By George Getschow
“I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays and novels – in the long run – make a difference. If they do not, then in the words of my exemplar, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s work is of no more importance than the barking of village dogs at night.”
—Edward Abbey, The Writer’s Credo
We can agree with author and essayist Edward Abbey that writing matters. If it didn’t, we’d have no reason to put words down on the page. But don’t we also have some sort of moral obligation as writers to write words that do matter? Samuel Johnson, a famous English essayist, biographer, editor and literary critic, thought so. “It’s the writer’s duty,” he said, “to make the world better.”
Edward Abbey didn’t view his “mad itch” to write entirely in moral terms, though that was a big part of it. In his essay, “The Writer’s Credo,” Abbey offered his reasons for scribbling words on the page:
I write to entertain my friends. I write to record the truth of our time as best I can see it. To investigate the comedy and tragedy of human relationships. I write to oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless….I write to give pleasure and promote aesthetic bliss. To honor life and to praise the divine beauty of the natural world. I write for the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story.
Bob Shacochis, one of America’s most acclaimed tellers of both fiction and nonfiction stories, offers yet another compelling reason to write – to see the world more clearly through the lives of others.
Because I am taking the time to look, I see you, and because I see you, I see myself a little better. I have expended a small part of my day not living my life but living yours, walking in your shoes, which is all anybody can ever hope for when they need to be acknowledged, made visible and made human and, as much as possible, understood.
My old friend, Ken Wells, has done it all as a writer – journalism, fiction, literary nonfiction – for major newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Despite the difficulties and challenges facing our craft, Ken maintains an unshakable conviction about the future. There will always be, he says, “the compulsion of storytellers to tell stories and the deep-rooted interest in most people to want to read good ones. And ‘good ones’ is the operative word here.”
“Good ones” is the operative word for our latest edition of Ten Spurs. In this, our sixth edition, you’ll find good stories that “record the truth of our times” (even when the truth may be hard to stomach), stories that “make us better” by having us walk in others’ shoes, stories that illuminate and edify, that enable us to see what we otherwise couldn’t see or feel or understand, stories that help us honor life and the divine beauty of the natural world.
Will Sheets isn’t yet in the same league as nature writers Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey or Wendell Berry. But in recalling his hunting adventures with his family in “The Great Outdoors,” Sheets’ vivid description of the back country of Texas echoes the sensuous prose of America’s finest nature writers.
The sun is just peaking over the horizon as we reach our hunting blind, its rays illuminating the river we have been following. I take a moment to absorb my surroundings, letting the quiet rustle of the grass along the riverbank wash away the annoyance and anxiety I have built up along the trail.
The stillness sweeps over me, a feeling that has drawn me back to the Great Outdoors since we first became acquainted in my childhood. My family often went camping before my mother had enough of the raccoons, mosquitoes, spiders, rain and cold, and our camping adventures collapsed like one of our old tents in a storm. But my love of morning sunlight shining through a canopy of trees, the soft crackling of an evening campfire, the cool breeze caressing my face as I fished murky brown lakes still held me in thrall.
Considering that when he wrote this essay, Will felt he was failing as a journalism student and had no faith in himself as a writer, “The Great Outdoors” underscores Abbey’s point that writing about the natural world offers fertile ground for all writers, even those who may feel incapable of putting words “that matter” down on the page.
Vivian Jones set out to resolve the mystery surrounding the death of her uncle, Pvt. James C. Morrow, who served in the Philippines during World War II. But her quest - combing through newspaper and unclassified military archives, using a magnifying glass to read her uncle’s letters scrawled in miniature handwriting sent home to relatives and conducting interviews with members of his Army regiment she located through veterans organizations - proved discouraging. “In light of his sacrifice, there should be more,” Vivian wrote in “Star-Crossed Soldier.”
But it also proved enlightening. Eventually, in “Star-Crossed Soldier,” Jones discovers a tragic truth about her uncle’s death that we’re only now learning is all too common in modern warfare, giving Vivian perhaps not the story she “craved” but something more rare: a truth about war that wouldn’t be disclosed in a soldier’s obituary.
Christine Heinrichs also sets out to explore mysterious deaths -- of three elephant seals on a remote California beach. The federal agency in charge of the investigation decided to keep the findings of their elephant seal slaying investigation from public view – until Christine started prying into the case. Her narrative, “Death Before Dawn,” honors the life of the elephant seals by giving readers an intimate view of their place in the marine world as well as their relatively new role as entertainers for thousands of sightseers who flock to the beach to watch them play and mate.
In “Death Before Dawn,” Heinrichs does what all great storytellers do – make us care about her characters. We begin to feel as if the seals are somehow ours. “Death Before Dawn” also tells us something about ourselves: that we’re as capable of cruelty in the marine world as we are in the human world.
In “Just Keep Moving,” Christina Hughes-Babb investigates, as Edward Abbey would say, a tragedy of human relationships, in this case her own drug addiction and its effect on her family. Shackled to a life in jails, treatment centers, courtrooms and, finally, a federal penitentiary, she discovers her “beautiful, intelligent, shaggy haired, green-eyed 17-year old,” has begun to dabble in drugs. “Just Keep Moving,” a story of depravity that becomes a path to wisdom, was recently published in The Dallas Morning News and received the sort of loving embrace from readers that stories “that matter” often do.
Stella Chavez confronts a different sort of tragedy in “Growing up with Silvia,” her hair-raising account of a sister whose schizophrenia looms over a family like a dark cloud.
It was not always like this, she recalls. “When I was young Silvia was like a second mother to me. My mom never learned to drive, so Silvia often took me places – the library, the mall, restaurants, and to visit her friends. She introduced me to books and helped me sign up for my first library card. She rode amusement park rides with me and bought me clothes – the cool, brand names that all the kids were wearing. When I developed a crush on a local disc jockey, she took me to see him at an area shopping mall.”
And yet this was the same sister who “would keep us awake at night, slamming doors and drawers, organizing and reorganizing her room, talking to herself or, rather, to the voices in her head.” There is no easy resolution to Silvia’s story, just the ancient lessons of the heart and of hard-won patience and love.
We can become inured to the unending stream of stories published in newspapers, magazines and books each year about powerful people and institutions seeking to dominate and control the lives of the less powerful. But what if the person trying to dominate your life and the life of your loved ones is your stepfather, a man who you believe is scheming to do away with you and your brother? A teenager growing up in Buffalo, N.Y, that’s what Brian Russell thought.
In “Winter Garden,” he explores his stepfather’s penchant for silence, secrecy and domination over the people who loved him most, especially his mother. Inside the Winter Garden, an architectural wonder renowned for its indoor tropical gardens and waterfalls, John Russell’s family finally sees him for what he wasn’t – a faithful husband, a good father. “Winter Garden” is a compelling saga of family turmoil and tragedy that unfolds, as it often does, in a place of extraordinary beauty.
Sarah Junek stepped away from a newspaper writing career and stepped, as the title of her essay tells us, “Into the Classroom,” because she wanted to learn. And so she did, in a year spent teaching writing to adolescents whose obsessions and preoccupations were miles removed from her world. “What you were thinking in sixth grade?” she asks the reader. “It’s a lot different from what’s in the minds of today’s kids. Sure school is still all about the friends. But the schoolwork - it’s worse than boring; it’s hell.”
And yet she finds something endearing and enduring in her students. “Samantha the non-conformist wants to be a brain surgeon some day. ‘It’s been a life-long dream.’ Already decided at 12, she plans to pursue a surgical career, and then finish off her later years pursuing another dream: tattoo art.”
Doni Wilson’s delightful essay, “The Professors” offers readers something that Edward Abbey says also “matters” - a sense of comedy in a world that takes itself all too seriously. Doni’s essay explores the comedy and comity of relationships forged inside a college classroom in Houston. Growing up, Doni’s major cultural influence was the shopping mall, her relatives were “all business people,” and she didn’t have a clue about what she wanted to do with her life. Somehow she becomes an English professor, but she lacks what most professors try hard to project: self assuredness. “I’m someone who can wallow in waves of regret over not having gone to law school, not having been taller, not having the ability to make a decision without a hundred visions and revisions.”
Doni won’t even call herself “a professor,” in part to avoid being lumped in with the intelligentsia: “the mild-mannered dorks with tweed jackets and sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses held in contempt by so many Americans for what many consider to be, ahem, the crime of doing nothing.” And yet inside the classroom, Doni says she aspires to do what her best professors did for her: engage her students in subjects that fascinate them, serve “as a propagandist for studying the imagination” and “trick” them into exploring the vast landscape of great literature.
For the attentive writer, stories can come from anywhere, even the postures and poses loved ones assume in family snapshots. That’s where Julia Love began to piece together the tangled history of her own family in “Past Imperfect.”
“My mother meets the camera’s gaze with tired eyes, her hands on either side of my brother’s face. Rather than putting an arm around my grandmother’s shoulder, she is firmly grasping the life she has created for herself.”
And where does she, the writer, fit in? “My mother stands to the left, my grandmother to the right, and I am caught somewhere in the middle, striving to be like neither.” Doesn’t that fit so many of us writers, never quite fitting in, always the observers seeking to, as Bob Shacochis says, “see the world more clearly through the lives of others.”
Ellen Raff also proves that fascinating tales can come from anywhere, even the mortgage industry. In “The Hundred Dollar House,” Ellen takes readers on a harrowing journey through her stepdaughter’s efforts to purchase a house in foreclosure. What begins as a love affair with the house turns into a nightmare when she learns that the mortgage company, which she thought had sold her the house, is planning to sell it at a public auction. What happens next contains the sort of gripping stuff that makes John Grisham novels bestsellers.
The tale of “The Hundred Dollar House” underscores Edward Abbey’s mandate for writers “to speak for the voiceless.” In this case, “the voiceless” is Ellen’s underemployed stepdaughter – a young woman whom the mortgage bankers and lawyers assumed wouldn’t have the wherewithal to challenge them in court. They were badly mistaken.
As I read, reread and edited our author’s work over the last few months, I couldn’t help but wonder if our readers can even imagine what it takes to tell the sort of provocative and enthralling stories appearing in this edition of Ten Spurs or any other edition. As my dear friend and associate editor, Bill Marvel, will tell you, “Writing’s a lonely business. There’s just us and that screen waiting to be filled up with words.”
As all writers know, that space can be both terrifying and humiliating, no matter how long you’ve been putting words on the page or how many major publications or books your byline has appeared in. Yes, writing’s a lonely business. Like astronauts confined to space capsule circling the earth or cave dwellers holed up underground for the winter without fresh air or sunlight, writers often feel cut off from the human race, their work “of no more importance than the barking of village dogs at night.”
A few years ago, my associate editor spent almost a year holed up writing a combat narrative inside what might as well have been a space capsule – a lonely cubicle on the upper floors of Dallas’s downtown library. Bill told me it’s hard to explain the enormous relief he felt when “the Mayborn came along and threw us a life-preserver, gathering us together once a year to talk about the craft, to encourage and challenge each other, show off our best stuff.”
Then came Ten Spurs, drawing together the best original essays and reported narratives submitted from around the country into a collection that literary agents and publishers began noticing. Robert Atwan named Ten Spurs, Vol. 4, a “notable special issue” in his nationally acclaimed anthology, 2011 Best American Essays. And word has gotten round of the literary success of once obscure writers like Tony Schwalm – whose essay, “Trek,” published in Ten Spurs, Vol. 4, was transformed into a book soon to be published by Simon and Schuster. The Mayborn’s writing contests are now attracting writers from around the country in search of new literary plateaus – staff writers for The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, freelancers for GQ and Outside magazine, and other literary journalists and authors.
Now the Mayborn is taking another step to inspire and support our best storytellers. We’re forming the Ten Spurs Society to recognize and honor the literary achievement of the 60 authors whose essays and narratives have graced the pages of our award-winning anthology since we launched it in 2007. We’re hoping writers inducted into the Ten Spurs Society will support and nurture each other’s work, especially when a member is struggling to put words on the page, terrified that readers won’t care.
And for writers who walked through the doors of the Mayborn with nothing more than a book idea or proposal and walked away with a contract with UNT Press, a literary agent or a major publisher, we’re forming another society to recognize and honor their literary achievement: the Mayborn Authors Guild.
Authors inducted into the Mayborn Authors Guild include all winners of our manuscript competition as well as writers who have received publishing or agency contracts as a result of their attendance, workshop participation or connections made with literary agents at the conference. Membership in the Mayborn Authors Guild represents a major literary achievement. Many of our authors slaved away in their writer’s nook for years without a rudder to guide them until they walked through the doors of the Mayborn.
Take Walt and Isabel Davis. They spent five years working on a travelogue exploring the Texas borderlands, writing words that meandered all over the place. But sitting through several years of Mayborn workshops, they say they were “administered tough love during manuscript critiques that improved our writing and deepened our respect for the wordsmith’s art.” Thanks to the Mayborn’s tough love, Walt and Isabel say Texas A & M Press claimed Exporing the Edges of Texas as one of its literary darlings.
As with our writers inducted into our Ten Spurs Society, we’re hoping members of The Mayborn Authors Guild will support and nurture each other during what is often months, even years spent in what author Hampton Sides calls “the pain cave” – cut off from humanity, scribbling words on the page, wondering if their words “matter.”
All we ask in return, “all anybody can hope for,” as Bob Shacochis would say, is “to be acknowledged” that the Mayborn was the birthplace of your literary life.