Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

So you wanna be a writer?

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Q&A with local author Jerry Johnson

Introduction & interview by Aryn Henning Nichols • Photos by Aaron Lurth

Writing books is easy.

Said no one ever.

But we know a lot of people who have uttered the words, “I want to write a book.” Or even better, “I’m going to write a book!” So where do you start? Decorah’s Jerry Johnson – hunter, blogger, writer, and all-around witty wordsmith – suggests you start with the obvious: Words. You gotta get them on the page.

“Write,” he says, “Write every day. Write with passion.”

Jerry does just that, and with great discipline. His blog, dispatchesfromanotherntown.com, is home to numerous essays, musings, and a good smattering of dog and hunting photos (another passion).

Jerry has also self-published two books. His latest, Scrawny Dog, Hungry Cat, and Fat Rat: A Tragedy for Children (March, 2014) was written 45 years ago by his then college-aged self, just getting ready to take the writing world by storm. Happily, past Jerry would pat future Jerry on his back. Through his long writing career, Jerry has published numerous stories, editorials, essays, and columns for a variety of newspapers and press organizations. (Update! Jerry has now published a third book: Crazy Old Coot, a collection of essays about bird hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns, memoirs, social and political commentary, and other pieces of creative non-fiction, August 2014! You can buy his book and meet the Old Coot himself at Dragonfly Books – there is a reading this Saturday, December 6, from 2-3:30 pm.)

“But those were all a long time ago,” he says, “And of course, not creative writing.”

So for now, Jerry has settled back into the best – and probably worst – aspect of writing: the creative part. And that doesn’t always – or even often – lead to a book deal.

“Agents and publishers are not necessarily seeking good literature or even quality writing; they are seeking marketable writing,” he says. “If you write zombie or romance or mystery novels, you might be marketable. If you write for niche audiences, readers of outdoor sports literature for example, you may not be marketable.”

Along with a tendency for long titles – in addition to …Tragedy for Children, his first published book is titled Hunting Birds: The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club – Jerry is apt to gear his work toward his life (hunting, dogs, old friends and good stories). He’s currently writing a collection of essays on outdoor sports, posting one or more to the blog each week in hopes of eventually compiling them for a book.

“I puttered around with a sequel to Hunting Birds, but I couldn’t get back into the character of Carter Preston, the story’s protagonist,” he says. “Some day an essay will take off and grow to 50,000 words and I’ll be on my way to a new novel.”

Jerry shares some advice he’s learned along the way – it won’t make it easy, but it sure as heck can’t hurt, write (groan…)?

JerryJohnson_4How long have you been a writer? At what point do you think it’s okay to call yourself “writer”?

Way back in the sixth grade, I was telling friends I would be a writer. I wrote a science fiction “novel” that year. I considered myself a true writer in August 1975 when my first published work, news and editorial and sports columns, rolled off the press of a weekly newspaper in Nebraska, where I was editor – and advertising rep and distribution manager and janitor. So I say you can call yourself a writer when you actually publish your work and someone reads it.

What’s your inspiration?

Inspiration? Mania, I suppose. Writers live to write. We’re slaves to the passion. It is captured perfectly in a Harry Chapin song: “For music was his life, it was not his livelihood/ It made him feel so happy, it made him feel so good/ And he sang from his heart, he sang from his soul/ He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole.”

How do you go about finding a place to start publishing?

After much frustration dealing with publishing houses and agents, I followed the advice of a friend and e-published my novel “Hunting Birds” on Amazon.com. There are several e-publishing and POD (print on demand) services available online. My advice: Do some research and select the one that feels best for you.

Can you tell us more about how online publishing works?

I publish in three formats: Kindle books (Amazon); CreateSpace POD (print on demand) paperback books (also Amazon); and on my blog, “Dispatches from a Northern Town,” (dispatchesfromanotherntown.com). It costs little (blogs) to nothing (ebooks and POD books) to publish your work. I am a technology troglodyte, though, so it was still a challenge. Fortunately, some of my former Luther College students are professionals with this stuff, and they helped a doddering old man get across the busy street.

Any tips for folks out there hoping to follow your lead?

Write. Write every day. Write with passion. Then read it aloud. If it sounds good, it probably is. If it sounds like junk, it probably is. Keep the good and throw away the bad. When you have written something really good, publish it. If you submit your work to an agent in hopes of getting it accepted by a big-name publishing house, remember that rejections are just like the sunrise: They happen every day.

Will you ever publish to print?

If you mean, will I attempt to find an agent and try to get my work accepted by a big publishing house? Probably not (he self-publishes and you can, in fact, pick up his book here in the Driftless Region). I worked in marketing 25 years. Now I want to write.

Tell us about “Scrawny Dog, Hungry Cat, and Fat Rat: A Tragedy for Children” (March, 2014)

It’s a novel for middle-grades children, written 45 years ago by a 19-year-old college student setting out on the long road to become me. Publishers (then) were not interested. I read it to my children, who had little choice but to say they liked it. Somewhere along the road, the manuscript was lost. My college roommate reconnected with me a few years ago, and one day he amazingly said he had a copy of the final draft. He encouraged me to rewrite it and publish it. I gave him a copy of the revised manuscript in November 2013. He died 12 days later. Now my grandchildren read it and say “Ah, pajamas!” – Cat cursing. I don’t know if kids today will like it. I rewrote it and published it as a tribute to friendship, and the book is dedicated to my friend Michael Shelton.

Lightning round:
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind…?

Books: Adventures.
Internet: World’s biggest library.
Summer: Almost fall.
Dog: You know, I shoulda been a professional dog trainer…
Kids: Have them while you’re young.
Ice Cream: Chocolate
Hunting: Heaven
Purple: Passion (Purple Passion was an alcoholic beverage made with Everclear; it does not taste good when it come back up through your nose – not that I personally experienced this)
Procrastination: The mother of all innovation.
Money: What you will not make much of as a self-published creative writer.

Hone Your Process:
Jerry shares seven creative writing “rules”

  1. Discipline: Write something every day, even if it is only 500 words.
  2. Truth: Write what you know, what you have experienced.
  3. Focus: Write to one specific person: “Hey, Michael, I want to tell you this story.”
  4. Honesty: You are beautiful and ugly, hero and villain, compassionate and hurtful; write about it all, not just the pretty side.
  5. Suffer: Make your characters suffer hurts and obstacles; that is how you reveal their character.
  6. Purpose: Each paragraph you write has to do one of three things: Advance the plot, tell something important about a character, or describe the setting.
  7. Passion: Write with joy and abandon, otherwise you are writing junk.

Paperback editions of both books are now available at two Decorah locations: Dragonfly Books and Luther College Book Shop.

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Aryn Henning Nichols has wanted to be a writer since fourth grade. Since she has so many titles at Inspire(d), she doesn’t ever say, “I’m a writer.” But maybe this summer she’ll give it a try… everyone really should be exposed to her terrible puns, right?

Aaron Lurth is a graduate of Luther College (BA) and the University of Iowa (MFA in Photography and Graphic Design). He serves as Director of Visual Media at Luther where he also teaches in the Visual and Performing Arts department. Aaron has been a photographer for the Experimental Aircraft Association at AirVenture (the world’s largest air show), as well as numerous marketing campaigns for Luther College, minor league baseball teams, and in advertising for General Electric, NCCA Magazine, Sport Pilot, CNET.com, and many more. Aaron also leads National Geographic Student Expeditions and teaches at Decorah’s ArtHaus.

Everything is Gonna Be OK

Check out The OK Factor this Saturday, November 8, 2014, at Marty’s Cafe in Luther College in Decorah – they’re playing with General B and The Wiz! More info here.

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By Ingrid Baudler

Olivia Hahn and Karla Dietmeyer have come a long way since starting cello/violin duo The OK Factor in 2012.

And yet the two Luther alums still have a long way to go.

Literally.

With the night’s gig all wrapped up, they grab their gear and hit the road, this time leaving Georgia in the rearview mirror. They head north, with shows in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Olivia usually does the driving while Karla navigates, but tonight it’s the other way around.

“I kind of like it,” Olivia says about all the traveling, “I feel like we’re paying our dues.”

OKFactor_2For most of this past year, Olivia (O) and Karla (K) have had to operate from different states, but that hasn’t stopped them from making great music together. They meet up to perform at different venues, hold workshops, and have even been recording.

But it was Decorah that made everything OK.

“The OK Factor was really an experiment,” Olivia says. “It was something that we wanted to do but the community was really what spurred us forward. It’s amazing how talented and eclectic one small town can be.”

“No one ever told us no, and that was huge for us,” Karla adds. “I think it takes good people to really make great music and that is what we found in Decorah.”

Both women picked up instruments at an early age – Karla started the violin at five and Olivia was four when she first sat at a cello. They met at Luther College, where they majored in music performance, and formed The OK Factor in 2012 with the goal of  “challenging their formal training.”

The duo has since found their way around the Midwest and the U.S., and from classical to bluegrass, jazz, and pop, finally arriving at a musical style they dub “alternative/progressive folk”.

“You can always hear a classically-trained musician in their tone or the way they play certain melodies,” Olivia says. “We don’t want to undo that. We like that aspect of our playing. We want to throw that into the mix with other genres. There’s a lot to explore there.”

Their first gig was part of the Water Street Music Series at ArtHaus in Decorah. Post-college, each was planning to go to graduate school for music performance and pursue a career as a classical musician, but all that changed after that first show.

“The combination of how extremely satisfied and full we both felt, as well as the overwhelming support and positive feedback we got from the audience – people whose opinions we trusted greatly – made us feel as though this was no longer something we ‘just did for fun,’ but something we could do more permanently,” Olivia says. “We couldn’t really believe we were considering taking a different path than we had envisioned, but we knew it was what we really wanted.”

The two had only written a few songs together before that performance, and they knew they had a lot of work ahead of them if it was going to work.

“I had very little experience in the music industry, but my passion for the DIY, grassroots movement really gave me confidence that The OK Factor had what it takes to go somewhere,” Karla says.

They planned to move to Minneapolis the summer after graduation, and explored regional performance possibilities.

“I found applications to the Iowa State Fair and Stone Arch Bridge Festival,” Karla says. “We were both surprised to discover that by the end of our senior year we had been accepted to play at both events. This boosted our confidence to find other places to play throughout the summer.”

Cold calls and asking around landed them a full performance schedule for the summer of 2013.  They had gigs lined up at jazz clubs, weddings, wineries, and more.

Next came the goal of recording a full-length album – with a writing method that isn’t exactly traditional.

“We just sit down and make it up,” Olivia says, only half joking. “We never write anything down.”

While they were still working on the album, Karla migrated from the Midwest back home to Georgia. Long-distance composition seems like it would be impossible, but, luckily, they worked it out.

“It’s not this way friendship-wise, but musically, we know exactly where the other fits in,” Olivia says, smiling.OKFactorLogo

“Musically, we can finish each other’s sentences,” Karla agrees.

One of them brings up an idea and the other fills in their part.

“We send arrangements back and forth, piece by piece,” Olivia says. “Karla will start with the melody and I will add harmony and a baseline and Karla mixes it all on her computer.”

As a tribute to their beginning, they named their first album, released in February of 2014, after Decorah’s main drag: Water Street. Most of the tracks – such as Switchback and Trout Run ­– are inspired by the area.

“Trout Run evokes the feeling you get when you think about Decorah – Trout Run Trail, switchbacks over the cornfields, and that feeling of grandeur when you’re looking out over the bluffs,” Karla says. “The beauty of the Driftless Region.”

It was this connection to the Driftless Region that kept the two connected.

“Water Street was really the glue that held us together through the summer, and pushed us through the nine-month long distance from Atlanta to Minneapolis this past fall,” Olivia says.

Going forward, the two will continue to be in different cities – Karla’s moving to Colorado and Olivia’s staying in Minneapolis – but don’t worry: The OK Factor will be okay.They’ve already got gigs and plans set for the this fall, including a new EP and a music video.

 “We trust our instincts and try every way possible to spread the word and get our music out there, because we believe in it. We also take risks and get out of our comfort zones, taking what would be ‘long shot ideas’ and going for them,” Olivia says. “Our motto has been, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.’”

The two, unknowingly, leave the obvious pun – and perfect life lesson – hanging: When you do ask, sometimes the answer is – what else? OK!

To check out The OK Factor and listen to their music, visit theokfactor.com or theokfactor.bandcamp.com. Like and follow them Facebook and Twitter to enjoy the sometimes silly things they post after long hours on the road.

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Ingrid_BioFall14Ingrid is a recent Luther College graduate and has been inspired enough by Decorah to stay. She remembers Luther’s Chips newspaper covering The OK Factor’s first performance at ArtHaus and had a great time catching up on what they have been doing since.

Wisco Pop!

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Story by Aryn Henning Nichols . Photos by Komifoto

It’s no big surprise that it was a bit of a treasure hunt to find great soda with all-natural ingredients.

“If you think you’re in the wrong place, you’re probably in the right place,” says Hallie Ashley, one of the three founders of Wisco Pop, Wisconsin’s Holy Grail of soda.

WiscoPop kitchen headquarters can be found in a non-descript, former cash register factory on the north side of Viroqua, Wisconsin. From the outside, it appears that there’s very little happening there, but things are really – and literally – cooking inside.

The Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) has turned this 100,000 square foot building – with the help of a $2 million grant – into a Food Enterprise Center. It’s an incubator for businesses that are involved in local food production, processing, marketing, and distribution, and the just-added element: exercise and movement.

Keewaydin Farms, Just Local Foods, LuSa Organics, Fifth Season Cooperative, Sole Expressions Dance Studio Cooperative, Kickapoo Coffee, and – of course – Wisco Pop all currently or will soon utilize the space in one way or another.

The day Inspire(d) made the trip to Viroqua, Wisco Pop’s Austin Ashley (married to Hallie) and Zac Mathes were in the center’s commercial kitchen cooking up a 60-gallon steam kettle of ginger for their popular ginger soda. Bits of ginger peel and spent lemons, juiced one-at-a-time, marked the start of their 125-gallon Monday production. The two self-proclaimed “cosmic brothers” obviously work well together, as conversation easily flows from the Food Enterprise Center to Viroqua to the Driftless Region and even pizza farms. A reporter could easily get off track!

“Let me get out my list of questions so I don’t forget anything,” I say, pulling my notebook out of my bag just as Hallie arrives.

“That’s funny,” Austin says. “We have a list of questions for you too! Is your first one, ‘Why are we so good looking?’ ‘Cause we just can’t explain it.”

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Jokes aside (even though they are a dapper crew), what they can explain is their quest for really delicious soda.

It all started with Austin. He was making ginger beer and kombucha at home, and wishing there were more options for natural and even organic sodas.

“I was sitting on the idea for a long time,” he says. “Hallie kept saying to me, ‘Just start it. Just do it.’”

And so they did. Wisco Pop launched just over a year ago at the Kickapoo Country Fair in Viroqua. The response has been amazing, and rightly so.

“People at first are all, ‘Craft brewed soda?’,” Austin says. “But then they taste it and are like, ‘Oh! We get it now! Craft brewed soda!’”

“This is what soda is supposed to be. It’s the way it used to be,” Zac continues. “No chemicals, just good ingredients.”

They stand by their motto: “Keepin’ it real. No processed corn, no artificial flavors. Just fresh fruit juice, pure honey, genuine spices and herbs for a real brew.”

Take their Cherry Bomb soda, for example. They whisked me across the kitchen to take a whiff of the kettle brewing for this batch. (Below, much lower-quality photos, by Aryn Henning Nichols

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“You really have to get your face in there,” Austin says as I lean in for a sniff. “Can you guess what’s in it?”
“Hmmm…something I cook with,” I muse.
“You’re on the right track,” sings Hallie.
“I can’t quite place it…”
“It’s probably the vanilla.” Zac interjects.
“No, that’s not it…”
“Cinnamon?”
“Yes!”

Each flavor – they currently have three: ginger, cherry bomb, and root beer – is filled with complex flavors that keep you guessing, “What’s in there?”

“Comparing it to craft beer is a good analogy,” Zac says. “We spend a lot of time making sure it’s just right.”

The root beer was recently released and is Austin’s Sistine Chapel, although like an artist, he’s his own biggest critic.

“Ask Austin how long it took him to ‘perfect’ the root beer,” Zac says with a smile.

“A while,” Austin replies. “I don’t know if it will ever be perfect.”

It’s pretty darn delicious though. Not too sweet, with hints of maple syrup – local, of course. That is just one of the ingredients keeping the root beer subtly different with each batch. If the syrup’s different, so’s the soda. Same goes for the local honey in the oh-so-delicious ginger brew. Following that ever-changing notion, in the future Wisco Pop hopes to release special seasonal brews that will highlight special flavors or fruits.

Even though they’re obviously a happy little a Wisco Pop family, they’re business partners as well. Austin is the head crafter and develops those new brews – they’re working on a cola recipe now! – then Zac and Austin head up production together. Zac follows through on details such as ordering supplies and building useful things. “He’s our mathematician,” Austin jokes. And Hallie is the manager, bookkeeper, and customer contact person. All three work together on sales.

On top of that, Hallie works at Kickapoo Coffee and Zac runs Heartbeet Family Farm – along with a brick-oven-on-wheels pizza business called Homegrown Pizza – with his wife, Sara, and four-year-old daughter, Noa. Austin holds down the Wisco Pop and daddy front – he and Hallie have three kids: 11-year-old Alden, two-year-old Fern, and newborn Otis.

It’s this combination of family, business, community and good taste that brings it all together. In a time when soda gets a bad rap – commercial soda is filled with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives – Wisco Pop is out to bring back the charm and integrity what was once a very real craft. As they like to say: “Wisco Pop makes it okay to drink soda again. So welcome back old friend, welcome to…craft brewed soda.”

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Aryn Henning Nichols is amazed she failed to use any bubble puns in the story. Guess she’ll have to save them for the story on carbonation! She wants to be part of the Wisco Pop! family ‘cause they’re so fun, and also because she’d like to have a lifetime supply of ginger soda. Yum.

Luckily, Wisco Pop! is making the great soda search a whole lot easier for the rest of us. You can find it in the Driftless Region here:

Driftless Cafe
Brew Dog
Rooted Spoon
The Root Note (La Crosse)
Viroqua Food Co-op

Plus multiple locations in Madison and Milwaukee. See www.wiscopopsoda.com or Wisco Pop! on Facebook for details.

Update: Wisco Pop held a Kickstarter fundraiser in December of 2013 to move on to bottling their delicious brews for the masses. They’ll be available EVEN MORE locations soon. Hooray!