Friday, July 31, 2015

Crisis in Calais

As the French police officer in riot gear says, "... How can you judge a guy who has nothing, who is fleeing war and just wants a life for his family?”

"CALAIS, France — The sun had barely set when a 23-year-old Eritrean woman who gave her name as Akbrat fell into step with dozens of other men and women and started scaling the fence surrounding the entrance to the French side of the Channel Tunnel.

The barbed wire cut her hands, but she did not feel the pain. The police seemed to be everywhere. She thought of her 5-year-old son back in Africa and ran, zigzag through the falling shadows, once almost colliding with an officer in a helmet.

Then she was alone. She slipped under the freight train and waited, clambering out just as it began moving ..." 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pamela Hobart Carter Explains Flesch-Kincaid

Learning to read in the English language as an adult is a challenge whether you're a native speaker or an English language learner. At No Talking Dogs Press we provide inexpensive books in easy English and free curricular materials for learners and instructors. But how do we know our books are written at an appropriate reading level for new adult readers? 
In her post titled Why Flesch-Kincaid?, Pamela Hobart Carter explains:

"We calculated the reading level of the No Talking Dogs Press books using Flesch-Kincaid for two main reasons ..." Read more...
Note the reading glasses. An issue in the American classroom as well.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Losing Words

I lost my writing notebook. I've searched car, house, and handbags. Fortunately it was a new notebook with nothing more than a few thoughts jotted on the first page, a first page like the one I'm filling with these words. A steno book with an ugly maroon cover. It's not important this loss of an almost empty steno book, but still I've lost those ideas and that scares me.
All writers have their techniques and processes. I'm a timed-writing practitioner. My first drafts are always scribbled pen to paper in a steno book usually against a timer. I like the narrow pages with the spiral binder at the top allowing smooth hand and wrist movement as words flow onto paper. A timer pushes me to focus and go.

As I scribble these words into a new steno book, timer ticking away on the table beside me, I'm glad I follow another tenet of timed writing practice set forth by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, learned from Robert Ray and Jack Remick. I key in my work. I try to stay on top of the typing so I don't accumulate the piles of notebooks some writers have of untyped work. Still, it bothers me to have lost a notebook, just as it does to struggle for memories as I begin work on a new memoir.
My mother was seventy-seven when my father, her husband of fifty years, died. Shortly thereafter signs of dementia grew gradually apparent. I used to be pleased when compared to Mom: her grace and intelligence, her energy and efficiency. Now that comparison only makes me worry, causes stress, and stress causes more mental confusion. I wonder if my mother had early signs, if she was aware of her word loss, of memories just beyond her grasp as she struggled through the depths of mourning. Were there earlier signs my sisters and I missed? Were there signs my father noticed even before his death but never mentioned? My mother lived with dementia for eleven years before she was mercifully taken from us. The final three years she was in a dementia care facility lost to herself and all who surrounded her.

I don't want that life. I don't want it for my daughter, my husband or myself. So when I lose a notebook, forget my pin at the ATM, or struggle for a colleague's name after years at the same college, I'm frightened. I don't want to lose words, memories, or notebooks. I don't want to become my mother.

Are you in Seattle? Interested in giving timed writing practice a try? Join us at Louisa's Cafe and Bakery any Tuesday and Friday. Pen to paper at 2:30 p.m. Questions? Just ask.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Post-Conference Fatigue

It was a gray morning in Seattle, almost ten when I finally pulled myself out of bed. The Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference wore me out. I'm guessing other attendees and speakers, agents and publishers, PNWA staff and volunteers are feeling the same Monday morning post-conference fatigue.

The SeaTac Hilton conference center was buzzing with over 500 book lovers, all eager to write and publish the best stories possible in an industry changing so fast it's a challenge to keep up. I thank PNWA for the opportunity to be a speaker at this 60th annual conference. My presentation, "The Independent/Hybrid Author," was well-attended and well-received.  Best of all, it was fun!
It was also a blast to meet other Booktrope authors at the Friday evening Autograph Party. In alphabetical order:
AC Fuller and Gail Elizabeth Kretchmer 
Michael G. Munz

Nicole J. Persun and Terry Persun
Yours Truly, Arleen Williams

Ina Zajac
I'm on my third cup or coffee (or fourth?), it's almost lunch time, and definitely time to post. Have a wonderful rewarding week with loads of time for reading and writing!
Booktrope Authors at the PNWA 2015 Autograph Party

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Finding Home: Found

In March 2015, I began a memoir exercise, one I learned from Robert Ray and Jack Remick, one I've used myself in numerous memoir writing and ESL classrooms. Here's the exercise:
  • Make a list of every place you've ever lived.
  • For each place on your list, set a timer and write, pen to paper, non-stop for 30-45 minutes.
  • Don't try to write about all the places on the same day unless of course you still live in the home you came to direct from the hospital.
  • Dig deep. Tell your story. Include memories - good and bad - of the people, images, events, fragrances, sounds that made this place unique.
  • Type each writing session.
That's it. That's the exercise.

Because I'd been thinking and writing about the concept of home, and because the characters in The Alki Trilogy are all on a quest to find their own places to call home, and because the third novel in the trilogy, Walking Home, was scheduled for a spring release, I decided to turn the exercise into a blog series. In hopes of building interest and conversation around the topic, I invited other writers to share their thoughts on what defines home for them. For five months I've posted my own story most Tuesdays and Finding Home: Other Voices every Thursday.

Home not only means something a little different for each of us, but it carries dissimilar weight as well. For me it was heftier than I realized until I wrote this series. I've given inordinate importance to my years as an ex-pat in Mexico. I've claimed again and again that I might have stayed, that my life was there, but that tragedy brought me back to Seattle, brought me home. But maybe the truth is that home brought me home. That culture and language, roots and blood brought me home. Home is all those things for me. And there's more.

People make a place home. Blood, family, yes. Also those I choose to be my family: friends and neighbors, colleagues and community members. The people I see daily or weekly. The tall, thin librarian who bikes to work, the postal worker with long, painted nails, the waitress who wouldn't serve my daughter a margarita because she knew she wasn't 21 regardless what her false ID stated. Community is home. It's where I can breathe and thrive.

Home is the physical environment. I am a Washingtonian. My roots are planted deep in the forests of the Cascade foothills. The vibrant greens of the hills, the varied grays of winter, the brilliant blues of summer sky and water are home to me. Home too is the fragrant salt air off Puget Sound, gentle and breezy in the summer, harsh and cold in the winter, always laced with the scent of the sea.

Love makes home. Love of self: self-concept, self-confidence, self-awareness that make me feel at peace, wherever I find myself. Love of others. Love I give and love I receive. Always. Unconditional. Love that allows me to kick back and be myself with the self-knowledge to understand who that self is, what makes it tick, what gives it joy.

I've spent my adult life teaching the English language, the past thirty years working with immigrants and refugees in Seattle. My students have lost all they once knew. Most will never return to their homelands, their roots. Can roots be replanted? Is multi-culturalism possible? Could my roots have grown deep enough for me to find home in Mexico City? I believe so. I believe my students can build new homes, set new roots here in Seattle, or anywhere in the world, provided their other needs (sense of self; love of family, friends and community; physical environment; first language and cultural values) are met while they are also learning and accepting the language and culture of their new home. This is one of the lessons I learned from Finding Home: Other Voices, and it is the lesson my characters learn in The Alki Trilogy.

I am grateful to the wonderful writers who, by sharing their stories, helped me understand my own more deeply. Here's a complete list of contributors. Just click on a name to link to the author's essay.
                Pamela Hobart Carter
                Kit Bakke
                Tiffani Burnett-Velez
                Mary Rowen
                Tess Thompson
                Eleanor Parker
                Mindy Halleck
                Esther Helfgott
                Jan Wissmar
                Ina Zajac
                Claudia Long
                Tamsen Schultz
                Bonnie Dodge
                Brandy Jellum
                Patricia Mann
                Anesa Miller
                Judith Works
                Dave O'Leary

And here's my completed exercise for the teachers in the room. Sixteen essays for fourteen residences, most of which were never homes at all.
                Finding Home: Prologue
                The Shorewood Shack
                Walnut Avenue
                Issaquah Homestead
                No Bedroom
                College Dorms
                First Apartment to Homeless Wandering
                The Boardwalk
                Caracas, Venezuela
                Santa Cruz Cottage
                Three Months on the North Shore
                Six Years in Mexico City
                Beacon Hill via Issaquah
                53rd Avenue Cottage
                47th Avenue War Box
                Finding Home: Found

So with this, the Finding Home mini-memoir series comes to an end. I thank you for your readership.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

For the final post in the Finding Home: Other Voices series, I'm pleased to share the work of author and musician, Dave O'Leary.

In April 1998, I accepted a job teaching English in South Korea. It was a one year contract, but I was open to more, two years perhaps, or three, as one can never tell how things will go, and at that time, the idea of “home” was a changing thing for me, a moving target. I’d departed Columbus, Ohio just four weeks earlier and spent twelve days driving west and living in a van. In Seattle, I had no job, no girlfriend, no band. I was staying at a friend’s on a friend’s couch and was completely unattached so it was rather easy to get on that plane even knowing that it wasn’t travel, that I wasn’t a tourist, that I wouldn’t be “home” in a week or two, that unlike the planned exotic vacation with points of interest in mind and itineraries and hotels and return flights not to miss, I had no idea where I was going. It was work, living, life, and I even had the thought somewhere over the Pacific with a beer in one hand and a coffee in the other that perhaps I was doing just that, going home.

I started teaching thus, got into Korean life, ate kimchi, dried squid, raw squid, silkworms, drank lots of soju, vomited lots of soju, and the weeks rolled into months in that first year overseas. My students both young and old wanted me to be more Korean and often told me I was becoming such as I had a healthy appreciation for their beloved kimchi in all its varieties, especially in stew. “Soju over whiskey,” I told my adult students. “You are becoming Korean,” they’d say. And there was bulgogi (translated literally as fire beef), and rice, rice all the time. I was learning to eat again. “On name alone,” I told my early morning class of businessmen, “give me fire beef over a New York strip.” They laughed, exclaimed, “You are becoming Korean!” I met a woman too, and under the guise of teaching her English we went to bars and lakes and love hotels by the hour where the only English spoken was whispered and was in no way suitable for any classroom, and the rest was Korean. “Han bawn daw?” One more time? I married that woman, gave her my paychecks. She gave me an allowance.”See, you are becoming more Korean!” my private class of semi-lonely housewives told me.

The wife and I used my allowance once for a trip to Guam where we camped on the beach. It was all I could afford but was much preferred to a hotel as it gave perspective. It made us feel miniscule and detached to do such, to stand, lay, kneel, and other things for four days in front of a tent on the sand of that little island and see the massive ocean that enveloped everything, to set our own rhythms to the constant swooshing exhale of the waves. It made all else seem insignificant. Where we were from did not matter, nor did where we were going. Only the moment had any significance, the now. Home, homeland, places or origin had no meaning.

The years in Korea went on like that, with the same effect as the Pacific. I didn’t yearn for or even want to go back to America, and not for any reason other than the desire simply did not come. I never thought, “Oh, I’m American. I should go back soon.” Being alive was all we cared about, the next night of fire beef, the next shots of soju, and love, and yes, sex too. “Ma sheet nun in sang”, I said in my improving language skills, delicious life, and in my daily world, I only spoke English when teaching. I ate all that awesome food and thought it was changing me. I slept with the woman, and argued, studied the language more and more learning to think in a new way, and slept less and whispered less with that same woman, fought more, much more. I didn’t feel quite as Korean as my students wanted me to feel, but I felt less and less American, less from any one bit of earth. I lived literally half a world away from my place of birth and felt derived from each country, half of this, half of that, which didn’t add up to either one. I was composite. Labels and distinctions fell away. I was country-less, lived in a world where home and fatherland couldn’t be located on a fold out map, only in the mind, the heart, the soul, and the eyes too, the hands, the genitalia.

We were living southwest of Seoul in the eastern part of Ansan (Sangnok-gu) in 2001, and on the morning of September 12th, I woke as usual and started brewing coffee. I sat in front of the computer and turned it on to check email. I was hungover from the soju of the night before so I leaned heavily on my desk, clicked the icon to open the web browser and found the internet was full of nothing but images from New York, planes crashing into buildings, and buildings crumbling. The debris, the fog, the panic and fear were quite palpable even on the other side of the world. Given the time difference, it was night in Korea on the 11th when things were literally going down. I was drinking soju in an effort to get through the evening with as little nagging as possible, and I succeeded. We drank shots and shots and ate kimchi pancakes and actually had a good time. The TV was off. Thelonius Monk was on. We had no idea that as we laughed and listened and drank and rolled about the bed that people were dying.

I didn’t know what to feel there on the morning of the 12th, there but somewhere between here and there in a place without borders, but I couldn’t break away from the images, the news reports, the death. I thought I was OK so I made the drive over to the school in Suwon at 2:00 and didn’t notice that the other teachers left me to myself, seeing perhaps something in my eyes that spoke of origins and that wanted to be left alone. My last class that day was at 7:00 for a group of mid-level middle school students who were in no way motivated to study English every evening after a long day at their actual schools and at other after-school schools such as mine. They were usually loud and spoke Korean in class, made every effort to ignore my teaching. I couldn’t blame them, and they weren’t bad kids so I tried to make due, but on that evening, they were quiet when the bell rang. They just sat and stared up at me. They’d never been that way, and the silence put me at a loss. After a moment, a girl raised her hand.

“Are you OK, David Teacher?”

The concern was unexpected, and it got me. I looked at a map of America on the wall, exhaled as the ocean of Guam had but with no swoosh, no power, answered in a hesitant voice, “Yes … I am Tracy … Thank you,” but they all just sat still with the knowledge of something I’d almost forgotten. It was the reason for the question. Home may be where the suitcase is, but not the homeland, not the core, not the definition, and it did matter. It’s why people that wouldn’t speak so much as a syllable to each other back home were the best of friends there on the streets and in the bars of Seoul. There was understanding that came from origins. I was living in Korea, but it wasn’t home, and I wasn’t the least bit Korean. I never would be, no matter how much kimchi I ate, or how much soju I drank, or vomited, or the amount of sex and argument had with a Korean woman. I looked at the class. “You guys want to play Monopoly?” It wasn’t much, but it was best tribute I could give to the fallen in the moment. We erected houses and hotels in lieu of skyscrapers, and the students were good. They organized into teams. Tracy said, “I want to be on your team, David.” There was laughter, even merriment, but between every roll of the dice, I looked over at that map on the wall and wondered when I would go home.

After work, I went out for soju with some of the other teachers. They knew the same thing my students had, and there were no comments about how Korean I was becoming. There were instead silent toasts, words of comfort, “I’m sorry.” When I got back to my apartment, there was no hug, no kiss, no tender words. She was standing there. “Why are you home so late?”

I took my shoes off and stepped into the kitchen. “I’m not.”
Dave O'Leary is a writer and musician living in Seattle. His second novel, The Music Book, is a collection of the writings O'Leary has done about Seattle bands for both Northwest Music Scene ( and the now defunct Seattle Subsonic. It is a fictional narrative wrapped around and within the actual music, a story about live music in Seattle and, more broadly, about the power of music in our lives. A CD of the music experienced in the book has been released by Seattle indie label, Critical Sun Recordings.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Finding Home: 47th Avenue War Box

The afternoon was winter gray in Seattle. The realtor told us there'd be no For Sale sign posted. The house had only just been listed, but he'd meet us there and show us around. We pulled to a stop in front of a house that held the address we'd been given. There wasn't a tree or bush in the sloping front yard, red paint peeled from the front steps, and what I was yet to learn was asbestos siding blanketed the house in a faded pinkish hue.

I didn't want to get out of the car and walk to the front door. It was just that unappealing. "Not a chance," I said. "At least we have trees."

"Come on," Tom said. "It can't be all bad. Besides, he's expecting us."

I forced myself out of the car and trudged up the boring straight sidewalk behind him. We'd already been priced out of one house and were struggling to find anything at all affordable even close to our neighborhood. I was depressed and eager to just give up. The cottage was small, but we could make do.

The front door looked like I could stick my fist through it. I wasn't impressed. Not until I stepped into the living room. The house was on a knoll and built into a hillside, so the front was five feet off the ground with windows, big windows. In fact every room had at least two windows on different walls. The house was flooded with light, and I fell hard.
We were, and still are, the second owners of this humble 1941 war box. The house is not at the top of Genesee Hill like our cottage, but it an easy walk to the West Seattle Junction.

When we made an offer on the house twenty-four years ago, the Junction was struggling. There seemed to be more empty store fronts than thriving businesses. We weren't at all sure we were making a sound decision, but the house and yard had good bones and loads of potential.
When our offer was accepted, we were thrilled.

When we finally got the keys - buying from an estate shared by seven siblings took months - we got a babysitter and spent the night on the living room floor in front of the fireplace.

When our romantic fire filled our new house with smoke, we learned the chimney needed work.
When the furnace wouldn't come on, we snuggled together determined not to let a lack of heat in the house deter our happiness.

Our house was not immediately a home. That took time. It took remodeling, repurposing, and making the space our own. It took planting trees and fencing the yard to keep our toddler safe. It took getting to know our neighbors, walking the neighborhood, and frequenting the local businesses. But most of all, it took understanding and accepting my own personal history, settling into my own skin. And that took writing.

Journals, kept since my teen years, led to memoir, and memoir led to fiction. Writing, and then publishing, gave me a tool to find self and voice, to understand who I am, and to accept the circuitous journey I've taken to find home.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

To Conference or Not To Conference?

Writers' conference seem to be multiplying like woodland mushrooms. Here in the Pacific Northwest the list is long - Chuckanut Writers Conference, Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, Port Townsend Writers' Conference, Whidbey Island Writers Conference, Willamette Valley Writers Conference, Write on the River, Write on the Sound, Surrey Writers Conference - and I'm sure I've missed a few. So, what are these conferences all about? Why do we care? Do we attend? Apparently so or there wouldn't be so many.

People want to write. People are eager to learn craft and find agents. This desire may also explain the proliferation of MFA programs. Another classification of mushroom perhaps? The MFA offers validation through the granting of a degree. Conferences offer an opportunity for continual growth, networking, and many include the opportunity to pitch a manuscript to literary agents for those who want to take the legacy publishing route.

Conferences also offer some writers the opportunity to share what they've learned, their expertise. Presenting is an avenue for building readership. Most conferences have an open presentation proposal period. Depending on the level of competition and the expertise of the potential presenter, the proposal is either rejected or accepted in much the same way as a manuscript.

With the publication of my fourth book, I decided to try my hand at a writer's conference. I'd presented at teaching conferences and led writer workshops, but presenting at a writer's conference seemed daunting. I crafted and submitted my proposal last fall, and I've recently learned it was accepted. I'm honored and excited, thrilled and terrified to be presenting at the 60th Annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. I hope to see you there!
60th Annual Writer's Conference
SeaTac Hilton Hotel and Conference Center
17620 International Blvd
Seattle, WA 98188
July 16-19, 2015

The Independent/Hybrid Author
Presented by Arleen Williams
Crystal Ballroom A
Saturday, July 18
10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today I'm pleased to welcome Judith Works with her story of returning "home."

I had reached the United Nations mandatory retirement age. As our last days in Rome sped by I took time to toss some coins into the gushing waters of the Trevi Fountain to ensure a return, even though it would be as a tourist. We had parties with friends. A colleague gave me a small gold pendant depicting Medusa, an ancient Roman symbol for protection. Members of my staff chipped in and presented me with a painting of the Fountain. The movers, with their heavy rolls of paper, finished packing our goods. The last items that went into the crate were a reliquary and old model sailboat with battered sails, chipped paint on the hull and little flags flying on its mast. The boat was my husband Glenn’s, a reminder of his sailing adventures. The antique reliquary, also showing its age with the gilding flaking off, was mine. It was a bust of an obscure saint, Anastasia, who is honored in an old church at the base of the Palatine Hill. The reliquary has a little window in her chest with a compartment behind for a bone or hank of hair. I have often wondered what it might have contained before it ended up in an antique shop waiting for me.

Easygoing Glenn was looking forward to settling in the house we had purchased six months earlier, gardening, taking some cooking lessons, and not having to deal with the difficulties of Roman life. I moped over losing my job, my Italy and my friends – my dolce vita. What would I do for the rest of my life? “Rest” wasn’t a good option.  Relieving Glenn of household chores would take up time – but then what? Should I take up the cooking again when Glenn didn’t want to relinquish his domain? Try to find a job? Annoy our daughter with unwanted advice? I felt as though my brain was already atrophying.

We flew “home,” arriving in early February, the dark and depressed season of Seattle’s bi-polar weather. But my journey was much longer than the flight as culture shock soon set in. I persisted in looking at the clock first thing every morning. If it said six, I knew it was three in the afternoon in Rome. By this time long lunches were concluding with digestivi. I spent days gazing blankly at Puget Sound, still caught between past and future. And I traveled to Vancouver to see my mother whose health suddenly declined. Two weeks after her 95th birthday, and only five months after we returned, she died. It was as if she had been waiting for us to come back before she gave up. Efforts to reconcile with my new life became even more difficult.

But through the veil of grief and disorientation I finally began to see a path leading me to a new definition of home. First, I recognized that the Pacific Northwest, where I had been born and raised, was indeed my home for the rest of my life, and that I must learn to enjoy its many attractions. Next, I found activities to occupy my brain. I began to volunteer for several local groups associated with the arts. And I decided to write. What better way to reflect on all my adventures, to gain meaning from them, and to attempt to convey that meaning to others?

So, finally, I don’t have “Home, Sweet Rome” as a motto any more. I can truthfully say I love the Northwest with its mountains, waters, and lush gardens. And I love living close to my family, and having time to read, to write, and to share a coffee with all the new friends I now have. But I do have to admit that Rome will always have a place in my mind and my heart, the two locations where the real meaning of “home” reside. 
Judith Works, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, is retired from the United Nations, Rome, Italy. She is the author of a memoir about Rome, Coins in the Fountain, available as an e-book, and City of Illusions, published by Booktrope. She is currently on the steering committee for the literary conference, Write on the Sound, and is also on the board for Edmonds Center for the Arts and EPIC Group Writers. She is a member of several other writer’s groups.