My day job is writer and sometime singer/songwriter.
I can trace my decision to become a professional writer back to a creative writing class I took in college. I was getting a nursing degree and thought it was crazy that I was required to take a writing class. But that class planted a hunger in me I didn’t know I had. I was one of the few students who actually enjoyed the process of being critiqued. As a high school football player, I was accustomed to that experience—of being told to “hit it harder”—and welcomed the feedback I got from the professor.
I started checking out books from the library that walked you through how to be a writer and followed the instructions. I stumbled into writing, fell in love and just kept doing it.
I was writing ads and articles, pretty much whatever came my way to pay the bills. A big turning point in my writing career came when Wisconsin West magazine asked me to write an article about Molly & the Heymakers, a country band that was performing in Hayward. I’d had some exposure to country music, especially during my teens when I worked on a ranch in Wyoming. It was there I discovered Waylon Jennings and learned it was possible to be a roughneck and an artist. But Molly & the Heymakers gave me an entirely new appreciation for the genre.
It was also around this time that music fests started to blow up around the country. An editor for Country Weekly (which is now rebranded as Nash Country Daily and only lives online) contacted the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, and asked if they had anyone in the area who could cover a music fest for them. Luckily, they recommended me. That eventually led to writing for No Depression (a magazine that focuses on roots music), whose terrific editors gave me the latitude to write creatively. That experience reinforced my desire to spend my life writing.
Over the years, music has played an important role in my life—listening to it, writing about it and being a songwriter and performer. I don’t call myself a musician, but I enjoy the songwriting process and have found it to be a great complement to my “day job.” After 12-16 hours of writing, songwriting means I don’t have to turn off my creativity. I’ve learned three to four chords—just enough to be dangerous.
When I’d gathered enough songs to record my first album, I worked with Justin Vernon (who’s best known today as the founder of the band Bon Iver and who started the Eaux Claires Music Festival along with Aaron Dessner of The National). I think we recorded next to his dirty laundry! My first set was at a Hayward coffee house. Was I nervous? I like to say that I played a 60-minute set in 32 minutes flat. I do about 10-15 shows a year, mostly in Wisconsin, and it’s a privilege to take the stage with the friends who make up the band.
In the coming year, I’ll be putting out a new book of essays and also a book about the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, whom I admire, among other reasons, because “He is a paragon of fair-minded uncertainty, whose most familiar coda is, I could be wrong.”
My most memorable caffeine would be one of two.
First, would be the coffee I had when I went to Budapest during a summer in Europe. As a person who grew up among Wisconsin Scandinavians who described anything beyond the percolated dishwater coffee that made up my youth as “so strong,” it was quite a change to discover espresso. The espresso in question was made by an old man using a huge machine on the street in Budapest. My reaction to that coffee? “Hey now.”
The other memorable caffeine is Café Bustelo, which I discovered courtesy of Daniel José Older, a Brooklyn-based writer. I connected with him via his Twitter feed –where he writes about everything from his cat to race issues—and we now have a sort of Twitter friendship. I noticed the bright yellow Café Bustelo package on his site and decided to give it a try. I think the visual power of the package affects the flavor.
My current caffeine of choice varies. When I make a cup of coffee at home about 50% of the time I indulge my coffee snob side and make a fancy pour over—though I use the blade coffee grinder I got at Farm & Fleet 20 years ago that’s been rewired by my dad and that, according to my coffee aficionado friends, should be a burr grinder if I want to do it right. The rest of the time I use Café Bustelo, which you can get at Walmart.
My favorite place for caffeine is any coffee shop with squeaky wooden floors though I am partial to the Black Cat Coffee House in Ashland, Wisconsin. There are four reasons why I enjoy it: the very good coffee—which can be an overlooked element when choosing a coffee shop!—the squeaky floors, the fact that it’s by the food co-op and the whiff of patchouli that you get when you walk in the door.
I also enjoy Racy D’Lene’s Coffee Lounge, which has been in Eau Claire since at least 1992. I used to be the cool long-haired writer who hung out there; now I’m the bald old guy.
Whenever I’m touring, I like to visit a local coffee shop. There’s something comforting about them. Even though I can write anywhere—from the airport to my office above the garage—I do love coffee shops.
The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is my grandfather. Until I was 18, he was my grandfather and then he became my friend.
My grandfather grew up in extreme poverty in Spooner, Wisconsin: at one point in his childhood his very large family lived in a railcar. He served in World War II and was in Iwo Jima. He survived cancer, made his living as an appliance salesman and traveled the world.
My grandfather was a self-taught man. He liked to hunt and fish and was also very well read. He kept a list of every book he ever read—there wasn’t any commentary, it was simply a list—and he read everything from Plato to The Peter Principle.
He wasn’t a person who attracted a lot of attention to himself and was thoughtful, funny and humble. My grandfather always said “Never lie. You’ll get caught when you forget what you told people.” Though telling the truth creatively? Now that was an entirely different proposition.
My grandfather was the first person I told when I decided to stop being a nurse and focus on being a writer. I was trading a secure job for one that wasn’t and it wasn’t going to make sense to a lot of people. I remember we were at his house. He was mowing the lawn and had a bag of grass clippings in his hands. He just looked at me and said, “If that’s something you think you want to try, then you should.”
I’d love to be able to tell him, nearly three decades later, “It worked.”
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: I’d actually propose something different: taking coffee away from people (especially our politicians) until they sort things out.