Growing up along the Kobuk River, my brother was always going to leave to go to college. From a young age I swore I wouldn’t do that. In the fall of 1983 we boated to the village in our homemade boat and Kole got on the old greasy Twin Beech aircraft operated by what villagers called Aurora Scare Service. He flew south to Fairbanks, to the University of Alaska.
Back downriver his absence was a silent presence in our single room sod home. My lifelong companion was gone. A month later, as the ice was freezing, in the diminishing light of October one night I finished my last high school home-school course. I licked the flap on the yellow manila envelope (what we had used for all 12-grades to mail in exams and assignments) and there at the table I was suddenly a high school graduate. Nothing in my life was ever so anti-climactic.
I had no plans, no prospects, no community, no idea what to do in the world or where I might go. I crawled into my sleeping bag and read at a candle before dropping my head and going to sleep. The next day I went back to putting away fish for dog food for winter.
Fur prices were dropping at that time, and my parents were trying to move away to some place that would be a better fit for my mom. I didn’t want to stay if they left. My only option seemed to be to go to college the following year.
The University of Alaska unfortunately had discouraging requirements, namely that one must take classes, not just make friends and do fun things. I decided on Biology, and English 111 which was mandatory. I cast about for whatever else looked easy. I settled on Karate, ROTC, and a subject that no one I’d ever met had ever heard of: Creative Writing.
The teacher was a beautiful soft-spoken young woman. Her name was Peggy Shoemaker and she was new to the university, too. She’d come from teaching in prisons in Arizona. The first assignment was to write a short story. My attempt was five pages, fiction—although I couldn’t quite understand the difference between that and creative non-fiction. My story was mostly true, about a swan that my best friend Alvin and I had wounded when we were hunting geese. I titled it The Swan. I didn’t yet know the turmoil of trying to find good titles, or endings, or the worst problem: to find “story”.
I missed home, and real food, and Alvin, and my dog team and my life on the land. All that made it relatively easy to put down words, even though I couldn’t type or spell, and wasn’t skilled at sentence structure. Thankfully, I hadn’t yet developed the cacophony of inhibitions that fills my head today.
I was comfortable not understanding Shakespeare and despising having to stare at his incomprehensible writings. I felt the same about poetry, and all writing that was inaccessible to my brain. Comfortable, too, in my understanding of a good story: a good story was exciting and interesting. Shit happened. Like in The Hardy Boys, and like the tales hunters and travelers had told my entire life around our stove in the nights in our little sod igloo. Why did literary folks need to make that confusing?
My second story ended with me (I mean the narrator!) waking up from a dream. Ms. Shoemaker was very kind when she pointed out that was a cop out, weak, and my ending should be changed. She was gracious enough that I didn’t drop the class on the spot as I would have with a different teacher. She said I was a good writer.
It was confusing. Because in 99 out of a hundred ways I wasn’t. And because the list of things I was good at didn’t go much past sharpening my knife, calling in geese and skinning wolverine. Other students had already informed me–in more ways than one–that that stuff was meaningless, weird, and best kept to myself.
Ms. Shoemaker told the class about present tense vs. past tense, that short sentences sped up action, longer ones slowed it down. She told us it was important not to write with fame, sex or riches in mind. I stared at my hands, dismayed. What other reasons were there to write? I didn’t want a degree and had only come to college to find friends, and most of all a girlfriend. When I succeeded with that I intend to drop out and go back to hunting, fishing and fur trapping.
Ms. Shoemaker let me into her graduate class. I didn’t know what a graduate class was, but it sounded cool, and scary. Writing got more scary, too. I was told about “voice” and that I need to find one. I didn’t understand. I had to listen to other students’ poetry, pretend to like it, and critique it. I didn’t understand it. Titles and ending became tougher; I couldn’t just slop them on the page. And that worst dilemma remained: What is a story? Figuring that out plagues me still.
A professor in another class asked us to read Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway. I returned confused. How the hell did that get published? It obviously wasn’t a story. It was short, no action, nothing happened, it was draggy, pointless and horrible. But…the teacher and other students gushed about how wonderful and meaningful it was. I wasn’t getting it. Again, I was on that old familiar trail to learning how dumb I was.
Also, I was having little luck with the friend quest and none at all with finding a girlfriend. Meanwhile, I had discovered the concept of “gathering material.” It was a very attractive part of writing that made sense. I dropped out, borrowed a backpack that was far too big for me, and hitchhiked around the southern hemisphere surviving hurricanes, walking barefoot across New Zealand, spearing fish ninety feet down in the Great Barrier Reef.
Hunting and gathering had always been the focus of my life and I was good at gathering material. I had buckets of details and descriptions, accidents and action; I had waves of emotions, longing and loss, hunger, pain, frostbite and falling through ice. I had the ingredients. But what made a story? How could I tell stories that literary people would agree were stories, and not a heap of sentences?
I finally placed a photograph of a seagull in the Arctic Sounder and made $10. And a school newspaper published a feature I wrote about a guy who carved wooden grizzly bears with a chainsaw. I tried to understand writers. Richard Ford said to keep notes; William Kittridge said a lone character in the wilderness soon grew boring to readers without human interaction. At a Sitka writing conference the best writer drove the shuttle bus and didn’t say much. It was all upside down, confusing, a mystery, frustrating. I hadn’t grown up with humans as a common species–why was I even trying to write stories they would read?
My first faint glimpse came when a professor named Leonard Robinson assigned our class to pick a well-known story we liked, and copy it. He meant frigging COPY: as in copy the opening, the amount of description, the first use of dialogue, the use of setting, characters, tone, all of it–including the length of each paragraph on each page.
I chose a story called A&P, by John Updike. John’s story took place in a grocery store; mine was me driving cab in Fairbanks, something I had done after my first winter of college. My story had three girls climb into my cab instead of the two that came into Updike’s store. That was fine. Mine was called Alaska Cab. That was fine too. It stayed short, pretty much the same length as his and didn’t take nearly as long to write as my other endless floundering. When I finished, I stared at my creation. I couldn’t believe what I had. Yes, it was definitely stolen. But it was also a story.
The concept still is blurry. It remains terribly elusive, a strange teeter-tawter that swings closer and further. Mostly further. But I’d gotten a first glimpse. And in the process I noticed the glimmer of something else equally hard to track down in the blizzard of words howling through my head. A voice.