On Newslettering, Career-Block, and Scottish Rubble
March 2022 marks the ten-year anniversary of my Walden on Wheels book deal, the thirteen-year anniversary of the creation of my blog, the one-year anniversary of taking out a mortgage on my home in Scotland, and the three-year anniversary of the conception of my child.
Some of these anniversaries are neater and more relevant than others for commemorating the occasion of launching a brand new website (www.kenilgunas.com) and staring this newsletter series. I guess there is no special anniversary to explain why I’m using March 2022 to give my digital persona a facelift, but now happens to feel like the right time.
Why is it the right time? Someone wise once said, "The best time to start a newsletter is twenty years ago. The second best time is now." Plus, I'm keen to regain some career momentum, to tell myself I’m still in the business of writing, to fertilize fallow literary grounds.
For years, my writing career has been in the doldrums. I had a nice seven-year stretch (2012-2018), when I published three consecutive books and lived entirely off of book contracts and magazine gigs. When my last book published in 2018, I kind of looked up and scanned the sky for my next big idea. But nothing reasonable appeared.
It wasn’t just the lack of a good book idea. Magazine gigs were getting harder to secure. My publishing company imploded. Old editors and publishers, with whom I had good connections, were fired and displaced to new publishing houses. I moved to Scotland, cutting myself off from old sources of non-literary income.
And then my daughter was born. Between bad luck, inconsistent work ethic, a difficult transition to a new continent, and the responsibilities of parenthood, my writing career went from doldrums to dolddone.
I had hardly any time to write and nothing to write about. But, when my daughter turned one, an idea finally fluttered down and sat upon my shoulder. It started as an idea to chronicle my life in the 2010’s, which I’d title Decade in Review. It would be my story of going from a penniless vandweller in North Carolina to a married father in Scotland, against the backdrop of the Obama/Trump years. This was a terrible idea and a terrible title, but I knew there was a book somewhere in there.
The book didn’t fully appear to me until a few months ago, when I published an essay in National Parks Magazine, about my summer living in a ranger cabin in Alaska, surrounded by grizzly bears. The story was about needing to leave the wild, needing to leave my itinerant and lonely life, and even needing to leave the USA—in order to find a home, a family, and a fuller life somewhere else. I titled the story Out of the Wild (a play on Into the Wild). It was then when I knew I had both a sharp title and a worthwhile narrative. It would be specific (with interesting settings in rural North Carolina, southern Alaska, and the Scottish North Sea), but universal, charting the timeless journey of a man "settling down." Of going from nomad to house dad.
A few weeks ago, I made a stack of index cards and story-boarded my book on my office wall. I instantly tossed out two unnecessary chapters that I had been stubbornly retaining. I got rid of a couple of characters and added others. There will be more revelations, but this was my breakthrough: while I have no book deal, I know, on my wall, I have a good book.
If only I had the time to write it. The other week, I complained to my wife, “I want to be a writer again.”
What I meant is that I want a full work week. I’m not asking for much. Just give me 40 hours! Instead I find myself in a parent movie cliche: I’m tripping over toys in the living room, cooking over a stove with multiple pots and pans while a toddler pulls my leg; having my ear pulled to wake at an absurdly early hour.
It’s not just the duties of fatherhood: I’m on two sports teams, I go on weeks-long speaking tours, I’m enrolled in a bushcraft course, and we recently took out a mortgage on a house that is in a sorry state.
Too often I find myself in the backyard (the “garden” as the Brits call it), digging, hauling, planting, and ultimately trying to impose my meager vision and will upon a measly piece of land I’d like to make less miserable. I wish I could have done this twenty years ago but I guess I also have to do this now.
The Scottish county of East Lothian has some of the country’s most fertile soil, yet the house-builders sold the topsoil when they built the house 24 years ago. Making matters worse: previous owners opted for a “low maintenance” garden by covering the soil with soulless paving slabs or deplorable decorative pebble. I found the state of our garden intolerable. For the past year, I’ve been digging up rock, stone, pebble, and concrete (rubble) and pushing heavy wheelbarrows of it up to a small forested hill behind our property, where I've made a dumping pile near train tracks.
Making matter worse... A few months ago, the 80 mph winds of Storm Arwen blew our rotting fence over. Replacing the fence has been yet another distraction, but I at least saw it as an opportunity to sneakily extend our property six feet toward the woods, which may not sound like a lot of space to you, but to us it represents a sizable property expansion.
I’d had visions of myself working in a lush and bushy British garden, but every time I sink my shovel into the soil it clangs against rubble. This has been a problem when digging post-holes for the new fence.
Fastidious Scottish workmen, when they built this property, decided to discard and hide all their excess building materials under a thin layer of soil. I swear to god: for every five holes I dig, I’ll find some weird piece of rubble or rubbish in four of them. Sometimes it’s just huge chunks of concrete that they were too lazy to properly dispose of.
I might have found some charm to the process if the rubble was ancient rubble, romantic rubble, Arthurian rubble. But this rubble was created and buried when I was well into my puberty years in high school.
Someone once told me that everything in Scotland is “15 percent shite.” In other words, Scottish people tend to get 85% of the job done and then just say the hell with the last 15 percent. Scottish tradesmen seem to lack the meticulousness of the Germans or the pride of Americans. More than anything, they want to get the job done cheap and quick. Maybe doing that gives them pride?
I despise the rubble, yet it represents something I like about Scottish culture: their relaxed “can’t be bothered” nature, their unfussiness, the absence of an overbearing fastidiousness. The country might be “15 percent shite,” but I’m not sure I’d want to live in a country that’s determined to be 100 percent perfect.
That’s not to say that I have any affection for the rubble. I’m not taking any literary license to call my task Sisyphean. I grabbed one of these enormous hunks of concrete and struggled to roll it up the hill to my designated mound of rubble. It was so big and so heavy that it literally rolled back down on me. Like the Scottish builders, I said the hell with it and left it there.
Now that most of the rubble has been cleared, my neighbor, Barry, is helping me put up my new fence. Barry is the most youthful 83-year-old man I’ve ever met. He’s strong and walks fast and eagerly takes odd jobs all across the neighborhood, every day, never asking for compensation. He’s helped install our stairwell railing, our greenhouse, and a handful of raised beds. He’s a retired joiner who used to work alone in lighthouses across Scotland. In return for his help, I hold my tongue when he occasionally barks at me on my own property. One of his unstated rules is that I’m not allowed to participate in my own projects. The other day I asked if I could help him tack boards to the battens of my new fence. He said no.
Is my writing career in a Sisyphean state? Thankfully not. Just as Barry puts up one batten and board at a time, I’m able to put a sentence or two down every day. A piece of rubble gets hauled away and a paragraph gets edited. An apple tree is planted and a new website gets launched. I’m unfocused and distracted by the mess of this property, but things are moving—slowly and not ideally, but today I’m content to have a good idea and a partial workweek rather than yesteryear's doldrums and dolddones.