Writer Island


I live on an island. Not a tropical isle, but one in the Pacific Northwest, with rocky, cold-sand beaches, bald eagles roosting in cedars, and great blue herons squawking as they skim the bay near my house. At least half a dozen times each day, I can see a Washington State ferry, our link to the mainland, coursing its way here.

Most mornings, I retreat to a small writing space that once was my son’s bedroom. My only company is my yellow lab/Shepherd, Buddy. It’s my own writer island. Why, then, would I board a ferry to a neighboring island to write?

The simple answer is evident in this poster:


Leaving the solitude of my home office gave me the chance to study again with my friend and writing mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. This time, she taught at Orcas Artsmith, leading a prose workshop, “Make It Move!” I was hoping for inspiration to make my pen move, and I wasn’t disappointed.

With our group of ten, Ana Maria reviewed how good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, move—through the growth of characters, unfolding plotlines, shifting scenery, and emerging meanings. Additionally, good stories move readers when they strike a chord, stir emotions, and change us. Ana Maria then posed the question, “Is there something about a way a story moves that moves us?”

After we each read excerpts of writing that touches us, we generated a list of characteristics that move the story—and the reader:

  • Concrete details
  • Repetition of images and sound—like a heartbeat
  • Shifts and surprises
  • Honesty
  • A bit of humor blended with the grief of loss
  • Descriptions of acts of compassion
  • Juxtaposition of big concepts/ideas with the small.

korean-war-veterans-memorial-pThen we turned to our own writing, generating a list of scenes or moments that have moved us. When Ana Maria asked us to choose one, I circled my note about the day I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, thinking of my father who had served as a Marine in that war.

For the rest of the morning, Ana Maria led us through a series of exercises using craft techniques that help carry readers from one emotional state to another:

  • Use active verbs (rather than forms of “to be”)
  • Note character gestures – the ways they touch and move
  • Look for a larger cultural context.
Kangaroo House – Orcas Island, WA

In the afternoon, we scattered to our own “writer islands” to work (or walk, nap, read) individually. After dinner, we gathered again at the inn that served as home base to have dessert and to read from our work.

The next morning, I left the workshop with the beginnings of an essay, a list of fourteen other moments that moved me that just might make their ways into my writing, and a few more tools in my writing toolbox. Could I have accomplished as much had I sequestered myself in my writer island office for a day? Perhaps. But I would have missed out on the wisdom of a gifted teacher, inspiration from other writers, and the luxury of a day free of the distractions that swirl around my desk.

And I would have missed the dessert.




Re-Blog “Writing is Art”

Earlier this month I reviewed  Spry Literary Magazine’s ABCs of Creative Nonfiction series. Now I’m sharing a thought-provoking post by writer and teacher Debbie Hagan about essay-writing. Hagan is also book reviews editor for Brevity Magazine, and she skillfully discussed a new essay anthology I might need to add to my library:  I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and how it motivated her to create a class for art students on revision and to think of writing as art. Whether you’re a writer, artist, or reader, I think you’ll find Hagan’s post interesting (just click on the link below).

via Today’s Lesson: Writing Is Art — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Creative Nonfiction from A-Z

typewriter2 (1)When I introduce myself as a writer, the person I’m talking to typically asks, “What do you write?”

After I reply, “Creative nonfiction,” I usually hear, “Oh…” and my new friend’s eyes focus somewhere beyond my face as if I’ve responded in a foreign language. I understand the confusion.
CNF60_Cover-1Essayist Scott Russell Sanders claims that the term nonfiction was coined by librarians to show their libraries weren’t filled with frivolous things. The genre’s name says more about what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s like saying that classical music is non-jazz or wine is non-beer. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, describes what creative nonfiction is in detail, but also offers this succinct and accurate definition: “True stories, well told.”

And that’s where the creative part comes in. A well-told story, whether true or made up, relies on literary craft techniques of characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, and description. It’s just that with true stories—nonfiction—the writer can’t exaggerate or lie about what really happened, can’t create characters that don’t exist, wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) falsely describe a setting. Or, as Gutkind says, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

ABCs-of-Creative-Nonfiction-1What creative nonfiction writers do, though, is shape their stories—personal essays, memoirs, narrative nonfiction—just as novelists and short story writers do. They (we) use a range of storytelling techniques and tools. Recently, the editors of Spry Literary Journal undertook the task of compiling descriptions of some elements of the genre and, with the help of twenty-six writers, launched The ABCs of Creative Nonfiction.

Linsey Jayne
Linsey Jayne

Linsey Jayne, poet and founding co-editor of Spry, began the series this way:

“Reading the work of a gifted author in the genre suddenly gives you the feeling of being swept into your closest friend’s dream. Notes meet rhythm to become symphonies. Something about the artful way in which such a writer paints the universe invokes a sense of empathy. Her stories make you feel all the more human, connected to yourself and to the world. She sweeps you up into something that once seemed as ordinary as walking across your living room floor, but now is laden with the meaning that builds in the hundreds of times you’ve walked across that floor while holding the hand of your child or laughing with your loved ones late into the night.”

What followed Linsey’s introduction were twenty-six mini craft lessons to correspond with the letters of the alphabet. There was A is for Accoutrements by Spry co-editor Erin Ollila, B is for Bravery by fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop classmate Chels Knorr, and E is for Ethics. One of my favorites was Q is for (Not) Quitting. As a contributor to the journal’s Issue 2 with my essay Cycles, I was invited to participate in the series; my offering was S is for Setting.

Linsey concluded the ABCs of Creative Nonfiction posts with this reflection:

“Writers in the genre need to offer journalistic honesty, interrogating the elements of their pasts (or the pasts of their subjects) to the point of pain and often at the risk of their emotional stasis for the sake of their craft. They have to swear. A lot. (Honestly, I can understand why.) They need minds that are equal parts surrealist, absurdist, realist, magician; they need to care so much that when their worlds sweat, they sweat.”

Whether you’re a reader or writer (or both) of creative nonfiction, I think you’ll enjoy Spry’s A-Z compendium about the genre. If you get hooked, as I did, you can also check out the magazine’s ABCs of Writing for Beginners and ABCs of Fiction Writing. Up next from Spry will be the ABCs of Flash Fiction.


Return Home

fishingA light breeze swept strands of hair across my face as I sat on the beach of Lake Michigan. Memories of standing beside my dad on a lakeshore pier floated in, too; clusters of men waiting silently—tackle boxes and pails at their feet, cigarettes glowing between their fingertips—watching for fishing poles to arc and listening for the jangle of bells. They’d delight in my jumping up and down when, unknown to me, they tripped the tiny bells on their lines that signaled a catch.

The memory was strong, more than fifty years later, when I returned recently to my birthplace, Chicago. This time, I’d walked just five minutes from my son Matthew and daughter-in-law Jenn’s apartment on Chicago’s north side to once again view the lake’s edge. Although no one was fishing at this spot, I kept expecting to hear tinkling bells.

My parents and I left Chicago for a small, Southern Illinois town (population 300) when I was ten years old, and I’ve been back only a handful of times since then. Now I live on Lopez Island, WA, and I consider the Pacific Northwest my true home. Yet, there’s been something familiar, home-like, whenever I’ve returned—the way Chicagoans stretch their As when they talk, the citizens’ unwavering support of the underdog Cubs and Bears, the nods and smiles of strangers I pass on the street—and I noticed it even more on this visit.

Those noticings got me thinking about the idea of home.

This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered the word. As is true for nearly every writer I’ve ever talked writing with, the meaning of home shows up in my own free writes, essay drafts, poems, and memoir. And here it is again as I try to make sense of how, so far from my small, rural, island home in the rain shadow of the Olympics, I feel at home on the concrete sidewalks, in the shadows of skyscrapers, scanning the teal blue lake ruffled by the wind.

IMG_1849It’s logical enough to conclude that, as the expression goes, “home is where the heart is.” During this latest visit to Chicago, all of my immediate family (my deepest heart connections) was together in the city of my birth. A sense of hometown pride stirred on the Chicago River boat tour  and during a visit to the Chicago History Museum.chicago_history_museum_outside

New thoughts about home surfaced, though, when I attended Matthew and Jenn’s Mennonite church. That particular Sunday, the service focused on United Nations’ World Refugee Day. Observed on June 20 each year, this event honors the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children forced to flee their homelands under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. This congregation knows a bit about such threats—many of its members fled Cambodia, Latin America, Nepal, Bhutan, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. I can’t begin to understand what home means to them.

I’ve been fortunate to move freely in search of home, responding to the sense of true home that I first recognized on a visit to Salt Lake City. There, snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges block the horizon and encircle the city’s downtown and crisp the air, their distant, icy coolness reaching the boulevards. Inexplicably, my Midwest heart felt the magnetic pull of mountains. Their force tugged again as my husband and I, ready to return to school, chose Seattle—surrounded by the Cascades and the Olympics—over Boston and Washington, DC. Years later, it was the spicy scent of ceanothus, a shiny green shrub that colonizes after forest fires, that confirmed my geography of home in the Pacific Northwest. It was as if “home” chose me. Thinking of the refugees relocated to Chicago, I wonder how, or if, they feel at home in a place not of their choosing, far from the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and connections of their homelands.

As I boarded the ferry for the final leg of my journey “home” from my Chicago birthplace, Mt. Baker and the Salish Sea shimmered as the sun set. I know how blessed I am to call this place home.