INTERVIEW: MARY “ERNIE” O’DELL, PRESIDENT OF GREEN RIVER WRITERS—PART ONE

Today: Ernie’s Writing Journey

If, like me, you go through stages in your writing career where you feel isolated and in need of connections with other writers, you may have sought out a writing group–or perhaps even considered starting one. Of course, online resources let us share our writing and collect tips from a plethora of experts. But these tips can be generic, not specific to our needs, and even strong online critique groups can suffer from the limitation of all online “teaching”: the loss of body language and verbal cues and the difficulty of eliciting immediate responses when we have questions about a comment or need follow up.

Recently I’ve read and shared several posts about writing groups, and I’ve written before about my group and how I value it. Some commenters have mentioned joining groups that folded or that didn’t work for them. I realized that my group, Green River Writers, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is an example of a group that has held together for decades. What exactly does make for a successful, long-lived writing group?Book with heart for writers

One important factor in the group’s longevity and success is its founder and president, Mary “Ernie” O’Dell. I cornered Ernie to learn about how the group began and why it has succeeded.

Today’s post introduces Ernie and her journey as a writer—a journey many of us can identify with in some ways.

A little about Ernie

I immediately asked about one thing I’d often puzzled over: where “Ernie” came from.

It comes from Mary Ernestine O’Dell. Dad’s name was Ernest Forbis Houck. I was named after him and his friends called him Ernie, so when I got in junior high, and was asked what my name was, I said Ernie. So that’s where that was born.Stephen King quote

Three of Ernie’s novels have been published by Turquoise Morning Press in Louisville: Cyn, The Sweet Letting Go, and Banger’s People. I asked Ernie about the settings and ideas that fed into her books.

I grew up in West Virginia and the southern and eastern Kentucky region. All the books have the flavor of that region; two of my books involve the West Virginia coal-mining industry: Cyn and the one I’m working on now, which I’m calling “Hope” for the time being. [Hope is one of the main characters, a high-schooler who lives with her older sister Lily and their parents and siblings in a coal-mining town just at the outbreak of World War II.]

Cyn takes place in the neighborhood of little row houses where my daughter became friends with the next door neighbor when they were seven or eight. The opening scene, the little girls in the elderberry bushes getting elderberry stains on their clothes, that was me: I would play in the bushes behind our house with my little cousin and get stains on me and my mother would not like that.

The interesting thing about Cyn was that I wrote in five different points of view. When Sheri McClaren, my mentor, read the first draft, she loved all these characters except the little girl’s father. She needed to know why the child loved him, because she wouldn’t have loved him if he had been her father. So I had to go back and rewrite the little girl’s father, and in doing so I had to figure out where I found him, who he was, and why he was so judgmental and vindictive. I discovered that he was my first husband who was a minister for some years. Then I had to find out why this fictional person would be this negative. I made him the son of an alcoholic and youngest son of three brothers, two of whom were alcoholics; they all made fun of him the time. I had to really deepen his character so he wouldn’t be such a bad guy that no one would care about him.

I wrote The Sweet Letting Go a few years after my second husband (my real husband) died of lung cancer. I was his main caretaker, but I didn’t want to make it autobiographical. I turned the whole thing around to make the female the one with the serious illness with the male as her caregiver.

Books and ladder

Ernie’s Writing Journey

Ernie’s writing career began during her career as an elementary teacher in Louisville.

Novel!Teaching was lovely but I was always thinking, I’m earning money to live on, but I’m marking time until “blank.” What is “blank”? I’d always written, just played around with it, but then when I was in my early thirties I saw an ad in a magazine for a writers’ school for children. It’s a nationwide organization with really good people, Caldecott authors, on their faculty. I took that course, and I got such high regard from those people that I actually got a short story published during the course. But I realized that writing for children was limiting because of having to sort of write down so kids of different levels could understand, and at that point I thought, I really want to write for adults.

So I took a course from Western Kentucky University in creative writing to get my feet wet. Soon after that when I was recovering from surgery, I wrote a little 150-page novel about a kindergarten teacher that became my “dresser drawer book.” In the meantime, my first husband had a hobby that he was really into and I thought, well, I’ll do that with him, but he said to me one day, “Why don’t you do something you’re good at, like writing?” He found an ad in our county newspaper that said that Lee Pennington was giving a one-week workshop in eastern Kentucky in a state park, and he said, “Why don’t you sign up and go?” It was lovely! That was my first exposure to poetry. I always say my heart is poetry, my head is fiction.

I have three or four viable collections, but in the last seven or eight years I’ve only published individual pieces. For me the most earthmoving collection was Poems for the Man Who Weighs Light, which was a study in grief and in recovery from grief, which I experienced when my second husband, my true husband, died.

He had a Tennessee drawl and he was rather amazing. He always said he had gotten thrown out of some of the best universities in the south because he didn’t like to waste time studying math and grammar and history. He would spend every day except for writing and lit classes in the library reading. He wrote one novel, sort of semi- autobiographical; before he died I helped him edit it from 1500 pages down to 800 pages—amid much screaming and yelling. After he died, I edited it down to 400 pages. I still think it’s a work of art. It’s called Watermark and it is in the style of Cormac McCarthy. I self-published it because who’s going to publish a dead author? I sold most of them to friends and family and people who just loved him and loved this story.Typewriter and flowers

I’m writing some poetry because on Tuesday mornings I do a poetry class. I take assignments from various poetry writing books and I do them with the group. Sometimes a group member will say, “I didn’t do the assignment but I wrote this,” and we just all read together and we talk a little bit and I give them the next assignment. They haven’t figured out yet that I’m getting more out of the group than they are.

Ernie’s advice for writers

Ernie coaches and mentors many writers in the Louisville area. I asked her about her views on the process of learning to be a writer.

I always ask a new client, “What do you read? If you write poetry, do you read poetry?” It’s amazing how many people say, “No, I just read my own.”

I want to throw up my hands and scream at that point. I tell them to read for enjoyment but also to read the genre they’re writing and then to read as much self-help as they can. I don’t advise anybody to try to remember all the information in those books, just keep reading them and the things that matter will eventually pile up inside you and you will find out that you know them.

I have two kinds of clients: clients who just want their manuscripts ready to submit, and others who want to learn something. If a client just wants the manuscript cleaned up, I go through the first couple of chapters and make notes all over the margins. If they look at those and they’re shocked and upset, then I can’t help them. But I have a person right now who had me take the first chapters, and it’s hard to find his work on the page for my scribbles. I said, “I wanted you to see what I do before you turn this over to me.” He said, “I love it.” We go through it all, and he can ask questions, although mainly he’s just said, “Yes, I’ll do that, I’ll do that.”

The hardest thing for Ernie personally?

Every time I sit down to write, it’s me and the blank page. I have to go back to my books that I read at the very first to remember how to get past that. The answer is, it doesn’t matter what you write, just write something. So any time I have a moment, I open a little book I carry with me and write, I don’t care what. Maybe I’ll look at it three months later and say, “Huh. I like that.”Writer with questions

The easiest is editing something I’ve already written. I don’t ever know how that’s going to work till I start. Sometimes I’ll just start with the little stuff and then I’ll think, wait, this needs to go here, or this needs to go away.

Ernie has advice for developing your writing vocation:

You can’t actually sell something or give anything away if you don’t get it down. There are various ways to approach your career. For example, either write at the same time every day or when you feel the muse—although I can’t help thinking, how many times does the muse come to your computer and sit there and wait and wait and wait and you never show up?

So the secret I think is to give up your ego. Write whatever comes to you, and write often before you decide what to do with it.

Next time: Green River Writers Begins!

Hand in books

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Filed under Editing, Green River Writers, Interviews, Learning to write, novels, Writers' groups, Writing, Writing and teaching writing

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