Heart of the Treasure Valley: To writer Alan Heathcock, 'telling stories is an act of hope'

kjones@idahostatesman.comJanuary 26, 2014 

Alan Heathcock in his office - a 1967 Road Runner Travel Trailer parked beside his house

Alan Heathcock is a writer. His office is a 1967 Road Runner Travel Trailer parked beside his house. He spends his days there pacing, talking to himself, reading, watching movies, whatever it takes to get his imagination humming. But for all of that, he says, writing is not so much about putting words to paper. "Writing is a way of life; it’s a way of seeing the world,” he says. “ … To be deeply engaged, intensely engaged, in the world. And paying attention to everything. I just don’t think there’s any better way to be living.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • IN TWO WEEKS

    Meet Carleigh Coba, 14, Alan Heathcock’s stepdaughter, who reflects on the power of one person to make a difference, in the Feb. 9 Heart of the Treasure Valley column.

  • Alan Heathcock once attended a book club where the ladies had read his book, “Volt,” which “is intense and has a lot about grief and confusion and different things like that.” Americans in particular, he says, have difficulty being able to express and discuss grief.

    “One lady said, ‘Well, I read your stories and I gotta say I just found them kind of depressing.’ Then another lady spoke and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t really understand people.’ She said, ‘I remember when Princess Diana died and everybody was laying flowers down and everybody was so sad about Princess Diana. And I’m, like, just get over yourself.’

    “And I tried to be diplomatic about it, but she ticked me off. That’s a big problem that I have, and I said, ‘No. You are the reason why people can’t grieve the deaths of their own family members; (why) they can’t come to a party and say, ‘Somebody in my family just died and I’m having a hard time with it.’ Who knows what’s happening in this room right now? Maybe something’s happened this week and someone’s not feeling good right now. Maybe someone would be better if they could find a way to be less alone with whatever trial they’re going through.

    “But because you giggle and say, ‘I found this depressing,’ that is saying, … ‘It is not acceptable to come into this ground and to share something that is unpleasant.’

    “And so what happens is that people swallow it. They just go through the world completely alone — and then Princess Diana dies and suddenly it is publicly acceptable to show grief for someone you don’t really even know. And then you bring the flowers out, and then you express grief because finally, finally, it’s acceptable.

    “I think we have a big problem just being able to express the trials of our lives so that we feel less alone with them and (so that we) find a connection with other people.

    “It’s a tricky thing; I’m still trying to get my head around that part of it. I can at least say telling a story is an act of hope — because what you’re trying to do is make a connection and to be less alone with the experience that is being you.”

  • Alan Heathcock on following your dream

    “If you want to do something, even if it’s a crazy thing, you should do it. And you should do it without a safety net or some sense that you need a backup plan. …

    “My oldest (step)son, Andrew Coba (who is 17), is an incredibly talented musician. He’s making an album and Curtis Stigers is producing it. … People get nervous, like, ‘What is he going to be?’ He’s going to be a musician. ‘What do you mean, he’s going to be a musician.’ … I tell him if that’s what you want to be, then let’s just say that’s what you want to be, and you’ll be that so long as you don’t quit.

    “And — so long as you understand, be very clear-eyed in what you have to do to be a musician, all the hard work you have to put in. …You can’t take shortcuts, you can’t delude yourself, and (if) you just do your work every day, you’ll be fine.

    “ … (In my own life, this means) I’ve never said that I’m not a writer. Even when I was teaching, ‘I’m a writer who teaches on the side.’ …

    “(I remember someone) was trying to get me to come to a position in their organization and they said, ‘Well, you know, 95 percent of all people who call themselves writers do something else.’ And I said, ‘In that case, I’m for sure not taking the job. Because I want to be in that five percent. I don’t want to be in that 95 percent, so thank you.’

    “ … The metaphor is: You’re on a tightrope and you have to get to the other side. …If you’re in the middle going, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, most people, if they have a safety net, allow themselves to fall. If you don’t have a safety net, you can’t fall. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, controlling whatever you have to control to get to the other side.”

“Tell us a story about when you were a little girl,” I’d beg my mother at bedtime. Not knowing it at the time, these stories were how I learned who she was and — who I was, connected in history.

“Tell us a story when you were a little boy,” I’d turn to my father. The life of coal miners and stern uncles would spring to life and my sisters and I learned about hard times and boney piles, working in the mines and steel mills.

I never fully understood why those stories were such treasures to me, but Alan Heathcock helps me decipher.

He says: “It’s just a truth to the human experience that we’re all separate … separated by the domes of our skulls and the fabric of our skin. …

“This is the great grief of being alive. We struggle to figure out how to let other people understand us and how to understand someone who is not us.”

It’s a conundrum that has kept theologians and philosophers employed for eons, but before you roll your eyes and leave it to them, consider that each of us — including my storytelling parents — already knows at least part of the solution. We do it every day, all the time.

We walk through the front door after work, kiss our sweetie and say, “How was your day, honey?” Over dinner, we turn to our companion and say, “How do you like your pork chop?”

“You’re in your body there, completely alone, and only understood if you choose to tell the story of this moment to me. ‘Does the food taste as good to you as it does to me?’

“This is how we share the experience of being alive.”

Alan is a writer. Even for the 16 years when he was teaching about writing, Alan still called himself a writer. In 2011, he published his first book, “Volt,” which was received with much critical and popular acclaim.

“I think telling stories is an act of hope … because what you’re trying to do is make a connection and to be less alone with the experience that is being you. And that is valid, no matter if you’re telling a great romantic story or something that’s funny or something that’s terrible and sad.”

Stories become a bridge between one person and another, between my experience and yours, my parents’ and mine; stories are our way of connecting. So we tell lots of them. Constantly. And we listen, too.

“We try our best to tell stories so … that we will be understood. If we pay attention well enough, we can allow someone else not to feel alone and to feel understood. And that’s important.”

It’s important, way beyond bedtime stories — and not just to a guy like him, who makes a living selling books and stories.

“It’s so important to the foundation of the human experience. It’s also an explanation, if I want to get really grandiose, of all crime, of all conflict, of all war. Somehow there’s been a breakdown where one person or a group of people feel as if they’ve been misunderstood — that their story has not been heard.”

Alan has done a lot of thinking about this, because that’s what he does. And while, as a teacher, he helped students understand the craft of writing (which is important), he’s come to realize that what’s more fundamental, more essential, is to understand the power of a story.

A power that builds — and also destroys.

“When I say that we all want to (bridge our separateness) — we don’t. As much as people yearn to be understood and yearn to feel less alone, we’re also incredibly self-destructive and oftentimes ruled by fear and doubt and shame and jealousies — all the tragic parts of the human experience that keep us apart.

“And that makes us think that we don’t want to share our stories. That we won’t be understood, that we have to destroy those who might misunderstand us. Sometimes we feel that’s easier: I’m just going to be a hermit, I’m not going to risk being misunderstood, so I’m keeping my story to myself.”

Much of what Alan writes and speaks about explores what it means to be human in the face of such gut-wrenching tragedy; such cruelty, loneliness, hatred, self-destruction.

“For a long time, I wondered why I was drawn so much to telling stories. I realized not long into (writing) my book (that) I tell stories as a way of making sense of the world — particularly things that scare and confound me. It’s a necessity.

It took Alan 16 years to write “Volt,” patiently working and reworking until he was satisfied with what he was going to send out into the world. “Volt” is a collection of short stories, one of which is about a man who accidentally kills his son in a farm accident and has to deal with his own grief.

The story is based on something that happened in Alan’s family, and at his very first reading, at Powell’s Books in Portland, Alan had a powerful experience.

“This lady came up to me and said, ‘I read your story. I’ve been dealing with the death of my son. He was killed in a car accident and reading your story helped me look at some of this stuff. … Thank you.’

“That’s … what got me thinking about the power of a story, because the connection you make — it’s not fiction. I’m writing stories … but it’s a real bridge you build between one consciousness and another. That lady felt less alone and that’s an incredible thing.

“So all the years of me sitting by myself (writing), you let other people feel not so alone — and then you’re not so alone, too.

“That’s a cool thing. And it doesn’t have a politic and it doesn’t have a race; it doesn’t have a gender and it doesn’t have an age or a socio-economic group.”

The ability of a story to transcend those kinds of lines has also amazed Alan. He has given readings and taught workshops as far north as Barrow, Alaska (in the wintertime, even), across the United States and as far south as Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“ … If you enter a room with art, everywhere we went, we’d have hundreds of people and we would just talk about the power of story and art (without) the static and tension. It was gone. You can finally have a conversation that is strictly about the human experience and that breaks down all barriers … ”

Alan speaks with a passion that is just ever so slightly intimidating in its intensity. But his ideas resonate deep into the heart, as this little girl must have sensed years ago in her requests to her parents.

Understanding is the doorway to compassion. And writing is a powerful path to understanding.

Take, for example, “The Diary of a Young Girl,” which Alan gives as an example. Millions of people went into concentration camps; who we remember is Anne Frank.

“Because what we get from the diary of Anne Frank is not just the facts of a girl’s life. We get her consciousness. We get her.

“We get the way she was feeling about her parents and her lonesomeness and her doubts, her desperate desire to be a writer, and in the midst of all this, we also get war and isolation (and the context of the Holocaust).

“What literature does … is it allows us to become someone who is not us. We get to be Anne Frank. … ”

Which is why literature is so critical, Alan says, his voice growing in intensity, his vision soaring beyond the horizon.

“We need to champion books, we need to champion literature, we need to make sure we have bookstores, we have libraries, we have funding for Head Start programs. …

“Literature has (greater) value other than, hey Johnny, read a book. No, no. It’s much more important than that. It teaches us how to be better human beings.

“It makes us be better human beings.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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