During ’05-’06 I faced many personal challenges. One was my retirement from teaching after nearly thirty years. Another was divorce. Another was starting a novel. But nonetheless in 2005, in earnest ignorance I plunged into writing the first draft of Trout Kill (Over the next six years, I rewrote it numerous times … I lost track of how darn many). The main plot line of those early drafts, in hindsight, was “misguided” for a couple of reasons: First, the story was too big and not focused on Eddy Trout, the protagonist of TK, and his small-town world; and second, the plot too closely resembled what had happened to me–and was happening–in my personal life; in other words, I identified too closely with Eddy and hadn’t sufficiently distanced myself from him psychologically and emotionally. But on the positive side, those early drafts honed Eddy’s tragic back story involving his father, mother and sister. In the Trout Trilogy I’m writing, that history is slowly revealed to him, his sister, his wife, his friends and you, the reader.
(Part VII later)
I attended a week-long Dangerous Writing workshop in Cannon Beach, Oregon, in July of 2005, and the events of that week changed my life in many profound ways, one of which was writing. Tom Spanbauer taught the workshop. Tom is a marvelous, bighearted and emotionally honest teacher, and he encourages and challenges his students to peer into their hearts and tell stories about those “sore places” that only they can thoroughly explore. The “danger” resides in personal revelation, that is, “Writing what personally scares or embarrasses the author in order to explore and artistically express those fears honestly. Most dangerous writing is written in first-person narrative for this reason and deals with subjects such as cultural taboos.” (Wikipedia) For me, being introduced to this philosophy of writing was both exhilarating and liberating. During the workshop I shared stories based on “scary” incidents that occurred during my childhood, namely child abuse. Themes of the absent father are also prevalent. During the workshop I conceived the central idea for my Trout Trilogy: A middle-aged man with a troubled past and loveless marriage kills his old heart (Trout Kill), seeks a new one (Trout Run), and finds it (Trout Love). Dangerous Writing is my philosophical touchstone.
These were the dormant years. After the “failure” of my Vietnam novel in the mid-80’s–that word shows how ignorant I was about what constitutes the success or failure of a writer, as measured solely by publication–I didn’t write fiction again for nearly twenty years. The novel sat on a shelf, and the fire in my belly cooled. These years were filled with teaching, coaching baseball, raising our two young daughters, remodeling our home, renovating two other homes as rental properties and, beginning in 2000 and lasting until 2005, building a brand new home on the McKenzie River, where we planned to retire. During most of these non-writing years I was focused on material “success” rather than artistic fulfillment. However, I began to miss writing and came to realize that one day I would write again. In 2005, the cold embers in my belly rekindled, fanned by passions I never imagined I possessed.
(Part V later)
These years saw more very modest success in getting short stories published in journals and magazines. Also had success entering my fiction in a variety of contests, such as those sponsored by Willamette Writers (Portland) and Pacific Northwest Writers (Seattle). I began sharing my fiction with various Language Arts classes I was teaching at Canby High. “Marlene” was a favorite, a story about an insecure young man trying to win the deeper affections of his girlfriend. It involves a bit of fantasy, and biting the heads off chickens. I took week-long writing workshops and honed my craft. I even taught fiction writing to an evening community ed. class. The primary focus of my writing during these years, though, was Perimeters, my Vietnam novel. It took a lot of research and years to write; it’s a complex, psychological story with various plot lines and characters. I employed two cardboard boxes: one was full of scraps of paper upon which I’d jot ideas for characters, scenes, etc.; and the other box contained the scraps I used in the story. A messy system. The excitement of writing never flagged. Weekdays during the school years I would often awaken at 5:00am, write for two hours and then go teach. Weekends and holidays were taken up with writing. My wife and two young daughters were very considerate of my needs. One daughter or the other would sometimes come into the den, sit on my lap and watch me write. After completing the book, I submitted an excerpt to a contest sponsored by Pacific Northwest Writers and won a prize; an agent expressed keen interest; I worked with an New York editor at Bantam Books on two rewrites, but it all came to naught. The book was never published.
(Part IV later)
Began teaching Language Arts. In and of itself, teaching writing does not strictly require that the teacher be a writer. However, it does, at least to some degree, require that the teacher have some working knowledge of the CRAFT of writing–that is, the nuts and bolts of what makes some writing better than other writing. So, I began to develop this knowledge ABOUT craft, but had not yet developed a sufficient interest in writing to the degree that I actually began APPLYING what I learned to my own writing. This was probably a good thing, in that the basic kind of writing I taught to high school students bears little resemblance to the kind of fiction writer I would eventually become. I hope my fiction doesn’t sound like it was written by a grammatically obsessed high school English teacher. I see nothing wrong with “ain’t.”
The first “real” short story I wrote got published in Oregon English, a journal published by the Oregon Council of Teachers of English. It was called “Fear Walks a War-Worn Road,” about a paranoid U.S. soldier in Vietnam and his encounter with an old, kindly Vietnamese woman, a hootch maid. I used an Apple II-e computer. I think I got paid $50.00. I vividly remember how EXCITING it felt to sit down and write that story … the mental transport, the evoking, the struggle to find the right words and phrasing. I got hooked, not only from the adrenaline rush I felt from writing, but also the catharsis of processing my feelings about the year I spent in Vietnam as a U.S. soldier. For my latest Vietnam short story, go to STORIES on my webpage.
(Part III … later)
Outskirts Press published my first novel last week. Only, actually Trout Kill is not the first novel I wrote. That honor belongs to Perimeters, a Vietnam novel I wrote way back in the mid-’80’s. It is unpublished. Funny, the course my writing career has taken. The road I’ve followed goes roughly like this:
In high school I was an undistinguished student, earning mostly C’s on English compositions, although I did enjoy reading, PE, Modern Problems and Advanced Girls. In Senior English at Sutherlin High, The Lord of the Flies was my favorite. Thank you, Mr. Anderson! I’ll always remember those class discussions about man’s “heart of darkness”–our Ids.
Decided to become a teacher one monsoon night while I was on guard duty in Vietnam. At that time, I was leaning toward the social sciences, history and the like. That night it was raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock. (In Draft #1 of Trout Run, the second novel in the Trout Trilogy, I use that simile.)
Got turned on to fiction writing when a college prof remarked that my narrative composition “… reminded him of Hemingway.” I’d written a story about tracking a wounded deer through the woods. At the time, I scarcely knew who Hemingway was. This “spark” led me toward majoring in language arts, as well as the social sciences. Thank you, Mr. Jacobs, for introducing me to Hemingway.
(Part II later …)