Miscellany

Miscellany is a place for wonderful little things outside of the feature-length storytelling we do up front. It’s an infinite scroll of interviews, images and interesting resources, updated when the mood strikes and the opportunity presents. —The Editors


Image: Jocelyn Finley

Interview: Jax Connelly

October 29, 2021

Jax Connelly’s fractured narrative, “11 Short Essays About Walking My Dog During COVID-19,” captures the staid repetition and constant change, the uncertainty and familiarity, the hard realities and frightening frontiers of the pandemic in a way that landed them last year’s Nowhere Fall Travel Writing Prize.

Compass Rose

Tell us how “11 Short Essays About Walking My Dog During COVID-19” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

When the pandemic hit Chicago, I was halfway through my second semester of grad school. A few months earlier, my workshop professor had asked us all to buy “instance journals,” where we were supposed to write a little bit every day. I’ve been a journaler my whole life, but more of a “here are all my thoughts and feelings this week” kind of journaler—journaling as a form of therapy. The goal of the instance journals wasn’t self-reflection, but rather brainstorming—to explore mundane memories and situations we wouldn’t otherwise think would be worthwhile to write about—and I had been finding that challenging. Getting my MFA has really helped me with this, but at the time, I did not have a lot of confidence in my ability to write without necessarily knowing where I was headed—writing as a form of discovery, writing as wondering.

Then, suddenly, we were in quarantine. The list of potential “instances” to write about dwindled to practically nothing. My journal entries started falling into two main categories: I would stand outside my apartment for hours taking notes on the trash that was lining the sidewalks, or I would write about encounters I had while I was out walking my dog. And honestly I was getting really frustrated with that. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. I couldn’t see the point in most things, but especially instance journaling. I kept thinking, “Who would ever want to read about this? They’ve all already lived it; they’re all still living it.” But I kept doing it because, for at least those few months during the stay-at-home order, instance journaling was pretty much the only writing I was capable of doing. When I was in quarantine, I found myself completely unable to write. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t write any of the essays I wanted to write, but I could write about trash and I could write about walking my dog.

Over time, as I kept collecting more and more of these “instances,” I realized there is something mimetically appropriate about the routine “journey” of the dog walk as a formal container for this bizarrely liminal time and space of quarantine, where you’re essentially just treading water, going through the motions, moving around in circles for who knows how long. I started pulling some of the more colorful instances together and arranging them into a fractured narrative that I hoped would capture the timelessness and overwhelming dread of surviving during the pandemic—this sense of hovering and waiting and not knowing how to move forward, except in fits and starts.

(It is still true that nothing has ever come of the trash notes, btw, but stay tuned!)

Have you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowhere’s?

I have entered more writing contests than I care to admit (ha)! I’ve won a few, placed in a few and been rejected from dozens and dozens. But I’m a big believer in Kim Liao’s advice to LitHub a few years ago to “aim for 100 rejections a year.” I try to stick to a pretty regimented submission schedule that averages out to about one contest submission every month.

I’ve been a fan of Nowhere for many years, but I’d never really done any writing that could truly be considered travel writing before this. In fall 2020, I signed up for a travel-writing class with the express goal of learning how to better craft scene and place, and this is the first piece I brought to that class. I had just finished probably my fifth round of serious revisions when I heard about the contest. It was already late November, very close to the deadline. I entered totally on a whim. I remember thinking, “This could be a sort of ironic twist on the ‘travel writing’ genre for the year 2020. Let’s see how it goes.”

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I’ve always been a huge reader, ever since I was little. My parents would give my sister and I “extra time”—an extra half-hour past our usual bedtime—if we spent it reading. I was motivated to learn to read just so I could stay up later. It’s kind of a genius parenting strategy because it makes reading synonymous with reward, like dessert after vegetables. And every writing professor will tell you reading is writing. As far as actually writing, though, I wrote a lot of stories growing up, and I’ve kept a journal for almost every year I’ve been alive and sentient, but I never really wrote much beyond that until 2017. I had just ended a transformative but sort of codependent relationship where I’d really lost sight of who I was as a singular individual person, and I was feeling like I needed something that was mine—something that would tether me to my life in a way that didn’t rely on anyone else. Creative nonfiction turned out to be that thing for me.

I’m not sure why creative nonfiction appeals to me more than fiction or poetry. I think there is something uniquely powerful about applying literary and poetic techniques to the “facts” of your own life, using them to scrutinize and question the various “truths” you’ve had to swallow and also uncover the ones which have maybe always been lurking underneath the surface, somewhere, but which, for whatever reason, you have not unable to articulate or examine before now.

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I have not had a chance to travel much since starting school in 2019; unfortunately, I no longer have a car or the type of budget that allows for even day or overnight trips, which are my favorite kind. I’m not great at being present, at appreciating moments and experiences as just themselves, and I think sometimes smaller trips can help me practice that mindfulness without the pressure and expense of a trip that lasts longer, takes you further from home and requires a lot of planning. But ultimately I think I travel for the same reason I write: to get myself out of my head, to remember there is so, so much I don’t know and will never know, and to feel like I am part of something bigger than all the stupid things I’ve said and haven’t said, done and haven’t done.

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

Worst: Realizing I’m officially too old to sleep on the floor at the airport.

Best: Finally seeing the Northern Lights on the second-to-last night driving around Iceland.

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

In 2017, when I was trying to find my way back into creative writing, I emailed a professor I had really admired in undergrad and basically asked her, “How do I become a writer?” She wrote back, “You become a writer by writing every day. Period. That’s it.” I was so annoyed by that, but she was right, of course. There’s no magic recipe, like “Read a poem every night before bed!” or “Light a special candle while sipping this special tea!” or “Wake up at 5 a.m. to create alongside the birdsong!” Rituals are important, for sure, but I feel like you succeed in writing the same way you succeed at anything else: you practice. You do the work.

But “write every day” might also be the worst advice I’ve ever received, and the worst advice I consistently receive, only because I think it leads to a lot of guilt and shame feelings when we aren’t able to honor it. A poet friend once asked me, earnestly, if sentences scream inside my head until I write them down. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about writing in this way—they say they’re overtaken by a mystical dream cloud every morning and that’s when they get their writing done, that they woke up in the middle of the night struck by inspiration and wrote their whole award-winning novel in three days, etc.—and that always really bums me out. It makes me feel like a defective writer and also an alien, because, for me, a lot of “sitting down to write” isn’t actually “writing” as in literally generating new sentences. It’s reading, rewriting, revising, planning—stuff that is “writing-adjacent” but not technically “writing.” Beautiful sentences don’t come to me fully formed. Evocative images and scenes don’t come to me fully formed. They come after I’ve spent hours and hours and hours poring over a super-rough draft with an overly critical eye, saying, “This isn’t working and here’s what would need to happen to fix it.”

Creativity doesn’t always come easily to me. For me, creativity is work. Writing is work. The positive side of that is that it’s not something that happens to me; it’s something I can control. So I guess getting something out of that advice has required figuring out what “write every day” means for me, specifically. I don’t think it looks the same for any two writers.

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer?

As a human, all the usual things: house centipedes, drowning, rejection, abandonment, rheumatoid arthritis, single-use plastics, climate change, climate-change deniers, gender-reveal parties, anti-trans bills in state legislatures, MAGA hats and the people who wear them, guns and how easy it is to get them, guns and the people we trust to hold them, that girl from The Ring crawling out of my TV, that all my teeth are gonna fall out of my mouth, that my A/C is gonna fall out of the window, that my dog will die because of something I feed him, that my dog will die while I’m not home, that my dog will die, period, that I’m going to sleep through my alarm tomorrow, that I sleep too much, that my life is meaningless, that my exes never think about me, that nobody ever thinks about me, that nobody understands me or ever will, that I am alone in this world, that we are all alone in this world, that this world is ending any day now so who cares about any of this anyway.

As a writer, also all the usual things: that I will hurt someone by writing, that I will hurt someone by not writing, that I have already hurt someone by writing and by not writing, that I will hurt myself by writing and by not writing, that I’ve remembered it wrong, that I’ve written it wrong, that it’s impossible to get exactly right, no matter how many times I write it, that everything I am trying to say, someone else has already said in a more beautiful or interesting or memorable way, that what I am writing about doesn’t matter and that nobody is listening anyway and even if they were, they wouldn’t care, that one day I’m gonna sit down and realize I’ve already written everything I’m ever gonna write, that I’ve somehow used up all my creativity and I’m never gonna be able to write anything again. Right now, as of this interview, I haven’t written anything new in weeks. That’s scary. But I’ll keep sitting down in front of my laptop. Maybe, eventually, something productive will happen.

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

I have a new essay out in the Tahoma Literary Review (you can buy the issue here or listen on SoundCloud) and new work forthcoming soon in Storm Cellar, Pleiades and Fourth Genre. And I’m about to enter the thesis year of my MFA in creative-nonfiction writing at Columbia College Chicago, during which I’ll be working on a book-length, formally experimental CNF manuscript about queer and trans identities and liminal relationships more generally—the way our unstable bodies both ground us in and alienate us from our own lived experiences, particularly those that are not typically recognized or named within standard cishetnormative spaces.


Image: Courtesy of Marlon Paine

Interview: Marlon Paine

July 19, 2021

Marlon Paine’s “Dreams of Angara,” a photo essay illustrating his experiences living in southeastern Siberia, is a stunning black-and-white collection that was chosen as Nowhere’s first-ever Emerging Travel Photographers’ Prize winner. We got to know a little more about him and his artist’s journey in an email interview conducted recently.

Compass Rose

Tell us how “Dreams of Angara” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

“Dreams of Angara” is a result of three months I spent living in Irkutsk and traveling around Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia. I knew I was going to a place that would be very different from anywhere I’d been before, and I just wanted to photograph the things I found interesting and beautiful while I was abroad. When I came back to the States and looked at the photos, I started to think about what made the place and my trip so distinct. The landscape was the most obvious, its wildness and the way it stretched on forever; there would be hundreds of miles of taiga and then it could shift to steppe or desert in what seemed like an instant. And then there were these small moments, like the man in a zebra costume on the ski lift, or the man making tea on the beach, that captured something more ephemeral, and the intimate moments with my friends. It seemed like the trip was made up of these contrasts of expansiveness and intimacy. Russia is, geographically, the largest country in the world, and most of it is this endless expanse known as Siberia. But then what made the trip so memorable were these moments that felt much more delicate and fleeting, and I wanted to show both.

Have you ever entered a photography contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to compete for Nowhere’s Emerging Travel Photographers’ Prize?

This is the first photography contest I’ve entered. In December I graduated from college, somewhat belatedly, and the question naturally followed: What now? I’ve built up a body of work over the past few years of photography and writing, and for the most part it’s been unpublished and unseen; it was work I either made for myself or for school, and I wasn’t thinking too much about what I could do with it. Subconsciously, I think I was treating the past few years as a time of experimentation, where I gave myself a certain amount of freedom in making work without thinking about an audience. But after school ended, I started to think about what it means to be an artist or writer or photographer and actually do something with the work I make, and I think I’d spent enough time developing my sense of what I liked and didn’t like to start putting my work out into the world. But winning this contest was a huge surprise. It’s a great feeling to have some recognition, and it adds a needed bit of confidence.

Tell us a little about yourself as a photographer: how and when did you begin, what types of subjects do you usually photograph and what is your technical process like?

I took a digital photography class at community college in 2014. At the time, I was focused on sculpting, and I thought it would be helpful to learn how to take photos of my work, but the class ended up being one of my favorites. The professor, John Thawley, was an excellent and honest teacher, and because I put no pressure on myself to make work that I thought was good or meaningful, it was like a fun break from the other art I was making, which I took much more seriously at the time. I think that experience has informed my photography ever since. It’s never been my primary focus, and I think that has allowed me to take liberties and explore in ways I might not have allowed myself otherwise. Of course, the irony is that now it’s photography that is the first of my work to be recognized.

A few years after that first digital class, I took a class on 35 mm photography, and I really enjoyed the process of developing and printing my own photos. I liked how it slowed everything down and created a certain framework around experiences. For years I only shot a roll every few months, and at the end of the roll I’d get to look back and revisit what I’d done and share the photos with whoever was with me. I liked how cyclical it made the experiences. It was like creating a timeline independent of anything else. I take my camera with me more often these days, but for a while it was only on certain trips that I would bring my camera, so it was like a selective memory bank, and there was no clear logic to it.

In terms of subject, I’m usually drawn to my friends and the people I meet as I’m traveling and trying to get a sense of their lives and environment. I like to capture them in moments of candidness, when they’re unaware or at least not posing for the camera. And then the opposite to that is being drawn to landscapes or moments that I find atypical or particular or graceful.

Technically, I can’t say I know much beyond the basics. I really enjoyed my time in the darkroom when I first started, but it’s been a while since I developed my own photos. And I don’t digitally edit my photos because I get overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. I’m not a very technical person, so I try to avoid over-complicating the process.

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I’ve always liked to travel to places that are a bit strange or remote. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I started driving around California. I think growing up in Los Angeles led to taking a lot of road trips and not always having a clear destination. I always enjoy going somewhere new and the process of filling in the map. I’ve driven across the U.S. many times, and I tried to take a different route each time. And when I’m able to go abroad, it’s not always as far as somewhere like Siberia, but I try to get out of the major cities. Last month I spent a few weeks in the Scottish Highlands, and it’s these edges that interest me most. In Scotland I was staying in a small town six hundred miles north of London, and I was already thinking about how to come back and rent a car so I could visit the islands farther north.

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

I think I have very good travel luck. I’m usually able to make friends quickly, and this usually leads to the best parts of any trip. But it’s always a surprise how it happens. I just spent three months in the U.K., and I thought it would take a while to make friends, but on my second night in town my new roommate had a dinner party and some of her friends sort of adopted me. I really felt like the luckiest person when that happened. I can’t recall any specifically terrible events that have happened to me while traveling, but I’ve had a lot of difficulties in transit, some less-than-great living arrangements and I’ve had to sleep in more airports, cars and strange places than I’d like to remember.

How do you navigate taking photographs of people in other cultures, and do you have any tips for other travel photographers on how to be gracious and respectful while still getting the shot?

I don’t do much street photography, and I think that’s one area where a person could run into this question more. But when I do want to take a photograph of someone or something where it seems like a good idea to ask, a camera in hand and some hand signals is a pretty clear signal of intention even if you don’t speak the same language. And if doesn’t feel right to take the shot, and there’s no one to ask, it’s probably best not to take the shot.

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of photographic advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

Thankfully, outside of a semester and a half, I’ve taught myself about photography. And that first semester was mostly about having fun and learning the basics, like ISO and shutter speed. The rule of thirds, which is probably something that first photography professor went over on day two, has always been a helpful heuristic, both in learning to use it and in ignoring it.

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a photographer?

As a human, I find myself worrying about the little things more than the big things. Like getting a good night’s sleep—that might sound flippant, but when it’s a daily question, it carries a certain weight. I have always been an inherent optimist, and I think that helps. As a photographer, I just hope that my work is not a fool’s errand.

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

Yes! I am almost done with my first book, as well as a short story to go along with the photographs from this project.

What do you hope to achieve with your photography?

I just want to tell stories that other people will find beautiful.


Image: Courtesy of Philip Vukelich

Interview: Elizabeth Muntean

December 14, 2020

Elizabeth Muntean’s “Peace with the Devil,” written about her time studying a Patagonian penguin colony, was selected as Nowhere’s first-ever Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize winner. Over email recently, we discussed insect museums, bacterial invaders and Ubbi-Dubbi word magnets.

Compass Rose

Tell us how “Peace with the Devil” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

A good portion of the writing is pulled out of my journal from the time I was down in Argentina, knee deep in penguin guano and caked in a hundred layers of Patagonian dust. I was green, only twenty-two, pretty clueless. The whole experience was a sharp kick in the butt to grow up, including facing the not-so-great parts about myself. Living isolated at the border of the pampas and the ocean, brooding over Dostoevsky and running after penguins every day warps the world in odd ways. Everything became a mirror, a point of self-reflection, and five years later I am still trying to work out what it all meant. Some of the processing has been painful, so turning it into a travel essay and slapping a deadline on it for the contest seemed like great motivation to do the work I still needed to do. 

Have you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowheres?

I submitted a short piece to Nowhere once before; other than that, the only writing contest I’ve ever entered was when I was seven and the show ZOOM on PBS held a short-story competition. I won for my age bracket, and my prize was a glorious metal lunch box with Ubbi-Dubbi (the pig Latinish language they spoke on the show) word magnets that I still have to this day.

I entered Nowhere’s contest because a few years ago I came across the magazine and immediately promised myself that one day I would get published on the website (because it rocks). So, that was my number-one writing goal for the last year or so.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I started writing as soon as I could hold a pencil, as cliché as that is. It was the only thing I ever wanted to be as a kid. There’s a huge Tupperware bin in my parents’ closet of books I “published” as a first-grader, illustrated and bound and everything. Other than the odd bit of web content to help pay the bills, I’ve only really written for myself thus far; part of it is that I always felt too young to write anything meaningful and not pathetically naïve. Now that I’m an old hag, I plan on dominating the market across all genres. 

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I travel because my greatest desire is to know what it is like to be someone else. I want to see the world from different eyes, with a different brain, through a different history, because—how interesting! Every person is a universe, and we never get to really know any of those universes besides our own. Existence is so limiting.

My trips are usually me just moving from place to place doing odd seasonal jobs. I’ve been lucky that some of those were international opportunities, though most of my traveling has been within the United States at this point. I like to travel with a purpose, so after the coronavirus settles down the plan is to do a bike tour through Eastern Europe, go to all the insect museums in Japan and climb every volcano, chronologically, in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Whatever that means.

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

The best thing that’s ever happened to me traveling, hands down, is finding out that I can pronounce ng’ombe (the Swahili word for cow) better than ninety-nine percent of other muzungus. The worst has been picking up hitchhikers. Not the fun, human kind who teaches you how to say “fart” in their native language, but the single-celled globby kinds that take over your insides and threaten your very existence. I’ve learned to be much more careful about the quality of water I guzzle. 

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

The worst writing advice I ever got was this: quit. You know who said that to me? I DID. But I didn’t listen. Nope, because I also know that I don’t really know much of anything, so why should I listen to me? The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was this: write. All sorts of writers say that all the time, and it’s the only piece of advice that’s ever worked for me. 

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer?

Honestly, I’m most afraid of myself—specifically, my brain. I’ll leave it at that. 

As a writer, I am afraid of never quite getting across what I want to say, and to reach the people who are looking for that particular kind of emotion and understanding. Words are limited to being words, after all, and feelings can be so very big. 

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

Right now I’m in the middle of a master’s degree in ecology. So it pretty much looks like I’ll be raking in the big bucks from here on out with my double careers in the environment and creative writing. Next stop, retirement on my own private island and a new set of gold teeth.


Interview: Ethan Gold

 August 19, 2020

Dozens of countries, hundreds of people, sixteen thousand views and counting on YouTube: musician Ethan Gold’s video for his single “Our Love Is Beautiful” is a pleasant whirlwind of global faces and a message of hope in a time when our ability to connect in person is limited at best. Here, he gives us the story behind the pandemic version of seeing the world.

Compass Rose

The video for “Our Love Is Beautiful” is so stunning in its diversity. How did you choose the thirty-one countries you traveled to? Was this part of a larger trip you’d already planned?

I did one of those ’round-the-world tickets where the rate is much lower if you go only one direction. I went west and chose places where flights were nonstop or trains made sense. Making this video was a big reason for the journey, along with stepping back into the world and reconnecting with people after a head injury had me confined for a long time. It was sort of a love letter to the world.

The song had some fans, since it had leaked. In the main trip, I traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, India, Ethiopia, Turkey, Finland, Russia, the US and Mexico. Along the way, I met a lot of people from other places, and also some fans and friends around the world sent their own footage. And I continued gathering footage on some other, shorter trips that I did while working on a movie. It added up eventually.

How many people are featured singing bits of your lyrics?

It’s two hundred fifty people, give or take a few.

How did you conceptualize the video, and how did you execute it? Did you have help? How long did it take? Please walk us through the process.

I knew I wanted to make a video for the song, and the traditional thing would be to do a well-shot thing with me performing the video, add some pretty footage on a theme, sort of brand myself as an artist and amplify the mood of the song. I wasn’t interested in that, though I’ve directed videos for other people like that. I was inspired by knowing the song already had fans. People sang it at weddings, even using it to propose. I had never released it properly, but my song didn’t feel like “mine” fully anymore anyway.

Also, the resonance of the song is about “love” in many forms—compassion for self, romantic love and love of all humanity. So I felt it would be most powerful to express it globally rather than personally. And frankly, having a phone as my entire “crew” made production frugal. I did have help in post [-production], and was lucky to find editors, including a Turkish guy named Taner Tumkaya, who was patient with my huge amount of precise notes. He also shot the footage of me that we turned into my ghostly silhouette.

Have you remained in touch with the people who appear in the video? Were you able to share it with them individually once it was completed?

Some of them, yes. I have hermit tendencies, so I have not shared it as insistently as other artists might. I’ll tell you this: one of the first people I met, who made me feel like the trip was going to work out, was a young Tibetan monk. I was pretty frightened at the start of the trip—still coming out from the head injury, but challenging myself to push out into the world again, traveling alone with minimal planning other than the idea for this video. I started the journey hopeful, but also in a dark frame of mind, and feeling alone on the planet. This Tibetan and I are still in touch and send each other encouraging words frequently, and did so during the editing process. There are a few others that feel almost like family now in far-flung places. I actually would like to bring some of the people in the video into the dialogue as I slowly share it with the world.

When was it filmed?

A few years ago. Edit process was madness, frankly.

The video is such a pleasurable escape during this pandemic. How do you think that event has affected the video’s reach and resonance?

I am not a marketer by disposition. Earth City, the album this song will be on, will be out in December 2020. But with the craziness of the world, I felt it was important to get this video out now, while people are literally confined, and also there is so much division politically. A unity message is essential.

And I think watching it is also a way for people at home to travel around the world in four minutes, through the video—meet people around the world, with two hundred fifty stories behind the faces. This is a balm during a time when we can’t travel. Especially as Americans—if we’re not isolated at home, we are isolated in our country from the rest of the world.

Clearly you love to travel. What is it about walking for a while in other places and cultures that excites you?

Remembering this: the possibilities of life are infinite. Ways to live are endless. And the senses come alive. Fear, beauty, strangeness.

It also gives my life perspective in several ways. First, seeing how ridiculously particular are the things I think about. Our worries at home seem much, much smaller. And then, when we come home, there is a chance to reassess and make changes because life habits have been disrupted. And also, another good flavor of travel, sometimes I come home loving where I’m from more than when I left. I appreciated America, in all its messiness and absurdity, more after going literally around the world. A kind of natural patriotism, if you can leave politics aside. Which, frankly, I think we need to do more of.

Take us into the lyrical intent of the song. It feels very full of hope. How does it integrate into the larger album, Earth City?

It’s good to me that “Our Love Is Beautiful” feels full of hope to you. It may not surprise you to know that the quiet hope of it comes from a place of suffering. I often write songs to soothe a troubled mind—sometimes mine. I wrote it wanting to soothe some people I knew who didn’t feel good about themselves.

Earth City is a double album, which was once a trilogy, but logistics trimmed it. Precise release plan TBD. “Our Love Is Beautiful” is part of the first section of the album, which I privately call “The Longing.” This section of the album is about our human urge for unity. We live in a time when we are so disconnected from each other, though strangely the pandemic has in some ways brought people together by turning down a little bit of the cultural noise and giving people more time for silence. But for a long time there has been this longing for community, for connection. Our forefathers were in tribes or villages, where community was just a fact of life. Our civilization isn’t like that. Especially in the US, the dominant ethic is totally individual, which produces some strong stuff to sell back to the world, due to that break from the influence of the past. But the core is in pain, seeking connection again, first to a sense of tribe. And ultimately I feel the deeper break is our break from the natural world. So Earth City is about that longing—first for connection to people, and then to the Earth itself.

Where can people find more of your music?

There is ethangold.com. And my music streams, where you’d guess it would [live]. I’ve also been live streaming during the pandemic on Instagram, which has been in some ways bizarre, but in some ways more intimate than shows in the old days. I let fans choose the songs. I call it Jukebox Roulette. And yes, I do some of those other things, and am on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.


Image: Sara Fox

Interview: Porter Fox

July 15, 2020

Porter Fox was born in New York and raised on the coast of Maine. He has published two books—Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, in 2018, and DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, in 2013—and has a third, The End of Winter, forthcoming from Little, Brown and Co. in 2021. Porter graduated with an MFA in fiction from The New School in 2004, and teaches at Columbia University School of the Arts. He has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, was a finalist for the 2009 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize, and was a 2016 MacDowell Colony fellow and a recipient of MacDowell’s Calderwood Foundation Art of Nonfiction Grant. Porter lives, writes and edits Nowhere in Brooklyn.

Compass Rose

You founded Nowhere in 2008 and started the biannual writing contest in the fall of 2014. How did Nowhere come to be, and how did it evolve into rewarding writers monetarily for their work? 

We started with content from friends, teachers and colleagues, and also reached out to a few of our heroes, like David Quammen, Dave Eggers and Nick Flynn. What we found was that many folks had no place to publish long-form travel writing, so they were more than happy to let us publish it. As we published more and more frequently, the idea of a contest arose. We were becoming a platform for aspiring writers, in multiple disciplines, and wanted to throw the doors open to them. It was the best thing we ever did.

How does the contest play into Nowhere’s overall vision?

The contests have brought in higher-level content across the board. Because a lot of MFA students and professional writers monitor writing-contest listings, we pop up and they now submit work to us. It is amazing how many terrific stories have come from the fall and spring competitions—maybe fifty or sixty ace long-form pieces by now. It makes the magazine better while making the work look great too, and gives the author a terrific clip to add to their portfolio.

There are scores of contests out there. Why should someone enter Nowhere’s?

There aren’t many contests for travel writing or long-form narrative nonfiction. Magazines used to publish this kind of content, but with the magazine world publishing fewer, and shorter, pieces, that outlet no longer exists. I’m happy that we can offer a home for it here at Nowhere.

We often say that the best way to get to know what Nowhere likes to publish is to read the stories we’ve already featured, but if you could summarize what makes a story a Nowhere story, what would you say?

Concrete detail, authentic voice, few modifiers, no sensationalism—just good, observant, sensory writing with a strong sense of place. Take good notes and you’ll have a good story. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read John McPhee, Ian Frazier, John Vaillant, Jan Morris, Tom Wolfe, Mary McCarthy…

What are some common pitfalls you see as a judge that writers ought to try to avoid, either stylistically in the literary-travel genre or in submitting to Nowhere’s contests in particular?

The number-one pitfall for students and contestants is trying too hard—taking a scene and adding adverbs and adjectives to try to amp up the drama. It doesn’t work. It kills the story. You need to strip down these stories over and over, not try to build them up. Like a professor told me once, take the poetry out of your poetry and you will have poetry.

What’s the most rewarding or exciting thing for you personally about judging Nowhere’s contests?

Finding writers who have never published before. It is my greatest joy. I could practically name off fifty first-time writers that I’m proud we published. It is so special to find a voice that has been trying to find a platform and to send it out to the world.

Any past winners that really stand out to you from these last six years of contests, or postscripts to a story being published that you would like to share?

There are too many! I wrote a blurb for Lara Tupper’s new collection of short stories, Amphibians (Leapfrog Press), the first story of which appeared first in Nowhere. [An interview with Tupper appears farther down on this page—worth the scroll!—Ed.] There are two dozen stories like that. I still remember reading Justin Nobel’s piece “Growing Old with the Inuit” for the first time and being totally floored by how great it was…then calling him a year after we published it to tell him that it would be appearing in Best American Travel Writing. That was a thrill.

How do you see Nowhere’s contests evolving in the future?

We are going to specialize more, like the Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize we ran at the beginning of this year. We are hoping to encourage different kinds of writers from different backgrounds. And we are tying this all in with a suite of new travel-writing courses—college-level, intense writing classes meant to elevate our contributors’ work. Look for an announcement about this soon. In May, we implemented our Nowhere Writers’ Room Critiques service, where anyone can send us their work for professional review.

Any parting words of wisdom or pearls gained through having judged eleven contests for Nowhere to date?

Editing is about cutting. I will never forget that excellent advice. As you are prepping your piece, trust it and pare it down. Saying something in fewer words is always better.


Black Lives Matter Vigil at Maria Hernandez Park

June 28, 2020

BLM protests are still going strong on a daily basis across New York City. On June 21, ontheground.bk organized what has become a weekly celebration of life and vigil for those murdered by police, held at the Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn. —Micah Garen

Micah Garen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist who has worked in conflict and post-conflict zones for the past fifteen years. Most recently, he has directed five feature-length films for Al Jazeera English, one of which won a Golden Nymph for Best News Documentary at the 2014 Monte Carlo Television Festival. His work has been published by Al Jazeera English, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Newsweek and the Financial Times, among others. His recent short film about the refugee crisis, “Light on the Sea,” launched in March on VanityFair.com. His short film from Afghanistan, “Call Me Ehsaan,” was a New York Times Op-Doc editor’s choice and screened at festivals. Garen filmed the Christmas Eve Raid scene in Iraq that was part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. In 2004, Garen and his interpreter, Amir, were kidnapped while filming in Nasiriyah. They were held for ten days before being released. Their story is chronicled in the dual memoir with Marie-Hélène Carleton, American Hostage, published by Simon & Schuster in 2005. The memoir received starred reviews on both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Garen’s work can be found at instagram.com/micahgaren and fourcornersmedia.net. (All photos © Micah Garen)


Image: Courtesy Christopher Fenton

Interview: Christopher Fenton

June 22, 2020

Christopher Fenton’s tale of death and expatriatism in Bulgaria, “Stoian,” was selected as Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest winner. Over email recently, we discussed poetic drafts, archaeology, floating plastic islands, ghosts, skiffle songs and timekeeping goats.Compass Rose

Tell us how “Stoian” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

The events that inspired the piece took place over about three years. That was how long I had known Stoian when he died, and that was also how long I had been in the village, having moved to Bulgaria in 2010 to set up a smallholding with my wife, Claire. We live in a remote village where two thirds of the houses are empty. It was a shock to see Stoian waste away so drastically, but the worst thing was to realise that there was nothing I could do to save him.

I first wrote it down as a poem from the perspective of someone looking over the garden wall at the changes taking place, so the passing of time was always part of it. If you stop eating, it is a passive way of killing yourself, but it is time that kills you in the end. Writing Stoian’s story helped me to see the mysteries and secrets of the village, the tales that live in the empty gardens and houses. Prior to that, my memoir had been a more traditional one, to do with midlife crises and ex-pat anecdotes, but Stoian changed that and now the memoir is more about ghosts.

Have you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowhere’s?

I entered a poetry competition about five years ago, and the whole experience felt very remote and impersonal. I was told about the Nowhere competition by someone who had helped me with my writing, and he encouraged me to enter. I had never seen the magazine before, but I loved the content straight away. I was also lucky to have something ready to submit. I tweaked it a little bit, crossed all my fingers and toes and sent it off. I could see that my piece was the kind of thing that Nowhere might publish, but I never imagined it would win.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I used to write academic books when I was an archaeologist in [the] UK, and then, in Bulgaria, I got into poetry and found it was a great way to explore the new place where I was living. Writing poetry also allowed all kinds of memories to come up from childhood. In 2017, I was lucky enough to be a Fellow for the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation Sozopol Seminar on Creative Nonfiction, and that experience spurred me on to write more in that genre.

I had always loved books which combined travel, memoir and history, like William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, and I also received a lot of encouragement from the Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova, who visited our guest house in the early days. I will always be a historian in my bones, and here, in the village, getting to know the relics of the recent past is a great way to absorb history. So, basically, I wrote down everything that was swirling around in my head as I walked around the abandoned gardens with the goats.

I can’t believe I have only just mentioned the goats. They are a big part of living here for me. Looking after goats is another way of seeing the passing of time, and it opens your eyes to the idea of time going round and round in circles, or cycles, rather than straight lines forward to the future. For many people in this village, the seasonal cycle is more important than the passing of calendar years.

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I am lucky to be living in the Balkans and to be close to great travel countries like Turkey and Greece, but there are loads of other less-well-known places too, such as Bosnia and Romania. I like to go on walking trips—say, two or three days walking—and Bulgarian mountains are great for that because there are lodges where you can stay the night for very little money. I also like ancient cities like Thessaloniki and Istanbul, and in 2008 I worked on an archaeological dig in Syria and fell in love with Damascus, so would love to go back there when the smoke clears. Belgrade and Sarajevo are also on my list of places to see. As long as I can eat a shawarma/doner kebab with a fresh juice, between looking round museums and old churches, I am happy.

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

The worst thing was getting altitude sickness on Mount Kenya, so we didn’t get to the peak and had to quickly descend the mountain after three days’ walking. It was a relief to get to the base, as that was the only way to get rid of the terrible headache which felt like a year’s worth of teenage hangovers in one dose.

When I was thirty, I backpacked around southern Mexico and had so many great surprises there. On Zipolite beach, I met a man from Middlesbrough, England, who was building himself a floating island out of empty water bottles. He called it the “Spiral Island of Love,” and he would sing songs on his guitar every night on the beach to raise money for drinks and pizza. A year later, a hurricane hit the beach, so I assumed his island had been flattened. However, the next thing I knew, there was a piece in the Guardian newspaper about his success in floating his island off the coast of Yucatán, which is the opposite side of Mexico to Zipolite. He was even growing herbs on there. The spiral was an ingenious system of drainage leats to channel rainwater for irrigation. That was twenty years ago, so who knows where that guy is now. I would love to find out.

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

I don’t know. There is so much advice out there. For me, the worst advice was being told that I should learn all the rules of writing before I could even start. I think writing is too personal to treat it like a craft, or a set of skills like that. I would say the best piece of advice I have been given is to write for the fun of it and for yourself, without worrying whether anyone else will ever read your words.

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer?

Good question. To be honest, I am not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of having a boring life.

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

Well, my current goal is to find a publisher for [my memoir] Waiting for the Goats, and then to write more nonfiction stuff about Bulgaria in the area of history and politics. I’d like to do something on Bulgarian cinema during communism, but no real concrete ideas yet—just busy watching films. I have also begun writing short stories based on imagined lives in the small town near where I live. Oh, and I plan to become a street musician. I have ten skiffle songs, a Vox 12-volt amp, a ukulele and a microphone. Not sure where to start, though. Maybe Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia.


Escape from New York

March 24, 2020

…or Milan. Or Tehran. Or anywhere in the world, for that matter, to anywhere in the world. It’s still possible through travel writing—the kind that comes not in a buzzy list, or at the behest of a luxury resort; that’s not light on historical perspective or studied candor; that takes immersion and research and dialogue and often quite long periods of simply thinking things over before saying them.

This is the sort of artful, erudite content for which Nowhere has held a torch for more than a decade, and that we’re still passionate about bringing to you just about every week. But sometimes one wants more, for the story not to end just yet, particularly when one doesn’t have a pressing need to push pet or partner from lap and depart loveseat (even if one very much would like to be out in the world rather than reading about it).

Here, we are sharing a quick-hit collection of some of our favorites that represent funny, decadent, wise, inspirational and engaging storytelling from all over the place and several decades. We’ve linked to publisher pages rather than booksellers in a way of recognizing that everyone has access to different resources both financially and physically, especially while sheltering at home during a pandemic. In these trying times—in all times, really—we’d hope you can support local merchants and libraries whenever safe and feasible, but booting up the Kindle in your bathtub is clearly still a viable and envious option.

Be safe, be well, be hopeful and grateful and kind. More to come from the edit desk as the days roll forward. —Kim Stravers, managing editor

The Nowhere Editors’ Reading List

Old River, New River, Merrill Gilfillan
Coming into the Country, John McPhee
Moby-Duck, Donovan Hohn
In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
Along the Ganges, Ilija Trojanow
As They Were, M. F. K. Fisher
Writings, Captain John Smith
Chasing the Sea, Tom Bissell
The Impossible Country, by Brian Hall


Image: Courtesy Anna Kortschak

Interview: Anna Kortschak

January 27, 2020

Anna Kortschak’s recounting of her time spent bicycle touring through Bosnia, “History Lessons,” won Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest (and netted her not just publication, but also a US$1,000 prize). She conversed with us via email recently about the story behind the story, narrative juggling, transactional relationships and the shifting insubstantiality of identity.Compass Rose

Tell us how “History Lessons” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

“History Lessons” grew out of a couple of blog posts I wrote describing two parties I accidentally attended while cycling in Bosnia. I was immediately struck by the distinctive contrasts between the two encounters, but also by the extraordinary spontaneous hospitality that underlay them both.

I was also really intrigued by my own family’s history in the area. Years before the trip, I had interviewed my uncle, who lives in the US, about my family’s past in Central Europe, and he had related various stories of my grandfather’s childhood in Bosnia. I had pretty much forgotten about these stories, but as I rode through the area, they popped back into mind.

In Bosnia, reminders of the conflict and violence that erupted there in the 1990s are still physically and psychically present everywhere. The idea that this violence was caused by immutable ancient “ethnic” conflicts that can be simply explained is not one that bears scrutiny. Borders and the way people identify themselves—and each other—constantly change over time, and yet people are willing to go to war and kill each other on the basis of such insubstantial claims.

I was fascinated by the contradictions and dissonances that were generated both within and between the various exchanges that occurred during the two meetings, and how the issues raised were echoed and amplified by my uncle’s stories of earlier conflicts.

The piece grew in discrete stages. The accounts of the two parties I gate-crashed were written first as standalone pieces. Then the story of my great-grandfather’s sojourn in Bosnia came together as a third piece. It took a lot of juggling to get them to sit together. It was when I finally found the courage to add some of my own, more personal, reflections that it finally gelled.

Have you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowhere’s?

I have entered the Nowhere travel writing contest once before, with a different piece, and I submitted a few other pieces to various prizes over the course of 2019.

In December 2019, I was runner-up in the Deborah Cass Prize [for Writing], which is a prize for emerging Australian writers with a migrant background. That was a great experience because it introduced me to a lot of very interesting writers in Australia, and the prize committee, the judges, the prizewinners and the runners-up all form a supportive creative community. Getting recognition twice in quick succession was very gratifying.

I was initially drawn to the Nowhere writing contest because a lot of my writing is about travelling, and so it seemed appropriate.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I have only recently started to seriously think of myself as a writer. I have often written as a necessary part of work and study, but writing for its own sake was something that I only really started doing regularly when I set off on my first long bicycle trip, in 2009. Something about being in motion brings words forth; it doesn’t matter whether I am on foot, on a bicycle, in a car, on a train or a bus. When I am physically moving, I am moved to write.

I have always been absolutely passionate about words in their written form, and I cannot remember anything at all about existence before I learned to read. In the past, if I had had to choose between reading and writing, I would have easily given up writing in favor of reading, but now I would find it harder to choose!

The borders between different writing genres make about as much sense to me as the borders between countries—which is to say, none at all!

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I do not see myself as a traveler, but more as someone who is simply extremely tenuously attached to place, and so it is not hard for me to end up in motion. I’ve lived in lots of different countries: Australia, Brazil, the UK, Czech Republic, Spain and Panama are all places I’ve lived for periods longer than a year or two.

Most of the travelling I have done over long distances is by bike, with minimal engagement with the tourist industry. I have generally carried a tent and cooked my own food while travelling, so I am quite self-sufficient and always at home, in a sense. What I find so appealing about travelling like this is that it removes the transactional aspect of relationships with the people that I come across.

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

The amazing kindness and hospitality that has been extended to me in all the places I have travelled through on a bicycle was heartwarming and astonishing. It profoundly changed the way I look at people and the world.

My worst experiences have all involved witnessing the social and cultural destruction wreaked by a global economic order that respects nothing.

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

I’m largely untaught, so I have not received a huge amount of advice or instruction. Any advice that is really prescriptive is of limited value.

I think that reading a lot, reading carefully and reading widely is really important. But the most useful idea about writing that I know of—and one that is only finally starting to really sink in—is very simple: a writer is simply someone who writes—nothing more and nothing less.

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer? 

The dehumanizing power of a global economic order that respects nothing.

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

I’m working on a book and I hope to spend most of my time on that in 2020.


Image: Courtesy Lara Tupper

Interview: Lara Tupper

January 8, 2020

Lara’s piece “Amphibians” was a finalist in Nowhere‘s Spring 2016 Travel Writing Contest. It inspired the name of, and was included in, her short-story collection of the same name, which won the 2019 Leapfrog Fiction Award and which will be published this year. Her latest work, a novel titled Off Island, was just released on January 6, 2020. We stole a few minutes of her time to talk about short versus long form, avoiding imitation and the joy of alternate endings.Compass Rose

Congratulations on the release of your novel! Tell us how Off Island came to be and what we can expect.

Thank you! Off Island is inspired by the lives of Paul Gauguin and his wife, Mette Gad. I wandered into a Gauguin exhibit at the Met years ago, when I was still living in NYC. I was struck by the explicit letters Gauguin wrote to his wife about the affairs he had with Tahitian girls. I knew Mette had her own story to tell.

Off Island is set in Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as off the coast of Maine. Is either place special to you in some way?

Mette Gauguin was from Denmark; she stayed in Copenhagen with their five children while her husband traveled and painted. I wanted to imagine a different story for her. In Off Island, she isn’t the victim of her husband’s whims; she has her own intentions.

I was born in Boothbay, Maine, so I hold the coast of Maine dear. In the book, I imagine that Paul Gauguin sailed to an island off the coast of Maine called Monhegan, which is a fishing community and an artist colony.

Did you travel to gather research for your novel? If yes, please share a favorite moment or two.

I visited Monhegan Island many times. It’s an incredible place—a ninety-minute boat ride from my hometown. Miles of rugged hiking trails. No cars from the mainland. There was no cell service, until recently. It still feels like another time. If I could live there and write for an entire summer, I would.

The island light is ideal for painters, who line up on the hiking trails and cliff edges with their easels in the warmer months. I’m not a painter, but I’m fascinated by the process. I love to watch visual artists at work. It’s a great mystery to me.

I haven’t made it to Polynesia yet, where Gauguin spent his last years, but that’s on my list. He’s buried in the Marquesas Islands, and I would like to visit his grave someday.

How was the experience of writing this, your second novel, different or similar to that of writing A Thousand and One Nights, your debut novel? 

A Thousand and One Nights is autobiographical fiction, based on my work as a lounge singer overseas. Off Island required research. It’s told in six different points of view. Structuring this book was more of a challenge for me; I didn’t have my personal timeline to rely on. It’s essentially two interlocking stories set a century apart. (A modern couple, living in Maine, parallels the Gauguins’ trajectory.) There were a lot of moving parts! When I figured out how it all fit together, I was euphoric. It took me ten years to write this book. I can’t quite believe it’s out now.

“Amphibians” was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2016 Travel Writing Contest. Had you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowhere’s?

I hadn’t entered a contest in quite some time. (I’m a terrible multi-tasker. When I write a manuscript, I have to focus on that and nothing else.) But “Amphibians” came to me during a break from my novel. It’s steeped in my favorite childhood places in Maine. When I saw that Nowhere featured writing about places, I thought it would be a good fit. I always start with setting; it’s at the heart of all my writing. And Nowhere is just so visually stunning. I knew I could trust you to present the story in the best possible manner.

Compare crafting a short story to putting together a novel. Which is more difficult, and why?

I find short-story writing to be more challenging by far. Stories have to be concise and pointed. My natural inclination is to meander and ramble for a while, so I have to clip that instinct in short stories. I have to have the overall destination in mind in every line. With novel writing, I have room to find that end point as I’m writing chapters. I can trust that I’ll get there eventually.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I started journaling and writing bad poetry from a young age. (I think “Ode to the Rubik’s Cube” was my first poem, age eight.) I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone in my room—excellent training for time alone in my office now. In between I had brilliant teachers at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. They taught me the discipline of writing. They made me feel I wasn’t nuts for spending all that time with words.

I suppose I write literary fiction and creative nonfiction. (I also write articles and book reviews.) But my latest novel draft is a ghost story, set in the future. New for me! I love to read about dystopias. (Severance by Ling Ma is a recent favorite.) I’m fascinated by that premise, which doesn’t always feel so far-fetched. How will humans act and react when it all falls apart?

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

I’ve been lucky to have mostly positive advice. But I think trying to write like another writer can be detrimental. Sometimes this is subconscious. But I think trusting your own voice is key. The best advice I’ve received is to read widely and to pay attention to what moves me in great writing. To write the kind of book or story or article I’d want to read myself, but in my own point of view. I think this takes some practice, to allow yourself to be deeply affected by a writer and not take on their voice. I think journaling, freewriting, allowing for messiness, is a great way to develop voice in a natural way. It’s a great way to begin to trust our own instincts.

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer? 

I’m afraid of our lack of empathy as humans. I think it’s a hard trait to nurture with the speed of modern life. This is why I like Monhegan Island, as mentioned above. I can slow down and pay attention.

Writing helps us to exercise the empathy muscle. (What would this character think or feel? How would she behave and why?) So I suppose there is overlap there. I want to continue to develop my empathy.

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

I have readings planned for Off Island this year—primarily in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and in Maine. (My events are listed on my website, laratupper.com.) I can’t wait to share Off Island. I hope I made Mette Gad Gauguin proud.


Image: Courtesy Kelsey Camacho

Interview: Kelsey Camacho

December 5, 2019

Kelsey won the Nowhere Magazine Fall 2017 Travel Writing Contest with “Gå Fram,” a long-form narrative piece about learning to lead a dog-sled team in remote Svalbard and getting several kinds of lost in the process. We asked her to share the stories behind her story, and she obliged.

Compass Rose

Tell us how “Gå Fram” came to be. How did this sprout from concept to contest winner?

I had the foundation for the story after the overnight trip with the dogs, when the weather was bad and we got lost on our way home. It took half a year before I started writing about it, although I kept returning to the story in my mind.

This happened during my first year of living on Svalbard, so during the same time I was reading a lot about the history of Svalbard. I work as a guide, so I wanted to have the answers. What pulls people to the north? Why did people come up here in the first place? When the polar night came and it was dark for twenty-four hours, I had a lot of free time for reading and researching. The dark season is special in that way: all of a sudden, everything is quiet. There’s more room for reflection. I was able to start writing the dog-sledding story I had been carrying around in my head, while imagining it in the context of Svalbard’s unique history.

I wrote the narrative of the dogs and the storm separately from the historical segments. It was always easier for me to write in smaller sections—maybe because it feels less daunting than writing one big block of text, or maybe because I like bouncing back and forth between different ideas.

I like the editing process. I printed out the story, made edits by hand and then cut up the story until each segment was on its own slip of paper. I knew the narrative with the dogs in the storm would be the foundation, but otherwise I wasn’t sure which order I wanted the segments to be in. I laid them out on a big table and shifted them around until I was happy with how they worked together. I used a color code to help figure out the order: the storm segments were blue, history was green and general descriptions of the landscape/nature were red. When I laid them out on the table, I tried to evenly disperse each color through the story to make it more balanced. This technique might seem strange, but it’s something I learned from a creative-nonfiction professor in college. I love it; sometimes it makes a huge difference in a story to switch around a couple paragraphs, and physically cutting up the story gives you a lot of freedom to move things around and visualize the changes.

All in all, I guess it was a few months of drafting and editing and rewriting before I felt like I had a “final draft.”

Have you ever entered a writing contest before? If yes, what’s your experience been like? If no, what made you want to enter Nowhere’s?

I entered a contest through Proximity Magazine and was lucky enough to be the first runner-up in the 2016 Narrative Journalism prize.

The college I went to had a lot of writing contests judged by visiting writers, and the professors always encouraged us to submit stories. I’m glad they made us send in our writing. I like the anticipation of it.

Tell us a little about yourself as a writer: how and when did you begin, which genres do you typically write under, etc.

I started writing as a child, maybe around seven or eight years old. I transformed my closet into a cozy writing den—brought in a lamp, some books, a lot of paper and colored pencils. I used to write these small poems accompanied by a drawing, and I would sell them to my parents for twenty-five cents! I guess you could say I was an entrepreneur.

I continued using that little writing den throughout my childhood, and when I was a little older I wrote satirical newspapers/celebrity-gossip magazines called The Hollywooder. I think I still have some copies saved at home.

In high school and college, I signed up for creative-writing classes. Poetry was my first love, although in college I turned more to creative nonfiction. I majored in creative writing, and I still believe the writing workshop is one of the most magical things in the world: an entire space dedicated to reading, discussing and sharing ideas. I loved having a community like that.

What inspires you to travel, and what sorts of trips do you find yourself taking most often?

I’ve always loved traveling. I like feeling a little bit lost, and I like all the new sensory information I’m faced with in an unknown place. I learned to travel young: my father was a flight mechanic, and we spent a lot of time in airports. I was really lucky to have the benefits of free travel until I was twenty-three (although I was always a standby passenger, which sometimes meant unplanned overnight stays in airports).

Lately, I’ve been traveling to places my friends are from. I live in a place with a very international population—over fifty-two different nationalities live on Svalbard. I’ve met people from many different places, so I like traveling with them to their countries. It’s nice to see where people call home, and I like getting that intimate perspective of a place. I recently spent two weeks visiting my friends’ hometowns in Russia, which was one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken.

Image: Courtesy Kelsey Camacho

What’s the best surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling? The worst?

The best surprises I get while traveling are when I meet people I connect with and stay in touch with for years. I met some really good friends through Couchsurfing, for example. Once, I met a woman on a plane to northern Norway who was going home to herd her family’s reindeer. (She was Sámi—an indigenous culture of the north.) The annual reindeer slaughter is a big event for the Sámi people; everyone in the extended family gathers and participates in the process. After talking with this woman for a while on the plane, she invited me to come home to her family and take part in the reindeer slaughter. I went to her family’s place a couple days later. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I had also never felt so cold. (I was severely underdressed.) I ended up writing a story about the experience, which ended up in Proximity Magazine.

The worst surprise was probably when I got a bad stomach flu while traveling alone in Romania. It was hard to move or do anything, but luckily it only lasted a couple days.

What’s the most useless (or downright harmful) piece of writing advice you’ve ever been offered? How about the best?

I think I had to work hard to break out of the traditional essay format that I learned in high school: five paragraphs with a nice conclusion at the end. I had to learn that it’s actually okay for personal essays not to have a conclusion, or an “answer.” Sometimes writing is a way to explore ideas or contemplate things, and there doesn’t always have to be a neat conclusion or moral to the story.

I’ve heard a lot of great advice over the years—from other writers, college professors, friends—so it’s difficult to choose the best advice I’ve gotten. But I read something recently in Lynda Barry’s Syllabus that I really like:

“We know that athletes, musicians, and actors all have to practice, rehearse, repeat things until it gets into the body, the ‘muscle memory,’ but for some reason, writers and visual artists think they have to be INSPIRED before they make something. Not suspecting the physical act of writing or drawing is what brings that inspiration about. Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists can keep us immobilized forever. Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.”

What are you most afraid of—as a human and also as a writer?

I think I’m most afraid of time passing—more specifically, the possibility of forgetting, or of leaving behind a moment I’ll never get back. I’ve always been a really nostalgic person. I spend a lot of time remembering, reminiscing, daydreaming about the past. But maybe that’s one of the reasons I write nonfiction?

Anything interesting or exciting on the horizon?

This spring, I’ll be competing in my first long-distance dog-sledding race on Svalbard, so I’m really looking forward to that!

As for writing, I have a story forthcoming in Hidden Compass about an abandoned Soviet town on Svalbard. I’ve also been teaching local writing workshops, and it’s great to have a community of writers and readers again.


On Mile 8 of the NYC Marathon

November 4, 2019

As my yoga teacher Annie Piper put it, there is no better place to get a dose of serotonin than cheering on runners at the New York City Marathon, where more than 50,000 runners from almost 130 countries compete. And there is no better place to do that than Mile 8, the corner of Cumberland and Lafayette in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

It’s early in the race, so the runners are still pumped, and even more so when they come upon the crowd of people dancing to the kicking beats of DJ Big Time John. With people-sized speakers stacked in front of a brownstone, the music is loud, and the fist-pumping favorites include The Village People’s “YMCA,” Sugar Hill Gang’s “Jump On It,” House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and, of course, Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” keeping up the energy for runners and spectators alike.

Friends and families cheer for those they know, and everyone cheers for strangers running by them, shouting their names and putting out a hand for an encouraging high-five. They’re especially loud for runners with disabilities, whether accompanied by a guide or making their way on their own.

The boisterous crowd stays until the last runner, and the last garbage truck, goes by, all getting cheers for being part of the race. For a brief moment, people from all over the world find commonality and friendship that transcends the usual stress of the city. Even the police officers, who spent the day asking people to move back to the sidewalk when they wander too far into the road, join the dance line in the middle of the street for the final number: Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett’s “New York, New York.” —Micah Garen

Micah Garen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist who has worked in conflict and post-conflict zones for the past fifteen years. Most recently, he has directed five feature-length films for Al Jazeera English, one of which won a Golden Nymph for Best News Documentary at the 2014 Monte Carlo Television Festival. His work has been published by Al Jazeera English, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Newsweek and the Financial Times, among others. His recent short film about the refugee crisis, “Light on the Sea,” launched in March on VanityFair.com. His short film from Afghanistan, “Call Me Ehsaan,” was a New York Times Op-Doc editor’s choice and screened at festivals. Garen filmed the Christmas Eve Raid scene in Iraq that was part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. In 2004, Garen and his interpreter, Amir, were kidnapped while filming in Nasiriyah. They were held for ten days before being released. Their story is chronicled in the dual memoir with Marie-Hélène Carleton, American Hostage, published by Simon & Schuster in 2005. The memoir received starred reviews on both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Garen’s work can be found at instagram.com/micahgaren and fourcornersmedia.net. (All photos © Micah Garen)

Compass Rose

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