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
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.
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.
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)