Catch Up – Day 18

8/16 Day 18

Life at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska, is pretty sweet. That sweetness has as much to do with fine summer weather as it does the people who came to participate in this year’s annual writing workshop. Ranging in age from 20 to 83, participants included professors, students, outdoor writers, retired writers, mother writers, journalists, and one or two hobby writers. Our faculty leader was Scott Russell Sanders, who I describe as the Wendell Berry of contemporary American earth writing.

Besides communion as writers, the goal of this workshop is to provide enough inspiration and craft information to help the participants complete one full-length personal essay by the weeks’ end. As our days are packed with readings, exploration, talks, and prompts, this compression feels both challenging and inviting. Add in the backpacking, train ride, berry picking, fish eating experiences I had prior to arriving in McCarthy, and there have been time I’ve been just about ready to explode.

In that vein, here are some observations about the craft of writing that come as result of this trip:

1. When filled with loads of new information and very little time, the writer’s brain must find some way to compress and articulate what is being processed. I see this in my own work most notably in the use of categories (“Walking Into the Apartment of an Alaskan,” “Hiking One Mile in Alaska”), the use of images (incorporation of photos into the blog), and research (definitions from Home Ground and the topographical maps I’ve been studying). There is a fine line between too much and not enough, and the best residencies trust the wisdom of the tested schedule and stick to it, knowing that a well-shaped metaphorical container for the residency will allow the best work to emerge.
2. First and foremost, being a writer means living in a way that fosters a particular kind of seeing and listening. That’s right. It does not start on the page, folks. Exercising these seeing and listening muscles is just as important as the actual writing, reading, and revising work of the writer. Traveling to a new ecosystem, learning new words, meeting new people, and “getting off the mountain” as we say in NC, have all worked toward heightening my abilities to see and listen in this writerly way. Add in the fact that I’m surrounded by other writers, and the creative opportunities abound.
3. I can tell that I am constantly keeping part of myself reserved for an affair with the imagination. I can function in a conversation, for example, but when I’m at my best I confess that actually much of my attention is diverted to this other part of myself that is always imagining. The imagination is different than fantasy, because the imagination leads us to deeper truths and is wedded to the unknown whereas fantasizing is not bound by the constraints of reality. Do not be fooled here by the term imagination—in my case, what I’m trying to get at is this sense that a writer can at once be present in the moment and be wedded to her deepening work as a writer at the same time.
4. Place-based metaphor is the ultimate appropriation of location-specific writing and is very, very difficult to fake. This provides insurance against a writer speaking too soon and on this trip in particular is motivated me to research the areas I wrote about and use the correct terms. It may sound tiny, but language is such a powerful tool and if we can no longer use words to distinguish one mountain from the next, we have failed as a species. This is how mountaintops are removed, forests are cut down, oceans are littered, tundra is diminished, and wars are waged—because of a failure of the imagination, which is nothing more than a failure of language.

All of this and more influences my personal essay for the week at the Wrangell Mountains Center. See it all there, stewing and stirring in a pot of curiosity and fire. Smell it as it simmers, an idea here, a question there. Taste it and add to the mix until finally, you “find a first sentence you can believe in” (SRS).

The first sentence I can believe in comes to me on the fourth day of the writing workshop, and it is the window into my personal essay titled “What’s In A Name?” Here’s the line:
I am writing this because I do not own my last name, though by every document proving my existence, the name “Schultz” owns me. Keep in mind that a good personal essay reveals a changed narrator in the end and carries its readers along with it for a meaningful, pertinent journey.

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