Shooting into the Flock

On Good Friday, I learned that Running Wild Press would be publishing City of Crows in 2024.  Easter is always a time of inspiration and renewal for me, so it seemed fitting that I should hear the news on that particular day.  I decided to write the memoir when my wife was pregnant with our second child.  I was not at all confident that I would be successful, but I felt like I owed it to myself to try.  I started tentatively with a rather concise story about pheasant hunting along some railroad tracks with my father and my grandmother dying of cancer that I called “Black Brains.”  I was pleased with the result.  It seemed a bit like a Nick Adams story by Hemingway.  I felt like I had a lot to say.  The words that I had held inside for so many years wanted to come out.

The next thing I wrote was a story about crows that would serve as the introduction.  I was going to call the book City of Crows.  It was going to be a memoir about mortality and fatherhood, how I saw death all around me in the guise of scavenging crows after my father died.  My confidence grew as I accumulated pages, yet I was always terrified of failure, terrified I wouldn’t have enough material for a full book.  I first conceived of the project after reading By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair.  His intimate memoir about the struggles of marriage and fatherhood in a small Midwestern town moved me.  At its heart, the book revealed the way love both empowers and leaves us vulnerable.  Love can survive the wreckage of everyday life, but it cannot remain inviolate.  The damage between couples must be reckoned with if they are to remain together.  They must surrender to the flood.

For my wife, the woman I call “Emily” in the book, flood came in the form of cancer and chemotherapy.  I hope she won’t be too embarrassed by the memoir’s publication.  I dramatize some of our most intimate moments in my stories and I know she chagrins at people she knows reading them.  It may make for some uncomfortable moments and long car rides when members of her family ask me to sign copies of the book at future gatherings.  It is neither easy being a writer nor being married to one.  Through the creation of scenes, a memoirist achieves catharsis by assuming command of experiences that were often well beyond their control.  For the loved ones of the writer, however, the process is quite the opposite.  They have no control of their depiction and often regard their characters as gross distortions.  Only time will tell how the book is received.  I put a lot of love into it as I do all aspects of my life.

It took roughly a year to write the first draft of the manuscript.  This was period of euphoria for me as I became what I had always wanted to be–a writer.  After hastily polishing away the grammatical errors, I started submitting the book to agents and publishers.  It was only when the rejection letters started trickling back that I realized the true enormity of my task.  There were a lot of writers in the world and a lot of manuscripts.  I was a nobody.  It would be a Herculean battle to get anyone to even read the book, let alone publish it.

I also realized that the book I had supposed to be a work of genius had a lot of problems.  Really, it was a fucking mess.  Initially, the book’s chapters alternated between the present and past rather haphazardly.  There’s nothing wrong with structuring a book that way, I suppose, but I wasn’t smart enough to do it.  So I took the advice of a writer friend and sequenced the book chronologically.  I actually arranged the physical manuscript in piles spread across my living room.  Some pages I cut with scissors.  This exercise proved revelatory.  This happened, then that happened.  A linear narration drove the story and made it seem more like a real book.  Thank God for computers because “cut and paste” spared me the torture of retyping the whole thing.

I edited the manuscript on and off for about two years.  It’s amazing how many times you can go over a piece of writing and still not get it right.  Strong emotions can inspire great writing, but they can also inspire some really bad writing.  I’m always trying to find the right balance between honesty and clarity.  Ultimately, I believe readers are more interested in what happened then how I might have felt about it.  If you write your scenes vividly enough your readers will be there with you feeling it too.  I ended up deleting some chapters and adding some new ones, especially in the third act of the book.  I think the delete key is the most important one on my keyboard.  Writers don’t use it enough.  An editor might have a diamond in their hand, but it won’t sparkle if it’s covered in dirt and they’ll probably just throw it away.

Recognizing the mathematical obstacles to my success, I started this blog and began submitting my stories to literary magazines so I might have a resume that would entice editors to take me seriously.  I could have pulled the trigger on self-publishing many years ago, but I think the delay made me a better writer.  I do regret that the memoir wasn’t published prior to the pandemic since it deals so much with mortality.  I was at the brink of giving up when the memoir was named a 2017 Many Voices Project finalist by New Rivers Press.  That success made me believe in the book again.  I was sure agents would be interested after that, but this was decidedly not the case.  Inspired by the dirty realism of Raymond Carver, I had written some honest stories about everyday life.  It’s hard to pitch a memoir like that when you’re not already famous.  There was no market for a book about a skinny kid growing up in a South Dakota trailer court or a mailman father with a wife undergoing chemotherapy.

My big success with the magazines came in 2019 when Gray’s Sporting Journal published my short-story about waterfowl hunting called “Wasted Meat.”  The famous novelist, Annie Proulx, got her start publishing stories in Gray’s.  As legend has it, the magazine was once short of funds in the Seventies and compensated her with a canoe.  I don’t believe I’m on the road to that kind of fame, but I do recommend the magazine if you love literature, hunting and fishing.

Reeling from the news of the story’s acceptance, I found it intimidating to work with the magazine’s editor.  Gus Plumpkin often poses in the magazine over a dead elk or other large beast with a pipe in his mouth.  The pipe is really his signature and I’ve always suspected some kind of product endorsement deal was involved.  I wish I could afford the designer flannels and tweeds he wears.  Gus made a lot of subtle changes to the manuscript.  Many of them improved the story. Most seemed not to matter, so I didn’t fight them.  I did appreciate his breadth of knowledge and experience with that specific genre of story.  I learned a great deal even though I felt upbraided at giving up control of my writing. 

We did, however, butt heads over the climax of the story where I shoot my first goose.  I’m hunting for ducks when I observe a large flock of geese land in an adjacent cornfield.  I’m keeping low as I try to get closer for a shot, eventually belly-crawling through the weeds when the terrain no longer shields me from their view.  At a certain point, I realize the three ducks in the game carrier of my hunting coat have fallen out.  I’ve lost them, but if I rise to search for them in the tall grass, then the geese will be scared away.  I keep crawling, full of regret at my carelessness.  I get within twenty yards of the flock.  The geese are so loud in their honking that I almost feel like a goose myself.  It’s an exhilarating moment as I rise to one knee and shoulder my 12 gauge.  The poor birds erupt into the air in panic and I fire my gun into the flock, not once but twice.  Gus was troubled by this violent scene.  “It is not ethical to just fire a shotgun willy-nilly into a flock like that,” he explained, and he didn’t want to be blitzed by emails from angry readers telling him so.  He rewrote the scene so that I took careful aim at birds at the edge of the flock. 

This seemed utterly wrong to me, mostly because it didn’t happen that way.  More importantly, this was a moment when I decidedly was not in control.  To me, there is a psycho-sexual subtext to the story and no one is really in control of anything while having an orgasm.  That would be like sneezing with your eyes open.  I explained to Gus that, as a memoirist, I had learned that readers are most interested in my admissions, that is to say my mistakes and fuck-ups.  My reckless behavior could be attributed to the fact that I was a mere teenager.  Fortunately, Gus agreed with me and added several lines in the story about me being a “stupid kid.”

I was a stupid kid. It’s a part of adolescence to make stupid mistakes. As I say in the story, “At that age, you have so much energy and so little control over how things happen.” I wasn’t really talking about lost ducks when I wrote that. I was thinking, instead, of my irrevocably fractured relationship with my father. Unlike so many of the contributors to Gray’s, I was not the “great white hunter.” Rather, I was the great white-trash hunter.

My father on left. 1966.

My father was an accomplished small-game hunter, an excellent shot who bagged a lot of birds.  I may be a better fisherman than him, but as a wing-shooter, he really had no equal.  Still, he had his failings.  Once, we were driving home together after a luckless day of pheasant hunting.  He pulled over excitedly, claiming to see a goose.  Floating in a stock pond was not a wild goose, but rather a bloated domesticated duck.  I voiced some objection, but my father was already at the back of the car loading his shotgun.  He shot the big, dumb duck twice and waded into the pond in his jeans with his shotgun hoisted in the air.  It was probably the most pathetic thing I’d ever seen him do.  I only wish he’d been drunk to somehow justify it.  He stowed his shotgun and the duck in the back of the car and hastily sped away down the highway.

“It was only a farm duck,” he said, breathing hard.  “The sun was in my eyes.  I could of swore it was a goose.”

I regarded this as bullshit and didn’t say anything, just stared out the window at the bucolic scenery while he drove us down the highway in his wet jeans. I did not know if he had experienced a hallucination, as he was prone sometimes with his supposed Bigfoot and UFO sightings, or if he’d simply poached the duck out of hunger. Back home when he started picking, he discovered the wing muscles were gangrenous. At first he was just going to cut the wings off, but then figured better on it and threw the whole damn bird away. He probably wasn’t the only scab hunter to blast some shot into that duck. At least he’d put the creature out of its misery. That’s likely not a tale of wasted meat Gus will ever publish. He has plenty of other stories to choose from. It’s like shooting into the flock, an editor really can’t miss.

Thanks to all my readers. Copies of Gray’s Sporting Journal featuring my story are available on Amazon for $6.98.

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