Fifteen years ago, Mike Medberry and I studied fiction writing together in the University of Washington’s MFA program. Not long after that Mike and another writer from our program, Doug Schnitzspahn, were hiking with a friend in the Craters of the Moon wilderness area when Mike had a stroke. Mike’s story of recovery, now chronicled in his new memoir ON THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, is a testimony to his determination to return to his passions –supporting the environment, running, reading, and writing. If you need a shot of inspiration, Mike’s memoir is the book for you.
Besides writing, Mike has been a long-time environmental activist working for The Wilderness Society, the Idaho Conservation League, American Lands and Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council. He currently lives in Boise. In the Seattle area? Mike will be reading at the University Bookstore at 7pm on Thursday, January 10th.
Theo: Tell us a little bit about On the Dark Side of the Moon.
Mike: It is a memoir about having a debilitating stroke in the wilderness of Craters of the Moon in southeast Idaho and recovering from it. At the time of my stroke, I was the Idaho representative of American Lands, a nonprofit environmental organization, and took a group of friends and fellow conservationists to see Craters in preparation for a trip by the Secretary of Interior Babbitt. Babbitt worked for President Clinton and planned to designate an enormous National Monument in Idaho. Craters of the Moon is a vast flow of lava that erupted about 5000 years ago and it includes islands of grasslands within the flow—some of them, like Laidlaw Park at 50,000 acres are very big. While we were hiking in this rugged lava flow at Craters, I had a stroke and was unseen for three hours as my colleagues were ahead of me in a rainy mist. I simply collapsed and had no idea what hit me. I was paralyzed and couldn’t stand up, much less walk, I couldn’t speak or think well. My colleagues searched for me on the trailless country and found me just before sunset. Katie Fite ran and drove about 50 miles in desolate country to get a group of volunteer rescuers and in another 2 or 3 hours I was light-flighted to Pocatello. It was all very dramatic and I stayed there for about 2 weeks. During that time I learned what it was to have a stroke. It is unthinkable.
I learned to walk, run, speak, write, and think again over the next 3 years. The slowest parts of recovery were my speech and memory, which continue to improve over the 12 years since the stroke. As I walked in Craters of the Moon over the years to regain myself, I realized that the land had suffered from a lava flow, overgrazing, and all sorts of other human caused degradation and that it too was recovering. It was slowly changing and becoming a new self. In that Craters of the Moon and I were much the same. Craters of the Moon was designated as a 750,000 acre National Monument and Preserve and is now recovering. In my case luck, determination, and years of fighting to regain my dignity, put me on the path of recovery. The book tells that story.
Theo: What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book and how did you overcome them?
Mike: Well, learning to walk and run came back pretty quickly, after I got over the surprise of it. Running is the task of hard practice, and that’s what I did to regain both walking and running; it was nothing new. Learning my name and all of the details of my former life came a bit slower. I remember trying to open a lock that had a combination: that was humbling and I now have only locks that are opened with a key. There are shortcuts to just about everything. Relearning to speak came within a year and writing has taken me a bit longer. As you can see 12 years have provided me with that. Well mostly…
I have been a runner since 1972 and I wanted to prove to myself that I could run again. I didn’t think I could ever run again. So I exercised regularly to strengthen my right leg and to run with a good rhythm. In 2005 I ran a marathon at a tolerable speed. I approached getting my writing skills in much the same way. I practiced and trained. I talked with people whom I respected and listened to their sometimes withering advice. I went to writers’ conferences in Idaho and California at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and slowly I refined the skills that I once felt I owned. I sent portions of my manuscript out to a variety of magazines and got a few published. Then I compiled all of the pieces into a book. The problem I had was that I couldn’t concentrate for more than a paragraph and that made giving the larger manuscript any sense of continuity a real problem.
So what did I do? Of course I sent it out to publishers. And they all sent it back with some very kind but disparaging comments. Or no comments at all. I realized that the manuscript required much more work. But one place, University of Nevada Press, asked me to work on the manuscript because they thought it had some promise. I went through three revisions that UN suggested over about three years and they finally said, “Nope.” However, the manuscript was now in pretty good shape and with one more developmental edit, which was paid for by an Idaho Arts Commission grant, the manuscript was ready to be sent out to other publishers or agents.
I elected to send it to publishers because I figured that an agent was about as hard to find as a publisher and I was disgusted with all of the hassle and riggamarole that I had gone through. I was finished and the book was behind me. Period. At that time, I sent the manuscript to Caxton Press and got the most encouraging letter from a man who had considered and rejected the manuscript several years before. He would publish the manuscript.
I also got a note from an agent at great agency that she would like to read the full manuscript. Ok, so I lied, I sent out a few letters to agents… But did I need her? Nope. And I received another note from a publisher that she would like to read my full manuscript. I sent her as nice a note as I could, you know, a polite “sorry but….” letter. She responded: “Congratulations.” That’s a sweet, sweet word!
Theo: What’s one thing you’ve learned about writing and publishing a book?
Mike: An environmental leader once said to me many years ago, ” Winning requires endless pressure, endlessly applied.” That about sums it up. Or something that Winston Churchill said: “Never give up. Never! Never! Never!” But don’t bang up your head about that advice; there may be shortcuts that work for you. I haven’t found them.
Theo: Who are some of your favorite writers? What books have had the greatest influence on you?
Mike: Anton Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard, Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Katherine Anne Porter’s collected stories, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Emily Dickensen’s poetry, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” David Shield’s Nonfiction book Reality Hunger which is wacko-great!, Julio Cortzar’s Hopscotch, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Robert McCrum’s My Year Off, and Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. Each of these works have specific things that I look for. For example, Katherine Ann Porter is, for my taste, the best writer of short stories and can make zinging points most vividly. Check out her story “Theft” or “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” I want to copy her style. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s book she tells a gripping story regardless of her crummy writing. I don’t want to copy her at all but I am looking at why her book was so popular—it is her story, her remarkable recovery, and her spirituality. Each writer has something unique to teach. Craig Childs is my current favorite. He writes nonfiction about deserts and the West primarily, that absolutely sings! His new book is Apocalyptic Planet. Haven’t figured him out yet.
Theo: Do you have a writing routine? How does writing fit into the rest of your life?
Mike: I was writing at dawn for a couple hours for about 10 years, but I’m off that schedule now until my book runs its course. Generally, I think without direction for the rest of each day, do tasks, work, or go for a run. My mind is a funny thing: the more I ignore what I want to think about, the more will bubble-up and become useful as writing. But trying to sell my book has put me off of that “schedule” as well. Anyway, I like to read in the evening until I fall asleep. Writing doesn’t fit into my life; my life fits into my writing schedule, which seems a bit pathetic. I tend not to bitch about being in a writing slump, even if I am in one; I go for a run, look at the beauty and cruelness of nature, and let my apprehensions run their course.
Theo: What advice do you have for emerging writers?
Figure out a certain time to write and try to live with it.
Don’t get on the internet and silence your phone until 9am if you’re writing at 5:30. Dawdle from 5:30 until your coffee is ready. If it’s never ready, well, try again tomorrow.
Edit before sending out writing. Let your writing ripen. And uh, follow my advice, not my actions…
Like Earnest Hemmingway has said: “It’s easy. Just sit before your typewriter and bleed.” If you don’t just love your bloody computer, find a sinecure and be happy with it.
Theo: See you at Wild Mountain, Mike!