Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

All in the Family

March 22nd, 2015 by

Mom and girlsMemoir is a tricky business because there’s always someone in the family who doesn’t want the story told and others whose recollections don’t line up with your own memory. To write from personal experience can feel like working your way through an emotional minefield. As Anne Lamott so aptly described in her book about writing, Bird by Bird,“your mental illnesses arrive at your desk like your weirdest most secretive relatives. And they pull up their chairs in a semi-circle around your computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”

In my last blog, I wrote about my father’s Alzheimer’s disease, my parent’s turbulent relationship and the power of story. I wrote through tears as I remembered my father who was, in so many ways, my first and best hero. I wrote because it NEEDED to be written. But once finished, I had to wonder how my mother might view the piece. The burden of caring for my father is growing increasingly challenging each day. Would this only add to her sadness? A friend suggested letting Mom see it first and then decide whether to share it with the world. When I looked at the piece in this light, I immediately saw a sentence that needed changing. Already, I was filtering the work through Mom’s eyes.

I sent it off to her and she was quick to reply. She had only one suggested change beyond the one I made earlier. So I made that change too. Purists might disagree with my methodology here—it is memoir, after all, which by some definitions means no-holds-barred disclosure. But I had no reason NOT to make this change. It didn’t diminish the story and it offered Mom a sense of dignity in allowing their story to be told.

I’ve written three biographies and a memoir, and I can tell you that the memoir was by far the most challenging. I was emotionally tied to not only to the writing but to the people I was writing about.

In A Tender Distance, I wrote about raising my sons in Alaska. Mostly it is a coming of age story of a mother who is being shaped by the landscape as much as her growing boys. My sons were in their late teens when I wrote the book and I offered, haltingly, to let them read it. But frankly, they weren’t all that interested. When I told them the book would be published by Alaska Northwest Books, they shrugged. “Cool.” After publication one son made the remark that he remembers one of the scenes in the book quite differently. No other comments. Zilch.

I was surprised and taken aback, however, when a friend who appears in the book took me to task about something I had written about her. I spent all that energy wondering about my family and the one who was hurt wound up being someone completely unexpected.

Writing strikes a nerve. Like the blog about my father, A Tender Distance NEEDED to be written. More than a decade after its writing I understand more clearly why. My fears about my family’s opinion of the book were tied into the fears that framed the book itself, the fear—no, terror—of loss. The sputtering irony is that I lost them anyway. I lost the boys as they grew up and became men. I lost the marriage to divorce. In the intervening years, I’ve discovered that our fiercest love cannot stop the march of time; our clenched grasp cannot conceal the deepest truths.

Which brings me to writing about family: When I sit down to write I close the door to those weird relatives (imagined or otherwise) that clamor to criticize. In that barricaded solitary space, I write out of fervor and a burning need to understand something. I don’t write out of some (laughable) notion of imparting wisdom—I write in hopes of gaining it.

Only after the essay has become the best that I can write it, do I consider the life this writing might have outside my self-imposed seclusion. Only then do I consider what to change, what to leave in, and who the story might impact. Then, if I do make changes I ask, why am I making that change? For them? For me? For the good of the work? Whatever the answer, I try to be aware of the motives behind those decisions. And I challenge myself to write as honestly as I know how.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Denali, the Chugach Mountains, and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.