In graduate school I took half a dozen “creative writing” classes without learning much at all about how to write. And during nine years of teaching at Hampshire College, in ten or twelve different seminars, I force-fed students recipes culled from my own experience as a scrivener. I don’t think I passed on to those earnest acolytes more than a modicum of wisdom, although several of them, including Jon Krakauer, Chip Brown, and Tom Kizzia, went on to become professional journalists.
On the face of it, an anthology of pieces written by students in any kind of writers’ workshop sounds like a really bad idea. But in the Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness Writing Program, thanks to the inspired leadership of editor/teachers Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome, minor miracles seem to be wrought annually. Rock Paper Fire, a collection of pieces written by students in the program, bears witness to this conflagration.
At the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which I attend nearly every autumn, I bump into students who are in the middle of three weeks of intensive training in the Jackson-Whittome regimen. Their collaborative enthusiasm reminds me of the zeal that used to waft over our campfires at the Gunks in the early 1960s, when I was trying to learn how to climb vertical cliffs. I do recall with amusement, however, a Banff workshop session I sat in on two years ago, where my agent, Stuart Krichevsky, laid out the basic realities of making a living as a freelance writer. Hoping to temper Stuart’s cold truths, Marni Jackson pointed out, “If you sell five thousand copies of your book in Canada, you’ll make the bestseller list.” As they spoke, Steve Swenson, a workshop student, was scribbling calculations on a note pad. Steve is one of his generation’s finest mountaineers and a wildly successful engineer in his day job, and now he wanted to pen a memoir about his expeditions to Pakistan. Suddenly he blurted out, “Wait a second. You mean you can work your ass off for years, write a book that’s a bestseller, and make only twenty-three cents an hour?”
Granted, some of the contributors to Rock Paper Fire—including Bernadette McDonald, Freddie Wilkinson, Katie Ives, and Maria Coffey—were pretty experienced writers even before they signed up for the Banff program. But what makes the anthology work, I think, is that all the aspirants are wilderness junkies, some of them at the cutting edge of climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, or skiing. The fervor that animates their three weeks together, I suspect, owes much to the fact that as they critique each other’s projects, they’re engaging in the endless colloquy that lies at the heart of adventure. How did we get into this mess? How are we going to get out of it? Why do we keep doing it, knowing we could die? Why is there nothing else in life that compares?
I’ve tussled with those conundrums for almost half a century in my own writing without coming up with a coherent answer. At Banff each fall, even more than the best slide show talks or film presentations, what I relish is downing beers in the Maclab Bistro with fellow adventurers I’ve known for years or just met hours ago, weeping with laughter as we trade tales of epics we barely survived.
By now, in my more jaded moods, I like to think I’ve heard and dismissed all the specious rationalizations for why we continue to tiptoe on the edge of disaster as we play at being, in Lionel Terray’s pithy phrase, “conquerors of the useless.” But in Rock Paper Fire, I learned something new on every other page. From McDonald’s rueful meditation on Tomaž Humar’s all-but-inevitable pilgrimage toward death on a lonely Himalayan ledge. From Swenson’s account of a tragedy on Denali that he wonders to this day whether he could have prevented. From Jon Turk’s rolling the dice under the sea ice closing in on Ellesmere Island. From Niall Grimes’s linkage of grief over his mother’s death to the joyful rediscovery of his childhood crags. From Don Gillmor’s evocation of the bond between downhill speed on skis and the downward trajectory of aging. From Helen Mort’s rekindling in poetry of the transcendent climbs of Dorothy Pilley and Alison Hargreaves.
Pick up a copy. You’ll be surprised—and moved.
Rock Paper Fire: The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing, edited by Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome, published by The Banff Centre, 2013.