I’ve made my living writing one thing or another all my life, mostly in Alaska and Los Angeles. I’m home in the Pacific Northwest now, writing the fiction and non-fiction featured on this blog. The journey has been fascinating. Many, many people are helping me in ways large and small. You know who you are. I’m forever grateful. Whatever happens next, I will be writing.
BECOMING A WRITER
Learn to read
Even the tiniest library has more books than a person can read in her lifetime. I loved Babar, The Secret Garden, fairy tales. I rode the waves on the Kon-Tiki and discovered strange new lands in National Geographic. Melville’s Billy Budd added “motley retinue” to my vocabulary forever. “I’d give more than I care to say to prudent ears” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) how much I cared about the oddball characters being victorious or wiser by the end.
When I was 6, Grandfather Lybarger put a cool, heavy musket ball in my palm and told me a Rebel soldier shot great-grandfather in the knee with it at the Battle of Corinth in 1862. I was instantly in thrall to the gore and courage of the Civil War. Decades later, I wrote the novel A COLOR OF PRAYER, based on Great-grandfather Lybarger, a loyal Ohio boy.
Study & find a cause bigger than you
I graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, then attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, then the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I learned about politics and writing and Russian and being a hippie.
Find a writing job
Back home, I lost a run for city council, so I talked the newspaper into letting me write a column (in order to become better known and win the next election). I had an opinion about everything then. Nixon was a crook. Coppola was a genius.
Find another writing job.
Hired to write a final report about the ATS-6 satellite communication project in rural Alaska, I was thrilled to discover that writer Arthur C. Clarke was behind it all. In 1945 he was the first to suggest that a satellite in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator would allow receiving dishes on the Earth to remain stationary (cheaper & more reliable). Decades later, this made satellite communication networks feasible.
Be excited about what you do & write.
I helped manage the new Learn/Alaska TV network and produced instructional TV shows that won a few awards.I got weathered in for a week on Little Diomede–the place where you really can see Russia from every house. The reason the school teacher’s baby has blue eyes, an Inupiat woman told me, is that he’d seen a ghost.
Accept more adventures.
I had the chance to visit the Soviet Union as it was crumbling, on an international Peace Walk through the Ukraine. In one village, I slept overnight in a bedroom that was a sad shrine to the oldest son in the Soviet Army, killed in Afghanistan. The best Russian idiom I know is “after a little rain on Thursday,” meaning it won’t happen for a month of Sundays, if ever.
Write a play about something funny.
On a cloudless summer day in Columbus, Ohio, Aunt Nancy met me in the airport carrying her umbrella. She said she was worried it might rain. I was impressed with how many things she found it prudent to worry about. I wrote Lifelines, a two-act comedy about 4 generations of women who don’t understand each other. When it was produced at Perseverance Theater in Juneau, people laughed in the right places. I wrote a few more plays.
Try writing a screenplay.
I left Alaska to study screenwriting at USC in Los Angeles. Culture shock ensued. I wrote some screenplays. The best people I met were the generous, retired screenwriters who told marvelous stories about storytelling. Studio chief Jack Warner demanded that all the writers show up for work on time, so Julius Epstein and his brother Phillip arrived early the next morning in their pajamas. Then they wrote Casablanca.
Try reel life.
In Los Angeles, I learned to turn left in traffic, peddled a few screenplays, and worked in post-production to define English dialogue in U.S. feature films for translators world-wide. For example, “Cat got your tongue?” is almost never meant literally. English subtitles are prepared in the country that produced the movie. My favorite error was in a Chinese martial arts movie with the English subtitle: “Stop or I blow your head!”
Try real life again.
Returning to the greenery & sanity of the Pacific Northwest, I completed a B.A. in Communication Disabilities at Fairhaven College, Western Washington University. I was intrigued to learn how and why the brain can fail to fully develop, while I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. I found their authenticity redemptive after LA.
When I left this work to devote full time to finishing a novel, Karen introduced me as, “My friend Jennifer, the marvelist.”
Start a novel.
Aunt Nancy found Great-grandfather Lybarger’s Civil War papers and letters in an old trunk in the attic. He was the man who’d been shot in the knee by the musket ball I’d held in my hand, the one who’d fascinated me for decades. I was enthralled to write his story. I had to learn everything I could about him, and the War of the Rebellion, and about writing fiction. I joined a critique group. They were usually on the money–but not always. The trick is knowing the difference! I revised and learned and revised and learned and revised…
And finish a novel!
I celebrated a while. Now I’m back at work to get it published and on bookshelves and into readers’ hands..
And learn to platform. Yikes. Here goes!
And start a second novel.
On a winter’s night in 1891, Susan Long sat in her son-in-law’s lap when her husband David burst into the room and shot them both dead. This is the true story of how he got away with it….