(note: this essay originally appeared at Powells Books Blog.)
Once upon a time, I worked for the Park Service, minding a little ranger station on Marmot Lake — well above the treeline, about 30 miles into the backcountry from any direction. The station was not much of a station at all. Just a tent on a platform and a steel cache full of tools and gear, and even a sealed bottle of stove gas and a stash of MREs for any ranger who might find herself lost and in need of meager shelter and stomach-turning food.
(It should be noted that this is not a story about the Park Service, or the outdoors, or about wildlife encounters, though it will seem so at first. This is a story about writing stories. You are going to have to pay attention.)
I lived in that tent with the man that I would later marry, though we didn’t think about such things then. Or, at least I pretended that I was the sort of person who didn’t think about such things. Instead, we carried out the tasks necessary to preserve and maintain one of the last remaining pockets of wildness left in this once-wild world: we fixed trails, moved downed trees, attacked certain — but not all — invasive species, cleaned up after the incessant onslaught of Boy Scout troops. This was our job: shoring, dismantling, cutting, hauling, digging, moving, and then tidying up. We had been trained by a ranger named Vic Stanculescu — a man whose whiskers stood out from his face like Douglas Firs, who rolled his own cigarettes with one hand while whittling a stick with the other. A guy who could get it in his head to just disappear into the wilderness while he was mid-sentence in a conversation — and would do so, vanishing just like that, for days on end, returning only when he was good and ready and just wanted to finish his thought. I haven’t seen Vic in years, but I think of him often. He was a good teacher. “Here’s my theory on trail maintenance,” he said to us over and over again. “You take the worst stretch of trail, and you turn it into the best.” It was good advice, as it turns out.
(Do you see? Are you noticing? Pay attention.)
We lived, that summer, at the roof of the world. Snow and spongey turf. The shadow of mountain peaks. Sedge so green it made your eyes ache to look at it. Ice-cold lakes. The constant call of marmot to marmot and bird to bird. Grunting black bears, endlessly hunting berries. The quiet prowl of mountain lions — always worried about but rarely seen. The barnyard smell of our local elk herd, wafting across the valley in great clouds. Two thundering rivers had their source at our little alpine meadow, each one starting as a rocky gurgle pouring out from opposite ends of the lake. Later, the rivers became swift veins that cut through mossy soil, shaded by enormous trees. And still later, they became deep gorges, gouged cruelly into the rock. And then cascades. And then broad, treacherous rapids. And then they churned, all force and foam and volume and velocity, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, each at their own, screaming mouths. Those rivers did not scream where we were, up on the mountain. They whispered. Each morning, I filtered our water from a rocky bowl in the stream. Each morning, the river told me secrets.
One day, I was hiking down the well-trodden track from the lookout to the tent site, with tools strapped to my back and a water bottle strapped to my hip, when I nearly ran into a mountain lion, right there on the trail. He was astonishing, and astonished. We were not expecting to see one another, our encounter occurring as it did on a blind curve. But once in view, it was difficult to look away. Coming face to face with mountain lion feels like a crack in the world — the Kracken shattering the skin of the ocean; a dragon peeling off the top of the sky, as though it was the pith of an orange. My breath caught. So did the cat’s. I could hear it. Also audible: that low, calculating rumble in his throat. That sound a mountain lion makes as it stands on the cusp of action: attack or retreat?
(Listen. Pay attention.)
It is, at its heart, a question of cost. Each movement, each slice of tooth and claw, each leap and bound and snatch — these are expensive for an animal that lives on the razor’s edge of feast and starvation. Cougars, like house cats, have highly specific digestive requirements, and highly exacting needs to fuel the delicately tuned, muscular machinery of their bodies. A mountain lion lives with literally nothing to spare — each calorie it eats is a calorie used. Almost immediately. Nothing is wasted. Every action must be paid for. This is how they live.
(This is a story about stories. Are you listening?)
He was huge, that cat, so much bigger than I had imagined a mountain lion to be. Broad paws pressed into the soft ground. The loping curve of his shoulder blades rippled and swayed. His muscles announced themselves. He took a step back. Showed his teeth.
I took a step back. Pulled my Pulaski from my back and held it above my head like a sword. I kept my eyes tilted away. I had to see without appearing to see, assess without aggressively observing. I needed to see with my other eyes; to hear with my other ears. I had to feel his movements with my skin. And in my feet.
(It’s how we build stories. Do you see?)
The cat made a sound. I don’t have a word for it. It wasn’t a roar or a bark or a growl or a snort or a snarl. It was something bigger. He didn’t make the sound with his mouth — or, at least it wasn’t only his mouth. He made it with his feet, his tail, each muscle, each bone. It rattled the ground and smacked the air. I could feel it vibrating in my molars. I swung the Pulaski over my head, and brought it down to the earth with a crash. I opened my mouth and I made the sound that the big cat made. That exact same sound. My feet, my muscles, my bones, my throat, my tongue, my teeth. They had never spoken that way before, and they never will again. Not a growl. Not a roar. Not a snarl or a bark. Something else. I didn’t look directly at the mountain lion. I knew better. I saw him with my skin instead. I felt him start. Startle. Rear. And then he bounded away.
(You see it, don’t you?)
People ask me sometimes about my writing process. They ask me about where my stories come from, and I tell them about listening to rivers. They ask me about revision, and I tell them Vic Stanculescu’s rule about trail maintenance. They ask me about writer’s block, and I tell them about the careful planning required to remove downed trees from across the trail — the dangers of pinned trunks and sprung branches, the singularly powerful feeling of bringing the spinning teeth of a chainsaw to the broken torso of a silver fir, and the clarifying smell of pine sap.
And people ask me about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel, and I don’t always know what to say. Sometimes I borrow the language of architecture, and sometimes I talk about engineering, and sometimes I talk about poetry and the ways in which silence speaks. But now I see that’s all wrong. When we write a novel, we live in the novel. We call the leaky tent on the rickety platform home. We wash ourselves in the ice cold water of the nearby lake. We tend to the landscape. We know each animal, each plant, each rock. We listen to the rivers as they whisper. We know their secrets. A short story, on the other hand, is an encounter. We cannot look it in the eye. We have to see with our skin and hear with our bones. A short story is a crack in the world; it is tooth and claw; it is the choice between attack and retreat. Nothing is wasted. Everything is paid for. It makes a sound that we cannot identify or name, and we make that sound in return.
Perhaps it will attack. Perhaps it will devour us. Perhaps it will bound away.
This is why I like reading short stories, and this is why I write them — to be astonished; to be left breathless; to return to the world, shaken and dizzy, and looking over my shoulder, waiting for the monster to return.