Happy first birthday, ‘Outsider’

I was hiking with my friend Bill on a hot July morning when we got to talking about the book I wrote. He’d already read it – he was actually in it – and gave me the kind of cool feedback you really dig as a writer. It was a fun way to keep the conversation going that morning as we put in a few miles on some of my favorite local trails.

Altitude wasn’t the issue, obviously. Bill was used to hiking at 12,000 feet and up, and nothing goes much higher than 800 feet in Tulsa. But he’d been kind enough to surprise me by showing up for an informal launch party the night before, so I figured I owed him a hike before he flew back to Denver.

“Hot,” was his main observation. Colorado gets heat. But not Southern Plains heat.

As far as the book? He noted how its title, “Outsider,” was appropriate to me. I’d orbited Colorado’s 14er hiking community for years but wasn’t really quite part of it. At least not in the way that Coloradoans are. The same could also be said for the local trail running community, one I don’t get to interact with nearly as much as I’d like because I work nights and they all have normal gigs that allow for plenty of night time, early morning and weekend get-togethers. So I orbit that group, too.

Not that I realized it. It took someone looking at that book, and at me, to point it out. As it turns out, there was a layer to “Outsider” that even I wasn’t aware of.

That’s the kind of thing writers live for, to see how something we create affects others, to see how readers interpret it, relate to it, and maybe even get moved by it. As of this week, I’m one year removed from when “Outsider” was published. You dream in your head it was like a countdown to a rocket launch, or some other big deal, but it was just a click of a button on my computer and presto! People could order it without the slightest bit of ceremony.

When a book comes out, I imagine a lot of writers fantasize about hitting that New York Times best-sellers list. Maybe getting interviewed on the Today show, or get chosen by Oprah’s book club. You dream about launching this new, big thing that will finally give you the freedom to do what you love for the rest of your life, and live out the rags-to-riches tale of J.K. Rowling. I know I did. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. It didn’t for me.

I told people I had three goals. First, break even. Even self-publishing has costs, and if you really care about your work, you’re going to invest in it. My hope in this regard was to at least recoup my costs. Second was to make enough money to fix my car. Years of deferred maintenance had piled up, and the price tag to cover this multitude of sins wasn’t small.

So far, check and check.

Third, I really wanted to make enough to get an adventure-worthy rig that could take me to the backcountry places I love. It would be nice to not always be the guy bumming rides from people with high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. I haven’t made that goal yet.

But those weren’t really my aims. And I knew better than to pin my hopes on becoming the next big name in the publishing world. What I really wanted to do was write something honest, something I could be proud of, and something that would affect people in a positive way. I hoped to communicate the way the outdoors has blessed me and describe how wonderful the people I’ve met and traveled with really are.

“Outsider” is about all those things, and more. It’s about family. About grief. And God. It’s about being lost, but finding yourself in the midst of wilderness, both physical and metaphorical. It’s about finding healing in those wild, difficult and beautiful places. That’s what I hoped to communicate, anyway.

On that note, feedback was more valuable than the money. My friend Matt brought a bunch of his California friends to town late last summer, and one of his buds had read it. She wanted to talk to me about it, particularly about the chapter on my oldest brother Mike. Reviews posted online were gratifying. And just this week, a friend of mine texted this: “Your book struck a deep chord in me.” These conversations, reviews and other messages help me believe that maybe I don’t suck after all.

That might sound a little sappy, but here’s the reality of writing a book: It’s a lot like anything else someone builds from scratch. You write a paragraph, then a page, then a chapter. You string those chapters together. You edit. Revise. Tweak. Edit again. And again. And again. Eventually, you check the last box, call it good, and send it to market, the same way a carpenter might take simple boards and end up with a fantastic piece of furniture, or a custom bike builder would take sheet metal, a frame, a motor and scores of parts and fashion a road-worthy machine. A lot of time, effort and love goes into that kind of work, and that’s what makes it meaningful. The hope is that the effort and meaning you place in that comes through with satisfied buyers.

And this is the point where I have to offer some gratitude. A good number of you all plunked down a few bucks to buy a copy of “Outsider,” and for that I’m hugely grateful. You invested in the thing that took me a few years to build. My sister and parents became a pro bono marketing machine, so there are a bunch of copies of the book floating around in Texas right now. And more of you helped the cause by word-of-mouth via social media and in person with your friends and family. It really does take a village.

So what now? Well, there’s always something on the fire. A few interviews done here, a few more to get there. A chapter written. I guess I need a little more time in the shop.

If you haven’t read ‘Outsider’ and would like a copy, you can order it here.

Bob Doucette

Proactiveoutside turns four!

Adventure anyone?

Adventure anyone?

I hope everyone out there had a great Thanksgiving holiday. I know I did, and more on that is to come.

But first, another little milestone. This site turned four years old today!

It’s been a heck of a ride. I’ve put a bunch of stuff in here about fitness and running, and if you’ve been a reader here for very long, you’ve seen a good number of posts about different hikes, climbs and travels that have taken me close to home, into the Rockies and beyond.

So after four years, you might ask, why do I keep doing this? I can tell you first off that it’s not about the money. I don’t make my living writing in this space.

I do it because I love it. This site gives me a space to write about things that interest me (and hopefully interest you), and at times, a platform to talk about issues and advocate for causes that are important. Health, fitness, the outdoors, conservation, running — you name it.

But as time has passed, I’ve found another huge value — interacting with you.

Plenty of you write in the comments, or find me via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I’ve even met a few of you on the trail, which is pretty awesome. Through those interactions, I’ve heard some of your incredible stories of athletic accomplishments and outdoor adventure. I’d do this if almost nobody read it, but it’s so much better because of the readers. I value every click, every comment and every share.

So thanks for hanging out with me for the past four years at Proactiveoutside. More stories of outdoor adventure are coming soon, and maybe some bigger things in the not-to-distant future. So stay tuned.

Again, thanks for reading!

Bob Doucette

Caught in a lie: Storytelling, personal branding, and the temptation that befell Brian Williams

Stories of adventure are often some of the best, but they're only worth as much as the truth within them.

Stories of adventure are often some of the best, but they’re only worth as much as the truth within them.

Going back a few years, I can remember a conversation I had with a gal named Katrina during our freshman year in college. Being a dippy 18-year-old trying to impress a cute girl, I was trying my best to give off a positive vibe that I hoped would be returned. So I started telling all these goofy tales of what my friends and I did back in high school.

Her response: She said I was good at telling stories. “I guess I am a storyteller,” is what I said in return.

Nothing ever happened between me and Katrina, but that conversation stuck. At the time, I had no clue what I was going to become later in life, but here I am, many years later, and being a storyteller is a major part of who I am.

The process of becoming this thing, this “storyteller,” has been a gradual one of learning to observe and to write, to work for peanuts while honing my craft, and of course, reading the works of good writers who have taken their trade further than me. Storytelling has taken me to desperate neighborhoods, lonely rural towns, sporting events and crime scenes. The horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, the destruction from some of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded, and interviewing a death row inmate two days before his execution (then watching him die in the death chamber) stick out as some of the most colorful and unforgettable moments in this still evolving career in writing.

Lately, I’ve shied away from all that stuff and turned my efforts toward the outdoors. The stories I find there – the people, the places, and how they interact – have become far more interesting to me than what had turned into an endless parade of shootings, stabbings, criminal trials and storm stories.

The one constant in all of these experiences, however, is that a good story carries itself. If it’s really worth telling, it won’t need any add-ons, embellishments or unnecessary injections of self to make it worth reading.

The temptation, however, is for storytellers to make something more of the story – and maybe of themselves – than what’s really there. Infamous fabricators like Greg Mortenson,  Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass come to mind, creating stories from composites of different people they know, or even just making things up as they went along for the sake of beefing up their careers.

Sneakier still – storytellers relating a real event, one in which they had some proximity, and then making their own experiences something bigger than they actually were.

Brian Williams has made a lot of headlines of late for growing a story over the years about how a military helicopter in which he rode during the early days of the Iraq war came under fire from Iraqi troops.

Brian Williams, who is now sitting out the next six months as NBC Nightly News anchor because of falsehoods exposed in his stories about his experiences in the Iraq war.

Brian Williams, who is now sitting out the next six months as NBC Nightly News anchor because of falsehoods exposed in his stories about his experiences in the Iraq war.

The real story is that it was a different helicopter that absorbed a round from an RPG, not the one Williams was in. That chopper landed in the same place Williams’ ride came to rest minutes later, which is how he learned about what had happened.

The two things I get from this: First, it sounds far more dramatic to say that it was your helicopter that took fire, and certainly it gives you more “cred” as a war correspondent to be able to tell a tale in which you were in mortal danger while doing your job. But second, is there still a good story to be told by sticking to the facts?

The answer, obviously, is yes. Talking about others whose experiences are as dramatic as wartime combat is fodder for excellent storytelling. But given the choice between the more exciting version of events in which he falsely inserted himself into the action or a more pedestrian approach of putting others’ stories above himself, Williams chose the former.

That, my friends, is the danger facing any storyteller today, maybe more so now than in times past. There is so much emphasis placed on building personal brands, even in professional journalism, that the temptation becomes that much more intense. The problem is if a fabrication is unearthed, the damage to personal credibility is crippling and a brand is ruined.

I see this as a huge pitfall among those of us writing about outdoor experiences. Unlike mass media journalism, outdoor writing as a niche is much more cramped with far fewer opportunities to make hay than what you see in other realms. Building personal brands becomes that much more crucial, and when it comes to establishing credibility, a lot of it depends not just on how well you can tell that story, but on the things you actually do while outside. So people spend a lot of time carefully crafting an image, documenting trips and feats, dragging along their friends to film/photograph them or, in increasingly common fashion, employing the use of GoPro cameras or selfie sticks. The more rad, the better, because Lord knows no one wants to follow a lame Instagram feed.

Fortunately, the fakers are usually easy to catch. Routes can be checked, and photos can be compared to similar images other people have taken. The Adventure Journal recently wrote up a really good piece on Cesare Maestri’s decades-old claims on an ascent on Cerro Torre in 1959, and how they’ve come under new scrutiny. There is a lot to be gained for someone successfully gaining a summit like that, even before “personal branding” became the thing that it is today. There is also much to lose if that feat is exposed as false.

Cerro Torre. Any attempt to summit that peak, successful or not, would make for dramatic storytelling. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Cerro Torre. Any attempt to summit that peak, successful or not, would make for dramatic storytelling. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

I could easily see how getting turned back on a peak like Cerro Torre would be extremely dramatic. There just aren’t many towers like that in the world, especially those in harsh places like Patagonia. It might not be as compelling as overcoming the elements and gaining the summit, but it is far better than a falsehood unraveling for everyone to see.

So that brings me back to the essence of good storytelling. The tale has to be compelling and well-told, but it also has to be true, even if you have to diminish yourself during the course of its telling. Readers are interested in a good story, but Katrina and people just like her know the difference between a storyteller and a bullshitter. That’s something Mr. Williams knows all too well right now.

Bob Doucette