How to Keep Falling in Love
I. On the Feeling
My tenth novel, Dreaming Northward (Gramarye Media), comes out on June 27, 2023. 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.
The Best That You Can Do*
* 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.
Memory + Imagination = Fiction
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.
Launching ALL OF YOU
Now that the video is up at YouTube, I'd be grateful if you checked out this interview I did with my wife, Elisa Lorello, to mark the release of her new novel, All of You. I've been hoping for many, many years that I'd have a chance to get to know her better, so lucky me!
We get into a lot of stuff in a wide-ranging conversation (we really don't have any other kind). I'm just so proud of her and of this book, which is getting some rave reviews.
Want a signed copy? You can get it at our favorite bookstore, This House of Books in Billings, Montana. Just note in the comment box that you want it signed, and Elisa will oblige you.
Finding the Wind Again
From time to time, on no fixed schedule, I drop a post into Facebook that starts like this:
A little [whatever day it is] craft talk, if you'll indulge me ...
I then hold forth on whatever's in my head, fixating on various aspects of the writing life (structure, pacing, idea management, etc.). I'm nobody's paragon of craft discipline, that much is certain. With regard to art, I am, for better or worse, a do-it type rather than a talk-about-it type. And because I didn't come from the academy or any kind of writing program—unless you count the immersive education of journalism—I'm not really comfortable with the conversations anyway. They too quickly expose the gaps I've papered over with intuition and practice.
But I do have my moments. This morning brought one of them. I talked about how an idea I got charged up about a few weeks ago stalled out on me fewer than 20,000 words in ... and how I resuscitated it.
Let's go deeper ...
The idea is the thing
Here's how it works for me, with the acknowledgment that everything herein has a disclaimer of your mileage may vary:
The idea that recently stalled on me had a fairly quick gestation. I'd say within a couple of weeks of thinking about it a lot, I decided to start writing (having a deadline was no small factor, I'd reckon). The decision to write is the crucial one, because that locks me into a commitment I'm not quick to make (my output over the past 14 years notwithstanding). One of my favorite quotes comes from Stephen King, who likened the writing of a novel to sailing a bathtub across the ocean. The decision to start writing puts me in the bathtub, and between you and me, I'd rather be on the couch.
Experience, in my, uh, experience, is a double-edged sword. Writing a novel is much harder now than it was when I wrote the first one. Harder mentally, harder emotionally, harder physically (not that I'm unloading shipping vessels here or anything, but yer boy is older than he used to be, and things like eyes and fingers and butt cheeks aren't as hardy as they once were). All of that difficulty is offset, somewhat, by a greater ability to differentiate between a garden-variety idea and one that has the legs (or sea legs, if we're to stick to the sailing metaphor) to get from here to there. The stall-outs still happen, though. Sometimes I'm able to salvage them into a short story. Sometimes they just sit forevermore, dead husks taking up space on my hard drive.
So there's that. When I sit down to work, I do have more confidence now that I'll be able to cross the ocean in my bathtub than I did years earlier on other projects. I don't have a guarantee—because of how I work, which some writers call pantsing, I'm never entirely sure where I'm headed—but I have the experience of seeing these ideas through, which grants me some confidence that I'll reach the other shore.
But still: Bathtub. Ocean. And sometimes the wind leaves those sails without much warning.
The stalling out
I discovered I was adrift at about the 17,000-word mark. On the face of it, that's not a good sign. At that point, you're barely coming out of the early part of a novel-length work into the murky middle, where you have every right to expect that you'll feel lost (particularly if you're a pantser) while you're drafting the thing. I was scared—all that work, jeopardized—but not panicked. I set my work down and I made myself quiet.
Over the next couple of weeks, I considered many things:
These thoughts began competing with each other, to the point that a haze formed and settled on my head and blocked my vision. In response to that, I got quieter. I focused harder. I listened more intently to what my inner assessments were trying to tell me.
And then the haze lifted.
Back in the bathtub
Over the past four or five days, I've revisited the manuscript in progress. I've reread every word, from number one to number 17,751. I've recast many of them. And I've come to a few conclusions:
So onward we go. The sails are up. The knots are tightened. I might run the Jolly Roger up the mast, just to be a badass about it. In the meantime, there's a lot of open water ahead, but I have faith that the shore waits for me out there somewhere.
Life has some funny cycles. As I write this, I'm just a handful of hours home from a couple of days in Great Falls, that visit coming on the heels of another Great Falls trip the previous week. Before that, I think the last time I was in Great Falls other than just passing through was ... 2010? 2011? A long time ago. I hope this means I'll be going back sooner rather than later. I like that town.
I was there to take part in a panel discussion of Montana authors, sponsored by the Great Falls Public Library as part of the Big River Ruckus festival. It was a blistering-hot morning, and my planet-sized melon sizzled. As is often the case for literary events, we didn't have a big crowd (I believe the applicable adjectives are "small" and "appreciative"), but we had good times in abundance. I joined poet Dave Caserio (a Billings denizen, like me) and writer Kristen Inbody, and we had a rollicking good time talking about writing in the West, ideas, how place figures into our writing, and much more.
Whenever I do an event, I'm put in mind of a line from a Pernice Brothers song: It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / we sing to six the way we sing to ten ...
It's a funny line, of course, but the sentiment is dead-on. I've seen everything there is to see at readings, book signings, and the like: small gatherings, no gatherings, full houses, whatever. Whatever you get, you deliver as best you can to whoever was kind enough to show up. It's a charming business in that way. Every hand that's there to shake—or the only hand that's there to shake—is another chance to make a connection. And connections are everything. One person showed up? Great! Take that person out for dinner or a drink. The whole town showed up? Fantastic! Now you've got a party.
Love is love, and we love the stage ...
Before heading home Sunday, I drove out northwest of Great Falls to see the dairy farm my father grew up on. It was only the third time I've been there, and the second was just a drive-by, but I remembered the route just fine. I drove down the long driveway to where the house is, but nobody came out, and I wasn't about to go knocking on doors, so I took a quick look, then slipped out of there quietly.
Here's a nice shot from atop the bench, about a mile and a half from the farmhouse. Sorry for the telephone pole bisecting Square Butte.
When I talk about writing and where it comes from, as I did during our discussion Saturday, I'm apt to talk about how we are born with stories. We're not blank slates. Going to a place that was formative for my father (in mostly devastating ways, unfortunately) is a good demonstration of what I mean. It allows me to put eyes on his life, to process it, and to make sense of my own. Because of the way his life was shaped by his early experiences, he had a story to transfer to me, one that I would start to carry when I came into the world, along with the one I would live out in my own days. The same is true, of course, with my mother, and her parents, and his parents, and their parents before them, and on and on. The stories are inside us, already coded. We draw them out, interpret them, weave them with imagination and memory (in the case of fiction), give them purpose. It's a beautiful thing. Even when the underlying material is made up of mostly terrible things.
"Before you climb the mountain, first the foothills must appear."
It was a long, hot, empty drive home for Fretless and me. He mostly slept. I mostly sang along with the random shuffle of iTunes, something I can get away with when I'm alone. (I certainly wouldn't subject any human to my singing voice.)
On the final stretch home, I received a particular delight when iTunes served up one of my favorite songs but also one that doesn't often swim to the top of the heap. I suppose most songs remind us of something, someone or some point in time. Certainly, this one does that for me. There's a tinge of melancholy, though, because it's a reminder of a friendship I miss. It's been many years since it went by the wayside, and I've come to embrace something I was told a long time ago when I was seeing a counselor while in the midst of divorce: Some friendships are like cab rides. They have a beginning and an end. Indeed, they do.
Anyway, it was nice to hear the song at that moment, with my head where it was (reeling in other memories), to recall good times with someone who was a good friend, and to put out a silent wish: I hope the good life has found you where you are.
It certainly has found me. Coming home—to Billings, to Elisa, to Spatz the cat—is the best arrival I've ever known. It makes the leaving worthwhile.
On the Struggle
I just—and when I say just, I mean less than an hour ago—finished constructing and printing out the interior print file for Elisa's forthcoming novel, All of You. I'm proud for so many reasons: that she's written another banger, that she's making tangible progress toward getting it out there, that I am able to use a skill I've developed to help her. Elisa believes in this novel, and she's reached a juncture in her career where putting it out herself and realizing her own vision for it is of paramount importance to her.
And that gets at why I'm most proud: A year ago, she wasn't sure she'd ever be here again. Three years ago, I wasn't sure I would be. Much of the joy of writing and publishing and connecting had been sucked out of it, for both of us, for similar and divergent reasons. And, listen, if you can't find the joy, there's not much reason to keep going. The difficulties are too numerous, the frustrations too pitched, the dead ends too abrupt in the best of circumstances. Joy, and its cousins purpose and determination, helps carry you through all of that.
I won't speak to how Elisa lost joy and found it again; that's her story to tell in her way.
But I can speak to my own journey ...
Facebook is a scourge, mostly. But it's also a scourge with features that aren't easily replaceable through other means. I can't call up my nieces and nephews on the daily and ask what's going on their lives—I mean, I could, but they'd quickly tire of it, and I'm just not constituted to operate that way—but I can see every important turn on Facebook. I can be conversant about what they're doing. I can feel connected to them.
Similarly, there's nothing quite like Facebook's Memories feature to remind you of the way things once were. Sometimes, it brings into sharp relief just how different your current circumstances are. Elisa and I get this a lot, especially this time of year, which synchs up with the first summer of our courtship—The Magical Summer of 2015, as we like to call it. And so we sit at the breakfast table, older, paunchier, scuffling harder to pay bills, not knowing when or where our next vacation will be, and we sigh contentedly at the memories of a time when royalties were flush, there were no jobs to go to, and we could just disappear without worrying where the next check was coming from. And we say "gee, wouldn't it be nice to experience that again?" and we agree that it would be, but we're not really thinking about how much richer life has become in other ways, lost as we are in the haze of memory. We're not thinking about the house we bought together, the pets we love, the history we're building. We're thinking about being financially carefree and unbound by anything other than our imaginations.
They're pretty sweet, those memories ...
If you've read the past several paragraphs and thought, OK, great, Craig, but that was a bunch of sentimental claptrap about life and leisure and I'm here for the struggle with art, let me say this: I find it impossible to separate the two. Those memories from 2015 beguile us, in part, because of what fell out from there: Love and marriage and commitment, yes, but also struggle. We both wrote and published books we loved and believed in, same as we had before, only those subsequent books weren't commercially successful in the same way their predecessors had been. We fought against ourselves to recapture what we thought we'd lost, not really having any idea what it was or why it had seemingly gone sour. We got dumped by our publisher, and while it would be nice to be above it, to greet such news with an attitude of "their loss," the simple fact is that the losses felt very much like ours. It felt like rejection, because it was rejection. It hurt because we are humans, and we bleed when we're cut.
It's important to know that, even as you build yourself up as special, you're not. Rejection isn't your burden alone; everybody grapples with it. A change in trajectory isn't singular failure that's on you; that's life and what happens sometimes when you have the audacity to live it.
It took a while to come out of that depressive trough. It took a while to find a new footing. It took a while to want to get in there and slug it out again.
For me, the breakthrough came when I realized that my happiest place was inside the work, where it was just me and the stories I'm trying to tell, where the measure of progress is keeping faith with what I'm attempting to do by showing up, every day, and doing a little bit more to realize it. When I rediscovered that, the rest began falling in. The publishing partner with whom I want to bring these stories out, who believes in the work the same way I do. The reconnection with a sense of fulfillment (not necessarily happiness, which is more transient and thus, honestly, less valuable to me). Exterior validations of the work.
But always, always, it's the work.
I see that in Elisa now, the spark she has rediscovered with this new book. She's fully into her own joyousness, and you can take it from someone who's seen this from her before and worried when it went away for a while:
Look out. She's got this.
International Book Awards
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.
History as I Wish I'd Learned It
Several months ago, one of my journalism and writing heroes, Tom Zoellner, invited me to review Saving Yellowstone for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I was a bit cowed by the prospect, to be perfectly honest. I don't have any standing, in senses literary or academic, to critique the work of Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, the book's author. I hadn't yet read her previous book, The Three-Cornered War, which had been a Pulitzer finalist. I was, upon first consideration, well out of my depth and not particularly inclined to take on the assignment.
And then I reconsidered. If Dr. Nelson's literary ambition is to peel back history and explain it to a general audience—as well seems to be the case—then I'm about as general as they come. I'm curious and informed, I live in the region where the events of Dr. Nelson's book unfolded, and I try to live my ideal that an engaged life and mind require making some inroads into all you don't know (a considerable pile for me) and challenging those things you think you do know (also a considerable pile).
In those ways, I was redeemed by reading and reviewing Saving Yellowstone—and by backtracking to read The Three-Cornered War. The review speaks for itself, I think. Beyond the completion of my assignment, the book has stayed with me. I've repeatedly recommended it, in sometimes obnoxious ways (see the tweet below). I've put it in the hands of friends. I've pondered the way Dr. Nelson's presentation of history—as something connected, something that breathes and reverberates—stands at odds with the lessons of the garden-variety public education I received in my Texas suburb, in which events were stand-alones and dates were to be memorized and regurgitated.
Dr. Nelson's book details the Hayden expedition into Yellowstone, yes, and the establishment of our first national park, but also so much more, including the influences of capitalism, the literal and figurative erasure of Indigenous peoples, how the grappling with Reconstruction was not just a southern story but also a western one. One of the jarring lessons of the read, for me, was seeing the way the Grant administration's attempt to bring freed slaves into the body politic lay parallel with a policy of dispossession and extermination of Indigenous peoples in the West. The aims of the former policy largely failed; the aims of the latter were vastly realized. The result of both has been lasting inequality. The book is a triumph of dot connecting, of context, of presenting the bigger picture that lies outside conventional framing. It cannot be read without the realization that the fracture points of yesterday linger today.
In the reading, I was reminded of something I often impart to editing clients when I sense that their narrative has gone passive (something that is NOT an issue for the history Dr. Nelson illuminates or the way she goes about telling it). The "and then, and then, and then" structure of storytelling will not compel an audience's attention or investment. I mentioned the polished-up version of history I absorbed and spat out for tests in my youth. That's how it was often (not always, but often) presented to me: Here's this. Here's this. Here's another thing. Here's still another. Hey, why is your head down and what's with all the drooling?
Dr. Nelson's book, a work of scholarship, clicks along the way good storytelling does. It has sinew and electricity and a heaping measure of "but therefore ..." It moves. It speaks. It is kinetic.
You must read this book.
Yesterday, I drove from Billings to Livingston to see a lecture by Dr. Nelson and by Dr. Shane Doyle, who detailed the fascinating history of Indigenous peoples in Yellowstone.
Their presentations were sponsored by Elk River Arts & Lectures and the Park County Environmental Council and served as a fundraiser for the All-Nations Teepee Village, an event "to honor and recognize the many Tribal Nations with connections to Yellowstone and highlight the indigeneity of the landscape." To learn more about that effort (and to donate), go here, please.
I've been in Montana for a while now--much longer in my heart than in my physical presence—and every day that has included a trip to Livingston can be filed away under the heading of "Best Days." Beers and yuks with the great Scott McMillion (who wrote the quintessential Livingston appreciation). A quick bite and more imbibing with Marc Beaudin. Chatting with Elise Atchison and Max Hjortsberg and Tandy Miles Riddle. Seeing pals on almost every corner.
May your life be blessed with interesting travel and good friends.
I've been fortunate enough to have had some terrific honors bestowed upon me. Fifth-grade spelling bee champion. Sixth-grade student council president. I mean, do I have to go on? We're talking biggies here.
It was just about this time of year in 2017 that, perhaps, the one that means the most to me came around. The Billings Education Association—the union for public school teachers in the place I call home—honored me as its Friend of Education.
It was deeply meaningful to me for several reasons. One, I'm a child of public education (thank you, Birdville Independent School District and Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Junior High (now middle school) and Richland High School). Two, public school teachers have had a profound effect on me at every stage of life. They've been mentors and influencers and friends. I was born to one. I married one. Three, I truly believe that public education is a compact we must hold with each other, no matter how fraught things get (I'm not terribly optimistic about how things are going in that department, but I still believe in the compact). Public education is the ultimate investment in our future, together.
I could go on and on. I have, in fact.
Whatever the teachers in my town felt in calling me their friend five years ago, I send it back in triplicate to them. English teachers at West High School here in Billings were instrumental in getting 600 Hours of Edward on the approved curriculum list at the high school level, and for years now, some of them have been teaching it. It blows my mind, still. And the bargain I've made, straight along, is that if you want me to visit the classroom, to talk about writing and creativity and life beyond high school, tell me when and where and I'll be there.
The pandemic, as you might imagine, took a bite out of that bargain.
And yet, there we were last week, a handful of English classes at West—juniors and seniors—and a creative writing club, and we were working through one of my favorite writing exercises, The Word (I am not its inventor, by the way, just an enthusiastic adopter). Each class, I'd have the kids tell me their name and give me a word. We then ran a random-number generator to choose a single word that the entire class had to use as inspiration for a short story. Writing time: 20 minutes.
It's a hell of a thing, I'm sure, to show up one day at school and hear that some dude you've never met before wants you to spend most of a period writing. But these kids did it, and their enthusiasm, generosity, and talent leave me hopeful for their futures and my own. For every period, I wrote alongside them, ending up with nearly 3,000 words of material, by far a busier day than I usually have.
I'll spare you the whole passel of short stories (unless you really want to read them), but here's a taste:
When we got the dog—a 48-pound, 40-inch-long, 14-year-old basset hound—I named him Lightning because, among other things, I was into irony.
Lightning’s name was Dexter when he was stuffed in a kennel at the humane society, on account of his previous owner, an 84-year-old woman named Mildred, up and died one day and Dexter was found sleeping in the small of the back of her tumbled-over carcass, and Mildred’s kinfolk didn’t want him. And you might say that if a dog has borne a name, any name, for 14 years, he ought to be allowed to keep it for the rest of whatever time he has left. And, OK, that’s a fair point, but Dexter is a crappy name and no more fitting the hound he was than Lightning was. So I changed it. My prerogative.
We didn’t get off to a good start, Lightning and me. First night, I put him up on the bed, and he walked around behind my shoulder, I thought he was snuggling in, and he lifted a leg on me. New house, new bed, new people—I guess I can’t blame him, but come on, man. He pooped on the rug the next day—the good rug, that was the problem, not that frayed thing in the den—and I thought, well, Lightning, you ain’t long for us if you don’t straighten up and fly right soon.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. I’ve come to believe, in the looking back, that the speed of him—opposite the name we’d hung on him—was the secret to his longevity. That dog just wasn’t in a hurry for anything, which kept his heart rate low and his blood moving agreeably. “Lightning, dinner,” we’d say, and we’d wait for the lumbering, this long dog who could have two feet on different sides of a corner, and he’d come into view and he’d eat at a luxurious pace, like a cow working its cud. “Lightning, let’s get in the car!” Same thing. That dog moved in a way that would make a sloth say, “Damn, that’s one slow-moving animal.”
Ironic, then, that the event for which he gained his fame around our house, the reason Judy would grip him by those jowls, unbidden, and say, “You’re the best dog ever, yes you are,” was a moment of alacrity. Megan, our youngest, just a baby, crawling for the curb and the traffic beyond, we’re bound up in watching Mitchell show us his batting stance there in the front yard, and she’s nearly to the asphalt, and here’s Lightning, moving at his bah-doop-dee-doo pace and he snags her diaper in his teeth and pulls her back.
That’s a good boy.
We said goodbye to him last night, the fadeout that we’d seen coming and were still flabbergasted by when it arrived. Lightning, staring up at us, our expectant faces in his, our tears surfacing, and here’s that old floppy-tongued kiss, the one we’d had a thousand times and would never have again, and he’s gone, gone, gone, not so much a flashing discharge of electricity but a shattered star lighting up our days and nights.
After writing and sharing—the kids were great about that, too—we talked about what I like so much about this exercise, that in the letters and meaning of a single word, there's a fuse that can be lit and burned down into a burst of creativity. It's one of the most magical things I know of, how you can tap into memory, word association, imagination and pull a story right out of yourself. It's entirely egalitarian. You don't need permission. You don't have to wait for someone to judge you worthy. You just need time and inclination. You need a pencil and a piece of paper and the willingness to get busy.
And the thing is, long before I ever thought about these things, long before I ever knew what a writing prompt was, long before I ever imagined trying to build a life around words, I had teachers who pushed me, who had lamplight and were willing to show the way, who truly and honestly believed that each child in their care had purpose and something to offer. On the surface, I don't have much in common with those kids I met last week—I'm older than their parents, in many cases, and from a generation that must seem decrepit and dated to them. And yet, the successors of those teachers I remember with such fondness and admiration are in the classroom now. Still pushing. Still guiding. Still believing.
How lucky we are. What a shame it would be if we lost it.
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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