Dr. Edward Keller: The Write Stuff
Retiree gives insight into second career as an author
by Richard Volesky
Syrup sandwiches, homemade cottage cheese, sod houses, good times and bad - those are the things of which stories are made.
Dr. Edward Keller, a Dickinson dentist who retired in 1996, knows that very well. He has created a fulfilling second career by writing seven books and self-publishing five of them, resulting in a total of 25,000 copies. In the works is a new children's book receiving final touches from David Christy, a Fargo illustrator.
The books mostly relate to Keller's German-Russian roots and his early years while growing up near Strasburg, where he was born in 1927. The stories are memory pictures of his life while on a farm and attending a one-room country schoolhouse during the Dust Bowl era.
"Memories are times and places that connect our lives," said Keller. "I feel that lives are viewed too modestly by their owners. But lives are precious pieces of time and are as unique as fingerprints."
Keller's first book, "As I Remember," is a biography of his brothers, sisters and parents. "I just wanted to tell people how they (my family) influenced my life," said Keller.
A relative who was influenced by that book was the granddaughter of his sister who lives in Colorado. The granddaughter gave a school report based on the book, and the girl's teacher took the time to write a letter to Keller to tell him about the benefits the girl received from the book.
"Then I got the idea, 'Why can't I write about the family and about the other families and how we interacted?' which led to the book, My First World," said Keller. The editor of the Emmons County Record in Linton reviewed the book and asked him to write weekly memory stories or columns for the newspaper. Keller continues to write the weekly stories, an effort that's been ongoing for nine years. Some of the stories have been compiled into books.
Writing Spans The Generations
"I like to paint word pictures," Keller said of his writing style. Word pictures refer to his including descriptive adjectives to bring the subject of the story to life.
For example, while remembering the arrival of newborn farm animals, Keller wrote, "Some of the most cheerful days on my farm featured the farm animal newcomers, newborn colts, staggering on gangly legs, maturing into frolicsome frisky show-offs ..." Or while recalling difficult times, Keller wrote, "Dirt clouds blackened the sky during daylight hours. Mounds of dust gathered on the thistle stuffed fences making it possible to walk right over a fence ... during blizzard days, there was a constant dust between one's teeth, in one's nose and ears."
Keller said he writes one short story at a time. "Otherwise it would be too overwhelming," he said. First, he writes everything by hand - about five times until he has a final version of a story. His wife Shirley reads everything before it's printed. A Smith Corona typewriter, not a computer, is his preferred typing tool.
While he instead could be fishing or vacationing, Keller said he just naturally wanted to remain busy in his retirement. "I wanted to work. I learned at an early age that work is honorable."
He said he thoroughly enjoys putting together his stories. "I love to evoke in myself a sense of history and live within the memory ...," he said in one of his book entries. "To be warmly accepted for work that fills a genuine need in readers is most inspiring. Writing one's own story leaves a legacy for generations yet unborn, footprints to gauge their own paths."
He's learned that his stories have in fact become a tool to help reconnect the generations. Two books which do just that are "My Mother's Apron," and "My First Grade 1932." While geared toward children, the books can be of interest to anyone of any age, said Keller. His upcoming book is titled, "Trixie, My Shetland Pony."
The books are being sold to nursing homes and schools. About 2,000 libraries across the country have them on their shelves. They are even being used in an Alzheimer's unit. The illustrations are so vivid that they help evoke memories in Alzheimer's patients, said Keller.
The books have also led to Keller's speaking to elementary school classes. He has read at more than 70 North Dakota schools. Pat Kilber, a fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Dickinson, was the first to invite him into a classroom.
Kilber said she had seen Keller selling his books at the local shopping mall. She figured he would make a good speaker, considering the books he writes are about early North Dakota life and that her fourth graders study North Dakota history. She also suggested to Keller that he create children's books.
"It was the concept of the early pioneers that I liked, and kids like to know what it was like years ago in a one-room schoolhouse," said Kilber. "He's fun to listen to. He gets the kids' attention."
Acquiring a Thick Skin for Writing
Keller has taken his writing endeavours so far as to write, "Amateur Writer," a book that describes how he wrote his books and how he went through the self-publishing process. The book is intended to help other aspiring writers. Self-publishing is quite common. About 78 percent of all books today are self-published, or are published by a small publishing company, he said.
He likes to encourage people to write because doing so has several positive effects. Writing can be therapeutic, help people know themselves better, feel useful or that they are not neglecting their talents, and that they are providing enjoyment to others, among other benefits, said Keller.
Becoming a successful author wasn't entirely easy. "It's persistence and a thick skin," said Keller. "There also have been critics, but no statues have been built to critics." A key seems to be just getting one's foot in the door, or at least one book on someone's shelf. Once the interest is there, buyers want to know what Keller will create next. "They like this frank writing I do," he said.
What the Future Holds
Keller said he doesn't plan to give his notebooks or his trusty typewriter a rest anytime soon. "As long as I'm able, I'll never quit," he said. "I have a whole bunch more stories."
Richard Volesky is the owner of Dakota Fair Press, a journalism business in Belfield, ND.
Reprinted from Inspire Magazine, Southwest Area Edition, Dickinson, ND, Summer 2004.