Monument Valley

Monument Valley

I started the year on the road. I left a job of more than seven years — a happy, busy job that taught me so much until it didn’t and it was time to seek new adventures. It was the kind of job that required several sentences and a bit of historical context to answer the dreaded question, “What do you do?” (Seriously, just check my LinkedIn profile.) I managed people, projects and strategies. I snuck in the occasional essay, but calling myself a writer felt more and more like a lie. I was rusty. Worse, my writing had become formulaic. I could write your standard 600-800 word online opinion essay with a social-friendly headline in my sleep. But I craved more depth, more length and more meaning. I left the job with no other plan than to learn and do things I hadn’t yet learned and done.

Enter Jacqui. Readers of this site need no further introduction. We passed each other in the halls when I was a student and she a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. We kept in on-and-off touch in the years after I graduated. Then, as I prepared to face the unknown after LinkedIn, I signed up for her writing workshop in Arizona, begging to be unstuck.

At the workshop, she introduced us to free writing. Ever the Cartesian Frenchwoman, I had my doubts. We French don’t do hippie. We do, however, change our minds when presented with a compelling argument. The draft that came out of my first free write — an essay on the caged life of my grandfather that brought me to tears in front of my classmates, and many of them to tears along with me — was exactly that compelling argument.

Because I confided that I need external accountability to get any writing done (I got my start in daily newspapers after all), Jacqui gave me a week of deadlines. When the workshop ended, I headed out on a solo road trip through the American Southwest. On every day of that trip, I was expected to file a “postcard” via email. They were never supposed to be published and were never edited. I feel I should stress that. But Jacqui sent me a few lines of support each time. Then she asked if she could use some as a Storyboard post, along with some thoughts about what I learned from the discipline of a week of daily free writing. Here is the first one I sent:

A saguaro forest in Arizona.

A saguaro forest in Arizona.

You don’t really turn south on highway 80 in Benson, you descend onto it. The road dips and suddenly the desert stretches as far as the Earth exists. The eye goes and goes until, almost in Mexico, hills rise as if God pinched up the tablecloth. I’m heading to Bisbee, tucked in one of the folds. Forty-nine miles in barely bending lines. As I travel south a careless visitor, I think of those who move north in hope and anxiety. I see the acacia shrub that shreds their clothes and the ocotillo that refuses to make shade. I see a border patrol checkpoint. All that ails me vanishes.

I’ve long believed in walks, drives and rides to get inspired. The American landscape helps, too. I usually have a podcast or audiobook on, a habit I’m trying to quit to grant my mind the silence and boredom creativity requires. In a bind though, the audiobook can become the muse. Another postcard:

Apache country in Arizona.

Apache country in Arizona.

Even my sat nav could have fallen asleep today. “Turn left, continue 76 miles. Turn right, continue 87 miles. Turn left, continue 47 miles.” This country just won’t end. The drive from Tombstone, not quite at the southern border of Arizona, to Holbrook, not even close to the northern border, is exactly the length of a book. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor started working together in brown, rust and gold plains. With every new ashen hill I ascended came a new sickening revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. He fell in the red canyons of Apache country, and I drove through snowy pine forests with Christine Blasey Ford. I look forward to birdsong only tomorrow in Petrified Forest National Park.

Nobody’s going to give this a Pulitzer, but that’s the point of free writes — unleashing the “shitty first draft.” More like first-and-a-half drafts. Words simmered and rearranged themselves at the wheel all day until I finally sat down to write my daily postcard, as late as I could like any self-respecting deadline writer. I sometimes pulled over, grabbed my phone and tapped a sentence I didn’t want to forget. That’s when the exercise almost failed. Self-conscious at the best of times, I became so to the point of near paralysis after the workshop. It exposed, encouraging but unflinching, the gap between where I am and where I want to be as a writer. My verbs! Oh, my verbs! After realizing that I used the same handful of verbs over and over again, I couldn’t write a sentence without questioning them. Every verb in the postcard below was rethought, perhaps overthought. I don’t know if you can tell, but I can.

If America fell, abandoned truth and betrayed everything she promised the world, I would love her still for one institution: the US National Park Service. Here is the best of Earth and the best of Man. 

The painted desert astonished me. Browns, greys and purples. Yellows, reds, whites. Colors I don’t have words for, like so many languages I don’t speak. There goes that land that won’t end again. A 118-car freight train looks a toy for the giants in the sky. 

Under my feet sleep trees of stone, elders who cast themselves in quartz so we may know them. What will the planet have of us when we have finished destroying ourselves? Let me not be dust in the wind. Make me a mountain.

Free writing requires letting go in the most uncomfortable way. Do I want to be a mountain? I don’t know. It sounds a bit silly. Would I ever publish this about myself? No. The French don’t do hippie, remember. Except I just did.

Embracing the discomfort of writing free

Free writing opens the door to a vulnerability any writer must embrace, however uncomfortable. The assignment forced me to look for stories everywhere I went, and in doing so, to create stories. My kind of travel is a contemplative experience. I meet people, but I don’t seek them out — until an editor makes me. Being moved by landscape is easy; receiving a life story demands more. This last postcard was the result of two encounters on the road:

The Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon

There couldn’t be two more different towns in America, and they’re just 20 miles apart. I came to Bisbee first, a copper mining town all stairs and twisty streets between the hills, minutes from the Mexican border. There, store owners put up signs in their windows defending the right to give water to migrants in the desert. The library was awarded Best Small Town Library in America, the locals are quick to point out. Town folks opened it after they woke up one morning in 1882 to one of their own hanging from a street pole. ‘’We’ve got to get more wholesome entertainment,’’ they thought. I’ve barely opened the door to a breakfast joint at the back of a private home that John sits up in his booth and opens his arms wide: 

‘’Welcome! Join us. We’re debating how many perfect squares are in a waffle.’’ His smile splits his long grey beard and lights up gentle eyes. John washed up in Bisbee twenty years ago after a life here and there. He’s mad about Trump and climate change and hippies that became yuppies. The kind of mad that just sighs and shakes his head.

‘’High stakes breakfast then,’’ I say. I order a 16-square waffle and I am in. 

Tombstone is the red to Bisbee’s blue, and it mined silver. Here, signs proclaim Jesus and the second amendment. Roads are on a perfect grid. For entertainment, there’s the OK Corral reenactment every day at 2 and 4 pm. I‘ve barely parked on 5th Street in front of the Tombstone Epitaph newsroom — the longest-running newspaper in the West, the locals are quick to point out, born 1880 — that Virginia shuffles up to me. 

‘’You here for the band?’’ 

Her face betrays no doubt that I know exactly what she’s talking about. She’s a professional photographer, she says, the band played New Year’s Eve at the American Legion and they’re good and they’re at Crystal Palace tonight and her husband died of cancer in 2001 and thank God there was photography to keep her going. We grab bar stools together. She keeps walking up to the stage to take pictures, before shuffling again to one patron after the other, showing off a few passable frames. I have dinner, one beer, two beers, I write. I want to go, she wishes I wouldn’t. 

‘’You should meet John,’’ I wish I’d said. He’s just down the road.

I don’t know whether I would have engaged as much with John and Virginia if not for the nagging thought, “I have to write something today.” I like to think I would have, but I know myself. Now, I know them, too.

Most popular articles from Nieman Foundation

Show comments / Leave a comment