All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Kristin Pazulski
Writer Brad Wetzler spent many years chasing down stories in faraway lands like Indonesia, Palestine, Greenland, and Israel, but when he landed in Boulder two months ago, he was ready to settle down. Relocating to Colorado after 20 years in Santa Fe, Wetzler knew he was in for some adjustments. He outfitted his truck with snow tires. He bought new hiking boots. His adventures, from all appearances, would be tailored to a more local geography. Wetzler, whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Best American Travel Writing, says he’s ready to put his wanderlust on hold to focus on teaching and on writing fiction. Lucky for us, starting in January he’ll be trekking down to Denver at least once a week to lead a couple courses for nonfiction writers. I sat down to chat with him about writing in general and his career in particular.
Q. Did you always want to travel or did that just happen?
BW. As editor at Outside, I edited these great travel stories by amazing writers, like Outside’s founding editor Tim Cahill and Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer. After editing all those stories, I was just itching to go out and do that myself.
Q. How did you choose which stories you cover and where you travel?
BW: Usually, I find a compelling story to tell first, and where I end up traveling is almost secondary. For one of my pieces, I knew I was going to write about the Russian space program, and that took me to this rundown compound in Russia called Star City. Another time, I wanted to write about a group of explorers circumnavigating Greenland, so I of course went there. The explorers left the moment we arrived, and I got stuck in a tiny Inuit village for two weeks waiting for a helicopter to pick me up. The ideas for stories come from a variety of places—sometimes from a little piece in the paper, sometimes after a lot of phone work, talking with sources. Once it evolves, I write up a proposal and send it off to editors. If it’s accepted, I work with them to hone the story idea before traveling. Occasionally, you get a call from an editor who already has an idea. That’s the way you like it to happen.
Q. You’ve written for publications that writers aspire to. How many pitches did it take you to get where you are now?
BW: I started at Outside right out of graduate school as a lowly intern and slowly worked my way up to senior editor, but I knew I was more of a writer than an editor, and was planning on leaving at some point to pursue that passion. As an editor, I made a lot of connections with writers and fellow editors. By the time I left, I had a good network of people. Getting published can be a bit of an insiders’ game, so you have to lay the foundation.
It does take a lot of pitches, though, and you have to be ready to jump. My most recent story for the New York Times involved a trip to Palestine. I wrote a pitch about going to that conflict-ridden place as a tourist, the editor said yes in mere minutes, and two days later I was on the plane. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy—and it’s getting more difficult. The industry has changed a lot. The printed word and long-form journalism are in a struggle for their lives.
Q. You’re going to be teaching introduction to and advanced personal narrative in January. I feel like everyone has a story, but maybe not all are worth telling. When someone is thinking about turning a personal experience into a personal memoir or essay, what should they look for? Can you turn any experience into a memoir or essay?
BW. You need to have a story to tell, and not just the story of what happened to you on this particular day, or that particular anecdote. You have to begin the essay knowing what you intend to say about it—know the larger, universal meaning behind it.
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick gives a great example from a Joan Didion essay. She wrote about having a migraine headache—so the situation is that she has this headache, but the story is about how she deals with it and how the pain pushes her to rise above the situation.
I think people have lots of stories and some of them seem profound at first, and others you have tease the profundity out of them. You have to write and journal about them and figure out what made that story stick out in your mind as important. In Joan Didion’s piece, she ends up writing a profound essay about overcoming pain, and the surprising advantages pain gives in pushing you to grow. The story can be ostensibly mundane; it doesn’t have to be a trip to Greenland or a major event that you thought was life-changing at the time. It might be something really subtle, like a headache. Sometimes an essay will be about a moment and not about the whole road trip.