Technical writers or non fiction writers scribble to pay the bills and for the love of the analytical or the exercise of truth or deception.

Fiction authors write to illuminate their world or escape it.

Whichever kind of writer, it's all about staying alive and helping or entertaining others.

The Writing Life

Like most writers, I have a love of reading and the power of words. When I was younger, I read everything I could get my hands on, but I don’t consider myself well read. I consumed books like a starved person, so quickly I hardly knew what I had read. By some strange process of osmosis, I learned from everything I read, but I cannot give you an erudite discussion of characters, plots, or authors. I can only tell you it’s lodged some where in the core of my being and informs my writing.

In addition to reading, I’ve spent a life time writing---from that first elementary school composition to my college days when I studied French literature and wrote explications de texte. Along the way, I fell into technical writing--to put food on the table and pay bills. In the 90s, I had the good fortune to take a dialog class with Sol Stein, former owner of Stein & Day publishers in New York and a prolific author. That led to his California-based writers’ group, Chapter One. It was a rigorous, ego-bruising experience, but I was intent on learning everything I could about fiction writing. A few years ago, I also had the good fortune to study with another writer, Louella Nelson, an experienced romance writer and teacher of fiction writing. She provided a different perspective and balance to my writing.

My novel, DREAMING OF LAUGHING HAWK, a mainstream, Sixties era novel, is available on Amazon in print and ebook (also available in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Brazil). Download a free sample. If you like it, I hope you'll download the book and post a review on Amazon.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Camp 14: A Tale of a North Korean Gulag

Truth is stranger than fiction they say. Everyday in the news there are hundreds of stories of heroes and villains, the mighty and meek. The stories run the full spectrum from joyous to tragic.

The news story that caught my attention this last week was the CNN story of Shin Dong-huyk who was born in a North Korean prison camp and who discovered the outside world when he escaped at age 23. Camp 14 is a concentration camp as evil as any created under Hitler--perhaps worse. It is an enormous camp of 40,000 prisoners that are used as slave labor in coal mines, construction and cement factories, textile, ceramic and rubber factories, and agricultural farms. The camp is surrounded by high-voltage fencing and armed guards. If you end up in this political prison camp,  you remain there until your death. Your family members are condemned along with you. You violate a prison rule, you are executed. You endure constant hunger and must subsist on cabbage, corn and salt. You live in a small room with no furniture. You have no possessions but the clothes on your back. Education for children is limited and they are required to work alongside adults. The brainwashing is thorough and savage. To survive, prisoners are required to spy on other inmates and report any transgressions. Failure to report a crime will result in your own death.

Shin Dong-huyk's parents were political prisoners who had been wed by the prison guards. Sex between prisoners is forbidden and punishable by death. But Shin's parents were rewarded for their hard work by five days of cohabitation that resulted in his birth. His childhood was horrific. At the age of four he witnessed his first public execution, which all inmates were required to attend unless working in the mines. Growing up he suffered from the near starvation diet which he supplemented with rats and insects. Stealing food was forbidden. He watched a teacher beat a classmate to death for taking a few kernels of corn. Knowing only the rules of the camp and having no other compass, Shin believed the camp rules were just. He had no concept of an outside world or freedom. He imagined that the outside world was no different than the hell he lived in. Shin's world was completely devoid of love, trust or security. Violence, humiliation, raging hunger, cold and pain defined his experience. His body was covered with terrible scars from beatings, but his soul was even more scarred.

Shin loathed his parents for bringing him into the world. He hated his mother for beating him when he stole from her food rations. He had no concept of familial love and, of course, by camp rules he was required to report any unapproved behavior by his family members or anyone else. One day he overheard his mother and brother plotting to escape the camp. Escape was unthinkable to him and he reported them. His mother and brother were immediately taken away and he himself was tortured because it was not known that he had been the informant. A prison guard took credit for that. In the end, he was forced to witness the death of his mother and brother. He had no remorse for them, because to his way of thinking their actions violated camp rules and had endangered his life and also his father's life.

When Shin meets a new prisoner who has lived in the outside world, he learns about all the things he has been missing. Little by little his mind is opened and the two learn to trust each other and plan their escape. A fortuitous work assignment cutting timber near the outer perimeter of the camp gives them the opportunity they have been looking for. Unfortunately, when Shin's friend tries to breach the wire fence he is electrocuted, but Shin manages to get through the opening by crawling over his friend's body.  He barely escapes electrocution himself and ends up with serious burns on his legs. At age 23, Shin finds himself in the outside world for the first time.

Currently, there is a documentary about Camp 14 available on Netflix and a book by Blaine Harden entitled Escape from Camp 14. You can learn about the horrendous life Shin lead in prison, his escape to China and then to South Korea, and the new life he has tried to build for himself and his involvement in human rights issues in North Korea. North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. Understanding Shin's traumatic story may help you understand the fear, paranoia, and repression that grips the populace of North Korea and their isolation from the world.  It explains their belligerent craziness and inability to understand the world that surrounds them. In many respects, the citizens of North Korea are like the inhabitants of Camp 14. They are traumatized by deprivation and live in fear of being punished for the wrong word, thought or action. They will march to war like robots if their dear leader commands them. They are comfortable in their isolation just as Shin was until he learned about the existence of an outside world and set himself free.


  1. I found your great blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect!

  2. yikes, another heart tugging article. looks like I can stay on your blog for a long time instead of going through the WLC Blog Follows list.

  3. Thanks Rachelle. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.