“Storytelling’s in our DNA,” Richard Gilbert tells me, when we meet to discuss his newly published “Shepherd: A Memoir.” Driven by a legacy in farming and love of the land, his book tells the story of the Southern Ohio farm that he and his family bought and restored. Gilbert’s narrative explores both the immense challenges and joys of this experience. We spoke about the book, the genre of memoir and his approach to tending language.
One of the things I learned through working on “Shepherd: A Memoir” was to work with different aspects of the persona. There’s you, then the person depicted in the action who doesn’t know more than what he’s mired in. And then you have the writer at his desk, writing it, who can reflect and bring wisdom and another voice to it.
I don’t think of myself as a patient person, but farming forced me to be. You cannot rush things, and nature bats last. You were kind of happy in farming when things were boring; boring was good. When seasons change, you have to change. It’s really hard to reposition. In writing, I plunge in impatiently. But what I did with this book was I didn’t give up when it took me seven years.
I believe in discovery and a lot of material. When you’re working on something, that’s when you’re like a magnet and things just find you.
I wrote for three hours a day, seven days a week, for about a year at a time. I liked to do this early, before teaching. I’ve found that with me (and I compose at the keyboard, almost exclusively), the first hour I spent re-entering the work. And then in the second hour I’d start to produce new material. And in the third hour, if I was going to get anything good, that’s where it would be. My hourly rate is about a page an hour.
We evolved to receive stories in-person from somebody who had survived or witnessed something. We’re very comfortable and familiar with, and want the wisdom of the survivor.
We naturally tend to tell things chronologically, but there are ways to make it even better. To start closer to the bone, and to incorporate reflection. There’s a real synergy for me now between writing and teaching. Writing has definitely made me a better teacher.
Job: Writer and teacher (Otterbein University)
Book most recently read and loved: “Population: 485,” Michael Perry
Favorite landscape in Ohio: Hocking Hills or Chillicothe
Favorite trees: Oak and honeylocust
Favorite restaurant: The Wine Bistro (Westerville)
Current Earworm: “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show