The loss of childhood is the beginning of poetry.
- Andrei Tarkovski
In second grade I wrote my first book, a bizarre tale of a doorknob that talked and walked and wandered around the house in search of adventure.
Learning to read the year before had been such a thrill that it seemed only natural to become a writer. I meticulously copied the adventures of "Knobby" onto 5-by-7-inch index cards in my best second grade handwriting, slightly left tilted because I was left-handed and didn't want to smear the letters. I drew the illustrations for my book on the unlined sides of the cards.
I informed my mother that I wanted to submit my book for publication. The majority of books in our house were cardboard-bound, 39-cent Golden Books, so we submitted the manuscript to the publisher of Henny Penny and The Animals' Train Ride.
Many months passed before a letter came in the mail postmarked New York, the first piece of personal mail I ever received. "We regret to inform you," the typewritten letter said, "that your submission does not meet our standards for publication." The form business letter was signed by an actual human but rang in my ears with the ironclad authority of a formal institution telling me I was not good enough. I kept the shameful secret of my rejection from my teacher, who had encouraged me to write, and carried it with me into third grade.
Writing, from that point on, was never the uncensored, purely creative act I had experienced while working in my bed, late into the night on the adventures of Knobby the wayward doorknob.
But writing continued to be the way I distinguished myself in the world. It carried me through breakups with boyfriends, presidential assassinations, summers of excruciating boredom, college entry essays and occasional inspired ventures into worlds of fantasy.
Words were always my best and most reliable companions.
Turns out, in 2001, that despite persistent rumors of the end of books and much hand wringing over the demise of literacy due to television and various electronic entertainments, the urge to write is alive and well, perhaps growing even stronger in our current age of alienation. Creative writing programs are popping up like dandelions across the landscape of the nation's learning institutions. Publishing on demand, a new Internet technology-supported way of getting words into print is one of the industry's fasting growing facets. And writing has entered the mainstream of the self-awareness movement, heralded as a key to unlocking the dark closet of memory and celebrating the power of telling the truth.
In recent weeks, I've visited with several writers around town -- authors out pitching their newly published books, teenagers working on novels, the creator of a writing advocacy program for low-income and disadvantaged scribes, and women in a substance abuse rehab program using writing as a way to enhance their recovery. In each case, the writers made a strong case for the value of putting thoughts and feelings into words.
"It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea," said author and writing teacher Anne Lamott, explaining the urge to write, in her book Bird by Bird. "You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship."
If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, since for the creator there is no poverty, an no poor or unimportant place.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
It's Saturday evening, July 28, and inside McKinzey-White Bookshop, there's a party going on. Patrons crowd the sofas and chairs of the sitting area, focused on two men up front, Jonathan Martin and Paul Carhart, each the author of a book recently published by Writers Club Press of iUniverse.com, the leading purveyor in the new publishing phenomenon, print on demand (POD).
Carhart's book, Chance for the Future, is a science fiction tale of a future in which creativity is banned in favor of "more useful social and economic endeavors." The central character, Mancy Fairlight, is a closeted painter and single mother raising a musically gifted 6-year-old son, Rembrandt. Mancy fears that the government will discover her son's musical leanings and that her husband's fate, execution, may be Rembrandt's as well.
Chance is a professionally crafted book with elaborate, graphically enhanced photographic images on the cover, also created by Carhart who works as a Web designer and graphic artist.
"My mom was a singer; my dad was an artist; my brother plays basically every musical instrument in the world," said Carhart of the inspiration for his book. "I tried to imagine a world with no creativity and that became the basic premise. There's some romance and humor in it, and I try to write strong women. But what do I know?"
A big man dressed in black with a splashy Disney tie, Carhart's approach to marketing his pet project and the soon-to-be-published sequel, Hope for Tomorrow, is lighthearted but catchy. With an overhead projector and a Macintosh G4 laptop computer, he walks the audience through the steps of designing the book cover, including turning his T-shirted, twenty-something brother-in-law into a sinister gray-haired government agent. Then he presents a visual value comparison: How much does dinner for two cost compared to the cost of a week with Chance for the Future? What about a ticket to Disneyland for one day? How about a new Mustang convertible? By all counts, Chance for the Future is a real bargain.
Carhart, who has been writing since he was a teenager, admits he's written two novels that will never see the light of day and that Chance is the first work he's been willing to share with the public. But there is no evidence of shyness about the author who enthusiastically promotes his work on his personal Web site (www.paulcarhart.com) and who has vigorously taken on the challenge of selling his book to booksellers, one of the tasks an author agrees to when choosing POD.
While the typical book publishing process requires agents and difficult, largely unsuccessful pitches to editors at huge publishing companies, POD requires only a manuscript submitted over the Internet, and a set fee ($99 to $299, depending on the number of graphics files in the package). Within a few weeks the book can be viewed online at the company's Web site and can be printed into an actual book on demand either from the author or from booksellers. iUniverse.com retains the right to reject any material for offensive content, and markets its titles via a distribution agreement with Barnes & Noble. Some of their titles have garnered movie contracts and large sales, while many are by unknown authors and sell only a handful of copies. With the capacity to print 2,000 titles a month, the company promotes itself as "one of the world's largest publishers [offering] ... the world's most efficient publishing process and [giving] ... authors control over their own destiny."
At the signing, Martin's line is long, filled with friends and well-wishers who receive lengthy, thoughtful inscriptions in their personal copies of his book, Threkjshanelle, a slim collection of poetry and short stories. The author's wide smile belies the difficulty of writing the book and sharing his personal thoughts in public.
"I was very unpopular with women," said Martin, "and found myself being thrown away constantly. I decided to write my feelings down and that's where the book came from."
A young woman in black wearing netted gloves and a ripped, torso-length T-shirt quietly works her way up to the table and asks Carhart to sign her copy of Chance for the Future. The crowd includes a number of obvious cartoon and sci-fi fans. A luscious blonde named Jamaica, the model for Carhart's second book cover, autographs a framed copy of the book cover graphics with a silver pen. A table off to the side holds two large sheet cakes, baked by Martin's wife, in honor of the authors' first public signing.
The signing has gone well. The authors have succeeded at their first self-marketing attempt. But it is their drive to write that has made it all happen. In an Internet chat posted on Carhart's site, the author describes why he writes:
"I love it. ... There are stories in my head (and now saved in my Palm Handheld so I don't forget what I come up with and can come back to them) scratching to get out and be told, and characters who are as real to me as my friends and family, who need to be met."
Moments of grace
Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.
- Erica Jong
"Writers tell the secrets and unmask the lies," says Rebekah Shardy, freelance writer and creator of the Mighty Muse Writing Project, a creative writing program aimed at low-income and at-risk women and girls who might not otherwise discover their writing voices. Mighty Muse is sponsored by the Pikes Peak Arts Council and funded by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. (In the interest of disclosure it should be noted that Shardy occasionally writes for the Independent.)
"Everyone carries a moment of grace inside them, and spends a lifetime concealing it," said Shardy. "It doesn't fit the outside world; you know, it has awkward corners or conspicuous colors. So we push it back into a closet, hoping it never tumbles into the light of day.
"That's what Mighty Muse is about: It encourages women to pull out their most messy, painful stuff -- not because it makes for sensational reading -- but because that moment of grace can be found hidden in the heart of [all that mess]."
This summer, Mighty Muse took on its first community project, a six-week writing workshop with women in the Choices I Women's Substance Abuse Group at COMCOR, a community-based corrections facility in Colorado Springs. Coordinated by COMCOR counselor Vanessa Hohner and taught by Shardy, the classes were attended by six women ranging in age from their early 30s to mid-40s, all of whom had been incarcerated on drug-related convictions -- possession, stealing or forgery. While in the program, the women were living at one of COMCOR's four housing facilities. By the time they were interviewed for this article, they had advanced to non-residential status, living in apartments on their own but accountable to COMCOR and steadily involved in rehabilitation programs at the facility.
"I used to write all the time," said Leah, one of the Mighty Muse participants. "Then when I got older and had a job, I didn't have the time. But when I was living at COMCOR, in my emotional state with my ex, I would go to the motel and write pages and pages, things I couldn't say out loud but needed to say. You can't keep your emotions bottled up when you're in recovery; you've got to keep your trash can empty."
Blanca, a soft-voiced woman with long, auburn hair, agrees.
"I grew up in a rough household," she said, "but I always wrote. I had friends who would ask me to write poems for their boyfriends, things like that. But I really didn't think I had it in me any more. Being in this class showed me that writing is something I can do aside from the kind of stuff I used to do -- drinking, going to rock clubs. It's good to know that you haven't completely lost your head."
There is an endearing camaraderie about the group that meets twice a week for a year. The women finish each other's sentences and gently draw one another into the conversation.
Trish, the extrovert of the group, is the first to cry when describing her experiences with writing. "I was in rehab in Pueblo, with a big, gaping hole in my heart for a baby I gave up for adoption," she tells the group. "I wrote a poem to her, wishing her happiness. I mailed it to her two years ago; she lives in California." Down the table, the single member of the group who chose not to participate in the writing exercises cries softly into her crossed arms, burying her face.
"Writing has been a big outlet for me for a long time," Trish continued. "I had a poem on the wall in Metro, the old jail. My grandma ..." her voice breaks at the mention of her grandmother, "took my stuff to Current when I was younger. I went to prison in '92 and got away from [writing]. I thought I lost it with my addiction. I thought I forfeited my talent. With the class, I found it again."
Shardy asked the women to describe scenes that were shameful for them, things that, through their experience, they might know that others might not. One of the assignments was to write what it's like to go to sleep in prison. Blanca wrote:
I look at the way the bricks are stacked with every line staring back. "Lock down!" they scream. Slam goes the door behind me. Two beds, one toilet in the middle of this matchbox. As I struggle to put this paper thin sheet on the bed, I imagine the devastation here. Baby blue plastic mattress with rips that tell how the bodies would shift restlessly. "My babies," they cried. "Why god, why me?"
On the same subject, Trish wrote:
... the iron gates slam shut like a domino effect for a solid ten minutes, although it seems a lot longer ... Satan's bedtime story, the catcalls echo and the loud speaker booms, "Lockdown!" As the lights dim, they never totally turn off, as if to constantly remind you where you are. You can hear the sad sobbing of the many women, yelling, screaming, cussing ...
Describing the scene waiting for a bus at the bus station, Leah wrote:
Less fortunate of all walks of life, awaiting our chariots of noise and pollution. Smells of sweat and booze attack my nostrils ... The layered homeless, the wrinkled old, the pierced and tattooed young, the drunks and the druggies, the mothers with too many children ... overwhelmed by the crowds, numb to the loud engines that will travel the city. Every thirty minutes we're off for a ride.
Shardy encourages the writers in the Mighty Muse Project to tell the truth about their lives and to own their lives in the process.
"Our cultural storyteller, television, shows us only two kinds of women," she explains. "The smart, nymphomaniacal, single woman with a great job or the smart, nymphomaniacal, married woman who provides punchlines for her loving family's 'funny' problems. No one works at Burger World; no one is having a breakdown of identity; no one is depressed or addicted or fat, although we know 60 percent of all Americans are overweight.
"Muriel Rukeyser wrote, 'What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.' It takes courage and a witness. I ask our women to tell me the secret that removes the lie."
God in her universe
All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation -- it is the Self escaping into the open.
-- E.B. White
It's a summer Thursday night and we are sitting in metal chairs, in a meeting room of the Radisson Chapel Hills, listening to local author Jimmie Butler as he winds up his eight-week seminar on novel writing.
The group is composed mostly of 30- to 40-ish adults, all furiously taking notes. Butler has handed out a sample un-edited draft of a page from one of his books. A woman with a long, gray pigtail asks the most questions. Her editing sheet is covered with thick, black delete marks.
On the back row, Melody Charles, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, listens to Butler as she makes notes for her novel, a project she has taken on to fulfill the English requirement of the IB program at Rampart High School.
"I always wanted to write a book," said Charles. "Middle school was when I began to write. Writing is like freedom -- you can put whatever you want on paper. You and your characters can think or feel whatever you want.
"You can play God."
Melody's book, which she has just started, focuses on a 14-year-old character going into high school. Her mother has died three years before, and though we don't know she was killed by a drunk driver, we know that the daughter has a friend who was in an accident where she was riding with a drunk driver. As their friendship develops and the main character begins to search for the truth, the reader is able to make the connection between what happened then and what is happening now.
A row up from Melody is Adrienne Rankin, a committed fantasy fiction writer who, at 17, has written more than 200 pages of her book.
"It's a fantasy," Adrienne explains. "It's hard to explain. It's about a man who was abused when he was younger. He thinks he was abused because he never felt worthy. I started writing it when I was 13."
Rankin, who recently graduated from Lewis-Palmer High School says her teacher, Ms. Eberhart, encouraged her to take up writing seriously. She had a piece published in Highlights magazine, but it is the writing process itself, not the idea of being published, that she cherishes.
"It's kind of like going into another world if you're stressed," she explained. "It's kind of an escape. I always thought it would be cool to create my own characters. I was one of those kids who ran around in the woods pretending I was a wolf."
As Butler throws out tidbits of advice -- "Give your characters worthy opponents ... The beginning must foreshadow the conclusion ... No passive protagonists..." -- Adrienne rubs her forehead and thinks, then jots down notes that directly apply to her book, noting specific characte development ideas, identifying a possible new plot twist.
She wants to make her book a series in the manner of her favorite authors, Terry Goodkind and David Eddings.
"I really love books more than anything," she says, glancing up from the page. "I know that sounds weird. In high school I liked the books no one else liked, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, [Hawthorne's] The Scarlet Letter. But my favorites are fantasies with wizards, knights and magic. Fantasy books have great character development."
The class is long and Butler pours out advice, recapping all that his students have learned over the past seven weeks. He encourages them to attend the Pikes Peak Writers Conference where he has been a key organizer for the past several years. He encourages them to keep writing.
If a story is in you, it has got to come out, said William Faulkner.
"A story is like something you wind out of yourself. Like a spider, it is a web you weave, and you love the story like a child, said Katherine Anne Porter.
Artists are the antennae of the race, said Ezra Pound.
Walking out into the warm summer night, I am comforted and surprised to find myself among writers, crafting sentences, loving words, their antennae up, in the midst of the crush and roar of Academy Boulevard traffic.
Language is the only homeland, said Czeslaw Milosz.
I'm beginning to believe it's true.
Resources for writers
Bare-knuckle Poetry open mikes held monthly at The Warehouse, 25 W. Cimarron St. Readers and listeners are welcome. Free. 447-9039 for details.
Poetry West Workshops, held the first Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to noon, in local parks during spring and summer or Colorado College's Worner Center in cooler months. Features local authors and scholars discussing various aspects of poetry. Free. Call Sandra McNew at 632-4374 for more information.
Writers' group meeting every Thursday at 7 p.m. in the cafe at the Briargate Barnes & Noble, 1565 Briargate Blvd. Call 266-9960 for more information.
Pikes Peak Romance Writers hold regular meetings as well as host readings, signings and book fairs. For more information, call 392-3740.
Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group for amateurs and professionals meets the last Monday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Citadel Barnes & Noble, 795 Citadel Dr. E. Details, 637-8282.
Just C.A.W.S., a support group for women writers and artists meets on the first and third Sunday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Citadel Barnes and Noble, 795 Citadel Dr. E. Details, 637-8282.
Front Range Fiction Writers meets on the third Friday of each month at the Sand Creek Police Station. Socializing is at 6:30; the program begins at 7 p.m. For details call Julie Masters at 593-0706.
Mighty Muse Writing Project, a non-profit writing workshop for low-income and at-risk women needs volunteers and donations of office supplies, journals and pens. Bookstores could provide gift certificates for awards in an upcoming writing contest. Tax deductible donations are welcome to support publication of Voices of the Muse 2001, a collection of writing by Mighty Muse participants. For details, call 262-0810.
Mighty Muse is sponsoring a Writing Contest for writers of personal essays or poems who are low income or currently in an at-risk situation. Deadline is September 15. For guidelines, call Rebekah Shardy at 262-0810 or e-mail:
Breaking into Freelance Writing, a free half-day seminar by local author Wendy Burt, sponsored by Mighty Muse and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, is being offered to low-income women in the community on a first come, first-served basis on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at the East Library Community Room, 5550 N. Union Blvd.. To register, or determine if you qualify, please call 262-0810 before August 10. The class is limited to 30 registrants.
To learn more about publishing on demand (POD), visit
www.iuniverse.com. Check out author Paul Carhart's article, "Is POD Publishing Right For Me?" at www.paulcarhart.com