Dispatches | September 06, 2013

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s writer is S.L. Ragen.

me 003

Tell us a little about yourself.

I live in southeast Iowa, born and raised and will most likely stay here. I live out in the country surrounded by hay pastures and cornfields and I like it. It’s peaceful here and quiet.

I started writing around ten years old. I wrote a Sherlock Holmes knockoff in fifth grade. I read it to the class in a British accent and got to “off people,” in my story which were a few students in the room. They were not offended but entertained so that kind of opened my eyes a little. In high school, I wrote quite a bit but kept it to myself.

In college, I volunteered as a writing instructor at a men’s prison. I stayed on after I graduated another year and a half.It was…priceless. I had to move on though, volunteering is great but it doesn’t pay the bills. I worked odd jobs here and there and struggled with my work. I shelved two half-baked novels and a dozen short stories. Frustrating at the time but I’m thinking it got a lot of shit out of me—so it served a purpose.

I’m taking my time with my work. I’ve got a novel in the works and some short stories. I’m not in a hurry to set something out, I know better than that. When that day comes, I’ll probably get sick but be happy the thing is published, who wouldn’t be? There is a lot of rushing to publish these days and for me it won’t work. It appears the publishing industry is in some kind of whirlwind with the self-publishing going on. I’ve got friends doing it and if they’re happy, I’m happy. To each is own. For me, I’m taking my time and trying to go the traditional route.

Another writer friend and I are collaborating on a writers’ workshop/group in our area. I love the idea of a place for writers to come and just live it. I’m not interested in trying to “teach writing,” or hover over anyone. I like to encourage, just another artist that loves to talk shop. We need more of that, I think.

When I volunteered at the prison, we had us a pow-wow. I moved the podium out of the way the first week. I sat down with them. I don’t claim this is the only way or the right way, but it’s a way. It’s natural for me. I’ve been around the other and even tried it and it didn’t work for me—a two term flirt with the MFA. I’m 32 years old and I’m starting to figure myself out a little. I’ve never been much of a follower. I’m just the kid straggling behind on the field trip, gazing outside of the outside. I’ve had to find my own niche in the world, carve it out for myself. My writing is no different.

What are some of your more memorable experiences teaching writing in a men’s prison?

It was summer and we had a short story workshop going. I met a kid from western Iowa. He was nineteen years old and in for some petty crimes. (I had just one big rule in my workshops: they weren’t allowed to talk about why they were incarcerated. I didn’t want to know and it worked better that way. For me, it was all about the writer and the work.) He submitted a short story and it blew me away. Most of the guys were older, more hardened by life and this kid stood out. His story, a rough draft by the way was damn good.

After class, I asked him, “what the hell are you doing in here?” So that’s how I found out more about him. He talked about his life, the teenage rebellion thing. He had been living with his grandparents, drinking and stealing cars. He look disappointed in himself and embarrassed. He was soft spoken with dark features. Reminded me of Jack Kerouac. We talked about the dumb mistakes we’d made but that it wasn’t the end of the world. And I told him he needed to write, that he was genuinely talented. He didn’t know it. He looked shocked. He said he liked to write but didn’t think he was any good. I said, when you get out of here, you know what to do. Don’t come back. Use this place for inspiration or art but do not come back. Keep writing. He walked out of there that afternoon changed. Something clicked in him and it was visible from there on out. Sometimes I wonder about that kid and hope he’s doing good.

The fellas taught me a lot. I learned how to make prison pizza. All you need is a box of crackers, a little ketchup and whatever else you can find. Get some water from the tap, squish the crackers and pound it out onto the table. Then, squirt the ketchup on and add the rest. Then eat it or try to anyway.

We had a Charles Manson look-a-like show up one afternoon in poetry workshop. He had the hair, the face and the homemade tattoo on his forehead. He came over to our table and tried to intimidate. I welcomed him and told him that we were open for business and to take a seat. He didn’t sit. He wanted to know what we were doing and writing. I said we write poetry. A lot of love, flowers, cute animals, etc. I looked toward the fellas and they all nodded their heads in agreement. We were connecting poetry and our souls, I told him. He shuffled off after he couldn’t rile me anymore and we went back to discussing Charles Bukowski. We laughed over that quite a bit. I suppose we were pretty proud of ourselves.

One day, just before a workshop, I met them outside the library door. The fellas were looking pretty happy. I asked what’s going on? One guy whispered that the warden snuck off in the middle of the night and took most of his office furniture with him. It was a big scandal. Never in the papers either. He took a lot of money too, I guess. The fellas were tall as trees after that. One guy asked me, what do you think if he shows up here as one of us and wants to take a writing workshop? He was laughing. I said, sure, why not?

How do you know when a piece of yours is “Finished”, or that you’re happy with sending it out to potential publishers?

For me, the final draft gets put away for a while and then I come back to it. If everything clicks the way it should –it’s ready to go. When something doesn’t work, I wrestle with it some more and let it rest again. Getting away from it for a good 2-6 months helps me more than anything.

What do you see as the difference between teaching writing and talking shop? Is good writing something that happens organically?

I see teaching writing as a comp class. Basic sentence structure, grammar rules—you name it. It’s an important foundation. But I have found that people learn differently too. I think success in a classroom or workshop is being able to recognize not only the potential in others but also how they learn. “Talking shop,” relaxes the atmosphere and interesting things happen here. If you tell me about adverbs and dangling participles that’s great. I’ll try to avoid them at the next soiree. If you tell me about the character in your novel; a bell hop that never reaches the right floor in his life and that your mother calls you every ten minutes to see if you’re going to get your old job back and we’re hashing all this out over a couple americanos…that’s the difference. It’s a working party. It’s hard to remain constipated in that place.

Good writing does happen organically. There isn’t a formula other than learning in life. It’s simple and that’s why I originally missed it. To be a better writer, I have to explore that on my own which means a lot of failure which is ultimately essential. It’s a trial by fire.

If the formula for good writing is life, do you recommend writing from one’s own life experiences, even if they’re told slant? As in, write what you know?

Write from anywhere or anything. “Write what you know,” has always baffled me and it’s not because I disagree. I think life is an endless supply closet for stories, somebody just has to sit down and work one out—find a way to translate that on a page. Or better yet, imagine the needle in the haystack. You’re a writer but you’re also the needle. Look around. Overwhelming, isn’t it? Sometimes I see all that hay and hope, my God, get me out of this haystack. The day I get out is the day I’m no longer a writer because I’ll be belly up six feet under a stone somewhere.

What are the kinds of stories that you write about?

I write mostly about the working class and the region in which I live. I write about characters that struggle with the good and bad in themselves and others. Years ago, I washed dishes with an old man in a local restaurant. He was the town drunk and nobody liked him. I spent sweltering shifts with him over the sinks. He never talked much until one night. I had heard things about him—that he was a child molester, a nobody drudge. One evening he just spoke. He told me about his fat brother and his crazy mother. He said he went to prison for his brother and because his mother said his fat brother wouldn’t make it over there. He regretted it and he didn’t. He took the sentence and the public damnation for his brother but not for him he said, for his mother. A while after that, the brother was found out and ended up dying of a heart attack. The old man still walks up and down the streets to the bars and works odd jobs. This inspired a work in progress of mine. I’m always fascinated by people.

What do you think is the current perception of the working class in fiction?

Everything I’ve read thus far concerning the working class clicks with me but I’m not much of a critic. My approach to depicting the working class is simple—honesty. Sometimes you can carry this fear of what you’re writing. I’ve learned to write as if no one is going to read it and I can “go there,” without worrying about it. I love to explore characters the most and their world. The struggles of the working class appeal to us because most of us have been there. 

Read anything good lately?

I’m digging George Saunders—which reminds me I’ve got to get back to the library. Do people still go to libraries these days? The best book I’ve read all summer is by a local unknown writer. I found it by accident while looking for something else among the stacks. “Out Here on Soap Creek,” by Inez McAlister Faber. It’s an autobiography and it’s fabulous. She was from right around here. There are those writers you know—that never make the big time and they are (or were) right in your neighborhood. It’s like finding a lost treasure. I’m thinking about writing a play about her one day. That’s pretty lofty but she did inspire me a great deal.

You can find S.L. Ragenon her blog at http://slragenblog.wordpress.com/