“You know, you could write a book,” our overnight guest said as I poured coffee into his mug. It was a bright, summer morning in Juneau, Alaska. For months, he’d followed a blog I’d written for family and friends chronicling my healthy husband’s unusual stroke, recovery progress, and alarming setbacks.
Our guest’s compliment triggered a surge of concealed elation, like the time when I was eleven, and red-headed Mark muttered, “You’re pretty tough for a girl,” after I tackled him in a game of Capture the Flag.
But now, I was a marine biologist at the university and our guest wasn’t a neighborhood kid. He was Dan T. O’Neill, one of Alaska’s revered investigative journalists and author of award-winning books. My colleague and I had invited Dan to lead our students in a discussion of scientific ethics built around Dan’s book, The Firecracker Boys: H-bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement.
Over dinner the night before, my husband Jim and I told Dan we planned to sell our home and sail to Mexico with our young son. Jim’s brush with death had spurred us to act on a dream of long-distance cruising.
Dan leaned forward, hands around his mug. “If you write a page a day while sailing from Alaska to Mexico, that’s a book.”
Publishing a book had never been one of my goals. Yet, I understood Dan wasn’t suggesting all I had to do was describe scrambling eggs and making coffee as our boat pitched through rough seas. What this accomplished author suggested was he thought I could write a book people might want to read.
Dan’s words spun up prideful ambition in purple, sunshine swirls. Yes, I was flattered, but not convinced. My degree was, after all, in biology not English.
Yet, Dan had planted a seed. During our three-thousand-mile expedition to Mexico, I kept a journal, scrawled entries in our logbook as events unfolded, and posted stories and photographs at my blog. I also wrote about the year of Jim’s fight to recover and how it inspired us to lead less secure, more connected, lives.
In La Paz, Mexico, I joined my first critique group, where I learned to trim sentences and prune scenes. Four years later, with a batch of essays under my belt, I enrolled in a memoir-writing class at a community college in California—no grades or credit. Reading in front of dry-witted, scrutinizing Steve Boga and a dozen classmates at first made me shake. But Friday deadlines spurred me on. I presented every week there was room on the roster. Feedback that stung taught as much as complimentary nods and teary eyes.
Around that time, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Her advice helped me improve my work scene by scene. But who was I, anyway, to think I could put my scenes together and create a book? Not just a logical chronology with a bookish number of pages, but a compelling story with a meaningful arc? Even the concept of a story arc was new.
One day, after Steve’s class, a student I admired—for her stories and critiquing skills—caught up with me in the parking lot.
“I’m part of a small writing group,” Skye Blaine said, “and we’re looking for a new member. Would you be interested?”
What, me? I almost turned around, assuming she was talking to someone else.
For five years, the four of us met every Monday evening. Those sessions—and reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir—coached me over a barrier to sharing vulnerable, personal scenes previously shelved.
Dan, Skye, and others nudged me over self-doubt hurdles, but there’s someone else who is neither teacher nor memoirist whose role in this journey was crucial—and that’s my husband.
In my book Deep Waters I share some of our closest moments as a couple—situations in which we each, at times, were not at our best. Our jobs as field biologists and mine as a professor at the university, being parents, and sailing expeditions in Alaska occasionally pushed us to our limits. Working through those challenges built a reservoir of trust and respect which we drew upon when life imploded and the future looked bleak.
Although my husband supported my writing journey, I learned early on not to ask him to review certain chapters in my memoir. Several years ago, we attended a friend’s book launch at a restaurant. Jim and I arrived early for a beer and dinner with friends, and others gathered around tables with beverages and snacks on them. On short notice, I was invited to read. Midway through the chapter that happened to be on my iPad, my husband stood and left the room. I pressed on, confused and worried about his abrupt departure.
When I finished, I found him outside on the patio, hands deep in his pockets. He apologized for leaving and said it was too much, that my story took him right back to that alarming day, and the hard months that followed. We embraced in cool night air and I wept. I said I didn’t mean to hurt him. I thought the scene was okay because he wasn’t even in it. But he said, no, no. It was okay. Those people, strangers, were right there with you. What you read was powerful. You did a great job. I-I just couldn’t handle it.
If I’d been a reluctant runner, it’s as if Dan O’Neill handed me a pair of Nike trainers, and Skye Blaine’s team jogged with me every Monday. My husband cooked breakfasts and dinners, handed me water from the sidelines—and never questioned whether I could run a nine-year marathon and cross the finish line. In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he says, “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
Marine biologist Beth Mathews’s is the debut author of Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled (She Writes Press May 2023), an intimate story of relationship resilience set against the backdrop of Alaska’s dramatic and unforgiving marine wilderness. As a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, she studied harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and harbor porpoises with her students. She and her husband live on an island in Puget Sound where they savor sailing adventures on their ketch, Resilience, a 31-year member of their family. www.elizabethannmathews.com