Rob's Blog Archive

July 29, 2012

Special Times










It’s Chester, the second race of the 2000-2001 season.  I’m sitting in the back of my SUV.   When I’m on the road, my seat is always down and the barrier between the back and the front is always up---the girls own the back, except when I sleep there.  I guess I do that pretty often.  Anyway, I’m sitting in the back of my SUV. 

Skijoring, my racing event, is coming up.  I’ve just changed into my ski boots and I’m getting ready to harness the dogs.  For some reason, I grab at Tenaya’s leg.  She grabs back.  I shove her muzzle away.  She grabs at my wrist.  Dawn watches.  I know Dawn’s thinking about leaning into me, maybe getting some attention.  I grab Tenaya under the neck.  She growls, but her tone and smile both betray the growl. 

Even though I’ve been doing this for less than two years, I’m starting to think about a kennel and how I’m going to get from racing two dogs to racing a large team.  And here I am, playing grab-ass with my girls.  It’s a special time.  When I own twenty or thirty dogs and I spend most of my time dropping them, watering them, cleaning up after them, getting them ready for a run, or putting them back up, I won’t be able to play grab-ass.  It will be a different game.  The game now, in my infancy as a musher is special.  Just Dawn and Tenaya and me in the back of my SUV.

Almost a dozen years have passed since that race.  During those years, I’ve had had more than a thousand hook-ups and mushed more than 12,000 miles.  My kennel has grown from just the girls to 22 dogs.  Starry-eyed excitement has been replaced by reality and, hopefully, a bit of wisdom. 

I took my first baby step as a writer four years ago.  I sent a query to Men’s Journal and got back a form letter rejecting the article.  That article eventually became “Snow Dogs,” published in Montana Headwall.  Thanks to the editing of Matt Gibson, the article became the best piece I’ve published to date.  Men’s Journal’s rejection was the norm----Matt’s help was the exception.

One of the flaws Matt found in my writing was that I used an “A is B” structure too much.  I started reviewing my prose and replacing as many “to be’s” with active transitive verbs.  With this, my writing gained energy.  Seeing that improvement excited me. 

Around the same time, Matt and others cautioned me that I should understand that writing was hard work.  I responded that it was work, but couldn’t get myself to say that it was hard.  Just like physics and climbing and Taekwon-Do, I enjoy practicing and learning writing.  It doesn’t matter if I’m reviewing how to solve an old favorite differential equation, playing on a boulder, throwing kicks, or writing anything from a short Facebook entry to the book on which I’m working.   I enjoy the process and learning and practicing are intrinsically entwined. 

My writing took its first quantum leap by following Matt’s advice.  The second came through reading----I read a couple of books on publishing, an inherently boring topic.  In spite of this, the books entertained me.  The books used fun stories to make points, something tried and true for our species.

The third quantum leap in my writing came last fall when an unnamed friend, a successful professional writer, told me that I had to be a character in my own writing, that that’s the key to writing good first person non-fiction.  After years of scientific expository writing where objectivity precludes the author being a character so strongly that first person prose is verboten, I had the key to using I and me and we.  A stiltedness I could see in my writing prior to this vanished.

Which is not to say that these three quantum leaps on top of general improvement by virtue of practice are enough.  To date I’ve published only four magazine articles.  I’ll need much more success before I can claim I’ve made it as a writer.  But to date, there’s also nothing that says I’m not going to make it. 

Like that race at Chester or my first class at Caltech, I’m looking at an open field of possibilities.  I have no idea what my successes and failures as a writer will be.  Like Chester and unlike Caltech, however, I understand the singularity of the moment and to savor it----56 years old rather than 17.  I’m not playing grab-ass with my dogs, but I am looking around the yard or at people I meet and thinking, ‘how could I write this up?’ 

Finally, two thoughts dominate my mindset---how much I enjoy learning and how much I appreciate my teachers.  I may succeed or fail, but I have faith that, with these, all of us will be happy with what I do. 

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