Elisa and I took our new presentation, title above, out for its first spin Saturday at the Stillwater County Library in Columbus, Montana.
(Cool side note: The centerpiece pictured here was on our table at Grand Fortune, a Chinese restaurant in Columbus that we hit before the event. I can definitely say that's a career first for me. For Elisa, too.)
To say that we were thrilled with the response to our program would be, perhaps, to diminish the meaning of "thrilled." We had a group of about 20 people who dug in with us, asked excellent questions and provided terrific insights, and even gamely took on a writing exercise at the end.
The idea was to take The Word—the go-to warmup exercise I've written about from time to time—and apply the principles of memory harvesting to create the short fictional work that resulted. So we had the folks give us a passel of words, then we ran a random-number generator to choose one that would apply to everyone's work. That word: hayloft.
Elisa and I wrote along with everyone else. I had the advantage of my laptop, so I was able to write about 630 words in the 20 minutes of the exercise. As I told everybody afterward, if the current manuscript took on words that quickly, I'd be done with it back in November. Of 2020.
What follows is my effort ...
Mom told me I would be sorry if I didn’t go, if I didn’t see where my grandfather, her father, had grown up. I was dubious, to say the least. I liked our hotel, I liked the pool—the pool was about the only thing that made southwestern Minnesota in summer bearable to me—and I wanted to stay. She insisted that I go. I was nine. Guess who won that debate?
The whole way over, our 1978 Chevy Citation baking on the blacktop, Mom told me that she’d only been here once, long, long ago, when she was a little girl, after grandpa had come back from the war in Italy. “It was like a magical place, Jeff,” she said, and I sat there thinking she should see some better magic. “Tractors. Gardens. Corn you can eat off the stalk. A hayloft, Jeff, with a tire swing. You can launch yourself clear into the rafters and come down in a soft landing.”
I harumphed. Something good was on TV, and I was missing it.
We made a little turn off the two-laner and went down this rutted two-track, between two fields of corn headed for silage. I wasn’t going to be eating anything off these stalks, I figured, but seeing as how I was a civilized boy, I didn’t need anything that didn’t come in a can anyway. But maybe I could slop the hogs and shovel out the chicken coop. Boy, howdy.
At the end of the lane stood my grandfather, all unfolded six-foot-six of him, encased like a sausage in denim overalls and a gingham workshirt. I’d never seen him looking like that before; the guy was a navigator for Alaska Airlines, not a goat roper, but I guess it was the same nostalgia trip for him that it was for Mom, making his way to the place where he’d grown up. Beside him, another couple—that’d be great Uncle Leo and great Aunt Darlaine, I supposed, the proprietors now of the farm. I’d never met them, I didn’t think.
Mom started crying once they came into view, and I shrank down in the seat, both because they were all waving stupidly at us and because Mom cried a lot that summer, and it had become clear I couldn’t do much other than let her hug my neck.
We got out. Grandpa came at us, and Mom collapsed into him, crying at a stronger pitch. He folded her in like the bear of a man he was, and he reached out with a mitt and pulled me in, too.
“We’ve been waiting,” he said.
“I know,” Mom said, her voice muffled by his overalls. “I don’t think I remembered how far out it is.”
Leo and Darlaine, having waited their turn, moved in, too. More hugs. More crying. Pinched cheeks on me, Darlaine’s doing, as she called me a beautiful boy. Torture. Sheer torture.
“Jeff,” Grandpa said, holding me at an arm’s length. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, you’ll need to do better than that.”
“Mom says you’ve got corn here I can eat,” I said.
“That we do.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Soon,” he said. “I’ll show you. What do you think of the place?”
I cast a look around, for his benefit. All of them—Mom, Grandpa, Leo, Darlaine—had a look like something major would be hinging on my answer.
“I’ve seen better,” I said. And then, deflation, right down the line.
Grandpa gripped me by the neck, a gesture that looked loving enough but had a little pinch to it. I’d been mouthy. I knew I’d best not be mouthy again.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that’s so. But someday you’ll lose a few things, and you’ll know better.”
Because part of the exercise involves sharing both the memory and how the imagination was applied to it, here's closing the circle:
The memory: Hayloft was a word that led just about everybody to a farm, in one way or another. A word like that spawns more similarities, even in a large group, than a word like, say, forgettable would. I thought of the farm my grandfather grew up on, which I saw only once, when I was a little boy. I grabbed the name of his younger brother, Leo, and Leo's wife, Darlaine, because it was easier than making up new names. But Leo and Darlaine weren't the proprietors of the farm back then. (That would have been Forrest, another brother, and his wife, Margaret.) Everything else is imagination ...
The imagination: Jeff's grandmother is conspicuous by her absence. My grandmother lived until 2017. Jeff's father isn't in the picture. Mine, both of mine, definitely were and are. I can't say I wasn't mouthy, or even that I don't remain mouthy, but I wasn't mouthy like that. I don't remember a hotel. Pretty sure we slept in campground barracks along with the rest of the out-of-town relatives that summer. Soon after that 1979 family reunion, we started losing people, which I'm sure is why it remains so firmly lodged in my mind.
And so it goes. Really cool, unexpected, interesting things happen when I do The Word. It's why I love it so.
As I write this, it's late morning on Sunday, January 8, and I have spent an entire week living my new schedule.
It looks something like this:
5:45 a.m.: Wake up, shower, tend to the dog, have some juice.
6:15 a.m.: Head downstairs to my office and begin writing.
7:30-7:45 a.m.: Head upstairs for breakfast.
8:30 a.m.: Start the rest of my workday.
The rest of my workday is the part I've been waiting on. If this post is up and you're reading it, I've at last begun it.
My ready-for-a-new-job office, starting from the left bottom corner: reading nook, Fretless' kennel, writing space on the short side of the L-shaped desk, work station on the long side, stereo set. Out of the frame: book library and vinyl library. There's a drink fridge there under the left speaker. A comfortable office is an efficient office.
I started working in a way that supports me when I was 18 years old, which means I've been at it for a long, long time. Most of that work has tied into a life of letters: I was a newspaper reporter before I was an editor, then I was a newspaper editor and a novelist, then I was a novelist and a freelance editor/graphic designer, then I was a novelist, freelance editor/graphic designer and pipeline inspection specialist (the latter being the wild card in my working life), then I was a digital journalist, a novelist, a freelance editor/graphic designer and a pipeline inspection specialist, then I dropped that last bit through no choice of my own.
As of today, I am an analyst/content specialist with a data research group that advises financial services on how to evolve digitally. And a novelist. And a freelance editor/graphic designer (although I'll be much choosier about my projects now). This new job, which I'm entirely stoked to begin, came about in a way that's reminiscent of how I've always found the most sustaining work I've done: a connection, an unforeseen opportunity, a perhaps surprising love of the work, and away we go. I've gotten to know folks at my new job over a series of years, working with them on a freelance basis first and now as a full-timer. Job changes, by their nature, can be stressful and uncertain. The way this came together mitigates some of that. I feel fortunate.
And I'm just entirely grateful to have the opportunity, at this juncture of my life, to plant myself in something new and learn new skills while also applying the old ones in new ways. In the broad view, what I've always done is tell stories (pipelining, perhaps, notwithstanding, although have you met Max Wendt?).
Here I go again.
If this were a streamlined operation—with a social-media team that optimized content for maximum impact—this post would be going up on the last day of the year or the first day of the next one.
But this ain't a streamlined operation. It's one guy in a basement office (sitting at a brand-new desk, though!) who has to work the swing shift on the last day of the year, so this is getting written now.
If something materially affects what I write hereafter—say, I win the lottery—I'm gonna be so disappointed.*
(*—No, I'm not. Send the checks to me directly. I'll be super happy.)
All right. Here we go: Looking back on 2022 and ahead to 2023, in categorical form for easy reading ...
Proudest moment (books)
Easy pick: Hearing the words And It Will Be a Beautiful Life called out as the 2022 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction.
There's a lot to unwrap here, so briefly: I was proud because I came home to Billings almost three years ago, and this was the first novel published (and so far the only, but more on that in a bit) since I reestablished myself here. The love I felt for and from my town that night, and really the entire time I've been back, was such a rush.
It had been 12 years since I won my first HPBA, when they were a much smaller-scale affair, and I was, and am, awed by the caliber of books that get that recognition these days. The HPBAs are, simply put, one of the preeminent regional literary awards out there. I'm honored that my book was found worthy of one.
I got a lovely note from a friend the day after the awards ceremony, asking if I ever thought I'd win another, after the 2010 Best First Book designation for 600 Hours of Edward. Quite truthfully, I did not. It would be audacious to think such a thing, anyway. It's all gratitude here, not swollen heads.
Proudest moment (work)
An imprecise classification, for sure (books are work), but how else to account for what most writers have to do to keep writing? I'm speaking here of holding down a job.
The thing is, a job—at least for me—can never just be something I do. On some level, it has to be something I am, which is why I've made my way since I was 18 years old as a journalist (initially and again), a pipeline safety worker (much to my surprise), and a freelance editor. All of these things have spoken to the pragmatic desire to pay the mortgage and feed the mouths, but they also have reflected what I really enjoy doing and a broad set of skills that I've accumulated over a long career.
I can't say much about this yet, but early in the new year, I'm changing careers. It's a line of endeavor that came into my life as a bit of a surprise, but I've both excelled at it and found myself feeling deep affinity for it, and in my experience that's the combination that leads to high job satisfaction and high performance. I can't wait to get started.
In the meantime, you may admire my reconstituted office. I'll be spending a lot of time here in the new year.
Scary moment that turned out OK
In July, Fretless the Dog and I bounded into the car and headed south to Colorado. My stepfather had taken ill on a vacation in the Denver area, and the doctors needed a bit to figure out what was wrong with him.
All turned out well. And I got a bonus visit with my folks and my nephew Asher. Plus this beautiful shot of the Wyoming sky near Casper as I drove through just before twilight.
Scarier moment that turned out OK
In December, just a few weeks ago, another medical emergency, another southerly drive, this time to Texas. My stepfather—a remarkably healthy man, but also almost 81 years old and subject to the rigors of the age—suffered the widowmaker heart attack and was one of the lucky few who survive it. Everything was in place for a successful outcome: nearby paramedics, a responsive ambulance, a quick-working team at the hospital, and a skilled cardiologist who was able to get him unblocked and home within a few days.
If you've read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, you know that my main character, Max Wendt, also suffered a widowmaker and lived to tell the tale:
“Your left anterior descending artery. It was blocked.”
“And that’s why—”
“That’s why you collapsed, yes.”
The man’s matter-of-fact demeanor irritated Max. Another day at work for him. The biggest damn deal ever for me.
“So I’ve got a plugged ticker?” Max asked.
McFeely—Bradshaw!—looked surprised by the question. “Well, no. Not now.”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “You’re here. You survived. We’ve dealt with it.”
“A stent. You’ll be taking Plavix for a while, or maybe forever. Who knows? Not much damage to the muscle.”
“To prevent clotting.”
“You see, Mr. Wendt,” Bradshaw said now, drawing nearer the side of the bed, “the survival is the thing. Without that, the rest is…unnecessary.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“I guess not,” Max said.
The doctor knelt now, eye to eye with Max.
“The widowmaker. That’s what we call what happened to you.”
“Funny,” Max said. “I’m almost divorced.”
So, again, Fretless and I hit the road, a much longer trip this time. And coming back, we got caught in the jaws of a winter storm in Kansas (where we were stranded for a night in a motel straight out of 1978) and endured a bizarre same-day-care visit earlier that same day. (You really, really don't want to know, so all I'll say is that I didn't know that could happen or that it could bleed so much. BUT THAT'S IT!)
Again, all was well that ended well, and I got to tag a bonus visit with my family (and some dear friends, including my junior high basketball coach, Buddy Hamm, at left) onto the end of the year. But still: scary, scary.
Best I never saw that coming
What a treat to have a table read of my full-length play, Straight On to Stardust, performed by the troupe from Yellowstone Repertory Theatre at This House of Books in Billings.
It was a wonderful showcase, and I received some invaluable feedback on how to make it better. Still hoping for a full production. Fingers crossed.
Want to see the reading? Go here!
Best trip (overall)
It seems like a long time ago now, but Elisa and I went to Texas on vacation. It was a long time coming, as we emerged from the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic (although one of us—nods at her—caught it about a month later) and grabbed some moments of normalcy. We saw the Dallas Mavericks play. We went to the coast. We saw family and friends. We needed it, every single moment.
The trip also included a swing out to New Mexico to say goodbye to a friend. I miss him, every day. We celebrated the man we love and mourned the one who left us too soon.
Best trip (with a dog)
Fretless and I took three trips together this year (four if you count the one above), and two of them were missions of medical need, so those don't count.
Our June trip to North Dakota—seriously, North Dakota—was a much-needed getaway for me and a reconnection with a job I used to do and was missing terribly. I was able to figure out what, exactly, I missed. (Hint: It was the travel. It is the travel. However much I'm doing, I need more.)
I'm grateful that I got to enjoy that time with my little buddy. At left, he scopes out the city park in Sidney, Montana, as we made our way home.
Best general gratitude
I alluded to this earlier, but nearly three years after I returned home, I feel as fully connected to my community as I ever felt in version 1.0 of living here. I know who has my back. I know whose backs I have. I have friends in abundance (and am making more all the time), I've repaired ruptures, I've been granted grace, and I've extended it.
I can't remember when I've looked forward to a coming year with such clear-minded hope. I'm not Pollyanna. I'm Craig. And for the first time in a long time, I'm totally cool with being that.
Thanks for being here. I mean that sincerely. And may the year that's coming see you through your hopes, your dreams, and your challenges and deliver love and memories.
As for 2023 ...
This being the blog of an active writer and all, yeah, I hope you'll enjoy the books I have coming down the pike for you. There are two of them: the paperback version of And It Will Be a Beautiful Life (same great story, less lethality if someone smites you with it), which is coming out in late April, and the hardcover release of my new novel, Dreaming Northward (please contrast the beautiful Monte Hurlbert painting on the cover with that shot of the Wyoming sky earlier in this post and marvel at the man's talent). The new one drops on May 9, and we'll have a launch party in Billings on May 13, so keep an eye on my events calendar for more details. You're invited.
I'll play you out with some praise for Dreaming Northward. So grateful to these fine writers for their endorsements:
“Sheer reading pleasure; at turns funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful, and cathartic.”--Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of Small World and Lawn Boy
“With Dreaming Northward, Lancaster taps his rich Texas roots of poverty, displacement, and tangled family troubles in the story of a man who road trips to Montana with nothing left to lose. ... Lancaster’s exquisite attention to his characters’ bad choices makes readers feel seen, chronicled by a tender biographer—even a little redeemed.”--Carrie La Seur, award-winning author of The Home Place and The Weight of an Infinite Sky
“Craig Lancaster gives us the eternal mystery of family and the tangled webs across generations, with a cast of disparate yet wholly realized characters whose various struggles, questions, fault lines and quiet triumphs quickly become our own. Poignant, big-hearted, and as always, beautifully rendered.”--Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses and Cloudmaker
“There is something true and honest on every single page of this right hook of a novel. Craig Lancaster’s Dreaming Northward follows the entwined lives of people who’ve never known anything but hard times and who’ve never known the word quit.”--Giano Cromley, author of The Prince of Infinite Space and The Last Good Halloween
“‘Wyoming is a lonesome poem whispering through the past.’ Dreaming Northward combines superb storytelling and stellar writing—another winning novel from Craig Lancaster. Read this book!”--Cheryl Unruh, author of Gravedigger’s Daughter: Vignettes from a Small Kansas Town
It's Tuesday, November 8, the first snow day of the season in Billings. Ordinarily, I'd have stayed in, but today I went out, and I'm glad I did.
I delivered 40 fresh new copies of my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, to Skyview High School in Billings. That was the last of four deliveries I've made to Billings schools, for a total of 150 books. And the beauty of this is that I am merely the messenger, the delivery driver. These books—to replenish previous (and tattered) copies of the novel that have been in the schools for around a decade—landed where they did because of a community that answered the call. I asked for donations, enough to purchase those 150 books at a steep discount from the publisher, and my community funded the campaign inside of 12 hours.
And when I say community, I mean Billings—so many people in Billings—but I also mean the larger community I'm privileged to call my own. Teachers in Virginia kicked in donations. A coworker in Ohio ponied up. Friends in Texas. People I didn't know until some cash landed.
They did this because I asked for help in putting books in kids' hands. In this strange time in America, when we hear so much about taking books away from kids, these generous donors put books in front of them.
It's a beautiful, radical act.
As I so often do when the subject turns to the ties that bind us, I give thanks to teachers for doing what they do even as a significant slice of the population wants to fight them, deny them what they do well, castigate and smear them. This is shameful, yes, but it's also not new, and we can either let these angry, outsized voices have the floor, or we can meet them with a different set of values.
English teachers where I live were instrumental in getting 600 Hours on the approved curriculum reading list for the high school level here in Billings. They saw a contemporary story of a neurodivergent character, one set in the town where their kids live, and they did the heavy lifting to ensure that they could teach that book in their classrooms.
As I said in the Billings Gazette article about the first book delivery—thank you, Gazette—those teachers' dedication puts a responsibility on me that I'm only too happy to carry.
“They’re the ones who pushed for this book because they know how to reach these kids. And if they’re the ones who are making sure of that, I’ll be the one making sure they have the books.”
A word about the asterisk up above.
Yeah, they're our kids. I sometimes get a lot of pushback on this—"they're not my kids"—and I really wish someone taking the opposite view would spend just a little bit of time thinking expansively about the idea and the implications of abandoning it.
My trip through public education was, in many ways, a disaster. It was also one of the most important factors shaping who I became and how I see the world. Certainly, public education is not perfect, and certainly, reasonable people can disagree on how to shape it, fix it, whatever.
But we cannot, must not lose our responsibilities to ourselves and each other and the generations coming up behind us. Public education is a compact, an agreement that we will provide our kids with a basic education, as a community, knowing full well that our investments in those kids now are really an investment in our own future as a society.
If we lose that, I'm afraid we lose everything else.
So, today, I finished delivering some books. Backed by my community. Hopeful that the fight can be won. Determined to keep fighting, either way.
Now that the video is up at YouTube, I'd be grateful if you checked out this interview I did with my wife, Elisa Lorello, to mark the release of her new novel, All of You. I've been hoping for many, many years that I'd have a chance to get to know her better, so lucky me!
We get into a lot of stuff in a wide-ranging conversation (we really don't have any other kind). I'm just so proud of her and of this book, which is getting some rave reviews.
Want a signed copy? You can get it at our favorite bookstore, This House of Books in Billings, Montana. Just note in the comment box that you want it signed, and Elisa will oblige you.
Even though it's been a lively few weeks, Elisa and I have been feeling the pull of something peaceful. We scuttled our anniversary plans at the beginning of the month because Spatz the Cat was ailing, then a calendar filled with wonderful things—the High Plains Book Awards for me, a new novel launch for her—conspired against just-the-two-of-us time.
Today, we grabbed a little of that, heading off on a day trip to one of our favorite places anywhere, Chief Plenty Coups State Park. There, less than an hour's drive from Billings, is a place both sacred and accessible to all, a preservation of the great chief's words and artifacts and vision. Every time we go, we take a lunch, then we visit the museum, then we take the long, looping walk around his home and his orchard, basking in the quiet and the peacefulness.
A visit truly is a salve.
On the drive back home to Billings, just outside the town of Pryor, I stopped for one more picture. You can't see much; the gate at the property was closed and locked, and my little iPhone camera couldn't do much with the scene.
Out there, though, is a house that once belonged to a rancher named Herman Hamilton, who is long dead and even longer not the owner of the spread. And somewhere on that patch of land where the house sits once sat a tiny little trailer home, way back in the early 1960s. It was there that my mother and father lived for a short while as Dad helped Herman tend to his ranch.
The time that they lived there far predates me. They've been divorced for nearly 50 years—almost the entirety of my life—and probably haven't been in each other's presence more than a dozen times in all those years. When I'm with them in the same room, it's less a case of the gang is back together and more a case of my looking at them and wondering, "How the hell did this pairing ever happen?" (Answer: Youth and beauty and mutual desire. Move on, Craig.)
Anyway, this isn't about that, not so very much. It's not even about this place that sits mere miles from somewhere Elisa and I regularly go. No, this is about the adage that gets fixed to Montana sometimes when it's described as one small town with really long streets.
Herman Hamilton, you see, not only was my dad's long-ago employer but also was my best friend Bob's great uncle. Bob, whom I've known only since 2013 or so. Bob, who became friends with my dad because they both owned condominiums in the same development and were chatting one day and Dad mentions Herman Hamilton and Bob says, "Holy crap ..."
The world really does shrink sometimes.
(Herman was also a bank robber of some repute in the 1930s, but I suppose that's another story for another time.)
And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, the novel that came out last year, won the 2022 High Plains Book Award for fiction last night. It's an honor that has left me gobsmacked and very, very proud, but this is only tangentially about that.
Here's the tangent: As part of the High Plains Book Awards festivities, finalists in the 12 categories were offered two nights at a Billings hotel. When that offer was extended a few months ago, Elisa and I looked at it and said "hey, much-needed staycation." By the time the dates rolled around, our cat had reached a point where she needed more hour-to-hour attention (she's fine, really, much better than we thought she'd be a couple of weeks ago), so Elisa and I spent time together during the days, then split at night. She came home, and I took the hotel room. "Staycation" became "mecation." It happens.
The hotel was close to a neighborhood in Billings where I once lived, in a different stage of my lifetime. Both mornings, I got up and took a long walk through North Elevation, a downtown-adjacent enclave of historic homes and wide streets and mature trees. It was less nostalgia—although there's nothing wrong with that—and more pure peace and beauty. Billings' signature park is there. A damn fine coffeeshop is, too. I had every reason to go and no reason not to.
At the end of the first day's walk, I posted a Barenaked Ladies video on Facebook, along with this: "How it feels whenever I come to the North Elevation neighborhood ..."
I'm going to say now that I didn't quite capture the sentiment. "This is where we used to live" applies in a limited way, but the factors that make it past tense are more nuanced. The person with whom I lived there lives there still, from all appearances much more happily, and when you care about someone—as I do, still—you want only happiness for them. There's not a thing in those many blocks that is a heartbreak now, not even the memories of the pets I've loved who have crossed over. It's all good. Better than that, it's all beautiful.
Plus, I still live here. Not there, but here. The distance between the two is only a few miles and a good chunk of a lifetime.
When I heard the name of my book called out Saturday night, this is exactly what I thought of first: I'm home.
Not on a stage. Not standing next to two writers I consider wonderful friends. Billings, where I live. I said as much in my acceptance speech (if you can call it that; I was entirely unprepared, having not allowed myself to think my book might win): After nearly two years away in Maine, I came home to Billings in April 2020. I didn't know for how long. I still don't, as far as that goes. But this is where I used to live, and it's where I now live, and it's as home to me—all-the-way-in-my-bones home—as any place has ever been or is ever likely to be.
That's what I thought of on those walks through an old neighborhood. That's what I thought of on that stage. That's what I'm thinking of now. And you know how it is when you're home: You know where you are.
When we headed out for Maine in 2018, I described the leaving this way in an interview with Ed Kemmick and the late, lamented Last Best News:
"There’s going to be that moment when I have to come to grips with the fact that I’m leaving the most important home that I’ve ever had and going somewhere else."
So it did. But the leaving didn't take. I came back.
The other thing I couldn't help thinking about Saturday night was a similar time, 12 years earlier to the day, when I was a much younger, much more ignorant man. In 2010, just months after my first novel was released, it won a High Plains Book Award. I might have been forgiven at that moment for thinking it would be forever thus: release a book, collect a prize. I might also have been gently prodded to see the bigger picture around me, because I was spectacularly screwing up some pretty basic parts of my life with neglect back in those days. I might have listened, adjusted, flown right.
Then again, I might not have done any of that. Being headstrong is its own affliction, cured by only one thing, if you're lucky enough to survive the medicine.
My prescriptions were coming, about the writing life and about life, delivered in amazing highs and crushing lows, all the pain and pleasure I could ever want. Need another song? Try this one:
The joy is not the same without the pain.
My mistakes are here in Billings. My regrets. My glories. My aspirations. The erstwhile friendships I hope I can repair. Still others I wouldn't even attempt to, mirages that they are. What's behind me and what's ahead of me, all of it ready to be examined and experienced.
Most of all, the one I love, who has her own definitions of home, who is striving to be of it and in it. Together, we will honor those answers and those places, be they physical or emotional or both.
So, before I go off on a burst of happiness, I should do this: In the interest of consistency and intellectual rigor, I must adhere to my basic sense that happiness, as an emotional state of being, is highly overrated. It's too reliant on current circumstance to be trustworthy, and the factors that spur it—good news, fortuitous coincidences, pure serendipity, and the like—are too transient to be relied upon. My aim in saying this isn't to knock happiness—if you have it, brother or sister, be thankful for it and keep it as long as you're able—so much as it is to cast a vote for its more durable cousin, fulfillment. If you're fulfilled in where you are, whom you're with, what you're doing, where you're headed, you have something to hold tight to when the transience of happiness is with you and when it's against you. That's my theory, anyway.
That said, I'm pretty (burbly-happy curse word) happy these days. Let me count the reasons ...
1. One night in Big Sky
I'm just back from Big Sky, about three hours from where I live. The board of the Big Sky Community Library chose And It Will Be a Beautiful Life as the community read (One Book Big Sky) for the fall. Tuesday night was sort of the capstone of the event. I drove out, had a wonderful chat with folks who read the book, spent the night, and came home.
It was a soul restorer in all the best ways. When writers and writers gather, it can be a lovely thing (see below), but it can also be a release of the pent-up frustration that only writers know and thus are in position to help each other through. When readers and writers gather, it's straight-up love. How lucky was I to spend an evening with a bunch of people who read my book, read it closely, had such interesting things to say about it, and wanted to come talk with me? The luckiest. No doubt about it.
I rode those good feelings all the way home. The drive from Big Sky to Bozeman is one of the most visually arresting things you can see anywhere in these United States, so there's that, and believe me, I drank it in (figuratively). I made stops at libraries in Bozeman, Livingston, Big Timber, and Columbus, planting seeds for more days and nights like the one I'd just enjoyed. Here's hoping.
2. The blessings of good friends
I think I'm only just now getting my considerable arms around how emotionally bereft the pandemic has left me (and so many other people, judging from what I'm reading and what I'm hearing). Honestly, I thought being chased inside and away from gatherings was a small blessing amid a horrible event, but it wasn't that at all. Now that I can see and meet the people I want to see and meet—while still being careful, of course—I'm realizing how much I craved it.
Just in these past few weeks, I've gotten to hang in Butte, Missoula (thank you, Gwen Florio and Malcolm Brooks), Livingston (thank you, Amy Zanoni and Maggie Anderson), Bozeman (thank you, Betsy Gaines Quammen and Kryssa Marie Bowman), and Big Sky. I've had the fellowship of brilliant writers and thinkers, genuinely good people, and people who lovingly tend to the cultural life writ large. Man. I've needed that so much. So much. Happy? Yeah, I'm happy. But grateful most of all.
3. The work is going well
OK, look, here's where I keep it honest: If my publisher had said, sorry, kid, but your manuscript stinks and I'd received a lot of hate mail and my dog was snubbing me, would I be Mr. Happy? I would not. This, of course, underscores my point about fulfillment vs. happiness. I work to a standard I set so I can know I've done my best regardless of what a gatekeeper says (or, at least, so I'll have the gumption to try again if I find the door closed). I try to approach the world with an open heart because I believe that's how we get past at least some of our divisions. I engage with my dog so he knows I'm his, and he's mine. That's fulfillment. The happiness of it comes and goes.
But I can't deny that I'm really, really enjoying every side of the work right now: The creation of it, when it's just me and an idea and the challenge of getting from here to there. The production of it, where I interact with the publisher I wanted to be with and who wants my work on his list. The carrying it to readers and interacting with them, which can be such an incredible validation of the work put in. The awards, both realized and potential (talk about transience). I'm as energized for all of it, the whole arc, as I've ever been.
In Missoula, while waiting to eat lunch, I happened upon a meeting with a well-regarded poet and fiction writer and a genuinely good human. I don't know him well, but I like him, and even so, in the worst of my do-I-want-this-anymore crisis a few years ago, I deleted him (and a whole lot of other writers) from my social contacts, in a clumsy, flailing attempt at ridding myself of reminders of an endeavor I wasn't sure I wanted anymore. So there I was in Missoula, nonexistent hat in hand, apologizing for something I'm sure he didn't even notice, telling him I was in a dark place. He was kind and compassionate, as I expected he would be. I still appreciate the grace. I hope, the next time I'm on the other side of that conversation, I extend it to someone who needs it.
I'd like to think I've learned something. Certainly, I appreciate that the want-to came back to me, and I'm going to nurture it as much as I can. But what happens when rejection arrives (as it surely will), or awards don't (ditto)?
I don't know. I'll try to remember now and then and remind myself that I can be in both places. Just not at the same time.
3b. That was a lot. Here's an anecdote.
So I'm driving home from Big Sky and I'm talking on the phone—hands-free—with Elisa and I'm saying much of what I said above, only differently, and I'm telling her how energized I am, and I'm hearing how energized she is, and we come around to You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky. It's the novel—a romantic comedy that goes deeper, as Elisa's work does—she and I wrote together in 2018 and 2019. We released it ourselves ... and pretty much let it flop around out there. Our crises of confidence coincided. Those were hard, broken days. We had no energy for much of anything, and certainly not for getting out and trying to introduce a book to the world. We were too adrift in our personal lives to have the fire for the professional. Frankly, there were times I wasn't sure we'd make it.
But we did, and we have, and we're going to. Elisa is back, too, and she said, you know what, we should put a new jacket on that old novel we never really got behind. Freshen it up. It's a story of brightness and hope, and it has this dreary cover that doesn't fit it. Let's give it some love.
OK, she didn't say that exactly, but that was the gist.
And here it is, dressed to meet the readers we hoped it would meet.
Elisa didn't join me in Big Sky because our cat, Spatz, has been ailing. The most recent health issue was one that had a small sliver of hope for resolution and a rather wide, grim likelihood in terms of what we'd have to do. I had an appointment I had to keep, and Elisa decided to stay behind and tend to our girl.
And our girl, not for the first time, has proved resilient. Her issue has resolved itself—or, at the very least, has recessed into a place where she's her old self again for however long that lasts. She was a surprise when she came into our lives, and we've resolved to enjoy her for as long as we have her. That horizon, delightfully, has widened. We're thrilled.
As Elisa is given to saying, she's our Rushmore, Max.
From time to time, on no fixed schedule, I drop a post into Facebook that starts like this:
A little [whatever day it is] craft talk, if you'll indulge me ...
I then hold forth on whatever's in my head, fixating on various aspects of the writing life (structure, pacing, idea management, etc.). I'm nobody's paragon of craft discipline, that much is certain. With regard to art, I am, for better or worse, a do-it type rather than a talk-about-it type. And because I didn't come from the academy or any kind of writing program—unless you count the immersive education of journalism—I'm not really comfortable with the conversations anyway. They too quickly expose the gaps I've papered over with intuition and practice.
But I do have my moments. This morning brought one of them. I talked about how an idea I got charged up about a few weeks ago stalled out on me fewer than 20,000 words in ... and how I resuscitated it.
Let's go deeper ...
The idea is the thing
Here's how it works for me, with the acknowledgment that everything herein has a disclaimer of your mileage may vary:
The idea that recently stalled on me had a fairly quick gestation. I'd say within a couple of weeks of thinking about it a lot, I decided to start writing (having a deadline was no small factor, I'd reckon). The decision to write is the crucial one, because that locks me into a commitment I'm not quick to make (my output over the past 14 years notwithstanding). One of my favorite quotes comes from Stephen King, who likened the writing of a novel to sailing a bathtub across the ocean. The decision to start writing puts me in the bathtub, and between you and me, I'd rather be on the couch.
Experience, in my, uh, experience, is a double-edged sword. Writing a novel is much harder now than it was when I wrote the first one. Harder mentally, harder emotionally, harder physically (not that I'm unloading shipping vessels here or anything, but yer boy is older than he used to be, and things like eyes and fingers and butt cheeks aren't as hardy as they once were). All of that difficulty is offset, somewhat, by a greater ability to differentiate between a garden-variety idea and one that has the legs (or sea legs, if we're to stick to the sailing metaphor) to get from here to there. The stall-outs still happen, though. Sometimes I'm able to salvage them into a short story. Sometimes they just sit forevermore, dead husks taking up space on my hard drive.
So there's that. When I sit down to work, I do have more confidence now that I'll be able to cross the ocean in my bathtub than I did years earlier on other projects. I don't have a guarantee—because of how I work, which some writers call pantsing, I'm never entirely sure where I'm headed—but I have the experience of seeing these ideas through, which grants me some confidence that I'll reach the other shore.
But still: Bathtub. Ocean. And sometimes the wind leaves those sails without much warning.
The stalling out
I discovered I was adrift at about the 17,000-word mark. On the face of it, that's not a good sign. At that point, you're barely coming out of the early part of a novel-length work into the murky middle, where you have every right to expect that you'll feel lost (particularly if you're a pantser) while you're drafting the thing. I was scared—all that work, jeopardized—but not panicked. I set my work down and I made myself quiet.
Over the next couple of weeks, I considered many things:
These thoughts began competing with each other, to the point that a haze formed and settled on my head and blocked my vision. In response to that, I got quieter. I focused harder. I listened more intently to what my inner assessments were trying to tell me.
And then the haze lifted.
Back in the bathtub
Over the past four or five days, I've revisited the manuscript in progress. I've reread every word, from number one to number 17,751. I've recast many of them. And I've come to a few conclusions:
So onward we go. The sails are up. The knots are tightened. I might run the Jolly Roger up the mast, just to be a badass about it. In the meantime, there's a lot of open water ahead, but I have faith that the shore waits for me out there somewhere.
Life has some funny cycles. As I write this, I'm just a handful of hours home from a couple of days in Great Falls, that visit coming on the heels of another Great Falls trip the previous week. Before that, I think the last time I was in Great Falls other than just passing through was ... 2010? 2011? A long time ago. I hope this means I'll be going back sooner rather than later. I like that town.
I was there to take part in a panel discussion of Montana authors, sponsored by the Great Falls Public Library as part of the Big River Ruckus festival. It was a blistering-hot morning, and my planet-sized melon sizzled. As is often the case for literary events, we didn't have a big crowd (I believe the applicable adjectives are "small" and "appreciative"), but we had good times in abundance. I joined poet Dave Caserio (a Billings denizen, like me) and writer Kristen Inbody, and we had a rollicking good time talking about writing in the West, ideas, how place figures into our writing, and much more.
Whenever I do an event, I'm put in mind of a line from a Pernice Brothers song: It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / we sing to six the way we sing to ten ...
It's a funny line, of course, but the sentiment is dead-on. I've seen everything there is to see at readings, book signings, and the like: small gatherings, no gatherings, full houses, whatever. Whatever you get, you deliver as best you can to whoever was kind enough to show up. It's a charming business in that way. Every hand that's there to shake—or the only hand that's there to shake—is another chance to make a connection. And connections are everything. One person showed up? Great! Take that person out for dinner or a drink. The whole town showed up? Fantastic! Now you've got a party.
Love is love, and we love the stage ...
Before heading home Sunday, I drove out northwest of Great Falls to see the dairy farm my father grew up on. It was only the third time I've been there, and the second was just a drive-by, but I remembered the route just fine. I drove down the long driveway to where the house is, but nobody came out, and I wasn't about to go knocking on doors, so I took a quick look, then slipped out of there quietly.
Here's a nice shot from atop the bench, about a mile and a half from the farmhouse. Sorry for the telephone pole bisecting Square Butte.
When I talk about writing and where it comes from, as I did during our discussion Saturday, I'm apt to talk about how we are born with stories. We're not blank slates. Going to a place that was formative for my father (in mostly devastating ways, unfortunately) is a good demonstration of what I mean. It allows me to put eyes on his life, to process it, and to make sense of my own. Because of the way his life was shaped by his early experiences, he had a story to transfer to me, one that I would start to carry when I came into the world, along with the one I would live out in my own days. The same is true, of course, with my mother, and her parents, and his parents, and their parents before them, and on and on. The stories are inside us, already coded. We draw them out, interpret them, weave them with imagination and memory (in the case of fiction), give them purpose. It's a beautiful thing. Even when the underlying material is made up of mostly terrible things.
"Before you climb the mountain, first the foothills must appear."
It was a long, hot, empty drive home for Fretless and me. He mostly slept. I mostly sang along with the random shuffle of iTunes, something I can get away with when I'm alone. (I certainly wouldn't subject any human to my singing voice.)
On the final stretch home, I received a particular delight when iTunes served up one of my favorite songs but also one that doesn't often swim to the top of the heap. I suppose most songs remind us of something, someone or some point in time. Certainly, this one does that for me. There's a tinge of melancholy, though, because it's a reminder of a friendship I miss. It's been many years since it went by the wayside, and I've come to embrace something I was told a long time ago when I was seeing a counselor while in the midst of divorce: Some friendships are like cab rides. They have a beginning and an end. Indeed, they do.
Anyway, it was nice to hear the song at that moment, with my head where it was (reeling in other memories), to recall good times with someone who was a good friend, and to put out a silent wish: I hope the good life has found you where you are.
It certainly has found me. Coming home—to Billings, to Elisa, to Spatz the cat—is the best arrival I've ever known. It makes the leaving worthwhile.
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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