Sunday, October 12, 2014

Stories to tell

Earlier this month, my friend Colleen Sutherland died after a months-long struggle with cancer. I met Colleen in 2009 while I was a graduate student at Goddard College, desperately seeking a teaching practicum, and this experienced writer agreed to let me teach her and a small group of writers at a coffee shop. Later, after my teaching sessions were completed, she invited me to be a part of the group, enjoying connections with other writers and offering them a chance for connection, too. I was a sporadic member, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of talking to others who “get it.” Sometimes our meetings were less about critiquing each other’s work (in fact, on occasion we never actually got around to it) and more about just getting together. My friend Wade says it best in this post about Colleen – you need other writers to understand what you’re going through, and just the very act of gathering could help bolster your sense of confidence. Colleen knew that writers needed to generate their own light, espousing this principle to a nearly literal sense by hosting an annual gathering of artist-types on the darkest day of the year.

I used to express frustration at the series of ‘almosts’ and ‘not quites’ that are common to the to publishing game. Colleen told me if I reached sudden and massive success as a writer then other writers would just hate me. This way, she said, I’ll have a great story to tell about how hard it was to get published, and that would be more inspiring. She saw potential for stories everywhere, the bellwether of a true artist.

Colleen built her individualistic life around the things she loved to do. Her warm house displayed her passions, including bookshelves stuffed with photo albums and a cozy, enveloping writing nook. She stayed a curious, avid learner and entrepreneur. When I wanted to try out Skype, she was my first on-screen face. She took a one-night blogging class I offered at Fox Valley Technical College, and that very night launched Storytelling Trails and Tales. She used the site to help her to book storytelling gigs around the country, spending a summer camping out and doing what she loved best at libraries around the country. She was in her late 60s at the time. She posted on her blog even when words started to fail her. That’s the part about this loss that is so cruel – as Wade says, the cancer took her words first. How frustrating for someone who loved to talk, loved to tell stories, made her living with words. But I sense she tried to maintain as much of a sense of humor about it as she could, because that’s how she approached her life and her writing.

Colleen Sutherland and Wade Peterson celebrating the arrival of their book of short stories in 2012.
She left a body of work, available through her blog. Her last post is entitled “Still here,” and she is and will be, through her work and her influence and her example of honoring the passions that make us the special individuals that we are. Her friends will have a potluck in her honor at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Muehl Public Library in Seymour, Wisconsin.