Archive for November 2011

December’s Featured RWB Writer of the Month: Tele Aadsen

Meet Tele Aadsen, December’s Featured Writer!

Tele, thank you for taking the time to help us get to know you and for answering a few of our probing questions. Here we go!

In your writing life, Tele, what do you find most frustrating/rewarding?

I spent most of the past decade dreaming about writing a memoir–and standing squarely in my own way. I was afraid of the stories clamoring within, and put tremendous energy into stifling them. I viewed my writing self not as an authentic part of my identity, but a fearful enemy. When I finally acknowledged how important this project was to me and started seriously pursing it, I had to work through some deeply internalized resistance.

That was less than a year ago, and I’m still struggling. Some friends glow when they talk about writing. They tell me they can’t wait to get up in the morning to get back to it. Not me. Honestly, sometimes it seems like I spend more time agonizing over the process of writing, than reveling in the rewards. Staring at a blank page, feeling hopeless about my ability to tell the story, doubting that I’ll ever write something worthwhile again. For a person who prefers to choose hope over despair, these are tough insecurities to carry.

So why do it? Why bother if it’s not fun?

I write out of the conviction that stories matter. That written narratives can pull people together in a way that fumbled, forgotten conversations cannot. This belief is purely self-serving. Painfully shy as a kid, I’m terrible at small talk, struggle to verbalize my thoughts, and often still feel like that childhood misfit hovering at the edge of the playground. Writing is a saving grace, a means to communicate more thoughtfully than my introverted self can manage in person.

As challenging as writing can be, the potential to forge connections between people makes it all worthwhile. When someone responds to one of my blog posts, “You were describing me; I’ve felt exactly that,” that’s rewarding. When someone who’d seem to have nothing in common with my story responds that way, that’s exciting. Those responses validate my belief that we can craft community through words. And when the misery pays off and the magic comes together, when a particular sentence glows on the screen, one that even this hyper-critical author can recognize as the kind of gem she’s doing this for… That’s chocolate torte and a summer sunset and a phone call from an old friend, all in one glorious moment.

But damn, I write a lot of lurching crap to get to that moment.

What project(s) are you undertaking now? Where are you in the process?

I’m finally tackling that decade-old dream. Trolling for Truth is a memoir of what it is to be a liberal vegetarian feminist in Alaska’s fishing industry, as well as a very personal examination of family, community, and home. I’m in the final stage of polishing my proposal—a terrifying, exhilarating process that I wouldn’t have the courage to pursue without RWB’s support. Laura Kalpakian’s Memory into Memoir course has been another huge motivator, providing skill development and the opportunity to workshop developing material. Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep up with my blog, Hooked, while building a new website that will provide a stronger author’s platform. Just as you’re all doing, I’m learning to juggle–balancing writing, social media, platform, reading, learning, time for my partner, family, and friends–with varying degrees of success.

What is the role of readers for your work? Do you share your work in draft? What do you most value in your readers?

Until recently, readers were a gaping absence in my writing life. I didn’t want to share with folks who critiqued in terms of “It’s good/bad,” and felt afraid to share with anyone unless I thought a piece was Just Right. But nothing ever felt Just Right, especially as work that hadn’t stood up to someone else’s scrutiny. So I sequestered my writing efforts, kept them private in a way that encouraged a shaming separatism, rather than inviting the connection that had been my reason for writing in the first place.

Thanks to RWB, I have trusted friends to share drafts with now. Kind and insightful, they tell me what’s working in a piece, while identifying what’s missing. They note where I’ve been lazy, point me towards possibilities I hadn’t seen, and boost my enthusiasm for troublesome pieces. My work becomes stronger. I develop accountability to myself and my readers. At first, sharing Totally Not Right drafts felt like a terrible vulnerability, but the risk led to empowering, rewarding experiences. I’ve been humbled and grateful for my fellow writers’ generosity – their willingness to share knowledge, expertise, and support. Connecting with RWB writers and developing a local writing community has truly been life-changing.

Who are the writers you have admired in the past and why?

Most of my reading happens during the fishing season, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. A few long-standing favorites… Lynn Schooler (The Blue Bear, Walking Home) is a multitalented artist who captures the natural world as effectively with his words as his photos. Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart is my all-time favorite memoir, for her vulnerability and authenticity. I’m a sucker for mystery novels; John Straley’s Cecil Younger series fills that craving with language so beautiful that I frequently read passages aloud to my shipmates.

Recently, my greatest inspirations have been fellow RWB writers. Some special gems… Cami Ostman humanized writing for me. True marathoner that she is, Cami demonstrated that successful writers weren’t untouchable literary stars who knew a secret formula, but people who showed up, did the work, and didn’t allow themselves to quit when it got hard. And speaking of doing the work, I’m astounded by Kari Neumeyer’s discipline, her ability to produce a constant flow of quality new material. I gather courage from Pam Helberg, a memoirist who confronts personal history on the page without flinching. Rody Rowe brings a powerful tenderness to his work, as well as his insightful feedback. And last month Bob Lee read the most stunning evocation of the coast I’ve ever heard, one of those pieces I was envious of as a writer (Wow, wish I’d said it like that!) while feeling blessed to have heard his words. In addition to these folks, I leave each class and every Happy Hour awestruck by the talent within our community.

What have you discovered in your life as a writer?

Most important practical discovery: I have much better writing days when I ask my partner to disable the wireless access on my computer. (I don’t know how to fix it, and I don’t want to know.)

Community truly makes all the difference for me. Believing in my story is important, but to maintain the faith and work ethic required to bring it to life, I need regular infusions of writer energy–classes, RWB Happy Hours, coffee dates with writer friends, all of those good things.

The stories I’m most afraid of are the ones I most need to write. For myself, and because that’s the trust I want to place in my readers. In memoir—as with all writing–it’s so easy to hobble ourselves with fear. Fear of hurting loved ones, embarrassing them, revealing what flawed beings we actually are. But these riskiest stories are the ones that invite the greatest connection. Jennifer Wilke, November’s featured writer, said, “I need to be braver.” Me, too.

Once again, a huge thanks to Tele for her thoughtful answers and encouragement to the rest of us in the community. We’re cheering for her as she works on her memoir and puts her proposal together! Keep us posted, Tele.

November’s Featured RWB Writer of the Month: Jennifer Wilke

Red Wheelbarrow Writers is about community. To that end, we’d like to introduce you to some of our regulars, to those who contribute to our community with generosity, wisdom, and the gift of their presence.

We’d like you to meet Jennifer Wilke, writer of historical fiction and, more recently, biography. A big thanks to Jennifer for being our first featured writer.

Jennifer, in your writing life what do you find most rewarding?
The best reward is claiming the stories only I can tell. In film school I took a marvelous Storytelling class with writer/poet Philip Daughtry (www.philipdaughtry.com). How to find the story you must tell, the story uniquely yours. We performed our stories solo; I remember using a red shawl for a head scarf, a skirt, a blanket, a shroud, exploring how to dramatize old secrets. Finding the story I’m compelled to tell is exhilarating, and fuels the hard work of pulling it off.

It’s rewarding to find out I’ve made the fiction feel real to someone else. I’ve invented letters between the characters in my historical novel, and on two occasions someone asked if I’d used a letter actually written in 1864. Way cool. And it’s also great when I read something aloud that I meant to be funny and people laugh.

What is most frustrating?
Trial and error. How long it takes to make each word on the page find its right place. Reading what I wrote and liked yesterday, and finding it needs more work today. I’ve tried outlines, but they don’t work for me. Starting a scene, I’ll know the basic plot events, characters, historical details. But what’s really on my mind is getting the feel of it right, the sensory and emotional layers, the mystery, all the stuff between the lines. For example: the historical novel I’ve finished is grounded by my child’s experience of visiting my grandparents, who lived unhappily in a 4-story brick house at 914 Cambridge Road in Coshocton, Ohio. The high-ceilinged rooms were dark, even at noon. The Persian rugs were well-worn, the top of the upright piano dense with framed, dusty portraits of people who were dead. The glass-paneled bookcases held thick, leather-bound history books. All the furniture was too stiff or too soft to sit on. Every place at the dining room table had its own “salt cellar,” tiny bowls with tiny spoons filled with salt to serve yourself. Every cup had a matching saucer. The house smelled of leather and dust and wool and wood polish and secrets. My mother was tense, my grandmother was genteel and smiling, my grandfather had a stern moustache that scratched when he kissed my cheek. I knew my grandparents were glad to see me. Everything else was an abyss.

It takes a while, sometimes a long while, to make my scenes feel like that.
Writing a short summary of my novel is excruciating. I started with the entire English language, and had to pick out the 150 words I needed. The one-sentence version is taking even more sweat.

The isolation of writing in a room by myself every day. RWB is a great opportunity to build a writing community that challenges that isolation, graced by Laura Kalpakian’s generosity to teach the rest of us.

What project(s) are you undertaking now? Where are you in the process?
I’ve completed a first novel manuscript, THE COLOR OF PRAYER, about an Ohio boy, the girls he loved, and the Civil War that stole their innocence as it forged America’s soul. The story’s based in large part on my great-grandfather’s papers and diaries we discovered hidden in the attic a dozen years ago. I’m proofing the final (fourth) draft and preparing the query package. I’ve gathered names of potential agents for several years, and plan to query six at a time. I’ve also entered chapters in eight short story contests that offer cash awards and have great titles, like “the John Steinbeck Short Fiction Award”—mainly to help me get over the jitters and submit work online, meet a deadline, follow submission guidelines, let go.

Once I’ve started querying, I look forward to getting on with a non-fiction book proposal, also historical. The RWB non-fiction proposal workshop in October was enormously helpful to that decision. For this new historical project, my research will be primarily with local documents and people, and is a project with blessedly finite scope, involving two murders and an unjust verdict, not a whole war.

What is the role of readers for your work? Do you share your work in draft? What do you most value in your readers?
The most important thing I did after writing the first draft of my novel was to find a critique group in Bellingham (through Pacific Northwest Writers Assoc. online classifieds). I actually had to audition, then learn to listen. We use UW’s creative writing program guidelines and meet once a week, a good motivator to finish pages. We each bring and read aloud about 5 pages a week; I rarely bring a first draft. The current members are all wonderful writers: Janet Oakley (TREE SOLDIER), Heidi Thomas (COWGIRL DREAMS, FOLLOW THE DREAM), Nancy Adair, and Kathy Smith. Their feedback’s been invaluable, in terms of character, pacing, showing not telling. Those who are published inspire and encourage those of us who aren’t published yet. Giving constructive critiques has taught me a lot too, articulating what works for me and what doesn’t, and why. The simplest questions by other writers are often the most helpful, allowing me to reconsider my choices and intention, make a story commitment I’d avoided, omit something that I might love but serves no story purpose.

Patient friends and acquaintances, knowing I’ve been working on this novel for years, tend to ask, “Is(n’t) your book done yet?” By empowering contrast, a writer friend Toby Sonneman (SHARED SORROWS: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust; a great blog: www.tobykitchen.wordpress.com) asked me a perfect question: what did I think my revisions had added to my original draft? I could answer without hesitation, seeing in a new and clearer light the irrefutable evidence that taking my time to get it right had been worth it.

Who are the writers you have admired in the past and why?
Elizabeth Bowen’s A HOUSE IN PARIS made me want to be a writer. A young boy waits for a promised visit by his cherished, absent mother and she never comes. I was 12 when I read it, awestruck that Bowen could describe how everybody felt about everything.

Laura Kalpakian’s THESE LATTER DAYS and CAVEAT are marvelously structured, character rich historical novels.

I read many debut novels, finding inspiration in those that are authentic and resonant to me: C.E. Morgan’s ALL THE LIVING; Howard Bahr’s THE BLACK FLOWER, Robert Goolrick’s A RELIABLE WIFE, Robin Oliveira’s MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, Lisa Genova’s STILL ALICE. Footsteps to which I aspire [as I take note of their agents]

What have you discovered in your life as a writer?
I need to be braver. Stay honest.

Mrs. Reemer had everyone in my third grade class draw a picture of a robin with crayons. She put them side by side on the chalkboard, and told us to vote on the best one. Feeling the unjustness of artistic competition as well as a juvenile desire for appreciation, when Mrs. Reemer pointed to my robin, I raised my hand. I had carefully considered all the others and sincerely thought mine was best. To my utter astonishment, no one agreed. I kept my hand high, and wondered what was wrong with everybody.

As a grownup and a writer now, I aspire to stay as confident and honest as I was in the third grade.

Thanks again to Jennifer Wilke for letting us get to know her a little better!