It was about 10 years ago when I said “goodbye for now” from sportswriting and moved to Radford, Virginia with my wife, Amanda.
The newly minted Army Captain was taking over a teaching position in the Virginia Tech Cadet Corps, and for the first time, I was just on board during this last temporary stage of his career. I was freelancing here and there, but mostly I wondered what I was going to do with my life.
I gave up my career for his, because retirement from the army is a very good thing. The fact that we did is why I’m here now. Amanda retired as a major after 20 years and earns more in retirement than me shoveling words at the daily sun paragraph factory.
She is now a massively overqualified yoga teacher at a studio in Punta Gorda. Some of you know her. She’s amazing when she’s not trying to bend me to one of her inventive pretzels to practice.
We lived in a small, tight-knit community of officers and their families atop a ridge overlooking Radford on the grounds of the Radford Army Ammunition Factory. It was a stone’s throw from Blacksburg, where Amanda, a veteran of four tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, sent these little ROTC geeks out into the woods to get lost.
It was the first time since I was 15 that I didn’t have a stable job. The end of a run of about 25 years, all in the newspapers. I had gone from 60 to 0 on two weeks notice and was terrible at doing nothing.
That first summer, I freelanced for a minor league website affiliated with Sports Illustrated. It allowed me to visit ballparks along the mid-Atlantic coast. That fall, I freelanced for ACC football games at Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Maryland.
Although it sounds like I was staying busy, it was just busy work. Eventually, my thoughts turned to working on one of my two big, long-standing ideas for a book.
One night, 33 inches of snow fell on the mountains of southwestern Virginia and we, a few residents of Staff Village, were locked in as the world came to a standstill.
In my small home office, a blank page laughed at me.
Writer’s Block had blown with the blizzard. Neither work nor play made Patrick a very boring boy.
Patrick also, very clearly, had no idea how to write a book.
When the roads cleared up, I broke out and wandered aimlessly down I-81, where I came across an antique mall. It was there that I was introduced to Jess Carr, 23 years after her death.
Carr was a writer of regional notoriety. He lived his entire 59 years in southwest Virginia until his death in 1990. In this roadside antiques mall, there was something of a sanctuary for his writing career. The titles were something to behold: The second oldest profession, Intruder in the Wind, The Falls of Rabbor, The Moonshiners …
And then I saw it: Birth of a book.
Carr’s most notable book was a historical biography titled, The saint of the desert. Released in 1974, it was made into a movie titled “Sheffey.” This book was not among the books for sale that day, but Birth of a book was a side track produced by Carr alongside him.
Birth was a journal of Carr’s daily writings on Holyfrom June 23, 1971 to the day he finished Holy January 26, 1972.
The book was too expensive, but I happily grabbed it and ran home to read it.
It was a biography of a biographer writing a biography.
I read it in a frame, living on the edge of every daily entry, which Carr wrote in the form of a letter to his editor, Carol Cartaino. Carr spared no detail, whether book-related or personal. It was a snapshot of life at Radford 40 years earlier. All the places he mentioned were still there, including Radford High, where his eldest daughters Marsha and Lois went to school (Kate, his third daughter, landed at Birth of a bookThe dedication page of: “Dedicated to my precious little Kate who interrupted my daily journal entries countless times and whom I love all the more for doing so.”).
Carr had grown up on a farm in rural southwest Virginia and had been a sailor, lumberjack, farmer, filing clerk, barber, and storekeeper. Always a writer in his spare time, he had managed to produce a collection of short stories, Rabbor Falls (a work of fiction) and The second oldest profession, a non-fiction dive into the history of moonlighting in America. Carr was the president of a local commercial printing company when this latest book was unexpectedly accepted by a publisher. It was then that Carr made a bold decision, captured by the first entry into Birth of a book:
It is done. What madness could possibly drive a man to relinquish the presidency of a corporation with all the perks of money and position to undertake the somewhat nebulous task of fatherhood?
This, my fourth book, which I will call THE SAINT OF THE WILDis the one I have long wanted to write.
The subject of Holy is a self-proclaimed preacher named Robert Sheffey, who wandered from town to town in the mountains of southwestern Virginia throughout the 19th century. Sheffey died in 1902 at the age of 82, predating Carr by a generation, but Sheffey’s impact in the region was still felt and elders from Carr’s childhood told countless heroic stories about the man, many of whom border on the supernatural or the prophetic.
Carr’s entries evolved as he worked on Holy, passing from the external to the internal. Once he talked about his progress in clinical terms, he started talking as if he had spent the day traveling with Sheffey and his cohorts.
Robert has now returned from his blissful Christmas day with Elizabeth. He is the typical lovesick calf completely captive to the hypnotic eyes of the clean and beautiful Elizabeth.
Carr was also not immune to the roller coaster of writing. He had his good days and his bad days:
I might as well admit it. My state of mind is bad – very bad. The question now is – what kind of fool am I to sit here at my desk writing while convinced that everything in the world is stacked against me.
I haven’t written because nothing seems to be floating around in my brain worth saying.
Will peace never come to me again?
There’s no reason for me to bother you any longer to listen to my state of mind when the result can only be boredom. I’m ashamed that with the arrival of this Thanksgiving season, my heart seems to radiate more darkness than light.
Chapter XV is on! I had less trouble with the outline of this chapter than any so far.
In a twist that was personally very gratifying to me, Carr also updated his editor on the progress of the Radford High football team. The Carr clan attended home games and took a few road trips as the mighty Bobcats finally won the 1971 state title.
The whole family, including little Kate, went to the Radford Hi v John Yeates Hi football game this afternoon. It was the State Championship playoffs, and our team won and won big! The score was 32 to 0! Our girls are beside themselves. Lois’ cheerleaders were proud, and I’m happy for her. Now we’re entering basketball season, and I don’t know if I can handle all the excitement.
These passages, when I think about them, warm the heart. Writing is such a lonely thing to do. Even when you’re in a crowded room, you’re on your own if you’re at a keyboard – or in Carr’s case, a Royal typewriter. But life doesn’t stop just because a writer retires. Carr’s entries were a wonderful reminder that writers aren’t alone in their loneliness. We can all relate to each other. We all have families plagued by conflict and triumph.
Whether a project is a success or a failure is often irrelevant to many writers, because writing is akin to breathing. To not do so is to fall apart.
Following Carr as he struggled to write The saint of the desert helped me get through a time when I felt like I couldn’t write another word, even though I desperately wanted to. Every time I start to feel this – like this week – I grasp Birth of a book ready to go and relive the highs and lows of Carr, as the Radford Bobcats headed to the state championship.
I returned to this antique mall countless times over the next couple of years, never finding a copy of The saint of the desert. We moved to Fort Bragg and life went on. One day, on a long drive back to North Carolina from Kansas, I took a little detour and visited this antique mall one last time.
There on the shelf was a signed first edition of The saint of the desert. The book was overpriced, but I grabbed it gladly, as it was priceless to me.
Now that’s it – title page, dedication, introduction, epilogue and everything else. … I guess I should feel a great sense of accomplishment – an overwhelming elation, but I really don’t – not an overwhelming feeling at least – just a quiet gratitude that the job is done and I’m proud of it. have achieved this goal. …
And now I’m going to look ahead.
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