James Merrill flips through a copy of his creative writing craft book. If you’ve ever wanted to start writing a memoir, Merrill’s book will help you get going. 

If starting a memoir is on your pandemic list, Keizerite James “J.M.” Merrill’s new book might be just what you need to get going.

Merrill’s course on creative writing was catching the wind in its sails when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and canceled the class he had been offering through Chemeketa Community College. The handbook he wrote to accompany the course, You’re a Genius All the Time: A Teacher’s Guide to Conscious Creative Writing is now available at Reader’s Guide in Salem. 

“The rules of writing often seem so rigid and uninviting, they can make writing seem hard and no fun,” Merrill said. “The prompts I came up with in this book are directed at the person who stopped writing because they didn’t feel they were good enough.”

Merrill earned his master’s degree in creative writing at Naropa University under the wings of some of the leaders of The Beat Generation. The title itself is cribbed from a quote by Jack Kerouac, the Beat scribe of On the Road, Dharms Bums, Big Sur and numerous other works. He’s humbled by the question of what he hopes to carry forth from their guidance.

“They were taking a stand and saying, ‘We’re important, too,’ at a time when no one wanted to hear from the youth,’” Merrill said. 

With that as a backdrop, the progression of You’re a Genius All the Time makes perfect sense. Merrill starts with brainstorming exercises that lead into helping individual writers define the conditions that are most conducive to their creative sparks. Once those have been completed, he takes the reader-writers into more fertile grounds that help them hone their reasons for writing. His hope is that, by the end of the 50ish-page book, each writer has developed enough confidence in their own reasons for writing (and the relevance of their personal stories) that they can continue down a new path

“When we had regular class meetings most people were off on their own projects by the end of the first few weeks. As an educator, that’s the sort of stuff that makes you feel good,” said Merrill, who retired as a language arts and creative writing teacher at South Salem High School. 

All of the prompts are anchored in a spirit of mindfulness and paying close attention to one’s self and the impacts we have on the world. 

Merrill said his creative writing spark arrived as a way to cope with anxiety he felt growing up with the Vietnam War raging and the unrest his generation felt bearing witness to it. He dove deep into meditation and found writing cathartic. 

As much as those experiences inform who he is and the book he’s written, he wants others to achieve the same satisfaction in relating their experiences to others. 

“We all have experiences like that and they’re brilliant, they’re memorable. There’s a reason for that and I want this book to help people discover it wherever writing falls in their lives,” Merrill said. 

Merrill is also the author of a book of poetry Blues Fall Down Like Rain and I’m Lucky: Lyrics, Tales & Poems for a Generation. It is available at amazon.com. Reader’s Guide is located at 735 Edgewater St N.W. in Salem.