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  • Ken Ilgunas

Writer in residence

For a little over a month, I’ve been Coldfoot’s writer-in-residence—a title I use reluctantly because I’ve actually done very little writing on this blog in that timeframe. I’ve mostly been writing my book. And when I say “I’ve mostly been writing my book” I mean: “I’ve mostly been procrastinating writing my book.”

Confession: I am a master procrastinator. And I don’t mean that in a funny, cynical, sarcastic way. I could teach classes on how to procrastinate. A procrastinator who knows what he’s doing knows how to procrastinate efficiently. When I have something important to do, I find myself unable to do the important thing, yet I am exceptionally good at getting secondary, semi-important things done.

So just exactly what have I been doing? I have indexed my whole 140-page “quote collection,” which is on a single-spaced Word file. To retain the insights and ideas from the books I’ve read these past three years, I’ve been collecting and saving quotes in this file, typing out each interesting passage that I think might be of some use to me in the future. Before I indexed them, my collection was little more than a confusing, unorganized jumble of words. I’ve taken it upon myself to, this summer, read every single quote and assign to each an index heading (i.e. “wilderness,” “travel,” “agriculture,” etc.) to be placed under its proper index heading on a separate document.

While I was working on my index on my laptop, one of my female coworkers asked me “how’s the writing’s coming?” I said I’m not writing but that—with no shortage of pride—“I’m just indexing 140 pages of wisdom,” adding that these quotes represented all the topics under the sun that are “the most important to me.” I wanted to impress her with my diligence, so I opened up the index file on my computer, and, on the top of that page—in large, emboldened, 20-point font—was the word “MASTURBATION”—one of several hundred index headings. For the record, “masturbation” is not a topic that I consider of the utmost “importance” to me, but I decided to give it its own section because Jean-Jacques Rousseau has some curious opinions on the matter that I desired to preserve. (PS: If anyone wants a copy of my index, let me know via email and I’ll be happy to send you one. I’ll be done with it in about a week.)

I’ve also gone through 112 pages of my book’s “scrap file” on which I’ve pasted hundreds and hundreds of passages of crappy writing that I wanted out of the book, but didn’t have the heart to delete because it had some value to me. I’ve culled this file down to 79 pages and reorganized every passage under the appropriate chapters so I can easily reincorporate passages into the book if I choose to.

And when I ran out of things to procrastinate, I finally buckled down and edited my first seven (of twenty) chapters.

Another confession: Before I undergo an editing session, I read a chapter of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love., which—I’m embarrassed to admit (as a young, straight male)—is a masterfully written travel memoir that I really, really like. And because I’m in the business of writing a travel memoir, I figured I ought to learn from the best. There are few authors who are able to come across as both sincere and self-deprecating, who make you laugh and cry. Gilbert’s one of them. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike—being both stupid and serious—but it’s a magical thing when a writer pulls it off. And by reading her book, I’m able to “Gilbertify” my own words, helping me express ideas colloquially without dumbing anything down.

The real reason I haven’t been writing on this blog is because I’ve been bummed out lately—I’ve been bummed out for quite a while in fact. And while sharing bummed out stuff—which is normally juicy stuff that is sometimes the most fun to write and the most enjoyable to read—I’ve decided to withhold my petty troubles from you, dear reader, because my troubles, currently, aren’t of the interesting sort.

Mainly, I’ve been stressed out about the book: Is it going to happen? Am I just wasting my time? Is my story even worth telling? What am I doing sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle? And while I have tons of reasons to moan about my previous literary agent (who stopped responding to my emails), I’m just not going to go there, as complaining about your agent is just one short step away from whining about my assistant Brant who got me a soy latte when I specifically asked for a Caffe macchiatto. In other words, these are boring, privileged travails—not the sort of travails I want on a blog that I’d like to be about travel and adventure and poverty and journeying and important stuff.

And while I’m still very unsure if the book is going to happen, I am pleased to report that I’m beginning to drub up interest with literary agencies. So we’ll see. I plod on.


I just told someone the other day that “I love being unemployed.” It’s not exactly true that I’m unemployed, as I work about eight hours a week, and last week—because a guide had gone on vacation—I worked close to thirty, allowing me to bring in about $500 between salary and tips—but, for the most part, yes, I am unemployed, and goddamn, do I love being unemployed.

“Unemployed” is probably not the best way to describe my current status because I most definitely am employed with book-writing (when I’m not procrastinating it), so I suppose I mean: I love being self-employed. I love working on projects of my own creation; on a schedule that I’ve devised. When work is fun (which the book is for the most part) work is no longer work. Work and leisure become one and the same thing.

As much as Ken the wannabe scholar likes writing, Ken the wannabe wildman feels ignored. Truth is, I’ve spent most of the past three years sitting on my ass in front of a computer. And while I’d rangered for a couple summers and farmed a little bit, I was, for the great majority of that time, sitting on my ass, too. (My ass, as I type this, is quite literally sore from being planted on a chair for so long.)

I’m convinced that 18-year-old Ken (who played on his varsity hockey and football teams) could kick 28-year-old Ken’s ass. Which is kind of sad to think about because I could easily be at my physical peak today if I wished to be. And I guess I’m starting to think that I ought to take advantage of my youth, and go on some once-and-for-all limit-testing physical adventure and use my body to do things I know I won’t be able to do in twenty years. In other words, I want to get off my ass and do something. I want to finish this damn book.

Plus, I find that the whole memoir-making process is kind of fucking with my memory. Let me explain… In order to write a memoir, you must first take actual, real-world experiences (like hitchhiking with a driver in Virginia) and then translate that experience into words that are arranged on a page. (This is the first time you tinker with your memories.) What goes onto page, of course, will never be a perfectly accurate rendition of the original experience because the event that actually happened and your memory of that event are two very different things. Then you have to rearrange those experiences—which are now on page—so that they make sense and are interesting to your reader. For instance, I’ve had to cut important people in my life out of the book because they don’t contribute to the central narrative, or I’ll have to play around with dates a little bit so as to create moments of suspense. (This is the second time you tinker.) Here’s the F’d-up part: I find that now, when I think of my actual experiences, I no longer think of the actual experience; rather, I think about how I’ve rearranged it in my book. I am disfiguring my memories. I suppose this stinks because I no longer see things the way in which they actually happened, but in a weird sort of way, I think I am restructuring my memories in such a way that makes my “story” make more sense. I once heard that all we are are our stories. While my story may no longer be real (and remember no one’s story is perfectly real because all memories are imperfect), my story, now that it’s been disfigured, is better than ever.

All in all, I feel like I’m living in the past. I’ve been writing my story for, off and on, eleven months, and I feel like I can’t move on and can’t create new memories until the book is published. It’s not that simple: I am meeting new people and seeing new stuff up here and having new experiences, but I am far from fully living. After this book, I think I’ll be emptied of stories, yet more than eager to fill up on new ones.


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