I started a new writing project yesterday.
I didn’t start start it yesterday. Technically, this story was conceived back in the summer of 2001 while I was driving a carload of my stuff from Nebraska to the West Coast.
I was in Wyoming. It was early evening and for two hours I had watched a wall of dark clouds move in from the southwest. I was in the mountains, somewhere along the Continental Divide, when the storm hit. Torrents of water and buckets of hail and, my God, the lightning. I had sense enough to slow down but not to stop. Going around a curve, I looked off to the right, over the railing, and down to the desert valley below, and I saw several lightning strikes all at once. I feared God in that moment.
In the next moment, I asked a question that set the writing project in motion: I am in a car – mostly protected from the elements, but also separated in a profound way from them – and this storm causes me to fear God; how did the perceptions of God of earlier generations (Indians, pioneers, homesteaders) reflect their more intimate connection with this fierce landscape?
The basic elements of the story fell into place over the next year. That summer I spent at least three hours a day reading and taking notes and generating ideas, mostly in the back-most booth of a McDonald’s in Chico, California. (This is also where I learned to write grants.) In 2002, I wrote the first 40 pages of a novel. Then I got bogged down, which is where the self-sabotage usually begins. I stopped writing. Then I started rewriting, making mostly cosmetic changes to the same 40 pages. I was looking for momentum when what I needed was tenacity. Insecure now about the whole project and craving validation, I sent the manuscript to a well-known literary agent in San Francisco. I received a positive note back asking me for more, but of course there was no more. The 40 pages ended up in a box, along with a binder of printed material and five legal pads full of notes on God, the American West, and the End of the World.
Yesterday, I pulled out that box. I bummed a new Moleskine off Dave. I finally got back to work on the story I want to tell above all others, the story that I believe has guided my reading and thinking for the last seven years – from Max Oelschlagger to Frederick Nash, from St. Anthony to Thomas Merton, and from Wallace Stegner to Wendell Berry – whether I knew it or not. I’m asking myself today if I can overcome the psychological roadblocks from last time, because I know they’re still there. I think, humbly, that I can. I understand more now about the craft of writing than I did back then. I think I understand more too about the discipline of a long writing project: marathon not sprint, etc.
I read this poem yesterday and copied it onto the front page of my new notebook. It is from Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Audobon: A Vision.” This is “Part VII. Tell Me a Story.”
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
Tell me a story.
In this country, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.