What We Carry: Tools of the Trade, OR Jennifer Egan, please meet Trail Dog Christine Byl

Photo by Gabe Travis
Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park.  By the time she wrote Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (referred to in Publisher’s Weekly as a “beautiful memoir of muscle and metal”) she’d been a trail dog for sixteen years – building, maintaining, repairing and designing backwoods trail.  Her MFA in fiction is from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Christine didn't grow up using her muscles though, unless you count brain work.  She was more of a Thoreau groupie.  "I didn't think much about what the body could do."  
Photo by Terry Boyd

Now, sinewy Byl states flat-out, “Tools make the woman. Once you learn the tools and develop the eye, once you discern your limits and strengths, trail work can be brute simple.  Dig trench.  Move log.  Roll rock.  Swing axe.  Yet, like any craft, it’s as complex as you ask it to be…”
Byl loves to kick ass, and she loves “binging” on Jennifer Egan novels.

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, doesn’t have an MFA.  She’ll be the first to tell you that the writing group she’s belonged to for twenty years has proven more valuable than any MFA. 

Photo by David Shankbone
She writes fiction by hand in illegible handwriting.  Then she does pages and pages of typed analysis.  And then she starts the next draft all over again, by hand.

Hand tools.  Pens and paper.  Shovels and chainsaws.  On the opening page of Dirt Work, Christina Byl lists what the typical trail dog carries when setting out each morning, from how much water (2 quarts to 1 gallon), to what kinds of gloves (2 pairs, 1 leather, 1 fleece); to the tools they carry (axe, Pulaski, shovel, chainsaw, clinometer). 

When Byl heads into the woods to do trail dog work, backpack fully loaded, she also carries ATTITUDE and EXPECTATIONS.  

Attitude: Don’t quit, complain, lag, or brag.  Pretend nothing hurts. 

Expectations: Fix it; bust ass; do it fast; know it all; or learn it quick.

Christine Byl and Jennifer Egan have never met but I think they’d like each other, despite the fact that Egan lives in Brooklyn and Byl lives in Alaska – worlds and cultures apart. 

When revising, Egan advises: “If anything can be cut, it should be cut.  The point of good literature is to accomplish everything it needs to accomplish in the least amount of time and space.”

Fix it.  Bust ass.  Do it fast.  Know it all.  Learn it quick. 

“I write very blindly, my first drafts,” Egan told the audience at a recent Lighthouse Writers Denver event.  “It’s the time of possibilities.  I can’t seem to do that with my conscious brain.  When revising, think of everything as a place setting on a table.  Does it have a use?”

Same with any tool Byl carries into the woods.  It damn well better have a use.  "And don't mistake a digging bar for a rock bar," Byl warns.

Egan's writing community is one of her most valuable tools, and sometimes she brings "stuff" to them early on because she just wants to know, "Is it ALIVE?"

Photo by Skip Martin
I would guess that's part of what enticed Christine into the woods early on - the sense of aliveness one finds working outdoors that can't be found anywhere else.  "The romance of a hard day's work," Byl writes, "is like any romance, as dependent on who's doing the loving as it is on what is loved."

In Alaska, Christine has learned to love hard work and hard living.

"Autumn in Denali beguiles me every year, when the world on fire reinvents shade, palette, tone... Reddened willows, lichen's green glow... I am an existentialist at heart and I love fall in part for its contemplative underpinnings, the way it makes me notice the concrete world (everything's dying) and think about the abstract one (everything dies)."

Photo by Christine Byl
"When trees and brush go aflame right before leaves and blooms pale at winter, I also wonder: will I have even minutes as full of purpose as these plants do, when my hue is tinted by the tasks of my hands?"

That last bit of prose gives you a taste of the gritty, honest beauty of Byl's writing, and her world.  "Is it alive?" Egan asks of her writing.  "Am I alive?" I imagine Byl asks of herself.  What purpose brings me here, to this moment, to this place, to this life?  

NOTE:  If you're going to AWP in Seattle this winter, don't miss Christine's panels on Friday. 


Gail Storey said…
You really capture the essential gifts of Christine Byl and Jennifer Egan in this great post! I loved DIRT WORK, and having shared two book events with Christine, can attest to her being as authentic and brilliant in person as she is in her writing.
Page Lambert said…
Gail, I certainly thought of you and your memoir when reading DIRT WORK. I can only imagine what fun those two event you attended with Christine, both talking about your books and your lives, must have been! Thanks for the post!

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