I’d been blogging typical memoir fare about rejection, travel, and home, when the email came that I’d been accepted into Tim Cahill’s Advanced Narrative track – along with eight other writers – at the 28th Annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference. It was, for me, a big deal. A really big, big, BFD.
As I blogged before, he is, after all, Tim. Freaking. Cahill.
Cahill’s writing grabbed me back in 1994 when Outside Magazine published My Malaria, Adventures in Delirium. Or, why I’m on a steak and gin-and-tonic diet, for my health (click here to read it online). A quarter of a century later, My Malaria is still on my list for the best non-fiction writing I’ve read. And Outside Magazine, in those days, was as exciting to me as Elvis’ beat and gyrating hips were to teenagers in the Fifties.
Cahill, once with Rolling Stone Magazine, was a founder and editor-at-large for Outside. Two of his co-authored screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards. He’s written nine books, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, even snagged a spot on National Geographic’s list of 100 best adventure travel books ever written.
I knew I wanted to write for Outside, so I began working toward it in 1995, wrangling an assignment from the now-defunct Adventure West Magazine.I found a cave nearby worth writing about and did my best to conjure up the appropriate amount of structure, wit, and interest. I planned to write more, but Adventure West went under. Soon life and the need to make a living intervened, and I almost forgot what I wanted to do.
Sporadically, over the years I wrote for other magazines and wrote and edited a mind-numbing 70+ issues of a transportation planning newsletter. Unless I retire early, by the time I walk out the door on my last day at work, I’ll have edited 120 issues of a conservation newsletter too. I blog in my spare time.
Lately, I’d begun wondering how I’d keep myself busy in retirement when I remembered the kind of writing I fell in love with 25-years ago. So I signed up for the conference. I had heard Cahill might be there.
Shortly afterward, I sent Cahill a friend-request on Facebook. I was surprised when he messaged back.
I wasn’t sure if it was him or some guy with schweaty balls sitting behind a computer screen in the Ukraine. I answered cryptically, “Hi, Tim.”
He asked what was up. I told him I was avoiding working on a presentation for work and invited him to tell me to stop doing that.
“Get back to work then, damnit!” he responded.
He seemed genial, but no matter, I wasn’t going to be his fast-friend, but to learn. It was a big step to get into Cahill’s advanced narrative class. If I couldn’t get in, I’d happily absorb the collective wisdom of the entire distinguished faculty. If I got in, well, that would be icing on the cake.
Even as I opened the email, I chanted, preparing myself: “I’m not getting in. I’m not getting in.” But I did.
Two days before the conference began, driving south through the chilly fog of California’s North Coast, I still hadn’t been able to write the required 2,500 word essay for the class. The only thing I had were words – about 8,000 of them – written in my blog as fodder for my memoir. So I pieced them together until my eyes got scratchy and lost focus, there in the quaint little motel that catered to vacationing families and cannabis dealers in the Emerald Triangle to connect with growers.
I used my trip south as a literary device to jump-start the memoir I hadn’t yet been able to write. I strung together every blog post I’d written, from Boise to the Bay Area, and then hacked words from the narrative until 5,500 of them lay writhing on the indoor outdoor carpet of my room.
The piece was, as you might expect, disorganized and confusing, but also as raw, heartfelt, and compelling as a rough, very rough, draft could be. It was fertile ground for constructive criticism and affirmation.
Cahill said, “It’s not a workshop until someone cries.” My story provoked tears. I was glad none were mine.
Cahill and my brave fellow writers – two of whom, Julie and Mike, won top honors in the conference’s writing competition – are talented and accomplished. They were fair but tough, kind but direct. We met for three hours each day in a claustrophobic little office, spilling coffee and secrets, each of us well inside the personal space of at least two others.
They shared that while my story was compelling, the narrator was cold, removed from what was happening to her. That was true, I’d wondered about that.
“A reader wants someone they like and trust to take them by the hand and lead them,” Cahill coached. “Sentimentality isn’t wrong. Dig into it. You can always dial it back, but it’s difficult to dial up.”
I don’t have a graduate degree in writing. I hadn’t realized how much it takes to appear so laid-back, all-the-while being studied and premeditated. I saw benefit to writing down for later recall, not just dialogue, but details of how every sense – sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing – perceives a place, an experience.
Tim (by then he was no longer Cahill) told us, “Catalogue everything you see. Everything.”
He also taught us about reverse-parallelograms and structure in story-telling. I’d write about that, but then I’d have to kill you. There’ll likely be another group next year if you’re interested, and you can ask him yourself.
I came home with a lot to think about, and a lot to rewrite. Beyond that, I had the best time, met wonderful new friends. And Tim? He’s down to earth, loves karaoke (I’m told his Born to be Wild is memorable), and is eminently approachable. He’s generous and helpful. His wit is keen and wicked. He’s a lot of fun inside and out of class. He seems like no big deal. But, he is.
He’s Tim. Freaking. Cahill.