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A writer at work

Rising early, slaying adverbs, and preserving a voice

John R. Erickson Nathan Dahlstrom

A writer at work
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Baseball players are now at spring training—and George Will noted in Men at Work, his 1990 baseball book, that training means daily labor, not play. The same goes for being a major league writer, as John R. Erickson, author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books, has learned. We ran part of an interview with him last May 14. Here’s a second part that digs into the discipline needed to keep producing two books each year for 34 years.

After the first Hank book came out, you wrote the second one in about two weeks. Was that inspiration, financial desperation, or both? Financial was an important part of it. We were self-publishing these books, paying the printer bills, and buying groceries with what I could sell during the day. I started writing at 5 a.m. or 5:30 and wrote as hard as I could for 4½ hours. Then I went out and sold books and called stores to try to get them to carry the books.

And you still do your daily 4½ hours of writing: Do you nail yourself to your chair? No, I go to the coffeepot. It’s good to get up and walk around at least once every hour.

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say, “I’m just not going to do it today?” I’ve been sick a few times.

But if you’re healthy … Sometimes I’ll slack and sleep until 7:30; but when you establish the habit of doing your work early in the morning, it’s hard to get out of the habit.

You view yourself not as a tormented genius screaming at the storm but a mule pulling a plow. Yeah.

Would you advise aspiring writers to set up a schedule like yours, or does each have to discover individually what works? I know some people call themselves night people. When I was at the University of Texas, I slept as late as I could and stayed up as late as I could. Most of the writing I did was after 10 at night. But after I got married and had to work in the outside world, it wasn’t handy for me to be a night person, so I changed. There is a certain amount of free will involved in whether you’re a night person or a day person. I think the early morning hours are unbeatable.

‘The best preachers are storytellers. Jesus did it with parables, and nobody even called it preaching, probably.’

You write that you try to screen out the noise of popular culture and deliberately have a sensory-deprived writing environment. No music? Nope.

No art upon the walls? My daughter cleaned my office a couple of weeks ago and put up some photographs on my wall. I’ve got a lot of books. No magazines, no radio, and I can’t get internet there. I don’t have any desire to go back to the office after I finish my 4½ hours, but for that time that’s where I’m supposed to be.

How have those pictures on the wall affected your writing? I don’t even notice them.

Elmore Leonard says writers should leave out the boring parts, so I’m wondering after you’ve done a draft of the Hank story, how do you know what the boring parts are? I let Hank books sit for three years. I go back and read them 10 or 15 times. After a book has sat for two years and you go back to it, you don’t remember exactly what was on your mind at the time you wrote it, so you’re reading it as a reader.

You write: “Preachers can tell us, but storytellers must show. You can’t begin a story with the ending. You can’t start a story with the finished product. You can’t reach a resolution without tension and conflict.” Do preachers in your experience tend to tell and not show? The best preachers are storytellers. Jesus did it with parables, and nobody even called it preaching, probably. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and we often had preachers whose approach was, “If they don’t get it the first time, talk a little louder. And if they still don’t get it, yell.” You can’t do that as a storyteller.

Teachers sometimes tell children writing with nouns and verbs, “You have to dress it up with adjectives and adverbs.” In your ideal piece of writing, how often would an adverb pop up its ugly head? I never use adverbs. I despise them. Anytime I’m proofing any kind of writing, I strike adverbs automatically. People use them to cover emptiness or to create false emotion.

Good writing deals with the specific instead of the general. You really can’t approach the universal directly. You have to approach it in a small way, and we access the universal by doing a thorough and honest job of describing one tiny part of it. One man and one woman living together in a marriage. Not marriage in general, not marriage on Mount Olympus, but just one man and one woman. Or one mother raising a handicapped child.

What was the last novel that you read, and when? I read a lot of fiction during my apprentice years, before 1982; but when I came up with the template for the Hank stories, I began to realize that this was an artistic vehicle perfectly suited to the talents and experience I had, the place I was living, and my deepest beliefs, plus my desire to laugh and enjoy what I was doing. I didn’t invent that myself. I stumbled into it, or it fell out of the sky like a dead pigeon and hit me on the head. I didn’t want to risk messing that up by continuing to imitate other writers.

Hard not to do that? When I was reading Philip Roth or J.D. Salinger or Norman Mailer, I would imitate the style even if I wasn’t doing it consciously. So when you’re given a gift like the Hank stories, you’d better stop being a mimic and just figure how to do the best with the gift you were given.

So the last novel you read was … Probably by a Texas writer, Elmer Kelton. That was 30 years ago.

John Erickson’s writings appear frequently in WORLD Digital’s “Saturday Series,” which highlights each week one interesting essay, book excerpt, or sermon. Among the essays available at WORLD’s website are these: Erickson’s “Memories of Medgar Evers and Mississippi” (Feb. 4, 2017), “Artists: Dealing with vexing problems and finding true success” (Nov. 12, 2016), “Remembering my father” (June 18, 2016), “Art at its most basic level” (Jan. 9, 2016), “A disappointed man: The religious views of Norman Thomas” (Nov. 7, 2015), and “Mugged by Nietzsche” (Oct. 24, 2015).

In “The nourishment business” (July 23, 2016) Erickson describes the “spiritual dimension to storytelling. … A writer has the opportunity to make readers -better than they were before. … We who were given the talent to write (or compose music or make movies) should use our gifts to strengthen the people who use our products. Like humble cooks, we’re in the nourishment business, and that changes the focus of art from Me to Us.” —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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