Daily Themes

[This article appeared originally in The Herald, the newspaper of the White River Valley. The Publisher, Tim Calabro, wanted me to describe my path as a writer. This is the path that has reached its pinnacle at Silverback Digest. SB SM]

In college I took a course called Daily Themes. Every day you had to turn in an essay of 300 words. There was no assigned topic or theme. I don’t remember getting much feedback or commentary on what we handed in. We just had to grind it out.

Upon graduation I began to pursue my destiny as the creator of the next Great American Novel. I was of a generation that worshiped men of letters like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Salinger as the top dogs of the artistic world, although I had to admit the musicians such as The Beatles were fast closing the gap.

Because I had to eat, I took a job in the media world, as an ad salesman for a power boat magazine. No, it wasn’t quite the world of literature, but at least you could hear printing presses in the background. I started writing my novel. It was called FOODBALL, and it was set against a fast-food industry that further dehumanized the public by taking your burger, fries, and thick shake and turning them into a glistening, deep-fried pellet.

A year and a half later this one-dimensional concept had been turned into 350 pages of what could best be described as ink on paper. I sent it off to a Manhattan-based literary agent who responded, and I summarize, “put this in the bottom drawer of your desk and never look at it again.” I followed this advice and there it sits to this day. You can be the first to read it!

Fresh from the bottom drawer … you could be the first? No? OK, back it goes.

Writing the GAN (Great American Novel) right out of the starting gate, I realized, was not a plan or even a dream, but rather a fantasy. My next foray into the literary world would be based more on my real world experience.

It took several years for my literary ambitions and real world experience to intersect. I liked beer and found myself seeking novel beer experiences, a quest that often brought me to the imported beer shelf in the local package store. “Why …” I asked myself ” … is American beer so uniformly yellow, bland, and fizzy, when an entire spectrum of palate pleasing options was possible?”

I had happened upon a book-worthy subject and quit my job, packed my wife and black dog (named Guinness, of course) into a used Chevy van and set out to discover America through the lens of a curious beer-lover. 20,000 miles and many colorful experiences later I had compiled the experience into a reasonably coherent narrative that I called The Great Beer Trek.

I was poised on the brink of literary success, not to mention fame and fortune. I got an agent to represent me. I had plans for future great trek projects–baseball, fly fishing, seafood–only to encounter the next barrier, timing. “Beer drinkers don’t read books,” my agent told me, explaining the many rejections he was receiving on my behalf. This was in 1978. The first craft brewery (New Albion) had just opened for business. There are now more than 8700.

Reality had intervened, and I needed a job. I found one, or it found me, and brought me to a small town in Vermont where there was a company making cast iron woodburning stoves. I was the manager of customer service, but within that capacity there was ample opportunity for storytelling. Two guys met in a bar in Crested Butte, Colorado in the wake of the first Arab Oil Embargo in 1973. “This country is in deep trouble,” they agreed, “if we can’t figure out a way to keep warm without burning imported fossil fuel.”

The seed of Vermont Castings had grown enough that by 1978 the company needed a customer service manager (moi) who arrived just in time for the Second Arab Oil Embargo in the winter of 1979. With weeks my department grew from 5 to 65, and a cast-iron rocket ship had taken off in Randolph, Vermont. The ride on that ship deserves its own story. In terms of my literary trajectory, The Great Beer Trek, occupied the drawer immediately above FOODBALL.

The editor of the local newspaper, The White River Valley Herald, was indulgent enough to publish the occasional stories and press releases that I churned out for Vermont Castings and even used the personal pieces, mostly humorous, that I wrote on cooking with Spam, shopping for a car, or surviving Mud Season.

It was time for fate to intervene again, this time in the form of a book packager (someone who manages projects for commercial publishers) who approached the owners of Vermont Castings to suggest that the time was right for an authoritative book on woodburning, and who better to do it than one of the country’s top manufacturers? Everyone agreed that it was a worthy project and everyone agreed that they didn’t want to do it. “Throw it on Morris’s desk” was the verdict.

Assisted by the staff of 65 The Book of Heat was assembled in record time. It quickly became a category leader in the book world and even became a best-seller in Japan where the woodburning craze was just kicking into gear. Timing, not talent, is the greatest determinant of success in the world of media. Two beer books published in 1979 each sold over 250,000 copies.

To my surprise, the publisher of The Book of Heat, immediately came back knocking on my door. “What are you going to do for us next, Stephen?” Didn’t take me long to reply. “Would you be interested in a book on beer?” It was finally published in 1985, but the first surge of America’s renewed interest in beer has passed.

The ink was still wet on that one when my publisher came back asking, “Now what?” My literary resume now includes four novels (three set in a region of Vermont known as Beyonder), two non-fiction books, two revisions, two Japanese editions, four anthologies, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, and two humor columns. I never supported myself exclusively as a writer, but my familiarity with the craft helped me to be gainfully employed in book and magazine publishing. Even today, in supposed retirement, I churn out an online newsletter called Silverback Digest (www.silverbackdigest.com) where I curate stories from what I call the Human Jungle, a place I’ve created to explore what I find interesting and fun.

So, am I a successful writer? I’ve learned that the answer to that lies more in the realm of luck and timing than talent. The Great Beer Trek sold a respectable 32,000 copies. Had it been published when it was written, however, it would have sold ten times that number. Beer drinkers, it turns out, DO read books. In 1979 the book would have had the market to itself, by 1985 when it was finally published there were a slew of competing titles. However, had I sold a zillion copies of my first I might be still churning out Great Trek books and my path would not have led to Vermont.

The writing path is not an easy one. 95% of writers in America earn less than $5,000 annually from their craft. That’s why I never quit my day job. My roster of job titles is impressive mostly in its breadth– ad sales, customer service, VP of marketing, editor, chief operating officer, president, publisher– but in my mind I have always considered myself, first and foremost, a writer.

2 thoughts on “Daily Themes

  1. Timing? Tell me about it!! “Diamonds Are Forever” was published in 1987 by the recently formed Chronicle Books (which until then published newspapers only). It was only the second book they had published, and they weren’t quite geared up to publicize it. Why not display it in the men’s clothing departments at Macys and Nordstroms! Cross marketing! And of course, a few years later, out come all those films like Bull Durham, The Natural, Field of Dreams… Timing. Still, the book exists and when I revisit it once in a while, it still reads well. Has legs… Peter

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