The Trail to Words. #4 A Dyslexic Hunter Wandering in the Words by Seth Kantner

Geese have always held a special place in my heart. My first story in my first Creative Writing class was about wounding a swan while hunting geese on the spring ice. At that time, I understood nothing of subtlety, or symbolism. I especially despised symbolism. I liked to be told a story, not confused by one. This was likely a result of my utilitarian upbringing and because I was dyslexic—both of which I’m sure played a part in that preference for simplicity and straightforwardness.

For me, at that time, geese marked the change of seasons out on the tundra. Their arrival meant the end of winter—and the end of night, too—as sunlight flooded the Arctic. Geese were a welcomed change, welcomed visitors, and fresh tasty meals after long dark months of eating aging fish and caribou from the previous fall.

I hadn’t yet realized all the ways these birds, and hunting, were that and at the same time part of a more complicated relationship with the land (one shared by many Native villagers) and my own equally uncertain commitment to the “white world” of college degrees, careers, bills, retirement and all the rest. Geese, ahem, actually were symbolic of a complicated web of life here, which in my case ironically ended up incorporating writing and photography.

When the V’s of spring geese flew over UAF in Fairbanks—and also the Journalism School that I later attended in Missoula—I stared at the sky and wanted to drop out. And I did drop out! Quite a few times I packed my bags and headed north. All I wanted was to be home in the Arctic, hunting.

Caribou migrating in the fall, and the thought of missing gathering meat and berries for winter, and missing trapping furs, had the same effect. In early September I needed (or felt I needed) to be collecting caribou hides, picking cranberries, cutting moss. And in July and August of course I needed to be netting salmon.

It was baffling to me how other people managed to both live and have a full-time job. During those years I continued to live a life tied to the land, while struggling to attend college, and to write stories. Still, mostly I wanted to write a book. It was becoming apparent to me that the only careers I would ever consider must include life on the land. Writing felt as if it could be that—if only it would make enough to buy gas. Or boots. Or even shotgun shells.

I guess I’ve thought about this over the years, but never deeply—how nature dictated the extent I was willing to let the other world in, and how writing and wildlife photography strangely did have the potential to fit into my lifestyle without destroying it, but also provided further connection in my own examining of my connection to the land and animals.

At J-School I enrolled in a Magazine Article Writing class. I’d read a few magazines in my life, and basically no newspapers. Newspapers were intimidating, with the folding and all, and that irritating gray ink that smudged your hands. A man in the village named Bob Schiro had always subscribed to the New York Times, and over the years he brought boxes of old newspapers down on his dog sled—to give to my family to skin foxes, lynx, mink and other furbearers on. When we were done skinning we used the paper for fire-starter. I don’t remember ever reading any of them. Maybe I looked at a photo or two, or at those black-and-white drawings of impossibly skinny women models.

The Magazine Article professor used a new term: “A freelance writer.” I liked it. That was a self-employed writer—as opposed to a journalist working for a newspaper. He said it was a tough career, with pitfalls and often little or no pay. Sort of like trapping. Or commercial fishing in Kotzebue Sound. I was intrigued.

He taught us to search through magazines for subject matter, tone, style, length, and angle. I was terribly bad at all of that. He also suggested—once we found a publication we wanted to write for—to go through back issues five to ten years previous, for story ideas. Apparently, an article about polar bears, caribou biologists, or homemade woodstoves came back around, in a new form, on a regular basis in these magazines.

He taught us to write short queries (like setting a net for salmon, or traps for foxes) to magazine editors to see if we could catch their attention. I liked that part—having traps out there, and checking my mail daily. Our teacher explained that non-fiction articles were usually queried before one wrote the piece, while in fiction you generally queried after your story was completed. (Unless you were Stephen King, John Updike, or God, or someone equally famous.)

Query letters required credits (a list of our previous publications) of which sadly none of us had much to offer. I’d had one photo of a seagull published in the Arctic Sounder, and vaguely stated that my “work” had been published there, and in various other places.

I poured over The Writer’s Marketplace for addresses, and sent out half a dozen queries. To my shock, two editors replied: “Yes, we’d like to see your nonfiction article about the renowned grizzly bear biologist, Derek Craighead.”

I was terrified. I wrote the pieces. My work was promptly rejected. I found out something I already knew about myself: I wasn’t designed to write on-demand. And I don’t like owing anyone anything.

I remained confused in a way. That has never changed. I have continued to remain confused: What should I write for these strange humans I know so little about, and who wants to hear any of what I have to say?

At that time I was discovering another baffling roadblock to writing. “Write what you know,” was an old adage in the business. And I knew I only knew about northern Alaska. But it seemed that most editors had a preconceived view of what they wanted to hear about Alaska. Basically something between Jack London and National Geographic. I wanted to write that stuff, but wanted it to be honest and include starving sled dogs, mosquitoes biting your ass, and occasional stoned hunters chasing down wolves with snowmobiles and AR-15’s.

In my classes I was working hard, learning to write cleanly, clearly, concisely. The J-school professors were succeeding at teaching me, of all people, to write—an amazing accomplishment—but there were those other things I guess they couldn’t explain to someone like me. Such as what the word “success” really means, or where and how writing and photography fit into my unusual life, and the value of it compared to say a sharp knife or good snowshoes. It’s a dilemma that I still struggle with. Those professors could only do so much and they didn’t know the secrets I kept from them: how like the geese I would always be heading home; I was NEVER going to be a journalist, and had less interest in a college degree than a sack of dried fish.

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