Passion Over Fashion
“I write to find out what I’m thinking.” –Joan Didion
My career shift away from tradition and obligation was not complete until I could define whatever Calling was leading me into the wild. I knew my search was powered by dreams of Fulfillment. I was sure all would be validated once my choices set me free to be Authentic, whatever that was. And thanks to cultural hypocrisy, my upbringing, and a liberal arts education, I had to figure Creativity was in there somewhere.
I had simplified life with a presumptive commitment to Enoughness. I possessed generational privilege that I more kindly called Confidence. And I was humbly blessed by the support of my wife and key people in my life. I listened to all voices and conveniently ignored those that implied I couldn’t be lazy, free and fun-loving AND be wholehearted and wise in the same lifetime.
Whatever insights and lessons awaited, I knew that writing would serve not only as a new ’occupation,’ but also as a refuge from the inevitable doubt and self-pushback I would entertain. As the philosophers and sages have cautioned, I did not want to end up with a “life unexamined.” So it was with pencils, pens, notebooks, dictionary, thesaurus and good intentions I set out.
Mindfulness in Metaphor
A French-born journalist and novelist with a leaning toward the romantic and risqué named Anaȉs Nin once noted, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” We like to think we shouldn’t live in the past, but let’s be honest.
The medium may not be important however. We can sketch, shout, sing, and post memes in an attempt to become meaningfully immortal. Voice recordings, photographs, letters written and received, and notes-to-self or graffiti on a boxcar. Whatever. Any type of chronical that might weave emotion and clarity into a later moment would likely have Ms. Nin nodding approval. The idea is to live fully in real time embellished by the subtle touch of the past. Once more with feeling. And ideally with depth, wisdom and color.
All Truth Is Fiction Is True
I seriously considered starting a book about dentistry. Nothing academic, just a guide or how-to manual about dentists and dental treatment written to inform the consumer. Maybe some anecdotes and humorous experiences. But that came down to me needing to believe that our profession was uniformly solid, responsible, and accessible and to presume that patients’ attitudes and frequent complaints might not be valid . But me being me—a cynic and a critic and a life-long troublemaker, I would either piss off my cohorts or condescend to the reader—more likely both. So I dropped that.
Which denied me the opportunity to share the story of my young student Jennie nervously administering one of her first dental injections to a courageous patient, a retired army colonel, while I observed her technique. It was flawless except for the part where she held the needle up and tried to ease the man’s apprehension by giving him advance warning. “Now sir,” she said, “you’re going to feel a little prick in your mouth.”
Zen And The Art of Noticing the Ordinary
Write what you know, it is said. So I became a “travel writer.” For years I had been roaming the countryside, learning about the geography, history and natural wonders of my home state of Washington and shaping stories about my experiences. Scribbling impressionistic nonsense into a journal, taking 35mm slides, and imposing narrated slideshows onto friends at weekend parties and my poor students during lectures when I should have probably been teaching.
At first I wasn’t following any format or refining my observations and reflections beyond snippets and scribbles, but after those early years patterns began to emerge. I started looking deeper and finding satisfaction and reward in relating what I experienced. Over time, I began returning to the same routes and scenes every summer to better shape my sense of place and relive previous feelings. Now on a migratory path, I convinced myself I had grown to be an expert of sorts on rural back roads in Washington State.
About this time a gentleman named Bill Trogdon released a book titled Blue Highways. Writing under the name William Least-Heat Moon, he reported on a thirteen thousand mile “journey into America” that declared the premise that “everything man experiences will make and remake him.” He banked on his curiosity to teach him who he was, and set out paying attention to people and their points of view as to provoke revelation of and redemption for his own unsettled situation.
Now after forty years on the shelves, Blue Highways—named cleverly for the color of the nation’s secondary roads on printed maps at the time—remains a bible for road trippers everywhere. It is prominent on the serious vagabond’s reading list with Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac’s surreal On The Road. Having seen this in print assured me there must be a segment of readers that would be interested in hearing and reading stories from the roads less traveled. Professor Trogden referred to this yet to be carved out audience as “The Secret Society,” and either exposed or created a niche of folks who wished to vicariously travel along while someone wrote their own story of self-discovery on the open road. Now I was all set. Now I had a pretext to continue my wayward ways.
From Windshield To Coffee Table
I gathered up my road trip stories from the 1980’s and 90’s, sorted through my best Washington landscape photos, scribbled some paragraphs, drew some maps, and dug into my savings account. I sent it to some fine folks at Farcountry Press in Helena, Montana who put my name on the cover of a slick, glossy, souvenir-quality paperback titled, Exploring Washington’s Backroads.
I had a real managing editor, copyeditor, printer, distributor and marketer. I was the publisher, the financier, and company president. Three thousand copies on the first run. I had done it, gone over to the other side. For the price of a new car, it was all mine. No longer a dull, predictable and dutiful dentist or someone you might want your daughter to marry, I became nearly overnight a bohemian seeker of truth, a renegade dilettante, and a traveling salesman to boot. I was reinvented, justified, validated and set free. Always are we, he reminds us, what we pretend to be.
Hard Cover – Soft Bound
It was in this realm I learned the key to successful writing, and, coincidentally, to leading a blissful life. And that is: If something doesn’t suit you, or you don’t know an answer, make shit up. It’s your story. You own it. Tell it any way you want. We introverts and writers work hard to live in a world of our own making. That’s why some of us on occasion sport a sly soft smile and wink a lot.
By getting to the truth and mystery of your story, you can be granted a certain divinity. With shrugging acceptance you can no longer refute the facts. “You are as you are,” it says here. And you are this unique invention of now and then, this and that, subject, object, the doing and the done. This is why we write. To mark our place and show off our caricature such as it is. To dance alone using our eyes, ears, feet and souls. And pens, pencils and keyboards. To dance, as they say, like nobody’s watching. To make us our own leading man or woman. To taste life twice.