The Best Writing Club in the USA!

author-at-work-1170x716Big News!  They are going to make a movie about a writer’s club.  They made the movie “The Book Club” staring a host of elderly semi-retired actresses and now they want to make a movie about a writer’s club.  I am volunteering our club.  It is the best writing club in the USA with so many talented writers.

“Poppycock” you say!  “There are hundreds of writing clubs across this country and there are more talented writers than there are spaces on the Times Best Seller list. What makes your writing club the best?”

“Thank you for asking.”

Well for one, our club has the greatest teacher in the entire world.  She is a retired Professor Emeritus (Whatever that means) and you would never (even if you looked high and low) find a better writing teacher.  I will say more about our instructor later and why she is so great.

Now you may not know too much about a writing club or then again, you may think you know a lot.  Perhaps you think you know why someone would join a writing club.  If you are a non-writer, the usual reasons that come to mind are:  Fame, fortune and the power to influence thinking.  These are certainly lofty goals and one that anyone might be forgiven for believing worth pursuing.  They are not our reasons though.  We meet for two hours every week during the best weeks of the year in the mid-west to share our stories and to listen to the stories of others. Our goals are not so egotistical or grandiose as fame and fortune.

What makes a great writing club besides a great instructor?  You could define a writing club by its demographics.  Ours is primarily comprised of elderly retired folks of mixed German and Nordic backgrounds.  Women outnumber men in our club by a three to one ratio.  We are middle class people with about fifty percent of us having a college education.

A more interesting way to define a club is by its type of writers.  I believe we are unique in this area.  Why are we unique?  The answer is simple.  Most of us are too old to give a damn about fame and fortune.  We will probably not live long enough to enjoy any new-found wealth or fame anyway.   Our average age is probably close to 75.

There are three types of writers in our club.  We have nostalgia writers, fiction writers and persuasive writers.  I put myself in the last category.

Nostalgia writers in our club often write stories about memories and friends and relatives that are long gone.  It might be stories about growing up on the farm.  It might be stories about life in the St. Croix valley.  It might be stories about the old school days when there were one room school houses.

Nostalgia writers love to share their bygone days with younger relatives and other people.  The times and days they write about might not interest too many people, but there is little worry about that.  A writer writes for themselves often more than other people.  The accuracy of their memories might also be tainted with the passage of time but often these memories are so funny and colorful that no one in our club really cares about how accurate they are.  Maybe the story happened in 1957 or maybe it was 1947, it really does not make any difference to those of us listening.

The fiction writers in our club delight in telling involved and esoteric stories about themes that came out of their fantasies or some whimsical vision they had.  However, our fiction writers are no starry-eyed idealists.  They are under no illusions that they will make the best sellers list with their stories.  They are also not motivated by fame and fortune.  We have tales of frogs, sheep, goats, aliens and humans who have adventures that you could only dream about.

In the six or so years, that I have belonged to the club, I have heard many fabulous stories of people, animals and events that were totally imaginary.  Sometimes, Carolyn our instructor will give us an assignment like writing about a cow in Norway that prompts our creative powers.  The results are stories written not for the best seller list but to exercise our brains and to employ our imaginations.  Most of these stories will never find their way into publication (excepting our fabulous local paper which weekly features the writings of various club members).  We do not get paid for getting published, but we are more than happy to share our stories with a wider audience.  There may be a Hemingway or J. K Rowling in our club, but no one puts on airs or has pretensions of grandeur.  We leave it up to the Gods to decide who will become immortal.

writing pen

I should tell you about the final group of writers but first, before I forget (It happens quite frequently with age) I want to tell you about Professor Carolyn Wedin, our writing instructor.

Now the typical idea of an English teacher sends shivers down most anyone’s spine who has ever been in school.  Grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax are enough to make the hardiest soul give up the idea of becoming a writer.  But even worse are critiques such as: “That is shoddy writing, that is the poorest piece of writing I have ever seen or where did you steal those ideas from.”  Destructive comments such as these happen often enough in school to make any normal person hate English and writing.

Carolyn has the unbelievable ability to encourage all of us to keep writing.  She makes each of us think that we are wonderful writers.  She motivates us to be better writers with gentle ideas and suggestions rather than harsh criticism or comparing our work to others.  She seldom ever worries about syntax, grammar, spelling and punctuation.  I have often sat and listened to what I thought was a horrible piece of writing only to hear Carolyn provide ideas for improvement and say little or nothing that would smack of condemnation or disapproval.  I marvel at her patience and endurance and compassion. In the end, Dr. Wedin is teaching us not only to be better writers but also to be better people.  Judge not others less ye be judged yourself.

So now we come to the final and last category of writers in our club.  It is the category I put myself in.  These are the writers who write to persuade others.  The people who think that something they say can make a difference in the world.  We want to change the hearts and minds of people.

Speaking for myself, I write social and political satire with the goal of helping other people to better see and understand the foibles that our culture often pursues.  You may think this is a narcissistic goal or perhaps a naive goal and maybe it is.  One thing is certain.  It will never garner me fame or fortune.   But (you should know by now) that is not why we write.

As any writer will tell you (Paraphrasing the great French National Anthem):

Writers! Form your battalions!

Write On! Write On! Write On!  Write_On_logo

Time for Questions: 

Do you write?  Why not?  Have you ever tried writing?  Would you like to be a famous published writer?  It all starts with your first sentence.

Life is just beginning.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”  — Madeleine L’Engle

The Mean Old Man and the Single Chair

The following story was inspired by a true story about a mean old man and his single chair.  My friend Don Johnson told me this story and I have put more details into it.  Nevertheless, I must thank Don for the basic outline and for the great way he told the story which as I said inspired me to write this tale.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Old man scowls, leans forward and shakes his cane

When I was a young boy my parents, two sisters and I lived in a mobile home or trailer as some would call them.  Though, we never trailer-ed it anyplace.  Villagers said we lived in a trailer park and kids at school would laugh and joke about us being “trailer trash.”  I got in lots of fights with other kids over these insults.

Every day, my sisters and I would walk to the pickup site for the school bus.  Back in those days, kids could still go to school without a chaperone.  We even went out trick or treating by ourselves and kept any food or candy that we collected.  The one house we did not go to for tricks or treats belonged to a mean old man.  My parents and the older kids in the trailer park warned us to stay away from his house.  They all said that he was very nasty and hated everyone.

Each day after coming back from school, school let out at about 3:15 PM, the school bus would drop us off and my sisters and a few of my friends would walk home.  We would go by the old man’s house.  He would inevitably be sitting on a makeshift porch in front of his trailer in an old rocking chair.  We would stroll by his home and occasionally wave but he would never wave back.  As we went by, he would fix a relentlessly hostile gaze on us which could put fear in anyone’s heart.  We imagined he was mad at the world and that certainly included us.  Inevitably, we picked up our pace and tried to hurry by his place as fast as we could.

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A few years passed and the mean old man simply seemed to grow meaner.  One day after the bus dropped us off, a few of my friends and I were walking home.  As we were passing the old man’s home, he was sitting in his usual place and just staring at us.  My friends started laughing at and taunting him with various insults.  “Hey grandpa, what’s it like being so mean?”  “Hey old man, can you help us find our cat?”  I told them to stop it as he had never bothered anyone.  They turned their taunts on me and said “If you like him so much, why don’t you go talk to him.  We dare you to go talk to him.  They cried out at me: “Chicken!  Chicken!  Chicken!”

I tried to ignore their jibes, but finally, I had had enough.  “I am not afraid. I will go talk to him.”  I started to walk down the path to where the old man was sitting.  My heart began beating faster and faster.  I wondered what I was going to say.  Nothing occurred to me.  The old man was staring at me intently.  I could hear my friends laughing and hooting behind me.

As I reached the old man, he looked very angry.  “Ok”, he said, “What do you want.”  I said the first thing that came into my mind: “Well, I was just wondering why you don’t have another chair so someone can sit and talk with you?”  “None of your business”, he answered, “Now why don’t you just run off and go back with your friends.”  I could not think of another thing to say.  As I turned to leave, I said “Goodbye, have a nice day.”  The old man mumbled something which I thought might be “same to you” but I could not be sure.

Saturday and Sunday passed quickly and Monday we were back in school.  After school adjourned, I decided that I did not want to be go home with my usual friends so I took the “late” bus from school.  I got off at the bus stop and started home.  As I passed the mean old man’s house, he was sitting in his chair.  Much to my surprise, he had a single chair sitting right next to him.  Somewhat emboldened by this turn of events, I walked up the path to his house and stood in front of him again.  He looked at me and asked me “What do you want.”  I said “Well, I notice that you have a single chair free, would you mind if I sat and talked to you for a while.”  “OK” was all he said.

black man in a rocking chair

I sat down and started to tell him about all the things that I was doing in school.  I told him about my classes, my teachers and my friends.  I talked about my parents, my sisters and my grandparents.  He listened intently to all I said and never interrupted or asked any questions.  Realizing that it was getting late and that my parents would be worried, I said that I was going to go home but I would see him again tomorrow.  He simply nodded and said “Goodbye.”

My trips and visits to the mean old man’s house continued for many days.  The days stretched into weeks.  Over time, we started to talk more about his life.  I found out that his name was Bill and that he had been married but his wife had died about ten years earlier.  He had not had any children.  Bill was a veteran and we talked about his wartime service and experiences.  Bill was always more interested in what I was doing and asked me many questions about my school and life.  Bill said that he did not have any friends and no surviving relatives.

I asked Bill if he did not have any friends in our local church but he said that his wife had been the church goer.  He had occasionally gone to church with her, but after she died, his stopped going.  Bill confided in me that he had never been a social person and had always found it difficult to make friends.  Most of the friends whom he once had were his wife’s friends and after she died, they stopped coming to visit.  He was all alone now.

Weeks turned into months and it became my habit to routinely stop by Bill’s house on my way home from school.  We talked and I told him about my day and he listened and asked questions which made me think a great deal about my choices and decisions in life.  I could share things with Bill that I did not share with anyone else.

Then one day when I was coming home and passing Bill’s house, I saw that someone else was sitting in the single chair.  Not wanting to interrupt, I waved and walked on by.  The next day we resumed our discussions as usual but the following day, the chair was again occupied.  Over time, the single chair was alternately occupied by myself and many other people.

two old men on a porch

I found out that Bill had started to go to church again and he had met people from all walks of life.  Some were retired and some were not.  The people who met Bill found him to be a very interesting person. They would stop by and sit in the single chair next to Bill and talk about various and sundry things.

High school came and went.  Bill and I had many talks but just as often, he had someone else sitting in the chair when I came by.  I went off to college and saw Bill much less except when I came home to visit my parents.  Bill and I discussed writing to each other but we both agreed that we were not writers.  I finished college and found a job in another city.  My times with Bill had dwindled to a mere pittance of what they once had been.

A few more years passed by.  My parents notified me that Bill had died.  I came home to go to his funeral.  It was well attended and nearly a hundred people were there.  Many nice things were said about Bill.  Everyone talked about what a good listener he was and how he always cared more about what others were doing or thinking.  He was one of the least egocentric people you could have met.

single chair on a porch

About two weeks after the funeral, a letter arrived in my mail.  It was from my home town but I did not recognize the address.  I opened it up and inside were two pieces of stationary.  I opened the one with the typing on it.  It read, “We were going through some of Bill’s possessions and we found this note on his bedside.  We thought he meant to give it to you but never got around to mailing it.”  I opened the second piece of stationary.  It was in rough scrawl which I recognized as Bill’s handwriting.  Bill wrote the following:

Dear Tim,

You are the best friend I ever had. 

Thanks,

Bill

I still keep this note.  It is perhaps the nicest compliment I have ever received.  Whenever, I miss Bill, I pull this note out to remember him and the many talks we had.  Bill in his rocking chair and me in the single chair beside him.

Time for Questions:

My writers group said that the “Mean Old Man” was iconic and that every neighborhood had such a character.  Can you think of someone in your neighborhood like this “Mean Old Man?”  Did anyone ever try to talk to him or find out what bothered him?  What happened to him?  Why do you suppose children are often likely to befriend such people?

Life is just beginning.

“My mother says that when Mrs. Rowley is mean, which is generally the case, it is really because she is just unhappy, and who could blame her with a husband like that . . . She says this is really the only reason people are ever mean–they have something hurting inside of them, a claw of unhappiness scratching at their hearts, and it hurts them so much that sometimes they have to push it right out of their mouths to scratch someone else, just to give themselves a rest, a moment of relief.”  — Laura Moriarty

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