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It’s March 12, 2013. A Tuesday morning of no great import. Despite the snow we received last night, it’s starting to feel like spring. Daylight savings left us with light until 7 p.m. last night, and today’s avalanche center’s forecast warned that “the danger of encountering spandex-clad road bikers will be elevated by later this week.”

With longer days comes the illusion of more time. More time to get after it, to take on new projects, make new goals, revitalize old passions. Before my plate gets too full, I’m prioritizing. For the next 30 days, I’m going to write something that’s not assignment-based every day. It will be an experiment, an honest effort, sometimes a trial. It’s not NANOWRIMO, but it is an exercise to build strength.

What are you working on as we move into spring?

I just wrote this email. It’s a follow-up question from an interview I conducted a few weeks ago.

Hi __________,

When you open the main body cavity, you said you make an incision from the jaw to the pubis. This is probably a ridiculous question, but, do you use a scalpel to make the cut?

Thanks! Aimee

I think sometimes it’s these little details that can really round out a story, and they have to be right. I only wish I had thought to clarify at the time, rather than realizing now as I’m trying to write the whole piece that I want the detail. The learning process continues.

Addendum: I’m envisioning a laser being used because then wouldn’t it also act to cauterize as it opened?  I’m 90% sure it’s my imagination going nuts, but I’d rather know for certain.

In the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the craft and process of long-form science and non-fiction storytelling. I like the bit below from an interview with author John McPhee quite a lot. It’s true — in non-fiction a pepper never gets to be a tomato. It has to be a pepper.

I always say to my classes that [writing nonfiction is] analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.

Edited to add – His description of the process is also pretty darn amazing:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.

“…You need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, He’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.” – Stephen King

Back in a few days.

I come home from a run with mud spatters covering my running tights from the ankles to the ass. Drinking a glass of water, steam rises from my shoulders, sweat freezes in my hair.  I should be stripping for the shower, but instead I sit on the porch stretch out my legs and stink the stink of polypropylene, endorphins, and happiness.

In the last few weeks, after a short break for ski touring and winter steelheading, I’ve been climbing back on the running wagon. Putting in few miles here, a few there. I’ve been running hills on Tuesdays, mid distance Wednesday, long on the weekend. I have a couple races and events on the horizon, nothing major, but enough to remind me that running a bit  might be a good idea.

I first read this piece by Roger Hart back in the winter of 2002 or 2003 when I was working in a small newsroom. Outside it had been raining for 30 days straight and motivation to do much besides huddle in a rain coat was lacking. It was published in Runners World, and came to my desk by way of a runner with a photography problem. Back then, it inspired me to suck it up, put on a jacket, and get out the door. Today, ten years after I first read it, it still gets me excited to get out there. For the full essay, visit Runners by Roger Hart.

Runners by Roger Hart

We ran through blizzards, thunderstorms, freezing rain, covered bridges, creeks, campgrounds, cemeteries, city parks, parking lots, a nuclear power plant, county fairs, and, once, a church service. We were chased by goats, geese, a crazed ground hog, guards (the nuclear power plant), a motorcycle gang, an armed man in a pickup, a sheriff’s deputy, and dogs both fierce and friendly. We ran when two feet of snow covered the roads and when the wind-chill was thirty below. We ran when it was eighty degrees at seven in the morning. We ran on streets, sidewalks, highways, cinder tracks, dirt roads, golf courses, Lake Erie beaches, bike trails, across yards and along old railroad beds. Seven days a week, twelve months a year, year after year.

During the hot days of July and August, Ed ran without shirt or socks; I always wore both. Norm ran with a screw in his ankle and joked that it was coming loose. Ed was faster going downhill; I was better going up. The three of us met at a race and became training partners, competitors, best friends. We ran together on Saturday mornings, usually a twenty-mile run along the shore of Lake Erie or a twenty-two-mile route over hilly country roads near Ashtabula. We ran thousands of miles and more than a dozen marathons together, but most of the time we ran alone.

We gave directions to lost drivers, pushed cars out of snowbanks, called the electric company about downed lines and the police about drunks. We saved a burlap bag full of kittens about to be tossed off a bridge, carried turtles from the middle of the road, returned lost wallets, and were the first on the scene of a flipped pickup truck.
We ran the Boston Marathon before women were allowed to enter and before the Kenyans won. We were runners before Frank Shorter took the Olympic gold at Munich, before the running boom, nylon shorts, sports drinks, Gortex suits, heart monitors, running watches, and Nikes.

I burned a loaf of bread this morning because I was writing. I checked the oven and thought, “Ten more minutes,” then I sat down and typed for 25.

It’s been a while since writing sucked me in like that. It feels good to type, smile, stare briefly out the window into the middle distance, then get back at it.

This little column has a ways to go, but the beginning (posted below) is reminding me that sometimes writing is just straight up fun.

In 2012, I hope your work makes you grin.

Running Into the New Year

The first mile and a half are the toughest. In those six or eight or 12 minutes, your hands seem to get progressively colder and wind whips at every bit of exposed skin turning it red like the coals glowing in the woodstove that you foolishly left behind at home. If you’re lucky, the sun is out and you can think about how great it is to live in Central Oregon in January because unlike those poor schleps in Salt Lake City, Ut., Missoula, Mont., or Bellingham, Wash., you can at least get some Vitamin D while you freeze. More than likely, though, it’s sleeting sideways and the dark is either being slow to retreat or closing in fast, and you’re thinking you should remember to buy batteries for your headlamp before this weekend’s 10-miler.

At 2,000 steps in your blood finally reaches your toes, and your feet go from cherry popsicles to something bordering on comfortable. You pick up your head, squint down your eyes against the grit the weather gods are throwing your way, and grin. In arctic temperatures and ugly weather you’re taking control. You’re getting stronger, healthier, happier. Big Bob selling treadmills on late night infomercials on channel 352 can kiss your ass. You’re filled with joy, and all you have to do for the next forty minutes is keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I’m trying an experiment. Starting this Saturday I’m going to spend one day a week not plugged in. Barring emergencies, I’ll be leaving the phone turned off, the laptop closed. I won’t be checking email at five in the morning and 11 at night, or problem solving photography issues for a story that’s due on Monday. One day a week I’m going to cut the figurative wires. I’m going to stop Z*, and it’s going to be awesome.

*See the essay below written by Anthony Doerr for Orion Magazine in 2009.

Am I Still Here?: Looking for validation in a wired world

I HARBOR A DARK TWIN INSIDE. He’s a sun-starved, ropy bastard and he lives somewhere north of my heart. Every day he gets a little stronger. He’s a weed, he’s a creeper; he’s a series of thickening wires inside my skull.

Call him Z. I like weather; Z survives in spite of it. I like skiing; Z likes surfing the web. I like looking at trees; Z likes reading news feeds. I pull weeds in the garden; Z whispers in my ear about climate change, nuclear proliferation, ballooning health-insurance premiums.

Last week I flew into central Idaho on a ten-seat Britten-Norman Islander to spend five days in the wilderness. The plane’s engines throbbed exactly like a heartbeat. The sky was a depthless blue. Little white clouds were reefed on the horizon. Slowly, steadily, the airplane pulled us farther and farther from the gravel airstrip where we started, over the Tangled Mountains and the Tangled Lakes, big aquamarine lozenges gleaming in basins, flanked by huge, shattered faces of granite, a hundred miles from anything, and the ridgelines scrolling beneath my window were steadily lulling me into an intoxication, a daze—the splendor of all this!—and then Z tapped me (metaphorically) on the (metaphorical) shoulder.

Hey, he said. You haven’t checked your e-mail today.

“I THINK,” Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking,” “that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Ha! Four hours! Clearly Thoreau did not own a BlackBerry.

Yesterday—and this is embarrassing—I checked my e-mail before leaving for work and after I got to work, and I checked it every now and then during the day at work, and, after bicycling home from work, a total distance of two miles, I checked my e-mail again. Just in case a few e-mails flew over my head through the rain while I pedaled home.

It’s disconcerting, it’s shameful. I tell myself: e-mail is work-related. E-mail is work-related and anything work-related is family-related, right? Because work makes money and money feeds the family. Money justifies all. Doesn’t it?

What my evil twin Z knows, and what I am loath to articulate, to even contemplate, is that checking e-mail or tinkering around on Facebook or reading snippets about Politician A on Blog B is not about making money at all but about asking the world a very urgent question.

That question is this: Am I still here?

For the full essay, click here: Am I Still Here

Sometimes the pieces I read stick with me. A line echos after I’ve turned the page. Months, sometimes years, later I find myself searching for the piece  guided only by a phrase or two that’s been ping ponging around the dark corners of my mind.

In November 2009, Steve Casimiro, current editor of The Adventure Journal and former editor of Powder, wrote an essay titled, “The Elements of Skiing: Waiting for the Weather.” It was the first line that got me.

I want it to snow and never stop. I want big black storm clouds—not those wimpy gray ones—to cover the land from here to the horizon and beyond. I want flakes the size of dinner plates, blizzards that last for weeks, and powder so deep you need spelunking gear if you lose a ski. I’m only satisfied by “storms of the century”—and I’d be even happier with storms of the millennium. Each time I see a snowflake, I want to ask it, “Are you the one? Are you the first of the storm without end? Or are you gonna puss out like all the others?” It’s a bit of an obsession, I admit, but I’m just happier when snow is falling. Especially when it’s falling on me.

And so it’s November and the snow has fallen in some places and not in others, and most of us are staring at the sky wondering “when?” And “how long?” And because I’m not a selfish sort, at least when it comes to powder, I’m also wondering “where?” Will it come to Telluride and Taos or will it head north, just out of reach, like the fruit dangling over poor King Tantalus? Will the plucky, hardscrabble resorts of Southern California play Russian roulette with bankruptcy again, or will they reap some of nature’s wealth as snow instead of rain?

Or will we have what an old friend called a “grand-slam winter,” where the snow comes to Telluride and Taos and Southern California, and it doesn’t stop there but also falls on Mammoth and Baker and Kicking Horse and Jay Peak and Snowshoe and Steamboat. It’s happened, you know, most recently in 1996–97 and before that in 1982–83—two seasons that have become legendary.

For the full piece, click here: Waiting on the Weather

Last night I sat for an interview about writing with a senior from Chiloquin High School. The student was an engaging and interesting young man. However, he’s a young man who is in the middle of fighting the demons that come with growing up in a small, poverty-ridden community with a conflicted past and an uncertain future. Drugs and alcohol are rampant in the school system, and many students begin battling substance abuse problems before they graduate the seventh grade. Some will never win. Boredom, a lack of role models, and a failing infrastructure conspires against these kids from a young age. To make it out, they are asked to call on an incredible amount of inner strength and determination. They must have dreams.

I’d like to be able to give my interviewer some hope, so I’m writing him a letter. It’s pasted below, with his name removed, in draft form. I’d love to hear what you might tell this kid, or another kid fighting the same battles. Maybe if we had enough notes of hope, we could ask poet Cam Scott, who is working in Chiloquin High School teaching creative writing through a writer in residency program that extends until Thanksgiving, to pass them on to his students.

This is my letter.

Dear                 ,

Thank you for taking the time to interview me, and in turn to answer my questions. And thank you for sharing your ideas about books and the role of mentors.

Last night as I stood outside the library after the last of the workshop attendees had left, as the cold burrowed into my bones, and the street light flashed out, then back on, I thought about you, and I thought about what it might be like to grow up in the Klamath basin in general, and in Chiloquin specifically.

It can’t be easy. I bet you have a lot of days where you’re bored, and also a lot of days where you feel like no one is paying attention to what’s going on with you and your life. Maybe you have days where you feel like you’re alone, or you feel lonely. Maybe you have days of being proud of what you’ve achieved, and maybe you have days where you’re ashamed of something you said or did.

I want you to know that just because you get bored, it does not mean you have to be boring. Inside you there are dreams, hopes and a future. I saw it. I think you probably know it to be true. Do you know, also, that achieving those is going to be hard? That you’re going to have to want them more than you want anything else, then you’re going to have to take action to get them. It’s going to be work, but work can be beautiful and something to be proud of in it’s own right.

When you asked me how I felt about Chiloquin, and how I thought it would influence my writing, I said Chiloquin felt sad to me. I said the community seemed conflicted and lost, and that as a result I felt conflicted in how I would write about it. What I didn’t say, is that I feel the individuals who claim Chiloquin as home also have great potential to create change for the better. To create a new world in their own stomping grounds.

Chiloquin is your town, and one thing I’ve learned is we are never free of where we come from. So you’re going to carry some of the town’s sadness and conflict with you. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth. The good news, though, is that this inequity has the potential to make you stronger, to make your writing stronger, to drive you toward realizing new possibilities.

Growing up this way, you’re being armed with stories that only you can tell. I trust that you’re brave enough to tell them. I also trust that when you start telling those stories you’re going to understand you’re responsible to others. Honor that responsibility by telling your stories and writing your poems with integrity and a clear mind. Then ask for help, clarification and more information when you need it.

People used to say that high school is the best time of your life. It’s not. The world sits in front of you, and it is big and bright.

Be safe,

PS. Be nice to Cam, and make sure he doesn’t eat too many corn dogs. He’s working on your behalf.


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