Dancing with Elemental Forces: Richard Gilbert’s Shepherd

May 12, 2014 § 7 Comments

downloadAn interview with Richard Gilbert, author of Shepherd: A Memoir, discussing the hard work of finding a book’s center, being a first-time author, and the beauty of farming.

Dinty W. Moore: I know that Shepherd took many years to write, and that you worked your way through numerous revisions. How did the core of the book change over time? Are the questions at the heart of this book the same questions you had in mind the day you started?

Richard Gilbert: At first, the book amounted to linked essays straining to become a narrative. It was partly a critique of academe and Appalachia, partly family history, partly how-to, partly farming memoir. I had much to say, and was in good voice, but created a herky-jerky experience for the reader.

Buried in this welter was my intuitive sense, from the start, that the core of this story was my relationship with my charismatic, distant father—especially the twin legacies of his farming adventures and his father’s suicide. As those aspects slowly came into focus and prominence during the writing, I saw that my own temperament and portraying it were related puzzles that needed more conscious attention. I struggled to weave these elements into the foreground narrative about my own farming in a lovely, challenging region

After I’d written three versions, I hired Bill Roorbach as a book doctor. He taught me how to use my retrospective self a bit more, resulting in a wiser and more sympathetic persona; how to drive more narrative threads through more chapters; and how to more fully dramatize my experience. Later, structure played a huge role, specifically in where and how my father was deployed. I learned a lot in that regard from studying Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild.

By the end, I was repeating the mantra, “This book is about dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood.” I had to get a lot down on the page to see those focal points. Leslie Rubinkowski, one of my MFA mentors, once told me, “I keep working to make it simple.” I learned what she meant.

DWM: You had worked in publishing for many years prior to starting Shepherd, and so you already knew plenty about how books come to be written, placed with publishers, edited, and sent off to bookstores.  What did being on the author end of the transaction teach you that you didn’t know before?

Richard-GilbertRG: How in the dark you feel after handing your book off, how the process is mysterious and moves on mysteriously and with minimal input from you. This is partly incidental on the part of publishers and partly intentional.

When I was a publicist at Indiana University Press and later marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, I was far too busy to educate authors. Looking back, maybe I was impatient sometimes because I was overly wary of stirring up “difficult” authors. In that case, I’d let them know that we wanted the best for our book. I didn’t realize how thoroughly serious writers know their books and also welcome fresh ideas, though I did try to tap their knowledge with an extensive questionnaire.

As an author, it felt odd when my input, if it was sought or offered, wasn’t in any way binding—and might not even be responded to. It was their book, and thanks very much.

Overall, however, Michigan State University Press was incredibly receptive to my ideas. I got to choose between two covers, which is unusual, got the back cover I wanted, heavily influenced the book’s interior layout, and enjoyed working with editors to revise my sentences. At the same time, I now wish press staff had protected me from myself in some instances. I supplied the catalog copy, but probably revealed too much plot, my pitch having been based on my book proposal for editors. And my one-line bio that appeared in the catalog was too minimal—that’s what Amazon.com and others will use. Duh! A crisp three-line bio is a strategic promotional asset. So a dialectic between author and publisher is ideal.

Although I’d had a lot of publishing experience, I was rusty. And I’d never been a book author. Everything looked and felt different from that side of the fence. The learning curve principle applied: in a new situation, your usual competence is at first diminished.

DWM: What do you miss about farming?



RG: In the spring, when the trees bud and there’s that gold-green haze on the domes of the woods, the landscape grown soft again, I get the fever. Which is somewhat weird to me, because spring stressed me out terribly. So much to do. In the book I write about deciding that, for farmers, there really are only two seasons—winter and summer, with spring and fall as mere transitions. And transitions are killers. You have to quit what had been working. Reposition. Start over.

But I miss lambs and baby chickens! How I miss the lambs, their soft warm bodies in my lap as I tagged them, their frisking about, their baaing at their mothers to come to them. And there was always such a potent secret drama going on that nobody else knew about. You got caught up in it—miracles happening everywhere you looked. And problems to attend. By the end of lambing you were exhausted, and the lambing pasture was trashed with drying and rotting afterbirth attracting flies.

Yet there were fresh fields coming on, full of tender grass soaking up solar energy, and the cycle felt so forgiving. You danced with such elemental forces.

Research Like a Hammer

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Bad Advice Wednesday feature over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour failed to deliver as promised today, offering up good advice instead of bad.  We hate that.  Here is Bill on the efficacy of research as grist for the essay:

A great way to approach an essay and eventually a book is to become an expert at something.  You might start with the idea of writing about your summer fishing in the Adirondacks, or about your history as a dancer, or your years working construction, all good–great stories, and fascinating.  But as you begin your draft, also study up.  You’ve already done your research in that you’ve done the fishing or dancing or building, also in that you’ve read extensively in dance history, or fly-tying books, or building code manuals.  But there are many experts in these wildly diverse fields.  I’m talking about going micro.  So, for the fisherman, Stone flies.  For the dancer, say, pointe shoes.  For the builder, not tools, but the hammer.

I mean it: the hammer, the shoe, the fly.

Who makes hammers, anyway?  Why are there so many types?  What do the guys and gals at construction sites have to say about hammers?  Who invented the shape we’re familiar with?  The first ones were rocks, right?  How many murders a year are committed with hammers?  …

Captain Memoir to the Rescue

October 7, 2011 § 8 Comments

We here at Brevity Blog headquarters truly hate when someone takes a cheap shot at memoir writers, especially when they employ the stale “me, me, me” trope to discount serious self-inquiry, except sometimes the naysayers are very very funny, as in the latest Cartoon Adventures of Bill and Dave over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.  Plus, Bill Roorbach is perhaps the cuddliest superhero ever conceived:

Of Brevity, My Dog, and Me

May 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

Mike Land, author of  “Dogs in the Dark” in the latest issue of Brevity, weighs in on the origins of his essay:

One frigid New England evening, I sit in a plush chair of a dormitory lounge, observing the members of what the college calls my Interest Circle. These students could have picked trendier topics, ranging from vampires to Family Guy, but instead they chose Writing Life Stories, inspired by the Bill Roorbach book of the same name.

With so much writing in the rest of his or her life, what undergraduate would choose, of all things, to then write some more? Yet on the sofas to my left and right, my students lean back or crouch over, notepads on thighs, scribbling their way deeper and deeper into the writing prompt I have foisted upon them.

So I damn well better write something, too.

I contemplate the assignment, a fixture in my workshops. After discussing  our favorite essays in Issue 31 of Brevity, we now must imitate one of them, in the process identifying the traits toward which we aspire.  I shuffle through the essays until I find what I’m looking for – Ann Claycomb’s WQED Channel 13: Programming Guide. While there is plenty to admire in a detached manner, I am drawn to Claycomb’s piece for a personal reason: She opens with rising in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, only to find her young son staring at her from the hallway; in my own life, just the night before, I awoke to find the closest thing I will ever have to a child – my aging border collie mix Cal – gazing at me from the bedroom door, his white snout and chest almost luminous in the dark.

Sensing in a new way that my dog’s time was drawing nigh, I lay awake most of the night, filled with my own kind of parental anxiety, wondering if I would do all the right things. As a result, as I watch my students, I now feel physically exhausted, and emotionally raw. But this is where Claycomb’s use of technique saves me, giving myself the aesthetic form into which to channel my fear and sadness. When it is my turn to read aloud, a few students eyes moisten as my voice grows husky. A half hour later, I drive home to Cal knowing two things: That there’s an essay here, and that it’s far too soon.

For one thing, Cal’s still here. For the next three months, we walk in most of his favorite locales, visit most of his favorite dogs, my artistic impulses mostly limited to videos and slide shows of our various adventures. But since Cal’s pillow is wedged between my computer table and my bed, I might as well write while we visit; pages from the broken printer tray waft down onto my dog, blanketing him in prose. He looks up, then resumes napping, probably grateful I’m working in the short form.

Cal finally passes on a Sunday morning, drawing his last breath on the living room floor, between the legs of me and a former girlfriend. Someone had wisely urged me to invite others into the moment, which strangely did add a dimension of redemption and beauty to an otherwise traumatic event; I even composed a slide show set to a bouncy Neville Brothers’ tune and posted it on the internet; but Facebook is one thing, and art quite another. Almost two months pass before I return to the piece – but when I do, it’s the aesthetic challenge of past Brevity essays that helps me write about a recent loss. Particularly, I revel in the pleasure of juxtaposition, the freedom to move fragments around to create the most provocative effects. Claycomb achieved this through using the television programming guide; in my case, the subject matter dictates a juxtaposing of the dark bedroom with facts about canine sensory abilities – the latter representing the kind of intriguing research many Brevity writers manage to graft into their narratives, despite that nettlesome 750-word limit.

But in that limit also lies liberation. My most recent project prior to “Dogs in the Dark”  was a 394-page manuscript called Travel in Dog Years, recounting a dog-oriented road trip we undertook years before, so it was a relief to work in a more focused form. And since that manuscript has yet to find a publisher, I am that much more gratified when, four months after Cal passes, Dinty W. Moore informs me that, at long last, my dog is getting his literary due.

Not that I’m done with Cal, or he with me. As I write this, a full year later, Cal’s pillow still lies in the corner to my right, beneath the still-broken printer tray – and the framed photo of Cal against a rock face, looking back over his shoulder from a chasm called Purgatory. But that’s another essay.

Of Truth, Art, and Drinking with Dave and Bill

June 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Dave Gessner and Bill Roorbach –I suppose you can call them nature writers, but they are also just good writers — have embarked on a peculiar blogging adventure, blogging together as Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a salute to writing, reading, and drinking.  There is a decidedly irreverent tone to the site, though these guys are also pretty thoughtful.  Here’s Gessner with his take on the endless ‘truth and nonfiction’ arguments:

Should our stories be as factually accurate as memoirists and essayists can make them?  Of course.  Just because a thing is emotionally true doesn’t mean it can’t be factually true, too.  But at the same time a memoirist who says their sister had blonde hair when it was light brown shouldn’t be held to the same standards as Stephen Glass.  It is the nature of memoir and essay that memory is telling the story and these forms will never be as clean as journalism.  In the best literary nonfiction the true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones.  Those rules are developed in each individual book by each individual artist, and they should be judged that way, individually, not in a great hue and cry of moralistic oversimplification.  Yes, it is wise for writers of memoir to hew as closely as they can to the facts.  But my worry is that we will, as usual, overreact and learn too literal of a lesson.  That in rushing to rein things in we will choke off what is creative and alive in the form.

Which leads to a larger point.  So much of the disdain for memoir, and for other more personal forms of writing, has been disguised as something it isn’t.  What is presented as a moral criticism is most often really a matter of taste.  I have a sweet tooth for the personal, and I admit this, but it does not make me a bad person.  “I prefer the swamp to the desert,” said my old college professor, Walter Jackson Bate, paraphrasing, I believe, Coleridge.  Me, too.  But that doesn’t make the desert evil.  There are those who like cool jazz and those who like it hot.  For the most part cool jazz rules the modern nonfiction market and, with the one swampy exception of memoir, the majority of that cool nonfiction is polite, non-intrusive, journalistic and, of course, about something.

The rest of this post can be found here, but the site itself is well worth following on a regular basis.

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