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What I Learned from the Great

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

When asked to find musicians for the intermission of a writers salon at Portland's Heathman Hotel, I said, "Yes." And the next thing I knew, I also became the host of the monthly event. During the next five years, I met some very wonderful writers as well as musicians. In my blog, I share what I learned about writing, music and the art of helping folks enjoy each others' gifts.

One of the first writers I had the fun of introducing at the Second Sunday Salon was Molly Gloss, author of Jump Off Creek and more recently of Unforeseen, a delightful short story collection.

I invited Molly to be our guest speaker soon after the publication of Jump Off Creek, which was selling fast and garnering acclaim.

A few years after this Salon event, I became a program planner for a writer’s organization and invited Molly Gloss to give a weekend workshop. She talked then about planning a novel, and how important it becomes to know the space in which your novel takes place.

During the weekend, we learned that Molly was planning what became the beautiful generational space odyssey, The Dazzle of Day. Her planning of the spaceship revealed a matter of life and death for her characters, and her description of that space is one I still remember many years after reading the resulting novel.

I recently bought a copy of The Dazzle of Day to send to a botanist I have met, because I was certain he would love the extraordinary care that plants inside the spaceship received, even as the people became stir crazy.

When I could do so, I signed up for a class with Molly Gloss at Portland State University, and found great inspiration from her insights into language, the process of research, and the workings of the self-protective human heart.

At the time of her class, Molly Gloss researched her book Wild Life, about a mother of five boys who joins a search party for a lost child and is herself rescued by semi-humans in the northwest woods. The next spring or summer after the class, Molly planned to live in a cabin under the flight pattern for migrating birds – a bit of research for Wild Life.

Since Jump Off Creek, The Dazzle of Day, and Wild Life, Molly has written Outside the Gates, introducing us to Vren, a boy put out of a city controlled by committee. He is shunned to the monsters outside the gate because he asks questions. Outside, Vren discovers another society, a community completely unlike the one that cast him to the ‘monsters’.

There followed The Hearts of Horses, a novel exploring the western life of a woman who trains ranching horses, and Falling From Horses, delving into the imaginary depictions of western-life, and the hard scrabble life of early Hollywood writers and stunt riders.

And now, Unforeseen has finally arrived. Unforeseen celebrates fourteen of Molly's imaginative tales including her best-known story, “Lambing Season”.

I learned from Molly that it is the human interactions that create the story within any place the humans find themselves. We can be in a spaceship or on a Hollywood set, yet the questions the readers want answered are still "What unspoken fears and hopes do our characters have that prevent them from realizing their goals? What personalities and physical obstacles create opportunity or destruction?"

For each character, Molly Gloss made the answer to these questions clear in the accumulation of events in her stories and novels. The Grizzly Bear in Jump off Creek is a benign but very dangerous obstacle. However, the fears and angers of the Osgood kid are malevolent and therefore, even more dangerous.

Thanks to Molly's writing we can be assured that women do not need to be beautiful for us to care about their struggles. Men do not need to be hunks. All need to have fears and weaknesses we recognize in ourselves. When their life goals are human their struggle seems to be our struggle. Our opportunity to read their story gives us perspective on our own character.

Molly taught that the Author needs to raise questions to which Reader wants answers. An author needs to take the time to show the purpose of the character so that the reader cares.

And, as we follow Molly's career, we can see that the author doesn’t have to stick with one genre. Life may be easier if you are always doing the expected, but how boring to always do the expected.

Instead, figure out what your goals are as an author. Will you want to open a mystery store that your readers can always find, and sell lots of mysteries? Or will you want to open a mystery store on one corner and a science fiction store on the block down the road and a suspense store in the next town? How do you want to spend your writing life and how do you want to measure success for you?

Post Script: When you look for Molly Gloss's books, understand that they come with different covers. For example, the cover I have copied here for The Dazzle of Day is for the Hardback version. The ebook/paperback has a completely different design in green and white that also is also indicative of the beauty of the tale.


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