Kenneth C. Mitchell
My Writing Life
by Kenneth C. Mitchell (Rev. Oct. 10, 2016)
I always loved books and the words they contained. In high school, I found a passion in reading and writing. I especially liked starting a theme paper with a long, unexpected sentence that exploded with “That…”. The resulting long, dependent clause was the subject of the sentence that would stand on stilts when I diagrammed it—just for fun.
I spent many Saturday mornings at Shadid’s Bookstore on South Sixth St. in Springfield, IL. I had a ritual of moseying down its long aisle, first eyeing the magazines on my right (Playboy and Mad Magazine caught my eye first), then the fiction section down the way on my left, around the turn at the back, and up the other aisle. More books there, including classics, like The Vicar of Wakefield and Robinson Crusoe, two of my favorites. Poe’s dark works were fun reading; I memorized the paragraph-long, first sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I still know by heart.
From college on, I felt I would do some serious writing…someday. Although I had 14 hours of A’s, the grade I was most proud of was the B I managed to get from Mr. Krueger’s freshman English class. He was the most demanding teacher I ever had, and the best. He taught me researching, organizing, annotating, and footnoting theme papers—skills that have served me well over the years.
The first concrete inspiration to write a book was on how to be an effective president of my fraternity at Millikin. That was 1965. Having been president for two semesters, I felt I could help future brother presidents find their moorings from the get-go. I wished I had had such a book. I even picked out the name: So, Now You’re ‘E.A’! (E.A. was our shorthand for Eminent Archon, our ritual name for Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s chapter presidents.) I jotted down some ideas, but school, part-time work, and planning for marriage shoved the idea to the back of my drawer permanently. I should have studied English and creative writing in college, but I was swayed by the more prestigious male career paths. So, majoring in the writing arts was relegated to studying first pre-medicine and then pre-law. I forsook writing for law school.
Some 15 years later the impulse to write rose up in me again. I vividly recall explaining to the painters of our renovated country home that “In this study I will write my first book.” They nodded in approval as they prepped the wood book cases that lined the wall behind my desk. I had no idea what I would write about, but that notion was still in some recess in my mind. I anticipated the time I would put a blank piece of paper in my Selectric and invent my writing career.
I was not quite ready to write, probably because I spent the next few years living life experiences that would be fodder for future memoirs. Some were joyful and some were painful, but isn’t that what we make for ourselves? Buddha told us the secret 2500 years ago, “You will experience 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.”
My Writing Begins in Earnest
That dream of writing took off in earnest in 2004, when I had the urge to write down a short biography of my father’s life. He had died several years before. Dad had the presence of mind to keep his important earthly possessions, consciously saved for many years. When I discovered them after his death, I concluded he wanted me to take charge of them and tell his story. I carefully packed them into three boxes. When the time was right for me (10 years later), I drove over Mom’s and asked her where those ‘boxes of Dad’s stuff” were. She said, “Right where you left them, Kenneth. In your office down the basement.”
I walked down the stairs and into my high school study room, which I had converted from the old coalbin. I slid the pegboard doors opened, and pulled down the three Bankers boxes and lugged them home. A week or two later, I sat on the floor of my library/study and took out their contents. I was overwhelmed. Strewn all over the floor was everything significant to Dad, from a picture of FDR, to old photographs, postcards, genealogy charts, and a variety of mementos. I was shocked and delighted to see that he even had penned a dozen short stories which he never shared with anybody. They are now among my prized possessions. I especially love the one he entitled “A Double Life in a Single Room,” in which he takes care of two ladies whom he was having compatible affairs with.
What was I to do with all this stuff? I pondered. I spent a couple of hours playing with various ideas on how to organize it all. Planning and organizing are two of my strengths, and it finally came together. Then I had to figure out how to outline the book. Within a few days, working part-time (I still was selling insurance full-time), I developed a system and began taking notes and researching his life. What resulted was my first book, a biography of Dad’s long and interesting life. I called it “Rabbit Row,” because that neighborhood he grew up in shaped and formed his and his family’s life.
I learned plenty about writing from that first book effort. I figured the best way to get a perspective on his life was to draw a timeline. So I started there. Using “decades” across the top of legal pad pages taped together long-ways, I made up categories and placed them down the left margin: “schooling,” “world events,” “life events,” “jobs,” “relationships,” etc. It took me several weeks just to arrange everything in an order I was comfortable with. What I discovered was that the planning and research phases consumed most of the effort. For example, I was able to reconstruct my secretive grandfather Mitchell’s life. Grandma had to leave him during the Depression, so he moved to St. Louis and constructed a second life. We knew nothing about it. But, with the help of a shoebox of his miscellaneous belongings he left to my aunt Laura, I was able to unveil his narrative in a 25-page chapter.
The writing itself was a breeze, the words falling easily onto the monitor screen. I used my new Gateway desktop computer and cautiously entered enter the digital age. (I had never used a computer before.) Once I got the hang of MS Word, I loved using the computer. I constantly encourage my friend Dave Johnson to get with it and use his Mac to write, instead of penning his novels long-hand on those extra-long, yellow legal pads. Like many novices, I quickly learned to use the “save” button and copied my manuscript onto a floppy disk.
I ended my dad’s biography on page 372, using a 12-pt font on 8-½ x 11-inch paper. The appendix was full of miscellany, especially lists (which I enjoy)—cars, jobs, street addresses, friends, etc. I also included lots of pictures that were laid side by side and photocopied. I didn’t even know how to digitize them onto the pages, let alone embed them into the text. I made fifty or so copies of the comb-bound book and asked each of my Mitchell relatives if they wanted a copy. Most took them without offering to buy. (Where did my sales training go? It was part of my schooling and I didn’t make that mistake again.)
Two years later, I embarked on another book, a biography again, this time of my mother. I called it “Sister Raphael,” which was the name she chose when she entered the Franciscan Order as a nurse. I did a better job on this book, although it was still in report format, like Dad’s, but with a spiral or coil binding, which made page turning easier. It was 290 pages long, again with an appendix of what I considered interesting factoids and documents. This time I was skilled in placing pictures in the text. I was also smart enough to pre-sell the books to my Italian relatives, so I broke even at least. They were much more enthusiastic about their shared history than my other side of the family. Word of mouth required me to get a few more printed up. (Printing up these small lots of standard sized “books” was like paying for 300 pages copied at Kinkos. They were relatively expensive—about $15 a book in bulk and $35 apiece. No margin for profit at all, which was not my intention anyway.)
I finished the book in a year, but decided to wait until Mom passed so I could include an Afterword. It turned out that she was in no hurry to move on, so I finally printed a run of them. I asked Mom if she wanted a copy to read, but she declined, saying, “Hey, I lived it; I don’t have to read it.” She finally had enough of her earth experience, and six years later made her transition. I wrote that Afterword then, to recount the intervening years and, in effect, to serve as a tribute to a well-lived life.
Both books are on the shelves of the local library’s Sangamon Valley Collection and the State Historical Library (now a part of the Lincoln Presidential Library). Dad would be proud of his life sitting in those libraries, especially in the local Lincoln Library, since they eventually bound it in hardcover for longevity. It seems it’s been read enough that the plastic binding came lose. I give a copy of each of my books to these libraries to make sure they are available over time. Too, they act as a social history for our future generations to enjoy. Hopefully, my five children will take care of their copies too, but you never know.
My next project had been in mind for several years—a memoir of my college days with emphasis on my fraternity life. I wrote it after a lot of research into those wonderful four years at Millikin University. I had kept several calendars from those days, plus yearbooks. I also had access to the campus newspapers. I interviewed a couple of dozen fraternity brothers, for their perspectives. The result was a 352 page memoir that I self-published into a standard book format. All those paperback trade books you see at Barnes and Noble have “perfect bindings.” Now mine did too: the common 5-½ x 8-½-inch size. (The other common dimension is 6 x 9-inch.) I had a professional in town design the covers, and I put in lots of pictures. There was a section placed in the back called “Where Are They Now?” which describes in a paragraph or two what each of several dozen of my brothers did with their lives. This includes those who have gone on to what we call Chapter Eternal in our fraternity-speak.
I pre-sold close to a couple hundred copies of In the Bonds: Fraternity Life in the ‘60s, mostly to fraternity brothers. Like the others, my goal was to break-even, which I did. Capitol Blueprint, the local printer I always used, had recently purchased a perfect-binding machine and so Brad Book showed it to me and (easily) convinced me to use it. Mine may have been the first book he printed on that spacious and expensive machine. Word spread, and I sold maybe a 100 more copies to classmates and other M.U. grads in our era. I placed a copy in Millikin’s Library Archives for safe-keeping. I have only three left, one of which is my corrections copy.
Around the time my college book came out, a young fraternity brother called me and asked me if I would use my skills to write a history of our local chapter. I was busy with other projects so we teamed up and wrote a draft of the fraternity’s 100 years at Millikin. After our Centennial Celebration, I went on my own and wrote a detailed history (along with many pictures) of the first 50 years and gave a copy of it to our university library archives. I was going to write the other five decades, but after several years, I was burned out. Maybe someday. I was looking for a benefactor to pay for a professional hardcover book, but couldn’t find one, so I published We Band of Brothers myself in 2012, making just six copies of the 250-page work, for further editing by some enterprising brother. It was an exhausting research project. I spent a day at our national headquarters in Evanston, IL, looking up old documents and checking facts, and got hold of a several scrapbooks, lots of documents, etc. from the fraternity house. In addition, I interviewed lots of brothers, especially those from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Very gratifying and frustrating, but well worth it. I recently cleaned it up and am publishing it this fall. I hope future brothers will appreciate it.
I needed to work on other projects, which I have since done. From time to time I write smaller pieces, mainly memoir stories around 20 or 30 pages in length. (I am including a list of all my works at the end of this document.) I spent quite a bit of time writing At the Top of My Game, a 105-page recollection of my five years in the insurance business. It was a very successful time in my life, so I wanted to especially capture those fun times. I was the top salesman during the stock issue and then held executive positions as we moved along the business of selling life insurance. I decided not to publish the book because it was told in a too-candid fashion, with names plus my unvarnished feelings about the direction the company was going. It reveals a lot about my business style and when I was performing at a top level.
Most of my children are of an age that my writings aren’t that important to them. My guess is that they thumb through my books and then put them on a shelf for future reference. They are busy raising families and living life; I understand that. It also seems as though these retrospectives aren’t important until after one passes the 50-year-old mark anyway. At least, that was the case with me. Ladd is the only one who reads and re-reads my works, and talks to me about them. He is a budding writer in his own right, and has written a draft of a thriller novel. My guess is that he will do well in the writing business as he moves on in his career. Brett dabbled in screen writing some years back. He’s more talented than he probably knows and may pick it up again. Robb and Todd are colonels in the army, and neither one has much time left over after a long-day’s work and family time. Zemi is a college student, dealing with her own book studies on a daily basis.
My Surprise Bestseller
At the age when most people are retired, I wrote a local history book that unexpectedly and quickly became something of a local phenomenon. I wrote the draft of my high school memoir to sell as a fundraiser for my 50th Reunion, in 2012. When the committee chair felt it would compete with a directory of our class members, I put it off for a couple of years. I decided to polish it off after I wrote one more chapter on the history of Lanphier High School. As it turned out, that chapter morphed into a full-fledged book of its own. Thus, North-End Pride was born before its parent book was published. I wrote it two summers ago so it would be available for the fall holiday season. It came out in November, 2014. It hit a nerve with people and I sold hundreds of copies over Christmas and New Year’s. My website—KenMitchellBooks.com—churned out 20 to 30 orders each day for months. At one point I was personally delivering up to 40 copies a day, to get them into the hands of customers in time for Christmas. It was crazy. My first book signing at Concordia Village brought out over 120 people, most all of whom bought one or more copies.
Most of 2015 continued this whirlwind of sales before slowing down. We had six printings in quick succession. I had several more book signings, plus a half dozen speaking engagements. At a monthly meeting of the Sangamon County Historical Society there were 75 people in attendance. At just that one meeting, I sold the book as well as sample reprints of my dad’s book in condensed form. In addition, I had my little memoir on growing up in the North End sell as well.
I did a respectable job of marketing (which was part of my skill set for 40 years) and implemented strategies like hitting the three talk radio stations more than once. My big disappointment is that the local alternative newspaper, Illinois Times, has not yet run a feature article on it. I personally handed the publisher a copy right off the bat and he sent it off to one of his staff writers. But he was apparently too busy and it just never got in the paper. I’m hoping to get it in there with my current marketing effort.
One of my main goals marketing-wise was to get my book into the local Barnes & Noble store. During the Christmas rush I asked the store manager if I could just give him the books on consignment. He said “corporate” had stopped that practice years ago. So I spent two-month going through channels. I know for a fact that I could have sold at least 500 books through B&N over that holiday period, probably 1,000. When I did get accepted in March, they sold one or two a week, which has continued to this day. Still, I am proud that I am with a national bookseller—the national bookseller retailer storefront. Since Barnes & Noble made me go through a distributor—I chose Ingram—you can order my book in any B&N in the country (as well as Amazon and other outlets).
I am re-listening to a set of personal and professional development tapes by Steve Scott, a successful infomercial entrepreneur and writer. The most important of his 15 master skills he calls partnering. He says that every single super-achiever owes much of his or her success to choosing the right partner or partners as they worked together toward a goal. His examples range from Walt Disney to Thomas Edison. I’m no Disney or Edison, but I did enlist the support of over two dozen partners to write and sell North-End Pride.
Three partners who came forward almost immediately were what I call my cheerleaders. They were individuals who caught my vision for this book and not only came to my aid, but enthusiastically supported that effort. The first was Steve Rambach, a teacher at Lanphier. When I told him (one day in the teacher’s lounge when I was subbing) that I was writing this book about the history of the North End of Springfield and how Lanphier High School came into being, he got so excited it reignited the mission in me. As you can guess, writing is a lonely business, so it was nice getting a psychic boost every once in a while. I didn’t exactly know why I was writing this book, but something in me told me to do it. I kid you not. When my wife would come in my study and ask why I was spending so much time on it (“Who would buy it, anyway?”), I shrugged and didn’t really respond, except to say, “Maybe nobody.”
The second partner who showed up in my life as one of my ambassadors was Bob Lanphier, the grandson of the man whom my high school is named after. I interviewed him and he caught the vision too. He is one of those people who can’t help but be excited and enthusiastic about something that gets his interest. A Yale-trained electrical engineer like his grandfather and father, Bob worked at Sangamo Electric, which his grandfather helped start and ran for many years. Bob worked daily with North Enders at Sangamo, the North End’s biggest employer some years ago, and knew the pride they took in their work. And, of course, he knew some of the history about the founding of the school across the street from Sangamo that bears his family’s impressive name. Bob felt the book’s message was so important he actually helped fund the first printing, out of the blue. That’s the kind of person he is, an angel investor.
The third man who immediately got caught up in the story of Lanphier was Art Spiegel, a 1946 graduate of LHS and one of the most vocal champions of our high school. He gave me valuable information about the classes in the 1940 era, especially stories and names I use in the book. He knows lots of people and has such a good reputation that he spread the word far and wide. He’s the person who set up the over-the-top book signing at Concordia Village (where he is the unofficial “mayor” of this active retirement community) to kick start the book’s coming out party.
The interesting thing is that none of these three partnerships was planned. It reminds me of the injunction in the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” It seems that when my writing projects need assistance people materialize, come out of the field, walk up to me, and ask, “Ken, how can I help.” It sounds silly, but that’s how it works, at least with me. That kind of assistance occurred over and over again. From my editorial staff of copyeditors—especially Virginia Scott, an editor in her own right— to my cover designer to people who want me to speak, my partners’ list keeps on growing. Sam Madonia, the well-known morning talk show host of our local WFMB (1450 AM), has had a major influence on spreading the word about North-End Pride. He grew up on our side of town and is considered “Mr. North End” around Springfield. There are many others I could mention who helped me either directly or indirectly in this effort. (I recognized them all in the Acknowledgement of my book.) What blessings they have been.
As part of my marketing plan, I was thinking about the number one, very best place to give exposure to my book in Springfield. It seemed obvious it would be a retail merchant on the north side of town, in the middle of the neighborhood I was writing about. One day I was driving down North Grand, on “the Avenue,” and, on a hunch, I pulled in to Noonan’s Hardware Store. It was there when I was a kid and has an impeccable reputation for service. It won the “Friendliest Hardware Store in Town” Award in the Illinois Times more than once. I walked in and asked to speak to the owner. Matt Noonan the Third stepped up and I showed him a copy of the book and asked if he would be willing to carry it. He said sure, and I worked out an arrangement. Later, I have worked with his dad. Matt Senior, who is close to me in age and he has carried the book for two years now. Friendly as can be and a good businessman, Matt saw the value in North-End Pride and kept buying them. He arranged for a book signing at the store a few weeks after its launch, and we sold 49 books on a Saturday morning. Since that time we have sold over 600 books at just that one outlet.
Another wonderful partner was Tamara Browning, a feature writer for our local paper, The State Journal-Register. She eagerly responded to my request for an interview and came out to my house to interview me and wrote a nice piece along with a photo of me in my study. I have been fortunate to have had two other feature articles in this paper, one a front page story/photo when I wrote Rabbit Row. (My daughter said it must have been a very slow news day!) A serendipitous event occurred when I was researching the North-End Pride book at the library. David Spenser, a staff photographer for the paper, looking for a possible story for his paper, walked up to me and asked if I would be interested in talking to him about my project, and if he could take a picture of me and Curtis Mann, the director of the Sangamon Valley Collection, who was assisting me. That resulted in a nice article and picture in the paper as well—just a few months before my book came out. See how good things conspired to aid in this book project?
When watching one of the episodes of “Illinois Stories by Mark McDonald” on public television, I got the idea he might like doing one on the history of Lanphier and the North End. Lo and behold, he was interested and did a 30-minute program at the high school, featuring a couple old timers and me. It ran several times on our local cable channel, which excited me to no end. From time to time, someone will stop me and ask if I’m that guy on that TV show. I’m thinking of getting one of those gum labels that reads AS SEEN ON TV and paste it on my book covers. (I did buy and distributed a couple of dozen North-End Pride tee-shirts.)
One of the most amazing, unexpected consequences that grew out of the publication of my book was being installed into Lanphier’s Hall of Fame as its forty-third inductee. After receiving the award and the plaque, I gave a short talk at last year’s awards ceremony at the school, which was a real honor. Then another surprise: when the Lanphier 2015 Yearbook came out, it was dedicated to me, with a nice picture. When I substitute teach at Lanphier and walk up the main staircase, there in the awards display case on the landing is a picture of me as the latest alumnus Hall of Fame recipient. It makes my head spin, just thinking about what difference a year makes.
This summer (2016) I am reinvigorating my marketing efforts for the selling of my book, North-End Pride. My goal is to earn at Least $2500 in the next three months and $5000 during the holiday season. I will be selling my high school memoir, Our Season in the Sun, this holiday season as well. As part of the holiday promotions, I will package them together at an attractive price. I have at least two dozen marketing strategies to be used in this second marketing effort. I am using “guerilla marketing techniques” which are basically no or low-cost means used by many effective book marketers. For example, I will be seeing the owner of the Sliders, our local semi-pro baseball team, to persuade him to use some books as promotional giveaways. I’ll be doing the same thing to one or more North-End insurance brokers. I am pushing the envelope and approaching some national magazines (such as Oprah’s “O”) about writing an article on how anyone can write a memoir about their high school days, their high school, and/o their old neighborhood. Another avenue will be NPR programs and call-in radio shows in large national markets.
The night of my induction into Lanphier High School Hall of Fame, June 2015
My Five-Year Writing Goals
I might combine some of my short memoirs into an autobiography someday. At least that is my plan. My long-term plan is to become a better and better writer and earn a nice living in the book business. I started my own publishing enterprise, Seagull Press, and may begin publishing other authors’ works as well, as a separate profit center. Motivational speaker and co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series emphasized at a writer’s conference he promoted that “a book is a business.” In that vein, one of my goals is to make each book I write into its own business, meaning for a year or two it will earn its keep—maybe longer if it’s a good one. By that I mean it should net $50,000. With a stable of several books, that will result in a tidy annual income that may turn into some residual income for my family.
I have several other book projects in the planning stages. Here is what’s on my drawing board: (1) that memoir about my high school years I mentioned above—to be published this fall; (2) a book about writing love letters, from a personal experience; (3) a book about my 12 years living in a small farm town and running a horse breeding operation, grain farm, and selling real estate; (4) a book about a regular guy winning one of the largest Lottery jackpots and how he coups without going broke or crazy; (5) a book giving life advice to my daughter, grandchildren, and other future family; and (6) a short book unfolding the history of a small village on the edge of Springfield. I will also put together a book about the lives of my high school’s Hall of Fame members.
The nice thing about being a writer is that there is no retirement age. You can literally write and give talks and sign books until the cows come home. Although I will be 72 in a couple of weeks, I am excited at the prospect of writing the books, articles and memoirs I mentioned earlier. And, hopefully, there will be others as well. Who knows, I may move up the charts into the number one spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List. I can see a front page article in our local paper: FAMOUS LOCAL AUTHOR NOW A FAMOUS NATIONAL AUTHOR. Stranger things have happened. And it all started in Bill Krueger’s English class at Millikin.