How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Courage – Would you have enough?

Harriet Tubman – abolitionist who liberated more than 700 slaves.

Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.

Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.

But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.

I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.

For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.

As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.

“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”

The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.

I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”

“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.

The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.

Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.

The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.

Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.

Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.

The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.

The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.

What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?

You just never know

Fork in the road

The unplanned-for route may be the right road after all.

If you just spent four years in college to become a teacher, would you take a secretarial position instead? I did and found myself on a path loaded with unexpected opportunities.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in speech & English education, I faced the hard reality that I could not land a full time teaching position. Needing regular income, I did the unexpected – what some probably considered unwise. I took what I could find – a position as editorial assistant at an association magazine, a position that could more accurately have been labeled ‘secretary.’

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa, to share my career experiences with several classes of creative writing and public relations students. Bright, young people receiving a good education and preparing themselves for jobs in their chosen fields. Just as I did.

After I told the students about my start in a secretarial chair, one young woman asked, “Did you regret taking that secretarial job?”

“I didn’t,” I told her. Not then. Not now. Not at all.

I needed the paycheck, but beyond that, I explained, everything was new to me and an opportunity to learn. I knew nothing about the publishing business and I jumped at the chance. As I took on assignments, I found I had a talent for writing. Then, six months after I started, the man who had been editor for 40 years retired and they gave me his job. Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unbelievable.

New-found skills, industry knowledge and a boatload of connections came with that job. Then my husband pointed me to a Help Wanted Ad for an ‘ag journalist.’ “Sounds like what you do,” he said. I applied.

It turned out to be a position at a small public relations agency. I knew nothing about public relations, but it sounded interesting. I took the job, an entree into another new industry. That position led to one at a larger agency where I worked for 20 years, learning a host of new skills, with emphasis on product marketing, developing messages for clients and teaching them how to deliver those messages, moving up the ladder and finally earning the position of President.

Then I came to Robert Frost’s famous fork in the road  – a time when I could stay on what had become a well known and well respected career path or strike off in the new and unknown direction of creative writing. I took the road less traveled. But I was remarkably well prepared for that road. All those previous experiences ensured I had the skill set not only to write books but also to effectively market them.

In Steve Jobs now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University, he points out that it’s only in retrospect, looking back on life, that we can see the dots and how they all connect. Someone looking at my career path now might think it was all brilliantly planned out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and built my skills. Just as important, I think, was staying open to possibility.

I hope some of the students I spoke with experience – and embrace – the unexpected along their career paths. I hope they are able to look past the job title. Because you just never know. Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair.

Have you had a you-just-never-know experience? Do share.