A Dark Horse Writer
By Linda Dunning
“Everything you see all around you, will roll away on wheels of tomorrow.” –Tom Rapp
I began writing and publishing poetry in my twenties and then about ten years later I wrote a short story about an orphaned deaf-blind mentally ill student I had taught and entered the Utah Writers at Work contest. In those days they brought in famous writers as judges and you were not supposed to know who they were. When I won for best short story the judge broke that rule and wrote to me privately. Tillie Olsen happened to be one of my favorite writers at the time and of all things she had been my judge. She sent me two letters of encouragement and a miniature fan and typewriter which I still keep on my computer stand to this day. She encouraged me to let everything I had in me as a writer “bloom.” So for the next few years I tried my hand at short stories which were either personal memoir or fiction. I wrote two esoteric novels, two personal memoir short story collections about teaching, a book about being the wife of a Vietnam veteran and a mother – daughter book, but nothing came of any of it, except once again I won the state contest in 1995 for this last book entitled Light On A Sensitive Surface which I think will probably never see the light of day anyway, my mother having not been a famous person!
It began, over the next years, to become quite clear to me as I attended academic university or community – based writing workshops that I didn’t have a genre and probably never would have one. It was also made clear to me that I was in some kind of minority of writers who had no trouble with painting descriptive pictures but a lot of trouble with organizing and structuring their work. I was going to gain little help from all these workshops that were focusing on how to describe something. Apparently, I realized, I had for some reason a direct link to that universal library of descriptive words that just flowed through me. It took me years to see that as an intuitive, not only could I have this link in various ways, but I could also help others with it. One year the national conference for Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction Writers of America came to town. It was a week long and was a very positive encouragement gathering of writers with panel discussions of all sorts offered, individual and small group sessions with successful writers and a myriad of panels with information to help you research and write your books more accurately. So instead of telling you what was wrong with your writing or these “authorities” feeling they had the right to tell you what to do or be, these people encouraged you to keep trying. Fortunately I had already been a teacher for some years, so what the academics said to me went in one ear and out the other. Celebration for others had become a way of life for me by then.
And while I did not really fit any of these types of genres either, I saw for the first time people from all walks of life, who without interference of their egos, without a constant competitive state of mind and not really out to prove anything, could even laugh at and with each other, at their supposed lowly status, all the way to the bank. Returning home I decided to find a subject I could sell that combined my interests in history, the paranormal and still included my descriptive style. I no longer wanted or needed the approval of the “white tower” academics but I was still trying to please my professor father. On our many summer trips I began to notice that every state had a cadre of ghost books. I then noticed that Utah didn’t have any such books at the time so I began collecting these tales and soon had enough for one book. I decided to do these stories by focusing on anything and everything I could about a place that was supposed to be haunted. This included any history, geology, archaeology, biography and paranormal history, sometimes even the architecture of a building or how a location was naturally formed. I knew as an intuitive that this energy grid was important as well. But I never noticed that many people wrote books about places sight unseen, while I spent the next few years, summers and weekends, running around the state interviewing old folks, spending time at the places to get my intuitive information and researching the history about the area, etc. I then began experiencing either the “you’re crazy or weird and sometimes even evil” response you get here in Utah if you write about ghosts, or the better one that was “if we don’t’ have any ghost stories we’ll dig some up for you!”
It had not dawned on me yet that I had taken on a state where there was a major difference between a ghost and “spirit.” On the other hand, little did I know that this time I was ahead of the game of popular trends, because the huge “ghost hunting explosion” had just begun in the media, with shows and organizations that were going ghost hunting “crazy.” But of course since then, vampires arrived and then zombies, so maybe my favorite one will appear next, mermaids and sea monsters! City Weekly voted me in two different years as having the best Utah ghost book stories in their “Best of Utah” yearly recommendations and I did get a few articles in the Salt Lake Tribune about my ghost books along with a few small town newspapers. And even my Shadow Wife: Visible Evidence book talking about PTSD, etc. was popular after Vietnam. It has been interesting to see all this returning again, with the newer wars in which toxins and nerve diseases were predicted way back when.
As the mound of stories grew and more and more biographical sketches of the unknown people from my state grew, people emerged who were never really talked about or written about in my home state anywhere that I could see. Historians and journalists seemed to just keep rehashing the same old topics over and over again, instead of discovering new ones yet to be written. But now I knew that there were more books coming and wanted to get all these stories down on paper. After five historical ghost books I now had three other books that would become an encyclopedia of historical celebrities from or closely connected to Utah who went off to Broadway and/or Hollywood. I found out that Utah was first to send massive numbers of performers out on their own to Hollywood or New York and the most comprehensive in arming them with more theatrical artistic skills and talents than any other state. Most of their stories had never been told either.
Then I could see that I now had a whole slew of heroes and heroines who had never been written about accurately during the time of Brigham Young and the Reformation Era, Saints and Gentiles alike, who had done the right thing in the face of intimidation and even physical harm. Members and non-members, who stayed where they were but stood steadfast for the rights of others, those who left the state and succeeded, those who returned triumphant, those who found a home and community somewhere else, and those who died tragically, often alone. They were people of all cultural backgrounds, ethnic groups and beliefs, all in a book I am still working on to this day. Their stories were leftovers from the many ghost stories and the many performers from or closely connected to Utah from the old Territory days. So I decided to gather them together and call them what they were, heroes and heroines.
But most important I did not know what all this would become, nor that it would change how I viewed my home state and its many people and places. I just kept collecting ghost stories. Soon I had more than one book, a lot of knowledge about everything Utah, especially those things not taught us in school and I was using my intuition in many, many ways. I still however, had abandoned my poetic descriptive style for historical research and had not figured out yet how to merge these two styles together. A publisher took my first book in 2003 and by then I had several books in the History & Hauntings series needing editing, formatting and all the rest and after several experiences with several small press publishers I decided I could do better on my own and launched into the world of self-publishing as a real novice about to be shocked into reality. But that teacher learning disabled “stick-to-itiveness” got me through most of it and I felt much more in control of what came from me as a writer and my artistic sense, still being that, when it went to press.
Then out-of-the-blue when I was really hoping to write some fiction again, the captain’s story fell in my lap. It had been transported from a flooded basement in a single typed copy found in the bottom of a cardboard box, to my doorstep. It was a manuscript from over a hundred years ago with an amazing story of adventures all around the world during the era of the clipper ships, and a man who had to come to grips with all of the tragic losses in his life. I just couldn’t let it be archived in some university or maritime museum and so I went to work with the captain’s essence at my shoulder and his great granddaughter’s approval. Then as I finished this one, an older book about Ogden Canyon resurfaced when the people who had requested this project wanted to finish it in a new form and I was now ready to allow this, although this updated material is still in a holding pattern.
When I compiled the Nurturing Intuitive Children, Parents & Families a friend of mine offered to illustrate it with one of her paintings. She had been the same one to wake me up to the fact that I had let my first publisher, without understanding this, turn my first book into his and not mine. She handed me my first book back and said, “This is not you, this is someone else, you need to have your own energy on this book and then it will succeed.” I stopped trying to please others and found my own combination of intuition, description and heart. But I also had to thank both my parents for having forced me to learn these other skills that came in handy when backing up one’s work and also for leaving me the big library of Utah books that I had inherited. Most of all, they had honored the fact that they had at least one writer in the family as they had been, or wanted to be in my mother’s case. The songs in my heart returned on paper but with several things echoing in my head from my parents: when writing about controversial subjects or just any subjects, be sure to have lots of sources and confirmations; don’t wait to publish until you think you are done, because then it will never happen; and most of all, be brave enough to speak your voice and accept any targeting you get with grace and humor.
And now the bucket list seems to be growing instead of lessening and I was glad I never gave up on my writing because while I did nothing more than often break even financially, I will, in the end, have contributed a great deal to our state’s history both literal and paranormal. And most importantly, I fell in love with my home state as a gentile, from its southern canyons and arches to its majestic mountains and forests, to its beautiful lakes, and its great salt sea, or even with its hidden treasures, its ski country and old mining towns and everything else great about Utah’s once charming campfire tales. I also fell in love with the state’s history and its founding people, who were intelligent, independent, creative and strong, the pioneers and all their stories who gathered here to leave their legacy to their progeny and those who were already here, with all the triumphs and tragic losses between them. It was doing any of them a disservice to not write about them as accurately as I could and in a way in which they would have told their story themselves, with forthright honesty and heart.
And at present the Sci-Fi, fantasy, metaphysical romance combined with lessons on love, compassion and kindness, is nearing completion with some beautiful graphic novel illustrations to go with it. Having written non-fiction for so long I thought fictions would be easier. It turns out that it is just as hard but in other kinds of ways which I had to re-learn. Those who have read my other books will enjoy this one as there is a lot to learn in it or at least to brush up on from what they now call speculative fiction with a metaphysical twist!
And so my journey continues and I will probably be writing all the way to my coffin, invisible to most of the writing world because I have followed my passionate “heart.” Johanna Russ wrote a book entitled How to Suppress Women’s Writing and I keep a copy of this quote by my computer as well: “She didn’t write it, but it’s clear she did the deed. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about: the bedroom, the kitchen, her family, other women. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it: “Jane Eyre poor dear, that’s all she ever…” She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it really isn’t art: it’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book, it’s Sci Fi! She wrote it, but she had help: Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte, her own ‘masculine side.’ She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it, but_____________.” And then the author leaves a blank to fill in your own personal one and mine is for writing about early Utah: “She wrote it, but she must have been ‘wicked.’”