In wintertime, some UW-Eau Claire students used to ride down the hill on lunch trays from the campus cafeteria.When Ron Davis was a freshman at UW-Eau Claire, he would ride his first motorcycle down the hill from his apartment by the former Shopko building and park it down by the science building. After class, he said it was “pretty humiliating” to bump start it in front of all the other riders. Years later, he’s still riding with his BMW G310GS – his fifth BMW. In the time between that first motorcycle and his current one, Ron Davis has seen, heard, and experienced a thing or two. Davis recounts these life experiences and his love of riding in his recently published collection of articles and essays, Shiny Side Up: Musings on the Improbable Inclination to Travel on Two Wheels.
I had the chance to catch up with Davis about Shiny Side Up and his love of riding – and writing.
Rebecca Mennecke: What inspired you to write your book about motorcycle riding — Shiny Side Up?
Ron Davis: About five years ago I had written a number of stories for motorcycle mags and for Wisconsin Public Radio, and the editor of BMW Owners News asked me if I would write a monthly column. I didn’t think I could come up with something every month, but he said, “Just give me one year.” Five years later, I had a bundle of more than 50 essays, and a publisher urged me to compile them into a book. I had thought of that before, but this was the first time I had been offered a book deal. It’s hard to say what inspires me as a writer. All my life, once I get an idea for a story, my brain won’t let me rest until I get it down on paper. It may have something to do with the fact I come from a family of voracious readers, and my father was a newspaper guy. It’s always been, I can’t not write, for some reason. For instance, I recently did a story for Volume One about a tragic circus accident that happened in Eau Claire in 1901. Somebody had mentioned a kernel of the story to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I did the research and wrote the story.
RM: I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, but I still found your book to be humorous, quite clever, and extremely relatable. How did you balance your writing to appeal to both folks in the motorcycle-riding community as well as folks like me who have never touched a motorcycle before?
RD: Many of the stories in my columns and in the book have a pretty thin connection to motorcycling. In fact, once, after a story called “The Grand Adventure” was published, a reader sent in a letter to the editor asking, “What the heck does this have to do with motorcycling?” My answer was, “Not very much,” but my editor gives me a lot of rope. I write about personal experiences that somehow, luckily, resonate with readers – riders or not.
RM: You have quite a bit of humor in your writing! How can a writer learn to incorporate more humor into their work, as you have done in your essays?
RD: I guess most of the humor in my writing is self-deprecating. I think that’s often the key to being successful with humor. If you watch stand-up comedians like Jim Gaffigan, you’ll see much of their humor is based on confessing to their own imperfections. There’s a connection, maybe a kind of relief to hear, or read, someone else talk, write, about human foibles—pride, impulsiveness, conceit, etc. Your question made me remember a creative writing class I took in high school. We had to turn in journals and the teacher, with whom I was hopelessly infatuated, would read them silently as we worked on something else. I could tell when she was reading mine, and sometimes I would catch her giggling about something I wrote. That forever hooked me on trying to incorporate humor in my work.
RM: You also have a very down-to-earth tone throughout the book. How do you achieve that fun, casual manner of writing?
RD: I try to write like I’m telling a story to a friend. It’s strange how many hours you can spend crafting a story on paper to make it sound “casual!” When I taught writing classes, I used to force university students to tell a partner their stories before they started their first draft, and I think that gave them a little insight into what worked and what didn’t.
RM: In chapter 12, “A Long, Strange Trip” you argue that riders “attach special meaning to the phrase, ‘The journey is the destination,’ but sometimes our destinations can change the way we feel about our journeys.” Did you find this phrase to be true when you were writing the book?
RD: “A Long, Strange Trip” – about a story of a Nazi work camp survivor and his family – turned out to be one of my favorite stories. I initially wanted to write the story just for the subject’s family since, though really amazing, it had never been put down on paper. But it made me rethink my own life also. I think writing has always been a way of learning about myself, and when you see your writing in print, hear it on the radio, or get a response from a reader, it also changes your self-image.
RM: Riding motorcycles is clearly something you love a lot! What was it like to incorporate your love of riding into your writing?
RD: Truth be told, I’m not a die-hard rider anymore; in fact, the older I get and the more dangers I see for riders, the more it scares me. I guess I’m more what you would call “an enthusiast.” No pun intended, but writing about motorcycling is just a “vehicle” for me to write about the things that make us human.
RM: Let’s talk about your clever titles! “How to Lose Friends and Influence Absolutely No One,” “The Happy Camper,” “We Are What We Speak,” “Welcome to My Nightmare: The Parking Lot,” and so many more! How do you come up with such great titles?
RD: I’ve never been very good at writing headlines for features and news stories, but you have much more freedom when it comes to columns and essays – it’s okay to be obscure or to turn a hackneyed phrase or basically steal a title from elsewhere. It’s fun to fool around with those. Usually I write a few, wait a while, then settle on one; sometimes I get overruled by an editor.
RM: You also have some pretty fun pictures and graphics throughout the book. How do you use images to work with your writing?
RD: I guess one thing that has made my columns and essays unique is I usually try to include some sort of image with them that ties in. Just like my need to write, since I was a photography teacher for 30 years, I can’t resist the impulse to include some kind of image. Even for my stories that have been featured on “Wisconsin Life,” I try to offer my own image for the web archive.
RM: Although your book focuses primarily on riding, you also explore other themes! How do relate your other life experiences back to motorcycles?
RD: Sometimes you have to kind of amalgamate experiences, which is permissible in the kind of writing I usually do. Motorcycles have been a part of my life, off and on, for a long time, so it’s usually not too hard to weave in some sort of connection. In my last column I wrote about a rather unfortunate high school experience where a former girlfriend knocked me off my feet in front of half of the school with what I later surmised was a five pound purse. I sort of co-mingled that story with another time I was jealous over seeing a different girlfriend on another guy’s Royal Enfield motorcycle.
RM: In chapter 33, you say “The more I learn, the less I’m sure I know.” How can this also be true of writing, as it is with riding?
RD: Every time I get something published, for a moment I feel pretty good about myself as a writer, then I read somebody else. Like right now I’m reading a lot of Richard Russo, and I am instantly humbled. Every writing project presents new and unique challenges, just like every road I cover on a bike. Like Heraclitus once one wrote “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” You can never step into the same river, just as you can never ride the same road when you’re on a bike.
In addition to teaching high school and university classes in writing, photography, and publishing, and working as a social media writer for the tourism industry in Northwest Ontario, Davis works as an associate editor and columnist for BMW Owners News and has had writing appear in BMW Owners News, BMW Motorcycle Magazine, Volume One, Our Wisconsin, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life,” and the National Writing Project.