... 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.
*--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 ...
I. On the Feeling
My tenth novel, Dreaming Northward (The Story Plant), comes out later this year. 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.
* Not just the words to a Christopher Cross/Burt Bacharach/Carole Bayer Sager/Peter Allen song.
Sorry. I had to.
Wait, strike that. I'm not sorry.
The possible mechanical aspects of the writing life—what to write, when to write, what time to write, how much to write, etc.—are so many and so varied that I've discovered I can disagree with just about anything, given the opportunity to formulate a contrary opinion or just to wake up in a mood.
But once in a while, something crosses my desk or screen that inspires nothing but rabid agreement in me. My friend Tiffany Yates Martin—in fairness, my wife's editor on several projects, but I joined the two of them for a memorable and hilarious lunch in Austin, so I'm claiming her—wrote just such a piece earlier this week. You can read it for yourself, but here are just a couple of the stellar observations:
I think there’s danger in talking about our writing in a diminishing way. Most obviously it sends us the message that our creative work isn’t that important or worthwhile. It’s just a lark, a silly little whim we pursue, but we’re not kidding ourselves that we can stand beside the actual greats of literature.
That means having a clear-eyed view of your work and where there may be room for improvement and growth, while also allowing yourself to be proud of its merits and strengths. Without that how can we hope to improve as artists, any more than a child who is given nothing but criticism and disapproval can develop a healthy self-image and flourish? We have to create a safe space for ourselves as artists where we have permission to fail, permission to grow.
Seriously, if you are one of those "oh, I just write [whatever]" or "I just dabble" writers, go read Tiffany's piece and see if, perhaps, there's a way to recast your thinking into something that's realistic and celebratory. You create things. You conjure stories and experiences. You're awesome. Never forget it.
Years ago, after my second novel, The Summer Son, came out, it landed reviews in two regional publications that I fervently hoped would shower it with praise. I was riding high, at least from a critical standpoint, having seen my debut, 600 Hours of Edward, receive wide praise and some nice awards. I thought I'd written an even better book with The Summer Son, so I readied myself for an onslaught of plaudits.
The novel went 0-for-2 in redeeming those hopes. The review in New West was generally complimentary but cast the book as falling short of its predecessor. The review in the Missoula Independent was more of a split-personality assessment—which, interestingly, is what the reviewer accused my book of having—with effusive praise for the character development and something bordering on ridicule for the plotting.
I know what my reaction was, in both cases: something deeper than disappointment and a bit short of despondency. (I suppose I'm blessed/cursed by not really giving a damn what you think of me, but I get a little bruised when my work isn't seen favorably.) It was fascinating to see reactions from my friends and colleagues. A couple called me to make sure I was OK. One told me the Independent piece was an unqualified great review, a point of view I had a little trouble accessing. (Her point, I believe, is that character development is the gold standard of literary work, and I'd won the critic over with that part of my effort. OK, then.)
The point of all this isn't to indulge in ancient grudges, although if I were so inclined, I'd point out that both New West and the Independent are dead and The Summer Son still puts money in my pocket every month, so chomp on that, fellas. But I am not so inclined. The fact is, the literary life of the West is poorer for those publications' absence, no matter how wrong they were on occasion. (OK, maybe just a little jab.)
No, seriously, my point is this, and it's one I've made again and again: If you want something you can influence with regard to your work, better to forget how it'll be received, whether it will sell, if it'll make you rich, and put all of your attention on doing the absolute best work you're capable of undertaking at the time you undertake it. If you do that, if you're certain it's the best that you can do, you will owe no one anything. You will owe only yourself, and only this: growth, the gumption to try even harder the next time, a willingness to stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible.
Some years after those reviews, I was talking with the guy who wrote the one for New West, a good friend of mine and a damn fine writer, and told him he'd certainly been right about certain things. I'd grown. I could see flaws I didn't see at the time I wrote it. I said something like "if I could do it over again, I would." And he set me straight:
"Don't ever say that about your own work. Don't ever put it down."
Absolutely right. You made that. Love it for what it is. Save "I should have done better" for next time, then do it.
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.
Elisa and I took our new presentation, title above, out for its first spin Saturday at the Stillwater County Library in Columbus, Montana.
(Cool side note: The centerpiece pictured here was on our table at Grand Fortune, a Chinese restaurant in Columbus that we hit before the event. I can definitely say that's a career first for me. For Elisa, too.)
To say that we were thrilled with the response to our program would be, perhaps, to diminish the meaning of "thrilled." We had a group of about 20 people who dug in with us, asked excellent questions and provided terrific insights, and even gamely took on a writing exercise at the end.
The idea was to take The Word—the go-to warmup exercise I've written about from time to time—and apply the principles of memory harvesting to create the short fictional work that resulted. So we had the folks give us a passel of words, then we ran a random-number generator to choose one that would apply to everyone's work. That word: hayloft.
Elisa and I wrote along with everyone else. I had the advantage of my laptop, so I was able to write about 630 words in the 20 minutes of the exercise. As I told everybody afterward, if the current manuscript took on words that quickly, I'd be done with it back in November. Of 2020.
What follows is my effort ...
Mom told me I would be sorry if I didn’t go, if I didn’t see where my grandfather, her father, had grown up. I was dubious, to say the least. I liked our hotel, I liked the pool—the pool was about the only thing that made southwestern Minnesota in summer bearable to me—and I wanted to stay. She insisted that I go. I was nine. Guess who won that debate?
The whole way over, our 1978 Chevy Citation baking on the blacktop, Mom told me that she’d only been here once, long, long ago, when she was a little girl, after grandpa had come back from the war in Italy. “It was like a magical place, Jeff,” she said, and I sat there thinking she should see some better magic. “Tractors. Gardens. Corn you can eat off the stalk. A hayloft, Jeff, with a tire swing. You can launch yourself clear into the rafters and come down in a soft landing.”
I harumphed. Something good was on TV, and I was missing it.
We made a little turn off the two-laner and went down this rutted two-track, between two fields of corn headed for silage. I wasn’t going to be eating anything off these stalks, I figured, but seeing as how I was a civilized boy, I didn’t need anything that didn’t come in a can anyway. But maybe I could slop the hogs and shovel out the chicken coop. Boy, howdy.
At the end of the lane stood my grandfather, all unfolded six-foot-six of him, encased like a sausage in denim overalls and a gingham workshirt. I’d never seen him looking like that before; the guy was a navigator for Alaska Airlines, not a goat roper, but I guess it was the same nostalgia trip for him that it was for Mom, making his way to the place where he’d grown up. Beside him, another couple—that’d be great Uncle Leo and great Aunt Darlaine, I supposed, the proprietors now of the farm. I’d never met them, I didn’t think.
Mom started crying once they came into view, and I shrank down in the seat, both because they were all waving stupidly at us and because Mom cried a lot that summer, and it had become clear I couldn’t do much other than let her hug my neck.
We got out. Grandpa came at us, and Mom collapsed into him, crying at a stronger pitch. He folded her in like the bear of a man he was, and he reached out with a mitt and pulled me in, too.
“We’ve been waiting,” he said.
“I know,” Mom said, her voice muffled by his overalls. “I don’t think I remembered how far out it is.”
Leo and Darlaine, having waited their turn, moved in, too. More hugs. More crying. Pinched cheeks on me, Darlaine’s doing, as she called me a beautiful boy. Torture. Sheer torture.
“Jeff,” Grandpa said, holding me at an arm’s length. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, you’ll need to do better than that.”
“Mom says you’ve got corn here I can eat,” I said.
“That we do.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Soon,” he said. “I’ll show you. What do you think of the place?”
I cast a look around, for his benefit. All of them—Mom, Grandpa, Leo, Darlaine—had a look like something major would be hinging on my answer.
“I’ve seen better,” I said. And then, deflation, right down the line.
Grandpa gripped me by the neck, a gesture that looked loving enough but had a little pinch to it. I’d been mouthy. I knew I’d best not be mouthy again.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that’s so. But someday you’ll lose a few things, and you’ll know better.”
Because part of the exercise involves sharing both the memory and how the imagination was applied to it, here's closing the circle:
The memory: Hayloft was a word that led just about everybody to a farm, in one way or another. A word like that spawns more similarities, even in a large group, than a word like, say, forgettable would. I thought of the farm my grandfather grew up on, which I saw only once, when I was a little boy. I grabbed the name of his younger brother, Leo, and Leo's wife, Darlaine, because it was easier than making up new names. But Leo and Darlaine weren't the proprietors of the farm back then. (That would have been Forrest, another brother, and his wife, Margaret.) Everything else is imagination ...
The imagination: Jeff's grandmother is conspicuous by her absence. My grandmother lived until 2017. Jeff's father isn't in the picture. Mine, both of mine, definitely were and are. I can't say I wasn't mouthy, or even that I don't remain mouthy, but I wasn't mouthy like that. I don't remember a hotel. Pretty sure we slept in campground barracks along with the rest of the out-of-town relatives that summer. Soon after that 1979 family reunion, we started losing people, which I'm sure is why it remains so firmly lodged in my mind.
And so it goes. Really cool, unexpected, interesting things happen when I do The Word. It's why I love it so.
From time to time, on no fixed schedule, I drop a post into Facebook that starts like this:
A little [whatever day it is] craft talk, if you'll indulge me ...
I then hold forth on whatever's in my head, fixating on various aspects of the writing life (structure, pacing, idea management, etc.). I'm nobody's paragon of craft discipline, that much is certain. With regard to art, I am, for better or worse, a do-it type rather than a talk-about-it type. And because I didn't come from the academy or any kind of writing program—unless you count the immersive education of journalism—I'm not really comfortable with the conversations anyway. They too quickly expose the gaps I've papered over with intuition and practice.
But I do have my moments. This morning brought one of them. I talked about how an idea I got charged up about a few weeks ago stalled out on me fewer than 20,000 words in ... and how I resuscitated it.
Let's go deeper ...
The idea is the thing
Here's how it works for me, with the acknowledgment that everything herein has a disclaimer of your mileage may vary:
The idea that recently stalled on me had a fairly quick gestation. I'd say within a couple of weeks of thinking about it a lot, I decided to start writing (having a deadline was no small factor, I'd reckon). The decision to write is the crucial one, because that locks me into a commitment I'm not quick to make (my output over the past 14 years notwithstanding). One of my favorite quotes comes from Stephen King, who likened the writing of a novel to sailing a bathtub across the ocean. The decision to start writing puts me in the bathtub, and between you and me, I'd rather be on the couch.
Experience, in my, uh, experience, is a double-edged sword. Writing a novel is much harder now than it was when I wrote the first one. Harder mentally, harder emotionally, harder physically (not that I'm unloading shipping vessels here or anything, but yer boy is older than he used to be, and things like eyes and fingers and butt cheeks aren't as hardy as they once were). All of that difficulty is offset, somewhat, by a greater ability to differentiate between a garden-variety idea and one that has the legs (or sea legs, if we're to stick to the sailing metaphor) to get from here to there. The stall-outs still happen, though. Sometimes I'm able to salvage them into a short story. Sometimes they just sit forevermore, dead husks taking up space on my hard drive.
So there's that. When I sit down to work, I do have more confidence now that I'll be able to cross the ocean in my bathtub than I did years earlier on other projects. I don't have a guarantee—because of how I work, which some writers call pantsing, I'm never entirely sure where I'm headed—but I have the experience of seeing these ideas through, which grants me some confidence that I'll reach the other shore.
But still: Bathtub. Ocean. And sometimes the wind leaves those sails without much warning.
The stalling out
I discovered I was adrift at about the 17,000-word mark. On the face of it, that's not a good sign. At that point, you're barely coming out of the early part of a novel-length work into the murky middle, where you have every right to expect that you'll feel lost (particularly if you're a pantser) while you're drafting the thing. I was scared—all that work, jeopardized—but not panicked. I set my work down and I made myself quiet.
Over the next couple of weeks, I considered many things:
These thoughts began competing with each other, to the point that a haze formed and settled on my head and blocked my vision. In response to that, I got quieter. I focused harder. I listened more intently to what my inner assessments were trying to tell me.
And then the haze lifted.
Back in the bathtub
Over the past four or five days, I've revisited the manuscript in progress. I've reread every word, from number one to number 17,751. I've recast many of them. And I've come to a few conclusions:
So onward we go. The sails are up. The knots are tightened. I might run the Jolly Roger up the mast, just to be a badass about it. In the meantime, there's a lot of open water ahead, but I have faith that the shore waits for me out there somewhere.
And sometimes, something you want to see lands in your email box on a Friday evening:
And It Will Be a Beautiful Life is the third of my books to be so honored, joining Edward Unspooled (2017) and You, Me, & Mr. Blue Sky (2019), the romcom Elisa and I wrote together.
I've been at this long enough to understand that most awards and citations aren't unassailable vehicles of merit—the vagaries involved are considerable, and to see your work recognized is, in no small measure, a matter of serendipity. But at the same time, it's also validation, and in the long, lonely slog of writing and publishing, that's important.
What I like about the International Book Awards is that they're large-scale: a ton of categories, nonfiction and fiction, and a ton of entrants, from large publishers to small presses to authors who independently release their work. The egalitarian nature of the contest appeals to me, and I'm grateful that my book was honored.
Love it! What's the next question?
No, seriously, the great Chris La Tray asks some provocative questions and ponders the meaning of National Poetry Month (which we're now in) in his latest Substack piece.
This might be the wrong place to ask this question since you glorious subscribers are obviously anything but ignorant philistines in such matters1, but is poetry really an “important place” in the lives of many people? The running joke when it comes to poets is they are the purist practitioners of literature because they obviously aren’t in it for the money. Which sucks when you think about it. So I have to wonder: how many people really engage with poetry on a regular basis? How many people actually buy it?
The stuff that goes on around National Poetry Month is worthwhile, I just wish it wasn’t relegated to one month. April rolls around and people get all performative with their love of poetry, share links to poems published online or whatever, but where does it go from there? I encounter many people who tell me, “I don’t get poetry.” That’s fair. I didn’t “get” it for a long time either. When poetry had a bag dropped over its head and was rolled in a carpet and hauled off to the ivory towers to be enjoyed by only a stuffy few the connection to its roots was severed. I contend, though, that there is poetry for everyone. Everyone.
I'd like to just endorse all of the above, if I may.
I, too, have heard the "I don't get poetry" bit, and I've probably even said it, although I will say, in my defense, that I was young and inexperienced and kind of ignorant. What I often say, now, when I hear that is, "Well, you listen to music, don't you?" That's poetry, man. And it doesn't have to be Patti Smith or Michael Stipe or Nico—but it should, it should be all of them and many, many, many more. Find the writers and the voices that not only speak to you but also impart something you're not going to find in whatever bubble you live in. Find the words of those who live other lives, have had other experiences, see the world with eyes different than your own. Find something that smacks you in the head with a ratchet. Something that moves you. Once you've got that, everything else is just a matter of form, be it song or sonnet or haiku or slam or whatever.
By inclination and profession, I go to a lot of literary readings, and given a blind choice—go listen to an unidentified poet or an unidentified writer of prose—I'm going to see the poet a hundred times out of a hundred. For the sheer chance of having your doors blown off, of being wowed by the substance and the sonic gelatin that holds it all together, nothing beats a poetry reading.
Seriously, listen to Robert Wrigley here and tell me you don't want more. Tell me you don't want all of it.
One of the luckiest things about living where I do is that the place is thick with great poets. Great poets. Just the other day, we attended a reading by Tami Haaland, former Montana poet laureate (and our friend), and Elisa said it was "exactly what my heart, mind, and soul needed today." Yeah. Mine, too.
My brother-in-law, a well-regarded musician and recording engineer, in answer to a question of mine about what makes him sit up and say "holy (very bad word)" when he hears a voice, said this: "The emotion the musician channels."
So it is with poetry. That's the beauty. We needn't confine it to a month in spring. We need it every damn day.
Go get some at your local indie bookstore. Or use mine.
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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