John Erickson always wanted to be a great author. And he ended up writing a great series of books—about a Texas cowdog! Hear how his stories
started— and how you can help your kids can start telling stories of their own. That’s next on Home School Heartbeat.
Farris: This week, we’re really thrilled to have John Erickson on the program with us. He’s the author of the Hank the Cowdog
series. He joins me now—John, welcome to the program!
John Erickson: Hi, Mike. We’re a homeschool family and admire
Mike: Well, thank you very much. John, one of your most recent books is a nonfiction work called Story Craft,
in which you talk about your vocation as “writing good stories for people who need good stories.” Your Hank the Cowdog stories are certainly really
popular—but what do you mean by good stories?
John: Mike, I view writing more as a craft than as art. Craft uses structure
to achieve function. If it succeeds, it might also be art. A good coat fits, a good meal nourishes, a good house sheds water. A good story should
make us laugh or cry, it should impart wisdom, coherence, and hope. It should reveal the beauty of God’s creation, and find justice in human
experience. I think it’s a reasonable expectation for art to make people better than they were before they encountered it. If it doesn’
t, then what’s the point?
Mike: That is an excellent description, John! I’m really glad to have shared that
with our listeners.
Mike: Would you tell our listeners where you got your best instruction on writing?
: You know, I was in college for six years at the University of Texas and Harvard Divinity School, and I took several courses in writing,
but I think that my best instruction came from a woman who never went to college and had never written anything longer than a letter in her life,
and that was my mother.
When I was five years old, I stayed home from kindergarten and I just hung out with my mother for a year. And she
was a storyteller. She had a sweet, earthy sense of humor, and she also read Bible stories to me. And my mother told me, she said, ”John, God
has given you a talent, too, and you should always guard it and use it wisely.”
And when I—35 years later—when I was getting rejection
slips from New York publishers, that’s what kept me going. It was nothing I heard in a college classroom. My mother was the best teacher I
ever had. She’s the one who gave me a sense of vocation.
Mike: John, that is great encouragement for parents who are
listening, who are willing to invest that kind of time with their own children, and to tell them their own stories.
You didn’t set out to start to write folksy stories about a dog. Would you tell our listeners how you ended up finding the stories that you
John: You know, when I started writing, I was a college student. And the only model I knew about was kind of an
intellectual approach, a literary approach. And I tried that for a number of years. And I was just a failure at being a sophisticated,
So I started writing stories about where I was and what I was doing. I was working as a ranch cowboy, and I started
imitating the storytelling techniques that my mother had used when I was a little boy and that ranch people still use to this day, because they had
an oral tradition of storytelling. And that is when I wrote the first Hank the Cowdog story, and that’s when my writing started to shine.
Mike: So what would you say to aspiring young writers when they ask you where do they look for stories?
: I would say, write what you know and love, leave the reader better than he was before, and don’t write anything that would shame
Mike: John, when you talk to students, what advice do you give them on learning to write well?
John: One of the first things we have to do is master the mechanics of our language: the grammar. I offer “Jesus wept” as an example of a
great sentence, because there’s no ambiguity about it. There’s no dishonesty. We also have to encourage kids to revise. I revise my
Hank books probably twenty times before they’re ever published.
I’d also say that it’s important to live before you write.
It’s not reasonable to expect our kids to be writing good or great novels when they’re 12 years old. They need to experience a lot
about life. And that includes cooking meals, raising children, attending funerals and weddings.
I prepare myself by spending a lot of time
by myself contemplating, thinking about my role in the universe, and what I can do to enhance God’s plan. Those are all things that a writer
has to do that we don’t think about.
Mike: John, your Hank the Cowdog stories are a lot of fun to read, but they also
contain a lot of truth. Do you think authors and stories actually make a difference in the lives of their readers?
think people are a lot of times shaped by great books. I was shaped by the King James Bible. It’s branded all over my soul. And also, in the
fourth grade, my teacher read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer aloud to us, and that had a profound effect on me. I’ve got the marks of Mark
Twain all over the Hank the Cowdog stories.
Christians are people of the Book. And as Gene Edward Veith, one of my favorite writers has
said, “Christians must read.” And that means we seek out good stories. Good stories should bring pleasure but also affirm structure and
meaning in human events. A good story should reveal beauty and justice in human experience, and those are deeply Christian concepts. They’re
not secular. You won’t find them in Charles Darwin or Friedrich Nietzsche.
Mike: John, we really appreciate your
insights and for joining me this week! It’s been wonderful to talk about writing, and I hope our listeners will be inspired to read some of
your wonderful books! I’m Mike Farris.