*—If I'm doing it right, there's both overlap and freestanding territory. For years and years, I didn't do it right.
Facebook, I've noted before, isn't good for much, but it's damn near essential for a few things: easy keeping up with far-flung friends and relatives, recipes, irritating others with your daily Wordle grid, cat memes, birthday greetings (the most heartwarming day of the year, every year), etc.
Increasingly, I'm finding value in the stored-up daily memories, especially the things I don't remember writing or don't remember the impetus for writing. Today (April 18) served up this kick to the hippocampus:
My newspaper career started in October 1988, when Jim Fuquay gave me a job as a part-time correspondent at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
It ended in August 2013, when I left my job as night city editor at the Billings Gazette.
In between, I worked at nine newspapers in six states. Some jobs I took for the adventure (Peninsula Clarion, Kenai, Alaska, age 21). Some I took for money (Dayton Daily News, 1994). I almost always regretted those, by the way. Some I took for escape (Anchorage Daily News, 1995, to get away from Dayton). Some I took because I knew they'd make me better (San Jose Mercury News, 1998). One I took to correct a mistake (San Jose Mercury News, 2000, after bouncing to both San Antonio and Olympia, Wash., earlier that year).
Twice I accepted jobs and then backed out before I was due to report (particular apologies to the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal).
I took different jobs for different reasons. Sometimes those reasons panned out and sometimes they didn't.
But most of the time, what I was really looking for in a new job was some new version of me. I never found that. Not once.
It feels good to finally admit this.
Let's unpack this, shall we?
Elisa and I were talking about this the other day, having reached an age at which there's plenty in the rearview to examine and second-guess and (we hope) plenty of road ahead to consider other pathways: If we had it to do again, would we make different career choices? What might we have done instead?
Because those ponderings inevitably run up against the butterfly effect, we ended up in a predictable place: Nope. We're good.
But it remains an interesting thought experiment, if only for the clarity you find about the choices you did make. I ran toward print journalism—and stayed there a good long time—because it made good use of my particular talents and because it was, in my narrow sense of the word, a daily adventure. Within the strictures of daily newspaper production—you have to gather the stories and stats and pictures, you have to edit the material, you have to design the pages upon which it all rests—were wide variables in what you dealt with daily. The news was always different. The pages began, every day, as blank canvases. I loved that.
What I traded for that was significant, though: Friends in other lines of work made more money, enjoyed greater security and stability, had evenings and weekends free, etc. These are not insignificant things.
Who I was and my stance with regard to work, especially in my 20s, are so entirely removed from who I am now that I have to strain to remember that guy. I know that his entire definition of self was wound up in being a journalist, that he went to bed thinking about it and woke up each morning with it on his mind, that he bounced up to the world with that shingle around his neck. I lived to work, and I sought out any chance I had to work extra hours, to get plum assignments, to make myself as close to indispensable as I could (an illusion, of course, but one I willingly bought in those years).
It's what I didn't do that taunts me now. I didn't fall in love in those years; how could I, when the aggrandizement of Craig the Journalist was front and center among my priorities? I get at that idea in the Facebook memory above: In all my wandering around, looking for some new version of me, I carried my old self into each new situation (wherever you go, there you are). I didn't learn to play the guitar or take a judo class or write a novel.
Until, you know, I wrote a novel.
When I was trying to emerge from brokenness and impending divorce in 2014-15, I spent a lot of time with a counselor (highly recommended) and with my nose in reading material aimed at my mental/emotional state (e.g., King Warrior Magician Lover) and my soul (The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart). I wanted to understand what was happening to me, why it had happened, the parts for which I had responsibility (many) and the parts I had to let go (also many).
I also read a lot of shorter pieces, some with resonance and some without. Two that stick out, years after the fact, were written by Mark Manson. I recommend these highly, whatever your situation:
Fuck Yes or No: "Since you’re now freeing up so much time and energy from people you’re not that into, and people who are not that into you, you now find yourself perpetually in interactions where people’s intentions are clear and enthusiastic. Sweet!"
The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries: "People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavors: those who take too much responsibility for the emotions/actions of others and those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions/actions."
I hear what you're saying. Craig, you're saying, this is great, but you're talking about personal relationships now, and you were talking about work, and I'm confused.
No, no, I'm still talking about work. This is the point. In the extreme emotional duress of a divorce—a traumatic thing I do not recommend, unless, of course, it's the thing that will skirt an even bigger trauma—and with the help of a well-trained, compassionate human and the collected wisdom of learned thinkers, I began to unlock some problems I'd dragged into every area of my life: my interpersonal relationships and my relationship with work.
This hard process of dredging up changed me. Better personal boundaries also meant better work boundaries. I'm no less good at what I do—in fact, I'd argue that I'm much, much better than I've ever been—but no longer am I defined entirely by a magazine spread that I've designed, or a report I've edited, or a chapter I've written. What I do is also who I am, but it's not the entirety of the picture.
It was written mostly as a joke, but like any good joke, there's truth inside it. In the sidebar on this blog, I define myself this way:
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.
I can live with that.
In some significant ways, what's happening now in the American workforce—this thing they're calling the Great Resignation—is a manifestation of an assertion of boundaries. We've been through a lot: social tumult, a deadly pandemic, a rebalancing and cross-pollination of work lives and home lives. People are reconsidering what they value, how they want to toil, whom they want to toil for, and what price they're willing to accept for those vast swaths of their finite lives. Good. It's healthy in the long run, even if it's upsetting to the status quo in the shorter term.
The last time I moved—packed up my life and my car and my expectations--for a job was more than 20 years ago, when I left Olympia, Wash., to return to San Jose, a place I never should have left in the first place. I can't imagine doing it again, although one of the benefits of growing older is learning that one really shouldn't say never.
My point is that although I plan to strap on the work boots for a good long time—I like to work, a fact that was clear even 30 years ago, if badly applied--where I am and who I am and how I'll share those parts of me need more than just a job. I need a multidimensional identity, too, and at last I have one. That's what I was missing in all those moves cited in the Facebook post above.
The last time I recast how I define myself professionally occurred when I wrote and published that first book and I figured I could finally call myself a novelist instead of just a guy who wished he had one inside him that he could extract. That was nice, too, but it's not everything. Without the laying about and eating breakfast and doting on my nieces and nephews and being a son and a brother and worrying about the Dallas Mavericks and spinning through this life with my wife, in fact, it wouldn't mean much at all.
I've been fortunate enough to have had some terrific honors bestowed upon me. Fifth-grade spelling bee champion. Sixth-grade student council president. I mean, do I have to go on? We're talking biggies here.
It was just about this time of year in 2017 that, perhaps, the one that means the most to me came around. The Billings Education Association—the union for public school teachers in the place I call home—honored me as its Friend of Education.
It was deeply meaningful to me for several reasons. One, I'm a child of public education (thank you, Birdville Independent School District and Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Junior High (now middle school) and Richland High School). Two, public school teachers have had a profound effect on me at every stage of life. They've been mentors and influencers and friends. I was born to one. I married one. Three, I truly believe that public education is a compact we must hold with each other, no matter how fraught things get (I'm not terribly optimistic about how things are going in that department, but I still believe in the compact). Public education is the ultimate investment in our future, together.
I could go on and on. I have, in fact.
Whatever the teachers in my town felt in calling me their friend five years ago, I send it back in triplicate to them. English teachers at West High School here in Billings were instrumental in getting 600 Hours of Edward on the approved curriculum list at the high school level, and for years now, some of them have been teaching it. It blows my mind, still. And the bargain I've made, straight along, is that if you want me to visit the classroom, to talk about writing and creativity and life beyond high school, tell me when and where and I'll be there.
The pandemic, as you might imagine, took a bite out of that bargain.
And yet, there we were last week, a handful of English classes at West—juniors and seniors—and a creative writing club, and we were working through one of my favorite writing exercises, The Word (I am not its inventor, by the way, just an enthusiastic adopter). Each class, I'd have the kids tell me their name and give me a word. We then ran a random-number generator to choose a single word that the entire class had to use as inspiration for a short story. Writing time: 20 minutes.
It's a hell of a thing, I'm sure, to show up one day at school and hear that some dude you've never met before wants you to spend most of a period writing. But these kids did it, and their enthusiasm, generosity, and talent leave me hopeful for their futures and my own. For every period, I wrote alongside them, ending up with nearly 3,000 words of material, by far a busier day than I usually have.
I'll spare you the whole passel of short stories (unless you really want to read them), but here's a taste:
When we got the dog—a 48-pound, 40-inch-long, 14-year-old basset hound—I named him Lightning because, among other things, I was into irony.
Lightning’s name was Dexter when he was stuffed in a kennel at the humane society, on account of his previous owner, an 84-year-old woman named Mildred, up and died one day and Dexter was found sleeping in the small of the back of her tumbled-over carcass, and Mildred’s kinfolk didn’t want him. And you might say that if a dog has borne a name, any name, for 14 years, he ought to be allowed to keep it for the rest of whatever time he has left. And, OK, that’s a fair point, but Dexter is a crappy name and no more fitting the hound he was than Lightning was. So I changed it. My prerogative.
We didn’t get off to a good start, Lightning and me. First night, I put him up on the bed, and he walked around behind my shoulder, I thought he was snuggling in, and he lifted a leg on me. New house, new bed, new people—I guess I can’t blame him, but come on, man. He pooped on the rug the next day—the good rug, that was the problem, not that frayed thing in the den—and I thought, well, Lightning, you ain’t long for us if you don’t straighten up and fly right soon.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. I’ve come to believe, in the looking back, that the speed of him—opposite the name we’d hung on him—was the secret to his longevity. That dog just wasn’t in a hurry for anything, which kept his heart rate low and his blood moving agreeably. “Lightning, dinner,” we’d say, and we’d wait for the lumbering, this long dog who could have two feet on different sides of a corner, and he’d come into view and he’d eat at a luxurious pace, like a cow working its cud. “Lightning, let’s get in the car!” Same thing. That dog moved in a way that would make a sloth say, “Damn, that’s one slow-moving animal.”
Ironic, then, that the event for which he gained his fame around our house, the reason Judy would grip him by those jowls, unbidden, and say, “You’re the best dog ever, yes you are,” was a moment of alacrity. Megan, our youngest, just a baby, crawling for the curb and the traffic beyond, we’re bound up in watching Mitchell show us his batting stance there in the front yard, and she’s nearly to the asphalt, and here’s Lightning, moving at his bah-doop-dee-doo pace and he snags her diaper in his teeth and pulls her back.
That’s a good boy.
We said goodbye to him last night, the fadeout that we’d seen coming and were still flabbergasted by when it arrived. Lightning, staring up at us, our expectant faces in his, our tears surfacing, and here’s that old floppy-tongued kiss, the one we’d had a thousand times and would never have again, and he’s gone, gone, gone, not so much a flashing discharge of electricity but a shattered star lighting up our days and nights.
After writing and sharing—the kids were great about that, too—we talked about what I like so much about this exercise, that in the letters and meaning of a single word, there's a fuse that can be lit and burned down into a burst of creativity. It's one of the most magical things I know of, how you can tap into memory, word association, imagination and pull a story right out of yourself. It's entirely egalitarian. You don't need permission. You don't have to wait for someone to judge you worthy. You just need time and inclination. You need a pencil and a piece of paper and the willingness to get busy.
And the thing is, long before I ever thought about these things, long before I ever knew what a writing prompt was, long before I ever imagined trying to build a life around words, I had teachers who pushed me, who had lamplight and were willing to show the way, who truly and honestly believed that each child in their care had purpose and something to offer. On the surface, I don't have much in common with those kids I met last week—I'm older than their parents, in many cases, and from a generation that must seem decrepit and dated to them. And yet, the successors of those teachers I remember with such fondness and admiration are in the classroom now. Still pushing. Still guiding. Still believing.
How lucky we are. What a shame it would be if we lost it.
Love it! What's the next question?
No, seriously, the great Chris La Tray asks some provocative questions and ponders the meaning of National Poetry Month (which we're now in) in his latest Substack piece.
This might be the wrong place to ask this question since you glorious subscribers are obviously anything but ignorant philistines in such matters1, but is poetry really an “important place” in the lives of many people? The running joke when it comes to poets is they are the purist practitioners of literature because they obviously aren’t in it for the money. Which sucks when you think about it. So I have to wonder: how many people really engage with poetry on a regular basis? How many people actually buy it?
The stuff that goes on around National Poetry Month is worthwhile, I just wish it wasn’t relegated to one month. April rolls around and people get all performative with their love of poetry, share links to poems published online or whatever, but where does it go from there? I encounter many people who tell me, “I don’t get poetry.” That’s fair. I didn’t “get” it for a long time either. When poetry had a bag dropped over its head and was rolled in a carpet and hauled off to the ivory towers to be enjoyed by only a stuffy few the connection to its roots was severed. I contend, though, that there is poetry for everyone. Everyone.
I'd like to just endorse all of the above, if I may.
I, too, have heard the "I don't get poetry" bit, and I've probably even said it, although I will say, in my defense, that I was young and inexperienced and kind of ignorant. What I often say, now, when I hear that is, "Well, you listen to music, don't you?" That's poetry, man. And it doesn't have to be Patti Smith or Michael Stipe or Nico—but it should, it should be all of them and many, many, many more. Find the writers and the voices that not only speak to you but also impart something you're not going to find in whatever bubble you live in. Find the words of those who live other lives, have had other experiences, see the world with eyes different than your own. Find something that smacks you in the head with a ratchet. Something that moves you. Once you've got that, everything else is just a matter of form, be it song or sonnet or haiku or slam or whatever.
By inclination and profession, I go to a lot of literary readings, and given a blind choice—go listen to an unidentified poet or an unidentified writer of prose—I'm going to see the poet a hundred times out of a hundred. For the sheer chance of having your doors blown off, of being wowed by the substance and the sonic gelatin that holds it all together, nothing beats a poetry reading.
Seriously, listen to Robert Wrigley here and tell me you don't want more. Tell me you don't want all of it.
One of the luckiest things about living where I do is that the place is thick with great poets. Great poets. Just the other day, we attended a reading by Tami Haaland, former Montana poet laureate (and our friend), and Elisa said it was "exactly what my heart, mind, and soul needed today." Yeah. Mine, too.
My brother-in-law, a well-regarded musician and recording engineer, in answer to a question of mine about what makes him sit up and say "holy (very bad word)" when he hears a voice, said this: "The emotion the musician channels."
So it is with poetry. That's the beauty. We needn't confine it to a month in spring. We need it every damn day.
Go get some at your local indie bookstore. Or use mine.
Like many people, I've come to loathe Facebook in as many ways as I find it an indispensable means of keeping up with close friends and loved ones. Perhaps it's the indispensability that I loathe most.
I also post things there deliberately, knowing that I'll be shown them again, year after year, so I can remember certain days with some degree of precision. Two years ago, March 30 was just such an occasion.
On this day in 2020, the moving trucks showed up at our house in Boothbay, Maine, and whisked away our stuff. By then, it wasn't even our house anymore; we had closed on its sale a few days earlier and were just extremely short-term renters.
We loved that house. We liked Maine. But neither love nor like was enough to hold us. That's old ground that needn't be gone over again.
What's hard to remember now, even two short years later, is just how frightening the whole thing was. The world had closed up. We had moving guys tromping through the house, and we—Elisa, me, the dog, the cat, my dad, his dog—kept our distance and hoped they weren't sick. Hoped we weren't sick. Wouldn't be entirely sure how to know if we were or they were. There was a lot of taking things on faith. There was a lot of handwashing and surface disinfecting. There was a lot of uncertainty about what awaited us on the road.
That first night, we stayed at a hotel in Portland. I, wearing rubber gloves and a paper mask, fetched dinner for everyone and brought it back to the two rooms (guys and dogs in one, woman and cat in another). Same drill for the subsequent nights, in Buffalo and Chicago and Minneapolis and Bismarck. We limited our points of contact. I did all the gassing up for the two cars, which were similarly subdivided with occupants. I wrangled all the meals, meeting Doordash and Uber Eats in hotel lobbies. In the East, where the pandemic initially hit hardest, we stared in wonder at empty turnpikes and rest stops. The farther west we drove, the more lax people seemed about what was happening. In Janesville, Wisconsin, I turned on my heel and left a store after seeing scores of unmasked people there. In North Dakota, a convenience store clerk poked fun at my mask. In Ohio, I asked a guy to move down a urinal, and he reacted with anger: "I'm not sick." "Fine," I said, "but maybe I am."
When we got to Billings, it was more of the same. We were diligent, about our hands and our faces and our surfaces. We were scared. We sequestered ourselves away for two weeks and hoped we wouldn't get sick. The unknown was a menace. We weren't alone in feeling that.
It's two years hence. We're just back from a two-week vacation. We saw loved ones. We hugged old friends. We gathered with thousands in a sports arena in downtown Dallas. We crowded into a banquet hall and said goodbye to a friend.
The pandemic remains with us, of course, but it's different now, too. We're vaxxed and boosted, and soon to be boosted again. In recent weeks, we've begun stepping out again. Our first sitdown meal in a restaurant happened a few weeks before we traveled to Texas. Our first evenings out to see plays (masked), too. We carry the vax cards and the masks, in case they're needed. I imagine I'll wear one forevermore in airplanes and on trains and in crowded supermarkets. I'm cool with that. It's not a burden.
We've been through two flu seasons now without the flu, a first for either of us. Credit the masks. Our doctor surely does. And yet, with the specter of omicron and whatever new variants might emerge, we worry about a scratchy throat or some mild congestion. Just the other day, we broke out a test for Elisa, who was feeling a little poorly. Negative. We've been lucky. No doubt about that. But we've also been diligent. We'll try to stay so, even as we dip further into what used to be normal life.
The point of all this? There is no point, really. Gratitude. Caution.
We've had a hard two years, all of us. We've lost people we shouldn't have lost. We've grown isolated and angry. We've missed things we shouldn't have missed.
May we find grace. May we offer it, too.
Elisa and I are just back from a two-week vacation, one spent doing all the things one should do when granted such a release from ordinary life. We saw our favorite basketball team (a loss, but whatever), we ate good food, we hugged loved ones and old friends, and we explored a bit of the Texas coast. A damn good time.
And then, to finish it off, we headed to Santa Fe and said goodbye to Jon Ehret. Somehow, the world has kept on spinning since he left us on Aug. 21, 2021. He's often on my mind, always in my heart, and badly missed by everyone who grew to love him. On a late-March day in New Mexico, we raised a toast. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. And it made me wish, again, that he could have been at the table with us, noshing on good food and reveling in good memories.
I met Jon when I was 20 years old. I lost him when I was 51. We packed a lot into those 30-plus years. Just not enough. It would have never been enough.
Saying goodbye, though painful, was a gift. His celebration of life brought out two men I knew at a crucial point—at the same point, roughly, that I met Jon—when I was a youngster who needed some direction and role models in a career I'd chosen but didn't quite know how to get myself into. In 1990 and 1991, I was working as an agate* clerk in the sports department of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jon, just out of grad school, was an editor on the sports desk, particularly gifted at page design, the discipline I fancied for myself and yet had never really done**. Frank Christlieb was a copy editor on that desk. Steve Waggoner was a copy editor and layout man. All three of them were heroes to me, along with an entire crew I can still mostly name, all these years later. Hille and Ed and Darrell and Dano and Doug (RIP) and Bullet and Sven and Lisa and Susan and Joe Mac and Joe and Coach and Tod (also RIP) and Brian (yet another RIP) and even my stepfather, Charles Clines, though we never made much of our connection while at work; we were too circumspect for that.
So, there I am, Saturday afternoon, waiting outside the venue where we're to say our goodbyes to Jon (dammit, I still cannot believe it), and Frank is the first one I see. It's been upward of 30 years since we've lain eyes on each other, but thanks to social media, it's instant recognition and a hug. Waggoner comes, too, and it's the same thing. Thirty years gone, but time, for a few moments anyway, has stood still and let us greet each other. Ana, his wife, same thing. She was there all those years ago at the Star-Telegram, and she was there Saturday, and it was nothing short of wonderful to see all of them.
And it was the next day, on the first leg of a two-session drive home to Montana, that I realized how Jon had blessed me with another gift. I got to hang out with those folks, to hear their stories and to tell mine, and maybe to impart in some way how much I was affected by being around them when I was a little pissant editorial scrub. Not because they condescended to me (they did not) or because they were especially nurturing (they sometimes were, but they had jobs to do that didn't involve nursing me along), but because they provided an example: Here's how the work is done, here's how you take it seriously, here's the difference between being diligent and being lazy, and here's what it looks like when you've done well. I carried that stuff with me to other states and other newspapers and other jobs***, right up until 2013, when I left the print business. I hucked those lessons onto my shoulders when I resumed my career as a journalist****. I was lucky, indeed, to have such role models at such an age.
And we were all lucky to have a friend like Jon.
As for the celebration of life itself, it was bittersweet, as such things tend to be. Jon was well loved by many, and they came out to toast him. Elisa has a really nice remembrance of him at her blog. You should read that. I gave one of the eulogies, which I'll mostly leave to the air that carried it, but there's one part, at the end, that I need to remember for the next loss that takes me to my knees. You live long enough, and they come:
I could rage against the fates that took him so young—when he had a son to see deeper into life, and a wife who loves him so and with whom he made common cause, and birds to tend to, and veterans to honor, and talents yet to be mined and developed, and chicken wings yet to debone.
And yet, I don’t. I’m not angry at the universe for calling him back to stardust, no matter how unfair the timing might seem. How could I be angry, when it’s the universe that gave him to us in the first place? He is my brother. He has been that since the first day he and I looked at each other and mutually acknowledged, yeah, OK, I’ll take a few spins with this wacky bastard. That was our call, our decision, and the vagaries of life and loss have no say in it.
Jon's still here. He's not accessible in the way that I would prefer, but he's with us. And we are with him. Always.
* — Agate, dears, is the small type you see in newspaper box scores and the like. At a major metro paper like the Star-Telegram in the early '90s, it was a full-time job to compile agate, set it, take call-ins over the phone, make a dinner run for the editors, etc.
** — I ended up winning some nice page design awards in my newspaper career, and I've done the design work on an esteemed quarterly magazine for nine years now. It's nice when aspiration meets opportunity.
*** — I went into all that in a Substack post.
**** — See this.
Here's a hard life lesson that writing has taught me: patience. It's a quality I don't naturally have in reserve, and that struggle to find it has benefitted and afflicted me in equal measure in what I do, how I relate to people, how opportunities have come to me, and how I've blown things by being too over-eager.
Writing, it turns out, doesn't much care whether you're patient or you're not. The actual act of it comes at its own pace, and sometimes you have to be patient in the extraction. You have something out on submission? Wait. You want an agent's attention? Wait. An idea isn't quite working the way you hoped it would? Set it down and wait. You think you don't have time? Sorry. You do. Wait.
So let me tell you about Straight On To Stardust and how it came to be whatever it is now ...
Back in 2017, I had this idea for a novel I wanted to write: The basic premise—and that's all I ever have at the outset, which often results in a half-baked unfinished thing that validates Stephen King's idea that writing a novel is like trying to sail a bathtub across the ocean—was a guy with his father's lifeless husk in the bed of his pickup, his father's dog in the passenger seat, and a trip from Montana to New Mexico for the burial.
What happened from there is ... well, a lot of stuff that I'd rather not say here, because I hope you someday see the play. That's the real story, anyway. I started with an idea for a novel and ended up with a play. That's the arc. But the color and light of the story lie in the turns in between.
The novel idea died. As dead as the father in the back of the truck. I didn't get enough of it down to harvest the wreckage for a short story, which sometimes happens. Dead, dead, dead. Doornail. D-E-A-D.
So then a lot of stuff happened. I set it down. I worked on something else with my wife, Elisa. I went to a lot of plays, which is just about my favorite thing to do. I saw The Glass Menagerie, and then I read it, and tried to stare deep into the craft of the thing. And after a while I saw a different narrative approach to my dead story about a dead father. I was living in Maine now, and I started to recast the thing, straight dialogue and stage direction. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, and I loved it.
That died, too. Or at least went into convalescence.
We came back to Montana. I finished a manuscript that had been languishing in Maine, something I felt good about but couldn't summon the energy to attack back there. Those were tough days on the East Coast, where we'd moved with great hope but hadn't found a way to make home. Coming back to Montana unlocked a lot of things. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, certainly, but also my willingness to pull a half-finished play born of a quarter-finished novel out of the drawer and have another go.
This time, I finished it.
And my good friends at Yellowstone Repertory Theatre, god bless them, having seen a pandemic wipe out a season, did a table read on Zoom. That was a fun night, and there were many fine things said about my play, and also many on-target comments about how it could be improved. Notable among these was that it felt more like cinema than stagecraft, an assessment echoed by my Tony-winning high school friend, so I, of course, accepted that, even if I wasn't exactly sure how to address it.
So ... patience. I put it away and let it be for a while. I pushed down the road on two manuscripts that I hope to finish one day, then started and finished a third. We moved into our second year of being back in Montana. Life opened up. Delta and omicron came crashing in. And then, finally, in January of this year, my wife and I, for her birthday, attended a play for the first time in nearly four years.
Christian O'Reilly's Chapatti is a wonder. Two actors. One stage. Nineteen unseen cats. One unseen dog. The vast preponderance of the dialogue directed at the audience. Exposition out the ying-yang. The fourth wall taken down before the first curtain comes up. I loved every blessed word of it. And nestled among all those words were some ideas about what was ailing my play.
Earlier this month, I took a mighty swing at it and did a major revision. What happens now? I'm not sure. There's talk of a public table reading. I'm hoping for a production. That would be beyond any dream I had when I began writing it. I sure enough know I'm going to want to write some more plays, if I can find some properly propulsive ideas.
What have I learned? Quite a lot, actually. The most important thing: This doesn't happen without patience. I'm not naturally imbued with it, but man, I do appreciate what comes from being forced to find it.
One day, several months ago, I was parsing through my email and came across something sent to me through this very site (a low-traffic way of reaching me, for sure). It was from a man named Howard Marc Chesley, and it was a friendly request that I read his novel Free Marcus Katz!!! and offer an endorsement if I was moved to do so.
(A slight deviation before I go on: Requesting endorsements—blurbs—is one of the most humbling things any author goes through. In essence, you're asking for hours of someone's finite life and words that you can then use for marketing purposes. I hate asking, but I love being asked, probably because I know exactly how hard it is to make the request. Still, you have to like what you read enough to attach your name to it, and there have certainly been instances where I've had to apologetically decline. My point being: I very much wanted to grant Howard's request. And I hoped I'd love the book.)
Non-spoiler alert: I loved the book.
This how I ended up endorsing the book: "Booker Prize nominee Howard Marc Chesley's new novel is a charming, insightful, moving, funny tale. In many respects Marcus' life is quotidian, and in others it's extraordinary. A portrait emerges of a man who wants something more ... and just might get it."
But forget what I said. Look at what Temple Grandin--Temple Freaking Grandin—had to say: "The clever format of creating a book in the form of Yelp reviews for businesses will make the reader think about serious abuses of people with disabilities. This book opened my eyes to the use of the legal system to abuse individuals who are fully capable of making their own decisions."
Bottom line: I'm glad I said yes. I'm glad Howard has become someone I truly consider a friend. I hope you'll buy his book. I hope he has every success in the world with it. And I'm pleased to be able to host this interview with him here.
Let's get to the questions ...
You've had a long career as a writer. Fill us in, please.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in writing and then drove west to UCLA’s film school with plans to be a filmmaker. After several years making documentary films, I settled into writing screenplays as a path to someday directing dramatic feature films. Along the way I got married, had a dear child, bought a house and found that I had become very content with the sweet life of tapping on my Selectric for a living and hanging with family and friends at the beach in Venice. In retrospect I don’t think I was a boy genus, but I had early success, working for the studios, often with big-time directors as I learned my craft. It was a heady time, but after the 1988 writers’ strike the movie studios learned they didn’t need to pay writers like me as employees to develop scripts- they could just buy the spec scripts that they liked. I transitioned to TV, became a journeyman writer of hour-long dramas, working on Crime Story, Equalizer, Chicago Hope among others. In 2006 I co-created, produced and wrote Three Moons Over Milford, starring Elizabeth McGovern for Disney. Although it only lasted a season, it was the closest I came to seeing a personal vision on the screen. Once, after handing in a too-smart-for-the-room teleplay for a popular network TV drama, my exec producer told me (not in a nice way) that I should really be writing novels. At a career lull, I thought I might try. That was Some Books Aren’t for Reading, which was very well received and nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize. It was exhilarating not to have a boss of my writing anymore, and I became a novelist.
Did you learn any lessons from the writing and publishing of your first novel that you've applied to the second?
I learned that no matter how good the book you can’t depend on a small publisher to market it to the world. Having a public face doesn’t come easy to me. I’m a social media straggler, but I’m very proud of Free Marcus Katz, and I’m determined to do a better job promoting the new book. I’m grateful to you, Craig, for your willingness to help show me the way. You may not know it, but you are a beacon.
I'm always interested in origin stories. What was the initial spark of an idea with Marcus, and at what point did you think, OK, I have to write this thing?
The seed was my 2016 trip with my grown son to Butte, Montana, where I met the original Aspie model for Marcus, teen-age Josh. We met him on a viewing platform for the Berkeley Pit—a defunct, historic open-pit copper mine. Josh was there with his mother and three siblings, speaking non-stop in an Aspie monotone, mostly about the minute details of copper mining, and it was clear they were weary of him. I, however, was hungry to learn more about the mine and the place, and I asked him a few questions which brought on a stunning cascade of history. He was, in fact, brilliant and had a lot to impart if one listened. He finally wore us out, but, with heartfelt gratitude, I pushed a ten-dollar bill on him. He showed it to his mom, who walked up to me and tried to return the money, apologizing if her son had bothered me. When I told her honestly that I thought she had a brilliant and wonderful son and I had gotten full value and more, a mother’s tears immediately started streaming down her cheeks. The next day my son and I stopped in to say goodbye to Josh at his job washing dishes and peeling potatoes part-time in the cellar of a local restaurant. His manager looked at us with surprise that anyone would actually seek out Josh. The whole episode really stuck with me although it didn’t occur to me at the time to write about it.
Novels are often about more than one thing. The struggling of a sweet, smart Aspie was the first element. Later, I read an article by Rachel Aviv in a 2017 issue of the New Yorker in which she described in grim detail the horrors of an abusive, court-mandated conservatorship for an elderly couple in Las Vegas. I was deeply moved and angered by that account, and later it occurred to write about conservatorship with an autism spectrum hero like Josh. I back-burnered it, still feeling I needed something else to make it a special novel. That turned out to be the Yelp reviews.
I'm fascinated by the structure of the Yelp reviews. We really get to know Marcus intimately through what he thinks about the service at a restaurant, for example. How did you settle on that as a vehicle?
Being a long-time foodie, a Yelper and an admirer of the late Pulitzer-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, I love going to hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, street stands, or food trucks, sometimes posting reviews to Yelp after. I have had Baja-style fish tacos in every corner of my beloved Los Angeles. If you ever come here, I’d be delighted to take you to Tacos Baja Ensenada (reviewed in the book) and show you the magic of the real item. About a year ago it just hit me like a bolt of lightning that it would be cool to use Yelp reviews as a storytelling device in an epistolary novel.
Conservatorship has been in the news lately with the Britney Spears case. What kind of feedback have you heard from people who have up-close experience with that system?
Although I believed fighting an abusive conservatorship presented a strong conflict for a story, I worried it wasn’t something on most people’s radar. Britney’s court case came up just after Roundfire picked up my book and as a result they decided to move up the publication date several months. I have been in touch with some of the originators of the #FreeBritney movement and they are transitioning into helping others with conservatorship abuse issues. In writing, I worked closely with a few organizations that fight conservatorship abuse and they have been helpful and supportive of the book.
You landed an endorsement from Temple Grandin. How the heck did that happen?
The question makes me smile because when, prior to publication, my publisher asked me to supply endorsements for the book (no, they don’t get them for you!). I thought of Temple Grandin, but had no connection to her. I asked around to no avail and someone said I should just write to her. I said don’t be silly—she gets a million requests and I didn’t even have an email address. Anyway, I found her website which had a contact form and I described the book and clicked “send” without any expectation of a reply. How many emails does she get? A lot. A few days later, the phone rang when I happened to be napping and I gave a groggy hello. The caller said she was Temple Grandin looking for Howard Chesley. Temple Grandin is an idol of mine and even though I have met my share of celebrities in the film business, I was gobsmacked that it was she on the phone. I suspect she was just calling to check me out. A few weeks later she sent me a lovely note saying how much she loved the book and appended a wonderful, strong endorsement, including the phrase “It opened my eyes,” with permission to use it as I liked. The endorsement is on the back cover of the book. I am humbled. I should also say that as a “neurotypical” I was concerned about how the autism spectrum community would regard the authenticity of what I wrote. I circulated the manuscript a lot in the community before sending it out for just that reason. One of the greatest pleasures I have gotten is the more-than-enthusiastic support I have gotten so far from so many in that community.
I can’t resist mentioning, in my researching for Free Marcus I found 600 Hours of Edward, just loved and admired it, and it was proof to me that a first-person novel with a narrator on the spectrum could work well. As you know, I wrote to you cold, sending a PDF of the book, and since then you have so graciously been a more-than-generous supporter of my book. I hope you don’t mind me thanking you publicly before we actually conclude. Oh—and I just read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life and I thought that it was a deep and mature work. And at the end I was quite moved.
(Thank you, Howard.)
You're an experienced and accomplished TV writer. What's the difference between that and, say, writing a novel? How much is transferrable, do you think?
The obvious response is that screenplays and teleplays tend to be very tightly structured. It’s a strong discipline that I had to learn over time and is useful in all storytelling. Most, but not necessarily all great novels, are narratively well structured and the challenge is to make them relevant and artful within the confines of a classical layout. Beyond that, my specific talent coming from having been a screenwriter is that I am good at closing my eyes, inhabiting a character and letting the character speak through me. In a way, it’s an author’s disguise and relieves me of being critiqued on what would inevitably be attributed as my personal speech in a third person book. Marcus Katz, through his Yelp reviews, is the first-person narrator of the book. My first novel, was also written in the first person. I remember clearly the voice of the young man in Butte. I have several good friends who I believe are undiagnosed, but on the spectrum, and I know the diagnosed children of friends as well.
Marcus has a full, satisfying arc, but there's certainly a way to imagine his life going on beyond the final page of your novel. Any thoughts of revisiting him?
We shall see. I’m broadband as a writer and am inclined to move to something else, but if people take to Marcus (as I have) my arm could be twisted.
Boogie-boarding, pickleball, cruising for food and, pandemic permitting, travel. There is a hint of a movie deal for Free Marcus but I am too experienced to bank on that. I have started two other novels, am not pleased with either so far, but I’m used to the process and write every day. I love all of it and consider myself a lucky guy.
FREE MARCUS KATZ!!!: A CURATED COLLECTION OF YELP REVIEWS
Let me tell you a little something about this boy …
As of tomorrow, January 25, he’ll be 3 years old. And because I’m nearly 52 and have learned how fast time seems to go, I have to check myself sometimes against pre-emptively mourning what will happen if the actuarial tables are true for both of us: I’ll have to say goodbye to him and let him go. Most of the time, I can get my head straight, tell myself to enjoy the time I have with him, but sometimes I get fixated not on the past, as is my wont, but on the future. This is one of those times, because he’s hit this milestone.
Contrary to the old saying, he's not my best friend. That is and always will be my wife, as she should be. But he’s my best buddy. I’ve lived to an age—and lived through a pandemic, so far—that has calcified my lack of interest in spending great scads of my time with other people. I’d rather stick to my house and my patterns and our tight little circle here, two people and a cat and a dog. I say again: He is my best buddy. He goes where I go. He hears my thoughts. I check in with him, and he checks in with me. We move around each other like an old married couple, which we're not, but it speaks to the familiarity.
So, anyway, three years ago …
It was Jan. 27, 2019, and Elisa and I were about to step into a movie theater in Brunswick, Maine. Before we did, I checked my email via phone. I had a message from Doxy Den in Mechanic Falls, a breeder (I know, I know—I wanted a dachshund, and this is not a mill; it's a family that loves their dogs):
“The puppies arrived on Friday! We had 5 boys! I have 3 black/tan long hair males available! There are pictures up on our Facebook page. Groot, Drax and Rocket are the puppies that are available. Rocket is tiny but strong and doing well. Groot has a little bit of white on his chin and the tips of his toes.”
I went to the Doxy Den Facebook page, looked at the pups, and made my choice: I’d take Groot (but not the name).
Over the weeks that followed, I watched him grow, from a distance. Because I had a trip back to Montana planned for March, I didn’t pick him up until April 9. He was the last of the five boys to go to his permanent home. The Doxy Den owner’s granddaughter cried because she had to give him up. I cried when I got him to the car on a wintry day, for the long drive home. I'd been waiting on him, and he was finally with me. He spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to crawl from his bed into my lap while I tried to drive. Finally, late in the trip home, he hit the wall (see below).
I’ve had many dachshunds, and I’ve loved them all. Just get me going on Sniffer and Mitzi and Zula and Bodie. I loved them equally, but they came to me at different times in my life, and thus their impacts have been different. Fretless’ importance to me has, perhaps, been a little outsized. My world has gotten smaller these past three years. He’s filling more of it than he might have in another time.
Fretless came to me at a time when we lived in a beautiful place that didn’t feel much like home, and we were still struggling with what to do about that. Fretless and I, almost immediately, began taking long walks in the woods, and he helped me make my peace with Maine. In hindsight, I can see how much I needed that.
Long may he be with me. We're not near done yet.
This is not a résumé.
Nearly fourteen years ago, I drafted my first novel in twenty-five days, in manic bursts of activity—late at night, after I’d come home from my swing shift at the Billings Gazette, pouring coffee down my gullet, then returning to it in the late morning and early afternoon, before work beckoned again. I was at a small desk jammed into a corner of a small loft condo, my back to the door (bad feng shui!), and for those nearly four weeks, I did little other than work, write, sleep, write and take the dogs out. I liked to joke, after that book (600 Hours of Edward) came out, that it was the month my wife and I test-drove divorce, something that wasn’t nearly as funny after we did divorce some years later. But this isn’t about that.
I wrote my second novel (The Summer Son) in the same physical space but in a different headspace. The writing bursts weren’t bursts at all; rather, they were hard, slow-going, bear-down-and-get-it-done sessions—still late at night, for I was still at the Gazette, but not so much in the other hours, and over a much longer stretch than twenty-five days. I rewrote it three times, major revisions, over the course of nearly a year, and it remains the one I’d write again if I had a crack at it. I don’t, thank God.
Novels 3 and 4—oh, man, that was the life. I had a basement office with its own full bathroom in the bungalow my then-wife and I bought when the marriage was simultaneously dying out and still worth the effort of trying to save. Novel 3 (Edward Adrift) played off the re-release of Novel 1 by a new, bigger publisher, and Novel 4 (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter) was supposed to be my breakout (it wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about).
I was making enough money writing to not have to do the daily journalism grind, so I granted myself release and wrote Novel 5 (This Is What I Want) back in that one-bedroom loft condo, my desk still jammed in that corner, my back still to the door (bad, bad feng shui), because the marriage was over—the kind of over that hurts at the time, as it should, but everybody’s happier now, no hard feelings, and there are occasional friendly notes or chance meetings somewhere. It's nice to say it's all good and mean it. I finished that novel in a hotel room in Missoula, Montana, where I’d gone to lick my wounds and get away from my upstairs neighbor, my father, who, well intentioned as he was, couldn’t have understood the way my heart at the time was afflicted and inflicted, no matter how many ways I might have tried to tell him. But this isn’t about that, either.
Let’s get through this quickly now:
Novel 6: Edward Unspooled, the companion to Novels 1 and 3, was written in a new office with its own full bathroom, in a new house, with the support of my wife, who did me the service of turning my desk around to face the door (good, good feng shui). I published that baby myself, and it saved our bacon that year.
Novel 7: Julep Street, also written in that new office in the new house, also published myself, saved considerably less bacon the following year. I wrote it in fits and starts, for my responsibilities had shifted. I had been inspecting pipelines on the side, and that became more of a center-stage endeavor. I was taking on more freelance, trying to keep the ends coming together every month. Of all the many things Elisa and I imagined for our lives, the coincidental collapse of her writing earnings and mine wasn’t among them, which is when the universe laughs and says “OK, watch this.” But this isn’t about that, either.
Novel 8: You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky, cowritten with Elisa, here in Montana and across the continent in Maine, where we lived for two years. There, I had another office (without a full bathroom, though one was within goose-stepping distance), and again, I put my back to the door because I’m apparently just not very bright. Those were hard years for writing. When Elisa insisted on moving my desk, I got moving on Novel 9 (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life) and wrote most of a play (still unproduced), so maybe there’s something to the unlocking powers of the whole feng shui thing. But nor is this about that.
No, this is about how I write, and to a much lesser degree about where I write, and as I stare at the corner of my desk—back in our house in Montana, back in my office with the full bathroom and the desk facing the door—I look at the printed-out manuscript for Novel 10 (now titled Dreaming Northward, but who knows?), and I realize that I’m envious of anyone who has a set place and a set time to do the work.
Don’t get me wrong: I love stories about process and place. I love seeing pictures of my author friends’ writing spaces. I love matching those pictures up with the work of theirs that I so admire. When I was a boy and thinking that I might like to grow up and write books, I saw a picture of Steinbeck’s Joyous Garde at his house in Sag Harbor, and I had office envy before I even knew what office envy was. But do you know what I envy more? Anyone’s ability to consistently protect their writing time.
I would say, now, that I’m much more like the guy who wrote Novel 1 than the one who wrote Novel 4. I’m back on the swing shift five nights a week, doing journalism (and happy to be doing it, I might add). I design a quarterly print magazine, which is only my favorite gig ever. I take on freelance editing jobs, as many as I can handle, and I'm happy to have them. Up until recently, I ventured out to the pipeline from time to time, and I might well go back to it. I look after an elderly parent. I write when I can, not when I’m scheduled to, because what’s a schedule and how do I get one? I sacrifice sleep on one side or the other sometimes, just to move the plow down the field a little ways. I’ve begun to think there are more doing it the way I do it than not.
Here’s the funny thing, only I’m not laughing: The guy writing Novel 10 is way better at the job than the guy who wrote Novel 1, and that’s indisputable in every measurable way other than the marketplace. But this isn’t about that, either.
The work abides because I do. Because I get older, just like anyone else, and because I ache more than I did fourteen years ago, and because I wouldn’t dare write a book in twenty-five days now even if I thought I could (and I don’t, and it's only through sheer audacity that I ever did), and because my life is incalculably more complicated now than it was then, and it’s also incalculably better now than it was then. I’m better now than I was then. Older, yes. More broken down, surely. But better nonetheless.
And let me tell you, there’s nobody in the world more qualified to write Novel 10—to harvest the memories that inspired it, to ride the imagination that’s driving it, to peel away the story that lies within it—than the guy who’s writing it. This guy. If it gets picked up and edited and published and read, man, I’ll be thrilled. That’s great. That’s what I’m after. But that’s not what this is about.
This is about showing up. This is about doing the work.
That’s how I write. I grab the moments that are available to me, and I do it.
Hello, 2022 ... and all of you here to see it. It's been a trip, huh?
Just before Christmas, in a final furious week of drafting, I finished the first pass at a new novel, which I'm calling Dreaming Northward. It is, as I expected given the brisk pace of my finishing kick, both a fully satisfying arc and a manuscript that needs a lot (A LOT) of work. That's how these things go, at least for me. I write them to see I can get from here to there, then I spend a lot of time cogitating on what I've done, then I rewrite to more fully expose the story I think I'm trying to tell, then I revise, revise, revise to really hone whatever it is that I have. (Followed, of course, by even more editing if—knock wood—the thing gets published, followed then by a beautiful, finished book that I immediately wish I could have another crack at.)
Anyway, I hope to share it with you ... sometime. Probably 2023. We'll see. A lot left to do.
I mention this because my friend Jeff Deck reminded me of something on Facebook today. Here are Jeff's words, which are much more eloquent than mine:
I'm Random Penguin House author Jeff Deck, and I have an important message for you today:
Getting published by a major house will not make you rich.
It will not pay your mortgage. It will not clear up your skin. It will not get rid of those love handles.
It will not make you a bunch of friends, nor will it get you laid. It will not make your distant parent say they're proud of you.
It won't relieve you of the onus (and cost) of marketing your book yourself, either.
What it will do is get your book into physical bookstores. And potentially improve your chances of getting a second book traditionally published. But mostly it's the distribution thing.
Many people fix their eye — and their hopes, and their self-validation — on getting published by a major house. My wish for you is to recognize the value in your work no matter how it ends up being published, whether via the Big Five (Big Four?), a mid-size or small press, or self-publishing.
Recognize the value in it BEFORE it's published, too. The work you put into your story is real. The time you spent improving your own skills along the way should be recognized, and celebrated.
Goals are important for motivation. But you are "worthy" *right now*. And you will continue to be worthy every step of the way.
Writing is a long journey, even (especially) after publication. No matter which publishing route you choose. Belief in your own value — and a daily celebration of your own work and words — will sustain you along the way.
Every word is absolutely true, by the way. I often tell folks that they should celebrate having done the work as much as they celebrate anything that flows from that work. Sometimes, they think I'm bullshitting them. I'm not. The work is sustaining. The rest is ... the rest.
Received some lovely news yesterday. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life was the bestselling book for 2021 at my local independent bookstore, This House of Books. I'm grateful to the bookstore—where I'm a proud member-owner (it's a co-op)—for being such a wonderful supporter of not just my work but of the many, many fine regional writers who are doing such important work here. And I'm grateful to the folks, near and far, who bought a copy from THoB and kept the oxygen flowing to an independent bookstore. The cultural life in my town is much the richer for its presence.
If you'd like a signed copy of the book, THoB will be happy to fulfill that desire. Simply order online and mention in the comment field that you'd like it signed, and I'll hop into my trusty blue Toyota, drive downtown and sign it for you.
And, hey, if it's a paperback you want, I have good news:
The paperback version releases in May, and you can preorder through THoB (I'll be happy to sign those, too, once they come in), through your local independent bookseller (please!) or wherever you get books.
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.