Start with Yes
The Michigan book tour for Wire to Wire covered 2,700 miles over 16 days and was full of amazing moments. I got the rental car stuck in the sand at the edge of the Big Lake. Around midnight in Lansing, I watched a bartendress leap in the air and catch a firefly. And I spent every day with fans (of Wire to Wire and of Seger), friends, and family. Except for the skunk I hit in the last hour of the trip, it couldn’t have been better.
One memorable moment occurred early on at Horizon Books in Traverse City. Given how long I worked on the book, someone asked if the first draft had anything in common with the last. I happened to have grabbed a very early chapter while I was packing, but I hadn’t really looked at it much.
When I opened the folder, I was stunned by the date: 7/15/85 – exactly 26 years and one day prior to the Horizon reading. The chapter is labeled “Comments from Stone Workshop,” because it’s the version I took to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Along with 12 other writers, I was in a weeklong workshop with Robert Stone that year.
Obviously, as a beginning writer, I focused on rhythm and didn’t worry much about meaning. I wanted to get the sound right. The writing is loud—hewn through time kinda makes me cringe, and who knows what that line about the president means. It's all pretty dramatic. But it’s the beat, not the words, that the two versions have in common. The cadence of the long second paragraph is very close to the feel of Harp’s long, poetic freight rap on page 69 of the finished book.
Fittingly, the only phrase that’s word-for-word the same is “the top of the middle.” In the manuscript and in the book, it refers (rather obliquely) to the upper Midwest states—the top of the middle of the map. But it’s really the name of an Elvin Jones album. In those early days, I used to listen to The Top of the Middle before and while I wrote. To Jones, I think the phrase referred to a place in the beat that he liked the best. In any case, I was clearly more interested in how the syllables fell than in telling a story.
My note at the top of the page records Robert Stone’s reaction: “With this style, never cut loose of precision. The more poetic, the greater the need to be precise, so that every syllable of poetry pays off in meaning.”
It took me a long time to learn how to do that—to the extent that I have—but the Pt. Townsend workshop was the beginning.
The other life lesson I learned at that conference was the old saying, “Beer before whiskey, pretty risky.” After the Horizon reading, I put that wisdom to good use and went straight to the harder stuff. The table was crowded with friends, and the dinner and drinking was as good as it gets.
Drunk on words or just drunk at the Comet Tavern in Seattle, circa 1985: I got a dream, do you wanna be in my dream? Alejandro Escovedo's "Tender Heart."
Posted in Wire to Wire