This writing business sure requires a lot of books.
As I entered my office a few days ago, I had to wade through books filed in boxes, books in paper shopping bags, books stacked on the floor. My office is small, and I could barely find a pathway from the door to my desk.
I am surrounded by books that I need to read because they have something in common with the novel I’m trying to write: a similar structure, perhaps, or a similar narrative approach or a common historical setting. In my growing collection are nonfiction books about World War I, Prohibition, racial violence, the steel industry, coal camps in Eastern Kentucky, and Lexington’s most notorious madam. There are historical photo collections from the various cities where my maternal grandfather spent some period of his life. There are books on the craft of writing that I continue to hope will inspire me to write something worth reading.
I have written before about my passion for collecting books. Evidently it’s unslakable. I am proud that I still value books, particularly in light of recent reporting that “The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.” I described last week how reading can increase empathy, a quality we all need to embrace in these times. But despite my plea for everyone to read more, my friends know how I struggle to find the time to read all that I want. Nonetheless, I never question that reading is time well spent. And I recognize the luxury of being surrounded by books I love.
But recently the sheer number of volumes has multiplied, due in part to the overwhelming generosity of a friend and mentor and in part to the consolidation of references my chief researcher had acquired over the past several years.
Something had to give.
So this weekend, my husband—the hunter-gatherer of the family—found a $50 bookcase to help me get my office back into some sort of order. With any luck, my thinking will become a bit clearer as the room becomes more uncluttered.
In doing research for the novel, I discovered that my predilection for books may go back several generations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, my maternal great-grandmother ran into some trouble keeping up her accounts with local shop owners. In May 1908, as many businesses were still recovering from the Panic of 1907, J.T. Hinton—the proprietor of a Paris, Ky., home furnishings store as well as a funeral director and the future mayor of the city—filed a suit against Mrs. W. E. Board for payment of a past due account amounting to $131.69. The purchases on the tab went back to 1902, and by far the most expensive item on the account was a $35 bookcase (the third item listed in the exhibit filed with the suit, left).
Maybe it’s a genetic compulsion. I can only hope that I find more time to enjoy the “writing” library I have amassed—a library that is now neatly arranged on shelves rather than scattered among various trip hazards on the floor. Perhaps eye-level reminders will be all I need to start a marathon summer reading spree.
Empathy, like civility, seems to be a vanishing American quality. The ability to imagine oneself in another person’s situation and understand that person’s feelings typically engenders compassion and a sense of shared human experience. Without empathy, we tend to align ourselves with others whose experiences we can identify with. That results in homogenized communities and a bubbling fear of those who are different—the threat of “The Other,” as described so vividly in Ryszard Kapuściński’s book that borrows that title.
That’s where our nation—and much of the world—finds itself right now.
Bill Bishop, formerly a columnist with the Lexington Herald-Leader, relied on demographic data to sound the alarm about this phenomenon in his 2009 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. He argued that our choosing to live in neighborhoods with others who share our lifestyle and our beliefs has helped create the political and cultural polarization we see today.
Unfortunately we currently have political leaders who find stoking those fears useful for holding on to their power. By promulgating misleading data and straight-up lies, they are able to prey on people’s fears of those who are different—or simply unfamiliar—and push agendas that lack compassion and humanity.
Our nation has a long history of persecuting immigrants and those whom we perceive to be different. We have been callous, hateful, distrustful, even cruel—all while pointing smugly to the Statue of Liberty, our national symbol of compassion.
It is our responsibility as citizens to distinguish the facts from the untruths and to consider the effect of proposed policy on all people, not just those who look and think like we do.
So how do we build empathy for others who live very different lives from our own? If you live or work among a diverse population of people, it’s much easier. You interact with people with different backgrounds from yours every day. So talk to them. Get to know them. Ask them questions. Share a meal. I expect you’ll find you’re not very different after all.
If you live and work in an area with little diversity, as I do, you have to work a little harder to discover the empathy and compassion necessary for a united nation truly interested in justice for all. You can volunteer to work with groups of people whose life experiences are different from yours. If you have the means, you can travel. You can take classes or attend public lectures.
But perhaps one of the simplest ways to develop empathy is to read. Read widely. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books by authors from other countries. Read history so you’ll know the struggles of those who preceded us. Read biographies about people you’ve never heard of.
And read fiction. Good fiction invites you into a world you know nothing about and engages your emotions in a way that encourages you to feel empathy for the characters. Whatever their situation—however different from anything you’ve ever known—you begin to identify with the fictional characters: you feel their pain, their sorrow, their happiness, their embarrassment, their fear. You struggle with their decisions. You want them to succeed. You live their lives vicariously.
If reading fiction is not a regular part of your life, here are a few suggestions to get you started. Of course, there are hundreds of others to choose from. Feel free to share a comment below listing other books readers might find compelling.
In the second Appendix of The Last Resort, Pud lists what he is reading while working as a researcher at Harvard Forest. The almost wacky list includes a historical thriller, a collection of essays by the humorist James Thurber, a contemporary novel, a telling of Maurice Herzog’s trek up Annapurna, and a book of Ozark folk tales. He was also rereading Thoreau’s Walden and working his way through Ridpath’s history.
In 1953, Pud and Mary Marrs had no television. Reading was their primary pastime. I suspect that in that era more people read more widely. With the widespread establishment of public libraries and the advent of paperbacks, books became more accessible. Newspapers were commonly found in homes. Magazines were popular.
But in the digital age, we read “soundbites.” We rarely dig deeply into a story or analysis. Fewer still pick up a book or download a novel to an electronic device. Who has time for that?
As we once again consider important policy and legislation relating to immigrants, refugees, foreign aid, and how we respond to national disasters that disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized, let us all summon as much empathy and compassion for our fellow travelers as we possibly can. Let’s all pick up a good book and read. And then let’s make our voices heard.
For another call to action, please read the comment left by Vince Fallis at the bottom of Tragic Patterns.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, Ky., is co-editor of The Last Resort and the author of the book's Introduction. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
It will surprise few readers to learn that editing a previously unpublished manuscript is not unlike wading waist-deep into an endless stream of choices. At least that’s what Sallie and I found in preparing Pud Goodlett’s 1940s Salt River journal for publication as The Last Resort.
We felt a moral obligation to reproduce the author’s original text as faithfully as possible, but other considerations managed to creep in. Some of them were practical—for example, pencil smudges and strikethroughs in the source document required interpretive skill. There were also, on occasion, plausible arguments for more extensive revision. Does one correct spelling errors? Pick grammatical nits? What about gray areas like replacing period slang or clunky phrasing with something easier to read (after all, Pud was only 19 when he started his journal)? Aren’t editors supposed to edit?
Sallie and I erred on the side of laissez faire et laissez passer—let do and let pass—but not everyone follows the same strategy. An interesting counterexample involves an unpublished manuscript by the patron saint of outdoor writers, Ernest Hemingway. Though he’s often associated with big-game hunting in Africa, Hemingway undertook only two safaris during his lifetime.
The first occurred in 1933 and resulted in Green Hills of Africa, published two years later and viewed by some as the gold standard for this genre of writing. The second took place in the early 1950s and generated an unfinished 850-page manuscript, partly handwritten and partly typed, deposited by Hemingway for safekeeping in a Cuban bank vault.
Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, “the African book” (as he called it) has been published not once but twice in two very different versions. The first, appearing in 1999 and given the name True at First Light, was heavily edited by Hemingway’s son, Patrick. It was, after a fashion, a father-and-son collaboration.
The same manuscript served as the source for a second publication, Under Kilimanjaro, in 2005, edited by a pair of Hemingway scholars, Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming. They took the opposite approach, leaving the original manuscript largely intact. According to Lewis and Fleming, “[T]his book deserves as complete and faithful a publication as possible without editorial distortion, speculation, or textually unsupported attempts at improvement.”
Sallie’s and my approach was more Kilimanjaro than First Light, which isn’t to say that we didn’t earn our paycheck as editors (speaking figuratively here, as there’s no money in scholarly self-publication). The appendices of World War II correspondence and the Harvard Forest journal were created after a meticulous review of the source documents and an appropriate reduction in size and scope. The introduction, annotations, taxonomic list, and other content additions involved considerable time and required input from both of us. But the point of the book—Pud’s delightful journal of halcyon days on Salt River—is as verbatim as we could make it. The Last Resort is the authentic work of an authentic voice before our current period of largesse and decline.
I’ve recently come to understand that writing is simply a series of decisions. We all have the essential vocabulary and familiarity with English syntax necessary to put words on a page. But every word, every phrase, every metaphor, every construction is a choice. If you’re writing fiction, every setting, every plot complication, every character’s reaction, every character’s character is likewise a choice.
If I had understood this earlier, I sincerely doubt I would have launched so heedlessly into this vocation. I am typically paralyzed by decision making. When I was in college, I took a class called Cognitive Processes. I was fascinated by psychology and it was taught by one of my favorite screwball professors. Early in the semester I recall discussing how many decisions, large and small, we make each day. For a short period thereafter I froze as I stood in the cafeteria line trying to select something for breakfast. I had never before thought of that simple task as a series of decisions. Daily existence became almost unbearably cumbersome.
For the writer, even if you survive the thousands of decisions necessary to complete an essay or short story or, heaven forbid, a novel, you are then faced with hundreds more related to marketing the work. During my checkered career, I learned that marketing has at least one thing in common with teaching: you can always do more. You can always be more imaginative, do more research, connect with more people, prepare more thoroughly. It’s open-ended. You are limited only by resources and time. Mostly time.
Unless you are slavish to a data-driven method, marketing usually results in some hits and some misses. You make the best choices you can given what you know and the time you have to invest. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot. And that can make it particularly rewarding when some of the choices you make result in real opportunities to get the word out about a favorite project.
On Saturday, April 28, I will have the privilege of participating in the Local Author Showcase celebrating Independent Bookstore Day at Lexington’s oldest—and largest—independent bookstore: Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Anyone who has spent time in central Kentucky in the past 25 years is familiar with the multi-level wonderland that is Joseph-Beth. It has been a key local source for books and gifts for two generations of readers. It’s one of the places that defines Lexington as a city that embraces literary artists, reading, and the life of the imagination.
If you have a chance to stop by Saturday between 4 and 6 p.m., I would love to chat with you about The Last Resort or anything else on your mind. While you’re there, pick up something special for yourself or a gift for someone else. We can choose to support our local independent booksellers just as we choose the first words that open a story.
Recently I’ve been struggling with how to create a distinctive voice for my maternal grandfather, who is at the heart of the novel I’m working on. I’ve taken a new approach this last week, and I hope to learn in a few days whether I’m on the right track.
Developing characters that readers will care about is a challenge for all writers, but it’s a particular challenge for someone like me who has no experience writing fiction. I’m accustomed to dealing with facts (imagine that) and building stories or arguments around people’s experiences or opinions. In most cases, I have the luxury of interviewing the individuals involved, listening to them, teasing out the details that will make their stories resonate.
While I now know many facts about my grandfather’s life, thanks primarily to my good friend and consummate researcher Chuck Camp, I have no idea really what he was like: what he did in his free time, what made him laugh, what demons he battled, what motivated him to make the choices he did. That’s where the “fiction” comes in. I also have no family stories to rely on and no photos. In many ways, he’s still a mystery, and it’s my job to bring him to life on the page. That’s a tall order for a novice.
Interestingly, I stumbled rather easily into a voice for his fourth wife, Effie Mae, who inserts her point-of-view in the narrative. (My grandmother was his first wife, at least as far as we know.) Chuck had uncovered substantial information about Effie, and that helped me imagine who she was and what she was like. Whether she was easier for me to create because she’s female, because her background is very distinct, or because I have no familial connection to her is hard to decipher. Perhaps it’s just that her life, fascinating as it was, seems more straightforward and easier to untangle than my grandfather’s. Her choices are easier to understand.
Giving voice to an ancestor is a daunting proposition. Of course, I’m creating a fictional representation of my grandfather, and that technically frees me to create the most compelling Lyons Board that I can. On the other hand, his story as we understand it is both highly peculiar and universal, as any good story is, and I really want to do that story justice. Meanwhile, the more I dig and the more I ponder what led him down the paths he chose, the more I recognize that I have his blood. At times it’s almost eerie how similar we seem.
So I’ll keep plugging. Writing is a process, and for me that process involves a steep learning curve. But I’m eager to share his story with others, and I hope that will motivate me to wrestle with every obstacle that threatens to silence its voicing.
It’s that time of year when we all tend to look back and reflect on the paths our lives have taken over the previous twelve months. For many of us, much was predictable: we managed the same obligations and the same routines that we have embraced for some time. For most of us, there were also a few unpredictable challenges and pleasures that either threw us off kilter or enriched us in unexpected ways.
My year has been full of surprises. In January, I was dealing with infuriating physical limitations and gearing up for a political fight. By February, I had acquiesced to both and, determined to use my new-found time constructively, had turned to a writing project I had neglected. I was deeply involved in that undertaking when my friend David Hoefer contacted me in May and said it was time to wrap up The Last Resort.
I wholeheartedly agreed and immediately switched gears. Both of us devoted the entire summer to our goal of publishing by the start of the fall academic year. We edited, polished, proofread, worked with our designers, struggled with software, launched a business, and, on August 17, produced a book we felt was ready to release to the public. It was an intense few months, and it was worth every bit of the hard work.
We are enormously pleased with the book’s reception and with the feedback so many of you have provided. Thank you for giving The Last Resort a chance and for indulging in a little nostalgia for a time long lost. I am most grateful for the people this project encouraged me to reach out to: my father’s former students, Sherry Olson and Alan Strahler; the family of my father’s former colleague, Charlie Denny; my father’s cousin, John Allen Moore; the family of my father’s best buddy, Bobby Cole; my childhood friends, Lorrie Abner Gritton and Marcy Feland Rucker; my cousins (you know who you are); my long-time writing friends, Roi-Ann and David Bettez and Rogers Bardé; and the next generation of forest ecologists, Bill Bryant and Tom Kimmerer.
This is also a time to look toward the future, toward the fresh start offered by the new year. In September, I enrolled in a nine-month writing program to sharpen my skills and provide the impetus I need to finish my first novel. The holidays have provided an opportunity to focus on that project, and I feel some momentum as we enter the new year. I intend to commit to that undertaking—at least until life’s unexpected twists and turns shove me off my intended path.
Here’s wishing all of you a year full of challenges that change you for the better and surprises that kick you out of your happy routine.
As I have worked on two large-scale writing projects over the past year, I have been awash in memories: memories of my parents, one gone a quarter-century, one gone a half-century; memories of the small Kentucky community where I grew up; memories of my early childhood surrounded by my father’s professional colleagues; and flickering memories of momentary interactions with long-lost relatives that I’ve tried to tease out of the recesses of my mind. These are the tricky ones, the ones that may shed some light on unexamined family relationships that altered the reality I knew.
My current project requires solving a fascinating puzzle: Why did my maternal grandfather, whom no one in my immediate family ever knew, make the choices he did? What motivated him? While I have been able to uncover a lot of his story through dogged research, what clues exist in the family stories that I do know or that I can remember?
Memory, unfortunately, is always unreliable and usually fickle. We have all been startled to learn that someone else’s memory of an event we recall so vividly does not at all match our recollection. Whose memory is right? How can we both be so certain about our differing stories? Has our memory been altered by hearing someone else’s retelling or by seeing a photo or video? Or did we dream it? How many family arguments and estrangements have been propelled by our illusions?
In 2016, Seamus Carey, president of Transylvania University, spoke eloquently about the fickleness of memory:
“The problem is memory itself. It is difficult to remember well. No matter how hard we try, memory flickers; no matter how earnestly we struggle, memory plays tricks with our thoughts; no matter how firm our promise to hold on, memory is the morning mist, so bright and stellar at its birth, so quickly burned away by the sun of another day.”
As each day passes, our minds are filled with ephemera collected from a multitude of sources. We spend our waking hours, and part of our slumber, sorting through this mass of information. By necessity, some gets moved to a shadowy corner. Some gets pinned to the forefront of our awareness. Some gets temporarily locked inside a box, only to reappear unexpectedly after an unsolicited and sometimes inconvenient provocation.
We cannot tame them, these unruly memories. We cannot hold them, even if we want to. Our unconsciousness regularly seizes control of our consciousness and sweeps them away. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it’s for our own good, although we may not recognize it at the time. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we do everything we can to cling to the few memories we have.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still honor what I can’t remember. Or those whom I don’t remember. I will rely on others’ stories, on other photos. I will construct a memory that nourishes me and inspires me to build memories with those who are here with me now, chasing this wild dream we call life.
In memory of Buddy, whom I can only remember with love.
[Following is a guest blog by the author of the Introduction to The Last Resort, David Hoefer. I invite other readers to share their thoughts about The Last Resort for future blog posts. You can contact me here.]
As several readers have noted, The Last Resort, with its dual emphasis on human interest and scholarly fact, is unusually structured. Sallie and I didn’t prepare it from a model but that doesn’t mean the book is entirely without precedent.
About the time The Last Resort was completed, I stumbled on to a work that seemed surprisingly parallel in content and format: John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. It had originally been published with additional material, including a species catalog, as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by Steinbeck and his friend and co-author, the Salinas marine biologist Ed Ricketts. That earlier volume was published in 1941, a mere two or three months before Pud Goodlett began keeping his journal on Salt River.
Of sailing and science
The original Sea of Cortez is really two books in one—a blend of California varietals. Like The Last Resort, it attempts to balance human interest and scientific information. The first segment, written by Steinbeck and later published solo as the logbook, is a day-to-day account of a scientific collecting trip aboard the sailing ship Western Flyer to the Gulf of California, that long, warm tendril of ocean separating the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico. It is marked by Steinbeck’s particular gift as a philosophizing poet or a poeticizing philosopher, without really being either.
The second segment, written by Ricketts, documents the results of the expedition: a substantial taxonomic record of the invertebrate marine life cajoled—swimming, swaying, and stinging—from the waters of the Sea of Cortez. Along with his earlier book, Between Pacific Tides, co-authored with Jack Calvin—a similar catalog for intertidal life of near-shore California—Sea of Cortez allows Ricketts to lay claim to significant contributions in the development of West Coast marine biology, despite his death at the young age of 50 in 1948. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, repackaged in 1951 without the scientific content, substitutes Steinbeck’s memoir and tribute to his friend, “About Ed Ricketts,” for the species catalog.
A whisper of things to come
Sea of Cortez was not a trial run for The Last Resort, and I do not mean to imply that The Last Resort is in Steinbeck’s and Ricketts’s league. For that matter, I have no evidence that Pud had any knowledge of Steinbeck’s sideways foray into plant and animal study, although he was a fan of Steinbeck’s other work, including Travels with Charley. Nevertheless, the two books do share a similar form—one that is rather unusual in American literature, and maybe in other world literatures as well.
If you’ve enjoyed The Last Resort, consider also Sea of Cortez or at least the shorter reissue. Steinbeck and Ricketts make the unusual both intriguing and important.
One of the undeniable joys of living in Central Kentucky is attending the annual Kentucky Book Fair. Each year the event, currently presented by the Kentucky Humanities Council, attracts well over 100 authors from across the commonwealth and the nation. The authors smile patiently as eager readers press up against their tables asking questions or bending their ears about topics they may or may not have much interest in. Many authors agree to give hour-long presentations about their books, the craft of writing, trends in literature, or their areas of expertise. The convention area is packed with readers, writers, and lovers of books. It is absolutely magical.
Author and activist bell hooks, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native, was one of the featured authors this year. During her on-stage conversation with another Kentucky native, author Crystal Wilkinson, she talked about how, as a child, she had been transported by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Sometime later, when hooks first saw a photo of Dickinson, she was shocked to learn that Dickinson was a white woman. She explained that she had never envisioned Dickinson as a person at all. In her young mind, no writers had physical embodiments: they were the words that spilled across the page, sprung from some mysterious ethereal source.
When afforded the privilege of being in close physical proximity to a writer I cherish, I am immediately overcome with awkwardness. Somewhat like the young hooks, I imagine that writers exist in some illusory world outside our physical reality, beyond the clumsy clay feet of the rest of us. I have been attending the Book Fair for at least 25 years, but I have only recently had the nerve to actually approach any of the authors. I have typically been too awestruck to presume I could strike up a conversation with them. My husband, on the other hand, is completely comfortable wading right in. I remember watching in disbelief as he casually chatted with James Still or Bobbie Ann Mason. Like young bell, I consumed the words on the page but I could not fully imagine the embodiment of the human being behind those words, even when that person was standing right in front of me.
I’m sure I got my reverence for books from my parents. I was lucky that way, but I didn’t completely understand that until I heard bell hooks and Crystal Wilkinson share stories of their disparate childhoods. While Wilkinson admitted that she had been a “spoiled only child” who was allowed to read voraciously as others in her family tended to the necessary chores, hooks, one of seven children, told the audience that her parents were skeptical of reading, fearful that it might plant unwelcome ideas in a child’s head. Her access to books was more restricted. The library at her segregated school, overseen by a white librarian, was not available to the children every day. The public library, however, became a refuge. She told a story of a neighbor alerting her that someone had just thrown away a collection of small leather-bound classics. bell promptly retrieved them from the garbage.
My parents read all the time, so I learned to value books and newspapers at an early age. My sister and I received a book for Christmas every year. No matter what other shiny object might be under the tree, we knew we had to give the book the attention it was due. By the time my sister was a teenager, she had amassed an impressive library. I would sneak into her room and handle those books, awestruck by the variety and the sometimes bewildering titles. The Gulag Archipelago. The Bhagavad Gita. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Bell Jar.
Reading is not a central activity of the boys spending time at The Last Resort. Although my father sometimes reports they spent the afternoon reading, he provides no specifics. The journal that he kept as an adult, however, which is excerpted in The Last Resort, includes detailed lists of his casual reading, which ranges from popular novels to biographies to Thoreau’s Walden to Ridpath’s history to Thurber’s humorous essays. That information alone gives you a clear understanding of the man. We are, after all, what we read.
Today I am surrounded by books—on shelves, stacked neatly on nearly every horizontal surface, or piled on the floor beside me. I have purchased many of them at the Kentucky Book Fair. I confess that I have not yet read them all. But I love every last one. I find it nearly impossible to part with any of them. Sometime last year, I emailed my sister, describing the book clutter around my house and bemoaning the fact I never have enough time to read. She wrote back, “There's a Japanese word for that: tsundoku, the practice of accumulating books yet failing to read them.” She then shared a quote from John Updike: “Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room, and scattered single volumes reveal mental processes in progress—books in the act of consumption, abandoned but readily resumable, tomorrow or next year.” That was comforting.
As I was leaving the Book Fair this year I was proud that I hadn’t spent hundreds of dollars, as I have sometimes in the past. Fewer than 24 hours later, however, I’m feeling both guilty and sad that I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to purchase a few books that had actually been handled by the authors themselves. Another lesson learned.
Although there is a common misconception that Kentuckians are ignorant and uneducated, we who are privileged to live here know that we have an extraordinary wealth of writers and philosophers in our midst. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington annually inducts writers into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. The list of nationally recognized writers the committee has to choose from is long. And although recent efforts by the Carnegie Center to have Lexington named a UNESCO City of Literature failed, literary leaders across Central and Eastern Kentucky intend to apply again in 2019 (that is, unless President Trump withdraws the U.S. from UNESCO before that date).
When bell hooks decided to return to Kentucky after spending many years away, her good friend Gloria Steinem was aghast. “But, bell,” she asked, “Who will be your friends?"
hooks had no trouble finding a welcoming community of writers in Berea and across the commonwealth. Each year I can look around at the mass of people at the Kentucky Book Fair and smile. These are my people—the readers and the writers and the worshippers of the word. These are the people who keep me thinking and learning and growing. To all of the authors who spend a full day in Central Kentucky greeting their fans, to all of the readers who support the writers, I am immensely grateful.
I’ve been in a lot of writing classes lately, and one of the pieces of advice I’ve heard repeatedly is “As soon as you finish one project, start another one.” The point of this admonition, as I understand it, is not only to continually hone your craft but also to demonstrate to a potential publisher that you always have another book or article just weeks or months away from completion.
Putting that into practice has proven to be a bit of a challenge for me. When The Last Resort was finally available for purchase, I was ready to kick back and take a breather. Granted, on that project I wore a lot of hats: I wasn’t the author, but I was an editor, the book designer, the operations manager, the financial manager, the website and software manager, the interviewer, the Anderson County expert (solely because of my family’s roots), and the general contractor, responsible for handling the contributions from various craftspeople (artists, photographers, and mapmakers, to name a few). Little did I realize as the book went to print how much time I was just beginning in invest in marketing. So, when I look back on it, perhaps I had good reason for wanting to celebrate what we had accomplished, instead of digging immediately into my next project.
But other commitments I had made didn’t allow me to step away from the grind. About a week after the book was published, I started a nine-month partnership with a mentor who is helping me shape a novel about a very different character in my family’s history, my maternal grandfather. In many ways, that project is much more daunting for me. I don’t really see myself as a creative writer, and I’ve never written fiction. That alone would probably halt any reasonable person from taking on such a challenge. But I’m intrepid, if not very wise. And I had an incredible story fall into my lap, so I feel some responsibility for rendering it in a compelling fashion on the page.
So now here I am, trying to juggle ongoing marketing responsibilities and my somewhat harrowing attempt at crafting a novel, plus assignments for my writing classes and the writing and editing I do part-time to earn a living. Some days I find myself leaping from one to the other every hour or even half hour. It can be wildly disorienting, and I wonder if anything is being done well.
But I have to embrace this amazing opportunity I have created for myself. In part because of my wanton fearlessness—and thanks to a very understanding and encouraging husband—I am doing something many people dream about but never give themselves permission to pursue. I, on the other hand, never really saw myself as a writer, but somehow stumbled into this place. The one thing I have learned in my many decades on this earth is to welcome every unexpected twist in your own life story with enthusiasm and bravado. Who knows where it might take you?