Whose Story Is It Anyway? by Victoria Lynn Smith

Before I started writing, I heard authors talk about their characters as if they had a say in the storyline.

At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”

“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”

The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts writing his book.

But I wasn’t a writer then.

Before I started writing, I heard authors talk about their characters as if they had a say in the storyline. Interviews often went something like this:

Interviewer: Why does your character go to Oslo, connect with Norwegian relatives, and paint fjords instead of going to Paris to create haute couture and stroll along the Seine with a Parisian lover?

Author: Well, at first the character was going to Paris, taking the fashion world by storm, and meeting a soulmate, but when I tried to write it that way, the character steadfastly refused to get on a plane to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

I’d listen to authors talk about characters and wonder, Do authors actually talk to their characters? Do characters visit authors in a dream? Is this some type of mystical, mysterious, transcendental, existential enigma? Then I’d conclude, Characters might talk to real authors, but I’ll bet mine will never talk to me.

And then one did.

I was writing a story, and my character needed to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Time to do the right thing.

My Refusing to Be Reformed Character (MRBRC): Nope, don’t want to.

Me: But your doing the right thing is the whole point of the story.

MRBRC: Tough cowhides. I see no point in it.

Me: Readers won’t like you if you don’t.

MRBRC: I don’t care. I’d much rather be memorable and get my way.

Me: Can’t you be memorable and do the right thing?

MRBRC: Seriously? How droll.

Me: But what about my story?

MRBRC: Excuse me? It’s my story. It’s about me, not you.

I gave up. My character did the wrong thing, and she wasn’t sorry. And to solidify her position, she mocked the other characters.

I finished the story and sent it to a local contest in northern Wisconsin. The story earned an honorable mention. The first judge wrote, “This story is professional. It can give the reader a look into the mind of an underprivileged child and how envy and poverty come together to affect behavior.”

The second judge wrote, “A vivid portrait of a girl who would rather steal than earn. Sadly, there are real people like that. I didn’t like her.” This judge said I developed the story well, but added that she hoped the girl didn’t grow up “nurturing her self-pity.”

Well, me too. I’ve hope for my character’s future, and even with her faults, I still like her. Would my story have placed first or second if the character had done the right thing? I don’t know, but I’ll never rewrite her storyline. In the end, I empathized with my character’s choice.

And I realized something. The first judge read my story as a commentary on poverty. The second judge talked about my character as if she were a real girl, who’d grow up to be an adult. My character, unlikeable but memorable, got under the second judge’s skin. My character’s defiance makes the story resonate more than her compliance would’ve. I can hear her gloat.

Since the debate with my I’m-going-to-do-the-wrong-thing-no-matter-what-you-say character, I’ve had other characters argue with me. I understand now what writers mean when they say characters speak to them, so if a character wants to discuss something with me, I listen.

I still laugh at the end of Cluny Brown but for a new reason—I get the inside joke. The script writers were poking fun at the writing process.

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/.

Guiding Listeners into an Invisible World by Eleanore Hunt

Modern technology has given aspiring artists more resources to produce and spread their work than ever before.

Podcasting is a niche medium that has recently exploded in popularity. We asked Jeff Adams, a veteran of radio theater, what he finds inspiring about this medium. 

“I think the most inspiring thing about it is the speed with which you can get an idea and move directly to a story or a presentation that can be enjoyed by an audience,” Adams said.

With the speed of creation in mind, Adams detailed the start to finish of putting a radio show out into the world. 

The Icebox Radio Theater has a small primary group of actors and artists that Adams calls his core. Adams explained that it does not take him long to produce a script because his “core” will gather for a table read where they read the script out loud to help Adams revise his work. After the table read, the group usually does two rehearsals before they perform a recorded show. You would think that the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t impact radio theater as much as it might live theater, but Adams explained that their process has changed a bit as well. “Before COVID we would try to get together in one studio, now it’s more broken up.” The last steps of production are mostly done by Adams himself. Adams shared that he records sound effects, edits, and notifies fans when the new show will come out before the final podcast is posted.

The most important part of radio theater might be the sound design. Adams spoke about his tricks for creating sound effects.

There is a concept called emblematic sound that Adams learned from a colleague, Brian Price of The Great Northern Audio Theater. Adams explained, “People perceive sounds that aren’t necessarily obvious and they can put you right into a scene.” Adams gave an example he got from Price. “[If] you have a scene at the beach, a lot of people that are sound collectors get very excited, ‘Hey, I’m going to record the ocean. This is a great chance.’ What they don’t realize is that when you’re standing next to the ocean, it just sounds like white noise. And if you play that back or put that under a scene to tell the audience, ‘We’re taking place at the ocean right now,’ it won’t work. They won’t recognize what that sound is. The emblematic sound for the beach is seagulls.” Adams elaborated, “I find that real snow does not sound as good as cornstarch. Cornstarch is ancient. [If] you’re doing footsteps in snow, you either use shoes in cornstarch or put cornstarch into a little bag and sort of squeeze that rhythmically, and that sends the message.” Sound design is a surprisingly old art form, so Adams learns a lot about it from reading. Adams told us that sound design goes back to Elizabethan theater, and mentioned that radio theater in the 1930’s used the same wind machine design that can be found in the replica of the Globe Theatre.

Funding tends to be the first and most prominent obstacle artists must overcome to achieve success. Adams spoke about the methods he uses to fund his radio theater.

With the rise of streaming platforms, the biggest concern for funding in the podcast field is the lack of direct product-to-consumer sales. Adams commented, “There really isn’t a recording industry anymore. Ten years ago, we could sell CDs at a live event, not so much anymore.” Icebox Radio Theater generates funding from multiple sources. Adams said in addition to grants, “We do take about half of our income from donations and fundraisers. We do have a Patreon, and that’s about it.” With the income from these sources, Icebox Radio Theater is able to generate enough money to make continued production worth it.

The Icebox Radio Theater has created a massive body of work. Adams spoke about how he continues to produce content after seventeen years of writing for radio theater.

The Icebox Radio Theater is one podcast studio among thousands. Without widespread fame many might wonder how Adams remains so dedicated and enthusiastic about his art. Adams explained, “We have had just enough success to where I can look back and say ‘Yes, this was worthwhile.’” Adams went on to describe the enthusiasm of his fanbase and his excitement at connecting with people all over the world: “I just sent a membership certificate to England this past week. We do a couple live shows [so] that people can use the chat feature. I actually have friends now that started out as just listeners, and they are even talking about flying to the Falls and doing a fan fest. That’s more than enough to keep me going.” 

Finally, Adams spoke about his advice to aspiring artists. 

Modern technology has given aspiring artists more resources to produce and spread their work than ever before. Adams stated, “You get to make your thing now, whatever it is you’re doing, your movie, or publish your book, or make your radio show. You get to make it now, and there are engines available to get that work out there.” Adams advised aspiring artists to “look towards producing lots of content,” explaining, “make another one, and then another one, and then another one, and you’ll find those two or three people who will start saying, ‘Hey, you’re really interesting’ or ‘you’re really funny’ or whatever it is you’re trying to be, and that, I find, is the most worthwhile.”

Jeff Adams is the creator and artistic director of The Icebox Radio Theater. Adams graduated from the University of Oregon in 1988. He started The Icebox Radio in 2004 in International Falls and has produced a massive body of work falling into an array of genres.

Eleanore Hunt is a writer from Minneapolis who mainly practices playwriting, film making, and research writing. She attends the University of Minnesota Duluth and plans on graduating in 2023 with a degree in Writing Studies.

Introducing Roy C. Booth! by Tyla Maddock

This post is part of a series featuring students at UMD who completed a project interviewing regional authors for David Beard’s Theories of Writing Studies class.

I just like the idea of exploring ideas and taking them impossible places that no one else has before.

Many writers share a similar fear that takes their focus away from their work and leaves them feeling hopeless, and that is: How will I ever get published? Making an actual career out of writing is a difficult feat. However, there are accomplished writers everywhere willing to give some insight. Playwright and assorted-genre author Roy C. Booth knows precisely what advice to share with writers looking to jumpstart their success.

I just wrote a lot of letters! I’d write letters to my favorite authors and my favorite comic book people and what-not, and get feedback from that and run with it. You’ve got to know this as a business. You are writing for an industry. You are writing not only for an audience in a particular genre or medium, you are writing for an editor who will buy that. That’s where the networking comes in so important. You’ve got to know who you are selling this to. Not just the publisher, but the actual person who will, you know, get you a contract, sign the checks, and what-not.

Booth is no stranger to the occasional failure, though. Even previously published authors still face hardships in the continuation of their journey in publishing.

Usually you find out in six months [from Samuel French], and you get your nice little rejection letter and that’s it.

However, fear of rejection shouldn’t stop you from reaching out to those who could help. Booth is known to pay special attention to the importance of networking and building relationships in the writing world. It is a very critical aspect of many business endeavors, after all – writing being no exception. But he doesn’t want any aspiring writer to lose sight of the smaller accomplishments as well. Smaller accomplishments that are, arguably, just as important as the big ones. 

My other point of success is: I am allowed to get up in the morning, do my routine, do what I want to do, the way I want it, anyway I want it, because my writing and my business, helps pay the bills and everything else. I can do what I want to do; and for me, that is success.  I’m of the mind that… no matter what I put down [in a day], no matter how glacial, it’s good. Ok? You’re that far ahead. If I can take care of a goal of mine – short, medium, long-term – even better.

So how does Booth overcome the writer’s block so many of us know all too well in order to meet these goals?

Even if you’re doing just a little bit of writing or just editing yourself, to get into that, that’s the only reason why I started doing the haikus before I started writing dialogue because I’d get myself into [the mindset to write]. Just to get past the blank screen and what-not. “I did something already. Ok. Now I can move on to what I need to do today.”

Booth is known for his work across many mediums and genres.  As a matter of fact, he is known for his work across 30+ countries. More than 875 productions of his plays have been performed within these countries. This goes to show that his success has no borders – literally. He is limitless.

There is this gal in Latvia who has produced some of my plays and she says the reason why she likes them is because I speak more of a universal tone as an artist, not as an American. Apparently they have an idea of… well, like most English theirs is taught through like Oxford version of English. So, Europeans, I know for a fact, are a little more savvy as to the difference between American literature and Britain literature, and all points in between; and there’s some people who are more comfortable with British literature than Americans, and vice-versa.

Something familiar across all cultures and countries are the genres in which all literature can be categorized in to. For Booth, science fiction and gothic-horror have always appealed to him whether it come in the form of a play, short story, novel, or something else.

I always liked the idea of, [science fiction] is a genre that… you’re not limited. There’s no limitations. You can… memoir writing and nonfiction if you have to but I just like the idea of exploring ideas and taking them impossible places that no one else has before.

…and take them impossible places he has. Roy C. Booth is an impressive professional – sharp as a tack with wit as quick as a whip. Much can be learned from his experience and success. Taking even just a brief peek at his work will assure of this. I do hope even more individuals, especially future writers such as myself, become as inspired by him as I have. 

Born in 1965, Roy C. Booth published his first piece of writing at the age of 14. Now a successful playwright and author spanning many genres, Roy has taken what he has learned as a career-writer and used it to uplift those destined to follow. He currently lives in Bemidji, Minnesota with his wife Cynthia as he continues to write.

Tyla Maddock is currently a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Writing Studies. Originally from North Dakota, her small-town childhood and big family provides her with great material for storytelling. Her passion mainly lies in writing with empathy and representation.

Learning From the Best by Jenny Arndt


This post is part of a series featuring students at UMD who completed a project interviewing regional authors for David Beard’s Theories of Writing Studies class.

In professional writing there are all sorts of elegant ways in which the professional writer can accommodate the business end of it while also finding themselves fulfilled.

Every writer has faced the intimidation of the blank page, woefully staring back at you, simultaneously begging and daring you to adorn it with all the words you don’t seem to have at that moment. Even professional writers like Terrance Griep struggle to overcome the challenge of beginning, luckily for us, he has developed tips and tricks over the years to turn writer’s block into the perfect story.

Stephen King says it [the process of starting writing] is like death. Something I saw him say, stuck with me and it’s that the idea of starting writing is really difficult, so the way he approaches it is to just think of an interesting situation and play it out.

Storytelling comes with many intricacies, a fact Terrance knows all too well after spending his career fine-tuning the craft. Structure is important, every story must have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, but beyond this, it is important no details fall through the cracks between these points lest the story not reach its fullest potential.

They’re [stories] likened to fossils, and it’s your job as a writer to dig them out as carefully as you can, if you’re not careful you’ll break them to pieces. It’s an interesting metaphor that speaks to me, so I thought ‘alright, I’ll try the Stephen King way.’ and it went exactly as he said it would. I ended up with this really cool story and felt like I had really done the work of dusting off that fossil, and then it just came right out.

It can’t be that easy, in fact, I’m almost positive it’s not, at least not all the time. This is where we as writers can learn from Griep as he has learned from his peers. Maybe you wrote a piece you really loved but your editor didn’t or spent countless hours pouring yourself into a story only for it to be passed on. The sting of rejection seems to power the intimidation of the blank page.

Even when writing projects don’t work out – which will happen often if you freelance – it’s often not your fault – it’s usually not your fault. There are a lot of factors if you’re doing this professionally that are out of your control. In creating that story you became a better writer, you’re however many thousands of words more experienced than you were before, and there’s real value in that.

Beyond knowing how to write a good story, knowing how to sell a good story, and yourself as an author, is half the battle. Terrance stresses the importance of soaking up any business acumen possible, you have to talk the talk as well as walk the walk.

I would encourage you to take business classes, figure out the business end of it. Always remember, whatever creativity, whatever inspiration, that wonderful symbiosis that writers have with their work when it just all starts to come together, and it just feels like you’re dancing with your own words, all of that happens in the greater sphere of business – If you want to make money at it.

Much like telling stories, selling stories has many intricacies, lending itself to the same Stephen King metaphor Griep mentioned earlier. There are many aspects to the practice that must be observed and carefully excavated in order to unearth a successful career as a writer. To this point, Griep passes along some wisdom for writers working on breaking into the field, as well as well as a reminder for those who have already broken in.

Just remember, it’s about people creatively speaking, and it’s about people in a business sense. Between you and your dreams there will always be somebody, and you’re going to have to learn how to manage – not manipulate – that person because in writing, one of the cool things about doing it professionally is, there are plenty of scenarios where you get win-win instead of win-lose.

In professional writing there are all sorts of elegant ways in which the professional writer can accommodate the business end of it while also finding themselves fulfilled.

As you enter and exist in the world of professional writing, it is important to learn from those who have come before you, to learn from the best, the way Griep learned from King, and how we may now learn from Griep. I wish you luck as you embark on your next writing endeavor, and pray the intimidation of the blank page will not defeat you but empower you to use your voice, and may you talk-the-talk in such a way that your voice is heard.

Terrance Griep is a Minnesota native author who, over the course of his career, has garnered many D.C. Comic credits for his work on the Scooby-Doo, Green Lantern, and Batman series respectively. Beyond comics, Griep has written for such publications as Lavender, Instinct, and The Advocate as a journalist. Aside from being a professional writer, Terrance is also a professional wrestler, holding over 20 titles under the alias Spider-Baby.

Jenny Arndt is fresh on the professional writing scene, channeling her writing abilities towards pursuing a career in the public relations or copywriting field. Aside from writing in a formal sense, Jenny also enjoys exercising her skills in the creative fields. This overlap between the interest in business and creative writing led her towards Terrance Griep as a peer and source of inspiration and authority on maintaining proper business-creativity balance.

Eggcellent Storytelling by Quinn Heutmaker

This post is part of a series featuring students at UMD who completed a project interviewing regional authors for David Beard’s Theories of Writing Studies class.

Would this make the writing more alive if there was a scene?

Hooking an audience and keeping their attention is always a challenge in writing. I talked with Lucie Amundsen for her advice on how a writer can face this challenge, and she shared several methods she uses to draw in readers and bring excitement to writing.

I like the idea of starting with an action. Action is a hook that can take you on a ride. It’s how some of my favorite podcasts have done it (like RadioLab or This American Life). All of the sudden you’re just in it, and it creates this platform for jumping off. It’s a promise that all right, you have to get through some exposition and backstory until you get back to the chickens, but I promise, there are chickens coming and it’s going to be super dramatic.

It’s a poultry ploy to get people to keep turning those pages.

Using action as a starting point is one way Lucie catches her readers’ attention and gives them a reason to be interested in exposition and backstory. If the readers are shown an interesting scene, they will be more willing to learn about the events that led to the scene before returning to that interesting moment of action.

Making all the learning come at a time where it’s important to your main characters is – even though (in a memoir) these aren’t really characters, they’re real people – they’re still two dimensional on the page, right? And this notion about middle agriculture isn’t interesting until you realize that this really affects your characters, so try to always find a reason for the learning and not just vomit it out there.

Showing how a topic affects the characters grounds the information in a story readers can more easily connect with and understand. Lucie utilizes this technique to let the significance of the topic and its effects sink in properly for the readers. In other situations where she is faced with a large amount of information to convey, she asks herself a question:

I would always reread a page and really ask myself would this benefit from being in scene, rather than just exposition? Scene is a lot harder to write, and you can trick yourself into thinking, “oh no exposition is fine, this is fine,” so I’d have to really test it. Would this make the writing more alive if there was a scene? To write a scene is more work, you have to write dialogue, write believable dialogue, and create a space for that scene to be in. And it feels like almost always, your work will benefit from scenes.

While exposition can be a helpful tool, it is not always the solution to creating a strong piece of writing. Lucie is able to hold a reader’s attention for longer when she presents information in motion instead.

As a self-proclaimed ham bone, Lucie also utilizes her sense of humor as motivation for her audience to learn and a method to lighten up the denser portions of her writing.

I think I’m just a ham bone and always have been, I like humor. If I could stay up later, I would probably go into comedy, but you have to stay up really late for those types of jobs. I’ve always been drawn to David Sedaris and that kind of genre. I definitely feel that humor is the best teacher. You’ll remember things if they made you laugh, so it’s worth the effort.

I would think of the humorous as a reward. If I had a long section about the insides of chickens, or perhaps the economic realities of agriculture, I’d say now it’s time to treat my audience to some crap falls that would be more interesting.

For situations where exposition becomes necessary, readers will be inclined to continue through exposition, as they know something interesting will come at the end. Lucie is especially effective at using her sense of humor as an incentive, as can be seen in Locally Laid and in the social media for the titular egg farm.

Regardless of the type of writing being done, all writing shares a similar goal: Catching and keeping a reader’s attention. People love stories, and a lot of Lucie’s advice plays with that idea and brings out the best of a story. No matter what you write, I hope you can find a tip here to help improve your next piece of writing. I thank Lucie Amundsen for sharing such wonderful advice!

Lucie Amundsen is the author of Locally Laid, a memoir about her experience as a co-owner of an egg farm of the same name. Additionally, she acts as an information officer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, utilizing her writing to help convey the impact of the agency’s research. Whatever the topic, she always finds the story within, and draws it out to teach her audience what they need to know, engage them, and make them chuckle here and there along the way.

Quinn Heutmaker is pursuing work in scientific writing, ranging from research writing to textbook writing to grant writing. Microbiology catches her attention the most, and she enjoys working with microorganisms in the lab. She takes interest in the work of Lucie Amundsen due to her ability to tell stories within research while still presenting reliable and accurate information.

Sharing Years of Wisdom from a Local Author: Michael Fedo by Skylar Madsen

As a project for David Beard’s Theories of Writing Studies class at UMD, I had the pleasure of interviewing acclaimed author Michael Fedo. He opened up about his decades of writing experience, and offered advice to aspiring writers looking to make it in the industry.

Very frequently, ideas would just kind of come out of the air – something would just land as something interesting.

You write in various different genres. What does your writing process generally look like?

When I was doing more journalistic pieces, I really almost read everything. I would go to magazine stacks in supermarkets and bookstores and I would just peruse all kinds of magazines and think in terms of writing for those specific publications. I would read a couple of newspapers a day.

Very frequently, ideas would just kind of come out of the air – something would just land as something interesting. When I got back into fiction and essays, a lot of my stuff was humor-based. What I tried to work with after doing some reading in humor-writing was looking at dialectic. I enjoyed fooling around with stuff like that – that kind of thing seemed to work for me.

How do you deal with publisher rejections?

I include in my book some examples where lots of important writers got rejected dozens of times, and some books won major prizes like the Pulitzer and National Book Award – and in fact the Booker prize winner a number of years ago – another Minnesota writer, Marlin James, said that his book got 78 rejections before it was published. Just hang in there and persevere anyway. If you think that you write well, you probably do. My philosophy is that every editor who has rejected something of mine was wrong, and somebody else is going to get it right.

Do you have any tips on making connections to help further one’s writing career?

Some career writers would say that I made a mistake, and they’re probably right – the mistake being that I didn’t specialize. I think that someone who is known as, let’s say, interested in writing about health and develops a reputation as someone who does a lot of writing in health and related issues, probably starts to get known in that area. Occasionally, this would happen to me as well – if I’d written about, say, subject X, after that piece that appeared somewhere, maybe it was in the New York Times, somebody else might want me to do an article like that. One who has somewhat of a specialization becomes known as someone who is very good at writing about that particular subject. I have always considered myself to be a generalist – I wrote only things, with very few exceptions, that were just really interesting to me, instead of trying to concentrate on one or two areas of specialization.

If there was one thing that you wanted a prospective writer to take away from your experience, what would it be?

Keep on. Stay with it. You know, you’re gonna face a great deal of rejection and I think that has been a keen discouragement to a lot of people who have considerable talent – they don’t get a positive response sending new material out, so they just give up. In my case, I just never did. That would be the key thing I would say – hang in there, be tough-minded, keep sending stuff out.

Michael Fedo is a Minnesota based author from Duluth, MN. He has a writing career spanning over half a century, having been published in prestigious publications such as The New York Times and Reader’s Digest, all while working full time at universities across the country. He also has multiple original publications of his own, notably One Bad Dude, The Lynchings in Duluth, and Don’t Quit Your Day Job: The Adventures of a Midlist Author. His memoir, published in 2018, highlights his experience as a self-proclaimed “midlist author” and offers advice and anecdotes to other aspiring writers.

The interviewer, Skylar Madsen is a prospective writer herself, with an interest in pursuing Grant Writing or Editorial work. She currently studies English and Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and will be graduating in the spring of 2022. Madsen has experience in various fields of writing, from analysis to poetry to professional, and will use these skills to pursue a career in the field post-graduation.

Turning a Magazine Story into a Poem by Marie Zhuikov

How could I distill the essence of my experience with the horses? How could I offer captivating images and feelings? What was most important to say?

My poem, “Ojibwe Horses” was just published in The Nemadji Review, a free literary magazine published by students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. If you’d like to read my poem, look for it on page 8 in the PDF found here. As far as I know, it’s just a happy coincidence that a horse is on the cover.

You may recall that I wrote a story about this rare breed of horses for Lake Superior Magazine. (Read about that process here.) It’s become one of my missions lately to increase public awareness about these lovely animals and their plight. To expand the reach of my magazine story, I decided to write a poem based on it. I had never done this before. Shrinking a 2,560-word story into a 290-word poem was not easy! But it was a fun exercise and it reminded me about the differences between poetry and prose. How could I distill the essence of my experience with the horses? How could I offer captivating images and feelings? What was most important to say?

Getting the poem to this point took several rewrites, one rejection, and more rewrites, but I think it works. I sent it to one of the Ojibwe horse owners who I interviewed for my story, and she loved it, which is the best compliment I could ever hope for.

This is the first time I’ve been published in The Nemadji Review. We had a virtual book launch reading for the journal recently. Seeing the young crew who worked on it made me feel like the love of literature is alive and well in the next generation. It will be exciting to follow the careers of these talented students.

Back in the early-1980s, I was part of a group of students at the University of Minnesota who started a literary magazine for undergraduates. To the best of my recollection, we named it Undercurrents. It was a small publication, 5 x 7 inches, with a blue cardstock cover and a stapled binding. It contained art, poetry, and stories.

I only worked on the first issue. I can’t remember if Undercurrents continued after that or not. I think I stopped participating because I wasn’t satisfied with the process we used to choose the journal content. The process probably wasn’t objective enough for me, or maybe poems I really liked didn’t make the cut, or maybe both! But that initial experience is probably what made me comfortable stepping up to coordinate literary contests later in life for the Lake Superior Writers group.

I just did a search, and the U of MN has a literary journal for undergraduates now, called Tower. I’m glad to see what we started has continued, even if it has a different name now.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the poem. And if you’re a writer, I would encourage you to connect with local community colleges and universities – many open submissions to their literary journals to community members, not only students. It’s a way to support learning by students and could lead to a nice publication credit on your literary resume.

Marie Zhuikov is a novelist, science writer, and poet from Duluth, Minnesota. Her most recent work is Going Coastal: An Anthology of Lake Superior Short Stories (2017 North Star Press), which she edited and co-authored. It won honorable mention from the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards. For more information, visit marieZwrites.com

Fluffy Writing for Those Times I Need a Break (But Still Want to Write) by Victoria Lynn Smith

Writing is fun and frustrating. The lists for what make it either fun or frustrating are almost as varied and numerous as the people who write. (I read a lot of essays written by writers about the ups and downs of writing.)

Sometimes I wrestle with a short story or an essay for days or weeks (or months). I wrangle with voice, tense, point of view, structure, characters, dialogue, and a bunch of other writing concepts. Finally, when I feel I’ve pinned the piece to the mat, I set it aside for a while. At this point, I’m not ready for another match with a new story or essay idea that’s been patiently waiting on the sidelines.

I want to keep writing, but if I’ve struggled with a piece, I need a break. I need to watch a good movie, laugh with friends, binge watch British TV shows. And, I need to write fluffy! (Sometimes I even need to write fluffy during an epic clash with a story or an essay.)

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep.

I’ve developed some fluff strategies:

  • I write about humorous events. I’ve written about losing a belt and the odd way I found it, learning to use my new pressure cooker, my fear of reading at open mics, a takeout order gone awry, and a chaotic art project with my four grandkids. There’s often humor lurking beneath the mundane. I don’t worry if my writing is funny or not; I just enjoy writing about something that amused me.
  • I write outside my typical style. My writing tends to be unadorned. But sometimes I yearn to write something flowery, jacked up on purple prose (but hopefully, I draw the line at a pale shade of lilac). I splash on too many metaphors, adverbs, and adjectives, like cheap perfume. These pieces often sound old fashioned. In this vein, I wrote a flash essay about visiting Split Rock Lighthouse in the 1970s with my father and again in 2017 with my grandchildren. Editors keep declining it, but one of my readers said it’s one of his favorites. (His friend told me to ditch some of the adverbs and adjectives, so I cut one adjective.) I wrote an essay about my tulip buds being eaten by rabbits during the pandemic spring of 2020. And, I wrote an essay about trying to write and take care of four grandchildren thirty hours a week. Both essays are a lilac shade. But I like them because they capture how I felt.
  • I write about writing. I always have something to say about writing. I’ve covered writing titles, avoiding household chores so I can write, wondering if I’m a real writer, writer’s block during the pandemic, and a rebellious character in a story who refused to follow my plot. Right now, I’m writing this essay (and I have more rough drafts about writing saved in a file).
  • I ask myself what if questions. One of my relatives said of my dog, “Ziva is such a cat.” Her accurate assessment of my dog’s personality made me wonder, Could I write a story about a dog that behaves like a cat? It’s not a fine literary story or even a literary story or maybe even a story, but when I read it, it reminds me of my relative and my dog, both of whom I love. I wrote my only historical fiction story based on my great-grandfather’s parents by asking, What if a certain event hadn’t happened?
  • I wrote a spoof on romance stories. At least I think it’s more spoof than satire or parody. I don’t consider myself a writer of spoof, satire, or parody, but it’s fun to try. I smile more when I try to write humor. Smiling relieves tension, and that’s the point of my fluffy writing interludes.
  • I write for or about my grandchildren. I enjoy this for the same reason I like taking pictures of them, reading to them, or walking down the street with them. Or doing anything with them.
  • I write for my blog, which prefers light, fluffy pieces and always accepts my work. It’s nice to know I won’t be getting a rejection letter.

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep. It gets my blood flowing, centers my being, and energizes me. It’s like watching episodes of a Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom, after watching the lives of characters unravel on Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama. It’s like topping a healthy sweet potato casserole with large sugary marshmallows.

And now, fluff break is over. Time to wrestle with the next story idea that’s been waiting for its match.

Victoria Lynn Smith enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction as she listens to classical music while her two poodles relax on the nearby couch. When she’s not writing, she loves to read and quilt or watch British comedies and mysteries. Her number-one travel wish is to visit the Shetland Islands. Her essays and stories have been published in Talking Stick, Spring Thaw, and Red Cedar Review. Her work has also appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog, Brevity Blog, Perfect Duluth Day, Better Than Starbucks and Wisconsin Public Radio. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/

On Defining Success, One Coffee-fueled Morning at a Time by Sara Sha

Eventually the cogs start gripping and the smoke starts billowing and words lay out in lines…

I don’t know yet if I fancy myself as a writer, but I do know I am a lover of words, and like others with this affliction, I look for strategies to feed my passion.

Arthur Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer, had what he called a “Daily Program” that went something like this:

  • Mornings: Write if you can, otherwise do some organizing and research.
  • Afternoons: Focus on a section of work, no distractions, no interruptions.
  • Evenings: Live. Bike, go to cafes, go to museums, sketch in streets, write small things if in the mood.

This makes me think I simply don’t have time to be a writer. My “Daily Program” looks something like this:

In the morning, get up ridiculously early, feed the cat, do a little yoga, then settle in with my pen or my laptop and my mug of coffee and start calling the muse. Eventually the cogs start gripping and the smoke starts billowing and words lay out in lines and strikeouts and dot dot dots. And then I feel the anxiety and disappointment as I look at the clock and realize it’s time to get presentable for work, so I wade through the words pooled on the floor, choke on phrases clouding the air, and head upstairs.

I continue to jot down notes on a pad I keep in the bathroom, I talk to my windshield on my drive to work, I tell Siri to jot down a few more ideas or revisions in the parking lot before I head in and transform into a hopefully functioning, useful human being.

My evenings are the mundane, the chopping, the roasting, the dishes, catching up on emails and other correspondence, then reading something delicious until the page blurs, something that often happens in a matter of minutes.

I am sometimes frustrated with the choices I’ve made in life that have cramped a writing lifestyle — changing college majors when life made me tired, settling down with a fun, supportive soul mate rather than a sugar daddy, deciding that health insurance and a 401k were worth the trade-off of having less time to run through the tall grasses of literary fields, chasing and capturing words with a net, examining each one in the palm of my hand.

Still, I write yet hesitate to label myself as a writer. I feel that in order to wear that label, I need some kind of success. But then that depends on how I define success. Have I lost myself in a powerful wave of description and alliteration? Have I entertained myself by reading my poem out loud, then decided that was so fun I’d read it again? Have I had trouble sleeping because I’ve done a terrible thing to a character? Has the thought of a beautifully turned sentence helped me through a dull day at work?

I have to tell myself this is enough for now, the satisfaction of lovingly, slowly, sloppily bringing a story to life one frantic coffee-fueled morning at a time, anticipating it will eventually find a home somewhere, sometime.

Meanwhile, I wear my writing like discreet fancy underpants or a snarky hidden tattoo, my secret alter ego that only I enjoy for now.

Sara Sha is a lifelong Minnesota resident and a recent Duluth transplant. Besides writing, she enjoys historical research and wandering through the woods and rocky areas of Northeastern Minnesota with her husband. She also spends a lot of time staring over the waters of Lake Superior, and she’s not sure why.

Youthful Inspiration by Molly Brewer Hoeg

I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. And I just found a new source of tutelage.

The words that flow across the screen reveal an endless source of imagination. Mya’s fingers fly around the keyboard as she composes, intent on her work. She stops only to ask questions: “How do you spell shriek?” “What should I call the planet? How about Nimo? Wait, I think Nimeo is better.” Her eight-year-old brain is on overdrive. Her enthusiasm infectious.

Soon her ten-year-old brother follows suit. Opening his own Google Doc, Ben begins typing.

Ancient

Long ago there was a myth that there was a temple that was told to behold many treasures. And only one person can wield its power.

I am there to help them with their distance learning, and in their spare time I expect them to run off and play, or look for a snack. Instead, they are fixated on writing stories. Grandchildren after my own heart. I find Mya nestled on the couch before breakfast, cradling her chromebook, her face intent with concentration.

As their tales grow they are eager to share them with me. “Grammy, listen to this.” Ben reads his story out loud, always starting from the beginning, title and all. “Grammy, I’m on chapter two,” Mya chimes in. “Here’s what’s happening now.”

I am all ears. That’s what Grammys do. But it is more than that. I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. I’ve taken classes. Attended conferences. Read books. Done workshops. And worked with a writing coach. I’m still honing my craft, continually learning. And I just found a new source of tutelage.

As Mya reads aloud, and reaches the end of chapter one, she leaves me hanging. It ends with a twist. I am eager to know more, to turn the page. It is a technique that took me a long time to master.

“Oh, I learned that from reading Harry Potter,” Mya explains.

Isn’t that what we are told to do? If you want to be a good writer, then you must read, read, read. Find good authors, grow your vocabulary, notice and absorb their techniques.

Ben likes to fill his story with dialog. His characters trade quips back and forth. On the page I find rapid fire quotes with narry a “he said” then “she said” between them. Even so, I know just who said what.

Not only did I shy away from dialog in my early work, but once I began to dabble in it, I insisted on attributing each line to its owner. An editor broke me of that habit, but I’m still working on it. Somehow, Ben got it from the get-go.

Mya’s story abounds in mystical creatures with fantastic names. She talks out loud as she types, speaking her creativity, trying out the sounds on her tongue.

… a girl named Rayla Minnesota lives on the edge of the city. She has a pet called Moono. Moono is a Bisha. A Bisha looks like a lion, except Bishas are blue with white diamonds. Moono was so big that Rayla is able to ride him! … Monshias are wolves but they have wings and come in many different colors. People say they roam the sky at night. Monshias are rare.

I am in awe. My genre is memoir and creative non-fiction. I have yet to dabble in fiction. I shy away from the imagination it requires. But Mya dives in with abandon in “The Wings of Galaxy.”

Once upon a time, there was a world named Nimeo. Nimeo is a bit bigger than a faraway planet called Earth. Nimeo has two blue suns and two moons. Even though Nimeo has two suns, it usually is dark. The planet’s oceans are purple, and like Earth, the land is green. The suns are far from Nimeo, but since the blue suns give off so much heat, Nimeo has enough warmth that the people can live.

She decides that in the world she is creating that characters take state names for their surnames, and cities are named for our planets. Where does she come up with this stuff? I have a hard enough time finding substitute names for my real-life characters whose identity I want to protect.

Ben’s story features James and Louis, two miscreant school boys. How do I know that?

When James and Louis got back into the classroom they picked their chairs in the back as they always do.

After school, the boys meet at an abandoned outpost. James proposes returning home to get something, leaving Louis there on his own. Louis delivers his response: “Leaving me at a spooky outpost for an hour, uh he he sure.” Louis said, quivering. Ben doesn’t say Louis is scared. He doesn’t call the boys mischievous. He shows me. Did someone teach him that? I certainly had to be taught.

Louis sat looking at the beautiful sleek white furred creature. It had a long glimmering tail, and two turquoise eyes. “Wait a minute, I know what kind you are, you’re an ancient wolf!” “Oh, I forgot, you glow in the dark, just realized that because you’re glowing right now.”

I recently attended a webinar about developing characters. I was told that because I know my mother so well, I unwittingly assume my readers can picture her, understand her background and recognize her habits. It made me realize I need to bring her – and all my characters – to life for them. Ben didn’t need any encouragement to breathe life into his ancient wolf. I can see it vividly!

I can’t begin to approach the depth of their imagination, their thirst for fantasy. I have to admire their desire to invoke it in their writing. I’m thrilled to see their passion funneled into words and stories at such a young age. And with apparent effortlessness.

As the week progresses, the kids make rapid progress on their stories. My own writing languishes as I lavish attention on them instead. As a Grammy should. But my enthusiasm for the craft is renewed and I return home eager to follow Ben and Mya’s examples. I attack my book once more, intent on my memoir, working with youthful inspiration.


Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors. She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently is working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints.