Unhappy with happiness



I am lucky. I have a life anyone would want. A cup of tea or coffee starts my day. I hitch up the dogs and make sure that my son has his pack together. We walk four blocks to the community center and sign him into his summer program, where he stays until 4:30 or 5 p.m. After the dogs and I return home, the newspaper takes up an hour of the morning. I wash the day’s ink off my hands and the rest of the day is my own.

The problem is that I’m profoundly unhappy. I worked my whole life to get where I am right now. When I dreamed of becoming a writer, I struggled to pay the bills, and the dues, to become the writer I am. I used to think that if I only had time to write, my life would be fulfilled, happy, and worry free.

It is exactly all those things. I am self-employed. I teach classes, and for the last two semesters, I’ve taught online. No one stands over my shoulder. Except for some deadlines and days spent grading, I have nowhere to be and nothing to keep me from, say, taking a walk in the park or a drive around the city. I ride my bike and walk the dogs. Sometimes, I watch television in the afternoons—a delicious depravity that I’ve never been able to indulge before. The lack of people and places that demand my presence make for a lovely life.

I have always maintained that employment is way overrated. Jobs get in the way of my work. And I’ve been at it. In the last six months, I’ve written numerous essays, a few poems, and the first draft of a book.

But life is missing something very fundamental. I have what I want. I don’t want more, so that is not the source of my agonies. Or, maybe I do want more. I have only two good decades left. I want to squeeze every moment for all it can give me. I want more moments, more water from that rock.

If I was a different person, I might see my ease as something to enjoy. After all, isn’t a life free from worry and want what we all strive for? I’m 52. Not long ago, I struggled in every aspect of living from putting food on the table to being a father. I have food and money in the bank. I don’t want to purchase anything for I have all I need. I have, over the years, learned how to be a patient, loving father.

I wonder if I have become so inured to struggle that the lack of tribulation is screwing my life up. I find myself in the mornings, after the newspaper and before writing, wanting to climb back into the difficulties I once endured. I miss having financial problems. I feel empty without worry and anxiety—so much so that the lack of anxiety creates a certain amount of fear. I feel I’m not producing enough, that I am wasting my time.

I want to streamline, not to have less stuff but more hardship. I understand adversity and privation. I don’t understand or know how to handle happiness, freedom from material want, and the simple joys of being a good father.

I keep thinking of Kafka’s Hunger Artist. The performer resented the social and legal strictures that limited the scope of his fasting. He wanted always to better his own record. He could never be happy as a successful performer. When hunger artists fell out of fashion as entertainment in the public square, he finally found himself a place in a circus. There, he was able to starve himself as much as he pleased. But he groused at the lack of attention that the passing crowds gave him. He begrudged the animals and performers that people took greater interest in. Finding no joy in either his art or his life, he starved himself to death without anyone noticing. People paid more attention to the panther that replaced him.

The panther was perfectly happy. It received the food it wanted and the attention it needed. When his art fell out of fashion, the hunger artist need not starve himself any longer. He was relieved of privation. He could pursue other interests. But he found life without privation impossible. He found that without struggle, life was impossible.

Am I being ungrateful? I don’t think so. I know what I have and what I didn’t used to have. I might give up my life of great well-being if others didn’t depend on me. I put myself into a position of having the good things in life. I worked hard to get this far, and I’m damned glad to avoid having to live without.

Maybe I should get a job, a regular, 8-5 position at a desk. That’s where I’m really miserable.

In the end, I am selfish. I am childish. I have everything I want but it is not enough. Maybe it is too much.

Getting around this unhappiness with a dream life means that I have to re-evaluate who I am, and there’s nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than finding out who I am. Since I’m always changing, this is constant work. I’d rather play on the internet than look inside. But the only time I find myself happy is when I look inside, where I find the contemplation that a full life depends on.

My way is clear. I don’t want to do it. But, if this profound unhappiness continues, it will be work that I’m after. I suppose it’s work that I’m doing right now in writing this piece, in asking you to understand how one can be unhappy with the perfect life.

On being a minor writer



I’m supposed to be drafting my book right now but am having difficulty getting started. I have an hour before I get on the horn for a radio interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting. I figured that instead of wandering around the house feeling like I’m wasting my time, I would give you a little (or long, however it turns out) update.

Probably the major reason I’m dawdling is that, for me, drafting is drudgery. Getting the words on a page . . . I didn’t learn much from McKinley. I just  wasn’t a good student, and, I think, at the time, he was not inspired and so I didn’t get inspired. But a friend of mine really got a lot out of his creative writing class. My friend has given me the gist of what he learned in this short quote: “Apply ass to chair. Remain stoic. Fill page from top to bottom.” Good advice and direction, I find, and I follow it most days. But my writing will have to wait a little longer today than usual.

ellisonAs I said, drafting is drudgery. It’s hard and only comes with determination and force of will. The fun comes after I have a first draft. Then, I can spend my time revising and revising again without ever getting tired of it. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the exigencies of publication, I would still be revising my first book, now six years after it was published. I have a set of stories that I have been revising on and off for 16  years. I’m to the point now where I have to write some connective tissue to tie them together into a book. I think revision and the fun of it, if not the perfectionist aspect to it, kept Ralph Ellison from publishing more than one great book in his lifetime. He wrote more, but he just didn’t finish revising them to the point that he was satisfied with them. Either that or he just liked revising. I get that.

You have heard me say before that I don’t consider myself having any talent. I may write good things but they come out of years of agonizing over the text, themes, arc of story, etc. I will have drafted this new book in six months, but I will take two years putting it in order. I wish I had enough craft in me to shorten the process. Regardless, I am good at hard work and perseverance. That’s what makes something I write good.

I wish I was the kind of writer who could squeeze out a book a year, year after year. When I finish the first draft of this new book, I will return to the stories I mentions that aren’t so much stories as a book of interconnected memories. After that, I will return to the book I’m working on now. I have motivation. I don’t want to go another six years between books. I have the goal of publishing ten books by the time I’m seventy. After these two books—the one I’m working on now and the stories that need to be a book—I will spend a half a year revising my dissertation for publication. That’s five of ten. I figure that my work ahead will last at least three years. But one thing at a time. First this draft, then the stories, then the dissertation.

upper missouriThen comes the sixth book. I plan to take Nick to Montana when he’s sixteen and canoe the Upper Missouri again. We may turn that into a summer trip and go all the way to St Louis or farther. Wouldn’t that be great. A son and aging father canoe the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a book in that. Six out of ten.

I’ve read someplace a criticism of memoir writers. That is, you only write about yourself if you have nothing else to write about. I disagree. I think of artists and writers who only used themselves as the canvases for their work. Frida Kahlo did hundreds of paintings, all self-portraits. There’s an argument that Vincent van Gogh’s work was nothing but a series of self-portraits, though he only depicted his face a few times. One of my favorite travel memoirists, Patrick Leigh Fermor, only wrote about himself and his experiences in various parts of the world. time_of_giftsMost of Bruce Chatwin’s most important work was his own experience. I think I’ve become a memoirist because most of my life has been about discovering who I am. I still have a long way to go. There’s plenty of writing that I can do with me or my experiences at the center.

Plus, a good memoirist is not selfish. They are not writing about themselves in grandiose ways. They find great universals in their experience and convey those universals in stories of the particulars of living life. I don’t think that I am the only person who has discovered what I have about the interior of human existence. Nor do I think that my interactions with people are all that unique. That’s why memoir for me is less about myself and more about human beings in general. American human beings in specific, and even more exact, Midwestern human beings adrift in a larger cultural milieu that includes the political, religious, and social realms—a world, in a sense, indifferent to them.

I have had to accept that whatever I do, I will remain a minor writer. Yes, one of my books could catch fire and I become a somebody in the world of letters. But the next question is one that Americans don’t often ask. In our struggle to dream bigger, work harder, and reach further, we all believe that we can one day be great, famous, rich, or whatever. We don’t face the likelihood of that possibility coming true. It’s possible that my work may find a larger audience, but what is the likelihood? Not great.

canoeing the great plainsThat means that I will probably not experience the ease that comes with great audiences. I will have to hump to sell the damn books. That is part of the work I’m involved with now. My new book came out May 1. I have been on the phone nearly every day trying to find audiences to speak to. I have had some success. I’ve already spoken to a large audience at the Kansas City Public Library, where Barnes and Noble sold 50 or more books. We would have sold even more if they brought the stock. As it was, they sold through all the copies of the books they brought, raced back to the store to clean all my work off their shelves, sold all of them, and then took orders.

I have since been the guest lecturer at a statewide speaker series. I’ve presented to a couple of local clubs, the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club and the Friends of the Lakeside Nature Center. I am speaking tonight in St. Joseph at the public library there. I have sold about 50 books on my own. I even set myself up with a credit card reader I can use at my engagements. I expect to sell another ten or so books tonight, maybe more.

But I have to tell you that book promotion is pure heartache and woe. It makes me do things I am not normally very good at. I have to get on the horn and sell myself. “Hello, I’m Patrick Dobson. I wrote a book that will interest you and your patrons.” Etc. That’s what I mean about the ease that popular writers have. They have people set these things up for them. Their publishers promote their books. It’s not that the University of Nebraska Press doesn’t promote my books. As far as I can tell, they are doing just fine. But they have a large catalogue. Their ability to market a single book is limited. When I worked at Andrews McMeel, I found that the authors who experienced the most success with their book were those who spent the time and energy promoting their own work. We published sixty books a year. We focused our marketing power on the few that were already popular in the market.

seldom seenI suppose the University of Nebraska Press does the same. But they are a small press that publishes tens of books every year. My editor once told me that I joined the ranks of the press’ best seller when we passed 1,000 Seldom Seens. It’s sold about 2,000. The third printing arrives in the warehouse in August. We will sell at least 1,000 Canoeing the Great Plains, my new book.

But I want to sell 10,000, 20,000. The book is worth that. Seldom Seen was a good book. Canoeing the Great Plains is far superior. When I was writing Seldom Seen, I had the feeling that I took something I’d written that was decent and turned it into literature. I had that same feeling with Canoeing the Great Plains, but this time I turned good literature into art. The first book served as my apprenticeship in book-length work. That experience really helped to shape the second.

Now, how can I know that the second book is better than the first? I have a better feeling about it. I’m more satisfied with it. The reviews are now coming in slowly on Canoeing the Great Plains. They are universally good. (See this one from the Kansas City Star.)

The reviews make me feel good but they count for little. The important thing, I think, is that the book is as good as I could make it. If I had another year, it would be even better. I look at it today and think, I could do this or I could do that. I want to keep fiddling. But there comes a time, I suppose, when you have to leave a book to become its own and move on. I’m trying to do that now.

An interesting thing has happened with Seldom Seen. As you might know, I live in a neighborhood that functions like a small town. I know nearly everyone and they know me. I got roped into a small book club at the branch of the Kansas City Public Library on my street. I have known all the participants for years. They are reading Seldom Seen as their book this month. So, because I’m a member of the group and will have to be the expert at our upcoming meeting, I reread my book. I can see now where the story gets slow and where I should have walked faster through the tale. But overall, it’s a good book. I’m glad to be able to say that.

Thanks for indulging me the long note. Please let me know how life and writing is going in Maui. I have watched all of your very personal documentary built around Last Lambs. Fantastic work. Please let me hear from you soon.


An American in French food


Over a few days in summer 1993, my friend Ivo showed me around Freiburg. I had already spent time in the town, but only in little bits between train arrivals and departures years before. Ivo wowed me with a trip to the cathedral, where he explained the odd roundish marks on the sides of the building as the amount of bread a mark would buy in a particular year. The priests and abbots, as trusted mediators between buyers and sellers, determined the size of the loaf. Since harvests varied in amounts and quality, so the size of a loaf would change. The money, the matter of exchange, remained constant. I had difficulty wrapping my head around it. An American who sees prices change by demand and often by whim would think that the loaf would remain the same and the price change. But this was medieval Europe. This history distanced itself from the American mind and even from a person who had lived in a town ten times older than his own country.colmar

One afternoon that I was in Freiburg, Ivo took me into France for a real French meal. The day laid on us like a blanket, it was so warm and humid under the overcast sky. We drove across the wide Rhein Valley and up into the hills on the French side. Colmar spread up out of the river valley to a flat plain above. The town resembled my childhood imaginings of a European town with churches and houses of middle-ages and medieval construction behind the remnants of a protective wall.

Ivo and I spend time wandering around the town between the three- and four-story houses constructed of timbers and plaster. Ivo, being an art historian, took me to museums and churches to show me the art and architecture. He knew the construction dates of the churches, altars, and stained-glass windows. He pointed out the symbols and told the stories that the windows portrayed. He knew the patrons that sponsored the windows. When we weren’t in churches and museums, we meandered through dark alleys and open plazas. The people in the shops were friendly and accommodating without being pushy or showing too much of the desperation of a person who needs to make money. Colmar confused me at some level. The streets and houses looked German, almost like those in fairy tale illustrations. But the people spoke French. Storekeeps wrote signs for their shop windows in French. I was completely dependent on Ivo to navigate this medieval city.

We ate lunch at a stand up bistro and moved on through the old town and down toward the river Lauch to the old fishmongers’ quarter called la Petite Venise. The Lauch was hardly more than a large stream, fat and slow moving. It flowed through a canal with houses and shops built up to its banks. In fact, the houses often stood atop walls that formed the river’s banks. We walked easily and slowly, talking about his schooling and what had happened to me in the intervening years. I told him about my history with drinking and how my life seemed to come to a complete dead end. I was only sober for three years and still making my way, but going over the past with my old friend helped bring some perspective to what I had experienced.

When the time came, we ensconced ourselves in a little restaurant called La Petit Gourmand. I remember the restaurant more than I do the rest of the day, in part because we spent so much of our day in Colmar there. The place only held six or so tables with seating for eighteen or twenty people. It was dark inside, the major light coming in through the front door. The kitchen stood behind a couple of French doors off the main room. The restaurant belonged to a married couple. He took orders and served tables; she worked in the kitchen cooking food. They limited the menu to just two or three entrees. I ordered pork tenderloin medallions in blueberry-onion sauce. Ivo took the trout. The meal started with a small salad. A small ball of sorbet laid on a grape leaf followed and then bread and cheese, and again sorbet. The entrée came. The chef made the display of food a thing of beauty. Spare on the plate but toothsome and just enough following the previous courses. After the entrée came another small sorbet on a grape leaf. The waiter, now known to us a Frank, set down the desert of fresh fruit in heavy cream.

In two and a half hours, we had eaten a great deal but didn’t feel the heaviness that accompanied an American entrée. Everything was just enough. Just enough sorbet to clean the palate before the next course came. The complexity of the flavors and the dishes served up a feast for eyes, nose, and mouth. The atmosphere of that tiny restaurant, where people talked a lot but spoke in whispers and low voices.

In summer of 2014, I was again in France. This time with family and my friend Udo, who’d planned a grand tour of the Burgundy and Champagne for us. We’d camped out two nights in a funny campervan in Euro campsites that I thought might be like those of American RVers. But we decided to spend a night in a French hotel and eat a real French meal.

The Hotel du Commerce served up food very much like that I’d had in France before, in the sense that the food was the object at the center of larger conversations. We took our seats at a wooden table without a cover. The waiter, a young woman, had already set the flatware and plates already on the polished tabletop. Heavy wooden beams framed the space below. Other couples, presumably from the town, sat underneath sconces shaped like candle lamps. A small chandelier lit the interior brightly. Frosted windows separated the customers from the walk outside.

The woman who greeted us at the bar when we first showed up cooked the food and wandered around, making sure that her presentations made it to the tables. She chatted with familiar customers and checked with us from time to time to see how it was going. Each of us ordered a different entrée, each to his own, with Nick eating chicken nuggets and French fries. The meal came in flights, with a salad first, bread and cheese, and then the entrées. We spent over an hour and a half over dinner. Again, we walked away sated but without feeling heavy or overstuffed.

Udo and Virginia wanted to walk through the town. Normally, I would not pass up the opportunity to walk around any town as night fell. It’s that time of day when the magic of a small town reveals itself. People come home from their days and settle into their free time. Some, like the people we saw at the restaurant, use the time for social pursuits. Most others go home and spend time alone or with family. With the streets bare of people, or almost, I get a sense of a town. What kinds of businesses dominate the town? What do people do in their free time? I would have invited the chance to walk along the Seine on the town’s riverfront. But I wanted some time alone.

Being a loner and not a joiner, I missed having time alone dearly. In the compact life of travelers in a campervan, I hardly had any thought to myself. Now, I sat back at the writing table in my room at the Hotel du Commerce. The sounds of people walking down the main street out front filtered through the alley window. A hush fell on the town, making the sounds of lone motorcyclist or walker all the more pronounced. I took up my pen and scribbled thoughts and events from the previous days. I wrote with urgency, not knowing when my travel mates would return. I worked out the myriad feelings and inner emotions that the French countryside produced in me. I recalled our camping adventures and tried to place the Hotel du Commerce in context.

It turned out that I had all the time I needed. My fellow travelers took a long walk the length and breadth of Bar-sur-Seine. They walked along the riverfront and down through the back alleys and streets off the main drag. Their accounts of their walk made me envious. But I was satisfied that I was able to do my best with my journal.

This journal and many previous gave me the solace of working alone. In them, I placed myself in context, gathered the disconnected thoughts and impressions of my life, and worked out the complex emotions of everyday living. I go through those journals now, some of which helped me to write this text. They are often spotty in time and in emotions. I have not always kept up with my journals. I often write about things abstract from time and date. Precise events and my reactions to them do not often appear in the journals. But they remind me of who I was and what I was thinking. In the Hotel du Commerce that evening, I was sated in more than stomach. The French countryside presented enough of an alien view of the world to make the travel delicious and exciting. The landscapes and towns captured bits of stereotypes of European life I’d learned about in school, but then undid those stereotypes. Certainly, the French has a common culture but it was just as complex as my own. No longer would I think in terms of scenes from movies.

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.