On Skinny Dipping in the West

by JK Nickell

In the summer of 2011, I landed in Archer City, filled with more uncertainty and emotional turmoil than a 12 year old teenager. I’d recently quit my job as a teacher, a stable gig that I enjoyed, to do something else. I wasn’t really sure what. I wanted to become a writer, or I was a writer and I wanted to try and make a living out of it. Something like that. This was a rash decision that obliterated what was once a carefully plotted career trajectory that involved lots of graduate school and an eventual post at a university.

My carefully plotted trajectory quickly disintegrated when I faced George Getschow, the leader of the Archer City Writers Workshop.  He started asking the kinds of prodding questions that only George can. Why are you here? What do you want out of this?

These questions had been fluttering in my gut for months, but for the first time I was forced to respond audibly. To my own surprise, what came out were not so much words as moans and high-pitched shrills accompanied by sopping wet cheeks. My peers around the table were surely bewildered, but none more so than I.

George likes to say that the great sage of Archer City, the horse trader Jackie Lane, has never been wrong about a writer, that she peers into their souls and breaks them down on the spot like skittish foals. But she had me all sorts of backwards. All she talked about was the size of my… courage. Truth be told, I was terrified.

This all came to a head when we embarked on my now-favorite Archer City tradition and headed out back-roading, where we all took turns climbing into the back of a pickup and giving a toast. The content of my own oration is lost to me – I only remember that my voice trembled – but there was something else I took away. Here’s what I wrote in my journal when we returned that night, sometime around 3:30 am:

There’s a scene in The Last Picture Show where Jacy Farrow, the character played by a young Cybill Shepherd, stands on diving board at a pool party, clad only in underwear, staring at a pool filled with naked teenagers. She’s faced with a decision. In order to dive in, Jacy must first strip down to nothing, exposing all her imperfections (few they may be) with the eyes of her peers upon her. 

We just wrapped up our second full day in Archer City, and some of us have been wondering when we’re going to start learning about writing. We may have just learned the most important lesson. 

It was on a tailgate rather than a diving board, beneath a night so starry as to make Van Gogh envious. We climbed into the back of a beer-filled pickup truck to traverse the dusty trails carved by generations of cow hands, ignorant of the fact that our journey into the hinterlands of West Texas was actually an exploration of our own souls, an exploration that would prove transformative. We were each required to give a toast on that truck’s tailgate, and we knew that holding back even a little was unacceptable – we had to strip down completely, and fear was no excuse. 

As writers, fear is something we all experience on a different scale than most, and for good reason. To be any good, we must unveil the deepest part of ourselves, giving the world a key to our most guarded fortresses of insecurity and failure. From that tailgate, we spouted off about everything from man boobs and moonshine to the sacred bond we share with the residents of McMurtryland. But the important thing is that we all spoke from the same place – not the tailgate, but our bare naked souls.

Following that night, it’s not as if the veil of terror magically lifted. Quite the contrary: the fear is the stuff we’re after. If you aren’t trembling, you ain’t really trying. And if you aren’t really trying, you might as well move back along to that stable post where you began. There’s no dishonor in this. But that’s not the truest course for me.

In a strange twist of fate, one of my first stories published in TIME,  “ The Last Roundups,” is set in Archer County, and my main character ranches just down the road from Larry McMurtry’s ranch.  The reporting began in the days and weeks that followed my ascendancy atop that tailgate, though I never would’ve dreamt it would end up where it did.  And today, despite my fear, I’m still writing professionally, and I still believe it’s because I packed up my bags and drove to Archer City one summer to attend Getschow’s literary boot camp, otherwise known as the Archer City Writer’s Workshop.

 

Also read JK Nickell’s Last Round-Ups>

 

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