The Trail to Words #5 by Seth Kantner

The day after graduating from J-school in Missoula I unplugged my laptop, packed my boots and clothes, and gave away the pine desk I had made. I mailed home a couple boxes of school newspaper stories, black-and-white prints and negatives, and a dozen books—including the AP Stylebook. It was June 1991, with flowers on trees and dark warm scented nights. It was my first time seeing the Montana hills green. Summer felt peaceful and pleasant, but I jumped on my small Suzuki motorcycle and headed for Alaska. 

The trip was tough, pouring rain all the way to Edmonton, then sweltering heat on the Alaska Highway. The road was a mess, rocks and half torn up, as more of it was being paved in advance of the 50th anniversary of its construction during World War II. By the time I got to Fairbanks I was shocked to still be alive. I promptly sold my bike, and never touched one again. I flew to Ambler where I winched my fishing boat out of the willows and boated west toward Kotzebue for the fishing season. Writing felt very distant, not part of this life.

Along the way, on the Kobuk River, the trees and tundra were green and leafy. I idled ashore at our old home to sort gear and drop off the boxes I’d mailed north. The mosquitoes were a whining wall of welcome, quickly bringing back memories of my childhood, and stepping inside our sod house did more of the same: it was chilly, damp and smelling of mold. The world of college felt impossibly far away. I heaped my hard-fought-for photos and half-done essays on my dad’s workbench, accepting that squirrel and vole eyes were going to be the only ones to see my work. I still dreamed of writing a novel. But that dream was on its way to feeling insurmountable again.

In the fall, after the salmon season, along the river, I walked miles on the tundra photographing caribou. It felt hard and good and right. As the days shortened and Freezeup came, I started an extra long short story (I was too superstitious to use the word “novel”) about a young boy I named John Weston. The story wasn’t actually a story. It wandered, went nowhere, and kept sneaking back to being my life story. I changed important details—such as which way the river flowed—which accomplished nothing to change that. I wrestled with it. I hated it, as I should have.  Finally, I deleted the whole thing. 

I started again, with just five words, In the bad mouse year…. In a Creative Writing class in college a few classmates had liked that line I wrote, and the legendary William Kittridge had advised us to take our best line and move it to the front of our story. It seemed like a crazy disruptive idea at the time. But it wasn’t. At the top of my attempted story I put the title Down by the Wolf

That title stayed on my manuscript for the next ten years or more. 

Life was complicated, and writing much more so. Writing was an endless hopeless and depressing trip through willows with no visibility ahead. Being so hard for me, I found the thought of writing just for others’ entertainment to have no calling; I found myself only wanting to write something worthwhile, useful, and hopefully in line to change the world. With no authenticity or self-regard as a writer to fall back on, and a shoddy understanding of anything literary, a minuscule vocabulary, poor memory, bad spelling and muddled mind, I fuddled my way forward in the dark. 

I read about writing—The Elements of Style, On Writing, Writing Down the Bones and others. I tried writing with a pencil, and free-writing with prompts and a timer. I stopped writing short fiction, and switched to true accounts. 

I’d had another wall in the way, too. I didn’t believe in the American version of success. A writer in the village of Ambler tried to straighten me out: “You have to write what sells.”  “You can’t write a novel! Not until you establish your name.” 

He wanted me to write short essays for airlines magazines and other publications, to get my name out there. I curled my lip. Why would I ever ask people from the Lower 48 what stories they could sell about Alaska? That felt like building a kayak with no bottom, or a sled with no upturn. Writing was too tough, with ambiguous value; I’d rather spend my time building furniture, hunting, trapping, and tanning skins. Also, an added benefit of quitting would be more time for me to read other peoples’ great books! I couldn’t seem to quit, though. I didn’t know how. I kept trying to figure out what felt true. And how to say it. 

I started noticing Steinbeck. He wrote about real people, and truths, and I understood him. I got tangled up in Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx—writers far too sagacious and capable for me to even think of emulating—and after reading The Shipping News, one drunken night in the glow of my little screen I took hundreds of verbs out of my manuscript. Maybe it was thousands. The next morning there was no hope of remembering where and what had been deleted. 

My pile of pages got heavier over the years, more tattered and coffee stained, but still going nowhere. My novel became like a boat you might see a friend building in their yard; you know, after it’s been there a year under a blue tarp friends are cautious to ask: “So how’s your boat coming?” After a third summer, it’s uncomfortable to bring up in conversation. “Say, you still working on that boat?” Eventually years go by; the blue tarp is tattered, the plywood gray and sopping. It’s not uncomfortable any longer; friends’ eyes skip right over your boat project, junk heaped around it in the yard, a bleached out wolf skin draped over the transom.  That was my novel.

Meanwhile, I commercial fished and built sleds to pay off my small college loans. I saved money, and attended a few writing conferences. Being around other writers was the exact opposite of my daily life: They were encouraging; their problems and questions, hopes and doubts and dreams were all familiar, and somehow helped. 

I applied to Stanford for the Wallace Stegner writing fellowship; I was runner-up; but no one got sick or dropped out, no call came, and that was the end of that. I applied for a writing program at Lewis and Clark college, got accepted, but dropped out the first week and walked the streets of Portland instead. In Portland, a community teacher asked if she could send the first 1/3 of my novel to two publishers. (This without seeing a word of it.) “Over the transom” so to speak, basically unsolicited. I gave her a hundred pages, with the caveat that I only had 1/3 polished, a second third that sucked, and no third third at all. 

Houghten Miflin said nope. Alane Mason at W.W. Norton replied, “Send the rest!” And she waited— a long time. For years she wrote to me, and when I finally sent her a completed version of Down by the Wolf the consensus was I had been right all along: it sucked.

But in Portland things got weirder; I read The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, and somehow met the author, Tom Spanbauer, and he introduced me to a wealthy man named John Weston. I told him my original main character had his name. I felt like I was lying.  John wanted to help me with my novel. But how? Who could really do that? Then Tom invited me to his writing group. There at the table a young guy I found to be extremely irritating read a completely uninteresting piece from his heap of papers: “…the first rule of Fight Club is, You don’t talk about Fight Club…”  Poor guy—I knew he wasn’t going to get his book published either.  

That next fall Alane sent me Norton’s catalog. There was Fight Club! And after another year or so passed, out came the movie with Brad Pitt—who was supposed to play my main character in Down by the Wolf.  It was all going ironically wrong. My non-novel was crossing empty tundra, endlessly going nowhere, starving while others feasted.  But I was like a wolverine, and continued on.

1 thought on “The Trail to Words #5 by Seth Kantner”

  1. Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan

    This is enormously encouraging. I will save it to read again. I just finished the first draft of my own (sucky) novel, that one story that has been following me around for years. It has been that boat in my yard, tarp flapping. Reading this makes me think it just might float one day. Thank you.

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