World Without End, Amen

When you're baffled by bad beginnings, stymied by the unteachable, and running from impending doom, you'd better head for the hills

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

"An initial priority for composition facilitators is to peruse, for context analysis, the local papers, and taking it seriously." I read that sentence a total of, oh, maybe 20 times. The next day, this opening sentence and the essay that followed it were to be discussed in a class I was teaching in the techniques (if not the art) of travel writing. It was, and remains, the very worst lead sentence I have ever had the misfortune to read, and I remember it to this day, more than 15 years later, word for ghastly word.

Worse, I recall with a shudder the cruelty I visited upon its author, a sincere young woman who was a high school composition teacher only a few years out of college. This was at Indiana University, and the woman was taking my summer writing class because, she said, my articles on travel and adventure were popular among her students. She intended to absorb my lectures, such as they were, and convey their lessons to her fellow English teachers. Thus composition instructors could inspire students to produce assignments modeled, to some degree, after the sorts of articles they preferred to read.

In one of my first lectures, I'd said that travel didn't necessarily involve distance. It was a process of discovery and could as easily be accomplished in one's hometown as in the Congo Basin. Where might a potential writer find local travel writing ideas? Well, there were dozens of them every week in the local newspaper. And then I assigned the class to address this topic in an essay.

It was my first experience teaching writing of any kind, and I am afraid that clemency and compassion were not then among my small arsenal of virtues.

So there I was, standing in front of a class of 20, all of us holding this woman's paper as if it had been used some time ago to wrap fish.

"Any comments before we start?" I asked. There was a silence so complete it had an odor about it.

And then—degenerate beast that I am—I destroyed this woman, completely, and in public.

I turned to a student named Jones, who was a retired history professor and, it was obvious, a brilliant man. "Mr. Jones," I said, "could you silently read the opening sentence and tell me what you think it means?" I stood at the front of the class, ostentatiously staring at my watch while he read.

Finally Jones spoke. "I think it means writing teachers ought to read the newspapers," he declared.

"Me, too," I said. "But it took you 45 seconds to come to that conclusion. You know why? Because the sentence had to be translated. It is not written in the English language."

The author sat in stunned silence. She rose slowly, eyes glazed over with what would soon be tears, and commented, quite cogently I thought, on my teaching technique.

"You asshole," she said.

This was something of a surprise, since the woman was a lay teacher in a Catholic high school. Then the author of the worst lead sentence I'd ever read turned her back to me and walked toward the door. She was attempting to outrun her tears.

"Wait," I called. "Please. Let's talk about this. We want to learn how to communicate effectively with people."

The unfortunate woman stood in the doorway, turned her now tear-stained face to me—to the class at large—and said, "I don't want to communicate with people, you shithead. I want to have an impact on educators."

With that she slammed the door, hard, and was gone. Exclamation point.

I was thinking about this peculiar contretemps recently. In fact, I think about it every month or so, especially when things are going well for me and I am in danger of imagining that I might be an exemplary individual. I think about it more intently when I teach travel writing seminars, because I always use that hateful sentence as an example of a bad lead.

Now, where I live, in Montana, there is an infestation of writers. In general, those authors on the western side of the Rocky Mountains are associated in one way or another with the University of Montana and its world-class creative writing program. These men and women generally produce highly literate and well-reviewed works: essays, poems, novels. No writing down to the lowest common denominator for these folks. Because they are partially funded by teaching, they have the luxury to produce literature. Or so I like to believe.

Those of us who live on the arid east side of the mountains, however, make our livings—such as they are—directly from sales of our books or articles. When our friends to the west accuse us of pandering to the masses, as they habitually do, the usual and purposely ungrammatical reply (attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Thomas McGuane) goes something like this: "I done a lot of things in my life I'm not proud of, but I never taught no goddamned creative writing."

Well, I can't say that anymore. I teach one or two creative writing courses a year, all devoted to travel and/or adventure. For example, I recently returned home from the Book Passage Travel Writers' Conference in Corte Madera, California. The drive took me through northern Nevada, and then up into southeastern Oregon, and I was looking for a story. Something about travel. Or adventure. Whatever.

In Winnemucca I glanced at the local paper, as I still advise students to do, and found a free lecture to be given that night by "a popular short-wave radio personality." I would learn "things not taught in school." The venue turned out to be a church basement, and only about half a dozen people turned up to learn things they hadn't been taught in school. We discovered that it wasn't going to be necessary to wait for the Y2K disaster. September 9, 1999—9/9/99—was pretty much going to be doomsday. It would start with computer crashes; early computer code used four 9s to signal that the program had ended and was to be terminated. Stoplights wouldn't work. Cars would stall on the interstate, miles from anywhere. Banks would fail. People in the know—which now included the half-dozen of us in the church basement—should take our money out of the bank, stock up on both food and weapons, and begin digging out a bunker, a defense against the starving hordes. We only had three more days.

Was there a story in the end of the world as we know it? Could be, but I wasn't inspired, so I drove north, into the parched cowboy country of southeastern Oregon, to Harney County, a land of high-desert sage flats and sparsely timbered mountains, of fleet herds of antelope, and cattle ranches. Harney extends over 10,228 square miles, which makes it the third largest county in America. It is bigger than Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined. A mere 8,000 people are privileged to call Harney County home, fewer than one person per square mile. A good place, I figured, to wait out the end of the world, now just two days hence.

I had what might be the last chocolate malt of my life at the café in Fields, Oregon, because a sign on the wall said the concoctions were world-famous and because I didn't want to die with a bad taste in my mouth. Fields is located near the southwestern flank of Steens Mountain, locally called the Steens. The mountain, a checkerboard of BLM, state, and private land, is a 40-mile-long fault block that rises gently from the west to a height of 9,733 feet and then drops off precipitously in what amounts to a sheer cliff face. From a distance it looks like a giant wedge rising up out of the sagebrush.

This great block of land was thrust a mile above the surrounding land by pressures created in the mists of geological time when the earth's crust cooled. Millions of years later, glaciers formed near the summit of the Steens, and they slid down the western slope of the mountain, carving out verdant U-shaped valleys and deep rocky gorges so elaborately sculpted they seemed the monumental work of some mad, alien culture.

On the day the world was to end, I drove west up the road that leads to the summit of the Steens. Sage-littered antelope country gave way to juniper, and at the higher elevations, aureate aspen groves shivered in a gentle breeze. Toward the summit, aspen gave way to a grassland matted with hearty wildflowers: asters and daisies and lacy white yarrow. September 9 is springtime at 8,000 feet on the Steens.

Presently I found myself at a parking lot a few hundred feet from the top. It was a steep, breathless climb to the summit, but it took only 20 minutes or so. There was no one else there, and I sat and stared down the abrupt and perpendicular eastern edge of the mountain wedge.

I was looking at the Alvord Desert, which was three miles distant and almost exactly one mile below me. It was a round, flat, and sandy alkaline playa, completely uninhabited. Dust devils spun across its surface in strange and contradictory directions. It might have been well over 100 degrees down there on the sand. I, on the other hand, was cold. What had been a gentle breeze a few thousand feet below was now a gusting wind that whistled and boomed over the summit at about 50 miles an hour. The vegetation all around was of the fragile sort one finds in high northern tundra: sparse, fast-growing mosses, orange lichens on the rocks, and dwarf shrubs, inches high, hunkered down in crevices against the wind and cold.

The sky was a cornflower blue, streaked with the long thin clouds that some people call horsetails. A brochure titled "South East Oregon Auto Tour" had promised that, on a clear day, I would be able to see parts of four states. It was a clear day and there were no conflagrations in any of the states that I could see. Late on doomsday afternoon, things were looking just peachy.

Still, I tried to contemplate the death and dissolution of civilization as we know it. Here I was freezing in the tundra and staring down at the desert. I tried out a few lines from a Robert Frost poem, the one about the destruction of the world—in fire or in ice, whatever, take your pick. But quite frankly, I wasn't inspired.

In fact, my mind was whirling with student manuscripts I had read over the years.

"There are no words."

Last year, one of my writers' workshop students had led off her nonfiction travel piece with that sentence, which I thought might be improved. She wanted to describe her feelings upon first landing in Antarctica. The piece as a whole was awfully good, I thought, combining, as it did, a problematic relationship with her father, who was along on the trip, and the desire to see a massive ice ridge named after her grandfather, who had been in Admiral Byrd's party. It was a real quest, filled with real emotion, and the woman had the talent to make it work.

But the lead? "There are no words."

"This," I suggested to the students at the writer's workshop, "does not fill the reader with confidence in the writer's ability to describe the interior or exterior landscape of her journey." I stifled an impulse to put my objection more bluntly. I would be risking another tearful exit if I said: "There are no words, and here they aren't."

I carefully polled the other seven students in the class. "There are no words"—good lead, or bad? And the fact is, most of them liked it.

A few nights later, my friend and colleague David Quammen came to my house for dinner. David has won awards for his essays, literary criticism, and science writing; I think he's won awards he doesn't even remember anymore, or doesn't care to talk about because he's pathologically modest. David's news was that he was building a new house—probably, I thought (with that total lack of envy that writers are noted for), to hold all his damn awards.

He asked me how my current writing class was going. I said it was exhausting. I couldn't get certain manuscripts out of my mind, not because they were so bad, but because they were so nearly good.

David shook his head. He believes that no one can teach writing, that it is a solitary endeavor you do over and over again until you start getting it right.

"Tim," he said, "I think that if you just went to church and prayed real, real hard, you'd have the same effect on your students."

The essayist and memoir writer Gretel Ehrlich is of much the same opinion. Once she and I were featured speakers at a writers' conference in Montana. Gretel, it must be said, is a writer whose books I greatly admire, especially her lyrical evocation of the West in The Solace of Open Spaces. She gave the keynote address to a crowd of eager would-be writers, and was not at all encouraging. Gretel spoke well, and with passion. Writing, she said, cannot be taught. Some teachers, she said, will tell you that there are matters of craft you can learn. This, she averred, is not so.

"Any questions or comments?" she asked at the conclusion of her remarks.

The students, who'd all paid a substantial amount of money to learn to write, sat in a kind of poleaxed silence. Now, my own opinion is that elements of technique—matters of structure and organization, lead-ins and walk-offs—can indeed be taught but are the only substantive principles professionals can impart to beginning writers.

So, in the silence following Gretel's request for comments, I raised my hand and said, "I thought the piece you read was well crafted."

And now Gretel Ehrlich, in company with a certain Indiana Catholic high school lay teacher, thinks I'm a dickhead.

The sun set over Steens Mountain, and I drove down to the remote ranching town of Burns, where I lingered for days, looking for stories. As usual, my initial prioritization was to peruse, for context analysis, the local papers, and taking it seriously. It was in one of these publications that I finally found a short article in the foreign news section that fired my imagination.

It seemed that three cult leaders in East Java were beaten to death by disaffected followers after their 9/9/99 doomsday prediction failed to materialize. The cult members had been told to sell their possessions and to prepare for the end of the world at 9 a.m. on September 9. But the day came and went without incident. The sun rose on September 10 and, according to Saadi Arsam, village chief of Sukmajaya, East Java, "The members were really mad."

I wondered whether the short-wave radio personality was still in Winnemucca or had gone into hiding. It might be worth driving back and looking for him.

"Hey, what happened to doomsday?" would be my first question.

And, if he was smart, the disgraced doom-monger would decline comment. Because, well, sometimes there are no words. Really.

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