Sonya Huber, a friend of mine and one of my former writing teachers, has invited me to participate in a blog tour called “My Writing Process.” Today’s my day to post and to tag three other writers of my choosing: Jake Lees, Sam Ochstein, and Joe Wilkins.
Here’s how the tour progresses: I’ll touch on Sonya’s work and then on my own—what, how, and why I write—before introducing Jake, Sam, and Joe, who will move the tour along to whomever and wherever they wish. I have no clue how many people are reading these posts, but in the least we’re building a community and giving everyone a chance to ponder his or her niche, to see how other writers frame their work, and to consider how we might stretch ourselves with new topics, different genres, and fresh perspectives.
If you’re interested in reading more samples from the tour, just type “my writing process” into your search engine and plenty of options will appear. Thousands, from what I can tell. The tour has gone viral.
First things first: I met Sonya during my time in the Ashland University MFA Program, and as much as any mentor, she’s responsible for the progress I’ve made, starting with the no-bullshit realization that writing requires, well, writing. That is, you have to put in the time. Period. Period! It doesn’t matter if you excel at it, or suck at it, or both; the only real writing that exists in this world is what’s left on the page each morning, or whenever you choose to get it done. And Sonya gits-r-done—memoirs and essays, “activist and labor narratives,” editorials, book reviews, whatever. The woman is a tornado. A big river. Bedrock. I’m saying this because she’s a force of nature, making no apologies, no excuses. Seriously, in the brief time I’ve known her, she’s raised a son on her own, gotten remarried, moved thousands of miles for a new job at Fairfield University, published two books, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers (on top of her first memoir, Opa Nobody), and, for good measure, earned tenure as a writing professor.
Like I said, she gits-r-done.
Truth is, I could write volumes about Sonya’s gifts—her intellect, her humor, her grit, her no-holds-barred approach to everything, including putting solar panels on her house just the other day, not to mention her big-hearted, plainspoken voice on the page. But I’ll leave it at this: When I wake up each morning, I often think that I have too much to do, too many priorities besides writing, and then I remember that Sonya has so many more priorities than I probably do, so many things demanding her attention, especially that little boy. Yet she still puts in the time, at least one hour every day, or nearly every day, pecking at her keyboard. Whether good or bad, she shows up. She writes.
And when I imagine her way over on the East Coast, sitting in her chair, pecking, I realize I can do this. I can write. And I do.
Thank you, Sonya. You done good.
Now onto my writing process, addressed through four questions that everybody seems to be answering during this tour:
1. What am I working on?
Essays mostly. “The essay is a jackdaw, a magpie, a raven. It picks up everything and uses it.” I love that Brian Doyle quote. I love ravens.
Why the essay? It’s where I feel most at home as a writer, especially narrator-driven pieces that explore real landscapes, real people, and real events. And as Doyle says, anything goes in an essay—any topic, all topics, woven together. The trick is to do it well, which is to say, both ably and artfully. I try.
Or to put it another way, as Michel de Montaigne wrote centuries ago, an essai is an attempt to make sense of things, including yourself. That’s why I’m drawn to Scott Russell Sanders and Ana Maria Spagna, Jill Christman and Bob Cowser, Jr. They offer honesty, a voice I can trust, a feeling that I’m growing alongside the narrator, experiencing something both universal and specific, both rooted and rambling, something that pushes me beyond myself yet also deeper into myself, perhaps a place I never knew existed, real or imagined.
To me, the best essays are intimate, unsettling, always searching. Searching for anything, everything, whatever matters.
So there you have it. Read my work and you’ll search along with me for who I am and what I wrestle with, what thrills me and what I fear, as well as what makes a particular landscape or culture call to me, why one place might appeal to me as another pushes me away, and what ties us all together, what makes each of us uniquely human, for good or for bad, and how and why and if any of it really does matter. The words often fail, I know that. But if I’m successful—if a voice you can trust rises from my words—you the reader might start searching, too, reflecting on the life you’re living, the world around you, your world.
We’re sharing. It’s that simple. “The personal essay is a conversation with the reader,” wandering through ideas, experiences, subject matter. Those are Bill Roorbach’s words, not mine. Yet when he writes them, and I read them, we’re with each other. Laughing, crying, growing. Essays are like that—little growth spurts, uncomfortable sometimes, perhaps all the time, but they have to be to be worth it.
Enough said. For samples of my work, check out Manly Labor, my book in progress. Right now it’s looking like a collection of family-inspired, place-based personal essays but that could change in time. Perhaps a singular memoir will emerge. If you have any thoughts about that, please share. Many thanks.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Tough question. I need to chew on it. I will say this, though:
Recently, on his Facebook page, my friend Jon Stahl reposted my essay “Pitman Creek,” which appeared in Ascent. “This is an absolutely fantastic piece from my friend Jeff Darren Muse,” he wrote. “Not sure whether it is nature writing, memoir, elegy, or maybe all three. Regardless, it is well worth a read.”
I heard plenty of warm words about “Pitman Creek,” including praise from Scott Russell Sanders, also a friend, who said: “It’s a fine essay, candid, searching, and complex, full of rich sensory details and subtle reflections. I like in particular the way you examine the slippery nature of memory, the way you record your shifting perceptions of your father, the way you trace your love of rivers to those spells in Pitman Creek, and the way you evoke the Kentucky landscape and the people you encountered there on your 2010 trip. It’s an ambitious and magnanimous piece of work. More power to you.”
You can bet I’m proud of Scott’s feedback. It meant a lot. Still does. Yet it’s Jon’s characterization that keeps luring me: Is it nature writing, memoir, or elegy? Is it all three?
I’m not sure, and I like that. Maybe I’ll never know. Should I?
3. Why do I write what I do?
I covered that fairly well in the first question. I’m an essayist. It’s where I feel most at home as a writer—“candid, searching, and complex,” to borrow Scott’s words. But I know there’s more to it than that. I’m an environmental educator and park ranger by profession, not a literature professor or journalist, or really even a writer. I’ve only recently started calling myself one. To be honest, it still feels foreign, unearned. Does anyone else feel like that?
What I do know is that I’m a tree hugger. Through and through. And to borrow another tree hugger’s words, those of the late conservationist Aldo Leopold, who was remarkably gifted with words: “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Indeed, Manly Labor is an examination of both. That and all that comes with being a man, for better and worse.
I suppose I write what I do because I’m male, middle-aged, and searching. Searching for everything, as I said. A long list.
4. How does my writing process work?
Well, I can tell you how it doesn’t work. I can’t stand quotes about how difficult writing is. You know the type, the kind that roll across your Facebook feed, talking about tapping into a vein and bleeding all over the page, or whatever melodramatic nonsense that seems to overcome each of us.
I get it. I’m the same way. My point is, I try not to overthink it—try being the key word. But I struggle often, too often, expecting more than I should, as if sitting down to peck away at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning leads swiftly and joyously to a masterpiece in The New Yorker.
For the most part, I’m a painstakingly slow writer, riddled with self-doubt, distracted like the dickens. But when I sit down every morning, I improve. I have good weeks and bad weeks, and occasionally I publish something if I apply proper effort and patience to editing. It’s a long haul, and knowing that can make me want to quit before I even get started.
But I don’t quit. I haven’t yet. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s okay to step away from the computer, to grab my journal and head outside. Or to take a break, a long break. I’m learning when to push through it and when to pull back.
And I should say this: I never stop reading. Read. Read. Read. There is no writing process without a reading process. I need other voices. I need conversations.
I’d like to introduce three young men who inspire and engage me in all kinds of ways, surprising ways. Fact is, they’re pretty different from one another, and from me. But I love their voices, be it in stories or poems, blog posts or Facebook comments, or, in Joe’s case, an impressive collection of award-winning books. I’m proud to call each of them my friend and to share their work. Enjoy!
A middle school science teacher, husband, father, writer, runner, reader, ballroom dancer, gamer, and Jesus follower, Jake Lees puts the muse in amusement, writing about life experiences both visceral and fictional, holy and mundane, geeky and transcendent. His website is www.jakelees.com.
Sam Ochstein is a pastor-theologian living and working in the Midwest within the context of local church ministry leadership. He holds a MMin and MATS from Bethel College (Indiana). His articles and book reviews have been published in Missionary Church Today and Reflections. He blogs at www.samochstein.blogspot.com.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College. His website is www.joewilkins.org.
Copyright 2014, Jeff Darren Muse.
Photo: Yep, that’s Gary Snyder and me! In February 2014, while attending a writing conference in Seattle, I bumped into the poet and essayist who started my love of the wild, words, and environmental education. Learn more at “Boy Meets Book, Falls in Love.” JEFF DARREN MUSE