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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it takes many tries.

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

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

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

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

I’m still trying to learn this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of After Francesco by Jennifer Jubenville

It’s a novel that deserves to be read and shared and studied.

After Francesco is the story of Kevin Doyle, a 28-year old man who is dealing with the loss of his partner Francesco to AIDS. Kevin spends his days working a mind-numbing job (the blue copy of the form goes in the donor file and the pink copy goes in the campaign file) in New York City and his nights attempting to drink away his pain in Francesco’s apartment. He remembers the years when he and his friends were living the best days of their lives – New York City in the 80’s – where they could be authentically themselves…. before AIDS spread through the city like a wildfire. 

After Kevin hits rock bottom he moves back to Minnesota – both hoping to move on and terrified of moving on. 

If you’re a Gen Xer you’ll be instantly transported back to these days – remembering when people were desperate to hear President Reagan acknowledge AIDS and people were staging die-in protests outside of the National Institutes of Health. If you’re not a Gen Xer the book will read like historical fiction. 

Brian Malloy has created a masterpiece of a novel that will gut you. The setting, the character development, the complexities of inner turmoil… it’s a novel that deserves to be read and shared and studied. 

Jennifer Jubenville is the Store Manager at The Bookstore at Fitger’s.

Brian Malloy will give an Author Talk and Workshop on October 5, 6:00 – 8:30pm at the Fitger’s Brewer Complex, presented by Lake Superior Writers. Click here for further information and to register for the event.

After Francesco may be purchased at The Bookstore at Fitger’s.

Hiccups on the Lido Deck: 3 Steps to Recover from Creative Rejection by Sarah Bamford Seidelmann

The one thing that kept me waddling back to the keyboard day after day was my desire…to write something that might encourage others…. to create something whimsical and fun that was loaded with transformative power.  

If you’ve risked sharing your creativity and been rejected, you already know.   It’s like having your undercarriage waxed with superglue.  Rrrrrrrrippppppp.

Maybe you revealed your “Saintly Toaster Robots” screenplay to your mother and she told you, “It’s derivative”.  Perhaps, during your first paid comedic gig, you got heckled by a drunken audience member and fled the stage.  Or, your Etsy listing of necrophilia inspired decoupage broke records for highest number of *thumbs downs* and Etsy security called to request you remove it.  

Whatever happened to you, I am sorry.  It’s awful.  

Rejection can leave us doubting whether we should ever construct another plot, take the stage or dip into the Mod Podge again (I prefer Elmer’s).   We convince ourselves that we’re not capable of creating.  We experience such deep despair that we vow to never risk again.   We quit.

Take heart.  While it feels like a knife to your heart, creative rejection is actually evidence that you’ll succeed.   I’ll outline the surefire route to recovering from a crash n burn so you can get back flapping in the skies and flying towards your dreams.

Allow me to illustrate:

At 44, I yearned to write a book.  I couldn’t believe how rapidly words flowed from my brain into a Word document.  I sent my 62,000 word first draft to a well-known editor for the stars.  

I mailed the manuscript.  By the time the appointed hour of our call finally arrived, I’d already poured us both a glass of champagne.  In my mind, I was on the lido deck and could hear her saying “How fabulous is this book you’ve written?” and “Too bad you hadn’t started earlier!”, she’d say, “you could have already made us both rich!”.   Hiccup.  

I should have seen the iceberg coming.  She told me I wasn’t ready to write a book…I wasn’t a master yet.  I needed three more years. She told about Mrs. Fabulosity and how she was ready.   I immediately resented Mrs. F with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns even though I only knew her from the pages of a magazine.  I sort of blacked out as I scrawled a few awful notes.   It was all I could do to get off the phone.

Step One:  Allow yourself to cry, shake, and listen to Stairway to Heaven…then, share your story with another person whom your trust.  You’ll need to find a way to feel less alone with your pain.

I felt like a duck shot down out of the clear blue sky. This advice of hers was violence.  I quacked, waddled and moaned.   After sobbing for an hour, I propped myself up on a pillow and slept.  

I replayed the call for my husband.   In a moment of rare Northern European emotional expression, he burst into tears, too, remembering his own past rejections.

I later told a trusted friend who apologized for the editor’s critique.  This gave me sweet relief.

Step Two:  Ask yourself if any part of the criticism you received resonated as true.  If this is a kind Universe…how could this rejection be here to help you?

A few days after the call, an incredibly detailed and kind letter arrived from the editor.  The tone seemed oddly cheerful?  No, I couldn’t write the book I wanted to…but maybe eventually a different book could work.    There were all kinds of insightful feedback on where I had gone wrong (and some where I had gone right).   I hated it. Especially the nice parts.   She was so irritatingly articulate while she dashed my dreams.

A different book? As annoying as it was to hear, that began to resonate in my brain.   I began to ponder if it wasn’t this book…what book might it be?  

How might this be here to help?

If you were booed off the stage then the criticism may be in no way helpful except, now you know that jokes about your poodle’s skin condition don’t go down well with the American Cat Fanciers Association.  Maybe you don’t even fancy Cat Fanciers?

The necrophilia inspired decoupage nearly created a violent riot on Etsy.  Looking back…something felt a little off? What would make it right?  Or perhaps a totally new idea pops into your head?

My wise friend Anna says helpful criticism will always leave you with a sense of freedom and renewed purpose.  Did any of the feedback do that?

Step Three:  Find a safe way to stretch out your wings. Begin flapping again.

A few months later, I sent a query to different editor.    We spoke.  I had a new idea.   This time it was a bit more focused, and involved an area of freakish mastery:  animal totems.  

I began to tell her my ideas.  She was kind and supportive. She didn’t tell me that I wasn’t ready.   With her support and my new clarity, I began to write a new book.  It was one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on.  

The one thing that kept me waddling back to the keyboard day after day was my desire…to write something that might encourage others…. to create something whimsical and fun that was loaded with transformative power.  

With help, I refined and rewrote and added slowly to the sweet project.  Eight months later, with the help of a small team of dear friends, I self-published.   It’s been selling like banana pancakes ever since.   I’m not yet paying our mortgage but I’m heading towards buoyancy.   

Find a safe space to begin again.

Maybe there’s a Facebook group for science fiction screenplay writers where you can connect with other writers to determine if Saintly Toaster Robots really is derivative (P.S. Since it’s all from God/the Universe anyway, you could say we’re all derivative.)  

Perhaps the Divine Dead candles you made last year sold like gangbusters at the Megadeath concert tailgate party.  Maybe it’s time to bring the necrophilia inspired decoupage to a more *lethal* venue?

Where (or from whom) could you get support and helpful feedback?

             ____________________

After my first book was published, I went on to write another.  I wish I could say the process felt like frolicking with unicorns but it didn’t.  Writing the second book was even harder.  But, there’s just something so damn satisfying about writing that I keep on.  It’s a double rainbow bonus when others resonate with the words I’ve written.

I’m writing a third book and seeking out an agent.   I’m up on the lido deck pouring the champagne again and letting the sea breezes caress my skin.   I’m ready to face critique and rejection because it’s the only way I ever succeeded.  

What is it that YOU are longing to create? 

Sarah Seidelmann M.D. was a fourth-generation physician living a nature-starved, hectic lifestyle until a walrus entered her life and changed everything. She’s a practicing Shamanic Mentor and Woman of Medicine and leads transformational travel retreats around the world. She’s also the irrepressible author of several popular books including Swimming with Elephants, How Good Are You Willing to Let It Get? Born to FREAK, and The Book of Beasties!. Sarah is publishing her first novel in 2021: Where the Deer Dream is a coming of age visionary fiction. Find her at followyourfeelgood.com

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.