Monthly Archives: October 2010

Evan Engstrom – 1942-2010

Heaven is richer today for the presence of my former husband and one of my best friends of all time. Evan Emil Engstrom died yesterday after a 26-year battle with cancer. The man was a warrior. 

I first met Evan when we were both struggling to get sober. I knew his sister and she was everything I wanted to be. Shortly thereafter, I met his mom and his kids, and knew this was the family for me. We married, I adopted his two wonderful children, and we set out to have a full life together. Evan was incredibly smart, the master of the one-line zingers, handy and clever, but most of all, he cared. Deeply. About everything, all the time. He wanted to do the right thing in all situations. My honorary Uncle Paul told me to marry “a man I could live up to.” Evan was just such a man, and he provided a moral compass for me from the moment we met, as well as everyone with whom he came into contact.

It wasn’t long after we married that Evan’s dentist found a small lump under his tongue. The surgery to eradicate this squamous cell carcinoma took the floor of his mouth, all the lymph nodes and big muscle on the left side of his neck, and required a skin graft from his thigh. The doctor told me: “The chances of his being here in two years are slim and none.” Well, they didn’t know Evan.

We moved from Maui to Oregon to provide a broader perspective of life for the kids, began to eat organically, raising most of our own food, and for a long time life was good. Eventually, however, we began to see that while we were really good friends, we did not make good mates. We discussed the fact that friendship is eternal while marriages are likely not, and we were in danger of losing our friendship as we toiled to maintain a broken marriage. So we separated, and eventually divorced, still committed to one another, still connected to one another via the heart, forever, in this world and throughout the next.

When I married Al, Evan came to our wedding. His classic comment: “I’ll come to all of your weddings, Liz, if there’s a meal in it for me.” Al had to know that my commitment to Evan was part of my family unit. And when Evan and Sharon discovered each other in a new way, we all became one big happy weird family, impossible to describe, but precious in every way.

Evan’s cancer came back. Again. And again. And yet again. He never gave up the fight against it, not after all the rest of us thought it might be a good idea that he just let go and let God. But he wanted to see his kids grow up. He wanted to see his grandkids grow up. And for the most part, he did. He leaves his two wonderful children, Nicole and Eron, and five grandsons, Luke, age 19, Joey, 17, Edison, 8 and Dean and Davison, both 3.

Evan left us too early. I particularly grieve that he and Sharon had such limited time together to explore their new relationship, to travel the world in happy retirement. But it is what it is, and we are all richer for knowing and loving him for as long as he was on loan to us.

Congratulations on your graduation, Evan. We all look forward to seeing you on the other side.

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Filed under Aging, Cancer, Death, Dying, family, Graduation, Marriage, relationships

Candyland will be a movie!

With an amazing script by Rusty Nixon, Candyland, a dark, deeply disturbing novel of mine is currently in development. Funds are being raised, and you can participate! W. Scott Peake is directing; his latest film, Permanent Vacation did very well.

I couldn’t be more excited.

Candyland is available in the collaborative collection of stories and art in the volume The Alchemy of Love, and is available as a stand-alone on the Kindle.

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My Keynote Presentation

This morning I was honored to deliver the keynote presentation at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. This is the text of that presentation:

Good morning. It is an honor and a privilege to stand before you this morning. The keynote, as I understand it, is the talk that sets the key note for the conference, and I am delighted to share with you what I hope will be the keynote of your experience here in Surrey.

There are two things I’d like to talk about this morning. The first is the responsibility of writers in our culture, in our history and in our future, and the second is our responsibility to our readers.

The first—responsibility to our culture—cannot be overestimated. Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Think of the rich history Dickens has lent to those of us who have never experienced those times. He has shown us the attitudes, the vocabulary, the sights, smells, sounds of Victorian London. And he was but one writer. One voice.

Sometimes we think that we’re sitting alone in our offices in front of our keyboards (Facebook minimized in the corner), making up silly little stories that don’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. It is easy for us to let the committee in our minds get control of us and encourage us to ‘get a real job’ or ‘do something worthwhile’ – especially if one of the voices that comprises our committee happens to be The Mother. And it may be true that there isn’t a Dickens in this room who will speak for an entire generation, but together, we do. Each voice is a part of the great chorus of this generation of writers that will speak for eons. And every chorus is comprised of what? Individual voices.

So put the committee down for a nap whenever you sit at the keyboard. You are providing an important service for our culture and for the future inhabitants of this planet as well as for your current readers.

And that brings me to my second point. Our responsibility to these readers.

When you sit down at the keyboard, you are in the process of creating a product that you hope to sell. You don’t want to sell a useless gizmo to your friends and neighbors, loved ones and fans. You want them to feel good about their purchase, to spread the word. In order to do that, you have to give readers something they want and need.

Well. What the hell do readers want? I’ll tell you. They want to read about conflict. They don’t want to engage in it, they don’t want to live it, in fact, we all go to great lengths to avoid conflict in our lives.

But when we go to bed at night, and turn on the reading light and pick up that book on the nightstand, we want to dive into outrageous, mind-blowing conflict, but only if the author is artful in putting us into the shoes of the characters. If we can make ourselves believe that we are embroiled in amazing conflicts, we continually say to ourselves, Could that really happen? I would NEVER do such a thing, or I would LOVE to do something like that, all the while knowing that it is never really going to happen. But what we’re actually doing is learning about ourselves, because we don’t have the opportunity to actually see ourselves in much conflict.

This is the entertainment value of fiction. We get to fantasize about situations we will never actually find ourselves in. The great value in that for a reader is that they close the book and come away from the experience with a greater understanding of themselves.

This is what you’re selling. Readers’ enhanced experience of themselves.

This is why you must pay so much attention to character, to setting, and to plot. This is why you must write with such realism that the reader can actually put themselves into the clothes of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. This is why you must pay particular attention to the emotional makeup of the character. This is why the bad guy must be so bad. A milquetoast bad guy results in a milquetoast story. Your story is only as strong as your antagonist. Give your characters real evil to battle. This is how all readers want to see themselves: not going to their mundane jobs as accountants, janitors and IT techs, but as night time heroes, battling evil and saving the world.

This is what you’re selling. This is escapist literature. This is entertainment.

This is your responsibility. Your job is to dig so deeply into your own soul, your own longings, your own failings, your own insecurities and present them to the page so clearly that you change lives.

This is how you join the chorus.

And so if I am to strike the key note at this conference, it is this: The world needs your words. The world needs you to learn your craft so that you can join the chorus in tune and vie for that soloist spot. The world needs you to continue to experience without aid of self-medicating so that you don’t keep using up your experience without replenishing the well. The world needs you to be ruthless in your self-examination. The world needs you to speak your truth, and speak it loudly, boldly, fearlessly.

And if you do that, you will change lives, not the least of which will be your own.

Thank you and have a wonderful conference.

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Writing en masse

There is something to the idea that group synergy equals more than the sum of its parts.

Last weekend, twelve of us got together at a beautiful riverfront resort up the McKenzie River in Oregon to write science fiction stories. This weekend, like the annual ghost story weekends, required all participants to write a science fiction story in 24 hours.  We had some good chats about science fiction, and then at 7pm on Friday, after dinner, we all got down to it.

Saturday at 7pm, the dinner dishes done, exhausted yet energized, we sat in a comfy circle to hear the stories. It’s like having someone reading an entire anthology of excellent science fiction stories. We laughed, we shivered, we exclaimed, speculated, we clapped, we cheered. And then we realized that every one of the stories had certain elements in common. How could that be? There was no collaboration, no collusion. How could every single story have some of the same thematic elements? These were not things we discussed in pretrip meetings or over Friday night pizza and salad. They just happened.

I prefer to think that these things are in the ether. That our mind channels, when opened to the Great Creative Powers become not unlike an insecure internet portal. We wander around the grounds in the sunlight, pondering our stories, and those ponderings collide with another writer’s musings, and bingo! They both come up with a common solution for their outrageously different stories.

We’ve had this type of synergy before in these weekends. I’ve facilitated enough of them now that I thought I’d seen everything, but no. This was extraordinary.

And made every one of us eager to repeat the process.

Next spring: Fantasy Story Weekend.

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Filed under connections, Ghost Story Weekend, Reading, Short Stories, Writing