Learning to Write at Wabun by John Fiske

Everyone has talents. I found one of mine when I was fourteen, and that was writing. I believe that anyone can write. Effort produces good results. A dash of talent improves the outcome. Everyone’s talent must be discovered, one way or another. The teacher in me wants to offer an accessible, non-academic and non-professional story about learning to write, and offer something useful to my students and anyone else who is interested.

Between 1977 and 1999 I wrote ten journals. Five are from my summers as camper or staff at Camp Wabun. One is a time lapse that I wrote, most often, while in college, from 1983 to 1986. Two are about non-Wabun canoe trips. Two describe trips to southern Africa and Romania during the years I was married. The largest and longest comes from my solo travels in southeast Asia in 1990-91.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter had become president. The Soviet Union presented a formidable political and military threat to Western Europe and the US. I was an ordinary kid at Noble & Greenough School, a private day and boarding school in Dedham, Mass. On Sunday, February 6, 1977, my parents brought me to a recruiting gathering at Nobles for Camp Wabun. I had never heard of Wabun, and did not know anything about it. I also did not know that two of Nobles’ faculty were Wabun alums. I watched the slides, which showed a rugged program of canoe tripping in the Canadian wilderness. A couple days later, while walking to the lunch room with Dick Flood and Chris Mabley (the two Wabun alums on Nobles’ faculty), one of them asked, “What about Wabun?”

I said, “I guess I have nothing to lose.” Those seven words set in motion a whole lot of long-lasting things, including my writing life. In June, as I packed, Mother said, “Why don’t you keep a journal?” I tossed a repurposed steno notebook in my pack; I had written my name on the cover, “Latin,” “Cicero,” and I wrote in it every day, from June 26 to August 8, 1977. I still have it.

Portages are inevitable on canoe trips. They are all different, in length, and terrain, and all present a physical challenge. I wrote about them every day. Here’s a selection from my first summer at Wabun, and my earliest voluntary writings.

July 17, 1977:
Then we had the Helen’s Falls portage. The first 150 yards of it was up a cliff. That was pretty bad. Then 500 yards of jumbled rocks and ledges and muskeg. That portage hurt. Then we had another 400 yarder. That killed me because the tump jobs began to fall apart. Then we had a 200 yarder which put me in the grave yard because of the tumps and the tent kept falling off. Then we portaged 250 yards into a campsite called Shangri-la. That portage didn’t hurt so much because I knew it was the end.

How I used language to characterize my escalating distress on July 17 shows that I had an instinctive sense for comparative language. The sequence from “pretty bad” to “hurt” to  “killed me” to “grave yard” gives the reader a good sense of the situation’s difficulty. I probably did not have to stop or think to arrive at the imaginative phrase “grave yard.” The new experience, that of the portage uphill around Helen’s Falls, turned out to be context to generate fitting new language. And I did just that, even as early as middle school.

The 1977 journal is free of opinions, except about food. I did not know then that I could express myself. That started to change in 1979, my first time on Wabun’s “B” trip. The trip’s route necessitated a three-mile portage on a dusty gravel road. Our group had been fortunate to flag down a fisherman in his pickup truck to haul our gear across the portage, to Trout Lake. Somehow it happened that I waited alone at the end of the portage with half our gear, while the truck went back to get the rest of the stuff. On July 19, I admitted being nervous:

It felt kind of weird all alone in this small foreign speaking town in the depths of Canada. I was almost a little scared. I did locate this fisherman from Ohio, and he wanted to know about our trip. I bet he thought we were crazy.

 The new experiences at Wabun gave me new inputs, and I wanted to write everything down, including how I felt about various situations. My expressive writing, which started at Wabun, has grown and changed over the decades.

Whether at Wabun, or in any “new” experience, you should write. The more you write, the easier the task, and more complicated, it becomes.

This article comes from John Fiske’s memoir, Write Something Every Day. He teaches first year writing at Endicott College (Beverly, MA) and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. Contact him at johnfiske@comcast.net if you’d like to read more.

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