Three Vashon writers gathered last week to talk about their different writing styles and experiences as contributors to the literary anthology “Shared Histories, Stories of Courage, Risk, and Revelation.” The authors — Catherine Johnson, John Runyan and Elizabeth Van Deventer — will read from the collection at 6 p.m. Friday at the Vashon Bookshop.
These writers are current and former members of The Salish Sea Writers (SSW), a private Seattle-based community of writers led by author Brenda Peterson. Meeting once a week, the writers bring in a story to share and leave with suggestions and comments about their nonfiction, fiction or poetic works in-progress. Peterson, an author who as published 15 books, chimes in with her insights into the art and craft of writing.
“Brenda will summarize your work and then she pushes you,” said Van Deventer, an anthropologist who joined SSW in 2011. “My background is in academic writing. She thought I was too polemic, so I had to learn how to create scenes and dialogue instead of laying things out.”
Johnson, a published author and island farmer, remembers the early years of SSW, when she first attended the Monday evening sessions in 1996.
“There was a time when Brenda gave us a handout every week, trying to teach us sentence structure or scene or flashback, some element of the craft in addition to reviewing the manuscript,” Johnson said.
Runyan, a recently retired facilitator and mediator consultant, has written professionally throughout his career. Ten years ago he wanted to try his hand at a memoir, and someone recommended the group.
“I’m interested in writing about leadership,” Runyan said. “Brenda pressed me to go further with my story by asking what are the leadership experiences that influenced me, not the theories.”
The overall power of story and how it affects people’s lives is a commonly held theme for the 25 writers whose diverse backgrounds bring disparate views to the book. There is a neuroscientist, Aikido trainer, senior Microsoft writer, global leadership coach, former NPR reporter, published children’s author and illustrator, psychologist, University of Washington professor plus a survivor of the World War II Japanese-American concentration camps and former island resident, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald.
The book’s epigraph by C.G. Jung gives eloquent voice to the collection’s underlying philosophy. “Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Van Deventer’s self-inquiry led to a story that explores the mixture of grief and joy she experienced caring for her dying brother.
“It was hard to write as I had to relive the experience,” Van Deventer said. “But my search to describe the sacred in nature, through writing, is what my brother tried to do through his photography. We were soul mates.”
Johnson, who no longer participates in SSW, pieced together her story from journal entries that explored questions about raising animals for meat.
“I write to make meaning in my life, linking my spirituality and my religious beliefs into my experience in the world, trying to see how the mystery comes alive in my everyday life,” Johnson said.
For Runyan, two key elements that influence his writing are inquiry and listening to other people’s stories, especially our elders.
“I’m working on a series of memoir pieces about elders who have influenced my life,” Runyan said. “Brenda talks about crafting them like quilt pieces into a book.”
How to get these stories into the hands of readers is a tough challenge, especially in today’s publishing landscape. The Salish Sea Writers found a seasoned guide in Peterson, who is well-versed in the realities of contemporary publishing. With her assistance, the group self-published “Shared Histories” in less than a year.
Peterson and Gruenewald will join Johnson, Runyan and Van Deventer at the event on Friday. After the authors read short excerpts from the book, they will open the floor to questions about writing and self-publishing.