State of Nature, State of Mind Pt I — A guest-post by Barry Zellen

A late but enthusiastic welcome to our March featured writer, Barry Zellen, who expected to be our April writer but is jumping on board quickly with stories to tell and thoughts to share. His posts will continue next week.

I just looked at my calendar and saw that April was just a few days away, and that meant only a few more days before I get the wonderful opportunity to put pen to paper and share my thoughts with 49 Writers! Exciting, but scary… since I’ve never really shared my thoughts about writing! It’s something I do every day, and every night, but seldom think about. Writing is an inherently paradoxical art in that it is both extraordinarily private and yet visibly public (at least that’s the goal, but a recent look at my Amazon sales ranking, and I realized I’m still largely private – no best seller lists for me, at least not yet!)

An author, more than many, must bare their soul for all to see. This can be frightening as it can be liberating. My greatest fear in the unmasking process is the realization upon publication of a book that a really stupid error made its way past copy editors and proofreaders and escaped my own weary eyes in the last read before production. Like the time I realized my index-generating software application didn’t include first names, and after an all-nighter, I inserted them manually, one at a time, and flubbed the first name of a former Alaska attorney general – substituting in my late night edit session the first name of a college professor who shared with him a last name! And so the first edition is forever blemished by the eternal nature of an egregious typo locked in stone, or the print equivalent – printed in bulk, bound, and preserved deep down in basement library stacks the world over. Luckily, second editions come along eventually, and the folly is eventually forgotten, at least until the next unmasking moment reveals another preventable typological error, a momentary lapse in diligence.

When I was little, I always wanted to be a writer. I just knew it in my bones. When the mood would strike and the pen made its magical connection to the pad of paper, it would take on a life of its own, as if the inner psyche found its voice and could leap past all the filters of mind and the nonsense taught in school about how there needs to be a set structure, an intro, body and conclusion. I never understood why. If the structure is imposed, does it not mold the thought itself, transforming it to fit? It’s like the youngish generation borne of a world of powerpoint slides; their ideas seem to be gutted in the constant effort to fit the next bullet point. God help the twitter generation; though it may yield a resurgence in haiku, it certainly increases the pressure to contain expression to fit an ever smaller template.

My favorite medium is still to sit at the kitchen table, somewhere between the midnight hour and the first hint of dawn, and let the pen and paper make their own intimate connection when all else are asleep. In this darkest, loneliest hour the words come alive, dreamlike to dance on the page. In these hours I have long imagined having the creativity and passion to spin fictional narratives. But each time I put pen to paper, I am pulled back toward historical truth, that is my constant. And so, while fiction continues to elude me, I have instead elected to write historical nonfiction, a world that is as unknown and mysterious before discovery as that imagined by the novelist.

To be continued…

Barry S. Zellen is an author and political theorist. After riding his 250cc Honda Rebel up the Alaska Highway in 1988, he settled down in the Western Arctic region, living in Whitehorse, Inuvik and Yellowknife, working in the field of indigenous language media. Since 2004, he’s been with the Naval Postgraduate School where he directs the Arctic Security Project, edits journals, and writes books on various subjects including Arctic political and cultural history, political philosophy, and strategic studies.

2 thoughts on “State of Nature, State of Mind Pt I — A guest-post by Barry Zellen”

  1. Love what you say here about historical nonfiction, and also the idea of doing one's best work between midnight and dawn. I've often wished I could write then. It feels so quiet…

  2. Thanks, Deb. It is a magical time for writing… though it does feel a bit like having jetlag all the time! Waking up a noon (or later) helps, as does lots (and lots) of coffee!

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