I wonder how many Thoreau wannabes have taken up residency in far away cabins, hunkered down for several months or years, to contemplate life? One man, John Daniel, took on such a challenge, spending five months at a homestead in Oregon above the Rogue River: journaling, researching, and writing. His purpose in refuge, however, was much different than Thoreau’s; he had skeletons to deal with, mainly that of his father.
John Daniel’s father, Franz Daniel, was a tough individual, but then maybe he had to be; he was a union man, working in the upper echelon of the American Federation of Labor– Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO. In Washington and throughout the country he fought for the rights of the common worker: the individuals who assembled our automobiles, built ships for transporting our goods, and made cloth for our clothes. This was in the ‘30s into the ‘60s, a time when worker’s rights were neglected until those like Franz Daniel took out the big guns and fought big corporations and businesses. Today, we often forget about those basic rights – the eight-hour work day, minimum wage, employee health insurance, paid vacations, and pensions.
‘I’m here to discover the story I belong to,’ writes John Daniel, which is not uncommon for people in the middle part of their lives, to look back and make sense of the past and how it might inform their future. But it’s also not common to read memoirs written with such grace and eloquence. While ‘Rogue River Journal’ is in the end a coming to terms with saying goodbye to his father, it’s also a spiritual quest: ‘I’m following a Zen way.’
In August 2008, I met with John Daniel at Squaw Valley, sitting on the deck of a house devoted to writing instructors. As we overlooked the valley on a warm summer day, we discussed his award-winning book ‘Rogue River Journal’ and some of his philosophies on writing and life.
Moonshine Ink: Since I’m reviewing ‘Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone,’ I’d like to start with the question, Why is solitude important?
John Daniel: I need degrees of solitude as I need food and drink. I need to know myself and my spirit. It’s not the absence of people and abstractions. It’s a healing itself. I need to remember its wholeness. I’m not a misanthrope, I like society in measured doses.
In today’s world, we’re going crazy for lack of solitude. We’re building a culture of constant distraction. We’re hyper communicative with cell phones and text messaging; it’s reached the force of a drug and if we don’t have it there’s a psychological withdrawal. Kids aren’t spending much time alone; people are all about people.
MI: How do you look at the creative process and what is your process?
JD: Personal narrative is retrospective. I wasn’t interested in memory until my 40s, then I became more introspective. Experience forms horizons of soil beneath the light of consciousness – writers train themselves to till that soil.
As for my process, I’m a night owl. I’m up sometimes until two or three or later still. At night, the house is quiet and you can hear the call of an owl, wind in the trees; there’s life out there. I’m a chronic tinkerer. Even after a piece has gone to print, I still tinker with it and often manage to republish a piece in a revised and better form. A writer is known by what he has written, but he lives for what he is writing in the present and what he has yet to write. I mix writing in with gardening and other domestic chores, with walking and cycling. I write long hand in my first drafts and then type and revise. I don’t journal every day, not in a disciplined way; my notebooks are kind of ramshackle.
MI: What writers have influenced you over the years?
JD: Wallace Stegner showed me a broader way to value wilderness, as something more than my backpacking and rock climbing playground. His ‘Wilderness Letter’ was a big influence because it showed me that wilderness has human value even if we never set foot in it. It shaped our history, our American character, and if we let it be destroyed we will lose one of the deep springs of our vitality and hope. Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder led me further into a sense of the inherent value of the wild, as something sacred, as matter infused with spirit. Any list is inherently incomplete, but spiritually I’m pretty much in the homegrown American tradition of Transcendentalism.
MI: As a writing instructor, what advice do you give your students?
JD: When I teach, as I’m doing at this workshop, I encourage my students to ‘show’ the story, have the experience happen on the page; it’s all about sensory information. I also tell them that they can show and tell too much, that it’s for the reader to think and feel. You need to activate the reader’s imagination, not just dictate to his conceptual mind. When I’m revising my own pieces of work, I engage everything from micro to macro, from comma placement to the overall structure of the piece. Everything is important. Kids today don’t seem to be reading much and I believe that’s why a lot of their sentences don’t work and their thoughts are scattered. Sentence rhythms and large-scale structure have to be absorbed from your reading. Build a rich compost of reading in the depths of your psyche and good things will grow from it.
MI: At age 60, you’re quite reflective. Any conclusions?
JD: Life is not something still ahead or hoped for but what we are living, and smiling inside us, though we don’t always know it or act in ways worthy of it, is that undivided self we may have desired but didn’t know how to seek or even to ask for.
MI: How would you describe Rogue River Journal?
JD: Rogue River Journal came out of a writing residency at the Dutch Henry Homestead. It’s a memoir, my third, a coming to terms with midlife. I look at youthful hopes and how they have been realized or changed. I realized, in my 40s, that there was a wilderness behind me as unexplored as any wilderness that lies ahead. Besides a chronicle of almost five months in solitude, Rogue River Journal is a memoir of my coming of age in the 1960s and also a memoir of my father, a hard drinking alcoholic who was a career labor organizer. He lived his last 10 years sober and I was cheering him on, even as I was getting involved in hard drugs. Most male writers, in one book or several, feel compelled to write about coming of age and coming to terms with their fathers. You can’t help being like your father in some ways yet you have to distinguish yourself from him, too. For boys and young men there’s no manual; how does a boy become a man? We each take our own road.
MI: Tell me a bit about your time at Stanford and living on Wallace Stegner’s property.
JD: Wally was a lifelong liberal but conservative in temperament; he couldn’t abide the violent acts of the ‘60s and he didn’t tolerate the self-indulgence of the time either. He worked incredibly hard, writing from sun-up to noon every day, at a minimum, and teaching too for most of his writing career. Once, at home – my wife and I rented a cottage from him and worked off our rent around the grounds – I was complaining to him about all the teaching I had to do, wondering irritably how I could ever finish my manuscript of poems. He was laying bricks for a walkway as he listened and said nothing. He allowed me to realize, with no word from him, that no word was necessary. His example was answer enough. Nobody had given him extra time to write his three-dozen books on his manual typewriter. It was probably the most profound rebuke I have ever received. I’m very grateful for it.
MI: Thank you for your time. I look forward to your forthcoming book.
JD: It’s been great to be at Tahoe.
~ Discuss this article with the author. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on John Daniel and his published works, check out johndaniel-author.net