by Amelia Jaycen
When you find that every cell in your body is motivated toward story-telling— as George says, “stories no one else is telling in ways no one else is telling them”—if your protons and neutrons are spinning and all your chemistry has undergone catalysis, it is possibly due to the introduction of a whole lot of Archer City Magic Dust. In a terrifying trip to the soft center of a new writer, an Archer City student reflects on what she found out about writing and herself on a few dusty roads in the blazing July heat.
Dear George -
I can’t imagine ever being able to put down in words all the things I just learned in Archer City. I am on fire for my work, the program I’m involved in and where my life is heading. In my brokenness, fear, and pride I don’t dare throw it around or let it out. The last four years have been an endless list of self-directed ultimatums to calm down, close my mouth, try to fit in, not be extreme and pursue a very serious program that will take me along a path to success and happiness. It took ten days in the sweltering heat of West Texas in summer for me to understand there is a real power in unleashing fiery passion in an environment bursting with potential. I suddenly don’t feel like a shaken bottle capped. I feel like a wildfire that there is no hope of stopping before it consumes what it needs to grow.
I felt at home in Archer City, and I feel I’ve found a home in myself as a writer. The word finally applies to me, the title is mine. I don’t have to feel dissociated between my different sides. All my characteristics, experiences, habits and ideas are coming together to create a writer, and I can’t stop them. They are fed by their own multiplication and expansion.
The Archer City experience is somehow able to take people with a little bit of drive and a whole lot of doubts and push them over that edge where they find out who they really are, how to feed their experiences and characteristics into a larger purpose—becoming a writer. And learning to write and report as a lifestyle, not a fleeting thing that comes and goes or must be painfully called up. The workshop took my guts and grit, skills and problems, energy and fear and let me see what I can do in an ideal situation.
It works because we see highly successful writers at the Mayborn conference, hear their personal stories of struggle & uncertainty, learn how they handle complications and hear their thought processes. Then we come to Archer City, where we are called “the writer” and we are respected as such, treated by the people as such, encouraged and given the freedom to try our hands within a web of support and short time frame. It is fascinating what comes out of it. It’s gutsy work produced largely on instinct. The whole thing brought up a lot more questions, but that is the sign of a successful study: that it stimulates further inquiry, that questions answered generate an energy blast to jump to the next level where more interesting questions await.
I learned a lot about taking notes and jumping in with my notebook out. This was a huge experiment in how to best take notes in front of a source. I tried to watch your notes as we spoke to McMurtry. I couldn’t make much out, but I noticed how you kept writing, even when looking up at him and that it was long, fluid lines of text. I’d be fascinated to know how many quotes you got, how much is source phrasing and how much is your thoughts. I suppose note-taking will be different for each and every writer. I found it worked well to jot snippets that would cue my memory later: source quotes and info on one side of the page and questions I had or associations I made on the other. This works well, but only if there is time to flesh out the notes soon after. I took a lot from what Bill said about how he types up his notes every night. I think I may do this daily from now on before I sleep, put the day down. I learned that in the presence of sources is the best time to write it down, and this takes hard work, discipline and guts. You have to write at the time with fervor to capture the words and thoughts. Removed from the source the clarity and intensity of the story fades: audio recorder or not, it won’t be the same next time you listen and recall. I learned that maybe I don’t so desperately need an audio recorder. I learned it is completely possible to report richly and thoroughly without one, which is amazing.
I was misguided in thinking that when you’re reporting you must be sneaky and hide as much as possible your note-taking from your source. I see this is not so. Or perhaps I see how to report with everything right out on the table, to be unafraid of showing it plainly. I found a balance between comfortable and driving, curious and polite, considerate and natural, valid and participatory. For instance, when asked “So what exactly do ya’ll write about?” the answer is more complex than rodeos, dying towns, broken people, rescue crews, old hotels, tough women and cowboys. The subject is quickly mutilated by simplification into a quick list, stripped of its power. The real power of the stories is found in the details. I couldn’t tell you what I’m writing about unless I write it, make it come alive again, show you. As a writer I am just a mirror.
I feel that my instincts were tested, and I think I did mostly alright. The guidebook in my head was challenged, line by line, and new rules added by force through insights I scribbled in a margin as they were revealed and shared among tribesmen. Now that I am outside the moment, with my edited bleeding-red guidebook, I’m trying to justify my thinking with the new rules. But that’s somewhat dramatic. They are not really so changed. I just saw them for the first time hard in action.
We talked about my reader response piece and the conclusion that sources are readers, often our first readers. We read our pieces aloud where sources, readers, writers and friends were all present, all with different views. A giant stream of feedback was compressed into one meaningful response: the faces of people you respect and people you just met, people whose lives you tried to capture and then read it to them, your readers, fellow writers, new and old, young kids, tough men, and the dogs, snakes, cats and horses you wrote into your piece are likely listening to you read it as well. This provided an immediate fact-check with sources, often launching into candid primary-source discussion of more material that expands your understanding of the context of what you wrote. Sharing food and drink, time and traditions with our subjects is a brilliant immersion, a way to quickly get to the heart of their stories.
I also learned a lot about swallowing exasperation while loving stories more than yourself. I saw writers, sources, and readers allowed to speak and tell their stories, no matter how personal, off-topic or hard to hear the stories might be, and we’d all get to finish before anyone interrupted. Words were held valuable and a mutual respect ruled the day. I learned to listen and to take the time to let things go as they will, to just observe, soak things up. That slowing of time, holding on to every word and noting the intricate details. The inspirations in those activities, interviews, and gatherings was a gift in how to walk straight into the life of a potential source. To sit down, stay a while, drink in the tea and conversation, the surroundings, wrinkles on their face, and notice how often they reach for a butter biscuit or a spouse’s hand and how closely the story on the front of the fridge matches the one you’ve been taking notes on. Time stands still. And dozens of people could gather and talk without judgment or room for anything but camaraderie and a shared interest in stories.
I’m inexperienced with the forming and inevitable ending of relationships with my sources. I learned to love people again there, to see and hear and take people in, be genuinely interested in what they are saying and doing. I don’t want to lose that and go back to a glazed-over approach, as if holding a wall between me and “them” because of our roles, and thus back to meaningless reporting that lacks human people or emotion. I am surely a creative, a painfully sensitive writer, and I am possessed by the fascinating people I find to write about. I love their stories and care deeply about their pain, share their joys and miss it sorely when we are not talking. But the tragedy of my role as a journalist is the path my sources and I cannot go down together.
Is it this torturous tension that results in stories great enough to transcend black and white print and enter into the souls of readers? It seems we are victims of this process as much as they, our hearts shredded with each story—the constant cycle of connection and separation. We are trained to tune in to every detail, understand every nuance. And then, torn from it, we must pull back to the beat of our work, work, work. Feel more, give more of our souls in empathy, scrape clear to the depths of ourselves for words that will capture things as they really are and find a universal message to share along the way. Without our sources, without the passionate outpouring of ourselves and the wrenching of our souls we would have nothing important to write.
Interestingly enough, some of our readers have begun to write about us and many more sure would love to be able to write what the traveling tribe of writers means to them, how it affects their lives and transforms their thinking.
“Having ya’ll come just opens up my mind, every year . . .” –Jackie
“It is interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on us and see yourself in that mirror.” –Lynda
Are we hearing from our friends, cohorts, followers of our tribe? An affected audience, a visited lover? I don’t know, but my head’s spinning. I have so many notes and pictures and recordings, and I want to put off life and dive in. The tribe’s been discussing how much material we still have to go through, process, write about.
Perhaps that’s why I’m spewing ideas and leads and overflowing with questions, why I can’t let go. Jackie took one look at me and said “You look tired. You never put all this down, did you? You went home and just kept holding on to the time?”
“Of course I did! I’m brimming with ideas and there’s so much to do!”
“But you have to have the lows,” she said “or the highs lose their meaning.”
She made good sense, and I was stricken with the truth: I love my work so much I strangle it, micro-manage it, deliberate it to death in my effort to craft it well. I clench my fists tightly around it like a screaming child with fistfuls of clay who cannot hear the reasons it might just be better to let go a little, so it will stop crumbling on the floor.
I want to wield instinct well, brandish my notebook and be able to explain and defend my methodology. I need a mentor, a lot of them. I want to learn more about how these extremes can meet and work. I can see a little of it, but it is still hazy in the mist. I feel I’ve finally found kindred writers, and I am beginning to understand. I think I’ve figured out how to be a writer and how, exactly, to make it fit—fit me. I learned, I was tested. I’ve got stories, ammo, been fueled up, been fired in the kiln, stretched in the brain, physically pushed and been considering it all. And damn if I don’t feel like a writer, notice I’m doing a writer’s work, see myself sliding up/down a writer’s path. It’s all falling together as long as I keep feeding it energy and ideas. I was the loudest voice of doubt in the beginning, fighting with a vengeance the idea that Archer City would change a damn thing about how I think about myself as a writer. Now I see it clearly. Explaining my transformation fully is another matter.
I understand now what this means to you. I see why Archer City matters, why Mayborn is a big deal. Despite all your insistence that the success of the workshop has nothing to do with you and is not about you, you have created something with the Archer City experience that is beautiful in its intricate design. I understand it is almost effortless (the design, not the work), which is why Bill said what he did about how “everything George does has a cunning plan, whether George knows it or not.”
I also experienced firsthand the fire in your belly that both consumes and lights you up. I’d guess your fiery little protons and neutrons are spinning due to the introduction of a whole lot of Archer City Magic Dust. Every cell in your body is motivated and energized toward story-telling, “stories no one else is telling in ways no one else is telling them.” I understand you can’t bear credit for that which happens in the nucleus of your cells, so I’ll only make you sit through one, big, heartfelt thanks. Thanks for being such a good friend, great teacher, honorable example, and true mentor, and thank you for a wonderful July.
Until next time,
Amelia Jaycen is a Center & Main staff member and 2013 alum of the Archer City Writer’s Workshop. She is a student and graduate assistant in the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She worked as an online science reporter for the UNT Office of Research, the UNT Center for Community and Environmental Journalism and was a reporter for the Somerville Star at the age of 16. Jaycen has managed the self-produced runnewsblog.wordpress.com since 2009. “I wasn’t a writer until I went to Archer City. It taught me how to write with grit and temper and to always remember the human heart.”