Monthly Archives: January 2021


Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective is now available!  Follow the link to find out how you can get your copy.  It is available in print or as an ebook.  To sweeten the deal, proceeds from the sale of Pages Penned in Pandemic will go to 826 National, a nonprofit that helps young writers.  My contribution is a story titled “The Elves and the Shoe Designer,” and I’m thrilled to be part of this collective.  Heartfelt thanks to editors Kayla King and Justin Maher, who managed this huge project beautifully.  Watch my blog next week for a guest post from Kayla King! 

“The Elves and the Shoe Designer” is a story that is auxiliary to my novel-in-progress, which is (currently) titled Wash Away.  The story is not part of the novel, but without giving away any spoilers, a peripheral character in the novel features prominently in this story.  It was helpful to me to write this side-item to learn more about one of my characters.  (Yes, as a writer I learn about my characters by making up things about them in my imagination.)

The protagonist of Wash Away is named Zenna and she’s a chemist.  Right from the start I realized how unfortunate it is that I did not ever develop any aptitude or interest in chemistry, and never learned anything about it past the eighth grade.  I resolved to do something in a structured way to gain some chemistry knowledge and be able to use chemical terms correctly.  So I read Chemistry for Dummies by John T. Moore, which is designed to accompany any college Chem 101 course.

I borrowed Chemistry for Dummies from the Buffalo-Erie Public Library using the Overdrive system to send the ebook to my Kindle.  Not surprisingly, there was no waiting list for it.  Everybody knows how to borrow books using Overdrive, right?  Your public library is here to help you!

A handy thing I learned about Kindle is that you can highlight text in a book you’re reading, and your highlighted notes remain on the Kindle even after you return the book to the library.  Even better, you can download the notes to your laptop and make it a real working file.  (Search “download Kindle notes” if you don’t know how to do this.)  My highlighted notes from Chemistry for Dummies became a tremendous vocabulary resource for me when I was writing scenes of Zenna in her lab.

As long as I’m writing Kindle love lines here, I’ve found that many people don’t know you can email a book to your Kindle.  It accepts several file formats including doc and pdf.  I’ve used it to proofread some of my friends’ unpublished manuscripts.  Find your Kindle’s email address through your Amazon “Manage content and devices” page. 

My final pro tip for Kindle users: go to Project Gutenberg to get classic works of literature that are no longer under copyright.  The very first book I put on my Kindle was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  This month I’ve been reading both Treasure Island and Frankenstein.  One of those two titles is dull enough to put me to sleep.  I’ll leave it a secret which one.

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The Democrat

In 1915, my great-grandfather, George E. (Edmund) Bowers, purchased a weekly newspaper called The Alton Democrat.  The paper remained in the Bowers family for about 56 years.

Alton is a town in Sioux County in northwest Iowa; its 2010 census count was 1,216.  It is somewhat overshadowed by its more colorful neighbor, Orange City, home of the annual Tulip Festival.

The masthead of The Democrat contained a radiant rendering of Lady Liberty along with the motto “When tongue and pen alike are free, safe from all foes dwells liberty.”

My grandfather George E. (Emmet) Bowers and his sister, Mary L. Bowers, had active roles in operating the newspaper for most of their lives.  Grandfather George (1893-1978) wrote a column for the paper for 60 years with the title “It Seems To Us.”  His column ran under the pen name “Floyd River Philosopher” and whenever he referred to himself in the column, he used the abbreviation “FRPh.”  The FRPh also wrote a crossword puzzle for the paper.

My first publication was a guest item in “It Seems To Us” of December 3, 1964, where I wrote a paragraph about the winter birds in Alton, including nuthatches and downy woodpeckers.  Grandfather helpfully added that “Johnny is seven and in the second grade” and with some amount of pride noted that I typed my own copy.

I remember The Democrat’s office was an intimidating place full of heavy machinery, including a linotype machine, printing press, and folding machine.  The newspaper archives, going back to the paper’s founding in 1885, were in bound volumes along one wall.

My uncle Frank Bowers took over publishing and editing the paper, along with his wife Jan, and in 1971 the Democrat was named Iowa Newspaper of the Year by the Iowa Press Association.  Sadly, Jan didn’t stay, and ultimately Frank felt he had to sell the paper.  He wrote about it in his “Our Views” column of October 26, 1972:

“When things looked bleakest, some of Orange City’s most important businessmen chose to rebel against our independent and irreverent treatment of what they regarded as ‘their’ community.  After a tongue-in-cheek parody introducing new Northwestern college students to Orange City, the local furniture magnate withdrew all support.” 

A depressing list followed, of other businesses who stopped advertising in the paper, and Frank’s column ended with the words “I’m sorry, grandfather.” 

The Democrat continued under new ownership, but stopped publishing for good in 1982.

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I love the title of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write, because it requires the reader make a spontaneous act of creativity to mentally finish the phrase.  If you want to write… go ahead!  If you want to write… write!  If you want to write… what’s stopping you?

Ueland’s book was published in 1938.  She was a writer who found herself leading creative writing classes for adults, often women.  If You Want To Write is a treasure trove of sharp insights she learned helping her students over their own obstacles.  She offers encouragement on every page, right from the very first words of chapter one: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.”

This is not a book of advice about grammar or how to query agents.  Instead it’s a sort of spell of enchantment about the power in self-expression, that starts with giving yourself permission and building a shell against criticism. 

Here’s a creative exercise: For the next ten minutes, behave as if the universe is trying to communicate a secret lesson to you.  Can you decode it?  What are the patterns in the sky and the wind right now?  Why did that song come on the radio at that exact instant?  In these days when we are bombarded with messages all day from social media and news, it’s enlightening to look for indirect significance from the cosmos instead.  This exercise is so effective in altering consciousness that it was cited as basic magic by Grant Morrison in his terrific essay Pop Magic.

One of Brenda Ueland’s nuggets of guidance is to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.”  It’s advice that is not far from the habit of writing “morning pages,” which I wrote about here recently.  If you’d like a little structure for your honest diary, I could recommend the daily exercises in the newly released book Dear Wellbeing… by my friend and colleague Susan Balogh.

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write is still in print.

And finally, not related to today’s blog post, but not to be missed: The international dance party for the coolest song in the world for 2020, The Weeklings’ “3.”

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