During a timed writing with my online writers’ group, I spun a true tale about cooking. When I finished, I had two stories. The first one I sent to The Sun Magazine. It was their prompt after all. The second one focused on a moment in 1968, New Year’s eve. It belongs here.

Our New Year’s Eve progressive dinners were legendary. We were living in Lawrence, Kansas at the time, teaching at the university. Five couples planned the order of the meal, beginning with cocktails and hors-d’oeuvre at the first house, progressing in our black-tie attire to the next house a block away for the soup course. Salad at the next and by ten-thirty or so, we arrive at our house for the main course. One friend was an airline pilot who had brought live lobster from Maine. They were in a tank in our garage. I had instructed the babysitter to get the great canning kettle to a boil by 10:30, whereupon she could go to bed in the guest room next to where the children were sleeping. The crisp night air cleared the palate and the brain after cocktails and wine pairing with each course. The merriment grew with each walk. Don and I rushed ahead to get those lobsters into the boiling water and warm the garlic-butter and sour-dough bread. The others came through the door laughing, ready for this epicurean high-point, lobsters in Kansas.

The wives carried coats, scarfs, gloves, and purses up to our master bedroom, powdered their noses, and came down to dinner. At midnight champagne corks flew into the garden, a scuffling of chairs so everyone could kiss everyone else.

Dessert awaited half a block down the street. The men climbed the stairs to retrieve the coats and came down one by one, puzzling, hands patting down the inside pockets, the outside pockets, fishing in the sleeves for their scarfs. The women watched, took their coats, then opened their purses. Keys, where were the keys? The scarfs, the gloves? Merriment turned sour, accusatory. Instead of filing out to dessert, there was a terrible milling around in the front hall. Embarrassed, I went upstairs and opened the door to where our daughters slept. There in the middle of the floor in a swirl of color were the ladies’ scarfs, the men’s scarfs in the outer circle like a fortress wall, and in the center of the mound of cloth, keys. I gathered them all and descended to the sullen crowd. I opened my hands to grabbing fingers and harrumphing snarls as the scarfs, gloves, and keys sorted themselves out.

We stumbled out of our front door muttering, wondering, puzzling what had come into the minds of four little girls. How they had awakened so late and stolen into the master bedroom to find fox and sable coats, silk, and cashmere scarfs, jangling keys to carry off to their room? The retelling of the story as we tasted the chocolate mousse and the crème brûlée of our final course became the theme of the New Year. Told with peals of laughter, laughter with an edge. “Don’t trust anyone, not even your children.”

Richard Nixon became the thirty-seventh president on January 20th. Tricky Dick would take more than pretty scarfs and keys.


My world first, then the inciting incident

Hello, Readers,

I’m back in class with Scott Driscoll and two of his writerly friends. The first evening’s topic was “Inciting Incident”, that event in the narrative that disturbs the protagonist’s world and from which all action ensues. My story, Evil Empire, which I referenced in my last post was now in its 4th iteration. I thought it was pretty good, about ready for publishing. I have copies out to be read by other people who were on the trip.

What slammed me against the wall was this: an inciting incident has to show up in the world of the protagonist that the reader can recognize as sudden, different and disturbing. That means that the “world” has to be described sufficiently to contrast the “new” thing that introduces the disturbance. I hadn’t done that at all in my story.

Stewing around with the problem of painting the life of Betsy Bell at the time of the trip to the Soviet Union in 1983, I came to an amazing realization. I have not owned my character in this or any of my stories. I have painted my character, my historical self, as meek, subservient, timid and deferential. Not who I was at all. ;

My personal narrative has painted me in reference to the dominant people in my life, my parents, my husband, my bosses. I have failed to “see” and claim the adventurous, challenging person I have been at every step of my life.

Back to the drawing board. Dare greatly.

Here are the new opening paragraphs:

Preparing for our departure for Moscow added layers of details to my usual bustle of work as adult education director for Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. I had articles to write for the Rubric, our monthly newsletter, classes to arrange for the youth, and adult forums on the church’s response to government war mongering. I’d arranged for a performance of 4 Minutes to Midnight. The actors skulked in white masks and skeletal costumes pantomiming the horrors of nuclear war. The show brought the reality of Seattle’s nuclear submarine base and our surrounding area getting wiped out by a nuclear bomb into my gut, eighteen inches below my head where I lived ninety percent of the time.
My husband, Aldon Bell, known as Don, had added chairing a ten day series of events called Target Seattle to his teaching and administrative duties at the University of Washington. The noon-day lectures in the Methodist Church in center city and the evening programs in Kane Hall on the University’s campus demanded so much of his time, we’d wave goodbye in the morning with a cheery “See you between the sheets!”
I knew he was working with a big committee including lawyers, doctors–members of Physicians for Social Responsibility, former Peace Corps volunteers, executives from the YMCA, teachers, citizen activists like Kay Bullitt and Ann Stadler, other faculty and people from King TV’s channel 5.

The academic year had been a blur of anti-nuclear activity and now it was spring break, March 1983, and we were off to Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). We were traveling as tourists with the specific intent of re-affirming our strong ties with our Sister City in Uzbekistan, Tashkent. Each of the thirty-three travelers carried a packet of one hundred plus letters of peace signed by 30,000 people during the Target Seattle events. All over town suitcases were being zipped with the packets on top.

Now the reader has a picture of the life of these two people, Betsy and Don Bell. In the fifth paragraph, the inciting incident shows up.

Stay tuned.




Evil Empire

Dear Fellow Reader,

In the fall of 2017 the Museum of history in Tacoma will open an exhibit about Citizen Diplomacy in the Pacific Northwest. The timing marks the 25th anniversary of the Goodwill Games held in Seattle. Many Russian athletes competed in 1990.

My own part in the effort to de-escalate nuclear build up and Mutual Assured Destruction was two-fold. My husband Aldon Duane Bell was the chair of a series of educational events and community discussions about this nuclear threat called Target Seattle. I provided emotional and physical support to his and the large committee’s efforts leading up to and during those events in 1982-84.

The catalyst to my own leadership was the trip to the USSR in the spring of 1983 to deliver 10,000 letters with 30,000 signatures to their recipients in our sister city, Tashkent in Uzbekistan. My story is written as a piece of literary non-fiction. I hope it will be part of a collection of personal essays and stories by other individuals whose lives were changed through their stepping into leadership roles to shape our collective futures. As Margaret Meade said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Here’s is the opening segment:

Before you is a piece of literary non-fiction. Thirty-two other fellow travelers would have their own version of the story of the City to City, People to People trip to Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand and Leningrad in the spring of 1983. Each of us chose for personal reasons to enter the “Evil Empire” against our government’s wishes.
    I will presume to speak for all of us when I say we were united in a belief that behind the Iron Curtain lived good people who loved and lived with passion and hope for their futures. We wanted to get to know them and invite them to know us.
    I will tell you how it was for me, a forty-four-year-old wife of a university history professor and mother of four daughters aged 15 – 20. I was working as director of adult education at Saint Mark’s Episcopal cathedral.
    I was terrified for our future and the future of our planet. What happened in the spring of 1983 turned my terror into action. My story begins in the middle of an awakening in Seattle. The nuclear arms build up between the USSR and the USA followed a path to total mutual destruction. Some people refused to be cowed by their fear. They began wondering together how ordinary citizens might change this destructive course of events.
    Target Seattle: Preventing Nuclear War was Seattle’s answer. This ten-day long series of teaching events and discussions intended to explore the truth behind the official bombast hurled from both sides of the ocean. The organizers wanted to discover what tools were available to us in our remote corner of the North American continent. What paths could we take toward de-escalation? In the fall of 1983, a second ten-day series of teaching events and discussions took place, this time exploring the reality of the Soviet intentions and actions. Target Seattle: What about the Russians involved even more people, all hungry to learn all they could and to find a place for themselves in the effort to turn the tide of self-destruction. The story of Target Seattle has been told by others.
    My husband, Aldon Duane Bell—we called him Don—, was the chair of these events. That first year, I quietly kept the household functioning in the wake of hours and days of planning, organizing, phone calls, letter writing and meetings. My task was to support the many events that took place in our home including feeding large groups of traveling Russians, visiting Uzbeks and guests from around the country. Nothing more.

For me, the letters  changed everything.

        I watched Don from across Kay Bullitt’s living room, its simple furnishings and folding chairs holding upwards of fifteen to eighteen people. I watched the others eying the papers stacked on a low round coffee table in the middle of the room. The meeting was called after the events of Target Seattle. Don often attended these meetings without me. I went that night with a sense of dread and excitement.
The task that October evening was to decide what to do with the letters, several hundred 8 1/2 x 14 sheets of paper printed in two colors, many rumpled and smoothed by hand. Each contained a single message of hope and longing to the citizens of Tashkent, Seattle’s sister city in Uzbekistan.  The letter was printed in English and Russian, the Cyrillic in a bold and slightly smaller font ran beneath the English words. The early damp of Seattle’s autumn put a chill in the room. These letters, spread out in the hundreds gave off heat which nothing could cool. I picked up the fervor.
Target Seattle events and dramas like 4 Minutes to Midnight impassioned many people to use their particular skills and take action. They created groups like the Peace chorus, Peace Table (chefs here and in the USSR), Amputee Soccer tournaments, the creation of a Peace Park and ultimately the Goodwill Games in 1990. But no one reckoned with these letters sitting here begging to be read by their intended recipients. These letters with so many signature—30,000 in all—had to reach the people to whom they were written. The signators were terrified Seattlites who feared our planet would be blown to smithereens by the Soviets or the Americans; children who watched the news with their parents and practiced bomb drills, crawling under their desks together; teachers, businessmen, lawyers, former Peace Corps volunteers, labor union members and aging folk who’d lived through WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Each person had read the letter at the events, in their schools and churches and signed their names. With their signature, they pinned their hopes on reaching a person, someone like themselves with the same fears, the same hopes. Anne, one of the authors of the letter, took the lead saying it was our obligation as organizers of the Target Seattle events to get these letters to real people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story.


Journals, journals, journals

Gentle Reader,

A few years ago I unpacked a box I’d been carrying around from house to house as my life changed from marriage to widow to marriage to widow again. That box contained the letters and journals from my courtship and early years with Aldon Duane Bell, the father of my four daughters. I had always imagined I would write a memoir about those courtship days in the mid-50s when the dashing young man recently back from Oxford turned up in my American History classroom in Muskogee Central High School Oklahoma as my history teacher.

Betsy Johnson and Don Bell 1955

Betsy Johnson and Don Bell 1955

I have written over 100,000 words of memoir. None of those words suit me. So I decided to learn the craft of writing fiction. The difference between memoir and fiction is the topic for another post. My intention was to create the kind of page-turning story from my life material anyone would enjoy.

Scott Driscoll at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education Dept. is an exacting teacher of Fiction Writing. I have learned about character, desire, quest, inciting incident, increased risk, crisis moment and transformation. I’ve tried my hand at creating a good short story.

Every story I’ve written springs from the well of my own experiences and has required research to flesh out the details where memory is limited or non-existent. To make the stories follow a dramatic arc with increased risk, I have turned them into fiction. story-arc-for-planning-your-video-production

My friends and family have been tolerant of my pre-occupation with writing, have forgiven my absence at events and have been waiting for something to read from all this effort.

These pages will contain snippets of research to tantalize you and, once I am done polishing and polishing some more, a paragraph or two from the stories themselves.

It will be my pleasure. I hope it will please you, as well.