They say I've spent 20 years writing Wire to Wire
. Really? That long? I guess it's possible — I lose track of time and get distracted easily. What I do know is that there's little, maybe nothing, that I've worked at harder in my life. Along the way, many people helped. Here are four you should meet.
Beginnings. When I walked into Jack Cady's classroom in Seattle on the evening of my 30th birthday, I had no idea that the next two decades of my life would be defined by what he was about to say. Jack was a writer and teacher, known now for The Night We Buried Road Dog and, most recently, The Rules of '48. He was also a force of nature.
That night, he paced at the head of the class, holding us in his sway like the auctioneer he once was, giving us the gospel of fiction. Some things he said: That the chief characteristic of a successful writer is tenacity. That the world runs on lies, but that as writers, we have to find the truth of every scene. That we should listen more to our sense of magic than our good sense.
Jack died in 2004. In Wire to Wire, there's a walk-on character, a deckhand, that I named Jack Brady. His last words to the main character are this: "Safe crossing." It's what I imagine Jack saying to me as I headed out into the wild with a half-finished first draft in my hand.
Endings. That crossing was completed years later when I stepped into the Portland living room where Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose teach at The Pinewood Table. I'd been in a lot of writing groups by then. I wasn't planning to hang around long. I stayed five years.
I needed to be there, it turned out, because Joanna and Stevan could see something that was invisible to me. It worked like this: All of us around the table brought in our imperfect pages, filled with imperfect sentences. Talking about what was already on the page helped, sure. But hovering above the page was something more important: a half-formed story — also imperfect, with multiple possibilities and shapes. Talking about that was invaluable. Many nights, I couldn't see it at all until Stevan and Joanna made it visible. It's a rare gift, and one I benefited from immensely.
Joanna is the author of the novel Little Miss Strange and stories in numerous literary magazines. Stevan is a Pushcart Prize nominee with stories and essays in many literary journals as well as I Wanna Be Sedated: 30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers. If you're trying to learn to write, look for teachers like them.
New Beginnings. In my neighborhood, people don't know me as a writer. They know me as the father of a writer. My son, Zane Sparling, is 18 years old and a columnist for the local paper.
A few weeks ago, some parents here wanted to remove a Sherman Alexie book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, from the high school curriculum. The familiar acrimony ensued. Zane's column, "The absolutely true story of a part-time book burner," helped put an end to the fuss. It's a witty and pointed defense of the book and free speech, with a couple of good masturbation jokes thrown in.
Zane was also one of the final readers of Wire to Wire before I turned in the manuscript. His comments came with the refreshing swiftness of youth. No sugar coating. That sentence you added is too Garrison Keillor — you really want to sound like that? In the final read-through, when I specialized in overthinking, I needed that clarity.
He's off to college soon. On campus and in life, I hope he'll find teachers as excellent as Jack, Stevan, and Joanna — and the teacher who raised Zane with me, my wife Harriet Miller.
There are many more friends I need to thank, including all the amazing people at Tin House. But those and other debts will have to wait for now. Because time is short, and tomorrow we rock.