An Interview with Writer and Blogger Linda Leinen

Linda Leinen

Linda Leinen

TreeHouse bloggers recently had the opportunity to interview Linda Leinen about her writings, the readers of her successful blog The Task At Hand, and the fascinating life she’s led.

TreeHouse: Your work life seems to have taken a few turns throughout the years. You started out as a medical social worker at The University of Texas’s Department of Surgery and are now varnishing the woodwork of sailing vessels. That seems like a big change in careers. Was it as large a stretch as it sounds?

Linda Leinen: I suppose it would have been, except for the fact that, during the years between social work and wood work, I did a good bit more stretching, in a variety of ways.

For example, after moving to Liberia, I discovered fairly quickly that living and working in an environment where needs are great and resources are limited demands creativity and the development of problem-solving skills. Sometimes I solved problems and sometimes, as when a teacher was needed at a nearby school, I was judged to be the solution to a problem. In that case, I ended up teaching, and enjoyed every bit of it.

Of course I learned as much — or more — than my students, primarily because I also had to learn how to teach. Later, I transferred those skills to a variety of contexts, including work as a sailing instructor.

It would be easy to say that sailing was the reason for my taking up brightwork (the formal term for varnishing boats), but of course it was more complicated than that. Still, there’s no question that my time in Liberia, my work as a pastor and my time on the water all nurtured both my confidence and my willingness to take on risks: prerequisites for any entrepreneur.

 

TH: You spend a lot of time near water, open-ocean sailing and varnishing boats on the Texas Gulf Coast. What is it that draws you to the water? Do you feel the combination of sea and air helps you creatively?

LL: I didn’t begin sailing until 1987. Until that time, my only experience with boats was a trip or two in a fishing boat on a Minnesota lake during family vacations, some canoeing, and trips to barrier islands on various Texas ferries. When a friend invited me to come along for a sail on her 40th birthday, I was entranced by the experience. The next week, I started sailing lessons.

I’m far less fond of lakes than I am of open water, perhaps because I love to travel and I equate sailing with travel. I love the sense of possibility, of freedom, that comes with stepping on board a boat and loosening the lines –  I even love not knowing what challenges will arise along the way.

As for any relationship between the sea and creativity, I’m not sure that water is the critical element. Rather, the combination of an outdoor life, manual labor, solitude, and freedom is what I find pleasing. If someone offered me equivalent work on the prairie or in the mountains, I’d happily go, particularly if I could work and think during the day, and write at night.

 

TH: Is The Task At Hand your first blog? What initially made you want to start blogging?

LL: I didn’t set out to blog. When I joined Weather Underground in 2005, my primary interest lay in tracking hurricanes. Somewhat later, I decided to use my space in their blog section as a practice page for learning to post photos, untangling the mysteries of HTML, and so on.

My first entry was a recipe for pecan pie. My second entry, more substantial, was about a trip to the Texas Hill Country. People seemed to enjoy it, and I began to receive compliments on my writing. A friend suggested I needed to begin a “real blog,” both to gain some flexibility and to increase readership. Six months later, I began The Task at Hand on WordPress, and I’ve maintained a more-or-less weekly posting schedule since 2008.

From the beginning, I said that I intended to use WordPress’s blogging platform in order to learn to write. Blessed with a mysterious but absolute conviction that the way to learn how to write is to write, I disregarded much of the wisdom being bandied about at the time: particularly that blogging success required daily posting, short pieces of fewer than three hundred words, and plenty of polls, memes, and quizzes. So far, I’ve been pleased with the result.

 

TH: Who are your readers? Do they comment/interact with you often?

LL: I love that you ask the question that way. When it comes to readers, the “who” is much more important to me than the “how many.” Certainly I take pleasure in seeing my readership increase, and in watching page views increase when I publish something new. But it’s far more pleasurable to know so many of the people behind the numbers.

They certainly are a varied lot. I’ve had a reader as young as thirteen, and one well into his nineties. They’re scattered around the world, of course, and have a variety of interests. Many do comment, and I respond personally to everyone. My view is that each post isn’t an end in itself, but the beginning of a conversation and it’s that conversation I hope to nourish. The interaction with (and among) readers helps to make blogs unique, and the sense of shared history can be marvelous.

 

TH: Where do you see your blog headed?

LL: Honestly? I can’t say. While The Task at Hand has led to the publication of essays and articles in the “real world” and the anthologizing of some of my poetry, I don’t see moving away from my blog to other forms of publication as either necessary or desirable.

I have a draft file crammed with essays and stories that I’m looking forward to working with and publishing on my blog. Some people say that writing isn’t “real” unless it brings home a paycheck, but I haven’t been able to convince myself of that particular truth. So, for the time being, I’ll keep writing, and those who enjoy what I have to say can keep reading.

 

TH: Do you have any bloggers or writers that you turn to for inspiration? Favorite sites you read regularly? 

LL: Now and then, I’ll skim the selection of writing quotations on Goodreads. Usually, I start on a random page near the middle, since there are roughly six thousand quotations. Gems like this, from Chekov, could take a lifetime to unpack: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

I tend not to read how-to-write blogs, although I cherish sites like “Brain Pickings” and “The Paris Review” for their musings on creativity and their ability to open unfamiliar worlds. Certain photographers, artists and musicians are must-reads because they provide commentary about their process along with their work.

As for writers, the list is smaller, stable, and always dependable: Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Durrell. And, yes — Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, those guilty pleasures of the literary life.

My first post at “The Task at Hand” was titled, “Dazed and Confused.” Near the end, I wrote, “The question no longer is: do you want to write?  For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write.”

Years later, I read this, from the estimable Mr. Thompson: “As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”

There’s a lot I never understood about Hunter S. Thompson, but that, I understand.

 

About Linda Leinen:

Sharing stories, trading secrets, weaving new realities with threads pulled from discarded memories or long-forgotten dreams – those are the tasks I’ve set myself, here on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Living a quiet life, a hidden life — anchored to my dock like a barnacle to a piling — I varnish boats for a living. My dock provides both things Virginia Woolf recommended for a woman who writes: money, from the labor, and a room of my own — space and solitude for thought, remembrance, and creative reflection on the truths and mysteries of life.

Years of life and experience lie behind me. A child of the American Midwest and the only child of striving parents, I was expected to attend college, but I rejected teaching in favor of a degree in medical social work. It was a good occupation, leading first to Houston’s Texas Medical Center, then on to Phebe Hospital in Bong County, Liberia, where I served under the auspices of the Lutheran Church in America.

As so often happens in countries like Liberia, changing needs dictated a change in responsibilities, and my initial involvement in maternal-child health clinics was exchanged for oversight of the hospital chaplaincy. Then, in a delicious bit of irony, I was asked to begin classroom teaching in an inter-denominational seminary not far from the hospital, while supervising students in a clinical setting.

I enjoyed it tremendously: so much so that I decided against a Master’s degree in social work, choosing instead to pursue theology. For a variety of reasons, I settled on Berkeley, California for my schooling, and spent four years studying at the Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Seminary. Offered a chance to continue on toward a PhD, I chose instead to serve Lutheran congregations in Texas for the next decade, before a series of mostly serendipitous events and inexplicable impulses led me to strike out on my own, beginning the business that still brings me delight.

Today, as I write, images and words tumble along the edge of memory’s winds like so many scudding clouds. Living and working in West Africa, studying in Berkeley, open-ocean sailing and the joys of teaching have all shaped my life and influenced my convictions.

With a sense of yet one more sea-change arriving, I remember the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, quoted in Joan Didion’s White Album. O’Keeffe says, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant… It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

A Cup of Coffee and a Sense of Place by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

A really great local coffee shop is a place where you can find out what’s happening around town over your cup of coffee. But in Edmonton, Alberta, Edmontonians can now get a flavor of their hometown on their cup of coffee: local coffee shops are dispensing coffee sleeves with very short stories by six local authors…

Read the rest at: A cup of coffee and a sense of place | Philanthropy Daily.

Breaking the Rules by Denise Stephenson

IsolationReaders are always assuming I’m a germaphobe. Because my first novel, Isolation, revolves around the dangers of bacterial infection and the possibility that simply touching your own face can cause death, it seems like a no brainer. But it’s not the case. I laugh and try not to divulge that my hand-washing habits have not increased one iota as a result of my research and writing. I’m not the person squirting hand-sanitizer every time I shake someone’s hand. My intellect rationalizes that I want a healthy immune system which means building up resistance over time and killing all of the germs I come in contact with would counteract the build-up of such stealth forces. While true, I think it’s much more the case that habits learned early are habits for life. It’s not that my household growing up wasn’t clean, nor that my mother didn’t teach me good hygiene, she did. It’s probably that I was a bit lazy. Or perhaps, though I think of myself as “the good girl,” it may be that I was a rule-breaker from the start.

I’m writing today because I found myself pulling a “Trevor.” He’s the antagonist in my novel. He can’t stand rule-breakers. There’s a moment in Isolation when he is sitting aboard an airplane. A passenger next to him continues to text beyond the announcements to cease and desist. He tries to get the perpetrator to stop, but when she won’t, he rings his call button. Just now, the guy next to me was talking on his cell, even as the flight attendants demonstrated, yet again, the way to attach a seat belt. I’d heard my seat-mate tell the person on the other end that he wouldn’t hang up until forced. When the flight attendant walked by, I pointed at the cell phone. The attendant tapped his shoulder, waited for him to end the call, then continued to ensure seat backs and tray tables were in their full upright and locked positions. I thought, “OMG, I’ve become Trevor!”

Trevor is not a character I associate with. It’s not so much that he’s a rule-follower (evidently I share some of that sensibility), it’s more that he’s an unquestioning one. Most dystopian characters are, unquestioning that is. But some rise beyond the simple routines of daily life and demonstrate that being a lemming can get you perks if you do it very, very well. That’s Trevor. He’s Winston in 1984, at the beginning, before Winston buys the journal and begins his covert note-taking. Trevor would never covertly record his world, nor do anything else outside the purview of authority. Trevor’s ability to follow the rules, to follow the government, to report all infractions, is finely honed. He is hired by Homeland Security for his prowess. He is promoted for his vigilance and adaptability. Rules change more and more frequently as bacterial contagion grows out of control in Isolation and Trevor keeps up, even if the populace at large can’t possibly. Trevor enforces rules; he prides himself on being a good citizen.

And since citizenry comes from the following of a government, he is in fact, a very good citizen. But a good person? Doubtful many would say so. Even when his high school principal agrees to provide a recommendation, which he does with some trepidation, realizing, educated man that he is, that Trevor will be so good at the job of enforcing rules that others don’t stand a chance, even as the principal imagines Trevor is a danger, he doesn’t allow that to prevent the recommendation, even the principal doesn’t question authority. The principal demonstrates perfectly that even those in high positions demonstrate that for a dystopia to work, lemming-like behavior is required.
The question is: does following rules make you good or bad?

Or is it that simple? Clearly, it’s not. At least not in the mind of this dystopian. Following rules is what we’ve taught our children. It’s the legacy of an industrial society whose assembly lines and educational systems matured together. Now a service economy, rule-following is still a primary value for our masses. But it doesn’t build a strong democracy, one that thinks deeply, let alone questions or makes individuated decisions. It’s not that I want anarchy, don’t leap to the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s more that I value a thinking populace. I’m not sure our purpose if we’re not thinking. Without thought, we’re resource users like any animal. The unquestioned life is common enough, but is that what we seek? Is it our best hope? Does it make of the world a better place?

I think not. I spend my working life encouraging college students to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers as we call it today. That means I teach them to question. Or I try. It’s not easy when they’ve spent 20 years or more following rules. It’s not surprising they don’t question. Not only education, but their parents have taught them not to. After those early years of asking “why, why why” and being told to go play or worse, being physically or metaphorically slapped down for exhibiting curiosity, most American children stop wondering, stop asking.

Again, don’t go to extremes. Not everything needs to be questioned, not even all authority. After all, some things just need doing. In the midst of a fire there’s rarely a reason to stop and ask if it should be put out. (Though ask a resource management specialist about the need for fire in the life cycle of forests, and you’ll see that even there, we might have wanted to question occasionally.) But when I’m told that genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are safe, I might want to question the details about what those modifications are, whether they prolong shelf-life or whether they insert toxins into my corn. When I’m told that using 99% bacterial killing hand-sanitizers will keep me safe, I might want to question whether or not regular soap and hot water will do an adequate job most of the time and specifically when it won’t. When I’m told to trust the government that it’s not colluding with Monsanto in the patenting of life so that seeds are no longer reusable by farmers, I might question what it means to patent life, or why farmers can’t reuse seeds, or who profits–always a good question. (Follow the money.)

These are only some of the questions I ask with some frequency and questions tucked into the folds of Isolation. They are premises from our current lives that I question, but mostly the characters in the novel don’t. These are far from the only questions available to thinking people. I’m drawn to questions of food and health. Others may be drawn to questions of growing financial inequalities, or questions of globalization, or questions of climate change. There are smaller questions of course, and they too are valuable: Should I be afraid of swimming alone without a lifeguard present? Will video games or cell phones cause increased arthritis in hands in the future? Is WiFi dangerous at a subatomic level?

It matters not to me what we question. It matters that we question. And that we research and talk and write and explore. It matters that we see ourselves as agents of change, that we not only believe we make a difference, but that we do. Questions leads to action. Not inevitably perhaps, but often. It’s hard to know things could be better, more truthful, more interesting and not work to make that happen.

I don’t want the plane to crash because cell phone signals
interfere with navigation, so I will point to the guy with the phone. But I’ll also wonder if there’s any scientific cause for concern or if it’s just habit I’m accustomed to? Can it interfere? What would happen? Others asked such questions because we can now leave our small devices powered up during take-off, but we couldn’t for years.

Somebody asked the question, did the research, reported out, and got procedures changed. And I’m happier because of it. I like being able to read on my iPad during take-off rather than having to carry a physical book along with my iPad. Speaking of which, time for landing. Not that I’m going to power down. Thankfully, for now, that question has been answered!

This guest blog post is courtesy of author Denise Stephenson. Check out her blog: http://denisestephenson.blogspot.com Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DeniseStephensonIsolation Visit her author site: http://denisestephenson.com  Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BookArts_Denise

The Little Sister by Adreyo Sen

The Little Sister by Adreyo Sen

 

Adreyo Sen resides in Kolkata, India. He is pursuing his MFA degree at Stony Brook, Southampton. His work has been published in Danse Macabre and Kritya, among others.

Read Adreyo Sen’s new short story, The Headmistress

The Headmistress by Adreyo Sen

 

Adreyo Sen resides in Kolkata, India. He is pursuing his MFA degree at Stony Brook, Southampton. His work has been published in Danse Macabre and Kritya, among others.