Life Is What Happens . . .

Dogwood Blossoms
the artist’s way
Stacks of books
Photo by Ajda ATZ

A certain romantic mythology often draws young people to the artist’s life.  Estelle Ford- Williamson was no exception. As a teen, growing up in Chattanooga, TN, she dreamed of being a writer so that she could live her life as Hemingway had. Like him, she would be a journalist who traveled the world reporting on major crises, all the while writing terse, fascinating novels and stories (although her Catholic school girl self wasn’t sure about having multiple love affairs as he did). Her dream focused on the excitement and the adventure of his life.

The Right to Know the Truth
Typewritten Truth
Photo by Marcus Winkler

Her perspective changed when she had the opportunity to meet The Chattanooga Times managing editor, John Popham, who as a journalist in the 50s covered the Southern United States for The New York Times. His impassioned words extolling the obligation of the reporter to bring the truth to the people no matter what the difficulties nor who opposed them moved her to tears.  She had a whole new vision of what her life could mean. This compelling notion of a responsibility to the truth took full steam as she attended college during the turbulent 1960s.

life in the “real world”
Chicago blizzard
Photo by Max Bender

It was so powerful, in fact, that she left Saint Mary’s, the women-only college she attended, before she graduated. She had a plan to take her elective courses in Chicago so that she could live in the “real world.”  Working during the day and taking night classes at Northwestern University, a school renowned for its journalism program, she completed her degree requirements and graduated from Saint Mary’s College the next year. During the Chicago blizzard of 1967, two events undermined her determination to live and work in the north.  A friend’s car, which had been buried by the historic two-foot snow, was plowed away.  And a letter arrived from her mother with a dogwood blossom folded in the pages.  She headed back to her beloved South.

a tricky work/life balance
Newspaper collage from 1968
Photo by Arno Senoner

Almost by a fluke she landed a job with the global news agency, United Press International, in Atlanta. Her boss mistakenly interpreted the credits she had earned at Northwestern to mean she had graduated from that prestigious journalism school. Over a beer, the man learned he’d read the application wrong, but as she had been reporting for a while, she kept the job. Two years with the agency taught her to synthesize information quickly and to view events from a broad perspective.

Wanting to start a family, she left the agency.  While her daughter grew, she worked for several government agencies and non-profit groups, writing newsletters and research papers. Working for the city of Atlanta brought her in contact with several leaders in the Civil Rights movement and led Estelle into an active role in equal rights advocacy.

past & present coalesce

Estelle returned to school and earned a master’s degree in Psychology. Her coursework served not only to deepen her writer’s perspective, but also led to new work experiences as a management trainer and career development specialist. She performed workshops, helping people learn to communicate with one another within corporations and assisting people transitioning from one job to another. On the side, she kept up her interest in writing by editing and publishing three of her aunts’ memoirs about their lives in North Georgia.

what she least expected
Memorabilia
Photo by Ireland Rose

Then a cloud with a silver lining blew over her horizon. Felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she lacked the energy to work full time. But because it wasn’t her nature to simply sit around, she began reading from her grandmother’s trunk, which contained memorabilia and family writings from that woman’s family. She also came across a detailed genealogy constructed by a great aunt that covered multiple generations of family. She began writing a story of fictitious characters who lived in the same period. Sometimes she wrote with her eyes closed due to the persistent fatigue.

always questing
Man making rifles
Photo by Carter Yocha

Writing was a quest for Estelle. There were years of research. She hunted in schools, libraries, archives, and museums around the South. She collected not only data but information on valuable material culture—house furnishings, clothing, blacksmithing, rifle making.

Abbeville FarewellResearch was interwoven with writing. Several short courses in creative writing and many years of writing in groups helped her develop chapters of a historical novel. An excerpt won a top novel award at Sand Hills Writers Conference. Published as Abbeville Farewell, the story is a saga about family and moral conflicts in pre-Civil War Atlanta and North Georgia, but it also examines the state of the nation’s conscience in the mid-nineteenth century. It was nominated for the 2002 Townsend Fiction Prize.

an unusual collaboration
Boys in a refugee camp
Photo by

Time to begin working on a second novel. But no.  A friend insisted that she meet a young man who was struggling to write his memoir and could use her help. His name was Majok Maier. As a child, he had escaped from Sudan during its bloody civil war. Of course, Estelle was intrigued. Four years later, MacFarland and Company published the book, Seed of Sudan: Memoir of a ‘Lost Boy’ Refugee co-authored by Ford-Williamson and Maier.

Its gripping narrative reveals how tens of thousands of boys like Majok fled from the Sudanese Army. They survived on grasses, grains, and help from villagers along the way. They had to  walk nearly a thousand miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before immigrating to the United States.

a mission as much as a book

The research for the book took Estelle all over the US to interview the young men. Research also took her to multiple libraries to gather and verify the book’s necessary background information. After publication, they held book readings in New York, Ohio, and D.C.  In all those place they met with other Lost Boys who’d settled across the US.

Water well in South Sudan
Photo by Mohamed Tohami

Majok and the other boys’ stories are very poignant and disturbing. These young men felt the need to help change conditions in their new home country, South Sudan.  So, Majok, Estelle, and valuable supporters formed a non-profit organization. It raised funds to build clean water wells in rural villages in South Sudan. (http://www.wellsforhope.org).

a quiet place

After the intensity of getting these under way, Estelle Lockwood Folly Wetlandneeded a place to quiet herself. She found it in the wetlands along the South Carolina coast. At a home she and her husband purchased, they retreated far from crowds of people, perched on a coastal river.  Her fellow citizens are many species of wildlife that inhabit the area.  Now, at last, she has written the novel she dreamed of, a contemporary narrative.  Rising Fawn not only gives us a twenty-first century protagonist, we also find in its pages a confluence of the many streams of Estelle’s life–faith, natural wonder, and a family’s past–merging together to form a powerful narrative for our ever-changing future.

 good dreaming

Rising FawnEstelle’s girlhood dreams of becoming a second Hemingway didn’t pan out. Her multidimensional achievements are, however, a unique outstanding contribution to the literary world. She’s been awarded fellowships to arts residency programs.  Her teaching accomplishments include readings and workshops for Poets and Writers, Inc. and the Pat Conroy Literary Center. In addition, Estelle enjoys teaching writing to at-risk youth as well as retired adults. A special delight for her is that as her books received critical acclaim, they continued to find new readers.  Those readers have proved to be a faithful and engaged group with whom she communicates regularly.

Among them may very well be a young girl, who dreams of growing up to be a writer like Estelle Ford-Williams.

“Is there a place you can go to break away for a little while? If you haven’t yet built your tree house, it’s never too late to start.”
Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments on the Road

Louisiana’s Very Own Peter Pan

Peter Pan
An Interview with Timothy Miller
Timothy Miller and his book, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Timothy Miller

Tim Miller, author of The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, writes so he doesn’t have to grow up.  I am convinced that one of the reasons that James Barry’s Peter Pan is an enduring hero is that no one really wants to grow up. We all have our little ways of hanging on to the delicious state of being children. For instance, I have a favorite pillow with which I’ve traveled the world.  I can’t sleep without it.  If I (horror of horrors) forget it, I pay good money to get it back from wherever it wandered off to.

a fantastical superpower
Guy pretending to be superhero
Photo by Craig Whitehead

Timothy, however, goes way beyond a favorite pillow. As a child, he found the world a wondrous place.  He gazed at all the marvelous things that big people did with their time and pondered what he might do when he grew up. He could be an actor, an artist, or a director of films. But what he really hoped to be was a superhero.  That dream came true when he discovered that his mutant super power — he could lie really well!

The bigger the lie he told, the more easily someone else believed it. It was just an easy slippery slope from telling lies to making up stories. Telling these “stories” was great fun, but when at six years old he learned to print, he began to move the tales out of his head and onto paper. Thus, as he began elementary school, he began his career as a writer.

writer, actor, and director
Stuffed Pandas in a Mexican Restaurant
Photo by Zach Rowlandson

 

 

 

He found it was a way to hold onto a favorite childhood pastime – playing with his stuffed animals. This menagerie had been the actors in the plays Tim wrote. He wrote the scripts, often only in his head as elaborate daydreams, assigned characters to each toy animal, and then directed them in their roles. With them as companions, Timothy entered a world every bit as fantastic as Never-never  Land itself. But the teasing of five older siblings pressured him into giving up the “baby” toys.  It could not, however, end the daydreams. His imagination continued to work on overdrive as he captured more and more narratives on paper.

i will never grow up
Little boy reflection in mirror
Photo by Johnny Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

To all outward appearances, Timothy grew up.  He finished school, took on various jobs, and lived an independent life.  His real world, however, opened when he returned home to his typewriter or later his computer.  Sitting there, he became the child Timothy again, making up stories. He became one of the Lost Boys.

While Timothy’s lively imagination is his greatest gift, it also can place obstacles in his path as a published writer.

walking a tight rope

Tim’s brain races. Images fly through his head. He has to remember to slow down as he writes because his reader doesn’t yet know what he knows.  He has to fill in the spaces – just enough, maybe just a hint. He doesn’t want to give away too much. Writing, he finds, is a balancing act.

It is also a struggle against boredom. Sometimes a story will bog down. Timothy finds he’d like to veer off.  At that point, he figures the reader must be bored as well. For both their sakes, he throws in a Molotov cocktail, knocking things off balance again.

 

Taking a new approach with each writing project, Timothy believes, keeps his writing lively. He doesn’t want to stay dependent on what he learned from the last thing he wrote as he begins a new piece. Good writing remains continually original, a childlike imagination knows no bounds.

imagination takes no vacation

Despite keeping the freshness of a child’s perspective, Timothy has a very adult work ethic. Right now, he has his first book newly published, his second book with his editor, and under contract, he’s working on a third book. He’s experiencing for the first time what it’s like to be involved in all aspects of publishing.

He finds it just a bit daunting but certainly never boring. He’s learning to step nimbly because the publishing business is changing so rapidly that no one really knows where it’s headed. He thinks we might see either a consolidation in one or two giant corporations or an evolution into the complete anarchy of self-publishing. “A writer,” Timothy warns, “has to be  ready to jump.”

Masked mystic
Photo by H. Rustall

So where is this boy ready to jump? Tim hopes to have the freedom to switch between genres and mix genres while still retaining his readership. He wants to avoid falling into what he call the Blue Dog trap—where you happen upon a money-making idea and then you’re shackled to that idea the rest of your life. “Why,” he asks, “did you become an artist if not to recreate yourself every time you turn around?” But he recognizes audiences are very resistant to change. That reality is like a reoccurring dream. It’s a problem that has to be worked on.

a thousand possibilities
Popcorn machine against muraled wall
Photo by Mark Wieder

When it comes to writing, however, he likens his mind to a popcorn machine. “I can take a scenario and play a thousand different variations on that. It’s hell for solving real-life problems, but it works pretty well for fiction.”

Follow Tim on his website: https://www.thestrangecasesofsherlock.com/

If you’re not running out to buy Timothy’s book already, this short intro should do the trick:

London is in flux. The clop of the hansom cab has given way to the madness of the motorcar. And Sherlock Holmes, safe in the bee-loud glades of the Sussex downs, is lured back to London when a problem is posed to him by Dr. Watson and Watson’s friend, Col. Higgins. Is the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from girl of the streets to duchess more than it seems?

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54303610-the-strange-case-of-eliza-doolittle

River Thames
Photo by David Monaghan

The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle is available from Seventh Street Books at https://www.seventhstreetbooks.com/

 

 

Erin Donley: Hidden Force

book, glasses, computer

With this first post of March, 2021, I add a new feature to my website. From today forward, each month, I’ll be offering a story about a contemporary authors — how they came to this avocation and what it means to them. We begin with Erin Donley of Portland, Oregon.

brand new graduate
Radio station
Photo by Fringer Cat

Erin Donley (contact Erin at erin@erindonley.com), the force behind fourteen non-fiction books, did not set out to be a writer. Following college graduation, Erin felt unsure what field to pursue. Then, out of the blue, she landed a position at an advertising agency, which created radio commercials. Her job – sell the commercials to local businesses. Almost from the first day she began, Erin noticed an interesting discrepancy. She had much better success selling through email than in person. She went over her presentations, looking for an answer. Two facts jumped out. One, as a young, blonde, woman, she didn’t have the same credibility as her peers. And, two, on the more positive side, she excelled at written communication. This new understanding of her own potential planted a tiny seed, the one that would later lead her to seek a career as a writer.

self discovery
Girl at bookstore
Photo by John Michael Thomson

Unfortunately, it felt to her like her job demanded that she pretend to be someone not quite her true self. As much as she enjoyed business and sales, her most abiding interests were personal and professional development.  To pursue these interests, she left marketing and began working for a bookstore, where the titles focused on personal growth and self-help.

Soon after she began her new position, Erin approached the owners. “I believe,” she told them, “that I can make a positive impact on your sales and your reputation through writing a column in your newsletter.” She laid out for them her writing credentials and proposed a weekly feature, which reviewed books and interviewed authors.

a project takes off
Girl with lots of books
Photo by Annie Spratt

They accepted her proposal.  Erin let her own personality shine through in those weekly columns. She reviewed books on controversial topics.  She drew authors out about the most fascinating aspects of their lives and careers. Every week, her column had a high open rate, the response to the reviews and the interviews were numerous, and the books she featured flew off the shelves.

The writer’s seed sprouted and pushed out of the depth of Erin’s soul and discovered the sun of a satisfied audience. Erin came to know that audience intimately and to recognize that no occupation gave her as much personal satisfaction as writing.

Questions about how she could possible support herself as a writer cropped up even as she continued to enjoy her work at the bookstore. She could, she knew, write her own book, but the topics about which she was passionate were, she suspected, too controversial to attract the corporate sponsorship she might need to be successful.  In the field of personal growth literature, an author’s true income comes from teaching courses in their topic and speaking engagements before large audiences.

to be or not to be . . . a personality
Grafitti about Social media
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina

Erin also had to face that publishers in the 21th century are seldom willing to take a chance on any author who does not already have a huge social media following.  They prefer writers who are “personalities.”  “Being a personality” was at odds with her true goal.  She didn’t want to be “on stage.” Earning a living and contributing to society and culture through writing were her dreams. Having a readership for Erin was quite different than having a “following.”

a happy medium

The more she pondered her quandary, the clearer it became that the best way for her to do work that satisfied her and make a living doing it was to become a ghostwriter in the field she knew best, personal-growth books. She already knew the readers, what they were seeking, what they wanted more of, what topics were getting tired, what would hit home again. The authors were close to her heart. She had seen the heartbreak and disappointment of too many when their books would be published, but wouldn’t sell. Erin knew with certainty that she could help such authors write better books.

Collaborators
Photo by Kraken Images

Fortunately, she had built up a plethora of contacts, colleagues in other bookstores and people in the book selling industry, and marketing and design experts. Also, in the seventeen years since college graduation, Erin had met industry experts and leaders in many different fields of business. Within an amazing short time, she landed a first contract. (Erin cannot reveal the names of books she ghost-writes; nondisclosure agreements are built into all her contracts.)

Her first author/client, a wealthy, impulsive individual, actually bailed while they were writing the final chapter of the book! But the process convinced her that she could keep find-tuning not only her writing, but her interaction with aspiring authors, that she was, indeed, on the road to earning a living as a writer.

where was erin?
Erin with her book
Finally she had to write her own book.

After a while, however, she sensed a “problem” in her work with her clients. She found herself saying things like, “What about this idea? Or “How about including…?” Erin realized she had to write her own book and get her passions, beliefs, and ideas into the world and out of her system. In January, 2019, she published, Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down: Face Your Power and Find Your Peace.

Being an author, she found was a much more arduous journey than being a ghost writer. It was emotionally, intellectually, and financially taxing. She felt humbled by all the help she needed to bring the book to completion. It’s not a process she wants to repeat, but in the end, it was exciting to hold in her hand the book that was truly hers, that took her own ideas out into the world. She does not, however, feel any need to “scream from the rooftops” about it.  The ideas and causes she advocates are valuable and she will continue working for them.  In the meantime, she’s more than happy to return to the anonymity of ghost writing, where she can be the hidden force behind her client’s message.

a voyage of discovery

She loves her work. Through her writing she gets to dig deep into many different subjects, becoming a mini-expert at those topics, but she’s not hemmed in by any one field. Every new book is an adventure into an exciting new area of discovery.

Although she’s completed fourteen books, Erin still feels every completed manuscript is like a small miracle. She loves the way the whole publishing team works together to bring a new work into the world. She compares it to having a child. “The moment when you first hold the book in your hands is like the moment when they first place your baby in your arms.”  All the hard work and long weeks of waiting has produced this thing of beauty!

Girl reading in sunset
Photo by Max

Knowing that the book changes the author’s life and the lives of its readers feels “absolutely wonderful.”  She knows with conviction that she is on the right path for her.  Presently, along with working on her ghost-writing projects, Erin edits work for other writers and coaches aspiring authors.  She is, however, building toward a time when instead of ghostwriting two to three books per year, she can be hired for one single, lucrative project per year. That’s her dream, and I’m convinced she’ll make it come true.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and you’ve been dreaming for a long time of writing your own non-fiction book, but just don’t know where to start, reach out to Erin.  She has co-authored memoirs, personal growth books, how-to books in fields of business, activism and other fields.  And she would love to hear from you at erin@erindonley.com.Erin with her book

 

 

 

The Sky Is The Limit!

Irises

Over the last two blog posts, I’ve shared two events in my own “coming-of-age” experiences when my world suddenly became much wider.

This week a guest blogger, Nancy Louise, weaves a tale similar and yet very different than those stories of a time in her childhood when the door to a possible new life opened up for her.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Huge family of young childrenRight before my ninth birthday my Daddy was killed in a car accident in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the many towns I’d lived in over the course of my short life. His death left my Mama with six young’uns, under the age of ten to raise on her own. I was the second oldest. Unable to consider employment and with no means of support, Mama moved us into ‘The Projects,” free housing for indigent families. We froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, but we stayed together with a roof over our head.

Housing project
Photo by Joel Muriz

The Federal Housing Projects of the 1950’s was very basic. Everything was concrete and hard metal. And HOT! Hard Edged. Teaming with kids. And noisy. Always very, very noisy. I loved to escape—if only for a little while, if only in my imagination.

a trick of the imagination
Girl in African dress
Photo by Magdalena Manchee

Of course, we had no car. We lugged our groceries home on foot. As the oldest girl —that task frequently fell to me. From our apartment house, in one direction on Southern Avenue stood the A&P, the source of most of our groceries. But in my fantasy world, I trekked not to a supermarket, but to deepest Africa. On my way home, I strode down Southern Avenue precariously balancing dry goods, such as a 25-pound sack of flour on my head. As I bounced along, I swayed my hips and sang nonsense words what I told myself was “jungle language.” I was no longer a Southern school girl; I had morphed into a bearer on Safari! The blessing of a great imagination lit up my dull, everyday life!

In the other direction on Southern was “The Cotton Boll”—an early convenience store with higher prices and, therefore, only used for “emergencies” —like when we ran out the baby’s milk a.k.a. a can of Pet.

secret garden
Deserted lot by railroad tracks
Photo by Wil Steward

One fine spring day Mama sent me up to the Cotton Boll to fetch something-or-other—she probably hoped quickly! On the four-block walk, I passed by a huge empty lot that backed up to a ridge with the railroad tracks on top. The lot looked nasty, filled with high weeds, scrubby bushes, rusted out car parts and trash.

Girl picking blackberriesAlways a curious child, I forgot my mother’s urgency, and I decided to “explore” the lot, just as any self-respecting adventurer would do.  Also, I was in search of blackberry bushes, which I knew grew plentifully along the top of that ridge on the rail road tracks. Blackberries were the only fresh fruit we could afford growing up because they were free for the picking. But I didn’t find any blackberries.

Instead, there in the back corner of the lot I found something I never expected to see. An enormous patch of purple irises in full bloom! I have no idea how they got there. Perhaps in the far distant past there had been a house on the lot and had irises graced the back yard. Or perhaps one bulb floated in on a strong wind one day, took root and multiplied as irises are wont to do.

a place for dreaming
Irises under blue sky
Photo by Roberta Guillen

But for whatever reason…there they were. Totally unknown to the world. . .except me! I got down on all fours, crawled past the brambles and weeds into the patch, I carefully turned over on my back in such a way that all I could see was a wide, open sky framed by the purple blooms. As I lay in total quiet of my hidden garden, my heart swelled and out of nowhere, as though spoken by the wind, words swept into my head, “THE SKY’S THE LIMIT”.

I never shared the secret of the irises with anyone. But each spring for years after, I would make a pilgrimage to “my garden,” lie in the blooms, and dream – very big dreams of a life that would take me far beyond “the projects.”

the journey begins
Painting of nuns singing
@Eurpeana

As a first step toward the dream, at sixteen I entered the convent. While I prepared for a life of dedicated sisterhood, “progress” came to my old neighborhood. Southern Avenue was ripped up.  The A&P and the Cotton Boll were torn down to make room for the Interstate. My irises disappeared forever.

After four years, I left the convent, a good, but heartbreaking decision. The move thrust me unawares into the American 60s.  New things were “Blowing’ in the Wind”. I couldn’t go back home. My dreams still tugged at me. I went into training to become an airline stewardess. (Never a “flight attendant” mind you. But that’s another story!) My “stew” job launched me into a career in travel.

Airplane wing w sunset
Photo by Nick Pryde

Just as I dreamed in my garden, I left the projects far behind. I spent my life leading tour groups to every corners of the world. With each and every trip, I grew more and more aware of that God always walked with me, showing me those Limitless Skies.