In this excerpt from Jack Heffron’s book project that combines fiction and nonfiction, you’ll notice the strength of Jack’s scenes and dialog, exactly the craft skills he will be teaching this year at the June 9-12 Writing It Real conference. In the book, Jack told me, the protagonist, Jack Finney, is a retired advertising executive who recently has been … Continue reading
After years of writing, editing, publishing authors and teaching, Jack Heffron knows why we get stuck and how to work around that and back into our material. He’ll be teaching with Meg Files and Sheila Bender at our Writing It Real in Nashville April 25-28 conference. Join us for a chance to work with Jack as … Continue reading
Two years ago, Jack Heffron read this personal essay at our Writing It Real conference in Port Townsend. An exercise Jack offered this past conference involved writing a confession about something you haven’t confessed before. His assignment made me remember the entertaining and true-to-human nature essay he’d read to us the year before. Now Jack has given Writing … Continue reading
Jack Heffron is one of the most versatile writers I know. I’ve read his short fiction, creative nonfiction, books on writing, books that he has ghost written and books that he’s edited (including my own). Recently, I read some of his interviews and it brought up some questions that I wanted to ask him. Sheila … Continue reading
How do writers decide what to write about? In “Death on a Quiet Street“, by Jack Heffron and John Boertlein, Cincinnati Magazine, April 2008, Jack Heffron writes: Last September, I was having dinner with my friend John Boertlein when the Bricca murders came up. John, who grew up in Delhi and has known about the … Continue reading
This week, Jack Heffron, writer, editor and faculty member for Writing It Real In Port Townsend’s annual late June writer’s conference, shares “Dot the Dragon’s Eye,” Chapter Seventeen in his instructional book The Writer’s Idea Workshop: How to make your good ideas great, Writer’s Digest Books, 2003. Whether you are writing fiction, creative nonfiction or … Continue reading
After reading Jack’s instruction last week about narrating a day in your life to find material, you will be interested in looking into this story to find the quantity of details that come from such close observation, from the way one of the characters tugs at his beard and the other covers his ears and … Continue reading
Jack Heffron’s simple, masterful writing prompt will have you realizing how much content you have to write about in no time–well, in the time it takes to live a day and read the notes you put on paper. Taking notes in the way Jack suggests plus the bit of Fitzgerald he includes to show you … Continue reading
Jack Heffron was my editor at Writer’s Digest Books for almost a decade, and we have been teaching colleagues for going on six years now.I still have the editorial letter he wrote to me after he’d read Writing Personal Essays:How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page, my second book on writing and the one he acquired for Writer’s Digest Books. His notes and observations and suggestions for making the book shine are still inspiring to me.Having the opportunity to produce three more books for Writer’s Digest Books while Jack was there and now learning from him every summer remain career highlights for me.I thought Writing It Real Subscribers would like to know more about Jack’s career and catch a glimpse of a busy editor/writer’s life, so I corresponded with Jack for an email interview.
When did you decide to become a writer or that you were a writer?
I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. I used to write stories even as a little kid, using my toy soldiers as the characters, then writing them out on paper. I used characters from my favorite TV shows in stories I created myself. I read a lot of history back then, and I would write stories involving historical figures. None of that was a particularly conscious vocational choice. It’s just what I liked to do. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper. In college I was an English major and took as many creative writing courses as possible. After college, I did have to choose between writing and music. (I performed in dance bands throughout high school and college.) So that was a conscious decision. Otherwise, it just seemed inevitable that I would be a writer.
Where did you study writing?How did you decide to study there?
I studied writing as an undergraduate the University of Cincinnati, primarily working with Dallas Wiebe and Austin Wright. I received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Alabama, working with Don Hendrie, Alan Wier, Valerie Martin, and Chase Twichell. At Alabama I also was able to work with Andre Dubus. Dallas Wiebe recommended the program at Alabama. There were far fewer MFA programs at that time — the early 80s — than exist today. The program at Alabama was young and energetic, trying to establish itself as a leading program in the country, so it was an exciting time to be there.
What were some of the most memorable and valuable lessons you learned in graduate school?
In school I learned a lot of discipline. I learned that you have to have talent, but talent will take you only so far. The rest of it is just working very hard, reading a lot, keeping your eyes open, and being patient. I was fortunate to have a lot of great teachers, and part of what made them great was that they were demanding, which was what I needed. Some were nurturing but mostly they figured that if you’re serious about writing, then you have to dedicate yourself to it. There were no shortcuts. All my teachers in grad school — Hendrie, Wier, Martin, Dubus, Twichell — taught me quite a bit. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work with them.
When did you go into publishing?What was your route to where you are today in the publishing world?
The standard vocational route after grad school is teaching, and I did teach for a year as a lecturer, but I found myself applying for jobs that I didn’t really want — and not even getting an interview. I didn’t want to spend the next ten years fighting to get two-year contracts at tiny schools in uninteresting places. My plan was to move back home to Cincinnati for a year, save some money, and then head to New York, where a few friends from grad school already had landed jobs.
Publishing seemed a viable alternative to teaching. Teaching offers many rewards and plenty of time to write. There’s also something wonderful about a life in academe, in a place that values knowledge and learning. But there’s something exciting about publishing too. I’ve always liked the energy of it, the challenge, even the competitive nature of it.
Did you get to New York?
It just so happened that at the time, Lois and Dick Rosenthal decided to resurrect the legendary “Story” magazine. I began as a part-time reader, working with Lois, the editor, and then worked full-time in putting together the first issue. “Story” was owned by F&W Publications, which also owned a number of book lines, including Writer’s Digest. My plan at the time was to work for a short while, learn the publishing business, and then head to New York. I didn’t imagine that “Story” would last more than a year or two. But the magazine went on to spectacular success. I ended up staying at F&W for nearly 14 years, eventually becoming editorial director of 4 lines of books, 2 of which I started.
I’ve been at Emmis Books now for nearly three years, and it’s far and away the best job I’ve ever had — the most fulfilling and the most fun.
What makes it the most fun and so fulfilling?
I enjoy the variety of projects I have now, and I still enjoy working with authors. I also enjoy learning about the marketplace — what works and what doesn’t and how to do things better than we did them the last time. And as editorial director at a start-up, I see the company’s book list becoming a reflection of my vision. No one is telling me what to publish — a scary but fun proposition. I’m also fortunate to work with a great group of people.
How do your graduate studies come to bear on your work today?
Because my degree and much of my early training is in fiction, you’d think it would be difficult to focus mostly on editing nonfiction. But good narrative nonfiction relies heavily on story, and that’s something nonfiction writers have a hard time understanding. They do the research and put together the facts, but sometimes they don’t understand how to tell a story, how to shape those facts into a story that will compel a reader to keep turning the pages.
How do you continue to write and publish your own work while being a busy editor?
I still do some of my own writing, but too little. Between the long hours at work and spending time with my sons, ages 15 and 13, there’s barely enough time to sleep. I’m not a person who needs much sleep, so that helps. But I hope some day to be in a position to do more of my own writing. I write an occasional piece of journalism, but that’s rare.
Do you do as much fiction writing now as you do creative nonfiction?
For a number of years now I’ve been drawn much more to creative nonfiction than to fiction. In some ways, that’s always been true, though I didn’t realize it. As a fiction writer I saw journalism as a dull collecting of facts, with little use of imagination, little emphasis on language. At the same time, I loved the New Journalists — Tom Wolff, Joan Didion, George Plimpton. Their pieces had wonderful stories and wonderful language, they showed the readers how the world works, and they were insightful and funny and moving. In the 90s there was a renaissance of that type of journalism, and I was instinctively drawn to it. The boundaries between fiction and nonfiction were less pronounced. Fiction, for me, had gotten a bit soft, a bit too internalized, too separate from the world. Not completely, of course, but it seemed to lack the energy and immediacy of what was being called creative nonfiction.
How do you use the craft of fiction that you studied in your nonfiction writing?
In creative nonfiction, the skills of fiction writing are essential — telling a good story, putting characters on the page in a vivid way, relying on a perceptive ear for language — the way people speak. It required the ability to choose the right details, to suggest nuance. In the past, for me, fiction held greater power because it relied heavily on subtext and inference while nonfiction seemed to be mostly just delivering the information. But with creative nonfiction, subtext, inference, and indirection can be very important. And those skills really aren’t new. Joseph Mitchell was using them way back in the 1940s. I just didn’t realize it, didn’t know how to write that way yet.
What advice do you have for those writing creative nonfiction?
For people who want to write creative nonfiction — whether it’s a memoir, a travel book, a book of investigative journalism — the key is understanding the nature of story. And sometimes that story needs to evolve slowly; our awareness of its depth and complexity will grow and we need to be open to the change, to allow them to happen. Writers seem better able to do that in fiction. They’ll allow a story to, at least in part, dictate its own focus and shape. But in nonfiction, for some reason, they tend to force those things. They sit down to write “a book about my mother’s illness” or “a book about what it’s like to live on a ranch in Utah” or “a book about my observations of Hong Kong” and the stories often end up limited. They don’t grow. My advice, if I might presume, is to allow the story to find its own shape, through staying open to new ideas as you write.
Can you describe how that works?
Here’s an example. I edited a book by the toy designer who created the He-Man action figure. In the draft that he sent to me, his primary focus was proving that he, indeed, was the creator. But his draft sounded defensive and self-indulgent. It was a polemic proving he was the creator. That’s an article, not a book, and I doubt that he’d have been able to sell that book. Most He-Man fans don’t care much about who actually invented it. They want to know about the creative process involved, the influences that led to the creation, the behind-the scenes world of the toy business. And so we had to recast the entire project, weaving through it the history of action figures and toy soldiers, giving it a much more engaging and informative tone, broadening the scope of the book. The book turned out very well — a fascinating look at a world few of us know about while revealing parallels between the creator and the figure that even the author had never seen before. It became a book that’s about much more than a toy and who invented it. In another case, a woman came to me with a biography of her grandfather, who was a Hall of Fame baseball player back in the teens and twenties. Only a serious fan would know of him today. We couldn’t publish such a book. But she is a good writer and I noticed in one chapter of her draft she focused on the 1919 World Series (the famous Black Sox scandal), in which her grandfather played for the Reds, and she presented some striking new information about the fix on the Series, details she gleaned from long interviews with her grandfather, details that had never been written about before. We recast the book to place the dramatic focus on the Series, which gave the book an engaging arc of story that many readers will enjoy. The particulars of her grandfather’s life before and after the Series are woven throughout. And so instead of a sweet but somewhat dull biography of a long-dead player that the author probably would have to publish herself, we have a book that already is already getting a buzz among baseball fans and writers and will receive national attention when it’s published in February of next year. It’s my job as an editor to see the real story in a project and to tease that story to the foreground. I coach the authors throughout the process, helping them to make their books far better than they thought possible. In that way, an editor’s job is very gratifying and requires a firm grasp of an idea’s possibilities. Writers who are willing to explore the possibilities of an idea have a much greater chance of success.
In my own work, I try to stay open to various approaches and possibilities. In the “Rabbit Hash” piece, I definitely wanted to focus on the woman who left the town the money, rather than on the town itself. But by opening up to the town’s story, the woman’s story became that much richer. And I’m still developing ideas all the time for projects I want to pursue myself. Books are out of the question at the moment, simply for time reasons, but I still can do articles.
What advice do you have for those who write creative nonfiction and want to see it published?
As for having an editor work closely with you through the process, that’s much more true at small houses than the larger ones. When submitting your manuscript, you need to have it in as good a shape as possible. Don’t assume someone will pluck your project from the pile, take the time to see its possibilities, and then work with you to fix it. That happens, but work on those possibilities yourself before submitting the book. I do work on those projects, but I reject ten times that many every week. A publisher will have to believe strongly in a work to commit a lot of time and resources to developing it.
Well, some of the authors you have worked with seem to have had that luck!Meanwhile, when you are not editing and rewriting for those very few, very lucky people, and I imagine reading manuscripts to consider publishing, what are your reading?
As for personal reading, I do read quite a bit. I just finished Mark Kurlansky’s 1968. Before that I read Eric Larsen’s Devil in the White City. I usually have a few books going at the same time, and I also tend to reread favorites. I’m anxious to read Joan Didion’s new one, which won’t be released for a few months yet. I’m also reading a Beatles biography and a book on women’s figure skating (to help me edit an upcoming book).
I definitely understand more after reading Jack’s responses to my questions about how being educated by writers and having experience writing has made Jack a very special editor.Emmis is lucky to have him as are all the authors with whom he works.
Jack will be teaching with Meg Files and me at the Writing It Real in Port Townsend conference this June 23-27.I hope many of you will be able to come and to learn, as I have done, from this extraordinary teacher and editor.
Writing It Real is happy to post an article this week by editor and creative fiction writer Jack Heffron. “The Flowering of Rabbit Hash” originally appeared this fall in Cincinnati Magazine. Jack lives in Cincinnati where he works with Emmis Books. As a fiction and creative fiction writer, Jack was hooked on an article idea about Rabbit Hash after he read a small piece in a local newspaper about Edna Flower, an elderly woman who had given the town a lot of money.
“What interested me, Jack said, “was the fact that she had saved the town, but people in Rabbit Hash didn’t really know her. They seemed somewhat sheepish about the size of the gift — undeserving, somehow. They hadn’t taken the time to get to know her. In fact, no one in Cincinnati seemed to know her either. The irony of that tickled me, and the sense that she had died so anonymously moved me. She had worked for 30+ years at Proctor and Gamble, and yet the company did not even know what she did there. Very little information about her existed, and the mystery of who she was engaged me. I wanted to make her the focus of the piece and try to dig around and find out more about her, writing it almost as a memorial. I also saw in the story a possible screenplay idea: a tiny, close-knit town is suddenly given a whole lot of money, which certainly would lead to conflicts.”
The Flowering of Rabbit Hash
by Jack Heffron
To get to Rabbit Hash from Cincinnati, ease onto I-75/71, heading south. Listen to the grinding whine of your tires as you cross the bridge into Kentucky, cars and trucks screaming along both sides of your car as you fight your way past Covington and Erlanger.
Enter Boone County, not so long ago a place of farms and fields, of lonely barns in the distance and hawks riding the upstream breezes. Now it’s the fastest growing county — by far — in the state. Nearly 14,000 newcomers have settled here since the 2000 census. A sea of subdivisions has risen up to meet them.
Take Kentucky 18 off the interstate and head into Burlington. Whistle in wonder at how much it has grown since you were here last. Pastures have turned into homes and streets, chain restaurants, strip malls, schools, a fire station as big as a city block, all of it looking so new it seems to still wear the price tag. Snicker softly at the thought of Daniel Boone, the county’s namesake, coming to terms with this sprawl despite his legendary need for “elbow room.”
Eventually the road narrows to two lanes that twist into the farms you expected to see much sooner. The journey now is through time as well as space, especially on a warm Saturday morning in late September, when fog blinds you on all sides, parting like a flock of ghosts as you drive. Soon you’ll turn right onto Rabbit Hash road. Make a quick left at the sign announcing Rabbit Hash General Store. You’ll swoop down a steep hill into the river bottom, where someone apparently put up a tiny town in the 1830s and then forgot about it.
The general store, though freshly painted, looks every bit of 170. A sign perched atop the store features a smiling, bottlecap-hatted Coke mascot from an ad campaign long past and a list of the stores offerings: tobacco, sundries, notions and potions. Today it sells mostly souvenirs, soda pop, and beer. A dog with a bit of chow somewhere in his lineage, drowses on the sagging porch. Across the narrow street stand the non-working iron works and a second-hand store that sells everything from eight-track tapes to a hand-made hobbyhorse. Several other old wooden buildings swell the ranks, including the town’s museum, a tiny log cabin.
As the day warms, the fog burns away and a trickle of people arrive for the annual Rabbit Hash Old-Timers Day. Before long, an odd mix of folks weaves in and out of the stores and museum. Most obvious are the locals themselves, dressed as “old-timers” in straw hats and bib overalls, a few of them puffing on pipes or leaning on walking sticks. Khaki-shorts-and-polo-shirts families from the suburbs stroll the streets too, and throughout the day, more and more bikers arrive, roaring into the town, some driving right through the main street. Many wear faded blue jeans and black t-shirts, some of the men with do-rags on their heads. They move through the crowd with a certain proprietary swagger.
The large presence of bikers has been a divisive issue in the town. Some residents feel that any tourists are good tourists while others object to the noise and rowdy behavior in their quiet town. A few long-time residents have even moved away. Through town meetings and public complaints, Rabbit Hash has reclaimed a modicum of tranquility but the alliance is an uneasy one.
Nevertheless, all are met before noon to unveil two bronze plaques. The first, high on a poll to the left of the little main road, announces that the Rabbit Hash district has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The other, affixed to the front door of the history museum, expresses gratitude to a deceased resident of the town who left $250,000 to the historical society.
Don Clare, president of the historical society, the town’s de facto governing body, conducts the ceremony. Clare wears bib overalls, a white t-shirt, and wire-framed glasses. His hair is gray-white and his lush beard is snow white, but there’s a boyish charm in his face, his eyes twinkling as he talks about the greatness of Rabbit Hash
“Rabbit Hash is utopia,” he tells the crowd. “Rabbit Hash is the Emerald City. Rabbit Hash is the center of the universe.” He reads from a page of scribbled notes in a soft Kentucky accent that doesn’t so much twang as caress his words. His praise for the town is delivered with a sly grin, and it’s tough to determine how much tongue is in his cheek. Are we joking about the value of this place or truly honoring it? The crowd answers my unspoken question by offering an occasional cheer of approval and agreement. Rabbit Hashers seem to believe they are the center of the universe, or at least as much of it as they care to consider. A documentary film titled Rabbit Hash: Center of the Universe, released last year, supports their belief.
Best known for electing a dog as its mayor, the town hugs the Ohio directly across from Rising Sun, Indiana, home to the Grand Victoria Casino, where thousands of less fortunate folk feed their dreams into slot machines. They still yearn for the big jackpot. Hashers feel they’ve already found it. And they wear their riches like an old coat soft in all the right places.
Ed and Lynn Unterreiner moved here from Cincinnati eighteen years ago, enraptured by the anomaly of the place, which looked to them like something out of a history book. Since then they have raised four children and never regretted their decision for a moment.
“It’s a real home town,” Lynn says. “Everybody’s very friendly. People know each other’s business, but that’s a good thing. You know you can count on your neighbors when you need them.” Growing up in Western Hills was far different for her than life in Rabbit Hash, she says. She prefers the latter. “You know that movie they’re making — Rabbit Hash: Center of the Universe? That pretty much sums it up.”
Ed agrees. “When I drove out here for the first time, I fell in love with it,” Ed says. “I like getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city.” A general contractor, he often spends his days working in Cincinnati and is always glad to be home again in the peace and quiet. “People are relaxed here,” he explains. “Rabbit Hash is unique because it hasn’t changed. It’s always been this way.”
Keeping it this way, however, is not easy. In fact, it’s been nearly impossible. Development in Boone County continues at a frantic pace, bringing more people, cars, homes, strip malls, noise and pollution into what used to be wooded hillsides. To protect themselves, residents have applied for every preservation grant and registry they can find. Their efforts have led to the listing on the National Register of Historic Places as well as a recent designation by First Lady Laura Bush as a “Preserve America Community.” Such distinctions bring prestige to the town but offer no money and little in the way of protection from local interests. Being on the National Register protects the town only from projects involving federal resources.
Rabbit Hashers have fought development at every turn. Fortunes looked bleak in 1999, when plans were underway to install a large sewage treatment plant in the area. Residents figured sewage systems meant running water and water meant development. Despite the odds of standing up to county government, Rabbit Hash fought and won.
“I see development coming from all directions,” says Terry Markesbery-Young, who runs the general store. “It’s on my mind every day. Town is getting closer every time I go to town, and I don’t like that.” She has lived in Rabbit Hash for seven years, along with her husband, Richard, who is a stone carver and has a shop in town. As proprietor of the general store, she is at the vortex of the Rabbit Hash universe. She says the only thing that gives her comfort is that the river runs along the north side of town, and so at least development can’t come from that direction.
Don Clare disagrees. He says the casino has been a threat since before it opened its doors. Town leaders were aghast at the original plans for a pink boat with purple neon and a lighthouse.
“They were making an atrocity,” he says. “It was a threat to our historical integrity.” Because at that time several buildings in town were on the National Registry of Historic Places — the town itself and thirty-three acres around it didn’t make the list until recently — Rabbit Hash was able to leverage a few concessions in terms of the casino’s design and the amount of light it was allowed to generate. But Clare and the other town leaders fear that Rising Sun, or the casino itself, wants to turn Rabbit Hash into a ferryboat landing.
“A developer called me not too long ago and said he’d knock down the buildings and blacktop the whole town for free,” Clare recalls. “I said, ‘What rock did you crawl out from under?'” He snorts a laugh, but the tightness in his voice suggests the offer was as insulting as it was absurd. To sharpen the point, he repeats, “Knock down the buildings!” He explains that interests in Rising Sun believe Cincinnatians could reach the casino more quickly by driving through Kentucky and ferrying back across the river at Rabbit Hash, thereby eliminating the need for driving through Lawrenceburg and passing rival casinos.
Clare says the town will do what it can to preserve itself. “In other countries, their historic legacies go back eons,” he adds. “They take pride in that. In the U.S., we like to bulldoze ours.”
A means of keeping the bulldozers away, at least for now, arrived unexpectedly in 2002. A long-time, part-time resident named Edna Flower bequeathed $250,000 to the Rabbit Hash historical society. The society’s museum features a motley mess of rusted tools, old photos of the town, and medical supplies circa 1920. There’s a certain pluck in the collection’s attempt to commemorate the past, and an undeniable charm to the museum itself, but the body of it can be viewed in all of ten minutes. The organization’s monthly expenses amount to a smidge over six dollars, so the unexpected windfall of a quarter of a million left a few bucks to spare.
Clare runs his fingers through his thick white beard as he remembers the call from the bank informing him of the donation. “It was surprising,” he says. “It was a whole lot more than I expected it to be.” After pausing for a moment, he adds “It was providence.”
With that amount of money, one would think the society could buy the whole damn town. And one would be right. They did. The society was able to borrow against the principle to purchase all the buildings from long-time resident Lowell “Louie” Scott, who began buying them in 1978 in an effort to protect Rabbit Hash from outside developers. As he neared retirement a few years ago, Scott asked for help from his neighbors, but they lacked the money to shoulder his burden. The society’s bank balance was less than a thousand dollars.
“We were circling the drain before Louie stepped up,” Clare explains, adding that the drain looked pretty close again before the unlikely savior appeared.
Edna Flower is a mystery. She bought a modest home overlooking the river in 1973, but spent little time there. A Cincinnatian, she wanted the home as an investment and occasional retreat. Few Rabbit Hashers knew her.
“She’d come in when the yard got overgrown and then disappear again,” recalls Kenny Williamson, a life-long resident. “You’d see her sometimes working in her yard, pulling weeds, wearing a sun hat. She was friendly but kept to herself. Other than waving to her in the yard, I never spoke to her.”
Williamson’s story is echoed by nearly everyone in Rabbit Hash. Edna came to town, worked in her yard, perhaps stopped at the general store or the craft shop, said little, and left. No one suspected she was worth millions or that she would help save the town.
“I knew who she was,” Clare offers, “but I can’t say I really knew her. She was pleasant to people, but she wouldn’t ever come to you and initiate a conversation.”
It’s not difficult to discern a bit of embarrassment among the locals when her name is mentioned. The irony of erecting a memorial to someone they don’t really remember — someone who lived for twenty-five years in a town that prides itself on neighborliness — is not lost on them. They struggle for phrases such as “nice” and “kind of quiet” and seem unable even to describe her appearance.
Betty and Werneth Avril, Edna’s next door neighbors, are the only Rabbit Hashers who knew her, and though the couple spent a good bit of time with her for a few years before she died, they never learned much about her.
“Edna was peculiar,” Betty says. “She could be very distrustful, and she wasn’t a person who said very much about her life.” The Avrils, who now live in Dallas, bought their place in Rabbit Hash for weekend getaways while living in Mt. Adams. The family owned Avril meats on Court Street, and were pleased to learn Edna had been a regular customer years before.
“She knew my husband from that time and liked him,” Betty says. “Otherwise I doubt she’d have ever become a friend.” The friendship blossomed to the point where the Avrils picked up Edna once and week and drove her to the bank, post office, and various other places. They spoke to her on the phone nearly every night. However, they never were invited into her home and learned little about her life. After helping her move into an assisted-living center a year or two before she died, they never heard from her again.
“It was as if she turned a corner and had moved on with her life,” Betty says.
No one in Cincinnati learned much about her either. Edna was a childless widow who had few friends, but given that she lived and worked for eighty-nine years in Greater Cincinnati and died only a few years ago, piecing together her life is like chasing a ghost.
Edna Balzhiser was born in 1912 and raised an only child in Oakley. She graduated from Withrow High School in 1929. Her father was a musician who may have worked for a time in the circus and later worked for a railroad company. He was killed in a train accident, perhaps during the 1930s. Edna lived with her mother until her mother passed away and then continued to live in the same house in Oakley.
Sources contradict each other, but it seems that she worked her entire career, nearly forty years, for Proctor & Gamble. Some say she was secretary to the CEO or at least a high-ranking executive. Others say she was involved with arranging travel plans for incoming corporate guests as well as P&G execs. Still others say she worked in marketing. P&G has no record of her position. Contemporaries at the company have no memory of her, except that she kept to herself, so much so that she brought her lunch every day and ate it in her car in the parking lot. She retired in 1970. In later years she bought real estate, owning apartment buildings in Oakley and Hyde Park. Family members assume her considerable estate is the result of amassing P&G stock.
“I remember her talking a lot about the stock market with my parents,” says Charles Meister, a Cincinnati resident and Edna’s second cousin. Now 68 years old, he was too young to recall much about her when she would come to visit the family farm in West Liberty during the 1940s and ‘50s. He says Edna always kept everyone at a distance.
“She was very mysterious, pretty much a loner, I guess you’d say. I don’t know if we ever even had her address. After a while she stopped coming, and we never knew what happened to her.” He remembers thinking she was somewhat eccentric. “She’d come up here in an old beat-up car and old beat-up clothes. She had an old Plymouth station wagon with a rag stuck in the gas tank. We thought she looked like a person living on the street. But she must have been pretty well off even then.”
Larry Cramer, another cousin, agrees that Edna was intensely private.
“She was sort of a recluse, even she was younger,” he says. “She never mentioned any friends, and no one, not even the family, knew very much about her. I remember years ago when I’d meet people who worked at P&G at Kiwanis meetings I’d ask if they knew her, but I never met anyone who did. That was just Edna.”
He was surprised to receive a call from her in the late 1950s. Though she was over fifty by then, she had never learned to drive but recently had bought a car and asked him to teach her. Cramer, an industrial design teacher at Woodward High School at the time, also taught driver’s education.
“I would go to her home and meet her, but I don’t recall ever being asked into the house. She was always ready when I got there. We’d drive up to Ault Park, and she got to where she could drive around town. I even took her for her exam. After that day I never had contact with her again.”
Edna married Elmore Flower late in life but little is known about the couple. She may have been married once before, briefly, but again the trail is difficult to follow. She lived the final decades of her life alone, the final ones at Victoria Retirement Community in Norwood, where she died on April 26, 2001. She was worth millions, which she left to various charities, including two million to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. She is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Milford.
And so ends what seems to be known about a woman who already is mostly forgotten, except for a plaque on the front door of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society’s museum that reads:
In memory and appreciation of Edna B. Flower
for her extraordinary generosity and support for the
preservation of the town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky
But all is not financial trench warfare in Rabbit Hash. The town enjoys having a good bit of fun, even at its own expense. Though most residents are well-educated professionals, making the town seem like a real-life version Lil Abner’s Dog Patch is a community hobby. Rabbit Hash hats, t-shirts, coffee mugs, drinking glasses, and bumper stickers line the shelves of the general store.
They take pride in being known for electing a dog named Goofy as their mayor. The election, held in 1998, raised funds for the East Bend Methodist Church, as votes were sold for a dollar apiece and voters were encouraged to cast as many ballots as they wished. According to residents, Goofy served his office well, until he was put to sleep at the age of fifteen in 2001.
Back in November, the town finally filled the vacant position by electing Junior, a black lab, as its new honorary leader. The election raised eight thousand dollars, which will be spent on maintaining the old wooden structures of the town.
This tradition caught the eye of Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Jude Gerard Prest. During the winter of 2002 he was in Rising Sun, making a documentary for the Travel Channel on riverboat casinos. When told the little town across the river had a canine mayor, he had to see for himself. After one visit, he quickly gathered the resources to make a short film.
“We were thinking it would be a Daily Show type of piece, but within an hour of being there we knew it was something much bigger,” Prest explains. He spent weeks interviewing the locals, returning several times, including on Old Timer’s Day in September. “When people see the film they think I’m going to make fun of these people and make them seem like hicks, but then it turns, and it’s anything but that. It’s really an homage.”
On December 18, the film made its Midwest premier at the Madison Theater in Covington. Prest hopes that it will play the art-house circuit or be picked up for wide release, though nothing has been decided yet. In the meantime, it has played at several film festivals and at an art house in Los Angeles. He’s also developing a pilot for a television show that would chronicle the election.
He says he worked hard to ensure the film captures the essence of Rabbit Hash. “They’re an eclectic group of people who just get it,” he says. “They make a statement in their own way, and it’s just a simpler way of looking at things. I want the audience to leave thinking, ‘Maybe these people have it right, and we’re the idiots.'”
Rabbit Hashers certainly seem to agree. They’re having fun playing bumpkins while supporting a place that provides tranquility and a link with the past. If preserving that way of life also means putting up a fight, they’ll do that too.
“There’s something here that’s tough to describe,” Clare says. “People like Rabbit Hash. They like to say ‘Rabbit Hash.’ When you hear the name you smile. There’s just something unique about it, and we want to preserve that uniqueness. There won’t be a Rabbit Hash McDonald’s, and there won’t be a Rabbit Hash Wal-Mart. We’re sure about that.”
When he queried Cincinnati Magazine with his idea, the editors had no interest in the piece. Jack recounts that they felt “that neither Rabbit Hash nor Edna warranted a feature-length piece…”
“But for some reason,” he says, “the query must have hung around in their files. When the town made the news again with the commemoration of the plaque and the award from the First Lady, an editor contacted me and asked if I wanted to do a piece on Rabbit Hash. I asked if I could weave the story of Edna Flower into the piece, and they were okay with that approach.”
“I very much enjoyed hunting for Edna, piecing together her story like a jigsaw puzzle, investigating the past. I came to feel as if I knew her. The investigation required many, many phone calls to various people in her family, some neighbors, a few people who had worked with her. No one knew much, and so it was a matter of getting a bit of information here, a bit of information there, being told to call so-and-so, who might know more, and then so-and-so offering a nugget or two but telling me to call someone else who may know more. Following Edna’s trail back into her past was fascinating, watching as aspects of her character emerged.”
Jack “enjoys bringing true stories to life–evoking unusual places in America, telling stories of unknown people whose stories are worth telling.” Humble as always, he says, “I wish I had been able to tell it better, to spend more time shaping it. Following the trail of Edna took so much time that I didn’t have as much time as I needed to really shape the piece and to write it well, to hit all the notes, as it were.
But I guess as writers we always feel a bit of that after a piece is turned in.”
Writers often use prompts to help them come up with original ways of opening and organizing their work. Whenever I dip into The Writer’s Idea Book and The Writer’s Idea Workshop by Jack Heffron, I find help for inventing and shaping ideas that I want to grow into finished pieces. Here are some words from Jack on using his prompts.
Jack: Let me discuss a couple of my favorite prompts from The Writer’s Idea Book. First of all, I’m especially fond of prompts that help writers deal with focus and shape in their stories. One prompt I offered in my book is based on an idea that came my way when I worked as an editor for Story Press and writer Michael Martone proposed a book about “appliance fiction.” Since technology is always supplying us with new devices, he reasoned, encouraging writers to make appliances central to their stories could help them create fresh and original work. It turns out this device also helps with shape and focus. I know because the idea intrigued me, and a few months later, I decided to try it.
I wrote “Redial,” a short story about a woman who punches the redial button on her telephone every night upon returning from her late-shift job. By doing this, she discovers that her husband is having an affair.
Sheila: Thinking about that appliance-story premise opens up ideas for other stories. I think it would be interesting to write about characters who deny their inner problems by focusing on technology: a coming of age story told by a person whose family has a new computer everyone is battling to use, a story about learning to trust told by a person who has an extensive security alarm system in her house, and a story about having to come to terms with limitations told by a person who never seems to feel limitations as he uses all the bells and whistles on his sophisticated cell phone and other electronic gadgets.
Jack: Actually, writing this way can also lead to magic realism. John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” is an appliance story in which a radio has magical powers and allows a young couple to eavesdrop on the lives of their neighbors.
Sheila: I remember seeing an episode in the new Twilight Zone series a year or so ago in which the fiancé of the main character felt the couple shouldn’t have sex for awhile before their vows to make their wedding night really special. The main character questioned his ability to go without sex and became tempted by a virtual woman who appeared on his computer screen and constantly made cell phone calls to him. I’ve seen TV comedy sketches where people with Tivo, the product that searches for and records the TV programs that its owner will like, have felt imprisoned in the image their Tivo forms of them. These sketches and plots are using the appliance prompt to good advantage. I wonder if a story that uses a thermostat with a mind of its own that cools things off and heats things up might prove interesting.
Jack: It might. There’s another way people can use appliances for shaping stories. Martone went on to publish a book called Creating Fiction and used his appliance idea this way: He told writers to research the history of a common device or gadget and pay attention to what motivated the invention. He said to have a character use this trivial knowledge as he is performing an action. For instance, a character might narrate the history of the zipper as he is making love.
Sheila: It seems to me that personal essayists can use this appliance device, too. They could think of appliances that fascinated them during specific times in their lives and describe how they or others operated the appliances. Someone might write a poignant description of a beloved grandfather by describing the way he used a blender for various concoctions. Another person might write a reconciliation story featuring the changes in outgoing voice mail messages.
This idea is taking flight for me: I also think it would be fun to list the names of people in our lives and the appliances we associate with them and then write a scene in which the person is using the device—from riding lawn mowers to electric toothbrushes to bread makers, the people we know and imagine are busy using things. And, it also seems to me that an essayist or fiction writer can write about places by concentrating on appliances and machines. Police helicopters, street cleaners, sand combing trucks, and snow plows are a few machines that I think of when I think of various places I’ve lived.
I feel like I have many ways to start a piece of writing from the appliance prompt, but do you have another prompt that help writers create shapely stories with sharp focus?
Jack: I think by structuring stories around seasons, holidays, journeys or events we find focus as well as shape. For instance, in a novel I’m writing, I use the Christmas season as a structural device. I am writing from the first day of Advent and moving to the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6.
There are many ways you can organize your story using time. You can set your story in a single day like Joyce did Ulysses or over a weekend like Alan Sillitoe does in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. You can use a season like The Great Gatsby uses the onset of summer to the first leaves of fall. You can choose a year as Helen Fielding does with Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Sheila: Here again, I can see the way personal essayists can use the strategies of fiction writers. Here are some titles that occur to me for ways to shape essays according to holidays, seasons, and the calendar: “A Day in My Mother’s Life,” “Thanksgiving through New Year’s Where I Work,” and “My Year of Arguments” (perhaps for describing life with teens or the events leading up to a break up or the time spent advocating for an ill relative).
Jack: And don’t forget that you can also structure stories as journeys over time. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses a journey structure for its main character who is at he same time experiencing the onset of adolescence.
Sheila: I guess the personal essayist can create shapely essays by writing about journeys, too—many have journeyed to find out more about ancestors or specific places that haunt us. We have made trips to see new grandchildren or long lost friends or to find new homes. Journeys of all kinds make for good personal essays, even if they are only journeys around one’s room (à la Louise Bogan in her mosaic autobiography), neighborhood, or place of work.
Jack: What makes this idea work for fiction is placing the journey in a larger story. In The Wizard of Oz, for instance, we know that once the group arrives at the Emerald City, Dorothy must still find a way back to Kansas. Also, in the story the characters experience personal development as the journey continues. It is a good idea to try a story where the narrative progression coincides with character progression.
Sheila: Applying this to the personal essayist, I’m thinking that journey essays might be organized like this: The writer describes a journey that coincides with the writer’s inner development and insight. Or, the writer describes a journey that might be about a whole family or group going somewhere and the way all deepen their relationship as the journey continues. Or, a journey essay might be about getting lost or unfocused or taking a side journey in the middle of a journey and experiencing more than the writer bargained for.
Jack: These are all good ways to suggest time’s passage and give a story or essay a frame and focus. I believe that writing is always an act of hope for an author, hope that he or she will be able to find and declare truths. Using these shaping ideas should help writers do this, whether through the mind, eyes and hearts of fictional characters or through their own mind, eyes and hearts as first-person speakers.
I hope you’ll try some of the writing prompt ideas proposed by Jack Heffron. You are likely to be surprised by what you discover you have to write about when you think “appliances” or “passage of time” or “journeys.” As usual, I’d love to see some samples from people who write using these prompts.
In his forthcoming The Writer’s Idea Workshop (Writer’s Digest Books, September 2003) author Jack Heffron sets himself the task of letting his readers know what to do after a first draft is on the page. In his manuscript, he writes:
As we move deeper into the project we’re developing, we sometimes sense it going flat. It lacks the inspiration that kept us going through the early stages of creation, and even though we’re willing to suspend judgment, we can’t shake the notion that the piece needs more of something. Sometimes we don’t make this discovery until we’ve finished a complete draft and shown it to readers. Our great idea that sent us racing to a notepad in the middle of the night, the one that scorched our brains through exhilarating sessions at the computer, now lies on the page, a ghost of what we hoped it would be.
I have seen such ghosts in both memoir writer and fiction writing. In memoir, I have seen people set out to tell the story of a time in their lives that was filled with resonance but somehow the layering of life experiences that made life meaningful is absent from their pages. In fiction writing, I have seen people start from something observed and then fail to find a way to make what was an inspiring event into the meaningful, gripping story they imagined writing.
By email, I asked Jack questions about tools for facing this situation and continuing to develop those drafts into lively, bold stories.
What do you advise to begin making those manuscripts that are merely ghosts of what we hoped for into what we want?
For an idea to work well, it needs to grow, to complicate itself with more ideas. By complication, I mean a second idea that extends or enlarges the first. It’s tough to know all of these complications when we first sit down to explore an idea. We discover them as we write.
Doing more writing despite our disappointment in the first draft can be part of the remedy?
Yes, it’s important to work on a promising idea long enough to explore its possibilities. We must give ourselves time to make discoveries, to add new ideas to the generative idea.
Here’s an example. We’re working on a story about a woman whose boss is making her life miserable. His demands are impossible to meet. We create several scenes showing the boss unfairly and caustically criticizing the protagonist. Then we write a few more. And a few more. The woman works harder, but the fatigue caused by the pressure and the shaky judgment caused by her lessening confidence makes her prone to error. She talks to a colleague, then to a friend or two. The story progresses in this way, but the conflict is, for the most part, flat-lining.
A strong idea that is full of drama and conflict becomes a one-note story, in which the writer presents the same conflict between the same characters in largely the same way and with the same tone until the story has lost its punch. The initial conflict is played to its inevitable conclusion. It’s the kind of story that makes inexperienced trusted readers of the draft fumble for what to say. They often question the pace, saying, “It seems slow in the second half.” And, indeed, it does. But the problem isn’t the pace. The problem is a lack of invention. The initial idea isn’t developed with more ideas. There are no surprises, no complications.
If you’re feeling your piece go stale or if readers aren’t responding to it in the way you hoped, step back and evaluate how you’ve developed and complicated the initial idea. How many scenes or how many pages are spent making the same point or eliciting the same response from the reader? Grab some colored markers and underline in a single color all the sentences dedicated to one conflict. If the conflict shifts or if it’s complicated by new information, grab a different marker and keep underlining. When you’ve finished, step back and see the result in living color. Perhaps the problem with your “dull idea” is simply that it hasn’t taken the next step into something larger or deeper.
It’s time to add ideas. Imagine possibilities. What if our hapless employee has quit her last two jobs, having disliked or failed at them for various reasons? Staying at this job and satisfying the tyrant takes on greater importance. The stakes have been raised. Or what if she’s raising children on her own, or her husband is in law school and she’s the only breadwinner? Her pressures at work spill into her relationships at home, expanding the range of the story. Or what if you gradually show that the boss’s complaints are justified, reversing the reader’s expectations? Or what if she discovers the boss’s marriage is failing or that he’s working through some personal grief? Now there’s a matter of humanity involved, a question of how much sympathy she’ll allow to excuse his behavior. Or what if you changed the relationship between the characters? What if the tyrannical boss is her father? Now we have a new element, a father-daughter theme.
You see my point. Imagine the situation from a new perspective. Raise the stakes. And raise them again. How can the situation be more distressing for your protagonist? How can the outcome be of greater consequence? How can she, in attempting to extricate herself, plunge even deeper into confusion or misery? Of course, when you’ve got her there, you’ll need even more ideas to get her out.
Sometimes we wince when we think of making life more complicated and painful for our characters. How can we get over our own reluctance about being “not- nice”?
Good stories rely on conflicts and complications. The situation driving the story must be a crucial one in the life of the character. As author Stanley Elkin once said, “I would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope.” We all have these times in our lives, and they are the ones we remember. So don’t think of it as being cruel to your character. Instead, you’re honoring the character’s situation by exploring all its facets, exploring its depths. Here are some ideas to help you make things complicated.
Brainstorm a list of complications for your work in progress. Make it a big list—at least fifteen items. Go crazy with it. At least three of the complications must be preposterous, requiring of you (and your reader) huge leaps of faith.
Describe your story in two sentences. Now add a third sentence, introducing a new element, even one that may not seem appropriate. For example: “This story focuses on a weekend visit by a woman’s mother, who has always been very critical. During the weekend, the daughter realizes she’s outgrown the need for her mother’s approval.” As a third element, she might add, “As the mother loads up her car to leave, the daughter insists that they go shopping together.” Try this prompt several times, playing with possibilities for the third element.
Create a new element of the story that is being kept secret by one of the characters. Allude to this secret somewhere in the first scene. As you move ahead, slowly reveal the secret, one that adds another complication to the story. You needn’t know the secret yourself when you start writing. Allow yourself to discover it as you write.
If you feel your scenes are too similar in their objective, add a random element, an object of some kind. The more random, the better. Brainstorm a list of possibilities. Or, if you feel you won’t be random enough, consider these possibilities: a fortune cookie, a necklace, pruning shears, a flat tire, a grocery receipt, a ferret, a negligee, a park bench, a glass of water, M&Ms.
These all sound like fun–So, I had a story about a woman who was feeling neglected by her husband because he was always at his computer (as I felt when my husband first got into computers as a profession. She goes about her evening feeling sorry for herself because of his inattention. Okay, now third sentence an old high school boyfriend calls asking her if is she will help him plan their high school’s 20th reunion. Whatdaya think?
Excellent. The old boyfriend provides another narrative element and allows you to explore the protagonist beyond her role as partner to her husband. In that way you’ll avoid hitting the same note throughout the story.
Can I use the same story situation and add the second complication to it–the secret? The husband wants to find someone from his past–a high school math teacher who disappeared before he answered a nagging question about an algorithm for the husband. I don’t yet know the question or why the unanswered nature of it matters so much now. When I begin the story I can have Hannah, the main character, describe her husband’s eyes tracking the cursor on the screen with the same intensity he used to scan a crowd looking for her when they would meet after work.
This could work well. Now they both have secrets, ones that are tied to their pasts. There’s also a nice irony in that the shared goals—recovery of something in the past—can fuel conflict between them rather than bring them together. Though they share similar goals, they can’t share those goals with each other.
Now I’m gettin’ interested in this story. Here’s my attempt at the third exercise: Scene: Hannah is in the kitchen gathering cookies on a plate and pouring herself some tea for her nightly excitement of watching the 11 o’clock news while her husband is at his computer. Now she has the news that her high school sweet heart is inviting her to co-chair the 20th high school reunion event with her (he is on the East Coast and she is on the West Coast). She spies a gardening catalog that arrived in the mail that day. She doesn’t garden since she and her husband live in an apartment. But something about that catalog captures her attention. She puts down the plate of cookies and sits down with the catalog. It isn’t long before she rummages through the kitchen drawers for whatever resembles gardening tools. She leaves the kitchen with a serving spoon (silver from her bridal registry five years prior) and the new Williams Sonoma kitchen shears she had just treated herself to. She heads for the landscaping outside her building.
Jack, this is fun! How am I doing?
You’ve got plenty of good material for a story—lots of elements that open up the conflict rather than narrowing it. You also have a lot of specific images, such as the computer, the catalogue, the spoon. And instead of your protagonist approaching her husband and asking for attention (the most obvious move and one that would sap tension from the story rather than create it) you have her outside at 11 o’clock at night landscaping her landlord’s property. Interesting stuff!
Thanks so much for these exercises–how many are in the book? I can’t wait to get it in September! In the meantime, there is an earlier book, right? What will I find in that one to keep me going until the new book comes out?
I think there are more than 300 exercises in the book, most of them focused on building upon an idea. As an editor and contest judge, I see so many stories and essays that open with a strong idea but then go flat. They lack the complications that make a good idea better. The instruction and exercises in The Writer’s Idea Workshop were created to help writers be more creative throughout the entire process of completing a piece.
The earlier book, The Writer’s Idea Book, is in the stores, and it focuses on ways to get ideas. So the new one is a natural extension of the first. And though our exercises here relate mostly to fiction, both books apply to writing any sort of narrative, fiction or nonfiction, screenplays, whatever.
To find out more about Jack Heffron’s books, click the name of the book below:
To study with him in person, attend the Colorado Mountain Writers’ Workshop in Steamboat Springs, CO, June 21-25. Click here to learn more about the conference Jack teaches each year with Meg Files and Sheila Bender.