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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.


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One Comment

  1. Martha Hall-Braun Martha Hall-Braun

    Patrick, I am so glad that we were able to give you a few items of camping gear to help you on your way twenty years ago. I am equally glad that I reconnected with you last month at the OWWC meeting. I am reading your books, experiencing your trip and wish I could have done the same hike and river trip. But, it is great doing it all with you on paper as I can blend my personal experiences with yours and feel like I am right there! I can’t wait to read your next book!

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