Here's a hard life lesson that writing has taught me: patience. It's a quality I don't naturally have in reserve, and that struggle to find it has benefitted and afflicted me in equal measure in what I do, how I relate to people, how opportunities have come to me, and how I've blown things by being too over-eager.
Writing, it turns out, doesn't much care whether you're patient or you're not. The actual act of it comes at its own pace, and sometimes you have to be patient in the extraction. You have something out on submission? Wait. You want an agent's attention? Wait. An idea isn't quite working the way you hoped it would? Set it down and wait. You think you don't have time? Sorry. You do. Wait.
So let me tell you about Straight On To Stardust and how it came to be whatever it is now ...
Back in 2017, I had this idea for a novel I wanted to write: The basic premise—and that's all I ever have at the outset, which often results in a half-baked unfinished thing that validates Stephen King's idea that writing a novel is like trying to sail a bathtub across the ocean—was a guy with his father's lifeless husk in the bed of his pickup, his father's dog in the passenger seat, and a trip from Montana to New Mexico for the burial.
What happened from there is ... well, a lot of stuff that I'd rather not say here, because I hope you someday see the play. That's the real story, anyway. I started with an idea for a novel and ended up with a play. That's the arc. But the color and light of the story lie in the turns in between.
The novel idea died. As dead as the father in the back of the truck. I didn't get enough of it down to harvest the wreckage for a short story, which sometimes happens. Dead, dead, dead. Doornail. D-E-A-D.
So then a lot of stuff happened. I set it down. I worked on something else with my wife, Elisa. I went to a lot of plays, which is just about my favorite thing to do. I saw The Glass Menagerie, and then I read it, and tried to stare deep into the craft of the thing. And after a while I saw a different narrative approach to my dead story about a dead father. I was living in Maine now, and I started to recast the thing, straight dialogue and stage direction. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, and I loved it.
That died, too. Or at least went into convalescence.
We came back to Montana. I finished a manuscript that had been languishing in Maine, something I felt good about but couldn't summon the energy to attack back there. Those were tough days on the East Coast, where we'd moved with great hope but hadn't found a way to make home. Coming back to Montana unlocked a lot of things. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, certainly, but also my willingness to pull a half-finished play born of a quarter-finished novel out of the drawer and have another go.
This time, I finished it.
And my good friends at Yellowstone Repertory Theatre, god bless them, having seen a pandemic wipe out a season, did a table read on Zoom. That was a fun night, and there were many fine things said about my play, and also many on-target comments about how it could be improved. Notable among these was that it felt more like cinema than stagecraft, an assessment echoed by my Tony-winning high school friend, so I, of course, accepted that, even if I wasn't exactly sure how to address it.
So ... patience. I put it away and let it be for a while. I pushed down the road on two manuscripts that I hope to finish one day, then started and finished a third. We moved into our second year of being back in Montana. Life opened up. Delta and omicron came crashing in. And then, finally, in January of this year, my wife and I, for her birthday, attended a play for the first time in nearly four years.
Christian O'Reilly's Chapatti is a wonder. Two actors. One stage. Nineteen unseen cats. One unseen dog. The vast preponderance of the dialogue directed at the audience. Exposition out the ying-yang. The fourth wall taken down before the first curtain comes up. I loved every blessed word of it. And nestled among all those words were some ideas about what was ailing my play.
Earlier this month, I took a mighty swing at it and did a major revision. What happens now? I'm not sure. There's talk of a public table reading. I'm hoping for a production. That would be beyond any dream I had when I began writing it. I sure enough know I'm going to want to write some more plays, if I can find some properly propulsive ideas.
What have I learned? Quite a lot, actually. The most important thing: This doesn't happen without patience. I'm not naturally imbued with it, but man, I do appreciate what comes from being forced to find it.
One day, several months ago, I was parsing through my email and came across something sent to me through this very site (a low-traffic way of reaching me, for sure). It was from a man named Howard Marc Chesley, and it was a friendly request that I read his novel Free Marcus Katz!!! and offer an endorsement if I was moved to do so.
(A slight deviation before I go on: Requesting endorsements—blurbs—is one of the most humbling things any author goes through. In essence, you're asking for hours of someone's finite life and words that you can then use for marketing purposes. I hate asking, but I love being asked, probably because I know exactly how hard it is to make the request. Still, you have to like what you read enough to attach your name to it, and there have certainly been instances where I've had to apologetically decline. My point being: I very much wanted to grant Howard's request. And I hoped I'd love the book.)
Non-spoiler alert: I loved the book.
This how I ended up endorsing the book: "Booker Prize nominee Howard Marc Chesley's new novel is a charming, insightful, moving, funny tale. In many respects Marcus' life is quotidian, and in others it's extraordinary. A portrait emerges of a man who wants something more ... and just might get it."
But forget what I said. Look at what Temple Grandin--Temple Freaking Grandin—had to say: "The clever format of creating a book in the form of Yelp reviews for businesses will make the reader think about serious abuses of people with disabilities. This book opened my eyes to the use of the legal system to abuse individuals who are fully capable of making their own decisions."
Bottom line: I'm glad I said yes. I'm glad Howard has become someone I truly consider a friend. I hope you'll buy his book. I hope he has every success in the world with it. And I'm pleased to be able to host this interview with him here.
Let's get to the questions ...
You've had a long career as a writer. Fill us in, please.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in writing and then drove west to UCLA’s film school with plans to be a filmmaker. After several years making documentary films, I settled into writing screenplays as a path to someday directing dramatic feature films. Along the way I got married, had a dear child, bought a house and found that I had become very content with the sweet life of tapping on my Selectric for a living and hanging with family and friends at the beach in Venice. In retrospect I don’t think I was a boy genus, but I had early success, working for the studios, often with big-time directors as I learned my craft. It was a heady time, but after the 1988 writers’ strike the movie studios learned they didn’t need to pay writers like me as employees to develop scripts- they could just buy the spec scripts that they liked. I transitioned to TV, became a journeyman writer of hour-long dramas, working on Crime Story, Equalizer, Chicago Hope among others. In 2006 I co-created, produced and wrote Three Moons Over Milford, starring Elizabeth McGovern for Disney. Although it only lasted a season, it was the closest I came to seeing a personal vision on the screen. Once, after handing in a too-smart-for-the-room teleplay for a popular network TV drama, my exec producer told me (not in a nice way) that I should really be writing novels. At a career lull, I thought I might try. That was Some Books Aren’t for Reading, which was very well received and nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize. It was exhilarating not to have a boss of my writing anymore, and I became a novelist.
Did you learn any lessons from the writing and publishing of your first novel that you've applied to the second?
I learned that no matter how good the book you can’t depend on a small publisher to market it to the world. Having a public face doesn’t come easy to me. I’m a social media straggler, but I’m very proud of Free Marcus Katz, and I’m determined to do a better job promoting the new book. I’m grateful to you, Craig, for your willingness to help show me the way. You may not know it, but you are a beacon.
I'm always interested in origin stories. What was the initial spark of an idea with Marcus, and at what point did you think, OK, I have to write this thing?
The seed was my 2016 trip with my grown son to Butte, Montana, where I met the original Aspie model for Marcus, teen-age Josh. We met him on a viewing platform for the Berkeley Pit—a defunct, historic open-pit copper mine. Josh was there with his mother and three siblings, speaking non-stop in an Aspie monotone, mostly about the minute details of copper mining, and it was clear they were weary of him. I, however, was hungry to learn more about the mine and the place, and I asked him a few questions which brought on a stunning cascade of history. He was, in fact, brilliant and had a lot to impart if one listened. He finally wore us out, but, with heartfelt gratitude, I pushed a ten-dollar bill on him. He showed it to his mom, who walked up to me and tried to return the money, apologizing if her son had bothered me. When I told her honestly that I thought she had a brilliant and wonderful son and I had gotten full value and more, a mother’s tears immediately started streaming down her cheeks. The next day my son and I stopped in to say goodbye to Josh at his job washing dishes and peeling potatoes part-time in the cellar of a local restaurant. His manager looked at us with surprise that anyone would actually seek out Josh. The whole episode really stuck with me although it didn’t occur to me at the time to write about it.
Novels are often about more than one thing. The struggling of a sweet, smart Aspie was the first element. Later, I read an article by Rachel Aviv in a 2017 issue of the New Yorker in which she described in grim detail the horrors of an abusive, court-mandated conservatorship for an elderly couple in Las Vegas. I was deeply moved and angered by that account, and later it occurred to write about conservatorship with an autism spectrum hero like Josh. I back-burnered it, still feeling I needed something else to make it a special novel. That turned out to be the Yelp reviews.
I'm fascinated by the structure of the Yelp reviews. We really get to know Marcus intimately through what he thinks about the service at a restaurant, for example. How did you settle on that as a vehicle?
Being a long-time foodie, a Yelper and an admirer of the late Pulitzer-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, I love going to hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, street stands, or food trucks, sometimes posting reviews to Yelp after. I have had Baja-style fish tacos in every corner of my beloved Los Angeles. If you ever come here, I’d be delighted to take you to Tacos Baja Ensenada (reviewed in the book) and show you the magic of the real item. About a year ago it just hit me like a bolt of lightning that it would be cool to use Yelp reviews as a storytelling device in an epistolary novel.
Conservatorship has been in the news lately with the Britney Spears case. What kind of feedback have you heard from people who have up-close experience with that system?
Although I believed fighting an abusive conservatorship presented a strong conflict for a story, I worried it wasn’t something on most people’s radar. Britney’s court case came up just after Roundfire picked up my book and as a result they decided to move up the publication date several months. I have been in touch with some of the originators of the #FreeBritney movement and they are transitioning into helping others with conservatorship abuse issues. In writing, I worked closely with a few organizations that fight conservatorship abuse and they have been helpful and supportive of the book.
You landed an endorsement from Temple Grandin. How the heck did that happen?
The question makes me smile because when, prior to publication, my publisher asked me to supply endorsements for the book (no, they don’t get them for you!). I thought of Temple Grandin, but had no connection to her. I asked around to no avail and someone said I should just write to her. I said don’t be silly—she gets a million requests and I didn’t even have an email address. Anyway, I found her website which had a contact form and I described the book and clicked “send” without any expectation of a reply. How many emails does she get? A lot. A few days later, the phone rang when I happened to be napping and I gave a groggy hello. The caller said she was Temple Grandin looking for Howard Chesley. Temple Grandin is an idol of mine and even though I have met my share of celebrities in the film business, I was gobsmacked that it was she on the phone. I suspect she was just calling to check me out. A few weeks later she sent me a lovely note saying how much she loved the book and appended a wonderful, strong endorsement, including the phrase “It opened my eyes,” with permission to use it as I liked. The endorsement is on the back cover of the book. I am humbled. I should also say that as a “neurotypical” I was concerned about how the autism spectrum community would regard the authenticity of what I wrote. I circulated the manuscript a lot in the community before sending it out for just that reason. One of the greatest pleasures I have gotten is the more-than-enthusiastic support I have gotten so far from so many in that community.
I can’t resist mentioning, in my researching for Free Marcus I found 600 Hours of Edward, just loved and admired it, and it was proof to me that a first-person novel with a narrator on the spectrum could work well. As you know, I wrote to you cold, sending a PDF of the book, and since then you have so graciously been a more-than-generous supporter of my book. I hope you don’t mind me thanking you publicly before we actually conclude. Oh—and I just read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life and I thought that it was a deep and mature work. And at the end I was quite moved.
(Thank you, Howard.)
You're an experienced and accomplished TV writer. What's the difference between that and, say, writing a novel? How much is transferrable, do you think?
The obvious response is that screenplays and teleplays tend to be very tightly structured. It’s a strong discipline that I had to learn over time and is useful in all storytelling. Most, but not necessarily all great novels, are narratively well structured and the challenge is to make them relevant and artful within the confines of a classical layout. Beyond that, my specific talent coming from having been a screenwriter is that I am good at closing my eyes, inhabiting a character and letting the character speak through me. In a way, it’s an author’s disguise and relieves me of being critiqued on what would inevitably be attributed as my personal speech in a third person book. Marcus Katz, through his Yelp reviews, is the first-person narrator of the book. My first novel, was also written in the first person. I remember clearly the voice of the young man in Butte. I have several good friends who I believe are undiagnosed, but on the spectrum, and I know the diagnosed children of friends as well.
Marcus has a full, satisfying arc, but there's certainly a way to imagine his life going on beyond the final page of your novel. Any thoughts of revisiting him?
We shall see. I’m broadband as a writer and am inclined to move to something else, but if people take to Marcus (as I have) my arm could be twisted.
Boogie-boarding, pickleball, cruising for food and, pandemic permitting, travel. There is a hint of a movie deal for Free Marcus but I am too experienced to bank on that. I have started two other novels, am not pleased with either so far, but I’m used to the process and write every day. I love all of it and consider myself a lucky guy.
FREE MARCUS KATZ!!!: A CURATED COLLECTION OF YELP REVIEWS
Let me tell you a little something about this boy …
As of tomorrow, January 25, he’ll be 3 years old. And because I’m nearly 52 and have learned how fast time seems to go, I have to check myself sometimes against pre-emptively mourning what will happen if the actuarial tables are true for both of us: I’ll have to say goodbye to him and let him go. Most of the time, I can get my head straight, tell myself to enjoy the time I have with him, but sometimes I get fixated not on the past, as is my wont, but on the future. This is one of those times, because he’s hit this milestone.
Contrary to the old saying, he's not my best friend. That is and always will be my wife, as she should be. But he’s my best buddy. I’ve lived to an age—and lived through a pandemic, so far—that has calcified my lack of interest in spending great scads of my time with other people. I’d rather stick to my house and my patterns and our tight little circle here, two people and a cat and a dog. I say again: He is my best buddy. He goes where I go. He hears my thoughts. I check in with him, and he checks in with me. We move around each other like an old married couple, which we're not, but it speaks to the familiarity.
So, anyway, three years ago …
It was Jan. 27, 2019, and Elisa and I were about to step into a movie theater in Brunswick, Maine. Before we did, I checked my email via phone. I had a message from Doxy Den in Mechanic Falls, a breeder (I know, I know—I wanted a dachshund, and this is not a mill; it's a family that loves their dogs):
“The puppies arrived on Friday! We had 5 boys! I have 3 black/tan long hair males available! There are pictures up on our Facebook page. Groot, Drax and Rocket are the puppies that are available. Rocket is tiny but strong and doing well. Groot has a little bit of white on his chin and the tips of his toes.”
I went to the Doxy Den Facebook page, looked at the pups, and made my choice: I’d take Groot (but not the name).
Over the weeks that followed, I watched him grow, from a distance. Because I had a trip back to Montana planned for March, I didn’t pick him up until April 9. He was the last of the five boys to go to his permanent home. The Doxy Den owner’s granddaughter cried because she had to give him up. I cried when I got him to the car on a wintry day, for the long drive home. I'd been waiting on him, and he was finally with me. He spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to crawl from his bed into my lap while I tried to drive. Finally, late in the trip home, he hit the wall (see below).
I’ve had many dachshunds, and I’ve loved them all. Just get me going on Sniffer and Mitzi and Zula and Bodie. I loved them equally, but they came to me at different times in my life, and thus their impacts have been different. Fretless’ importance to me has, perhaps, been a little outsized. My world has gotten smaller these past three years. He’s filling more of it than he might have in another time.
Fretless came to me at a time when we lived in a beautiful place that didn’t feel much like home, and we were still struggling with what to do about that. Fretless and I, almost immediately, began taking long walks in the woods, and he helped me make my peace with Maine. In hindsight, I can see how much I needed that.
Long may he be with me. We're not near done yet.
This is not a résumé.
Nearly fourteen years ago, I drafted my first novel in twenty-five days, in manic bursts of activity—late at night, after I’d come home from my swing shift at the Billings Gazette, pouring coffee down my gullet, then returning to it in the late morning and early afternoon, before work beckoned again. I was at a small desk jammed into a corner of a small loft condo, my back to the door (bad feng shui!), and for those nearly four weeks, I did little other than work, write, sleep, write and take the dogs out. I liked to joke, after that book (600 Hours of Edward) came out, that it was the month my wife and I test-drove divorce, something that wasn’t nearly as funny after we did divorce some years later. But this isn’t about that.
I wrote my second novel (The Summer Son) in the same physical space but in a different headspace. The writing bursts weren’t bursts at all; rather, they were hard, slow-going, bear-down-and-get-it-done sessions—still late at night, for I was still at the Gazette, but not so much in the other hours, and over a much longer stretch than twenty-five days. I rewrote it three times, major revisions, over the course of nearly a year, and it remains the one I’d write again if I had a crack at it. I don’t, thank God.
Novels 3 and 4—oh, man, that was the life. I had a basement office with its own full bathroom in the bungalow my then-wife and I bought when the marriage was simultaneously dying out and still worth the effort of trying to save. Novel 3 (Edward Adrift) played off the re-release of Novel 1 by a new, bigger publisher, and Novel 4 (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter) was supposed to be my breakout (it wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about).
I was making enough money writing to not have to do the daily journalism grind, so I granted myself release and wrote Novel 5 (This Is What I Want) back in that one-bedroom loft condo, my desk still jammed in that corner, my back still to the door (bad, bad feng shui), because the marriage was over—the kind of over that hurts at the time, as it should, but everybody’s happier now, no hard feelings, and there are occasional friendly notes or chance meetings somewhere. It's nice to say it's all good and mean it. I finished that novel in a hotel room in Missoula, Montana, where I’d gone to lick my wounds and get away from my upstairs neighbor, my father, who, well intentioned as he was, couldn’t have understood the way my heart at the time was afflicted and inflicted, no matter how many ways I might have tried to tell him. But this isn’t about that, either.
Let’s get through this quickly now:
Novel 6: Edward Unspooled, the companion to Novels 1 and 3, was written in a new office with its own full bathroom, in a new house, with the support of my wife, who did me the service of turning my desk around to face the door (good, good feng shui). I published that baby myself, and it saved our bacon that year.
Novel 7: Julep Street, also written in that new office in the new house, also published myself, saved considerably less bacon the following year. I wrote it in fits and starts, for my responsibilities had shifted. I had been inspecting pipelines on the side, and that became more of a center-stage endeavor. I was taking on more freelance, trying to keep the ends coming together every month. Of all the many things Elisa and I imagined for our lives, the coincidental collapse of her writing earnings and mine wasn’t among them, which is when the universe laughs and says “OK, watch this.” But this isn’t about that, either.
Novel 8: You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky, cowritten with Elisa, here in Montana and across the continent in Maine, where we lived for two years. There, I had another office (without a full bathroom, though one was within goose-stepping distance), and again, I put my back to the door because I’m apparently just not very bright. Those were hard years for writing. When Elisa insisted on moving my desk, I got moving on Novel 9 (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life) and wrote most of a play (still unproduced), so maybe there’s something to the unlocking powers of the whole feng shui thing. But nor is this about that.
No, this is about how I write, and to a much lesser degree about where I write, and as I stare at the corner of my desk—back in our house in Montana, back in my office with the full bathroom and the desk facing the door—I look at the printed-out manuscript for Novel 10 (now titled Dreaming Northward, but who knows?), and I realize that I’m envious of anyone who has a set place and a set time to do the work.
Don’t get me wrong: I love stories about process and place. I love seeing pictures of my author friends’ writing spaces. I love matching those pictures up with the work of theirs that I so admire. When I was a boy and thinking that I might like to grow up and write books, I saw a picture of Steinbeck’s Joyous Garde at his house in Sag Harbor, and I had office envy before I even knew what office envy was. But do you know what I envy more? Anyone’s ability to consistently protect their writing time.
I would say, now, that I’m much more like the guy who wrote Novel 1 than the one who wrote Novel 4. I’m back on the swing shift five nights a week, doing journalism (and happy to be doing it, I might add). I design a quarterly print magazine, which is only my favorite gig ever. I take on freelance editing jobs, as many as I can handle, and I'm happy to have them. Up until recently, I ventured out to the pipeline from time to time, and I might well go back to it. I look after an elderly parent. I write when I can, not when I’m scheduled to, because what’s a schedule and how do I get one? I sacrifice sleep on one side or the other sometimes, just to move the plow down the field a little ways. I’ve begun to think there are more doing it the way I do it than not.
Here’s the funny thing, only I’m not laughing: The guy writing Novel 10 is way better at the job than the guy who wrote Novel 1, and that’s indisputable in every measurable way other than the marketplace. But this isn’t about that, either.
The work abides because I do. Because I get older, just like anyone else, and because I ache more than I did fourteen years ago, and because I wouldn’t dare write a book in twenty-five days now even if I thought I could (and I don’t, and it's only through sheer audacity that I ever did), and because my life is incalculably more complicated now than it was then, and it’s also incalculably better now than it was then. I’m better now than I was then. Older, yes. More broken down, surely. But better nonetheless.
And let me tell you, there’s nobody in the world more qualified to write Novel 10—to harvest the memories that inspired it, to ride the imagination that’s driving it, to peel away the story that lies within it—than the guy who’s writing it. This guy. If it gets picked up and edited and published and read, man, I’ll be thrilled. That’s great. That’s what I’m after. But that’s not what this is about.
This is about showing up. This is about doing the work.
That’s how I write. I grab the moments that are available to me, and I do it.
Hello, 2022 ... and all of you here to see it. It's been a trip, huh?
Just before Christmas, in a final furious week of drafting, I finished the first pass at a new novel, which I'm calling Dreaming Northward. It is, as I expected given the brisk pace of my finishing kick, both a fully satisfying arc and a manuscript that needs a lot (A LOT) of work. That's how these things go, at least for me. I write them to see I can get from here to there, then I spend a lot of time cogitating on what I've done, then I rewrite to more fully expose the story I think I'm trying to tell, then I revise, revise, revise to really hone whatever it is that I have. (Followed, of course, by even more editing if—knock wood—the thing gets published, followed then by a beautiful, finished book that I immediately wish I could have another crack at.)
Anyway, I hope to share it with you ... sometime. Probably 2023. We'll see. A lot left to do.
I mention this because my friend Jeff Deck reminded me of something on Facebook today. Here are Jeff's words, which are much more eloquent than mine:
I'm Random Penguin House author Jeff Deck, and I have an important message for you today:
Getting published by a major house will not make you rich.
It will not pay your mortgage. It will not clear up your skin. It will not get rid of those love handles.
It will not make you a bunch of friends, nor will it get you laid. It will not make your distant parent say they're proud of you.
It won't relieve you of the onus (and cost) of marketing your book yourself, either.
What it will do is get your book into physical bookstores. And potentially improve your chances of getting a second book traditionally published. But mostly it's the distribution thing.
Many people fix their eye — and their hopes, and their self-validation — on getting published by a major house. My wish for you is to recognize the value in your work no matter how it ends up being published, whether via the Big Five (Big Four?), a mid-size or small press, or self-publishing.
Recognize the value in it BEFORE it's published, too. The work you put into your story is real. The time you spent improving your own skills along the way should be recognized, and celebrated.
Goals are important for motivation. But you are "worthy" *right now*. And you will continue to be worthy every step of the way.
Writing is a long journey, even (especially) after publication. No matter which publishing route you choose. Belief in your own value — and a daily celebration of your own work and words — will sustain you along the way.
Every word is absolutely true, by the way. I often tell folks that they should celebrate having done the work as much as they celebrate anything that flows from that work. Sometimes, they think I'm bullshitting them. I'm not. The work is sustaining. The rest is ... the rest.
Received some lovely news yesterday. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life was the bestselling book for 2021 at my local independent bookstore, This House of Books. I'm grateful to the bookstore—where I'm a proud member-owner (it's a co-op)—for being such a wonderful supporter of not just my work but of the many, many fine regional writers who are doing such important work here. And I'm grateful to the folks, near and far, who bought a copy from THoB and kept the oxygen flowing to an independent bookstore. The cultural life in my town is much the richer for its presence.
If you'd like a signed copy of the book, THoB will be happy to fulfill that desire. Simply order online and mention in the comment field that you'd like it signed, and I'll hop into my trusty blue Toyota, drive downtown and sign it for you.
And, hey, if it's a paperback you want, I have good news:
The paperback version releases in May, and you can preorder through THoB (I'll be happy to sign those, too, once they come in), through your local independent bookseller (please!) or wherever you get books.
Dispatches from the staying-in-touch department ...
Will the pig run again?
I've written before about my occasional life in pipeline inspection — an association that inspired an entire novel — and had been looking forward to getting out there again in the spring, after the usual wintertime slowdown. Well, maybe, but also looking like probably not. The company for which I did work recently shuttered, and there's an industrywide slowdown, so I may be on the obsolescence end of progress (or regress).
I can't say I'm particularly heartbroken. Pipelines are a destructive, invasive way of delivering extractive sources of energy, and for the future of the planet, it's high time we develop alternatives that are well within our grasp but beyond our political will. On the other hand, there's a practical consideration: We already have the damn things, and we're using them. The job I did was essential to the safety end of matters. Let's hope that continues until we can pull those things out of the ground and return the land to those from whom it was stolen.
I will miss the travel to exotic (read: remote) locales and the chance to meet people in their natural habitat. But that can be enjoined in other ways, obviously.
I recently did something I should have done a long, long time ago: I joined the Authors Guild.
So here's where I cop to self-interest: I began to consider the possibility earlier this year when, quite apart from any involvement from me, my former agency descended into founder-vs.-founder contretemps and my meager royalties from long-ago books started showing up late or not at all. My former agent, also caught in the crossfire as her old shop melted down, was a champion and an ardent defender of my rights, it should be pointed out, and she got my situation squared away, for which I'm eternally grateful. But it occurred to me—again, when my self-interest was compromised, an entirely human condition that I'm trying to rise above—that in this whole solitary business, you have to grab a little solidarity where you can get it and stand strong with those who do what you do.
I'm also reminded of something wise I once heard said by A.W. Gray, a well-regarded crime novelist but better known to me as the father of my boyhood best friend: "The people who need unions the most are those who don't have them."
The rustling around of some of my writer friends tells me November is coming, and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). And sure as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, someone (or several someones) in my circles will openly disdain the whole exercise.
If I wished to be casually dismissive of someone's point of view—to suggest that they haven't legitimately arrived at their thinking—I could certainly do that, but I think not hearing each other has caused us enough problems. My own view is that a communal writing experience, in which thousands upon thousands of people set aside some time and try to create something, is very much a good thing. Perhaps the attendant expectations often get wacky—no, you're probably not going to write a finished novel in a month, and no, laying down 50,000 words and "winning" NaNoWriMo doesn't ensure publication, and no, the act of drafting is not what it's all about—but the expectations aren't the toil or the making of art. You want to spend November trying to pull a novel out of yourself? Bully! Do it!
I won't join you, though, for reasons I'll get into below. And my getting into them might just illuminate what a NaNoWriMo participant can expect from the experience. On the other hand, what do I know and who am I to say? Well ...
1. I've Been There and Done That
In 2008, prompted by my friend Jim Thomsen, I committed myself to a month of writing and had what has turned out to be a dream trip. I drafted my first novel, what eventually became 600 Hours of Edward, in those 30 days. (Actually, it was 25. No, no, wait, it was 17 on account of the off-days; see the breakdown below.)
This, a bit regretfully for me, has become a sort of boilerplate in any account of my subsequent fiction-writing career. It shows up in reviews, gets asked in interviews, etc.: Here's the guy who wrote his first novel in 25 days and got it published and it eventually became an international bestseller and it's just that easy!
It's not just that easy. I've written nine books since then, not a one of them as commercially successful as the first, all of them better pieces of writing (in my estimation), and I've come to view what happened in November 2008 as a one-off, a writing project never to be replicated by me in quite that way again. I had an idea, I gave in to the mania of writing it as quickly as I could because of the format, and I had the good fortune of writing something that has connected more broadly than anything I'd written before or am likely to write again.
I'll take the win and say I've already played the game.
2. For Me, It's About Not Writing as Much as It is About Writing
NaNoWriMo's pitch to prospective participants is pretty irresistible: They say we all have a novel inside us. Commit yourself to finding out.
As far as it goes, a fine idea. And every November, people find their people, fellow writers who are trying to meet the challenge. There are supportive text exchanges and writing get-togethers and coffee klatches, and these are all wonderful things. Writing can be such a solitary, doubt-filled endeavor. NaNoWriMo brings community to the fore.
The thing is, writing novels has helped me learn to embrace the solitude. It's also made me realize that some of the best work I do happens when I'm not at the keyboard, pushing my word count ever higher. It's in the quiet consideration of things, reflecting on the characters and worlds I'm trying to create. It's in feeling the rhythm of the world around me and participating in it. It's in letting the well refill.
All of which is to say that ginning myself up for a writing dash in November is far less important to me than listening inward and doing the things I need to do to stay engaged with my work and with the larger life I have that supports it.
3. The Whole Word-Count Thing
OK, look, I get it: NaNoWriMo is selling "get that novel out," so there has to be an attendant metric by which you measure how successful you were in meeting the challenge.
Word count is just so lacking in so many ways because it puts the wrong objective forward. I can't speak for professional writers who disdain NaNoWriMo—by now, I should be on record as very much pro-the-spirit-of-NaNoWriMo-if-not-necessarily-the-way-it's-sometimes-applied. But many people who've spent a lifetime developing craft, absorbing rejection, trying again, getting better, breaking through will view word count as one of the least important things they do, far less vital than getting the arc right (which will, by its nature, produce the words), clarifying theme, achieving empathy, sharpening the prose, etc. That NaNoWriMo considers 50,000 words success can just feel a little thin when you know just how hard it is to write something worth publishing.
For what it's worth, here's how my word counts proceeded in 2008 (first number is the cumulative total, and the parenthetical is that day's work):
I look at those totals now and feel sheepish that I felt compelled to keep the record and to commemorate it. Why? It wasn't the total that was driving me; it wasn't the prospect of "winning" NaNoWriMo so I'd have a cool pixelated badge I could post here 13 years later. I wrote like mad because I had inspiration on the hook, and having never written a novel previously, I didn't trust myself to let it come to me in a more moderated way. I cannot conceive of an 8,000-word writing day now. I'd probably collapse if I tried it.
But here's the truth: I'm no less excited about my current project than I was about the book that became 600 Hours. I just don't feel the need to sprint. Thus, NaNoWriMo's appeal is lessened.
4. So What To Do?
This ain't a hard question. Do NaNoWriMo, if that's what you're jazzed about doing. Don't if you're not.
Whatever the choice, I'd urge reconsideration of what success is, in literary terms. Success is writing that story, in whatever way you do it and in whatever time it requires. That's it. It's a singular success that stands alone from getting an agent, getting a publishing contract, seeing your story in print, selling a hundred gajillion copies. Success is doing the work. Period. Full stop.
My buddy Jonathan Evison, one of the most talented and generous writers I know, wrote some number of novels and buried them in his backyard long before he broke through to publication. They weren't wasted effort; indeed, Johnny would tell you that work was foundational to everything he does today.
The man speaks the truth.
First thing: I'd be gratified if you'd go to this link, where my wife, Elisa Lorello, keeps her newsletter. She's written eloquently and emotionally this week about her pullback from social media: why she did it in the first place, ways in which she has come back, and why she'll never return to what her presence used to be.
She gets at a lot of the things I've wrestled with, and she's been far stronger than I have as far as making some of her resolutions stick. If you like what you read there, you might consider going to her website and signing up for the weekly (sort of, kind of) dispatch. A little Elisa in your in-box is a day brightener, and we all need those.
The truth is, we've been grappling with social media and its impacts on us, on how we congregate and communion and deal with each other, for as long as we've been becoming friends with Tom and booking staterooms on the S.S. Zuckerberg. It's just that the more pernicious aspects of an online life have been slower to come to us, and by the time they do, we're already addicted to the cat pictures and the easy reconnection with high school friends and the ready microphone for whatever is on our minds. (On mine, mostly: breakfast.)
Every time I'm about ready to declare social media, on the whole, a net negative, I can feel a "yeah, but" bubbling to the surface. Over the weekend, I shared a table with Tom Harpole (author of Regarding Willingness, a great book you should read posthaste) at a library book sale, and we had a humdinger of a time building a genuine human rapport out of a friendship that had, to that point, been nurtured entirely online. So, if I'm ready to bag social media—and I am, baby, I am—am I also ready to foreclose the possibility of future Harpolian friendships?
What about the genuine, deep love I've come to feel for people from my hometown I didn't know that well the first time around (I went to a big-block-store of a high school, so it was mathematically impossible to do it any other way)?
What about the book club in Virginia who'd all be my besties if we lived closer?
What about a dozen other examples I could rattle off without even contemplating it?
I think the greatest disappointment of social media, for me, is that I thought (naively) it would be a tool of greater connection and empathy, and in its worst iterations, it's been precisely the opposite. I cringe when I look back on something like this interview, in which I extolled the virtues. They're so much harder to see now.
And look, I don't think the problem is the technology, per se. We've leveraged new tools in our communication since human history began, from grunts to cave wall drawings in ochre, from plumes to pencils to printing presses to pixels, from phones that share party lines to phones with long-distance tolls to phones that aren't even used, primarily, as talking devices.
But connection was the point, right? And now, in ugly and pervasive ways, the point is division.
Harp said something while we were together, a grand occasion that I think will leave us demanding more like it to keep oxygen flowing in the friendship, and I haven't been able to shake it since: "The world is getting to a place where an empathetic person will find it impossible to live here." (I hope that's near enough to a direct quote. I wasn't taking notes, just reveling in the fellowship.)
I think that's it, in large measure. Empathy is lifeblood for me. I can't imagine getting through my days without it. I can't imagine living in a way that I don't strive for it. I can't imagine wanting to be here without it. I'm going to try to live where kindness lives, to plant it where I am and where I'm headed. I'll fail sometimes, of course. That's part of the human bargain.
But that ideal has to be the north star, or what are we doing here?
(And, yeah, I get the irony of having pounded this out on a website, the link to which I'll distribute on Facebook and Twitter. We're hardwired for hypocrisy.* All of us.)
(* — Credit to the great Barry Eisler for highlighting the Niebuhr passage.)
Quick programming note
Novelist Jamie Harrison and I are doing this online conversation, hosted by the Montana Book Festival, about fiction and families. I think it's going to be a lot of fun with some interesting insights, and if you have some time Saturday (Oct. 16), I'd be well pleased if you joined us. The event is free, but you have to register here to get a spot.
It's Sunday, September 19, and I'm on Interstate 25 in Casper, the nose of my car pointed north, toward home, a few hours away. I'm tired. My dog, Fretless, lies languidly in the passenger seat. He's had enough after a week away. So have I. Home, my wife, the cat—they all await. We have plenty of gas, had a bite to eat back in Douglas, fifty miles behind us. We have everything we need. The smart play is to get beyond this oil town and open up the cruise control a bit, see what this Toyota can do as we zip back into the emptiness of Wyoming and, eventually, get pulled into the embrace of Montana.
So, of course, I exit the interstate, pick my way through downtown Casper, find CY Avenue—I once called it, in a novel, "the spine of the Casper grid system," which may or may not be true—and follow its familiar path to where I turn off for Mills, a little town north of Casper, and as I do, the well-trod memories come at me again.
What I've come to see has been seen before, many times, and is likely to be seen many times yet, and if this particular side trip is taken as evidence that my life is in reruns, I will say only this in disputing that notion:
Context is important, in all things and especially in this: I find it instructive, or at least perspective-granting, to be reminded of the life I might have had so I can better appreciate the one I'm swimming through.
It's Friday, September 24, the day I'm writing this, and I'm reflecting on a spontaneous turn in a phone conversation with my mother this morning as we talked about other things. We talked, quite organically, about a decision she made for both of us in 1973, my third year. I was a capable kid, even at that age, blessed with an ability to carry on conversations with adults, but this matter was beyond my perception.
She didn't want to live in Mills, Wyoming, anymore. That was surely half of it. The other half was that she didn't want me to live in Mills, Wyoming, anymore. She looked at the present, our life with my father there and what it seemingly held for us, and she projected out her future and mine and didn't like where those lives seemed likely to end up, and she did something about it. She took us out of there, into life with a man she'd met that year, the brother of her best friend, a man who lived in Euless, Texas. Not that it's anyone's business, but they hadn't had an affair. They'd had a connection, a chance meeting at a party that turned into a deep conversation that blossomed into a friendship and has become a nearly 48-year marriage.
We talked about it this morning, Mom and I, this decision that with each passing year strikes me as more and more brave, more and more essential to both of us (and now to so many others—generations of others), more and more the line of demarcation, in strictly selfish terms for me, between where my life was pointed and where it ended up.
I can see now, when I'm more than two decades older than she was then, how much gumption it required for her to do what she did. She was alone there, much of the time. She was 28 years old, and while Dad might not have represented maturity or loving or grace (I love the man, but let's be honest about the limitations), our prospects there were much more certain than they were anywhere else. There was a home well on its way to being paid off, an ascendant business, money in the bank. It would have been all too easy to stay. Many people have stayed for less.
Mom saw the future and she left. I'll never receive a finer gift.
So, you see, Mills, Wyoming, is actually a bit player in this what-might-have-been contemplation. It wasn't Mills we were escaping so much as who was there and what our life was there. It could have happened in Moline or Schenectady or Topeka. Could have, but didn't.
This is, at its heart, a human story, a story of a boy with three parents who've imprinted him in wildly varying ways.
I love my father, a love that shines through my struggles to understand him and his to understand me. It's a love strong enough to withstand my suspicion that my start in life would have been less than it was had I finished my growing-up years in his house. The math of that situation is inconceivable to me, given the way it all went. It would have been Mom and me in some kind of alignment agaInst the gravity of the way he is, the work that was always taking him away from us, and the instability of the home we were living in. I'm certain Mom's decision all those years ago hurt him. I'm also certain, if Dad can access clarity and honesty, that he'd say it needed to happen. For all of us.
And what can a boy like me say about his mother that hasn't been said in better ways by better thinkers? She is pure love when it comes to her children and her children's children, but to leave it at that misses the fullness of who she is. At an age that seems to me, now, to be impossibly young, she was relentlessly wise. She had aspirations for herself (and has them still). To my ongoing gratitude, she could see a time coming when her son would have them, too.
In so doing, she brought me into the sphere of the man who became my stepfather. Back then, he was a 31-year-old sportswriter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a man who had his own broken first marriage, a son, and regrets. He also had a shared hope with Mom that they could make a go of it together. I can scarcely remember a time before his presence in my life, and he has never, not once, treated me as anything but his own. That has made all the difference.
I go back to Mills to remind myself that it could all have gone another way. Could have, but didn't.
So what do I make of Mills, all these years later?
I think it would be presumptuous of me to make anything of it beyond my sliver of experience there. It's steeped in nostalgia and memories and wonder. Its presence on the outskirts of my life has been a professional gift, surely (the old memory + imagination thing), as well as fodder for the occasional facile joke. (One could certainly quip about "welcome to Mills, please set your watch back 20 years" or wax irreverent about how hard the wind blows there.)
The thing is, I've lived enough places and known enough people to realize something important: Most anyplace can be home, depending on who's doing the inhabiting and what they bring to it. I suspect—but don't know for certain—that my life would have harder and less interesting had I grown up in Mills.
It's the not knowing, of course, that makes it such a delicious ponderable. So I go back, and I look around, and I try to imagine who that boy might have been, what kind of man he might have become, where he might have gone and what he might have seen.
And because Mom imagined something else entirely, way back in 1973, I can be ever grateful for the real story that lies alongside the conjecture.
My friend Caroline Patterson has a new novel coming out Sept. 15. It's titled The Stone Sister, and it promises to be an absorbing, fascinating read. It's getting some fantastic endorsements from the likes of Ann Patchett, Annick Smith, and Kim Zupan.
Here's a book trailer:
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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