The Evolution of Altitude Adjustment

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Many years ago I signed up for a night class called “Write Your Novel,” taught by Jackson author Tim Sandlin. As I remember, the class consisted of four classes and four one-on-one coaching sessions with Tim at Pearl Street Bagels over coffee. Tim opened up a world of fresh concepts for me—tone and voice and pacing and structure—fiction writing basics that I’ve carried into my creative nonfiction writing. But even more, he planted a seed: I began to believe that, with perseverance, I might one day write a book.

Shortly after I left Grand Teton, I knew I had a story to tell. But how to tell it? Would it be a book about wildlife? Wildlife biology work? Nature? East coast Portuguese girl in the Wild West? All of the above, but more basic: It became a story about following a dream.

I initially thought of it as an essay collection. Like most writers, I began with short pieces, but none of them satisfied me. After many false starts and U-turns, it became clear that essays are not my forte. In early 2007, I began writing this book as a continuous narrative.

The most difficult chores in the writing were to sustain the narrative arc (i.e. to drive the story forward to a conclusion) and to tie together the different facets of the story (family, nature, wildlife, etc.). These tasks required me to write, slash, edit, and rewrite over and over. For years I wondered why I continued. Nothing in my industrious upbringing had prepared me for this: weeks, months, years of work, with no guarantee of future publication. In fact, all I kept hearing was, “Only celebrities can get memoirs published nowadays.”

But throughout the task, I always knew I had a story that could inspire others, so I kept at it. I went to conferences, entered contests, applied for writing residencies. Friends read various manuscript revisions and offered insights and encouragement. Eventually, some successes came my way. Chapter 12, “Teton Two-Step,” won first place in the memoir category of a Wyoming Writers, Inc. writing contest. A couple of years later, Bonafide Books of Tahoe Paradise, CA, published “The Weight of a Harlequin” (a version of Chapter 18, “Harlequin Romance”) in their anthology Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. I was accepted into two writing residencies—Jentel Artist Residency Program (www.jentelarts.org) and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts (www.brushcreekarts.org) – both of which provided intense, uninterrupted periods of focused work. Most recently, the Wyoming Arts Council awarded me a 2014 Literary Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction for Chapter 25, “Altitude Adjustment.”

I began to seek a publisher. After a string of rejections longer than I care to acknowledge, a serendipitous meeting with author and editor Matthew Mayo at the 2012 Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference opened the gate to publication. Matt connected me with TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, and Altitude Adjustment was launched. Woo-hoo!

My advice to aspiring authors is this: Take to heart the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Trust thyself. Have faith in yourself and your story, and don’t give up! Go to the conferences and talk to people. In the inevitable dark moments, go for a walk, then come home and read something light. Have a salad, a smoothie, some dark chocolate. Go to bed. Try again tomorrow.

It’s been a long gestation, but Altitude Adjustment is finally out in the world. My hope is that readers will find enjoyment and inspiration in its pages. I’d love to read your impressions of the book and your stories about following your dreams (or not). Let me hear from you!

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