On Writing and Telling Stories
From the first cave paintings to Rolling Stone Magazine, humans have needed to tell and hear stories.
Stories are the social glue connecting all of us, a crucible of transformation, the collective narrative born of our own raw materials: the Whos, the Whats, the Hows and Whys of life. Stories are where it’s at. The power of a good one is evidenced in the ears that perk and the circle that forms in the telling.
One of my favorite storytelling voices is that of M. John Fayhee. With an entertainingly intelligent and foul voice, Fayhee strikes flint on stone with a keyboard or pencil. Even in the driest of reportings, I experience a ‘back of the bus’ chuckle at the unexpected zinger, a rubber band on the wrist. No matter the headline, I can count on setting the paper down, feeling. Feeling something, anything, which says a lot, considering the state of media today.
Fayhee developed a reputation most through his long editorship of the now-defunct Mountain Gazette.
The Gazette was familiar to us all, in every mountain town and coffee shop, it seemed, that drew us to its adjacent wildlands. He was also a long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine and is the author of 12 books, including “Bottoms Up” and “Smoke Signals,” which was a Colorado Book Awards finalist. For the past two winters, Fayhee has been a staff writer for the Aspen Daily News, living of all places, in the rural cabin of polo-playin’ folk.
In daring to launch a magazine with out a lick of editing experience (which parlays into NO publishing experience) it behooved me to chat with a pro. I met with Fayhee over several beers, one sparkling water and a mate, in both his kitchen and a bar. You will encounter the myriad influences of all of the above in our conversation below. (Warning, a few f-bombs to be expected. This is Fayhee, afterall.)
GJV: Let’s start with your bio. How did a guy like John Fayhee come to be?
MJF: I was born in the UK in 1955. My father was career U.S. Air Force and was stationed over there. My mom was English and looking for a way out of a land that was still digging its way out of the Second World War. We moved to Plattsburgh Air Force Base, in the northernmost Adirondacks of New York State, when I was six months old. We stayed in that area until I was 12. It was a great place to grow up — the closest thing to the West that you can find in the East. Skiing, hiking, fishing, lots of water, lots of public land. My mom not only let me, but demanded, that I wander. The only real rule I ever had was that I had to be home by six for dinner. If I was even one minute later, there was hell to pay. Despite her permissiveness, my mom was an extremely violent woman. One of her favorite terms was ‘Hell to pay.’
When I was four, my parents split. We went back to England for six months and lived with my grandparents in Kingston-upon-Thames, just south of London. I guess my life kinda hung in the balance at that point. If she had decided to stay, I would have been raised in my native land, using words like “blimy.” Instead, she brought us back to the U.S. She met and married an Air Force captain, who drowned in Lake Champlain when I was nine. After that, she met and married a fighter pilot who moved us south, first to Frankfort, Kentucky, then to his home turf, eastern Virginia.
Having lived my first 12 years in the Adirondacks, I did not take to the flat, steamy, poison-ivy, tick and mosquito-infested lowlands bordering the Chesapeake Bay. When I was 20, I packed up a 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon and drove West. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, I had been offered a half-tennis scholarship at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. I had never been within 2,000 miles of that part of the country. Didn’t know shit about it. The Opel made it as far as Amarillo, where it died. I sold it for enough money to put my gear on a Greyhound bus, but not enough money to also put me on the Greyhound bus. So, I arrived in Silver City via my thumb. It was a stressful way to arrive, at least partially because I had five pounds of weed in my gear, which was in the belly of a bus I was not on. But, in typical New Mexico fashion, it all worked out in the end. Until it didn’t.
While I was still in college, I got my first real job — writing for the El Paso Times, which I did for two years. A month after winning a big feature-writing prize, I got laid off.
In 1982, I moved to Colorado, where I lived for 24 years, mostly in Summit County. I had met my wife when I lived in Grand County. That’s also where I met Curtis Robinson, who ended up, many years later, being my partner in the Mountain Gazette.
In 2006, I moved back to Silver City. I had tired of the long winters and Colorado had simply gotten too busy for my tastes. When I first moved here, Colorado was still pretty quiet and undeveloped. Denver was still a cow town. During my quarter-century in the state, the population doubled. But I wasn’t just running away from Colorado; I was running back to a part of the country I loved and missed. I had just sold the Gazette, but had been retained as the editor, which I did remotely. The people I sold it to sold it to someone else, who in turn sold it to someone else — an Easterner of all things. When that person closed it down, I was screwed. There is no economy in rural New Mexico. I spent three years burning through savings and basically sulking, living a woe-is-me-type existence.
Two winters ago, I got the opportunity to house-sit in El Jebel at the same time that the Aspen Daily News needed a reporter. It was weird to be back in daily journalism and it was weird to find myself at my age doing the same thing I did 30 years ago, but I needed the money. The same double-deal became available this winter. I’m getting ready to go back to New Mexico. I miss my life.
GJV: What is it that attracts you to such an out-of-the-way place (Silver City, New Mexico!) and aren’t you worried that, by telling people where you live, you might attract more people to come down there?
MJF: Since I went back to Silver City, I can’t even count the number of Coloradans who have come down to visit, apparently thinking, “If Fayhee went down there, there’s gotta be something…” A lot of those same people would end up saying, “What the fuck are you doin’ here?!” I mean it’s gritty, we have these big open pit copper mines. It’s New Mexico, it’s dysfunctional. It’s violent. The crime rate is high. Most people who come down from Colorado to visit me have returned home shaking their heads, wondering what form of insanity has infected me.
GJV: It’s reality!
MJF: Well, it’s reality squared. It’s a frontier town. I can see the first mountains of Mexico from my deck. It’s the real Wild West still. Ranchers in Colorado are enlightened types who participate in things like conservation easement programs. Our ranchers are Posse Comitatus, Cliven Bundy supporters. A lot of bikers in Colorado are white-collar poseurs from downtown Denver trying to slum it on their $30,000 Harleys. Our bikers are Vaqueros and Banditos. So-called hippies in Colorado shop at hippie.com. Our hippies are old-time Rainbow Family, even the young ones. Our environmentalists are original-iteration Earth First! We have a big, in-your-face LGBTQ population. A lot of Colorado thinks it’s the Wild West. It’s not. Colorado has become mortifyingly civilized. I mean, it’s still a wonderful place … The biggest thing — the worst thing — that ever happened to Colorado was all-wheel drive. If that hadn’t happened, Colorado would be a very, very different place. It has become far easier to live here than it used to be.
Like I said, I’ve had a lot of people come down to Silver City and sniff the air, wondering if New Mexico’s Gila Country might be the next exploitable place. It’s not as ball-grabbingly beautiful as Colorado… you don’t have the sheer … you don’t have Sopris. Our biggest vertical climb is as big as Sopris, but you gotta hike 15 miles through rough country to start doing that. Our biggest vertical climb that you can do, like after work or something, is 2,000 vertical feet, so we don’t have that amazing topography. What we have is vastness. Of a scale that’s — we have a million acres of wilderness right in our backyard. And it’s wilderness wilderness. People are frightened of it. We have this one vista, it’s called Copperas Vista, it’s on the way to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
[Fayhee inhales; gathers himself, eyes far away– ]
The distance that you can see…? And there’s nothing.
[He whispers now, grinning– ]
You see visitors at that vista kinda stand a little closer together! They look out in every direction and see nothing! Our local heroes are Aldo Leopold— this is where he lived when he had his famous wolf epiphany; Billy the Kid, who spent a lot of time in Silver City as a child; and Geronimo. Outlaws all.
This is where Geronimo was born. There’s still the vibe of the Chiricahua Apache. They were the meanest, baddest ass — their nickname was ‘the crushers of bone.’ And they got that name from other Apaches. They tortured their prisoners. They were hard-assed motherfuckers. And their vibe still kinda permeates the atmosphere. My wife, a second-generation born-and-raised Colorado girl, still can’t figure the vibe out! She doesn’t sleep as well down there.
There’s no economy. The quality of life is third-world for a significant part of the population.
I don’t know. It’s under my skin, and it always has been.
GJV: Do you write for local publications in Silver City?
[I’m actually trying to see if someday, he might color the pages of B|A, but so far, financial self preservation seems to be his wise rebuttal– ]
MJF: When I first moved back down there in 2006, I worked for the daily Silver City Sun-News, which is owned by a big national chain. I had just sold the Mountain Gazette and was feeling unsure of my immediate fiscal circumstances. So, I was working two jobs. I quit the paper after a year. Since then, I have been very quiet locally. One of the reasons I moved back down was to be anonymous, because, in Summit County, I definitely was not. I was very politically active in Frisco, and I worked for 10 years for the Summit Daily News, so pretty much everyone knew me. In the Roaring Fork Valley, I’ve managed, despite my gig with the Aspen Daily News, to be a little bit more anonymous. In Silver City, I am completely anonymous.
I do a lot of writing; more than most people, even other writers, can imagine. But it’s not for local publications, of which there are several. I also try to not write too much about southwest New Mexico — not that there are many publications that care about that part of the country. It takes an alien spacecraft crash-landing for anybody to even give the slightest fuck about the place I call home, even though it has so much cool, interesting stuff going on. Aspen, somebody could stub their toe, and if you put the name ‘Aspen’ on it, people all over the country are going to be interested in it; especially if you attach a celebrity’s name to it. We don’t get many celebrities in Silver City — though Lance Armstrong did participate in our annual bike race a couple times. Before his fall from grace.
GJV: What are your observations on the publications scene in the Roaring Fork Valley?
MJF: First, I hope people around here understand how good they have it. I’ve heard a lot of grousing about how shitty the local papers are, or about how such-and-such a reporter has his own agenda. Same kind of stuff you hear anywhere. But you’ve got numerous papers, including two, the Aspen Daily News and the Sopris Sun, that are independently owned. I invite anyone who thinks the newspaper scene here is bad to read the Deming Headlight in New Mexico.
Here, you’ve got a shitload of really good reporters who care deeply about both their community and their profession. Anyone who reads all the papers, and a lot of people do, gets a pretty thorough picture of what’s going on in the Roaring Fork Valley.
I wish there was more long-form journalism. You have plenty of local writers who can pull it off and plenty of local readers who would like to see more in-depth projects. Aspen Journalism deep dives into issues, but they really only focus on water and they rely upon local newspapers to print their efforts. The Aspen Daily News does long Sunday stories as well. The local magazines, not so much.
I also wish there was more opportunity for basic storytelling. The Aspen Daily News is really focused on hard news. They are not as open to pure long-winded bullshitting, which made for an awkward fit for me. Though I can generally cover my ass, I’m not a very good daily newspaper reporter. I don’t have the necessary attention to detail and I find it hard to pretend to give a fuck about stuff I really don’t give a fuck about. But I am pretty good at transcriptively telling stories that may or may not have any bearing on the previous night’s town council meeting. The Daily News is not as open to that as I would have liked. Which is OK. They are what they are and have no obligation to adjust their modus operandi to suit me.
As far as the other newspapers, there is simply not much pure storytelling going on. Scott Condon at the Aspen Times does a good job. But that’s about it. The magazines, almost all of which I have written for, have become focused on service pieces — what new art gallery just opened, where people should go hiking; not entirely, but mostly. I know the editors would like to open their pages to more pure storytelling, but the main glossy magazines hereabouts are all owned by chains. The editors have to run their story lists by people living in the East. They have to kowtow to the chains’ cookie-cutter formulas.
Then there’s the matter of humor. If I can make one generalized observation it is that I’ve never seen such a humorless publications environment. I was having a beer in Basalt with photographer Norm Clasen — one of the favorite people I’ve met in my life. He was asking me that, ‘What happened to fun in publications. This is a tourist area, it’s supposed to be fun. Why aren’t the publications reflecting that?’ And I had no answer for him. I simply don’t get it.
The 10 years I worked with the Summit Daily News, it was almost like a contest among the writers to see who could come up with the funniest shit. I could write about anything pretty much any way I wanted to. I once did a 4,000-word story on the process of assembling a new barbecue grill while stoned. Here, well, that would be unlikely. Last winter, I wanted to cover an extreme midget wrestling event at a bar in Rifle. I had planned to wrestle one of the midgets. The idea was not well received.
I bounced this off a well-known local attorney last winter and he said, ‘We do have a tendency to take ourselves seriously here.’ And that’s fine. People here are involved in a lot of heavy, planet-scale important stuff. People here are trying to save the world. Maybe I’m being frivolous advocating for more publications frivolity. There are numerous columnists hereabouts who are funny, no doubt. It bothers me that humor seems to be relegated to the opinion pages.
That’s one of the things that sounds promising about your project — that you seem like you’re going to be open to just about anything — funny stuff, long-form stuff and basic storytelling.
[Definitely peruse Submission Guidelines and then, please, tickle your laptop for B|AM.
GJV: You mentioned that you’re not the best daily newspaper reporter. I disagree— the things you sneak in to a dry report remind me of how much fun I used to have in my columns with the Valley Journal and Sopris Sun …What are you good at when it comes to writing?
MJF: A writer has to be able to come up with things to write about, then be able to write about those things. I am fairly adept at coming up with ideas for things to write about. I’ve even given seminars to newspaper reporters on story-idea generation. Curtis Robinson once said of me that I can come up with more ideas driving to work than most people can in a month. Though I blab a lot, I keep my ears and eyes open. Sometimes my blabbing disguises the fact that I am really observing and listening. I am an unobtrusive eavesdropper. That’s an important skill.
You also have to recognize what readers might be interested in. Or at least have the ability to turn something they might not be interested in into something they can be convinced to read. I just did an exercise in taking a superficially bland topic — my propensity to burn my toast every morning — and turning it into a 5,000-word piece that I think turned out well.
I also am comfortable with exaggeration, taking seemingly mundane snippets and turning them into a tale.
GJV: What’s so important about telling stories?
MJF: On a fundamental level, it’s how our species evolved, for better or for worse. Sitting around the campfire, relating tales about the hunt, or about how Grok got eaten by an alligator, but how he fought valiantly before getting pulled under for the last time. It was a matter of survival. Stories are entertainment. Bonds are formed around storytelling.
GJV: What are your observations about making a living as a writer these days?
MJF: Man, it’s hard. I’ve been at this long enough that I can say it’s maybe harder than ever. Pay rates are about the same as they were 35 years ago. Lower if you factor in inflation. Almost every serious writer I know has another gig, mainly teaching. Or working for a newspaper. I was recently on panel at a writers’ conference and the other four people on the panel were all college professors. Charles Bowden, an author of dozens of highly acclaimed books who passed away a couple years ago, once told me that he made more money off magazine articles than he did writing books, which is sobering for a mere mortal such as myself because he was at the top of the field.
And it’s not just the pay, though that’s hard to overlook. It’s also the quality of the assignments. Used to be that, sure, you’re getting paid shit, but at least you’re working on something you can be proud of. Now, the publishing world is dominated by what are called ‘service pieces,’ so-called ‘stories’ about the new art gallery opening or where to go hiking.
After I sold the Mountain Gazette — to this day, the worst decision I have ever made in my life, because I really felt like I let the Gazette tribe down — I was told by one of the new owners that he wanted to see more stories on topics like Where To Get The Best Burrito After Rafting. Once I realized he was not joking, I almost puked. I mean, fuck that shit. That kind of shit has nothing, or at least very little, to do with readers. It was everything to do with sucking up to advertisers. I can’t tell you the number of times at the Mountain Gazette we were told that people would buy an ad if we did a story on their company.
Now the area I know the least about — I’m working fairly diligently on increasing my knowledge — is new media and social media. There are more and more people who have figured out a way to make money — sometimes significant money — off Instagram and blogs and such. So, in a way, though the outlook is bleak, there are opportunities that weren’t available back in the day, opportunities that people are leveraging via, say, outdoor equipment companies, to make a decent living.
I guess, given the challenges, those of us who continue to spew out verbiage by the bucketful must really love what we’re doing. We must really consider it important. Or maybe people like me just don’t know how to do anything else. Or maybe people like me aren’t as smart as we think we are!
GJV: Why did you sell the Gazette?
MJF: I was not put on the planet to be a business owner. I truly sucked at the business part of the business. Dealing with payroll and employee drama and such wore me out at the same time that my partner, Curtis Robinson, suffered an unimaginable loss. His wife, Donna Dowling, passed away. They had a two-year-old son. Curtis had to go into serious parental overdrive and therefore had to get a real gig. He could no longer afford to focus on the Gazette. The more time I spent being a publisher, the less I was able to write. It got to the point where I stopped calling myself a writer. I thought the people I sold it to were going to take it to the next level. I thought wrong. I take Thinking Wrong to an art form sometimes.
GJV: What about formal education to be a writer?
MJF: I hated school from my first day of kindergarten to my last day of college. I was a terrible student. I literally barely made it out of high school. I looked at formal education as a form of incarceration. Guess I’m something of an autodidact.
GJV: I’m with you on that. You mentioned working on a memoir last spring. Where are you at with such a project?
MJF: I haven’t done much on it in the past year. For two reasons. Number one, it’s now getting to the really painful part, the part that leaves tears on the keyboard and makes me so angry it feels like my head is going to explode. And two, I’ve been working for a daily newspaper the last year-and-a-half. And doing a lot of freelance magazine stuff. So, for the past year and the half, I’ve been paying the bills.
GJV: It’s humbling and scary thinking the world wants to read your story.
You’ve always reminded me of Hayduke and Ed Abbey— these larger than life fellows laying down worthier moral tracks through sheer rebellion of the bullshit— what makes a man like that? Honestly, though, when I finished Abbey’s biography, I lost my fascination. I loved his writing, his perspectives and appreciation of the tiniest details in nature. But personally, he was kind of a dick. Crusty as you try to be, I don’t think you are. From what you’ve shared, you kinda maybe oughta be! I’m fascinated to read your path.
MJH: There’s an awful lot of personal writing in the world that’s very narcissistic writing. That’s the thing about memoir-type stuff. Unless it’s so well written that people are enamored of the writing — which only a small percentage of writers can do that — it needs to connect to somebody. I’ve been reading some memoir stuff the past year by some really good writers, and I think that they haven’t pulled it off. So, it’s hard thing to do.
I’ve structured my memoir — titled, ‘Back East’ — as a contemporary road trip intertwined with recollections of my past based upon visiting the places of my youth. Visiting the beach I was at when I learned my stepfather had drowned in the very lake that I was swimming in at the very same time. That kind of stuff. Not everything was horrible, but you grow up with a crazy mom and it’s up and down, man.[Thinking…]
GJV: I have a suspicion mine wasn’t so stable. She died of misadventure when I was six or seven… I think it was probably better for my three sisters and me, unfortunately, so I kind of get the ‘crazy mom’ thing…
MJF: My mom died when I was thirty-two. I can’t say it was a relief, but…
My thinking, my writing and my observing is at its best when I’m moving, so I’m able to connect these various parts of my life with the fact that I’m on the road. Every time I’m on the road, crazy shit happens to me.
Generally, and this is why this memoir might work, when I’m on the road, I’m more observant. It becomes more ‘third-person.’ I have a good instinct in seeking weirdness out. It makes the writing life easier. One of the simplest way to do it is, every little town you’re in, go to bars when you’re on the road. It’s not always heavy-duty weirdness. It’s small snippets of weirdness— like being buzzed by the Goodyear blimp while I was smoking pot in Ohio. That was weird. So, I guess I heartily recommend drinking and getting stoned.
I think this memoir thing may work just by mixing that third person movement with the sometimes-horrid recollections of youth.
Like I said, I’m getting to the really nitty gritty on it right now where the really painful stuff starts. That’s my mom being forcibly committed to a mental institution, couple of times as a matter of fact, after incidents that included weapons discharge. Attempted murder-type stuff. When I graduated high school — I gave one of the speeches at the ceremony because I was the president of the student government — my mom was in an insane asylum. She had to be given a pass to get out and watch me graduate high school, to hear my speech. And then she was ushered right back to the nuthouse. That’s a weird way to graduate: the rest of your life is in front of you, and there’s Nutcase Mom getting out of the insane asylum. She never did get less insane, but she got calmer.
GJV: That’s what my sister is like. She’s schizophrenic. She was a lot in the beginning. It’s been a decade of my dad caring for her — she’s created a world for herself. She’s mostly really calm these days. She’s created a world for herself that works for her. She’s super chill.
MJF: Yeah, my mom wasn’t super chill. Later in life, she didn’t have the unbelievable violent explosions. But the last seven years, she was dying of cancer. That’ll nip it in the blood.
My mom grew up sittin’ on the streets of London during The Blitz. My mom was born in 1935 and she grew up in London. She was third-oldest of nine kids and only those three were old enough to remember the war. So, my mom, from age 4 to age 10, grew up with the Luftwaffe sending V-2s and blowing up her city. Maybe it’s PTSD that she got at a very, very young age, but literally, bomb shelter shit, people crying in the bomb shelters. Emerging in the morning wondering what was going to be left.
My cousins in England — of which there are many; we have a huge tribe — we talk about the insanity that runs in our parents’ generation of our family. And substance abuse. We’re English; drinking to excess is in our blood. We have one uncle who died in an insane asylum. Another uncle who overdosed on heroin. Another aunt had been a comatose alcoholic her entire life. I spent my whole fucking life thinking, “Oh, fuck, when’s it gonna hit me?” If it hasn’t hit by age 62, it isn’t gonna come!
GJV: Does it give you courage, writing your story?
MJF: Not necessarily. I’ve always been either oblivious or confident.
You can’t come from a better storytelling heritage than John Fayhee has come from. I grew up in an English family. They invented storytelling — pub storytelling. Exaggerated storytelling. The most illiterate Englishmen is a great storyteller! And I’m half Irish, too. Some of the best writers in history have come from Ireland. It’s in their DNA. Taking liberties with the truth is not frowned upon. And I went to high school in the South, which is storytelling central. And I especially liked listening to the black people telling their stories, cuz they egged each other on. They realized the place of the listener in storytelling, which is important, too. And New Mexico has the surrealist Hispanic storytelling tradition, you know, Gabriel García Márquez, where magic is intertwined and where reality does not confine narration. All the years I lived in the Colorado High Country. This is good storytelling country, too, though it does not have the literary tradition that other places have. People sit around the campfire, they sit in bars. And they spray yarns about their day on the slopes or their day hiking. I don’t know if it’s like that in Minnesota or Oregon. The places I’ve lived, they’ve been real story tellin’ places. You asked about vocabulary — having a big vocabulary really helps in storytelling.
GJV: The magic of just one word —
MJF: Well, you can also fuck up. In searching for a better word, you can use the wrong word, but so what?
GJV: You can also sound pretentious, and completely turn people off.
MJF: When you’re a writer, words are your stock in trade, so you’re expected to have a big vocabulary. I mean, if you don’t then —
GJV: Yeah, but yours is unusual. And in part, the reason I say that is because, unfortunately, with the Internet, everyone thinks they’re a writer. Most of them are way too chatty, way too informal, no effort at craft.
MJF: As we were talking the other day, people who are writers have been — I’m not trying to pretend I’m Hemingway or anything, but I started paying attention to writing when I was in the second goddamn grade. At Bridgeport Elementary School in Frankfort, Kentucky, I was writing for the school paper.
GJV: I forgot you lived in Kentucky.
MJF: Fifth, sixth and seventh grades. Crazy times. That’s when I was spiraling toward felonious living. Two of the people among my best friends went to prison for murder. I was hanging with a bad crowd. By that time, I had been picked up by the cops four or five times and had been taken to the police station twice. My criminality was the main reason my mom and step-father moved us to eastern Virginia.
GJV: As a writer, how do you find that balance between your lazier, vulgar self seeping in [Fayhee swears like a MF!] and still be so steeped in intelligence and depth? From piece to piece, your voice sings in every fucking thing you write. It’s obviously John Fayhee. You can hear the rhythm of YOU speaking what you’re writing.
MJF: That’s a good observation. The thing I’m the best at is writing like I talk, for better or for worse.
GJV: You’re a little more formal —
MJF: Sure — you have to polish it, and you should polish it. I know a couple of really good storytellers who have people rapt at the bar. When they try and put it on paper, they can’t do it. There’s some block there. Some people say “Carry a voice recorder” — and that even changes the mental dynamic. It’s just something that I’ve always felt comfortable with, and it makes writing that much easier.
People ask me, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” I’m not sure what that is. Sometimes you’re just tired. You’ve written so much lately, sometimes you just need a break.
GJV: Your brain is shot —
MJF: — Or you’re thinking about something else.
GJV: I only have writer’s block when my heart’s not in it.
MJF: Well, there’s plenty of times when you still have to write if your heart’s not in it when that’s how you make your living.
GJV: Totally, that’s why I get blocked, because I have to write it.
MJF: What people suggest, and it’s something I kind of do anyhow, is envision telling the story to somebody. My buddy Curtis Robinson is often that ‘somebody.’ Envision that you’re telling them that story you’re trying to write and that’s a way you can chop through writer’s block. That’s how my personal writing style is. And also, everything I write, I read out loud. That helps with the cadence. I try to be poetic, I try to make stuff subtly rhyme, even if it’s a piece about a town council meeting.
[I’m tickled hearing this poetry bit from Fayhee, who is somewhat of a feral being.]
MJF: People say “don’t use alliteration and assonance” — fuck that! I use alliteration and assonance all the time. And also integrating iambic pentameter in a news story; just changing the rhythm. You don’t just control with the words you use — you’re trying to control the reader.
MJF You control it with the cadence; cadence is so damn important. I just finished a book about Hunter Thompson, in which I learned that, in his youth, he re-typed several of the classics, like “The Great Gatsby,” word for word, just so he could get a first-hand feel for cadence.
GJV: What else are you working on now?
MJF: First, I am now officially finished with writing stuff I don’t care about.
I have three or four magazine stories I need to do. The pieces I’m working on now are somewhere between assignments and editors saying they want to see them. A lot of the stuff I do is hard to put down in a query letter, but I’m sure they’re going to get accepted.
A thing that I’m doing for the quarterly Adventure Journal — the editor is Steve Casimiro; he’s been an outdoor editor forever — I did a hike last fall where I retraced the footsteps, plus or minus, I couldn’t remember exactly, of the very first backpacking trip I did in New Mexico in 1976. I moved out West when I was 20. The story has three parts and it’s basically dealing with, if my younger self came across me now on the trail, what would we each think of the other? Would we be appalled? Would we learn from each other? ‘Hiking with Ghosts’ is the name of it. That’s a hard one to pitch even when someone knows your work.
GJV: But if someone knows your work, trusts your voice —
MJF: As an editor, I’d trust a pitch like ‘Hiking with Ghosts’ enough to say “I’d love to see it; send it in.” But I wouldn’t trust it enough to give an outright assignment. Those are the kinds of stories that can fail miserably or be so personal that they don’t resonate with anybody else. To answer your question, I’ve always got more projects on my to-do list than I’ll ever be able to get to.
GV: So, will you be coming back next winter to work at the Aspen Daily News?
MJF: No. They have hired someone to replace me. I will be coming back this summer for a few weeks because I have a couple of interesting freelance projects I want to work on. The past two winters have been enlightening. Though I was pretty much done with Colorado when I moved back to New Mexico in 2006, this place is full of interesting people and interesting stories.
GJV: Thanks for your time, John.
MJF: Thank you, and good luck with Bonedale | Amplified. I think the future of publications to a large extent lies with online and non-profit efforts. Just remember to keep the focus on story-telling. Carbondale is a wonderful town with a lot of great stories that need telling.