Archive for June 2016

In praise of editors

My first creative non-fiction article tortured me during the middle drafts, as though I was in a river too frothy to comprehend from the seat low in my canoe. I was always scraping into one rock or another. I like a bit of whitewater as much as the next paddler, but my desire in taking up serious writing, the desire to bring readers something rewarding, was in danger of being swamped by struggle and overwork. If I didn’t change something, I might quit.

A few years ago, I didn’t think of myself as a creative writer, nor a storyteller, for that matter. I was an amateur essayist, which I thought was a whole different animal. Yet I knew the power of story and wanted to harness that power in my writing. I thought it would be easy enough to write out two stories of real events, stories that friends had said were good ones.

When I wrote them out, yes, they were good stories, but I was tripping over myself in various ways. And, to me, they had to have a point, which always seemed clearer in my head than when it arrived on the page. And my really big bugaboo was finding an order, a structure, that would engage the reader fully. While my friends may be sincerely fascinated by an animated account over a pitcher of beer, a different thing altogether was telling my story to strangers, clearly not a captive audience. Especially because with the words committed to the page, and my readers at some remove, I can’t see reactions on their faces and adjust what I say accordingly. Doesn’t the chief problem always come down to how to show readers that our stories are going somewhere that they’ll enjoy following us to?

I was going to need help. Help beyond taking a creative writing class here and there. Those were good, and encouraging, as I began to see the science—the methods—in the writing arts. Though I was also skeptical—I didn’t want to tart up a true story, or let filigree weigh it down. And the big question, which structure to use when, baffled me. I needed a river guide to avoid the brushy “sweeper” trees lying across my stream, not to mention the dreaded drop holes.

Then one day, my mother offered to pay me to sell the cemetery plots she’d inherited and didn’t want. My writing fund was born.

So, starting with the first piece that I wanted to see published, and after struggling awhile, I sought out a developmental review from an experienced editor. To me, an editor is a professional reader who has a bead on other readers’ needs, wants, reactions. And knows what to do about these things. With help, the obstacles could be navigated, the chosen eddies could be playful asides, or crucial explication, and I could smoothly return to the main channel with my readers still with me. With each draft I could get much closer to an intimate conversation with my readers that I hoped for.

I found very fine and insightful editors right here in our local writing community. I needn’t have worried about decorative flourishes, because my editors haven’t pushed me in that direction. They have pushed me to work hard, but have guided that work insightfully. I suspect I will always have some blindness about structure. Now I don’t let that bother me. It’s great to get comments back and feel, Yes! That’s right, that’s what I’m trying to say. Editors, thank you!

Author Bio:

Jean Waight sqJean Waight is an essayist and memoirist who formerly worked in communications for Group Health Cooperative. Her first person account of the twists and turns in a snow rescue, “Through the Floor,” appeared in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, winter 2015. The Bellingham Herald published her beach clean-up essay. Her blog of life among the trees in Bellingham, full of shady opinions, is at

Am I a Writer?  

by Carol McMillan

At a Bellingham gathering a few years ago someone asked me, “Are you a writer?”

“Hmmm,” I pondered. How to answer?

I know I’m an anthropologist; I have degrees hanging on my wall and I have been employed for many years on the basis of those degrees. Society has stamped me across the forehead with its approval: “Anthropologist”!  Easy answer; why didn’t she ask me that? “Are you an anthropologist?” “Sure!” But—am I a writer?

I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight:

“When the moon dances in the snow

Where do all the birdies go?

To the tops of all the trees

‘till morning breezes

Rock their leaves.”

It was illustrated. Mom kept it.

I started journaling at age ten. I have three boxes in my basement filled with decades of daily writings. At ten I mostly wrote about playing animals with Harriet Hohmeyer and watching Maverick on TV, but those were the vital events in the life of a ten-year-old. Perhaps the content of my journals has become more varied over the years, but the compulsion to write has remained unchanged.

I have taken few, if any, courses in writing or in English since high school. I do not have degrees declaring me to be a writer. Society has issued no forehead stamps proclaiming me as such. I have never been employed as a writer. Am I a writer? The question remained.

My next poem of note was written in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in Girl Scout camp, at age 13. The ten-plus stanzas have been lost, but I remember the first stanza:

“The windswept pine tree,

Beauty blows,

Beneath the clouds in

Circling rows…”

One of the camp counselors, Cricket, asked if I would make her a copy (by hand, of course, before copy machines existed) so that she would have it when I was famous one day. Needless to say, I was very flattered. After all, I simply wrote; that’s what I did. No one ever had judged my writing before as good or bad. (Maybe Cricket, wherever she is, still has a copy. Do you think I’d be able to track her down on Facebook?)

Today I write. . . and write . . . and write. Mostly poetry. I process my emotions by writing. I document my life by writing. Two summers ago I rafted the Grand Canyon. Beautiful, harrowing, a life-long memory. It resulted in a book, White Water, Red Walls (available at Village Books, if you should feel inclined to check it out). Self-published, but published. And I’ve earned enough from its sales to slightly more than cover the costs of publication. So I guess I’ve now earned money as a writer. Do I qualify as a “professional”? That seems a stretch.

I just finished taking two classes on narrative prose writing from Laura Kalpakian. Wonderful! The feedback from Laura and from other excellent writers in the group has helped me learn to ask myself the appropriate questions about my writing. So now can I say that I’ve studied writing?

When I write I call upon my muse. I believe in muses. Especially for poems. When a poem leaps out of the infinite ether of the Universe and lands in my fingers, I simply watch as the poem writes itself. Sometimes I have no idea where the poem is going and its ending arrives as a surprise! Can I claim the poem as my own? Did I actually write it? Or did some unknown essence or spirit use my hand as I observed the gift? “Hmmmm”, again.

I’ve decided! I’ve figured it out. Am I a writer? Definitely! How do I know? Because I write. I’ve always written. When 9/11 happened and I watched the planes flying into the towers, even before the last plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field, I left my house. I drove to Safeway and bought rice, beans, canned soup, two packages of pens and two reams of paper. Necessities for my existence. Food and writing, they sustain me. So, yes, I’m a writer. Because I must write.

Author Bio: CAROL MCMILLAN, Ph.D., is an anthropologist who has ventured across Africa with an entomology expedition, lived with free-ranging rhesus monkeys, and worked with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s language preservation program. RWB Carol McMillanCarol’s poetry has been published in several anthologies. She is a member of several Bellingham poetry groups, reads at local open mics, is the co-host of Creekside Open Mic, and is a 2013 recipient of the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Merit Award.  Her book, White Water, Red Walls, documents in poetry, paintings, and photographs a rafting journey down the Grand Canyon. And, yes, she is a writer.


For the Love of Words

What compels me to write? Do I believe I have a story to tell or a new way to express an old feeling? Perhaps – or not. But I do know I am driven, moth to flame, lover to beloved, by a passion for my mother tongue.

I do not remember not “knowing” words. I don’t mean just recognizing spoken words – but knowing the forms words take, the shafts and curves and colors of their letters. I do not remember a time that I could not read. Yet, I doubt that I sprang fully literate from the womb. There must have been some sort of learning arc.

Somewhere on that arc, very early on, I discovered that all letters had colors. Lovely, shimmering colors – dull boring colors – colors that spoke of stillness or music or riots in the streets. In pre-school I informed my teacher, quite emphatically, that she had used the wrong color to spell the word bluebird. She was patient and kind. I was bratty and opinionated!

Obnoxious or not, I really did want to share my letters and their colors – to explain how they affected me and why I loved specific words. My grandmother, a woman whose Yorkshire-isms littered her speech, pronounced me a bit daft. However, my colors would not be denied. Every new word arrived with form and function and its own tincture:

Rambunctious – a roaring red letter of a word with its feet firmly anchored in an earthy C

Muse – a lovely rose-colored word quickly fading to its soft yellow sibilant

Opalescence – a visual onomatopoeia of pearls and early light

As a young child I longed to marry the word and its meaning to its colors. And I puzzled over foreign languages. Did the French find the rain to be more playful than the English did? The English rain evoked Norse war gods running amok. And why would the Americans want to drop the pretty little silver U from colour?   It would be many years before I found out that I was blessed with a mild, and not uncommon, crossing of the senses. I was thrilled to know that I wasn’t quite so ‘daft’ after all, that there were others like me – I was crestfallen to learn that very likely all their colors would be quite different. I had best restrict myself to form and function and sound if I wanted to write coherently.

Happily, it was the sound of words that filled our home – not just the come, go, yes, no that move the day along, but all the wonderful words that literature employs to tell our stories back to us. In the evenings, with children in bed and the house gone quiet, our parents sat in the living room and took turns – one read aloud while the other darned socks and after half an hour they traded roles. My father, in particular, read with a natural gift for expression. This was our cradle song, the muted patterns of the words and the inflections of the voices drifted up the stairs: a spoken lullaby.

It was my father who brought literature into our home and it was my father who considered le bon mot the highest form of art. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations held pride of place in the hallway bookcase, and the King James Bible was a deity unto itself. I was not often read to as a child because I was impatient to read it myself but I confess to a little twinge of envy when I sat on the bottom stair, listening as my father read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to my six-year old sister. I wanted to be singled out for something that special – that introduction to funny, clever words.

All these years later, my romance goes on apace. I glory in my lover’s tangled Teutonic unruliness, I am beguiled by its ancient genesis on the Carpathian steppes and I’m even grateful that the odious, conquering Normans overlaid our native speech with lovely French. And still, mostly in solitude, I roll a color over my tongue. Salacious. Sulpician. Nonsensical and Lilliputian. Yellow words. Grass-green words. Delicious words that fill me up.

So far I have been more voyeuse than participant in this kindly, boisterous group of Red Wheelbarrow Writers and I’m struggling for the confidence to share what I write. I come to Happy Hour and listen to courageous writers reading from their works. Some of those writers are polished and experienced, with works already published; some are just learning their craft. All are determined and brave and inspire me to reclaim the life I envisioned as a child.

Author’s Bio:  

Judy Shantz grew up on the freezing/scorching Canadian prairie but always longed for a more gentle clime; preferably one with the scent of roses and salt sea in the air. Her first full-length novel, The Case of the Flickering Flashlight, was written at the age of nine and accepted by her loving parents with amazement and scarcely-disguised laughter. Her adult writings fill notebooks, spill out of files, cover cocktail napkins and the backs of grocery lists and her association with Red Wheelbarrow Writers is providing the inspiration to add flesh and feathers and fancy pants to all those characters waiting to be heard.

Never Give Up On Your Writerly Dreams

by Janet Oakley

I’ve been writing all my life, a myriad of stories from family history or my imagination brewing all the time. My first stab at storytelling came in second grade when after viewing a documentary about the first summit of Mount Everest, I was inspired to write my own tale, Funny Bunny Climbs Mount Everest. It was so successful that I did a sequel, Funny Bunny and the Prite. (I think that was Pirate.) There were many more tales and some good material in high school writing classes that was published in the school’s lit magazine, but serious writing came my senior year in college when I was required to write a thesis for my degree in history.

I had already begun the initial research in my sophomore year at Kalamazoo College when I was an intern at the Smithsonian Institute. John C. Ewers, head of the Anthropology Department sent me off to look for drawings and prints of Native Americans in 19th century magazines. I was placed in the Library of Congress annex building and had full range of the library and its tunnels. Calling up these valuable bits of Americana such as The Casket (edited by Edgar Allen Poe), Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News (with maps of where the Union Army was going next) and Harper’s Weekly (with its bull of the month centerfold), had already enriched the fiction stories going on in my head.

But I digress. My thesis was “Comanche Indians as Prisoners of War,” a very 1960s subject. As I poured over Indian scout saddle reports, 19th century memoirs of 1870s Indian Territory, agency reports, and letters unopened for 80 years, I discovered that 1) I didn’t want to look like the archivist who appeared not to have seen light his entire life. I loved the research, the hunt for material, but I wanted to talk about history, make the public understand. I wanted a tan. And 2) I wanted to tell this story encased in my research notes that would make the reader pause and think. I would tell my thesis in a way that a novel reveals. It would have footnotes as required, but it would make sense. In a way, I wanted to write literary non-fiction, something not done back then. I’m happy to say that I got honors.

Where is the title of this blog post? It’s in a dream that I had over 25 years ago. A dream of a man left for dead in the snow. Being found. WW II. And why did he end up there?

Up to that time, all I had written was lyrics to songs I performed and maybe some letters to the editor. This image sparked a long yearning to write a novel, but what the heck did I know about Norway in WW II? As I searched to expand the scene and story, my training for digging up history kicked in. I read books that presented a general history of Norway during the five year occupation, a wonderful book with WW II stories, 1950s memoirs of intelligence officers and SOE agents, poetry read over the BBC, literature, Newsweek and Time Magazine. I ordered books and papers inter-library, but my greatest find was on a shelf at my local university: two volumes on Norway once classified for field agents only. In them were maps, history, train schedules, location of oil refineries, and descriptions of towns and villages. These two volumes gave me the foundation to tell a historical thriller with facts that few readers knew about. It took three and half years to write, but in end ,my first novel, The Jøssing Affair, was done, all one million pages.

Of course, though finishing a novel is a great thing, but the next step is harder –getting it published. Truly, it has taken a quarter century to get this done. Over the years as I learned the art of synopsis writing and query letters, there were highs when The Jøssing Affair finaled at the Pacific Northwest Writers Contest –twice – ; when it won first place in a Barnes & Nobel contest that had author Elizabeth Bergman take a train from Oregon to take me out to dinner; when it got full reads of the manuscript and high praise. There were lows too with comments that “I can’t get into the characters.” “Not what we are looking for.” etc. I knew I had to cut the manuscript down, so I spent years and workshops doing that, but there came a point that cutting would hurt The Jøssing Affair, so I stopped and wrote three more novels.

Then in 2006, things started to change. There were places to put up your novel digitally and get feedback. I heard about Authonomy run by Harper Collins UK. I placed Tree Soldier and The Jøssing Affair there and got excellent feedback and wonderful international friends who support me today. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest (I believe an early tester for Kindle ) opened in 2007. I put Tree Soldier there, made a slew more friends and made the quarter finals in 2013 out of 10,000 entries. With publishing changing so fast and my experiences with on-line interaction, I decided to try out Createspace (the group behind ABNA) using Tree Soldier as an experiment. Finally, I was a published author (with many more learning curves to come) but it won national awards including a grand prize from Chanticleer Book Reviews and its selection as a Everybody Reads tour of seven libraries in Eastern Washington and the Palouse. Timber Rose came next with a 2015 WILLA silver award win.

I am glad that I waited so long for The Jøssing Affair to come out. My 25 years plus of lolling in the writerly world has made this novel so true to my heart come out in the best way possible. It’s a top seller at Village Books and I’m selling books in the UK for the first time (because Createspace can do that). With the awards season beginning, I’ll be putting the novel in contests. When I go to Oxford, England this September for the Historical Novel Society’s Conference, I have an appointment with an agent there to explore foreign rights. I hope for more things to come.

So don’t’ give up on your writerly dream. Do your best work, get critiqued, learn more craft and enjoy writing for its own sake. This long slog to publication has been a journey well worth it.