Upcoming events for Canoeing the Great Plains


canoeing coverBig Muddy Speaker Series

See my full Missouri River presentation, which includes a discussion of river trips, aspects of my journey, and the natural history of the Missouri River. Stunning pictures of the Upper Missouri Country and the lower river accompany the presentation. For more information, see the Big Muddy Speaker Series Web site.

May 26, 7  p.m.

Westport Coffee House

4010 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64111
(816) 756-3222

Town Crier Books

Sunday, June 6, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Book signing

716 Commercial St, Emporia, KS 66801
(620) 343-9649

The Writers Place

Sunday, June 6, 6-8 p.m.

Reading and book signing

3607 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64111
(816) 753-1090

St. Joseph Public Library, East Hills Branch

Monday, June 22, 7-9 p.m.

See my full Missouri River presentation, which includes a discussion of river trips, aspects of my journey, and the natural history of the Missouri River. Stunning pictures of the Upper Missouri Country and the lower river accompany the presentation.

502 N Woodbine Rd
St Joseph, MO
(816) 236-2136


Ask a writer what he’s been up to . . .



Ask a writer a question . . .

It’s sounds as if life, outside of the political realm, is treating you well. Having grandkids will let you feel younger for a while, but from what I understand, they also make you feel your age, particularly when they get to playing-catch age and want you to accompany them on their adventures.

I published Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains with the University of Nebraska Press in 2009. It’s about my walk from Kansas City to Helena, Montana. Lots of cool stories, landscape and nature (bears, even), and more people than you’d imagine. It sold well and is still selling. It won mentions in literary contests and really built my reputation as a quality writer—beyond just being a good journalist. (See it Amazon. The cover is stunning. The press did that on their own and never let me near it. http://www.amazon.com/Seldom-Seen-Journey-Great-Plains/dp/0803216165)

The second book, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer, is about the return trip from Montana on the Missouri River. It came out May 1. Again, lots of nature scenes, adventures (thunderstorms, tornadoes, rapids), and a surprising number of people, given the river’s upper reaches are so remote. (See it here: http://www.amazon.com/Canoeing-Great-Plains-Missouri-Summer/dp/0803271883/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8)

I’m giving library talks and presentations to small groups to promote the new book. I have stuff scheduled on and off all the way into October.  The press does what it can for promotion, but if I want this to move, it’s in my best interest to get out there and tell my story. The library talks work, too. I gave one before an audience of 250 people at the Plaza Library on May 6. Barnes and Noble on the Plaza handled the book sales. They were overwhelmed. Before the presentation, the bookstore rep sold out all the copies he brought. During my talk, he rushed back to the store and cleaned all my books off their shelves. He sold those through and began taking orders. I think we sold over 50 books and would have sold more had he had the books on hand.

I also have to get entrepreneurial, which is not in my blood. I am the one who has to peddle books at small groups and smaller libraries. It’s forced me into territory that’s not comfortable for me. I even got one of those credit card readers for the phone. Not everyone has cash or checks on them anymore. The more avenues I have to get someone’s money, the more likely I am to get a book sold.

Like I said, I’m not comfortable in the entrepreneur role. I’m a writer and just want to write. But I’m doing the selling and promotion because Canoeing is a great book. I did my apprenticeship with Seldom Seen, and it’s a good book, damned good. But Canoeing is a masterwork. People who have read both have told me that the second really is a ringing endorsement of my writing skill.

I don’t believe them, however. I’m not sure I have any talents or skills at all. I just know hard work and perseverance. I have a lot of that kind of motivation. I take something I’ve written and through sweat and persistence, make it decent. That people tell my writing is good are really telling me that the work I put into my writing has paid off.

Now, if I can get struck by lightning, really hit the writer’s lottery, and turn Canoeing into a bestseller, that would be fantastic.

And fantasy, too. Truth is that Canoeing will sell because I’m selling it with book talks and presentations. After a time, that will settle down and the book will sell  steady just as Seldom Seen has. I won’t be making it rich anytime soon.

You might ask where I get all this time. I’m living the kind of life I’ve always wanted. I teach at Johnson County Community College. It’s adjunct work at slave wages. But it’s enough, with Virginia’s salary and understanding (she’s an RN and puts up with me) to pay the bills and give us a decent, middle-class existence, which is saying something. I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee or tea, and sit down to write 1,000-2,000 words. If I do that every weekday, I’ll have a book soon. (Then comes revision, which is the fun part. Drafting it just drudgery.) Since I’m teaching online for now—face-to-face again in the fall—my time is my own. I spend some of everyday promoting the book, which is heart-breaking business, filled with rejection and angst. But after I do that for an hour or two, it’s over and I get to be a family man.

My life is actually much different than when you were helping me on the campaign trail. That was 2006. All that year, besides working on Ph.D. and running for office, Virginia and I went to adoptive-parent classes once a week with Jackson County Division of Family Services. On January 1, 2007, we picked up our new foster kid, my nephew, in Reno, Nevada, and brought him back to Kansas City. After a rigorous round of psychologists, home studies, lawyers, and so on, we were able to adopt Nick in July 2007. He was four and a half. Now, he’s just turned 13. He does well in school, has a passel of friends at school and in the neighborhood, and has developed an intriguing personality. That’s saying a lot, considering what he was like when we adopted him.

He’s my sister Angela’s bio kid. She went down the meth hole and is now under psychiatric care due to the kinds of damage she did to herself with that drug. She is nowhere in Nick’s life. We have not heard from her for over seven years. I hear of her, however, through my other sister, who keeps tabs on Angela.  It’s a sad case. When Nick came to us, he had already seen more tawdry and nasty stuff than most people see in a lifetime. Fortunately, he was young enough that with some care and a good, loving atmosphere, he’s developed a trust in us that came only slowly and over the course of a few years. He never asks about his bio mom, and when asked, he shows no interest in knowing about her. As far as he remembers, we have been the only parents he’s known.

My daughter, Sydney, is 25 now. She’s had her problems, mostly growing up and maturing stuff, since she moved out of the house. But she seems to have gotten herself together the last couple of years. She works down at the Alamo Drafthouse, that movie theater in the Power and Light District. We go there for movies from time to time, and it’s always so good to see her in her management role. She walks around with a headset and seems so in-charge of things. Most importantly, she trusts me and calls me a couple of times a week. It’s always great when she comes by to spend part of her day. (She’s also a local roller derby star!)

Adopting Nick changed life irrevocably. After a couple of years, I climbed fully out of the political game and don’t miss it at all. I stay active in the Westside neighborhood, which is like a little town, with all the internecine fights and loves, alliances and conflicts that you can imagine. But when it comes right down to it, the good guys are my good guys and the bad guys are my bad guys, and I’ll defend them because they are mine. When Nick needed regular schedules and comings and goings, I joined the Ironworkers Union and left Ph.D. work for three years. I’d completed my coursework and just needed dissertation. But who wants to write a dissertation? I didn’t. But worked slowed down in the recession. I started teaching at JCCC and took up writing dissertation again. Three years of hard labor, dissertation was. Heartache. Pain. Doubt. Depression. I finally earned a doctorate in history from UMKC in November 2013, almost ten years after I started Ph.D. studies. I keep expanding my CV with scholarly articles, presentations, and conferences.

Since I went back to dissertation, I’ve continue teaching. I work with the union during the summer. But this year, with book in the works, I decided that bridgework was too hard for a 52 year old. I’m drafting my fourth book and revising my third, teaching, and am a house husband and father.

I don’t have a social life to speak of, either. I meet one friend for lunch once a week, another for coffee once a week, and have a few other close friends that I hang out with from time to time. I keep bees (a life’s dream of mine) and try to keep up with the house.

So, as far as things go, life is pretty good these days. I keep my union dues paid. After all, who knows when the carpet is going to get pulled out from under this dream? I’m a pretty fair welder and will have something to go back to if all this falls apart.

I imagine you’re still in business at the print shop? I’m sorry you lost your political bid, but didn’t you have some success with that in the past? It seems to me that you were an elected somebody in Raytown not too long ago. I may have that all wrong.

What would you say to a lunch sometime soon? It would be nice to see what you’re up to, how’s business, etc.

Patrick, 816-896-4746

Publishing my books: A process unfolds




Thanks for asking about the process of publishing my books. I will address, first, how things went for my books. Second, I will tell you want I know about publishing.

Publishing was, for me, about getting around rejections and finding my own way. When I completed the first draft of what would become Seldom Seen and Canoeing the Great Plains I contacted agents I had been working with at the publishing house where I edited books at the time. The process was heartbreaking and filled with rejection.

After I exhausted the agents I worked with and some of their contacts, I then set the book—at the time it was just one book—aside for a couple of years. I was busy with family and work and couldn’t give the matter the time needed for the process. I needed to make a list of agents, query each, and make sure that each had the material they wanted. Some wanted just a query, a paragraph or two. Others wanted a chapter outline and a summary. Still others wanted samples ranging from the first 50 pages to the first five chapters. Figuring this all out

Then, I started my Ph.D. studies in Fall 2004 and had an assistantship and a fellowship. This freed me up to work on the manuscript in the summer of 2005. I was determined to get this published and decided to skip going through agents. Instead, I told myself, I would go the university press route. University presses do not demand that you have an agent, and all the commercial presses worth their salt do. That summer I rewrote the manuscript for about the hundredth time. In the meantime, I sent proposals and samples, depending on what each press wanted, to six university presses. I got four rejects right away. Some were nice about it, one was terribly negative. An editor at the University of Oklahoma Press wanted the book and took it all the way through his processes to get a reject from the sales department at the very end of the process.

This whole time I had not heard from the University of Nebraska. I’d given it up for a loss. The day after the University of Oklahoma press rejected the manuscript, I got a E-mail from the University of Nebraska Press. Not only had they liked the idea, they had sent the book out for peer review. The reviewers both liked the manuscript but thought it needed significant revisions. The editor at the University of Nebraska Press wanted me to revise and resubmit the manuscript, and from there it would go through the review process again. Both reviewers saw that the long manuscript could be severed in two (basically at the point where the land trip ended and the river trip began) and then I would have two books.

I rewrote the first half the manuscript and went through the review and editing process again with what would be Seldom Seen. Once I rewrote it (it’s January of 2007 by this time), it spent another long while in the review process and then another revision. That book was finally published as Seldom Seen in November 2009.

Then, the process began with the second half of the original manuscript, the book that would become Canoeing the Great Plains. It needed a significant rewrite, and I spent a good deal of time between family, school, and work rewriting. In a sense, I wrote Canoeing almost from scratch, as the last half the MS wasn’t really a half but more like a quarter of the original manuscript. And though I had an editor, I had to submit what would become Canoeing as I did Seldom Seen. Canoeing would have to undergo the same rigorous processes that Seldom Seen did. In May, 2012, after I rewrote the manuscript, submitted it, and had it go through the peer review process, one of the reviewers made a suggestion that I just could not pass up.

Let me back up a square. The reviewers for Canoeing both believed it was a good book and could be published as it. But one reviewers suggested that I spend time in the manuscript looking back on the trip from the present. That is, the book needed the perspective of years if it was to be a really good book. I decided that the reviewer was on to something. I spent another six months between family, school, and work rewriting Canoeing. When I completed the rewrite, which was the very best effort I could make, it went back out to the reviewer who made the suggestion for perspective of time in the manuscript.

He loved it. By this time, it’s May 2013. The book was scheduled then for release in Spring 2015, which is what we have now.

Now on to how you might proceed.

For my next book, which probably won’t be University of Nebraska Press material, I have to start at square one. When I have something I think is ready to show, I have to query agents one after the other, perhaps 100 times before I actually find an agent who is excited about the material. Once to an agent, then I have to keep in touch with that agent until they sell the book to a publisher. It’s all a crap shoot.

I don’t say this to discourage you. If you are determined, you will take rejection as encouragement. After all, rejection means you’re working. Conversely, if you are not getting rejections, you are not working. Therefore, being rejected means you are doing good things for yourself.

Let me tell you a perverse little bit about me. I was convinced I could not be a writer for many years. But I wrote, and sometimes a lot. When I put my work out there and got a rejection, I drew back and didn’t try again until I just couldn’t help myself. This went on for over a decade.

After a long time (I was in my mid-30s by the time I got to this point), I began to submit my work to literary magazines and journals and received a million rejections. The difference this time was that I saw rejection as proof of effort—I wouldn’t get rejection if I didn’t try to get acceptance, right?

I began to keep a file where I stowed my rejection notices. After a while, I began to have greater success getting things published. But I still kept that rejection file and felt it had to grow. I know this sounds strange but the more I got acceptances, the more I send work out, and the bigger the rejection file grew. I almost felt I had to keep it growing because if it ceased to grow, it would show I wasn’t working hard enough.

Unless your novel fits into a university press profile—you will have to seek them out online, review their catalogues, and follow their guidelines to the T—I suggest you find a press that works directly with writers or get an agent. If a press works directly with writers, however, they are likely small or shady. Try to get an agent. Again, most reputable commercial presses will not consider any work but through an agent. I suggest that you read this helpful Web page at Poets & Writers Magazine. It will help you through the process of getting an agent. http://www.pw.org/content/literary_agents

Do not, ever, pay an agent to look at your work. A good agent is in the business of making money from what they sell. They will do the work. They will read your work to see if they know a market for it. They will be looking for talent and material. A good agent will never ask you to pay them to read your work.

Remember not to hang on any one agent but send your work to as many agents as you can until you get one or more on the hook, then decide which one is best for you. If you send your stuff to one agent, and then wait for a reply before you contact the next agent, you will likely be looking for an agent forever. As an example, I sent a query to one agent over four months ago and have not heard peep from him. I never will.

It’s very important in this process to divorce your work from your ego. It took me decades to understand this and is the reason I didn’t publish my first work until I was 47 years old. A rejection is not about you. It is about determining whether your work will groove with what an agent or publisher has to offer. Yes, it is frustrating. It will feel personal. You will begin to see patterns emerge. For instance, if several agents say that the structure of your manuscript is off, it may just be off. But this presents you with another opportunity to strengthen your manuscript.

In other words, “no” doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means more work.



“Moo,” she said.



I don’t eat meat for simple reasons. When I walked to Helena from Kansas City in the mid-1990s, I saw the devastation that American agricultural policy wrought on the land. From irrigated farms that drink up western water for the sake of profit to desertification of public lands, I began to think very carefully about what I ate and what contribution I made to the damage.

It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That includes the amount the animal drinks, water used to irrigate the fields on which they graze, and the water it takes to raise the grain farmers and ranchers used to fatten up their cows. About 600 gallons goes into a pound of pork. This compared to about 200 gallons of water to grow a pound of soybeans and 100 gallons for corn.

But grain was problematic too. Irrigation in the semi-arid West drinks up rivers and streams and ruins local ecosystems. It drains wetlands and underground aquifers. Irrigation consolidates government and corporate power. It demands that millions of Americans pay for the benefit and profit of a few.      In the end, I decided after I returned to Kansas City after that long walk and the canoe trip back from Helena on the Missouri River that ag giants would be just fine without my money. It was scary, such a decision. It took me almost a year and a half to take the plunge. In January 1, 1997, I lived my first day completely without meat.

But as the years passed, something else happened. I became less and less able to kill even the smallest creatures. I found myself taking ants and flies outdoors and leaving spiders hang in the basement. I shooed mosquitoes instead of swatting them—which isn’t much of a statement since I’m one of those people that mosquitoes leave mostly alone. As I thought about my vegetarian eating habits, I came to see them as about more than government power, corporate money, and environmental concern. It became part of a philosophy of nonviolence. When I grew up, violence was part of daily life—physical, emotional, or verbal violence. My parents, at bottom, were good people who were also inept parents. They learned from their parents how to deal with child behavior. But they applied their methods as they applied the rules, only haphazardly and in arbitrary ways.

I learned from my parents. Hitting and constant scolding didn’t get me anywhere but a world of hurt. I didn’t treat my kids that way. I didn’t hit them and I tried not to damage them emotionally while also attempting to exact discipline in uniform ways. In other words, I tried to follow the rules.

As my inclinations toward nonviolence grew, they moved into daily practices in the market. Where and what could I buy that exacted the least amount of hurt and harm to other people and creatures? Living, by itself, takes its toll on others. But how could I minimize my effect on other? More and more, vegetarianism became a mainstay in daily life.

There are all kinds of problems with my decisions not to eat animals. Do plants feel pain, as some biologists and activists maintain? Grain and vegetables take their toll on the environment, and particularly in the irrigated West. Farms and agricultural land have changed irrevocably forest, prairie, and stream—from sea to shining sea. Unless I limit my purchases from local sources, I’m making a negative impact on the environment. Just the transportation of food from distant places costs the nation billions of gallons of fuel each year. The lettuce on the shelf represents a petroleum used in farm production and transportation. Corporations that grow and harvest grains concentrate power and money. Aren’t dairy cows from whom I get cheese enslaved and exploited?

Yes. All that’s true or, at least, may be the case. But I have to eat. I’m just not going to eat another sentient creature.

What makes me a Missourian?


missouri countryside

Unless you’re in love with Midwestern landscapes, as I am, once you’ve taken the interstate from Kansas City to St. Louis, you never need drive it again. After the first time, the familiar rolling hills and deep river valleys come at predictable points. The little creeks flow under the highway with names like Chouteau, Boeuf, and Davis. The Lamine River Valley winds through the limestone bluffs on its way to the Missouri. Here, Odessa sits on its hill. There, Sweet Springs shows itself in tangles of gas stations and motels. And so on.

The road itself runs through the countryside much like any other of those great feats of engineering winds though any landscape, anywhere. The interstate’s not quite straight but offers the driver little to steer around. It’s as if someone tilted Missouri on its side and emptied a cup of water on O’Fallon and followed the water’s course to Kansas City. The water takes the path of least resistance. It runs in a straightish path from east to west across the state. There’s a fortunate series of curves around St. Louis. By the time you’ve driven that far, 248 miles out of Kansas City, you’re ready for something, anything, to happen.

missouri countryside 1I never get tired of the Missouri countryside. In spring, the new buds filigree the woods in light greens. The fields turn from winter brown to emerald. In fall, colors burst out of the sunburned grass and woods in orange and red. The winter fields show all the nuances of brown and the trees take on the look of black skeletons waiting in silence for the snow. When I drive through it all, I feel the kind of comfort that comes with familiarity.

I just drove that stretch of interstate for maybe the 60th time. The route from Kansas City to St. Louis makes me feel like a Missourian. I grew up on the state line. My house sat across the street from Kansas. My family looked West. We drove across the plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado to vacation in the Rockies every summer. Camping in Missouri always disappointed us. No stretches of public land allowed us the illusion of freedom. We felt cramped nestled in crowded campgrounds in the Missouri hills.

But I could no more feel a Kansan or Coloradoan than I could feel like an Alaskan. I looked across the street into a different world, one familiar but foreign. Missouri spanned out behind my house like a blanket. It was warm and comfortable. Later, I backpacked the public lands of Missouri. Such places lay far from Kansas City. But the karst Ozark hills, while unfamiliar at first, offered me more of my homeland than any Forest Service campground in the West.

missouri countryside 2Maybe it was because Kansas City resembled the East more than the West. Out West the trees thin out beyond Lawrence. The farm fields are bigger and stretch to the horizon. Missourians farm just like farmers in Kansas but the fields are smaller, more compact. They wrap around little patches of trees. Woods nestle tiny lots of corn and beans hewn into them. Ponds dot the land like little mirrors reflecting thoughts and memories.

I came all this way to attend a history conference. It’s my last for a while, I think. I went to the opening reception. I knew no one but everyone there seemed to know each other. It was a very cliquey group. I wandered around for five minutes and realized that unless I could come out of my shell, I would just wander around. I had the feeling, as many shy people do, that all eyes were one me. No one, of course, even noticed me but that doesn’t break that feeling of being on the outside.

I know these things are what you make them. But I’m beyond making social connections, though it’s probably good for me. You really have to belong to an institution and know other faculty to make these things really work. An independent scholar who teaches adjunct at a community college just doesn’t have a place.

Instead, I went out front. I looked over a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which hangs in the atrium of the Missouri History Museum. The plane flies to nowhere right in front of the second story balcony. It struck me that Lindbergh couldn’t see where he was going. The plane has no front window, just a small window on the side where he could look out at the ocean.

missouri-history-museumI thought about not having a front window and driving across the shortgrass prairies turned to corn fields. What a shame it must have been for Lindbergh not to see the sky ahead, not to know where he was going, to see only the runway and the ocean below through a tiny glass on the side of his plane.

Then, I took a long walk around the museum. The Missouri History Museum is a ponderous edifice in Forest Park. A haze rose over the park. The sun, low to the horizon, gave the park the appearance of having a halo. I thought of Thomas Wolfe and the things he wrote about the park. He couldn’t go home again. I could hardly get started.

missouri forest parkI stared at the halo settling in over the park and realized that it wasn’t such a bad thing to come this far and sit alone in a hotel room. I didn’t regret coming to conference I would be on the fringes and outside of. I made the trip to St. Louis again and saw my beloved Missouri.

I never feel the pang of conscience when I spend the money and time to go to St Louis. It reminds me again where I live and the place I came from. I am a Missourian. That is plain to me. The fact of being a Missourian becomes more relevant to me as I grow older. I have traveled this country and Europe. I have spent time in the lower third of Canada. I felt a part of those places, particularly when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. But I have never been a part of them like I am a part of Missouri, and Missouri is a part of me.

Perhaps it is best that I make the trip from Kansas City to St. Louis from time to time, though I don’t need to. The highway doesn’t change, nor the countryside around it. Take away the family farms, which are mostly gone now anyway, and put factory farms on them. Fill them with hog and chicken and turkey factories. Mow the fields down and cut down all the trees. It will all still be Missouri. You can’t kill that.

The hotel room at the history conference


hotel room

I love an empty hotel room. There’s nothing here to interfere with my thoughts. Nothing and no one to disturb me.

I don’t stay in hotels rooms much, maybe, once or twice a year. The air conditioner/heater hums like a saintly presence. It fills my mind with the soothing thrum that tells me I’m not home. That’s what’s important here. I’m not home.

I don’t get away from home much. The kid, the wife, and the dogs take up most of my time. When they aren’t around, writing and reading occupy the hours before they all need something from me. Evenings I walk the dogs. I watch a movie before I go to bed.

Life is like that these days. Easy. Comfortable. Predictable. Sometimes I pine for the old days when crises plagued me every day, it seemed. You get used to that sort of thing. When it’s gone for a while, well, you wonder, what’s next?

That’s where this history conference comes in. It’s what’s next. It’s all right. There’s not much exciting about history conferences. I suppose it’s a time for colleagues to get together and listen to new ideas. The historians get out of their lonely, isolated offices and away from other faculty. For me, it’s a time to leave home for a few days, take a little stock, and write something that’s completely unrelated to my other work.

I hear them out there, those historians yukking it up at the bar. They are a merry bunch. They will be there until 9 or 10, then they will go to their rooms and read books or watch television. Good for them. I think to myself, maybe I should go down to the bar and introduce myself. But, nah, I’m old now. I’ve become asocial in the last few years. I don’t go out. My acquaintances call every now and then. I have a regular brunch with my friend Stan. Gary meets me for coffee every now and then.

When I was younger, I feared a lonely death. I needed friends and would do just about anything to make sure I saw and was seen. I was never the popular kid but always dreamed of being popular. I moped when I had a Friday night alone. The phone’s silence drove me to the depths of despair.

At the same time, I suffered debilitating social anxiety. Meeting new people was the scariest thing in life. Walking into a room full of strangers was like falling into a snake pit. I compensated. I was loud and made jokes. I danced too much.

Social situations were always much better when someone, anyone talked to me first. But I’m sure that’s true for just about anyone. And, so, today I find the one person in the room who looks as needy as I do and talk to them about anything that strikes me.

I will let the conference sessions break the ice tomorrow. People will ask me about the details of my paper. They will congratulate me. They will provide reasons for introductions and conversations. Someone might even ask me to join them for drinks.

Tonight, it’s good enough not to have people need me or for me to have to do anything. The television isn’t too loud. The dogs aren’t barking. It’s just quiet but for the merry-makers out in the lobby, and even they will fade in a little while.

I sit in my room, channel surfing and feeling just about as all right as I ever feel. No dogs. No wife. No kid.

In my solitude, I contemplate hotel rooms. There’s not much difference between them. Some are nicer than others, and this one’s nice. No less than six pillows lie on the bed. An ante room has a nice dining-room table, some chairs, and a fine television. This room, the bedroom, is as big as my living room at home with twice the gravitas. A mirror stands behind my writing table.

My biggest decisions are these: How many pushups will I do to keep myself in shape for sleep tonight? Will I take another walk through downtown Omaha? Can I finish an essay that’s about really nothing at all? What can I watch on television that won’t make me feel like I’m wasting all my time?

I live a life of leisure.

Patrick Dobson, the exciting academic



I’ve been busy–papers, presentations, writing–which explains the lack of posts recently.

At the beginning of the year, I had two public presentations on my mind. I worried, wrung my hands, and lost sleep. Finally, I gave the papers and felt a great sense of relief.

Johnson County Community College filmed one of the presentations, called “Changing the River’s Course: Water, Conservation and Reform in the Progressive Era,” in the Nerman Museum’s Hudson Auditorium.

See the presentation here. I hope you enjoy it.

Persistence is the heart of publishing


Rainbow trout

I recently sent away a manuscript that’s been swimming around my computer files for years. I never thought anyone would be interested in publishing a book that starts as a travel narrative and wanders into fiction in a Trout Fishing in America meets Blue Highways sort of way.

I first started writing Trout Stories when I was working for a newspaper, PitchWeekly. I liked newspaper work. It did me well and kept my attention, mostly.

But there were moments when sitting at a desk drove me stir crazy. This is often the case when I get an office job, so it was no fault of the newspaper. I was the one who had lost my focus. So I wrote some stories between other work for the paper. I last worked for the paper in 2000, so you know how old the first drafts of this manuscript are.


Redband trout

Trout Stories started out as short stories, or what I thought were short stories. But nearly everything I write is based on experience, so these were autobiographical stories about some fish I knew. They slowly turned into memoirs of place and time. They grew from the initial and most fictional story to a group of more-or-less true accounts of fish caught and lost and the people who made me who I am today.

I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would be interested in such stories, and, besides, who publishes short stories anyway? I didn’t know. Those stories grew and changed over time. Every time I opened them, I changed their complexions a little. This went on for a decade and a half. I quit the newspaper. I edited books and earned a Ph.D. I published two other books.

brook trout

Brook trout

I had people read Trout Stories from time to time. This is the way readings like this go: I give them to so and so and say, I sure would like to hear what you think. I am not looking for compliments, nor am I looking for someone to wipe them out. I want measured critique; this is good, this isn’t. But the people I give these stories to don’t ever give me that sort of critque. They are just regular people, not writers. What I usually get goes along the lines, Well, they’re interesting.

A couple of months ago, I retrieved Trout Stories from the archive. I accidentally found them, really. I thought I lost them in the march from computer to computer, from software update to software update. This time, I was surprised to see them open in my new computer program. They were a jumble of run-on lines and strange breaks, but the words were there more or less in the order I wrote them.

Of course, I went through them again. I took time to iron out all the line and page breaks, the funny symbols and punctuation, and the paragraphing. When I started editing, I lengthened some of the stories, took out contrivances I’d used when I first wrote them, and corrected all the typographical errors I could find. (I’m sure there’s a lot left over.) I saved them and put them aside again, thinking, well, that’s it for now.


Golden trout

Not long ago, I went to lunch with a friend of mine and told him about this odd little book and he wanted to read them. He’s a learned man, a scientist with a deep interest in literature and the humanities. At another lunch, I asked him about them.

“Why haven’t you published these?” he asked.

“Who’s going to publish such a strange collection of stories?”

“Someone,” he said. “They are good.”

I didn’t think that Trout Stories would fit into my present publisher’s catalog. It’s a university press, and though the press published my two travel memoirs, I was sure they wouldn’t touch Trout Stories.

cutthroat trout

Cutthroat trout

My friend suggested that I get an agent. Years ago, when I was editing books, I tried to find agents for my travel memoirs and for a novel I wrote (that really should stay in the computer, now that I’ve looked at it again). The result was heartache and nasty letters from people who said things like, there’s no market for this, this has already been done, and this kind of writing doesn’t have a place among modern nonfiction.

They were all wrong. I found a publisher on my own (something I don’t suggest, even if it worked for me) and the first memoir was successful. Not a million-seller but good enough to keep it in print for a while. The press will publish my second book in May.

So the day after I told my friend that I didn’t think anyone would take this little book, I queried an agent, then another. While I was doing this, I thought, hey, I’d better get a firm no from the press before I go any farther. I sent a query to my editor.

It turns out that my editor no longer acquires literary/creative material for the press. She sent my query on to another editor who wrote back the very next day and said she would love to see Trout Stories.

Imagine that.

brown trout

Brown trout

So, I have queries out to two agents, who will likely take some time getting back with me. If the press doesn’t take Trout Stories—there’s a vast difference between being interested in a book and actually deciding to publish a book—then I have some other feelers out there that may bring fruit. The best case is that the press does take the book and I have to tell the agents to piss off. The worst case is that the press tells me to piss off and I have to keep looking for agents.

The truth of the matter is that the book will find a home somewhere. After years of writing experience and having been an editor at a newspaper and a book editor, I know that the game goes to the person with the most stamina. If I have something decent, which Trout Stories is (at the very least), I just have to be persistent about getting it out there. I may have to weather a hundred rejections, but I know that if I keep it out there, it will be published.

My job now is to get to another book. I’m starting that project next week.

Production as pathology


I set out today to write this essay. Writing as an art escapes me. Writing is a personal exercise at centering myself in this world and sating a desire to do something productive. I don’t write out of inspiration, though I am often inspired. Instead I write out obligation.

Lately, I have entered a creative lull. It seems that I have nothing to write about. I feel no creative motivation. The inner creative beast is asleep. Call it middle-age angst, the question of what I am doing and what I’ve become. What do I have, at the age of 52, to offer the world? Not much, it seems.


Bruce Chatwin

That doesn’t stop me from feeling obligated to write something every day of the week. I am a writer and have always wanted to be writer. I think of things I want to write a hundred times a day. Only a few of them ever get to paper (or keyboard, if you wish). I go about my daily business and think, wow, that’s a great idea for a poem—or essay or short story or book. But these ideas get lost in the comings and goings of the day. I often reach home and sit in front of the keyboard and wonder, hey, where have all those good ideas gone? I can’t think of them. I have forgotten them and they wander forever in the space between desire and forgetting.


Ralph Ellison

None of this blunts the sense of obligation that plagues me. The need to produce that I have taken from my upbringing and from society at large compels me to sit down and write. Nobody told me I had to write. Society does not demand that I write. This obligation that I feel as responsibility is something I have taken on myself. It was not given to me.

This, then, leads me to believe that this compulsion to produce comes from within. At the end of the day, I have to feel as if I have done something. Since I have no innate talents or skills, the only thing I can produce is writing. It’s what I was born for.


Simon De Beuvoir

This need to produce is a sickness. I cannot sit and wonder, ponder, or contemplate. I am in a constant state of removing myself from the relationship I have with myself. I don’t want to see inside and, therefore, I have to have something to show. These little essays are what I can show, even if I have not written anything of meaning or significance.

I used to think in lofty terms about writing, art, and literature. Now I think of it as discipline. If I sit in front of a computer long enough, I will write something, anything. I have often sat in front of the computer for hours, just looking at the blank screen. I check E-mails. I surf the internet. I get a drink, eat, nap. But I am always attached to the keyboard. I will write. What’s left to question is what I will write and when.

Literature. Personalities. pic: circa 1940's. British author George Orwell, (1903-1950) among his many books were "Ninteen Eighty Four" and Animal Farm".

George Orwell

I realize this doesn’t sound profound, but I have never thought of myself as profound, even if I always wanted to be profound. I see writers around me write significant works. They say things that mean something to someone. I don’t have anything to tell anyone. I have to write and when I have nothing to write about, I write about myself. I firmly believe that when writers run into a wall and find that they don’t have anything to say, they write about themselves. This makes my writing trivial, not worthy of consideration.

damon runyon

Damon Runyon

This speaks to my belief that I will never compete. It’s not that I don’t want to. I want to publish. I want to work through legitimate publishers to bring my work to light. Vanity publishing, blogging, and reading at free events make for a lot of words floating out there in space. We have an internet that gives us the world on a computer, or allegedly does that. I’ve found that the internet just gives us a lot of facts and opinions loosed from context. It creates the illusion that every thought has legitimacy, every word meaning. But not every thought has meaning. Not every opinion is informed. An idea should have to work hard to get into the public. When it doesn’t, it produces a situation in which every thinker is a baby and every writer unable to deal with the exigencies of filters. A thought that doesn’t have to work produces laziness.

This is certainly the case with me. I didn’t have to do anything to get this thought out to the public but put words on paper. I have a forum and I use it, but because getting the word out into the public is so easy, I have not worked to refine. I didn’t contemplate. I sat in front of a computer. Words came out. I entered those words on my blog. You read them or not. They are out there, floating among all the other meaningless drivel that self-important people produce. The thought, then, is nothing. It makes no difference. It changes nothing.


Anais Nin

I think of truly great writers. Maugham, Hemingway, Orwell—who wrote what I consider to be the best of all memoirs in Down and Out in Paris and London—worked hard to get their words into the public. They struggled against great odds. They found themselves rejected again and again. The filters—editors, publishers, a discriminating public—made them think, refine, contemplate. The struggle created works of great depth and meaning. With the internet, nothing is rejected. Few things rise to the top. Speculation and sensational sell. But they bring us nothing new and different. We don’t have a new aesthetic. My generation has produce little very new.

Regardless, I sit here every day. My production of two or three essays a week, and sometimes one every day, does a great deal of good for me, even if what I write does nothing for anyone else. Writing is a selfish endeavor and may do more harm to me and the public than if I didn’t write anything. The discipline that forms around writing makes for a lot of practice.

In the outside chance that I find a meaty subject that will have meaning and import, I’m ready.