Yes, I’ve returned. From Europe, from Chief Joseph, from a fire in my son’s bedroom, from a frigid northern Minnesota winter, and from a long hiatus from blog-writing. It’s spring, and life is good.
The Joseph book, now titled, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy,is in the editing stage. I’ve spoken before about this phase of writing and how I enjoy it. You see the book start to congeal and everyone gets on the same page. Prior to this, it is like keeping puppies in a box: everytime you turn around something doesn’t fit or doesn’t belong or seems to be trying to get away from you. There are inevitable tensions with your editor, stretches of overwrought emotional responses to unmanageable passages and recalcitrant prose, and moments of doubt about whether the project will ever get done, and, if it does, whether it will be worth the effort. But when the manuscript goes in and you begin to get galley copies back, the whole project takes on a new flavor. The book begins to reveal itself in all its strength and limitations. It is what it is, and all you can do is make it as solid and worthy as possible.
This might sound like there is a shadow of weariness creeping in, and I suppose one could say that is true. But it is better to say that the form has begun to reveal itself in all its strength and weakness. When you begin a book, it is nothing more than a vague projection of a possibility. You can have outlines, sample chapters, and solid ideas. But, at heart, the book is nothing more than a vision or an apparition. It is a dream. And, like the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect home, it eventually must meet up with the limitations of real life. As you move through this real-life stage of creating the book, it becomes both less and more than the vision. What you must do is be supremely honorable and conscientious at each moment of writing, then you can trust that the final product will have the authenticity that was built in during the actual labors of creation. It may not match the airy vision with which you began, but it will have a solidity that is more than you imagined. It will be real.
I have often said that books are like children. It is interesting to be coming to the end of this project just as my son, Nik (his new spelling), is turning sixteen. He shows the makings of a fine man and I am proud of him. But he surely is not the person I projected when he was an infant or a toddler. I have guided him, shaped him as best I could, been present to him at times of bad decisions and supportive of him in all his strivings toward the good. But what has mattered is that I have been there, and will continue to be there — every day, with my whole heart, and with whatever skills I can bring to the task. He will be his own man, and I can see that man emerging. My greatest satisfaction is not that he is becoming my vision of what I thought he should be, but that he is becoming an authentic person who is whole and healthy and honest. The surpise of seeing who is emerging is the greatest reward there is. Nothing pleases me more than to have others tell me what a good and interesting person he is, and that, in some way, they can see the distant reflection of his father in his character and personality.
Chief Joseph, and all my other books, go the same route. I guide them into existence with as much authenticity as I can muster, knowing that what is important is that they have good hearts and not be disingenuous. They take their own courses as they develop, and eventually go off on their own. They look very little like the books that initially revealed themselves in the ether of my imagination, but I am thrilled and gratified when people come up to me and say, “This a good and interesting book. It touched me and affected my life. And I can see your heart in the prose and sensibility.”
If Joseph can do that as a book, and Nik can do that as a man, I can rest peacefully. I will have done my job. That each has changed as it has developed is a testament to the mystery and creativity of life.
Right now, both are doing well (despite the fact that Nik’s room is a sealed-off, charred chamber, as a result of an unfortunate episode sparked by a wayward ash from a stick of incense).
You readers will likely never know Nik, but you will know Joseph. A Nez Perce woman whose opinion I respect deeply wrote me that it is the one book that can be recommended as telling the whole story. This is high praise, indeed, and overcomes the single greatest fear that I had: that I, as a white man, was intruding on territory where I should not tread. But now I see that this book will, indeed, serve the purpose of getting a story out that needs to be told. My editor, with whom I have had some go-rounds, is excited and working hard to shepherd the book into its best possible form. The designers are doing a beautiful job in creating a cover that will draw the attention of readers and accurately reflect the character of the content. The copy editors are dotting my “i’s” and crossing my “t’s.” Everyone is pulling together to bring this young book into a worthy adulthood.
I can’t wait to share it with you — both in its appearance and its content. If they send me a visual of the cover, I’ll pass it on. As soon as I get a disk of some of the pages, I’ll do the same for that.
Meanwhile, I’m sketching out a new small book along the lines of Small Graces. I want to go back to that part of my personality for awhile. Joseph has been an affair of the heart but an exercise of the mind. It has forced me to live outside myself — sometimes even losing myself into a world of the imagination. A new small book with the character and sensibility of Small Graces will cause me to look inward for a bit. It will be an exercise in spiritual grounding.
Perhaps sometime I’ll write about how it feels to move from place to place as a writer. But, for now, I’ll just do the moving.
All I can say at this point is that I feel like anyone does who has just finished a large project — a carpenter building a house, a farmer completing a harvest, a mother successfully orchestrating the wedding of a daughter, an athlete completing a long season. I am tired, relieved, and thankful.
Please keep coming back to the website. I appreciate you sticking with me during my disappearance. But now there has been a legitimate sighting. In the next post I’ll say something about Red Lake. I was just up there the other day and I have some thoughts and observations.