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Diminution or Diminishment by Carol Mork

But writing is my  window into my head and heart – what am I thinking, what am I feeling?  How am I doing with these decades of passing time.

As a Girl Scout in the mid-1950s I received a 3 ½ x 5” diary  with a gold embossed Girl Scout emblem on the forest green cardboard binding, complete with a miniature lock and key.  That gift was my invitation to writing.  At first, a sentence or two describing an event or the day at school, and within a few months the diary was filled.  A second ivory colored diary replaced it, and it, too, quickly overcome with words.  Diary expanded into journaling, a means to record events and eventually to record reactions and reflections and feelings.  I was hooked. 

Now in my mid-70s I continue to write daily, most often now on my laptop, as my handwriting more and more resembles that of my mother’s, less and less legible.  But writing is my  window into my head and heart – what am I thinking, what am I feeling?  How am I doing with these decades of passing time.

“Diminishment” – the word came to me early one morning a few weeks ago.  I was writing about my mom and how over the few years before she died, she diminished.  She became shorter than I; her eyesight less and less sharp; her ability to carry on a conversation more and more limited – words harder to find, losing the intent of what she wanted to say before the thought completed.  The first significant marker was giving her car to my niece.  She had been driving “all the old ladies” to and from church and circle meetings, but at age 90 decided they would be safer, as would all the other drivers on the road, if she gave up driving.  Diminished.

Time passed; she b egan to fall and fall again and then again.  A red plastic bracelet warned “prone to falling.”  A cane, a walker, and finally a wheelchair.   She who had been a great walker and bicycle rider was reduced to driving her shiny black wheelchair, pushing herself around.  Diminished.   

I supposed it all started before Dad died in 1989.  He would fall; she got him up. He fell again; she got him up.  But one day, she couldn’t and the ambulance was called.  The ER doctor looked at this 88-year-old woman and said, “You can’t do this anymore.  He needs more assistance than you can provide.”  Devastating news for this highly successful, well-respected  nurse.  Dad agreed.  She didn’t. Unwilling to accept the reality of Dad’s declining years.  Once more he fell; the ambulance arrived.  “For a little while until he gets stronger,” she finally agreed to moving into the assisted living facility a few blocks south of their condominium building.  But he did not get stronger; he was ill, cancer creeping through his diminishing bones. 

After his death, she returned to the condominium, even though Dad had firmly stated over and over again, “Don’t let her move back.”  He knew; he knew she was diminishing.  But, she moved back and the falling started.  This time it was she falling.  When asked about a healing wound above her eye, she evaded, “Oh, I just bumped my head.”  But the day came when she fell against the elevator door just as it was opening for her to enter and that is how neighbors found her.  Little strokes, the doctors said.  She really shouldn’t be living alone; the doctors said.  We need to get her into an assisted living facility, her daughters said.  But never did her stubbornness diminish.  

One daughter talked with her; “No.”  The second daughter talked with her; “No.”  Daughters talked together and with her; “No.”  Months passed; falling continued.  Her diminution continued until finally, there was no choice.   Another fall; her pelvis broken.  An ambulance finally for rehab at a care center.  A nearly impossible conversation about money resulted in a “I will try it but then I will come back home.”  No diminishing of her resolve to stay in her home. 

I thought about all that early one morning not that long again; the word “diminishment” came to me to describe how I was thinking about Mom. Two pictures above my bed- one of her on her capping day from Swedish Nursing School with her lovely manicured nails showing on her crossed arms across her immaculate white uniform, stiffly starched cap secure on her head.  The other on a family gathering day in her wheelchair, tousled hair and stained turtleneck, surrounded by her three daughters.  Images of diminishment. 

But, the well-worn copy of the Random House dictionary informed me “diminishment” is not a word.  Even as I type, the red line shows up each time I use it.  Diminution is the word – it describes the “process of diminishing, lessening, reduction.”  Yes, a process, that is what I was remembering, the process of my mother’s diminishing, lessening, reduction, her diminution. 

And now I see it – reflected in the mirror, this process that I am coming to understand, I see daily, I feel, I recognize, in myself, in the rotation of the earth around the sun, day by day, month by month, year by year.   Sure, both hips were replaced twenty years ago, an inheritance from my father.  Sure, both hands gnarled with arthritis ache on cool, damp days. Sure, I have worn glasses since second grade.  But that’s just “normal,” I tell myself.  No reason to think much about that, no need to cast it as any diminution.

But with this winter excess of snow, well over twice the average yearly accumulation, with two very short-legged dogs, higher and higher snow plow banks blocking the paths to bird feeders and bird seed container, I am feeling it.  Shoveling out a potty path for the dogs each six-inch snowfall before the plow arrives reminds me of my rising year count.  Fighting my way through the 3+ feet of snow on the back yard to shake excess snow off drooping branches of a favorite pine tree became a quick lesson in winter survival.  I fell; I tried to extricate myself from snow up to my hips unsuccessfully.  Three times I worked to go vertical landing on my posterior with each endeavor.  How am I going to get out of here, I wondered.  Girl Scout training kicked in; roll over and crawl.  Two attempts and I was on all fours, maneuvering past the garden out to the plowed driveway where I could easily stand up.  But, the sight of a seventy-six year old gray-haired woman decked out in snowpants, a heavy parka and knee-high Sorrell boots would have made for a You Tube video.  I was humbled; I was reminded – I am diminishing.

Now there are small silver half-moons resting on each ear attached to a short wire plugged into each ear canal.  Then there was the trip to the retina specialist – same one my mother visited for years to check the status of my macular degeneration.  Again and again I am reminded of my own diminution. 

But again and again I am reminded of the quotidian grace abounding in this creaky body.  Three mile walks on Croftville Road, admiring the beautiful ice sculpture – natural and created along the shore.  Three pairs of ravens return to our woods to mate, build nests and renew the raven population.  Chickadees call “phoebe” to one another.  Icicles form water witching prongs off the bathroom roof.  A fawn and mama stroll down the driveway nibbling at bare branches.  The light returns, sun rise earlier each day.  Diminution is real yes, but vitality and growth and humor peek out from behind the birch next to the deck. 

Yes, I am diminishing, but that isn’t the last word. But, but, perhaps the time has come to ask the hard question:  how long can we maintain this lovely home in the woods?  Perhaps my heart and my mind need to consult.  Perhaps the time has come for resolution or at least the time has come for a discernment process especially as the what if’s start up in the 3:00 club: 

  • What if I had fallen and not been able to get up
  • What if I had fallen and was hurt and Hillary could not help me get up
  • What if I had fallen and the snowplow hadn’t gotten through yet
  • What if I had fallen and needed major medical attention, with nothing available in town
  • What if, what if, what if.

But what ifs aren’t good enough for this process.  Where does the deliberate thought process of head come into play and where do the sensitive issues of the heart intersect and how do the two play together?

Start with the numbers:  11, 1.5, 5, 150, 76, 0, 0, 0, 0: 11 miles east of town, one and a half miles up from the highway on gravel roads maintained by a private road association, five acres of woods, 150 inches of snow, age 76 with zero intensive care within 150 miles, zero surgical services within 150 miles, zero geriatric services within 150 miles, zero home health services within 150 miles.  No assisted living, a care center at risk of closing for lack of staff.  A retiring doctor looking to move to a new area with adequate senior health care.  Friends looking at options elsewhere in the state to enable productive and healthy aging.  A metro area doctor in conversation observing, “I know about your situation.  One of my classmates from your local clinic has talked with me.”  The data is in.  Aging in place in Cook County is a fantasy.  Or at least a reality I can’t quite fathom.

But what about the heart:  morning light in the bedroom windows moving from the north wall to the south wall as the days lengthen minute by minute.  Chickadees and finches collecting around the suet feeder, ruby-throated hummingbirds celebrating fresh sugar water in the plastic tube hanging from the pin cherry tree at the edge of the deck.  Mama and baby deer strolling down the driveway snacking on fresh green shoots.  Lynx screaming across the back yard tearing through the open screen tent in the early morning hours.  Sneak peeks of the big lake as the leaves begin their fall descents clearing sightlines through the thick forest curtains.  But then there is the 250+ mile back and forth from Grand Marais to St. Paul.  When is that drive just too much – either for us or those drivers with whom we share the freeway?  Can you feel the struggle?  Reason tells me to let it go, start planning for the big move to St Paul, the big move to sell, the big move to give thanks for twelve wonderful years in this little house on the hill.  But my heart is hanging on, resistant.  The struggle is underway.  Resolution will come.  ‘Tis the time for patience, compassion, and acceptance of realities.  ‘Tis the time for writing.  Diminution and quotidian graces abound; celebrate both and live the ambiguity for now. 

Carol Mork is a retired educator, pastor and community organizer who moved to the North Shore in 2011.  She and her partner live on five acres of woods, east of Grand Marais with two adopted senior shelties.  Writing is her avocation; as a pastor she had several articles and curricula published and continues to be involved with writing circles.

Moving from Mess to Message by Dawn M. Johnson

One Author’s Journey to Share Her Emotional Truth

I reflected on those times that I had attempted to write in the past. I wondered why it was suddenly so much easier to put my story on paper.

When my book, Outwit the Workplace Bully, was published in January of 2022 it was not the first time I had attempted to write about my experiences with workplace bullying. Although, I knew there was power in my story, I struggled to put my thoughts on paper.

Let me share a little about my experiences for context. During my career, I’ve had two encounters with workplace bullies. In 1996, I went to graduate school at a large, public, university. I took a position as a research assistant. Quickly, it became clear that my supervisor did not like me. I was regularly humiliated in staff meetings, blamed for team errors, and punished with extra work. After several months of witnessing this behavior, a senior research assistant shared that the behavior was a known pattern with this supervisor. Each year the supervisor selected someone to “pick on.” This year, that someone was me. I left my program early and did not go on to complete my degree.

I thought that this graduate school experience would be an anomaly in my career. I was wrong. Years later, I encountered a different, more covert workplace bully. In my second experience, a coworker, whom I considered a friend, told lies, and spread rumors about me to company leaders. Why? The reason became clear when I was threatened with demotion and my bully became my boss. By silently destroying my reputation, the bully made a case for their ultimate promotion.

These two scenarios are vastly different examples of workplace bullying. Both experiences had lasting impacts on me personally and on my career. They stirred strong emotions when I thought or talked about them. After my second experience, I felt a calling to write about it, but I struggled to write coherently. Thoughts and emotions spilled out into a tangled mess on paper. The writing helped me process, but it was NOT ready for public consumption.

I started drafting my book in April of 2021. By November of 2021, I had a completed, edited, and formatted book ready for publishing. I reflected on those times that I had attempted to write in the past. I wondered why it was suddenly so much easier to put my story on paper. I concluded there were three elements that came together at the same time—I found the right format, the right amount of time had passed, and I was authoring this book for the right reasons.

Finding the Right Format

My first attempt to write my story was in fiction form. Some of the incidents were “stranger than fiction” so I figured the story might be more believable as a work of fiction. Fiction also allowed the cover I needed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. I had read a lot about writing fiction, but my lack of experience with the format led me to quickly abandon this route.

Several years later, I took a memoir workshop sponsored by Lake Superior Writers. I thought perhaps this was the format that would allow me to share my story in a coherent and meaningful way. In the workshop I learned about the key elements of a memoir. One, it needed to be true. Two, it needed to have a transformation. Three, it needed to tie to a universal experience to which others could relate. Well, my story was true. But, at that point I didn’t see a transformation. Plus, I believed my story was so unique that I didn’t think it would be relatable to others. I set aside my goal of putting this story to paper.

Years went by. I started to share my story with close friends and family members. As I shared, others told me about their own workplace horror stories. People began coming to me to ask for advice on dealing with difficult people, ineffective leaders, and toxic workplace behavior. I began to realize that my experience wasn’t so unique. I had lessons to share. The right format was in the form of non-fiction/self-help. I mind-mapped my concept and eight lessons emerged that would eventually become the chapters of my book.

Finding the Right Time

Early on in my attempts to write about my experience, the emotions were raw. Inside, I held a raging mix of anger, sadness, embarrassment, disappointment, and grief. I needed the time to let some of those emotions subside. I needed the time and distance to be able to reflect on what happened and how I might grow from the experience. As a writer, my urge to put pen to paper with all these emotions was a healthy instinct. Writing in the moment was helpful to me, but I was in no condition to be writing for others.

More than a decade had passed since my second experience when I started my book. I had moved on to a better place in my career. I had done hard emotional work to be able to rebuild my confidence, heal emotionally, and forgive those involved. Even more importantly, I had reflected on all the positive that had emerged since I had left those situations behind. Some of the positives include going back to study for my master’s degree, meeting new friends, and moving into a career path I’m deeply passionate about. Time needed to pass for me to uncover the good and discover the lessons that I needed to learn from my experience. This time for reflection and learning ties directly into the final topic—finding the right reason.

Finding the Right Reason

My first attempts to put my experience into words were born out of a desire for revenge. Even though I knew that I would be masking the identities of the aggressors, I wanted people to understand how I had been wronged. I was hurt and embarrassed and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the incompetent professional I was painted to be in both scenarios. During the memoir workshop, I remember the instructor saying that memoir couldn’t just be your story. Memoirs had to have a payoff for the reader. How would the reader benefit from learning about my story? At the time, I couldn’t see through my emotions to reach others. I couldn’t teach them lessons that I hadn’t yet learned. Once I discovered the lessons from my own story, and I approached the writing with the goal of teaching and helping others, the words flowed onto the page.

My two experiences with workplace bullying were some of the most difficult and traumatic times in my career. Today, I can say with confidence that I have gratitude for my experience. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences. I wouldn’t be doing the work I do today without those experiences. I certainly wouldn’t be able to call myself an “author” without those experiences.

Are you are wrestling with your own emotional story that you keep trying to put onto paper? Maybe you haven’t found quite the right reason to share your story yet. Or maybe more work needs to be done to fully heal and let go of emotions. Keep writing. None of it is wasted. It moves you closer to the right format, time, and reason to share your truth with the world.

Dawn is an author, speaker, and the founder of On the Rise Development, LLC. As an advocate for thriving workplaces, Dawn has dedicated more than a decade to helping leaders and employees grow in their careers.

Her first book, Outwit the Workplace Bully: 8 Steps You Need to Know to Reclaim Your Career, Confidence, and Sanity, was published in early 2022.

When she’s not writing, you might find Dawn capturing family memories in a scrapbook, losing at a game of Hand and Foot, or cheering for her niece and nephew at the ballfield or ice rink. She resides in northern Minnesota.

Why I Started Writing by Doug Lewandowski

The move fired up my imagination and I started writing in earnest. That step opened pathways to settle down a restless mind and helped to keep life in some kind of balance.

I have always been a reader. Worlds created in books were fascinating and adventure-filled for a twelve year old growing up in the mid-fifties. Life was pretty mundane. Only so many softball and pickup basketball games with Kenny and Mike across the alley were possible. An occasional excursion to the Como Park Zoo on bikes to look at Sparky the Seal might break up a summer day, but there was still a lot of time to kill when I wasn’t in charge of two younger siblings. So, I read.

I went through a lot of horse books and fondly remember King of the Wind, The Black Stallion and Black Beauty. Eventually I moved on to the richer writings of Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, that explored places we can only dream of; books with tightly written plots and interesting characters. They fired my imagination and ignited an interest in places outside the windows on Thomas Avenue.

I started to live in my head a lot more. In many respects that was not a good thing. We all need a balance in life between fantasy and actually doing something. Fortunately, going to college provided that outlet.

I had thoughts of being a biology teacher until I ran into a Calc and Chemistry wall. I had no clue how to make it through them, so I bailed and chose to be an English teacher with a theology minor. At that time, creative writing was not an option. There were very few MFA programs in 1965. I put my time in teaching in a secondary classroom, doling out scraps of grammar and discussing a lot of contemporary literature. Continuing my own education, I ultimately ended up with a background in psychology that moved me from education to clinical, mental health work. But I never gave up the love of reading or turned off the ramblings of a wandering psyche.

Eventually, after an extended stint as a school counselor, I wrapped up my career by teaching English again in an alternative school after a thirty year interlude. The move fired up my imagination and I started writing in earnest. That step opened pathways to settle down a restless mind and helped to keep life in some kind of balance.

When I had some dead time in my work day, I started writing a short story. As the narrative developed, the lives of other characters in that world emerged and I had to give them voice. What resulted was a book that told a tale of a small town in central Minnesota from multiple viewpoints. Like many rural burgs, the interactions of the players overlapped and interacted in a dynamic way.

I started thinking about the how and why of the creative process and found a lot of similarities with what happens as a therapist when there are moments when we touch the numinous. Along the way I found a multitude of explanations for the roots of creativity, from mindfulness to neurobiology that produces layers of  meaning and insight. While the process gives no clear answers as to how it all comes together, the question remains, where does this come from and how is it all interrelated?

I suspect that the gift and scourge of the creative mind comes from the same place that made someone walk up to me recently at an outdoor concert and ask, “Do you remember me?” And I did. The person continued, “You saved my life.” This was someone I had worked with as a clinician in the mid nineteen eighties.

Another time, when I had a chance to talk about the book I wrote, several people who commented on my writing said, “ When I read your book, I cried.” And this was not the first time I’ve heard that.

We can theorize about how it all happens but these interactions are a mystery, seeded by a gift that is given. and we become a conduit for things we have no clue about. Be grateful for the bequests you are assigned, and keep hammering out the words.

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.

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.