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Photo: Gary Middendorf / Daily Southtown
Maintenance worker Rikk Dunlap talks about the moment his agent told him his novel was being made into a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.

Don’t get me wrong. I know the dark is rising, but there are enough positive things here and there that I can’t help feeling there will always be room for light. As 16th century poet Robert Southwell said about the wheel of fortune, “Times go by turns and chances change by course,/ From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.”

So although I can’t believe in oversimplified, feel-good movies, the story of the guy who is behind this one has the ring of truth. He really did have dark challenges, and he really did use writing to bring light into his life.

Donna Vickroy reported at the Daily Southtown via the Chicago Tribune, “Rikk Dunlap calls it ‘uplift-erature.’ The term, referring to stories that leave a person feeling good, has become his mantra, his guide and his ticket onto the Hallmark Channel.

“It may seem odd that a man who’s seen the dark side of life, having endured alcoholism and recovery and the loss of his job at age 56, would strive to produce work that lets in the light. But it works for him. And, now he knows for sure, it’s working for others. Dunlap’s yet-to-be published novel, ‘The Christmas Tree Lot,’ was recently made into a movie, renamed ‘Christmas Under the Stars,’ by the Hallmark Channel. …

“Though Dunlap, a 57-year-old maintenance worker at Homewood-Flossmoor (H-F) High School, has only seen a two-minute promotional clip from the film, he said seeing his characters brought to life ‘is fascinating.’ …

“Dunlap, who’s lived in Park Forest since he was in fifth grade, says the underlying premise for his story was a simple one — that each of us has something to learn as well as something to give.

“It was a south suburban holiday tradition, the annual Christmas tree popup shop on Sauk Trail in Richton Park, that inspired Dunlap. … When he worked downtown, Dunlap said, he’d pass the lot twice a day. The trailer would show up some time in November, along with the tent and the trees. …

“ ‘My story starts with an investment broker, Nick (Jesse Metcalfe), who squanders some money and loses his job because of it. He happens to meet Clem (Clarke Peters), this old man who runs the Christmas tree lot,’ he said. Working with Clem, Nick learns as much about people — their dreams, their struggles, their imperfections — as he does himself. …

‘I want somebody like Clem in my life. I want this wise older man who can teach me even at my age. I think it’s important for older men and women to pass things down to boys and girls. Some of us have never had that. ..

” ‘At the time I wrote this, I had lost my job after 37 years with an engineering firm. … So here I was at 56, wondering what am I going to do with my life,’ he said. He took a year off to write. Twenty-eight years ago, while in recovery, he found writing. ‘I started using writing as a way to deal with issues coming up.’ …

“Today, as a member of the H-F maintenance crew, he mostly works indoors handling plumbing and electrical issues but pitches in to help line the field or perform other duties when needed. He also shares his experiences through motivational speeches, particularly to high school audiences. …

“ ‘High school is really tough sometimes and, depending on your background and your family and such, we don’t always have the tools to deal with it.’

“He tries to write daily. When he skips, he finds himself becoming irritable and agitated. [So] I pick up a pencil. Even if I just write notes or ideas, it has a calming effect. …

” ‘It can be a really hard world we live in. When somebody reads one of my novels I want them to walk away feeling good,’ he said.” More here.

I can identify with that “calming effect.” Although gifted writers are supposed to be tortured, I can testify that putting together little posts in a quiet corner of the internet every day can have a calming effect on ordinary writers.

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No, I’m not thinking of the 19th century, of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë), or George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin). Masculine names are taken more seriously than feminine ones nowadays, too.

Here is a woman who put it to the test.

Catherine Nichols writes at the Jezebel blog, “The plan made me feel dishonest and creepy, so it took me a long time to send my novel out under a man’s name. But each time I read a study about unconscious bias, I got a little closer to trying it.

“I set up a new e-mail address under a name—let’s say it was George [Suzanne’s Mom asks, ‘What is it about the name George?’] Leyer, though it wasn’t—and left it empty. Weeks went by without word from the agents who had my work. I read another study about how people rate job applicants they believe are female and how much better they like those they believe are male. …

“So, on a dim Saturday morning, I copy-pasted my cover letter and the opening pages of my novel from my regular e-mail into George’s account. I put in the address of one of the agents I’d intended to query under my own name. I didn’t expect to hear back for a few weeks, if at all. It would only be a few queries and then I’d close out my experiment. I began preparing another query, checking the submission requirements on the agency web site. When I clicked back, there was already a new message, the first one in the empty inbox. Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript.

“Almost all publishers only accept submissions through agents, so they are essential gatekeepers for anyone trying to sell a book in the traditional market rather than self-publishing. …

“I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses — three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. …

“I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times.

He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.

“Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25. …

“Most of the agents only heard from one or the other of us, but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent. Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was ‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’ No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty. …

“I quit sending out queries entirely, and used the critiques that George got to improve the book — a book I would have put away in frustration long ago if I hadn’t tried my experiment. The edited draft went to the agent who now represents me, after she got in touch about a nonfiction piece I had written under my own name. Patience, faith, playing by the rules—the conventional wisdom would never have brought me here.” More at Jezebel.

Whew. Now I’m wondering if the fantastic (male) nonfiction writer ML Elrick got some rejection letters because recipients thought he was a female masquerading as a male.  Like JK Rowling. Who now writes mysteries as Robert Galbraith.

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I love Amtrak, and I love writing, but I don’t think I am ever going to do an Amtrak Artist Residency, so I am passing along the info so you can apply. It sounds like fun. Just glimpsing the exposed backs of houses along the tracks with their hints of the private lives lived in them is inspiration for a ream of stories.

William Grimes writes for the NY Times blog ArtBeat, “The wheels have begun moving on Amtrak’s plan to offer writers a rolling residency aboard their trains. … Up to 24 writers, chosen from a pool of applicants, will be given a round-trip ticket on a long-distance train, including a private sleeper-car room with a bed, a desk, and electrical outlets. …

“The idea was born in December when the novelist Alexander Chee, in an interview with the magazine PEN America, casually mentioned his love for writing on trains, and added, jokingly, ‘I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.’

“When Jessica Gross, a writer in New York, echoed the sentiment on Twitter, Amtrak arranged for her to do a trial residency on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago. She agreed.

“Her account of the trip, ‘Writing the Lake Shore Limited,’ published by The Paris Review in February, grabbed the attention of The Wire, The New Yorker and The Huffington Post. Soon after, Amtrak decided to turn the trial run into a full-fledged program.” More on when and how to apply.

Even before that series of events, there was the Whistlestop Arts Train, you know. I blogged about the rolling public art project by Doug Aitken last July, here.

Trains for dreaming. Holiday model train layout at Amtrak’s South Station, Boston.

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When I was working at the newspaper in the early ’90s, beginners were often given the task of writing obituaries. Whether the family or the funeral home offered the information, the assignment was mostly a question of putting the obit in AP style and perhaps making a call to get a key detail. You didn’t often get a sense of the writer’s style in an obit.

Margalit Fox of the NY Times may be an exception.

“Dr. Peter Praeger, a heart surgeon who saved a man’s life and as a result wound up owning a gefilte fish company — and who as a result of that wound up starting a successful natural-foods company — died on Sept. 22 in Hackensack, N.J. He was 65. …

“Though the story of Dr. Praeger’s company — born of two rabbinical prognostications, any number of hairpin turns of fate and the transformative realization that man cannot live by gefilte fish alone — reads like something out of Sholem Aleichem, it began, no less, on a Christmas Eve.”

Dr. Praeger helped to save the life of a man on Christmas Eve and over time developed a friendship with the man’s brother-in-law, Rubin Unger, the owner of a struggling gefilte fish company. The family rabbi made a prediction: “Any surgeon smart enough to save his congregant’s life would be smart enough to save his congregant’s brother-in-law’s gefilte fish company.

“Dr. Praeger demurred: he was, after all, a surgeon, not a fish maven. Mr. Ungar persisted. …

“Who, in the end, can fly in the face of rabbinical foreordination?” asks the obit writer.

“ ‘It was like The Godfather,’ Dr. Praeger told the magazine New Jersey Monthly in 2007. ‘They pulled me into it.’ ”

At his death, Dr. Praeger was as well-known for the food company that emerged from the gefilte fish as for his surgical prowess.

More.

Photograph: Gefilte fish, which Dr. Praeger learned to like in time, http://chewonthatblog.com

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I have been reading a comic book by Jessica Abel, “How to Make Radio That’s Good,” about Ira Glass and his special brand of storytelling for Public Radio International’s “This American Life.” The book was recommended by a National Public Radio guest speaker where I work. The library was able to order it from WBEZ in Chicago, but it might be out of print.

I have to admit that I have never been a huge fan of “This American Life” or the Ira Glass style of speech. But I’m really liking his ideas on how to build a story from a central character and hooking onto “something surprising.”

And I love this little animation of one of the shows, which is a near-perfect illustration of the comic book’s precepts.

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