In the 1980’s fur prices dropped. My girlfriend Stacey and I were living on the Kobuk River at my family’s old place, hauling wood, running dogs and trying to trap furs. To keep writing, I’d spent $1900 and bought one of the first-ever laptops. ‘Laptop’ was a strange new word, and that word processor was my first big step on a long trail of spending more on writing and photographic equipment than I earned—in those days still $0.
The NEC machine was pearly white, sleek and weighed about as much as my double barrel shotgun. It had far too small of a brain to hold a single photo and certainly didn’t hook to any internet. Amazingly, it had twin floppy disc drives. The screen was not backlit, hard to read, and 12 volt. When I hooked it up to my battery and wind generator it promptly burnt it out.
With shaking hands, I took the screws out and pried it apart at the seams. I found a fried fuse and wrapped it in aluminum foil. The computer came back to life. Sadly, there I was still gathering material, but not necessarily getting any stories written.
The pieces I did write were about life on the land. I submitted to the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines–all too far up the literary food-chain—and remained shocked that they weren’t interested. None sold. All I accomplished was a growing collection of rejection slips. Somewhere I heard about pinning rejections up in the outhouse–sort of a map of the journey–but even that was a failure. It was too stormy, and they blew down the hole.
Wasting money on stamps and envelopes, and getting frustrated, I started a business making skin scrapers. I made tools by hand, to make tools to make wooden handles and metal scrapers. In a year I sold 15 and made a couple hundred dollars—before the costs of materials, expenses or postage. Commercial fishing was poor, too. Still, the river and land provided plenty of fish and meat, and firewood to support my unwavering belief in avoiding a “real” job. The land always was essential to my writing, in so many ways.
Around the woodstoves in fishcamp and in our sod home I read—mostly action stories: Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum. I liked novels and had decided I wanted to write one. Spy stories were my favorites, but I wasn’t convinced the spy theme was for me. I wanted to write about Alaska. I wanted a story that felt real.
In 1986 Stacey and I decided to enroll in college again. I remembered one thing my writing teacher, Ms. Shumaker, at UAF had said. “Go to Missoula.” I didn’t remember much else.
Stacey and I flew out of Ambler to Fairbanks, and drove her little red Honda down the Alcan Highway. We arrived to a hot, smokey Montana autumn. Tiger, my last sled dog, came along on the journey. He looked like a wolf, couldn’t bark, and expected a constant supply of meat. He was dressed for winter, hot, panting, friendly and somewhat uncouth. I felt about the same.
On campus, Stacey disappeared into the Social Work office. I went into the Creative Writing building. I leaned on the copier, sorting my transcripts and tattered papers. A woman rushed out of her office, shouting at me. She was the head of the department, Lois Welch, and in no uncertain terms informed me that the copier was for grad students only. I didn’t know what a grad student was—only that as usual, whatever that was, I wasn’t. I turned and walked out, silent. Thinking, Fuk this.
That accidental encounter turned out to be incredibly lucky. It changed the course of my life.
The campus was bigger and warmer than UAF. Young women and tall men zoomed past on bicycles. I stood staring at a folded map, and at the buildings around me. Because of the Western University Exchange, my only other choices of majors were Religious Studies, Forestry, or Journalism. I was confused and frightened by religious people. And I was short, shy, small and didn’t chew snuff, so that pretty much ruled out Forestry.
I wondered what Journalism was, and finally found it on the map. The office was one of the smallest ones, in an old brick building. Upstairs, inside the wooden doors, the rooms were old and the chairs creaky. The air smelled like books, ink and darkroom chemicals. The secretary behind the office desk was warm, welcoming and motherly. Her name was Karen. I signed up, unaware of the terror ahead.
Unlike Creative Writing classes–which required two or three stories per quarter, on a loose vague and volunteer schedule–the J-school demanded that many or more per week. Stories were due at midnight. This even if the event they covered took place at 8pm. If you were late, F. Misquote a speaker, F. Misspell a few words or misused punctuation, F.
The pressure was unrelenting. There were a thousand ways to flush your grade down the toilet. The AP Stylebook became my Bible. ‘Further’ was not ‘farther’. There was no ‘very unique’, only unique. It was many Attorneys General, not Attorney Generals.
In my Basic Grammar class, after a tearful and wrenching quarter, a few of us at the top got B’s. There were no A’s. Too bad. We were good, not outstanding.
The funny thing was, I appreciated that kind of truth. I knew I wasn’t outstanding. I knew I’d never been outstanding, and had previously been annoyed in classes where everyone got top grades.
In the past I’d been told journalists had low ethical standards. What I found was exactly the opposite. My professors had the highest regard for the truth of any people I’d ever met. Every day everything they taught us was devoted to telling the truth, and telling it as clearly and concisely as possible. Journalism wasn’t just a future job, it was a fierce loyalty to our society. Never confuse your readers. Never bore them. Never lie to them. Be aware of word meaning, sentence length, paragraph length, story length, white space–even white space mattered. Don’t be sloppily. Don’t make shit up. And well, if you did, there was an unending supply of D’s and F’s waiting!
My experiences in Creative Writing classes had often been much more touchy-feely: Everything was good, many were great (even if the editors at Atlantic Monthly didn’t agree). In Journalism, stories were constructed, and there definitely was a right way, and countless wrongs. Stories weren’t intended to be beautiful or artistic. The very first sentence established all it could: who, when, where, why, how.
This way of writing reminded me of the utilitarian life I was raised in out on the tundra. It was just what I needed: absolute rules, advice, deadlines, editors, and intense pressure to perform. (Actually, that is still what I need!)
I soon signed up for journalism photography, too. And eventually I walked back across campus and started taking Creative Writing classes—one each quarter—learning more about fiction and non-fiction. It was a long slow process, figuring out how I wanted to stir together all three very different methods to tell the stories I wanted to tell.