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Nine Augsburg University Alumni Publish a Book Together with Crystal Lake Publishing

An image with text at the top that reads, "Who are we?" Below, there are black and white headshots of all the alumni. From left to right: Judy Niemi Johnson, Kate Tremaine, Jesse Lawrence, Jen Shutt, Amanda Symes, Jayne Carlson, Patricia Fox, Jen Kain, and Andrew MarksSince graduating from Augsburg University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, a few alumni have gathered monthly for a writing group. They affectionately call themselves the Dead Birds Writing Group, a name derived from the master’s program publishing house, Howling Bird Press. The group shares stories, studies writing techniques, and offers constructive criticism, all with an end goal of helping each other publish their writing.

“One of the best take-aways from the MFA program was that we were able to build a community of writers, with a variety of different talents in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, memoir, and publishing. The fact that we’re still meeting in person, over online chats, and emailing each other to workshop, is a testament to the teamwork habits we formed during our residencies and classes. It feels wonderful to still be collaborating on team projects together after nearly ten years,” says Jen Shutt ’13, MFA ’15

Last summer, the group worked on a unique writing prompt to write a flash fiction piece that contained the statement, “It could be anyone’s leg.”

“We ended up with a great collection of stories – ranging from humor to horror – and we decided to put them together in a book. We acted as editors for the stories, getting together to read through and discuss the collection. We were able to use many of the techniques our professors taught us in the MFA program,” says Amanda Symes ’09, MFA ’15.

The group queried a few publishers and quickly received interest from Crystal Lake Publishing.

“This has really been a fun romp through the writing, editing, and publishing process. It was sort of magical to see the writing prompt come to life in so many different stories. Going deeper into each one through editing them with Amanda and Jen [Shutt] drew on the workshopping skills we learned in the MFA program, and—confession—it may have been my favorite part. The group enjoyed the writing and publishing process so much that we are already discussing plans for our next writing prompt and publishing options,” says Jayne Carlson MFA ’16.

Knowing their professors would be excited to hear about the upcoming publication, the group also reached out to Professor Emerita Cass Dalglish – the MFA program’s founder – and asked her to review the collection. Professor Dalglish has this to say about their book:

"It Could be Anyone's Leg" book cover. The title of the book is against a black and red background that symbolizes dripping blood. A big black question mark is centered in the middle of the cover.It Could Be Anyone’s Leg” is an anthology of eerie tales – flash reactions by a flight of writers after each has discovered bones lying so very near their writing desks. Did the bones belong to a human? A neighbor? A friend? A beastie of the insect species? Or some other creature who has become only a fraction of itself? These authors call themselves the Dead Birds Writing Group. Is it any wonder that we call a pack of crows a murder?”

The eBook is available for order on Amazon!

Alumni included in the collection are:

Amanda Symes ’09, MFA ’15

Jayne Carlson MFA ’16

Jen Shutt ’13, MFA ’15

Judy Niemi Johnson MFA ’16

Jesse Lawrence MFA ’16

Kate Tremaine MFA ’16

Patricia Fox MFA ’17

Jen Kaine MFA ’17

Andrew Marks ’21

Life Can Be Funny

PHOTO: Jake Stangel, Times of London
PHOTO: Jake Stangel, Times of London

For 12 years, David Raether ’78 wrote for TV comedy sitcoms, including 111 episodes of Roseanne. He absolutely loved it. It was invigorating being in “the Room” with other writers, brutally and honestly dissecting each other’s work to make sure the script was as good as it could be. Did it work? Did it follow what set it up? Did it push the story forward? Was it funny? You could write a completely brilliant draft of a script, he says—one that everyone agrees reads great—and then see it completely rewritten by the group over the week of production. If you find that upsetting or galling, says Raether, don’t go into comedy writing!

As much as he loved the work, however, the time commitment was enormous, and his family life suffered. Many nights, he would work till 3 a.m., which meant that he rarely enjoyed any family time beyond weekends. Something had to give, so he took a couple of years off to help pull the family back together—an effort that met with some success. Then, when he tried to return to TV work in 2007, he found a different landscape. Many sitcoms had been replaced by reality shows, and he had trouble finding a job, even though he had expanded his search beyond writing and editing.

Thus began what Raether calls an “incredible experience” that has shaped him in many ways. He sold off cars and other valuables to make ends meet, but sending out 2,541 resumes and applications was to no avail. Eventually, he found himself homeless. He lost his house, his career ended, his savings vanished, and his family (wife and eight kids) broke apart. The fall was tremendous. In a recent TEDxAmherst Talk, Raether talked about what it felt like not knowing where (or when) he would find the next meal, or where he would sleep that night. But in the process, he says, he discovered that he was far more resourceful and resilient than he had ever dreamed. He also learned that it is not shameful to be poor. Devastating, vulnerable, difficult, and painful, yes—but not shameful. Continue reading “Life Can Be Funny”