Insider Information

It’s not every day you’re able to read Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot scroll manuscript of his On the Road. But there it was (or rather, a copy of it) protected under glass at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. “We had the original on display here,” a woman to my right said, “and before we sent it back to its permanent home, we made a copy so we could keep it here outside the Writer’s Room.”

I’d heard the woman speak knowledgeably to her companions about historic pieces as I’d made my way through rooms in the museum. She’d urged them to lift headphones in the Bob Dylan exhibit for recordings of him singing in the 1970s and reading his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2017. She encouraged one of the teens with her to write something on the manual typewriters on display in another room. And now, before entering the Writer’s Room new display about Frederick Douglass, she shared what struck me as museum insider’s information.

Roberta Rubin“Are you involved with the museum?” I asked. She smiled and pointed to the sign above the doorway – The Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room.

“Is that you?” She smiled again, and nodded, explaining she’s been on the museum’s board (in fact, she’s the co-chair) since 2014.

She asked if I’d been to the museum before. “Yes,” I said, “and I’m an American writer!” We embraced, and I felt tears prickle my eyelids. “I’m so grateful you all created this museum,” I said. Ever the advocate for AWM, Roberta asked, “Are you a member?” (I am).

It’s not as though Chicago needed another museum. The city is well known for its Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum of Natural History, Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Children’s Museum. It also hosts museums devoted to African American, Swedish American, Chinese American, Polish, and Ukrainian history. Perhaps lesser known are Chicago’s museums dedicated to sports, veterans, broadcast communications, and pizza. But AWM’s visionary founder, Malcolm O’Hagan, was convinced that American writers deserved a home of their own and incorporated the tax-exempt AWM Foundation for that purpose in 2009.

Barry Brecheisen – CN Traveler

Located in Chicago’s downtown heart on Michigan Avenue, AWM opened its doors to the public in May 2017. I made my first visit two months later. That day, I spent much of my time in the museum’s entry, studying long banners of portraits and bios recognizing “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers.” chicago writers

Gwendolyn BrooksMany of the names were familiar to me: Saul Bellow, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather. The museum claims them as among “the poets, novelists, journalists, and other writers [who found] inspiration in everyday people, telling their stories and transforming the way they talk into art. Chicago writers are also troublemakers…with a humanist bent,” the display explains. “They have shone the light on injustice, questioned authority, and articulated bold new visions for a better world. Chicago writers are agents of change.” These words make me proud of my Chicago roots.

Octavia ButlerAlthough today’s Americans speak more than 350 languages, another section of the museum focuses on 100 authors who “represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing… Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.”

One of the most creative (and mesmerizing) rooms in the museum tackles the question of what it means to be an American.

word waterfall
Courtesy AWM website

JamesB quote

A “word waterfall” offers quotes from American writers about what they love abut America and how the country has failed or succeeded at ensuring equality for all.

The museum’s mission “to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives,” is clearly exemplified in the current temporary exhibit about American writer, Frederick Douglass. That’s where I spent most of my time during my latest visit to AWM.

FD bio


Douglass speech 2

In the small space of the Writer’s Room, images of this former slave, and excerpts from his writings, convey his wisdom and revolutionary and prophetic writing.FD amendments

I’m delighted I eavesdropped on Roberta Rubin’s conversations that day; turns out she was sharing her insider information with family visiting for the first time. It was no surprise to learn she joined the AWM board soon after retiring as the owner of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL. “As a bookstore owner, I had a lot of books, of course,” she explained, and many from her collection are now shelved in the museum’s Reading Room, complete with comfy chairs to encourage visitors to settle in with a good book. When I told Roberta I’m from Washington, she mentioned some of the “fantastic bookstores you have there.” Among them was Village Books in Bellingham (and now Lynden, too). “Chuck and Dee Robinson [Village Books founders] have visited the museum,” she explained. Small world, eh?

Before we parted, Roberta dug in her purse to give me her business card. I hope to get to know her better—and to thank her again for her efforts to give visitors an inside look at American writers.






November Write-Ins

A friend just told me she’d finished her ballot to mail before she leaves the country for a vacation. But I never expected what she said next. “There was an uncontested, incumbent candidate I’m not too happy with, so I decided to write in your name!”

While I’m thrilled whenever I learn that someone has voted (Washington is a vote-by-mail only state), and I’ll be filling in the circles on my own ballot soon, I’m sticking with the names already printed there. Instead, I’m thinking about a different kind of write-in.

Elizabeth Menozzi

Last week, writing on the interisland ferry, I met another author from the San Juans, Orcas Islander Elizabeth Menozzi. Among other things, Elizabeth is an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy novels with romance.


And for the next month, she’ll be the Municipal Liaison for the San Juan Islands branch of the “WA Elsewhere” National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Region (seems we’re too small to register as anything but “elsewhere”).




Since its inception in 1999, NaNoWriMo participants begin on November 1, working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. A nonprofit since 2005, NaNoWriMo expects over 400,000 people to join what they describe as “one part writing boot camp, one part rollicking party.”

write-insDuring the month, 975 Municipal Liaisons (MLs) like Elizabeth will coordinate local, in-person writing events (write-ins) at libraries, bookstores, and other community spaces. The MLs job is to provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds.

Author Jenny Hansen has been participating in NaNoWriMo for years, and she shares these Tips for Successful WriMos:

  1. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing.
  2. If you feel more comfortable outlining your story ahead of time, do it! But it’s also fine to just wing it.
  3. Write every day, and a book-worthy story will appear, even if you’re not sure what that story might be right now.
  4. Do not edit as you go. Editing is for December and beyond. Think of November as an experiment in pure output.
  5. Even if it’s hard at first, leave ugly prose and poorly written passages on the page to be cleaned up later.
  6. Every book you’ve ever loved started out as a beautifully flawed first draft.
  7. Tell everyone you know that you’re writing a novel in November.
  8. Seriously. The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.
  9. There will be times you’ll want to quit during November. This is okay. Everyone who completes NaNoWriMo wanted to quit at some point in November. Stick it out.
  10. Wherever you are on your writing journey, DON’T STOP.

Although I write creative nonfiction and can’t imagine writing a novel, I share the NaNoWriMo belief that everyone’s story matters. I also know how vital it is to feel support and encouragement from other writers, so I plan to join Elizabeth at a write-in on the interisland ferry (date to be determined). If you want to spend some time writing “elsewhere,” we’d love to have you along. You’ll find Elizabeth’s write-in calendar here.

Now that’s the kind of write-in for me!

A Thing for Ferries

lady4I have a thing for ferries. Since 1994, I’ve relied on them for transportation to and from my home. First, it was The Lady of the Lake, the passenger-only ferry that took me the 55-mile length of Lake Chelan when I lived at its head in Stehekin, WA. You can read about many of those sailings and life on the lake in my memoir, Hiking Naked.

After two years in Stehekin, my family and I moved to Lopez Island, WA. This summer we’ll celebrate twenty-two years of sailing on the Salish Sea to and from the mainland with the Washington State Ferries. WSF.jpgA division of the Washington State Department of Transportation in operation since the early 1950s,WSF is the largest ferry system in the U.S. Its 21 vessels transport 24 million passengers every year through some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Unlike The Lady of the Lake, ferries that serve Lopez carry 100 or more vehicles in addition to passengers (including livestock and delivery trucks of all sizes).

This mode of transportation is one of the most relaxing, inspiring, and tranquil I’ve ever experienced. Most days, the gentle rocking of the vessel slows my heart rate (except at those times winds are roaring, tossing the 380-foot vessel side-to-side). Announcements of whale sightings send passengers dashing to starboard or port to catch a glimpse. And for a writer, the ferry is one of the best people-watching and eavesdropping places around.

It’s no surprise, then, that I didn’t hesitate when I had a chance to take a ferry across Lake Windermere in Great Britain while traveling among Friends. The fifteen-minute crossing travels the narrowest part of the lake in Cumbria every day except Christmas and Boxing Day, just as it’s done for more than 500 years. Although the current vessel, Mallard, can carry 18 vehicles and 100 passengers, there were only a dozen cars on the gray, blustery, weekday when I travelled.


Still, I was charmed.

I’m taking my fascination with ferries a new direction this summer. On August 1, I’ll become the first Writer-in-Residence on the WSF Interisland Ferry. tilikumThe Tillikum (Chinook jargon for “friends,” “relatives”) is the vessel that usually makes this run, sailing only between Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan islands. Details are still in the works, with an official announcement coming in July, but I’ve already done some trial runs. The Tillikum (or its substitute if it’s in the shop for repairs) will become my floating office. My assignment: to observe, study, and write about, well, ferries, as well as the Salish Sea and threats to its well being.

I’ll keep you posted about my new project. And if you see me on the Interisland, don’t expect me to disembark until I’ve made one or more complete loops. Welcome aboard!




The Bliss of Lit Fest

atwood (1)

The question from a friend seemed innocent enough: “Would you be willing to work with me and some other writers to plan a literary festival?” My positive response rose from that blissful place of ignorance. A few weeks later, I naively made the twenty-minute ferry trip to neighboring Orcas Island to meet (and be elected to) the board of the embryonic festival.

That was about eight months ago. After this past weekend’s inaugural Orcas Island Literary Festival, the ignorance has been replaced by experience, but the bliss remains.

festmapToday, I’ve returned to the quiet and calm of my writing desk to reflect on the journey of organizing, and participating in, a literary festival. It began, as so many meaningful life events do, with a walk.

litwalkLit Walk – authors read and chatted at a variety of venues throughout Eastsound Village. The Olympic Mountains’ “rain shadow” didn’t protect us from April showers, but storytelling, poetry, essays, and food and drink cloaked us. It turned out to be a luck- and fun-filled Friday the 13th.

Twin Peaks: Black Box and Center Stage – The Orcas Center theaters pulled everyone to new heights with panels discussing home, humor, landscapes, suspense-thrillers, memoir, food, and turning books into film. food


Interviews with bestselling and award-winning authors revealed some of the stories behind the stories.










Kids Read (and Write) Too – The Lit Fest Family Fest (free, thanks to partners and sponsors) encouraged all ages to venture into the world of words.



Refueling at the Book Fair and Bistro – Trekking literary territory is invigorating and demanding. The Madrona Room and lobbies at Orcas Center replenished us with good food, coffee, small presses, local goods, performances, and bookseller extraordinaire, Darvill’s Bookstore.journals










Battle of the Genres – The only “conflict” throughout this expedition was all in fun, late on Saturday night. Trivia, improv, and puns marked good-humored competition among poets, YA (young adult) authors, and writers of thrillers. Local wine, beer, and sweet and savory snacks kept energy up.

As with all exhilarating outings, I’m eager to explore other trails we bypassed this year and to revisit the ones we followed. I’ll have that chance soon. On Monday, the board members will convene by conference call to begin work on next year’s festival.


Want to be updated about the 2019 plan? Sign up for the Orcas Island Lit Fest newsletter on the OILF website or Facebook page.