James Engelhardt :Memoir in Wilderness

James Engelhardt

When we told people that we were going to move to Fairbanks, my wife and I received two distinct responses that have stayed with me. The first response came from our pediatrician who said he’d lived in Fairbanks for a few years and loved it. “But you have to get outside,” he said, “or you’ll go crazy.” The second response came from a neighbor whose friend had moved here for about six months. She said that her friend told her that he couldn’t stand being indoors for half the year.

It was clear that getting outdoors was important. And when we arrived, we learned that it was not enough simply to get outdoors. We found a celebration of the outdoors and landscape. Alaskans have a drive to get out into the wilderness and engage the natural world on its own terms.

An inevitable consequence of people going outdoors and engaging the landscape is that sooner or later someone is going to want to write about it. And a lot of people want to write a memoir. 

Memoir is a compelling genre, and I’ve read my fair share. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of pitches and read quite a few manuscripts, and I’ve noticed a peculiar tendency in Alaska memoirs: People resist writing about themselves. Many of the prospective memoirists frame their complaint by saying that they hate “navel gazing” memoirs, particularly memoirs that should be about landscape and wilderness.

This attitude points to some interesting aspects of both wilderness and memoir. I’ll start by noting that there is no wilderness without humans. You have to have humans to have wilderness. Otherwise, it’s just planet. Once we have human settlements, then we have wilderness. The two are inextricably linked. Further, we live in an era when humans have been everywhere and influenced everything on the planet. We don’t have pure wilderness any more. Not exactly a happy thought.

But we do have stories. It was Muriel Rukeyser who said that the universe is made of stories, and her observation is important to keep in mind. Story thrives on conflict. Readers need to see goals that are thwarted. They want to see characters striving to reach something beyond themselves. 

Now, I want to pivot a bit. 

When our daughter was still getting rolled around in a stroller, she would nod and smile at people, dogs, squirrels, whatever. But if she saw another small kid, her attention would immediately lock on. The same thing happens with our house cats. Birds, squirrels, dogs (dogs and squirrels are everywhere) capture a lot of attention, but let another cat stroll through the yard and my cats go completely still. What I drew from these lessons is that animals are profoundly fascinated by other members of their species. Humans are no exception. 

Now, back to stories. The stories people are drawn to are the stories of other people. Bears are good. Wilderness is good. But we really want to know about that other person, what their struggles were, what conflicts they negotiated, what goals they had that were thwarted—or that they achieved.  

Memoir has an inevitable self-obsession and navel-gazing quality to it. But the extraordinary leap memoirists make is to understand that they’re the main character, and readers really, really want to know the stories that make up that character’s universe. Even out in the backwoods, up in the mountains, or floating on some isolated water, we take ourselves with us. Many of us try to escape the self by going to those places, and that’s a laudable goal. But the self that comes back with us, that is the self that readers want to engage. 

As it turns out, I worked hard to take the pediatrician’s advice. And I like reading about why other people stay in this place. 

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