Clear, humorous, factual, interesting, engaging. Those descriptions came to mind as I got to know Chuck Holmes. But those aren’t quite enough.
In the best of ways, Chuck truly is a vendor or words (as Augustine and Malcolm Muggeridge described themselves.) Chuck says he has made his living “putting one word after another for more than 50 years.”
I’m grateful that Chuck took the time to put some words together for this interview…
Chuck: The earliest one that I remember was winning $5 in an essay contest when I was in the fifth grade. That was second place; I was shooting for first place. It paid $10. I wrote for the student newspaper all through high school. The newspaper was a junior class project, but there was nobody else who could up with enough synonyms to write the sports column. The first time I actually received a paycheck for writing was when I was 19 and writing for the local weekly.
Alternate Arts: What’s the first thing you remember reading?
Chuck: I spent much of my childhood in the local library. The first book I remember from there was Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott). At that point in my life (cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians), a knight was a hero I could identify with.
Alternate Arts: Who has influenced your writing the most?
Chuck: I had two identifiable and significant influences. The first was my mother. She wasn’t a writer. However, she was a voracious reader. We were encouraged to read pretty much anything. Largely because of my mother, our family produced two writers who managed to make a living for many years by stringing words together.
The second was Josefina Niggli, who ran the Professional Writing program at Western Carolina. She contended that she couldn’t teach anyone to write, but she could teach us to make a living at it. For years after I was graduated, I sent my work to Josifina, and she would mark it up and send it back.
(For a more detailed account of Josefina and her influence, see this post at Chuck’s website.)
Alternate Arts: Who or what inspires you now?
Chuck: At my age, it may be a little grandiose to call it inspired, but I’m engaged by a number of things. I’ve been married sixty years, and it’s a challenge to keep a marriage fresh for so long. I have four grandchildren, and I want to be an influence in their lives. And I fear for our country in its current political climate. I guess that goes back to the grandchildren. I want them to have the country I had to grow up in, but better.
Alternate Arts: You mention on your website that your “most difficult writing was where I was the client.” In what way?
Chuck: I have been a contract writer for almost sixty years. The client had a project. The project had a purpose. All I had to do was accept the project and accomplish the purpose, then the client would give me a check. It was a very simple feedback loop. I did advertising copy, marketing, television and video scripts, training, speeches, and corporate shows. (In fact, when I was asked to talk about writing at Career Day at my grandson’s high school, I had a PowerPoint slide that listed 35 different kinds of things I had been paid to write. I think I reduced the pool of potential writers in Atlanta by about 60 that day. They wanted to write the Great American Novel, and I was showing them that you could make money writing menu descriptions.)
When I finally had the time to pursue the sort of thing I thought I was going to do when I got out of college, I found that—because the client has to define the project—I was tasked with something that I wasn’t really prepared for. It was: “Ok, you’re a writer. Write something.” That’s probably why one of the largest folders on my computer is called “Fragments.” What it is, is really a bunch of false starts. Occasionally, I go back and resurrect one of them.
Basically, life is easier when someone tells you what to do (even if you’re very loud and contrary when they try to tell you how to do it).
The other reason that writing for myself was more difficult is that I seldom like anything I write. My clients were much more accepting.
Alternate Arts: For the “Words with Pictures” project you do with Michael Nelson, which comes first, words or photos?
Chuck: The photos all came from Michael’s portfolio. We met on Craig’s list when he put up a post looking for a writer. He had thousands of pictures, and he wanted words to go with some of them. I think he was looking for poems. I called him and suggested that he broaden his definitions. I told him I had done something years ago that had pictures and “thoughts.” (It was a product for a school supply manufacturer.) I had gone with freeform thoughts for that project because 1) I’m a really bad poet, and 2) it’s easier to connect to the art when you don’t have to worry about form.
I also told Michael that I probably wasn’t the writer for the job because I was old, and he probably needed someone with more passion. However, he disagreed, and Small Stories was the result. He sent me a bunch of pictures, and I stared at them until the thought behind them came out. About half of them are on chuckholmes.org as Words with Pictures.
Alternate Arts: In what ways does the creativity of others inspire you?
Chuck: I think it’s a flint and steel thing. You bang them together, and you might get a spark. In the 70s my partner and I had a creative boutique. Officially, he was the art director, and I was the copywriter, but that left a large middle ground—the concept—up for grabs. Good concepts don’t come easily, and at least once our secretary ran from the offices in tears because she thought we were going to kill each other. We finally arrived at a concept we could agree on and went to lunch.
One example of something more coming from a collaboration is one of the pieces in Short Stories. It was a picture of a young girl—probably about 19 or 20—nude and looking into the camera. I stared at the picture off and on for a week, trying to come up with something. Finally, I looked into her eyes. They were absolutely calm, and that was more important than the nudity.
In this case, the collaboration was not only between the photographer and the writer, but between the photographer, the writer, and the model.
I enjoy collaborating with creative people—artists, photographers, directors, and actors. I have never been able to collaborate with other writers. We can never find a useful division of labor.
Alternate Arts: You’ve mentioned that your first novel, The Sing, turned out to be a good deal more relevant than you intended it to be. Why is that?
Chuck: The first draft of The Sing was finished in 2007, just before we had the economic collapse of 2008. What had started out as a light-hearted homage to my hometown had evolved into an examination of the complexities of race relations in the mid-50s. However, at that point, the economy was at the front of everybody’s mind. Over the next 10 years, I did seven more drafts, always thinking that there was something else I could do to make it better. Finally, in 2017, my brother (who was probably tired of reading drafts) asked me when I was going to quit fritzing around and send the book out. It was published by Deeds in 2018, and because of our political situation, racism was once again on the front burner. As several reviewers have pointed out, what was true in 1956 is equally true today.
The book that was published was draft 2 with about 35,000 words removed. This is an excellent example of procrastination as a marketing tool
Alternate Arts: Your latest book, More Than Just Cellular and Other Musings on Life Past, Present and Eternal, is a collection of your essays. Are there any themes that run through these essays, and, if so, what are those themes?
Chuck: One of the problems with marketing More Than Just Cellular is that there’s not much you can say that’s true about all or even most of the 65 essays in the book. Some of them are religious. Some are nostalgia. Some are political. And some are just because I wanted to do them. However, the unifying thread, if there is one, is that they look at commonplace things and try to derive a deeper meaning. Because I’m old, a lot of them have to do with maintaining a purpose.
Alternate Arts: Which of the essays best reflect who you are? Why?
Chuck: Because most of the essays are intensely personal, each one reflects something about me. For instance, “Just How Good Was The Samaritan?” is a different take on the Good Samaritan story, based on my distaste for self-righteous Christians. Several of them, including “One Fine Sunday Afternoon,” “As Needed When Needed,” “Mother’s Day,” and “Earning a Valentine,” are in gratitude for all the people in my past who helped me get to where I am. As it says in the introduction, “I’m old, white, male, Protestant, liberal, introverted and sometimes without patience.” All 65 of the essays reflect one or more those characteristics.
Alternate Arts: How does God’s presence affect your creativity?
Chuck: I’m not sure this question is answerable. God’s presence affects everything in my life, but—beyond whatever talent God gave me—it’s difficult to narrow anything down to a single facet of life, e.g., creativity. Some things that I write—”Views of the Cross,” or “King of the World” for instance—are overtly religious. More of them have a religious component, sometimes nearly hidden. I don’t know that any of them are totally without something that comes from my faith.
Alternate Arts: What do you wish people knew more about you?
Chuck: That I’m probably not as aloof and arrogant as I seem to be. We introverts have a problem with that.
Alternate Arts: What encourages you to keep writing?
Chuck: I still have stories to tell and ideas to explore. I’m working on a sequel to The Sing, I have two other partially finished novels that have been shoved aside for the sequel. There’s a play being prepared for a table reading, and short stories that pop out every now and again. One of the short stories was awarded First Place in Volo Press’ Slight Fiction competition. I hope I never reach the “and then I wrote…” stage of the writer’s life.
Alternate Arts: What encouragement would you give your younger self?
Chuck: That nothing is wasted, even really bad poetry. Just do it and absorb what happens next.
Alternate Arts: How can we learn more about you?
Chuck: At the risk of sounding very self-serving, anyone who wants a deep-dive into what I am can buy a copy of More Than Just Cellular. That may well provide more information than many people want.
A more economical and more measured method would be to go to my website, chuckholmes.org. I put it there to hold all those things that I considered valuable that weren’t done for clients: writings, photographs, essays, and—of course—my store.