About bwelch23

Bob Welch is the author of 20 books, a columnist at The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.), a speaker and the founder of the Beachside Writers Workshop in Yachats, Ore., and Pebble in the Water Inspiration. In his spare time, he wishes he actually had some.

Don’t Take My Advice

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It’s awkward offering advice in a blog post when your advice is to ignore the advice in blog posts.

But that’s exactly what I’m proposing for fellow writers — at least sometimes.

The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of good advice in such posts. I love nothing better than reading some “Ten-Ways-to-blah-blah” post and finding the suggestions so helpful that I immediately implement half of them.

The problem is that, in this age of easy information, we don’t think enough for ourselves. That we see ourselves as consumers of others’ creativity and not inventors of our own. That we leave too much of the imagination to someone else.

Long ago, I had the privilege of writing a piece for Sports Illustrated on Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high-jump gold medalist. “Foz,” as we Oregonians dubbed him, was a gangly, uncoordinated high school kid and self-admitted high-jumping failure.

Then he got the audacious idea to scrap the traditional “Western Roll” style of jumping. Instead, he did something nobody had done before: he soared over the bar backward, face to the sky, legs bent as if dangling over an exam table.

The short-term results? Laughter from his teammates. The long-term results? He became the greatest high-jumper in the world.

By literally turning his back on the establishment, Fosbury revolutionized high-jumping; since 1968, virtually all jumpers have adopted his style.

That never would have happened had Fosbury not dared to be audacious and think for himself instead of simply settling for “the way everybody else does it.”

But isn’t that how most of us write, edit, and market — based on others’ advice?

It is for me. Then, every now and then, desperation—the same thing that fueled Fosbury’s “about face”—triggers my own creativity.

The rough draft of my nonfiction book about the first World War II nurse to die after the landings at Normandy had become so unwieldy I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

I’d written the 70,000-word book on an 11-inch laptop and I realized I had little idea of what it was long on and short on.

Conventional wisdom whispered: Let a handful of perceptive editors weigh in—and, ultimately, I would do that, of course. But I wasn’t ready for that step just yet. I needed some way to see into my story. To be in my story. And then the idea struck.

I printed out the book, double-spaced. I used colored felt pens to mark nuances I wanted to make sure were spread consistently throughout the book: dialogue, foreshadowing, action, what war smelled like and sounded like, in addition to the standard “what it looked like” perspective. And more.

A newspaper columnist at the time, I then slapped all 250 pages on three walls of our office’s photo studio—picture a dark-walled racquetball court—and, bingo, I was, indeed, inside my story. Literally.

With this perspective, I could see I had Mojave Deserts of dialogue dearth. I went chapters without letting readers hear the sounds of war. I had some chapters far too long, some far too short. I found all sorts of adjustments that needed to be made.

Never mind that nobody else but me could decipher my felt-penned hieroglyphics. In half a day—and despite a few smirks from newspaper colleagues—my mind’s focus went from fuzzy to sharp on what my book needed.

The experience opened me to other self-invented ideas to help my writing, from walking around the block while doing long edits (exercise, baby!) to discovering the gold mine of information that used bookstores offer and the Internet never will.

Among the best lessons I learned while doing the 452-mile Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (Cascade Summer) was this: hike your own hike.

And so it should be with writing. Seek wisdom from others, sure. But don’t be afraid to seek it from yourself. Like Fosbury, don’t be afraid to be a tad audacious and turn your back on the establishment.

There. Now, feel free to ignore all the aforementioned advice and come up with something better yourself.

Being a Writer Means being Relational

I’m looking forward to one of the most intriguing reunions I’ve ever anticipated: reconnecting with a former cocaine dealer who I last saw — and interviewed for a newspaper column — when he was 15 years old.

FreedomThat was nearly 30 years ago.

Before he went to prison. Before his father joined him in the drug-dealing business and killed himself the night before father and son were to go to trial. Before the two of us began writing each other, off and on, for nearly three decades as he bounced from prison to prison.

Now, he’s a free man — and 44 years old. And I’m going to make good on a long-ago promise to buy him dinner to celebrate his freedom.

I sent him a copy of my book 52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables (Thomas Nelson, 2014) because the man is a living, breathing Jean Valjean. Remember? Victor Hugo’s protagonist is released from prison after 19  years, having originally been placed there for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family.

But nobody trusts him. Nobody will even give him a room. Except for a bishop, who welcomes him, feeds him and, most importantly, forgives him after Valjean takes off in the night with the bishop’s silverware.

“I’m glad to see you,” says the bishop as Valjean stands before him, flanked by two police officers, “but I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”

Grace. Second chances. Redemption. The stuff that Jesus is all about.

A rare act that necessarily begins with a relationship. Which is what we as writers of faith should never take for granted: the idea that our profession is about so much more than punching words into a computer. Or even stories.

It’s about relationships. And not just the ones we write about. But the ones we create as we write — with sources, editors, librarians, archivists, a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who wound up translating all my Yiddish for a book on the first nurse to die after the landings at Normandy, American Nightingale (Atria Press, 2004), you name it.

I was 32 when I met that young who just got out of prison. I am now 61. In the intervening years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are to be about more than writing. We are to be about relationships.

A Pharisee saw a chance to back Jesus into a corner. What, he asked, was the most important commandment? Jesus didn’t hesitate.

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As writers, I’ve often thought our privilege was getting to be four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ability to go where others can’t or won’t.

I would not have met this modern-day Jean Valjean had I not been a newspaper columnist at the time.

I would not be hiking nearly weekly with a new friend had I not met him when writing about his 125-foot fall from atop Oregon’s 9,184-foot Mt. Thielsen.

I would not have had the chance to hear a Belgian innkeeper tell me what it was like, as an 8-year-old boy, to watch Hitler’s army goose-stepping into town in May 1940, had I not been writing a book on that WWII nurses.

There’s this idea that, as writers, we’re to wall ourselves off from the world, light a candle, and write, write, write. And, frankly, I love that part of the job. But our words build bridges to countless people with whom we might be salt and light. And it behooves us to remember that before we were writers, we were — and are — people.

In our case, people called to relationship — with God and with other people.

Four Lessons From the Speaking Circuit

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For 20 years now I’ve dragged a suitcase of books from speaking event to speaking event, telling stories, signing books, listening to people in line innocently yammering on while someone else is waiting impatiently to get an autograph.

I’ve spoken from the Statehouse in Boston to a rain-tattered canopy outside a firehall while firefighters let children blast the siren, from hotel ballrooms with nearly 500 people to three people in an assisted-living home, two of whom seemed comatose by the time I’d finished my intro.

Here, then, are four bits of advice about using your speaking engagements to sell books, 19 of which I’ve written, a few of which have actually sold:

Go where you’re wanted.

I’ve spent far too much of my life trying to convince people that they should believe in me and far too little time appreciating those who do. In the last few years, though, I’ve wised up.

Push on the doors, sure. Push hard. But if they don’t open, stop pushing and go find another door that might. Don’t let your pride get in the way. It’s far more fun doing a small-time gig where people appreciate your being there than beating your head on the door of some larger or more prestigious organization or event that never will.

Partner with one person who believes in you in the community where you’re going to speak.

It was a blustery, rainy Friday night, and I had a speaking gig “up river” in a small community. I honestly wondered if anyone other than the woman who’d organized the talk would come.

After the event, I walked out to my car with more than $500 in book sales, a stomach full of homemade pie and an evening of memories with a bunch of warm, wonderful people.

Why? Because that one woman was an “influencer,” someone people along the river respected. An organizer, someone who can bring an event together. An ally, someone who believed in me.

Someone like that can do more to help your event be a success than hundreds of tweets.

Take time to get to know the place where you’re speaking or the organization you’re speaking to.

Whether you’re selling books afterward or not, this is simply the right thing to do. Why do concert crowds go nuts when some well-known performer mentions something about their town? Because people take pride in where they live and appreciate it when others do, too.

It shows respect. It shows you care. It shows that you’re not just “mailing it in.”

In one of my books, 52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life, I devote a chapter to a simple remark that one of the heavenly angels says to Clarence Odbody before the “Angel Second Class” is sent to earth to help a desperate George Bailey: “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him, don’t you?”

Take the time to know something about your audience. Don’t just do a couple of Google searches. Talk to your host. Make a few calls. Do some reporting.

Finally, be interesting.

Never have people had so many options with which to spend their time, so many excuses for not leaving their home.

So, if they’re giving up an evening for you, forget the “first, do no harm” edict inaccurately linked to the Hippocratic Oath. (By me in one book!) No, first, do not put people to sleep. Say something that people haven’t heard before. Or say it in a way they haven’t heard before. Tell jokes. Dispense information. Inspire life-changing action.

But, above all, be interesting. I recently went to an author’s event just to see what other writers do. The guy spent the entire evening reading from his book.

Yawn.

That’s the reader’s job. As writers, we should spend our time offering audiences insight that our books do not. Our stories might be the impetus that draws people to our events, but give them something more than a rehash of our book or books.

Besides, if you’re interesting, people are more apt to believe your books will be, too. And there’s no better way to be asked back.

Two Words of Advice: Stop it!

newhartWe were going around the room, introducing ourselves at a recent writers workshop I was leading, when one of the attendees got negative about herself.

I listened to this woman — a two-time winner of our Metaphors Be With You contest — explain why she wasn’t making as much progress on a memoir as she would have liked.

Most of it had to do with her inadequacies.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Stop putting yourself down,” I said. “You’re a good writer and you need to stop thinking otherwise.”

I proceeded to explain to her and the 15 others why one of the first ways we sabotage ourselves as writers is to look down on ourselves.

“For starters, writers need two things,” I said. “The confidence to believe they have something to say to the world and the humility to let others help them say it better.”

Instead, too many people write — and live — quite the opposite: with little sense that they’re worthy to be heard or with little openness to accepting help along the way.

As we discussed negativity, another workshop participant chimed in with a reference to an old TV sketch in which comedian Bob Newhart plays a psychiatrist. He listens to a woman’s problem — “I have this fear of being buried alive in a box” — and offers her a two-word solution:

“Stop it!”

Stop worrying about being buried alive in a box.

I love it. In fact, when it comes to advice, you could do a lot worse than offering people those two words — “Stop it!” — and two others: “Start it!”

“Start it,” as in take a risk. Begin your project, even if you believe it might fail. Try something new, even if it might feel awkward at the start.

“Stop it,” as in quit thinking you’re unworthy. Quit sabotaging your success because someone long ago told you you weren’t good enough. Quit believing the inner lie that you’re inferior.

Frankly, you can’t get to the “start” without the “stop.” Or so says Christian-based author Henry Cloud, whose book Necessary Endings (HarperCollins, 2010) I recently read.

Cloud, who mainly writes for a business audience, suggests “stop it” is about more than an attitude. It’s about action — or, more precisely, our unwillingness to take it when necessary.

“In your business and perhaps your life, the tomorrow that you desire may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today,” he writes.

But, some might say, stopping things can be hard.

Habits. Addictions. Relationships.

It’s easier just to stay the course. To not confront the norm. To not risk.

Easier. But seldom better.

“Endings,” Cloud argues, “bring hope.”

Frankly, I’d never thought much about that until a friend recommended the book and I gave it a read. I tend to be in a constant “add” mode. But, Cloud argues, sometimes you need to subtract. Prune. Say goodbye to something in your life — and, yes, in some cases, someone.

Can it hurt? Almost always. But, he argues, there’s a difference between “hurt” and “harm.”

Last week my mother moved out of the house she’d lived in for nearly half a century. It was difficult saying goodbye. But the payoff will be a simpler existence that better fits her life today. It hurt, yes, but to stay could have brought harm, she figured; it was too much house for someone who is 87 years old and slowing down.

It took courage to make the change. But, in sailing terms, to stay moored to sameness simply because change can be challenging is to miss the glories of the wind in your sails.

At the end of the day, my workshop student — the one lamenting not being good enough — offered a piece in the voluntary read-aloud session. The class’s enthusiastic laughter and applause affirmed what I’d felt myself: her story was among the best of the bunch.

I hope she’ll look back on this day as a new start — a new start only made possible by her first being willing to stop.

Entertaining Angels

My illustrator, Tom, with one of 48 hot dogs we grilled at a book event.

My illustrator, Tom, with one of 48 hot dogs we grilled at a book event.

I’ve been  marketing books of mine now for more than 20 years but only recently realized a big mistake I was making:

Thinking it was only about books and sales. 

Instead of, say, salt and light. Or experiences. Or giving instead of getting. 

Example: I used to fret when I’d show up for an event and only a handful of people would be there. It made me feel like a failure. Like I was wasting my time and, given my poor-me attitude, the time of those who showed up.

Then it dawned on me: God must have some purpose for me to be wherever I was. And if people are important to God then they should be important to me, whether three or three hundred show up.

“I don’t worry about the folks who didn’t show up,” I now tell people if there’s a sea of empty chairs. “I’m just thrilled to be with those of you who did. Thanks for coming.”

Changing my attitude changed everything. Realizing my worth is defined by God’s love for me and not by any popularity I might get from people, I loosened up and had more fun.

Sure, I’ve had my moments, but, more often than not, I started laughing at situations that otherwise might have angered me. “OK, OK,” I might say to a group of eight people amid 25 chairs, “let’s all scoot to the center to make room for others.” (Proverbs 18:12: Humility comes before honor.)

I became less concerned about selling books than about making sure people were having a good experience.

I became more attuned to others, reminding myself that perhaps there was just one person in the audience who needed some inspiration or a good laugh from me that day.

Recently, one event hammered home this lesson. In the spring I had set up an event at a small-town library regarding a new children’s book I’d written and my friend Tom had illustrated. At the time, I had casually joked with the librarian that maybe we’d make it a barbecue.

Six months later — and three days before an event that I’d all but forgotten about — I got an e-mail from the librarian. “Can we help you at all with the barbecue Wednesday night?”

I called Tom. “I guess I sort of promised we’d do a barbecue for their town,” I said.

He didn’t say, “You WHAT?” He’s way more grounded than I am. Instead, he said, “Let’s do it, baby!” and organized who would bring what. 

As I rolled down a freeway with a grill in the back of my ’95 pickup, I said to myself: Are we really putting on a barbecue in a town of 600 people?

That’s when I heard a thud. Despite my tie-down job, the grill had flipped over, its guts strewn around the pickup bed. It was 95 degrees. I was on the side of a freeway trying to re-secure a grill. And I was not happy. Does John Grisham have to do stuff like this to sell a few books? 

Once Tom and I reached the town, 30 minutes away, nobody showed up. At first.

Then, slowly, people trickled in. Five. A dozen. More. Tom started grilling dogs. A group broke out in “Happy Birthday” to a friend of theirs. I realized people were having a blast. 

A woman took me by the arm. “I brought my neighbor,” she said. “She’s dying of cancer and said she would love to meet you. She loves your writing.”

Two hours later, in the pink light of an Oregon sunset, Tom and I were heading home when he said something I’ve never forgotten: “This was one of the coolest nights of my life.”

Same here. We’d grilled and given away 48 hot dogs, sold two dozen books and brought together people in a small town for an evening of fun. 

What’s more, I’d had the privilege of spending time with a woman who would, three months later, be dead, but who somehow thought seeing me was important.

Now, I don’t even like to call it “marketing.” I call it a privilege to spend time with people — sometimes many, sometimes just a few — who think I’m important enough to give up a few hours of their time to see.

And I remember Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Being a Yahtzee Writer

They say if you want to make money in the writing business you find a niche and go to that place again and again.

In other words, if the crowd loved your trumpet solo don’t come back on stage with a guitar or xylophone.

It wasn't Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in "Hoosiers."

It wasn’t Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in “Hoosiers.”

Play that trumpet, baby!

I get that. And I don’t begrudge any writer who subscribes to that theory. To each his or her own.

But here’s to those who’ve gone the other way, who’ve followed their muses, wherever those muses have taken them, even if it’s seldom meant to the bank to deposit another hefty royalty check.

Here’s to those who’ve led with their hearts and not some can’t-lose formula.

Here’s to those who’ve written as if life were a Yahtzee game and part of the fun was seeing if you could score a few points in all 12 categories: perhaps writing a three-of-a kind spiritual trilogy, a full-house family memoir, and a small straight of mysteries.

Here’s to dabblers and chance-takers and you-never-know-unless-you-try writers whose platforms aren’t chiseled precisely in granite but whose success is built of great memories.

I can relate. I am a Yahtzee writer.

World War II biographies? Three. Sports and life books? Two. Children’s? On my second.

Nuggets of wisdom from my favorite movies? Check. Collections of newspaper columns? Check. Hiking the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail? Check.

The price I’ve paid? I’ve never gotten deep traction as an expert in any particular genre. The dividends I’ve received? Being true to who I am as a person.

I’m not touting the likes of Yahtzee writers for any sense of self-grandiosity; follow-their-muse types often find themselves being regularly humbled, my most recent example being a book event at a fire station to which three people showed up — one by accident — and firetruck sirens kept going off while I spoke.

No, this isn’t about chest-beating success. This is about the significance of the writing journey itself.

Too many writers drink the formulaic Kool-Aid suggesting you must trust a system and not your heart. And, turning 60 this week, I’ve been more contemplative than usual about how I’ve spent my life as a writer and whether going my own way has left me a failure.

My conclusion? I wouldn’t have missed the ride for the world.

By following my muse, I’ve gotten to write about the stuff that I’m passionate about — and best-suited to write about. To know an array of fascinating — and generally obscure — people. And to experience a bunch of stuff I never would have otherwise.

Because of my book research and promotion, I’ve put on a barbecue for a town of 600 people, shot hoops in the Indiana gym depicting Hickory High in the movie “Hoosiers,” spent a weekend at the Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, N.Y. and found myself in Normandy, France, on 9-11.

Along the way, I’ve met a few famous people but, ironically, the two most well known “stars” I’ve spent time with were also the only two books subjects I’ve parted ways with — because they were so unwilling to help.

Finding success in book writing is about perspective and appreciating the small victories you experience by being yourself.

About the grist of the journey, not the fruits of whatever material success you experience.

And about being true to your bent as a God-created human being. I think of a line from an old Amy Grant song: “All I ever have to be is what You’ve made me.”

So, sure, if you’re made that way, play another trumpet solo. But if you’re not, don’t be afraid to play Yahtzee.

Dare To Wander Off Trail

IMG_0550 copyWhen my wife is away at the coast or on a quilt retreat, it’s the go-to movie I watch alone: A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s masterpiece of the equally masterful book by Norman Maclean about fathers and sons and fly-fishing — and the deeper things beyond.

As we honor fathers this month (June 16), I do so with the admission that my dad, who died nearly 17 years ago, was not a perfect man. (Nor was I, of course, a perfect son.) While watching River the other night for perhaps the tenth time, however, I finally figured out who my father was: Paul Maclean, the younger brother played by Brad Pitt. Flawed — he dies in a gambling dispute — but, as Paul’s father said of him, “beautiful.” An artist with a fly rod. And despite obvious shortcomings, kind-hearted with a sort of rough-hewn integrity. A lover of family and a despiser of bait fishermen, politicians who ignored the environment, and motorcycle riders who rode illegally on wilderness trails.

When I wrote Cascade Summer: My Adventure on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, my heart kept pulling me toward memories of my father that I felt compelled to include. But my mind kept saying: Don’t go there. It’s too dangerous. It’s too personal. Stay on the main trail, pal. 

I’m glad I listened to my heart and wandered off the trail — figuratively and, as you’ll see in a moment, literally. Writing is an act of courage. And part of courage is being real with readers, being real with ourselves, and being real about our loved ones.

Whenever I want to wimp out about telling something personal, I remind myself that of the 2,000-plus newspaper columns I’ve written, almost without exception the ones eliciting the most reader response have been personal ones that tugged on readers’ emotions. The ones where I got real. The ones where I shared a vulnerability — my regret, for example, of having accepted $1 to play two-square with a kid who had no friends back in elementary school. As an adult he committed suicide, making me wonder how his life might have turned out if people like me had simply said, “Forget the buck. You serve.”

Tom Hallman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Oregonian in Portland, puts it best:  “Feelings are more important than rules … Make the reader feel something. Writers are insecure. Every time we draft a story that includes emotion, we’re crawling out on a limb. Our insecurities tell us to crawl back to safety, but doing so eliminates the story’s heart and soul — what makes the story work. Emotion lives in nearly everyone, though it’s sometimes asleep. The writer must awaken it.”

So, in the end, I’m glad I included the anecdote about wandering off trail, through the forests of the Cascade Mountains ten years after my father’s death, in an attempt to find Comma Lake. As a teenager, I had scoured the woods with my dad, looking for that lake. It appeared on maps but there were no trails to it. And we’d never found it.

But, alone, a decade after he was gone, I did. I wanted to whoop and holler, but it didn’t seem right amid a quiet punctuated only by a few birds and bleached-white trees rubbing against each other in death. On the dried mudflats, I made my way up the comma—a writer literally in his element—toward the lake’s center.

I had thought of bringing something to leave in honor of my father, but he was big on leaving a camp better than you found it, so I nixed that idea. I looked around. A half dozen softball-sized stones lay scattered near me. So, I built him a poor-man’s pyramid. I knew by October, the lake would fill from autumn rains. By November, the monument would be encased in ice and covered in snow. Regardless, it would be my little reminder: we were once here. We found Comma Lake — my father and I.

Sons, I believe, cut wide swaths for their fathers. At church men’s retreats and marriage workshops, I’ve heard men lash out at their fathers, but nevertheless pine for their respect — even after the old man is gone. Indeed, it is a strange dance between fathers and sons. Part of us vows to never be the man he was, part of us feels quietly proud when we realize that, in some ways, we are.

In the final scene of A River Runs Through It, the story’s narrator, Maclean, now an old man, fishes the river and thinks, “I am haunted by waters.”

As men, we are also haunted by our fathers, whose approval seems as important to us now as it did when he watched us catch our first fish. But as writers, we cannot be haunted by the thought of trying to explore such complicated relationships.

As Hallman suggests, if we’re not crawling out on the limb, we’re not writing in the heart spot from which readers are reading. So, if you feel the branch start to bend, don’t panic. You’re where you need to be.