Good stories for people who need good stories

Vocation | Writing should nourish readers like a well-planned, healthy meal
by John R. Erickson
Posted 8/18/18, 01:55 pm

In 2009, Maverick Books published John R. Erickson’s Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog. With permission from the publisher, we plan to post in our Saturday Series a chapter each month over the next half year. Here’s a chapter titled “Writing as a Vocation,” which starts with a quotation from Gene Edward Veith’s God at Work: “God has chosen to work through human beings, who, in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve each other. This is the doctrine of vocation.” —Marvin Olasky

Writing as a Vocation

I tell aspiring authors that they should have some experience at living life before they try to write about it. They should pursue activities that are likely to involve the basic elements of story material—characters, relationships, conflict, adventure. In my case, I spent eight years working as a ranch cowboy and later operated my own ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Still do.

Those experiences have given me a solid background from which to draw story material, and they also have prevented me from becoming in-grown, which is one of the hazards of the writing business. But beyond that, I must admit that I don’t know where stories come from, why one person finds a diamond and another finds only a pile of gravel. The creative process remains a mystery to me, even though I’m involved with it every day.

What I do know, and 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—not just two books but two good books. For twenty-seven years I have knocked on Hank’s door, and so far, he has always appeared.

A disciplined approach to writing 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 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 musicians who used artificial means to sustain their creativity and went to dark places to find inspiration. I never saw the appeal of dying young or thought that art was worth the sacrifice.

A disciplined approach to writing is an important part of the process.

Another element in my writing discipline is that I stopped reading fiction in 1983, after I had written the second Hank book and realized that the Hank stories would become a series. This decision formed a kind of dividing line between Before Hank and After Hank. In the Before Hank years, I read a great deal of fiction and tried to mimic the style of every writer as I searched for the proper literary vehicle to express the things I wanted to say.

The amazing thing about the Hank stories is that they came without effort. I wasn’t looking for Hank, trying to imitate another writer, or chasing an idea about story construction. The pattern just fell into my lap, like a gift: an opening line (“It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog.”), twelve chapters per book, seven double-spaced pages per chapter, and a closing line (“Case closed”), narrated by a ranch dog in Texas who has very little self-knowledge.

Since I couldn’t attribute the success of the Hank stories to my own cleverness, I became almost superstitious about protecting the process that had produced them. It occurred to me that my job was to write stories, not to be an expert on children’s literature or literature in general. Some authors can do both (C.S. Lewis comes to mind), but I feared that my habit of trying to mimic other writers might spoil the gift I had received.

I feared the natural human tendency to want more than we deserve. Let’s say that you receive a check in the mail for a thousand dollars—unexpected, out of nowhere. For two hours, you’re ecstatic. “Wow, a thousand bucks!” But then you find yourself thinking, “Only a thousand bucks? Ten thousand would have been so much better.”

This has been a theme in several of the Hank stories. In The Case of the Midnight Rustler, Hank goes camping with Slim Chance, the cowboy. At dusk, Slim builds a fire and cooks himself a supper of fried potatoes and weenies. Hank has to watch him eat, and the longer he watches, the more he wants to eat a hot dog.

He notices that the package of weenies is sitting on a rock nearby, and that Slim is so preoccupied with his supper, he isn’t paying attention. Hank sticks his nose into the package and sniffs. “Oh, wonderful weenie! Just one, that’s all I needed.” He eats one and it’s so delicious, he decides to eat another. And another. Before he knows it, he has eaten the entire package of weenies.

Does it bring satisfaction? Yes, for a few minutes, then (we knew this was coming) he gets sick and burps garlic for the rest of the night, so miserable that he can’t sleep. The audiobook version of this scene is very funny. Carlos Casso, the sound engineer and producer of the Hank audios, used his entire library of prerecorded belches to capture the mood.

How much is enough? What does it take to bring satisfaction? That is a constant problem for Hank … and for humans, too. As a writer, I hoped to avoid spoiling what I had received (the gift of Hank) by wanting more, and I stopped reading fiction so that I wouldn’t be tempted.

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

My approach to writing has not been dramatic or romantic. It draws upon practical wisdom from ranching.

The model I use in my writing is not the tormented genius screaming back at the storm, 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.

This “vocational model” requires that I go through certain rituals to prepare my mind and spirit for the task of telling stories that will benefit the reader. 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 must spend time in solitude, attend worship services at our church, sing in the church choir, play my banjo, listen to certain types of music (classical sacred, contemporary Christian, and some bluegrass), 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 other 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 don’t 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. (In The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape boasts, “We will make the whole universe noise in the end.”)

Screening out the noise of popular culture is an important part of my preparation as an author. I do my writing in a small office near my home, and we might describe it as a “sensory-deprived environment.” It has no television, radio, CD player, telephone, or internet access, not even a magazine or newspaper. I have no mirror or pictures on the walls.

Beside me on a shelf sits a human skull that I bought forty years ago in an open-air market in Mexico City. It reminds me that “All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall” (1 Peter 1:24, NIV). It reminds me that I have work to do and the clock is running.

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 shouldn’t 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, dialog, and plot lines that end up in my stories bear some resemblance to the experiences I’ve had, yet they’ve been transformed in mysterious ways into something else. But the important thing is that they don’t become toxic.

I never know exactly what will come out of my mental/spiritual compost heap.

A tormented genius sees himself as an isolated individual, laboring to satisfy his own personal needs. I look at myself as a part of several communities that form a whole network of overlapping vocations. I am an author, but also a husband to my wife, a father to my children, a grandfather to my grandchildren, a rancher in a small community of ranchers, a member of a church, and a citizen of the United States.

All those living 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. Francis Schaeffer is right: “Even for the great artist, the most crucial work of art is his life.”

There is a direct and vital link between my vocation as author and my wife’s vocation as wife, mother, and keeper of the home. Her vocation strengthens me as a man, and what she does in her kitchen is very similar to what I hope to accomplish in my writing office.

Kris is a serious, life-long practitioner of the art and craft of food preparation. The word “cook” describes only a small part of what she does. She reads books and magazines that deal with nutrition and body chemistry. She knows the nutritional needs of every member of her family. She has a whole library of cookbooks and exchanges recipes with other women. Her spice cabinet is large and she grows some of the herbs in her garden.

She spends time preparing menus and shopping for fresh ingredients, then takes care to see that they are well preserved in her walk-in pantry, two deep freezes, and large refrigerator. Sometimes she uses special methods that require knowledge, skill, and time, such as canning, freezing, and making jelly from the juice of wild plums that grow on our ranch. For my great-grandparents, pioneer ranchers in West Texas, wild plumb juice was their only source of vitamin C.

She spends a great deal of time cleaning the raw ingredients, cutting, trimming, dicing, and parboiling. She makes sauces and blends spices, filling the house with tantalizing smells. When she puts the meal on the table for her family, for a cowboy crew, or for a gathering of friends, it is safe (no tainted ingredients), nutritious, and pleasing to the taste.

Kris sees cooking as part of her vocation as wife, mother, and keeper of the home, and it’s not just a job. It’s a Christian calling, and her preparation actually begins in the early morning, when she spends quiet hours studying the Bible, planning her day, and thinking about her role in the larger scheme of things.

This is a vital step, because if there is no connection between her labors, her humanity, and God’s plan, then the entire process loses wholeness and meaning. Cooking becomes what the feminists believe it to be: drudgery and servitude.

Can we say that a fine meal is somehow “Christian?” I think we can. Food preparation brings people and families together (as the early Christians did), strengthens bodies (the body is God’s temple), and permits us to enjoy God’s creation through our senses of smell and taste. The beauty of taste is directly related to the chemistry of nutrition. “There can be no question. God is interested in beauty. God made people to be beautiful. And beauty has a place in the worship of God.” [Schaeffer 1973:26]

The beauty in good stories should have a parallel effect. Good stories should nourish the spirit, just as a good meal nourishes the body.

Good stories should nourish the spirit, just as a good meal nourishes the body.

Feminists have done their best to denigrate the role of women as preparers of food, mocking it as nothing but domestic slavery. When a woman spends hours every day preparing meals for her family, it is, they believe, meaningless work that degrades her as a person.

The feminist argument arises from a secular worldview that defines womanhood in strictly economic and political terms. It does not recognize the existence of anything sacred or holy, except perhaps an unlimited right to decide who in the womb lives or dies. It has no concept of vocation or servant-hood. It places a woman at the center of a universe where her needs and desires are the only things that matter.

That same secular worldview has inflicted the same type of spiritual damage to my profession, writing. In both cases, the practitioner of a craft has been cut off from any concept of vocation—serving others to fulfill God’s plan. If there is no plan for us to follow, then “nutrition” for the human spirit seems an empty concept, and it really doesn’t matter what we eat or what we read.

We are free to believe that the preparation of food is meaningless work and free to trust our body chemistry to strangers, but we pay a terrible price. The effects of unhealthy art, literature, and entertainment are not as obvious as the effects of commercial fast-food, but we can find them in broken marriages, broken homes, broken lives, and broken dreams.

Should a writer care whether his stories help make readers better or worse, strong or weak, sick or healthy? I think we should.

From Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog by John R. Erickson. © 2009. Published by Maverick Books. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Mon, 08/20/2018 12:29 pm

    Ahhh... wisdom. One doesn't have to be a writer to enjoy this gem. I'm looking forward to the remaining chapters with relish.