Christine Byl: The Line and the Circle

My first week on a Glacier National Park trail crew, I was a
twenty-three year old just-out-of-college philosophy major: bookishly un-muscled
and completely inept at anything involving two-cycle engines (or four-cycles
ones for that matter, though I didn’t yet know the difference.) You can imagine
then, that the chainsaw I held at arms’ length in the gravel parking lot
outside the trails shop represented an enormous challenge. Luckily I had
Sherri, the shop tech, to show me the ropes. She was a tough, dinky woman whose
ponytail was longer than her legs, and she talked me through how to start the
saw. Of course, I couldn’t do it at first, but that’s a tale for another day. What
matters is the scene: parking lot, me, Sherri, saw. The goal: learn this skill
well enough to be paid for it, and not to cut my leg off. And the end: I did
(learn) and didn’t (cut off my leg). Now, thanks to Sherri’s early lessons, running
a chainsaw is part of who I am.

Almost everything I love to do I learned from someone.
Besides my trails career, most of my passions are explicitly founded on the
idea of apprenticeship. Mountain travel, backcountry skiing–I’d be dead if not
for the many partners who’ve taken the first run, led the hardest pitch, or
shouted over a stiff wind, get your head
out of your ass!
My spiritual path has harbored more than its share of
teachers: a couple of unorthodox Christians, a meeting-house full of ardent
Quakers, and more complicated Buddhists than you can shake a stick at (though
really, who wants to shake a stick at a Buddhist?) Perhaps there are a few “self-made
men” in this world, but I’m sure not one of them.

Writing is often talked about as a solitary pursuit, and
many of our cultural tropes about creation, talent, and success feature the
intrepid artist hauling himself to his desk by his distressed-leather
bootstraps. Picture Edgar Allan Poe hunched over parchment, Emily Dickinson
pacing her attic, Thoreau lost in thought on his wood splitting stump, picking
his teeth with a piece of kindling. It’s true, the tasks that make up our days
we often do alone. Walking and thinking, typing and reading, scrawling notes,
revising, talking to ourselves. But for me, being a writer–being an honest, improving,
invested writer–is also a daily apprenticeship. Every time I sit at my desk
(or slouch on a chair by the woodstove), I join a community. Every time I rise
from bed and crack open my morning reading, I fall into a line of pen-and-ink
tradesfolk, shuffling to the bus stop with our lunch pails hanging from our

Unlike me with my first chainsaw lesson, writers have lots
of available modes of apprenticeship besides the “here’s how it’s done,
dummy,” default that characterizes cut-and-dried tasks. We learn from
books we love and books we hate, books we read twice and books we don’t finish,
and from reading the thoughts of other people who have read the same books, and
different ones. (I think of book reviews and blogs and critical essays like the
commentary that fills the margins of the Talmud–it’s all part of the holy
text.) Writers learn from the specific teachers we study under, whether for an
afternoon or a degree, and by extension, from the teachers of those teachers.
We learn from the company of other writers–this is the most basic impulse in
an MFA program, I think–and also from the loneliness that comes when other writers
are far off. We learn from editors who reject us and readers who write us
letters (one is definitely easier to take than the other.) And when we shut the
books or leave the workshop, we learn from the world around us, apprenticed to
noticing, to weather and animals and snow. What loneliness? Which solitude?
Whose attic?

Two of my favorite things about literary apprenticeship have
to do with its democratic underpinnings. Being an apprentice doesn’t mean
you’re a rube, an idiot, or even a beginner. Our trade’s biggest experts were

studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun
and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison
studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau
loved Homer, Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce.
E.M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and

(I am here indebted
to Annie Dillard, who wrote the above in Chapter Five of The Writing Life. If you’re a lazy researcher, you can’t do better
than Annie in a pinch.) It seems that the better the writer, the more
unabashedly they honor lineage.

Then, there’s the wonderfully cyclical nature of writing
apprenticeship. We’re all learning from each other, lineage as circle. The 60-year-old
novelist preparing her 15th book for publication reads the stories of a writer
who’s assembling a first collection and gives him some good advice. That story
writer tutors a high school kid, who enters her first writing contest. And when
that high-schooler’s poem comes out in the local paper, the grainy
black-and-white photo can’t hide the pride on her face and the 60-year-old
novelist, reading the news over her morning coffee, is reminded of the joy in
offering words to the world, which she’d all but forgotten in the flurry of recent
emails while planning her book tour. Beginner’s mind brings us back around: when
we make ourselves teachable–and when we teach– we get taught.

Lest this sound like a happy skip down a flower-strewn path,
I’ll remind myself that inherent in any apprenticeship is hard, often tedious,
sometimes demoralizing work. Learning requires sacrifice; so does teaching.  And you don’t have to love someone’s books,
agree with their politics, or admire everything about them in order to benefit
from tutelage. Zen teachers encourage their students to question authority. Some
of the best learning I’ve ever done was in telling a cherished mentor when I
thought he was full of shit.  

But it sure wasn’t Sherri. She
would have cut off my leg.

Question of the Day: Who has mentored you, in person or on
the page? In honor of our teachers, and in the spirit of share-the-wealth, join
me in the comments by naming one of yours.

Christine Byl is the author of Dirt
Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press, 2013).
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
while her website makes its slow way to the world.

4 thoughts on “Christine Byl: The Line and the Circle”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    LOTS of mentors and teachers in so many categories, but two of the most influential were: a visiting author who came to my private high school and let us write with less structure and more encouragement for a brief while. I was used to getting lousy grades, and when she wrote "I'd love to see more of this– keep going" on the top of an unfinished story, that comment meant so much more than the letter grades and redlining over grammar problems etc. The previous teacher would have simply given me an F for something "unfinished" or for breaking some rule about what should have happened on what page. Then the author asked our opinions about a character in a chapter in a novel she was finishing. For the first time, I could imagine how pages went through revision and ultimately became real books! Instead of slaps on the knuckle from our regular teacher who may or may not have even enjoyed reading, we were spending time with a real writer who wanted to know us, our opinions, and our stories. Fireworks!

    The next mentor was George Bryson, newspaper editor, who would let me sit behind him and hear his thoughts, while he physically edited one of my features. That "over the shoulder" look helped me understand the revision process as a series of choices — not just catching errors. And given that it took more time, it was incredibly kind for him to do.

    The commonalities between the two stories, I realize now, is that a good mentor respects us as creators and lets us into their thinking process–one aspect of a true apprenticeship.

  2. At one time Elizabeth Dennison, History Professor at UAA, then I had 'book mentors' (not individuals but books that really helped me understand and reflect), then I have had a 'complementor' Bernadine Raiskums (we have enjoyed each other's surmising and musing about all kinds of philosophical topics. As of lately I have had 'flash mentors', spontaneous brief moments with someone who ignite a lot of good ideas and thoughts.

  3. I love Andromeda's story about that visiting author. Now that I do school residencies, particularly with "high needs" schools, this is such a good reminder that even what seems like a tiny encouragement can really crack open something for a student. And when that happens, it usually cracks open the teacher too.

    And, I love Antje's phrase "flash mentor". What a great way to think about those quick overlaps that resonate. I'm borrowing it!

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