Byl: Someone's Got to Stay Outside

Last year,
I applied for an MFA professorship at a Western university. I had never applied
for a tenure track job before. I had never even trolled an academic website
looking for an opening. And I had zero desire to leave my home in Alaska. But
this announcement came to my attention by way of a good friend, at a time when
I was really worried about money. As in, trying to scab together another year
of life from my usual combination of sporadic income (trail work, editing, writer-in-residence
gigs, grants, and unexpected rebates from class action lawsuits–$22 from Farmers Insurance? When did I
have Farmers Insurance again?
) I dropped the application off at the Post
Office and felt a little sick as I weighed what you must when applying for
anything: what if I get it?

I didn’t.
Get the job, get an interview. Didn’t get short-listed, called back, or even a
form rejection letter until months later, forwarded through several temporary
address changes.

were many good reasons I was passed over (slim teaching experience, primarily
manual-labor resume, fact that I didn’t paginate my application correctly but
couldn’t justify the $25 to reprint it). And I truly was relieved not to have
to consider changing my entire life, let alone learn how to use Skype for a job
interview. But I also felt slightly …sheepish? Ashamed? The caustic brew of
emotions that accrue when we second-guess ourselves. Shouldn’t I want this enough to be disappointed? Do I seriously think I
can keep felling trees and teaching layout classes to trail crews for another
fifteen years? Am I wasting my life?

this minor existential conundrum stepped Jim Harrison. I have loved his fiction
and poems for years, and during one scattershot morning web-browse, I found an interviewwith Harrison that entranced me, my black tea gone cold on the windowsill. Of
the many gems fiery Harrison slung out of his dragon lair (along with a few
totally maddening bits), one stopped me short. Talking to the interviewer about
why he had never taken an academic job despite periods of financial strain,
Harrison said, “Somebody’s got to stay outside.” This struck me like
a rock to the temple. I knew exactly
what he meant, felt the shock of hearing a thought you haven’t yet articulated
said by someone else, more bravely than you would have. Since then I’ve chewed
on the quote, taken what he said and given it my own meaning. It’s become a
kind of touchstone.

In the
context of Harrison’s wide reputation as a fishing and farming Upper Peninsula
Michigan- and Western Montana-dwelling wanderer, the most obvious read of this
quote, is: somebody’s got to stay Outdoors.
And folded in there: somebody’s got to
stay Outside of Academia
. This can be made too simple, of course. It is possible
to teach at a university and still get outside. (The people who seem to balance
this best teach in low-residency programs, I’m noticing.)

But perhaps
what Harrison meant, and certainly what I do, is that our culture isn’t best
off when everyone’s success is measured by the same benchmark. The world needs
dynamite administrators and professors, and it also needs people who primarily
work outside in the field, keeping track of wind direction and counting whales,
noticing where ice has melted and how long a saw will run on one tank of gas.
Reminding us that smarts and syllabi notwithstanding, we are also animals in an
ecosystem, which is another word for home.

In my
case, the niggling dread I felt about having a tenure track job stood against
this very clear knowledge: I have been grounded, matured, sharpened, softened,
deepened, and humbled by a long career working in the woods. For whatever
reason, I am a better version of me working in the woods than almost anywhere
else. This isn’t true for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. It might not even be
true for me forever–the beauty (and challenge) of selves is that they’re
always evolving. But right now, I know where and when I am least anxious, happier,
hungrier. As so often happens in reading, it took Jim Harrison to show me that
my hunch about myself was right.

I don’t
know if Harrison will follow me where I want to go next, but I suspect he
might. I also hear in that quote a much broader call to arms, one that
transcends nature and MFA programs, and also, draws them together, and it’s
this: Someone’s got to stay outside of
whatever orthodoxy has been prescribed for us.
And as self-congratulatory
as the tone can ring if you read it wrong (“someone’s got to do X, and
hey, that person is ME!”), I’d guess that writers, every single one of us,
know what that means. Quite aside from whether we work in a classroom, on a
boat, in a shop, or in an office, we all have “insides”–places we
feel safe, protected, expected, one of the gang–and we all have
“outsides”–places that feel shifting, difficult, rife with the
possibility for failure. On the craft level, we know that the more we can
force, beckon, coax or dare ourselves to leave the former for the latter, the
better our work gets. And as art (or craft) imitates life, I know I get livelier
on the page when I am busy roaming the countryside of my days, looking for
sacred cows to tip.

writers are necessary–and I believe they are–it must be, in part as
patrollers of all borders, looking for ways out and ways in. Firebrands jumping
fences. Rabble-rousers saying yes, but
or no, here’s why and bring it on. Harrison is my patron saint
of this kind of bravery, a writer so pathologically unapologetic, it’s
sometimes annoying. He’s a lover who is also a brawler. When I read that quote
for the hundredth time–someone’s got to
stay outside
–I still get the chills. To me, it says “it’s okay you
didn’t get that job.” It demands, “Be who you are already!” It
asks “is it possible to be a gracious, humble raconteur?” And if it
is (yes), do you dare?


now, it has finally stopped snowing and I have to go outside and split some
firewood. By the time you read this, February will be nearly over. It’s been a
great pleasure to write and think here this month, and my heartiest thanks go
to those who help keep this vibrant on-line community running. Thanks also (to
anyone who’s gotten this far) for reading my posts. I’ll paraphrase Jim
Harrison one last time: I’ve given you my
two cents, but two cents ain’t the whole dollar.

Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press,
Her prose has appeared in GlimmerTrain Stories, The
Sun, Crazyhorse, and other magazines and anthologies. Byl lives in a yurt on a
few acres of tundra just north of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old
sled dog. She runs a small trail-design and construction business. When she
isn’t working in the field or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects,
wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow.
Visit her on Facebook while her
website makes its slow way to the world.

8 thoughts on “Byl: Someone's Got to Stay Outside”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    What a great post — struck me like a rock to the temple as well! — which echoes my own past concerns about becoming too entrenched within ANY academy, niche, clique, position, career, etc. I think many Alaskans share this distrust of ruts and closed communities of any kind. I so admire writers who are out in the field, delivering us the news of what's going on in the wider world, keeping us in touch with our environment (and our physical senses), avoiding conformity and received truths. Thanks for all of your posts, Christine. They've been wonderful!

  2. Amy O'Neill Houck

    Thank you so much, Christine! I loved how you took Harrison's words as a jumping off point for your essay–the entire thing resonated with me at the end of my MFA years, thinking about what to do next.

  3. I "like," too. I get girlish identity things happening when I combine my day job identity and my writing self. I say "girlish" unapologetically just because of the way, my struggle parallels almost precisely the "self" issues I knew when at age 14, I needed an answer to "who am I?" I grappled with my present day version by starting to refer to my life-long profession as a clinical social worker as the "day job"– which sort of discredited it (though that came from need, too). But now, I am tiptoeing toward integration. I want to be edgier than any clinician has a right to be and that may bring consequences but, screw it, so to speak. My best material has risen from the day job. Maybe my selves will meet and merge in another kind of woods.

  4. Jim Harrison is a master of his art, and unapologetic on his views of the world. What I love best about his work: he's crass, witty, brilliant, edgy, and he deeply appreciates and ravishes whatever he consumes; be it women, wine, food, the backwoods. He takes no moral high ground; he simply is what he is. I requested a permission to use one of his poems in my work, and he sent me a handwritten note, saying he's never been to Alaska (maybe we should invite him)!
    Alan Watts gives similar advice in his book titled, Become What You Are. Stay outside..or not.

  5. Mark Twain Quotes

    It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.
    Mark Twain

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    This is the third time Jim Harrison has come up in discussions with AK writers this week (another time was in a 49W class taught by Kathy Tarr–if I'm not mistaken, Eric L. was showing around a book of letters between Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison?). It sounds like he has lots of fans here. Let's get him up here! How? I leave that to other readers, but fan mail to JH and contacting UAA's David Stevenson or 49W's Linda Ketchum or the Kach Bay Conference organizers can't hurt.

  7. Thanks, all, for your comments. It's nice to hear that this resonated for others as much as for me.

    I would love to hear JH read up here. He and I actually share a mutual friend and I have long meant to write him a letter. Having just finished The English Major (which I loved), perhaps this is the time to do so!

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