Georgia Writers Museu

  Every story starts somewhere...

How did you start writing?

I’ve always written; it’s just how I prefer to express myself. At six years old, I wrote plays for my stuffed animals to act out to entertain my brother and sister, and even at that early age, I had the desire to grow up and be a writer. However, that dream didn’t emerge until after I fell in love with reading. I was lucky to grow up in a home full of books, with parents who loved to read and instilled that in me. Without that love of reading, I never would have discovered the joy of writing.

How did you transition from writing for yourself to writing for all the world to see?

I read voraciously, even as a little kid. While eating my favorite breakfast cereals, I read everything written on all six sides of the box, just to be reading something! The more I read, the more I began to compose stories in my head and then on paper, as the plays to entertain my siblings and then as short stories and young-reader-length books. Around age nine or ten, I asked my parents how I could get my stories—which I thought were as enjoyable as the things I read in Highlights magazine and others—into print. They found submission guidelines in those periodicals, and helped me start submitting my handwritten work. Nothing was accepted, but I kept trying, and I kept reading and learning.

What really taught me how to focus on word choice, cadence, and the other stylistic elements that make a reader feel something, though, was writing love letters to court the woman I fell in love with on a blind date. She travelled three weeks out of every four on the West Coast. This was in 1991, before cell phones or e-mail. Due to her long hours and the time zone differences, I couldn’t call her, and faxes are very unromantic, so I learned to write all over again by writing love letters to her. After twenty-three of these, she said, “Yes,” and I parlayed that story into my first national publication, in an anthology called A Cup of Comfort for Writers. That was the ultimate two-fer! We’re celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this year.

Speak to the importance of community as a writer/artist?

Writing is a lonely pursuit, which is fine if you just want to write for yourself. However, if you want to get your writing out into the world—and you want to make sure it’s the best it can be—a community of writers can benefit you tremendously. In critique groups, better writers than you can show you how to improve your work. In those groups and in writing organizations such as the Atlanta Writers Club, you also can learn about the business of writing, from publication options to platform building to marketing. Those who have “been there, done that” can offer you the lessons they learned so you won’t repeat their mistakes and you will capitalize on their successful ideas.

How did you build that community?

I discovered the Atlanta Writers Club (AWC) in 2000, shortly after my wife and I moved to the Atlanta area. Founded in 1914, the AWC had a storied history, with famous members and speakers, including Flannery O’Connor, Celestine Sibley, Carl Sandburg, Terry Kay, and many others. By the early 2000s, membership in the AWC had been declining for more than a decade. However, after I became president in 2004, my handpicked board members and I made a few changes to make the Club meetings more accessible, and we were able to start growing again. This enabled us to do more outreach, create critique groups around metro Atlanta, and become well-known once more, further increasing our membership, which now exceeds 650. Currently, I manage two Atlanta Writers Conferences each year for the AWC, the revenues for which enable the Club to provide donations to local literary festivals, sponsor the biennial Townsend Prize for Fiction, and award a scholarship each year to an English major at the Georgia State University Perimeter campus (formerly Georgia Perimeter College) in Dunwoody, among other literary endeavors. The good news is that, for new writers looking for a community, one already exists. They don’t need to build one as I had to do—all they need is to take advantage of what the AWC has to offer and decide which elements best suit their goals at each stage in their writing development.

If you could say one thing to a young writer what would it be? 

Read as much and as diversely as you can. All good writers are great readers. Be open to styles that appeal to you—ones you can emulate, combine, and transform into your own style. The only way to discover those styles is to read a wide variety of books. You don’t need to finish everything you start if you don’t like it, but study why you don’t like it and use those lessons to influence decisions about your own style. Most of us want to churn out work and see it published ASAP, but it’s more important to learn the craft first. The craft of writing begins with the love of reading.

What topics will be covered in the “So You Want to Be a Writer?” workshop?

When the Georgia Writers Museum invited me to conduct this workshop, I considered what I wish I knew back in 2000 when I started work on my first novel (the second one to be published), The Five Destinies of Carlos Moreno. I can divide that wish list into three unequal parts: craft advice, appreciation for the writer’s life, and knowledge about the publishing industry. The first two are vastly more important than the third. Why? When a writer is starting out, producing a book is a fine end goal, but the journey is so much more vital in terms of the enjoyment of the writing process and the writer’s ability to abide, because writing well is not easy.

So, on August 27, from 10 a.m. to noon, I’m going focus mostly on craft and elements of the writer’s life. The reason for the former is easy to comprehend: if you don’t develop your craft, you’ll never be a good writer. Nobody’s first draft is ready for prime time. A major difference between a good writer and a bad writer is the ability to spot what is hindering the work, the willingness to throw it out (“killing your darlings,” per Stephen King), and the insight to know what will make the work better in draft two–so you can do it all over again to produce an even more polished third draft, and so on.

I grasped all of that early on. What I didn’t appreciate, though, were the elements of the writer’s life that I needed to assimilate, from a support network of writers and a critique group of talented individuals–who could show me how to make draft #2 better than #1–to the butt-in-chair discipline necessary to do the difficult job of putting one word after another.

A better understanding of the industry would’ve helped me as well, and I’ll spend some time talking about literary agents, acquisition editors, query letters, small presses, self-publishing, and so on, but this is a little like telling a miner in 1849 about the subtleties of selling the gold he’ll pan when he doesn’t even understand yet how to get from Georgia to California.

One of the fun things about this workshop is the bonus every participant will receive: an autographed, personalized copy of any of my books through Deeds Publishing: Hardscrabble Road (Southern historical fiction), The Five Destinies of Carlos Moreno (multicultural historical fiction), The Caretaker (modern romance/women’s fiction), or my Southern mystery novel Aftermath, which will be shipped in October. I hope participants will see in any of these books examples of my practice of what I’ll be preaching to them on August 27. Those interested in my work can learn more about each book at

John Dennis Named New President of Georgia Writers Museum

John Dennis, a Putnam native, owner of a national consulting firm and author of a recent best selling book, has been named incoming President of the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton. Jack Shinneman, the museum’s founder who has served as its president since its opening in 2013 will retire effective Nov. 15. He will continue to serve on the museum board and maintain its relationships with literary and academic groups throughout the state that have brought top writers and poets to Eatonton for readings and lectures.

Lou Benjamin, Chairman of the Briar Patch Arts Council which oversees growth and development of the Georgia Writers Museum and The Artisans Village, observed, “It was Jack Shinneman’s energy and vision that enabled us to launch Georgia Writers Museum and achieve its remarkable success and statewide literary outreach. We are grateful that Jack has agreed to continue that important work.”

“To continue the momentum the museum has gained over the past two years, we are delighted and proud to announce that John Dennis will take over the reins as President,” Benjamin said.  “While John is one of our newer members, he brings an incredible enthusiasm, a passion for the written word, and proven energy that will help ensure the Georgia Writers Museum’s relevance and mark.”

 Dennis, a popular national motivational speaker and author of a critically acclaimed book MEN RAISED BY WOMEN, is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and owns the consulting firm NSIGHT.  He is a USAF veteran and certified Air Traffic Controller. Dennis served as Training Program Manager at Northrop Grumman, an operation that encompassed 3000 Afghan personnel and 300+ civilian contractors with an annual budget over $300 million.

Jean Toomer's Cane
By Jack Shinneman

Jean Toomer was an early inductee in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2002 even though he only lived in Georgia for eight weeks in 1921.  His novel Cane is largely set in a fictional Sparta in Hancock County, and also reflects experiences in the urban North.  He achieved pre-eminence as an African-American storyteller of Middle Georgia rural life in the early Twentieth Century, and is both the most prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance period of American literature and the birth of Modernism.  In addition to being a versatile and distinguished creative writer, he was such an influential figure in literary, spiritual and social circles as to be said to be his own greatest creation.

Cane was published in 1923.  It is a lyrical expression of the racial and sexual encounters of the period in a series of short stories, poems and narratives.  His Modernist style features interior monologue, symbolism, repetition and experimentation.  His writings pre-date the great African-American novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Cane became a classic text of African-American studies in universities when it was re-issued in 1969, and writers such as Alice Walker have paid homage to its influence.  Blue Meridian, his last published work in 1936, was a lyrical expression of his racial and democratic idealism.

Toomer was born in Washington, D. C. in 1894 to a father who was a well-to-do planter from Hancock County, Georgia, and a mother who was the daughter of P.B. S. Pinchback, the first African-American to serve as governor of a U.S. state (Louisiana during Reconstruction).  He had an ambiguous racial upbringing while attending all-black schools and living in a predominately white upper class area of the city.  After graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington, he attended six colleges but never received a degree.  Toomer was largely self-taught by being widely read in philosophical and literary works by Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman and Tolstoy, among others.  He chose to pursue a career in writing and published several stories and articles in the next few years.

In 1921 Toomer moved to Sparta, Georgia to be principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute, near where his father lived following an earlier divorce.  Toomer lived as an African-American in the rural south and his observations during this period informed his experiences expressed in Cane.

Toomer always struggled with his racial identity and resisted efforts to be classified as a black writer.  He married twice, both times to white women, which received much publicity.

Late in life Toomer became involved in Eastern philosophy and pursued mysticism and Jungian psychology.  After his last book in 1936 he did not write again on African-American subjects.  He instead became very involved in the Quaker church in Pennsylvania and became active in the church leadership and provided lectures and essays.

Toomer’s legacy is an enduring literary reputation as an innovator in American Modernism in the 1920”s and in African-American traditions.

(Original essay by Jack Shinneman, President, Georgia Writers Museum, Eatonton, August, 2015.)

John P. Dennis Interview by Vickie Spivey

Thanks to each of you who attended the lecture by John Dennis on July 26th, 2015. For those of you who missed the event, my post lecture interview below should give you a brief sketch of his mission and book, Men Raised by Women.

John, your lecture has certainly been the topic of conversation around my dinner table. I am sure that these topics have been discussed over many a meal and car ride in your own family.

You mentioned that your wife and sons have been very supportive and instrumental in the creation, study and development of your book, Men Raised by Women. How has this changed the topic of conversation around your dinner table, specifically with your sons? Would you agree that once the topics are on the table they are easier for your kids to bring up in natural conversation?

 As you know I have 4 sons, 3 from my first marriage and a stepson with my current wife.  I've always felt my boys and I could talk but now I see a much greater change.  This book has allowed my sons to hear me say…"we don't always know what we're doing as parents."  But now they know I want to be there for their questions.  They say they are more aware of things they lived through but didn't understand.  We talk a lot about the concept of "over mothering" without blaming things on their mom.  Along with that, we get into a lot of relationship discussions.  I attribute it to the book sparking this level of communication.

Parental blind spots plague any parent but a single parent is at a special disadvantage.  When you add the difference between boys and girls it shows you that it is exceptionally difficult for moms to know what teen boys are thinking and how they process things.  Once the young boy enters the teen years their whole perception changes and moms are often baffled and have to guess what is going on in the head of their young teen. 

So, what are some of the blind spots?  If you know anything about men and women you probably would agree that we don't think alike.  I submit to you that those thinking patterns set up in the teen years and that is when the disconnect starts to surface. 

Here is your hint. 
Hint# 1: He is becoming visually tuned to females.  His hormones are raging.  One teen boy explained to me how he always loved when he would walk through the ladies underwear section with his mom.  She was just shopping but he was enjoying getting to see the underwear models on the pictures. 

Another mom described how her 2nd husband had to explain that she shouldn’t walk around the house in her underwear around her teen son anymore.  I've heard this from more than one source.  Moms start out bathing their baby boy, sharing the same restroom, getting him dressed and dressing herself as well.  Many moms don't notice when the youngster gets to an age where it is not appropriate to be naked or even scantily dressed around him.  But that little boy is taking it all in…noticing the difference in your bodies and becoming curious.  Too curious. 

That’s for the young child…the teen boy presents a more advanced nuance. 
Hint #2: He may have stopped talking but he hasn't stopped listening and even more important…he is talking to someone and it’s usually his friends.  The more you nag, the more he withdraws.  So, how do you parent effectively at this point?  Know who his role models are…know who his friends are.  Teach him to choose his friends wisely because the friend circle is pretty accurate at predicting whether a young man might get into trouble.  Good friends and constructive activity go a long way towards keeping young men on track.

You briefly mentioned a number of tough topics in your lecture. Topics like, emotional incest and disengagement fathering. Are these two topics the hardest to breach when speaking to parents?

The hardest part is spotlighting the issue without leaving the moms or dads feeling attacked or belittled.  We all make mistakes while parenting, and a large number of our families are started by teen mothers and fathers that never had stable families as examples they could mimic.  So much of the wisdom passed down on parenting and relationships is lost with so many broken families.  The unplugged father may have an even tougher road.  He has to find a way to overcome the resentment that may be there with the mom or his child.  Getting them to feel that it isn't a lost cause is the challenge.  I was asked to consider a "reach out" program where the MRW team reaches out to the mom on behalf of the father, to let her know he is getting a measure of counseling and mentorship on being a better parent. That idea has merit to me and that is the impact we are hoping for.

What has been the most surprising responses to your book and how have those responses changed your mission and commitment to impacting the young men of today? 

There have been a lot of responses that surprised me, but the one that impacted me the most was the teen boy that read through the book and told his mom to buy it.  A teen boy does not want to say anything that will hurt his mom's feelings. And he's already at a disadvantage when communicating a disagreement.  I get to speak on his behalf.  Another mom told me that she carries the book in her purse at all times.  That really moved me. I actually expected more resistance from readers that would feel attacked or that these things were just "opinions."  A few readers have said that, but they were not single moms raising a son…those moms know I'm on their side and touching very real issues.  What truly surprises me is the number of moms that are married that say they needed the material in the book.  That was truly unexpected!
My mission hasn't changed, but it has intensified like never before. Our Mission is: 1. Educate Parents, 2. Facilitate Character Education and 3. Train Mentors.  As we expand our effort we keep finding out that these core concepts target the issue very well.  My commitment level is at 100%.  I left the corporate sector, defense contract work and have sidelined my consulting firm because the response to this book is so overwhelming.  Where else can you go to hear from Men that were raised by Women?  The moms want to know…even if it hurts because mothers love their kids enough to adjust, change or try new approaches.  We see parents that quit smoking, drinking and various changes after having a child.  Why wouldn't they adjust their parenting style when they find more effective approaches?  We all want to parent better.  That includes me as well.

In the last chapter of your book you discuss a mother’s difficulty in allowing her son to naturally transition into manhood, what are the questions you ask mothers that brings this point home?

 Parenting is simpler to understand when it’s clear. I try to talk about the concept of cutting the umbilical cord.  So far the moms always know of someone else that wouldn't cut the umbilical cord and we all know of "someone else" that could use this book.  One young man was not allowed to get his driver's license until he was 25 because his mom was scared.  That’s not normal but it is natural.  Moms are protectors and he needs protection, but not that kind and not that much.  Many of the moms do sever the cord on their own but it’s out of frustration from the seeing the youngster float around with no priorities.  Teen boys are great adjusters and with the internet, he can stay home like mom wants and play games all day like he wants to. Now he is thrust into the world with no preparation for success.  

During our conversations we have discussed your vision for reaching young men through character development. What are your plans for creating programming to follow up the concepts in your books?

I'm coordinating with Atlas Ministries, churches, prison outreach, and Next Level Boys Academy to align parts of our efforts. 
The book allows us to open up the conversation as we "Educate Parents" and to deploy ongoing effort by hosting speaking engagements to continue reaching single parents direct engagement.  Every parent that agrees something needs to be done also needs to know where they can find the resources and support to help them. 
We are working with character education programs as well, to duplicate the work done by successful programs in areas that are struggling.  I receive a lot of input from educators about this material, so we want to open up avenues that reach into our school system.  That’s the plan for "Facilitating Character Education."  There is a lot more happening in that vein but I need to wait on a few more discussions with certain agencies before it can be made public.

All of these efforts are wonderful, but I know from experience that we need to train, empower and deploy mentors into our communities.  To me, this is the most significant piece to our long-term vision that intends to transform communities, churches and families.  We will be hosting Mentorship training events, providing resources, and engaging men to help them mentor.  The more men that mentor the brighter the future for our young men.

We had a number of teachers in the audience during your lecture. One teacher looked at me and said, “I am just relieved to know that it’s not me, it’s not me that the boys are angry with and that is just a message all educators need to know". Teachers, in my opinion, are the next line of influence behind parents. What role do you see educators playing in your plans? 

Educators are already doing a tough job and a good job.  I hope our program gives the teacher another program they can submit to parents.  Parental involvement is considered by many to be the biggest component to student success, so our approach is setup to build that 'parent to educator partnership' for the child.

Finally, I am just thrilled to know that you have a plan with some teeth. It seems that your goals are not in leaflet form, they are going to be a voluminous edition of programming that has a very definite beginning and end. Where do you start and where do you end this endeavor? 

As part of our strategic plan we start with equipping the parents with educational material, advice and seminars.  We evolve to character education programs in schools, pre-schools, daycares, after school programs and summer camps.  Then we multiply by building an army of trained male mentors to fill in the gap.  This work never ends!

We are so happy to have had to opportunity to host John Dennis at the Georgia Writers Museum. Please follow our website, and our social media outlets for upcoming events and classes. We look forward to introducing more visionary writers like John Dennis as our Museum grows. Let us know what you think of this interview, email

Thanks for reading!

Vickie Spivey

Director, Georgia Writers Museum