“A Retired Newspaper Man Finds a New Writing Voice In the Solitude of Wilderness”

From an essay on niemanstoryboard,org by Chuck Haga headlined “A retired newspaper man finds a new writing voice in the solitude of wilderness”:

Every year, or as often as I can, I go into the northern Minnesota woods, usually alone now, seeking tranquility and time to brood and reflect.

And I write while I’m there, among the pines, at a campfire or by the lake. If it rains or the wind howls, I retreat to a graceful lodge built of giant logs and furnished with a great stone fireplace, with history on the walls and, if I’m lucky, a place for me at an old oak roll top desk.

I have always hesitated to call myself a writer. I was for most of my adult life a newspaperman. I might call myself a reporter, maybe a staff writer when I wore a tie and talked with governors and such, and for a couple stretches a columnist. Now, at 72, I teach news writing part-time to university students, and I write a weekly newspaper column.

“Who is your audience?” I ask the students, telling them they should know that before they begin typing. “Who are you writing for? What do you want to say, and how should you say it?” As practice, I give them each a thank-you note, an envelope and a postage stamp, an exercise I found in a Nieman Storyboard years ago….

When I write in the woods, it’s different than my journalism — usually personal, reflective, a post or series of posts on Facebook. My audience is friends — longtime, beloved and often distant friends, and hundreds of digital “friends” whose paths crossed mine along the way….

When I turned 70 two years ago, I wrote monthly from camp in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park from May into November, calling the series of posts “Camping at 70” and saying I wanted to see if, at that age, I still could sleep on the ground and get up in the morning….I wrote about 5 a.m. breakfasts with blue jays overhead and chipmunks at my feet, the contents of my book bag, sightings of bears and moonlight serenades by owls, struggles with lanterns and air mattresses — and the constant, conflicting pull of peaceful isolation against a sometimes overwhelming sense of aloneness.

“A campfire is best enjoyed with company,” I wrote one night that summer, pecking the words out on my smart phone as I sat, alone, by my fire, “so you and someone you like and trust can stare into it, feed it, talk or sit quietly and remember. Alone, I tend to miss certain people too much.”

In late September that year, I borrowed from E.B. White’s “Essays” to convey why I kept coming back to this campground with its lodge and lakes, its ferns and centuries-old pines — more than 50 years now — and asked readers far and near to indulge me. From White:

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”

Or personal columns, perhaps. Or long Facebook posts from the woods….


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