One man’s journey

painting: Caroline Allen, 2006, acrylic on canvas, Enchanted Forest, Cape Alava, Washington

Blogger: Caroline Allen
Title: Art of Storytelling, owner
Bio: see for bio

Last year, 47-year-old Sulley Keehnel came to an evening writing class in Seattle. A serious quiet student, he sat in the back. I am always amazed by which two to three students in every class of approximately 20 I teach will end up taking the writing seriously, will go forward and prove to themselves and others that they really are writers, that they were always writers and were just waiting for the chance to explode open their creativity. You cannot tell by a person’s looks, by their intelligence, by how much they used to write, even by the power of their writing. It’s tenacity, a fighting spirit that really makes the difference…and Sulley had it in spades.

I always begin writing classes for adults who are either new to writing or returning to it after many years away (as was the case with Sulley) with this instruction: Think of an event from your life that you cannot get out of your mind. Try to avoid a traumatic event for the purposes of this exercise. (Trauma can shut us down creatively, and to get the writerly flow going, it’s important to start with something powerful, but not debilitating.)

Think of three events, I told the class, and then choose one. We start with what we know and write about it, get the flow going, and then we can fictionalize it…but first we need to get over whatever hurdle is in the way of creative expression.

Sulley chose a flood he’d experienced several years before. In class, we wrote a rough draft, then over the eight weeks explored characterization, setting and theme. Sulley read sections out loud; the power of the imagery his words evoked was undeniable.

After only one year, Sulley is now a full-fledged writer. What does it mean to be a full-fledged writer? It means he writes, several times a week. It means he reads, deeply and consciously. He watches, absorbs, creates. He edits, revises. He worries a piece until it’s perfect. He’s given himself over to the process.

As a coach, I’m working with Sulley on a series of interrelated short stories called People Go Down the Water. I have learned to make suggestions in the documents he submits via email that help unfold the story. Besides the technical aspects of good storytelling, Sulley has been exploring his philosophical and poetic response to different aspects of life and of living. After about three months of our work together one-on-one, a door opened for Sulley, and the flow has been unstoppable. With work and two teenage children, Sulley’s only hurdle now is finding all of the time he needs to allow this flow to become a publishable book. I can’t thank Sulley enough for our work together; it’s enriched my life immeasurably. Click here to read the first three pages of People Go Down the Water.


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