Friday, February 29, 2008


On a not-so-good day, good news by email! Hot damn! My Alaska winter narrative, "Ghost on Ice", has won the Silver prize in the Travelers Tales Best Travel Writing 2008 contest. An excerpt is here, or you can read the whole thing here, or you can buy the book, with about 15 other stories here. Seven hundred fifty bucks...hmm..should I take a combined paragliding / diving trip?....OH YES--OH YES I SHOULD! And should I be thinking about my Iceland book while I'm at it? Yep. Slowly, slowly, negotiations are coming along, and in the right direction :) Super thanks to my literary agent, Matt Wagner, for hanging in there to find a publisher for the Iceland book, signing me to two book deals ("Anthropology for Dummies and another book I can't mention just now), and suggesting I enter the writing contest in the first place. And TGIF! Have a thrilling weekend. Winter wears down and the gusts and shine of Spring are upon us...I wrote the following in Winter, but I think it can handle the changing season...

black wet elm arms
reach out to us
they are saying
they are shouting
"you are a part of this world!"

(c) 2008 Cameron M. Smith

Friday, February 22, 2008

How to Assemble a Literary Frankenstein's Monster

Reading Thomas Swick's great article on why so much travel writing is boring nudged me into thinking how I do my own. I don't write strict travel writing, which normally (and increasingly) focuses on where-to-go-and-what-to-do, but still...good article. Essentially he points out six things missing from many travel narratives;

* negativeness (e.g. too much emphasis on "delightful cuisine")
* the present (e.g. too much "this ancient city was once the center of a far-flung empire)
* imagination (e.g. too much emphasis on how much things cost)
* insight (e.g. too much description and not enough explanation)
* humor (e.g. when it does appear, it's normally predictable self-depracating humor of the 'stranger in a strange land')
* dialogue (e.g. the world is populated by billions, yet travel writers seem to talk to no-one)

These are generalizations, but boy do they ring true. I can't read travel magazine features or newspaper travel articles...everything's too clean, too legitimate, too quaint...take your pick.

Thinking about all this prompted me to think about how I write. It seems to be a process that takes chunks of impressions and stitches them together, as-best-I-can, like a literary Frankenstein's monster (that's OK, I like the monster and I just don't buy the idea of's a myth that leads to sorrow...) Anyway, here's what I can make of it:

1. Think--for weeks and months--until a clear, physical setting and scene take shape. For me the moment of crystallization is accompanied by the first sentence of the story: I rarely get that by sitting down and trying for it. It's impossible to know when or where the idea will form up, but it's often while I'm in the sauna, or walking or running, or riding the streetcar.

2. Sit down and hammer it out in one go. Normally, this takes about 8-12 hours of uninterrupted writing. By the second hour I'm entirely back in the scene, in my mind, and it's critical to keep the ball rolling because the sensations and feelings have all come back. I can't summon them on short notice (maybe I should work on that; I'd get more writing done).

3. Start editing. Word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, as in the picture above. The first draft is a sketch, the final is months away. But after about two months, say on a 2,000-word item, I'm burnt out and can't read it any more. It gets filed away, perhaps to be resurrected later. It's never deleted. A lot of my 2,000-word items are doomed to be rendered down to a single paragraph in some later item...they're not garbage, they're fertilizer :)

4. Finally, take it to your writing group. If you write, and you're not in one, I'd say get in one. It's indispensible to have relatively-impartial folks read what you write, and say things like, "I just don't buy this sentiment," or "This paragraph is really struggling." I'm in a great writing group here in Portland, Oregon, and simply couldn't do without them.

OK, last thing: to Swick's comments about travel writing, I'd like to conjur in the following nebuli:

* evoke all five senses
* compare things and quantities to everyday things and quantities, not abstractions
* unless the detail is actually moving the story ahead, ditch it (e.g. does it matter that the rope is yellow? if not--if that doesn't come back up later in a significant way--then nobody cares
* nobody cares what time you woke up or what you ate for breakfast; get to the scene and the story

There are others, but this is a good shortlist for me. Since I can ever forget my own birthday sometimes, I'm printing all this to tape inside the manila folder in my bookbag marked "Current Writing."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Immanjarok and the Shaman's Ghost

The other night, lights on a crane reminded me of Alaska's "Immmanjarok", the little people who trick you into disaster by luring you with lights (Mom tells me that in Germany they're called "irrlichter" or "mad lights")...After posting a blog about it here (see earlier post) I expanded the story to include the episode of the shaman's ghost, just as I was trekking back into Barrow, right around this time last year...I've submitted it at Traveling Stories online magazine, if you're interested.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


In Alaska last winter I asked a native hunter what I should worry about, out on the land, other than polar bears.

"Immanjarok," he said, "The little people. They trick you. It's dark this time of year, right? So they trick you with lights. You see a light out there and then you follow it out on the sea ice and then the ice breaks and you drown."


"Yep. Immanjarok. Little people that trick you. If you see a light out there, don't follow it."

Back here in Oregon I see lights in the sky at night. The other night one was on a construction crane, easily 200 feet up. After 15 years of mountaineering, I can't look at a tall object without thinking how to climb it. Seeing the crane I immediately thought "How could I get up that thing, and climb out to the end and then jump, and then open a chute and try to land? Where would I land? There are power lines everywhere!"

But I'm not a parachutist, and I had to push the ideas down. It's just a light up on a crane, I thought, a lure.

Just a light.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Native Elvis and the Walrus

A year ago today I was flying to Alaska for my first winter expedition on the North Shore. During my stay I experienced 'Kivgiq', the Inupiat native "Winter Messenger Feast", which I write about in my forthcoming chapter in The Best Travel Writing 2008. An excerpt is below, followed by a short video clip of two dancers (but remember, the dancing went on for three nights!); the first dances a walrus, the second, Elvis moves fused with native mimes...Not to be missed! If you watch the video, be sure to crank the volume to maximum, as it was really, really loud!

"A thousand or more natives from across Polar Alaska and Canada had gathered: children, adults, teens and the elders, who told the legend of the Messenger Feast:"

"When the Inupiat were young and learning to live in this place, life was hard and they hunted all the time. But when they knew how to live, Eagle Mother taught them to drum and sing and dance, and how to build a large feasting house. She told them to invite neighbors to listen to the songs, and dance to the drums. The invitations were delivered by Messengers, who also made requests of the invitees: 'Here is what the sponsor of the feast, respectfully, wishes from you.'"

"Drums—fifteen at a time—beat slowly, directing the subtle movements of dancers’ bodies, a shoulder shrug, an arm or wrist gently turned. The slow beat was the invitation to let go, to be taken by the spirit of the dance. After a time, suddenly, like a bomb, the pace and volume increased—BOOM BOOM BOOM...BOOM BOOM BOOM—accompanied by wailing and chanting, as the dancers were taken, stamping their boots hard, locking their bodies in stiff postures of shock or terror. Sometimes there were sweeps, syncopated paddling motions, the communal pursuit of a whale. Sometimes arms were hauled joyfully towards the chest, pulling in a whale, sustenance for a whole village, starvation staved off or another season. There were pantomimes of hunger and plenty. Conflicts were acted out and resolved. And there was always respect for the land and its animals, the gravitational center of this culture around which all else revolved."

"These performances were as important to Inupiat survival as any harpoon or kayak; they were instructions for a proper life. How did they survive here? I’d asked. It was a question only a wholly-urbanized person could ask. How did they survive here? Easy. Keep your population low. Don’t mow down your resources. Manage the plants and animals so their populations will be healthy for your descendants, as your ancestors did for you. Be respectful of the land. It is not rocket science."

"And have a sense of humor! Some of the greatest applause at Kivgiq came for ‘Eskimo Elvis’, a dancer outfitted in a caped jumpsuit, sunglasses and pompadour. ‘E’ rocked the crowd with a fusion of Inupiat and Elvis moves complete with a karate-kick ending that sent the crowd through the roof. Kivgiq ended with solemnity, but laughing was just as important. Life is short, after all."

(c) 2008 by Cameron McPherson Smith