Conversation with William Least Heat-Moon on Writing Blue Highways and creative courage

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In 1982, William Least Heat-Moon published Blue Highways, his account of what happened after losing his wife, his job, and his direction in life. In a van he named “Ghost Dancing,” Heat-Moon set out to find a new direction by having no direction—by exploring the United States and the people within her along more than 14,000 miles of the country’s back roads (marked in blue on highway maps). Blue Highways became a best-seller, and catapulted its author into the ranks of America’s top travel authors and historians.

 Now, with his latest book, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened (University of Missouri Press), Heat-Moon takes the reader on another journey: that of an unpublished writer struggling to make ends meet as he ushers a book from idea to manuscript to successful product.

“It’s about the process of creation,” he said. “I intended Writing Blue Highways to be a story, as the subtitle suggests, of how a book happened. But I really hope it goes beyond that, because the creative process has so many ramifications across many disciplines. So it’s meant not just for writers, but for anyone in the arts.

William Least Heat-Moon
William Least Heat-Moon

“In the case of Writing Blue Highways, the journey becomes not one that’s physical, but a mental journey in which you go to new places, places that you’ve never been before, or places that you have been but need to reevaluate and see again, to see anew, and to make sense of what’s there. It’s a similar process.”

That creative journey, no matter the discipline, isn’t an easy one, and the author envisions Writing Blue Highways as a potential source of inspiration for others. “I hope that it gives encouragement to people who are trying to make something that hasn’t been seen before,” he said. “Writing Blue Highways will lead people to understand that it’s not going to be as easy as it looks, but then again, it’s not going to be as impossible as it can look in the dark moments of the night, provided the creator is dedicated to the work.”

That dedication, according to Heat-Moon, is a vital component to finishing a project. “There’s an element of slap-dash carelessness to so much I see today, not just among young, but older writers as well,” he said. “There’s a carelessness that really need not be there.”

As Heat-Moon describes in Writing Blue Highways, rewriting is redemption. “The first drafts I do are utterly unacceptable,” he said. “So rewriting redeems me from trying to get people to read unacceptable prose. If I didn’t pursue that redemption, I would have never been published. Of course, that doesn’t mean perfection. It just means that it’s the best that I can do, given that time is limited, and eventually one must put down the pen, or walk away from the computer and think about sending the manuscript off.”

Another element of the publishing process Heat-Moon examines in his new book is rejection. “I go back to a Shakespearean sonnet, ‘Admit no impediments.’ Rejections are impediments, and a writer must not admit them. You must fall back on believing in what you do. Rejection hurts and it’s offensive, but it’s just part of the game.”

Heat-Moon also hopes that Blue Highways and the story of how it became a book will help others tell stories of their own. “When people tell me, ‘I’d like to write something, but I don’t know how to begin,’ my advice typically is, ‘Just tell the story.’ People are comfortable with the word ‘story’ because when we grew up as children, we grew up with that word. Where’s the child that doesn’t love a story? That response lies deep within us. The writer simply needs to remember some things that we knew and felt when we were five or six. It’s not quite that easy, of course, but that’s the theory behind it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that’s not a story,” he said. “I consider myself a storyteller above all. And, it seems to be a damned jolly term.”

What does Heat-Moon hope will be the legacy of his work? “I would like for readers to be inspired, to open up to otherness,” he said. “That’s a word becoming ever more important to my writing: otherness. Including other people, other places, other ways of thinking.

“Sometimes I worry, and I have the feeling that other writers may also think our culture is changing. Will Blue Highways appeal to readers in another 50 years? All of us who are trying to write serious books, we all face that same question. We do the best we can.”

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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