Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Writer in residence

For a little over a month, I’ve been Coldfoot’s writer-in-residence—a title I use reluctantly because I’ve actually done very little writing on this blog in that timeframe. I’ve mostly been writing my book. And when I say “I’ve mostly been writing my book” I mean: “I’ve mostly been procrastinating writing my book.”

Confession: I am a master procrastinator. And I don’t mean that in a funny, cynical, sarcastic way. I could teach classes on how to procrastinate. A procrastinator who knows what he's doing knows how to procrastinate efficiently. When I have something important to do, I find myself unable to do the important thing, yet I am exceptionally good at getting secondary, semi-important things done.

So just exactly what have I been doing? I have indexed my whole 140-page “quote collection,” which is on a single-spaced Word file. To retain the insights and ideas from the books I’ve read these past three years, I’ve been collecting and saving quotes in this file, typing out each interesting passage that I think might be of some use to me in the future. Before I indexed them, my collection was little more than a confusing, unorganized jumble of words. I’ve taken it upon myself to, this summer, read every single quote and assign to each an index heading (i.e. “wilderness,” “travel,” “agriculture,” etc.) to be placed under its proper index heading on a separate document.

While I was working on my index on my laptop, one of my female coworkers asked me “how’s the writing’s coming?” I said I’m not writing but that—with no shortage of pride—“I’m just indexing 140 pages of wisdom,” adding that these quotes represented all the topics under the sun that are “the most important to me.” I wanted to impress her with my diligence, so I opened up the index file on my computer, and, on the top of that page—in large, emboldened, 20-point font—was the word “MASTURBATION”one of several hundred index headings. For the record, “masturbation” is not a topic that I consider of the utmost “importance” to me, but I decided to give it its own section because Jean-Jacques Rousseau has some curious opinions on the matter that I desired to preserve. (PS: If anyone wants a copy of my index, let me know via email and I’ll be happy to send you one. I’ll be done with it in about a week.)

I’ve also gone through 112 pages of my book's “scrap file” on which I've pasted hundreds and hundreds of passages of crappy writing that I wanted out of the book, but didn't have the heart to delete because it had some value to me. I’ve culled this file down to 79 pages and reorganized every passage under the appropriate chapters so I can easily reincorporate passages into the book if I choose to.

And when I ran out of things to procrastinate, I finally buckled down and edited my first seven (of twenty) chapters.

Another confession: Before I undergo an editing session, I read a chapter of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love., which—I’m embarrassed to admit (as a young, straight male)—is a masterfully written travel memoir that I really, really like. And because I’m in the business of writing a travel memoir, I figured I ought to learn from the best. There are few authors who are able to come across as both sincere and self-deprecating, who make you laugh and cry. Gilbert’s one of them. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike—being both stupid and serious—but it’s a magical thing when a writer pulls it off. And by reading her book, I’m able to “Gilbertify” my own words, helping me express ideas colloquially without dumbing anything down.

The real reason I haven’t been writing on this blog is because I’ve been bummed out lately—I’ve been bummed out for quite a while in fact. And while sharing bummed out stuff—which is normally juicy stuff that is sometimes the most fun to write and the most enjoyable to readI’ve decided to withhold my petty troubles from you, dear reader, because my troubles, currently, aren’t of the interesting sort.

Mainly, I’ve been stressed out about the book: Is it going to happen? Am I just wasting my time? Is my story even worth telling? What am I doing sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle? And while I have tons of reasons to moan about my previous literary agent (who stopped responding to my emails), I’m just not going to go there, as complaining about your agent is just one short step away from whining about my assistant Brant who got me a soy latte when I specifically asked for a Caffe macchiatto. In other words, these are boring, privileged travails—not the sort of travails I want on a blog that I’d like to be about travel and adventure and poverty and journeying and important stuff.

And while I’m still very unsure if the book is going to happen, I am pleased to report that I’m beginning to drub up interest with literary agencies. So we’ll see. I plod on.


I just told someone the other day that “I love being unemployed.” It’s not exactly true that I’m unemployed, as I work about eight hours a week, and last week—because a guide had gone on vacation—I worked close to thirty, allowing me to bring in about $500 between salary and tips—but, for the most part, yes, I am unemployed, and goddamn, do I love being unemployed.

“Unemployed” is probably not the best way to describe my current status because I most definitely am employed with book-writing (when I’m not procrastinating it), so I suppose I mean: I love being self-employed. I love working on projects of my own creation; on a schedule that I've devised. When work is fun (which the book is for the most part) work is no longer work. Work and leisure become one and the same thing.

As much as Ken the wannabe scholar likes writing, Ken the wannabe wildman feels ignored. Truth is, I’ve spent most of the past three years sitting on my ass in front of a computer. And while I'd rangered for a couple summers and farmed a little bit, I was, for the great majority of that time, sitting on my ass, too. (My ass, as I type this, is quite literally sore from being planted on a chair for so long.)

I’m convinced that 18-year-old Ken (who played on his varsity hockey and football teams) could kick 28-year-old Ken’s ass. Which is kind of sad to think about because I could easily be at my physical peak today if I wished to be. And I guess I’m starting to think that I ought to take advantage of my youth, and go on some once-and-for-all limit-testing physical adventure and use my body to do things I know I won’t be able to do in twenty years. In other words, I want to get off my ass and do something. I want to finish this damn book.

Plus, I find that the whole memoir-making process is kind of fucking with my memory. Let me explain… In order to write a memoir, you must first take actual, real-world experiences (like hitchhiking with a driver in Virginia) and then translate that experience into words that are arranged on a page. (This is the first time you tinker with your memories.) What goes onto page, of course, will never be a perfectly accurate rendition of the original experience because the event that actually happened and your memory of that event are two very different things. Then you have to rearrange those experiences—which are now on page—so that they make sense and are interesting to your reader. For instance, I’ve had to cut important people in my life out of the book because they don’t contribute to the central narrative, or I’ll have to play around with dates a little bit so as to create moments of suspense. (This is the second time you tinker.) Here's the F'd-up part: I find that now, when I think of my actual experiences, I no longer think of the actual experience; rather, I think about how I’ve rearranged it in my book. I am disfiguring my memories. I suppose this stinks because I no longer see things the way in which they actually happened, but in a weird sort of way, I think I am restructuring my memories in such a way that makes my “story” make more sense. I once heard that all we are are our stories. While my story may no longer be real (and remember no one’s story is perfectly real because all memories are imperfect), my story, now that it’s been disfigured, is better than ever.

All in all, I feel like I’m living in the past. I’ve been writing my story for, off and on, eleven months, and I feel like I can’t move on and can't create new memories until the book is published. It’s not that simple: I am meeting new people and seeing new stuff up here and having new experiences, but I am far from fully living. After this book, I think I’ll be emptied of stories, yet more than eager to fill up on new ones.


Chris said...

You better not cut CM out of the book!

Lyndsie said...

I absolutely know what you mean about messing with your memories... as soon as something potentially noteworthy happens to me, I reorder it in my mind to make it more humorous and writable. At some point, I forget the "truth" and get trapped in my own, rearranged version of events.

chez caesar said...

Gilbertify that thing enough man and Hollywood will be calling for the movie rights! ;)

Hang in there!

Unknown said...

Glad to see you're back to blogging, even if the posts are few and far between. Writing is challenging work, but it's not about getting it all right the first time. That's what editing is for. I like to write all of it, as much as I could remember, first, and then go back at the very end and change things up. That way, at least you'd get to keep your not-yet-completely-disfigured memories intact a little longer.

Steve Hutcheson said...

If there is one person that can write this book and inspire people with words and actions, it's you, Ken. We all believe in your ability.

I know that this book is challenging and time-consuming work. And, I also realize that to be a writer, you obviously have to write. But, please don’t neglect your adventurous side. It is an integral part of who you are.

My two cents would be not to let this book be all-consuming for you. Write/organize when you feel inspired, but also take the time to journey and embrace your surroundings. I know that there are many readers that would love to be where you are right now.

I think that you can easily find your 18-year-old naïve, reckless, adventurous spirit within your wise 28-year-old frame. It might even help to recollect memories. Don’t let your frustrations get you down; you have a lot more going for you than you may even realize. Good luck, brother and friend.

“Do not burn yourselves out. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

Ken said...

Chris--Paul and Josh are the only CM representatives in the book, I'm afraid.

Lyndsie--it's an interesting process, the memory-making process. Perhaps I should think of it less as disfiguring and more as refining.

Chez--ha, I suffer from enough illusions of grandeur as it is; I certainly don't need to be thinking about movie rights, too.

Constant--hopefully I'll get around to do more posts soon enough. Coldfoot is well and good, but to make me want to write, I need to see and do wildly new and different things.

Steve--Well-worded wisdom, both from you and Abbey. Thanks man

Anonymous said...

You must not let yourself get down and blue and you must persevere because your story is important, and people like me are relying on you to take us along on the adventure.

Anonymous said...

Keeep it rolling, Ken. You will die like the rest of us, and nothing really matters anyway. So, if you stop writing, it wont really matter. Everyone knows this is true. What isexceptional is that I am reminded of this fact by your posts. That is the God in you. GOD.

Romana S said...

LOL, this is totally describing my own life Ken. Procrastination, what a wonderful way to live a life. Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow?
I once heard an interesting quote about procrastination and masturbation. "Essentially you can do either or both, but either way you're just F@#king yourself." I tend not to use it much because I don't like the F word, but yeah, it has that ring of truth to it.
I like to write as well. I write sci-fi as a hobby. I find a shower helps clear my mind, and I write better when I am warm and content. I also write a fair bit when I am on my own. I've taken my van way way out bush down south of Canberra (yes folks I'm an Aussie) and took the lappy, a few good books, some food and just chilled and wrote.
People can be a distraction. The Interwebs is definitely a distraction. Get away from those two and you have more chance to write.

Romana S said...

Oh joy, - blog spam. I get that all the time in my blog. Generic crap with links to web sites. I presume you're deleting those Ken.

Ken said...

Anon—Thanks. I’m by no means down and blue. There’s a huge difference between melancholy and depression. I know a lot about melancholy; almost nothing about depression.

Anon—Thanks man. I appreciate the words, though I tend to stray from nihilism (not that your comment was overtly nihilistic).

Romana—I only have internet access for like three hours really late at night. This has been a blessing, as now I don’t have the internet to distract me all through the day. When I’ve had unlimited internet access, I notice how I begin to exhibit ADHD tendencies. And yeah, I get spam every now and then. It’s deleted. I suppose I should feel honored that they see fit to try to advertise on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken,

I thought of you the other day when our local paper ran a story concerning John Brown and the Potawatomie Massacre and the raid at Harper's Ferry. "History Detetives" (PBS) contacted our local historical society for information. Anyway, here is a link to the program if you are interested.


Thanks for the blog Ken...always enjoy reading it. Hope things are going well for you.


D said...

I enjoyed reading your version of writing memories into words. It's difficult and confusing to the point of a headache. All the coffee in the world does not make the process of translation from brain to paper any easier. Go out and enjoy some outdoors time and that might clear your brain enough to get back to your book. You are 60 miles north of the Arctic Cirlce, why not take advantage of it?

Unknown said...

Ken, if this current book is anything like Walden on Wheels, I will be so pleased. Don't be discouraged - for me at least - and finish this book.