Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reader Feedback

I got out of the shack in a fairly big way this past week. I attended the celebration of fifty years of hard work by the Child Care Association of Illinois, staying in the city for a couple of nights. Over the weekend I went to the Flaherty family reunion in Dimmick Township. Flaherty was my wife Colleen’s maiden name. I wasn’t used to seeing all those people at either event but it came back to me fairly well; mingling, remembering names, short conversations. Seeing old friends is a pleasure all its own, but what also came of my travels is this: I met a lot of Dave in the Shack readers, and they told me things about reading what I write.

Until my computer went to hell and I reconstituted the e mail list, I had forgotten who was getting this thing. Knowing who gets it doesn’t tell me who actually reads it. The blog program gives a report of how many people click through to my link. They may well realize what it’s about and close it immediately, but I consider each click a read. Each week people comment by replying to my e mail or leaving a comment on Face Book. I appreciate each bit of feedback I get.

I generally get around a hundred reads per post. However, last week’s piece on gun violence bumped that number up to over two hundred. Write about something controversial and it gets passed around. I attribute that mostly to Face Book. People share posts because they may feel it represents something they agree with and want to be associated with. So posts with a political slant circulate more. The post on my garden for example was read by the usual number. Too personal I think for someone to want to share as if it was their own. That’s OK. Getting a lot of reads is not my motivation for writing this blog although I’d be lying if I told you the feedback doesn’t mean a lot to me. However feedback and a lot of reads by themselves is not enough for me to want to keep beating any particular drum. Fox and CNN have apparently mastered that drumbeat strategy, but it does nothing for me. Did I write about that missing plane? I forget. Where is that plane by the way?

If you would assign one person to each e mail address on the distribution list that links to Dave in the Shack, or each Face Book friend that clicks to read a weekly Dave in the Shack post, and put them all in one room those assembled might very well may look at one another and say “Who are you and why am I here?” The answer to those two questions involves both fact and assumption. You are all people who in one way or another know me or the work I once did with kids and families at YSB. You are people who read in general and choose to read in particular what I write. Those are facts. Now the assumptions. You like what you read there. And another pretty safe one, you’re nice people.

I started Dave in the Shack in 2008 while the director for Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley. I was trying to communicate to board, staff, donors and anyone who would listen what YSB did and why. I wanted to build empathy for the kids and families we served, especially the families, and make social work real for those who weren’t involved. Along the way I slid in personal stuff. The personal stuff was well received.

At the reunion my old secretary, the last part time secretary, the one who told us at her exit interview “you can’t ask a part time person to do all that”, told me she enjoys Dave in the Shack. She said she’d been talking about it with her friends and one asked what it’s about.

“That’s just it” she told her friend “it’s about everything. You never know what he’s going to write about. That’s why I like it. And somehow no matter what you write about something about all of them is the same."

“Any particular one that stands out?” I asked, fishing for compliments.

“I like the one about your brother. About you and him making the shelves. I sent it to my sister.”

At CCA’s fifty year anniversary party a guy came across the room I hadn’t seen for a year. Looked just the same; big, smiling, bow tie, hair too long. Do you think bow ties make your head look bigger? And do you think Paul Simon wore bow ties to take attention away from his ears? Anyway, my acquaintance of twenty five years walks up smiling, shakes my hand and says

“So the asparagus. You burn it in the spring? I don’t remember that. We had asparagus on the farm and I don’t know, I guess we cut it down. I don’t remember doing anything to it at all.”

“Well, we burned ours. Every spring around Easter. It may not always have been on Easter Sunday but you know, for story purposes, that worked out well. Did you salt yours when it was over in the summer?”

“Yeah. We did. I don’t know why.”

“Me either.” We could have known each other for a hundred years and never talked about asparagus except for my writing that piece. We talked about other things, but that garden blog piece brought us a little closer.

As I write and self publish those little farm vignettes I realize there is a whole generation of us older people who grew up on farms and had to learn to live in the city, where you don’t do things like hang chickens from a tree and cut their heads off. The “Raising Chickens” blog piece, a memory of my Mom actually, has proven to be a big hit among former farm guys especially. I got a lot of favorable comments about it at the reunion.

“And the piece about the gloves…winter gloves. I forget what you call them.”

“Chopper mittens.”

“Yeah. You wrote about that kid’s Dad putting him on a horse to ride home, all alone, wet and freezing. Jesus can you imagine?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was imagining it when I wrote it. I’m starting to learn that people like imagery. They like detail that allows them to see things as they read. Done right it adds to the story, becomes part of it, rather than being set off by itself and a distraction. Maybe the imagery tells the story all alone.

One of my wife’s cousins took me aside to talk to me about “For Some, Winter Never Ends.” It was the sort of eulogy piece I wrote about the man who shot and killed himself in a house not far from where we were having the reunion.

“I went to school with him. He was very quiet back then. Sort of blended into the walls. All this time since, he was living out there. Hell, I could have talked to him. I mean I knew him. But you just forget.”

“I know.”

“Anyway it was nice you wrote about him.”

People in Chicago especially liked the piece I wrote about the Symphony Orchestra, which makes sense. It’s a venue local to them after all. They especially liked the parts about people sleeping through performances. They reported laughing out loud at the description of the old folks drooling.

“That could be me,” one friend, about my age, told me,. “Hell sometimes it is me.”

Another old friend still remembers the piece I wrote about going to the State Fair. What stuck in his mind was the description of riding the double Ferris wheel. I love it when it works. I was hoping that little passage would resonate.

Different pieces appeal to different people. Quite unexpectedly my eye doctor liked the account of mushroom hunting I put out about the first of May. Didn’t know he hunted mushrooms or had that much appreciation for being in the woods. You never know sometimes. But it has given me a new way to see people and connect with them. Several of my old social work friends liked the piece I called “Independent Living” in which, acting as something of a freelance street outreach worker in retirement, I put a kid on a bus back to where he might find support and a future. Many identified with “Computer Hell”, an account of technology and the system for figuring it out that went terribly wrong inside the shack.

But the most feedback I’ve gotten in a long time came as a result of writing about these tragic school shootings. A dear old friend, twenty years my senior, replied simply “Take me off your list.” I understand. It was a tough read. Brutal maybe. But one I think we have to wade through and ponder. Another thoughtful acquaintance, whom I see from time to time, took me to task on blowing it all out of proportion. I used the word “statistically” in that piece, not providing or even looking up hard numbers over time. Yes the numbers are low and admittedly there exist other problems that if we put more energy into might help more kids or even save more lives. But there is no news more emotionally loaded for the parents of young school children than reports of students being shot and killed in community schools. I may write a follow up to that essay. To my friend, who wrote a pretty good essay himself, I would suggest he cut and paste that response into the comment section of the blog itself. No one ever does that. Others might want to read your thoughts on that matter. You made good points.

While I’ve got your attention, let me just say that I cannot meet all your requests for Dave in the Shack mention. The guys in the beer club want me to write a piece on their organization (or lack of it). This family reunion deserves 1200 words at least as does the Child Care Association’s fifty years of work to help kids and families in Illinois. I have wanted to write about my second trip to Symphony Hall. Then there’s my seventeen year old dog to consider. I keep waiting for her to die, have her obituary pretty much written, and damned if she doesn’t keep right on living, oblivious to her circumstances. I may have to write about her while she’s still alive. Assuming of course I am also.

There’s a farm story about baling hay, the county fair coming up, and most importantly the recent come back of my friend Bill. No shortage of material. And on top of all that new things happen. It’s hard to keep it all organized.

I had a really good conversation with one of my old peers. Let me say that another way. She’s not old, it’s just that we worked together for a long time. She also writes, has attended writing workshops and employed a coach. I value her opinion. She sat down next to me at the closing luncheon in the beautifully restored ball room of the Blackstone Hotel. It’s all white and crystal. Lots of light. You can see the blue of the lake. She asked if she could take the chair next to me and just talk about books. I never just talk about books.

“So how do you think I’m doing?” was the first question out of my mouth. I used to ask that about YSB, with the pronoun we. Now it’s all on me. I wanted her to tell me honestly what she thought of my writing.

“I think it’s getting better. I don’t have time to read them all. But I go back and catch up from time to time. You’re doing better at providing detail. And you don’t overdo it. The detail seems to add to the story not just be thrown in. And your dialogue is improving.” When you sit in a shack by yourself it means a lot to talk to someone you know is smart, face to face, about something so important to you.

“But that’s the blog. How about the book?” she said.

“The book is a whole other story. I spent half the winter trying to figure out if book chapters are like short stories, like a series of blog posts. And when I found out they aren’t, that the book is a whole thing and not a collection of parts, it got a lot harder.”

My friend is writing, has essentially written, a complete memoir. I haven’t read a bit of it. But knowing her I expect it to be heartfelt and emotional. She talked in depth about the experience of writing it.

“What are you trying to do?”

“I’ve switched gears. I started out to write the story of building the shack, which is a true story, but I didn’t think it was saying anything. Now I’m writing real fiction. There are parts of me in two main characters and parts of my family and friends in the other characters but none of them are real people. I had no idea it would be so hard. It’s so much easier to sit down and write one story, start to finish, and then begin another. This book is one long slog. I keep losing the concept. I can’t sustain the thought. Sometimes I think I should stop writing the blog and do nothing but concentrate on the book.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” she said. “And don’t be too hard on yourself. Just keep writing and get it done. I think it will be good. It’s never as good as you want it to be.”

Nothing beats encouragement from someone you know and respect. Nearly everyone who reads this is someone I know and respect. Thanks for all your comments, both digital and face to face. And while I have you here let me restate the thing I’ve been putting on the end of my e mail just to highlight it.

•If you want to unsubscribe, hit reply and say “take me off your list” or anything like that. I’ll do it. It won’t hurt my feelings. Really.

•If you want to communicate directly with me, hit reply and say whatever you want. I’ll read it. I’ll probably respond.

•If you are friends with me on Face Book and prefer to read Dave in the Shack by clicking on a link to my blog in a weekly post, rather than receiving an e mail, by all means unsubscribe. To friend me on Face Book, search for Dave McClure. I’m the one whose profile picture is the shack.

•Sharing Dave in the Shack on Face Book, forwarding the e mail, sending it to your friends in whatever format you choose is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. More is better.

And finally, thanks for reading all the way to the end. I’ll be in touch again next week.

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