[U.S. war fleet, the Pacific, WWII. My father flew bombers in that theatre.]

Revising an essay about Dad’s prize bull, my wife’s hurt foot.

A year and a half ago here, I wrote about my excitement at having drafted an essay in which I relive accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. That’s the main story, but the essay really explores the complex relationship among memory, story, and imagination as I relive that trip and some other early memories. What happened to provoke it was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery two summers ago. That reminded me of a cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, over 55 years later. Why?

[Charles C. Gilbert, a Pacific pilot in WWII.]

I found out late last week that my long complexly braided essay, “The Founder Effect,” has made the 2017 long list for the prestigious Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British-run worldwide biennial competition. They pay $20,000 and publish the winner, and publish their short list of top finalists. Two friends also made the long list: Jill Christman, who teaches at Ball State University, in Indiana, and Patrick Madden, who teaches at Brigham Young University..

I don’t expect my essay to go further—I’m counting the long list as its award. What an honor and unexpected achievement. It’s hard to remember what I was thinking when I sent it in. For great reading, go to the 2015 long list and search your chosen authors and their titles—these “losing” essays have since appeared in an array of journals, and many are readable on line.

My essay will soon be three years old, and I’m still fiddling with it. After my first year of working on it, I had it so messed up. I quit it and dashed off (in comparison, at least) an essay on my crazy dog that was well received on Longreads. I actually used in the dog essay something I was trying in “The Founder Effect,” which is showing how I jump to conclusions about people and situations from mere scraps. I think that’s common, and says something about the operating system of the human mind: stories.

But after sending it around, it wasn’t getting anywhere with contests or journals. So I sent it to a friend who’d never seen it, and he said he couldn’t understand what I was getting at. I knew he was being honest and that I had to get some distance on it. I hired a developmental editor, the excellent Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.

[Joan Dempsey: writer, coach.]

Joan pointed out that I started telling it one way, about my trip with Dad and related aspects, and then went into not apparently connected memoir stories. I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick for me was keeping some of the extraneous memoir stuff—material I felt shed a light on my father, his post-ranching life, and our relationship.

And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This is the essay’s initial foreground thread about Kathy’s recovering from foot surgery. That thread running through the essay really grounds it in the here and now. And it echoes the notion that in life as in stories, the little details and shadings, one way or another, are the big things. For example, the shallow step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loom like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. A friend who brought us a casserole dish? Huge.

The real-time segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was painfully recovering, and I was tending her, I was also going down the internet rabbit hole learning about the rancher who sold my farther a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. With that license, I dragged in Dad’s previous adventure, on the California ranch where I was born. And his pride in the bull he bred and registered there, Atoka Gold, whose quizzical eye now regards me from my atop my walnut dresser.

In the process of relating all this memoir to humans’ inner stew of memory, imagination, and story, I came to a new understanding of my father. This man who’d begun his aviation career in the wake of biplanes had ended up at the Kennedy Space Center. A failed rancher, yes, but also a former aviator who was helping to send humans into space. And, ultimately, to set a man’s foot on the moon.

How fitting Dad’s story arc; how sweet its trajectory.

[Dad bred and registered this bull; the photo was taken about 1954, a year before my birth in Hemet, California.]


  • Congratulations, Richard. What an honor. You keep getting better, and you illustrate how much a writer must work to get it right. The subject can be so elusive. Braiding allows you to take the inner impulse of memory, stimulated by the cane, and keep expanding and contracting it until it finds its proper place.

    Loved the ending: “to set a man’s foot on the moon.” You give the reader the opportunity to “get it”–always a great way to write.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for reading and for your kind comment, Shirley. I do developmental editing myself now, mostly for books, but I really needed to help with that expansion and contraction, as you well put it, to find its “proper place.” My usual writing posse really helped, and then were stumped. Or I couldn’t go back to them one more time! I’m not sure yet what I’ve learned from this, but in that essay I do use everything I have learned about writing.

  • Dear Richard, You know, never once have I read through anything you’ve written and felt that I’d missed the point, or wasted a bit of time, or in any way regretted following where you led. If it’s true that at times you meandered, as you seem to suggest, it was worthwhile meandering, with a purpose behind it as true as the mysterious connections actually resulting from following Alice herself down a rabbit hole, to borrow your figure! Things always end up coming together so nicely with you, and your recent honor is the validation I think you want and need, because you are one of the most modest people I know, in spite of all you’ve accomplished. Let me just add that it was really nice to read you today after not having heard from you for a while, and to be able to congratulate you on having proven yourself yet again. Hurrah!

    • Richard says:

      I appreciate your words, Victoria. One thing I think I learned, at last—maybe!—is that the drafting mind that’s trying really hard to do something isn’t the mind that can see it doesn’t work. At least it takes me a while, and sometimes it takes lots of outside help.

  • Thomas Larson says:

    Best wishes on this, Richard. I take it hasn’t appeared yet and they only take unpublished work? TL

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Tom. They used to take essays that had been previously published, but stopped that this year. So everyone’s is new work. They actually emailed me to ask about that, too.

  • Richard I am rooting for you.

  • dclaud says:

    How well I know how hard you worked on that essay. I sometimes think you overwork things, but you’ve proved me wrong. Congratulations, well deserved.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, David. I did overwork this one! And then dialed it back. Exhausting. But I think all the effort led to a couple easier, simple essays, and finally to a workable version of this one.

  • Ron D. White says:

    Thanks for telling us about your story and the recognition of your work.
    Now I will have to go back to reading more about the craft of braiding and bring it into what I am doing.

    Atoka Gold struck me hard. My uncle named his unregistered white face bull “Little Joe.” It has been years since I thought about having helped him work his cattle, a different kind of hard work.


    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Ron. Braiding is very powerful because usually you are telling more than one story, or should be. Search this site for more information—I have written a lot about it. Including citing Heather Sellers and her essay and book that explain it in depth as a technique.

  • owen1936 says:

    I am somewhat acquainted with your friend/critic who didn’t get your drift in an earlier draft. I know him well enough to say that the point of many things often gets by him. Congratulations on going beyond him.

Leave a Reply