The "creative process" involves surrounding yourself with people who share your sensibilities. These are other artists that you respect and trust with your work, and also people you find inspiring -- those who can push you to a new level in your own art.
A few years ago, a small number of us formed a writer's group with the very pretentious name, "Famous Tiffin Writers." Tiffin being the small town in Ohio where we usually met, and Tiffin also being where most of us lived at the time. Now "most" sounds like a lot -- but actually there were/are four charter and essential members. The work of Cher Bibler and David Shevin is already scattered across This Side of Paradise. As is my own. But the one writer who was missing, until now, is Ellen Behrens, the daughter of artists and a former resident of Clyde, Ohio, with all of its Sherwood Anderson ghosts intact.
None of the "Famous Tiffin Writers" was famous, of course, and we still aren't. But each of us continues to work hard at our craft, in our own way and time.
David Shevin is the acclaimed author of many books of poetry, Cher Bibler is an extraordinary musician, poet, and novelist, and fans/readers of Ellen Behrens are anxiously awaiting her next book.
Her first, None But The Dead And Dying (Baskerville Publishers, Inc., 1996) received glowing praise from, among others, Publisher's Weekly, the Columbus Dispatch, and The New York Times Book Review, which described her writing as, "a bluesy saxophone making music that soars."
Like the other founding members of "Famous Tiffin Writers," Ellen has at least a couple new books I know of in the creative pipeline -- and as each of us, she isn't going to publish until she feels the words are ready. It's not a question of making money, of having that best-seller (that part will come, in due time) -- but a matter of getting the story straight, and true, and of allowing characters a voice who would otherwise find themselves enveloped in an uneasy silence. Indeed, Ellen is giving voice to a variety of characters, from a number of different worlds, including factory life.
Ellen Behrens is essential reading for many reasons, but I'd like to think that she's essential because of the common element that the "Famous Tiffin Writers" share, and that being: Heart.
This Side of Paradise is proud to publish an excerpt from one of Ellen's novels-in-progress. And when Ellen's second novel comes out, and third and beyond, you can say, Yes, I know her work, and it resonates and sings -- "making music that soars."
"The factory is fast fading from the American landscape, though my hope is that (as is the case with the farm) it will never entirely go away. Newer factories are much cleaner and brighter than the one I describe in the excerpt you have, but they are nonetheless brutal in their own way," Ellen writes as an introduction to "The Smell of Cold."
More of and about Ellen Behrens can be found at: http://www.ellenbooks.com.
"The Smell of Cold"
by Ellen Behrens
Before you can really understand what happened to Couch, why one minute he was sitting at his workbench with the Sunday crossword puzzle, quietly pondering a seven-letter word for “cannoli filling,” and the next minute he was a four-letter word that’s the opposite of alive – before you can even begin to understand that, you have to understand this place. You have to understand him. Why one minute he was craving a cigarette and wondering if anyone would notice if he lit one up, and the next minute he was face down on the newspaper, his carefully printed crosswords smeared. You have to understand a few things about this place, about these people who work in here. There’s a lot you think you know, a lot you’ve been told. But none of it comes close to what you’ll find in here, what you’ll see for yourself. The first thing you need to know is that it isn’t as easy in here as you think. You’ve heard stories about high-paid union plant people sitting around reading papers, collecting bu-koo bucks. But like everything in here – it’s not that simple. There’s a lot below the surface you just can’t see.
Daughters toured here a few years back for Take Our Daughters to Work Day. They filed through obediently, single and double file, some of them with their sleeves over their noses. Hurt some dads’ and moms’ feelings. It’s hard when you’re on the inside to see it the way they did, the way you must: grease-laden green machines in a metal dungeon, steel beams and buttresses stretching thirty, forty, fifty feet high. Lights two feet and a half across, hanging in their even rows overhead, looking like white dots. The view down the aisle dims a few hundred feet away in air so thick you can almost touch it.
And the smell — burning oils and chemicals, pungent and bitter. An open window or doorway pulls in the welcome scent of fresh rain, newly mown grass, or sharp winter snow. Even cold has a smell in here, clear and pure and lucid as your deepest thoughts.
People find their own ways to deal with the factory, its noise and airborne grime up your nose all day or night. That guy over there, in the tee shirt and ball cap. When you pass him and say, “Hi,” he’ll say, “I see you,” every time. Like it’s some weird I-Spy game he’s playing all by himself.
And that guy over there. If you say Hi to him, you’ll see his lips move and it won’t be hi or hello or how ya doing? That much you can tell. But what he says back, you can’t tell. You can’t hear him, it’s way too noisy where he works, so maybe he figures he’ll say what he wants. If you can could read lips, you would know what he’s saying isn’t normal.
Another guy will tell you he’s been every place you ever mention you’ve visited or lived, done everything you say you’ve done, and then some. Some guys started keeping a resume on him and so far he’s a journeyman in five trades (electrician, plumber/pipefitter, welder, tinsmith, and machine repairman). He’s been in three branches of the service and was an officer in two. He’s climbed Mt. McKinley and gone deep water diving in the Coral Sea, snorkeling off Grand Cayman, and scuba diving in Lake Superior where he located a ship long considered unrecoverable. He played three college sports on full scholarships at four different Big Ten schools, and was offered pro status (avoiding that humiliating sports draft) in two of them – football and baseball. Somebody once asked him if he was on the Olympic wrestling team and he said no, but he did qualify at Nationals for rifle shooting. Couldn’t go to the actual Games because his mother was dying and he had to come home, which is where he’s been ever since. This place is lucky to have him.
Sherlock is the reason we know a lot of these things. Sherlock is the weasily guy in the back corner break room. The skinny guy with the bony face, the one in the faded red baseball cap with the bill black from dirty fingers. Flannel shirt with the sleeves torn out. No, he’s not in the Euchre game – he’s watching it. He makes everybody playing crazy, the way he snickers to himself over some card that’s played instead of the one he would have picked. He doesn’t play because he’s too cheap – games can end up costing big losers a full week’s pay, and with overtime in here, that can be steep. But they let him watch because nobody wants to tell him to leave. Nobody wants to upset their delicate balance with him, a balance between his ability to keep some secrets and not others. Because everybody in here has a story and the smart ones don’t tell theirs. They know the story will go around and around until it’s not even theirs anymore, until nobody knows them anymore, maybe not even their name.
Sherlock, you understand, holds the secrets. He is the broker of confessions and frustrations, the arbiter of whose story gets divulged and whose story doesn’t.
Sherlock knows why, for example, some guys have to be the first ones at the gate every day. Third shift, first, second, doesn’t matter. They stand at the turnstile in all weather—rain, sleet, snow, freezing-toe-cold, blistering heat—just to be the first ones out that day. This is important to them, important enough that they will stand ten minutes or more in below-zero wind chills and arctic blizzards, just waiting for the official click of the time clock overhead so they can swipe their badges through, and be the first ones to do it.
And seeing’s how Sherlock’s the one who found Couch, he’s somebody with insight into the very nature of life and death, too. But don’t expect him to give that up easily. He might be a ruthless merchant when it comes to other people’s secrets, but when it comes to his own, he’s impenetrable when he wants to be.
You have to know how it is.
That gate you came through is one of just two for the entire perimeter of the property. Chain link fence, barbed wire. If they could afford to swap it out for razor wire, they probably would. But don’t mistake the fence as a way of keeping people out. It’s about keeping the secrets in. Secrets about parts and engineering breakthroughs and redesign and staying on top in the ultra-competitive automotive world. Secrets about Couch. Secrets about all those who died before him, and notions about those who will die after him.
So when the daughters toured, they walked tentatively along the concrete floor, blinking their eyes against the sting of all they could smell and hear but couldn’t see. They covered their ears and noses against the secrets they didn’t want revealed. Later that night, when someone asked how the tour went, what they thought of the factory, they shrugged and said, “It was okay, I guess,” knowing that nothing about it was okay. Not really. Not in the least bit.
(Copyright Ellen Behrens, 2008, and used with permission of the author.)
To Reach The Green Light At The End Of The Pier
FOR AS LONG AS IT TAKES: "We are saving ourselves through the words," says Eleanor, the leading lady of a novel-in-progress. This exploration into the creative process -- which includes plenty of distractions/tangents /thoughts & rants by Eleanor, her Biographer, and selected guest artists -- will continue until Eleanor is certain her story is "right." (But we dare not jump ahead of ourselves.)
There will be the occasional typo (as Eleanor points out), and much of this is intended to be "original draft" -- what comes out of our mouths (heads) first, and then set down in that order. Not all of it will be included in the novel, but all of it is happening in real time.
ELEANOR says: "Please turn the page. Keep reading."
For more of Eleanor and her Biographer -- as well as the work of our many guest artists -- check out the older postings. "Everything is part of the process, and the process is the journey," Eleanor says.