Writing in Relationship
Writing is largely a solitary activity. Even when we circulate a draft through a committee or bring our work to a critique group, that’s for review. The original is a solo creation.
Yet writing is all about relationships. Writers relate to the subjects they write about. Narrative history, biography, or personality profiles demand at least a bit of empathy with the people whose stories they tell. In fiction, characters take shape in my mind as semi-independent beings with their own notions of what they’ll do or say. Even when I write about fruit flies or galaxies, trying to do justice to the subject involves a personal sense of connection.
And writing is about a relationship with the reader. Except perhaps for a personal journal, we write to communicate with others. Readers are a constant presence. Who might read this? What do they already know, what are they curious about, what might confuse them or draw them in? If you are reading this blog post, thank you! It was written with you in mind.
Writers are like hosts at a party, introducing subjects and readers in the hope that something will click. To polish one’s craft is to strengthen the introduction. “Hello, dear reader. Here’s a subject I find interesting, and I hope that you will too.”
Today is the longest day of 2016, here in the Northern Hemisphere. I always found it strange that “midsummer” refers to the beginning of summer rather than the middle. But today marks a turning, another kind of middle. The days will now grow shorter. Just as winter solstice welcomes the return of the light, midsummer heralds the return of darkness. How depressing is that?
Much as old midwinter celebrations merged with Christmas, summer solstice or midsummer blended into the Feast of Saint John the Baptist (June 24). It’s a big deal in some areas, especially those far from the equator like Latvia or Quebec. Traditions include bonfires, processions, and remnants of magic and fertility rituals. Hence A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Middles can be turning points, like solstice, or calm centers where all is in balance. Or they can be frayed with stress, like the rope in a tug of war. Filipino author Nick Joaquin’s short story “The Summer Solstice” revolves around the frenzy of Tatarin, a fertility festival observed in Manila until World War II. Joaquin’s characters are like the frayed rope, torn apart amid the tensions: respectability vs. abandon, women vs. men, Catholicism vs. sexuality, indigenous vs. colonial culture.
Opening Pages from Polio History
I've added an extract from my history of polio eradication to my writing page. If this whets your appetite, you can get the whole volume at the Rotary Shop.
Local Historical Gems
If you haven’t discovered it yet, your community may hold a hidden gem: the local historical society. I’m thinking right now particularly of the small ones, run by volunteers. Typically operating a museum in a historic house or railroad station, they preserve lore, papers, and artifacts donated by longtime residents. Their archives can be invaluable for researching family history.
They’re on my mind as I edit the DeForest Area Historical Society’s semiannual newsletter. It’s a small task; most DAHS volunteers do far, far more. Board member Mary Wendt explains, “We are preserving the past to share with the future, because we show a passion for memories and objects related to our area.”
Historical societies in the United States began as early as 1791. Public libraries or archives were rare, so private benefactors got together to preserve and publish historical documents. Community elites later organized to celebrate the history of prominent local families and businesses. For a time after the advent of the automobile, historical sites and museums were popular tourist destinations. More recently, with museum attendance in decline, many societies are expanding their reach through collaborative programs with schools, senior centers, and libraries.
Is there a local historical society near you? Check it out; you may be glad you did.
We’re just back from a few lovely days in Door County, Wisconsin. Some trillium still dot the woodlands; yellow lady slipper orchids are bright and abundant. We did pretty much what we always do on the peninsula: walk the forests and beaches, listen to Lake Michigan thud into the rocks at Cave Point, watch the sunset over Green Bay, and eat whitefish fresh from the boat. It never gets old.
Some two million visitors a year escape to this serene vacationland. That creates a ready market for Door County fiction. I especially like Pat Skalka’s mysteries, Death Stalks Door County and Death at Gills Rock, featuring a troubled former Chicago cop seeking a simpler life up north. And Lucy Sanna’s novel The Cherry Harvest explores an unfamiliar chapter in local history, the use of German prisoners of war to work the Door County orchards during World War II.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.