WRITER’S JOURNEY OF MARK SCHEEL
Please help me welcome our Guest Author this week, Mark Scheel. A gentleman with a very interesting journey!
As a young boy growing up on a Kansas farm, I early on exhibited an interest and aptitude for pencil drawing. My mother had been a school teacher, an artist and a bibliophile before marrying my father and redirecting her talents to homemaking. So her abilities in creative realms were vital in sparking and nurturing my own artistic leanings as I grew through boyhood and into adolescence.
Upon the arrival of my senior year in high school, I was honored to be assigned the art editorship of the school yearbook. But along the way, too, some dedicated teachers in honors English classes awoke within me a love for the written word. And for fiction and poetry like that of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sandburg and Frost.
My first college major was industrial engineering; however, after two years I converted my scholastic focus to psychology and graduated with a BA degree from Kansas University in 1967. Nevertheless, it was during those university years—encountering the works of authors like Orwell, Wolfe, Bertrand Russell, Rand, Voltaire and Euripides—that a firm seed was planted to one day pursue a literary career. I had begun keeping a journal. And during the summers between semesters I had indulged an unquenchable wanderlust to see new places and work new jobs—in Kansas City, San Francisco and New York as a laborer, commercial laundryman and construction worker.
The year after graduation I “struck out for California,” as they say, and ended up experiencing the frenetic street scene of Hollywood during the Vietnam protests and unbridled youth revolt. It was that impressionable time that would later form the material for my first attempt at writing a novel. And that manuscript, revised countless times, is still circulating seeking a publisher because the story is too good to let go.
I had failed the Army draft physical, so I wasn’t worried about facing mortality in the jungles of Vietnam; however, a near-death experience while in LA brought an abrupt turnabout in my thinking, and I subsequently volunteered for Red Cross service and, indeed, in 1969 I went to war. (“If it was good enough for Hemingway, it was good enough for me,” I’m sure factored into my callow reasoning.) I was assigned to a substation at Bearcat, Vietnam, the area of operation of the Thai Panther Division. The Red Cross would take me also to Thailand, Germany and finally England, working with different branches of the military. All the while I compiled voluminous journal entries which I hoped one day to distill into stories and novels. And the necessity of recording in narrative detail each client case one handled on the job provided a certain day-to-day structural discipline on a typewriter.
Technically speaking, I celebrated my first published work during that time, 1972 to be exact—a collaborative article prepared with a friend for Cycle Guide magazine (splitting a payment of $100). At the conclusion of my Red Cross service in 1973, I departed for California once more, to San Diego where two friends I’d known in Germany were living, and I began writing fiction in earnest. It was a brief but idyllic period, they both working during the day and I reading and writing alone in the garage apartment with a scenic view of the ocean.
My efforts, though fledgling, were prolific. Upon returning home to Emporia, Kansas, for a friend’s wedding, however, I was greeted with the news that my mother had cancer and that constituted a watershed event in my life. Being the only living child, I felt it my duty to remain in the home area and help my father with my mother’s care. The unencumbered freedom I’d known to go anywhere and do anything whenever I chose suddenly came to a dead end.
So, in an effort to make the best of that difficult situation and sustain and progress with my literary ambitions, I began taking literature and creative writing classes at nearby Emporia State University. That eventually led to admission to the graduate studies program in English and the awarding of a teaching assistantship. During my second semester in graduate school, I propitiously got permission to design my own independent study course—the writing of a novel—under the mentorship of Professor Green D. Wyrick. I completed a first draft by the conclusion of the term, a story set in Hollywood in 1967, and Professor Wyrick continued to work with me on revisions after I left graduate school. I’ll always cherish, too, the opportunities I had then to meet famous authors coming to do readings at the university: James Dickey, Adrienne Rich, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Gardner, to name only a few.
A short time later a friend I’d made when taking classes graduated and took a position with a newspaper in Arkansas. She needed someone to housesit for her until she was certain the job would work out permanently. I volunteered, moved in, and that was the start of a nine-year arrangement where I had cheap living and a quiet, if lonely, place to write while looking in on my mother at a nursing facility and intermittently assisting with maintenance tasks on the farm. I polished the novel, wrote more stories and poetry, amassed a whole library of paperback books and continued publishing in literary magazines here and there.
Although I won some writing contests, had a feature essay in a Sunday magazine, had a nibble from Bantam on the novel, and met a man with whom I coauthored his self-published memoir (Of Youth and the River: The Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr.) all was fleeting recognition and nothing led to the breakout I’d kept hoping for. One treasured memory, however, involved Hollywood coming to Emporia to film the made-for-TV movie Murder Ordained during which I secured temporary hire as a stand-in for the actor Keith Carradine and a later brief flirtation with scriptwriting.
Eventually the house where I’d been staying sold, and I had to make other arrangements. My mother had passed away and the farmland was rented out, so I moved to Kansas City to seek work opportunities and that began a whole new phase in my life. I met my wife to be, Dominga, and accepted a position with the Johnson County Library as an information specialist. I also helped found a men’s writing critique group, The Fifth Street Irregulars. We sponsored readings, published a small magazine of our writings, and at one point co-op-published my story and poem collection A Backward View, which won a book award from the Kansas Authors Club. Many of the members of that group were to become accomplished authors and poets—such as Glen Enloe, Paul Goldman and Vern Barnet—and friendships were formed that have endured up to this day.
Also, at that time, I became involved with another group of writers and teachers who had founded Potpourri Publications Co. and Potpourri magazine. I joined their board of directors and became their library liaison, helping with promoting the magazine and planning writer conferences and readings. And that later drew me to another literary association—Whispering Prairie Press and a new magazine called Kansas City Voices. I was invited onto their board of directors and over time was appointed their senior prose editor. That was after I’d retired from the library position. One of the fun perks with Voices was having the opportunity to work with local celebrities on pieces we’d solicited for the magazine.
One phase, it seemed, blended into another then. I became involved with the FairTax movement as their local PR person. My interest was piqued with the evolution/education controversy in Kansas and I attended conferences and wrote about it in The Kansas City Star. That flowed into an acquaintance with the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol and a deep connection with interfaith activities—which in turn provided my wife and I an all-expense-paid tour of Turkey to compose a travelogue and, soon after, the opportunity to deliver a paper on communitarianism at a Muslim conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
I also began writing a blog, when that activity first came into vogue, and titled it The Pebble. Its intent was to introduce my writing and expand its exposure to a wider readership. After three years of posting on a plethora of topics, I selected 60 pieces and published them in 2015 on CreateSpace as a hardcopy “blook” titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom. It was well received by those who learned about it. Shortly thereafter, while serving on the program committee for a Kansas Authors Club annual conference, I had the incredible fortune finally of securing literary representation with an agent at The Metamorphosis Literary Agency. And that wonderful lady placed my most recently completed fiction collection, And Eve Said Yes: Seven Stories and a Novella, with a large publisher in Texas, Waldorf Publishing, on a traditional royalty contract. The book launched in October, 2019, and almost before I could blink an eye, my poetry collection Star Chaser (which I myself had been shopping for 10 years) placed with Anamcara Press in Lawrence, Kansas, on similar terms, to launch the summer of 2020.
The marketing of both books, however, is now fraught with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 lockdown. And the Amazon Vine program has thus far failed their obligation completely to provide book reviews, leaving Eve dead in the water.
And so, I’ve now come to that stage (age 77) where one takes, echoing my first book title, “a backward view of life.” An assessment of what came to be and what never did and what probably never will be. The literary game has become unrecognizable from what it was when I lived in a “borrowed house” typing stories on a portable typewriter. Then it was extremely difficult to get published, sending out manuscripts in manila envelopes and receiving rejection slips. And when the rare acceptance appeared, it was cause for popping a champagne cork!
My Waldorf publisher informs me at present 4,000 new titles appear every day. With the internet and Kindle Direct Publishing, anyone can become an author. The catch is, few can really get read, let alone paid. As I heard way back in the late seventies the famous Harper & Row editor Frances McCullough opine at a writers conference, “Since I’ve been an editor I’ve learned one thing—there are many more writers out there than there are readers.” Unfortunately, that’s still true, even exponentially more so today. The only advice I can offer to any novice aspirant with pen in hand is to not expect fairness or rationality in the literary scene. Be fair always to others (it helps your karma), but don’t expect it to be reciprocated. And should you be one of the minuscule few who grab the brass ring, never believe it was because you were better than the others. You weren’t. You were simply lucky. So, always eschew arrogance and pride. Be humble—and most grateful.
To be perfectly candid and blunt, the thing I always sought was to write well and be read, not achieve celebrity or fortune. I couldn’t care less about Dick-Cavette-type interviews or sycophants groveling for an autograph. (Think of the rich and famous writers who died by suicide! I should envy that?)
I wanted the words I put on the page to reach out to people and do the talking, and give those people something worth their dime. I remember when my poem “Rain” won the Nostalgia Poetry Award and a year later the editor shared with me one reader’s reaction. A black woman had written how the poem (a tribute to my father) moved her, almost “uncannily,” and how she reread it over and over, studying the form and language. When the next contest opened, she wrote a poem of her own, paying tribute to her mother—and won an honorable mention! To know that across miles and time my words on paper inspired another human being, whom I’ll never meet, to an accomplishment of her own is my reward. And my deep sense of joy. My written words are my children and all I desire is that they have the opportunity to live their lives productively long after I’ve departed the building.
Hometown reads: https://hometownreads.com/books/and-eve-said-yes