For several hours every day, Lon Whitley punches keys on an old manual typewriter, trying to come up with the song lyrics that will change his world.
The typewriter sits open on a simple kitchen table in the small mobile home that Whitley rents outside of
La Grande. Near the typewriter, Whitley keeps an organizer and a file of addresses.
Nearby, in the home's small, neat living room, a specially modified guitar rests, waiting for Whitley to test out lyrics and melodies.
"Starving and starring are kind of close," Whitley grins.
He'd prefer to be starring as a songwriter writing something between country and blues with a bit of ballad thrown in but the right song is still looking for the right song publisher.
So he keeps typing out his songs, putting them to music, and trying to get someone to listen.
Whitley, disabled since the late 1990s, isn't new to music, just to songwriting.
"I played with a couple bands in high school and in my 20s," he recalled, including a memorable gig playing in concert with the Grateful Dead in 1968.
But then life starting catching up with Whitley, who left music in about 1970 to get a "real" job. He became a truck driver, spending 20 years listening to the music of the highway, rather than the music of his heart.
But the heart can get you every time.
"In about the late 1980s, I moved to Hawaii and became a beach bum," Whitley confesses. He started playing again, joining other musicians.
At that point, writing songs never really entered his mind, until a gecko, a small lizard, crawled across his window.
That little lizard spurred Whitley's creative juices and a song resulted. Whitley played the song for a Hawaiian fisherman, who told him it was great.
Whitley's interest was stirred and he turned back to a serious study of music.
He returned to Oregon and started studying music theory at Eastern Oregon University. He was also, he notes, "writing furiously."
He used any free time to play his music wherever he could, often at the EOU coffee shop, Jitters, or at other small locations. "I played for anybody who'd listen," he remembers.
Driven by the music, Whitley eventually returned to Portland and got a band together.
Then came the summer of 1997.
He remembers playing at a club in southeast Portland, sitting around having a jam session with fellow musicians.
"That's the last thing I remember, being on stage and playing," Whitley insists.
Three days later somebody found Whitley in his van in the club's parking lot. He spent the next two weeks in a coma, his kidneys failing, and no clear cause for what had happened.
He eventually came out of the coma, but his left side was paralyzed. He remembers it took a long time to "get my thinking straight."
There's a lot of speculation about what happened that July, "but nobody could ever really piece together what happened," Whitley says.
For Whitley, "I figured I was through playing, that it was history."
Whitley moves to his living room, tipping back into a chair, light from a window to his right hitting his hands, the left one partially fisted.
"In December of 2000 I was sitting in a chair, right here in this position," he says, lifting his guitar across his knees.
He couldn't chord the guitar, his fingers wouldn't flex. He couldn't even hold the guitar in a normal position, his arms unable to carry the weight or maintain the guitar-player's pose.
But he was able to tune the guitar to an open chord, and hold it on his lap. And using his bent fingers, he could slide. Boy, could he slide.
Whitley was back in music.
Stuart Hensley helped him modify his guitar, setting the strings up off the frets further than is usual. Bob Blais at Eagle Machine created a one-of-a-kind slide for Whitley. He determined he could use his right hand holding an upside down banjo pick.
And then Brooke LaPrelle stepped in. A student at the beauty college, she created an extra-thick acrylic thumbnail for Whitley.
He has to have the nail redone every two to three months, but the acrylic nail and the modifications, along with an odd contraption of leather pieces created by Mo Weffle that let Whitley hold his guitar comfortably, changed his life.
"Someone let their finger out of my creative floodgates," he laughs.
He usually writes 30-some songs a year, sending some out weekly to publishing companies.
"You just have got to keep doing it with the best ya got," he explains.
Friends help. Along with those who made it possible for him to play again, fellow musician Grady Darrow, dealing with his own health concerns, "went out and booked us" for play, Whitley said.
"I was a nervous wreck."
Whitley never dreamed he'd be playing like this, dealing with physical limitations and not even thinking much about them.
The past few years are not key story lines for his songs more often they are about jobs and people he's known, or wished he'd known. Or situations that strike his interest.
He's written about dumpster-diving; women who seem to have it all, except the right man; working for The Man; driving under the influence of love; the way a special woman's smile can make the world a better place; and even Matthew 5:16.
"I try to poke fun at tragedy," Whitley says. "That's what you have to do." Some songs, he admits, are about bleeding hearts, "but mostly you have to try to laugh at it," he says of life.
And keep writing.
"It's a struggle, for sure," he admits. "I've got a whole pile of rejection slips, for sure, but I've only gotten one really negative response. All the rest of the replies are positive."
Usually, Whitley said, the problem with his songs are they don't fit in with what is selling commercially right now.
But Whitley is philosophical. He's glad he can get out and play his music. He's glad he can write and get positive feedback.
It's been five years since he was found in his van, and it's possible he's improved physically as far as he can.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he says of his future. "But I'll be writing songs." He shrugs. "All the songs I've written wouldn't buy me a cup of coffee."
So he writes half of every day, plays music with friends.and in the words of one of his songs, tries to move mountains.
"Writing good music doesn't make you a success. I just haven't figured out the trick yet for writing the music that makes money and writing the music I like to play."
This isn't the way he'd planned his life, he says, "but if I don't get a (songwriting) contract by 80, I'll quit.