Jerry Dennis has been professionally writing books and essays about the places where nature and human culture meet since 1986. His essays and short fiction have appeared in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Orion, American Way, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review.
Last year, Jerry teamed with artist Glenn Wolff and his wife Gail to form Big Maple Press, publishing special editions of their books exclusively for independent bookstores.
This talk was from January 2015 Fulfillament. in Traverse City, MI
Fulfillament is a storytelling event where five local business community members take the stage and tell how they found fulfillment in their journey- thier inside story. Each storyteller issues a challenge for the audience to do something to find fulfillment in their own lives. Audience members individually accept a challenge and make connections with others to take action. This event awards a $500 grant to an audience member with a good idea that needs some help to get it moving.
Here is Jerry’s story…..
When I think about big leaps, I think first about a night thirty years ago, on Eleventh Street, here in Traverse City, in the kitchen of that house. My wife Gail was there and our great friend Craig Date. Our son Aaron was there, he was seven years old and Nick was there, but he was still in his mom’s belly. We were faced with one of the big, big turning points in our lives and we were talking about it seriously and with great intensity.
It wasn’t the first big leap we’d taken. Ten years earlier Gail and I took one when, at age twenty and twenty-one, we decided to get married. We knew we were very young. We knew it was a big risk but we did it anyway. We couldn’t bear to be apart, we knew we had to do it. A year later, we did it again. We quit our jobs, sold our cars and bought an old Ford van and made it into a camper and took off across the country and lived on the road for six months.
It was somewhere out west, and we can never really be sure about that, it was either Idaho or Utah, we had a conversation. I admitted to Gail that my dream was to be a writer. Notice that I didn’t tell her before we got married! I hadn’t told anyone. It was something I had kept to myself all my life. I had wanted it since I was a very young child. I was always bewitched by books and I always wanted to write books, but I didn’t know how.
I had been going to college, at that point, when we got married, off and on, trying my best to be respectable. Trying to study biology and landscape architecture, which were both fields I was interested in, but I wasn’t doing well in them in school. The only classes I did well in were English. I kept dropping out of college and working and thinking about and trying to figure out what I was going to do.
That day, in the van, out west, we decided it’s time to get serious about this. Let’s figure out a way to do it. We decided when we got back to Michigan, we’d move to Marquette and go to college again and study English. That’s what we did. We moved to Marquette in January of a very tough winter, 1977, and set out to do this. It was in Marquette that we reunited with Craig Date whom we met a year earlier in Traverse City. He was dating a friend of ours, but we hadn’t seen him since then. He happened to be there, as well. We became instant friends and we ended up moving into the same house together, the three of us, with two other friends and had amazing great times.
Craig was a musician and a singer and songwriter. He was studying social work, but his heart was in music. Soon enough, he got all of us into music, as well. He convinced me to become a mandolin player. Somehow he got his hands on an old mandolin and gave it to me and challenged me to learn it. We started playing music together and it became a big part of all our lives, all through our twenties.
A few years later, we all end up back in Traverse City. By this time, Craig and I had become among the best of friends. He was probably my best male friend of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever come close to it. One of the things that we had done in Marquette was talk about our dreams and what we wanted to do. Craig joined me in wanting to write a book. One of the things that we loved to do was canoe and fish and camp and we did a lot of it in Marquette. We did a lot of it in the Traverse City area, as well. We discovered that nobody had every written a book about canoeing Michigan rivers, a guidebook, a paddling guide of canoeing and kayaking so we set out to do it.
All we really had going for us was energy and audacity. We convinced a publisher that we were a freelanced duo, a writer and photographer. Craig had not only never taken photography, he had never owned a camera. I had written a couple of articles for local publications here in Traverse City and that was it. We just talked our way into getting a contract. The publisher wrote us back a great letter. It said that everyone on the staff at Free Publications was impressed with our proposal and excited to move forward and that they wanted to publish this book. It was two years later, after we had finished the book, that we met the publisher and we admitted that we had conned him, that we had not had any of the qualifications we claimed. He said, “Well, that’s okay. I conned you, too because when I said ‘my staff’, I meant me.” We became great friends.
I started writing for magazines. College had taught me a lot about the tools of writing but it taught me nothing about how to make a living as a writer. If you dared, in the English department of any of the three schools that I ended up going to, if you dared to mention to anyone that you wanted to be a writer, you were met with scorn or ridicule. College professors would roll their eyes and say, “No, nobody can make a living as a writer. You have to be a teacher.” Which, even at my young age, smacked a little of suspicious motivation. I started to think, “Well, I’m going to have to do this on my own. I’m going to have to figure it out.”
For five years after college, while we researched and wrote the canoeing guide, and while Craig was working on his photography because he did become a serious photographer because of our experience, I learned everything I could about how to make a living as a writer. A big turning point came when Traverse magazine gave me an assignment to write an essay in praise of the Boardman River. That lit a light bulb for me because not only was it fun to write as opposed to much of the work that I had been doing, which seemed like drudgery, it inspired me. It inspired me to want to do more. I got responses from readers. I got letters, somebody I didn’t know on the street in downtown Traverse City recognized me from that article and yelled across the street that he liked it. And I got a check for sixty dollars. That was encouraging and very, very interesting so I set out to do more of that.
That night, this all comes back to the night of the big leap, Craig … and I remember it just like it was yesterday. It was thirty years ago and we were ridiculously young, barely thirty, and I admitted to Gail and Craig that I was starting to get worried. Here we were, thirty years old, no money, one child to support and another in the oven and would I ever be able to make a living as a writer? Because that had been always what I wanted, not just to dabble, but to throw myself into it fully and wholeheartedly. I said what I really want to do is quit my job.
At that point, for five years, I had been working as a carpenter which was an ideal job for a young writer because you come home at the end of the day tired physically but not mentally. You’ve got some juice left. I said, “What can I do? I should keep working because we need the paycheck? But I want to throw myself into it.” Craig said, “Do it! Take the leap. Quit your job, tomorrow.” I was like, “Wow!” And I looked at Gail and her eyes, I remember her eyes were really bright and I said, “What do you think?” And she said, “I think you should do it because it’s going to be really hard in three months when the next baby is born. Do it.”
And I did. I went the next day and I told my employer, Paul Mauer that I was leaving. Now Paul had been training me to be a Crew Chief. He put a lot of effort into turning me into a passively good carpenter, that was about all, but he recognized that I had commitment and was a hard worker and that I could lead a crew. He was upset. He spun on his heel and he walked away from me. I didn’t blame him a bit because I knew how much he had invested in me. Later, he came back and he apologized. He said, “That was wrong of me. I should not have done that. I know how much you want to write.” because I had confided all of this to him, all along the full time that I worked with him.
He said, “What can I do to help?” I said, “You’ve done enough. No need to worry about that at all.” He said, “How are you set for money?” I said, “Well, we’re good.” He goes, “Don’t lie to me! How are you set for money?” I said, “Well, we don’t have any, but that’s okay. I’m going to make it work!” He said, “Here’s what I want to do. I want to give you a thousand dollars a month for six months. At the end of that time, if you want to, you can come back, your job is waiting for you. If not, if you’re making it, great. Just pay me back whenever you can, a little at a time.”
That’s exactly what happened. It took six months for the cash flow to start coming in from articles and book royalties and then I was able to start paying him off. That first year I only earned six thousand plus his six thousand, which was about what we needed to break even in those days. The next year, I doubled my income. Year after that, I doubled my income again.
Amazing things kept happening. I met Glenn Wolff, the artist from Traverse City who had been living in New York for years and had made a really big name for himself, already, with his work for the New York Times and Sports Afield and Village Voice and Wall Street Journal, especially the Times. He illustrated the Times, every Sunday, there was a great Glenn Wolff illustration that I always looked forward to. We met, we hit it off, we came up with a series of books that we wanted to do together. He knew an agent, we met the agent, the agent loved the idea. The agent got us a contract with a major New York publisher and I started writing for the New York Times. Everything went beautifully and swimmingly all because of that night in Traverse City, at the kitchen table, with Craig Date.
Five lessons have come really clear to me through all of this time. One is you need to identify what you want to do. For me, I wanted to be a writer, but that wasn’t enough. I had to identify that I wanted to write essays and other non-fiction, primarily about things I cared deeply about.
Two, learn everything you can about it. The thing about a leap, is that it isn’t a blind leap. It took me five years of practice and before that, six years of college to learn how to be a writer and to even learn the way I wanted to write. Learn everything you can about that field, whatever it is, that you’re going to.
Third, don’t go alone. Join up with people. Tell people your dreams, share it with them. Join groups of people doing similar things to you, writers groups, anything that you can where you can join forces with people and collaborate, if not literally, figuratively, so that you’re working together, so that you’re not always alone. Most of the great things that have happened in my career have been through my collaborations with other people.
I got to look at my cheat sheet. I forgot, was that three or four?
That was three. Four is be professional. Whatever you’re in, learn the basic professional approaches. Also, of course, being part of a professional is being good to people, being respectful and treating them well and fulfilling your promises and meeting your deadlines.
Fifth is working hard. It takes a lot of work. When I work with young writers and I start to express how much work it is to write a good sentence, nine out of ten of them just start to drift away. It is hard, hard work. A lot of people like the idea of being a writer, not many are really willing to work hard at it.
My challenge to you … Perfectly timed! My challenge is to carve out a space and a time for yourself to do what you want to do. A space, in the case of a writer or an artist, is a little corner office or a studio or if you’re working with your hands, a workshop. Some place that is yours for the duration, that is always there ready for you. More importantly, and harder, is time. Find a time that works for you that you go to that place religiously and work. For many people, it’s early morning before work. For me, it was evenings after dinner and after the kids were in bed, but for many people I know, many writers, early morning. That means you have to sacrifice something and probably television. It means going to bed at nine thirty and getting up at five thirty so you can work for two hours before you go to your day job. That will make all the difference.