Where Do the Stories Come From?

Kids are always curious to know where Hank the Cowdog stories “come from.” It is a simple question, but it does not have a simple answer.

I write about what I know (ranch life), but beyond that, the creative process remains a mystery to me, even though I am involved with it every day. What I have learned over a long career is that if I follow certain patterns of behavior, I am able to write at least two good books per year. For twenty-five years I have knocked on Hank’s door, and so far, he has always appeared.

Discipline is an important part of the process. I write every morning, rain or shine, summer or winter, for no more than four and a half hours. I have learned that if I go beyond four and a half hours, my writing shows fatigue. For me, writing is a long-distance race, not a sprint, so endurance is a quality I cultivate.

This practice puts me at odds with the popular notion that the artist is supposed to be a tormented genius—a Strindberg, Nietzsche, or Ezra Pound–who goes mad for his art. American popular music has produced an entire pantheon of artists who used artificial means to sustain their creativity and went to dark places to find inspiration. I never saw the appeal of dying young nor thought that art was worth such a sacrifice.

My approach to writing has not been dramatic or romantic. It draws upon examples from ranching: do not pump your water well so hard that it goes dry; do not overgraze your pastures; do not milk your cow so often that she drops dead.

The template I use is not the tormented genius, but a mule pulling a plow, around and around, hour after hour and day after day. Pulling a plow is a mule’s vocation. Mine is writing good stories for people who need good stories.

Writing is only one of several vocations that define who I am and that give meaning to my life. I am also a husband to my wife, a father to my children, a rancher in a small community of ranchers, a member of a church, and a citizen of the United States. Each of those roles is a vocation, and a vocation is more than a job. Gene Edward Veith, one of my literary heroes, has written an excellent book on the subject, God At Work:  Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.

A tormented genius sees himself as an isolated individual. I look at myself as a part of several communities, the most important being my own family. All those relationships contribute to my work as an author, and if I fail at one of them, it is difficult or impossible for me to succeed in my vocation as an author.

This “vocational model” requires that I go through certain rituals to prepare my mind and spirit for the task of telling stories. I follow a regular pattern that includes eating nourishing meals (my wife is an excellent cook and nutritionist), doing physical labor on my ranch, getting adequate rest, and maintaining harmonious relationships with my wife and family. I spend time in solitude, attend worship services at our church, sing in the church choir, play my banjo, listen to certain types of music, read and study the Bible, participate in the life of my hometown (a lot of weddings and funerals), and observe the behavior of animals, especially dogs.

There are also things I try to avoid: fast food, meetings, cocktail parties, television, movie theaters, advertising, and music that is loud, dissonant, or depressing. I try to control my daily intake of what we refer to as “information.”

Conventional wisdom holds that we need more information, but I do not agree. The electronic age can overwhelm us with images. Some of it might pass as information, but much of it is noise. It appears to me that the average one-hour news broadcast contains about six minutes of information and fifty-four minutes of noise. Screening out the noise of popular culture is an important part of my preparation as an author. We do not have a television in our home, and that helps a lot.

I try to avoid any substance or stimulus that raises my blood pressure, gives me a headache, interrupts my sleep, causes me to want things I should not want, or allows me to forget that I am part of God’s creation.

We might compare my efforts to cultivate the creative process to a gardener’s management of a compost heap. Composting is a process that turns organic waste products into fertile soil. Over a period of months, the gardener tosses grass cuttings, dried leaves, and the peelings of potatoes, carrots, apples, and oranges into a pit. There it remains and decomposes until the individual parts dissolve and blend into a rich mixture that can be applied on a garden plot, where it nourishes plants that produce vegetables that nourish the family of the gardener.

People who tend compost heaps are fanatical about what goes into them. It must be organic material, never garbage that might include solvents, plastic, paper with ink or dye, or inorganic substances that might be harmful. What you put into your compost heap is what you eat. This is chemistry at its most basic level, also known as nutrition. If you give your compost heap garbage, it gives you garbage back.

The same principle applies to the creative process. I never know exactly what will come out of my mental/spiritual compost heap. The characters, dialogue, and plot lines that end up in my stories bear some resemblance to the experiences I have had, yet they have been transformed in mysterious ways into something else. But the important thing is that they do not become toxic.

I am not alone in thinking that a great deal of popular entertainment in modern America is toxic. Does it matter? Should a writer care whether his stories make readers better or worse, strong or weak, sick or healthy? I think it matters. That is why, for me, writing is a vocation, not a job.