When the Words Won’t Come by Molly Brewer Hoeg

I learned to embrace the irregularities and appreciate the end result. Perhaps I need to do more of that in my writing. Ignore the wiggles and blips and just let the words come. Sort it out with color later.

It’s been a dry year for writing. After steadily plugging away on my book for over four years, I came to an abrupt halt. At first, I put it down to my usual summer slow-down, the season when I prioritize family, cabin, friends and the outdoors over sitting in front of a laptop. But I failed to get re-energized all through the fall and winter and felt lost, drifting without that goal and sense of productivity. I had to do something.

It was a writing friend who pointed me down a new path. I’ve always had an interest in sketching and was intrigued when I saw a distant cousin doing “journal sketching” years ago. The idea stuck with me, so when my friend recommended Jane LaFazio’s online class Sketching and Watercolor: Journal Style I took the plunge.

The class included six lessons, one released every week for the students to work on independently. I ordered her list of supplies and waited eagerly to begin.

Week 1: Fruit. I watched her video, read all the instructions, and looked at her examples. Could I really do this? Setting pencil to paper, I took a deep breath and began to follow the outline of the fruit in front of me. This was a rough draft, after all, and I could always hit delete and rewrite it.

Pulling out my permanent ink pen, I traced my pencil lines. There was no going back here, each stroke of the pen was a final statement – a sentence I could no longer change. But it went surprisingly well and I forged on.

The final step was all new territory to me. I opened up my new set of inexpensive watercolors and stared at them. Now I had to mix colors, blend shades and capture the nuances of light and color. I still have a lot to learn about writing scenes, and this felt the same way. I needed to make this come to life, now with water and paint. With Jane’s reassuring voice in my head, I applied my brush strokes as best I could.

For the journaling aspect, Jane encouraged us to frame our paintings, to add words and context to the composition, and to sign and date it. She was right, it added the polish my timid start needed, the final edit to complete the story.

Now it was time to share my work. The final step was to post my painting on our class discussion page with a note about the experience. Just like reading my stories aloud in writing workshops and hearing others read, this became a valuable learning experience. We all opened ourselves to exposure, gave feedback and encouraged one another on this journey.

Week 2: Leaves. Who knew there were so many colors of green in the plants around us? Jane taught us to mix colors, to layer them on the paper and reveal the veins in the leaves. I reveled in the new techniques, but lacked material in our bleak Northland spring that had not yet sprung. Just as story and plot have evaded me as a writer, I had to get creative and find alternate ways to express myself. This time, foraging in the refrigerator and a tub of spring greens I found inspiration.

I liked these small compositions. I was not overwhelmed by a large expanse of white paper, and a complex layout. They were a manageable size, something that could be accomplished in one or two sittings. Just as the magazine stories I have continued to write this year while my book lays fallow. Short projects that were contained and manageable.

Week 3: Straight to Ink. Now this was a scary concept, drawing with no safety net. Committing immediately with no recourse. Sort of like those writing prompts I’ve done in classes. Write about the color Red for five minutes. Don’t look back, just keep writing.

I found that this technique forced me to keep my eyes on the subject more, and trust my hand to follow its outline. The longer I kept at it, the bolder I became. I learned to embrace the irregularities and appreciate the end result. Perhaps I need to do more of that in my writing. Ignore the wiggles and blips and just let the words come. Sort it out with color later.

Week 4: Flowers. I was learning to like sketching and painting nature. It’s very forgiving in its irregularities and loose symmetry. But my grocery story bouquet contained some brilliantly colored blooms, impossible to replicate with my student paints.

I queried Jane. “How do I make hot pink?”

Her reply, “You can’t. You need specific colors like Opera Pink to get it.”

Clearly my toolkit was lacking, so I researched the more professional paints she had recommended for those willing to pay the price, and pressed Order.

Perhaps this was like hiring a writing coach. When I found myself unable to navigate the divide between writing short magazine stories and the manuscript for a book, I sought to increase my toolkit. She guided me through exercises to grow my skills, to learn new techniques and put me on a course to continue working on my own.

Week 5: Shoes. I found great fun and inspiration in the shoes my fellow students chose, and how they rendered them with ink and watercolor. Students ranged from novices like me to those with obvious artistic talent, and I learned from every one of them.

Clearly this was why my writing coach instructed me to read every book in my genre that I could get my hands on. I learned what worked and what didn’t. What made me want to keep reading, and what caused me to quit reading some books.

I dove into my own closet first, then succumbed to the cuteness factor of my grandchildren’s footwear. Sometimes it’s the subject matter itself that makes a creation shine, whether it’s in print or paint.

Week 6: Man Made Objects. This lesson incorporated techniques for drawing to scale, maintaining symmetry and the artistic license in choosing what details to leave in or exclude. I stumbled on a bottle of Amaretto in the pantry. It contained plenty of challenges for getting the proportions right, and I worked through Jane’s methods to complete my drawing. But the thought of replicating the bumpy texture of the bottle and the shiny glass was daunting, so I set it aside. When I completed painting a kettle and teacup, that first drawing taunted me, daring me to complete it. I accepted the challenge.

Sometimes stories don’t go well. Chapters just won’t work. I’ve found that if I leave them alone for a while, rather than using blunt force to push through them, the answer becomes more clear. Or my confidence surges. And the end result is greatly enhanced. So it was for my Amaretto.

I have completed my class, but not my painting. I have a lot of practicing to do, especially mastering those finicky watercolors. I found that I look forward to these art projects, and they can absorb a whole morning or afternoon just as writing did in the past.

I went into this new venture hoping to stimulate my creativity, to open that side of my brain hoping it would spur on my writing as well. If I had my way, I would marry the two. Use my ink and color to illustrate my words. But I’m not there yet.

The biggest hurdle with my book is that I cannot see the true thread, feel the message I am meant to be sending, the audience I seek to serve. Learning to draw and paint hasn’t solved that for me, but clearly it has taught me many transferrable lessons. So for now, I will continue my new art and wait for the words to come.

Molly Brewer Hoeg returned to her hometown of Duluth in retirement to resume her love affair with the Big Lake. She writes for regional and national magazines, favoring stories connected to her passion for active outdoor pursuits. She has a book in progress about the months spent bicycle touring with her husband, which she calls her “forever project.” You can follow her adventures on her blog, SuperiorFootprints.org.

When a Member of your Writers’ Group Dies by Marie Zhuikov

We know he would want us to continue forward. He’d want us to keep writing. The WORST thing we could do is stop writing.

James O. Phillips

In mid-April of this year, the Tunnel Fire engulfed more than 16,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, prompting the evacuation of more than 700 homes. One of those homes was that of Jim Phillips, a long-time member of the speculative fiction writers’ group of which I’ve been a part about fifteen years. Jim joined the group when he used to live in Duluth, Minnesota, and was a member of Lake Superior Writers. After he retired, he moved to Arizona, where he lived alone with two cats for at least half a dozen years. His nearest relatives lived several states away.

After the evacuation ended, a neighbor noticed that Jim’s Jeep was in the same spot it had been before the evacuation. Concerned, the neighbor apparently called the police to do a welfare check on Jim. They found him dead of “natural causes.” He had been dead for several days.

It was during this time we were supposed to have our monthly Zoom meeting to discuss our writing. We hadn’t heard from Jim about his availability for the meeting, so we delayed it until we learned more about his status. It just seemed weird to have a meeting without him.

We were aware of the evacuation and thought maybe he left his home so fast, he forgot to take his phone charger or something. That would be like him. My emails and texts to him remained unanswered, which was unlike him.

There are two other women in our group besides me, Linda and Lacey. Linda is retired and had a bit more time on her hands to investigate what was going on with Jim. Lacey has her own blog (Lacey’s Late-night Editing) and wrote a post that goes into detail about the events, should you be curious.

Linda doggedly tracked down information about Jim and called me when Russ and I were on vacation in Yosemite National Park to deliver the sad news. I was shocked, to say the least. We knew Jim had some health issues, but he had seemed fine the month before when we met via Zoom.

Like I told an acquaintance recently, Jim just “up and died on us with no warning.” It was disconcerting, and it took me several days to get out of my funk, even though I was surrounded by the unsurpassed natural beauty of the park. I found comfort in that beauty.

I’ve become a fan of Spotify and its various music mixes. A song called, “Resist the Urge” by Matt Sweeney popped up in my Daily Mix during vacation. Although I don’t agree with the song’s encouragement not to grieve someone’s death (you need to feel all the feels!), I do like the lyrics that say, “If you need reminders, look around at what is huge and wild and there you’ll see the way . . . I may not be there bodily, but in the wind, I’m here.”

Jim enjoyed hiking and getting out in nature. He often regaled us with tales of his hikes around Arizona. I felt he would approve my turning to nature to grieve. There wasn’t even a funeral for him that we could attend to share our grief. Not even an obituary we could find online. However, Jim started a speculative fiction group in Arizona and a member wrote a post about him (with Linda and Jim’s sister’s assistance). It’s fitting and such a good remembrance of him.

I especially appreciated this comment in the post: “The writing communities of Duluth and Flagstaff will fondly remember Jim for his scientific curiosity, love of all things science fiction and horror, his wicked sense of humor, his keen editorial eye, and his promotion of the Oxford comma.”

Since we couldn’t attend a public funeral, my writer’s group decided to hold a ceremony of our own. Last weekend, we gathered in Willmar, Minnesota, (the halfway point between all of us geographically). We had lunch together and then made our way to a state park north of town, where we hiked a short way on a trail (“Trail J,” for Jim). We found a small grove of oak trees and ventured off the trail to sit among them. I’m sure Jim would have approved of the location.

We shared our collective memories and feelings about Jim. We all were grateful for the visit we paid him a few years ago in Flagstaff, where we all gathered for several days. We visited the Grand Canyon and met with the writer’s group he had organized there.

As Lacey so aptly said in her blog post, losing a writing friend is different from losing a “regular” friend:

There is a part of me, a deep and essential part of me, that these three — now only two — people know more intimately than anyone else in my life. To share your writing with another, especially in its formative stages, requires a great deal of vulnerability. And from that vulnerability comes a trust that rivals the trust I have in my husband, my best friend, or my mom. Because time and again, they have proved themselves worthy to be allowed into my inner landscape, the world of my mind that is shared only sporadically with those I share my “real life” with.

Losing one of the few people who I consistently trusted with that part of myself is no small thing. And grieving it is no small task, especially when it is tied up so closely with the very thing I have turned to throughout my life to process everything else. But it’s the only way forward.

Jim provided a unique viewpoint on our writing that no one else will be able to match. Besides that, he was just an all-around good person. Even though he died alone with his cats, the ripples from his death reverberate through our lives, and it’s going to take some time to recover.

I couldn’t write any fiction for about six weeks after his death. When I did try, my output was only half of normal.

I’m okay with that. It’s going to take time to get over this.

When we met in Willmar, we didn’t bring any writing to critique. We’re saving that for our next meeting in August, when Lacey will be in Duluth (from her home in South Dakota). I suspect this meeting will be difficult without Jim, but we know he would want us to continue forward. He’d want us to keep writing. The WORST thing we could do is stop writing.

So, we will keep moving forward, keep putting words to paper. Keep hoping they are worthy.

We’ll miss you, Jim.

Marie Zhuikov is a novelist, science writer, and poet from Duluth. Her blog-memoir, “Meander North” is due out this year from Nodin Press. She is a long-time member of Lake Superior Writers. For more information, visit marieZwrites.com

Camus and Risk by Doug Lewandowski

While personal reading choices will vary depending on need and diversions from other commitments, we will occasionally hunger for a return to the space where renewal and new ideas are generated.

While I have many “favorite” authors, including Arthur Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert, I also have a writer/philosopher who pushes me to reflect every time I pick up his book published right after the Second World War – The Plague, by Albert Camus. It provides a safe harbor for me to anchor, to stop for awhile to replenish and consider why I’m here. I come back to it every so often to see and learn from it about my own life.

Camus was an existentialist philosopher. Existentialism looks at the problem of human existence and considers the subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting. Existentialist thinkers frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose and value of human existence. In The Plague, people are dying from a slow insidious virus that invades a seaport in Algeria. The population is ordered to quarantine at home as the main character, a local doctor, labors around the clock to save victims. Sound familiar?

Heroism and acts of shame are ever present in the narrative, illustrating the selfishness of some and altruistic efforts of others who toil for the greater good. As the physician works tirelessly during the spread of the disease, he ponders life’s absurdity and risks.

When we return to a work of literature that entertains and inspires, it can also be an object lesson in why we write. There is nothing more affirming or rewarding than having someone tell you how they were touched by what you wrote. While I have published only one book, hearing someone say, “I was camping in the Quetico. It was raining and I read your book. I cried.” And another, “I wasn’t tired, so I thought I’d read your book that was sitting on the night stand, hoping it would put me to sleep. I stayed up till I finished it.”

These are real world examples of how to connect with another person. Getting there demands commitment and a kind of faith in ourself and a healthy respect for the process. While our finished products can be enjoyed in a few days or hours, moving down the road from inspiration to hours of thought, writing and editing in no way ends. Never mind finding someone to publish it!

There are all kinds of reasons to write and always a risk of going “philosophical” and getting lost in the weeds somewhere. Every writer takes a philosophical stance or in some instances a religious perspective when they write. We tie our lived experience together in loosely structured bundles, take a position on them, and then articulate our own vision.

While personal reading choices will vary depending on need and diversions from other commitments, we will occasionally hunger for a return to the space where renewal and new ideas are generated. It is a place that allows time for seeds to be gently planted and nurtured to fruition.

Doug Lewandowski has walked a varied path. He was a Christian Brother, an English teacher/counselor and is a retired Licensed Psychologist. He writes a column in the Duluth News Tribune and has had a story published in the Nemadji Review and placed third in 2020 in the Jade Ring’s short story contest of the Wisconsin Writer’s Association. Another short story was recently accepted for fall publication in the Jack Pine’s Writer’s Bloc “Talking Stick.” He was a commentator for KCRB, Minnesota Public Radio in the 90s. Doug transplanted to Duluth in 2018 to be closer to grandchildren. You may follow him on his blog douglewandowski.com.

Nurturing Creativity by Doug Lewandowski

In many respects, waiting for creativity to arrive is like hanging out in the yard waiting for things to grow.

One of the more trying courses I took in graduate school was the Psychology of Individual Differences. I am NOT, and doubt that I will ever be, good with statistics. Instead of looking for specificity, which numbers provide, I look for themes, but I do have a healthy respect for what numbers can offer. We all develop with our own style; just have to get out of the way to see the blossoming of the innate potential. Experience, linked with education and genetic inheritance moves us to new places.

On many occasions as an educator and counselor/psychologist, I’ve seen a convergence between know-how, learning and inherited traits. Awhile back I came across a student who was in their first year of medical school who was presented with a problem in a case study as part of a seminar. Students in the class were given specifics: lab tests, symptoms and the course of the illness. As the instructor went around the room asking each seminar participant to take a crack at finding a root cause for the condition, divergent opinions were offered, ranging from asthma to rickets. After some thoughtful consideration, my friend answered when the instructor came to them, “AIDS. I think they have AIDS.” They nailed it. This is an example of how an education, experience and the right kind of brain cells leads to sound judgements. Outside of medicine or training for a therapist/counselor/psychologist, there are similar processes for many other skills from brain surgery to first class welders.

The writer has their own pocket full of aptitudes. Somewhere in the author’s mind are the seeds of creation. They can be coaxed into growing by the right nutrients, especially if  given the chance. I suspect some day we will be able to enter through the doorways of inspiration and learn how it happens. Until then we are left standing on the doorstep, marveling at what appears when a revelation welcomes us in .

In many respects, waiting for creativity to arrive is like hanging out in the yard waiting for things to grow. The peonies will come, like they always do, and the lilacs will begin budding soon. They don’t seem to need our help except for the occasional pruning so they’ll come back stronger. The annuals need a welcoming environment and the right fertilizers, watering and gentle attention, to thrive and blossom during warm summer days.

Without stretching metaphors too far, this is not a whole lot different from what goes on between our ears when we write. If we have the “right stuff”  in the beginning, it will happen. Discouragement is the soil that needs tender, loving care to produce. Other times we need to prune, to shape, to get the results we want. Then we wait and hope that what we’ve have worked at will be valued. There are no guarantees, as you know. Keep at it.

Doug Lewandowski has walked a varied path. He was a Christian Brother, an English teacher/counselor and is a retired Licensed Psychologist. He writes a column in the Duluth News Tribune and has had a story published in the Nemadji Review and placed third in 2020 in the Jade Ring’s short story contest of the Wisconsin Writer’s Association. Another short story was recently accepted for fall publication in the Jack Pine’s Writer’s Bloc “Talking Stick.” He was a commentator for KCRB, Minnesota Public Radio in the 90s. Doug transplanted to Duluth in 2018 to be closer to grandchildren. You may follow him on his blog douglewandowski.com.

Reasons to Attend an Author’s Book Chat (Even If You Don’t Write Books) by Victoria Lynn Smith

You’ll learn what worked and didn’t work for authors, and some of that wisdom will be useful to you.

If you’re writing a book, and even if you’re not, you should listen to authors talk about their books. I’m not writing a book, at least not yet, and maybe never. But when the COVID lockdowns started, I discovered I liked attending virtual author chats and book launches. Over the last two years, I’ve listened to over twenty authors discuss their books, and I’ve noticed some reoccurring themes and ideas.

Writing is Tough

All writers have moments of doubt. One author almost gave up but decided the only way she could fail was to not finish her novel. Others talked about a manuscript they considered a learning experience then buried it in a drawer. Some took a break from a book they were writing before finishing it. All of them said, “Just keep writing.”

When the pandemic lockdowns started, many writers talked about feeling too anxious to write. When I heard a published author admit this, I realized my anxiousness and inability to sit at my desk and write was normal. I stopped thinking something was wrong with me. Another author found it difficult to write because she wasn’t out in the world, watching and listening to people, gathering material to take back to her desk. I could relate. I never appreciated how much inspiration I brought home, until I didn’t leave home.

When a member of the audience thought things must have gotten easier after a writer published a book, the author said, each book was like starting over and her second book was tougher to write. Hot dog! I write short stories and essays, and I find the same to be true. If published writers flounder occasionally, why wouldn’t I struggle at times?

Writing Takes Work

Read, read, and reread. Most authors talked about the importance of reading books from the genre they write in. And rereading those books helped them analyze how they were put together.

Research is important, even when writing novels or memoirs. One historical nonfiction writer spent almost a month living on a sixty-foot sailboat in the Arctic in order to research the setting for her book. It gave her confidence to write her book because she had knowledge and experience.

Take a chance. Experiment. Play. Listen to your characters. If something doesn’t work, revise.

Once the manuscript is done, the revising and editing starts. Get feedback from writers and beta readers. Be open to suggestions, but know when to trust your work. Many authors said revising was as much or more work than writing the book.

Getting Published

Work on building a writing resume by submitting short pieces of writing. Polish them until they’re shiny, beautiful baubles. And submit! One author submitted a story to a university journal, and they loved it so much they asked her if she had more stories like it. She did, and they published a book of her short stories. (This makes me think about Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a soda at a malt shop.)

Hire a good line editor before you submit to agents or publishers. Make sure the manuscript is as good and as error free as it can be. Learn how to write a query letter. Some authors shared helpful resources.

Potential agents and publishers want authors to have a social media presence and a website, even if it’s simple. One author attended an online pitch event on Twitter with agents. A publisher liked her pitch, asked to see her manuscript, then published her book.

Fight for your work. Sometimes an editor is right. One author talked about cutting a chapter from her memoir. Even though she wanted to keep it, she understood the editor’s point. Other times the author is right. Another author fought to keep the opening dream scene in her book, and the editor eventually agreed.

Understand a contract before signing it. Think about hiring an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts. One author warned, “Don’t let excitement about a contract cloud your judgement.”

So, Sign Up for an Author’s Book Chat

You’ll learn what worked and didn’t work for authors, and some of that wisdom will be useful to you. When writers talk about their struggles, it’ll give you perspective about your struggles. As they celebrate their newly published books, you’ll believe that someday you’ll celebrate yours. Finally, almost every author chat and book launch that I’ve attended had a Q & A, and the author answered questions about his or her journey to publication. But best of all, for an hour or two, you’ll be part of a community of people who love to write.

Looking for a Book Chat? Lake Superior Writers hosts a series called Book Club for Writers, which is free and open to members and nonmembers. Our next author will be Brian Malloy who will talk about his book The Year of Ice on March 29, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. For more information: Book Club for Writers.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. Her work has been published by Brevity Blog, Wisconsin Public Radio, Moving Lives Minnesota, Better Than Starbucks, 8142 Review, Red Cedar Review, Spring Thaw, Talking Stick, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Our Wisconsin, and Persimmon Tree. Read more at writingnearthelake.org.

A Review of It’s Murder Dontcha Know by Christine Marcotte

There are plenty of twists and turns that keep the murderer a mystery until the very end

Minnesota author Jeanne Cooney’s It’s Murder Dontcha Know is the first in her new series of cozy mysteries, published by North Star Press (release date March 29, 2022). Light-hearted and humorous, it is the perfect book to read when you have a fully stocked pantry. As with Cooney’s Hot Dish Heaven mystery series, this one is sprinkled with recipes for hot dishes and bars.  And with a full pantry you will be able to make a few. The Chicken Tetrazzini Baked Hot Dish and Blueberry Streusel Bars with Lemon-Cream Filling were both hits at a gathering I attended last week.

Doris Connor, the main character, moves her house, yes, the entire house, from her farm to the edge of Hallock, following the death of her husband. She likes the house but has had enough of farming. Doris prefers solitude. But in short order, Grace, her sister, and Rose, a ninety-year-old family friend, move in with Doris even before the wiring is hooked up.

The More Hot Dish, Please Café, the local restaurant owned by Grace, is where folks gather to hear the neighborhood news and gossip. Readers of Cooney’s books will recall that the Hot Dish Heaven Café was a prominent setting in the previous series. When it burned down, owner Margie Johnson decided not to rebuild. Instead, she sold her recipe collection to Grace who continued to provide popular menu items such as creamy Tater-Tot Hot Dish, Baked Cornbread Hot Dish, and Chicken-and-Stuffing Hot Dish.

Rumors fly following the robbery at the pharmacy and names are tossed around when the robber, Buck Daniels, turns up murdered. When Doris’s two adult children, Erin and Will, are implicated, Doris is beside herself. Her high school boyfriend, sheriff Karl Ingebretsen, might still be sweet on Doris, but he has no sympathy for the suspects Erin and Will.

Meddling comes naturally to Doris, so she sets out to find the murderer before Erin or Will are arrested. Doris, with the help (whether it is asked for or not) of Grace and Rose, is determined to exonerate her children. The book has plenty of suspects and it takes Doris and her cohorts several weeks to whittle down their list, but will it ever match the sheriff’s list?

Doris almost lands herself in jail, but when Sheriff Ingebretsen asks if he can use her kitchen to interview the person who just might be the murderer, Doris believes she’s safe. “‘Well, sure. Go ahead.’ I acted like it was no big deal. Like I hosted police interrogations all of the time. But on the inside, I was as excited as a dog with two tails.” In full Minnesota nice mode Doris makes coffee, Grace defrosts homemade Chocolate Chip Bars, and Rose finds the napkins.

Cooney captures the northern Minnesota vernacular: “Hey, that, there,” and wit: “He looked bad enough to scare the blind.” Cooney has a knack for snappy metaphors that add humor to unusual situations through Doris’s internal dialogue. In response to a physician who believes they should be on a first name basis, Doris thinks, “I felt as awkward around him as a cow on ice,” or “I had been as shocked as a bird on a live wire,” when she learned that her incorrigible daughter had decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.

There are plenty of twists and turns that keep the murderer a mystery until the very end, and enough references to hot dishes and bars to encourage you to head to your kitchen every couple chapters.

Jeanne Cooney will present a Mystery Writing Workshop presented by Lake Superior Writers Saturday, March 12, 9:00-11:00am on Zoom. Click here for further information and to register for the event.

Christine Lynn Marcotte writes historical fiction and nonfiction. She began writing after hearing family stories from her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother. Chris’s love of local history inspired the Reminisce column (2014-current) for local newspapers. She is a contributing writer to the Lake Country Journal Magazine and is revising her first mystery novel, based on the actual ax murder of her third great-grandfather. Chris has published short stories and essays in regional and international journals. She is also working on a historical trilogy and a linked short story collection.  For more information visit ChrisMarcotteWrites.com.

Vital Connections on the Path to Publication by Carol Dunbar

My work got better because I was lifted and supported by an organization comprised of individuals who deeply care.

During this time of COVID, connection and community have never been more important. But those two things have never come easy to me. I don’t even know that I understood the meaning of the word community when I was younger. Before moving here, I’d left all nineteen of the addresses I’d once called home. When my husband and I arrived in the Twin Ports area, it was after leaving behind all our friends.

We came with our fifteen-month-old daughter and our aging dog. Our son wasn’t yet born, he was only an idea then, and as a new mother still adjusting to the role, I was trying to figure out how to get writing back into my life. Lake Superior Writers advertised a writing contest they were sponsoring—the flyer tacked on a library bulletin board. I joined the organization without knowing anything about it or anyone in it and worked on my first entry for weeks.

To work on that piece, knowing that when I finished, it would be received with care and attention by another human being, meant everything to me. Writing was the only way I had of making those deeper connections with others that in my day-to-day life eluded me. That spring, I was invited to read my entry at the annual LSW meeting and feeling the energy in the room marked a turning point for me. I kept writing and submitting and renewed my membership with the LSW organization every year.

At first, my only participation was through the newsletter. Because we lived an hour away from Duluth and I was in the throes of motherhood, reading about writing was the only way I could be part of the club. My favorite section was the Kudos where I got to hear about the writers in our area who were getting published. I learned their name names and cheered them on, visited their websites in stolen moments, and attended their readings whenever I could. They completely and utterly inspired me.

As my kids got older and I got a more rugged car suited to back county roads, I ventured out to weekly classes. The drive home was long and dark and sometimes treacherous with snow and icy roads, but I’d return to my sleeping family with a mind buzzing happily with what I’d learned. I never joined a writing group because my time was so limited—I needed every precious moment to write. But then a colleague in a short story class convinced me that joining a group was the best way to improve as a writer, and so I did.

And he was right.

This year my first novel will see its publication. I workshopped its pages with members of two different writing groups and beta readers who were all connected to LSW. I participated in the LSW manuscript swap and took advantage of reading opportunities I heard about through the Northwords newsletter. I took more classes, went to conferences, Zoomed and read and learned and made friends. All those connections are the reason I’m here.

My work got better because I was lifted and supported by an organization comprised of individuals who deeply care. I am still learning how to function as someone in a community, how to both give and receive support. But to anyone out there who is writing alone and in the dark, I invite you to reach out a hand in fellowship because, in my experience, someone wonderful will be there.

Carol Dunbar is a former actor, playwright, and coloratura soprano who left her life in the city to move off the grid. Her writing has appeared in The South Carolina Review, Midwestern Gothic, Midwest Review, and on Wisconsin Public Radio. She writes from a solar-powered office on the second floor of a water tower in northern Wisconsin, where she lives in a house in the woods with her husband, two kids, and a giant Alaskan malamute. The Net Beneath Us is her first novel.

Ignorance of Copyright Law Isn’t a Legal Defense by Victoria Lynn Smith

How can we protect ourselves from the landmine of copyright issues?

We all know that using another writer’s words without giving her credit breaks copyright law. In school we were warned against plagiarism. Remember? If you use more than three words in a row of another writer’s words without citing—plagiarism. If you use another person’s theories, original ideas, or reasoned conclusions without citing—plagiarism. If you quoted someone’s words or even paraphrased them without citation—plagiarism.

For me writing academic papers in high school and college was like typing through a landmine. I cited almost everything to avoid plagiarism, better to be overcautious.

As writers we know our work is protected by copyright law, but we might not know exactly what that means. If we read submission guidelines or have a piece of writing accepted and receive a contract, we encounter different terminology: first-serial rights, reprint rights, digital/electronic rights, all rights, one-time rights (and there are more).

But what about the work of other writers and artists?

As writers we might want to quote another writer’s work or lyrics. Can we? What are the rules? And what’s this fair use thing? Maybe we want to use some succinct, thought-grabbing quotes at the beginning of our chapters. Or we want one of our characters to sing a few bars of a song. Maybe we found the perfect picture or graphic to use as artwork on our blog page. Can we? Is it enough to give credit to the writer or artist? Do we need permission? (Depends. Isn’t that a fun answer?)

Sometimes we run our lives under the it’s-easier-to-just-do-it-and-apologize-later premise. This might work if we cut into the chocolate cake our partner just baked without asking, but it’s a dicey strategy for copyright law and infringement issues. (Actually, cutting that cake without checking if it’s for something special might be just as dicey.) Even though heartfelt apologies and claims we didn’t know the cake wasn’t to be cut might not get us out of the doghouse, we won’t be sued. But infringing someone’s copyrighted material isn’t usurping cake. Apologies, no matter how heartfelt, and claims of ignorance about copyright law, no matter how true, won’t protect us from possibly being sued for damages.

How can we protect ourselves from the landmine of copyright issues? Lake Superior Writers is providing an educational workshop with copyright attorney Mike Kroll, who will explain the basics of copyright law and answer basic questions about it. Of course, copyright law is complex, so if you have a specific issue that you need legal help with, it’s best to have a copyright attorney advise you in person.

You’re on your own about chocolate-cake rights.

Click here to register for the LSW Zoom workshop – Copyright Tips for Writers

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin by Lake Superior. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. She placed second in the 2020 Hal Prize Fiction Contest. In 2019 and 2020, she won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ Short-Short Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.

Diving Deep: How to Write about Difficult Topics by Zomi Bloom

I suggest that writing difficult, or emotionally charged topics, requires these: self-compassion, uncomfortable witnessing followed by the allowance of space; and time itself.

I have tried a thousand times over to write about the existential dread, the horror of it. The terrible twins of despair and uncertainty make their way unannounced into poems which were supposed to be about other things — the flavor of them living on and on in this way, disconnected but ever-present — but writing about the dark things face to face, headlong, doesn’t work for me. I don’t know where to start.

Today I’m here to explore how to take on the topics that you just can’t seem to write about — the topics that you must write or they will destroy you — but which fight jagged battles when approached. Every one of us carries traumas with us — some more shattering, some more shame-ridden than others. But everyone carries these.

Sometimes the shame itself is the greatest barrier. Maybe it’s shame from the trauma itself, or around exposing something you believed must be kept secret; maybe the shame stems from perfectionism — or being beaten down too many times in your creative life. You start to write, you shake a little bit, your mind goes numb — or it races — then maybe nausea washes over you… If you sit with this discomfort, then words may come. Sometimes sitting with it is unbearable and you’re suddenly drinking a scotch, or allowing your mind to race back to workaday stresses and chores, other distractions. And the writing is halted before it even begins.

Sitting with pain or shame can be excruciating, and our bodies and consciousness will go to great lengths to “save” us from facing them, even if it means the stories stay buried.

Writing itself is a brave act. It exposes us (and maybe those closest to us), makes us truly witness to ourselves and others. Writing or journaling is sometimes seen as a way to “process” emotion — as if emotions were simply fruits to be dropped in the blender, then turned into a delicious smoothie. The language of “processing,” in my view, is off-base. I think writing takes us far beyond and deep within — and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought that processing always ended in sweetness and delight (although sometimes it does).

In writing, experiences take on new life, new power, even spring hope. But it’s not instant. The cry of the soul may cycle through rage and despair — blending pain, elation, relief, unbearable loneliness — but that cry must be heard. This is what makes us human.

I suggest that writing difficult, or emotionally charged topics, requires these: self-compassion, uncomfortable witnessing followed by the allowance of space; and time itself.

In practicing self-compassion, think about this: “Can you treat yourself as a cherished friend?” I have spent a lifetime criticizing myself so harshly that others couldn’t possibly offer up a more painful critique, all in the mistaken belief that it would spur me to be stronger and produce better work, and make me less likely to fail.

When I set out to write about my grandma Florrie for the Duluth All Souls Night poetry reading in 2019, I found myself paralyzed by the quest for perfection. In life, my “difficult” and beloved grandmother seemed to value only the best — a trait she surely inherited from her forbears and translated down through the generations. In practicing self-compassion, we give ourselves space to escape the mythos of perfectionism, and allow ourselves to create something real and true to our lives.

And it takes many tries.

I wrote about Florrie in the fall, after her death in the spring of that same year, but it was the first time I had allowed myself to read her obituary. I was shocked by the force of my own response, realizing for the first time how powerful the event of her death really was. As a friend to myself, I gave myself some room to accept, write some bad lines, let the poem take its own shape over time.

In witnessing, we sit with the topic or event and allow ourselves to be washed away one moment and the next be assaulted by startling details. I wrote about the veins in Florrie’s hands — how they looked and felt as I sat close to her, while she lay listless in the hospital bed brought to her apartment for the final scenes of her life. I did not, however, write about my terror over the thirst I thought she must be feeling. She couldn’t swallow and so could not take anything by mouth. We were allowing her to starve and dehydrate until she faded away, and that haunted me. I did write about her weak hand gestures which recalled memories of forceful professorial gestures in her prime. I left out the parts about how my aunts argued about administering morphine. My aunt, the eldest sister, cried out in tears that “It will kill her!” after her younger sister dropped some opioid relief beneath Florrie’s tongue. The rest of us were stunned, and someone called out, “But she IS dying!” I didn’t write about those parts and I don’t think I could have done; now two years later, these words emerge in an essay.

While writing the Florrie poem, I took breaks of hours and days. The experiences followed me around. Other poems might take years or even decades. Poems about charged events have to form in their own time and space.

About giving space… I’ve found that hiking the trails or walking along the lake can take me away enough to let my heart and body do the work (you’ll frequently hear me talk about the heart and body working together to make art). Movement through space can allow the cognitive controller to take a rest. We cannot create great poetry as long as we are trying to control it.

I’m still trying to learn this.

And finally, the reality is that time itself may be needed. I am decidedly impatient, and this impatience effectively blocks creative work in every instance. I don’t know that I could have written about Florrie in the May following her April death — but I was more able in October that year — and maybe even more able today, several years later.

When we dig deep, we find the stories have a life of their own. Our job as writers is to let them emerge as they will, apart from our own manufactured timelines, and in defiance of our inner critics.

The world is waiting for those words that only you can tell.

Zomi Bloom is a poet and mother of three in Duluth, MN. Originally from the East Coast, she has called Duluth home since 2012 and has been inspired by the stunning landscapes and expanses of water of northeastern Minnesota. She loves coffee and sleeping and is the author of the collection “Coming to Duluth.”

Writing Illness: On the Horror, the Beauty, and the Release by Zomi Bloom

I have been alone since birth.
The world with all its bigness has afforded no space
for a creature like me. My body has fought
me with every sensation and breakdown—except
when I can run, and that’s not an option anymore.

The question is how to write when the experience overwhelms you.

Sitting back and shutting off the frontal lobe, letting the other parts of your brain, neurons, body, guts and heart take over — this is the excruciating and eventually liberating process that creates art and poetry. This is not unlike the healing process. It is not easy to sit back and let our bodies do the work, to let go, and then eventually to recognize the point at which the work is to be born.

When a piece of art spills out it feels like catharsis. The frontal lobe comes back into play to birth the poem or the painting but it can only be a facilitating partner in the process.

The nature of the creative experience (which sometimes means riding a wave) exists in contrast to one of the most criticized aspects of western medicine which is the idea of fighting our illnesses. Sometimes it’s an apt metaphor—and has helped many a cancer patient keep their spirits—but it may also damage us. If you have chronic pain, or an autoimmune disease, or trauma, or any number of chronic illnesses—the trick to survival may just be to sit back and let the body manage. Fighting makes for an intolerable life. You marry the pharmaceuticals, the physical and cognitive therapies, your own heart, all together and find some measure of peace with a body that behaves in contrary ways.

I believe that learning this letting go, while allowing yourself to experience the enormous fear and pain and even shame associated with illness, is the pathway to relief; to block these excruciating feelings renders them all the more powerful. You end up locked in a fight with yourself.

But can practicing the arts, can writing, teach us a way to be free?  This is a question I ask myself daily, journal about, and often write around.

Sometimes the sense of loss and grief over not being able to turn the pain into beautiful poetry or prose is its own specific kind of hell; and that’s when you get to practice that patience and acceptance—the same radical acceptance it takes to live with a chronic illness.

I have a collection of poems I call “The Sick Poem Series” which tells the story of me, trying to learn to live with undiagnosed gastrointestinal pain, followed by the story of the diagnosis, and culminating in… further pain when my body still rejected food for years after the removal of a diseased gallbladder. During the times I really thought I couldn’t take the burning wound in my gut anymore, words would take over (not always words that made sense to anyone else) but words nonetheless that brought me a measure of peace and relief—no matter how fleeting. One of those poems is published alongside explanatory prose in a medical humanities journal called Survive and Thrive (St. Cloud State).[1]

Then there is the matter of living with anxiety and depression. The words sound so pat. I hear commonly in health campaigns that mental health disorders are common and easily treated. They may be common but they are not always easily “treated,” not for people like me at least, who need to find ways to deal with a hypersensitive nervous system, long-lasting effects of a difficult childhood complicated by the biology of predisposition, and unyielding intellect coupled with a darkness with power all its own.

You can’t fight this kind of darkness. You can’t wish it away, you can’t pray it away, you can’t medicate it away, and while I found that running long distances gave me relief for several years, even running can’t fix this permanently—injury or not (injury in my case).

But writing is always there, even if it results in expletives sown together for pages on end. Sometimes the sense of loss and grief over not being able to turn the pain into beautiful poetry or prose is its own specific kind of hell; and that’s when you get to practice that patience and acceptance—the same radical acceptance it takes to live with a chronic illness.

Sometimes after months of punching “I can’t take this anymore!” onto the page, clarity emerges. And it might look like an essay, just like this one.

[1] “After the Endoscopy, in Which You Looked into My Guts and Found Nothing,” available at https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/survive_thrive/vol4/iss1/21/

Zomi Bloom is a poet and mother of three in Duluth, MN. Originally from the East Coast, she has called Duluth home since 2012 and has been inspired by the stunning landscapes and expanses of water of northeastern Minnesota. She loves coffee and sleeping and is the author of the collection “Coming to Duluth.”