Mangroves – the name comes from the Arawak people who once thrived across the Caribbean. It means “mangle” in that indigenous tongue. Once you’ve paddled past a million of these mangroves, what the Seminoles called walking trees, sending their arms down into the salted water to take root, to multiply and create thousands of islands out here, you begin to appreciate the seemingly endless maze that is the Everglades.
Two nights out on the water, three days from setting foot on dry land, pitching your tent on platforms known as “chickees,” roofed docks, you begin to feel unmoored, unplugged, off the grid, fingers no longer itching to swipe a screen, to check the email, Facebook and Twitter for the latest tasty tidbit of useless information. You begin to settle into your life.
The charts before you, the mangroves reflected in the perfectly still water, a mirror image of the clouds puffing over the end of Florida.
Then we get lost. It starts with a wrong bearing off the Lane Bay chickee, heading southeast across the bay in search of the close channel that leads to Hell’s Bay. At least that was the plan we had with our friend and guide, Anne.
You get lost by degrees “I think that may be it,” you call from the bow. So Anne rudders the Mad River canoe into a narrow passageway, a few twists and turns and you’re heading steadily northeast, rather than any southeasterly bearing. The sun gets hotter, you keep paddling. You check your charts.
When you come out on a bay again, wondering if this is Hell’s Bay, then off to the north, you see the Lane Bay chickee, its portajohn visible on the dock, we all laugh hysterically, in dismay. We have spent all afternoon, wandering in a big circle
Then we lose sight of the chickee and paddle into another bay. The sun is setting.
Mangrove islands are no friends, their knees high in the water, with nothing but muck for men to step into. What Anne looks for is an island out here in this nameless bay with a mahogany, a tree that needs high ground to thrive. We paddle toward the island, aiming our bow into the overhanging underbrush, toward what looks like a gator slide, a shelf where one of the Everglades’ residents will sun himself, wait for dinner.
I step up onto dry land, and crash in-land, through the thickets of laurel, poisonwood, fern. There’s just barely enough space beneath the mahogany at the center of this small isle to pitch a small tent. My wife and I will spend the night here, while Anne sleeps in the canoe.
We do not sleep well. At night, you can hear a great munching sound outside the tent; we imagine a gator chewing over the remains of some large dinner, the cracking of bones. By daybreak, we can see the water only a few feet away from our perch, lapping at the little dry land here.
We are 24 hours lost, but Anne has sent out satellite transponder signals to her padding partner back in the world. Standing up in the stern of the canoe, Anne is able to get a few bars on her cellphone and call Holly. We have a location point from my Garmin watch, a point of reference, but unable to find our abstraction on any map. Holly is able to pinpoint us and chart us a way back on the map. We are not exactly found, but we are not lost now. We have directions. We are saved.
Getting off course is how discoveries are made, Getting lost is how you find things. Our knowledge, our maps are finite, we expand when we explore. We keep our heads, even when we lose our bearings.
Names are foreboding but important in a wilderness like the Everglades. Hell’s Bay doesn’t sound inviting. “It’s hell to get into and hell to get out of.” One early ranger said.
Figure it's a purgatory even getting to Hell’s Bay.
But there is a paradise in what others would see only as a watery wasteland.
There is now on the nautical charts that Anne paddles by, a new penciled name of a small island in a unnamed bay, west of Lane Bay and north of Hell’s Bay.
Welcome to Neal Key, where we were the first people to camp in the endless maze of mangroves, the labyrinth of bays and lakes and channels, that is the Everglades.
Florida has never been my favorite place, where America seems to drain down, gator farms, and fake mermaids, citrus stands and Anita Bryant, hanging chads back when the 2000 election hung in the balance. The Sunshine State seems to have more than its share of shady business, huckster and con-men, get-rich-quick schemes, dreams of retirement, buying time, cashing in our Golden Years, where we go to wait out death in Amercia.
Down I-95, clogged with RVs and ancient men at the wheel, beyond Disney and its sanitized fairy tales, past the miasma of Miami, driving hard to Homestead, then further down the Florida Turnpike to Highway 1, past the Dade County Correctional Institute, beribboned with razor wire, the washed-up and incarcerated of America’s underclass, the irrigated fields of produce give way to wilderness, you enter the Everglades, the U.S. Largest wild region east of the Rockies. You are in another place - the limestone shelf as Florida’s peninsula turns into the million-acre sponge and land starts drowning.
It’s easy to say there’s nothing here but space and sky and the brown grasses stretching seemingly forever to either horizon. This is salt prairie and if Google Maps hasn’t gulled you completely into a false sense of security, you start thinking Kansas, the fat, flat midsection of America, even as you drive to the end of the East Coast.
The Everglades got its start as a national park in 1947, protected for its ecological importance rather than any striking view. No sublime Grand Canyon, no Old Faithful going off on the hour, no majestic Half-Dome in the distance. Here is water. Water everywhere, flowing a river of grass, always in motion instead of any stagnant swamp. Here is a harsh landscape teeming with life that has learned to take this place on its own terms. Amid the salt prairie, springs up the dwarf cypress forest. Trees that are century old, bonsai’ed, and silvered in the white sun, their roots barely clinging to the limestone shelf that undergirds all of the Everglades, keeping this in the realm of land rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
A roadside sign signals the Park’s 3-foot high mountain, more molehill than any serious peak compared to the Southern Appalachians we’ve driven from, or the younger, rugged peaks out west.
Here, the trees begin cluster into domes out on the prairie, engineered by the alligators. Caught out in the dry season, the reptiles will dig with their front legs and their powerful tails down to the water table to hunker down. Birds come in for a drink and turn into dinner. Trees begin to sprout and take root around the perimeter. An ecosystem takes shape. Trees grow taller around the doughnut while the gator sleeps at the center with dreams of her ancestors, the ancient dinosaurs who swam the shallow sea that once covered this land. Perhaps something deep in the small reptilian brain even remembers the vague age when Florida was a handle to Africa in the supercontinent Pangea, when the Earth was in its infancy.
Our guide Anne said she had started to weep, driving across this landscape for the first time. Perhaps reminded of the marsh land where she had grown up around Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, or the savannahs of Africa, a genetic memory that says you are home, even in a harsh environment where fresh water is at a premium, where hurricanes come to land, and thunderstorms are hatched on the horizon in summer. You are more likely to be eaten alive by mosquitoes at dusk than any alligator.
We have come down to paddle the Glades, four days into the waterways, the mangrove mazes, the bays named and unnamed, to be lost and to lose our civilized shells, to go off the grid. Pioneers had slogged their way here to hunt birds and gators, to fish the ten thousand islands. The Indians before them, Seminole who never signed any peace treaty with the duplicitous United States government, and before them, the midden shells of the Calusa, the fierce people here when the Spanish had washed ashore, sinking into the muck with diseases and epidemics, the ethnic cleansing that had wiped out whole villages, towns, populations and cultures before the white men even came claiming everything for God and greed.
We have come here to lose ourselves, but more of that tale in our next installment.
I came across Ted Solotaroff's essay "Writing into the Cold" way back in my grad days at Warren Wilson College. It was of course news that I didn't want to hear, truths I didn't want to believe – that there are not shortcuts in writing, and that the path I had chosen was not an expressway into any fame or applause. It takes much of a lifetime to even hope for a little mastery in making fiction. And Solotaroff's timetable was eerily accurate for me. Twenty years almost from graduating from Warren Wilson and publishing my first novel.
But I've come to treasure all that time – the reward has been in the writing itself, word after word, page after page, day by day. It does change you.
"The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist."
-- Theodore Solotaroff, "Writing into the Cold"
Whenever I fret about writing fiction as a worthwhile pursuit for a grown man, or whether journalism will survive another decade, I go back and read Andre Dubus on what's at stake when we sit down and write:
"An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence.
When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer's own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk.
If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger and more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer's soul.
If the work is not published or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains as a spiritual, mental and physical achievement; and if in public, it is the widow's mite, it also like the widow, more blessed."
Andre Dubus, Meditations form a Moveable Chair
I wrote the following piece back in 2010 just as winter was wrapping up, but the recession was still hitting our region hard. This op-ed essay took on a life of its own, handed around workshops by Erin Stalcup out at Warren Wilson College, and even finding mention in Mars Hill Universitiy professor Kathryn Newfont's prizewinning study "Blue Ridge Commons."
Four years later, it's sad how little has changed.
A long hard winter is finally over if you simply count the days of the calendar, but hard times haven't ended in our country.
I was reminded of that when I took to the woods recently. With the first Sunday warming into the '50s in between our seemingly endless snowstorms in January and February, my Golden Lab, Pearl, was eager to get out, and I'd been feeling the cabin fever, trapped indoors far too long.
Climbing the Daniel Ridge Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, Pearl and I made steady time through the mud, then higher up into the melting snow. Continuing up the adjoining trail to Farlow Gap, the drifts got deeper and I stopped to strap on some gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots.
Pearl and I weren't alone. I could see a series of footprints pointing out the trail underfoot.
We soon found him coming down the trail, a man in a thin coat with a green canvas sack on his back. He had
on boots, but his jeans were soaked to the knees. In broken English, he asked if Pearl was friendly.
My Lab has no bite, just all bark, and she was licking at his hand by this time.
"Seen any galax?" he coughed, evidently sick with a cold.
"Seems like you got the wrong season," I said.
All around us, the ridges were draped with white. Galax was out there, but it was anyone's guess where under
eight inches of snow.
We parted, and about a mile up toward the Art Loeb Trail, I came across his partner, another Hispanic man with soaked jeans and an empty sack. "Your partner's just ahead," I pointed back down the trail.
Both men seemed a little scared of my dog, but even more rattled by the unfamiliar woods they found themselves in. I had to wonder what deeper anxiety drove them up the mountain that day, perhaps fears about a family going a little hungry or without warm clothes or paying the bill to keep the lights on in a little mobile home in a trailer park.
That was the last we saw of them that day.
I don't know if those two men had a permit to pick galax, which is now required in the National Forest. I don't know nor really mind if they had legal papers to be in our country. All I know is they seemed desperate enough to hike miles through the snowdrifts for a few plants that would pay only pennies per leaf, if they could find them.
Later, I called up Jeanine Davis at the North Carolina Horticultural Research Station in Fletcher, the area's premier expert on most every herb growing wild in our mountains. The payoff isn't that much, she confirmed.
Galax, an evergreen perennial used as decoration by florists, only fetches about a few pennies per leaf on the wholesale market. Some dealers may pay as much as $1.85 for 25 leaves, Davis said.
But Davis sees more and more folks are taking to the woods, trying to scrounge a few dollars. "They're underpaid or unemployed, so they're going back to old traditions. The only problem is where people are pulling up the whole plant, instead of just picking the leaves. They're causing a lot of damage," Davis said.
Those old traditions and the desperation that sometimes drives them came up again for me, reading Ron Rash's story collection, "Burning Bright." In one story titled "Hard Times," set in the Great Depression, Rash spins a tale about a mountain family gathering galax to keep food on the table. The story's main character catches one of the starving children stealing eggs from his henhouse. How he catches her provides
the hook and sharp horror of Rash's story.
In the end, the man lays himself down to a restless sleep. "He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was."
The calendar may have turned to spring, but the hard winter of our American discontent and the effects of the Great Recession aren't past for many folks. When I think of the Great Depression, I automatically see Walker Evans' searing portraits of Alabama sharecroppers, their worn faces showing the toil of poverty, of hard times.
In the Great Recession, I'll carry the portrait of two galax gatherers, poorly clothed against the snow, coming back down empty−handed.
I went for a walk in the woods recently – a long walk, 52 miles, all told, in five very wet days in the Nantahala National Forest, which they could rename the Nantahala Rain Forest to be more accurate. I made a loop with the Appalachian Trail and the Bartram Trail, named after the Quaker naturalist William Bartram, who trekked into the Cherokee mountains two centuries ago. I wasn’t exactly alone. Bentley, my Golden Retriever, kept me company and hauled his share of dog food in his own saddlebags. He was wet and muddy and shook every time I took his pack off, but he trooped on with me.
I was looking for a vision quest, I suppose, a chance to unplug from the Internets, from cellphones and TV and work and book tours and civilization for a time, and perhaps recollect my thoughts. I had in mind Gary Snyder’s example, the Beat-influenced poet who after a stint on a backwoods trail crew in the 1950s decided to do a meditation walk of 10 days across some wilderness. “During that process – thinking about things and my life – I just dropped poetry. I don’t’ want to sound precious, but in some sense I did drop it. Then I started writing poems that were better. From that time forward, I always looked on the poems I wrote as gifts that were not essential to my life… Every since, every poem I’ve written has been like a surprise….”
I’ve already beat to death the metaphor that writing a novel is like making a long journey, that putting a paragraph down is like putting one foot after the other. But metaphors drain away on elevations presented by the AT and the Bartram with gains or drops of 3,000 feet in a single day. I wasn’t doing much deep thinking when I was climbing up from Nantahala Lake toward Jarrett Bald and onto Wayah, praying the rain showers wouldn’t circle back around. My feet were blistered, but no matter. Every few hours, I would free my pruned feet from their wet boots, doctor my wounds as best I could, wring out my socks, then lace up my boots again, hoist my 35-pound pack, and go on.
But on the fifth day, an epiphany. The sun suddenly started to drill through the clouds, the first glimpse of our planet’s life source in four overcast days. Bentley and I were up on Rocky Bald, about 40 miles through our trip, taking a breather. We had been traveling through dripping forests and the belly of clouds, unable to see much of anything. But now, emerging out of the current of clouds, mountains began appearing and disappearing like the backs of blue whales in a white ocean.
Thoughts are not complex on the trail and not much more profound that my constant childhood whine from the backseat of my parents’ Impala – “Are we there yet?” Instead of novels and writing and bookselling, I thought mostly about how far I should keep going until my next break, or whether that glimpse of light through the trees bespoke the summit. The Appalachians are tricky, fold upon fold, switchback after switchback, up to the elusive ridge line. The clearing is never around the next bend, the next rise gives way to yet another steep climb. Bentley stood atop the trail and waited as I stood bent beneath my pack, leaning on my trekking poles, catching my breath, wet with sweat or rain, it did not matter.
I kept going, and perhaps that’s the only real meat to this metaphor. Writing is a long haul, like hiking a 52-mile loop. You get tired, you fall down, you get up, you get blisters, you keep going. Was it worth it, even with less than optimal weather, or 2 inches of rain? I think back to that dim sun, burning about the size of a silver dime through the veiled sky, and the humps of mountains swimming toward me from the horizon. I had the barest of visions, but I could feel the immensities, benign beings surrounding me, studying a middle-aged man and a wet dog on a bare rock 5,000 feet up in the Nantahalas.
Yes, that’s worth a long walk and the words I carried back.
Blogger extraordinaire Michele Tracy Berger has a wonderful site "The Practice of Creativity" with nice tips on leading the artist's life. I'm honored that she asked me a few questions about my novel "The Half-Life of Home" and writing in general.
What’s your best writing tip?
Play hard in the dark. Remember the primal exhilaration of running free through woods and fields on a moonlit night, feeling a howl coming up your throat? Good. Write like that. We are the boy who cried Wolf.
Remember that writing fiction is not a rational activity at this stage of Late Capitalism and celebrity culture. Very few people will listen, but I can’t think of a more serious game.
Can you name the moment that you felt you were really a fiction writer and did it come before or after publication?
Sorry. In some ways, I’m still waiting for that feeling, that moment of “I’ve arrived, I’ve made it into the published author’s club, someone’s going to give me the secret handshake now.”
Ain’t going to happen. If you keep writing, you keep failing. As Beckett said, fail better.
You have to remember the advice Rilke gave his young poet friend who kept pestering him about publications, which are the right magazines, what’s the right agent, etc. Quit asking those questions. Those aren’t the most important ones. Learn to interrogate your dreams rather than your ambitions.
What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see?
Glamor is a word better associated with films. Writers, I don’t think, are performers in that sense. The life of a writer is not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s extraordinary to meet and talk with readers who love good fiction, but the real payoff is on the page: repeatedly sitting down and putting one word after another into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books until you simulate the real world. You get to meet both your best and worst selves on that page if you persist.
How has your career as a journalist supported your work as a creative writer?
Well, it’s certainly paid for the groceries and light bill along the way, and for that I’m most grateful to be among that dwindling tribe of American journalists. It’s also taught me to be continually curious, which of course helps when you’re researching facts that often seem surreal or imagining fictions that seem real. Journalists work hard to grasp and say things very quickly. Novelists have to work equally hard to say what can only be said slowly, now the passage of time shapes character.
Read more at Michele's blog http://micheleberger.wordpress.com/
The talented short story writer Ruth Moose has a nice review of "The Half-Life of Home" up at The Pilot website, the local newspaper down in the charming sandhills of Southern Pines. Thomas Wolfe got off the train here a time or two to mosey over to Weymouth House to write up part of his continuous welter of words. And poet/publisher Sam Ragan ran The Pilot for years, making sure that literature got its proper coverage with the local politics.
I'll be down there myself on Tuesday, June 25 for an afternoon reading at The Country Bookshop.
Here's what Ruth has to say:
Dale Neal, who lives and writes in Asheville, wrote one of my favorite books, “Cow Across America” (Novello Press,Charlotte, comes up full swing again here with his new novel, “The Half Life of Home.”
Royce Wilder has a house full of troubles what with the family acreage where Mama and Uncle Dallas still live, his wife, Eva, the practical one and an epitome of a teen age son, Dean. Smart mouth, full of sass and so real you want to smack the page.
Wilder is the kind of guy who lives next door and somehow manages to step in cow pies even on city sidewalks, with old girl friends like Lucy Green and big money in his face, but when he goes to homecoming at Beverdam Baptist Church, Mama sets him back on the straight and narrow path.
Then there’s the Witch Woman who decorates her cabin door with dried rattlesnake skins — still singing with all their buttons on. And Kyle the homeless waif who knows a secret he can’t ever tell.
We are quickly caught up in their lives and a plot with an accordion fold that’s smooth and creamy as milk-cooked grits.
Neal writes clear, honest prose, a rarity these days, and makes you care about his people, our landscape and where the world is fast going if we don’t keep an eye out.
Trust me, you’ll like this one. And Dale Neal.
He made the rounds of the book fair, dragged here on a rainy day by his wife, no doubt. You could see the poor guy stopping by each table, examining the bright covers of historical novels, children’s books, chick lit, vampire sagas, young adult readers. A frown on his face.
“What do you have here?”
“These are my novels,” I said.
“Sorry, I don’t read fiction.”
Oh, He still read some, even books, but he liked the facts, definitely non-fiction. He liked it served straight-up, no agenda, no ax being ground in the background.
Retired engineer from New York, now 83, he read the Wall Street Journal religiously for the news, you know. No axes grinding away there, of course.
What do you say to a man in possession of all the facts? “I don’t want to argue with you, but sometimes you guys take liberties with the truth.”
Still, he shook my hand when I admitted my day job was as a business journalist, even with the mainstream liberal media, a step up, I suppose, from pure fictioneer.
We didn’t tread into the political, nor come to any blows. He knew he was in the South, where fighting words aren’t hard to find. Oh, he done his time with fiction back in school, read plenty of novels back then. At 83, he wanted efficiency, not folderol or tomfoolery.
And yes, I understood how he may have tired of fiction, the usual boy meets girl, good guys fighting bad guys, boy finding father figure, narrative arcs all done up in neat bows by the end, the tired plots recycled now by Hollywood comic books come to sad 3-D life on the big screen.
My retired engineer is no anomaly. He has a proud pedigree in his Puritan distrust of the lies that make up literature. Plato was ready to kick out the poets from his perfect society, if they weren’t going to pull their weight in the pursuit of higher Truths.
But the facts can get in the way, and in our time, often get rearranged to coincide with an idealogue’s particular agenda. No less a literature lover than Stalin explained, “The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.”
Funny how totalitarian regimes made sure to imprison and execute the poets rather than the engineers.
So what to say to the guy who reads no novels, fancies no fictions other than his own assumptions? Good luck, buddy, and move along. That’s not what I’m after when I read or write a novel.
For me, fiction always aims beyond all those unfeeling facts and cold statistics, tells me things I don’t know, not the things I think I already know. I first was inspired to write by Thomas Wolfe, who nailed exactly how it felt like to grow up in a stifling small town, sensing “the buried life” underfoot with each step of the familiar sidewalk, or seeing the stone angels walk the streets of his town at night.
Or David Foster Wallace, not exactly a slacker when it came to the IQ department (here was a guy who did a treatise on infinity). DFW had it right: fiction is about “what it feels like to be a human being.”
I hope my retired engineer found himself a good book, telling himself all the stories he wants to hear.
(I'm reposting this blog which first appeared at "Beyond the Margins," thanks to my pal and a very fine writer, Robin Black).
Dante Alighieri was deep in the woods, a failed politico exiled from his beloved Florence, flailing through his mid-30s and a mid-life crisis, before he found the way, punching his ticket to hell, purgatory, heaven and of course literary immortality with The Divine Comedy.
I, too, was in the woods, an unpublished fiction writer about to turn 45 when I figured out the wrong fork I had taken in my novel more than ten years before. Talk about a slow learner, but I think most novelists fall into that club - quick studies of human foibles who plod through seemingly endless drafts before they arrive at a well-made book.
I still remember the day I started writing my first novel. It was a sunny morning in mid-January, 1989. My walking stick leaned by my desk, a souvenir of time served in the workshops of Warren Wilson College where I earned my MFA. I clicked open a new file on my Commodore 12 PC and commenced. I had spent the previous three years, studying and dissecting and attempting to write short stories, which seemed like stepping stones or way stations toward the big novel, which I now felt brave enough or foolhardy enough to undertake. Now, there would be no supervisor, no feared teacher guide, to tell me what I was doing wrong.
By late summer, I had typed the last of 400 pages. I still recall that instant of exaltation. I had done it, written a thing that resembled a real novel. Now, just to work through a few drafts, polish up the prose, and I would be on my way to the Big Time.
I finally shipped it off to a New York agent around 1992. The manuscript miraculously made it out of the slush pile onto her desk, and she sent it back with the thought, “Cut 100 pages, I’ll take another look.”
I was horrified.
Writers at first resist. Writers at last do what’s necessary. Henry James once wrote to an editor who requested three lines cut from a 5,000- word article. “I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bloody corpse.”
I shrugged off the chip on my shoulder and did the deed. Another year and I resent the revised manuscript. She signed me.
That should have been the end of the story, where the writer lives happily ever after, or so I thought. The agent sent the book out to eighteen major houses and could not sell it in New York. We parted ways around 1995, and I despaired of ever publishing a book, but I did what writers do: I kept writing. I could feel my life passing me by at the desk. No book to my name out in the world, but to my credit, I kept piling up words and pages and drafts.
In 2003, I was hiking the Mountain-to-Sea Trail in the Black Mountains above Asheville. An elevation around 5,000 feet, the forest edging toward the boreal, always does wonders to clear my head. I came across a grove of cedars that never fails to remind me of pencil shavings and Hemingway’s wonderful evocation of the writing life from A Moveable Feast.
Hemingway liked writing at the cafe when “some days it went so well that you could make the country so you would walk through it… Even when the pencil broke and you had to stop to sharpen the point again, then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack- strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake.”
Stepping into that sun-dappled grove, I met my moment of inspiration, my Muse, or at least realized what was needed to resuscitate that first novel.
At age 31, I had tried to imagine a man 10 years older than me and how he would react to the loss of his family farm, putting his aging mother into a nursing home, while suspecting his wife of cheating on him with her spiritual confessor. Royce Wilder was his name, but a decade of hindsight, he seemed whiny and adolescent in his actions, not nearly as grownup as his circumstances demanded. But not to blame Royce, he was perhaps too accurate a projection of the author as a younger man. When I started typing in 1989, I simply lacked the imagination or life experience to know his plight or put it convincingly on the page.
My insight on the trail was that I suddenly understood that Royce needed his own adolescent son. In essence, the novel demanded that I clone a single character into two. It took several more drafts before I settled on Dean Wilder, age 14, who’s taken up graffiti and smoking a little dope in his own quest to find himself. Introducing another character changed the whole trajectory of the novel, the plot, the ending, everything.
In 2009, I published my “first” novel Cow across America, winner of the Novello Literary Award. That actually was the third book I had written. In April, The Half-Life of Home makes its debut. I’m now a decade older than my main character, and he seems young to me again.
It’s been 25 years now since I’ve started my apprentice novel. I’ve come to understand there’s no steady climbing of some career ladder in literature. You go only as high as the stack of pages you pile up in the desk drawers or virtually on hard drives, online reaching to the Cloud. Now nearing my 55th birthday, mathematically well past Dante’s midlife quest, I’m still feeling my way along.
In our culture, we always want morals with our stories, a leavening of education with our entertainment. I’m not sure what I’ve really learned about making novels, other than it takes time. But then that’s the beauty of the form itself, a way of watching characters grow and change over fictional years, decades, lifetimes.
Writing a novel? It’s a walk in the woods.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.