Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A GOOD NOISE: IN PRAISE OF THE OPEN MIC

‘Cause if you cannot make yourself a good noise 
tell me what you're doing here? 
 - John Gorka 


Lynn here:

Chris Ellsworth, in his many-chaptered blog/story Slash/20, introduced me to a new term: sacking out.

It’s an old timer’s term for desensitizing a horse, a way to get him so he doesn't spook so easily at strange things.

First you tie the horse to a stout post and then you wave a feed sack at him until he quits spooking at it.

Since I pretty much equate everything to writing, I asked myself, “How do I sack myself out as a writer?”

One way, I realized, is to participate in open mics. By sharing a short piece of writing out loud in front of an audience, I desensitize myself so I don't spook at the sound of my own words.

Then I wondered what other writers have to say on the subject, so I asked a few. Their contributions are below.

Chime in, if you are so inclined, in the comments section and share your thoughts on Open Mics.

See you at the next open mic reading 

By Michael Shay 

Some beginning writers would rather get a root canal than read their work in public. They may lack confidence in their work or may just be “mic” shy. I’ve seen many newbies sign up for readings, specifically those held each June at the Wyoming Writers, Inc., conference. “I’ve never read in public before,” newcomers may say, knees quaking, fear dripping from their eyes. Still, they get up and read their own work, defying shyness for the first time. Their voices may quaver. They may mumble their words or speak too fast. But at the end of five minutes, they can resume their seats, confident that they will never again be a rookie at an open mic reading.

It’s an appreciative crowd. They have been to the microphone and survived. We’ve heard from published writers with numerous books. We’ve heard from unpublished teen writers. We’ve heard from Wyoming Poets Laureate such as Rose Hill, Echo Klaproth and Pat Frolander. We’ve heard from me, the guy who often serves as emcee. At long last, I now am a public speaker.

That wasn’t always so.

I was 39 before I dared read in front of an audience. I was in graduate school, studying creative writing. Reading your work aloud was part of the program. My first efforts were not recorded for posterity. I mumbled my work into a microphone and quickly sat. Later, I upped the volume but read so fast that only New Yorkers could have understood.

“Slow down and enunciate,” my profs told me.

I did. I watched experienced writers, especially poets. Words are so crucial to poets. I remember watching Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks read her famous poem, “We Real Cool:

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk Late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon. 

Brooks pronounced each syllable and moved deliberately from one word to the next. It’s a short poem, only 24 words. But she took her time, emphasized the punctuation with short pauses. Those final three words hit me like a punch to the gut.

The idea is the same for prose writers. Take your time, and don’t worry about finishing the story or chapter. Pronounce the words. Vary your cadence. Pause when needed. It’s OK to stop for a couple of beats if the audience laughs. When actor Gene Wilder died recently, tributes talked about his ability to use pauses to milk audience laughs. Words are important but silence can be your friend.

Open Mic Can Inspire Students

By Cindy Jackelen 

As a teacher, I continually strive to inspire students to write for authentic purposes. Imagine, if as adults, all of our writing was done for teachers who gave us feedback with a red pen with a grade at the top of the paper. Not a very inspiring thought, is it? However, teachers are charged with teaching students to write narratives, arguments and informational text so they are prepared for college and careers. But adult writers know writing does not always fit those neat categories outlined in Wyoming State Standards. Creative teachers find ways to inspire our youth to write creatively in many ways and develop their voices as writers.

Open Mic gives students a genuine audience to have their voices heard, regardless of the genre being written.  In primary school, many teachers provide an “author’s chair” for students to share their writing. This early version of open mic builds a classroom community of writers who attentively listen and celebrate the piece with the author.

In upper grades, teachers use Open Mic in a variety of ways to encourage students to write beyond the classroom. I’ve hosted lunchtime poetry club open mics, during which students share deeply personal struggles through poetry. A community of writers allows them to test their emerging voices in a safe setting.

In high school, many teachers collaborate with public libraries or local coffee shops to host poetry slams, a competition using elimination rounds for the reading or performance of poetry. Next year’s National Poetry Slam competition (http://poetryslam.com/) will be held in Denver, CO August 7-12, 2017. This is a great opportunity for Wyoming students and teachers.

One of my fondest recollections as a teacher is students staying after school to orally rehearse their writing for a coffee house open mic night. Proud parents and other audience members were genuinely delighted to hear the voices of emerging student writers.

Head Held High

By Darrah Perez 


Head held high, I look out into my new audience, I always get nervous in front of a new crowd. My voice a little shaky, but knowing it must be heard, slowly reciting every word.

Every time, I see the words open mic--my heart flutters, knowing an opportune door has just opened to share with an audience; my voice, my message, my world.

Being afraid, and to have fear is normal in the life of a writer. Success can be a scary thing, but, it shouldn't be. The ripples and tides that get us to sit on top of the world to peer down upon the dream: the dream of being who we really are; we are meant to be writers and poets and artists.

So you see, to take advantage of every opportunity, to perform in every open mic, and to share the message within our hearts, is indeed, exactly what we are meant to do. Open mics are considered, "blessings in disguise."

Acting Out at Open Mic Sessions

By Abbie Taylor

I was born in New York City to want-to-be actors who realized the importance of having a day job in order to support a child. That didn’t stop them from acting, though. We moved from New York to Colorado to Arizona and finally to Wyoming, and in just about every town, my parents became involved in local community theater.

As a child, fascinated, I watched my parents rehearse. Alone in my room, I acted out my own scenes. In Tucson when I was eight, I got my first role, a small one, in the local theater guild’s production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Despite my limited vision, I was able to acquire minor roles in high school and college plays. I was also active in the speech team where I performed interpretations of drama and poetry for competitions and won a few awards.

Therefore, when I attended my first Wyoming Writers conference over ten years ago, I was not daunted by the prospect of two open mic sessions. I wouldn’t win any awards for my performance, but it would be a great way to share my work.

The first night, I read an essay about how I thought my parents’ fights were plays they were rehearsing. After the first few paragraphs, the audience’s laughter nearly knocked me flat on my back. I’d spent months polishing the piece and reading it for practice and forgotten how funny it was. I managed to get through the rest of my performance and keep a straight face, and many people afterward told me how much they enjoyed it.

Since then, I’ve usually been one of the first to sign up for open mic sessions at workshops and other events. Because I love to sing and have been told I’m good at that, I enjoy sharing poems I’ve written that incorporate song lyrics and sing the lyrics, as I read the poems. You can hear an example at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15213189/when%20star.mp3.mp3 . This past summer, fellow writer Christine Valentine and I brought down the house in Riverton during this years’ Wyoming Writers conference with our rendition of Christine’s poem, “Driven Insane by Mitzi Gaynor,” which uses lyrics from South Pacific and Brigadoon. Christine has written another poem she thinks we can do together so maybe by next summer if not sooner…

Instead of being on a stage under bright lights strutting someone else’s stuff, I’m in front of a lectern in a meeting room, sharing my own work, promoting my books. My latest, a memoir, My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds, is now available from Createspace, Amazon, and Smashwords. To learn more and order from these sources, go to http://www.abbiejohnsontaylor.com/memoir.htm.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making Words Speak in a Different Language

Susan chimes in: Ever wonder what goes into translating a work of writing  from one language to another? When we looked at the Sept. 22-23 Casper College  and ARTCORE Literary Conference offerings, we saw that Julia Whyde, an instructor at the college, is doing a session on that very topic. In another session, she'll share the Chinese “mountains and rivers” poetic tradition. Julia was kind enough to guest post for us to share some of the issues she faces in translation.

by Julia Whyde

Julia Whyde
Umberto Eco, the great semiotician, translator, medievalist, and writer who recently passed away, insisted that translating should introduce readers to multiple possible “worlds” (See his Experiences in Translation for more information). With Eco’s ideal in mind, literary translation, for me, is a process that begins by getting myself (language habits and assumptions, my cultural associations) out of the way long enough to enter into the original text. I have yet to become completely proficient at this kind of simultaneous immersion and “letting go,” but translation for me begins in vulnerability – entering into an uncomfortable space where the “I” with its world view is held in abeyance long enough to encounter another world.

I am not a cipher or medium, however. At some point, I have to pull myself back into my language, and the associations and interpretations of the world inherent in language, and think about what will work for an English language reader (which, of course, is not a pure descriptor; there are many versions of “English language reader” and these also require their own levels of translation!).

Prioritizing is important here: I try to think about which aspects of the text I want to bring to life. When I translate by myself, I usually work purely in academic writing, which is easier, I think, since I can read closely, provide definitions, and then write on for pages at a time – discussing nuances, ambiguities and complications to an audience already familiar with theory or the original text. This type of translation rarely works well outside of academic writing. When translating for a more general audience, I work first with the authors or experts in the language and culture (usually native speakers). I spend much of my time listening, allowing the native speakers to do the translation heavy lifting work and provide information on language, cultural, and historical cues. This includes the jokes, puns, and intentional ambiguities that often differentiate literature from technical writing.

When I work on a team, I often ask to what extent the native speaker/writer wants the text to remain “distant:” maintaining names, measurements, et al. in the original language and using footnotes to explain names, events, or unique structural elements. The alternative is to make the text as close to the “target language” as possible. Such a process attempts, to varying degrees, to find names, cultural allusions, or jokes in the target language’s cultural and language-background that would, hopefully, evoke the same reader reaction as the original in the original language. This collaborative process takes longer, but I generally feel as though the translations are more fluid and engaging as literature.

Ultimately, however, I am always aware of the “translator/traitor” (traduttore, traditore) conflict; I have to choose those elements that I feel might most evoke the original to a reading audience, and this often comes at the cost of other aspects in the text.

-----

Julia Whyde grew up in Wyoming. She holds a BA in Spanish from the College of St. Catherine  and an MA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. She is currently ABD (all but dissertation) in Comparative Literature and, when not teaching at Casper College, parenting, and enjoying Wyoming's great public lands, spends time revising her PhD dissertation. See her at the Casper College and ARTCORE Literary Conference Sept. 22-23.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

30th Annual Literary Conference Looks at "Migrations"


By Lisa S. Icenogle, reposted from Casper College. We will have a guest post from conference presenter Julia Whyde on the blog on Tuesday.

The 30th Annual Casper College and ARTCORE Literary Conference “Migrations” will be held Thursday and Friday, Sept. 22-23, 2016. The conference will feature a variety of writers and educators who will give both presentations and workshops during the two-day event.

Thursday morning will feature three speakers: writer Mark Spragg at 9, Julia Whyde at 10 and Linda Hogan at 11. Spragg, who along with his wife, Virginia, wrote the screenplay for the Lasse Hallstrom film “An Unfinished Life,” will speak on ”The Necessity of Narrative.” Whyde, Casper College English instructor, will share the Chinese “mountains and rivers” poetic tradition through an introduction to Wei’s “Wheel River Collection.” Hogan will discuss her work as a Chickasaw poet, essayist, novelist, and activist.

A banquet will be held at noon at the Goodstein Visual Arts Center and will include the Goodstein Art Gallery exhibit “Blackfeet Indian Tipis: Design and Legend.” The exhibit will feature a display of silkscreened plates, which show how tipis from the encampments of Blackfeet or Blood Reserves in 1944 or 45 appeared.

That afternoon two workshops will be held. The first, “Establishing Voice,” will feature Spragg who will focus on how a central character’s syntax, grammar, tempo, pace, and concept of time reveal story. The workshop will run from 1:15-2:45 p.m. Whyde will present “Translator/Traitor” from 3-4:30 p.m. Whyde’s workshop will provide attendees with an opportunity to think about issues in translation and will include practice translation exercises.

That night, Montana Skies, an award-winning musical duo playing electric cello and guitar across a wide variety of genres, will perform in concert at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church located at 318 E. 6th Street. Tickets for the concert will be available at the door and also through ARTCORE.

Friday morning’s offerings will begin at 8:30 when Rachel Clifton will announce the Wyoming Arts Council 2017 Fellowship Recipients in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. At 9 Joseph Campbell, Ph.D. will present “Breaking in to the Business: A Talk.” The novelist and Casper College English instructor will provide participants with an overview of the process of how to get their writing into the hands of the right people. A special showing of “Peacock’s War” will begin at 10 a.m. and will be followed at 11 a.m. by filmmaker and writer Doug Peacock who will discuss “Combat Veterans, Wilderness Warriors: The Legacy of George Washington Hayduke.”

Two workshops will be held in the afternoon, the first featuring Hogan from 1:30-3 followed by Campbell from 3:15-4:45. In “Enchantment of the Ordinary,” Hogan will focus on the art of poetry. Campbell’s workshop, titled “Take the Safety Off” will focus on ways for writers to make their work more edgy and transgressive by taking away habits that can make their work safe for themselves and their readers. This particular workshop is for those 18 and older only.

The conference will finish with an evening poetry slam moderated by George Vlastos beginning at 8 at the Metro Coffee Company, located at 241 S. David Street in downtown Casper.

All morning presentations will take place in Durham Auditorium, located in Aley Hall, while all afternoon workshops will take place in Strausner Hall, Room 217. Aley Hall, Strausner Hall, and the Goodstein Visual Arts Center are located on the Casper College campus. Continuing Education Units are available for each workshop. All events, with the exception of the Montana Skies concert, are free and open to the public, but registration is required for all workshops. To sign up for workshops or for more information, contact Ann Dalton, workforce-training specialist, at 307-268-2085 or adalton@caspercollege.edu.

The 2016 Casper College and ARTCORE Literary Conference “Migrations” is sponsored by ARTCORE, the Wyoming Arts Council, Metro Coffee Company, the Parkway Plaza Hotel and Convention Center, the Casper College Art Galleries, the Casper College Foundation, and Casper College. A complete listing for the conference can be found at www.caspercollege.edu/literary-conference.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Talk Like a Pirate ... Within Reason

by Susan

Avast me hearties! International Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming up September 19. Perhaps the rest of the world doesn't notice, but librarians take this celebration seriously. In fact, the University of Wyoming Library purchases Mango Languages for all Wyoming residents to use, and you can find a short course in Pirate among the offerings. (Your library card and PIN gets you in.)

The event got me thinking about writing in dialect -- conveying the accents, rhythms, and word choices of someone who "ain't from 'round these parts," so to speak.

Writing dialogue, in general, is a balancing act of making it sound as if real humans said it without replicating what real humans actually verbalize. No one wants to read all the "umms" and "errs" and awkward moments where someone excuses themselves for passing gas.

Dialect raises that tightrope a little higher. Too little, and it might not be clear it's a pirate talking. Too much can be difficult to read. Too little and you can sanitize a character. Too much may even descend into stereotype.

Since I'm no expert -- I only know how much of the stuff I can tolerate as a reader -- I thought I'd collect a few links for you:



I happen to like a light touch where dialect is concerned. I never could make heads or tails of Brer Rabbit as a child. And although Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic, and an amazing story, I had trouble deciphering the language. On the other hand, many people admire it for the very language that made me struggle. You'll have to find your own balance.

As with any writing, you can only get better with practice. Give writing dialect a try. And don't forget to Talk Like a Pirate on September 19. Arrrrr!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

RECOVERING FROM MEMOIR ANGST

guest re-post by Mary Beth Baptiste 

It's been two years since this post by Mary Beth appeared in our blog. I think it deserves an encore. 

- Lynn

After reading my book, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, people often ask me, “Has your ex read it? What about those guys you worked with? What was their reaction?”

We memoir writers struggle with privacy issues. As human beings, we’re concerned about the reactions of others. When I write, I want to project a personal truth that represents a universal human condition. But I also realize that people close to me may not relate to my personal truth in a positive way, particularly if it involves behaviors or personality traits they themselves have struggled with in the past. My earliest decisions about how to write my book revolved around other people.

I knew I had a strong story that would strike at the hearts of many readers. But how could I tell it while keeping my family, ex-husband, coworkers, and former lovers from recognizing themselves and getting upset, and God forbid, suing me?

First I thought I’d fictionalize the story and write a novel. Sure. That would do it. A novel about a woman of Portuguese descent from Massachusetts who followed her lifelong dream and moved to Grand Teton National Park to work as a wildlife biologist. Complete protection. Total anonymity. Yeah, right.

I was suffering from what I call memoir angst: the disabling fear of facing the truth about one’s life and the roles others played in it.

After years of soul-searching, I decided, “Okay. I’ve got an unusual story with universal themes. I’m going to write it as memoir.”

I first wrote the book like someone else’s true confessions: no holds barred. I’ll show them and everybody else what jerks I was dealing with. My readers will see what I went through, how persecuted I was. They’ll get it.

Then I went back and read it. It was awful. That’s not real life, I realized. No one is thatbad. This is how time lends perspective to life: Had I written this story soon after the events occurred, it would have been nothing but whiny drivel, what counselors call “emotional diarrhea.” And, thank goodness, no reputable publishing company would have touched it.

So I got off the pity pot, gathered my wits, and grew up. I took more time and delved deeper. As I perused old journals and photos, poignant details surfaced. The deep-gut horror I felt when my ex-husband’s birthdate came out so high in the Vietnam War draft lottery. My parents’ love and devotion, even after I turned my back on everything they held dear in life. My boss’s restrained laugh, and how I could, just by being my own goofy self, coax it into a full guffaw. My confused lover’s bumbling but sincere attempts to help me through a rough time.

These are the things that give substance and depth to life, that strike harmonic chords in the human soul. These are the complications, the ‘yes buts,’ the messy things that infuse commonness with inspiration and beauty.



I still don’t know if my ex or my Grand Teton coworkers have read the book, or what they think of it, and I’m a little uncomfortable about that. While I did my best to change names, physical descriptions, and other details, the characters will know who they are and wonder if others will recognize them. My friend “Rachel” in the book, told me she enjoyed reading an account of parts of her life. When I expressed concern about the reactions of my ex and my other coworkers, she said, “I doubt any of them could read the book without it bringing a smile to their faces.”

If they do read the book, I hope they can see it merely as my personal journey. I hope they understand how our interactions strengthened me and made the story possible. I feel only gratitude and affection for all of them now, and wish them all good things in life.

Sure it would be great to receive a surprise email from my former boss or ex-husband, singing the book’s praises and congratulating me as others have. It would bring the work full-circle and wrap things up neatly. But real life seldom comes in neatly-wrapped packages.

Mary Beth Baptiste is the author of a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons, published this year by TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press. A winner of a 2014 Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowship, Mary Beth has published her creative nonfiction in a number of periodicals and anthologies. She lives in southeast Wyoming with her husband, Richard. 

Lynn chimes in…

In Altitude Adjustment, Mary Beth Baptiste battles inertia as well as family, ethnic, and religious tradition to pursue her dream of becoming a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains. She takes the reader along for the bumpy ride as she recreates her life and herself.

I finished reading Altitude Adjustmentwhile on a camping trip at Vedauwoo. The book read like a novel, the questions tugging me along: Will she be able to stay in the Tetons? Will she find her match? Will her family reconcile themselves to the new Mary Beth? I squeezed chapters in between hikes, throwing the tennis ball for Luna, and cooking chili.

When I read the last page at dusk, I leaned back in my chair, watched the bats plunge through the pines, and felt, well, satisfied. And why not? I’d been educated (so that’s what wildlife biologists do--I never knew!), entertained (with a romance-novel-worthy description of copulating boreal toads, for one), and inspired (what dreams have I been postponing?)-- all in one memoir.

This book is a good reminder that some of us were born where we belong, and some of us have to bushwhack our way there. I’m glad Mary Beth found her way to Wyoming, the home of her heart. I’m happier still that she shared her story with us, goading us to stop kicking our own dreams down the road and get on with the business of making them happen. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Writing Lessons from a Long Bicycle Ride

This post was originally published over on The Writing Bug, right after the 2013 Ride for Sight. I did the 2016 Ride for Sight on August 14 -- same ride, same distance, same feeling of accomplishment, same lessons for my writing life. 



by Susan

I had a wonderful day Sunday before last at the Cheyenne Lions Ride for Sight. A perfect, amazing, glorious day -- 52 miles on the bicycle. Why yes, I AM bragging. So what does this have to do with writing? Looking at why I had such a good day, there were a few lessons for word work:

  1. I prepared -- I didn't go from zero to 50 without a few 20- and 30-milers. If I don't practice writing, I'm not going to able to succeed. Journaling and exercises all help me build up to longer and better work.
  2. I showed up -- That Sunday morning, I had little energy and wasn't entirely sure I had a long ride in me. Despite that, I showed up. If I don't show up to write, nothing will happen. When I make space for writing, it happens.
  3. I lowered my expectations -- I didn't engage in fantasies of riding the entire 100-mile course. I decided to do what I could do. When I write, if I think everything must be brilliant and perfect, I stop myself from doing as much as I can, because I get caught up in what I aspire to. The poet William Stafford was known for telling his students, "lower your standards and keep going." I just kept going.
  4. I trusted the process -- One year on the same ride, I had a horrible day because I got caught up in the outcome -- how many miles would I ride? I didn't pay enough attention to the mechanics of getting there. When I focused on a smooth cadence and a steady pace, the miles unfolded without misery. When I write, I need to focus on the process -- how to tell the story, what precise word do I need here, what I should cut. If I write while simultaneously fantasizing about publishing, it doesn't work.
  5. I fed myself -- I've bonked once or twice on long rides: collapsed on the ground, shaking and conversing with imaginary people. The surest route to bonking is to not eat enough. As writers, we need to do what "feeds" us outside of writing, whether it's time in nature, in the garden or with family. We need to take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Sure, on a big deadline we can push it, but we can't push it forever.
And the best lesson? When you do it right -- cycling or riding -- it feels like flying. That makes it all worth it.
What writing lessons do you get from other activities in your life? Which of these here resonate with you?

And ... who wants to go with me on the Ride for Sight next year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A JOBBING WRITER

guest post by Alan Wilkinson

Lynn chimes in first...
Photo by Alan Wilkinson
Officers Quarters at Fort Robinson,
where retreat participants were housed
and many lively discussions ensued. 

Thirty seconds into my first conversation with Alan Wilkinson during the Storycatcher Workshop at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, I said to myself, Oh, I've got to hear more from this guy.

Alan is a Brit, and his sly humor, self-deprecation and wry perspectives on American culture made for a lot of interesting chats. He's a good listener, too, and naturally curious. Alan wandered the grounds at the old fort, taking photos and examining plants. He joined me at dusk in watching the bats as they spilled from the eaves of the old Officer Quarters and dispersed into the night.

The Red House On The Niobrara by [Wilkinson, Alan]Alan was a "featured writer" at Storycatcher. During his talk, titled "Making a Living as a Writer," Alan scrolled out his long and varied working/writing life. And I thought I had had a lot of jobs!

I've never been a rat catcher. Alan has. He's also worked as a freight train guard, ghostwriter and sugar-beet factory hand. He has scripted soaps. That's just for starters. Along the way he developed an ear for dialogue and can capture the verbal cadence of a North Yorkshire farmer or an old Nebraska rancher and put their voices on the page.

Of interest to us here in Wyoming, Alan developed, early on in his life, a love of the American West. He has made twenty road trips in the last thirty years, crossing the region from east to west and north to south.

I came home from the workshop and promptly read The Red House on the Niobrara, Alan's delightful-to-read but difficult-to-describe book (memoir? travelogue? culture and landscape study? all of the above?). Even though I was born and raised in Niobrara County (just over the Wyoming/Nebraska border from the book's location), I learned so much that I didn't know. Sometimes it takes a furriner to show you your own place, you know?

And if you are bemoaning the fact that you can't lock yourself away in a turret and write 24/7, read on. Alan shows us what's possible if we just keep on writing, and learning, and living.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to Alan Wilkinson...

***
A Jobbing Writer


I adopted the term ‘jobbing writer’ some time ago. I never really gave it much thought, but when Lynn told me that she’d rarely heard it used in the USA, I realised that it’s not very common in the UK either. Over here, every second writer you read about is ‘an award-winning novelist’. They all seem to live in ‘London and Tuscany’. They are young and good-looking.

In my early forties, with a young family to support, and a yen to write quiet, introspective prose, I concluded that I was never going to be one of those cosmopolitan authors whose photos I saw, framed by French doors overlooking an acre of sunlit lawn. I mean the type whose partner has money, or a tenured academic post.

In 1993 I had a half-time lectureship, an MA in Creative Writing and a half-baked PhD. I knew what I was - a bloke who needed to make a living, this month, next month, every damned month - but who couldn’t imagine not writing. So I settled for being a hired hand: an echo of the time I operated as a jobbing gardener around town, one of several dozen jobs I had in my 20s and 30s before I surrendered to my fate.
Cheers! from Alan Wilkinson

‘Jobbing’ means I never turn down a paying proposition. Twenty-five years ago I was supplementing my modest academic income with book reviews, feature interviews, literary short fiction, and articles about my travels in the American West. I taught recreational writing classes, and I laboured on a novel.

Later, when the academic door slammed shut in my face, I put aside the novel and wrote corporate histories. Sure, I had to sit in boardrooms listening to men in suits blowing their own trumpets; but most of the time I was interviewing former staff in their 80s and 90s who had responded to my press releases. Did they have stories to tell, these sons and daughters of toil? You bet they did. And memories of their parents, who’d worked in horse-and-cart days before World War I. Towards the end of my visits, as we sat drinking tea, they’d tap me on the knee. ‘Now don’t be putting this in your book, young fellow-me-lad…’ And out came the confessions - furtive abstraction of merchandise, the scandal of the chairman who died in a sleeping car en route to London, in the arms of one of his shop assistants. Some stories made it into the books; some I logged away for future reference.

When the corporate research dried up I found my way into TV, writing voice-over scripts for documentaries, fleshing out the narrative in ten- or twenty-second gaps between scenes. At three syllables per second, you learn about concision - and, in an industry characterised by last-minute changes, speed. The courier would deliver the latest edit at 5 p.m. - and they wanted my script by 9 next morning. I generally had it done by midnight.

While I was in TV, I had a stab at drama. I submitted a script and spent eight months at Britain’s number two soap opera. I learned a crucial skill that had never been in my armoury, that of creating conflict. And then I got the hell out. Loved the money, hated the product.

I went through a fallow period, working a winter in the sugar-beet factory. I never resented that. I’d long ago come to the conclusion that all artists should stop work from time to time and experience what to most people is real life. I took on a bar job which would pay dividends ten years later when the proprietor’s husband wanted to write the story of his micro-brewery. He knew who to ask – and we go to press in October. So there’s another plus: do whatever comes your way and things will happen.


I’ve dwelt on the jobs that paid well. There were others I took because I couldn’t afford to refuse them. There was the bridegroom who rang me on a Thursday evening asking if I would write his speech for Saturday. An hour later, after thumbing through a book on wedding etiquette, he had his words and I had my £75 ($100).

Later I got to hear of a Chinese billionaire who spoke no English but wanted to write a novel which might become a Hollywood blockbuster: a truth serum is delivered to earth by alien invaders, on an asteroid. I quoted an outrageous fee, suspended disbelief, and delivered 90,000 words. While he was pleased with the result, he told his interpreter that he would have liked ‘more explosions.’

I’d surely crossed a line with that one: things could not get any weirder.

Oh, but they could. In 2003 I got a call from a stand-up comedian who entertained the crowds at summer festivals as a sky-diving Elvis impersonator. Could I help him write a script for TV? I gave it my best shot, but after several weeks – and no money – he disappeared. (I was tempted to say he went to ground.)

I got over that: I’d already been approached by an agent about a ghost-writing project with a rural copper who wanted to write his memoirs. We did seven books together and made decent money. It was here that I realised just how valuable all that other experience had been, and how everything that happened added to my store of material.

 The copper’s brief for each chapter was to outline a scenario and tell me about the characters he’d worked with, or arrested. As we got into volume three, four and five, we would have calls that began with me asking,

‘So tell me about this guy.’

‘Oh, he was an amazing character, just amazing!’

‘And the incident?’

‘Incredible, mate, absolutely incredible!’

So I made it all up – settings, characters, dialogue. I’d learned to listen to speech patterns in my many menial jobs as younger man. The copper handled the procedural aspects. I drew on my own wide experience of people, their stories, and the countryside we were writing about. He found himself being sent on long walks to places he’d never visited. Later, when I wrote his childhood memoirs, they bore a strange resemblance to mine.

For a few years, ghost-writing became my main source of income. I wrote books with an international drug-smuggler, then the brewer, and am currently completing one for a Brit who was a bounty hunter in the USA for twenty years.

But what of that novel started in the 1990s? What of my hopes of being a literary presence in the world, of giving utterance to my unique poetic vision? I think it has benefited from being left aside for twenty-plus years while I polished my skills through practice, practice and more practice. Last year I had a three-month fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos and re-wrote it, radically. It scrubbed up pretty well, and I have an offer from a UK publisher.

I have lived one part of my dream – namely, being a writer for twenty-three years. And as I look to work on the personal projects I’ve had on hold all that time I feel I am far better prepared, as a writer, thanks to a long and unusual apprenticeship.

***

There Used To Be A Guy... But He Died: ...and other discoveries on a bike-ride across Nebraska by [Wilkinson, Alan]Alan Wilkinson lives in Durham, in the north of England. He has published around twenty books, numerous travel and feature articles, a handful of literary short stories and one radio play. 

When he’s not writing to order he writes about the American West. Among his recent books are The Red House on the Niobrara, about his six-month retreat in a hunting lodge in western Nebraska, and There Used To Be A Guy… But He Died, the story of Alan’s solitary bike ride across Nebraska. 

You can read more about Alan's adventures at his blog http://walkinonnails.blogspot.co.uk/ and via his website: http://alan-wilkinson.com/.