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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Jeffrey Dunn shares the inspiration behind his new book, Radio Free Olympia, and his creative writing process.
Written by Jeffrey Dunn
Home Is Where the Woods Are
I have always been attuned to place. For my first thirty-seven years, I never felt at home. Not in the five houses, five apartments, and five cities I lived in. Didn’t like the feel. Not in the seven schools I attended. Didn’t like the smell.
Whenever possible, I escaped to the woods. Born in the US Midwest, I remember moving as a child to the Appalachian Mountains. That was a definite improvement. I soon became intimately acquainted with the environs of our local Bethel Run and Little Puckety Creek.
Luckily, school became tolerable when Mr. David Strellec, my ninth grade English teacher, read us Richard Brautigan’s post-apocalyptic, proto hippie fantasy In Watermelon Sugar. While listening, I learned that the narrator as a child watched two tigers eat his parents, and quite naturally, the tigers subsequently helped him with his arithmetic.
There was so much to imagine: a sun that shone a different color every day, an infinite garbage dump called The Forgotten Works, a living room with a couch beside a river, and Margaret, the jilted ex, who always crossed the bridge to the narrator’s shack and stepped on the only board that squeaked.
And just like the narrator, I wanted to live in a shack and not have a regular name, “Just call me whatever is in your mind,” and just like him, I wanted a proto hippie girlfriend who made hot cakes and painted and who made “a long and slow love” possible. “Wow,” I thought, “apparently, I can use my imagination to make a new self and my own stories.
Armed with this knowledge, I wrote a story, and when I handed it to Mr. Strellec, he read it to the class. My story was about a guy chatting with an emperor penguin in his prison cell. Mr. Strellec said he liked my story, so I wrote some more.
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula
We modern humans have become accustomed to controlled environments. Central air. Packaged foods. Paved roads. In fact, our modern world has become so unnatural that even our experience of nature is controlled by the food processors, the parks department, and lawn care companies. Marx called it alienation, a concept now so foreign that we’ve become alienated from the concept of alienation.
But this was not the case on the Olympic Peninsula. I learned this when I accepted a high school English position in Elma, WA, and nature promptly stepped up and slapped me in the face. I stood in hurricane force winds off the Pacific when there was no hurricane. I watched Douglas firs as big as moon rockets crush McMansions like the homeless stepping on Happy Meal boxes. I lived amidst floods that came and went like the sun and the moon. I grieved after a student’s father went to his logging job, and while working in the woods, a yarding cable snapped, and his head was sliced clean off.
Nature, Self, and Radio Free Olympia
Experiencing the Olympic Peninsula changed my awareness of self. I became aware that I was small and helpless. I discovered that my manifest destiny, Calvinist heritage didn’t fly. And, of course, as my awareness of self changed, so did my writing process. I no longer wanted to be the hand that wrote the stories; instead, I wanted the Olympic Peninsula to write the stories through me. I wanted to be open to as much of the Olympic Peninsula as possible.
In so doing, it all came down to a question of voice, and because a place has no single voice, I started with a clean slate of a character, a foundling who takes his pirate radio transmitter into the Olympic Mountains bent on broadcasting its voices. And, boy, did the voices come. Raven was the first, and he brought more: Coyote and his wife Mole and Dog Salmon and Dog Salmon Sister, just to name a few.
But that was only the half of it. There was also a young woman who creates a women’s roadhouse/shelter/monastery out of her deceased parent’s cranberry farm. And, yes, her poetry journal gives voice to others. Enter White Otter who opens the door to Gray While, Orca, Cormorant, Gull, and so on.
It took ten years, but when the voices finally quit coming, what I had in my hand felt like a jumble of transcripts, a stack of paper that went into a drawer that I pushed shut.
A few years later, my oldest son died, and I grieved and taught high school students. I also tossed all writerly convention into a meat grinder and made fictional sausage. What came out was Carl Jung and his mom driving up the Little Spokane River, letters to and by Mr. White, a mountain whitefish, and Walt Whitman sitting down to a serious conversation with Chief Spokane Gary. When I was done, I called these surreal fictional sausages Dream Fishing the Little Spokane and self-published the lot.
Then, armed with a total lack of respect for self and convention, I tore back into Radio Free Olympia. I reread and rewrote and reread and rewrote some more until I had a manuscript that I deemed shareable. Luckily, Izzard Ink Publishing agreed to turn it into a book, and my developmental editor sent me off to do more rereading and rewriting.
When it’s all said and done, I wonder, what’s all this fuss about the writing process? Time? Effort? Sure, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s not to confuse process with prescription, and that if I’m serious about my creativity, I must keep myself and my creativity dynamic. There is no sure way to be or proceed. No, just keep the ball rolling. Stop doing one thing, start doing another, and then stop and wonder what’s over there. Above all, keep myself small, open my awareness, and most importantly, continue to experience and create and experience and create some more.
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Amazon Author Central: www.amazon.com/stores/Jeffrey Dunn/author/B07QDF3RB3
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