Archive for May 2016

Writing for Personal Insight

by Laura Rink

This month I took a writing workshop with Andre Dubus III. He said just because something happened to you doesn’t mean you know what happened. You must explore, with authentic curiosity, that particular event, and your place in it. This piece of advice resonated with the insight I gained last summer while writing a memoir piece for the upcoming Red Wheelbarrow Writers’ memoir anthology, Memory into Memoir, being released this September. I had had an unsettling experience and writing about it freed me from a skewed sense of myself that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding onto for thirty years. This kind of writing is not reserved for writers but is for everyone.

Writing about your experiences creates, at the same time, an objective distance and a subjective intimacy. The physical act of pen to paper or fingers on keyboard allows you to view yourself as a character in a narrative and be the person who had the experience. Writing gives form to the images floating in your mind, and the emotions coursing through your body. Writing is a way to capture that voice in your head and prod it for truth.

Logically knowing something to be true—I am a capable person, for example—is not the same as feeling it to be true in your body and in your heart. Writing can help bridge that gap. Put yourself back in an event and using all your senses describe the scene, the other people involved and especially yourself. Be open to whatever arises—write without judgment, without preconceived conclusions. Take your time exploring the sensations, questions and ideas that present themselves. Writing about an experience with a strong desire to understand is a powerful way to learn, to find meaning, to discover your truth.

A caution: if you’re not ready to write about a particular event, don’t. Sometimes time must pass, a lot of time. Some experiences you may never write about. That’s okay. Honor yourself. Pick an experience you are ready to write about. And remember this writing is for you alone—it is not necessary that another person read it, unless you deem it necessary.

You can also rewrite the story you tell about yourself to yourself. The science, solid and anecdotal, behind this idea is explained in the New York Times blog “Writing Your Way to Happiness.”

There are similarities between writing a good story and living a fulfilling life. Slapping a label on a character or on yourself is a sure way to limit both. You tell yourself you’re lazy or unlovable or even infallible. Write to get at the specifics behind those generalizations—the things you, or others, do or say that make you view yourself that way. The specifics may or may not support the label. Either way there is opportunity for change and concrete ideas on how to do so. Author George Saunders illustrates these ideas in this video, which applies to everyday life as well as storytelling.

Jane Fonda said she wrote her memoir so she could figure out where she’d been, so she’d know where to go. Writing about myself has allowed me to move forward along a more personally fulfilling path. I encourage you to write about your past to see yourself as you are now with more clarity and to discover where you want to go from here.

About Laura Rink:

LAURA RINKLaura Rink writes most days—dreaming up stories keeps her grounded in everyday life. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, writing with authentic curiosity to find out who the characters are and what they want. Her website features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat.

Entering Her Next Incarnation

By Susan Chase-Foster

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

—William Carlos Williams

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke and I are hanging out, self-medicating our chronic literary conditions at the writers’ table upstairs in Village Books. She’s a tall, handsome woman with a broad, inviting smile. We’re both members of SOLN, a stealth writing group whose exact name I’m not at liberty to reveal at this time.

I’m interviewing Jennifer as part of my own pre-grieving process. By Labor Day she’ll be moving back to Wisconsin, her birthplace, and I’m going to miss learning from her fine writing each week, especially, her sense of humor.

SCF: Jennnifer, Bellingham is such supportive literary community. Why are you leaving us?

JW: “To be close to my dad’s side of the family. They all have great senses of humor, even if some are Republicans. I’m going to miss all of you like crazy.”

Jennifer’s special brand of humor spills into her writing and inspires me to be more open to humor in my own. Here’s an excerpt from her soon-to-be published RWB anthology submission “Abaldyeno” about her1988 trip to the Soviet Union.

As the line inched forward, I remembered the Aeroflot barf bag I’d stolen from my seat pocket on the plane. Would the Customs officer ask me to empty my pockets? Would he accept my defense of innocently wanting a souvenir of the Russian language description of how to use a barf bag? Is a sense of humor allowed?

Jennifer has also taught me how to craft heartwarming scenes that connect readers with universal emotions and truths.

Ludmilla accessorized her running suit with a string of pearls. Her nails were clean and polished. Perhaps she didn’t know we would be camping. She touched my arm and laughed. “You are the first American of my life, Jenny. Camping is a small price to pay to meet you.”

SCF: What about the development of your writing life?

JW: “I was always a good speller and I loved writing and reading. In the 10th grade we read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. It shocked me every time I found words I didn’t know, like “motley retinue.” I loved the sound of that and still try to use it every chance I get.

At last, our motley retinue of 200 Americans descended Aeroflot’s push-up jet stairs and set foot on Soviet soil in Moscow.

“I think when I really started to write, though, was in the 11th grade. My teacher had us write daily, at least a paragraph. It was intense. I really liked that practice.

“When I started making money it was in Juneau, through technical writing, which I thought was fascinating. But I wanted to learn how to write for movies, so I moved to L.A. I studied screenwriting at USC, pitched some scripts to producers and worked in post-production preparing subtitles for Hollywood movies. After eight years, even though one of my scripts was made into a short film, I was ready to leave. I didn’t know how to schmooze enough to sell screenplays, and I hated parties. Hollywood was exciting, but also disappointing. The writer had no power. That’s when I moved to Bellingham.”

SCF: How has your writing changed since then?

JW: I took the first Red Wheelbarrow Writers workshop taught by Laura Kalpakian, Cami Ostman and Susan Tive. I’d been working on a novel set during the Civil War and related to my family. The class helped me to be a better writer. I also joined my first critique group around that time. It was a big deal because I had to audition, which meant going public, reading my work aloud, really coming out as a writer. Being part of the RWB community has inspired me to be bold enough to write memoir, which I very much enjoy.


Jennifer Wilke does seem unstoppable. She’s an engaging storyteller who knows how to pay attention to detail as she works on her current project, a memoir about peace and war, of which her marvelous RWB anthology contribution is a part.

I followed that trail over a slight dune to discover a curving sandy beach and the endless Black Sea. The vast expanse of water was velvet blue, not black. The faded moon was sinking into the watery horizon to let the sun take its place.

SCF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned, so far, about writing?

JW: Show up!

SCF: Any final words about Jennifer Wilke as a writer?

JW: I feel like I’m entering my next incarnation.

A bit about Susan Chase-Foster

Susan CFSusan is an award-winning poet who gathers spruce tips and shaggy mane mushrooms in Alaska’s boreal forests with her grandson, eats stinky tofu and steamed sweet potato leaves on exotic Taiwanese archipelagos with her son, and has deep conversations about art and kiwis with her husband in their own jungle of a backyard. If there’s time, she ignites her computer and writes a tsunami.


Kick Open the Closet Door: Write a Memoir

by Shannon Hager
Author: Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir

We all have stories worth sharing. Mark Twain advised, “Write about what you know.” Memoir writing requires a high level of self-exposure, risking disapproval, danger or pain. To me, the best memoirs are those I learn from and take place within the context of what’s happening in a society or a political climate which is not my own. Powerful memoirs like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier describes lives of war victims we may not even think about or be aware of as victims. In her memoir Do They Hear You When You Cry, Fauzuja Kassendja writes about her experience as an asylum seeker from Togo trying to escape the female genital mutilation common in her culture. Her story makes me shudder to know what we in the United States do to people we lock up in horrendous conditions when they flee from dangers in their home countries.

Social upheavals make memoir interesting. Just take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and her other books. White Africans living in Southern Rhodesia during change from colonialism to black ruled Zimbabwe do, indeed, have a unique story unknown to many.

Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land is a memoir about growing up in an abusive Christian youth center in the Dominican Republic. It reminds me of the writings of local author Pam Helberg who describes coming to terms with being a lesbian in an extremely religious family, the abuse heaped upon her by the religion in which she was raised, and the society in which she lives.

When I read Orange is the New Black, My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, I was reminded that not everyone doing time is black and poor. I learned a lot about the federal prison system reading her story of what happened to her as a white woman from the upper class.

Memoir writers are often accused of being self-centered egotists. “How do you have the audacity to think that anyone cares about your life?” Writing a memoir may be construed as “self-promotion.” In the culture in which I was raised, self promotion was seen as bragging and, therefore, frowned upon. To all this nonsense I reply, “Oh, get over it!”

My friend Maureen Kelleher is a private investigator who works on post-conviction death penalty cases, reinvestigating the circumstances surrounding the crime that sent someone to death row. Her self-promotion as a hard worker who is fearless in her efforts on behalf of the condemned, gained exonerations for three innocent people who left death row and went straight to freedom. Her work and her art are now the subject of a soon to be released documentary, The Courage of Her Convictions. “If you don’t spread the word about yourself, nobody will. Please get over that ridiculous faux humility,” she says.

I had apprehensions about opening a Pandora’s box, dealing with repercussions from writing about secrets, when I wrote and published my memoir Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. Since the book came out, people have thanked me for kicking open the closet door behind which so many families and loved ones of the incarcerated live. I know about the pain of separation, the frustration of dealing with prison systems, the stigma, hopelessness, expense, and fear millions of people endure just to spend time behind bars with someone they love. The readers who thank me know they are not alone in their trials of separation because my book shows them they aren’t.

Royalty checks are nice and greatly appreciated but the praise readers give me, especially those who have loved ones behind bars, make me know the five years I spent living like a hermit to write this book and having the audacity to think someone may be interested in my life, is ok.

And in that vein, I’m working on a second memoir. This one has to do with my life in Liberia, West Africa living in primitive conditions, through riots and civil war. And I have the audacity to think that someone would care about that.

Shannon (2)Shannon Hager is the author and publisher of the Chanticleer Grand Prize Narrative Non-Fiction 2014 award winning book, Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law; Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. She worked for more than twenty years as a nurse in South Louisiana’s prisons and jails, and on the streets and in the heath care systems of New Orleans. Her memoir reflects her multiple roles as a health care professional, a prison wife and an activist fighting the criminal injustice system. Her deeply personal story begins at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, and ends several years after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and its people.

In addition, Shannon served two stints as a Peace Corps Volunteer: Liberia, West Africa from 1978-1980 and Zaire, (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) in Central Africa from 1985-86. She specialized in public health, tropical medicine and infectious diseases.

In Liberia, Shannon managed vaccination programs, opened new rural clinics and taught a national health record-keeping system. Her second memoir, currently in progress, tells her story of living through riots in Liberia’s capitol city Monrovia, followed by a military coup and life under martial law.

In Congo, Shannon worked in a World Health Organization viral research project studying Monkey Pox and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola. As part of a mobile medical team, she participated in studies of HIV-infection in rural areas of the northern Congo’s Equateur Region.

After living in New Orleans for twenty-two years, she retired and now lives in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys a cooler climate and the boating culture. She writes articles for a local boating organization and is glad to still be alive!



When I signed up to write this blog post several months ago, it was at the Red Wheelbarrow Writer’s happy hour and—as I’d been indulging in happiness for well over an hour—I was, um… easily manipulated. And writing a blog post for a bunch of writers at some random future date seemed like a great idea. No problem.

As the deadline neared, however, the idea shriveled: what could I possibly contribute that could be of value to such an amazing group of writers, most of whom have been at this far longer than myself? I tried denying that I would have to do it: the project would be abandoned, no one would notice if I let it slip, the Internet might break, etc. Of course, Diane called me right on cue. Sigh.

But then it occurred to me that everyone likes gratitude, especially when it’s genuine and directed at them, and that would be my honest experience of the Red Wheelbarrow Writers – a great giant heaping serving of gratitude. I am perhaps on mile twenty of my novel-writing marathon, and I have high hopes of reaching the finish line entirely because of this great community. So here’s my thanks to you all:

Thanks for the start.

On October 31, 2011, Cami Ostman texted and challenged me to a Nanowrimo duel—odd, as we didn’t know each other well at the time, and I had never expressed any desire to write a novel. She must have had an intuition that I had a story lurking, or maybe that I am madly competitive, because I picked up the glove. Mostly from a desire to beat her daily word count, I began writing the first story that came into my head, and was surprised by the end of the first week to find a whole crowd of characters had woken up in my mind and were clamoring for freedom. I haven’t had much peace since.

Thanks for the community

As a professional creative, I’ve participated in any number of conferences and activities with other folks similarly inclined, and have always rolled my eyes at what can quickly devolve into—for lack of better words—a big ol’ pecker contest: who has been published, who is connected to which publisher or producer, who won the award, who is sleeping with the drummer. Ick. I prefer solitude. When I reluctantly joined in with my first RWW meeting, what I found in you all was instead a marvelous group of people, all in different parts of their writing journeys, but all wonderfully supportive of one another’s successes and challenges. Each time one of you has garnered an award or new contract, or even just finished the first draft of a difficult project, others in the group are genuinely thrilled as if it were their own success. What a delight to be welcomed into such a group.

Thanks for the stretch.

Just like a really good yoga stretch is often done with a little help from the teacher, and usually hurts, (but not too much) you all have helped me stretch, even when it might not have been comfortable. You’ve been brave enough to tell me I used the same phrase four times in one page, that my characters needed more fleshing out or that (thanks Laura) a whole four pages are a waste of narrative space. Critiquing another’s work honestly is a brave and generous act, and I so appreciate those of you who have been willing to make it hurt a little!

Thanks for the laughs

The group Nanowrimo novels. Enough said.

Thanks for the stories

When I head to Uisce on a Saturday, I no longer see a group of strangers, but feel as if I am entering a big top tent teeming with wild and colorful stories. Because of you all, I have experienced the Alaskan wilderness, the thrill of blue water sailing, the joy of running, and the delicate insights uncovered in a garden. I have bird-watched on remote islands, been a civil war soldier, an African diplomat, a displaced gringa, and a woman obsessed with Elvis. I will never again cook a king salmon without a profound understanding of its arrival on my plate. Thanks for becoming my friends.


AGabrielPhotobigAuthor Bio:

Andrea Gabriel has written and/or illustrated a number of picture books for children, and is currently lurching toward the finish of her first novel. She makes a living creating pictures and websites.