... if you'll indulge me:
The solitude inherent in composition is something I find absolutely indispensable to the experience of trying to write a novel. It might not be my favorite part—it's awfully hard to top the feeling of completing a first draft or holding the published artifact in your hands for the first time—but I cherish it nonetheless. If it were suddenly not a part of the effort, if writing became a spectator sport or, worse, if I were relegated to a minor participant in the whole endeavor ("AI, take a wheel"), I would just quit. Be done. The joy would be gone.
This is not to say that I believe the writing of a novel to be an iconoclastic endeavor. Not at all. By choice and habit and history, I'm alone on the first draft. The second. Maybe the third. But even then, even with those two words "the" and "end" on the last page, I'm far from being finished.
And this is where I start getting by with a little help from my friends.
Some writers swear by the workshop. If you've not experienced it firsthand, you've probably seen it in the movies. A pile of red meat in the form of pages is thrown to a group of other writers, who tear into it with equal measures of hostility and glee.
Who am I to argue? I didn't come from the academy.
I swear by the beta reader. This is someone tactically chosen to read a manuscript at a fraught point—for me, that's when I've done as much as I can do with it alone and still know in my heart I haven't done nearly enough—and provide actionable feedback on what works and, especially, what doesn't.
I choose different beta readers for different reasons, and though there have been repeat invitees over the years, the roster tends to change with the project. Three to five people, generally. Enough to get an accurate sample, to weed out the outlying sentiments, and a manageable enough number so I don't lose sight of what compelled the work in the first place. I never want to get separated from my own vision. I just want to be challenged so the work, in the end, is better.
So I choose on the basis of life experience, temperament, wisdom, intelligence, and specialized knowledge about the subject matter of my work. I'm lucky to have many, many friends who fall broadly into those categories. I choose on the basis of someone's ability to separate herself from her own inclination for how to resolve something (that's my job) and instead simply articulate why she sees a problem.
I've been very, very lucky in my choices for these roles. They've made my work immeasurably better. I simply couldn't do it without them.
I was thinking of this today when I finally got off my duff and picked up the manuscript I'm calling She Heightened Everything, after the printout has sat for months on my office table. (You can see a snippet of it above.) Several weeks ago, one of the beta readers I asked to participate sent me her feedback, and man, was it extensive. Like I said, I've been very, very lucky.
Almost all of it was useful to me, but even that couldn't overcome my hesitation to re-engage with the manuscript. I've been preoccupied with a new job, other creative endeavors, and uncertainty about when the book in front of it is going to at last be published. (I think we'll have an answer soon.) She Heightened Everything has felt so far away from my immediate range of concerns that I've simply been unwilling to dredge it off the hard drive and get moving.
But today, I felt differently about it. So I set my shoulder into it and started working through my beta reader's laundry list of concerns. I'm not through everything, and there are some things on which we simply disagree (this is inevitable and natural and fine), but I'm back in it.
She's making my work better. I don't know when you'll see it, or if you'll see it, but it's better today than it was yesterday, and that's everything.
Thanks, Courtney. I owe you, big time.
As I write this, I'm nearly a week out from one of the most extraordinary creative experiences of my life.
On Friday, Aug. 11, after watching a talent/improv show and getting writing prompts from that, I and five other writers hunkered down at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts in Billings, Montana, and wrote six original one-act plays. We had less than 12 hours to finish our work.
After that, six directors and cast members handled rehearsals, costuming, and the construction of sets. On the second night of the Wet Ink Festival 2023, those six one-act plays were presented.
It was pure exhilaration, from start to finish. I marveled at the talent all around me—the writers, the directors, the performers, the indefatigable nature of our organizer, Gustavo Bellotta. The audience that showed up to celebrate with us. I entered the weekend having serious doubts as to whether I had the stamina for such an endeavor. I left wanting to do it again. And again.
Some time back, I added a Plays section to this website. I'm hesitant to claim the mantle of playwright, but I'm also determined. Two of my one-acts have now been staged. I expect news soon about bigger things. Mostly, I'm just so thrilled to learn more about how to do this and give my storytelling another outlet, one that's very much complementary to the solitary nature of writing novels.
As I wrote on Facebook, part of the joy—and the melancholy—of Wet Ink is that creation bloomed in one evening, was presented in another, then was gone with the wind. These plays will probably never be presented again, at least not in the form they took last weekend. Maybe someone has a bigger idea that will grow out of that one act. I think my play, titled Your Mouth Is Moving a Lot, is probably one-and-done.
But the shows must go on. Our host for the weekend, NOVA, has a long-term mission of bringing high-quality performances to Billings. To help with that in a modest way, I'm selling digital copies of my script for $3. All net proceeds get turned over to NOVA. If you're inclined to help, you have my gratitude.
*—from the song of the same name by the Pernice Brothers.
It was pure happenstance that I remembered, about a week ago, that this summer marks twenty years since I reached a professional mile marker. Twenty years! For lovers of sports, nostalgia, and big, round numbers, here we go ...
Twenty years ago, I embarked on my first—and only—season as a full-time beat writer covering a professional sports team. That team: the Oakland Raiders. My assignment: Get out in the field for a season and get to know the life of a beat writer from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, as I'd done for many previous years. It was presented to me as a bit of a cross-training exercise, in which I'd expand my professional repertoire in preparation for bigger editorial jobs to come.
Twenty years is a long time, so you're forgiven if you don't remember that particular edition of the Oakland Raiders, who aren't even the Oakland Raiders anymore, having lit out for Las Vegas a few years back.
So here's a quick refresher: The previous year's team, the 2002-03 Raiders, went to the Super Bowl in San Diego. Where their troubled star center, Barret Robbins, went missing. Where their former coach, Jon Gruden, stood on the opposite sideline with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And where the Raiders got thoroughly trounced, 48-21.
And that's as good as it got for the Raiders, Oakland or Las Vegas, for going on 21 years now ...
But when I parachuted into training camp in Napa, Calif., in July 2003, the debacle in San Diego seemed like a blip on an upward trajectory. The smart money was on either the Raiders or the Chiefs, a division rival, representing the AFC in the Super Bowl several months in the distance.
(The Raiders finished 4-12 that season, the Chiefs a highly respectable 13-3, and the New England Patriots went to the Super Bowl and won it, so give it up, everybody, for sports prognosticators!)
In short, it was an awful season for the Raiders, who unraveled amid losses, injuries, locker room insurrections, comical ineptitude, and a little thing called the Balco steroid scandal, which landed with a particular thud on Bay Area athletes (and would come to dominate the next few years of my professional life). A few quick-hit memories, through the haze of twenty years:
I remember riding the elevator down to the locker room in Detroit, after a putrid loss to a bad Lions team (is there any other kind?). Matt Millen was the GM of the Lions then, and he was well known to the Bay Area reporters on that elevator ride, having played for the Raiders and the 49ers. Someone asked Millen how he was doing. "I just watched two teams kick each other in the nuts for four quarters," he said. A columnist from a rival paper turned to me and said, "Sometimes, they just put their tongue directly in your mouth."
I remember coach Bill Callahan, after an equally putrid loss to the Jets, calling the Raiders "the dumbest team in America." Nobody could argue, of course, but if you're a coach and you say something like that, you're not long for the job you're in. Callahan was out at the end of the season, became the head coach at Nebraska for a truly forgettable stretch, then reasserted himself as one of the finer position coaches in the NFL. Some coaches are meant for the trenches, not the big time.
I remember a comical search for beer in Pittsburgh after a game (and a loss) against the Steelers. Blue laws, man.
I remember missing the second game of the season—at home against Cincinnati, one of the Raiders' four wins—because I had tickets to see R.E.M. in Las Vegas long before I took the position as beat writer. I'd make the same decision a hundred times out of a hundred. (Alas, R.E.M. is as extant as pro football in Oakland. Time doesn't stand still.)
I remember being in the stadium in Oakland for a truly transcendent night, when the Packers' Brett Favre, awash in the grief over his father's death, had one of the best games of his career. I wrote about it for The Athletic, my former employer, if you're interested. (The story is behind a paywall, but if you have a NY Times subscription, you're golden.)
I remember being sick as a dog for the last, blessed game of the season, a loss to the Chargers in San Diego. Callahan, knowing he was cooked, benched a lot of the players who had risen up against him (including Hall of Famer Charles Woodson). Afterward, the media gaggle crowded star wide receiver Tim Brown in the locker room for his take on a season gone horribly wrong. He said, "Do you guys really want to get into it?" We crowded closer. And Tim obliged us. The man had a gift for the moment.
In the video below, I talk with The Open Mic host Rich Ehisen about, well, books, but we also gab about that Raiders season. Rich, bless him, is a Raiders fan. Hold a thought for the man.
For all those memories, what I remember most fondly is the group of reporters I worked alongside every day and traveled with to Dallas (preseason), Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. Working a beat is immersive and endless, and you write enough words to stock a library. From July to January, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 stories (I used to know the exact number). I made countless trips up and down the 880. I slept on airplanes and in transit lounges. I ate sumptuous meals—come on, a month in Napa on expense account?—and enough press box hot dogs to kill a lesser man.
And those folks from other papers and media outlets, doing the same job I was doing, scrapping out coverage, were terrific and helpful and fun. So: Phil and Cork and Gregg and Wags and Nancy and Bill (RIP) and Jerry and Janie, twenty years on, I remember all of you. It was a slog. But it was also a pleasure.
(I even came away from that gig with a nickname, one only those named above are allowed to call me: Dewey. For Dewey Oxburger, John Candy's character in Stripes. Apparently, I bear a resemblance. I dunno.)
The rest of the story ...
In January 2004, after finishing up the season, then covering the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am as the reporter who writes notebooks and sidebars (the best job), I was summoned back into the office and made a deputy sports editor. A year or so later, I moved into the big chair, as sports editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
That seems a long time ago, too, because it is. In 2006, I moved to Montana. In 2008, I began writing novels. I spend way more time thinking about payment rails and art (divergent subjects, for sure) than I do thinking about sports, nostalgia aside. Another NFL season is coming, which will gain only a sliver of my attention. It's funny how something can be so central to your life for so long, then move to the background, or out of it altogether.
Life, man. It changes. We change with it. The way it goes. The way it has to be.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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