What's Up With Craig?
A BLOG THAT DRIFTS INTO HIGH ART,
LOW HUMOR, and RANDOM OBSERVATIONS
OF THE WRITING LIFE
Photo by Casey Page
Thank goodness for Facebook memories—I guess—as I otherwise would not have seen that I posted this picture and this comment on my timeline 11 years ago:
Eleven years seems like a long time ago, perhaps because it was a long time ago. And 11 years ago, I would have been loath to discuss the following topic, which I'm only too happy to discuss today:
I am not, for the purposes of self-identity or self-esteem, a bestselling author or an international bestseller or an author whose works have been widely translated or a two-time High Plains Book Award winner.
I am, for the purposes of advertising and marketing, all of those things.
The differences between am not and am are profound, and learning to understand and appreciate those differences took me a long time and no doubt occasionally made me fairly insufferable.
Live and learn.
I think I can tell you exactly how my first novel, in 2013, went straight up to No. 1, if I may borrow from Bad Company. Of course, I'm biased in the analysis, so I'll tell you that writing a good book had something to do with it. I'm a realist, too, so I'll also say it had far more to do with a rising tide of readers eager to acquire e-books, a publisher with unparalleled access to those readers, and a price that encouraged those e-reader-wielding book lovers to take a chance on my novel without an onerous investment.
Consequently, that book—and I—had a very, very good day (and week and month, and, really, a few good years). I'm nothing but grateful. And, sure, from a marketing perspective, I appreciate the bestseller label. It has had a far longer life than the actual bestselling ever did. We—the royal we of the publishing universe—hold fast to a bestseller status because we think it helps sell books. We festoon award stickers on hardcovers and paperbacks because we think it helps sell books. We seek out testimonials from other authors because we think it helps sell books. (And, on the flip side, we try to say yes to authors asking us to supply testimonials for their books because we really, really hope it helps sell books!)
And at least to some extent, I'm certain all of that is helpful. But the degree of help is ephemeral and unmeasurable, and that's why the best an author can ultimately do is to (a) write the best book possible at the time of the undertaking and (b) work as hard as possible on its behalf once it has emerged into the world. Those are controllable factors. The rest...are not.
Harder to accept, I think, is the truth that my friend Allen Morris Jones, one of my favorite authors, recently laid bare in his excellent newsletter, Storytelling for Human Beings:
"There is very little rhyme to literary fame, almost no discernible reason. The breadth of your talent and the depth of your persistence are only a couple chunks of okra in that roiling, haphazard whatchagot stew of literary recognition. A few lucky souls end up making a reputation and a living. The rest of us tread water, watching our ship churn away over the horizon."
That's sobering, yeah? Still, sobriety is vastly preferable to drunkenness on one's own marketing materials. I had a blast that day 11 years ago, I sold hundreds and hundreds of books, I made a fair amount of money (all of it now gone), and I didn't have to do anything stupid in the bargain. I'll continue to use the bestseller label, even if the fuller context is "author of a handful of bestselling books and a larger handful that you probably haven't read, not that he's complaining."
Luckily, the limited room on a book cover rewards brevity in these matters.
I suppose this could be a Saturday Morning Craft Talk, except it's not Saturday morning* and it's not particularly crafty. So scratch that. No. No, it couldn't.
It does, however, speak to an aspect of the writing life, one that varies wildly from writer to writer, if my conversations with colleagues and contemporaries are any guide. What does one do with the ideas when they're not actively being worked on?
It's a good question, one with a slapdash answer for me. I'd love to be a capital-letter Artiste, with a leather-bound notebook that never leaves my side, with stacks of brimming journals, with a catalog of every thought I've ever had and a handwritten account of every beauty I've ever witnessed.
I'm just a guy with a brain, such as it is. My ideas—what I've thought of doing, what I'd like to do, what I'm considering, what I've started and not finished, etc.—are all in there, in some stage of marination. It's no doubt a terribly inefficient system, but I'm not complaining. I wrote my first novel in 2008, a breakthrough that came after years of wanting to and not really knowing how. Since then, I've not lacked ideas; indeed, I often describe my notions as being backed up like planes on the runway. But an archivist, I am not. Nor an inventory specialist. Nor a tour guide. Whatever I will or might do is up here—*taps head with index finger*—and I'm the guy with the key. I'll take the key, and the ideas, with me when I go.
And that will be that.
I've written before about the linear way in which I work—start at the beginning, then write straight through until the end, if I can get there. (I've also written before about how that linearity is subject to the needs of revision, when I'll happily move things around, delete things altogether, or augment the bits that aren't quite cooked.) This, too, is a terribly inefficient system, in that my early days of writing fiction were marked by a sense of loss and bewilderment when a manuscript just didn't go. I'd stash whatever I'd managed to do on a hard drive somewhere, nurse my wounds, shake off the disappointment, then try again with another idea. Fortunately, a new one would be at the ready. Planes and runways and all that.
Those half-baked attempts, tucked away in their little folders, were dead things I couldn't bring myself to bury, even though I knew I wouldn't resuscitate them. A few things got salvaged for other purposes--Somebody Has to Lose, at 14,000 words my longest short story, is one such reclamation. But mostly, they take up computer memory and lie dead and crumbling.
This used to bother me a lot, just from the standpoint of industry: All that work for nothing. All those words expended and nothing tangible to hold.
Boy, was I wrong.
For one thing—and apologies for such a hoary cliche—there's a lesson in every failure, and not every failure is what it seems. This would have come as quite the surprise to the me of 15 years ago, who upon breaking through and at last writing a novel thought he had figured everything out.
I didn't know anything. If possible, I know even less today than I knew then. Or I simply know different, better things.
I've learned to wait on it. The manuscript that became And It Will Be a Beautiful Life came out slowly amid several stops and starts, and over the course of a few years. I started it in Montana, pecked away at it in Maine, and found my way through, at last, upon returning to heart earth. It wasn't entirely a function of geography, though I'm convinced that had much to do with it. I simply had the patience to wait for the memories and the imagination to steep properly. That's age. That's experience. That's trust. That's love.
A while back, an artist friend introduced me to a well-known author with this: "Craig is a book-a-year guy." True once, but not so much anymore. As a less experienced novelist, I wouldn't have trusted myself to wait for the right idea to emerge in its own time. I wanted, needed, to write the next book, and quickly, if only to prove to myself that I still could.
Today, I have no such worries. I know I can do it. I also know the idea I should be working on will let me know when it's ready. Giving it time and space to bloom is granting myself grace in the bargain. I'm increasing the likelihood that I'll find my way through because I'm letting the thing come to me instead of stampeding it.
So, about the planes and the runway...
My next novel is just a couple of weeks from being released, the idea having germinated and taken root and blossomed nicely. The one likely to be next is written and ready for the publishing gamut, and that took me the better part of a decade, start to finish. After that? Planes on the runway, baby. I have three manuscripts in various stages of development. I suspect, but don't know, that all will find their way to the finish line. (Big disclaimer: If I have enough time. I've reached a time of life when I worry less about the ideas and more about whether I'll be around to snag all of them.) I'm enchanted with all three stories, but it's not time to finish any of them yet. Soon. Eventually. I trust the process, if not the clock.
At long last, I trust the process.
*--It's Monday afternoon. Thanks for the long weekend, presidents.
*—subject to change and, more likely, additions
It's 2024. (No, really, it is.) But let's think back to 2021...
In June of that year, And It Will Be a Beautiful Life came out. We—most of us—had endured a long year-plus of isolation and staying away from each other. But we were opening up, and I was eager to get out on the road again with a new book, something I hadn't really done since The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, nearly seven long years earlier.
Then came new waves of COVID-19, and most of the in-person dates I'd lined up fell by the wayside. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life hung in there, eventually winning a High Plains Book Award, but I never had the experience I hoped for with that book. It's not about me, of course. Discretion was served. I wouldn't change a single decision to scuttle an event.
But here I am, nearly three years later, still eager to get out there ... and, what luck, I have a book to serve as my travel companion. Dreaming Northward and I are hitting the road. Here in the heart of winter, I'm dreaming of spring.
The image above shows the current dates and towns on the calendar: Billings, of course, and Miles City and Great Falls and Livingston and Bozeman and Casper and Townsend and, just for kicks, a trip home to North Texas, where I hope to see family and longtime friends. I'll be having conversations with great writers and great friends (Sarah Rau Peterson! Kristen Inbody! Malcolm Brooks!). A lot of these events are going to be out-and-back affairs, meaning a lot of me time in the trusty Toyota. I can think of worse ways to while away the hours. The Bozeman-and-Casper back-to-back (April 26-27) is going to be fun. I'm thrilled that Casper—my first home and a central character in the book, but a place where I've never had a literary event—is on the itinerary.
I expect there will be more. (The most up-to-date information is always here on my website.) At least a couple of engagements are in the close-but-not-yet-announced stage. A few others need to be hashed out. The point is, the road can go on as long as is practical. Want me to visit? Let me know. On a few of these dates, I'm about certain that Fretless will be accompanying me, so if the book I was born to write isn't enough inducement, maybe the world's most ironically named dachshund is. I'll be pleased to see you, no matter your motivation for showing up.
The title here is paraphrased from something I saw on LinkedIn. (For a whole different view of how I spend my days, hit me up over there.)
It resonated for a couple of reasons. One, it was a different wording of an old concept, and that's always appealing. Second, and more important, I was a day removed from a six-hour stretch of standing in front of high school classes and talking to kids about the writing life.
(Quick side note: Whatever your talents, whatever your field(s) of endeavor, I cannot recommend classroom visits highly enough. It's a chance to contribute, to give a teacher a much-needed respite, and to help give shape to students' possibilities beyond the classroom, a time that is coming up on them quickly and for which they're probably not fully prepared.)
During my visit, I would start by introducing myself to each class and saying, yes, I wrote the book you just read (in this case, 600 Hours of Edward, which is on the approved reading list for Billings high schools), but I also do other things.
At the time I wrote 600 Hours, I was a copy editor at the Billings Gazette. Later, I was a pipeline inspection specialist (a fancy title for pig tracker). Still later, I was a senior editor at The Athletic. Now, I'm an analyst for a research firm. I design Montana Quarterly magazine. I take on freelance editing and design gigs that interest me. I write novels and plays and sometimes even poems, although those are mostly bad.
Those are a lot of different things, but they share one key commonality: They're not just ways to make a buck. They are things I do and things I am, and that manner of describing them is something I trot out regularly, because it's such a complete summation. That intrinsic sense of purpose and being keeps me focused through the vicissitudes and drudgeries of a workaday life. That work, whether for a salary or for the variable and uncertain recompense of royalties, can't just be about making a buck, necessary as that is.
I told the classes that, yes, of course, I sometimes find myself wishing I had more time for the creative things I do. But the truth is, I would miss the payments analyst part of my life if I gave it up every bit as much as I'd miss the toil of writing a novel if that fell away from me. It is at this point that I diverge from some of the artists I admire most, who talk about the art-centered life in almost monastic terms. Or maybe I just use a different definition to arrive at the same idea. Art is at the center of my life, in that there would not be a life worth living without it, but it shares that space with myriad other things that constitute who I am and how I engage with the world around me.
So ... the trophy and the game. Some people don't think they've made it until they've made it: until they've reached some perch, garnered some award, ascended to some income bracket, been elevated to some stratosphere. And, in some cases, reaching those levels is the test case for happiness.
I think that puts happiness—a transitory quality anyway—in a narrow, often inaccessible place. The game—the process, if you will—is where the action is. Play the game hard and faithfully, however it's defined, and the trophies have a way of either showing up or making a subtle reveal of themselves as something you never imagined they could be.
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:
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.
*--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.
I. On the Feeling
My tenth novel, Dreaming Northward (The Story Plant), comes out next spring. I’m no more impervious to big, round numbers than anyone else is, and the imminent publication of a tenth novel—particularly when I once had serious, serious doubts that I’d ever write, much less publish, even one—is a good occasion for a bit of reflection.
I’ve learned a lot about how to do this, enough that sometimes I’m even prepared to believe I’ve gotten good at it.
I’ve learned a lot about humility, which forecloses any chance that I’ll linger long on “gee, I’ve gotten good at this.”
I’ve learned a lot about what’s fleeting and what’s durable.
I’ve learned that it’s all about love.
What that last bit looks like, for me, hinges on memory and imagination, the crucial elements of fiction, in my estimation, but also fairly punchless without love.
It’s loving the work. Loving the characters who get conjured in the work. Loving each new project with the whole of your heart, even if—and especially if—you must love it enough to let it go. There has been a lot of this, more than I ever imagined there could be. When I get down to diagnosing why an idea didn’t take off the way I hoped it would, I almost always land on a memory to which I’ve insufficiently connected, which bogs down the imagination that is supposed to turn it into fiction, which subsequently demands the love that makes me say “this is not for me.” (If I were as good at that in my beyond-the-page life as I am in my writing life, I wouldn’t bruise so easily. But I digress.)
Conversely, the idea that soars, that becomes something I see through to completion, is almost always built on the back of a memory, slathered with imagination, that becomes something else again. It’s almost magical, that feeling, even as it remains hard, word-rock-busting work to bring it forth. I love (that word again) that feeling.
I chase it. Again and again and again.
II. On Memory and Love
A couple of years back, in an interview with Montana Quarterly (where I’ve been on the masthead since 2013), the great Larry Watson said something so profound that my greatest wish was that I’d said it first. Failing that, I cite this quote endlessly, with all due credit to Mr. Watson:
I write from memory, not observation. Yet my memories are formed from observations, and then memory and imagination distort those observations into something useful for fiction and something that’s also truthful in its own way.
That’s the ballgame, right there. Unsaid, but screamingly evident to anyone who has read Watson’s work, is the part where love comes in. That manifests in doing the work, in riding the work out, in achieving empathy with your characters, in knowing when to make the gradual turn from I’m writing this to engage my own need for the work to I’m writing this for someone to read someday, and thus I must be attentive to what it needs to be.
Love is showing up faithfully. Love is holding at bay the world that will threaten your enthusiasm, your want-to, your ability to separate those things over which you have control and those that are mysterious variables. Love is having a standard for the work. Love is absolving yourself when, say, a pandemic swallows up your work like it never existed in the first place. It did exist. Your love made it manifest.
Love is also forgiving yourself when you could have done better and somehow didn’t. Love is believing that you’ll do right by it the next time. Love is faith, and you’re gonna need a lot of it.
Arthur Miller—I borrow only from the best—knew something about the staying power of the deeply imprinted memory. Perhaps nothing is as creatively propulsive as the blown chance, the missed boat, the shameful moment, the deep regret, the thing you ache to understand, the love you couldn’t hold.
Here he is: Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
If you’ve had a bit of therapy—and only about eight percent of us have, which means ninety-two percent of us are in deficit—you’ve probably been told that regret is a feeling wasted on the unsustainable belief that you should have been perfect. Insofar as it applies to our lives and how we face up to them, I’m inclined to concede the point. But for the author who mines memory for stories, regret—particularly the right kind, which Miller doesn’t identify and thus is open to personal definition—is creative fuel.
As I look back on ten novels, I see work and characters suffused with what I could give them through my grappling with memory and regret. Neurodivergent Edward Stanton (600 Hours of Edward, Edward Adrift, Edward Unspooled) and his fights with an illogical world. Mitch Quillen and his intractable father (The Summer Son). Hugo Hunter and his clay feet as a fighter and a father and a friend (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter). The Kelvig clan and their town and the pulling apart of what binds them (This Is What I Want). Sad-sack Carson McCullough and the demise of the newspaper business (Julep Street). Jo-Jo and Linus and the vagaries of attraction (You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky). Max Wendt and the status quo he doesn’t see crumbling (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life).
And now, Dreaming Northward, perhaps the most personal work of them all, one that required me to find the memory—and, always, the love—and enough imagination to make it something more than a transcript. So much more. So surprising in the end. So familiar that it could have kissed me.
I’m in love. It keeps happening.
III. On Imagination and Love
How does this memory-fortified-with-imagination-backed-by-love thing work, in practical terms? I have an object lesson for that, drawn from Dreaming Northward and its ingredients.
If I’m prompted to give a short-hand accounting of who I am and how I got here, I say that I grew up in Texas and found my way to Montana as quickly as I could. The truth is a bit more nuanced. I wasn’t that quick. I got here when I was thirty-six years old, time enough for a dozen places in the interim that I tried, to varying degrees of success, to make home.
My first home, in fact, after I was born in Washington state and adopted by my parents, was in Mills, Wyoming, a little bedroom community north of Casper. For the first three years of my life, I lived in tiny clapboard house on an unpaved street, which sat across the road from one of the town’s water towers. After my mother left my father and moved us to Texas, I was largely absent from Mills save for occasional summer visits to see my dad. But the image of that water tower embedded in my psyche. Whenever I would see one like it, particularly in my suburban Texas town, I would feel the pangs of separation from my father.
The imagination, in excerpt form
Ronnie goes down to the floor with his boy for a close-up view of the gas station in miniature. He watches as two round-headed figurines in a car, into which they fit like pegs, ride the elevator up to the top floor and the door opens and the car rolls out and careers down the ramp to the carpet beneath them.
“Ain’t that something?” he says, and the boy squirms happily.
“I got it for Christmas last year,” Nathan says.
“I remember,” Ronnie says, a harmless lie, he thinks. “Hey, I saw that kid Richard, your friend, the other day. He says hello.”
“He’s nice,” Nathan says.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid.”
Nathan bounces up and grabs his father’s hand. Ronnie clambers to his feet.
“Come here,” Nathan says, tugging him.
Nathan pulls him to the window that looks out upon the suburban expanse. “See that?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie says. “Buildings.”
“No, that.” Nathan points, insistent.
“The blue thing.”
Ronnie stares down. “What blue thing?”
“No, there.” The boy redirects his indicator, trying to get his father to follow the line.
“The water tower?”
“Yeah, I see it,” Ronnie says.
“That’s where you live.”
“Yes. I live here. You live over there.”
“No.” Ronnie makes a quarter-turn, facing the wall. He points at the blankness of it. “It looks the same as our water tower, but I live a thousand miles that way. North. Where you used to live.” He turns back to the window and points again. “That over there, that’s east. Understand?”
“Well, come downstairs, Sport, and I’ll try to explain it, OK?”
It starts with what I feel, and have felt, for my father, a love that’s been constant but ever changing, ever shifting depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. The unquestioning adoration I had for him when I was a little boy got replaced by an exasperated pity the more I learned about him and the more I witnessed. That, in turn, got supplanted by the responsibility I take for him in his dotage, the insistence I have of seeing him off this mortal coil and keeping fear, terror, and pain as far from him as I can. As his infirmities grow and he lashes out, I find myself with more and more days when I love him and simultaneously hope I can find a way to like him again. It’s not for wimps, this love thing.
The water tower the boy points at insistently was, and is, in a Mid-Cities suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas, a town called Hurst. I used to climb into the tallest tree of my neighborhood in an adjoining town and find it on the flat horizon and try to convince myself that it was Mills, Wyoming, and that my father might be there at the base of it. I didn’t know north from east in those days. I couldn’t have envisioned the magnitude of a thousand miles. I just knew blue, cylindrical water towers and that one was in proximity of a man I missed. I tucked it all away. Years later, it came out through my fingertips.
IV. On the Things That Aren't Love
Soon after my third novel, Edward Adrift, came out in 2013, I was making enough money in royalties to grant serious consideration to trying to make a go of it as a full-time novelist. I had the big-time New York agent, a slew of foreign translations, a full calendar, and novels-in-progress lined up on the runway. My then-publisher had feted the onset of our relationship with “we want to be in the Craig Lancaster business.”
That’s something—indeed, I suspect it’s something that most any author not in the one percent craves—but it’s not love. It’s validation, it’s success, it’s the fruits of one’s efforts, it’s unadulterated luck, but it’s not love.
Love is what you give yourself when the royalties dry up, the big-time New York agent moves on from you, the foreign translations are harder to attract, the calendar is empty, and the ideas are taking on rust. When your publisher doesn’t want to be in the you business anymore.
These are all things that can shoot your horse right out from under you. I’m not suggesting that you—or anyone—should just buck up and get through it, as if it’s not there, in your path like a boulder you can’t circumnavigate. Lean on your supports. Get your ass into therapy if you need it (ninety-two percent of us do!). Divert yourself with a hobby or a road trip or whatever. Take some time off, if that’s what’s calling to you. Don’t stop pushing, if pushing is what’s demanded.
And while you’re doing all of that, remember the love.
The love of a memory, an idea, an approach. The love of the work. The love of the characters and the settings and the structure of what you’re trying to create. The love of revising it and honing it until it’s just what you want. The love of taking the finished thing—the first or the tenth or the hundredth—and offering it up with a hopeful, open heart.
I made this. I fell in love. Again.
I'm more than a month into my new full-time job--more on that here—and have settled into a rhythm that both suits and serves me. This weekend has been the first time in that month-plus that I've been able to turn my attention to my current manuscript, which makes it, perhaps, a longer absence than I anticipated. But, hey, career changes are big deals. My focus has been in the right place.
The biggest change, aside from the parameters of the job, has been to my sleep schedule. I've spent the preponderance of a career as a swing-shifter—4 or 5 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m. In my younger days, I embraced the full inversion of that schedule. I'd come home, make dinner, fire up the TV, talk on the phone, whatever, then go to bed around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. Wake up after noon, eat breakfast, head off to work. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Later on, I realized how much of the day was getting away from me that way and adjusted. Home, directly to bed, wake up at 7 a.m. or so, have hours and hours to my own devices before I headed to work. I wrote a lot of novels that way.
Back in January, my thinking was along these lines: I'll wake up at 5:45 a.m., write, eat breakfast, then start my workday.
It hasn't worked out that way. Oh, I'm waking up early. And I'm answering email, paying bills, doing whatever can be done when much of the world is asleep, then reporting to duty in my sweet home office. (Seriously, my office is the BEST. I'm sitting here at the short end of the L-shaped desk, writing this as a warmup to today's work on the manuscript, and listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers on vinyl. You tell me how life could possibly be better. I dare you.)
When I get off work in the early evening, I'm too fried to write. I eat, I visit my dad, I tend to small errands, then I trudge upstairs for another go-round with Mr. Sandman. Can't write in the morning, so what to do?
Easy. Write on weekends. I have no absence of motivation to do so, and no absence of weekends to put those writing hours into. Point is, I can write a lot of novels this way, too.
The whole thing puts me in mind of a meme I shared on Facebook this past week, one that got a lot of traction with my artist-heavy social group. And it's something, perhaps, I don't focus on enough when I'm putting my hopes on this book or that book to connect widely and to ratchet down the financial pressures of daily American life.
I don't do it for money.
And I say that in a non-starry-eyed way, and in a way that's not too idealistic for my own good. The point is that being compelled toward the arts comes from a deeper place, a deeper need to make sense of the world and to contribute something to it that doesn't traffic in cynicism and power. Do I wish I had a better nose for generating straight cash, or that maybe I'd made different decisions along the way that would have augured more to the benefit of my bottom line? Sure. Absolutely I do. But I'm not dead yet. There's still time.
Once I started getting comfortable with the multiplicity of ways I can define myself, it released me to embrace my multitudes. I can be an analyst and a content specialist. I can be a friend and a husband. I can be a brother and a son and an uncle. And, damn right, I can be an artist on my terms, in my time, trying to make a contribution from my cozy little office with a turntable and a drink fridge.
I not only can but also am gonna. Just watch me.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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