I have dined gluttonously at the smorgasbord of life, and since I was 12 years old I have been writing from experience and teaching others how to do it. Maybe writing can’t be taught, but writing better can be. I know many writers, young and old, famous and unknown, scientists and poets, novelists and essayists. I have never met a good writer who has stopped learning. I never met one who doesn’t welcome a good editor. I have been fortunate to have inspired teachers, mentors, and editors, and I try to do for others what they did for me.
My good friend and fellow teacher, the novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, used to say in several ways that the human need to speak and tell stories comes right after food and water and before shelter and love. “Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day's events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths."
He would have agreed that “story” includes almost any version of what we report of the world around us, within us, including in our imaginations. Even the report of a scientific experiment tells a story. So does a technical manual for a refrigerator—you begin here, you do this, the result is that. Maybe I knew this intuitively when in sixth grade I decided that I would be a writer.
I grew up in a troubled, blue collar family poor enough so that before I entered kindergarten my brothers and I sifted coal ashes that other people threw out to find unburned pieces or coke. As soon as teachers began reading stories of heroes and heroines, of courage and survival, I understood the power of words to reveal new possibilities, paths not taken, the beat of different drummers—everything that I was not and wanted to be.
Although I have written many articles and a book on assignment or by suggestion, mostly I have assigned my own themes and subjects. Call it self-indulgent or call it freedom—it has led me to down many forks in the road and I’ve usually taken “the one least traveled by.” I’ve written about alligators and two thousand year old cypresses in the Carolina swamps. Reporting on 1982 elections in Guatemala, secret police beat me and threw me in a notorious prison along with ABC’s Geraldo Rivera. As the Soviet Union was falling apart in the summer of ’91 I was on a small cutter heading north on Siberia’s Kolyma River to the Arctic Ocean the first American in that string of former gulags since the early 1920s. Again in the Russian arctic in 1996 I arrived at Cape Schmidt and was immediately arrested for being in the forbidden area of an early warning radar base, but within a day I was released and found myself a VIP touring the base and helping a local history buff create a monument to American fliers who died nearby as they brought supplies to a stranded American trading schooner. In Central America I worked with indigenous writers and translated two books for the Mayan writer Victor Dionysius Montejo before he became Minister for Peace in the 1990s. Recently I have finished collaboration with a translator in Iran on a Persian version of Thoreau’s Walden.
These experiences and more inform my teaching and writing. I have coached journalists in Kazakhstan, run writing workshops and master classes, created programmed poetry readings, lectured at colleges, universities and civic clubs.
Wallace Kaufman's latest book is The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel (Springer International, June, 2016)