The Time I Did Not Give Brian Doyle a Piggy-Back Ride

I’m staying with the Brian theme one more time.–jrs

Writers write, but authors have to do other stuff as well. Some of that stuff involves traveling around, reading some of what you’ve written, and discussing the sometimes mysterious differences between being a writer and being an author. I think in the previous sentence you can often substitute ‘traveling’ with ‘wandering.’

Okay. The most important prerequisite of being an author is being a writer. Duh. But if something gets published and, pay attention here, somebody actually reads it, a writer crosses the line and becomes an author. If enough people read it, the author just might be asked to show up somewhere and talk about it. This can produce an odd kind of terror that is mitigated by waves of gratitude. It the gratitude is sincere enough, the terror will usually recede to simple abject fear. After a couple forays into dealing with this fear, many authors discover that they actually enjoy a nice bunch of folks who cared enough to show up. A few authors carry this enjoyment to an expertise that generates a profound wow factor for an audience. That’s the author who becomes known for entertaining. Brian Doyle was that guy. He regularly blew the doors off of rooms where he’d been invited to talk. He was honest, completely sincere, he laughed, wept, raged, giggled and, perhaps most importantly, welcomed his audience to cradle his very soul. That kind of impact gets around and he was very much in demand.

I appeared at a Cedar Mill Writers meeting, a monthly affair held upstairs at the Cedar Mill Library, to promote my debut novel Ochoco Reach. Stealing what I could from having watched Brian work a room, we had fun and the group asked me back to talk about editing poetry. During my time , I mentioned Brian as a gold standard for writing honestly, passionately, and with deep and genuine humility. A hand went up.

“Do you know Brian?”

“We have a friendly acquaintance.”

“He’s appearing here. At our next meeting.”

“Well. Tell all your members and friends because it’ll be an afternoon you won’t soon forget.”

This seemed to please everyone and my time went on to its conclusion as smooth as a lake at first light. I sent Brian an email that evening, commenting that it was a nice group of people he would probably have a good time with when he showed up and did his thing.

He got back to me: “Hey that’s great man — it is the experience, James — the connecting — the jazz of people reading what you wrote, and of talking books and stories, and of the substance of stories…”

So—I showed up on the appointed day and sat with the others in the room awaiting Mr. Doyle wanting, like everybody else, to be thrilled and inspired. At ten ‘til, the organizers started watching the clock. At straight up we all started looking nervously at each other. At five after, Brian was officially late.

“Maybe he’s lost,” Sheila said.

“Jim, you know him,” said Jean. “Maybe you could go downstairs and see if he’s in the library trying to find us?”


I went downstairs. I was walking by the front doors when I saw Brian drive by, looking for a place to park. Outside I went. Watching Brian get out of the car and walk was a study in bravery and pain management. He saw me and broke into a tired grin.

“Went to the wrong damn library.”

“I did the same thing the first time I came here.”

He nodded as I held the door for him.

Inside he turned and waggled a question mark. I pointed to the far corner. He nodded and we headed that way.

“It’s a room upstairs.”

Concern ruffled his beard.

“Stairs? I don’t do stairs. Is there an elevator?”

“Let’s find out. If not, I’ll have to give you a piggy-back ride.”

The look he shot me could’ve fused metal. Relief was sweet when we both saw the elevator.

“You sure about the piggy-back?”


End of discussion. We were both smiling when the elevator doors snicked shut.

“Much better.”

It went on to be a nice afternoon. Brian worked his magic and I could almost hear the group’s self-esteem and hope grow as he acknowledged and framed our worth as writers and storytellers. His humility was never false and it permeated the room, his passion was overwhelming, offering permission for everyone to feel like we were on the right path as storytellers. It was a humbling gift, given freely and sincerely. We were, and are, all richer for it.

(Brian: Oregon Arts Watch; otter: Reddit)

Posted in Brian Doyle, Conversation, humor, laughing, memory, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

A prayer for my friend Brian Doyle and my grandpuppy Toulouse

This uses the form Brian invented for his Book of Uncommon Prayer and is used here out of deep profound respect–jrs

Who never met but I would offer a few years off my life to watch them measure each other. Brian James Patrick Doyle would have used his stark raving intellect and profound sense of grace as his stick, while Toulouse would have used his nose, mostly. That boy can smell peace and curiosity and kindness and humor like most people can taste a jalapeño potato chip. Brian’s corporal form has been chased off by a “big honkin’ brain tumor” and he is probably trying to figure out how to come back as an otter, but Toulouse, aka Dogboy, Mr. T., Bebe’, or Bubba, is still here at fourteen, which is ninety-eight in dog years. Ninety-eight! I think he might be debunking that whole “dog years” thing because he can still be such a puppy. But his eyesight and hearing aren’t what they used to be, so maybe it is true. Given his seniority, it’s conceivable they could meet somewhere in the ethers when Toulouse says goodbye and lopes off into the sunrise. I’m glad he’s shown no interest in that, so far. But what do I know? Brian was a lifelong believer in Heaven and the Breath, the Creator, the Whole Reason for Christianity, the Holy Endeavor, all the stuff he carried in his beloved Catholicism backpack of a heart. I don’t suppose Mr. T thinks about that stuff a whole lot. He believes in a good belly rub, a bowlful of food, and a long walk at a pace that allows all the sniffing he wants. But this is my prayer and I am giving thanks for them both and asking that they do meet when an opportunity presents itself. Those two together having fun would profoundly brighten the universe. But it might have to happen before Brian comes back as an otter, the most playful wild creature ever. So, yes: amen.

Posted in Brian Doyle, Catholicism, Dogs, Otters, prayer, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments


I’m supposed to be finishing a novel but I’m not. It’s a murky late summer day with an uncertain sky and a directionally challenged breeze smelling of salt and fir, marsh and cedar. My characters are all hovering around the keyboard here staring balefully with their arms folded on their chests. But they sense my mood and say nothing. Even the young Apache girl who occupies much of my recalcitrant story is silent. That worries me some. She’s the one I most want to follow, she and the dog. But she is waiting for me to lead and we are in trouble.

The fur-and-blood dog, who helped me make the dog in the story, just got up and left the room. He’s usually content to lie next to the desk and find some kind of comfort in the erratic tippity-tap of my fingers. He knows a heck of a lot more than anybody thinks he does. I think he’s worried too. He can probably smell my angst, my uncertainty, my fear, my exasperation. Obviously, he’s more comfortable on the couch down the hall.

But wait. He just came back to lie in the doorway. I’m guessing, though, that this is now about maybe an early meal. Oh, I say, it’s all about you, now, is it? He puts his head on his paws and watches silently, like my characters. If he whines, I’ll know it’s about food.

My problem with the novel is that I have not found a way to get my characters into the situation they need to be in for me to tell the story I want to tell. I’ve written up to the predicament; started the post-predicament. I haven’t written the predicament solution because, I’m telling myself, I can’t get them into trouble by any means worthy of my reader. My instincts tell me to take one of the crummy scenarios I’ve discarded and write it anyway, hoping the muse will gift me the plot to get them in dire straits and I can rewrite it when it’s there. But I have resisted this and I don’t know why. Sheer laziness? I’m not sure.

And I’m not sure how the mystery that opens the novel will serve the bigger story I want to tell. That initial action is still throbbing out there like an injured limb. So here I am, typing away, hoping for epiphany and a lovely comfortable muse to take me into her arms and fondly caress me to a solution.

Gad, what a fantasy life. Perhaps, as did Paul Zarzyski, I need to conjure up more of a dominatrix muse, who snaps the whip and flagellates all excuses. I certainly flog the originator of the excuses, but that’s just cruel self-indulgence and does no good, only harm. I wish Brian Doyle was here to explain the catholic-ness of that predilection. He’d probably find himself in that heady state between horror and amusement.

So where do we go now? I’ve been dying to talk to myself like this, in a fundamentally honest way while maintaining some kind of quasi-entertainment value, kind of like a journal entry, but less scribbley. Another fantasy is that someone might want to read this, compelled to carefully tread a dark staircase in hopes of insight into an all too common writer’s dilemma. I know other writers go through this disconsolation of mercurial confidence and ineffectual effort. Maybe I can stumble through to that, now belated, epiphany. At least I’m sitting here clacking the keys.

This suddenly reminds me of the best writing advice I’ve ever had. It came from an anecdote about the great poet William Stafford, whose daily writing practice is legendary. He was asked what he did when the writing wasn’t going well. He mused a moment and then offered: I just lower my expectations.

The dog just whined. Ha!

(Mr. Stafford:; Toulouse: Furt archives)

Posted in Absolutes, animals, Brian Doyle, Dog, Dogs, Gratitude, Novel, Slice of Life, Uncategorized, William Stafford, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments


A young boy, dressed in clean but threadbare jeans and a shirt that might have once been red, took in my leathers and my road-weary black Harley. He then shot me a look that was older than he was. “Mister? What’s it like to ride a motorcycle?”

I decided to tell him the truth. “Kid. It’s so hot your knuckles fry. It’s so cold you want your fingers to fall off because they hurt so bad. But it’s wide high freedom with a joy that transcends to something beyond the howl of the wind and the throb of the motor that becomes so close to the beating of your heart you can’t separate them. It’s a gratitude beyond the food in your belly—beyond the roof under which you live; it’s a paroxysm of elation that sings a song in your heart and you love every note without knowing how it ends. You just can’t describe it exactly, Kid. You just can’t. But you want to keep riding, just in case you find the words that might shine a light on what it’s like so someone else might have a clue. It’s almost a prayer. If I could really share it with everybody, I surely would.”

He pursed his lips, looking for a moment like the old man he would someday be. He nodded. “Thanks.” He stopped at the doorway and looked back at the Harley and me. He nodded again and went inside, probably to look for his mom.

I stood there in the fitful breeze cinching my denim jacket into its windy shape. Time to throw a leg and go. As the motor kicked over I nursed it to a smooth potato-potato and wondered if I’d ever see that kid again. The story didn’t feel done. I filed my shrug to the we’ll see pile.


Posted in Action-adventure, Aging, Conversation, Harley Davdson, Life, men, Motorcycles, Narble Furt, Riding, Slice of Life, story excerpt, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Cleavage Trap

Her passionate eyes
held mine as she elegantly
voiced her heart’s intent.
When she looked away
I snuck a peek into her cleavage
and immediately looked up,
embarrassed, apologizing
to the sky and all
the women in my heart.
But I chanced another glance as soon as I could.

(top:; bottom

Posted in boobs, cleavage, Friendship, Humans, humor, laughing, men, Narble Furt, Poem, Satire, women | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Quiet Despair

The mirror barks
a noiseless disdain;
the backward eyes
shadow quiet despair;
a vacancy of intent, where
a blink hides nothing.

(image: the

Posted in Aging, anger, Brain, Hope, Humans, Life, Poem, Right now, Uncategorized, Wisdom | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Amble du Jour

The dog catches my eye
and whines his question:
“Now, Boss, now?”
An idea: the smell of salt
opens my mind.
I laugh and nod.
He stands with a clatter
of claws on hardwood,
tail high and boisterous, as
he prances around the couch.
His eager head presses through
the red leash harness
and we’re out the door,
through the dunes,
onto the moor,
hearts on the fly in
our amble du jour.


Tillamook Head
Posted in animals, Beach, Dog, Dogs, family, Friendship, Gratitude, Morning, Ocean, Oregon, pals, Poem, walking | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Universe Understood

the universe is–
a way to understand
and make small enough
a vastness into parts.
Your mind will never
grasp the whole, no,
that is a feeling
for your soul
to warm when
cold clasps your heart
and galaxies never seen
seem almost familiar
and close enough
to nod acquaintance.
Understanding is
accepting you cannot.

Posted in Absolutes, Art, Brain, Consciousness, Humans, Poem, Quantum flash, Uncategorized, Universe | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Tag, I’m It

Birds play tag:
close-drill flitting,
chasers suddenly chased
at the flick of a feather.
I laugh;
my mind flips like they do,
but without their agility.
I am honored to watch,
bathed in their game,
humored with their compassion.


Posted in Birds, Brain, Flying, Gratitude, Humans, humor, Joy, laughing, Poem, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Looking Up

(for William Stafford)

Your poems run the gamut;
you have blessed us with music
of realization and understanding.
Many of those poems were born
on your couch, lying on your back,
looking up at your journal.
Really? Their birth is as
astonishing as their venerable lives.

Posted in Art, birth, Gratitude, Music, Oregon, Poem, Poetry, Uncategorized, William Stafford, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments