Writing Lessons: Karen Ackland

Vogelsang peak

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Karen Ackland, a graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

IMG_0206x Karen copyLast summer I had two experiences I’ve referred to as summer camp for grown-ups. In July I attended the Napa Valley Writers Conference, where I was in a workshop led by Yiyun Li, and in August I hiked thirty-six miles between three High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park. Perhaps I am a slow learner, but it took the trip to the mountains to re-enforce for me lessons from the conference.

Preparing for the hike, I read a blog post about a man who ran the loop between the camps in a single day. Others finish their MFA with a book. Neither of these comes close to my experience. It took most of each day for me to cover the seven to ten miles, and I’m still working on a book of linked stories. I took my watch off that first morning and didn’t retrieve it from my pack until we walked off the trail.  Because what did it matter what time it was or how much longer it would take? I had to keep going until we got there, hopefully before they rang the bell for dinner.

There will always be people better prepared or more talented, but hiking and writing are inefficient activities. From the first camp at Sunrise, we could see Vogelsang peak, but it would be three days and over seventeen miles before we reached the camp at its base. Instead we switchbacked across granite rock faces and down steep cobbled paths, changing our point of view and losing elevation that we regained the next day. Just as Yiyun suggested at Napa, a straightforward approach is not the best—or the safest—way to approach a story.

A significant pleasure of summer camp was spending time with those who share a common enthusiasm. Occupation, age, nationality: the differences between us were significant, but the similarities—delight in the mountains and a well-turned phrase—were enough. My only responsibility was to put my boots on each morning, hoping that my legs would hold out and I’d have the strength to get it down on paper.

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