Book Remarks: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days — A conversation about writing and living on the land

The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold. But that is no argument against learning all one can.

—- Scott Russell Sanders, quoted in Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days


Wittig Albert Extraordinary YearI have– finally!– read Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, published in 2010.

Because Albert is one of my favorite writers of mysteries (China Bayles) and other intriguing books, I’m chagrined not to have discovered this one until I found it online in 2014.

On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t read it when I bought it, or I might not have published my own most recent book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal.

I began reading Albert’s book June 6 of this year. I stopped almost at once because my own book was already in production; I knew I’d be receiving page proofs soon. I could tell that Susan Albert’s journal and mine would have enough in common as to make me afraid I might unconsciously adopt—steal—some of her ideas as I proofread my own work. When I had earlier asked Susan to write a back-cover comment for my book, I had no idea that its structure, a year’s diary, paralleled that of her book.

sagging fences untidy woods

Susan’s own words in her diary are always enlightening. “But there’s a blessing in inhabiting a place for a long time,” she writes, adding that her years as part of a tenant farming family in eastern Illinois “fed my life for country, for the everyday world of overworked fields and sagging fences, untidy woods, winter pastures. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary, not even (to most people, anyway) very beautiful. . . . Unkempt fields, tangled woods: my history. Home.”

This, to me, is the strongest statement of her book and of my own: that for most of us, wherever we are is home if we accept it as such, and consent to understand and enhance our relationship to the place.

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.

—- Wendell Berry, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Writing of her relationship to home, Albert provides a reading list for the responsible writer. Each person in the United States, she learns, is responsible for around 21 tons of CO2 emissions per year, according to the United Nations Human Development Reports.

Global warming is one of those things, not like an earthquake where there’s a big bang and you say, “oh my God, this has hit us.” It creeps up on you. Half a degree temperature difference from one year to the next, a little bit of rise of the ocean, a little bit of melting of the glaciers, and then all of a sudden it is too late to do something about it.

—- Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Shocked, she assesses the usage attributable to herself and her husband. They drive fuel-efficient vehicles fewer miles annually than most families, and wouldn’t consider replacing then until they’ve gone 200,000 miles. “We repair, repurpose, reuse, recycle,” take short showers, use compact fluorescents, noting that if everyone replaced just three regular lightbulbs, we could keep a trillion pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.

—- Thomas Friedman, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days


Wittig Albert Extrordinary Year page

Besides her own observations, Susan Albert has generously added to the outer third of each page quotations from other writers that address her theme of ordinary days. Thus not only does she provide the reader with a broad spectrum of observations, she brings attention to writers the reader may have missed. Some of the writers and comments were ones that appear in my own quotations files, but in my highlighting, underlining and copying, I added at least a dozen titles of books to my “must read” list.

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.

—- Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Moreover, throughout the book, Albert weaves her own and others’ advice about writing, both directly and by inference. As she is writing this diary, uncertain whether or not it will become a book, she is proofreading another of her books I have not yet read, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her discipline and ability to focus provides a strong lesson for any aspiring writer, or, indeed, any writer who considers herself a professional with nothing more to learn about the craft.

Reading this book, slowly, with my highlighter close by and my journal handy for writing my own reactions, I felt as if I were engaging in a long and glorious conversation with the writer as we nestled in comfortable chairs in front of a glowing fireplace.  I was delighted but not surprised to realize that many of the writers I admire have come to the same conclusions as we reach similar ages.

It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. Otherwise, who will be there to chart the changes? Who will be able to tell us if the long-billed curlews have returned to the grassy vales of Promontory, Utah? Who will be there to utter the cry of loss when the salmon of the McKenzie River in Oregon are nowhere to be seen?

—- Terry Tempest Williams, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

If I am not here, on this small western grasslands ranch, who will know that I have not seen a long-billed curlew since the neighboring subdivisions started erecting so-called “security lights” that blare into the darkness and make it difficult to see the stars?

There is strength, freedom, sustainability, and pride in being a practiced dweller in your own surroundings, knowing what you know.

—- Gary Snyder, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Get this book and read it; you can purchase the hardback book from the publisher, University of Texas Press, or find used copies online.

Gathering from the Grassland outsideOh yes, and get my book too, and enjoy the conversation. And don’t be surprised if you keep right on buying more books whose authors could join all of us in this vital discussion about the future of our world.

Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is available in both paper and hardback– and though the book has only been out since September, used copies are available.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

Rise early. Work late. Strike oil.   — J. Paul Getty

Before you invest in a commercial writing retreat, test your mental discipline and your toleration for silent solitude. Time at an exotic location doesn’t guarantee writing success. I offer practical, tested suggestions for creating a place and time for your writing at home.

Creating a Private Writing Retreat

Every writer’s dream may be saying to her local writing group, “I’ll be working on my novel at a retreat, so I’ll miss the next two meetings.”

For most writers, a retreat is a mirage; we read the ads, shaking our heads at cost, and imagine applying for a grant. Most writers have seen their fantasies of finding the perfect retreat evaporate.

Yet we can visualize a perfect place to avoid the daily demands that gobble writing time. Whether our fantasy setting is near warm beaches or aloof mountains, we’re sure such a hideout would empower us to really write that novel. Say the word “retreat” and we see ourselves, monk-like, bent in ascetic devotion over satisfying work.

Take heart; we live in the Synthetic Age. Experts tell us the artificial can be as reliable as genuine articles, and few of us can tell a real diamond from faux, or solid wood from veneer anyway. If you can’t afford a retreat, you can make one.

A Retreat Won’t Make You a Writer

home-retreat-cranes-2016-9-16Face facts; moving your physical body to an “official” retreat won’t make you a writer. I once studied the Shaolin Kung Fu five-animal system, concentrating on the form known as “White Crane.” My instructor worked with me on several aspects of this martial art, developing my breath control and balance, speed and timing. Gradually, I developed strength and flexibility while learning fighting stances based on the symmetry and stability of a crane’s movements. Eventually, I understood how to use my hands and arms as weapons, learned the backfist and claw hand, and how to deliver the blade kick to an attacker’s knee. Throughout my training, my instructor emphasized that physical abilities alone would not enable me to master the form; meditation and focus are key aspects of the martial arts. In the end, I was not willing to devote three or more hours a day to practicing Karate in order to master its nuances on the chance I would use my skill to repel an attacker.

My experiences in writing have been similar; the physical facets of a retreat must be coupled with mental discipline and tenacity if you want to be a writer. The important aspects are the mental discipline and tenacity.

Physical Features of a Retreat

A commercial retreat provides the writing customer with varied opportunities, often including an ideal work space in a beautiful location; meals cooked by someone else; uninterrupted work time, and freedom from household chores. How can you duplicate these features at home?

Each writer would understand and arrange these requirements differently, but many writers could create a retreat at home, eliminating travel expense and the hassle of packing.

At home, I can’t hide from my real self, whereas when I travel I assume other roles, depending on the purpose of the trip. At home, I have rooms filled with writing resources and tools; I’m surrounded by comfortable clothes and furniture. Traveling to a retreat forces me to choose what I will need, and I might forget something vital.

Work Space

Work space is a high priority for a writer who takes the job seriously; dozens of sources discuss the importance of assigning exclusive space to writing. Even a closet or the corner of a room can be a beginning, and help a writer to achieve the mental attitude I’ll discuss later. If you don’t already have a writing office, consider stealing another room temporarily for an at-home retreat. Survey how you might temporarily transform a porch or spare bedroom, stocking it for a brief writing session. You may like it so well you won’t give it back to the rest of the family.

home-retreat-arbor-2016-9-16Examine your home, inside and out, for nooks that might become secret retreat spots even in a busy day: the attic is particularly tempting, especially if access is via a folding ladder you can pull up after you. Shut yourself into a spare bedroom at the back of the house. One writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard; she’s out of sight from the sidewalk six feet away, and unable to hear telephones or raps at the door. Her lack of electricity is outweighed by the privacy. Draw the mental curtains and you’ll feel as if you’re a motel guest, free to set your own schedule.

Meal Preparation

How can you duplicate the retreat luxury of eating meals you do not cook? Analyze your own nature and the possibilities in your location. Mealtimes at home can furnish dangerous opportunity for detours from your purpose, but you need not starve in a garret. Perhaps you’ll prepare for a “retreat week” by cooking meals in a frenzy and stocking the freezer. Or hire a friend or family member to fix and deliver meals every day. (Beware the rampant curiosity about your trade; your cook might, ask, “So, what are you working on? Can I see it? I brought my novel for you to look at.”)

Consider stocking the freezer with microwave meals, or going out to breakfast and buying a prepared meal to eat at your desk at noon. Cache healthy munchies to cut down on cooking and dish-washing, and keep you from stuffing yourself with fats that will clog your brain and pad your bottom.

Necessary Chores

Plan for house-cleaning before you “arrive” at your retreat. One harried middle-aged writer I know schedules errands and meetings for the day her cleaning woman comes; she escapes the woman’s chatty curiosity. When she comes home, the house is tidy enough so she can go directly to her desk, as if she were on retreat.

Or you might train other members of the household to do necessary jobs while you are “gone.” At the same time, make other arrangements as you would for any absence from home: pay bills, think about pet care, and water the plants. Spend a week or two noticing all the business that keeps you from writing, and arranging for it to be completed, or suspended, for the duration of your retreat. You might even choose to “arrive” ceremoniously, walking up the front steps and entering the house as if you are a visitor.

Looking at Locale

Exotic locations lure us toward commercial retreats, but many of us, with work schedules requiring us to leave and get home in the dark, are strangers to our own neighborhoods anyway. As you plan your reproduction retreat, walk around your home with the eyes of an outsider. Identify flowers and trees; watch birds and squirrels; find a perfect pocket rock. Romp on swings and jungle gyms in a park, or play follow-the-leader with children.

A writer I know, who supports his family on his earnings, declares a dog essential for writers; his hound provides a constant excuse for walks while talking to himself. Strolling streets and alleys alone at midnight can be suspicious or dangerous behavior in some communities, unless you’re following a dog.

Carry a notebook everywhere. When a short, relaxing stroll clears up some problem that’s perplexed me for days, I’ve sometimes been forced to scribble on grocery lists and traffic tickets. Once I note a thought, I can examine it as I chase squirrels with the dog, or pursue any other casual activity. If I were washing dishes or putting a load of laundry in the washer, I’d want to finish first, and might lose the idea.


What’s Time Worth?

Before you reject any choice as too costly, consider how much work time is worth to you; check the figures on how much you’ll make if you finish and sell an article or a play. If you have a full-time job, consider how your hard-earned income can buy a writing break.

Writing in a retreat is, literally, buying uninterrupted time to concentrate on writing; time is not a gift but something we must take from another activity. We envision a retreat as a sanctuary from the daily buzz. Our homes should be havens where we make the rules. Unfortunately, many of us have turned our lodgings into snares that keep us busy without writing.

Anyone who writes at home knows that pausing to eat lunch can lead to scouring the kitchen sink and doing the breakfast dishes; you might as well set the garbage bag outside as a reminder to put it in the alley before tomorrow. Since the steps are snow-covered, you sweep them; brushing your teeth, you decide to scrub the toilet, and you’re hanging fresh towels when the phone summons you at the convenience of a persistent siding salesman. Before you know it, three hours have evaporated, and you’ve lost the idea you were stalking when you left your desk.

Mental Remodeling

Creating a retreat at home requires you to remodel your mental machinery for the discipline necessary to establish a writing schedule. Even a committed writer who wins an expense-paid stay in the best retreat on earth can’t work twenty-four hours a day. If you spend more time not writing than writing, you’ve established patterns deflecting you from serious work no matter where you are. Correcting these glitches, readying yourself mentally for the benefits of a retreat, is more important than having paper and a pen, or buying the latest personal computer or electronic pocket calendar. Mental groundwork consists of a combination of self-discipline and determination; these may be a writer’s most vital resources, and they can’t be bought, or taught.

White Crane Karate requires not only physical training, but the ability to picture oneself as a crane. A novice is encouraged to see her arms become slender wings of bone and sinew, her fingertips spread like feathers to gather and shape air. Willowy, powerful legs lift a body sculpted for flight. Students are reminded that each movement must be poised and graceful; have you ever seen a crane stumble?

I can’t assess the precise importance of either mental vision or physical training in mastery of Karate; I can’t say that fifty percent of being a successful writer is disciplining oneself to write regularly. But when my writing is not going well, when I hear only howling car horns and screaming brakes, I picture a crane like those in old Japanese woodcuts, beak and supple neck lifted elegantly against dark clouds. Exercising, I meditate on the same vision.

Charting Time

First, analyze your obligations; what prevents you from spending time each day writing that great American novel? Having a full-time job is no excuse; William Carlos Williams, the influential 20th Century poet, wrote poetry, plays, essays and fiction while sustaining a lifelong medical practice. By cutting your options for writing time, a job may focus you intensely on the hours available, and provide funds to ease creation of a home office or retreat.

Begin by charting your time for a week to discover how you really spend each day. Allot a single page for each day, with categories of activity listed along one side: work, exercise, child care, driving, sleeping. On an adjoining side, record the hours, beginning at midnight. Don’t cheat; log anything you do for more than a quarter hour by shading in a box. Keep the chart with you all the time you’re awake, and record what you’ve done at least every couple of hours, before you forget. Keep track of your time for seven days, a total of 168 hours. At the end of the week, add up the hours you’ve devoted to each action.

Yes, charting one week takes time. But if you’re honest, you’ll learn enough about your own habits in one week to change the priorities of your life, if you want to.

Study the results. Question yourself about what they mean.

Analyze Work Habits

Do you concentrate on finishing a single task, or leap from one chore to another? If you never quite complete anything, you increase your own frustration. How many of the duties on your chart do you want to do? How many are truly unavoidable? Does your family help? Do friends encourage you with positive attitudes about your desire to write? A writer can sabotage her own goals if she hasn’t cultivated discipline.

Using what you have learned from reviewing the chart, build a schedule reflecting your priorities. Remember, writing is a job, so as soon as you get serious, you’ll start trying to sneak out of it. But being serious about writing will help you believe in its importance, which in turn will help legitimize it in the eyes of friends and family members. Planning is part of a program to improve your self-discipline.

Building a Work Schedule

  1. Schedule unavoidable jobs first, along with necessities like sleeping and eating; be realis­tic.
  1. Plan errands. Itemize household tasks like cleaning, doing laundry, fixing meals; delegate jobs among those who share your home. Consolidate errands, saving time by doing several in one part of town. Avoid leaping up in the middle of a poem to buy a can of corn for supper; a few “quick trips” can destroy a timetable.
  1. Establish specific times for relaxing pleasure. Since you know time is limited, make choices that will help your goal; substitute a walk for a TV program if exercise clears your head.
  1. After chronicling other parts of your average week, schedule writing periods as carefully as you would devise time for another paying job. Don’t plan to begin eight hours of writing at nine Friday night. Can you use a quiet office an hour before work each morning?

Keep time charts in your writing journal so you can repeat the process later, to see progress or make changes. Even one hour a week of writing time will improve your skills. Gradually, you may increase the writing time wrested from other obligations. Try a “retreat day,” before you’re ready for a week. Thinking of yourself as a writer helps reinforce the discipline and determination you need.

Consider the Telephone

HOME RETREAT cell phones 2016--11-4.JPG

If you’re trying to think of a word that rhymes with “paramour,” will you answer the phone? Most days, we allow that insistent jangle to snatch us out of intimate moments, but a telephone is only a tool; we can choose how it serves us. Determine your priorities. Consider turning it off while you work. Get an answering machine; turn the ringing sound low, or off, or move the phone far from your work area, so you can honestly say you didn’t hear it.

Tell chatty friends you’ve got “a deadline,” or you’re “on retreat;” instead of explaining, let their assumptions answer their questions. A deadline implies that someone is paying you, and a retreat might have artistic or religious significance, lending both terms a dignity most people are reluctant to invade. Better yet, leave a message on the answering machine designed, after all, to explain for you. After you finish work, listen to messages and return calls; with luck, you’ll get someone else’s answering machine, saving still more time.

At a retreat where I spent several weeks, the only phone in the house was tucked into a cramped alcove off the kitchen. Sometimes a staff member would be close enough to answer it, and place a message on the kitchen table to wait until the next time I came down. No one ever knocked on a closed studio door unless the house was on fire. Writers and artists in residence were discouraged from talking or using the stereo or television in the retreat’s communal rooms during the day.

Loving Silence

Uninterrupted silence is a major attraction at many retreats, since our lives are so noisy, but it’s not ideal for every writer. I loved the particularly rural silence at a retreat house in a mountain valley a half-mile from a tiny village. Occasionally, a logging truck whined up the dirt road, or a resident horse whinnied, but even if all the residents of the hamlet shouted at once, I couldn’t have heard them through the thick adobe walls. Conversely, a writer who came from New York City discovered she could not adapt to the quiet; she drove twenty-five miles to the nearest café each morning to write amid the babble of conversation. Each day, she wasted gas and money because she did not know she was uncomfortable with too much tranquility.

In your facsimile retreat, silence enough to work may be relatively easy to find, with a little practice and firmness. If street noises are distracting, shut windows; in hot weather, set up a fan. Wear foam earplugs. Be determined and you will find a way.

Lock the door, and put up a sign. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on a chain across the road to her house when she is painting or thinking:

I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.

A sculptor in New Mexico hangs a warning on her gate:

Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.

Clearly, you must be determined, and sometimes ruthless to other people in order to use time as you choose. My parents trained me to be unfailingly polite; I struggled for years to be cordial and still prevent other people from wasting my writing time in meaningless talk. Finally, I realized that even discourtesy is not always enough to preserve the simple human necessity of time alone. A retreat constructs an automatic barrier to protect your time. But if you learn to protect it yourself– if writing is that important to you– you’ll gain more than two weeks of peaceful work in a chaotic year. You need not be rude, simply firm. “Sorry, I can’t do that” usually works.

Once you’ve solved some of the problems, declare “writing days” or “retreat days.” If you stop writing to do household chores, make your penalty harsh enough– cleaning the garage?– to remind you not to do that again.

Retreat Luxuries

home-retreat-bouquet-2016-9-16A real retreat furnishes special effects, but you can duplicate some of these at home. My perfect retreat was surrounded by wooded hillsides where I often walked with my dog and the house hound. One day, I noticed a tangle of wild grape vines and selected three brilliant red stems to display in the empty green bottle I’d found on my last walk. My former country home and my new city home are both surrounded by wildflowers I’ve planted, but I seldom stop writing to pick nosegays. Arranging the grape vines beside a whitened jaw bone on the broad window ledge before my desk did not break my concentration on a knotty problem in the essay I was writing, but the bouquet brightened other hours at my computer. These days, remembering the joy of arranging that window sill scene, I’m more likely to take a refreshing walk among my flowers without losing concentration on the day’s writing job.

We can make such energizing rites part of any ordinary day, simulating the atmosphere of retreat. Light a candle; breathe deeply while gazing into its modest glow. Lock the bathroom door and take a hot bath with the blueberry-scented crystals Aunt Emma sent you last Christmas. Swaddled in a quilt on the couch, read a book, being careful to wrap the quilt so tightly around your ankles you can’t possibly get up to answer the door or telephone. Choose a signal to tell yourself it’s time to switch to thinking about writing. Perhaps you can grind coffee beans for the perfect cup of coffee to take to your office. Formalizing such a ritual will signal your mind to shift from daily drudgery to the calm necessary to writing. Opening your mind, you may discover the editing your subconscious has done while you were occupied elsewhere. Discipline yourself to go to your work area the instant you realize you are avoiding the labor of writing.

A writing refuge, no matter where it is, won’t necessarily cause brilliant sequences of words to gush onto your paper. But if a writer learns self-discipline, a home retreat available anytime can be more useful than a two-week excursion to an exotic isle that breaks your budget.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This essay was originally published in Bloomsbury Review in 1995 with the title Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat

Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.



The signs quoted in my essay appeared in from Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. (NY: Ballantine, 1992), also a good source for building self-confidence. Don’t be intimidated by the book’s massive size; a deft reader can skim the repetitions and catch relevant highlights.

The Writer On Her Work, Vol. 1 and 2, ed. by Janet Sternburg. Novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers talk about finding time, work methods, and other issues of importance to any writer.

Google “writing retreat” and you’ll get thousands of choices in seconds, but be wary. A listing is not a recommendation, and not all writing retreats are entirely dedicated to improving your writing; some are dedicated to making money.

http://www.writing/ lists writing retreats and workshops all over the world, categorizing them by genre, month, state, and other methods of focus. lists worldwide retreats with resident writers. Source for Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States, and similar resources. has similar listings.

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Read, Revise, Relax: Six Steps to a Successful Retreat at Windbreak House

You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.

Good Retreat adYou’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.

Now you’ve decided: what you really need is a writing retreat at Windbreak House. You looked over the website and Facebook page, you’ve sent in your application and yes! You’ve been accepted.

I promise to do all I can to make your retreat a success. This means I’ll give you all the motivation you can handle, but no massage. If you want wine, you’ll have to bring it along.

How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?

Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, whether you come to Windbreak House, or go to one of those places with the luxury amenities. I’ll follow this with ideas for creating your own retreat at home, and using your writing time more effectively.

First: Ask Yourself This

Will I go to the retreat alone or with someone else?

I conduct retreats according to my assessment of how you can achieve your goals. Several weeks before you arrive, you will send me an electronic attachment containing the material you intend to work on. I will read it several times, and write comments and questions about your intent in the manuscript. Then I’ll print copies for each of us. We’ll discuss what I’ve written and your responses to it. You’ll have an opportunity to revise, and perhaps to give me new work on which to comment. During your retreat, your work will be my first priority; we can meet as many times a day as you choose, and I’ll read and discuss with you anything you write. If you want that kind of attention, you may choose to be the only retreat guest in residence.

Good Retreat group 2014--9-12Do you want company? Group retreats can be beneficial; having two or three thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement. Before you ask people you know, however, ask yourself if you’ll work well together, or visit more than you write. Also, each additional person reduces the time I have to spend with you.

If you don’t ask writing friends, you could tell me that you’d like to share your retreat with another writer of the same gender. We can’t promise, but we’d let you know if someone who seems compatible applies for the same dates, and put you in touch if you choose. The kindly critical eye of a stranger can provide valuable new insight.

If you plan to share your retreat with others, remember to consider them in each of the following steps as you get ready for your getaway. For example, we can supply e-mail addresses (if you choose, and don’t already know one another), so you can arrange to cooperate on cooking, purchasing ingredients and preparing some meals, and you might learn about each other’s retreat goals.

Second: Set goals

Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Unless you choose a longer time to stay, your retreat will be two whole days and two half days. We’ll make plans the afternoon you arrive, then spend two full days consulting about and revising the work you bring with you. On the fourth day we’ll discuss how you can create and maintain a writing schedule at home. Twenty years’ experience has taught me that while this may not seem long enough, most people aren’t prepared for deep concentration on their writing for a longer period. During longer retreats your energy and attention may begin to dissipate.

Good Retreat sorting papersDecide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can ask me to make changes in our schedule if necessary.

I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you send it to me. Choose a reasonable size, not a 400-page novel but several problem chapters. The writing does not have to be finished. If you make notes in the text about your questions about the writing, you’ll help me to understand how I can best help you. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? The retreat house has a strong library covering many facets of writing, but we may not have the volume you like best.

When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t bring every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes; organize those at home during down time. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.

Third: What to Take Along

Good Retreat bedroomOnce you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow? Some writers have brought comforting stuffed animals to help them relax—but no live ones, please.

Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on our chilly floors, layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. We have one-size-may-fit-you boots if the weather is rainy, and extra jackets and walking sticks in the closets. Moreover, I have a vast array of coats and umbrellas I will cheerfully loan you if needed.

Good Retreat computerWhat writing materials do you need? Include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. I will put your writing on a flash drive so I can use my printer to produce copies for both of us, but if you want to print your own copies, bring a printer, ink cartridges, paper, cords. Bring your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, favorite books. Windbreak House has extra supplies of pens and pencils along with the usual office supplies like paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape. Again, if you forgot an essential item, I may be able to supply it.

What about food? If cooking relaxes you, consider bringing ingredients for several special meals. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. The Windbreak House kitchen is equipped with dishes (including wine glasses!), silverware, pots and pans, cooking utensils, a propane stove/oven, a microwave, a fridge with a freezer compartment, a coffee maker, an electric coffee grinder, dish soap and linens.

During a retreat of the usual length, you will eat nine meals, including supper the first day, and lunch on your way home the fourth day. Here’s a diagram you can use to plan your shopping.

Breakfast  Day 2 / Breakfast  Day 3 / Breakfast  Day 4


Then plot Lunch Day 2, Lunch Day 3, and Lunch Day 4 (on your way home) followed by Supper Day 1, Supper Day 2, and Supper Day 3. Three breakfasts, three lunches and three suppers.

Good Retreat cookingDon’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so bring plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, bring what you need. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”

Windbreak House water is safe (tested yearly) but hard, with a high iron content that creates a flavor some folks don’t like. We provide bottled water, but you might want to bring your favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated in our arid climate can help you sleep and work more efficiently.

Four: What You Leave Behind

Turn Off CellOf course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, and I don’t expect you to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach; feel free to tell them retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.

Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Tell responsible adults that if a real emergency arises, to call the County Sheriff (we provide the number in the retreat packet we mail you) to contact me.

Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. One or two writers have been so exhausted by preparations that they slept most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that my job is to help you write the best that you are able on your chosen project; I will not knowingly do anything to harm you or your writing.

Good Retreat dinner together

Before you settle into the retreat house, I’ll guide you on an orientation walk inside and out, so you are comfortable with the house and its surroundings. We’ll have dinner together (I bring my own), while discussing your goals and plans for the retreat.

Then you will be alone, or with your chosen companions, on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you have favorite bath salts? (Our bathrooms allow for both showers and baths.) Chocolate? Wine?  A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Bring along anything legal that will help you relax into your stay here. Take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.

Five: You Are Here

Good Retreat write and writeHere’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.

When you arrive, I will already have spent hours reading and re-reading your submitted writing and composing comments. I’ve learned the hard way that if I give you these comments the first night, you might stay up late reading and revising instead of relaxing. Therefore, the next morning, I will bring you a printed version of these comments and leave you alone to read and absorb them. Then we’ll meet to discuss my comments and your responses, and how they will affect what you are writing.

Together, we’ll decide the next step. You may revise this first piece and return it to me for more comments. Or you may bring more writing for my comments. At each phase, I’ll consult with you about what you want to do next. I’ll provide handouts referring to any problems I see in your writing, and perhaps suggest additional reading to help you proceed.

Good Retreat hands with papers

When we talk, I suggest that you take notes to help you recall oral comments I may make; conversations always bring more insights than I have had in my solitary reading of your work. If you disagree with my ideas, say so; discussion may lead to improvements I haven’t considered. Even if you think I’m wrong, take note of what I say about your work; at some future time, you may decide I made good points. If you quietly ignore my suggestions as you revise, I won’t object; we will continue to work together. Tastes differ, and my experience in writing and publishing does not make me, or any other person who comments on your work, infallible.

While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished

The day your retreat ends, we will discuss how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband or wife, the house or garden.

Good Retreat write at homeBefore you leave the retreat, we will consider how you can establish a writing place and time at home. I’ll suggest ways to stay focused, and to begin your new program before you, or those voices of guilt, can talk you out of it. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.

Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.



Promoting Your Writing

AlbertChinaSeriesOne of my heroines in the writing business is Susan Wittig Albert, who besides being the author of the popular China Bayles herbal mysteries and founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for writing women, has written books for young adults, books for women on life-writing, and all kinds of work-for-hire books when she was learning her craft. Her Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place focuses on how she made the shift from University professor into a new marriage and writing career. Along the way she provides all kinds of writing advice.

“Marketing,” she says, “is a necessary fact of the writing life.” Many of the writers who question me don’t ask about writing details: they want to know how to market. Almost all of them say, as I do, that they understand the difficulties of writing, but they loathe marketing and don’t know how to do it. Susan Albert agrees.

“Jane Austen never went on a book tour, or put together a brochure advertising her work, or handed out bookmarks.” Modern writers must do these things, and because of the Internet, the emphasis on promotion has grown. Writers are encouraged by publishers to set up web sites, blog, and be on Facebook. She adds, “Writers also do bookstore signings, give library talks, go to conferences, and generally make an effort to flaunt themselves, sometimes with the financial backing of their publishing house, usually not.”

“Usually not.” That’s an important omission. Even writers fortunate enough to publish with big companies often get no promotion budget these days; they are expected to do all this time-consuming self-promotion without pay. And all these activities take time away from the writing that got them published in the first place.

SocialMediaLogosI approach self-promotion with the same attitude I have toward drinking alcohol: moderation. Neither drinking nor self-promotion is really necessary to preserve your life and sanity. Both can provide feelings of euphoria. Over-indulgence in either leads to headaches, and makes you wonder just what you said that left you with a feeling of loathing.

My method is to try to make self-promotion enjoyable but I do have a particular advantage. I couldn’t promote as well as I do without the thoughtful help of an assistant who maintains my website, Facebook page and WordPress blog. She also edits my writing, and decides what gets posted where and when. Because she has alerted me to the way these social media work, I sometimes get ideas that help with the promotion, but mostly I am able to do what I believe I do best. I write.

If you are a writer who needs to promote, look for someone to help. This might be a friend, employee or both (if you’re as lucky as I am), whose skills make promotion enjoyable and understandable. Perhaps you can barter with this person: your skills for his or hers. But don’t be chintzy; remember that unless someone is reading what you are writing, you can’t pay for the electricity to run your computer, so be prepared to understand what promotion is worth to you and compensate accordingly.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


For more information:

These two entertaining blogs found at address the difference between pushing yourself on readers and pulling them into your writing.  The reader comments below each blog also have some good ideas.
Please Shut Up: Why Self-Promotion As an Author Doesn’t Work
Wait, Keep Talking: Author Self-Promotion That Actually Works

Website for Susan Wittig Albert:

Website for Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries:
There are many more titles than the 12 shown at the beginning of this blog, and I own every one of them.

Website for Story Circle Network:
I am a member of this organization and am featured in the Professional Directory here:
Story Circle Network Professional Directory

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Top of the Refrigerator: A Writing Metaphor

How long has it been since you cleaned the top of your refrigerator?

Refrigerators are the least standard of modern appliances, but most are at least 70 inches tall— taller than most of us who are likely to be cleaning the tops of them.

Naturally, then, the tops of refrigerators make a great place to toss things— either decorative items, or things you know you’ll need but not right now.

Top of Fridge 2016The first thing to catch the eye on top of mine is a butter churn. Let me explain. My kitchen cabinets hold an assortment of antique and decorative items: cobalt blue canisters, wooden and pottery bowls, antique cups and a coffee pot. But the churn I used to make butter when my father bought a cow so I could learn to milk and make butter when I first moved to the ranch at nine years old is too tall for the cupboards. It’s on the refrigerator along with a basket into which my partner and I toss our receipts until one of us adds them up so we can divide our household bills evenly. Neither of us are tall enough to see the top of the refrigerator in the normal course of our daily activities. The cupboard over the refrigerator holds serving dishes I seldom use, but want to keep.

Out of sight, out of mind, runs an old saying.

However, recently I stepped up on a chair to reach a wooden bowl that was just right for serving some homemade rolls. Somehow I managed not to look too closely at the top of the refrigerator as I opened the cupboard, but I put a hand on the refrigerator top to steady myself.

Eeeuw! My hand slid in a greasy black film.

I was raised by a mother who believed a clean house superseded all other needs. I fought against her narrow views, but they affected me; once I’ve seen the top of the refrigerator, I’m doomed to clean it. I grabbed my spray bottle of the handy-dandy homemade cleaner for greasy sinks (recipe follows) and sprayed it liberally over the gunk.

As I scrubbed, it occurred to me that I had been having a hard time starting anything new the past few weeks. I’m immersed in the third or fourth or tenth draft of a book manuscript that requires daily attention as I work through its twists and turns. I need to pay attention to it, but I also need a daily lift of a new idea to inspire me.

So: how is the top of a refrigerator likely to inspire writing?

That refrigerator is in the center of our daily activities. We open it for juice and cream in the morning, for sandwich fixings at noon and to find onions for soup and limes for gin and tonics in the evening. And yet we seldom look at the top. In fact, knowing what we know, housewives may deliberately avoid looking.

Similarly, we may be searching the distance for writing ideas when we need to be focusing more closely.

The next morning, I followed my usual routine: got up, let the dogs out and back in, and settled in bed with coffee, my journal, and a book. When I opened the journal I realized that it had been days since I actually wrote anything besides the date, the weather, and what I needed to do that day, along with plans for lunch.

So on this morning I looked out the west window and noticed that the Black Hills were beginning to turn pink as the first light that would become sunrise shot up and over the house and fell on their tops. I described the almost imperceptible way the hills begin to change from black to peach-colored, a glow that seems to come from within, like a blush. As the light greCoyote 4 2015--11-26w I wrote about knowing that coyotes were working at their dawn hunts, slipping down the draws, sniffing at the rabbit holes and vole trails, and heading for their dens. I couldn’t see the coyotes, but knowing they are there reminds me that this grassland is healthy and its animals busy pursuing normal lives because I raise cattle here, rather than building Walmarts or trailer parks. And those coyotes are part of the work force that keeps the grasslands uncluttered and the air pure for the folks who are zipping up and down that highway visible out my window. Most of those folks live in one of the subdivisions popping up on former ranch land around me. They want to live in the country, but they don’t understand how dependent they are on ranchers, cows, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other prairie dwellers for the amenities that drew them out here.

Cora Corner 2016

My eyes fell on my “Grandmother Corner,” where I have framed five of my Grandma Cora Hey’s doilies, examples of her art, along with a bookmark made of needle-tatted lace from a friend and a tiny piece of Hmong embroidery that would have fascinated my grandmother. On the adjoining wall is a collage I created and framed, including photographs of Grandmother at her wedding, clowning with my mother, feeding her chickens, and reading in her favorite chair. Arranged around these photos are a handkerchief she prized, her biggest crochet hook, a buttonhook, a curling iron and a ring she treasured. Looking closely at these items, and listing them, reminded me of my grandmother’s smile, her wisdom, her hug.

LMH Coras items framed 2014--11-18 smallFifteen minutes of observation had provided me with a couple of paragraphs of writing that led me to a variety of thoughts about the world outside my bedroom, as well as reminding me of a woman I haven’t written nearly enough about.

I put down the journal and began to pet one dog while massaging the other one’s back with my feet. Before long I’d found and removed a couple of stickers, earning myself a growl, a reminder I need to check the dogs daily for stickers, parasites and good health. Though they sleep with me, it’s easy to ignore minor problems, distracted by their playfulness.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

What is so close to you that you haven’t seen it lately?

And perhaps what have you carefully avoided looking at?

Try this tomorrow: sit down with your journal and look. Describe what you see. Tell your journal what it means to you. See where these thoughts may lead. My reflections here total slightly more than a thousand words, from fifteen minutes of paying attention.

And clean the top of your refrigerator. Here’s my homemade sink disinfectant, made from a recipe I found online; it cuts grease and kills most germs. I use it on my sink, stove, and counters too.

2 Tablespoons dish soap
1 Cup vinegar
2 Tablespoon lemon juice

Put this in an 18-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. Spray happily!


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Keeping Journals in an Electronic Age

In the same way that it’s more satisfying to eat food you’ve grown on your own ground and cooked with your own hands, writing from your own experiences can do more than create publishable words.

Writers who find material in their own experiences, beliefs and tastes learn to know themselves more thoroughly and can translate that information into knowledge of other people. Insight into others is one of the elements that makes writing universal, and thus appealing to a wide variety of readers.

Journals 2016--1-22One way to discover the evidence that leads to writing with broad appeal is to use a journal, writing in it anything and everything that interests you at the moment. Eventually, you will need to sort and winnow the collection of observations, but the more you collect, the more material you will have from which to select the best.

I’ve kept journals since I was nine years old when my mother married a rancher and we moved to the ranch. My journals included my first attempts to write, the beginning of my understanding that I might be a writer, and all the evidence of the things I learned about myself as a child and teenager and young woman.

During my first marriage, I left my husband for a couple of months to sort out my thoughts— and took my journal along. When my husband and I got back together, “to give our marriage another chance,” (that didn’t work, since his behavior didn’t change), I told him everything important that had happened while we’d been apart.

But he didn’t trust me, so he read my most recent journal.

My short-sighted response was to burn all the journals I had kept until that time, from the ages of nine until I was 24 years old.

My action was hasty and foolish, the most destructive thing I’ve ever done to my own writing in 70 years of making mistakes. For a long time I did not understand just how much harm my own action had done to me.

His reading my journals meant that he had violated not only my privacy, but the trust between us. I realized that just as I couldn’t trust him not to read my private papers, I couldn’t trust him to keep his promises. (I shouldn’t have needed to learn that lesson again; he had already violated our marriage vows several times.)

But more importantly, burning my journals meant I did not believe I deserved privacy. Burning those pages and pages of my own life meant that I thought so little of myself that I could add to his hurting me by damaging myself. I burned journals that he’d never seen and would never have read. I burned journals that were my record of my own childhood. Now, nearly 50 years later, I remind myself how foolish I was whenever I’m tempted to make harsh judgments on the actions of others.

Somehow I believed that destroying my most private self would help my marriage, a belief of such incredible stupidity that I still have a hard time admitting it, and believing that I did it.

Burning those journals was erasing much of my childhood from my mind. When I read the accounts of people who lose their memories as the result of injury, I know how they feel. I lost all the smells and sights and thoughts and emotions that I’d recorded— and I did this to myself. I can’t even blame my husband, because my action was not a logical response to his behavior. I should have left him immediately, taking my journals with me. Almost any action I might have taken at that time would have been better for my writing, and therefore for my soul, than burning my journals.

Your journals— and your letters, your photographs, and perhaps today your tweets and blogs— are your record of the experiences that will create your writing. They are the evidence from which your writing will arise and your life will find resolution. No matter who you are, or who you become, you need to be able to write fully and honestly. You can’t do that if someone may read your material without your permission.

LMHcomputer2011My journals were in paper books, so I could have put them in a locked box and kept them secure from any prying eyes.

What effect will it have on writers if they keep journals online, in a blog or other form that strangers as well as friends may read?

Many people seem to be using online writing forums the way I use my paper journal: to work out thoughts and ideas. Writing online is so easy; fire up the computer and pour those glib words out. Often one can receive positive comments, or clicks that indicate “like” within seconds.

But when I write in my journal, it’s in my hands, so it’s impossible to read without my permission. If your journal is online, anyone may read what you write, no matter how wise or foolish it may be. FaceBook, Twitter, public blogs, and other “social media” I probably haven’t even heard of make it possible for anyone to express their own views about your words.

Will someone’s anger or misunderstanding about your written words damage your faith in yourself, or cause you to drop an idea that might have taken you to another dimension?

Will the ease of writing and the joy of quickly seeing your words available to the public make you settle for facile thoughts? Will you write what you think people want to see in order to get those approving clicks of “Like”?

My first expression of an opinion is rarely my last thought on the subject. I shoot off my mouth in my journal as blithely as a drunk in a bar, without thought of the consequences. And I can do that, because no one is reading. Like the drunk in the bar, will I get punched in the snoot if I make stupid statements online?

LMHwrites2012In my journal, I can take time to carefully winnow through all the possible nuances of my opinion, considering my prejudices, my preferences, and all the other matters that lead me to express what I really think, and I need not consider the opinions of others.

The first draft of anything is highly unlikely to be the final draft. When I try to perfect my thoughts, I write and rethink and revise— that is re-vision — the piece dozens of times. If my first draft appeared in print and gained positive comments, would I bother to improve it? Or would I settle for writing, and thinking, that was inferior to my best?

Furthermore, to publish online is to publish legally. Your copyright is probably protected, but there is some uncertainty about copyright laws online. And some people don’t know that copyright is likely protected for online utterances, and believe they have the right to adopt your words as their own. Online theft may be harder to define, and harder to stop, than plagiarism.

In addition, publication online is giving your words to the public— the equivalent of putting them in print. I find it much harder to revise something that’s in black and white on a page, even if no one else has seen it. Once it’s gone out into the world and been read by others, it no longer seems like something I can change.

You cannot know what might be important in your journal. An experience you have recorded but that’s too painful to read this year might provide insight you need to survive, or material for a novel, in five years. But if you have posted that story online, and read reactions to it from others, will you lose its freshness, lose the impulse to revise and revise until you discover precisely what its meaning is to you?

And if someone compliments you on the writing, will you decide the writing is satisfactory, even if it does not say precisely what you mean?

Writing even, or perhaps especially, in the middle of terrible grief, pain, excitement or terror, can provide you with valuable information on yourself and your life at a later time. If your process of quiet contemplation over meaning is diverted or lost among the comments of others, might you miss the steps in development you need to take as a human being, and as a writer? I’m afraid writers who keep their journals online, open to the public, will lose important parts of themselves in the garbled, facile, momentary reactions of others who have access. Online, you have no control over who reads your work or what their reactions might be. By the time you have revised multiple times and your work is placed in a print medium, you’ve had time to consider possible responses to it, to protect yourself with reasoning from some of the extreme viewpoints.

Before posting online, consider writing in your own paper journal, or in a private computer file. Then refine the work either by retyping it into a computer file or by revising it. Once you have confidence in what you have written, consider carefully when and how to expose it to public comment. Does it belong on a page dedicated to a particular interest group where you might gain insights from readers’ responses? Perhaps you can learn from the experience, as some writers do when working with a group of sympathetic writers.

The key to understanding your life may lie in the thoughts you record in your journals as you live your life one day at a time. In order for those journals to be useful to you as a writer, you must own and control them. If you publish them online, you may lose that ownership in a variety of ways. “Life,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “can only be understood backward, but we must live it forward.”


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Writers Be Wary: Publishers and their Contracts       

Most writers, even if we begin writing primarily for ourselves, begin to dream of publication. So when someone finally offers us a book contract, we may be so excited we forget to be careful.

Be wise; plan ahead. Prepare yourself for that happy day by collecting information about the complexities of publishing before you see that first contract.

The first step should be to remind yourself that publishers are in business to make money; that aim does not always mean they are looking out for your interests.

Traditional publishing has changed greatly in the past decade, and many established publishers won’t risk publishing work by an untried writer. Your best chances of seeing your work in print are to work with an independent — “indie”– publisher or consider self-publishing. Both avenues can be very satisfying if you are careful to make informed choices, but both have particular dangers.

Publishing contracts vary so widely that it’s impossible in this short commentary to warn you against every possible infringement of your rights. Read carefully. Most importantly, if you don’t understand a contract provision, ask your prospective publisher– and seek independent information about that clause from a knowledgeable source, like a writers’ organization. If you prefer to consult an attorney, be careful to find one who specializes in copyright and publishing problems. Most attorneys do not study such matters, and you don’t want to pay their hourly fee while they research your problem.

Don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Remember: the publisher will always protect its interests, and that might not mean the same as protecting yours.


Questions to ask before signing a contract:

1. Does the publisher copyright for the author?

If the publisher copyrights the book in the publisher’s name, then it owns the copyright to your work. A legitimate publisher copyrights publications in the name of the author. Ask for samples of several recent books.

According to the most reliable source, the U.S. Copyright Office, ( the copyright notice should appear within the first few pages of the book and should contain all three of the following elements close together:

(1) The symbol © (letter C in a circle); the word “Copyright”; or the abbreviation “Copr.”

All forms of this word are acceptable, but some form of it must appear.

(2) The year of first publication.

If the work is a derivative work or a compilation incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the derivative work or compilation is sufficient. Examples of derivative works are translations or dramatizations; an example of a compilation is an anthology.

(3) The name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of owner.

An example of the full copyright notice might read: © 2012 Jane Doe.

The name following the year date should be the author’s name, not the publisher’s name. If the publisher’s name appears here, the publisher owns the copyright in perpetuity and the author has lost the right to his or her own work. Some publishers either don’t know this, or want to hijack copyright. In addition, some organizations which provide grant funding for authors consider any work produced during the grant period as a “work for hire” and do not copyright for the author but for the organization. When applying for or accepting grant funds, be sure to determine whether you will own the copyright to any material written during the granting period.


2. Does the publisher register the copyright in the author’s name with the U.S. Copyright Office?

In the past, when a publisher accepted the author’s assignment of rights in a publishing contract, the publisher assumed responsibility for performing all the tasks associated with copyright, including preparing an appropriate copyright notice and including it in the published work. Then the publisher forwarded the required number of copies of the book to the Copyright Office, and with the appropriate paperwork to register the copyright. Later, the publisher might assist the author or the author’s heirs to renew copyright. All this was considered part of the publisher’s job because it protected both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement.

This is no longer the case, but registration remains important to the author. If your publisher does not register copyright for you with the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s essential that you do it yourself.

Chicago Manual of StyleThe most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration

Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

To summarize: if your published work isn’t registered, you might have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright if it is infringed, as well as paying all the attorney fees yourself.


Who’d want to steal poetry? you ask. In several instances, a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree and was hired to teach on the basis of it. With printing so accessible now, it would be easy to put a new cover on someone’s book, add your name, and sell it yourself.

For more information, search online for “Plagiarism Cases” and be amazed.


3. Does the publisher place ISBN numbers on its books?

The ISBN, International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally. The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors. Each ISBN also identifies a specific publisher, and helps to identify and circulate books properly in the industry supply chain.

Beware unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs, who may offer to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices. This activity is a violation of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram. If you have questions, contact the US ISBN Agency for further advice.

The ISBN Agency assigns ISBNs at the direct request of publishers, e-book publishers, audio cassette and video producers, software producers and museums and associations with publishing programs. For more information, see


4. Does the publisher place bar codes on its books?

ISBN trioLook for a bar code on the back of the book. A bar code is a binary coding system consisting of varying widths of vertical black lines (called bars) and white spaces that when read by an optical scanner can be converted into machine language. Bars and spaces are just one of many “elements” that make up a bar code. Without a bar code, many wholesalers and distributors such as Amazon will not stock the book. Some wholesalers may put one on and charge the author for doing so. If this step has been omitted accidentally, it may be possible to apply labels with barcodes.


5. Has the publisher been accepted into the Cataloging in Publication (CIP) Program by the Library of Congress?

A Cataloging in Publication record (aka CIP data) is a bibliographic record prepared by the Library of Congress for a book that has not yet been published. When the book is published, the publisher includes the CIP data on the copyright page thereby facilitating book processing for libraries and book dealers. Every publisher/imprint must have already published a minimum of three titles by three different authors.  There is no charge for CIP processing. For more information, see


If an independent publisher does not have ISBNs, does not have CIP data, or has no bar code on the backs of the books, consider why not. The publisher may have published too few books to have explored these important steps. Or the publisher may be ignorant of the legal requirements and benefits of publishing your work, or perhaps does not take responsibility for selling the books published. Each of these steps makes it easier for libraries and bookstores to acquire the book, so your best interests will be served by a publisher who can provide these services.

If your book is a chapbook, or small volume and you expect to handle sales yourself, perhaps within a small regional area, you may not need an ISBN, CIP data or a bar code. But if you expect your book to sell to bookstores, libraries and a wider audience, consider your alternatives carefully before signing with a publisher who is ignorant of these benefits or unqualified for them.


6. How does the publisher distribute the books published?

ISBN numbers, CIP data and bar codes all contribute to better distribution, but the publisher should also have access to numerous major distributors, particularly Ingram, and others who sell online as well as market to bookstores and libraries. Ask for your publisher’s list and look for information on those distributors. Virtually all books can now be sold on Amazon, so check for the other possibilities.


How can you tell if your publisher is able to produce a quality book?

A major change in the publishing industry is that self-published books can now be listed on sites like Amazon, as well as sold in bookstores. Small and independent publishers have a long history of doing a good job of publishing books that larger publishers might not consider, but which are important in our history. However, some publishers may be new to the business and may know very little more than the author does about it. Anyone can learn to self-publish, and many sites exist that will walk you through the process attentively. You may not need a publisher.

Before deciding to publish with a small or independent publisher, consider some of the following and try to draw conclusions from the evidence offered by the publisher’s work.


— Is the publisher stable?

SFWA screen shotEven publishers with plenty of capital go broke fairly often. How long has your proposed publisher been in business? How many books has it published?

For an extended discussion of risks of signing up with a brand-new publisher, see this post from the Writer Beware blog, New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query.


— Is the publisher capable of producing high-quality books?

A publisher is responsible for overseeing the selection, production, marketing and distribution of new books. Many larger publishing companies require at least a BA in a related field, such as communication, English literature, or journalism, along with relevant work experience. Various colleges offer certificate programs in publishing that can range from two intensive weeks to 15-credit-hour courses, as students learn about editing, production, design and marketing. Emerson College offers a course that includes working on a business plan for their press or magazine.

Try to assess your publisher’s abilities. An independent publisher may not have an extensive educational background but still may be well informed about the responsibilities of the job. But all that’s necessary to become a publisher is to put up a website and call for submissions. The amateur publisher may have a great desire to publish good books, but lack the knowledge to do the job well. For an example of what this might mean to you, read “The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing.”


— Does the publisher really intend to publish or is the supposed business a scam?

Traditional publishers, real publishers, invest in books. They are selective in their purchase of manuscripts, accepting books designed to enhance the reputation of the press. They pay for specific rights; larger publishers pay advances and royalties, and they promote their authors. Of course they hope to make a profit, but they take the risk that they will not, because they believe in the process.

A vanity publisher is one that requires the author to pay for some or all publishing costs. Sometimes the resulting book is so poorly produced as to be unsaleable. A little research can produce horror stories: a supposed publisher may take the author’s money but disappear without publishing. Some publishers have delivered unbound galley proofs, and when the authors read the contract, they discovered no specific language promising binding. Vanity publishers may pretend to be legitimate until the author has signed the contract and the payment is due. Read the fine print: the vanity publisher may offer “one-stop shopping,” promising to edit the book, design the cover, and publish the book– but in some cases the editing, the design, and even the ISBN number belong to the publisher, so that all profits accrue to the publisher instead of the author. The vanity publisher’s primary purpose is profit, so its services are usually priced far higher than those offered on the open market.

At every newspaper and publication for which I’ve worked, the official policy was to throw away books produced by vanity publishers without looking at them. Because the newspaper knew the press would publish anything for money, it would not review any of the books from the known vanity publishers.

Though vanity and subsidy publishers are often lumped together, some publishers operating on a subsidy basis negotiate costs with the author, accepting some of the costs but not all. A subsidy publisher may offer a package deal, wherein the author pays for some services, while the publisher pays for others. Thus a subsidy publisher may be legitimate, and may turn out decent quality work at a fair price.

Self-publishers do all the work themselves, pay all the expenses, and get 100% of the profits. They edit their own work, or hire an editor; design the book or hire a designer; hire a printer, and do every other step connected with turning a manuscript into a book.

Unfortunately, a writer’s eagerness to be published may make him or her gullible to publishing schemes. Writer Beware provides a distressingly long list of case studies of such scams; reading it can make you more aware of the language that can signal a scam. For the best discussion of the differences, see the Writer Beware site, which includes a list of the best-known vanity scammers.


— Can the publisher promote and sell the book as you expect?

Even if your publisher is legitimate and has good intentions, the limitations of a small budget may mean books don’t get promoted enough to reach buyers. How does your publisher promote your book?


— Does the publisher only sell online, but you want to see your book in stores? Does your publisher promote the books only on a website and social media? Bookstores have specific requirements for the books they accept for display and sale. They require a 40% discount on the retail price, and must be able to return unsold books, so costs of shipping or delivery must be factored into your arrangements. Some stores only accept books on consignment, paying only if the books sell; you might get all your books back in a month, slightly worn from being handled. Some publishers consider this all too much trouble; you might do better to handle local bookstore sales yourself.

Ask for samples of the publisher’s books. Then compare those books to those published by large and reputable publishers. Which book would you choose based on the book’s appearance?

Sometimes independent publishers set the books’ text with narrow margins to save paper, making the type look crowded. Some small publishers use odd types, difficult to read. Does the font chosen for the page numbers differ from the font used for the text? Does each book have an individual look or are they all similar? Both these situations may signal a book created online, not designed individually in a way that enhances your subject.


— Look at the covers of the publisher’s books. Are they readable and well-designed? Does the publisher have a cover artist or will you be required to furnish a cover? Does the cover fit the book’s mood and content? The cover is your first, and often your only, opportunity to impress a customer; it should be easy to read and informative as well as attractive.


— How much will your book cost the customer? Compare the price with that of similar titles. If your book is more expensive than books on similar topics, it may not sell.


— Ask for a clear accounting of what costs you will pay. (Look for information on Vanity publishing and Cooperative publishing to see if this publisher fits one of these profiles.)


— How much are royalties and when are they paid? Royalties can be confusing so seek information. Some print on net receipts or net margin, meaning that print and distribution costs are paid before your royalties. Royalties may be paid quarterly or yearly, but specifics should be included in your contract.


— Does the publisher answer your questions clearly without losing patience? Does he or she return phone calls and messages promptly and coherently? Does the publisher say he or she has made calls or sent emails that you did not get? How large is the publisher’s staff? When you telephone or email the publisher, who answers? Is the response professional? Is this a business or a weekend hobby?

You may not automatically decide to decline offers from a part-time publisher, or one with a small staff, but if publishing is not the primary business, or if the staff is small or inexperienced, you might encounter delays you did not expect.


— Look at the publisher’s website and other social media sites like Facebook. Are they easy to navigate? Is information clearly organized? When was the last update? What is the most recent publication?


— Study the comments from readers, book buyers and authors. Are they positive? Ask for contact information for several authors and ask privately how the publisher has treated them during the publishing experience. The publisher should be eager to provide you with this information.


— Does the potential publisher make extravagant claims for how many copies your books will sell and how much money you will make?

No matter who publishes your book, you will need to work hard at marketing to sell a substantial number of copies. The more visible you are– doing workshops, giving talks, appearing on media outlets– the more copies you are likely to sell.


— What is your author discount? Since you will have to work to sell your book anyway, you should not pay retail price for copies of your book that you purchase for resale.


— How long will it take to publish your book? Three to six months is usual and acceptable. Be sure delivery time is stated in the contract and that penalties exist for the publisher if the contract deadline is not met.


If you are happy with the answers to these questions, you may have found a publisher you can trust and with whom you can work. If not, keep looking, or consider self-publishing– and that means you must do more research.


Here are some reliable resources for learning more about publishing:


WritersLegalCompanionThe Writer’s Legal Companion by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren: get the latest edition; this may be the best money you ever spend as a writer.


The Poets & Writers Guide to the Book Deal: again, get the latest edition; a download may be available. P&W is especially good on the definition of your rights as an author.


One of the best sites for general information about writers is the Science Fiction Writers’ Association’s  Writer Beware, which lists alerts for writers, names publishing scammers, provides information about provides information including case studies, editorial services, small and vanity presses, contracts, contests, agents and other relevant matters.


The website Keep Your Copyrights is written by Columbia Law School, and is packed with specific information. For example, the site provides copies of various kinds of contracts– literary, academic and so on– and rates them according to the advisability of signing them.


The Authors Guild:
If you are eligible to join, you can get information packets, legal services and other perks including dental insurance. Eligibility criteria include income of $5000 from writing during the past 18 months, publication by an “established U.S. book publisher,” or other requirements. The Authors Guild also offers associate membership with requirements that are less stringent. See this link for more information:


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Love Beside the Windmill: Know Your Copyright Law!

Writers, this article exists in two parts, like a lavish meal with a rich dessert. The meal is healthy and good for you, but you may find it tedious to finish every bit. Read carefully, though, and you’ll earn dessert.

Part I — The Main Course
Copyright: So Simple It’s Confusing.

CopyrightRedCopyrights are exclusive rights owned by the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or how they are fixed on the page.

Knowledge of copyright is the author’s responsibility; you should not ignore this important aspect of your writing life. This knowledge is more important than your knowledge of grammar, submission guidelines or how to spell.

Here are three things you need to know about copyright.

1. When copyright exists
Copyright is created in a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. That means when you hit “save” on your computer, or finish hand-writing or typing your poem or novel, or post your blog or your comments anywhere at all, your copyright in your own written word exists.

The U.S. Copyright Office puts it this way:

Copyright law protects a work from the time it is created in a fixed form. From the moment it is set in a print or electronic manuscript, a sound recording, a computer software program, or other such concrete medium, the copyright becomes the property of the author who created it. Only the author or those deriving rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright.

2. The copyright notice
Putting a copyright notice on your work is only an announcement of your ownership; the notice does not change your copyright. Many authorities now say the notice is not necessary. Still, the notice on your blog, for example, reminds people who may not know the law that you own the rights to reproduce your own words and they cannot be copied without your permission.

The copyright notice consists of three elements:

1. the word or symbol for copyright:

or the abbreviation Copyr.
or the symbol ( c ).

2. the name of the owner

3. the year of publication.

So a copyright notice may read Copyright 1983 Gloria Writer or (c) Gloria Writer, 1983.

Until 1989, works had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under U.S. copyright law, but no longer.

3. How to register your copyright
If you want– or need– to enforce your copyright in a court, you must have registered the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration is your best protection in the event of a dispute over who owns what you wrote. Since you cannot know if someone is going to steal your work, requiring you to sue them for damages or to correct the record, you should register published work.

Register the copyright by:

1. Filling out the required form, obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office

2. Sending the form with a fee and 1 or 2 copies of the published work to the Copyright Office (As of June, 2015, the fee for a book by a single author is $35 to $55. See

Only work registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is registered; there are no alternatives. “Poor man’s copyright”– mailing your work to yourself and keeping the envelope unopened– proves nothing; you might have mailed the envelope unsealed and inserted the work at a later date.

*   *   *

That’s it; now you know the most important things about copyright. But here are some additional details on various topics within the body of information about copyright that might help you understand the procedure.

Getting reliable information
Scams abound. If you have only a vague idea of what copyright law means to you, go immediately to “Writer Beware” at, the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction. This site has the most succinct, easily accessible and clearest information on copyright I’ve found.

The page clearly explains what copyright is, when and why you should register your copyright in published work, and the most common myths of copyright. (I have heard at least one of these myths from aspiring writers every time I have given a talk on writing.)

The Writer Beware site notes:

Unpublished manuscripts: you do not need to register this work; theft is highly unlikely.
Published short stories and articles: registration is a good idea, though the magazine’s copyright may cover your writing.
Published book-length manuscripts: registration is essential.

Recently I discovered that even trade publishers may no longer register copyright; small presses often don’t want to spend the money; and self-publication means it’s your job. So, no matter who is publishing your work, ask if the copyright is registered and then look on the copyright office website to see if registration has been completed.

What if you don’t register and discover that your published work has been stolen? You can register within five years of initial publication and you can still sue, though your damages may be limited.

Does all of this seem complicated and boring? Do you lock your house at night? Your car? You can always buy a new TV set or Chevrolet. Respect your work enough to put at least as much effort into protecting the work of your mind and heart.

Your rights
When you enter into a publishing agreement, remember that you are granting the publisher permission to exploit– that is, to publish and distribute for profit– your work. You have granted that publisher a portion of your copyrights for a specific period of time. You do not lose them, but you are allowing someone else to use them for a specific and limited time. During that time, the publisher intends to make money from your work, so the publisher’s interests may not always coincide with yours. Therefore you need to understand your contract and what it does to your rights. You should not publish a book without signing a contract.

There is one exception to the principle that you own what you write. As the U.S. Copyright office puts it:

There is, however, an exception to this principle: “works made for hire.” If a work is made for hire, an employer is considered the author even if an employee actually created the work. The employer can be a firm, an organization, or an individual.

The concept of “work for hire” can be complicated, but know two things: you do not own what you write for hire, and you cannot profit from it. When I knew less than I know now, I once signed a work for hire agreement. I find it frustrating to know that no matter how many copies of that book are sold, I will never make a dime from it beyond what I was paid in the contract– nor can I use any of its contents in any other context.

Copyright notice
A person’s creation should always be absolutely attributed to that person, for whatever profit, financial or otherwise, accrues. But the idea that a work belongs exclusively to its creator is being steadily eroded. Some folks think it’s perfectly all right to take a poem written by someone else and rewrite it, presenting the resulting piece as their own. Others think that if it’s on the Internet, the work is not protected. Including the copyright notice helps warn these folks.

However, do not put this notice on your work when submitting it for publication. Agents and editors who see this notice on unpublished work will think you are either ignorant of the law or don’t trust them– not the impression you want to give.

Registering copyright
You might lose your copyright not because someone is unscrupulous, but for other reasons. Ignorance can be destructive.

A publisher agrees to print your book of poems. You are ecstatic. You do not sign a contract; after all, we should trust one another and he’s putting his time and effort into creating your book. If the publisher offers a contract, you may be so excited you don’t read it, or you skip over anything that’s not clear.

Small presses sometimes operate with little income, or use the money they make at a paying job to help support their habit of publishing the work of new writers. They try to sell the work but rarely does a book published by a small press make back its expenses, let alone a profit. They may not know how to copyright your work, or they may be too busy, or think it’s too expensive.

Moreover, the Internet now sports all kinds of agencies who offer to copyright your work, or register copyright, for a fee, always considerably inflated from what you need to pay.

The warning published by Writer Beware about these folks is blunt:

In the USA, there are a number of online services that will register copyright for you with the US Copyright Office, for a fee. You can even purchase software that provides you with addresses and copyright forms.
Don’t waste your money. It isn’t difficult to register copyright yourself, and it will cost you a good deal less than the services (currently, registration costs between $35 and $65, depending on whether you register online or on paper). For freelancers and others wanting to register more than one piece or work, the US Copyright Office offers a multiple-registration option.

The benefits of copyright registration

Chicago Manual of StyleThe main reference work for every serious publisher in the country is, or should be, The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s now available online, and the publisher even offers a free trial period at

The most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration
Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

That’s the importance of copyright registration: if it’s not done, and your work is stolen, you will have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright, and you’ll have to pay attorney fees yourself.

Traditionally, registering an author’s copyright was part of the publisher’s job as protection for both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement, where someone copies another writer’s work and sells it.

However, I have recently learned that many publishers no longer consider registration of copyright part of their duties. I learned this by discovering that several of my copyrights had not been registered.

You may ask “Who’d want to steal my poetry?” The answers are various. I’ve heard of instances where a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree, and was hired to teach on the basis of it. Even when the scam was revealed, the offending professor kept the job, and the author received no compensation.

Part II — Dessert
Copyright Infringement: My Story

When I first began publishing my work, even the smaller publishers like Fulcrum, High Plains Press and Barn Owl understood registration of copyright to be part of their responsibility. In fact, when my copyright was infringed upon, one of the smallest of those presses– Barn Owl Books– found me a good copyright lawyer and joined me in bringing suit. And we won, but we might not have if the copyright hadn’t been registered. Here’s my story.

As a writer, I have kept journals since I was nine years old. In the 1980s, I began to read a lot of stories in environmental magazines suggesting that one family ranches would be driven out of existence by “agri-business,” huge multinational corporations. I decided to record the work we did on the ranch, so that if one-family ranches vanished, a record would exist so we could recreate them at some future time. At worst, my record would be historical. I began collecting material from my journal to write a book on how ranching is done. By the time I’d read through about 20 years of journals, I was enjoying the journal form, and remembering how many types of journals have been published, so I put together some sample months from my journals, and, began sending those samples, one by one, to publishers .

Months later, after my book had been rejected 26 times, I noticed a listing for Barn Owl Books in Berkeley, CA. I wasn’t hopeful that a publisher in Berkeley would be interested in my book, but the “barn owl” suggested an interest in the rural, so I submitted the samples for the 27th time. The publisher turned out to be a woman who ran a publishing company by herself and had published only one other book at that time. But she loved my journal, and she and I worked on editing it for three years before it was finally published in 1987.

Linda signs WINDBREAK 1987--9-11 - Copy
Autographing my first copies of Windbreak at the publication celebration in California, 1987.

Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains is a daily journal covering one year on the ranch and was favorably reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. But the most enjoyable thing about it has been the responses it has generated from people all over the country. Old ranchers have written to me, telling me to hang on, because it’s a wonderful life; a young woman wrote to tell me of a cheaper kind of long underwear; a goat farmer sent me some homemade cheese; a North Dakota woman wrote to tell me she has kept a similar journal for 50 years. A book reviewer in California said she didn’t even LIKE cows, but after she read my book, she heard about a blizzard out here and found herself saying to her husband, “I wonder if Linda’s cows are all right.” Suddenly I have friends all over the country. Yesterday, 28 years after the book was first published, a man with a Southern accent called to tell me he had just read the book, and how wonderful it was; “I had no idea how hard it is to be a rancher,” he said, and promised to loan the book to a lot of other folks who would enjoy it.

The year after the book was published, I was named as Writer of the Year by the South Dakota Council of Teachers of English, and inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in honor of my writing. All of this was the good news.

Among the many letters I received about my book, however, was an anonymously sent copy of a letter a reader had sent to Parris Afton Bonds, the author of a romance novel titled That McKenna Woman. The letter said, in part, “I very much resent paying $2.75 for a book that I assume is original material, only to find that so many parts– the best parts in fact– are in no way original.” The letter explained that the “best parts” she referred to were taken from my book Windbreak. I later concluded that the letter alerting me may have come from a disgruntled friend of the author who knew about the theft and chose this way of informing me.

I bought a copy of Bonds’s book, and soon found more than 70 passages which echoed my own words. My anger increased as I saw that my published account of my life with my beloved husband had been used to give credibility to a trashy romance novel about a Hollywood actress, convicted on a drug-dealing charge, who is sentenced to six months labor on a cattle ranch. My husband, George, tried to appeal to my sense of humor by complaining that the sex scenes were unrealistic, since we were always too busy to make love beside the windmill!

I later learned that the author had given a writing workshop in Wyoming. Likely she bought my book there, since I had given workshops for the same group.

IMG_3189That fall, despite the death of my husband after a long illness, I went ahead with the lawsuit. With the help of my publisher, I brought charges of copyright infringement against the writer and Silhouette/Harlequin, one of the biggest publishers of romances. The romance writer had been paid $10,000 each for three romance novels; in the course of the lawsuit, I obtained copies of the two which had been published, and a manuscript copy of the third, which never appeared in print. All three contained quotations from my book. She made far more money for her books than I did from mine.

I won the lawsuit, but the expenses cost more than the money I was awarded by the court, and also considerably less than the romance writer made from my work. Still, the publisher recalled the first novel in the series, shredded the second before it left the warehouse, and cancelled publication of the third in the series. The author continued to advertise the books on her website for some years after the judgment, though the titles have finally been removed.

One clause in the settlement agreement was particularly galling. The publisher offered me more money if I agreed never to speak about the lawsuit. But I’m a writer and teacher; I thought it was important to be able to educate other people about the ugly realities of creative theft. I was, however, enjoined by the court from using the term “plagiarism.” I can only say that the author committed “copyright infringement.”

At the conclusion of the lawsuit, we issued a press release including some of the relevant passages and showing just how my copyrights had been infringed:

Windbreak, p. 26: A true Hunter’s Moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver disc as it rose.

That McKenna Woman, P. 40: “It was a true hunter’s moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver dollar as it rose.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 126: “The women talk about who had babies and who died. The men talk about wetter or drier years and worse winters.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 107: “The women talked about who had had babies and who had died. The men discussed wetter or drier years, and worse winters.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 72-3: “Why do we do this? No one ranches for the money, and it’s not that we’re all masochists. It’s as though we have a covenant with nature, that we’re bound to see it through, to figure out a way, every year, in every emergency, to survive. It’s less like a battle than a marriage. The problems perhaps serve to enhance our feeling of accomplishment when we succeed, and the more complex or dangerous the situation, the greater the exhilaration when we live through it.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 66: “Why do we do it? he asked himself. Certainly no one ranches for the money. It wasn’t as though he enjoyed suffering and hardship. It was as though he was honor bound to see this through every season, every crisis. When he succeeded, he felt as if he had accomplished something. And the more difficult or dangerous the circumstance, the greater the exhilaration when it was all over and he had come out triumphant.”

*  *  *

So: writers, be persistent in working to get your work published. But when you have interest from a publisher, rein in your enthusiasm until you are sure you understand what the contract offers.

Once your book is in print, get the proper form from the U.S. Copyright Office, fill it out, pay the fee and send the required copies to register your copyright. In doing so, you are not only defending your own rights to your work throughout your lifetime, but protecting a valuable asset for your heirs.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

U.S. Copyright Office
The website of the U.S. Copyright Office offers all the information you need to register copyright, phone numbers to call for help, and a contact form; I have not used it, so I don’t know how quickly you could expect a response. The site has a list of frequently asked questions, and offers informative publications and tutorials to download. The website may seem overwhelming at first but stick with it and you’ll be able to narrow your focus to the one form you need to fill out for your particular copyright.
See for information about current fees.

Beware of Copyright Office Imitations
Note that and other similar websites are not the US Government’s site, though these website may show up at the top of an online search and may look very official with eagle emblems or other governmental words and logos. They are private companies that claim they can simplify the copyright registration process for an additional fee. The website puts them in the “unnecessary” category. Look for “.gov” in a website name to know whether you’re on the US government site or a private company’s site.

Science Fiction Writers Association
Another great writing resource is the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction to use this website, though a membership fee or donation will help keep the website up and running. While you’re there reading about copyright, explore some of the other information offered: “Alerts for Writers” names unscrupulous agencies that prey on writers, as does the “Thumbs Down Agencies List and Publishers List”. The SFWA website discusses literary agencies, editors, contests, self-publishing– virtually any topic that might be of concern to a writer who wishes to publish– and the language is clear. (Here’s the assessment of a press that held fraudulent contests: “Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.”) I recommend keeping a shortcut to this site on your desktop for a check on anything puzzling.

The Chicago Manual of Style
The main reference work for every serious publisher– buy the book or buy an online subscription. A free trial is available online and you can borrow a copy of the book from your local library.

Here are some other sources of copyright information that seem legitimate: (see copyright myths) (see copyright myths)

Looking for Grandmother: Revising A Poem

Here’s a poem that, I believe, begins in nostalgia and ends– many years later– in discovery.

Edgemont Cemetery gateMy records indicate that I took notes for this poem on May 25, 1998, when I was working on a prose piece about walking in cemeteries. Driving from my home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to the ranch in South Dakota, I often stopped at about the halfway point to walk my dog in the cemeteries for the little towns of Sunrise and Hartville, Wyoming. Once, deliberately, I stopped at the Edgemont, South Dakota, cemetery and realized I couldn’t recall exactly where my grandmother was buried. I spent a long time looking for her and thinking about the irony of not being able to find the ground that held this woman who was so important to me.

In 2007, working from those 1998 notes, I began writing a poem I called “Looking for Cora.” Thinking about not being able to find her reminded me that every day I used objects she had owned. I took satisfaction in recalling– though it is not in the poem– that when we met in her little house to divide her belongings, some of her heirs took the most expensive possessions, like silverware and sets of dishes. One cousin and I collected humbler objects.

Looking for Cora [or Grandmother?]

1          Today, walking in this dusty cemetery,

2          I cannot find the plot of earth

3          that bears her name. No need.

4          I greet her every day, using the towels

5          she’d stored in deep drawers.

6          I wore out the frayed ones first,

7          as she would have. Eighteen years

8          after her death, I still haven’t had to buy

9          a kitchen towel. Probably they were gifts

10        from people who didn’t know

11        what to get her. Last week I used the last

12        of her last jar of Noxzema. I’m finally

13        old enough to be someone’s grandmother

14        myself, ready finally for the smell

15        that reminds me of her; old enough not

16        to care what I smell like as I get into bed.


17        When all her towels and bars of soap are gone,

18        I’ll still be using her bread bowl; her wood-handled

19        potato peeler will still hang on the wall.

20        And when they all are gone,

21        when I am nearly gone myself,

22        I’ll see her hair and the bones of her face

23        when I look in a mirror. See her wedding ring

24        on my cousin Sue’s left hand. That’s fine.

25        It never would have fit over my knuckles,

26        growing thicker, more like Grandmother’s

27        every day.

All the elements of the poem’s longing are in that first draft. Lines 7-9 mention her kitchen towels; I take pride in wearing out the frayed towels first because she would have done exactly that. Handling her towels– touching the things she touched– brings the sensory experiences closer in my memory, and recall to me (lines 11-15) the sharp smell of Noxzema, which I know will evoke specific and vivid memories in those readers who have smelled it. That realization leads me to humor: that although I am not a grandmother, I am now old enough to be one, and old enough not to care how I smell in bed (lines 15-16.)

Cora Belle.
Cora Belle.

Lines 22-23 mention Grandmother’s face in my mirror, and lines 23-24, the wedding ring that my cousin Sue wears. Because I had taken careful notes, including all five senses– sight, sound, smell, touch, possibly even taste– I was able to recreate the memory of walking in that burial ground nearly ten years later, and recall specific details of my Grandmother almost two decades after her death August 9, 1980 at age 88.

Revising called my attention to other rough spots in the poem as well: the repetition of “last” in the lines 11 and 12, and the repetition of “gone” in lines 20-21. The emphasis of the poem shifts when the poet mentions being “nearly gone myself,” taking the reader’s attention away from the central figure of the poem, Grandmother, and the particulars of her life. But the poem is supposed to focus on my search for Grandmother, both literally in the cemetery and metaphorically in my memory, so although I mention my swollen knuckles in the final draft, I shift attention back to Grandmother.

What changes most from draft to draft is the title– from “Looking for Cora” to “Looking for My Grandmother” in 2010 to “Looking for Cora Belle,” and back. Her melodic name was important to me, but I found myself resisting including it early in the poem.

An important improvement in the revisions is in the length of each line, and thus the rhythm. The first draft, written in 2007, is rocky. First drafts should be a mess, because the intent of beginning is to collect all the impressions that come to mind when you are deciding what to write about. So I’m pleased to note that nearly every detail that is important to the final poem was already in this draft.

Though the rhythm is awful, I’ve read the completed version of many “free verse” writings (I decline to call them poems) that are as bad. Apparently some novice writers think that capturing the specifics of an event on the page completes the poem. Not so. Now it’s time to work on rhythm. To demonstrate, I’ve capitalized the syllables on which emphasis falls in Lines 1-5 of this version.

“ToDAY, WALKing IN this DUSty CEMetery,


that BEARS her NAME. No NEED.

I GREET her EVery DAY, USing the TOWels

she’d STORED in deep DRAWERS.

There’s no consistent rhythm in those lines; reading them makes me grit my teeth rather than recall the woman that I knew and my reason for searching for her.

I put the draft aside and apparently didn’t work on the poem again until November 23, 2010. Perhaps I returned to it then because Twyla M. Hansen and I had begun to discuss doing a book of poems together. I knew the draft had good material, but it needed serious work.

In pursuing a smoother rhythm, I kept the length of time since her death “eighteen” years because the word has two syllables, whereas twenty-seven, the actual length of time she’d been gone, has an awkward four. And while it’s believable, and was true, that I was just finishing her Noxzema after 18 years, 27 might have been hard to believe. That odor is my favorite memory in the poem, sure to awaken responses in anyone who has smelled it.

Noxzema jarWhen I read the finished version of this poem to an audience for the first time at the 2015 South Dakota Book Festival, I was delighted to hear gasps of recognition, and see nods as women remembered Noxzema. The women with hair as gray as mine laughed at the idea of smelling like Noxzema in bed, but younger women looked slightly puzzled.

The tangible possessions that I’d kept as souvenirs of my grandmother’s life, such as her bread bowl and her towels, remained in all later drafts, but I took her potato peeler down from the wall and made it an active part of the poem by writing the truth: I was still using it, and one of the blades was wearing thin. Yet the poem is becoming a combination of true events with the truth of the poem: even though I changed the number of years since her death, the truth of what she means to me has become stronger.

On November 29, I revised the poem again, and this time the rhythm became more consistent.

I’ve WANdered this DUSty BURying GROUND

for an HOUR, BACK and FORTH aMONG the GRANite


I CANnot FIND the PLOT of EARTH that BEARS her NAME.

Of course when the poem is read aloud, the emphasis on these syllables isn’t as pronounced.

In each of several 2010 drafts, I made the lines longer, so the poem became more truly a prose poem, more like a conversation or a reflection than a rhyming poem. I removed the space that had previously divided the poem into two stanzas because I felt it had become more like a soliloquy, the act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud as if one is alone.

Elmer Baker, the grandfather I never knew. He died when my mother was just a girl.

Working on the poem made me recall more details of her life. I had known that her husband was killed in a “logging accident” near Mount Hood, OR, but years later I obtained his death certificate and discovered that he was beheaded when he fell under a train. My grandparents had married in Wheatland, WY, where her family had moved after living in Oklahoma for “a spell,” as she put it. After Elmer was killed, grandmother moved back to Wheatland with her two babies, my mother and her brother. Grandmother later told me that the railroad gave her $100 and a ticket to anywhere she wanted to go as compensation for his death, since there was no insurance. His brother borrowed the money from her, so, short of funds, she moved to Edgemont, SD, another train town, and opened a “dining room” with her sister Pearl. Later, she married a local mechanic, and when he was given a small ranch in payment for a debt, moved with her two children to the ranch where she and her second husband had two more boys. Her second husband dropped dead beside her after pitching off a load of hay to their cattle.

Writing up the poem conjured grandmother so completely in my mind that I remembered how I had recalled that small fact about the dining room as I looked from the cemetery hill down over the little town. And that memory somehow told me where to look for her in the cemetery. The final line becomes the success of the poem and my search. As I worked through the drafts, changing the title by removing Grandmother’s name, I had finally concluded that it would be more effective if, as I searched, I kept her name to myself until I found her. Perhaps the reader would think of her own grandmother until her name rings out as part of my discovery of her grave in the final line.

Here’s one more reminder of how the process of revision works, and why it may never be quite complete. Spending several hours with this poem as I write this essay has drawn my attention to an error I wish I’d caught before publication. In line 13 and 14, I wrote:

When all her towels

and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

I inserted “lotion” both because I was using her hand lotion, and for the line’s rhythm; the line would not scan as well if I’d written “lotion and bars of soap,” but the phrasing makes it sound as if I’m using up “bars” of lotion. I should have placed a comma after soap.


This is the poet’s life: revise and revise and revise again several times after you think the piece is finished. Knowing when to stop revising is a different problem!


Here’s the finished poem.

Looking for Grandmother

1          I’ve wandered this dusty burying ground

2          for an hour, back and forth among the granite

3          stones, pink quartz, squares of shattered concrete,

4          but cannot find the plot of earth that bears her name.

5          And yet I greet her every day in my own kitchen.

6          I use the towels she folded on the shelf above the sink,

7          gifts from folks who cared for her but didn’t know

8          what she would need or want. I’m wearing out the frayed

9          ones first, as she would do. Eighteen years after she died,

10        I still haven’t had to buy a kitchen towel. Last week

11        I finished up her last jar of Noxzema, finally

12        old enough to be someone’s grandma; old enough

13        not to care how I smell in bed. When all her towels

14        and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

15        be using her bread bowl, her potato peeler worn so thin

16        it’s nearly wire. In my own looking glass, I see her hair,

17        the strong bones of her face. Her wedding ring gleams

18        on my cousin’s left hand; she’s younger. My knuckles

19        are swollen thick and growing thicker, more like

20        Grandmother’s every day. Somewhere in that little town

21        below this hill, she once ran a dining room. Finally

22        there she is: just below the water tower.

23        The dusty stone reads Cora Belle.


(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.



Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Writing: Where I’ve Been — The Squirrel on the Fire Escape

I touch the brakes as a squirrel races across the highway. He flings his tail forward like an oar, propelling himself to safety in the rabbit brush well ahead of my tires.

My Westie, Frodo, lunges over the back seat and stands with his paws on the dashboard, barking. He’s never caught a squirrel, but in the city they taunt him from treetops, so he’s sure they are legitimate prey and therefore can be yapped at.

To distract him, I reach for his bag of treats but it’s empty. Without looking away from the highway, I find trail mix in my grocery sack and give him a peanut while I eat an almond. He eyes me suspiciously, surmising that what I’m eating is better than his snack. But if I gave him an almond, he might behave like a squirrel I once corrupted.

A photo of me taken close to the time period of this story. Was I flirting with the photographer? I’ll never tell.

In my senior year of college, facing graduation, I knew I’d have to decide soon whether to go back to the ranch to marry a local boy or try to make a life for myself in the competitive world where most people live. I worked then as a reporter on the night staff of a daily newspaper, watching the news from Viet Nam and assessing my nerve to see if I had enough to be a war correspondent. I didn’t, but I entered a marriage that proved nearly as unpleasant in the long run.

Each morning I drove sixty miles from my upstairs apartment near the newspaper office to graduate classes. Each afternoon, I drove back to Sioux City, Iowa, the biggest city I’d ever seen, population one hundred thousand people. I lived in an old Victorian mansion that retained a few traces of its former elegance, like a beautiful old woman wearing a ragged velvet gown. From my apartment on the top floor, I looked out on a broad avenue where the city’s blue bloods first reigned. When the children of these aristocrats fled to the outskirts of town, a medley of humbler citizens moved in, including my Jewish landlady who rented the top floor after her husband died and her son moved out.

In my apartment’s one large room, faded wallpaper was embossed with red and gold roses. A couch and two worn chairs defined the living room by sitting with their backs to a bed tucked under a roof slope so steep the ceiling touched my head when I read in bed. When I lay down to sleep, the attic came alive with shuffles and squeaks. Though I knew from experience the sounds were squadrons of squirrels cavorting among the resident bats, I pictured a different scene. My landlady had said that during the Twenties, when a bootlegger owned the house, her beaus spoke softly of visiting these rooms to get illicit liquor. They whispered of lovely women who may have sold their favors on the side. As I drifted into sleep, the thumps and whispers in the attic became a dream of soft music and slim women in short fringed, the beads and the ice in their drinks clicking as they danced in the shadows. A secret back stair in the closet had been closed off years before, because it was too narrow for modern safety standards.

Sioux City Stately House
Though not the actual house I stayed in, this old house in Sioux City is representative of it.

The tiny kitchen created by walling off one corner of the room was efficiently fitted with oddly-shaped cupboards. One door opened into a dining room with polished oak floors, a battered but aristocratic buffet, and double doors opening onto a porch big enough for one chair. The porch topped an ugly fire escape required for apartment buildings by federal regulations, attached like an abscess to the house’s facade. One evening as I sat on the tiny porch above the wooden stairs, eating peanuts and tossing shells over the railing, the squirrel entered my life. She clung to a tree branch overhead and screeched while I whispered sweetly, trying to lure her closer. When I went to work, I left a few peanuts on the railing.

Each evening after that, I left a few nuts on the porch. And every day, while I stared into the refrigerator hoping to find better food, she scampered back and forth on the railing, chattering.

Timing her arrival to mine was harder than it sounds. I drove to graduate classes at the college sixty miles away every day. I came home each afternoon to rest or study before bicycling to the newspaper where I worked from five p.m. until one in the morning. The squirrel soon identified both my vehicles. I’d often see her a block away, scampering along a high branch toward the porch to wait on the railing until I got inside.

On my days off, I put peanuts out each afternoon, shut the door and watched as the squirrel approached, advancing one hop and retreating three, until she could snatch a peanut and leap to a branch. Success or winter made her bolder. By the third month, she’d grab her peanut while I stood inside the open door. By spring, she’d sit on the railing beside my chair, eating from my opened palm.

When summer arrived, with memories of mowing hay on the ranch, I grew homesick and feverish. Walking sleepless along the river late at night, I could picture snow melting on high mountains in the north, knowing the winter’s heavy snowpack would soon come roaring down the river. The Corps of Engineers had squeezed the river between artificial concrete banks. Looking north along the walkways was like looking at a big woman who insists on forcing her ample shanks into a maiden’s corset. A flood could burst the concrete stays, flooding the low streets in the valley. Heat magnified the existence of one of Sioux City great attractions, “the world’s largest pile of manure.” Scooped from the busy stockyards, the pile loomed beside the river, bubbling with heat and broadcasting its odors for miles. I imagined a flood dismantling the mound and scattering it over the fields while the smashed remnants of the river walls washed up in downtown New Orleans.

Squirrel 1983

In spite of having a job, I was still a penniless college student, barely paying expense from living off campus and driving back and forth with my night job. Unable to afford air conditioning, I ventilated my attic space with open doors and windows. One evening when I was scrambling eggs for a sandwich, I glanced up to see the squirrel in the dining room. Moving slowly, I placed a peanut on the polished floor. She gobbled it, then sat up and chirped at me. After that, she’d run along the porch railing to rattle the door knob until I let her in.

Keeping my old car running cost more than I’d reckoned. By January, I was eating oatmeal twice daily. With no peanuts in the budget, I rationed a can of mixed nuts from Christmas, doling out one peanut a day until they were gone. The next time the squirrel knocked, I picked out an almond. The squirrel put it down on the floor and looked up. She sniffed it, skittered to the door and back. Finally, she ate it. I fed her the rest of the nuts, mostly almonds because I’d eaten my favorite, the cashews, first.

The day my paycheck arrived, the squirrel pounded at door knob while I was climbing the stairs with my grocery bags. I grabbed the bag of peanuts off the top and knelt in the doorway holding one. She advanced, flipping her tail and looking over her shoulder to check the escape route. She sniffed the peanut on my hand and sat back on her haunches. Then she advanced jerkily to sniff again. I picked up three more peanuts. She marched forward and rummaged among the nuts with both paws.

Just as I realized that she was looking for almonds where none existed, she fastened her teeth in the most almond-like object she saw and ran. Her teeth were locked in my finger. Her running paws scrabbled and slipped on the waxed floor. She dangled from my hand, eyes rolling.

Calmly, I mentioned her error. As her teeth broke through my skin and she tasted blood, I spoke less calmly. She executed a midair somersault, and zipped into her tree. For an hour she sat on the railing beside a pile of peanuts, chattering.

I sat on the couch thinking, feeling every hot pulse in my finger and wondering if I needed a rabies shot. I’d tantalized the squirrel with treats beyond my budget and beyond her ability to fend for herself, taught the squirrel upward mobility. She grabbed an almond and ran on air, confused by the shower of blood. Just like a human.

In the years since, I have applied what the squirrel taught me to my own life. I refuse to covet or buy gadgets without considering the costs and the consequences. Will the item, I ask myself, fit not only my financial budget, but my environmental account?

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015


Afterword to “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape”

When did I write this, asked my assistant Tam, as we discussed putting it on the WordPress site.

Hmm. Since I am, like many writers, something of a packrat and descended from several generations of people who hold onto things, I was able to find the metal file box in which I tracked my nonfiction submissions until about 2001– before computers.

While flipping through it looking for the squirrel story, I spotted the category labeled “Old Manuscripts: not quite dead but on life support.” Behind that divider I find a piece titled “A chocolate éclair with spiders in it,” a 5000-word essay written in 1969 and submitted once. I can’t recall what that was about, but wish I had a copy so I could find out. Another piece was “Overdue Inventions,” written in 1985 and rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor but now lost. I dismantled “The Consequences of Fame,” and used part of it in another piece. I suspect that “Down But Not Out in the Fine Arts Capitol of the World,” written in 1974, might have been about my literary magazine and press. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy: the best food in the West,” was rejected by both High Country News and Northern Lights, magazines which regularly accepted work from me.

But my writing wasn’t all failure; the “published fiction” section of the box includes notes on several pieces I called fiction but which were actually written from my experiences. I incorporated several of them into later nonfiction work.

See how easily a writer is distracted?

In the S section of the Nonfiction Submissions, I find that “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape,” at 1100 words, was rejected by High Country News in 1994, by South Dakota Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest in 1995, then revised and submitted to High Country News again in 1999– and then I apparently stopped submitting it.

The history of this little piece probably demonstrates how I learned about publication success and failure. I suggest to the writers with whom I work that they not submit always to the most popular magazines– like Christian Science Monitor and Reader’s Digest; while the rate of pay is good, those magazines get thousands of submissions and their readers must always be overworked. Instead, look for good publications in your region, where you might build a relationship with an editor and gradually become a respected contributor to the pages.

Persistence did pay off with Christian Science Monitor, which accepted several of my essays. I worked with an editor there I liked, and doubtless the publications helped when I submitted to book publishers. But I developed a closer and longer (still going) relationship with High Country News. One of its editors, Betsy Marston, often wrote concise and useful comments on my work, helping me to revise pieces that she later accepted.

I’ve never been back to Sioux City to drive by the house where I lived, though now I realize that it must have been a four-square, like our house in Cheyenne. I remember my landlady very well; she was an elegant woman with a clear understanding of how hard it was to be young and poor; she was very intelligent and very considerate of me. So when I dropped the glass shelf from my refrigerator and slashed open my wrist, I wrapped towels around it until I realized that I couldn’t stop the gushing blood. I also knew I couldn’t drive, so I called an ambulance– but asked them not to use the siren so as not to alarm her. After I got home with my stitches, she came upstairs several times to be sure I was OK.

I’ve never tried to feed a wild animal again.


Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015