Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Christine Byl: The Line and the Circle

My first week on a Glacier National Park trail crew, I was a twenty-three year old just-out-of-college philosophy major: bookishly un-muscled and completely inept at anything involving two-cycle engines (or four-cycles ones for that matter, though I didn't yet know the difference.) You can imagine then, that the chainsaw I held at arms' length in the gravel parking lot outside the trails shop represented an enormous challenge. Luckily I had Sherri, the shop tech, to show me the ropes. She was a tough, dinky woman whose ponytail was longer than her legs, and she talked me through how to start the saw. Of course, I couldn't do it at first, but that's a tale for another day. What matters is the scene: parking lot, me, Sherri, saw. The goal: learn this skill well enough to be paid for it, and not to cut my leg off. And the end: I did (learn) and didn't (cut off my leg). Now, thanks to Sherri's early lessons, running a chainsaw is part of who I am.

Almost everything I love to do I learned from someone. Besides my trails career, most of my passions are explicitly founded on the idea of apprenticeship. Mountain travel, backcountry skiing--I'd be dead if not for the many partners who've taken the first run, led the hardest pitch, or shouted over a stiff wind, get your head out of your ass! My spiritual path has harbored more than its share of teachers: a couple of unorthodox Christians, a meeting-house full of ardent Quakers, and more complicated Buddhists than you can shake a stick at (though really, who wants to shake a stick at a Buddhist?) Perhaps there are a few "self-made men" in this world, but I'm sure not one of them.

Writing is often talked about as a solitary pursuit, and many of our cultural tropes about creation, talent, and success feature the intrepid artist hauling himself to his desk by his distressed-leather bootstraps. Picture Edgar Allan Poe hunched over parchment, Emily Dickinson pacing her attic, Thoreau lost in thought on his wood splitting stump, picking his teeth with a piece of kindling. It's true, the tasks that make up our days we often do alone. Walking and thinking, typing and reading, scrawling notes, revising, talking to ourselves. But for me, being a writer--being an honest, improving, invested writer--is also a daily apprenticeship. Every time I sit at my desk (or slouch on a chair by the woodstove), I join a community. Every time I rise from bed and crack open my morning reading, I fall into a line of pen-and-ink tradesfolk, shuffling to the bus stop with our lunch pails hanging from our hands.

Unlike me with my first chainsaw lesson, writers have lots of available modes of apprenticeship besides the "here's how it's done, dummy," default that characterizes cut-and-dried tasks. We learn from books we love and books we hate, books we read twice and books we don't finish, and from reading the thoughts of other people who have read the same books, and different ones. (I think of book reviews and blogs and critical essays like the commentary that fills the margins of the Talmud--it's all part of the holy text.) Writers learn from the specific teachers we study under, whether for an afternoon or a degree, and by extension, from the teachers of those teachers. We learn from the company of other writers--this is the most basic impulse in an MFA program, I think--and also from the loneliness that comes when other writers are far off. We learn from editors who reject us and readers who write us letters (one is definitely easier to take than the other.) And when we shut the books or leave the workshop, we learn from the world around us, apprenticed to noticing, to weather and animals and snow. What loneliness? Which solitude? Whose attic?

Two of my favorite things about literary apprenticeship have to do with its democratic underpinnings. Being an apprentice doesn't mean you're a rube, an idiot, or even a beginner. Our trade's biggest experts were apprentices:

"Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer, Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce. E.M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust."

(I am here indebted to Annie Dillard, who wrote the above in Chapter Five of The Writing Life. If you're a lazy researcher, you can't do better than Annie in a pinch.) It seems that the better the writer, the more unabashedly they honor lineage.

Then, there's the wonderfully cyclical nature of writing apprenticeship. We're all learning from each other, lineage as circle. The 60-year-old novelist preparing her 15th book for publication reads the stories of a writer who's assembling a first collection and gives him some good advice. That story writer tutors a high school kid, who enters her first writing contest. And when that high-schooler's poem comes out in the local paper, the grainy black-and-white photo can't hide the pride on her face and the 60-year-old novelist, reading the news over her morning coffee, is reminded of the joy in offering words to the world, which she'd all but forgotten in the flurry of recent emails while planning her book tour. Beginner's mind brings us back around: when we make ourselves teachable--and when we teach-- we get taught.

Lest this sound like a happy skip down a flower-strewn path, I'll remind myself that inherent in any apprenticeship is hard, often tedious, sometimes demoralizing work. Learning requires sacrifice; so does teaching.  And you don't have to love someone's books, agree with their politics, or admire everything about them in order to benefit from tutelage. Zen teachers encourage their students to question authority. Some of the best learning I've ever done was in telling a cherished mentor when I thought he was full of shit.  

But it sure wasn't Sherri. She would have cut off my leg.

Question of the Day: Who has mentored you, in person or on the page? In honor of our teachers, and in the spirit of share-the-wealth, join me in the comments by naming one of yours.

Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press, 2013). Her prose has appeared in GlimmerTrain Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other magazines and anthologies. Byl lives in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She runs a small trail-design and construction business. When she isn't working in the field or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Visit her on Facebook while her website makes its slow way to the world.


Anonymous said...

Doug frank, teacher. Linda McCarriston, poet and teacher. Annie Dillard. Robert Hass.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

LOTS of mentors and teachers in so many categories, but two of the most influential were: a visiting author who came to my private high school and let us write with less structure and more encouragement for a brief while. I was used to getting lousy grades, and when she wrote "I'd love to see more of this-- keep going" on the top of an unfinished story, that comment meant so much more than the letter grades and redlining over grammar problems etc. The previous teacher would have simply given me an F for something "unfinished" or for breaking some rule about what should have happened on what page. Then the author asked our opinions about a character in a chapter in a novel she was finishing. For the first time, I could imagine how pages went through revision and ultimately became real books! Instead of slaps on the knuckle from our regular teacher who may or may not have even enjoyed reading, we were spending time with a real writer who wanted to know us, our opinions, and our stories. Fireworks!

The next mentor was George Bryson, newspaper editor, who would let me sit behind him and hear his thoughts, while he physically edited one of my features. That "over the shoulder" look helped me understand the revision process as a series of choices -- not just catching errors. And given that it took more time, it was incredibly kind for him to do.

The commonalities between the two stories, I realize now, is that a good mentor respects us as creators and lets us into their thinking process--one aspect of a true apprenticeship.

Antje said...

At one time Elizabeth Dennison, History Professor at UAA, then I had 'book mentors' (not individuals but books that really helped me understand and reflect), then I have had a 'complementor' Bernadine Raiskums (we have enjoyed each other's surmising and musing about all kinds of philosophical topics. As of lately I have had 'flash mentors', spontaneous brief moments with someone who ignite a lot of good ideas and thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I love Andromeda's story about that visiting author. Now that I do school residencies, particularly with "high needs" schools, this is such a good reminder that even what seems like a tiny encouragement can really crack open something for a student. And when that happens, it usually cracks open the teacher too.

And, I love Antje's phrase "flash mentor". What a great way to think about those quick overlaps that resonate. I'm borrowing it!