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Heartache and woe and just plain work

While I sit around moaning about how much work I haven’t accomplished, I once in a while have to look back over the previous weeks and see what I have done. Without this inventory, a sort of accounting, I could very well get off track and into morose self-loathing.

writing blue highwaysI often think of other writers and how many books they have written. Comparing myself to them, I seem to fail. I have written only three books of my own and published two. Paltry for a writer who’s 53 years old. But there will be more, I think. I have to keep plugging away.

I looked back over the E-mails I’ve sent over the last few weeks. There are over a hundred. Though I seem to be working only a little a day, my work has been prodigious. Some writing has shifted to the back burner. My book, which has been the major focus of my work over the last six months, still needs another rewrite.

A few months ago, I came across a little book by William Least Heat-Moon called Writing Blue Highways. It is a short book, and Heat-Moon is known for long works. Writing Blue Highways is a biography of the manuscript that turned into his classic and well-known Blue Highways: A Journey into America. For four straight years, Heat-Moon wrote and rewrote the manuscript. He produced literally thousands of pages of typescripts and hand written pages. He suffered crappy jobs, the end of a marriage, and ill-health to produce that book.

Whenever I think I’m done with my manuscript, I think of a picture in Writing Blue Highways. A copy of the hardcover edition of his iconic work stands next to a stack of 14 boxes. The boxes contain the typescripts of the manuscript. Fourteen boxes, representing reams of paper that went into the writing of Blue Highways. I can well imagine how many legal pads he also used, since his method in producing something to be typed and edited he did by hand. He has pictures of several of the handwritten and typed pages of the manuscript. Many are marked up so much that the original script is hardly legible.

When I wrote Seldom Seen and Canoeing the Great Plains at my desk when I worked for a Kansas City publisher, the original manuscript was well over 500 pages. That was in 2001. It went nowhere with the agents with whom I regularly worked. I faced heartache and woe at every turn. The manuscript sat for a couple of years, alone and lonely, in the files of my computer.

Then, I had the summer of 2005 off. I had started my Ph.D. studies. Money came in the form of scholarships, a fellowship, and an assistantship. With this and my wife’s earnings, I had the time to transform a hardly readable manuscript into something that a publisher might want to see.

Remembering my history with literary agents, I decided to find a publisher on my own. My first thought was that the book might do well at a university press. Most publishers, large and small, demand that the writer have an agent. University presses, on the other hand, took submissions from authors.

I made a list of six university presses that might want to see a work like mine. I received four rejections within weeks. One was a nasty note that recommended, in a sense, that I don’t bother them again. This was from the one press that I thought was most likely to take on the project. Then, the University of Oklahoma Press sent me a missive saying they were interested in the book. The editor, Matt Bokovoy, was enthusiastic about the manuscript and did his damnedest to get it through his press’ process.

In the end, however, the press said no to the project. I had not heard from the sixth press I sent the manuscript to. I figured with Oklahoma’s no that my work for the summer was at an end. That’s it. I said to myself. There’s always next summer to try again.

The day after I got word from Matt that Oklahoma passed. I received a note from the University of Nebraska Press. They were not only interested in the work but had put it through their peer-review process. The reviewers recommended significant changes to the work and wanted me to resubmit the manuscript for consideration. The editor, Heather Lundine, attached the reviews to the E-mail.

I was elated. Someone considered my work. They didn’t take it on but wanted to see a rewrite.

One of the reviewers had done significant work on the manuscript. He had 18 pages of single-spaced notes. I worked through all the suggestions. One of the recommendations was that I split the manuscript into two books—one about the walk from Kansas City to Helena and another about the canoe trip home from Helena. So, that’s what I did. I had considered the trip one piece but the natural division of the two parts of the trip made sense. The rest of his proposals spoke to the text, voice, and arc of story.

I followed those suggestions thoroughly. Later that year, I resubmitted the manuscript for Seldom Seen to the press and they sent it out again for peer review. The reviewer who had written the 18 pages approved of the work. His biggest caution, however, was that the manuscript needed a thorough proofread and some rewriting. Heather said she wanted the book and would forward me a contract forthwith.

I remember that day as the culmination of a dream. I had always wanted to be a writer. I had achieved that when I went to work for a local newspaper full time in 1996. Now I had achieved my ultimate goal of being an author. It was one of the best days of my life. Seldom Seen was published in 2009, eight years after I wrote the first working draft.

Now, I’m not good at proofreading my own work. I’m absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing. There’s nothing in a manuscript that can’t be made better.

Though I was confident in the book, I took his new suggestions to heart. I really felt at one point that I was taking a thing I wrote, that was decent, and was turning it into literature. When I submitted Canoeing the Great Plains—the other half of that original manuscript—to the press, I also received helpful and insightful reviews. One suggestion changed the whole scope of the work. This time, I took what I thought was good literature and was turning it into art. When Nebraska published it in 2015, fourteen years had elapsed between the first draft and when it arrived on bookshelves.

Now, with this third book, I know that I’m not done. I haven’t put in the labor. Oh, I’ve written and rewritten. It’s a book that’s worthy of the public light. It’s ready for a thoughtful reviewer, agent, or editor to look at. But it’s not what I would call art yet. This is important. In many ways, my third book represents a life’s work. It’s a book-length memoir about a period of my life that formed the person I am. Trying to capture the weight of that time of life is difficult. The tale is complicated, taking in several important characters and forming, basically, biographies of the relationships I have developed with them over the last three decades.

I’ve tentatively titled the new book It’ll All Be New: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Disappointment Spanning Two Continents. I don’t know when I’ll get back to rewriting it. It has to ferment another little while. I think, however, that it won’t be eight or fourteen years getting published. It will be sooner. I have more books to write. They can’t all take years and years to reach the bookshelves.

In the meantime, I’m very serious about getting it published. Should the University of Nebraska Press go for it, I will welcome the advice and recommendations of the reviewers. They haven’t steered me wrong yet. But if the press doesn’t take it on, I have the work of getting an agent in front of me.

So, I look back on the previous weeks’ work and ask myself if I have done everything I can to further my writing career. On consideration, I have. I have to be patient. None of this will be accomplished overnight.

That’s perhaps the worst part of being a writer of my stature—a minor literary figure. Everything’s up in the air. It will take time. I have to start thinking of my next book.

My next book. I have an inkling. This one will be the tale of a young son and father traveling on the big river. I think there will be enough material there. If not, it will make a good essay.

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