When Corby Skinner announced that Canoeing the Great Plains won the creative nonfiction category in the High Plains Book Awards, I felt a sudden lift. I looked around and people were applauding. The sounds came through tinny and indistinct. Someone hooted. People smiled. Someone patted me on the back. The woman next to me said, “Well, get up there.”
I rounded my table and made my way along the wall toward the front. I shook Corby’s hand. Then the emcee’s. Corby said something. I dove behind him to the woman holding the plaque and the envelope. “Here’s your money,” she said. “Hold onto it.” She smiled at me. Corby was talking about my book. I didn’t hear what he said.
With my award in my hand, I stood to the side until Corby indicated I was to speak to the audience. Everyone was clapping. I waited a second. I took a deep breath. My insides felt electric. I stepped up to the podium.
“Wow! This is great,” I said. The announcement of the award so surprised me, I didn’t have anything to say. So, I said what came into my mind. “Thanks to the committee, the readers, and the judges. This is important to me because my community recognized that I did something. Thanks for being here for me.”
I shook everyone’s hand again and headed back to my table. The people there were still standing. I shook one hand after another. When I finally came back to earth, I was eating my desert. I looked at the award and couldn’t believe it. I really did something.
I don’t know that anyone writes a book for an award. I can’t speak for others. I write because I feel excitement at the possibilities of an empty page. All I need to do is fill it up with interesting stories. And, maybe, if they’re not interesting, they’re insightful. I sit down to a blank page and I never have any idea what direction I’ll go. Sometimes I don’t even start with an idea, just a few keystrokes. Sentences appear. Paragraphs lead one to another. At some point, it’s enough.
That’s the way a book comes. I muddle through. Somehow, I get to the end.
I write travel memoirs. Journal entries, observations from the road, give me a framework. Travel motivates me. I am not a good mixer. I can whack my way around a conversation, but I’m no popularity contest winner. I’m scared and shy. But travel breaks through all that. It gives my boring, deadbeat-self life. I write travel tales that center around self-transformation. That’s the only way, I think, I can be interesting.
Fortunately, book awards aren’t about popularity or personality. Hopefully, judges read the books and chose the ones that make contributions to the literature.
I wrote my book the best I knew how. It was just plain work. As I was rewriting the manuscript, I felt I was turning something decent that I’d written into literature. A comment in one of the peer-reviewer’s notes changed everything. I started to rewrite again. This time I was turning literature into art.
The deadline arrived. I wasn’t finished with it. A manuscript worthy of the work never really reaches finality. As I looked at the file, it begged for further attention. They always do. At some point, it just has to be done. I did the best I could with it. I was proud of it. Though it existed in digital form, that manuscript glowed.
That was three years ago. The University of Nebraska Press published the book on May 1, 2015, almost a year and a half ago. When it came out, I was busy on the promotion trail. Radio stations interviewed me. South Dakota Public Broadcasting did a magazine piece on me and my book. Libraries had me in for book talks. I did signings at bookstores.
And I sold books. It made me extremely self-conscious. Singing the praises of my material is one thing. Getting into your pocket is another. But I got over myself. I schlepped books around in the trunk of my car. My phone was credit-card ready. Even today, I can whip a book out and sell it to you. Just ask. Or I’ll ask you, “Want to buy my book? I’m proud of it. They tell me it’s a good one.”
About October last year, the events settled down. I had my last book talk in May, one year after publication. I accepted that, well, that was it. The books left in my trunk would be there for a while.
In the meantime, the press submitted my book to two contests. Both were important to me. Conger Beasley won the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award back in the 90s. I looked up to him. He gave me some very well placed encouragement during a critical time. Because of him, I formed two book manuscripts out of the pile of paper I had on my desk. I thought that if, one day, I could win the award, I would have achieved something.
My first book, Seldom Seen, earned a finalist position in the Thorpe Menn Award in 2010. At the ceremony, members of the American Association of University Women, who give the award annually, told me what a great book I had. I thought for sure I won. Then, when the award was announced, I was really let down. I went home that day vowing never to feel that way again.
In 2010, too, Seldom Seen won a mention in the High Plains Book Award. I couldn’t go to Billings, Montana, where the public library and the Billings Cultural Partners give the award. The books that won that year were all fantastic. I made it my mission to read the nonfiction books Seldom Seen was up against. They were winners, real winners. If I could win that award someday, I know I will have made it.
Six years later, the Thorpe Menn people contacted me and said I was a finalist. A few weeks later, the High Plains Book Award people told me I was a finalist in the nonfiction category of their contest. I went to both awards banquets. I convinced myself that other books had won. They were good books, deserving of the awards. In part, it was self-defense. I wanted to go home feeling as if being chosen as a finalist was enough.
In both instances, I won and was truly surprised. It felt good. Those plaques are now on the wall. I’m off to what comes next. I have a book written that needs a publisher. While I’m looking, I have to start another book. Maybe, I the book I’ve written and the one I will write will be award winners. Maybe not. One thing sure is that I write good books. That’s what really matters.