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Letter to a fellow traveler

Thanks for the note, Charlie. Sorry for the long, pedantic reply. I am very interested in your project and found that your questions warranted more than curt answers.

SONY DSCYou asked me about relating personal experience that is readable and relevant to a stranger, and about filters. Making a thing readable and relevant comes out of the writing process. The process itself and the story I’m trying to tell provide the filters.

Let me explain: I take notes in a journal whenever I travel. At the end of the day, I take an hour to reflect on the day’s events, processes, and interactions with other people. I try to recreate from memory the conversations I had that day that I feel were important.

What I wind up with is a journal that moves from day to day without much interpretation. When I sit to write the story, I follow those notes. This leads me to a draft. But a draft is not a book. “On a first draft, there’s no element of chance in writing crap—it’s fully guaranteed,” writes William Least Heat Moon in his latest book, Writing Blue Highways, a little writing manual that I keep handy. He’s absolutely correct in my case. I set out to write a book and wind up with crap. I don’t consider myself a talented writer. I wish I had talent. But I do have the capacity for hard work and persistence. These are the elements that make something decent I’ve written into something good.

Once the draft is complete, I have to let it sit for a while. I just drafted a book this year. I finished the draft in August. I will let it ferment by itself until I can get to it next, which should be soon. At that time, I will have to go back into that huge pile of words (about 90,000 right now) and find the story, themes, structure, and arc of story. Once I have some of that, then comes the filtering process. I will delete about 40 percent of what I have in the writing process, and I will add more. At the end of the process, I see a book of about 85,000-95,000 words.

While I’m sifting through that big pile of words, I ask, “What interactions and conversations will advance the story?” You can’t include all of a journey in a travel memoir. The reader will find a “get up in the morning, have breakfast, walk in beautiful landscape, find a camp spot, etc.” narrative tedious and boring. I have to make the decision as a writer what’s important for the reader to know.

For instance, I had a great many interactions with people that were important to me and my journey on my way to Montana, but not all of them are in Seldom Seen. Inclusion of too many people, animals, weather, landscapes create annotated and detailed laundry lists that wouldn’t be interesting to readers. The question always comes back to “What advances the story?” If the tale of a walking trip plods, then, in a sense, I have to walk faster. I have to exclude certain people, places, weather stories, etc., in order to create a tale and keep the story intact. This is where themes and structure come in. If I can limit myself to a few important themes (which can have innumerable sub-themes), then I can take the story along that trajectory. If I wander off from time to time, that’s all right, as long as I bring those tangents back to a particular theme.

In the end, all those notes—people, places, events, interactions—matter. They are the scenes behind the scene. They were necessary to create the story but have become unnecessary to the story itself.

As another example, I will never forget when I published my first poem. It was a short thing, as all my poems are. It hinged on an image that I’d written into its heart. The editor of the magazine, Wayne Lanter, wrote me back after I submitted the poem. He told me he’d publish it if I removed two lines. These two lines were the very reason the poem existed! But he was right. The idea that birthed the poem became unnecessary to the poem itself, and, in fact, held the poem back from reaching its potential. The reader did not need to see the seed to understand the plant.

So, how do I know what will be interesting to the reader? I don’t. I only know the story I’m trying to tell, and then not even that until well after the first draft, maybe the second or third. For my second book, Canoeing the Great Plains, I had gotten down to the final draft when one of the book’s peer reviewers—the University of Nebraska Press sends all their books out to independent peer reviewers—made a suggestion that would change the course of the entire tale. He said that the book was good the way it stood, but that if I took out some of the detail and added the perspective of years, the book would be even better. This meant, in a sense, that I had to fashion a second “I” character—an “I” voice that looked back on what the “I” of the tale’s action did in the past. The suggestion made sense, and I just couldn’t pass it up. I took the book back and redrafted it almost entirely. It’s a better book because I rewrote it again.

For your walk, you start out with a great deal more than I did. You have a list of questions that will filter some of what you later relate to your readers. “Is this about borders? Is this about personal change? Is this about the people who live on the edges of our city? Is this about borders shaped by money?” I suspect that your endeavor is about all these things. I see these as the themes of your story. That is, you don’t have to answer one at the expense of another. You don’t have to narrow your tale down to one question or another. One or more of these questions will come to the fore as the most important—the story. The other questions will be themes of the story. What about personal boundaries? That is, the trajectory of your life as you approach the walk. Why is it important to you that you make this trip? What about the boundaries of city’s memory?

You are, in large part, creating a memoir of place. The space, the human geographies of the city, are waiting for your definition. Once you define your boundaries, you have turned space into a place. In other words, you’ve taken the abstract and made it into lived space (place).

You will have to do your homework to define the dendrology (I love that term) of the city. This is an approach to the city’s history that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It includes the history of growth—foreign and domestic immigration, the creep of the city from the river to the plains above, urbanization, suburbanization, etc. It will also include the geographies of capital and power. City politics and the behind-the-scenes pressures of development and money form part of your narrative.

I don’t think you have to contemplate all that right now. The walk, making your notes, finding places to stay are the labors ahead of you. The rest of this will come as you find the story you have to relate to your audiences through grant writing, presentations to parks and conservation departments, etc. Or even a book on top of all the work you will do to establish a series of trails that follow the city’s boundaries, present and past.

In part, your story or the basics of it will remain the same. But what you present to the parks people will be much different than what you tell to an audience of book readers. Parks people will want to know the nuts and bolts of your proposal and how it fits into their vision and budget. Book readers will want to read about your personal transformation—how the things you discovered changed you and your perspective. That transformation will inform them and perhaps inspire them to go out and undertake their own journeys of discovery.

What happens to you is important here. What kinds of struggles did you have? How often did you have to ask for forgiveness? What kinds of historical sites did you discover along the way? Who is the Charlie we start with and how does he get to be the one we end up with?

Some books you may want to read. They may inform your trip. Many of these are available through local libraries:


  1. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience
  2. Harry Hartoonian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life
  3. David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience

History and travel:

  1. William Least Heat Moon, Prairyerth: A Deep Map
  2. Ray Suarez, The Old Neighborhood: What we Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999
  3. James R. Shortridge, Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011 
  4. Rick Montgomery and Shirl Casper, Kansas City: An American Story –This one’s a real feel-good kind of book, but the background work they did was tremendous.

For when you’re trying to write your story:

  1. Heat Moon, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened 
  2. Stephen King (Yes! That Stephen King.) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft 
  3. Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius in You


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