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Area writers share advice, editing through regular meetings

North Country Word Wranglers (L-R) Marilyn Berg, Jim Lies, Mylo Carlson, Marlene Carlson, Carol Weshenfelder and Lee Murdock . photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Surrounded by coffee cups, plates of pancakes, papers and notebooks, seven senior citizens gathered at a Grand Forks restaurant to share their most embarrassing moments.

The stories were short, not much longer than a page, and documented incidents that would make the most self-assured person blush, such as the tale of a newly married man who accidentally slipped — nearly naked, a little drunk — into bed with his mother-in-law.

Interrupted only by humorous barbs or the arrival of breakfast, each participant shared a story Wednesday morning for the North Country Word Wranglers writing group. Twice a month, this punchy group gathers to critique, copy-edit and offer support for the stories they’ve been working on. It’s one of at least three such groups in the area.

For these men and women, the group offers a discerning ear as much as it offers friendship. The meetings inspire them to write more, too, they said.

“I’ve been a member of three different writing groups over the years, and this is by far the best,” said founding member Lee Murdock of Grand Forks. “These people write, and they’re very, very helpful.”

“And good looking,” added Mylo Carlson, a farmer who writes memoirs in Warren, Minn.

‘No rules’ for the group

Word Wranglers poses light writing challenges to its members, though the aim is to generate a solid discussion on their work, according Murdock.

He sends out two short assignments — one is related to editing or correcting punctuation, while the other is a creative challenge. Stories are usually short and can be based on a topic, which the group critiques. Both are optional.

Members, nearly all retired, can send a selection of their work to others a week ahead so they can prepare for discussion and offer suggestions.

No other requirements are necessary for the group, which was named for trying to “wrangle and corral” the correct words for stories, according to an email sent to new members. 

“When you’re over 60, there are no rules,” joked member Marge Burnstad of Grand Forks.

Member backgrounds

Members can also offer up stories they’re working on for discussion, too, as several are self-published in a variety of genres.

There’s the farm wife who writes poetry, the retired physics and chemistry teacher who writes personal essays, and the two-time children’s book author who also writes fantasy fiction. Others delve into family history and short stories.

“Each member of the group brings a different strength to our critiques, which I think is unique,” said Murdock. “We have a really broad background to draw from.”

Ruby Grove, a co-founder and former English teacher in Fisher, Minn., belongs to several writing-related groups in town but appreciates this one the most for its diversity. She recently brought for discussion a story of hers that explores what would have happened if President John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination.

“We’re all very accepting of the critiques from the rest of the group,” she said. “If one person finds an awkward phrase, the general reader is going to find it awkward, too.” 

Jim Lies of Grand Forks, a retired history teacher with a dry wit, recently published “Patriot Acts,” a 642-page war novel that’s part history, part fiction.

For him, the group defies the idea that writers are always competitive, he said. Members say their writing always improves and the group helps them better define what they’re trying to accomplish.

“It’s a very supportive group and a lot of fun,” he said.


The group originally formed about a decade ago, after some had met at a writing course for mature adults at UND.

So inspired were they by the discussion, Murdock and Grove wanted to start their own group, which happened to be made up of older adults, they said. But Word Wranglers distinguish themselves by more than their age — their growing friendship has gone beyond the morning meetings and coffee.

After the death of member Jerry O’Connor, a few others got together and published his final work, “West of Philly: The Adventures of Matt Straid.” O’Connor was a former junior high teacher who became known also as a raconteur, an entrepreneur and a humorous speaker. He and another founding member of the group and one of its most enthusiastic, said members.

“He’d come some days and he could barely breathe, but he got here,” said Burnstad.

On Wednesday, members continued to trade stories and jokes over breakfast. Lies asked if there was a rule to get into the group — do members have to be old and retired?

Murdock said there were no rules, but the group is small and most like it that way.

“If a group gets too big, we can’t do this kind of sharing,” he said.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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