All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Jean Rhys

Thanks to Lake Superior Writers for asking me to speak today at the annual meeting of this robust, determined, fine organization. Also, I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s writing contest. It’s a privilege to share the podium with you folks and applaud your hard work and dedicated creativity. On to the talk. Lawyers have a hard time saying their names, much less giving a speech, in fifteen minutes.

It was suggested that you might want to hear about my writing journey and the creative process I engage in every morning when I fire up the coffee pot, spend a few moments of contemplation in the john, and wander sleepy eyed into my writing studio overlooking the wild and scenic Cloquet River. But as proud as I am of my routine and the prodigious number of words my pens and word processors—from that first Tandy 286 we bought in 1984 to the 27” iMac that’s been my writerly tool for the past seven years—have produced over the course of twenty-six years, I’m not interested in rehashing the unique process I engage in to craft books. I’m here to talk about the universal flow of words in keeping with the theme of this year’s contest. And while, in a physical sense, we’ve had more than enough rain to fill my beloved Cloquet River to the brim, it’s Ms. Rhys’s metaphorical river, a river in danger of being dammed and eliminated by current events, that concerns me today. What do I mean?

First off, what I’m about to say might come off as overtly political. I don’t intend my remarks to offend or alienate anyone who might have a different take on the world than I do. We’re all entitled to our opinions and beliefs. That’s, as George W. Bush might say, “the beauty of Amerika.” But, having been given this short snippet of time to speak to you, rather than regurgitate old truisms about writing and process, I want to candidly speak about my own struggles with where we are as a people and a culture since November of 2016 in the context of being poets, essayists, and fiction writers. Here goes.

I was devastated. There’s no other way to describe what I felt waking up on that Wednesday morning. I’d pulled all-niters before (I never did go to bed in 2000, believing that Al Gore had won and then slowly learning, as night became morning, that he had not). I’ve found myself on the losing side of the electoral ledger many times (beginning in 1972 with George McGovern) so when the reality of The Donald being elected our president sank in, there was disappointment, yes. There was a bit of anger, sure. But I was not ready for the impact November 8th had on my writing.

Those of you who‘ve followed my hectic, toss-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks, go it alone approach to building a writerly portfolio can attest to this simple truth: In nearly three decades, having written and published seven novels, one massive biography, a collection of essays, and a volume of short fiction, I’ve never been slowed by that dreaded curse, writer’s block. After having sought the assistance of literary agents and failed, having published my first novel, The Legacy, in 2000 on a cooperative basis with Mike Savage, I’ve made my mark, pun intended, as a self-published writer by sticking to my guns, by writing what I’m interested in and what I think readers might want to read. Knowing who you are as an artist, knowing what you value in you work, is the key to surviving. Here’s what that sage of Texas wisdom, Willie Nelson, once wrote about such things:

When it came time to record, I think Columbia expected me to fly to Nashville, New York, or L.A., and cut the songs in a state-of-the-art studio with triple-scale sidemen…I used my own band…The arrangements were lean. The accompaniment behind me was sparse. We cut every song in just a few takes…The feeling couldn’t have been more relaxed…But when the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, “Why are you turning in a demo?”

“Ain’t no demo”, I explained. “This is the finished product”.

“Can’t be. It’s too rough. It’s too raw. It doesn’t sound like a finished record. “

“What’s a finished record sound like?”

“Anything but this…You need to go back in and polish it.”

That ain’t gonna happen…”

“You’re making our job impossible.”

“Well, let’s see what the public says.”

The public said yes, we like this Red Headed Stranger. We like this sparse sound. We like this sad story…”Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain” (sent) the album to the top of the charts. One week the execs were calling the record my ruination; a week later, it was my breakthrough.

I use this snippet from Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story to illustrate that I’m not the only stubborn SOB who thinks he knows what he’s doing when it comes to his or her art. But that stubbornness, or fortitude, or sisu if you will, took a big hit on November 8th. So much of what I believed in as an American, so much of what I thought our nation stood for, at least in my left-leaning, certifiably Liberal with a big “L” mind, was placed at risk by The Donald’s election as our president, I found, for the first time in nearly thirty years, I had no will, no impetus, no ability to sit down and begin.

I say “begin” because my 10th book, Boomtown, was finished in early 2016 and published later that year. Between writing short essays and book reviews and putting them on my blog, posting writerly events and family news on Facebook, writing a short story here and there, I was searching for another novel. It dawned on me in late 2015, as Boomtown went through its final edit, that the Finns have been my best and most loyal readers. It intrigued me that the story I told in my first Finnish American historical novel, Suomalaiset, the tale of Finnish immigrant Anders Ahlomaki, had a temporal relationship to the debates that raged during the Presidential campaign concerning The Other: folks with dark faces and a belief in God filtered through The Prophet. As I thought of a new project I recalled that, as depicted in Suomalaiset, it was here in Duluth, in the very courthouse where I work, that Judge William Cant was asked to apply the Oriental Exclusion Act to Finns; declaring them to be descendents of Genghis Kahn and thus, ineligible under federal law to become American citizens. As I watched and listened to the talk of walls and exclusion and theocratic bans, the idea for Kotimaa: Homeland, the story of why Anders Ahlomaki left Finland for America juxtaposed against the angst and turmoil and upset occurring both here and in Europe due to the influx of The Other, percolated in my head. Thinking about the topic of my work-in-progress brings to mind another Jean Rhys quote:

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important it finds homes for us everywhere.”

I’d started researching and writing the first chapter of Kotimaa before the election. Things seemed to be, as is usual once I get into a writing project, moving comfortably ahead. And then that damned election happened. It stopped me cold, dead in my tracks. I could not write.

Truthfully, things haven’t gotten that much easier for me now that The Donald is in office. I won’t go all political here and rant about the latest revelations of deception, falsehood, self-dealing, hypocrisy (though I do chuckle now, when watching the news, as I recall those nasty chants of “Lock her up”, and think ”yeah, ain’t Karma a bitch?”). But I will say this: reading the most recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine gives me a deeper appreciation for how serious, how dire the situation for the arts has become.

Predictably, the new regime is focusing its laser sharp budgetary pen on the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and anything remotely tied to promoting and sponsoring art and literature in this country. Of course, these gestures are wholly symbolic: the total cost of all federal arts programs doesn’t equal the cost of one submarine, one aircraft carrier, or likely, one year’s worth of secret service protection for The Donald’s entourage. But the bull’s eye is there, on the back of every poet, writer, painter, sculptor, and musician who benefits from such programs. Here’s a sampling of what some folks, folks much smarter and more respected than me, say about this assault on the arts.

Indeed, too often these days it feels like we are swept along by negative forces beyond our control. We need to resist that feeling. We need to remind ourselves that…we are creators. Let’s not underestimate or diminish the energy of that creative potential…

Kevin Larimar, Editor in Chief, Poets and Writers.

Poet Erin Belieu…an organizer of Writer Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the…inauguration, asserts that such rallies are essential to defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.

 Remembering poet Elizabeth Alexander’s recitation of “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s 2008 inauguration, Nicole Sealey, the executive director of Cave Canem, and a woman of color, had this take on things: “So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day”, the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear…

 Sharon Rab, founder of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize weighs into the discussion by quoting author Barbara Kingsolver as to the importance of literature: Writer after writer has remarked that literature helps readers empathize with others, an experience that can shift the tide from violence, aggression, fear, injustice, and love of power that leads to war—to the tolerance and understanding that leads to peace. Barbara Kingsolver describes empathy as “developing like a muscle—it strengthens with use.” Literature makes us realize our shared humanity, a realization essential to any genuine pursuit of peace.

 Poets and Writers devotes more than ten pages of the current issue to profile writers and poets who’ve received NEA grants to launch careers. Most of the folks included are of limited means and of color: NEA grants awarded to those writers ensure diversity of thought and genre beyond the James Patterson and Vince Flynn novels crowding the shelves of our bookstores. One young Asian American novelist, Peter Ho Davies, has a unique perspective on the current situation. He happened to be in Washington D.C., on 9/11 working at the NEA, sifting through applications, having been previously awarded two NEA grants himself. The NEA was housed in an old federal building not too far from the White House. Here’s his story:

We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon…(and) we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided to continue our work… There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now. The NEA, representing as it does, a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11 was, incidentally, the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on 9/11/2017? $25,000 per night.”

 Against this backdrop of turmoil and unrest and dissonance, have I been able to fire up my iMac and begin? Sort of. I’ve managed to research and write a rough draft of the first one-third of Kotimaa: Homeland, the portion of the tale where Anders Ahlomaki, like many other Finnish males of his time, migrates from Finland to the copper mines of Norway. But things have again slowed down. Anders and I, at least for now, are stranded in Røros, Norway. The year is 1905. I’m attempting to work on a contemporary section of the novel set in the States and Finland in 2017: a time when the world is coming to grips with nationalism, racism, and The Donald’s rise to power. Some might ask, “Why? Why do you write about such things? Why pick the scab from the wound?” Here’s the thing.

First, I write about topics and people and circumstances that interest me. My novels have covered a wide range of human experience and history. I’ve written about horrific suffering in the Balkans (The Legacy); about infidelity and its impact on family (Pigs: A Trial Lawyer’s Story); race, addiction, Catholicism, and redemption (Esther’s Race); religious fundamentalism (Laman’s River); the turbulent politics and labor relations of the early 1900s in Duluth (Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh); the holocaust and the terrible choices Finland and Estonia were forced to make during WW II (Sukulaiset: The Kindred); and concerns raised by the proposed mining of copper/nickel in northern Minnesota (Boomtown). In the end, I view my role as an author as an entertainer but one who also attempts to educate (not indoctrinate) his readers by requiring them to use their critical thinking skills. In terms of style, I write somewhere in the nether world between genre fiction and literary fiction, which may be why I’m here, talking to your folks, instead of accepting a Pulitzer. But that’s who I am. That’s what I do.

In the same recent issue of Poets and Writers, author Laura Walter, musing about writers and publishing and success and fame, related how she deals with her writing students when they ask, “But my manuscript—do you think it’s any good?” Her take is that what the student is really asking is, “If I spend all these painful, terrifying, uncertain hours working on this book, can I expect a payoff, or is there a chance I’ll do all this work and be left with nothing in the end?” Here’s her take:

 The difficult answer is yes, you really can do that work and not receive the kind of payoff you probably dream about—literary agents, book deals, starred Kirkus reviews…In an effort to be transparent, I (tell folks) about novels I’ve written that didn’t secure an agent, much less a contract. Even so, completing those manuscripts made me a better, stronger, writer…I frame my answer this way because I worry that writers might be seeking shortcuts—if one can’t ensure the work will lead to a payout, then maybe it’s not worth devoting time to the project at all. But the publishing industry offers no shortcuts or guarantees. The only variable writers can control is how hard they work.

I guess, in the end, I’ll rely upon my fortitude, my sisu, and my work ethic to sustain me through these next two or four or six or eight years. God, it hurts to say that! But I’ll pluck along on my keyboard, searching for those goofy Finnish and Norwegian umlauts, trying to bring a story together that is, for me, true.

(This essay was given as a speech on 05/21/2017 to the Lake Superior Writers. (c) 2017, Mark Munger)









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