An Open Letter from Ryan Lee Klingensmith

How did you get into writing?

This is the most frequently asked question at this stage for me. So here I want to give some thoughts on the question.

The earliest I recall writing was probably when I was eight or nine. Jaws had made it to HBO and I watched it over and over. I would get pieces of blank paper and fold them together to make a book. I would draw a giant shark attacking people and boats and sometimes I added some words. I think this is really the genesis of my writing career.

In my senior year in high school, my senior assignment in English was to write a short story. So I wrote a story about cross country muscle car race that started in my little town and ended on the beach in California somewhere. It was creatively called “The Great Race.” There were other racing protagonists, a mechanic sidekick, a girl and a sickness that fell upon her halfway through the race. But the hero saved the day, healed the girl and won the race just like all adolescent boys dream while sitting awkwardly in afternoon English classes across the country. The story was filled with abrasive slang that was very accurate to my high school and vo-tech auto body repair experience.

Now I must explain that my high school memories are few and the ones that remain are dusty. But I do recall getting the story back graded with a “C” and a verbal comment something along the lines of “nice try, next time, write it yourself.” And the red pen comments on all of those demographically accurate adolescent gear-head verbiage were equally as traumatic to my perceived literary career. So my overall impression of the first reviewed work that I had written was; good story- obviously someone else wrote this because you couldn’t, offensive language- please adjust people don’t want to read that filth and I’m giving you a passing grade- so that you can graduate and get out of this school and go dig ditches for the rest of your life. I recently found that old story and read the comments in red pen. Clearly I did write this story because the comments she penned in 1989 about my writing my current editor would tell me today still hold true. Old bad habits die hard. But one comment sticks out among all of the others. “Your story was pretty good.”

Somehow I graduated and went on about my life. Then, a few years after graduating high school my life took an unforeseen turn. Either by the blueprint of my life or a herniated disk from hauling wet cement around in a wheelbarrow for a construction company, I can’t decide which, I ended up enrolled at Penn State. Much like the Scarecrow, I found my brain in college. I began to realize that I could think, and that thinking was something that I had always done, but on a sliding scale based upon interest. Unlike in high school, in college I could take classes that interested me. Except Statistics, I had to take Statistics and it did not interest me. One of the summer classes I took was a short story writing class. This was the coolest class I have ever taken, till this date I think. Since it was during the summer there were only a few students. I rode my bike to class on the splendid campus and I was living in my own apartment. The creative atmosphere couldn’t have been more present.

The previous January I had started working at the local psychiatric hospital as I had decided psychology was the road for me. I had seen many things in my six months working the floor with teens and adults who engaged in some concerning but often interesting behaviors. I recall reading all of the patient’s histories to understand them more and learned that life had not been kind to most of these folks. So when one of my first assignments was given in my short story class, I had many thoughts to spring from.

My assignment had been to write a one to two page story from the perspective of the opposite sex. My story came easily and was the beginning of my writing about trauma. My story, simply called Love, was written from the perspective of a sexually abused female curled up on her bed waiting for a man to come home from work. After he pulls into the driveway in his BMW, she greets him at the door as he puts his briefcase down and asks her what was for dinner. The end sentence was simply, “what would you like Daddy?”

College is fuzzy and dusty too, not as much as high school, but I do recall getting accolades and praise for this simple little story rooted in the histories of many of the teen girls I had worked with at the hospital. I couldn’t believe, and still can’t, how many people have been sexually abused. My little story brought some awareness to others about reality. I learned something simple with that story. There was an undiscussed world out there that teens were experiencing and I helped others view this world. So I’ll attribute my summer of 1994 short story class as helping me write my first story of trauma. That’s all hindsight now. My goal when I was in college was to have my Klingensmith books on the shelf between King and Koontz. What a perfect last name I had.

My reading list was short in college, Stephen King and Dean Koontz primarily. I loved their stories. Horror was and still is my story preference. I love that stuff. So naturally I wanted to write what I love to read. Over the next few years it took me to graduate, I wrote these chilling short stories and went to Kinko’s and had them put into little book type packets. I gave them to others to read and loved pumping these things out. On one occasion, I recall writing a story when I should have been paying attention in my anthropology class. Anthropology was cool and exciting, but that stuff was ancient history, yuk yuk. In my college mind, what I was writing was my future. Someday I would be between King and Koontz.

But creating these tales of terror was difficult, complex and not as easy as the master’s made it look. After a chilling tale was written, I’d look back and read it and realize, it just wasn’t that good. Years later I still agree with that statement. The concepts were alright and had some merit, but the story progression, plot, character development and all that stuff stunk. So like many writers unfortunately do, they stop and leave it to the professionals.

I continued to work with people diagnosed with mental health issues and traumatic pasts. I narrowed my focus to working with adolescents in residential placements. I eventually moved into more administrative positions at various organizations. I went back and earned a masters degree and became more of a clinical leader in my positions. With this leadership came a realization that many people working with traumatized adolescents didn’t understand trauma. Even more important to me was that my staff understood why these kids acted the way they did. The staff had empathy, but could never sympathize because they lived a different life.

My writing bug had never really disappeared. I had notes and thoughts and story ideas that would put me between King and Koontz over the years, but I never put my fingers to the keys to try again. But at this juncture in my life, I realized that maybe I could give a creative voice to a fictional teen that would help mental health workers understand trauma from the teens perspective. Thus I began penning Quiet Room Charlee. Charlee was my fictional teen to teach the masses about trauma.

Quiet Room Charlee was originally going to be a single book. But as I began, I realized that I could never tell the total story in just one book. So I made the story bigger through characters in Charlee’s life. There are six children in his family. Three boys, three girls. Just like The Brady Bunch. In Quiet Room Charlee, I wanted to keep it simple, keep it moving, keep it teaching and most of all make it enjoyable even though the situations I had to write were very uncomfortable. Trauma is uncomfortable. It is ugly, painful and feels much better pushed under the rug. I kept Charlee’s trauma where everyone could see it. 

In Quiet Room Charlee, I used experiences I had gathered to create his life. The damages portrayed in the story all had some validity to them based upon adolescents I had worked with over the years. This is real folks, was my guiding principle. Kids are still abused in this modern society and we need to understand the results in order to help. If we don’t understand these kids and teach them to break the cycle then who will?

So when I wanted to be between King and Koontz on the shelf, I realized that Quiet Room Charlee would go on a different fiction shelf in the now forgotten bookstore. However my story was a variation of horror. The real stuff.

Quiet Room Charlee found a publisher and immediately went to print, unedited. This was my personal first horror at publishing. Due to some misread email somewhere along the way, it was printed unedited. As you can imagine I was traumatized grammatically. Recall back to my story about high school being fuzzy? Well my English structure was equally as fuzzy. I possibly slept through my diagraming sentence classes at every turn. So my mistakes were out there on Amazon for everyone to see. Luckily I had a few folks that paid attention in high school English and they red penned the book for me and I was able to get some semblance of a readable book back into print. But for those lucky few that purchased the book as soon as it hit the online store, they got the edition with all of the grammatical errors of my naivety and that misread email. My apologies to those folks.

Those who worked “the biz” of mental health gave me great feedback about the reality of the book and its gentle teaching nature. They also loved the story and they loved Charlee. Bingo! I had successfully created a character that was likeable and people wanted to read about. Others in the field used QRC, as it became affectionately known by one of my fans, to teach new hires and interns about residential life. In two cases that I am aware of, it was used in an introduction to psychology class in college.

QRC was published in May of 2008. In November of 2008 I became a daddy. So my life got busy. But in the back of my mind I knew that the story had to continue. In between work, grad school (again) and daddyhood, I began penning the story of Tammee, Charlee’s sister. Her story was burning my mind and I had to get it out.

Tammee’s life unfolded in a Word document at night when everyone else was in bed. Her story was easy to tell. Writing horror to be on the shelf between King and Koontz was a struggle. But writing trauma flowed naturally. When others ask me what it’s like to write, I tell them it’s just like reading, you never know, to a fine point, what is coming next. You have a general idea, but the twists and turns unfold just as unexpectedly as when you read a new book. It’s just that simple.

Champagne Alley came together quickly…and then sat in my computer with the cursor blinking at me waiting for the next step. Editing. My traumatic experience with editing is a great example of trauma and its impact on someone. Champagne Alley was completed somewhere in 2009 or 2010 I believe and I did nothing with it because of the editing issue.

Let me do a genre sidestep for a paragraph or two. I became a daddy again in 2011. By 2012 I had read many children’s books. I enjoy reading stories to my children to encourage them to learn about reading and learn about life. Daily my children inspire me and get my creative juices flowing. So along with my wife, we penned a children’s book to help my daughter to learn about becoming a big sister to her little brother. Once the text was done, the fun part came. Through the magic of Facebook, I checked with a very creative high school friend, Marsha Rollinger, and asked if she was interested in illustrating the book. She was very excited about the project and went to work.

The result was beyond what I had ever imagined. She took the text and turned simple words into a splendid visual that painted the moments of the story like only a true visionary could. You just have to see her work. The book was titled Starlight Blue: A New Baby. The title and theme of the book was the color blue, which at the time was our daughter’s favorite color. Our daughter had many favorite things, but the top two, at the time of the book, were her cloth monkey that she took everywhere and the color blue. As long as it was blue she liked whatever it was.

Marsha creates wonderful art. One of my personal favorites is “The Blizzard of Fozz”. Please check out her work.  If you have anything from consulting to logo’s and branding, she will create quality art. She even designed some very cool socks.  Give her a “like” on Facebook as well. I’m hopeful that in the future we can navigate through some more children’s books. She is one of the greats.

During the excitement of the Starlight Blue, I still had Tammee locked in my jump drive. So needing to get her story out there I turned to Facebook again sometime in 2012. A connection from my dusty high school days knew an editor. With the backing of someone who saw me glued in position with the fear of an unedited manuscript, I secured an editor and had the book edited.

Champagne Alley is further down the road of trauma. It brings another result in another life and another perspective on how people react to bad things. It was easy to write, but hard to publish. It’s gritty and raw in parts, but those are the realities. These are the results of bad things happening to good people. Good kids.

Through writing QRC, I realized that some teens have read the story and really liked it and connected with Charlee. It was written for adults and I hadn’t realized teens would get attracted to it as well. It is about a teen life after all, I guess I should have realized the attraction. When I stepped back upon completion of Champagne Alley, I looked at it from three perspectives. For the adult who works in the profession, this was real and they would know it. For the adult not in the profession, this was real, but very graphic and upsetting. And for the teen who read it, I began to feel it was too heavy. So I begrudgingly edited out some of the rougher areas. I did this several times. I was even crossing out in red pen sentences when the book was in its proof form. With all of that cutting, it’s still a heavy read. But it’s the reality of some young people’s lives.

So that was the long version of “how did you get into writing.” I enjoyed writing this little piece. I hope it gave some clarity to why I write about such perceived gloom. The stories may be tragic, but children are resilient, much more than us old folks. With some understanding adults to guide them, these kids have a wonderful opportunity to live a better life than what they were given. ~ RLK