Wyoming Arts Council

For all you writers out there

Mark Jenkins came to my non-fiction grad class last week and talked to us aspiring authors about how he as an writer and his writing has evolved. Just recently back from Papua New Guinea, he talked about this most recent trip and the topic of writing.

He says the line between non-fiction and fiction is very small. When he begins an article, he selects from his notes, what he’s going to leave in and what he decides to omit, which is fictionalizing.

He thinks the “finding your own voice” imperative is contrived. “Don’t manipulate it, just write what’s in your heart,” he said. Mark tries to find the spirit of the experience, what it all meant. When he begins an article, he tries to write a scene that represents what it meant to him, and at time worries that he can’t find the representation. Concerning the peoples of Papua New Guinea, he tried to focus on the clash of their ancient cultures with modern pressures.

He spoke about how he takes notes. Before he travels somewhere, he tries to read 4-6 books about the area. While there he does very little reading, concentrating on the peoples’ stories. While there, he makes notes in notebooks as well as recordings, which are later transcribed by paid staff of the magazine. His notes aren’t literary, they are sometimes just one or two words, a sentence, but he is constantly taking notes. If he thinks of something, he writes it down.

Mark’s shift from working construction and writing at night came when he met a concert pianist and asked him how he supported himself by playing the piano. The man told him that he rented a suite, moved the piano in, and practice the better part of the work day. Mark said it took him about a year after that to accomplish becoming a full time writer. He said you have to give yourself the freedom to write. You are transforming your story through writing.

As far as the mechanics of writing, a block of time to write is preferable, but whether you only have an hour or three, make yourself sit there and write. It’s easy to be diverted, to tell yourself that you’ve been writing for half-an-hour, now it’s time for a cup of coffee. He said the most overrated aspect of writing is that artists write because they are inspired. The most underrated aspect of writing is self-discipline. Oftentimes, when he sits down to write, there isn’t anything there, on the surface. He sometimes literally will write I can’t think of anything to write. But he says if you have to spend some sentences writing that, it’s okay. He says, “You have to write to you muse, don’t wait for the muse to come to you, because so often, that is not going to happen.”
The craft of writing is something you can work on and manipulate. Writing is like clay, not marble.

Mark is most comfortable writing in the short story form, and though he’s been asked to collaborate on screen plays, he’s resistant because, for him, screenwriting feels unnatural, and he’s found the format that makes him most happy. You’ve got to allow yourself to write what feels natural, but finding that might take experimenting with different ways of writing. Don’t limit yourselves. Mark wants to write really well about something that he’s really wants to write about.

Finally, Mark says, SPEND MORE TIME WRITING, not under pressure but putting your thoughts into words.

The following text is from Mark’s website:

Mark has spent his life seeking out and exploring the world’s most remote wonders–from mountain peaks to isolated villages, dangerous rivers to war-torn nations. Along the way he has not only experienced adventure that most of us will never know, but has also learned rich, complex lessons about himself and the nature of the world. A Man’s Life shares Mark’s journeys through Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, Uganda, Lithuania and dozens of other countries.

Praised by the New York Times for being able to “[transform] a common sight into a moment of pure magic” and by The Boston Globe for being able to weave “a compelling narrative of muscular beauty and emotional honesty.” Mark is one of the rare writers who channels extraordinary experience into lyrical and evocative prose. Formerly a popular monthly columnist for Outside magazine, he is currently the global correspondent for Rodale Press. Besides writing three previous books, The Hard Way, To Timbuktu, and Off the Map, Jenkins is featured in Best American Travel Writing and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic,GQ, Playboy, The Washington Post and other media. When he’s not off adventuring, Jenkins lives in Laramie, Wyoming with his wife and two daughters

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