Powerful Medicine

How readers help this writer stay the course

When I completed my latest Nick Drake novel, “The Shaming Eyes,” I experienced a hangover of sorts, a mix of satisfaction, exhaustion, and restlessness. It turns out that’s not uncommon among writers. A clever yet insightful article in the New York Times even coined a term for it: “postwritum depression.”

The piece reported how some authors behaved after typing ‘The End.’ Some did so in celebratory fashion, others seeking solace in the mundane. Jean Auel finished “The Mammoth Hunters” following a 28-hour stint at her desk by quaffing a bottle of champagne and collapsing into bed. Ernest Hemingway yanked the final page of “For Whom The Bells Toll” from his typewriter and then went off to get (wait for it) a haircut. Joyce Carol Oates said finishing a novel is such a wrenching experience that she locks the door to her study, moves to another part of the house, and needs a couple of months to decompress.

I confess to trying a variety of hairs of the dog, but none seemed to relieve the symptoms. Then I took a cue from the first chapter of “The Shaming Eyes” and headed to Wyoming with a goal of seeing the headwaters of the Snake River.

It wasn’t my first visit to the northwest corner of that state. When I was a kid, my parents were in a near fatal car accident that left my father confined to a hospital bed for months. As soon as he was able to walk again, albeit with the aid of a wooden cane, he loaded us into the family station wagon and, against doctor’s orders, sped off to a friend’s ranch in Jackson Hole. There, among grassy fields riven by the braids of a sparkling creek and surrounded by jagged peaks, he recuperated while the rest of us recovered from the trauma of almost losing him by helping out on the ranch, riding horses, and fishing. One night while we were sitting around a campfire, my father wordlessly added his cane to the flames. Its blaze marked the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new.

I’ve made subsequent trips to Wyoming, and on this latest visit, my wife and I rented a cabin made from hand-peeled lodgepole pines 30 miles north of Jackson. Pastureland running to the Snake River that flowed along the foot of the Grand Tetons served as our front yard while cattle and horses were our neighbors. Using the cabin as a basecamp, we explored nearby Yellowstone National Park, taking in everything from roiling mudpots to bear cubs to bison (aka buffalo). The headwaters of the Snake were to be found in the 2-million acre park at the confluence of three streams on the southwest flank of Two Oceans Plateau, so named because creeks on the west side flow to the Pacific, and those on the east to the Atlantic.

We spent a lot of time in neighboring Grand Teton National Park where we kayaked a stretch of the Snake River under the watchful eyes of bald eagles and ospreys who were teaching their fledglings how to fish. We also kayaked on high mountain lakes, took long hikes, and viewed herds of elk grazing peacefully in meadows spangled with wildflowers.

Day’s end would find me wading in the Snake or Gros Ventre or Buffalo Fork casting dry flies for cutthroat trout. Every night, we cooked our dinner outdoors on a charcoal grill as the sun setting behind Mount Moran colored the sky more romantically than any fancy restaurant’s soft lighting ever could. 

I wanted the trip to put time and distance between that novel and the next, and all the outdoor pursuits were proving to be a much needed physical antidote to having sat at a desk pounding a keyboard for months at a time in my usual sprint-to-the-finish manner. The paucity of cellular and internet connection provided an additional layer of insulation from the outside world. I must admit while sitting on the front porch each morning to greet the day and then again in the evening to bid it farewell, I often thought about how easy it would be to slip into that way of life fulltime. I pictured my wife and me felling lodgepole pines ourselves, dragging them to a plot of land alongside a river by draft horse, and building a log cabin like the owner of the beautiful place where we were staying had done.

But as seductive as that siren call was, others grew louder. First came the now familiar voices from five hundred miles away in Harney County, Oregon. With the Snake River serving as a conduit between the two states, I could hear Nick, Gemma, Pudge, and November whispering they still had a lot more stories to tell.

Louder still were the voices of readers who’d discovered the series. Many reached out to tell me they’d taken the characters to heart. There was the sister of a fallen soldier who sent me copies of old snapshots her brother had taken at Khe Sanh, an Army vet still wounded by PTSD who sees himself in Nick, real life ranchers who call Harney County home, and sheriffs and game wardens from around the country. The stories had spoken to them as they had to so many other readers who’d posted comments on social media, emailed me their thoughts and suggestions, and left reviews on Amazon and other sites. Many of those missives shared a common theme: they wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters next and how long they’d have to wait to find out.

The readers reminded me that, with writing, comes great responsibility—a responsibility to honor the connection readers make to the characters. In the end, that reminder, along with their heartfelt words of encouragement and support, proved to be just the remedy I needed.

I’m home now, rested, refreshed, and ready and raring to write. More Nick Drake tales are coming, so please stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are some Wyoming memories.

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