Writing Close To Home

Published in the June 2009 Wisconsin Writer’s Association Newsletter


Nowhere does the edict to “write what you know” make more sense than for Wisconsin writers who want to write locally. Jerry Apps and Michael Perry are great examples of writers who’ve made cottage industries out of relating their childhood experiences, memories and the sometimes the hard learned lessons of small town living. Their talent is to take a story from close to home, to universalize it and make it one all readers can relate to.

Jerry Apps has written more than fifteen books about Wisconsin and his childhood, growing up on the farm. Michael Perry recounts what it was like to return to his very small hometown of New Auburn (Population 485) and the challenges of setting up his small, Wisconsin farm (Coop). Both writers have demonstrated how to take the most simple, basic facts of their life and tell a story that both entertains and informs.

To most of the country, the Midwest is an unknown territory, especially for those who only know Wisconsin as that cheese-head-wearing, face-painted Packer fan they see on Monday night football. Or as research subjects pointed out in studies regarding the consumption of brandy, beer and brats.

Wisconsin has so much more. Writers have a unique opportunity to present their state as the special place it is through the stories and articles that grace the pages of state, regional and city publications. Wisconsin’s long progressive political past, it’s labor movement foundation, it’s abundance of natural resources, the woods, lakes and rivers, railroads and pioneer history lend itself to the preservation of our past.

To prepare for a panel discussion on writing in and about Wisconsin, all I had to do was enter into Google: “Wisconsin freelance writing guidelines.” The many sites I found were magazine such as: Wisconsin Trails, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Wisconsin People and Ideas, The Progressive, On Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Natural Resources.

A search for “Wisconsin regional and city magazines” revealed Madison, Milwaukee and Door County all have magazines dedicated to promoting their area. These markets thrive on the creative, funny, historical and poignant stories of how the people of these areas of Wisconsin live their lives.

Another rich outlet can be found in local newspapers. The Inter-County Leader published in Fredric accepts freelance articles from a local writing group. The Lakeland Times in Minocqua accepts pieces for their “Reader’s Corner” column.

Pat Mueller, formerly a freelance feature writer for the Vilas County News Review in Eagle River, says writers need to be creative and willing to write to the newspaper’s needs. She called the editor and asked what a free-lance writer could do for them. Human interest stories were interesting to this busy editor with limited staff; Pat filled that niche.

Her first assignment, to write about a local man who grew oversized pumpkins, turned out to be a great profile about one man seeking and living his passion. She says every assignment led her to telling a story that took off in unusual directions that were more intriguing than she’d ever expected.

But, finding the market is just the first step. What’s required from there, is doing the research that is the basis of seeking any writing market. Read closely the writers guidelines to determine if your writing would fit. Then pay attention to how the publication wants to hear from you. Follow these guidelines carefully. A call to the editor, as Pat did, might answer your questions and be the beginning of a productive working relationship.

Reading the magazines you want to submit to is another well-established step. Look at the departments in the table of contents and perhaps you’ve already written a nugget to add to that nitch. Take a look at the cover story or the features to see what their readers are interested in. Then test the waters. Make a call. Send something out!

Writing in and about Wisconsin can be a writer’s dream. Whether you develop your own nitch, a la Apps and Perry, or dabble in the many markets available in local outlets, it’s time to get started. Take a new look at your surroundings and try to see the simple, everyday things that might lead you to an idea that was right there in front of you all the time.

A Nice Voice

Oh, for the days of Map Quest
Print out the directions
Highlight all the turns
Read instructions three times before leaving
Pull over twice to check the route
Stop at a gas station and play helpless

Now, a new voice casts a spell
Until I make a mistake
Make a u-turn as soon as possible
But you always try sending me to other places
When all I want to do is go to Target
Turn left at 92nd Street and then right onto ramp

I can’t find Starbuck’s without your help
Your soothing voice mesmerizes
Turn right at 93rd Street, then turn left
I can’t get to the ‘Y for yoga without you
I know you only want to help
Turn right at 94th Street then turn right  

You don’t give up
Leave me alone
Drive 1.2 miles then turn left onto Mayfair Road
But now I need you
I can’t find 844 East Birch Avenue without you
Drive .2 miles then arrive at address on the right

There’s no going back
Put in the address and listen
Follow your automaton lead
You never scold
Dependent on a little black box
Make a u-turn as soon as possible

Ask Away Cafe

An alcove for privacy
That’s the draw.
Its poetry breakfast
Reading our gems.

I order chai.
Doesn’t come, doesn’t come,
Wait twenty minutes,
then, finally ask.
“I forgot to turn on the machine.”
When were they going to tell me?
Now I must ask before I order,
“Is the machine turned on?”
A good place to open a café.

Eight breakfasts ordered
Three forks, one knife,
five napkins appear.
We have to ask for everything
Many trips to the counter.

Waitress is matter of fact,
“We cook one order at a time.”
One served, ten minutes,
Second served, ten minutes,
Third, on and on.
Eating together alone feels impolite
A good place to open a café.

Simplest order,
Mary’s toast
arrives last.
Roaming ketchup bottle,
One 16 ouncer must be shared.
A good place to open a café.

Waitress insists
reservations required,
for eight poets,
Only two tables occupied
in the while place.
I guess that’s a rush.

Pat requested better muffin choices,
Then was scolded,
“Last time your group only ordered one.”
I thought customers were always right
A good place to open a café.

A second Pat kindly offered a tutorial.”
Basket on the table with utensils.
Wide-eyed wait girl,
everything seemed a surprise.
Why is this so hard?
A good place to open a café.

Poets aren’t picky.
A quiet place.
Not waiting twenty minutes
for a cup of tea.
Eating at the same time.
Preferably with utensils.

We are polite.
We tip well.
We need a new place.
Please someone,
Open a café!





Little Ditty ‘Bout Adam and Wayne

I was at a conference when Adam, the waiter at the hotel restaurant, showed his swishy sense of humor right away. I’d walked into the empty dining room and joked, wondering how he’d be able to manage with this huge crowd. He came back lightning speed with a quip and so, began an evening of nonstop laughter.

Adam said he was working alone that night. I felt immediate empathy as I recalled the time I’d spent with Wayne in a similar situation. It was in the 1960’s and I was working my way through college as a waitress at a small hotel and supper club near the campus. Wayne was the bartender.

My usual customers were traveling salesmen, men who went from town to town on a prescribed route to get orders from their regular customers. Every Tuesday, the man from the paper supply company. Every Thursday, the man from the paint business.

Between 5:00 and 6:30 every guest in the hotel, all traveling salesmen, swooped down into the dining room until each of the fifteen tables was occupied by one person. Fifteen set ups, fifteen orders, fifteen pick-ups and fifteen clean-ups. What a job!

Each shift, I’d come in early since I was the only waitress and had to be ready for the influx. That meant bread baskets stacked high and condiments filled to the top. I recall how my heart sank each time I came from the kitchen to see another solitary figure at the door waiting to be seated. Such relief to finally look up at an empty doorway. I’d made it another night, I sighed.

Once everything was set up and before customers started arriving, I’d sit at the bar with Wayne, the only bartender. He was a student of poetry. We’d chat about school, friends and such. It was like talking to a girlfriend, heavy on feelings and emotions, short on events, possessions and the other things men usually talk about.

During a few rushes, mine not his, Wayne would deliver bread baskets for me and check for second drink orders, sometimes taking them to the tables himself. He kept a tight eye on how I was doing and I was so appreciative when he asked if there was anything else he could do. After the evening was over, Wayne and I would sit at the bar for a while and talk some more. Once I’d jokingly tried to give him some of my tips but he refused.

Wayne was self-protective; it took him months to finally talk about the man who was his English professor love interest. It was unknown territory for me to find out about their need for discretion amidst the university politics that governed their relationship. I felt special that he trusted me. That experience taught me that gay men make the best girlfriends and Adam seemed another example of that.

How the name teasing started is a mystery. But amidst our joking, he said, “you can call me anything you want. Even Sally.” I know in these days of new openness and acceptance of gay issues, it’s now okay to say what was unthinkable long ago.

Our joking continued throughout the night until we laughed good bye to Sally as if we were old friends. It wasn’t until much later that I worried that I’d insulted him by calling him Sally the whole night. I tried to play back our conversation. Had I made a gross generalization, assuming he was gay when I really didn’t know? And couldn’t that be insulting too? Luckily I got a chance to right my wrong. If I’d even committed one, that is.

In a replay two nights later, we again entered an empty dining room. After the usual greeting and a continuation of our established jokes, I asked right away. Sally was adamant he’d not been insulted, saying , once again, I could call him anything I wanted.

Later he brought his boss over for introductions; we were the nice ladies who’d named him Sally, he explained. The boss said, without a blink, that she or all the other restaurant staff called him Amanda. So, he’s really Sally/Amanda/Adam.

Since the place was not busy, Sally had time for a chat. He said nonchalantly that he’d been married a few years earlier in California and his husband and he spent time throughout the year there, in Tennessee and in Wisconsin connecting with different factions of their families.

As we finished our meal, Sally delivered two gourmet chocolate desserts. He said his grandmother always told him that when you meet people who make a difference you should be extra nice to them. He walked off too quickly for us to respond. I think I saw the hint of a blush.

All I could think was the world is getting better. Here was a proud gay man who almost instantly could share his whole, true self without recrimination. I hope Wayne is somewhere enjoying the same freedom. And while I know Adam lives in a world that can also be judgmental, I’m happy that my friend and I could share a special time with a very nice person who just happened to be a little different than us. But also very much the same.

At the Fireworks

She had a blanket, about five feet square, that she laid out in front of her chair. It was one of those camp or stadium blankets, brown, white and red, and pretty well worn. I assumed she was saving a spot for others who would show up later. She was an average, older, probably retired woman who, along with her husband, had set up their chairs near us at the Wauwatosa village pavilion for a concert and fireworks on July 4th.

We’d arrived early and settled in next to them for a night of entertainment by a Beatles memorabilia band followed by a patriotic celebration. And people watching. You know how it is when you just know someone is open to a chat. Well, she was not. In fact, she and her husband spoke to no one and not hardly to each other the entire evening. Her crossed arms and scowl were not exactly welcoming.

Coming from lives where yards are clearly defined by fences and work areas by cubical walls, this seemed the other end of the spectrum with only the confines of a blanket to mark personal territory. Perhaps that was the challenge for this woman while clearly not for others.

As the crowd grew, there was almost a constant stream of traffic, walking around and on the edge of her blanket as people searched for a way through the growing deluge. They got it that they were treading where they shouldn’t with their quick, tippy-toe walk.

Next time I looked her way, she’d moved her chair onto the right side of the blanket. Now people had to step around her in order to make their way down the hill. As more and more chairs were set up, the pathway shrunk.

Then she moved her chair again, blocking the small opening on the right between a neighbor’s chair, her chair and the end of the blanket. By crossing her leg, she dangled her foot so that it blocked the opening. When a woman tried to get through and asked to be excused she actually said no and wouldn’t let her pass.

After more and more people continued to tippy toe on her left, her husband moved his chair onto the blanket so the other pathway was also blocked. Poor fellow, I thought, playing his part in this petty drama just to keep peace in the family.

As the fireworks neared, the crowd of latecomers increased and soon we were almost shoulder to shoulder. But the area of the empty blanket prevailed. So my theory that she was saving room for family or friends seemed smashed. Maybe she’s claustrophobic. Maybe just odd. Whatever it was we knew we were surrounded by all manner of humanity and continued to enjoy the observing.

In front of us were three families who obviously knew each other. Each had their own blanket spread side-by-side and the children meandered from one to the other. There was the man who talked constantly to his friends, even non-stop throughout the fireworks. We laughed that maybe his wife makes him be quiet at home and this is his only chance to let it all out.

One couple had a new-born, a two year old and two older boys, probably eight and ten years old. These two boys were friends with the eight year old from the family next door. The couple closely watched and shared caring for the youngest two but seemed to barely keep track of the boys. I can see how easy it is to lose a child in these public places. The three boys had no understanding about shared space and played a raucous game of catch, hitting us several times with their beach ball. The eight year old looked perplexed when I nicely said that this was rude. A word he’d never heard before, obviously. No intervention by nearby parents.

As the fireworks ended and children became cranky with their tiredness, the parents rounded up their belongings and headed home. The woman with the blanket had jockeyed for position right up to the end. Finally, she gathered her precious belongings and headed out, probably to the comfort of her fenced in yard.

I wondered why people with no concern for others or those who don’t seem to like people very much come to these public, crowded spaces. Maybe they should stay home. For me, I’m glad I came.

But I was also quite happy to return to the quiet and peaceful domain of my private place. By next year, I’ll probably be ready to venture out again into the teeming and unorganized world to study the dynamics of personal space. Oh wait. In a few weeks I’m going to a major league baseball game. We’ll we how that goes.



You Can Have a Good Life

(Milwaukee, WI, October, 1988) I’d begged Charlie, my outpatient therapist to get me into a hospital, any hospital. He’d explained, almost apologized, that a psychiatric diagnosis was the only way he could justify getting me in anywhere. It still amazes me that I didn’t have enough or the right criteria to get me onto a medical floor. But I’d been persistent and had good insurance which probably helped. So, in September, 1988, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Good Samaritan Hospital.

The irony of this, and even possibly the humor, would hit me much later. Me. A mental patient? I was a social worker, had been for over ten years and was now employed at an acute carte psychiatric hospital. I knew only too well the world I was being pushed into.

My admitting diagnosis was conversion reaction. The DSM-III, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, defined it as “a disturbance of or loss of physical functioning that suggests physical disorder but which instead is apparently an expression of a psychological conflict or need.”

What that meant was that these strange and persistent physical symptoms, numbness in my arms and legs, blurred vision, loss of balance, general fatigue and weakness were thought to be caused by some deep and hidden psychic fear or unresolved conflict.

I’d certainly had enough changes and stress in the years leading to today. After living for fifteen years on the UP of Michigan with my husband, we’d divorced and I’d moved. Now, full time work, graduate school, a complete change in location and leaving an entire life behind, I guess that could be stress producing. But I was sure I didn’t have some unknown psychic fear or dilemma.

Prior to this day, I’d been popping Ativan like it was candy. The anxiety attacks had been coming with increasing frequency, with no warning at all times of the day and night. By the time I was admitted, I have to say I probably looked like a first class nut case. My psychiatrist, Dr. R, had been adamant about getting to the bottom of this.

“I’m going to order every test there is,” he’d said. “We’re going to rule out everything so you can finally face your fear, whatever it is.”

Next the social worker showed up, equally puzzled. At the time of our initial meeting she’d spoken to me as though consulting with a colleague.

“The diagnosis doesn’t make sense. It can’t be conversion reaction. You have insight.” Oh. Good to know, I’d thought. So began the array of medical tests and an ever changing round of truly woeful roommates both in and out of daily group therapy. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t crazy.

Mental hospitals which used to be places where people got lost for unknown periods of time are now little more than stabilizing, short term holding tanks used until more appropriate, “lower level of care” alternatives could be found. So, from the hyper-vigilant, anxious, drug addicted young girl to the nearly comatose, severely depressed middle aged woman being carted off to daily shock therapy (I didn’t think that was done anymore), every day was new and different. And also the same.

Nearly three weeks into my stay, after being in and out of a wheel chair, hauling myself to daily group therapy, I was told a doctor was coming to see me. Finally, I heard the message blasted over the intercom, telling me to report to the nursing station.

Dr. P, a quiet, impeccably dressed, Asian man introduced himself. We walked down the hall toward a small conference room. I noticed he was doing that same thing the two neurologists I’d seen earlier had done. Looking. Observing my gait and movements. I had to touch the wall to keep my balance. As he closed the door, the busy noise of the unit was shut out for a while and we chatted a little before getting down to business.

He began with the same routine questions. Only this man had a peaceful attitude and a mystifying calmness about him. Not like the other two, one who’d talked to me like I was learning disabled and the other who had the demeanor of a cold fish. Dr. P. asked if we could walk as we talked. So, we rose and headed out into the hall. As he observed me, he began asking questions about my medical past.

“When was the first time you recall experiencing this kind of numbness?” Though this was the third neurologist I’d seen in this hospital and probably the fourth or fifth physician in the last few years, he was the first to ask this question. It prompted a memory long forgotten of an incident I didn’t realize could be connected.

“I remember about eight years ago, right after my divorce, I would wake up in the morning, feeling fine and then my feet would begin to tingle; by noon I had numbness from the waist down. I had trouble walking but managed to get to work every day. I went to my doctor who said it was stress and depression and he prescribed an anti-depressant. The numbing lasted a few weeks and then it went away.”

“How and when did it start this time?” he probed.

“I got this numbing in my right hand, around the thumb and forefinger,” I began as I showed him my fingers. “That started about two years ago. I’d go to the doctor each time it got worse and I’ve had several tests. I even went to a chiropractor once. They always ended up saying it was depression and stress. It started getting worse this summer and now I’m finally here.”

With the words “finally here” I waved my hand through the air to emphasize what he couldn’t help but notice: I had to hang onto the wall to keep my balance and my feet dragged as I slowly moved along. He directed us back to the conference room and closed the door. “Well,” he said, “I feel that I can make a diagnosis with the results of the MRI, your history and what I see today. We will do one more test (an evoked response imagery exam, I would later find out), just to be sure. But the information I already have is quite conclusive. It is multiple sclerosis.” Then he stopped. He sat calmly and waited for my reaction.

After a few tears, I began to ask questions. He answered each one, slowly and precisely and then just sat there, waiting.    When I had nothing more to ask, he told me I would surely have more questions as time passed and that we would discuss them as they came up. He was getting ready to leave. Then he reached out, gently touched my hand and spoke.

“You can have a good life,” he said. “With MS, the patient has a lot of control over the progress and management of the disease. And MS is different with each person. You must learn how to adjust your life and find out what works for you. I am very busy unfortunately, so you will have to educate yourself. There are many resources out there to help you and I’ll make a referral so you can get started.”

It would take many months and years for me to realize the true impact his words would have on me. This quiet man, who had just delivered the worst news of my life, also gave me something that would stay with me probably forever.

I was upset, mostly by what I didn’t know. Who finds out the particulars of a disease unless you really have to? With the end of our conference, the next stage began. I was out of the “what is it” phase and into the “how do I handle this” phase.

I was moved to a medical floor and the prednisone injections began that very day. A nurse showed up first thing each morning for the next seven days. I was on the IV all day, every day pumping 500 to 1000mg. of this terrible but miraculous drug into my system.

And now that there was a name for what was wrong with me, I was referred to physical therapy. Bob, who worked with me every day, was a jewel, so patient and hopeful, encouraging every small move I made. When I first visited his gym, I was hardly walking. In fact, literally, I could not walk and talk at the same time. No joke. If I didn’t concentrate fully, looking down at each step I took, I’d fall.

Physical therapy gave me real hope. When I could accomplish little else, I could at least go down to the gym and perform a simple task such as walking up and down three stairs and feel absolutely wonderful about it.

The nurses and other hospital staff were always cheerful. They listened to what I was feeling but never let me play poor me. The social worker came to visit every day, just to say hello and push me on.

As soon as the needle was taken out that seventh day, hospitalization was no longer justified. I was released home to recover on my own. The oral medication for five days kept me weaker before I got stronger.

I’d found a study that said it’d been proven the course of a person’s illness and how they adjust can depend on the manner in which they’re told of their disease and in how they’re treated immediately following diagnosis. I believe that’s true.

I came in contact with all the right people at just the right time. I was treated, from the beginning, as a person with a future, as a person who could and would recover, as someone who could have a good life. And Dr. P. was only the beginning. When I called Charlie, to tell him my diagnosis, he confessed the confusion he’d been feeling.

“That really makes sense,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I was running out of ideas about what could be the underlying cause of your symptoms. I looked at every possibility and there didn’t seem to be an answer. Isn’t that great that now you know what it is, so now you can attack it. I’ve treated MS patients a few times before and it seems attitude has a lot to do with how things work out. And on that, I know you’ll do just fine.” There it was again: that “you can do it” message.

On discharge day, Dr. R, the psychiatrist, made his last visit. I think he’d been more disappointed than me when the diagnosis was finally made. He admitted later, “though you weren’t the typical conversation reaction, I really thought your symptoms were psychosomatic.” When he discharged me it was in the best possible way, with humor.

“Get out of here,” he said. “You’re so mentally healthy, you’re boring.”

Around noon my sister picked me up and drove me back to my apartment. After a month cooped up inside a hospital, the fresh air and sunshine on my face felt strange. We drove through the city and then up Lake Drive and I looked out the window to the expanse of Lake Michigan.

I knew from my long ago days living near Lake Superior that nothing can be more calming than taking in the majesty of a large body of water. It just puts everything in perspective. I wasn’t aware that day just how much my life had changed but I’d soon find out. And I was thankful I’d heard Dr. P.’s words. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying he performed a miracle. I still had this disease and I’d have to deal with it daily. But he gave me hope when I most needed it and I was determined to have a good life.

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