My First Writing Teacher

Emma Ann Henning (1894-1977), my grandma, in Detroit Lakes MN

Emma Ann Henning (1894-1977), my grandma, in Detroit Lakes MN in 1935.

Hello from the Dogpatch,

One of my former writing students, Susan Chase Foster, a teacher herself and now a colleague and friend, touched me deeply by nominating me for a Mayor’s Arts Award. Last night, I joined the other recipients in a truly moving ceremony. Our emcees were Bellingham City Council President Cathy Lehman and Bellingham Arts Commission Chair Alexandra Wiley. The event was held at Bellingham’s Walton Theater in the gorgeous Mount Baker Theatre complex, to make it that much more special.

We recipients were asked to talk about our accomplishments, which no one did. I happened to be last, and marveled as person after person got up and turned the spotlight off themselves and onto their mentors, sources of inspiration, and our community. The result was a marvelous feeling of warmth and generosity in the room, and it was heartwarming and humbling to be a part. The recipients were:

Mayor's Arts Awards

Mayor’s Arts Awards Invitation from the City of Bellingham

  • Alan Rhodes – Community Columnist. Satirist extraordinaire, Alan is well known in these parts as, among other things, the Cascadia Weekly columnist on the popular Chuckanut Radio Hour, produced by Chuck and Dee Robinson of Village Books and which received the award last year. We got treated to a snippet of a hilarious Bellingham-centric column Alan wrote a while back, reminding us that all the men in Bellingham are indeed sensitive and all the children recycle.
  • Margaret Bikman – Entertainment News Coordinator. Margaret is the beloved entertainment news coordinator for the Bellingham Herald, curating content for the Herald‘s Take 5 weekly entertainment section, including its calendars, her behind-the-scenes column, and her artist profile.
  • Shannon Laws – Poet. It was a blast to share the podium (and drinks after) with Shannon Laws, author of the book Madrona Grove, whose cover features her own exquisite art.
  • Becky Elmendorf – Former Whatcom Symphony Orchestra President. At one point in telling us the history of the symphony, Becky asked members of the orchestra who were present in the audience to stand up; it was like a fabulous Greek chorus rising in the midst of us.
  • Tore Ofteness – Photographer. Having a wide fan base, Tore was traveling overseas, and there was a collective groan from the audience at not getting to see him!
  • Jack Frymire – Opera Singer and Educator. Truly delightful in all ways, Jack gets props for the best opening line of the night, saying how this award was perfectly timed: not premature and not posthumous.

For me, another wonderful aspect was getting to talk about my grandma, who inspired my writing. I’d thought a lot about her over the last days, and this morning, got up and looked at pictures of her. So here’s my speech from the ceremony, dedicated to my first and best writing teacher ever, my childhood friend and confidante, the best cook in the world, my beautiful grandma.

Young Henning Family

The young Henning family: William and Emma with daughters Maxeen (my mom, holding her dad’s hand) and Irma, on the porch of their Fargo ND home. William was a violinist and a doctor; Emma was a pianist. I visited the family home a few years ago and the delightful family there let me wander all through the house.

My beautiful grandma, Emma Ann Henning, was born in Volga City, Iowa, in 1894. She lived until 1977. In the time that I knew her, she gave me enough love to last a lifetime—and she also gave me stories.

As a little kid, lots of nights I’d sneak into her bed, snuggle up against her big grandma bosoms, and she’d tell me the most wonderful stories. They were stories about everyday people, doing everyday things, but my grandma had a knack for knowing what was funny or unusual or thought-provoking. Her stories were always entertaining, and for me they were also comforting. Whenever I was sick or sad or scared, a dose of Grandma’s stories did the trick.

Grandma with my Aunt Irma, about 1923, at their home in Fargo ND. Little Irma died quite young and this is one of the few pictures I have of her.

Now I realize that in those soft, quiet moments we spent together, she was in many ways teaching me to be a writer. Throughout my life, my way to both entertain and comfort myself has been to make up stories, write them down, and I’m fortunate to now make my living as a writer and editor.

And while it’s extremely gratifying to be part of a book production team or to see my own stories in print, as much as anything, it’s the quieter moments that I treasure the most deeply.

For example, I’ve been delighted to teach creative writing classes for both Whatcom Community College’s and Western Washington University’s Continuing Education programs. I’ve had students from age twelve to ninety-two in my classes, which is wonderful in itself. This particular day, I watched a student who was about twenty-two talking across the table with a student who was about seventy—watching the difference in age become completely immaterial as they talked excitedly to each other about their stories was a quietly special moment.

I’ve also been lucky to emcee the monthly Open Mic Night at Village Books. It’s always wonderful to have a group of writers come together and share their work, and doing it in this particular bookstore makes it extra-special. The event is well attended and lots of different writers come to read, but there’s a small group that has been coming for years. The moment I love is right before we start, when I look out at those familiar, smiling faces and think, this feels like home. [You can imagine my joy at saying this while some of the open mic regulars—Jim Milstead, Andy McBride, Betty Scott, Susan Chase Foster, Denise DuMaurier, and Shannon Laws—were smiling at me from their seats. Not to mention that Dee Robinson of Village Books came to give me a big hug after! It was fairly overwhelming.]

Grandma on Christmas around 1973, modeling a shawl I crocheted for her for Christmas.

Grandma modeling a shawl I crocheted for her at Christmastime around 1973, when I was about ten years old. I was very proud of my granny square stitch.

And, finally, I’ll tell you about this day I was in the parking lot at the Barkley Haggen’s grocery story and saw an old Chevy van that had the top carved out and the top of a camper stuffed into the hole. It was awesome. I memorized every detail of that van and ran home and wrote the first draft of a story that was published in the current issue of Clover, A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine produced here in Bellingham by the Independent Writers’ Studio. The story is called “Darrell, In Milwaukee,” and I like to think it’s a story my grandma would have liked. I’ll just tell you the lines that introduce the van, which for me will always mark the moment I saw it in all its glory.

Chevy side view - Copy

Guy name of Ken—that Darrell knew from around—had picked up a ’62 blue Chevy van at the junkyard run by that Dakota fellow. Ken cut out the roof of the van and framed in the top section of a camper shell he found at the same junkyard. Most of the camper windows were busted out and had plywood over, but the van had all its windows so a guy could still see out the sides if he needed to.

Clover: A Literary Rag Volume 6

Clover: A Literary Rag Volume 6

Not bad, Darrell said, when he first saw it.

The Chevy’s engine ran rough and one of the front wheels was an undersize spare, but Ken rarely drove it farther than the mini mart for cold ones. Which he and Darrell drank while sitting on the lawn chairs Ken kept in the van. Sometimes they watched TV. Ken ran an extension cord out the laundry room window of his house and in through one of the van windows to plug in a portable set. But then Dot grew embarrassed by that wreck of a—well, she hardly knew what to call it, and right there in the driveway where everyone could see. She told Ken it went or she went.

[You can read the full text of the story in the December 2013 issue of Clover Vol 6, available at Village Books, Elliott Bay Books, and online. You can also submit to Clover, and I can say that editor Mary Gillilan is simply marvelous to work with!]

Photo by Susan Chase Foster

Photo by Susan Chase Foster

So thank you for this moment, here tonight. I’m honored, and grateful to Mayor Linville, City Council President Cathy Lehman, and the Bellingham Arts Commission.

Congratulations to the other recipients, including my fellow writer Shannon Laws (read Shannon’s speech here).

And thank you to Susan Chase-Foster, who nominated me. Susan is the author of the gorgeous blog Still Life with Tortillas.

And my wish for everyone here tonight (or now reading) is that however you express your own creativity, and likewise enjoy and share in the creativity of others, that it brings you both “grandma comfort” – and many joyful moments. Thank you.

Later that night with (from left) Shannon Laws, Me, Susan Chase Foster, and Janet Oakley (who received the award last year) – some wine may have been consumed by this point


 XO Laurel Leigh




Filed under Pack News

17 responses to “My First Writing Teacher

  1. wonderful stories and photos, Laurel! You deserve all the kudos you get.

  2. Selah J Tay-Song

    So that’s where you get it from! : ) One of my favorite parts of your classes where when you would read aloud, it made me feel like a kid in the best way possible, just like you describe when your grandma would tell you stories–comforted and enthralled. Thanks for sharing your speech and your memories, Laurel!

    • Thank you, Selah. That is really wonderful to know. I’ll give my grandma credit for anything I do right!

      See you soon, by the way. I’m excited to go get some group writing done (because we of course never get sidetracked by conversation). 🙂

  3. Congrats, my friend!

    And I love the portrait of your grandma you shared.

  4. I’m barking. What a lovely tribute. I feel that grandmother love in every word. It was great speech at the event. More touching here with the photos. I had grandmother love in my growing up life too -( though through letters and the things she made for me). I know your grandmother would have been so proud of you.

  5. Laurel, I love your style, your verve, and thank-you for gracing Clover with your stories. I loved this post–I had a grandma, too. Congratulations for the Mayor’s award. Thank-you for all you do in the writer’s world in Bellingham!

    • Hi Mary! Thank you so much for reading and for the good words. I’m truly honored to have stories in Clover and am excited for the upcoming issue. You have put us on the map with this magazine!

      I’m glad you had a grandma–they’re the best. Hope to see you soon!

  6. Thanks, Jill! It was kind of cool having this happen in the year I’m 50. It was a great night. Thanks for the compliment, and back at ya! Swapping stories with you is one of my favorite things to do. 🙂

  7. Oh boy, Laurel, I’m reading this at 36,000 feet above Alaska where I just saw your beautiful Grandma Emma fly by with a huge smile on her sweet face which, by the way, resembles your own. You gave a remarkable speech last night, one that, like “Darrell, In Milwaukee,” will not be forgotten. ❤

    • Thanks for that, Susan! I had so much fun last night and woke up with a big smile on my face. Thanks for the good words!

      I know you will yet again have a fantastic time in Alaska. I do expect a report on your progress on your book when you get back! 🙂

  8. Wow! What a tremendous evening for you all! Since way back (that includes up to this very moment), you have been in the company of some fabulous storytellers. And what a storyteller you have become! Cheers!

    • And now that I’m thinking more about this, it makes me miss the grandmothers I never knew.

      • I’m sorry you didn’t get to know your grandmas, having just read your story in which grandparents do appear.

        It was always interesting for me to see how my nieces had a different relationship with my mom than I did, and how they were close to her as their grandma. Of course we know that parents relax a bit and can approach grandparenting differently and have so much fun with it, so I’m sorry you didn’t have that. Although you turned out to be a sweetheart anyway, so there!

        • I had a crazy and independent aunt who took me to garage sales and library sales in search of books. Years ago, I wrote a few words for her memorial that mentioned how old I thought I was when she decided I could borrow Lady Chatterly’s Lover from among the books stacked in her house. It also mentioned how she loved to wear men’s hats and did so with aplomb. You may find some of her characteristics in the woman whose death serves as a catalyst for the grandfather’s demise in Horse Sense, the story you read a couple of months ago.

          She set me off down this path, and I think of her often.

          • I love that she lent your Lady Chatterly — that she had it and knew that every proper young woman should read it! I can see the thread of her in Horse Sense. It’s great to put a whisper of people you love in your stories.

Bark back!

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