At a writing panel in Anchorage recently I was my usual self -- in this case not wolfing down muktuk or seeing how many mosquito bites I can get -- but something else I do plenty of: talking disparagingly of being a writer.
The writing life is not all people imagine it to be, and I keep a copy of a royalty check on my desk -- $112.54, wages for six months of book sales -- to remind me of exactly that.
At school visits, I often tell students the saying "don't write books unless you have to." I tell them it takes years of work, at exponentially lower pay than driving truck.
I carefully separate that from more important advice -- learn to write good clean little sentences, because those break trail in life. And you put them on job applications.
After that writing panel at Loussac Library, one of Alaska's finest writers, Sherrie Simpson, handed me a book. It wasn't one of hers. She knew nothing about it, only that a professor had asked her deliver it to me.
It was a pale book, too close to square, with the feel of something a religion salesperson might leave at your door. The title was an uninviting: "Alaska Expedition, Marine Life Solidarity." Down at the bottom the author's name caught my eye: a friend of mine, James P. Sweeney.
Sweeney falls into that star-crossed category, that ill-fated slot in life of being a person who has no choice but to write. Actually, in Jim's case he literally fell into it -- down a rock chute south of Mount McKinley, named the Elevator Shaft, named by people who climb that sort of thing.
His attempt to claim first accent of the Elevator Shaft took place in 1989, three weeks after the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- hence the name his partner, Dave Nyman, registered their expedition under with Denali National Park Service: Marine Life Solidarity. That tragedy was heavy on their minds as they headed into the clean white Alaska Range.
I remember that spring. In March I flew back to Ambler from studying writing at the University of Montana. In spring I always felt the need to drop out of college and hurry home to the Arctic before the geese arrived. In April 1989 surely I was on bright snow, in sun, probably plucking a fat goose for the soup pot -- while south 400 miles a stranger was weathered in, wounded and without food, pounded by avalanches and remembering how to pray. It was 16 more years until we met, in Homer at the 2005 Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference.
I'd put in 20 years trying to climb that slope to being a writer; my first novel had finally been published. For the first time I was faculty, instead of a wanna-be at pretty much everything.
One of the participants came up and introduced himself as Sweeney. He said he and some friends had hitched down from Anchorage to attend because I was in the Kachemak brochure. The guy wanted to talk writing. He invited me to join them at the Salty Dawg Saloon. He had a big Joker smile and a bad limp and a permanently sunburned nose that he was sticking a bit too close to my face for comfort. But I like beer, and my job in Homer was to attempt to help other writers get to where I was -- wherever that was.
I tagged along. The guy asked questions. His brain moved too fast for mine. As soon as we got in the door of the bar I realized there were far too many tall, cool, loud white people jammed in there for me to stand for more than a minute.
I squeezed straight through and out the back, ditching Jim and his friends, circling around out of sight, back to the Land's End where Guy Adams and some other folks from Kotzebue were having a pitcher and talking fish -- halibut they'd caught that day.
The next morning Sweeney appeared beside me, big smile, still friendly and undeterred. "What happened to you last night?" "Too much people," I said. That evening some of us built a fire on the beach. Jim started telling me the story he wanted to write. He seemed to know everybody in the state and had opinions about Alaska politicians and shady deals I'd never heard of. "Lots of people know my story," he repeated. "ADN covered it. Discovery Channel used part of it."
He told about rock climbing up the side of some crack in the world, and a fall, and terrible injuries. Then being trapped in avalanches, and rescuers trapped too. It sounded like fiction -- too wild and crazy for anything except a movie, or maybe Reader's Digest Drama in Real Life.
Right away I recognized two things: It was a hell of a story, and it was his to write -- not something for me to salvage a single scrap from. I envied him his great material, but not that awful limp or the frustrating place he was in -- wanting to put his story on paper, but the blank page too much like a whiteout on a glacier, each word a step in an unsure direction, limping forward blind and alone.
I didn't know Jim then, didn't know he was accustomed to whole mountain ranges of adversity. He wanted to write the story; he had to write it, he had no choice. He wasn't going to give up.
I didn't see Sweeney for awhile. When I passed through Anchorage, he'd appear like a genie, right beside me at Kaladi Brothers coffee shop, a door down from Title Wave bookstore. It seemed as if he lived there. He was struggling, had no money, just an old Subaru and his dog, Alute. His limp kept getting worse. He was bent to the side, his leg lurching forward like some wounded bird. He talked about biking the streets, but that seemed impossible. He still had that big smile and sometimes that seemed impossible too.
"Hey, I know you village people!" he'd shout and grin. "You just want a ride to Costco and borrow my duct tape."
I didn't know what to say. I usually did need duct tape, and I certainly didn't know how to help him with his book. I could barely figure that out for myself. "Respect your readers," I told him. And "You have to be able to kill your children." (That means deleting sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters you've spent years polishing and love dearly -- everything that doesn't add to your story has to be gone.)
Seasons went by. He never stopped pouring time into his manuscript. He sent it to me. His sentences were clean and strong; he could do it. But the story needed work. Why was he was backing into it? I didn't want to hear first about the oil spill, I wanted the story -- him trapped on another planet while the avalanches boomed.
Two Aprils ago, Jim sent me a beautiful little book. His first book of short stories, titled "The List." It was too small to be his larger-than-life adventure, but so pretty I wished it were mine. I packed it along when I went upriver for breakup. I was alone, just my dog and me and a lot of caribou and geese. "The List" proved to be a good camping companion, small and light, with a strong voice. I wondered, though, had Jim given up on the big story, the one that drove him to write?
I should have known better. Now I have this book Sherrie handed me, the one with the bland title that provides no warning: "Alaska Expedition." Nights when I should be sleeping I'm turning pages, traveling the tense edge of survival in cold and snow and hunger and pain. All told in a clear crazed honest voice that will not back down.
I remember this same problem that spring I read "The Hunt for Red October." The north wind was billowing our wall tent in the air and out in the dark the dogs were barking at a fox or a bear or something, but I wasn't crawling out of my sleeping bag until I finished the book.
Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.