Book Review: Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened by William Least Heat-Moon

Not long ago I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a travelogue/memoir of a trip he took around the United States keeping to smaller roads and out-of-the-way places. More recently I read River-Horse, a memoir of his boat journey from east to west across the United States via its rivers, lakes, and other waterways. I enjoyed Blue Highways in particular as the account of a solitary man van dwelling as he roams the country meeting with interesting people and hearing their stories. Thus I was drawn to Writing Blue Highways as a memoir of the years following his journey.

The book was not exactly what I expected. For one thing, compared to his other books, which are weighty tomes, this was slim and lightweight. For another, he touches on autobiography but mainly focuses on his writing process, which for the most part comes across as agonizingly painful. The book is readable and even entertaining, but I have to admit that I disagree with most of what Heat-Moon says about the act of writing.

For one thing, Heat-Moon scorns keyboards for his first drafts, preferring to write with pencils on paper. To each his own, I say. I have composed in notebooks with pens, but only when I had no choice. For instance, back in the seventies, when I was full time on the road in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent seeking adventure and my voice as a writer, I could hardly carry a typewriter. (This was in the days before personal computers.) So I carried notebooks and wrote down my observations and prose poetry in them. Later, when I was writing my first memoir about those road days, World Without Pain: The Story of a Search, I wrote in notebooks because I was often composing it on the fly while driving my family around. As soon as we got a computer and printer, though, those notebook and pen days were over. Writing digitally via a keyboard is easier, faster, and more error-free. The text is simple to correct and is clear and legible. When I have occasionally had trouble creating a flow of words, the problem was in my mind, not in the mechanics of the device I was using.

Another thing that troubled me about Heat-Moon’s account of writing Blue Highways is how painful it all seemed for him. He worked on it doggedly with the end result in mind, but when he writes about writing, he makes it sound like a hideously dreadful activity only to be tolerated because it would finally, after years of effort, result in a finished book. Even after twenty-eight published books, I don’t feel and have never felt that way about writing. I love the act of writing. I revel in it. I like it less when I have to write articles on assignment and much more when I am composing my own creative work, but even writing as hack work beats any other occupation I can think of – for me, at least. Writing fulfills me; it’s my calling, my pleasure, and my deep joy. Heat-Moon makes it sound like such hard work, but for me it is great fun.

Heat-Moon and I also disagree about the importance of rewriting. Admittedly some writing needs to be rewritten, but Heat-Moon is of the opinion, which is held by many writers, that rewriting over and over and over is some sort of Holy Grail that must be an integral part of the creative process. With Blue Highways, he only hit his stride with the seventh draft, I think it was – but there was a special reason for that which I will get to in a moment. I am not averse to rewriting when it is necessary, and certainly I am willing to go over a piece when an editor accepts it and requests certain changes, which has happened on a few occasions. What I prefer to do, though, is revise as I go along. Before starting a day’s writing, I read over what I wrote the previous day; at that time, I make necessary changes before I forge into the new material. Since I have been revising as I go along, I seldom have to change much when I am finished, although I do proofread pieces a few more times before I send them out.

And now we come to the outstanding revelation of the book. Heat-Moon describes painfully writing draft after draft after draft; the manuscript got better by increments but always he and a trusted first reader felt that something was missing. What Heat-Moon realized after years of effort was that he was ignoring a key portion of who he was. Up until then he had been using William Trogdon, his Euro-American name, as his byline. However, he also had part Osage Native American ancestry. His father had taken the name Heat Moon in honor of an Osage ancestor. As soon as he decided to change his byline to William Least Heat-Moon, he sat down “not to revise but to fulfill the manuscript.” He started from the beginning and rewrote it one more time, and this time it clicked. I have to wonder if he could have eliminated some of those frustrating drafts if he had caught on to this earlier. What this means to me is that a writer cannot get by without imbuing all of himself into what he is writing, every time.

I referred to Heat-Moon’s realization as a revelation, and that’s exactly what it was. For me, the awareness of the need for honesty in my prose, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, occurred during those poverty-stricken but profound days on the road. For Heat-Moon, acknowledging the totality of who he was provided the magic ingredient that brought his book forth to completion.

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