Living in Alaska has given Nick Jans lots of stories to tell, even though he moved north to live, not to write. Photo by Nick Jans.
Four decades ago, I stood on an outcrop along the Kobuk-Noatak divide, as alone as anyone could be. The Cutler valley sprawled outward, mountain-rimmed tundra tinged by autumn. I’d been dropped off by floatplane and was headed down the Cutler and Noatak rivers 250-some miles to Noatak village, where I’d landed a job teaching Inupiaq kids. I’d already spent a couple years in arctic Alaska, where I’d managed a trading post and worked for a hunting guide; and two summers earlier, had canoed and portaged 750 miles with my friend Peter along the spine of the western Brooks Range. I’d camped at 30 below, met bears and moose up close, and began to know my Eskimo neighbors.
Sounds like a pile of stories that would just spill out, right? But in those days, my prose writing amounted to sporadic journals and less than regular handwritten letters to family and friends. I was seven or eight years away from my first published story in a commercial fishing tabloid. Back in those days, most of my writerly inclinations were focused on poetry. In fact, I actually got paid for a half dozen short poems published in several magazines—most notably Rolling Stone (never mind the 20 bucks they paid). Only a couple of those poems were about Alaska. Not the Rolling Stone ditty, which riffed on music, driving, and time. I still had one foot in the world I’d come from.
I came to the Arctic to live, not to write; and the business of carving out a life in a new land was a full-time job. I was, in the classic parlance, a cheechako—a newcomer facing down a steep, hands-on learning curve. From figuring how to live without plumbing to rebuilding a snowmobile clutch to learning how to make panuktuk (dry caribou meat), my hands were more than on; they were full. Writing—especially writing well—is a time-consuming, sedentary process. And I hardly ever sat.
You’d think, though, that a Phi Beta Kappa English major with a lifelong love of literature, trained to analyze the great stories of all time, from Shakespeare to Twain, hundreds of pages of scholarly writing under my belt, would be all set once I did decide to write about life in this place beyond. But the language of academic discourse, no matter how deft, polysyllabic, and clever, wasn’t what I needed to capture a sudden burst of light after a storm, or the silhouette of a wolf at twilight. My old journals, packed with verbose, self-conscious blather, bear witness to the fact that I needed to hone a different set of chops—a clean, visual style, a voice that allowed the reader to watch at my side as a herd of caribou streamed past, leg tendons clicking, great curves of antlers bobbing with each step.
So, who could teach me to write like that? A year off at University of Washington’s Graduate School of Creative Writing answered that question. The seminars, workshops, and input were useful, but only to a point. What those two semesters did offer me was the opportunity to sit down without the constant busyness of arctic bush life and write. Learning how to tell, and in some cases even recognize, the stories that passed before me was a hard and inward trail that demanded clarity of thought and word. Rightly so, growing as it did from a need to explain what I’d experienced and what it all meant to the most important audience of all: myself.
Inch by inch, I found my way. I needed to write, as much as I could, in one and two syllable cadences, fuss endlessly over rhythms, word choice, and punctuation, and test every paragraph by reading aloud and revising, listening for what I called the music of words. In 1987 I headed back north with half of my first book written. I sent out pieces to everyone from The Atlantic to airline magazines; and though the rejections flowed, so did steady thumbs-up—including from Alaska magazine. In 1990 my first feature was published; and in 1992 the column I pitched, On the Edge, made its debut.
Three decades and a dozen or so editors later, here I am, whacking away at what’s become the story of my life. You’d think that by now I’d have learned to write faster, and every now and then a piece flows like snowmelt; but most days, writing is more like trudging up an endless, tussock-laden slope. Sometimes I’m stuck on a single sentence for hours, feeling my way forward, sometimes writing, I swear, in dreams.
The other day, I got an email from a reader, marveling that I never seemed to run out of stories. Well, back in 1995 or so, I told then-editor Andy Hall that I had nothing left to say. Maybe the issue wasn’t that I had run out of stuff to write about; more that I simply had become overwhelmed by the constant, steady burden of mining my life in true detail every few weeks, while living the ever-busy existence of a single arctic teacher who disappeared into the country whenever he could. But after a year off, I returned and found new wind. Stories, like grizzlies, were always there. You just had to know how and where to look.
Of course, we all run out of tales sooner or later, or the breath to tell them. Until then, I plod up that same tundra hill, one word at a time.