About bwelch23

Bob Welch is the author of 20 books, a columnist at The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.), a speaker and the founder of the Beachside Writers Workshop in Yachats, Ore., and Pebble in the Water Inspiration. In his spare time, he wishes he actually had some.

Dare To Wander Off Trail

IMG_0550 copyWhen my wife is away at the coast or on a quilt retreat, it’s the go-to movie I watch alone: A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s masterpiece of the equally masterful book by Norman Maclean about fathers and sons and fly-fishing — and the deeper things beyond.

As we honor fathers this month (June 16), I do so with the admission that my dad, who died nearly 17 years ago, was not a perfect man. (Nor was I, of course, a perfect son.) While watching River the other night for perhaps the tenth time, however, I finally figured out who my father was: Paul Maclean, the younger brother played by Brad Pitt. Flawed — he dies in a gambling dispute — but, as Paul’s father said of him, “beautiful.” An artist with a fly rod. And despite obvious shortcomings, kind-hearted with a sort of rough-hewn integrity. A lover of family and a despiser of bait fishermen, politicians who ignored the environment, and motorcycle riders who rode illegally on wilderness trails.

When I wrote Cascade Summer: My Adventure on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, my heart kept pulling me toward memories of my father that I felt compelled to include. But my mind kept saying: Don’t go there. It’s too dangerous. It’s too personal. Stay on the main trail, pal. 

I’m glad I listened to my heart and wandered off the trail — figuratively and, as you’ll see in a moment, literally. Writing is an act of courage. And part of courage is being real with readers, being real with ourselves, and being real about our loved ones.

Whenever I want to wimp out about telling something personal, I remind myself that of the 2,000-plus newspaper columns I’ve written, almost without exception the ones eliciting the most reader response have been personal ones that tugged on readers’ emotions. The ones where I got real. The ones where I shared a vulnerability — my regret, for example, of having accepted $1 to play two-square with a kid who had no friends back in elementary school. As an adult he committed suicide, making me wonder how his life might have turned out if people like me had simply said, “Forget the buck. You serve.”

Tom Hallman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Oregonian in Portland, puts it best:  “Feelings are more important than rules … Make the reader feel something. Writers are insecure. Every time we draft a story that includes emotion, we’re crawling out on a limb. Our insecurities tell us to crawl back to safety, but doing so eliminates the story’s heart and soul — what makes the story work. Emotion lives in nearly everyone, though it’s sometimes asleep. The writer must awaken it.”

So, in the end, I’m glad I included the anecdote about wandering off trail, through the forests of the Cascade Mountains ten years after my father’s death, in an attempt to find Comma Lake. As a teenager, I had scoured the woods with my dad, looking for that lake. It appeared on maps but there were no trails to it. And we’d never found it.

But, alone, a decade after he was gone, I did. I wanted to whoop and holler, but it didn’t seem right amid a quiet punctuated only by a few birds and bleached-white trees rubbing against each other in death. On the dried mudflats, I made my way up the comma—a writer literally in his element—toward the lake’s center.

I had thought of bringing something to leave in honor of my father, but he was big on leaving a camp better than you found it, so I nixed that idea. I looked around. A half dozen softball-sized stones lay scattered near me. So, I built him a poor-man’s pyramid. I knew by October, the lake would fill from autumn rains. By November, the monument would be encased in ice and covered in snow. Regardless, it would be my little reminder: we were once here. We found Comma Lake — my father and I.

Sons, I believe, cut wide swaths for their fathers. At church men’s retreats and marriage workshops, I’ve heard men lash out at their fathers, but nevertheless pine for their respect — even after the old man is gone. Indeed, it is a strange dance between fathers and sons. Part of us vows to never be the man he was, part of us feels quietly proud when we realize that, in some ways, we are.

In the final scene of A River Runs Through It, the story’s narrator, Maclean, now an old man, fishes the river and thinks, “I am haunted by waters.”

As men, we are also haunted by our fathers, whose approval seems as important to us now as it did when he watched us catch our first fish. But as writers, we cannot be haunted by the thought of trying to explore such complicated relationships.

As Hallman suggests, if we’re not crawling out on the limb, we’re not writing in the heart spot from which readers are reading. So, if you feel the branch start to bend, don’t panic. You’re where you need to be.

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My Friend Jane Kirkpatrick and Feeding the Lake

Jane-1-EE (3)One of my most meaningful evenings as a writer had nothing to do with me and everything to with my friend, workshop partner and fellow writer Jane Kirkpatick.

It was 2005 and Willamette Writers, our state’s largest literary organization, presented Kirkpatrick with its Distinguished Northwest Writer Award. Among recipients of the past: Ken Kesey and Ursula Le Guin.

In accepting the award, Kirkpatrick, then 59, quoted author Jean Rhys to 400 people: “All of life is like a lake made up of many stories, fed by many streams. Some of the streams are long and mighty, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and some are small, like me. The size of the stream doesn’t matter. All that matters is the lake. Feed the lake.”

Kirkpatrick, who then lived on the John Day River in north-central Oregon, told how, at age 36, she first tested the literary waters. Head of a social service agency, she took a writing class through a community college adult education program. “I was terrified,” she told me. “I thought: I don’t belong here.”

The teacher, she later learned, felt the same way about himself. But, neophyte that he was, he still recognized good writing, once choosing a piece by Kirkpatrick to read aloud.

“My heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear the reading,” she said. When he handed back her paper, it said at the bottom: “You have a gift.”

At the time, she and husband Jerry were still reeling from the loss of Jerry’s son, murdered at 21. She was suffering from a serious gluten intolerance. They needed a change.

The two decided to sell everything, leave secure jobs and homestead on the John Day River, where Jane would write.

At a place called Starvation Point, the home would be known as their “Rural 7-Eleven” — seven miles from their mailbox, eleven miles from pavement. They built it. Dug a well. Battled rattlesnakes. And ran seven miles of underground phone wire.

Once semi-settled, Jane began writing and sending stories to magazines. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Then it happened: One sold. Sports Afield, for $75, bought a piece she wrote on repairing fishing poles with pine tar. Then Northwest magazine bought the story her teacher had read aloud in the class.

She began wondering: Could I?

Jane began working as a mental health counselor at Warm Springs Indian Reservation. On Tuesdays, she would make the nearly three-hour drive — longer during snow and ice — and on Thursdays, return.

Then she would start writing, disciplining herself to get up at 4 a.m. Her first book, Homestead (1991), was about her experience on the John Day. More than two dozen have followed — fictional stories of the human heart, based on real events, and often involving women, pioneers, and Native Americans.

At least some of her empathy for those overcoming odds comes from her own experiences. She and Jerry were badly hurt when their small airplane crashed. They took in a granddaughter whose drug-hampered parents weren’t able to raise her. She lost a sister to disease in 1997. In the last year Jerry, 82, has battled numerous physical challenges.

“It’s the obstacles in life that carve out our character,” says Kirkpatrick. “Character comes from the Greek word `to chisel.’ It’s what’s left after you’ve been `gouged out.’ ”

What some of her colleagues were applauding on the night she won the award — none perhaps more enthusiastically than I — was the never-quit spirit that she writes of. And lives.

While working on a book of my own, for instance, I will often hear the “get-up-and-write” alarm at 5 a.m. and think: no, no, no. But then I rise, remembering that my ex-student Jane has already been up for an hour, feeding the lake.

Why I Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

It’s one of the most oft-asked questions I get as a writer and teacher: “What can I do about writer’s block?”

“Write,” I say. (I was going say, “Simple. Write.” Alas, I realize it isn’t simple. It isn’t easy.)

I tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block.

The PCT heading toward Oregon's Collier Cone.

The PCT heading toward Oregon’s Collier Cone.

Do the words sometimes come harder than at other times — or hardly at all? Sure.

Do you sometimes need to change things up to feel the mojo again? Sure.

Do you sometimes crave the idea of skipping that 5 a.m. appointment with your keyboard? Sure.

But this idea that we can’t move forward until the muse returns with open arms — no, that’s a crock. Basing your writing on feelings is no better than basing your life on feelings.

Sometimes you just have to power your way through.

It’s that way with anything we do. But writers seem to have created something of a self-fulfilling failure prophecy, a challenge apparently so insurmountable that we’ve given it an official name. And once something is named, it becomes an official malady.

Read: An excuse.

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “plumber’s block” should the guy fixing my pipes suddenly find the going difficult. “Sorry, pal,” he might say as he gathers up his tools — and, of course, hitches up his, ahem, jeans. “Just not feeling it today.”

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “surgeon’s block” should the doctor doing my knee operation find herself stymied. “Hey, Bob, hang in there. I’m going to flex out the rest of the day. Maybe catch a matinee to see if I can get back in the groove, you know?”

That’s not to say there aren’t things you can do to get yourself “unstuck.” Sometimes I’ll go back and read my piece from the beginning. Explain my plight to someone who knows my story with hopes they can jar something lose. Maybe even take a walk.

But this idea that you somehow need to wait until the “feeling” returns is bunk.

Ernest Hemingway said it well: “Easy writing makes hard reading. Hard writing makes easy reading.” Jack London claimed to have written 20 hours a day.

Part of writing is discipline. Is doggedly moving on. Is writing on even if the results aren’t perfect. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather be doing something else.

So, today’s efforts might not have rung your literary chimes. But they count for something. You persevered. To quit whenever it hurts it to make it that much easier to quit the next time. A lesson I learned while hiking the 452-mile Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail: “You must go when your body says no.” With writing, you must go when your mind says no.

Just last week, after a speech, someone in the audience asked me which of my books I’d written was my favorite. “They’re like children,” I said. “Each one is my favorite for a different reason. But the one I’m proudest of is American Nightingale because nothing in my nearly four decades of journalism has come with more difficulty. Nearly four years from idea on a Wendy’s napkin to seeing it on a Barnes & Noble shelf.” (I captured that research, writing, and promotional experience in a subsequent book, Pebble in the Water.)

Sometimes I draw inspiration from fellow writers. I do a lot of 5-a.m.-to-9 a.m. book writing before I go off to be a newspaper columnist. If my alarm goes off and I don’t want to get up I remember my novelist friend Jane Kirkpatrick and think this: Jane has already been on her keyboard for an hour.

Or because I write a lot about inspirational people, I’ll think about something they soldiered through — war, disease, the death of a loved one — and think to myself: Buck up, pal. This is just stringing together words. You’ve got it easy.