Deb: 49 Writers online book club discussion: Rock, Water, Wild

Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life

Today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday), we’ve got an open forum for discussion of Nancy Lord’s Rock, Water, Wild. Leave your comments and/or questions using the comment feature, tagged with either your Google ID, a name of your choosing, or Anonymous. If you have questions or comments for the author, start them with “Nancy.” Stop by as often as you like over the next two days to get back in the discussion thread.

To open the dialogue, I’ll pose this question: Among the essays, which were your favorites, and why?

23 thoughts on “Deb: 49 Writers online book club discussion: Rock, Water, Wild”

  1. Of my many reasons for reading, one is to give my mind respite from daily concerns. Can a piece of writing engage my mind to the degree that the hubbub of life will abate for a half hour or so? Nancy’s can, and for much longer spells of time.

    One day the hubbub of life was too much with me and I looked for a book. It was a day when I was writing my will (nothing imminent, just want to get it out of the way so I can stop thinking about it), a day when I was on the phone with my aged and ill parents and various vicissitudes of life were drawing out around me.

    I could have a beer or read a book. I tried reading my Course in Miracles but it strained me. I decided I needed less of something and more of story.

    I picked up Rock Water Wild, took the Heineken out of the freezer where it had been for the perfect ten minutes and plumped the couch pillows and settled in.

    I opened at random to page 202, the essay HOPE IS THE THING IN SPRING. Good, sounds promising.
    It’s a baseball story. Uh oh. I'm no baseball fan. I usually skip sport stories.

    Wait, I thought, let me do an experiment. Can this mildly addled mind of mine be whisked off into alien territory and have a good time? I began to read, I stayed with it. It was more than a play-by-play game story. Mentions of the writer Roger Angell piqued my interest. That Ken got tickets for game and airplanes after discovering Nancy had never been to a game further warmed the story for me. I loved the ending which I’ll not describe here.

    I went to the game that day on the page and I had a good time. I got out of my head and back in my heart. Love it when that happens.
    Sometimes when I read Nancy’s work I feel like we live in a parallel universe. Many times I marvel that what she voices I have thought or experienced, whether it’s the essay ENOUGH, or the essay ZEN MOOSE. When a writer can do this, give shape to our sometimes inchoate or silent experiences, it is a celebration for me. She connects.

  2. Disclaimer; nancy is a very good friend. However, I'm known to be heavy handed with the critic's red pen on all of my friends' work.
    Although I've greatly enjoyed all of it, I love the way that the essay In Our time braids the exigencies of commercial fishing with Nancy's love of the natural world. The enemies of environmentalism (and all nature writing is almost by definition pro environmentalist) sometimes portray the genre as a luxury for the privileged, wealthy "trust funder" types, structuring the argument as environmentalists versus jobs. As a life long construction worker myself, believe me when I tell you that the guys on the job, and the right wing radio hosts they listen to all day, have a picnic with Al Gore's multi millionaire status: the putative point being that anything he's in favor of, hard working Americans are against. And here comes Nancy, writing a rather heart-wrenching and nostalgic essay, lamenting not just the loss of bucolic summers at the cabin in the woods, but also the demise of the small business that she and Ken built there on the shore of Cook Inlet. We know intellectually that a healthy natural world is good for people from all strata of society. But for a long time, much of the writing has been penned by those who had enough money, or someone else supporting them, so that they could sit on a beach for a few days and write about it. If we are going to overcome the donor fatigue that environmental fund raisers are facing, we need more people like Nancy to write about a hands-on connection to the land that does not come off sounding like one of those "what I did on my summer vacation" essays our teacher used to make us write. Maybe Nancy will edit an anthology called something like Working Nature: The Blue Collar Argument For A Healthy Environment.

  3. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to read past essay #3. But what an essay! I hated to stop reading and take up my personal studies. But i knew i'd not make the deadline and so I lent out my copy to a friend who hopefully will get involved in the discussion (and i'll take up where i left off as soon as she's done).

    In a recent post on 49 Writers titled Andromeda/Your Turn: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, I took note of the following:

    "Kay asked Deb and me what our rules are. A few from my own list that come instantly to mind:

    2. …Follow the map of influence from a writer you love to the writers that influenced him and her, and the books that influenced those writers, and so on. (This applies to genre books, as well as literary classics.) Take pleasure in being part of a long-running literary/cultural conversation…"

    This is something i've done frequently in the past with my nonfiction readings with my favorites being Doug Peacock & Edward Abbey or Jack Turner & Terry Tempest Williams (as i'm still trying to get to Ellen Meloy on my reading list). Perhaps these are more examples of contemporaries though.

    Besides the flow of words that bring us through the Brooks Range and the stark descriptions of the Arrigetch, I enjoyed reading about the people on the trip, namely David Roberts. I don't mean to speak for Nancy's influences at all but I read David Robert's book (which became a favorite), On the Ridge Between Life and Death for Nancy's class and he speaks of the same trip. It is interesting to see the two sides of the trip, two styles of writing, and what appears to be a mutual admiration(?).

    I'd like to say more but… I don't have a copy of either book in my hands at the moment 🙁 I can't wait to get my copy of Rock, Water, Wild back and will be keeping in tune with the discussion in the meantime.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Hard to choose! But I'd like to mention first "In Our Time," about Nancy and Ken returning to their fish camp (where they no longer fished regularly) and trying to cut back the vegetation, to reclaim their human footprint as well as their memories of the place. This essay was among the most poignant ones, combining both the lyrical descriptions of nature with the less-expected struggle to understand the more human/historical impulse — where do we fit in with this? Will we be forgotten? Why does it matter? Who will come after us? I found it sad to think of those mostly deserted cabins, and the break with tradition, even though, from the wilderness perspective, it would make sense to cheer decreased use of any resource. And yet, we long to for both "the despoiled…" and to be "the despoiler." That honest & ambivalent struggle to understand our role (and the role of memory itself) runs through several of the essays. The author's inclusion of people in the nature-writing-lyrical-mode also makes it possible for her to explore subjects such as the Harriman expedition, and our anthropomorphism of bears, and why it would be so helpful and satisfying to learn a little Dena'ina.

    My turn just about complete, I'll also add that the essay that SURPRISED (and delighted) me most was the first one, about "Being Peter"(Pan). Another lost world, beautifully and poignantly remembered.

  5. Nancy,
    In the essay Rereading Siddhartha you talked about Mr. Coogan and his question to students: "Does reading constitute experience?"
    My heart leapt at the question and I anticipated the students' answers. Alas, like so many koans an answer was not derived.

    I'm not asking for your answer to that but I'm wondering if you've hazarded writing an answer to that?

    I have a secret belief that koans DO have answers and that the purpose is to ask until you come up with one. Not quibbling with your story here, just entertaining a debate.

    About a decade ago a magazine asked ten writers to come up with an essay about WHAT IS TRUE. A year later when the writers due date arrived not one had been able to answer the question. They had all written about WHAT IS THE TRUTH. Quite a different animal.
    I was bummed. This question now has me dusting off an old essay about this and revisiting it. So, thanks for being a kick start to my writing.

    Anyway, In honor of Mr. Coogan, I'm assigning myself another piece of writing to explore the koan, Does reading constitute experience?

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    My question is about chronological distance and 1st person writing. What I enjoyed in your essays was the perspective gained from looking back, with the drama of any given moment moderated with life experience and a balance achieved over time. Yet you still captured the sensory details of the moment (and journals can help with this, but even you admit your youthful journal on the Arrigetch trip contained "overwrought teenage emotion" — as journals often do, but especially when we're younger) rather than fine details. I hoped you would reflect on the "ideal distance" for memoiristic writing, if there is such a thing. Close enough to still remember, far enough to realize perspective and have some control over the narration. We're more passionate (usually) in youth, but have more craft knowledge with age. Many of these essays were written at different times, about different times. Thoughts on the process, or about how you've coped with this at different times in your writing career?

  7. These essays mirror nature, weaving from one topic to the next, seemingly disparate yet with subtle connections throughout. Like nature, they offer the joy of small surprises and large visions.

    I appreciated forthright statements like "A life in Alaska has left me without delusion or much sentiment" (from In the Giant's Hand). Images stick with me, from Zen Moose, from Enough, from fishing in Magadan. The book is itself what Nancy says (in Being Peter) she sought as a child: an enlargement.

    Nancy, a small question. Publishers chase trends in title trends. So we have your Rock, Water, Wild and Miranda's Tide, Feather, Snow following the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love. Coincidence?

  8. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    P.S. to Deb's …
    Or were you both riffing off of John Haines's "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire"?

    P.P.S. Seeing lots of 3-part titles around our house (including Eat, Pray, Love) my husband has jokingly offered to write his own memoir: "Rock, Paper, Scissors."

  9. I'm enjoying this! Thanks to all for your comments and questions.

    To the question/koan "does reading constitute experience?": I have not tried to answer that, but it is one of those questions that I keep turning over in my mind (perhaps getting closer to an answer.) When I first wrote this essay and shared it with Jack Coogan, he wrote back apologetically something about how unfair it was of him to ask us that, but I think it's a great question, one that goes to the heart of all art. What is the value of art if it doesn't affect us, doesn't change us in at least some small way, doesn't influence how we relate to and in the world?

    To Andromeda's question about chronological distance and memoir:
    To me, that's the beauty of all memoir, no matter when it's written. There's always a time gap between the experience and the writing, so you can both recreate the experience as it was lived and then reflect upon it from a later time, and you get that wonderful expansion of meaning between the two. A memoirist who addresses this really well is my friend Sue Silverman, who talks about writing in two separate voices, the immature and the older, reflective, and weaving them together. Let me come back later with a link to what she says about this.

    To Deb's title question: Miranda Weiss (Tide, Feather, Snow) and I are friends, and we've talked about this. When I learned of her title, my book was already in production, and we had a laugh about how similar they were. Neither one of us had thought of Eat, Pray, Love, until someone else pointed that out. I don't know that there's any trend to be spotted, just an odd coincidence. When I chose my title I did think of John Haines's memoir The Stars, The Snow, the Fire. I'm thinking now that perhaps there's something so elemental about life in Alaska that we're drawn to this simple, naturalistic imagery?

  10. I'm back with a link to a Sue Silverman essay in which she talks about the two "voices" she uses in memoir: the voice of innocence and the voice of experience, she calls them. See Sue is the author of a new (2009) book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, as well as two memoirs. For myself, I don't think of writing with separate voices within one essay, but of, within one voice, trying to recreate experience as it felt at the time and then to step back and reflect upon it, adding what I couldn't have know or understood at the time. It helps me to use words like, "later" and "I didn't know then," that kind of thing.

  11. Hi Nancy: I truly enjoyed reading this new collection of essays. My question for you is about the last piece, "Enough," which I've reread several times because it's extraordinary. How were you able to write about a subject so close to you. Did using 2nd person point of view give you the objectivity that you needed? Thank you for writing such a lyrical, moving essay.

  12. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I enjoyed that link and the use of both of those terms,a good use of Blake's words (innocence/experience). I'll look for Silverman's books. I think most of us, regardless of genre, braid those voices. One connection to fiction: I recently read Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which he'd written very young (it was rejected) and revised in middle age, after he was successful. He had so much raw material from his youth (not just remembered, but the actual pages to work with!) but in addition, he had a seasoned editor — himself — to turn the pages of innocence into something very different. I think that's why I liked it so much. Of course,in one sitting, a person can write from both perspectives — I just think it's neat to imagine he wrote that novel twice, at different ages.

    Voices, drafts, and intuitive braiding or purposeful shifting aside, I'm going to press with a few more questions, IF you're willing. Do you find yourself waiting for time to pass before you write about something? Is there a general simmering period or is every piece different? Is it easier to write about your earliest or most recent experiences? And — I'm definitely exceeding my quota here — do YOU have a favorite essay in the collection?

  13. Regarding that essay, "Enough," which is about my father and his dementia:
    I've gotten more response to this essay than any of the others, and it's apparent that the subject is one that many people relate to. It was something I wanted to write about, but I knew I wanted it to be more than just about my father, also about memory and brain disease and a few other things that would extend it beyond the merely personal and give it some depth and weight. The first thing I did was to read a lot about the brain and dementia and to just think about how memory works and is lost. I had also made a bunch of notes on a couple of visits to my parents. I was at a writers colony, just reading and processing, when I woke up in the middle of the night and started hearing the essay in a second-person voice, saying you, you, you. I sat up and began making notes, essentially sketching out the sections that became the essay. It was only later that I realized that using the second person was a way of distancing myself from personal and painful material.

  14. I love how you say the voice came to you, Nancy, waking in the middle of the night – voice sometimes comes to me that way as well. Interesting that as Wendy points out, it does allow a certain distance from you while closing the gap for the reader – very effective for your topic. Did you read the Beartown Road memoir as part of your research? It's one of my favorites.

    I'd read that distinction on voice in memoir by Silverman and am anxious to pick up her book – though I think reading Rock, Wild, Wild is a nice study in memoir as well, with so many approaches.

  15. Jennifer Walker

    I've enjoyed so many of these essays for so many different reasons, but my very favorite right now is "Words Honor Place".

    I loved thinking about how language influences our reality and vice versa, and was fascinated to learn about all the different Dena'ina words. How perfect they have so many words for mountains. It made me ache to belong to a culture that honors their landscapes and environment enough to name and see them so precisely. I am inspired now to learn what I can of the Dana'ina language while I'm here in Alaska!

  16. I've just come in from my writing class at the college here in Homer–such a great group of accomplished writers, though it's nominally an intro to creative writing class. We critiqued two student works tonight–one abecedarius (look it up) and one memoir, and had a good discussion about elevating memoir from a story of something you remember from childhood to something having a larger meaning–how to do that within a larger context and/or with reflection from the now-adult narrator.

    In response to Andromeda's questions: I don't know that I have very good answers. Every piece is so different. Sometimes I want to write about something that just happpened, sometimes something spurs me to reinvestigate an earlier event or memory. I've been very focused on a more research-oriented book for a couple of years so have been rejecting all other impulses to follow stories and essays that would take me away from it. Certainly as I get older I see the past in different lights, and that makes it interesting to travel back there. The one thing I can say for sure is that once I've written about something, the thing I've written becomes the way I think it was, more than the actual reality might have been. I was just looking for my copy of Nabokov's Speak Memory but couldn't find it. He says in there something about how hard it was to write as memoir because he'd already "given" so much to characters and situations in his novels, so that those were the true things and he was no longer sure of what belonged to him as a child–at least that's how I remember it.

    As to a favorite in the book, I have several, I guess. The language one "Words Honor Place", the one Rich mentioned about my fishcamp ("In Our Time"), the one about my father ("Enough"). These all feel close to my heart.

  17. From the beginning essays to the middle ones on being in Alaska and the ending I was engaged and moved as a reader. Pure delight with "Zen Moose" and "Being Peter" led to my thoughts about whale protection challenged by the essay "The Conservationist as Wood Chopper." I enjoyed being an armchair traveler down the Taku river and mentally squirmed at my connection to the mining problem as I am a Canadian, but emphatically an environmentalist. Thank you Nancy for this lovely, thought-provoking book. It has been a daily companion on my lunch breaks and evening reads, but more so as I trek through my SE Alaska woods and think about our connections to this wonderful state. Debbie

  18. Nancy – Do you fully reject those impulses to write about other stories and essays while researching your non-fiction project, or do you have a system for filing ideas and threads to pick up later?

  19. Deb,

    Two things. First, thanks for reminding me of The House on Beartown Road, a memoir about dementia which I have not read, though it's been on my mental to-read list (and I believe you were the one to first mention it to me.) When I read on the subject before writing "Enough," I stuck to science-oriented books. I had only read Sue Miller's The Story of My Father, that I mention in the essay. More recently I read Lauren Kessler's Dancing with Rose, an excellent account by a journalist who took a job in a nursing home that specializes in Alzheimers and that shows the caregiver side of things as well as the dignity all people hold and should be granted.

    On your question about setting aside other threads and ideas of projects while working on a big one, I do this to a degree. I have a file folder (the real kind) that I shove notes and clippings into, for ideas I might pursue later, and I keep notes in various journals as well. But my system for finding and returning to these is imperfect, plus the timeliness or my interest in them often passes, so what doesn't get written at the first impulse most often never gets written. It sounds like you're able to work on multiple projects at once, but I'm not so good at that. I do have a short story I started over two years ago I plan to go back to soon, and I'm hoping it's still "alive" for me.

  20. In my case, it often feels like too many multiple projects. I can't decide which is worse – losing a thread completely, or distracting myself from one project to feel out another. There's that tension Andromeda mentioned, of wanting to capture voices, images, and ideas when they're fresh, but there's also much to be said for letting them season. Maybe that's another reason why I so enjoyed Rock, Water, Wild – you made it look easy, weaving bits of a life's work into one book.

  21. my disclaimer – i have a couple minutes between jobs to put up a post, so I ask forgiveness in advance for any mistakes. i've been eagerly awaiting this monday and tuesday as a way to touch base with a community who has read "Rock, Water, Wild," and, after taking in the comments, I want to take a quick moment to offer my own thoughts.

    i've greatly enjoyed reading the insightful words on Nancy's work, as well as Nancy's thoughtful responses. I will say that it is such a treat to be able to speak so intimately with such a great writer — with one who pays such close attention to the taste her book leaves in the mouths of readers.

    I am a huge fan of Nancy's, and have been since discovering "Fishcamp" in a Kentucky library and devouring it. working on a cattle farm, I found the book to be the most honest examination of what it meant to work in the 20th century — the contradictions, satisfactions, complexities. I cannot remember it off the top of my head, but Nancy had a magical sentence identifying the wrestling match she found herself scoring between the admiration and fascination she felt for old-timer trawler workers working their hands down to the bone and her simultaneous disgust at their lack of foresight, the destruction they wrought.

    thinking of this, I am drawn to Rich's comments on "In Our Time." he speaks well when he writes of the "exigencies of commercial fishing" put up alongside "Nancy's love of the natural world."

    These essays came alive for me most when Nancy addresses this inherent contradiction, and struggles with it. In its most simplest form, you have the essay "How to Bear Witness" — she takes a title that, to me, sums up a lot of what she is writing about, and turns it on its head, addressing instead the bears themselves. I'm also thinking of her fight to come to terms with the sea lion debate in "Report from the Rookeries," as well as her cautious and introspective address of the whaling problem in "The Conservationist as Wood Chopper."

    Perhaps it is her New Hampshire background of deep appreciation of "gittin' her done" combined with her instinctive love of the outside, and the wild (both terms I'm uncomfortable with, but it's hard to say too much about that now). I really don't know what it is, and I doubt Nancy does either, although I'd love to hear her thoughts on the matter.

    what I do know is that, on those days when I have trouble making sense of my existence as a carpenter and a writer, as an Alaskan (where I lived) with someone who now lives in South Philly — I turn to Nancy's writing, and it sustains me at worst, and lifts me up at best. good writing can make you laugh or cry — this writer makes me a better person. on the surface, it is because of her commitment to examine the life she has had the courage to live; but the pith of her work, i would argue, come more specifically from the questions she continues to ask of herself and of her surroundings.

    I, for one, hope she never gets any answers.

  22. Oh Gawd that seems to be like a debate but very interesting one. @ Nancy.. you are extremely good. And the book seems to be catchy and attractive and bit romantic too.

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