Writerland, Chapter 2: The Story That Tells You About Yourself
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
I never gave much thought to writers’ relationships with their stories, perhaps because I came from a traditional newspaper background where no one thought or spoke about such things beyond the familiar tropes of our stories giving a voice to the voiceless, or reflecting a keen sense of outrage.
We didn’t matter; the story mattered. And if we too obviously sought praise for our work – read: for our writing -- we were dismissed for our self-absorption, for caring more about our clips than about the reader. So, I reported and wrote and if along the way some stories excited me more than others – this is my story! -- than I counted myself fortunate for having stumbled upon a good one. It did not occur to me that what drew me to those stories was a need of which I was unaware. Interested, sure. But need?
Then in the summer of 1992 I discovered on the cover of the New York Times Book Review a book that would, in the most profound way, change my life as a writer and how I would come to see my work.
The book was “Young Men and Fire,” by Norman Maclean. It told the story of a 1949 Montana forest fire that killed thirteen of the sixteen young “smokejumpers” who had parachuted down to fight seemingly extinguishable fire that, as they drew closer, exploded into an inferno. The fire, suddenly hundreds of feet wide and high, began racing up the side of a cliff called Mann Gulch just as those young men were walking down to fight it. They could not outrace it.
There was nothing about this book that should have drawn me to it. I had never heard of Norman Maclean, and the outdoors has never been a topic, or place, that much interested me, especially when it involved so terrible a tragedy. The reviewer, however, did praise it as “this great book.” But that did not come until the final paragraph of a long review, which meant that by the time I had gotten to that point I was well past intrigued.
But why? Perhaps, it was the reviewer’s curiosity about Maclean himself, who had begun the book at the age of seventy-four after decades as an English professor at the University of Chicago. After Maclean retired he had published a much-praised novella, “A River Runs Through It.” Then he set to work on “Young Men and Fire.” He would spend the rest of his life on it, and would die at eighty-eight before the book was done.
Maclean had grown up in Montana and had himself been a smoke jumper and so knew something about the lives of such young men. But they were not his story. The fire was. Or so it appeared.
Maclean returned to Mann Gulch again and again. He climbed where they climbed, following the fire’s path and theirs. Mann Gulch was so steep he had to grasp the grass to keep from falling.
Why did this become the story Norman Maclean needed to tell? He begins to offer an answer midway through the book, in a paragraph that, as I recall, I re-read several times because in it I felt I was at last reading an explanation for why I did what I did. I have read it to every class I have ever taught and can recite it from memory.
He begins by posing the question of why anyone should want to read the story of death “grieved over by the fewer and fewer still living who are old enough to grieve over fatalities of 1949.”
Then, in the manner of a teacher who knows well enough not to lecture even as he makes his essential point, he writes, “If there is a story in Mann Gulch, it will take something of a storyteller at this date to find it, and it is not easy to imagine what impulses would lead him to search for it. He probably should be an old storyteller, at least old enough to know that the problem of identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth, and even old enough to know that the nearest anyone can come to finding himself at any given age is to find a story that somehow tells him about himself.”
Then he stops, and that is wise because there is so much here to consider, beginning with trying to imagine “what impulses” compelled him to embark on his search. He leaves it there, and returns to the mystery of the fire, trying in every imaginable way to make sense of an event that defied explanation.
And when his search comes to an end, he looks back at the years he has spent and the questions that have propelled him up and down the side of that sad, forgotten place and writes, “I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death.”
There is a pause and then this conclusion.
“Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often thought about my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
I cannot read those words, certainly not out loud to students, without first pausing so that my voice will not break.
It was not about them. It was not about the fire. It was about her.
Only when I came to the end of this book and read those words did I understand what that reviewer had suggested and what had drawn me to and through this book: Maclean’s palpable need to tell a story so that he could make sense of another death he had been mourning for twenty years.
Why did they have to die?
Why did she have to die?
I could feel the urgency on every page, even if he waited until the very end to say it. And with those haunting, final words, I began to reconsider so much of what I had read and written. Why did certain stories remain anchored to the page, perfectly well reported and told yet lifeless compared to “Young Men and Fire?” Why did the subject not seem to matter, just as it didn’t necessarily matter when it came to fiction?
The stories that felt as if they leapt from the page possessed a quality that transcended logic or fact. Something was brewing in the writer’s mind, and in the best examples, meaning, when it was contained (there is a wonderful absence of histrionics in Maclean’s prose), it becomes so powerful that you feel it as a reader.
I had been wrong. My wise editors were wrong. It was always about us, the writers. And now, in discovering “Young Men and Fire” I understood that by finding a story that told me about myself, a story I could not let go of, I was acting in service of the reader who might want to accompany me on my journey, just as I had accompanied an old storyteller on his.
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