By Sarah Pride; pictures by Art Cox
Patrick Henry College
John Erickson delights his audience in the Grand Lobby of PHC's Barbara Hodel Center with the gentle humor of Hank the Cowdog
“A lot of what I have to say about professional writing makes little children cry and their mothers very mad,” Mr. Erickson drawled on Saturday morning. “There’s nothing I can say to turn a kid who’s not supposed to be a writer into a writer, or to stop someone who is.”
Through decades of challenging, physical labor on his own and others’ ranches, Erickson discovered the stories God wanted him to write—the humorous tales of Hank the Cowdog, head of ranch security, and his gentle but dimwitted companion, Drover. Even then, nothing came easy; regular publishers wouldn’t print the books, so Erickson started his own company. He sold his books out of the back of his trailer.
Now, an established publisher and 4.5 million copies later, Erickson has settled into a regular routine. He wakes before dawn and trudges to his office. The room bears one decoration, a human skull that he bought years ago in Mexico City, to remind him, as he writes in Story Craft, “that I have work to do and the clock is running.” He pours his coffee and then, for the next four and a half hours, he writes.
“I discovered a while back that four and a half hours is about my limit before I start getting tired,” he noted. “Then I have to go do some manual labor.”
Erickson belts out a song from one of the Hank books, celebrating the "manly" (dogly?) perfume of rotten meat
“Human beings acquire dignity and meaning through obedience to God, just like that bronc,” concluded Erickson. “When a biblical message emerges unannounced from a respectable entertainment medium, both the message and the medium are elevated.”
Erickson recently encapsulated this lesson and much more in Story Craft, an excellent, short book about his life as a Christian writer. With an introduction by Dr. Gene Edward Veith, PHC Provost, and a foreword by Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth and other books, Story Craft gives a privileged peek into the trials and disciplines of an author who has sought to submit his craft to the will of God. It outlines Erickson’s own path, lays out principles of Christian authorship, and gives tasty tidbits of practical advice.
“Young writers should be speaking out against stories that are formless, chaotic, selfish, and disgusting,” writes Erickson. “Their mission should be to do what artists deserving of the title have always done: bring light into the world, find order in chaos, and provide nourishment, hope, and meaning to people who need it. Art that can do that is heroic. Art that can’t is a fraud.”
This new book bears the dedication, “To the students and faculty of Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, Virginia.” As Erickson relates, he gained the idea for the book when PHC Trustee George Clay originally “dragged” him to visit PHC in 2007.
“I don’t have a lot of respect for American institutes of higher learning,” he said. “I think they’re poisonous. But I saw something different at Patrick Henry. So I’ll take the effort to crawl out of my canyon and come speak to you all about things I don’t talk about much with anyone else.”
More than crawl out, Erickson invited others in. This last summer, he and his wife, Kris, hosted ten PHC students out on their ranch for a week. The students cooked their own breakfast and cleaned up, held devotions in the shade, and then participated in all ranch activities.
“We live a pretty solitary life. That was a risk for us—and it was a good one. We met some good kids,” smiled Erickson.
One of the students, Nikki Georgacakis, served an internship with Erickson and helped him assemble Story Craft for publication. The finished paperback volume, slim and attractive, sells for $12.99.
“I hope to invite some more students next May,” Erickson said.