Medred: It's not the gift, it's what you make of the gift

Welcome and thanks to our February featured author, Craig Medred.

The strange thing is to be asked to blog for a website for a bunch of people interested in writing. I’ve never thought of myself as much of a writer. A decent storyteller, yes, but a writer?

Writers do fancy shit. They have a certain sophistication, a style, a flair. I chop wood. I’m a reporter. My daughter is a writer. She could be a great one if she wanted to be. Instead, she has chosen to study philosophy and quantum physics and dabble in poetry.

That might be easier than writing. Writing is hard work, except, of course, when it is so ridiculously easy you don’t want anyone to know because in the space of 45 minutes you’ve punched out a story that should have taken days.

Writing is that hard easy thing. Some of the best writers I’ve known in the twisted, writing-related business of journalism had to be pushed into crisis to make it work. If they had a deadline a week on, they’d piss away six and a half days or more then start writing furiously.

I know the feeling. There is something to the idea of a deadline fix. I won the American Society of Newspaper Editors deadline reporting award in 1987 for a bunch of stories about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race scribbled quickly in long hand, ripped page by page from a notebook while standing next to a Bush plane with its prop turning, and sent back to Anchorage with various volunteer pilots in the hope the story made it and, if it did, someone would be able to read the scribbles.

An editor, who knows damn near nothing about writing, later credited much of the award to the guy who deciphered the handwriting. The guy who did that, an editor named Mike Campbell who was a writer’s editor back in the days when there were such things, forever after wanted more scribbles. He understood where good writing lives.

Good writing lives in torment. This is not to say good writers are crazy, although some of them are. It is to say the minds of good writers are constantly in turmoil, constantly processing what they see in the world around them, constantly rolling over words and thoughts and phrase, constantly in need of someone or something to push the record button on the movie playing in their heads.

Maybe the smart people are the ones who walk away from this madness early on. Good writers wake up in the middle of the night thinking about stories and can’t get back to sleep. There are a lot better ways to make a living than being a writer, and everyone is a writer at some point in the beginning.

Writing is a talent like any other. The best of it, you are born with. The rest of it, you learn.

There are plenty of decent writers born with marginal abilities. They succeed through hard work. The world vitally needs these people. In the age of the internet, we are more dependent on the written word than ever. People who can string words together clearly and concisely are the backbone of the Information Age, but most of them, sadly, are never going to be great writers no matter how great their desire.

Great writers are born with a gift. Most of them will never fully develop it. Some have the sense to run away. Others are just plain lazy. They are blessed with talent, but cursed with a lack of desire.

To write well, you must read always and often in a way that sees not just substance but construction. You must teach your eyes to see and your ears to hear in much the same way. Really good writing is in the details. Really good writing doesn’t differ much from really good painting, which is in the fine strokes, or really good film making, which uses the lone eye of the camera to steer the view of the moviegoer.

Over the years in Alaska, I’ve been blessed to know a few truly great writers — some of whom lived up to their talent, some of whom decided writing was too much work and went off to do other things. All of them were the same, though, in that they saw the continuum of life in bits and pieces. Where others saw and heard a movie roaring along with the fine points hard to catch, they saw a high speed slideshow — click, click, click, click.

Some of them, I’d guess, didn’t even know it. But their way of seeing was always obvious in their best work:

Stop. Freeze frame. Zoom. That’s it. There’s the story.

Writing is this damn simple, and this damn difficult.

It is in that way a little like splitting wood. If you have or develop the skill to hit the round just right, it will part nice and clean on the first swing. And if you lack the skill, well, you can chop away at that sucker for a long time and really never get much of anywhere.

Craig Medred is the author of “Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska’s Iditarod Trail.” He was the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News for 20 years and now writes for the online publication

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