How far is the far?

“How far is the far?” sounds like a bizarre word puzzle, and a puzzle is a good place to start writing here again after so much time away. I started this blog so my mom could see my writing — she’s been gone exactly a year and a half today, and along with her, a significant percentage of the fan base for my writing. I miss her more every week, miss her ability to see, and rejoice in, the very small things I often miss.

One small thing this week was an hour with Vern Northrup at his Ishkode exhibit at AICHO, beautiful photos of theOctober 2017 prescribed burn on Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, meant to restore traditional Ojibwe forestry management, especially for blueberries, miinan. I’d seen these photos at Vern’s opening talk, knew they reflect his work, and life, the way he sees the world. Now, a chance to take another look with Vern, who graciously agreed to meet with some writers who are experimenting with arts writing in the region.

We talk a little about the Ojibwe language, the art gallery in the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at AICHO, 80 years of change on Stockton Island, Vern’s career in wild land fire fighting, his turn to serious and careful photography three years ago, the occasions when he photographs something he did not know was there when he pointed the camera. I learn much from this self-described Ojibwe elder, who is forthright about this consultations with elders more senior than he. I learn, but there is much I don’t understand.

Then Vern tells the story about leading a wild land fire crew up a mountain in Idaho when a back up crew arrives, dragging their equipment toward him. “How far is the far?” yells the crew chief to Vern. Which sounds like complete nonsense on this burning mountain in the middle of nowhere, until it’s apparent that the new crew is from Kentucky and “far” means “fire.” Talking about the same thing, with different words. Vern laughs at the memory.

We ask Vern how he learned to photograph such small things — the abstraction of spheres of dew on the serrated edges of sumac leaves, the pattern of light and shadow filling the frame. The cleft in Split Rock, four photos in different seasons, looking into the narrow space of this igneous rock, a billion years old; you barely see the Lake, but you can see its size. The series showing a milkweed pod blowing open on a windy day, tiny tan seeds with their billowing fibers, racing away in the breeze.

And the big things: The progression of a ground fire to the forest’s crown, the living flame in each photo. “Blue Maples”, a simple composition of bare maple branches against a deep blue sky, every tapering branch and twig visible. You know the sun is warm to make a sky that blue, but in the spare bareness, you feel the coming chill of autumn nights, of winter’s approach.

I’ve seen these photos just a few days ago with the crowd at the opening event. Seeing them again in the quiet room I have a better sense of how Vern sees the world he chooses to photograph.

“If you look small, you won’t miss small,” says Vern, a lesson he learned looking down a rifle barrel in the Marine Corps. Small applies to his camera, too — a Galaxy S7 phone, with a camera he estimates at 12-14 megapixels. He doesn’t use editing software, except to crop sometimes. Simple and small is better, “I hauled shit around on my back my whole career. I don’t want to do that any more.”

Not quite sure how I wanted to write about the visit with Vern, I walked out to the bluff above Lake Superior yesterday late in the afternoon to see the broken glass of ice sheets stacked on the beach. The eagle  who hangs out in the neighbors’ tree did a leisurely loop over the ice and water to be sure (s)he knew who I was. I watched the flight back to the top of a spruce, enormous claws extended toward the perch, wingspan pulling in. And saw another eagle move along the branch to make room. They chatted back and forth to each other, right in front of me, for several minutes. I turned my back on the lake’s expanse and shielded my eyes from the sunny sky to listen to them. Such small and intimate sounds from these majestic birds.

In Vern’s work, I see the mystery in the smallest parts of our world, and the grace of the larger context which made them. Things that are far become close.

Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

There’s a lot more to writing than Snoopy knows. I suspect, though, that Charles Schulz understood.

I got to hang out last Saturday with a bunch of really cool people — writers. Some of them approach writing very differently from the way I do, so I learned a lot. Even better, I had some time over the weekend to chat with writers about the writing life and about, well — real life. My tribe.

I love stories. I love people who create stories, fiction and nonfiction. I love the fact that people do indeed create stories, love that we humans have been explaining the world to each other through stories since the moment we were able to do that, somewhere back in time around the campfires outside our caves.

But… here’s the thing. There is a real difference between people who write as a career — or people who aspire to write as a career — and people who do not.

And I’m not sure it’s fair — not sure it’s a service to good writing of any kind — to ignore this.

The main difference often appears to be writers who aim for agents, publishers, grants, awards, etc. as compared to writers who self-publish. That’s an obvious difference, but it isn’t always an accurate, or complete, comparison.

I’m talking about a difference that goes deeper.

I mean the difference between writers who make a practice of submitting their writing to critical scrutiny from the wider literary community, and those who chose not to. Scrutiny is what writers ask for every time they apply for a grant, or submit to a journal, or query an agent, or research publishers, knowing that success with any of those things means eventually working with an editor, who will ask for changes the writer probably prefers not to make.

Making stuff up is fun. Revision is not.

But it’s necessary if we are to “increase the ambient intelligence” as George Saunders puts it in his honest, and funny, essay, about constructing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He invites writers to “imagine [their readers] generously.”

We should do that.

Here’s a secret I wish I had know when I first started writing fiction and poetry: Criticism makes my work better. Lots better. So I plan my time to include grant applications (and the feedback therefrom when I’m declined) and submissions to journals and contests and public readings. It’s the reason I will spend significant time and effort seeking an agent when I finish the manuscript for my first novel later this year.

I solicit and read and reflect on every piece of feedback/criticism/critique I can get from writers who know more than I do. And yes, it took some time to steel myself for this, to understand the difference between those who “get” my work and those who don’t.

Every writer I know who is willing to do this has three things in common: 1) they say that they cannot not write; 2) they write to know themselves; and 3) they read intelligent writers — voraciously.

They’ve stumbled on a great truth. We might as well write to know ourselves, because that’s going to happen anyway.

If we admit that goal to ourselves, it simply happens sooner.

I was blown away this weekend when Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux performed part of her middle-grade novel for us. She’d printed the wrong passage from The Marvelous Imagination of Katie Addams, so she punted. And — wow. She had us participating with Katie as she dug in a sand bank and discovered the door to an Egyptian tomb, advanced to grab the golden scepter in the mummy’s hand, dropped it, ran back through creepy passages to the ancient doorway, and buried it again in the sand. Wow, I thought, this isn’t just a story that Rose has memorized.

This is a story that’s in her bones.

Rose self-published this novel. She leads a writers’ group at her local library. She visits schools, and just about anywhere else she’s invited. She has a plan to get her work into the world and she devotes her time, and her efforts, to follow it. She participates fearlessly in the wider literary community.

Staci Drouillard is finishing her manuscript for Walking the Old Road for University of Minnesota Press. She’s spent years researching the history of Chippewa City in Cook County, Minnesota, interviewing Ojibwe elders, seeking permission to publish oral histories and photographs. When she joined us on Saturday to read from her work, I was immediately struck by how quietly and firmly she grounds herself in her material. She told us about the Ojibwe tradition of written history going back hundreds of years to the time of the migration from the East Coast to Lake Superior, about people’s relationship to place, about roads as conduits to other worlds, about the responsibility we have to preserve something once we name it.

Big ideas.

The passage she read was from an interview with an elder who described walking the Old Road into Grand Marais with his grandmother when he was a boy, pausing near Halfway Creek on the mile-long journey to eat the lunch she packed for her small grandson, stopping at a cafe in town, watching his grandmother enjoy the ice cream they ordered.

Small ideas.

But so very, very human. I was right there with that small boy and his grandmother, walking the road into town. Staci made it so with her lyrical writing, because this story is — literally — from the marrow in her bones.

Shoshanna Matney has just finished her first novel, Dog Lake, and is deciphering the feedback from the three agents who responded in ways that made sense to her. She sent dozens of inquiries just to get to this point. She’s already begun her second novel, but now chooses to return to the first one, and its revision. A daunting task.

Shoshanna read a passage that had in common with her childhood only this: a dog named Jack who escaped one night for a few hours. Her writing spun this skillfully, made a window into the book’s tension between the silence of peace, and the silence of secrecy. Two sisters witness their mother lying prone on the ice of the lake behind their house, trying to rescue their dog. They sneak back into the house before their parents know they’ve been out. “Don’t tell,” the older sister whispers. I was standing right there inside the younger sister when she came face-to-face with her father, weighing what to tell him. Bone deep.

These are writers who amaze and exhilarate, who make my heart stop for just long enough to help me know I’m alive.

I’m lucky to have many examples of inspiration, from this past weekend, and elsewhere. One of my favorite North Shore writers, Nina Simonowicz, couldn’t join us on Saturday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her first book, Nina’s North Shore Guide is part of the reason I moved to Duluth, nearly twenty years after first reading it. She made this region come alive for me. It was the first time I read a nonfiction book that so clearly voiced the human being behind the geography her writing described. A bone-deep voice.

Nina self-published the first edition, with a quote on the back from her banker that said, “You should buy this book.” Eventually, University of Minnesota Press asked to publish it, and asked for revisions and editing and expansion. Nina is still at it, writing and maintaining the seminal guide to the North Shore. She makes it possible for others to live their stories in this landscape — “the prehistoric North Shore ridegline rising out of Lake Superior” — and maybe for some of us to write about it.

Every creative effort deserves praise. We should be a community of writers, celebrating and supporting each other’s work. We should cheer each other on. Of course we should.

But we can hold each other accountable, too. We can encourage literary and artistic criticism, because it makes our own work better. It raises the bar for creative endeavors for the communities where we live, work, and hang out.

We can “increase the ambient intelligence.” My bones tell me, in this era of fungible truth, it’s even more important for writers to pay attention to this.

Whatever credibility my writing has I owe to writers who weren’t afraid to show their bone marrow.

I’m grateful to them.


Some writers read some writing, and we have a good time.

Thank you, thank you, to the writers who read their work for Some Writers Reading on Saturday, March 25, and thank you to the Grand Marais Public Library for sharing their lovely space for this “disruptive public event.” We writers sat in a loose circle in comfy chairs; people who were interested pulled up chairs around us. Comfortable and casual, and a whole lot of fun. Thank you again to Arrowhead Regional Arts Council for awarding me a 2016 Career Development grant, which made possible my time in Grand Marais. Good place here to note: Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from The McKnight Foundation. Yay, Minnesota!

As we settled into our seats in that welcoming library space, I said I hoped to listen for the different worlds each writer creates in their prose — a physical description of the world, an emotional landscape, the world inside someone’s head. We heard all that — and so much more.

Shelley Odendahl talked about creating four different time periods for one character, spanning several thousand years, for her romance novel. Gene Glader described his research into Grand Marais’ downtown history, block by block, inspired by the accelerating rate of change in the area in the decades he’s lived there. Joan Crosby read a delightful passage about the year she and her husband lived 40 miles up the Gunflint Trail, off the grid, before that was a thing. Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux read an engaging passage from her middle-grade novel, and when she couldn’t find the second excerpt she’d planned to read, she performed from memory, encouraging us to act it out with her. Sandy Bloom read a powerful and poignant passage from the novel she’s created by fictionalizing her partner’s years as a young nun, living in an isolated convent. Staci Drouillard recounted an interview with an elder, who remembered walking the mile-long “Old Road” into Grand Marais with his grandmother, a journey long enough that she packed a lunch to share with the little boy. Shoshanna Matney read a moving passage based only tangentially on childhood memories, but still a brave choice with her (supportive) sibling in the audience; she talked about creating fiction from the smallest piece of real life and trusting imagination to take it from there.

Enthralled with the Q&A and conversation after each writer read, I didn’t take very good notes. But here is some of what sticks with me:

 — When you grow up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, you are always looking for doors into other worlds.

 — Responding to change, and planning for change are not the same thing.

— Roads are conduits between worlds, bridging distance, culture, time.

 — When we name something, we have a responsibility to preserve it. Writers do that by storytelling.

 — Writing true is important and essential and the only kind of writing worth doing.

 — Things often (usually?) fail to turn out the way you planned. This is good.

— Making stuff up is fun. Revision is usually not.

 — There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers, but there might be only a few reasons to write.

And everyone promised to get a copy of their book to Steve Harsin at the Grand Marais Library. Surprise of the day… Steve has a novel manuscript in progress, too!

Continue to part two of my musings, Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

Some Writers Reading.

Participants in the 2016 Grand Marais Art Colony Mentorship in Fiction with Faith Sullivan, who is seated in the center.

Saturday, March 25 from 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
at Grand Marais Public Library
104 2nd Avenue West, Grand Marais, MN  55604

Please join us as alumni from Grand Marais Art Colony‘s 2016 Mentorship in Fiction gather at Grand Marais Public Library to read from their nearly-completed manuscripts — Sandy Bloom, Joan Crosby, Shoshanna Matney, Shelley Odendahl, and Judy Budreau. We’ll be joined by some of your favorite Grand Marais writers — Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux (YA fiction), Gene Glader (Cook County history) and Staci Drouillard, who’s finishing a book about Chippewa City for the University of Minnesota Press. After the readings, we’ll have plenty of time to answer questions and talk about the writing life. Free and open to the public. BTW, that’s me, seated at lower left.

This event is made possible by the 2016 Career Development grant I was awarded from Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from The McKnight Foundation. Thank you, Minnesota!

Preserving words.


A couple of years ago, my mom gave me back my first cookbook, with a note pasted inside: “Clearing out — can’t throw away — you do it!”

Around the same time, I saw somewhere a switch plate that looked as if a dictionary page had been pasted to it. I could do that, I thought. And tucked the idea way back in my mental filing cabinet, in the part of my brain that isn’t wholly obsessed with writing and reading.

I’m a writer by trade. I live in language every day. I spend all day, every day writing and reading, with the necessary breaks to feed myself, do laundry and wander around outside.

My email signature line says, “Writing and other good stuff” — I line I added several years ago, on purpose, to remind myself that I’ll have more to write about if I actually go out, and you know, experience the world. So I learned to make paper, and weird little books, and erasure poetry. I incorporate these into the writing workshops I teach. Fun for me, for attendees, and a good reminder that we are always surrounded by more language and ideas and creative possibilities than we might realize.

Back to the switch plates. I came across my childhood cookbook on Saturday morning, and oh, joy! — the brain-file with the image of the dictionary/ light switch appeared. I unscrewed the switch plates from the kitchen wall and headed to my workshop with a small bottle of Elmer’s glue (mistake — more on that in a minute). By the end of the day, I had an array of personalized switch plates for every room in the house.

For the front hall, the frontispiece of Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World
For our bedroom, from Dava Sobol’s The Planets, quoting a poem by Diane Ackerman —
“At night I lie awake/in the ruthless Unspoken…”
For hallways and stairwells, pages from long-ago-read Doubleday paperbacks.
For the kitchen, pages from my first cookbook.

I loved the conversational tone of that cookbook. I think it was the first book of nonfiction I read by choice. I learned to cook from that book. And I learned that storytelling was possible, desirable — necessary — beyond the fairy tales and storybooks I cherished.

Here’s what I learned on Saturday about gluing words to switch plates:

  1. Elmer’s glue is too slippery, and doesn’t dry fast enough, and when it does, it’s gummy.
  2. Modge Podge Decoupage stuff is better. I used gloss, which actually dried to a soft sheen that will repel fingerprints and moisture.
  3. Applying Modge Podge with a foam brush to the paper first gave better results than applying it to the switch plate.
  4. Thinner, older papers were easier to work with.
  5. I had a good time figuring out where words and images would appear. Holding the paper piece and the switch plate up to the light before gluing helped. Each paper was just under 1/2 inch large than the plate. I cut the corners of the paper off to reduce bulk. The glue-wetted paper is a bit stretchy, and acts almost like papier mache as you form it around the edges and corners.
  6. The little bubbles that appeared in the thicker paper were gone once the item dried, the paper shrinking to the surface of the switch plate.
  7. Two coats of Modpge Podge on the front.
  8. Once dry, I used an awl to poke the screw holes from the front.
  9. From the back, I used an X-acto knife to cut an X shape for the switches, leaving flaps to fold back.
  10. Mistake — I tried at this point to re-install the plates, but the little paper flaps got in the way.
  11. Coated the back of the plate with Modge Podge and fastened down the flaps, so each opening was nicely framed by glue-coated paper. Re-installation easier.
  12. When I went around the house uninstalling switch plates, I marked the back with a Sharpie so I’d know the location. Helped with re-installing, but more importantly, made it easier to choose the text/images I wanted for each room.

I like best the ones that are simply text spaced on a page. Purist, I guess. But next, I might use nursery rhymes or Eric Carle pages for my grandchildren. Pages from the New York Times Book Review. Favorite poems. Comics.

And to be clear, I don’t tear apart perfectly good books. I buy slightly damaged books at Goodwill and library sales, anywhere I find them, and use the inside paper to make new paper, repurpose the covers and spines to make new books and journals.

It is not possible to have too many good words hanging around with us.



Wishing well.


I’m having knee replacement surgery tomorrow. I know I’m lucky that I can afford the health insurance that makes this possible, lucky that I’m in excellent health otherwise, lucky that my recovery will likely be smooth and complete, lucky that Dick will care for me through this. All week, messages have come from friends and family wishing me well. My knitting group, fantastic Duluth women, delivered a week’s worth of homemade food for us. I’m grateful for all of this. And yet, I haven’t shaken the feeling that it isn’t fair to interrupt my life for surgery so that I can simply enjoy walking again. There’s going to be a lot of sitting around before I can move the way I want to.

And then a couple of things happened that knocked me into a better perspective.

My dad, appreciative of the medical care my mom received in her final year, and mindful of the news from Aleppo, decided to donate to Doctors Without Borders instead of buying gifts for children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He knows it’s a way to step outside the fortune of our family ties to acknowledge that families very much like ours have unbearably sad burdens that they somehow bear, every day. I’m glad he’s doing this, especially as we turn the corner into whatever the new year will look like, here in the U.S. and around the world.

Then, my Book Club in the Twin Cities decided not to continue the traditional book exchange where we all bring a wrapped book, open them one by one, and try to guess who gave which book. This usually becomes the larger part of our reading list for the coming year. But there are other ways to make a reading list. Instead, we are donating items requested by one of our members for her homeless clients. Jane, a former ballet dancer, went back to school a decade ago to get her R.N. degree. Now, she’s a public health nurse in St. Paul, who begins her days at 4:30 a.m. wearing a headlamp to visit homeless people wherever they are camped.

When we asked what we should buy, Jane answered by email:

The people on the streets are there for a variety of reasons; poor mental health is always a factor and most of the people I have met have fallen through the cracks, unable to obtain housing because they are not able to follow through a long list of requirements that would enable them to do so.  And, aside from other street homeless, they have few friends or family.

I do see women, but mostly men and except for 3 rather emaciated men, the majority are large — tall and big.  Big hands and big feet.

Anything you give, I will send you a story in return about who I brought that particular gift to and how they reacted to it.  I would imagine that not many of my people I see will be receiving wrapped gifts.  Whatever it is, please add a tag for me with what the item is and size so I can deliver what is most needed to a particular person.

What we need: I’ll start big to small:  pup tents; sleeping bags, sleeping matts for comfort; backpacks; battery operated radios with batteries; flashlights with batteries; warm clothing: gloves (warm gloves and socks (wool);  long underwear (tall  and large or extra large); warm hats (large sizes) and gift cards to restaurants downtown so they can get out of the cold early in the morning or late at night and go get something to eat and something warm to drink and so they can be inside out of the cold.  Some ideas are Brueggers, Micky’s Diner and Cosetta’s. Not Holiday (which is close to where lots of people camp) because they sell cigarettes. If you have second-hand jackets and second-hand boots  that you are discarding, please think of me.

While I was digesting this message, Jane sent another message:

I was out this morning (with our doctor, Mark) and saw someone I neglected to think about for gifts…  I will call him C. His first language is Spanish. He lives about 2 blocks (for lack of a better easily understandable reference) down a bluff deep into the trees (now bare, of course). One couldn’t see him from the road or even at the top of the bluff, but once I start walking down the bluff, I am able to spot the top of his blue tarp. There is stuff jettisoned everywhere —some of it from previous occupants. I spot a typewriter, old baby carriage, bicycle tires, a bike pump, a urinal (someone visited a hospital), old shoes, old Kowalski bags, a baseball bat, a soccer ball, an old sink, a stuffed pink bear that is missing an ear, a pile of summer clothing, old broken bottles of every manner of drink. The usual junk we see — but here there is something magical: C has pots of fake flowers everywhere. He told me he loves flowers and tried to grow roses last summer. A little shady here for roses. He also has Christmas ornaments strung up, a shrine with Mary and Jesus, and a makeshift door (an old cupboard door strung with rope). He has hanging bells so he can hear visitors.
When we look at these pots of flowers, Mark and I cry. C is very fearful of people. When I inspected the skin condition on his hands the first time I met him, I asked him what happened to his finger.  He said he was attacked at age 7 and the people who accosted him cut off his finger. He used to work as a dishwasher or line cook in a Mexican restaurant on the west side but was told to leave because of his skin condition. This morning at 6 a.m. he was getting ready to go to work. He was so proud of the fact he was just hired to clean a different Mexican restaurant in off-hours. He is happy to have any work. He walks about 2 miles to the restaurant…
Last night he hardly slept for fear of missing his first day of work. So, what does he need?  A watch. A simple inexpensive watch. Probably better than a battery operated clock that could get wet.  Because of his skin condition, he needs a non-metal band on the watch.  The simpler the better.
We serve the undocumented, but C is very fearful.  Like the fox and the little prince, where the fox tells the prince he has to return at the same time and same place every day if he wants to tame him or make friends with him, Mark and I went back every week at the same time and we started by leaving bag lunches and notes. It took almost 4 months for C to talk to us. C also needs boots… his shoes are falling apart. They are too big, plastic and have holes (Crocs).  
So… as I stored the delicious food my friends made for me, I thought of Dad’s decision to donate. I thought of C and the rest of Jane’s clients. I tried to imagine what it feels like to be alone — to feel absolutely alone — in the world.
And I couldn’t imagine it. The truth is, when difficult things have happened in my life, there have been people who wished me well, and who helped my life become well.
There are people who wish me well. Such a simple thing — shouldn’t everyone be able to count on that? And yet… so many people can’t.
I’m going to have a lot of time sitting still in the coming weeks to think about what I can do to change that.

4 Authors, 4 Books Published

Last Saturday, October 29, in the lovely space at Duluth’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, four local authors talked about the road to publishing their most recent books — an event organized by Lake Superior Writers, thanks in part to a grant from Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. All photos above by Maddie Cohen.

I learned something new from each of the four authors:

Alice Springer Marks, Missing, published privately 2016
A former pre-school director and teacher, Alice turned to writing when she retired. She’s published some of her short stories in anthologies, and has written plays for non-profits. She and her husband, Sam, moved to Duluth 3 year ago and live in the Lincoln Park area of Duluth. Alice has a friend who self-published medieval stories set in Texas (I think I have this right!) through Women Addicted To Heroines — this friend encouraged her to join the ranks of “indie” authors to publish Missing, the story of two detectives who solve the mystery of a doctor who goes to lunch one day and never returns. Some of Alice’s points:

  • It took her seven years to write Missing, but only one year to write the sequel.
  • As an older author (her term, not mine!) she didn’t want to wait around for the typical submission/publishing timeline.
  • Revising is hard work.
  • She uses her computer like a typewriter, so she hired someone to format her manuscript.
  • Next project: sequel to Missing, called Break, starring the same two detectives who solve a double-identity puzzle.

Lucie B. Amundsen, Locally Laid, Penguin 2016
Lucie and her husband, Jason, own Locally Laid Egg Company in Wrenshall, MN, a “middle-agriculture” farming operation, where chickens are pasture-raised. Lucie’s background is in marketing; when her freelance career collapsed in 2008 she entered Hamline University’s MFA program (which she notes is no help at all in selling her writing).

  • While there, she wrote a manuscript for a graphic novel, queried five agents (researched them, followed them on Facebook, i.e. “benevolent stalking”). All passed on her manuscript, but one asked to see her next book.
  • Locally Laid is narrative non-fiction — Lucie jokes that this means, Where do you shelve it?
  • This personal story has a couple of arcs — memoir, then the business story arc, then the teaching stories (among them, explaining “middle agriculture”)
  • She sent 10 book proposals over an 8 week period to her agent. More or less a full-time job, on top of real life, getting to a satisfactory book proposal that her agent was willing to sell.
  • Offers came from Harper Collins and Penguin within nine days. Lucie chose Penguin because they wanted a teaching book — but Penguin wanted the book to be 40% longer.
  • 18 months after submitting the final manuscript, the book came out.
  • Then — she began marketing the book, a nearly full-time job on top of other full-time jobs like farmer, mom, marketing department at Glensheen, etc.
  • Next project: book about marketing and entrepreneurship for farms; nervous about the first draft — which is like shoveling dirt, then crafting sandcastles.

Felicia Schneiderhan, Newylweds Afloat, Breakaway Books 2015
Felicia worked as a freelance writer for several years in Chicago and elsewhere, and has published essays, short stories and poetry; she’s a regular writer for Lake Superior Magazine.

  • Her book started as a blog during her “liveaboard” days, along with her husband, Mark, on his boat Mazurka, in downtown Chicago.
  • She published articles based on the blog that later became chapters in the book — this helped her define a larger audience.
  • She queried 10 agents — of the 5 who replied, 3 asked for sample chapters or 10 pages of the book.
  • Learned BEFORE you query, you should have the whole manuscript ready!
  • Applied for and received an ARAC grant to finish a novel during this time, so she was working on more than one project.
  • She googled boat book publishers and found Breakaway Books, a small independent publisher, in upstate New York — publishers of outdoor adventure books with a literary tone. The owner and publisher does everything and outsources what he can’t do himself.
  • Queried them anonymously — now, she knows better! — but they wanted it.
  • Due out in Fall 2015. That August, publisher announced he didn’t have enough time to provide Advanced Reader Copies. (aka ARCs, these are the books sent to reviewers ahead of publication.)
  • NOW she knows that ARCs are REALLY important — almost no one reviews a book after it’s published.
  • Next project: She likes accumulating the “dirt” of a manuscript; feels elation and grief upon finishing a book, then sees “here’s the next thing and maybe I can say it” with writing.

Julie Gard, Home Studies, New Rivers Press 2015

Julie is an accomplished and award-winning poet who teaches at University of Wisconsin-Superior. She lives in Duluth with her partner, the poet Michelle Mathees. Julie says she’s been a writer all her life; her work has been published in chapbooks and literary journals. The 59 prose poems in Home Studies (a finalist for the 2016 Minnesota Book Award) were expanded from 18 poems she wrote between 2004-2007 when she and Michelle lived in North Dakota and adopted a 9-year-old daughter from Russia.

  • The book is divided into three parts. The middle section of the manuscript was going to be another project, but the [poetry] genre is flexible, so work can fit into different genres; this middle section was written in Duluth from 2007-2015.
  • She tends to overwrite, then pares back. She also writes more poems than she will use in a collection, then pares back the number.
  • In summer of 2012, she decided to put together a book, sent it out to contests and presses and queried 5-8 places.
  • Like Minnesota writer, Alison McGhee, she was prepared to go up to 80 queries!
  • She knew she wanted small literary presses, rather than an agent. The manuscript for Home Studies was the winner of the 2103 Many Voices project at New Rivers Press, a teaching press located at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
  • Next project: Living in the uncertainty of beginning another book. “This (Home Studies) is a book — will my next ideas be a book?”

  • Contests often require a fee; in effect, you’re paying someone to read your manuscript
  • Marketing your book is a lot of work — and it’s expected no matter which publishing route you go
  • Consider low expectations — then, when people respond it’s great
  • Do a great job getting pre-copies out to reviewers (aka Advanced Reader copies)
  • Felicia noted that ARAC provided a grant so she could travel to the East Coast (where she’s from) to do readings
  • Poets & Writers database is a good resource
  • So is Writer’s Digest
  • Alice says Reader’s Digest usually pays $100 for 100 words
  • Lucie suggests a tiered approach to getting published: devote X number of weeks or months to 1) securing agent, then 2) small press, then 3) self-publishing an e-book.
  • With every query you write, you are sharpening the marketing of your book.
  • amazon has resources for self-publishing; mixed-genre books can do well with this
  • Book talks appeal to larger audiences than a book reading — tell how you wrote the book or researched the subject. An entertaining presentation draws an audience. Lucie: “Making it funny is coping.” (Meaning your book content and/or your presentation.)
  • Business Facebook gives you many options for targeting audiences for small cost.
  • Couple a visit to a library (for a book signing) with a writing workshop that you teach — much more fun than sitting in a bookstore hoping people come by.
  • Write from your gut and heart first. Later, you can fine-tune the message.

So there you go — see what you missed? You’ve gathered by now that none of our four authors published their books expecting, or even hoping, to get rich. But they all found it satisfying. What will you do to make finishing and publishing your book a good experience?

The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council provides funding and support to Lake Superior Writers, and a host of other regional artists and arts organizations. “Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from the McKnight Foundation.”



One River, Many Stories

The St. Louis River, April 2016, near the Clyde Avenue landing

The St. Louis River, April 2016, near the Clyde Avenue landing

I’ve just finished my term with One River, Many Stories — the amazing year-long collaboration created and developed by the grant team of John Hatcher and Jennifer Moore of University of Minnesota Duluth’s Journalism program, and Paul Lundgren of Perfect Duluth Day (with help early on from Chris Julin and Emily Haavik).

I met good people doing good work for this storytelling/media/journalism/community project, and I’m looking forward to watching the reverberations around Duluth and our region for a long time to come. Read Paul Lundgren’s essay on Mike Simonson and the project’s beginnings.

Early on, the grant team asked a simple question: What happens when all the storytellers in one region turn their attention to one topic, the St. Louis River? I’m still blown away by the amazing variety of river stories produced by journalists, writers, artists, art students, poets, broadcasters and just plain folk.

There’s even an interactive map where you can scroll in and out along the river to place many of the stories in their geography along the river.

Enjoy. And get out on the river! You’ll see Duluth and our surrounding region from a whole new vantage point.



Been a while.

The Lakewalk, Duluth, March 6, 2016

The Lakewalk, Duluth, March 6, 2016

There is something spectacular about light around water. Even on a cold and cloudy day here in Duluth, light bounces around in fascinating ways over the Lake, but along the stream beds and rivers, too. Like having a magnifying glass everywhere I go, ready to frame what I want to see most.

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago, when two dear friends (world travelers both) came to stay in Duluth for a couple of days. I’ve written about my travels with Nathalie and Michele before. I love these two women, and I love the gift of seeing my new hometown through their eyes. They wanted to go everywhere I go in my daily life, and we did. Somewhere during our tour days, I realized we were always near water of one kind of another: the Lake, of course, but rivers and creeks and streams, too. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to live here, but they understand why I do!

I’m getting ready to teach a writing workshop at Waite Park Library for Great River Regional Library in St. Cloud. Hence, the visit to my own web site to update the resources I like to have ready for students.

Most of my time in recent months has been taken up by One River, Many Stories, the journalism and storytelling project about the St. Louis River that’s led by UMD. We moved here for the Lake — an adventure to get to know the city from the perspective of its River.

Saturday, March 19, I get to see the Mississippi River and its tributary, the Sauk River, and talk to writers there about their relationship to their rivers.

Water, water, everywhere!


A poem in process.


Kudos to Carol Scott for sharing her writing process! Three versions of her poem, “Honey Crisp” appear below, and I hope you enjoy seeing the poem’s evolution as much as I did. Carol participated in a Writing Visually class I taught earlier this summer at Carver County Libraries that was geared toward their Poetry/Art Collaborative. Here’s my post about the poem we wrote as a class here.

Participants were encouraged to take the rough draft and run with it to create their own work. And Carol did! I hope she’ll enter her poem once she’d finished. The Library is accepting entries until August 3; there’s also a call for artists. Email Angela Hunt for more info — ahunt AT

#1 HONEY CRISP  by A. Carol Scott

Its bee-kissed bloom
long since faded
for this very moment
Of lusty, earthy perfection.
Wise men infused  their gifts:
Shapely perfection,
Silken beauty,
Flamboyant tenderness.
Minnesota nativity testifies:
This beauty is not like others,
Those from far away,
Those foreign to this fertile place.
No. Cloaked seductively in a
Shiny green-accented
red envelope modestly
Enfolding velvety succulence,
This enchantress is poised,
Suspended tauntingly
Out of reach like a star
Twinkling a promise,
Eliciting Pavlovian reactions:
Stomach pit pain, yearning,
Igniting textured memories of
Dewy trails tracing down wrist
Leaving a honeyed kiss
On pulse point
Breathing a delicate,
Heavenward, fragrance
Tempting those vulnerable
To pluck stabled treasures
From straw laden manger.
#2   HONEY CRISP by A. Carol Scott
Its bee-kissed bloom
long since faded
for this very moment
of lusty, earthy perfection.
Wise men infused their gifts–
silken perfection,
unrelenting fragrance,
flamboyant tenderness.
Minnesota nativity testifies
this beauty is not like others,
those from far away,
those foreign to this fertile place.
No. Cloaked seductively in a
satiny green-accented
red envelope modestly
enfolding firm white succulence,
this enchantress is poised,
suspended tauntingly,
out of reach, like a star,
igniting textured memories–
stomach pit yearning,
dewy trails tracing down wrist
leaving honeyed pulse-point kisses.
Bearing its sweet bouquet
on heavenward breezes,
the vulnerable are beguiled.
Bowing to temptation they visit
the orchard’s straw laden manger,
select bag-swaddled treasures
to offer consuming praise in private
#3 HONEY CRISP by A. Carol ScottIts bee-kissed bloom
long since faded
for this very moment
of lusty, earthy perfection.
Wise men infused their gifts–
silken perfection,
unrelenting fragrance,
flamboyant tenderness.
Minnesota nativity testifies
this beauty is not like others,
those from far away,
those foreign to this fertile place.
No. Cloaked seductively in
satiny green-accented red,
this enchantress is poised,
suspended tauntingly, a star,
igniting textured memories–
stomach-pit yearning,
dewy trails tracing down wrist
leaving honeyed pulse-point kisses.
Bearing its sweet bouquet
on heavenward breezes,
the vulnerable are beguiled.
Bowing to temptation they visit
the orchard’s straw laden manger,
select bag-swaddled treasures
to offer consuming praise in private.