As I do near daily, I’ve been perusing the sale books on Kindle (thoughtfully curated for me by two purveyors who I presume must get a cut). Ivan Doig, an author of the Pacific Northwest and the northern tier through Montana, has a book there today, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America. Unlike most of his books, this one is nonfiction, described as a long-distance dialog between the author and a 19th century American named James Gilchrist Swan. Swan wrote, in Doig’s estimation, about 2.5 million words in his daily diary entries spanning four decades. Doig caught my parents’ eye several decades back, and they bought several of his works. They also made time to go to his readings at Auntie’s bookstore in Spokane, WA, where they lived. The more frequently I see Doig’s works highlighted in this e-book missives, the more I regret not taking the books with me when my brother and I settled up their estate after our mother died in 2019.
But this book evoked other feelings and led to these sentences. Intrigued by the book’s premise, I read the sample of it provided by Amazon. The simple manner in which Doig details how he came to write the book brought a pause. Doig describes first how his encounter with Swan and his diaries led Doig to think he would need to write about it. He found later that the man’s couple dozen careers and other numerous interests couldn’t be contained to the short format of a magazine article, Doig’s then stock in trade. He eventually spent three winter months along the coasts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, stomping around Swan’s environs as he read the diaries. Doig carried on a diarist-to-diarist conversation with Swan and thus the book was born and published in 1980. (I am taking some license here since I’ve only read the sample online.)
Doig’s ease and compulsion to write fascinates, irritates, motivates, and ultimately frustrates me. At 68 I still pursue the dream that One Day I Will Be A Writer. I have spent half my lifetime failing at that, another half ignoring it, and this past year I’ve attempted to resuscitate this dream which will not die. All of this is despite the evidence that I lack the one thing that would define me as A Writer in my own eyes: writing, on a regular basis; writing, because I had to; writing because there were sentences and paragraphs and chapters which must be written down to get them out of my head. I simply have shown myself time and again that I much prefer other things to writing. I lack the self-discipline to do it, despite having the discipline to do such things as track my daily alcohol consumption for the past ten years, to sing in choirs, to act in plays, to watch hours of television every day, to cook, oh my god, to cook.
This seeming lack of will to consummate a stated dream came to a head in 1992 when, needing a fresh start after a divorce–“if you’re a writer, why aren’t you writing,” she said–I quit teaching English to 13-year-olds (a near-pointless occupation in my opinion) and headed across the continent to Philadelphia. There, I told myself and dozens of others, “I will be a writer!” I rented an apartment that was not cheap, my first mistake. It was around the corner from a woman I was dating, my second mistake. When the checks from my former school district ran out, I cashed out my teacher’s pension. This may or may not have been mistake from the Life Dream perspective, but it definitely was a mistake from the financial perspective: it cost me 10% in penalties but it was enough to live on for a year. (Nine years of teaching for one year’s income. Seems inherently wrong.)
I took a part-time job as a proofreader for business correspondence in an attempt to stretch the pension withdrawal further. This proved to be a mistake because I had to do it from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. which in turn caused me to invert my daily cycle. I had a beer and ate dinner around 8 a.m., then went to bed. I woke at 2 to 3 in the afternoon, ate breakfast, took care of personal business, and attempted to write for a few hours while waiting for my love interest to get back from giving dance lessons to the bored. This usually occurred around 9 to 10 p.m., so I would then find myself drifting off to sleep again around midnight, only to wake at 3:30 a.m. and repeat the whole thing. It left me in a mental daze, partly because the job devolved into only three days a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday), and I would attempt to return to a normal cycle the rest of the time. I also joined a choral group at the local community college and began classes to join the Roman Catholic Church. These activities impacted the odd schedule too. Looking back, I see that I developed a lingering depression of sorts, not deep, but enough to kill any initiative to do anything. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly quit activities that required one to hustle a job. Why I thought it would be different this time, I do not know.
I have pictured myself as a writer since I was 13 years old. My language arts teacher one day barked out, “Pilcher! Where’d you learn to write?” When I told him it mostly came from my parents and their love of language, he said, “You should consider writing for a career.” Boom. I was screwed from that point forward. Despite a continual set of data from my schools regarding suitable careers for my talents and preferences (as indicated by now-dubious tests), I persisted in thinking I would be a writer. Not just any writer, but a writer of fiction. High school brought a two-year sojourn into journalism and caused me to apply to the University of Montana for its then-renowned School of Journalism. I began having second thoughts after I was accepted but while still in high school. I had returned to “creative writing” as we called it then. For reasons that will be detailed elsewhere, I spent my entire freshman year of college without ever entering the School of Journalism either academically or physically (to the best of my recollection). With no idea what I really wanted to do–where was my drive to be a writer then?–I dropped out of college to build up cash for another stab at it. And no, I didn’t write in the 15 months I spent working before re-entering college. This time I wasn’t going to be a writer, but a recording engineer…until I switched majors to radio-television news. Not liking the idea of doing that for a living, I attempted to build my own major out of R-TV news and Economics, which would’ve caught the eye of any college advisor of the past 30 years, but back then did not. I dropped out of college again and attempted to write short stories. I did not write many, finished fewer, and none were good.
After five months of this I said to myself, “If you don’t get your ass back in college for real, you’re never going to get a degree. Just get a journalism degree. If you’re on deadline, you have to write.” I enrolled in yet a third institution (the University of Washington), got the degree, and went to work for a weekly newspaper in the Puget Sound area. There I took photographs, sold a little advertising, wrote enough news to fill five or six pages every week, pasted it all together, and drove it to the printer’s shop every Tuesday morning. After three years I moved across the state and did more or less the same thing except in a more professional setting. Within nine months I had gained an editorial position (pretty much doing the same thing except with more pages to fill), had met the woman who became my first wife, and quit to get a teaching degree. I disliked that reporting required you to go out and find the news. I disliked much more that I had to sell ads on the side. Too much hustling. My fiancée taught. “We can have summers off together.” Sounded good to me.
Which brings me full circle. How can one regard oneself as a writer but not write? I’ve known speed junkies who dashed out drivel and thought they had written the beginnings of the next Great American Novel. I’ve known persons who write anecdotal stuff similar to a bad holiday newsletter, publish it on Facebook, and get a few hundred responses all saying, “you should publish this! It’s so good!” I know a person right now who labors mightily to write about his encounters in Christian spirituality. He has about three or four readers who actually leave comments, and he acknowledges my writing skills compared to his. But in my eyes, he is A Writer, and I am not.
Doig’s simple explanation of knowing he needed to write something represents exactly what has been missing for my past 50 years: a compelling, primal need to write, an urge or urgency which drives one to write. I’ve had this need only when teachers assigned papers or when a new week’s blank pages of newsprint caused my stomach to clench up all those years ago. In my later years I wrote business reports and standard operating procedures. It was in the business world of all places where I recognized a need to write. Now that I have retired, so too have my incentives.
I envy the Doigs of the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, I can find the elusive desire to capture words my soul commands must be captured. Until then I will continue to wait for the occasional spark, such as the one which prompted this.