Special FocusWriting groups provide authors support
11/19/2007by Julia Durst
(Photo: Author Donna Schilling reviews galley sheets with Tony Dierckins at X-communication.)
From the region’s sparsely populated north woods to Duluth/Superior, many authors work with little contact with their peers.
They have resolved this conundrum by forming community-based writing groups, meeting regularly and providing members a supportive venue for sharing their work with fellow writers. Members benefit from advice, critique and friendship.
Author Donna Schilling attributes much of her success to Lake Superior Writers, a literary nonprofit based in Duluth. Schilling joined the group in 1999, when it had about 20 members. (It’s grown to about 150.)
Schilling began attending one of its genre-specific writing groups and focused on writing her memoirs. With her group’s advice and encouragement she self-published Slices of Life: A Minnesota Memoir in 2006. “Without them, I wouldn’t have had the impetus to do it,” she says.
In her book Schilling recounts the challenges and blessings of her 70-plus years in Minnesota. She worked with Tony Dierckins of X-presso, the self-publishing division of Dierckins’ X-communication publishing house. She raves about his talent, experience, and efficiency in moving her through the formatting, design and proofing processes.
Schilling predicted only her family and friends would enjoy the book. But a favorable book review ignited interest and the author found herself selling at local bookstores. She says she initially was going to have 500 books printed but opted instead for the next step up in the offset printing process, ordering 1000 copies. Slices is for sale on consignment at local independent retailers, including Northern Lights Bookstore and Art Dock. Schilling says an author needs a distributor to sell to national book chains, such as Barnes and Noble.
The author hopes to have her second book out by Christmas. Lake Effect Memories will explore how Lake Superior has influenced the lives of its shoreline inhabitants through stories of Schilling and friends.
Like other longtime members, Schilling has witnessed the transformation of the literary organization from a small writers club to a group with a major community presence. In recent years, Lake Superior Writers has paired with the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and Northern Prints Gallery for collaborative projects. It led an effort to establish a Duluth poet laureate after Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have established a Minnesota state poet laureate system.
The group also hosted the wildly successful “Festival of Words” last April, featuring National Public Radio host Terry Gross and Duluth’s first poet laureate, Barton Sutter. In October the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation recognized the event with a Touchstone Award.
Among its 150 members (who pay a $25 annual fee), many are non-writer supporters of local literature. Schilling sees that enthusiasm in the community. “The arts are up and kicking in Duluth,” she says.
The arts also are thriving in northern Wisconsin, which hosts its share of writing groups. According to the Wisconsin Regional Writers’ Association, groups exist in towns as remote as Dresser, Amery and Frederic.
In Solon Springs, the St. Croix Writers Club has been going strong for 17 years. Started by a local Presbyterian pastor, the group initially met at the church. Growth necessitated a move to the Solon Springs Community Center.
Membership fluctuates seasonally, from seven or eight people during winter to more than 40 in summer. The weekly Tuesday morning meetings are totally committed to reading aloud. Writers take a number as they enter; each has six minutes in front of the group. Discussion and socializing follow, usually over lunch at KD’s Family Restaurant.
“Many members come only in summer,” says longtime member Cathy Swanson. “Some come from as far away as Iron River, Two Harbors, Sarona and Shell Lake.”
Publication isn’t the ultimate goal for many of the writers. Some just seek a nonjudgmental, responsive arena in which to read. Members represent a spectrum of political, social and religious viewpoints. The group’s mission is to “encourage and foster creative talent and improve the writing skills of the group.”
Among current and past members who have published, some have seen great success. Swanson says David Schipper, author of the New York Times bestseller Sellout: the Inside Story of President Clinton’s Impeachment, sought feedback from the group. Other well-known members include Mike Savage, founder of Savage Press and Daily Telegram columnist, and the late Tony Jelich, retired game warden and author of “Stop and Smell the Cedars.”
“There is lots of stuff going on out in the country,” Swanson says. “More so than in town.”
One literary club that spans urban and rural areas is the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Since 1950, the statewide organization has labored to support poets in “perfecting their work” and encouraged the study of poetry in schools. Though the group is divided into eight regional sections, members don’t enjoy the intimacy and immediate feedback of a local close-knit group. While smaller groups nurture talent in a local setting, however, the Fellowship has a broader social purpose: promoting poetry.
It sponsors readings and contests and hosts two annual conferences. In 1999 it initiated the Wisconsin poet laureate project. The group has published a highly anticipated calendar filled with members’ poetry every year since 1986.
“We have a business manager who handles calendar sales, and each year there is a new editor who handles poem selection and publication,” says Jan Chronister of Maple, the Fellowship’s northwest regional vice-president. “Some years, because the job is very demanding, the duties are shared by co-editors.”
Anyone living or summering in Wisconsin can join for an annual cost of $25. Membership includes a quarterly “Museletter” and discounted rates for contests and events. It does not guarantee a coveted spot in the calendar. The 2008 calendar editors Richard Roe and Jeannie Bergmann chose 184 poems out of 366 submissions.
Most Fellowship poets have published work in anthologies or journals or authored their own books. Many have achieved a high degree of career success. “Many of our members have been published by prestigious presses, such as Parallel Press out of UW-Madison,” says Chronister.
“Self-publishing also is prevalent, although — I know I’m biased — most of our members have no trouble finding small presses to publish their work.”
The calendar provides a comprehensive sampling of verse from poets statewide. It is sold on consignment at area bookstores. Chronister delivers the calendars herself, driving to Spooner, Ashland, Duluth and many places in between.
While Schilling and Swanson have found friendship and advice in their groups, Chronister enjoys the perks of a larger organization that promotes and publishes poetry. Authors like Wayne Arntson of Rice Lake crave that support.
“I know of no writers’ group in Rice Lake, but I hope to start one,” Arntson says. The author is at work on a novel. “It’s centered around the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth during World War II. I lived on Park Point during that time.”
He hopes to complete the manuscript in the next few months. Maybe by then he’ll have the advice and support of a peer group as he starts down the path toward publishing.
Superior native Julia Durst is a Duluth-based freelance writer.
Useful Link: Lake Superior Writers