I’m Not A Dog Musher: A Guest Post by Mattox Roesch

So who is Mattox Roesch. the visiting writer who’ll be teaching our Fiction Workshop beginning Feb. 17?  For starters, his first novel, Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same (Unbridled ’09), was named one of the best books of 2009 by Booklist and New West. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including The Sun, Narrative Magazine, The Missouri Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Matt received his MFA from Warren Wilson College. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Unalakleet, Alaska. We’re thrilled that while his family’s in town for four weeks awaiting the birth of their next child, he has offered to share his insights on fiction writing with a lucky group of Anchorage writers.  Sign up today!

This whole dog mushing thing started as “research” for my new novel. I told myself that I am not a dog musher, but rather, a normal guy who loves dogs, who bikes and skis with his own two huskies, and who last November stumbled upon an opportunity to handle a real team and race every Saturday for the season. I’m a writer, not a dog musher. I’m still (half-heartedly) asserting this.

After losing my first race, I had to find a way to at least not lose once, to beat someone. I began thinking about paws and personalities instead of syntax and subtext. At the store I would bump into veteran mushers and talk about booties rather than good books. At church I whispered questions about watering and sled weight. I knew I was working with fantastic dogs and I simply wanted to reveal their potential through a respectable finish. On the runners, at the start of each training run and race, there was a discovery to be made—we might find the right combination of dogs, we might find the right mix of muscle and speed training, we might, eventually, beat someone. I expressed to the veteran mushers that I hoped my desire was not some supermacho deal, but rather, my way of understanding how to do right by the dogs. They told me that the healthiest and happiest and fastest teams were always the best cared for. (Then they’d tell me I was really becoming a dog musher.)

After a month of running, cooking, feeding, crashing, cursing, cooking, feeding, and racing, I told my wife that my “research” was going well. She rolled her eyes (and plugged her nose), because she knew what obsession looked (and smelled) like—staying up till 3am to finish sewing an over-parka the night before a race, running the team on overnight trips to Old Woman Cabin, studying sled designs and building my own (with much help). She asked me, “Are you writing any of this down?” I explained to her that I didn’t need to write anything down. It was all in my head. She said, “Yes. It is all in your head.”

My “research” started while drafting a new novel. Early on I discovered that one of my main characters—a fifteen-year-old girl—becomes obsessed with dog mushing to the point that she assembles her own team out of village castaways. She doesn’t simply hope to try mushing some day; she embraces it immediately, and it takes over her life. Her risk-taking journey with dogs seems to be important to the other characters’ stories, as well as to the overall story. She is the obsessed character who, for a reason I’m not quite yet sure of, acts on her obsessions.

As Charles Baxter writes in The Art of Subtext, “Without a mobilized desire or fear, characters in a story—or life—won’t be willing to do much of anything in the service of their great longings and phobias.” The odd part about this is that we don’t always need to know our characters’ deepest desires or fears before they do something in the service of their great longings and phobias—we’re not always sure what’s going on with our teenage dog mushers. Yet, something has to happen in a story and so we write that something down the way a cartographer might explore a region before drawing a map. Then, in the third or fifth or tenth revision, we might discover (and further “mobilize”) that character’s deepest motivations.

My point is that we don’t write what we’ve already figured out. We use our knowledge and experience as tools—they are simply the framework and the stage props, the circumstances. While we might understand our character’s situation, we write to discover their story. Mystery seems to be the writers’ impetus. We want to find some inarticulate part of ourselves in our characters. To verify that we are not alone in our lifelong struggle with inarticulacy, we must share our stories. So we hand our work to friends and family and editors and strangers, feeling as if something has been discovered, and hoping that they too will recognize it. When the all-too-often strained expressions and negative comments come back, the mystery seems to be Why am I doing this to myself? rather than What am I trying to discover? And yet, we know that no matter how degrading and scary it is, no matter how many times we crash and curse and chase after a runaway story, we need to keep writing and sharing our work. It’s our way of expressing the inexpressible. It’s our way of doing right by the story. It’s our way of really becoming a writer.

Workshopping is one valuable place for discovering our stories. The problem is that many of us have participated in (and been scarred by) enough bad workshops to discredit them all (fellow writers crying, fellow writers getting defensive and not listening to comments, fellow writers trashing their story). I once sat beside another student who spent the entire workshop drawing guns and ammunition after he felt his story was unjustly criticized (at the time it seemed ridiculous and a little bit funny, but now, well … ). A workshop often runs off course when it focuses too heavily on editing rather than discovering.

Yet, I hope most of us have experienced good workshops too, maybe even great ones. A writer friend of mine in Minneapolis, Eric Braun, brought the same story to our group a number of times over the course of a year. Where a lesser writer (myself, maybe) might have given up on a piece, Eric saw his story’s discovery through to its completion, and it won the $10,000 Tamarack Award. That’s not to say the point of workshop is to get published and win big money. It’s nice. But I hope the bigger satisfaction for folks like Eric is seeing a story discovered by both author and reader, whether that discovery is explicit or not. It might sound a bit fluffy (especially after spending a winter on the runners of a dog sled), but our goal in learning to do anything is self-discovery. In workshop, we strive to discover the story’s intent, the story’s tools, and the story’s inner life. The better we learn to respond to other people’s stories, the better we will learn to discover our own.

I still haven’t won a dog race this season, but I have not lost a couple. As it turns out, not losing hasn’t been the reason for my obsession. My novel’s character hasn’t been the reason for my obsession either. I can’t honestly say why I’ve gotten obsessed. My best guess is that the same thing that led me to get consumed with running dogs is why I wrote about a girl who gets consumed with running dogs—it somehow reveals part of life’s mystery to us. The only thing I could do was write about this girl. The only thing I could do was get behind this team of dogs. The only thing I could do was tell the story and invite others to join me on its discovery. It is, after all, what every dog musher does when she stands on the runners behind the team that she has nurtured for months and years—aim them toward their mysterious possibility, pull the snow hook, and yell, “alright!”

3 thoughts on “I’m Not A Dog Musher: A Guest Post by Mattox Roesch”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great thoughts on workshopping, Matt — you've inspired me to continue working on becoming a better, discovery-oriented workshopper. And your novel-in-progress sounds great!

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