Fifty-eight

I became a novelist at age fifty-eight.

That’s as crazy as it sounds. What’s the normal career path for a novelist, if such a thing even exists anymore? Start young, earn a creative writing degree, find a job, write day-and-night, take a second job, keep writing, hook an agent, get published, garner praise, write the next novel, win awards, become a social media star, write another book, pray again, grow your career, build your platform, earn a living if you’re lucky, sell the TV rights if you’re luckier.

Me

The wrong career path, I suspect, is to publish your first novel at fifty-eight. No writing degree, no agent, no platform, no awards. For nearly twenty years, I ran a nonprofit conservation organization called The Quivira Coalition that I cofounded with a rancher. I did a ton of writing as part of my duties, but all of it was heavy nonfiction stuff. I hadn’t planned to pen a novel – until I decided to give it a go. It didn’t feel crazy because that’s what writers do. We write. I didn’t want to write just one novel, however, I wanted to write a bunch of them. A series, possibly. I knew my timing was terrible and the path forward ridiculously difficult, but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t follow paths very well anyway. I like to find my own way. That makes life harder, but more interesting. Stick close to the edge, the views are better!

The decision to become a novelist didn’t arrive out-of-the-blue. I dabbled in creative writing over the years, including two screenplays that I wrote during my film school days at UCLA. In the mid-1990s, I worked out the plot for a murder mystery set in Old West. I also wrote a two-act play titled Canyonlands, which is set in a bicycle shop in southern Utah during the glory years of the so-called New West. However, my work at the Quivira Coalition precluded any major literary endeavors, though I put a great of energy into essay writing.

All that changed in 2010 when I stood on the Rialto Bridge in Venice on my 50th birthday and decided to start writing books. A sequence of nonfiction publications followed each focused on the hopefulness of regenerative agriculture and other save-the-world schemes. I intended to keep going, but I had begun to suffer from a serious case of futuritis which necessitated a change of gears professionally. Besides, stories were drifting into my head – fiction stories – occupying larger and larger amounts of my addled brain, sort of like hearing voices.

They were voices I decided to heed.

The Grass Canoe

This is a journal about my 30+ year career telling hopeful stories about land and people, starting with my decision to become a novelist at age fifty-eight.

I chose this particular title because my creative journey has been as unconventional and daunting as trying to navigate a river in a canoe made of grass. That I made it this far is something of a miracle. From the beginning, I knew my mission in life was to chronicle our times. I was drawn to archaeology and anthropology initially though I knew I would never be a scientist or academic. What I really wanted to be was an ethnographer – someone who studies a people and their culture during a particular time and place. I began by creatively examining the American West, my home ground, eventually becoming a participant-observer with my decision to start the nonprofit Quivira Coalition in 1997. My activism, which I always considered to be a form of storytelling, took me to a hopeful and wonderful land, expanding horizons and provoking new creative responses. Eventually, my adventure down the river carried me beyond Quivira and I adjusted my chronicling accordingly. Looking back, I see that my work, in all its variations, achieved my original goal. It forms a creative ethnography, not of a people or place so much as of a time – The Age of Consequences.

My journey in the grass canoe began in a small stream in the desert and flowed downriver in twists and turns, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes eddying, sometimes discouraging, sometimes anxious, but always exciting and always hopeful. The water grew wider and deeper as I went, which changed the nature of the journey in ways I didn’t expect, challenging my faith in the future at times. Still, you keep paddling and pray that your little canoe can hold together just long enough to see what’s around the next bend. Life should be an adventure – make it a good one!