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Dreaming big about writing, books, and life

When I was growing up, nearly everyone told me I couldn’t be a writer. I believed them and for decades searched around for a career. When I sobered up, I tried to make up for lost time. I went to graduate school in Wyoming and then started a career as a journalist. The job really satisfied me. I was making a living as a writer. When the newspaper sold to a large corporation, I tried my best but could not fit into a desk job.

walking-with-a-backpackLooking back, I should have stuck with journalism. I had proven all the naysayers wrong. I was a good writer. My research skills—from my training as a historian—were expert. But in my quest to become “legitimate” after a life of dissipation, a publishing job promised a career and good money. With a decent income, I could count myself worthy.

It was for naught. I found the routine stifling. I spent a lot of time at that desk writing my own material. I wrote a novel and the draft to my two books. The only challenge of the job came from trying to look busy. Writing my own stuff made me look busy. I felt like I was stealing from the company all the time. My expiration date at that job came after about six months. I sat rotting at that desk for another two and a half years before I decided to strike out on my own.

I spent a year doing whatever came up—building rock walls, hauling debris and trash with my truck, painting houses, whatever. Each day, I woke up thinking what am I going to do today? It produced a great feeling of freedom, not knowing what each day would bring.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I started Ph.D. studies at UMKC. Summers allowed me time to write. I had the graduate student lounge to myself, so I had a place to write. I produced the first solid drafts of my two books. Dissertation was difficult and we had a newly adopted four-and-a-half-year-old boy in the house. He came out of a very crappy situation and needed regular coming and going. I finished my coursework but forwent dissertation and joined the ironworkers union.

Ironwork satisfied me. I loved the work and the people. Putting a rebar bridge deck on a bridge is the hardest work a man can do. It was, in any case, the hardest work I had ever done.

Unfortunately, construction caught up with the economy in 2009. I went to work that school year at Johnson County Community College. I was very happy teaching during the school year and working iron in the summer. Being in academe brought me back to dissertation. Slowly and with reluctance, I backed away from ironwork and began dissertation.

Two summers and three years later, I finally got that damn dissertation completed, probably the most difficult intellectual labor I have ever done (that went along with the humiliation and disappointment of the process). I have continued to teach at JCCC and have devoted my off time to writing.

Now, I’m fairly focused on what I want and where I want to go. I want to write books, in particular travel memoirs. I have a book in the computer, a solid first draft that needs the attention of an artist. When I wrote my first book, I felt like I was taking something decent that I’d written and turned it into literature. In my second book, I felt like I was taking good literature and turning it into art. I have yet to feel this with my current book. But given the time and concentration, I can reproduce those kinds of feelings and create a work that borders on the poetic.

Travel narrative means, of course, travel. I have it in my mind to take a long trip with my son, either a good, long hike or a long stretch of river. When he graduates high school, we can use the summer to take that trip. There’s a book in the reflection of our lives together since he came to us at the age of four. As a part of the narrative, I will have to revisit my experience as Sydney’s father and facets of her life that I know about. I will also have to reflect on the idea of family and my ongoing discomfort with being a family man.

A man and his son walk from the Hook of Holland to Budapest. Many people take up backpacks and travel Europe when they are young. What kind of a story would that be if it were a father in his late-fifties and a boy out to discover the world around him? Or, if Nick and I undertake a different journey—a walk through the Midwest or a trip on the river?

And then there’s the Rhein or Danube in a canoe. There are such stories but they were written in the beginning of the 20th century. But the authors were young men who took their trips before they started their careers. The logistics present an adventure by themselves. An old man canoes the length of the Rhein from Constance to the Hook of Holland. Or how about that same old man canoeing from the Swiss border through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, and Romania to the Black Sea?

The problems of Bosnia and Rwanda still haunt me. I was a graduate student in Wyoming when the slaughter at Srebrenica was broadcast on television. The genocide in Rwanda, too, was on television. I will never forget the sense of helplessness I felt when I saw those bodies flowing down the river as it left the country. Both incidents haunt me. I felt part of a larger, global mechanism that produced the atrocities. It was, in part, my fault. What would an old man with memories of his youth find in the countries today? How will I reconcile my part in these events that seemed, to me, impossible to stop?

Of course, each of these ideas represent a book or more each. I need an agent, a publisher, and a base of readers. The books hinge on an older man making journeys that only young people and athletes make. I want to be the American reflecting on the implications of empire, politics, and personal discovery.

I would feel successful as an artist if I could approach or write books about even part of the things I listed above. My wife would have to tolerate my long absence from home. We’ve talked about it before but not for many years. I would have to spend time with my wife the way she likes to travel, which is very different from mine. But the traveling/writing/discovering kind of life that these travels represent would make me very happy in the long run.

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