Michigan Rural Librarian Conference Speech

Loleta Fyan Rural Library Conference

Traverse City, April 30, 2009

I advise you to tighten your seat belt and to borrow liberally from Shakespeare, “If tonight I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me.”

I love what I do and I’m proud to say  that in nearly 30 years of being published, my reputation has soared from internationally unknown to regionally obscure.

I am a blue-collar writer in a blue-collar state, and this night you will hear no high falutin Lit-Rah-Chuh from the likes of me.

What I have to say is that we are at war.  I refer to an enemy comprised both of our pathetic national economic situation and those under-whelming political forces of various persuasions, who continually seem to want us to take Hobson’s Choice, which is, of course, no choice at all and might be best expressed as this: more science or more science. This war has been under way for a while.

And, of it continues, it will kill us all, as individuals and as a country.

The so-called powers-that-be insist that unless we teach our kids more science and math we will trail the rest of the world in terms of future opportunities, and thus our middle class way of life will disappear.

I won’t even address whether comparative test scores from country to country are apples and apples, or apples and aardvarks.

What we hear every day is political rhetoric and posturing that amount to hogwash of the blackest dye.

For too long, this country has been neglecting all of the arts, not just in terms of support for its practitioners, but for those in our schools who teach the arts — where it often dismissively referred to as  “non-core,” and is thought by many to be mere frivolity.

This thinking demonstrates almost total ignorance of the human creative process – ignorance, I suspect, that comes from not having enough exposure to humanities in one’s own education.

Core and non-core? Well, let’s talk about that.

When England’s leaders in the 1930s needed the country’s scientific and engineering community to get more tuned into and acting with greater dispatch to produce aviation weapons that would be needed for the war looming ahead – the government reached out not to scientists or engineers, but to novelist H.G.Wells and a scenario he wrote about the future of mass bombing. They reached fiction, not science in the form of wonk papers or tech manuals.

Core or non-core?

Could it be that science rides on the back of metaphor as much as formulae?

Core or non-core? Einstein grasped relativity by visualizing moving trains.

Core or non-core? The Big Bang is most often described by scientists as a cosmic firecracker.

Core or non-core? Physicist Niels Bohr turned to cubism to help him find a way to describe the content and shape of atoms.

And so on. Metaphor enables artists and scientists alike  to imagine abstract concepts in concrete terms. Core and non-core are constructs, not realities and they  represent a very narrow, largely false dichotomy.

Which gives rise to a thought: Could it be that science actually needs art?

Human experience is the world of the arts. The novelist, composer, painter and poet embrace the spiritual aspects of the mind that cannot be reduced, dissected, translated, or converted into formulae and / or simplistic acronyms.

James Joyce once said of one of his works:  “Tis the broth of thought, the mind before punctuation, a stream of consciousness rendered on the page.”

Science rightfully adheres to strict methodology, depending on experiments and resulting data, replication of results for validation, and standardized test methods, but the cultural hypotheses of artists inspire questions that often stimulate important new scientific answers.

Who and how are we, and where is  this phenomenon we call life taking us? Scientist and artist: we ask the same basic questions and take hints and clues from each other and depend on the same stimuli for the answers. I see an apple fall from a tree and think about a plot for deer poaching story. Sir Isaac Newton saw the same phenomenon and conceived of gravity.

More science or more science in education?  Wrong question.  The spark we call creativity is the same spark that creates literature and scientific breakthroughs.

Years ago, when I was fresh from military service and new to my corporate job, I was also working on masters in English Lit at Western Michigan.

I went one day to see the director of one of our research departments and, as I sat in his office, I noticed a book on his bookshelf called, Laughter, by Henri Bergson. Ironically I was studying the same book in a class on the theory of comedy and I was curious why the scientist had it on his shelf.

He said, “Intellect and creativity eat the same food. Science advances on the back of art, and vice versa. They are all part of the same thing.” He is an exceptionally enlightened man.

To rephrase: science and art eat the same food. Remember the example of the falling apple a few moments ago?

Let’s not deceive ourselves. The main reason for most companies moving American jobs to other countries is not because scientific and technical work forces elsewhere are superior to ours: It is because they are cheaper!  Globalization is about profit.

Very little of this push for science is about improved American scientific capability: It’s about money.  Globalization, the drive for maximized profits, has delivered millions of jobs to other countries. And that same relentless push for profit combined with corporate leadership turned greedership,  has put our economy in that ungilded tank we unceremoniously  refer to as the crapper.

Globalization is a word for the maximization of profits by finding places to get tax breaks, lower manpower costs, or both. Recently we have seen where the unregulated, never-ending search for profit takes the world.

In what is largely sociopolitical baloney, many of our political leaders at all levels of government bray about the importance of teachers and fixing our education system.

If sincere, how come we treat our educators like fecal matter? People who purport to support education whinge: “They have a union, they make too much money, their benefits are too expensive, they only work nine months, they have whole summers off, Yada yada yada.”

I read a study from five years ago showing that American teachers then ranked 26th of 29 countries in teacher pay – and worked 300 more hours a year on the average than other countries. I suspect it’s worse now.

Okay, teachers do have summers off. They also work nights and weekends. And their employers require them to  continually upgrade their educations – mostly on their own dime and on their own time. In most systems teachers have 30-40 students per class – as many as 300 a day, kids with little socialization from their families, kids looking to visit violence on each other, and so on, ad nauseum.

We support teachers and education? This is no more than lip service, bumper-sticker philosophy, and hot-air citizenship.

The United States once was a country that walked our talk. Now we jay-walk and double-talk, and proclaim it serious thought.

A good friend of mine just came back from Baghdad last July. For a year his outfit cleared mines and IUDs; they lost eight men during their tour. He went over as a staunchly conservative Republican, and having seen the elephant, came back as a wild-eyed Democrat. I asked him if he felt supported while he was over there and he said, “No damn way!” And now that he’s back, here’s what he’s hearing from people, “Hey, you guys knew what you were getting into when you went over there.”

Oh yeah. But by god, We support our troops too.

“You knew what you were getting in to?” This is support?

You’re wondering what all this has to do with rural libraries. Fair enough.

First of all, you are the bulwark of information in your communities – the clearinghouse and trusted institution that people reach out to for objective and timely information. Which means that when political rhetoric is being slung about with the aerodynamic stability of wax paper Frisbees, you need to help people see reality and find real-time information.

Your conference theme is: “Small Libararies, Big Service.” Great theme, but you’d better make sure it’s real, not rhetoric.

Current economic reality suggests all of you are already suffering increasing financial shrinkage due to reduced revenues coming into our government through taxes. You need, through your associations and professional networks, to stay on top of all political waves on the horizon.

Our national economic morass means you will be increasingly caught in that same war that now engulfs teachers in the arts – simply put, you may be seen as community luxuries rather than necessities. You risk being seen not as core, but as non-core.A writer learns that he or she must show, not tell, which means involving the reader in the currents and spirit of the story, just as it means involving patrons of your institutions. I once killed off two key characters in one of my stories and I still have people coming up to me and yelling at me for what I wrote. This is what I mean by involving people. Fiction is marked by change and made from friction, and so too is life.

Of course, as non-core people, you should be happy to have a job, and you should be content with minimum pay and do the job you do, solely because you love it. Right. Just like the jamokes at Enron and AIG. Loving your job may enrich your day, but it won’t pay your bills. When you are non-core, you risk being erased by the self-proclaimed core people around you.

What I am saying is that in your fight for survival, you must demonstrate every day how integral to the community’s social health you and your institution are. This is not the time to tell the public what you do: This is the time to show them in ways that they will find your role both undeniable in its value and integral to their lives.

Will you make some some people mad? Damn right! As Churchill once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Let’s call this the war of competition for public attention and public and private dollars.

Most of us gathered here probably prefer to think of ourselves is less mercenary terms, but the truth is this, we are — you and I — in the entertainment business. We are in competition with video games and video rentals, film, sports, cable and satellite TV, hunting, fishing, traveling, concerts — you name it.

In this war we need to learn to blend these other things into what we do and to either out-compete them, or blend into them so that we become an integral part of the competing activities. I think many libraries, especially in rural settings, are already doing this with admirable aplomb. If you are not in such a posture, take the example of your colleagues who are, and get with it.

With so many electronic gadgets, gizmos, and opportunities swirling through us and around us, I still prefer to hold a book with paper pages in my feeble, liver-spotted hands, preferably with some heft to the book, both in story depth, vocabulary, and length.

I feel the same way about newspapers and magazines, which are going extinct like reptiles after the proverbial meteor struck Earth. Without mass media,  people are going to need help in finding a way to stay on top of the news at various levels of life. The library can play a critical role in this regard.

I have a fair idea of who reads my stories, and, more than a few of them are people, who until the Woods Cops Series, have found reading either wholly unrewarding or too difficult, and largely boring. But I get quite a few letters, E-mails, and phone calls from people saying that the series has put them back on reading or even into it for the first time, and I find this very satisfying. No doubt you identify with this experience, because as librarians surely you have had a similar effect on individuals’ reading lives.

The fact is that I write to and about many of the same people who are in and out of your library every day.

Despite having some idea who my readers are, I must confess to mostly writing stories that satisfy some need in me, not in some faceless, nameless audience.

I figure I’m a pretty ordinary person, and if the stories interest and move me I hope they also will move readers. So far, that seems to have been the case.

I also know that my readers tend to pass around their copies. One copy may be read by a dozen or more people. One gentleman recently sent me a note proudly heralding  how me he had sent the same copy to relatives in eight states and a lot of people in his town. Okay, fine. I actually understand this  –especially  these days. But I also know a lot of my readers who go to the bar on their five-thousand-dollar snowmobiles, in three-hundred-dollar jumpsuits, hundred-dollar helmets, and drink fifty bucks worth of beer in a night. Yet they pass around one lousy copy of the $25 hardbound book or a less expensive soft cover edition to their pals until it is rat-eared and smudged with beer stains and chili-marks.

My conclusion? I’m competing with snowmobiles and taverns.

Let me say that again. We — you and I — are in competition with snowmobiles and taverns.

Rural libraries were an important source of books for much of my life, including my time in Chippewa County in the U.P. when I graduated from Rudyard High School.

Let us remind ourselves of what author Jorge Luis Borges said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

If the antediluvian forces of more science or more science get their way, the only library we may see in the future may well indeed be in Paradise and I don’t refer go the remote village in West Chippewa County.

I fear for your futures as much as I fear for mine.

Without functioning libraries pumping intellectual blood to the hearts of our small communities, we will become a culturally poorer nation than we are now.

Okay, off the soapbox. Let’s talk about writing.

People sometimes find it hard to understand how someone from a small high school  — graduating class of sixty students — becomes a novelist.  Fair question.

The answer is that I got a top-shelf education at Rudyard High School in Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula, and at Michigan State University in East Lansing. I’m convinced that both were academically and socially superior to anything I might have gotten at a much larger high school or more exclusive and foo-foo college.

So the first answer is public education, which worked for me and has worked for millions upon millions of other citizens.

Let me add that I had a teacher, coach and principal, a man named Ed Jarvie, now retired here in Traverse City, who taught me the meaning of detailed preparation, all-out effort, and learning from successes and failures. Having Ed Jarvie in my life was a matter of luck.

The second part of the answer is that most artists like to talk about their gifts and hard work and learning the craft and all of that ain’t-I-so-cool rhetoric, but few ever talk about the importance of blind luck.

That’s right, plain old luck is critical, and sometimes the luck is good, and sometimes… not so much.

For example, I some years back wrote a novel about a domestic terrorist group and my editor at Random House sent the manuscript back to me, saying, “The scenario just isn’t believable.” A week or so later the Oklahoma City bombing took place and my editor called and yelled, “Send that damn manuscript back to me,” which I did forthwith and a week or so later he came back from playing handball at the Harvard Club, lay down for a nap on the couch in his office, and died of a heart attack. The book was never published.


I knew early on I wanted to write fiction, mainly because I loved to read and my Irish grandparents’ house and my own home were both filled with books and newspapers and magazines.

Dreams aside, I wasn’t so sure becoming a fiction writer could happen, so I decided to seek the best writing education I could get, and that took me to Michigan State’s journalism school.

Why journalism instead of creative writing?

I’m certain that imagination — the essence of creative writing — cannot be taught.  By this I mean that the techniques can be learned and polished by aspiring writers, but the real heat of any piece of writing is the imaginative spark that spawns it. That spark has to happen before technique can take over.

Jean-Paul Sartre called imagination, “the ability to think of what is not.” I call imagination the engine of art, while craft is the steering device and speedometer. But just as a coach can’t teach speed, a teacher cannot teach imagination or an ear for dialogue, or gut instinct for a story.

Core or non-core: Now hear this: The essence of creativity and originality are the same for the sciences and the arts, and they cannot be installed like a black boxes or the latest software programs.

Think about this: In our schools up to university level (usually the graduate level) most work focuses on existing scientific techniques and methods, facts and theory. Those rare science students with intuition, natural creativity, and original thinking will only later invoke change and originality to the world of science. Just as in the arts, first you learn technique and current theory. Once you command existing doctrine and technique (which artists call craft) , then you originate and innovate, and theories change, to then be learned by those who follow the innovators — until things change again.

Teachers of science and the arts can encourage and reward creativity and originality (if they can recognize them), but they can’t create what isn’t there to begin with. It can only be modified and re-enforced. Here I would add I spent more than a decade on our local community education foundation and we were besieged with requests for money for gifted and talented programs.  Guess what:  We had very, very few gifted students in our 8,700-student system, but bus-loads of great test-takers.Gifts and talents are almost impossible to measure, but you damn well know what gifted and talented is when you see it or hear it. They are truly rare.

Here’s another thought. You do not make a team or school system  stronger by improving your star player. You can only improve group performance over time by making your average players better.

If the creative spark is continually and systematically denied and discouraged, it is apt to die or go dormant in the individual.

And if it is aggressively and relentlessly discouraged, it will die. You who sail our library ships can help encourage creative spark and interests.

All of us are creative to one degree or another, in one thing or another, be it science and technical, or more in the fine arts arena. We also each learn differently.

But no matter the field or spark, creativity is a use-it-or-lose it proposition.

My schooling antedated so-called New Journalism, which interjected the reporter into his or her stories. In my day, we reported Who-What-When-Where-Why, How- and How Much? Any interpretation came from third party experts and observers and was clearly attributed as such. These values no doubt now mark me as a dinosaur. Journalism has gone backwards. Don’t believe it? Listen to AM radio shout-shows or watch Fox news, which reminds me of nationally controlled political TV in Moscow in the 70s and 80s.

Someday I hope journalism moves forward again. Whether it does or doesn’t, having traditional journalism training, I believe, enabled me to maintain the discipline of voice in my fiction.

In our initial reporting class, 25 to 30 students trooped into a classroom.  A professor stood at the door with a bored look and handed each of us a small sheet of paper. “You’re a reporter,” he said “and these are the facts that have been called in from the field. Write a story. You have fifteen minutes, not one second more.” The room had several rows of tables with ten or so typewriters on each.

The professor then went to those students who were writing long-hand. “You type?” If they said no, he handed them a piece of paper and said solemnly, “Admin is across the street. Go drop the course.”

Stories done, he read each one silently  and as he finished each, he would look at a student and proclaim, for example, “Miss Miars, This is entirely inadequate. Go drop the course.”

“Or, Mister Heywood? This is… barely adequate. Next time you need to be a helluva lot tighter.” By the end of the first class there would be fewer than twenty of us remaining and within another week we would be reduced to 14 or 15.

The faculty kept telling us, “You will not graduate unless you can write.” They weren’t joking.

In four years at MSU, I only went into the math building to avoid snowstorms and subzero temperatures. Yet when I graduated, a national syndicate, called Science Service, offered me a lucrative and interesting job covering science and medical news in the Big Ten. I turned them down because I was obligated to military service.

I loved the harsh realities of journalism school, and after graduation I loved the harsh, unyielding competition in navigation training because this same person who took not one pure science course in four years of college went into the Air Force to navigation training and finished 7th of 60 graduates from all over the United States and other countries, many of them science and math majors in their university days. I came out of Advanced Combat Crew Training School ranked first in my class of 20, with a flight evaluation of Highly Qualified. Later I became an instructor navigator.

After the Air Force I went to work for The Upjohn Company, where one of my first jobs was to help our pharmaceutical scientists talk to real people and to tell the company’s science story to the public.

One day I went to see a researcher, a world-acclaimed expert in histamine and its effects and I asked him to explain to me what he was doing.

He wrinkled his brown and curled his lips. “You’ll never understand. You’re not a scientist.”

“Are you married?” I asked him.

He nodded.

“Does your wife understand what you do?”

He nodded again.

“Is she a scientist?”

He shook his head. I said,  “Then explain it to me the way you explained it to your wife.” He did and we became friends.

My intent is not to brag. I am simply pointing out that this dichotomy between science and the arts is at best, misdirection, and at worst, a well-polished, false premise in brightly wrapped baloney — designed to hide the driving force of profit and money. By my definition that puts us in a war.

To change directions a bit, I honestly can’t remember reading a single mystery before I wrote The Snowfly, a book I had not consciously planned.

Planned or not, something was trying to hatch from the swamp of my subconscious and the result was that the book’s prolog literally popping out of me one Saturday morning and 45 days later the hundred-thousand-word first draft was done.

It was not a product of bogus automatic writing, but it was like transcribing a movie that was playing in my head. It’s the only time this has ever happened to me. And for some novelists – perhaps most novelists — it never happens. Not sure I ever want it to happen to me again, but I don’t think we get to choose such things.

Winston Churchill once said of writing, “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” He captured the process pretty well.

My second novel, The Berkut, took three years of research and reading just to decide if I could write a novel about the end of World War II in the so-called “cracks of history.” Then I needed a full year of writing to produce the first draft of the manuscript, so these are bookends of my creative process, one driven intellectually and consciously (four years), the other driven emotionally and subconsciously (six weeks).

Both approaches work. In fact, there is no one right way to write a novel. There are numerous ways and they all work, but the only way to evaluate is to look at the finished product. All the bull in the world and good skills at the lectern will not produce a novel. Not ever. As the actor playing Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine told his players before a game in the movie Rudy, “Do the work!”

Talking about and discussing writing is not writing. Writing is an individual, antisocial exercise practiced by disciplined, selfish recluses.

You may ask what role of the worldwide web has  in research?

To quote Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, “Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly.” He’s being far too kind: The Web certainly has some playful stuff but it is a dump inhabited by thieves, cheats, scam artists, whack-bats, and wannabes.

The web at it’s public, free best has superficial real value and not much more than that. Yet it is also often a very fast way to create the nub of a working bibliography to allow one to go to the library to lay hands on and being to sort through real sources. To get real value from the web you have to subscribe to expensive data-bases or meet some sort of qualification like being a professor in order to avail yourself. Most people can’t afford such data bases – or lack requisite credentials to qualify for others. What is free on the net is pretty well what you pay for it, meaning about twenty bucks a month.

The thought that the web will replace newspapers and magazines totally misses the nature of how news needs to be covered and most importantly, how it must be vetted for the public.

In addition to reading, I spend a month or so a year in trucks on patrol with conservation officers and over the past eight years have done more than 300 patrols for about 2,500 to 2,700 hours, or about a year in all.

Such proximity to real-life action has enabled me to bring a level of immediacy and authenticity to the series that otherwise might not be there. Don Quixote’s “father,” Miguel de Cervantes, once said, “One cannot catch trout with dry britches.”

Indeed. If I have a life credo, you’ve just heard it.

In nine years I have done patrols with DNR officers – in all 15 UP counties, and another 24 of so counties below “da britch.” I’ve been frightened enough times to fill a tanker truck with an old man’s adrenaline.

Conservation officers — according to one study — are eight times more likely to be injured in the line of duty than any other police officer.

They work alone at night, mostly around armed people, who are much of the time drinking and toking, and often driving recklessly. All officers have scars, physically and psychologically.

One officer I know on his first week of duty went looking for missing hunters and found that their boats had capsized in Lake Superior in mid-November. Five men and six deer were washed back to shore by storms and wave action and then frozen in place by spray and my friend found them, dug them out one at a time, and sat with the dead until help came.

First week on the job. What was your first week like?

Our officers go out every day in every kind of weather over every possible kind of terrain, and do the job. They are men and women to be admired, because they define courage.

COs rarely brag about themselves or their successes. What they will do is eagerly tell you about their faux pas, such as a CO pal who was reconnoitering illegal steelhead snaggers a year ago, somehow lost his footing, and slid 40 feet on his keester down an embankment, splashing spectacularly into the water right next to the poachers. What did he do? He popped up spitting water, and asked, “How’s the fishing tonight, boys?”’

While it seems this could be a sort of lifestyle to attract cowboys, it doesn’t. It attracts the most sober and calculating of individuals who can work alone and without a lot of supervision, and make good choices.

I think my readers are fascinated by the variety of tasks officers must perform, and often under tremendous stress and time constraints. Over the years I have made good friends with several officers and their families and this has enabled me to see the part of their lives not spent in uniform, which is a critical aspect of any law enforcement job, and of my characters.

But the view against that greater canvas is always through a soda straw, narrow and focused from a single character’s inner point of view.

My protagonist, Grady Service, is not based on an individual. He is an amalgam of many people, including myself, which is unavoidable. The bad-guy characters are part me too, and — by the way — I like writing bad guys most of all. The female characters in my books are generally very strong women, because these are the kinds of women attracted to CO careers or whom COs select as spouses.

I have a lot of enthusiastic female readers.

I try to make my characters talk the way real people talk under combat and stress. They are profane, swear, get frustrated, scared, and strike out, but they do not back off from doing their jobs. They have sex and get hurt and sometimes they or their spouses die.  My characters live real lives, not some sort of Disney version of life. Very little of what is in the books in the way of professional moments is made up. Most of it is absolutely real and has happened to a CO somewhere in the state.

Instead of badmouthing the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which sometimes seems like our unofficial state sport, we need to support the DNR and our COs. Why?  As far as we know, God isn’t making any more water or land and if we don’t use what we have wisely and appreciate it, we will be in serious and irreversible trouble.

My mother always told me a speech ought have a snappy opening and a memorable finish –the two of which should not be far apart in time. Thank you for your patience tonight  and for your many years of support.

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