WRITING

 

May 30, 2017

Outpost, a Canadian travel magazine, is looking for a new columnist. Good gig, right? Until you read the fine print and discover that they expect 800-1000 words every couple of weeks for $50 a column. Even ten times that amount is a marginal fee.

That's always been the knock against Outpost: Rather than pay their contributors, they pretend that the free press trips a travel writer on assignment can get is payment enough. While that sounds ok if you're 22 years old and looking for fun and a few bylines to start your career, and have some other source of income, no professional writer works under that arrangement. It's the equivalent of the bottom feeders who ask photographers for free photos and grandly argue that the artist will be getting "exposure". When I get that sort of request (and we all do, periodically), my stock answer is, "People die of exposure."

Incidentally, Canadaland, a media criticism podcast, has an episode this week about the ethics of travel writing that's worth listening to.

January 18

In high school, I played chess seriously for about a year and a half. You do weird things at that age. I played in clubs, though not in a lot of tournaments, and studied openings and end games. I seemed to be pretty good, competing with the better players in Montreal.

Eventually I fell out of love with the game. You had to give it so much to remain at a high level, yet in the end, it was only a game. There were so many other fish to fry.

A couple of years ago, by chance, I took up chess again. A local tournament took place in Banff, which I won. The organizer, from Calgary, was a nice guy. This was remarkable, since my memory of chess players from Montreal was less than complimentary. So many strange Asberger types, plus a smattering of old men. Who wanted to be part of that crowd?

Since that first Banff tournament, I've continued to play intermittently. Partly, I was motivated to see what my strength is. Recently, I've reached a Master rating. This surprises me: Masters are all serious players, and I don't consider myself serious, just curious.

I've always wanted to write about chess. Writers love weird people, and oddballity abounds in chess. Besides the obvious Bobby Fischer tales, there was Nimzovitch, who used to stand on his head in a corner between moves, and Paul Morphy, the nineteenth century U.S. chess prodigy, who suffered a psychotic breakdown and was obsessed with women's shoes. Of the current top ten players in the world, only one can drive a car.

The eccentricities of non-elite players might not be as storied but they are sometimes as wacky. Nevertheless, I've not managed to convince an editor to bite on an article. One of my beefs with journalism is that editors always ask, "Why should we do this now?" My answer is usually, "No reason, except that it's a good story." It's not the 50th anniversary of Fischer's birth, or death, the Prime Minister doesn't play chess, and it's no more newsworthy than usual. It's just a timeless, engaging tale. Alas, this isn't playing the journalism game properly. Clearly, I'm not a Master pitchman.

December 24, 2016

Some random outdoor factoids collected over the years. All came from natural history books. As tidbits, they're diverting, but I jotted them down mainly because the symbolic potential of some of them.

- The survival rate of tree seedlings in a forest is 1 in 500.

- A raindrop strikes at 20mph.

- Lightning strikes oak trees more than any other species in the forest.

- Tracking dogs can't distinguish between identical twins.

- The minimum echo distance is 55', as the ear can't separate sounds less than 1/10 second apart.

- Cows secrete 200 liters of saliva daily.

- A baby blue whale can grow 8 pounds in an hour and imbibe 130 gallons of milk a day. The tongue of a blue whale is as large as an elephant.

- Arctic flowers tend to be concave near the center like buttercups. This shape acts as a solar reflector and keeps the flower warmest where the pollen is.

- A diamondback rattlesnake is deaf.

November 19

JB MacKinnon's article about our Labrador manhauling expedition last year has just come out in Canadian Geographic Travel. Below, the opening layout.

 

October 22

Years ago, I led a photo tour to Botswana and we had the chance to photograph elephants at the same watering hole where Franz Lanting did some of his best work. Not only elephants, but ungulates, doves, and other animals drank from this small pool. You could have spent days or weeks here, as Lanting did. We shot for a couple of hours in the morning, then -- as you do in Africa --we returned to camp to wait out the heat and harsh light of a tropical day. In the late afternoon, I suggested that we return to the same spot, but the photographers on the tour felt that they'd already seen that highlight. Now they wanted to see something new.

Patience is one of the key differences between an amateur and a professional photographer. When faced with any subject, it is not enough to take one or two shots of it. You try everything. You work your way deeper into the subject. Sometimes, the first image idea is the best; other times, the first hour is merely a musician tuning his instrument. The good stuff comes later, when your eye has become more sophisticated and the obvious, cliche compositions have been tried and discarded.

Recently, I had a chance to visit Pangnirtung, the most photogenic community in the Canadian Arctic. (Grise Fiord and Pond Inlet rank two and three, in my opinion, but the walls of Pangnirtung Fiord create a more dramatic backdrop.) I was working as a resource person on a cruise ship, so I had only an hour and a half to myself. In that time, I scampered the hill behind town, looking for the best angle.

Despite its dramatic setting, Pangnirtung is not easy to shoot. From a photographer's point of view, the houses are in the wrong place. If they had been placed where the airstrip is, it would be possible to align the town view with the best part of the fiord walls. Some ugly white tanks in the center of town also have to be cropped out.

After an hour and a half, I had about a dozen angles on Pangnirtung. I'm not sure which is best. Sometimes a framing that looks great through the viewfinder comes out disappointing, while a fleeting composition you forget about until you see it on the monitor turns into a sleeper hit. My personal favorite is number 3; Alexandra prefers number 2. That doesn't mean that either is the one that art directors or the public will prefer.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

July 15

When I was in Chamonix, France last month to test Columbia Sportswear's 2017 gear, I took a few days afterward to visit a place I had not seen since university days. I discovered Lotschental, Switzerland by accident when backpacking around Europe for three months. The magic of what seemed like a Lost Horizon was so profound that I started studying German the following semester. Although I became fairly fluent with it, I had not used the language since then.

I was curious to see if years later, Lotschental would still have the magic. In other words, would I still have the magic to invest a place with poetry? Clearly, certain aspects had objectively changed. Lotschental now boasted a website, for one thing. I was able to book a flat in one of the villages through Airbnb. Finally, I was much better traveled now, although out of maybe 100 trips, 65 or 70 of them have been to the Arctic. So as a traveler, I still have a fresh perspective about most parts of the world.

The revisit was successful. The charm of the place began when I had to drive my rental car on a train, which ferried traffic through a dark mountain tunnel and disgorged us at the beginning of the valley. Half a dozen villages -- Ferden, Reid, Wiler, Blatten, Fafleralp, etc. -- bead the narrow valley bottom. They're so close together that you can walk from one to the other in five or ten minutes.

One of the distinguishing features of the valley was how narrow and V-shaped it was compared to the big U-shaped troughs like the Rockies valley I now live in. No level ground: Houses are built on steep slopes connected by narrow lanes. Many of the chalets are of distinctive dark-stained larch, with Christian homilies etched on their facades.

A traditional feature of the valley were the hideous masks of wood and horsehair that villagers hung outside their homes, supposedly to ward off avalanches. This has now become a shtick; perhaps it always was. Elaborate, artistic examples of what used to be fairly simple creations are now prominent in the more touristified locations, such as near the parking lot in Blatten: one of the few flat areas in the valley where (paid) parking is allowed.

Having a car, which I didn't on my first visit, I drove to Fafleralp, the last village in the valley, and hiked the World Heritage site beyond it to the glacier. Okay, Lotschental is a ski resort in winter. It has hotels and a tourist information office in Wiler. But it still feels remote, and in the end, remoteness is simply a feeling. Photos below.

June 5

Interview with Tim Cahill

When I was a young outdoor magazine editor, the highlight of my month was the arrival of Outside magazine; at the time, the standard we all aspired to. The first thing I always read was the monthly adventure column by Tim Cahill. These weren't just good, they were always good. Month after month for years, he turned them out. They were funny without poking you in the ribs with an elbow. They were moving but never schmaltzy. They were unforgettable.

He and science columnist David Quammen were the resident geniuses at Outside. Although we loved both, some of my fellow editors preferred Quammen; I was firmly in the Cahill camp. But the two of them taught me that journalism could also be literature, if it was good enough. This possibility had never occurred to me.

Years later, Alexandra and I met Tim and his late wife Linnea at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. Recently, I spoke to Tim again about language learning, which we both enjoy, and he generously agreed to be interviewed for this website.

Among other books, Tim Cahill is the author of Buried Dreams, Road Fever and several compilations of his outdoor writings, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, Hold the Enlightenment and Pass the Butterworms. Here's the interview:

JK: You’re known as a travel or adventure writer, but I assume you’d prefer to be known as just a writer?
TC: That’s correct.

JK: Why? Is the term “travel writer” pejorative somehow? After all, a physicist doesn’t balk at calling himself a nuclear physicist. It just identifies his specialty better.
TC: I don’t consider it pejorative, just limited. Imagine you’re a chef and you like to think you can handle the whole culinary world, but people classify you as just a pastry chef.
Almost all of us guys in the old school didn’t set out to be travel writers. We fell into it because we were good at travel writing. Earlier in my career, I did politics, investigative journalism, mass murderers…but at one point I was assigned a travel story, and apparently crushed it, so they asked me what other kind of travel stories I wanted to do. It was the best job in the world: go where you want to go, do what you want to do, write about it and get paid.

JK: Your narrative stance was often self-deprecating. You presented yourself as this naïve sod in over his head. David Quammen, your fellow columnist at Outside, often did the same thing. Eric Newby took that approach years earlier in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, but it was still pretty new when you adopted it. Where did it come from?
TC: At the time, we were probably reacting to the dominant strain of adventure writing, which was what I call gratuitous chest-beating. The subtext of such a story might read, “I climbed this mountain and you can’t. You’re a jerk.” For a long time, I was interested in the concept of risk, and sometimes I was genuinely in danger. I could have made a big deal of it, but I wanted to avoid gratuitous chest-beating at all costs and to open up outdoor adventure to anybody who had a desire to do it. So the subtext of one of my stories, at least in the reader’s mind, might be, “Gee, if this clown Cahill can do it, so can I.”
So yes, a lot of my first stories about the out-of-doors were a rookie in the wilderness. After about 10 years, though, I’d actually developed some skills.

JK: Are you still interested in risk?
TC: I’m no longer obsessed with it. At 72, I feel I’ve examined the subject enough.

JK: David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction also had this innocent observer style. He said he approached these articles as a giant eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees. Eventually, he began to tire of nonfiction because he said his pieces were becoming formulaic. If you write a lot in a certain genre, can you avoid this?
TC: I think it’s possible to avoid becoming formulaic, though I confess to a certain amount of that. I know how to put together an adventure story without thinking about it. But one of the beauties of travel writing is that you don’t know what the story’s going to be until you get there. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, and what I do is try to figure out how they all fit together, and what it means.
One of my early assignments was supposed to be on vampire bat caves in Venezuela. I went there and found a few bat caves but it was boring as shit. We were pretty near Mount Roraima, featured in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. In it, they climbed this tabletop mountain and found dinosaurs and stuff on top. So photographer Nick Nichols and I decided to climb Roraima and have a look. It was completely different than the story we were supposed to come back with, but everybody loved it. Give all credit to Outside, and to editors like Mark Bryant and John Rasmus, for allowing that approach.

JK: So you wouldn’t consider yourself a high-concept writer, who starts with an idea.
TC: No. I used to say that if you can make them laugh and make them cry in the same piece, then you’ve created emotional depth. That’s what I aim for. And that’s how people remember stories: they remember the emotion.

JK: You often shared some very personal things about yourself  – splitting up from a partner, for example -- that made readers think they knew you.
TC: Every so often, I teach a writing workshop, and I try to tell students that if you go somewhere, you have to erase from your mind whatever is happening at home. Maybe the world looks bleak because your grandma passed away, but then you’re no longer writing about a place, you’re writing about home. Although I counsel against this, I don’t always follow my own advice.

JK: One of your books, Buried Dreams, is subtitled, “Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer.” For those of us who know you as an adventure writer, that’s an odd member of your canon. Is there any connection between that project and one of your very early stories, about the Jonestown massacre?
TC: Jonestown was a must-do because I had covered a couple of cults for Rolling Stone, and this was the ultimate cult story. After Jonestown, I never wrote about cults again. Buried Dreams was my first book. I set out to write a bestseller, and it was. In those days, when you had a bestseller, publishers asked you, “What do you want to do next?” I suggested a collection of my stories from Outside, and they said, “Sure!” Without that bestseller, it would have been very difficult to go in and pitch a book made up of a bunch of articles where all the action takes place in tents.
Both Jonestown and the serial killer book also had to do with the concept of risk, which I was continuing to work on. Diving into the darkest parts of the human psyche was a psychological risk that I was willing to take for the story.
Buried Dreams took me three years of living in the sewer of that man’s mind. It was not psychologically healthy for me. After this, I turned full-face to outdoor adventure. It was clean, it kept me fit and it was uplifting.

JK: Most of your books since have been collections of previously published articles. Do you consider yourself the nonfiction equivalent of a short story writer, sort of an outdoor Alice Munro?
TC: I’m probably best at shorter pieces. Also, I worked very hard on those stories, and it didn’t give me time to tackle books.

JK: Had you always wanted to be a writer?
TC: I had wanted to be a writer since I was 13, but I never told anybody. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin and went to law school for a year. I did pretty well, and it occurred to me that I could be a lawyer, and if this kept up, I would be a lawyer. So I thought, let’s try the writing thing. I was so naïve that I moved to San Francisco rather than New York. I didn’t know where to go, except it had to be somewhere other than the little town in Wisconsin where I grew up.
I did write a novel – it was my thesis for a Master’s degree in creative writing – and I published a couple of undistinguished short stories. When I fell in with Rolling Stone, it was the beginning of the New Journalism – that is, using the techniques of fiction to tell a nonfiction story. I had no journalism experience whatsoever. All I knew was how to tell a story, how to build dialog and construct a scene. I became a New Journalist having no idea that I was breaking the rules in a way that irritated the professional journalists of the time.

JK: So you had to learn interviewing techniques and all the stuff they teach you in journalism school.
TC: I developed my own techniques for doing it. At Rolling Stone, when Ben Fong Torres interviewed Tina Turner, he wrote down his questions as if it was a radio interview. I just listen to what people say and try to get them to tell me a story I can tell. So they say something and I give them a little story from my life which relates to what they are saying. So when I was interviewing movie stars, I’d tell them, “I know you don’t want to talk about your divorce. It’s a terrible thing. I got divorced not too long ago. Here’s what the bitch did to me.” The natural response is to try to top your story.

JK: Do you have a favorite article among those you wrote?
TC: A friend of mine’s daughter had to go to Minneapolis from Montana for life-threatening surgery after a riding accident. (She competed in dressage.) My wife and I took in their dog and we were in touch with them the whole time. I eventually did an Outside column about my dog, their dog, the Fourth of July and the young girl’s surgery. I was late with the column, and as I was getting these frantic calls from the editor, the young girl’s mother phoned to say that the surgery had gone so well that doctors felt she could be up on a horse again in six months. That’s the way the story ends. It’s an emotional story. People laugh, people cry. It’s called Trusty and Grace. It’s the last piece in my book Hold the Enlightenment.

JK: Although the world is smaller and better known now, of course it’s still possible to write travel pieces. But can a traveler still write about such well known locations as Paris or New York? One of Roman Polanski’s early movies, Frantic, made Paris seem alien and discomboobulating. I’m not sure that’s possible any more.
TC: I don’t either. But I’ve seldom written about urban areas. More to the point for me is, what about remote areas? In the 1970s and 80s, it was very difficult to find out what life was like in West Papua, for instance. Now you can look up lots of information about it.

JK: What do you think of the criticism in some academic circles that travel writers are appropriating something that only locals should be able to give voice to.
TC: I know what you’re talking about. It’s literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Give me someone who wants to make that argument and we’ll have a debate.

JK: Do you think that the Golden Age of travel writing is over, at least for magazines?
TC: Sure is.

JK: I wonder if it’s even possible to make a living as a travel writer any more. In the US, good magazines pay – or used to pay -- top writers $3/word. You can make a living at that. In Canada, the best magazines were paying $1/word in the 1960s and that’s still the ceiling here.
TC: Say I used to get X dollars for a story. Today, I get at most 1/3X and generally 1/10X.

JK: I know that online stuff is 1/10X, but print??
TC: It wasn’t the way I saw the end of my career going. I thought you work and work at your craft and get better and better, so instead of traveling like an hysterical monkey, as I did for many years to make ends meet, I’d only have to do three stories a year because they’d be paying me more as I got better and more well known. In fact, it’s worked precisely the opposite.
Recently I’ve done two semesters at two different colleges as a visiting writer and I’ve made some money from that. Every writer whose work we studied was someone I know personally, so if a student said, “I don’t think the writer meant that,” I could say, “Maybe not. Let’s call him up and ask.”

JK: Like that classic scene with Marshall McLuhan from the movie Annie Hall.
TC: Exactly.

JK: Several people claim that The Road to Oxiana is the best travel book ever written, but I much prefer Arabian Sands and Wind, Sand and Stars. Do you have a favorite travel book?
TC: Not really, it depends on the mood I’m in. I like Lawrence Millman’s Last Places. But the book that really changed my life was Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.

JK: It’s a wonderful book, although I’m not sure whether you can classify it as travel or adventure.
TC: There’s a story in Desert Solitaire called The Dead Man at Grandview Point. When I read it back in college, I thought, “Holy shit! You can do that in nonfiction?”

JK: Recently you’ve developed a passion for studying Spanish. Why Spanish?
TC: Many of my stories took place in Latin America. Apart from two years of Latin in school, my background in language is nil. In high school, they had a Spanish club. I thought they were nerds. I was a typical Midwestern kid: I played football and figured that anyone who didn’t was a nerd. It never dawned on me that I would spend a lot of time traveling, and that other languages would be useful.
After at least 20 trips to Latin America, I’d picked up a bit of Spanish and was able to communicate, though not very well. I wanted to learn Spanish, but I was traveling hysterically then and my next trip might be to Africa, where my time was better spent brushing up on Swahili. Now I’m not traveling much any more. About six months ago, I was planning to go to Mexico and took up Spanish again. When I got home, I just never stopped.

JK: So it’s not that you found a Spanish-speaking girlfriend.
TC: No.

JK: What goals have you set for yourself in Spanish? For example, would you like to write anything in that language, like Beckett did in French or Conrad in English?
TC: I had that fantasy a while ago, but no, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that in a way that would satisfy me. I could probably write a straightforward article about the Five Best Beaches in Chile, but not a nuanced story. My goal is to be able to converse with native speakers and understand at least 80 percent of what they say.

JK: What are your favorite language tools and books?
TC: The most valuable tool that I have is the pimsleur system. They ask you questions in Spanish, one after the other, and you have to respond very quickly. Then they give you the answer and you say, “Oh, that’s where I mispronounced,” so you say it again. I’ve been told my accent is pretty damn good. It’s not street Spanish, but sort of educated college Spanish. I know the dirty words but I don’t use them, unless the person is a friend.

JK: You also recommended to me Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever.
TC: He’s much more of a computer nerd than I am, but I have used Anki, the flash card system he writes about. But I’m still working on various aspects of grammar. I don’t know what the present participle is, for example, but it turns out that it’s handy to know these terms when you’re learning a language.
I also use duolingo, which is okay, but I prefer Memrise. Memrise is a flash card system with an algorithm, so if you screw up on a word, it remembers, and feeds it back to you at regular intervals. It also covers grammar more than duolingo. There’s a decent Netflix comedy drama in Spanish called Club de Cuervos that I watch. Oh, and I joined the Spanish club here.

April 7

Earlier I've written about the importance of trail notebooks to enrich travel stories. Another type of notebook that I draw on is a quotebook, in which I jot down interesting lines and phrases from the books I read. Some of these quotes I work into my own stuff. In Arctic Eden, it seemed suitable to open a chapter on glaciers with a line from Mark Twain: "A man who keeps company with glaciers finds himself tolerably insignificant by and by."

Many quotes, however, are not there to be reused. They're just intriguing thoughts, worth remembering and reflecting on:

John Ruskin: "As I go to my work at the British Museum, I see the faces of the people become daily more corrupt."

Castiglione: "When our enemy is in the water up to the belt, we must offer him our hand and lift him out of peril; but when he is in it up to the chin, we must set our foot on his head and drown him outright."

George Orwell: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent."

Hemingway: "People may possibly be divided into two general groups: those who...identify themselves with animals, and those who identify themselves with human beings."

Then there are the quotes that are really just delightful snatches of verbal color or quaint ways of saying things: "an elasmobranch fish" [Nabokov]; "fillets of striped stuffs and five bladders of ambergris" [1001 Nights]; "She was from Iowa, by way of Oregon" [Joe McGinnis]; "Helotage, cuissage, prelibation and pucelage were not unknown" [Richard Francis Burton].

Some writers are adept at including one-liners or phrases from other thinkers in their prose. The Outsider, a mid-20th century book by the prolific but somewhat forgotten English intellectual Colin Wilson, is a grand example: Even in his early 20s, Wilson was able to incorporate others' thoughts without making it seem like he was name-dropping or dragging the lines in by the hair.

Others are themselves exquisitely quotable. In pop culture, Yogi Berra, Mae West and Winston Churchill were so celebrated for their one-liners that they are given credit for many aphorisms they never actually uttered. In literature, the Bible, Goethe and Shakespeare have supplied thousands of heading quotes.

It's easier to type these lines on a laptop than to write them in pen in a notebook, but the notebook gives portable access to them and adds a cultural aspect to solitary walks. In recent years, I simply transfer quotes from the laptop onto my phone, but I have many handwritten notebooks from the pre-smartphone era that I consult intermittently, to reacquaint myself with lines worth remembering.

January 8, 2016

Stumbled recently on a 3,000-word academic review of my book, Arctic Eden, in something called the Journal of Ecosophy, which seems to be a publication about the deep ecology movement. Reading a review of one's book is like looking at a grad student's sketch of what you purportedly look like. Is my nose really that big? Often reviews, including this one, try to establish their authority by pointing out one or two small inaccuracies, then spend most of their time complaining that a dog is not a cat.

Some writers don't read their reviews. I don't mind them, although I don't indulge in the masochistic game of checking out online reader reviews. Some negative or partly negative reviews are actually quite interesting. A southern Florida newspaper reviewed The Horizontal Everest when it came out. The author acknowledged certain positives but concluded that the book made the High Arctic sound hellish. Of course, that wasn't my intention, but it's debatable that anyone could have made a typical Floridian look upon the Arctic with anything but horror. The reviewer was just speaking for her audience, which is fair enough. At best, you can debate why the newspaper chose to review my book rather than a travel yarn in which someone buys a vinyard in Italy or restores a castle in the south of France.

When Lady Chatterley's Lover first came out in the United States in 1959, the hook-and-bullet magazine Field & Stream published a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek review of it. It's my favorite dog-is-not-a-cat book review:

"Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping."

 

 

 

 

 

 

info@kobalenko.com

All words and images ©2008-18 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.