently writing a book titled, The Handweavers of Dachau: One Woman’s Choice in WWII Germany.