...if you'll indulge me.
Tonight, Yellowstone Repertory Theatre wraps up its nine-performance run of Straight On To Stardust, my first full-length play.
To say it's been a privilege would be a damnable understatement.
To say it's been fun would be to undersell the word.
To say I'm going to miss it...
Yeah, I will. I hope this isn't the end, but if it is, I couldn't have enjoyed nine days and nights any more than I have, and I certainly couldn't have seen my play taken on a maiden voyage by any group more loving and talented than the YRT ensemble and its intrepid leader, Craig Huisenga.
I'm a writer, so I'm not terribly unusual in that I want nothing more than to undertake the next writing project. Another play, perhaps. Maybe a novel. A short story. I don't know. The idea will tap me on the shoulder soon enough, and I'll be in my seat, doing what I do. In the meantime, I'd like to see where else Stardust might alight. Have some ideas? Talk to me. Want to download the media kit and read an excerpt, see some photos, read some reviews? Have at it.
But about that craft talk...
Occasionally, I'll read a book review, or even the book itself, and the reviewer and/or I will be awed by the incredible sweep of a story, how it captures an era or a movement or a moment in our lives, and I'll have that inevitable feeling of being unworthy: How, I'll wonder, can I call myself a writer of fiction when I lack the imagination to conjure a story that so richly conveys detail and so expertly takes in such abundant themes?
This is doubt, by the way, standing on the shoulder and whispering poison into the ear.
The problem: Those in the throes of such doubt often lack the ability to stand back and gain perspective in the moments when they most need it. So we ask ourselves why we should bother when someone else, or many someones else, do it so well.
In my calmer, less doubt-ridden moments, I'm able to center myself in this truth: I am not, as yet, a writer of sweep. I am a writer of the interior, in ceaseless exploration of fear and sloth and errant motivation and mistrust and love and betrayal and every possible in-between that makes us maddeningly human. I write from the inside out to better understand not just others but myself. Maybe, ultimately, especially myself. On that subject, I am taking a lifelong postgraduate course from which there is no bestowing of a diploma. There is only the next lesson.
I've been thinking of these things a lot in these past few weeks of repeatedly watching Straight On To Stardust play out in front of me. This is a story of family fractures and of interior lives that are explosive in combination: a son who misses his mother and stretches out, flailing, for his father; a daughter who searches for a way in with her inscrutable dad; an ex-wife who still loves the man who denies her intimacy; a friendship held, frozen, in time and the cosmos.
When you reside in the interior and work from there, you discover, eventually, that most of the scary things behind the door you keep trying to bust down have their roots in childhood. Anybody who's been in therapy knows this; it's why counselors start there as they help their patients tunnel into the now. Generational trauma flows from child to child, often through the clearinghouse of adulthood. When we don't handle our shit, we roll it downhill to the next person. Someone, eventually, tries to pay the overdue bill. It's a hell of an inefficient way of living, with incalculable damage inflicted in the main and on the margins, but here we are. Again and again and again.
It doesn't take much imagination to consider how these interior damages have great reach beyond our own lives. How might the life of one particularly public narcissist have gone differently had he been hugged more often by his father or been told that he was loved? Or let me take this to an intensely personal place: Why did I equate love with eventual abandonment throughout my 20s and 30s and 40s? (It's rhetorical, this question. I know the answer. I know it now. I learned it the hard, necessary way in my mid-40s.)
It's a hell of a thing, this trauma. It's given to us, in most cases. No instructions, no way of opting out, here it is, and it's ours to carry. It often happens when we're young, but there comes a time when that's no longer an acceptable excuse for our clinging to it. Yeah, we were just kids, and yeah, it should have gone another way, but it didn't, and now the onus is on us to not inflict it on someone else.
You up for that, the responsibility of that? Some of the most wrenching, yet illuminating, stretches of my life have come while I strained to get to yes when faced with that question.
It's why I write. To hold these things up to the light. To understand them. Sweep? I'm not thinking about sweep. I'm thinking about getting through this life. How do I do that? How do the characters I'm living with do that? Can I listen closely enough, feel acutely enough, be compassionate enough on their journey? Can they find their way through? Can I help as I walk with them?
I want to. I need to.
A little story, straight out of 1984, before I get to the other story, straight out of today ...
I spent the summer of 1984 in Moriarty, N.M., about 40 miles east of Albuquerque, living with my dad and his then-wife, with whom he was at the tail end of a second go-round at marriage. (They'd originally married in 1975, then divorced four years later, the precipitating event of which was an argument after she had asked me to clean something up and he'd told her to do it herself, so ask me sometime how long it took me to get over the idea that I'd been the reason for the bust-up. Anyway, I digress. They remarried a year or two after that, but by 1984 they'd renewed acquaintance with just how profoundly ill-suited they were.)
The arrangement—my spending the entire summer with them—was the resumption of an every-year appointment that came out of my folks' 1973 divorce. It had been put on hiatus by Dad's bankruptcy and money struggles the year before, when he just couldn't dig deep for a plane ticket for me and two months' worth of sustenance. Two years later, I'd interrupt that appointment myself by deciding that, age 16, I didn't want to leave my hometown for entire summers anymore. To many friends, too many girls to chase, too much dough to make bagging groceries and slinging hamburgers and such.
But 1984? In 1984, I was eager to see him again.
Dad, who'd made a lot of money in the drilling business when times were good—made a lot and burned through a lot, a la the nouveau riche—was barely hanging on now. The oil economy had tanked, and he was trying to make his monthly nut by digging water wells, an unsustainable ambition. He would lose the drilling rig to repossession the following year, along with his marriage and most of what meager amount of money he'd been able to stash away. If anything remained, his two-time ex-wife would clean him out for good, showing up one day in 1985 with her hand out, leaving Dad to fill it, then cry at the kitchen table, talking to a friend, lamenting, "When it's over, it's supposed to be over."
But 1984? In 1984, he still had hope.
More than that, he had me—a big kid, 14 years old, plenty strong, and well acquainted with the operation of a drilling rig. I could handle the dirty end of that particular work and at an hourly rate—zero dollars—that suited his upside-down financial situation. As a pimply faced teenager, I was conscripted into the drilling business.
We dug a lot of water wells that summer, most of them forgettable one-day affairs, and one of them that persists in memory through the nearly 40 years since. The reason for the persistence lies in the place, the people, and the circumstances of the dig, all of which lay bare why Dad was such a spectacularly failed businessman and so wildly popular at building the kind of hard-bonded lifetime friendships his son struggles to match.
A Californian named Merv Gemmer had recently bought a piece of property about 10 miles east of Moriarty and gotten a whale of a problem in the bargain: He had New Mexico history—an abandoned roadside attraction called Longhorn Ranch that was shouldered right off old Route 66—and a thriving little truck stop cafe and a line of tidy motel rooms. He also didn't have a water source, having been forced to haul it in several times a week. That just wasn't going to work much longer, by his reckoning. He asked Dad to drill him a well.
I can remember at least two dry holes, enough to compel any driller actually interested in remaining in business to cut his losses and say, "Hey, sorry, but I did my best." Not Dad. He'd given his word, and he understood Merv's plight, and he swore he'd hang in there until Merv had a well, all at the original quoted price. I know for a fact that Merv felt bad about that, but Dad wouldn't hear of amending their deal, so he at least made sure we were well fed. His homemade enchiladas from the El Vaquero restaurant were some of the best I've ever had, and for as long as Merv owned the place, you could see trucks filling his little parking lot. (Life hack: Pay attention to where the truckers eat when you're on a road trip. They know.)
In the end, Merv got his water. Dad lost money on the deal, a lot of it, and he was in no position to take on that kind of financial burden. He ended up with a deep friendship, though, and I suspect he'd say that the nearly four decades since have paid off in bigger ways through that. He's probably right.
It's been years since I, or Dad, have been back to that part of New Mexico. A Google maps search, above, tells me that the El Vaquero and the tidy little motel are mostly gone now, much like the Longhorn Ranch before them. A strip club built by subsequent owners still seems to be intact, pleasures of the flesh being more durable than pleasures of the palate, I guess.
In 1984, the Longhorn Ranch remains were at least tactile—empty storefronts, broken windows, and the like. Merv eventually bulldozed the rest of it down, the same fate that apparently has befallen the old restaurant and should befall the motel, judging from the fire damage in the picture.
Is water still pumping? Hard to know. The place looks pretty desolate. We dug Merv a good well in the end, one that pumped mightily, but nothing lasts forever, right?
Which brings me to Merv Gemmer. Dad told me today that he died a few days ago. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, same as he's relayed the news about several other friends. That's the bargain. You either go before them and let them miss you, or you live long enough to mourn them. He said that last week he called Merv, who spoke wearily, then said he had to go lie down. "I'll call you back next week, Ron," he said, according to Dad.
That call won't be made.
Dad doesn't betray much of how he feels about all this, but he doesn't have to. He hears the clock. There's been Covid, which knocked him down hard, and trouble with his blood pressure, and his kidneys are rebelling, and ... well, something's going to give, sooner than later given the hour.
He thumbed through his phone and showed me pictures other friends, the ones still living, have texted to him. He tells me Charley Allen looks old, and I say, "Well, he should, he's two years older than you." He tells me the two women who lived next door to him 20 years ago, twins, look old, too, and I suppose they do juxtaposed against his memories, but they're younger than he is, anyway, and I wonder if he's looked in a mirror lately.
But I don't say anything. It's needless, and chances are high it'll come out cruelly in his ears despite my intentions, so I just say, well, you've been lucky with friends, Pop. That counts for something.
This, I suppose, could fall into the category of a Saturday Afternoon Craft Talk, except it's Thursday afternoon and I don't much feel like being bound by time.
We're coming up hard on the first of November, and that will mark 15 years since I began writing my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. The backstory of how that book came to be is oft-told, no repeats necessary. I will say simply that it was not only my first novel but also the first book-length manuscript I ever finished, which marked something of a watershed by showing me I really could finish something of that size. Before then, I'd always had hope, which is something, but it's far less durable than evidence.
I'd like to say I learned something important about how to write a novel by completing that first literary marathon, but I'm not certain that's the case. If you're trying to stretch yourself and grow thematically and ambitiously—and I certainly try—you quickly learn that each new project is a distinct challenge, with its own factors that are highly distinguishable from those that influenced previous works. I suppose that earlier quality, hope, has been replaced by faith, in that I know I've done it before and can do it again. I'm less apt to be cowed by things like hard sledding or the great murky middle, when I'm adrift in a manuscript and not yet sure how it's all going to resolve. But each project rises and falls not on past performance but on indicators I've learned to wait on: the spark of memory, the hard-bond connection to it, the imagination that gets set free, the impossible-to-ignore compulsion, at last, to sit down and start writing.
Consequently, my occasional opportunities to talk to aspiring writers about how to go about tackling a novel tend toward mundane platitudes:
1. You have to start it.
2. You have to keep at it.
3. You have to bear down when it gets tough.
4. You have to keep going.
Point is, I'm not gifted in the ways of teaching writers. I figured out what works for me, and even then, my success rate falls well short of 100 percent. Not everything I start gets finished. Not everything I finish is worth publishing. It's just the way of things.
As for my flaccid advice above, it is, at the least, accurate. You can't write a novel unless you start writing a novel.
But let's look at the other side of it: You can't finish one without ending it, either.
My favorite moment in the process of drafting a novel comes fairly late, when at last I see not only where the road ends but also a clear view of how I'm going to get there. When, exactly, this moment comes is variable. Sometimes I see it from the distance of thousands of words and have to buckle up for a long ride to it. Sometimes I don't see it until I'm almost on top of it, rather like rounding a bend and seeing your destination city laid out and sparkling before you.
Whenever the moment comes, it heralds an important development: I'm going to finish the first draft of this thing. First drafts lead to second drafts, which are my favorite part. That's when I find out whether this thing I've done is worth a damn.
I've never made much of a secret of this: I often know how a story will end before I write the first word of it.
Now, I'm not always right. But I often am. In the case of 600 Hours of Edward, I knew every word of the last line before I wrote any of the other 70-some-odd-thousand words that precede it. And sure enough, when Edward got there, the ending I envisioned was waiting for him. I had no expectation that such a thing would happen again—hell, I had no expectation that there would be a second novel—and that lack of assumption has served me well in the inevitable cases of endings that never come because I can't get out of the muck and arrive at them.
But it has happened occasionally, a function of cinematic thinking, I believe. When I write, I'm also cueing a movie that never gets released and plays for an audience of one: It's an interior visual guide to the look and feel and tone and quality of the story I'm trying to write. Even when Edward was just a flicker of a thought, I could see an ending for him. The struggle lay in getting him there. I had no idea how to do that. That's the voyage of discovery that makes the whole undertaking worthwhile.
Here, then, are nine novels' worth of endings (I'll leave the ending of Dreaming Northward to you, sometime this coming spring), along with any interesting (or not) details about them (click the covers to learn more about the books):
"All I have to do is look both ways and cross."
As I said above, these were the 11 words I knew when I began to write Edward's story on Nov. 1, 2008. What the rest would be was a delicious mystery that I hoped I could solve.
"And still I wondered: If my children someday learn my secrets, what will they think of me?"
I'm not a father (except of pups and kitties), but a couple of times, I've had to find my way with a character who is. Mitch Quillen was speaking clearly to me by the end of that book.
"I know she is."
Despite Edward Stanton's love of language, my dude tends toward the simple observations. In the second novel featuring him, he ended with brevity. I didn't see it coming.
"I know this much, too: Never again will we keep our hearts waiting."
I'm going to say it: This one remains a little cryptic, even to me. But sportswriter Mark Westerly said it with such finality that I had to trust him.
"His son moved closer, almost imperceptibly, and then, in an instant, fully there, and Samuel slipped a hand across the older man’s shoulders, and Sam leaned into the warmth of his child and waited and hoped for the despair to pass, as all things surely must."
I got nothin'. Didn't see it coming. I love open endings, and man, is that one wide freakin' open.
"That’s a fact."
Hi, Edward. Of all the characters I've written, he's the least like me but also the one who speaks most unmistakably to me. Will I write him again? If he demands it, absolutely.
"Can you believe that?"
Out of context, it's a little hard to catch the nuance of what disgraced and defeated newspaper editor Carson McCullough is saying. It's pure incredulity, a good sign for his life beyond the page, I think.
"Be the ripple."
As it turns out, this was Elisa's line, and I think it's just perfect. She, in fact, was the one who recommended ending the story the way we did; I'd had a different, lesser idea. Collaboration for the win!
"Even without doing the math, Max could see so many ways all of this could flow."
I knew where the story for Max Wendt would end. (Max, in my opinion, goes on and on beyond the strictures of the book.) But I didn't know the words until we got there and found them shimmering on the Maine seashore.
...if you'll indulge me.
This will be focused not on prose, necessarily, but on the blending of words, inspired by a lyric I can't stop thinking about.
But first, a digression:
At Christmas last year, my wife gave me a lot of stuff for my home office, knowing I would be starting a new job early in the new year. Chief among these gifts was a turntable, which has gone on to spur some prodigious purchasing of vinyl. Old stuff, mostly, but some new, too. One of the latter is the latest from Ben Folds, titled What Matters Most. I love this album. Love. It. And no song holds my adoration more than the last one of Side A, called "Kristine From the 7th Grade."
The song—about ending up on the mailing list of a QAnon-style conspiracy theorist the narrator remembers with fondness from long ago—has all the wonderful Folds touches that I've admired for almost half my life: melancholia and tenderness and empathy and yearning. It also has a sentence construction that just enchants me:
I got the emails these last two years, every day...
There's something about the order of things here that gives me the same spinal tingle I experience when I read a moving passage of prose, or hear a line delivered just so on film, or what have you. A journalist might be inclined to rearrange the boxcars into a more orderly procession: I got the emails every day for the last two years. But to my way of thinking, the magic goes right out of it if you do that. The point here is every day. It's the punctuation. The two years might have been endured if not for the every day. Paired with Folds' inimitable ability to tap into the emotion of what he's singing, the whole effect is purely and sadly beautiful.
Now, I don't know enough about songwriting to say with any authority what Ben Folds was aiming for here. Any number of factors could have influenced his decision about ordering the words. All I know is the feeling his choices, arranged this way, draw out of me.
When my wife and I got together, we talked a lot about writing, which shouldn't surprise anyone. But as we dug into craft and habit and the rest, we also talked about what we admire in each other. I'll always be moved by her telling me that I arrange things in surprising patterns, with combinations and riffs that it wouldn't occur to her to try. (And why should she? Elisa is already a great writer.)
I can't say I do so with any sort of overarching plan: By God, even if it kills me, I'm going to arrange these words in surprising patterns. But I do listen to the beats and consider the light and color of what I'm writing as much as I do what the words actually mean. It makes a difference. At least to me.
It's Saturday, October 7, and I'd much obliged if you'd hold a thought for the authors who have descended on Billings, Montana, this weekend. It was nearly a year ago to the day that I white-knuckled it through panel discussions and a lovely banquet, waiting to find out if And It Will Be a Beautiful Life had won the High Plains Book Award for fiction.
It had, which still fills me with wonder and gratitude.
A year has gone by, and 37 more books—spanning 13 categories—by some really terrific authors are up for consideration. In a short period, the High Plains awards have become among the most sought-after regional literary prizes in the country. It's quite an event and quite an honor.
Please send your best wishes to everyone who made it this far.
... if you'll indulge me:
The solitude inherent in composition is something I find absolutely indispensable to the experience of trying to write a novel. It might not be my favorite part—it's awfully hard to top the feeling of completing a first draft or holding the published artifact in your hands for the first time—but I cherish it nonetheless. If it were suddenly not a part of the effort, if writing became a spectator sport or, worse, if I were relegated to a minor participant in the whole endeavor ("AI, take a wheel"), I would just quit. Be done. The joy would be gone.
This is not to say that I believe the writing of a novel to be an iconoclastic endeavor. Not at all. By choice and habit and history, I'm alone on the first draft. The second. Maybe the third. But even then, even with those two words "the" and "end" on the last page, I'm far from being finished.
And this is where I start getting by with a little help from my friends.
Some writers swear by the workshop. If you've not experienced it firsthand, you've probably seen it in the movies. A pile of red meat in the form of pages is thrown to a group of other writers, who tear into it with equal measures of hostility and glee.
Who am I to argue? I didn't come from the academy.
I swear by the beta reader. This is someone tactically chosen to read a manuscript at a fraught point—for me, that's when I've done as much as I can do with it alone and still know in my heart I haven't done nearly enough—and provide actionable feedback on what works and, especially, what doesn't.
I choose different beta readers for different reasons, and though there have been repeat invitees over the years, the roster tends to change with the project. Three to five people, generally. Enough to get an accurate sample, to weed out the outlying sentiments, and a manageable enough number so I don't lose sight of what compelled the work in the first place. I never want to get separated from my own vision. I just want to be challenged so the work, in the end, is better.
So I choose on the basis of life experience, temperament, wisdom, intelligence, and specialized knowledge about the subject matter of my work. I'm lucky to have many, many friends who fall broadly into those categories. I choose on the basis of someone's ability to separate herself from her own inclination for how to resolve something (that's my job) and instead simply articulate why she sees a problem.
I've been very, very lucky in my choices for these roles. They've made my work immeasurably better. I simply couldn't do it without them.
I was thinking of this today when I finally got off my duff and picked up the manuscript I'm calling She Heightened Everything, after the printout has sat for months on my office table. (You can see a snippet of it above.) Several weeks ago, one of the beta readers I asked to participate sent me her feedback, and man, was it extensive. Like I said, I've been very, very lucky.
Almost all of it was useful to me, but even that couldn't overcome my hesitation to re-engage with the manuscript. I've been preoccupied with a new job, other creative endeavors, and uncertainty about when the book in front of it is going to at last be published. (I think we'll have an answer soon.) She Heightened Everything has felt so far away from my immediate range of concerns that I've simply been unwilling to dredge it off the hard drive and get moving.
But today, I felt differently about it. So I set my shoulder into it and started working through my beta reader's laundry list of concerns. I'm not through everything, and there are some things on which we simply disagree (this is inevitable and natural and fine), but I'm back in it.
She's making my work better. I don't know when you'll see it, or if you'll see it, but it's better today than it was yesterday, and that's everything.
Thanks, Courtney. I owe you, big time.
As I write this, I'm nearly a week out from one of the most extraordinary creative experiences of my life.
On Friday, Aug. 11, after watching a talent/improv show and getting writing prompts from that, I and five other writers hunkered down at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts in Billings, Montana, and wrote six original one-act plays. We had less than 12 hours to finish our work.
After that, six directors and cast members handled rehearsals, costuming, and the construction of sets. On the second night of the Wet Ink Festival 2023, those six one-act plays were presented.
It was pure exhilaration, from start to finish. I marveled at the talent all around me—the writers, the directors, the performers, the indefatigable nature of our organizer, Gustavo Bellotta. The audience that showed up to celebrate with us. I entered the weekend having serious doubts as to whether I had the stamina for such an endeavor. I left wanting to do it again. And again.
Some time back, I added a Plays section to this website. I'm hesitant to claim the mantle of playwright, but I'm also determined. Two of my one-acts have now been staged. I expect news soon about bigger things. Mostly, I'm just so thrilled to learn more about how to do this and give my storytelling another outlet, one that's very much complementary to the solitary nature of writing novels.
As I wrote on Facebook, part of the joy—and the melancholy—of Wet Ink is that creation bloomed in one evening, was presented in another, then was gone with the wind. These plays will probably never be presented again, at least not in the form they took last weekend. Maybe someone has a bigger idea that will grow out of that one act. I think my play, titled Your Mouth Is Moving a Lot, is probably one-and-done.
But the shows must go on. Our host for the weekend, NOVA, has a long-term mission of bringing high-quality performances to Billings. To help with that in a modest way, I'm selling digital copies of my script for $3. All net proceeds get turned over to NOVA. If you're inclined to help, you have my gratitude.
*—from the song of the same name by the Pernice Brothers.
It was pure happenstance that I remembered, about a week ago, that this summer marks twenty years since I reached a professional mile marker. Twenty years! For lovers of sports, nostalgia, and big, round numbers, here we go ...
Twenty years ago, I embarked on my first—and only—season as a full-time beat writer covering a professional sports team. That team: the Oakland Raiders. My assignment: Get out in the field for a season and get to know the life of a beat writer from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, as I'd done for many previous years. It was presented to me as a bit of a cross-training exercise, in which I'd expand my professional repertoire in preparation for bigger editorial jobs to come.
Twenty years is a long time, so you're forgiven if you don't remember that particular edition of the Oakland Raiders, who aren't even the Oakland Raiders anymore, having lit out for Las Vegas a few years back.
So here's a quick refresher: The previous year's team, the 2002-03 Raiders, went to the Super Bowl in San Diego. Where their troubled star center, Barret Robbins, went missing. Where their former coach, Jon Gruden, stood on the opposite sideline with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And where the Raiders got thoroughly trounced, 48-21.
And that's as good as it got for the Raiders, Oakland or Las Vegas, for going on 21 years now ...
But when I parachuted into training camp in Napa, Calif., in July 2003, the debacle in San Diego seemed like a blip on an upward trajectory. The smart money was on either the Raiders or the Chiefs, a division rival, representing the AFC in the Super Bowl several months in the distance.
(The Raiders finished 4-12 that season, the Chiefs a highly respectable 13-3, and the New England Patriots went to the Super Bowl and won it, so give it up, everybody, for sports prognosticators!)
In short, it was an awful season for the Raiders, who unraveled amid losses, injuries, locker room insurrections, comical ineptitude, and a little thing called the Balco steroid scandal, which landed with a particular thud on Bay Area athletes (and would come to dominate the next few years of my professional life). A few quick-hit memories, through the haze of twenty years:
I remember riding the elevator down to the locker room in Detroit, after a putrid loss to a bad Lions team (is there any other kind?). Matt Millen was the GM of the Lions then, and he was well known to the Bay Area reporters on that elevator ride, having played for the Raiders and the 49ers. Someone asked Millen how he was doing. "I just watched two teams kick each other in the nuts for four quarters," he said. A columnist from a rival paper turned to me and said, "Sometimes, they just put their tongue directly in your mouth."
I remember coach Bill Callahan, after an equally putrid loss to the Jets, calling the Raiders "the dumbest team in America." Nobody could argue, of course, but if you're a coach and you say something like that, you're not long for the job you're in. Callahan was out at the end of the season, became the head coach at Nebraska for a truly forgettable stretch, then reasserted himself as one of the finer position coaches in the NFL. Some coaches are meant for the trenches, not the big time.
I remember a comical search for beer in Pittsburgh after a game (and a loss) against the Steelers. Blue laws, man.
I remember missing the second game of the season—at home against Cincinnati, one of the Raiders' four wins—because I had tickets to see R.E.M. in Las Vegas long before I took the position as beat writer. I'd make the same decision a hundred times out of a hundred. (Alas, R.E.M. is as extant as pro football in Oakland. Time doesn't stand still.)
I remember being in the stadium in Oakland for a truly transcendent night, when the Packers' Brett Favre, awash in the grief over his father's death, had one of the best games of his career. I wrote about it for The Athletic, my former employer, if you're interested. (The story is behind a paywall, but if you have a NY Times subscription, you're golden.)
I remember being sick as a dog for the last, blessed game of the season, a loss to the Chargers in San Diego. Callahan, knowing he was cooked, benched a lot of the players who had risen up against him (including Hall of Famer Charles Woodson). Afterward, the media gaggle crowded star wide receiver Tim Brown in the locker room for his take on a season gone horribly wrong. He said, "Do you guys really want to get into it?" We crowded closer. And Tim obliged us. The man had a gift for the moment.
In the video below, I talk with The Open Mic host Rich Ehisen about, well, books, but we also gab about that Raiders season. Rich, bless him, is a Raiders fan. Hold a thought for the man.
For all those memories, what I remember most fondly is the group of reporters I worked alongside every day and traveled with to Dallas (preseason), Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. Working a beat is immersive and endless, and you write enough words to stock a library. From July to January, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 stories (I used to know the exact number). I made countless trips up and down the 880. I slept on airplanes and in transit lounges. I ate sumptuous meals—come on, a month in Napa on expense account?—and enough press box hot dogs to kill a lesser man.
And those folks from other papers and media outlets, doing the same job I was doing, scrapping out coverage, were terrific and helpful and fun. So: Phil and Cork and Gregg and Wags and Nancy and Bill (RIP) and Jerry and Janie, twenty years on, I remember all of you. It was a slog. But it was also a pleasure.
(I even came away from that gig with a nickname, one only those named above are allowed to call me: Dewey. For Dewey Oxburger, John Candy's character in Stripes. Apparently, I bear a resemblance. I dunno.)
The rest of the story ...
In January 2004, after finishing up the season, then covering the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am as the reporter who writes notebooks and sidebars (the best job), I was summoned back into the office and made a deputy sports editor. A year or so later, I moved into the big chair, as sports editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
That seems a long time ago, too, because it is. In 2006, I moved to Montana. In 2008, I began writing novels. I spend way more time thinking about payment rails and art (divergent subjects, for sure) than I do thinking about sports, nostalgia aside. Another NFL season is coming, which will gain only a sliver of my attention. It's funny how something can be so central to your life for so long, then move to the background, or out of it altogether.
Life, man. It changes. We change with it. The way it goes. The way it has to be.
*--First in a series, if I can remember to do them. I've been posting these for years on Facebook. This is a better home for them.
I write fiction in a linear way (so far, at least). I start at the beginning of my idea and write, in some number of sessions, until I reach the end of it. Now, certainly, in subsequent drafts, I'll sometimes move scenes around, delete things altogether, write intervening chapters, whatever. But for first-draft purposes, to this point, I begin at the beginning and end at the end.
Several states of mind tend to accompany this not terribly unusual method of work. Among them are the thrill of having gotten started, the initial burst of industry, the where-the-hell-am-I-going-and-how-the-hell-am-I-gonna-get-there uncertainty of the thick middle, the crises of confidence, and the relief of busting through the boulders in my path.
Then there's the final stretch, when I can see the end out there in the distance like a beacon but I'm still some miles away. My foot grows heavy on the gas. I rush. The care I take earlier in the draft, when I'll double back to previous chapters and scenes and buff them with a chamois cloth, falls away. I grow restless with the journey and bear down on that point in the distance, waiting for it to grow larger on the other side of the windshield. I stretch, hard, so I can feel the cocaine rush of typing "The End."
Subsequently, I often find that my second (and third, and fourth ...) drafts are unbalanced affairs: light touchups at the beginning, where I've been more deliberate and careful, and massive reworking in the final chapters, where I've been hasty and over-eager.
All of this is an overly long way of saying that the 500 pages I printed out in March and set on the edge of my work table are calling to me. It took me nearly eight years of start-again/stop-again work to draft the damn thing. The first third is good, for as much as I've touched it. The middle is sturdy, if in need of some polish and targeted fortification. The end? I have work to do.
Back I go ...
Welcome to the first installment of what I hope can become an occasional series here: You pose a question, and I answer it.
Today's question came unprompted from a Facebook friend, and the answer illuminates an interesting little side story to the Edward series of books. Let's dig in:
Q: I started reading 600 Hours of Edward yesterday, and in one edition I have he mentions the Billings Gazette, but in another it's the Billings Herald-Gleaner. Since this is a rare occasion when I can ask an author a question I have about a book when I have it, why is that?
I don't know that I've ever addressed this in a wide-open public forum before.
To grasp what happened here, we must go back to the writing of 600 Hours of Edward. That's a long time ago (late 2008) and far, far away. (OK, not really. I wrote that book about five miles from where I sit right now.)
In late 2008, when I was writing the first draft of 600 Hours, I was working nights at the Billings Gazette as a copy editor. I saw no problem with using the actual name of the paper in the manuscript. The paper was a small part of the story, and the invocation of the paper's name was benign. Nobody got impugned.
Also, at that point, I had no way of knowing that this one story I was sort of writing on a lark would ever be published. The idea that it might someday grow into what it became, spawning two subsequent novels, would have been preposterous to allow into my head.
So ... let's fast-forward to 2012 ...
600 Hours has been out for a few years, and quite unexpectedly, it has become a little underground success story. It hasn't sold many copies, but it has received a couple of nice awards and some good press. The original publisher, a small press here in Montana, has decided to sell the publication rights to a much larger publisher with an international footprint. This larger concern acquires those rights with the idea that it will release a brand-new version of the book in August 2012, followed by the sequel, Edward Adrift, in 2013.
Edward Adrift, as I don't have to tell anyone who's read it, features the Billings newspaper as a much bigger plot player. And the references are far less complimentary. My problem: At this point, I still work at the Billings newspaper. Not good. Not comfortable.
So I reach out to my new publisher with a suggestion: How about we change the name of the newspaper in the original story to something entirely fictitious (that right there is what we call plausible deniability!) and carry that new name through the sequel? Thus was born the Billings Herald-Gleaner (because if you're going to put a fake name on your newspaper, make it a funny one).
I did realize we would leave some readers confused, but frankly, it's a pretty small number. I think the original version of 600 Hours of Edward sold fewer than 1,000 copies, and the 2012 re-release has sold upward of 200,000 across all of the languages in which it appears. For the vast preponderance of readers of the Edward books, the newspaper is and has always been the Billings Herald-Gleaner, not the Billings Gazette.
Meanwhile, changing the newspaper's name meant I could continue to go to work without fear of having insulted my employer in a way that would have harmed either of us.
A couple of final takeaways: My career at that newspaper ended just a few months after Edward Adrift was released, so I don't think changing the name of the paper in the book had any real effect, other than making me feel better about things. But there's a larger lesson here, one I've applied in the writing of subsequent books: It's fiction, so why not be fictitious? Business names, particularly, tend to be transient anyway. In an odd way, a piece of fiction can remain a lot more timely with invented references than it can with references to real-life things that might not survive a shift in fortunes or consumer habits.
Friendships are funny things.
Sometimes, they exist in a fixed place and time, sturdy and strong for a particular period in our lives. A counselor of mine, Jane Estelle, once told me that human relationships are often like cab rides. They have beginnings and ends. That was wise. It's true.
Sometimes, though, friendships are a ride that never ends. You don't reach a station and get out of the car. You keep going, through years and locales and jobs and other relationships and seasons of your life.
And sometimes they are both. They are fixed in time and endless. Those are the best friendships.
Dan Gensel was that kind of friend to me.
Dan Gensel is gone.
I moved to Kenai, Alaska, in November of 1991. I was 21 years old, and I didn't know anybody there. I'd come from my hometown, North Richland Hills, Texas, and had taken a job as the sports editor at the Peninsula Clarion newspaper. Why? Why not? I was 21 and unencumbered. Alaska was far away. I wanted to go and could go, and that's a combination I wasn't always going to be able to put together. Now, for example. Couldn't do it. Won't do it. Want-to isn't even a factor.
Years ago, I wrote a piece for the radio program Reflections West about that time in my life and the factors compelling me to move north. You can listen to it here.
My first week in Alaska, I covered a Kenai Central High School-Soldotna High School girls basketball game. It featured two of the best players in the state, two of the best players in the history of the state: Stacia Rustad of Kenai and Molly Tuter of Soldotna. On one sideline was Coach Craig Jung of Kenai, a man I'd come to greatly admire in my brief time there. On the other sideline was Coach Dan Gensel. He and Craig were great friends and ardent competitors. Stacia and Kenai were coming off a state championship; Molly and Soldotna would win one a year later.
I didn't know any of that. I was just a new-in-town sportswriter, trying to figure things out.
The photo above, of Dan and Melissa Smith, one of the kids I covered that season, isn't from the game in question, but it's a good approximation of the Dan Gensel of my memories. After the game, which Kenai won, he sat in the bleachers with me and just talked. Where you from? How'd you come to this job? What's your background? Getting-to-know-you stuff. I liked him, right from the start. Later, I met his wife, Kathy, and his daughter, Andrea, and liked them, too. In time, it became love. But it was like, from the get-go.
Those were lonely days for me, 4,000 miles from home, alone, barely scraping by, driving an on-the-verge Ford Escort and living in a one-room apartment. Dan and Kathy took me out for my 22nd birthday, just a few months later. Dan gave me seats on school buses to far-flung tournaments and let me sleep on his hotel room floor sometimes when that was the difference between my being able to cover something and not.
He also gave me a basketball education, one I tucked away, then unveiled when I wrote a short story about a wunderkind basketball player and a coach and a town that loses all sense of proportion. Here's an excerpt from Somebody Has to Lose:
“Mendy, it’s like this.” He squared up to the basket, squeezing the ball between his hands and planting a pivot foot. “First option: jump shot.” Into the air he went, releasing the ball at the peak of his jump and watching it backspin softly into the net. Cash, her face red, gathered the ball and rifled it back to him.
“Second option: drive.” Paul took two dribbles into the lane and then fell back to his spot on the periphery.
“Third option: make the next pass.” He slung the ball to Victoria Ford, directly to his left on the wing. “You know better than to just throw the ball over without even looking.”
Paul turned to the players clumped on the sideline. “Shoot, drive, pass. When you get the ball in this offense, that’s the sequence. I don’t want anybody not following it, you got that?”
Yes, sir,” the girls answered glumly.
"You get the ball. If the defender has collapsed into the middle, you shoot the open shot. If they’re crowding you, drive around them. If you’re covered, make the next pass. This is not difficult. Run it again.”
That right there, in just a few paragraphs, is the Dan Gensel philosophy of basketball. It inverts the conventional wisdom of the time—pass first, shoot later—into a kinetic, high-scoring, fun way of playing.
And, man, was he ever successful. Won a lot of games. Won a state championship. Made the hall of fame.
But that's not what I remember most about him.
I remember that he and Kathy and Andrea became family, particularly after I came back to Alaska in 1995 for a three-plus-year stint at the Anchorage Daily News.
I remember that I was a regular guest on their downstairs couch, so much so that it developed an imprint of me.
I remember that they tolerated movie nights when I'd make them watch Ed Wood and Pulp Fiction, fare that was decidedly not up their alley.
I remember later visits in California and Las Vegas.
I remember Andrea's wedding in the early aughts down in San Diego, when Dan asked me to give the speech before the father's speech. Predictably, I went for funny and warm, extolling my love for a family and a young woman I'd watched grow up. Dan, after me, had everybody in tears with his love for his little girl. Later, in a quiet moment between us, Dan said, "I knew you'd take them one way and I'd bring them back the other." Teamwork, baby.
I remember Dan's closing out the wedding reception by climbing atop a table and lip-synching "Don't Stop Believing." I hate that song, but I love that man.
I remember, a few years later, Dan's serving as the best man at my first wedding. The marriage didn't last. The friendship endured.
I remember all the times we talked about getting together over the past decade or so. I remember that we didn't make it happen. That'll be the only thing I regret.
It's like I said: It's a friendship fixed in time and eternal. I'll carry it now, for however long I'm around. There's been a lot of that these past few years. Too much.
It's been a long while since Dan was a basketball coach. In his final years, he was a sports radio guy--a damned good one—and a grandpa, a role he made his own in an inimitable way.
He and Kathy became community stalwarts in Soldotna. Andrea and her husband, Lee, are right there. It's been a good life. It will continue to be a good life, I'm sure, but those who love Dan will have to live with a big hole in it.
It's a testament to the community Dan helped me build thirty-odd years ago that one of his former players, someone with whom I've been close since I was a 21-year-old green sportswriter riding a school bus, contacted me with the news. I spent just six months in that job at the Peninsula Clarion. My Facebook page is full of people I knew then and still know now, and I'm a lucky boy, indeed.
Dan was 34 when I met him and 66 when he died, and that's both a long time and not nearly enough of it. I'll miss him.
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.