Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Interview with Bob Welch

Bob Welch has been in my life (and Jerry's too) since 1982 when I took a writing class from him at Central Oregon Community College.  Certain that I had the word "fraud" written on my forehead and that soon all would know I had no business being in a writing class, I crept into the student desk and hoped no one could hear my heart throbbing.  You'd think I'd just tried to steal candy from a store!

2011
Over the course of the eight week class, some of that anxiety ceased. I was encouraged to submit a few of my assignments for publication and later that summer successfully published several of them.  But whatever success came to me resulted from the kind, funny, insightful , wise and encouraging instructor of that class, Bob Welch.

Here are just a few of his accolades:   
  • Author of 12 books. 
  • Thirty-six years in the newspaper business. 
  • Two-time winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnist’s best-column award. 
  • Two-time winner of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s “best writing” award. 
  • Published in such magazines as Sports Illustrated, Runner’s World and Los Angeles Times.  
  • His book, American Nightingale, was featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. 
  • He's a former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Oregon
  • Founder and director of the Beachside Writers Workshop.

2011
For the past four years I've been a guest lecturer at Bob's Beachside Writers course, a long weekend on the Oregon Coast.  I'd like writers everywhere to experience a weekend with Bob Welch.  You'll find that same kind, funny, insightful, wise and encouraging man and broaden your writing skills while opening your heart to the dream to tell that story that simply won't let you go. 
I invited Bob to be a guest on my blog this month.  I hope you'll enjoy his voice as much as the thousands who read his column in the Eugene Register Guard weekly and those of us who read his books do.

Do you remember what you were thinking when your "students" walked into that class in Bend, Oregon in 1982?
I was 28 years old, the Sunday editor of The Bulletin and, though the course was called Freelance Writing, had published exactly one story. I was thinking: What are you doing here? Remember, these were the days before Bend’s population exploded; the folks at Central Oregon CC didn’t have a lot to work with, so I was the any-port-in-a-storm choice. But the fact that I’m still teaching 30 years later suggests it was a good experience.

How did you become an award-winning columnist and author?  I mean, what did your mom put in your cereal that gave you the power and energy to accomplish what you have? (Bob, maybe you can tell us how many titles, columns, awards etc. here or I can add that into the intro)
Behind every dream there is what I call “dream makers,” the folks who, like a NASA rocket, give you the thrust to head into space, then break free and splash into the ocean — while you get all the glory. It’s not fair, but it’s true. And I was blessed to have a handful of these people. But I digress. What originally got me interested in writing was the Tudor Tru-Action Electric Football Set, an electric game where players buzzed around as if the team manager had put Deep Heat in their jockstraps. When it broke, I began making up my own games, racing the players around the field, announcing each play — even plopping mud on the field to give it that “authentic” feel. When I finished a game, I’d write a two- or three-sentence “story” about it and draw a “photograph” of the action. I still have a sample from Age 7. 

My mother, Marolyn, gave me a Smith-Corona typewriter and a record of college fight songs. My father, Warren, made me custom goalposts out of coat hangers. What they really gave me was far more important: permission to use my imagination, which I believe is at the foundation for all writing, fiction or non-fiction. In fifth grade, for career day, my teacher, Shirley Wirth, helped me to accomplish what I wanted to do: interview Oregon State basketball Coach Paul Valenti. I walked out of that interview thinking: What can stop me now? She, like my parents, was a dream maker. So was Jim McPherson, my newspaper advisor in junior high and high school; Roberta Shaw, an English teacher at Corvallis High;  and professors at the University of Oregon. I got something different from each, but the common gift was a belief in myself that I could be a writer.

Which do you prefer, writing that concise, pithy columns of 700 words three times a week or writing concise pithy 85,000 word books?
Great question. I’ve thought about this from time to time, and the answer is both. I’m that rare sprinter who likes to run an occasional marathon. The 700-word columns are like challenging day hikes. Everything happens fast. Research. Planning. Writing. The 85,000-word books are like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. You have to pace yourself, expect obstacles and take one step at a time. But, eventually, you reach your goal. Advantage of the column: constant feedback with readers. Advantage of books: the joy of total immersion, particularly in the research part of the journey.

I know that when you worked on American Nightingale, an Oregon Book Award Finalist and a title that got us watching you on Good Morning America, you said you took over a room and color coded pages of dialogue, narrative etc. and hung the pages all around the wall to get a balance within your book and know where to revise.  I was impressed with the idea of getting that inside of your story to get it right. What other practices do you use to give your readers the constant quality of your work?
I write my books on a 13-inch laptop computer and often feel a lack of perspective. So, yes, I confess to putting all 300 pages of the book on three walls of The Register-Guard’s photo studio. I had color coded various parts of the book: action, for example, might have been marked in red; dialogue, in blue; parts that didn’t include my main character, in yellow. Perhaps a half dozen other designations. Thus, when I stood there, in essence, inside my book, I noted all sorts of nuances (for better or worse) than I hadn’t noticed while it was looking at it on that laptop. I could see chapters that were too long, stretches that were too boring and needed action, pages and pages where I didn’t update the reader about what the date was — things such as this. Ironic you bring this up because I’m doing the same thing next week with another book, Resolve: From the Jungles of WWII, the Epic Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept.

What would you say was your biggest barrier in getting published...or did you have any  discouraging moments before you saw your first words in print?
I caught a fortunate break on my early books; a publisher actually came to me. That was a company that published only Christian-oriented books. When I decided to broaden my market, it was a steep climb. American Nightingale was turned down by 26 agents before one finally said yes. He had it sold to a Simon & Schuster imprint in two months. I found him at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland. I highly recommend this; you pay for a 10-minute session with as many agents as you want. If you truly have a book worth publishing, you’ll get at least some nibbles and hopefully catch a fish.

Your books have been published by east and west coast publishers and you've self-published successfully as well.  Which do you prefer?
I don’t think the difference between my publishers has been so much regional as scope; as I said, one, Harvest House, had an obvious Christian niche, the others — Atria and St. Martin’s Press — were broader in scope. But there’s a huge difference between self-publishing and letting someone else do that for you. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Self-publishing: You make all the decisions: name of book, look of book, time it will come out, etc. But you also have to market it yourself, get it in stores. Not easy. Finding a publisher: They market it for you, get into lots of stores. But they make most of the  decisions, can be slow getting the book out and, unless you’re someone important like John Grisham or Jane Kirkpatrick, probably won’t do much to promote your book.

Wow, you put me in the same sentence with John Grisham!  Thanks for that.  I digress. Besides Beachside Writers, you teach other classes in writing.  What made you decide to teach classes in the first place? 
I had been teaching at the UO and, frankly, found it discouraging. I’m a full-speed-ahead sort of guy and I found that in a class of 16 students you might have only one or two of those folks. Too many students seemed as if they just wanted a grade; learning wasn’t that important. Meanwhile, I’d been asked to teach at someone’s workshop and decided, instead, to start my own. I love it. We’ll have 50 students and 48 of them will be totally locked in.  (Nobody’s perfect.)

My favorite book of yours is Where Roots Grow Deep.  I remember reading an advanced copy, out loud, while Jerry drove the car somewhere.  We both laughed so hard at times he had to pull over and on more than one occasion we both had tears that fogged our eyes and required the same pause in the drive. Your ability to move people with your words is something I greatly admire.  Want to tell us how you do that?
The key to triggering laughter or tears begins with being attuned to the world around you as a writer. I have this sense that ideas are like the wind and we’re all sailboats. Some people raise their sails and see where it will take them, others don’t even notice the ripples on the water. Once you have the idea, the key is to trust the story. Don’t get in the way of it. I remember this 102-year-old woman who attended Beachside Writers. She was a wonderful writer and had this young (relatively speaking) mentor named Dave who was helping her publish her works. “In Colorado,” she told me, “we had a pond and as winter hardened the swans would swim around the edges of it to slow down the inevitable freezing of it. Dave was my swan.” When I heard that, I knew I had the perfect ending for a story.” I didn’t need to say, “they had a really close relationship.” Or “she didn’t have much time.” Instead, I just told the story. Let the power be in the showing, not the telling.

What's the one book you want to write but haven't gotten around to yet?  Is there a novel in your future? And what are you working on now?
My sister Linda Crew, a novelist, is always encouraging me to write a novel and, for the first time, I did start putting down some notes on one. Having been a journalist since 1976, I’ve met so many fascinating people that I could use as characters. All I need now is a plot, which is a little like starting a shipping company and saying, “I’m all set. Now all I need is the ships.” I’m toying with the idea of a book on writing, specifically about what I call painting with words — showing instead of telling. Meanwhile, weirdly enough, I will have two — maybe three — books out this fall: “Fifty-two Little Lessons from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” (Thomas Nelson) “Resolve: From the Jungles of WWII, an Epic Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept.” (Penguin). And perhaps a self-published book on my adventures hiking Oregon’s portion of the Pacific Crest Trail last summer.

If a would-be writer were to come to your Beachside Writers course in March 2012, what would you hope they would take away from that weekend?
The absolutely unwavering belief that they’re a writer and three extra pounds because of the fantastic home-cooking done by our very own Ann Schar. Plus a notebook full of information to chew on for the next year — and e-mails of folks just like them whom they can encourage and be encouraged by. Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Beachside is an island of togetherness — with campfire s’mores.

What do you hope you will take away from a weekend with writers and a focus on the writing life?
A reminder that words are powerful, important, and written by people with passions far different from my own, but literally change the world in big and small ways. I always leave a Beachside weekend drained by three days of interacting with people and inspired by the optimistic energy of writers whose abilities are far less important than their will to write. And, of course, I leave having once again been reminded that my writing student from the early 1980s — Jane something — has made her teacher proud.

Thanks for being my guest.  Is there anything else you'd like to tell us that I didn't ask? 
Sure. As writers, we make a difference in the world. The nurse I wrote about in American Nightingale, Frances Slanger, saved a poem in her scrapbook that says: “Drop a pebble in the water/Just a splash and it is gone/But there’s half a hundred ripples/Circling on and on./Spreading from the center/Flowing to the sea/And there’s no way of knowing/Where the end is going to be.” As writers, we are those ripples. And there is no way of knowing where the end is going to be.

Thanks for a great interview. You should have been in the newspaper business.

To sign up to attend one of Bob's courses, connect with him via social media, or learn more, visit his website or you can also email him

A small snippet for the next Beachside Writer's Workshop:

Next session: March 2-4, 2012.
Times: Friday 6:30 p.m.-Sunday 12:30 p.m.
Location: Yachats Commons, Yachats, Ore.
Teachers: Bob Welch, Register-Guard columnist and author of 12 books, of Eugene; Jane Kirkpatrick, novelist and author of 20 books, of Bend; Roger Hite, expert on self-publishing and author more than 20 books, of Eugene; and Bunny Thompson, veteran freelance magazine writer who’s written extensively of her round-the-world sailboat voyages, of Sisters.


Thanks for spending time with my first official writing teacher!  Do you have any questions for Bob?
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