01 Dec Leslie Leyland Fields Joins Me with Thoughts on Life & Writing
My friend, Leslie Leyland Fields, joins me today with thoughts on life & writing.
Leslie has led an incredible life. She married into a family of Alaskan salmon fishers, moved to Alaska and became a commercial fisher. Leslie is a mother of six, a writer, a teacher, an editor.
Meeting Leslie, a year ago at a writing retreat, was one of those stand out events in my life.
I signed up for her writing retreat thinking it would be fun. I had no idea it would change the entire manuscript I was slogging through. The manuscript was in its fourth writing, veering from past tense fiction to present tense fiction, going from first person to third person, and ending up trying to be YA. I’d spent a year on this book and it was going nowhere.
During the retreat, Leslie asked me, “Why are you writing fiction?
I stewed over that question for three long days. Why was I writing fiction when my first book had been memoir–something I loved to read and write–and came to the conclusion that I was afraid. I was afraid to get it wrong, afraid to hurt people, afraid of my own story. Writing in fear does not produce good writing. It doesn’t produce anything true. So, I began again, writing memoir.
When Leslie teaches, she touches lives. Perhaps, as you meet her here, her words will change your life, too!
Leslie, Your first nonfiction book, The Entangling Net: Alaska’s Commercial Fisherwomen Tell Their Lives, was published by the Univ. of Illinois Press. What can you tell us about having that first book published? Did you always want to write?
No one was more surprised than me. Half of that book was written in an MFA program. It was my mentor, in fact, that encouraged me to submit it to the U. of Ill. Press. I knew it was good material about a fascinating subject, but I didn’t really expect anyone to publish it. I come from a background of poverty. I knew no writers or artists.
I remember one day in my MFA program being invited to lunch with editors from various publishing houses. I wasn’t that young. I was 36 and I remember trembling through my salad, almost unable to speak, as if I were eating with the queen. Who am I to be here? I thought.
After that book, did you immediately begin a second book?
I began a second and third book immediately and simultaneously. One was a collection of essays from commercial fishing men and women around the country—dramatic, nail-biting essays—and the other started off as my own essay collection, but it later turned into a memoir (Surviving the Island of Grace).
I worked on them with little certainty of publishing them, but I just chose to be bold and to go forward. It was not so much a leap of faith as a slog of faith. I knew I was going to write one way or another. I just wasn’t sure yet what would happen when I was done! I ended up nabbing a hot New York agent and both those books landed with St. Martins.
What stands out to you about the creation of your 3rd through 9th books?
Oh goodness! The memories of writing those books is all tangled up with diapers, bloody noses, stacks of research papers to grade, and towers of dirty laundry. I have 6 children and 3 of them appeared during those books and years. For 5 of those years, I was also teaching full time as an English professor, and my family moved out to a remote wilderness island every summer to commercial fish. I lived this zombie-crazy life that I can’t believe I survived. But I was also determined not to let my writing go.
In truth, writing helped me through it all. It kept returning me to prayer. That’s what writing is for me—it’s an extended form of prayer, a way of speaking to God. Sometimes I shout. Sometimes I whimper. A lot of times I simply listen, with my fingers on the keyboard. That conversation kept me from drowning.
Your 10th book, Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas, came out recently. Why write this particular book?
I actually started this book 10 years ago when I suddenly realized I was living out scenes and parts of the gospels right there at my own fish camp island in Alaska, where I live every summer. My family and I are salmon fishermen, fishing in small boats on the open ocean. I began to see so many connections between the disciples’ lives and my own. And I began to read the gospels differently because of this, because of my own immersion in fish, water, boats and storms.
My hope is that people who have never met Jesus will pick it up and follow along, to find out who this is, this strange man who changed all of human history. And I am hoping that people who have called themselves followers for a long time will discover the real Jesus again. If we’re to be Christ-ians, little Christs, we need to be immersed in the accounts of his life. It’s of such importance that God gave us four versions in four voices rather than just one! So we need to go back to those events, shedding preconceptions and entering that world whole-bodied, fully human, with all our senses awake and alive. We need to experience these real events and experience Jesus again—in all the messiness, the storms, the doubt and the high seas. And when we do this, our fear disappears. Even our fear of death. I wrote about this in the book.
We’ve lived through deaths and near-death out there on our island more times than I want—but I can tell you this: just before I knew I was going to die, with two of my sons, I knew Jesus was real, was true, was with me. I want everyone to have that confidence.
How was writing your 10th book different than writing the others?
You are NOT going to like my answer! It wasn’t. It was fraught with all the same anxieties, the panics, the I-can’t-believe-I-chose-to-do-this incredulity. But it was my own fault. I gave myself a truly difficult assignment structurally on this book: that I would twine three narratives into a single compelling narrative. That each would make sense and work on its own, yet they would all twine together into a single story that propelled the reader through the book. I know I’ve met my goal when readers tell me, “I couldn’t put it down.” I’m so grateful to be hearing these words with this book as well.
But—one thing IS different. I know to expect this lost feeling. I know that it’s the mark of a challenging, meaty manuscript when I have to wrestle my way through it. I know not to stop. Not to ditch the project. That if I persevere, good will come.
Are you still teaching workshops or retreats?
Yes, in fact this part of my life is exploding! I’m thrilled because I love teaching almost as much as writing. The main event for me is my Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop that takes place every September at our wilderness island in Alaska. Phillip Yancey will be joining me as co-teacher this year. Next year Ann Voskamp will be my co-teacher. That week is life-changing for all who come: intensive exciting teaching; wildlife viewing, whale watching, gourmet food and fresh seafood. It’s just spectacular. Here are some upcoming events:
*Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, Sept. 2 – 9
*New Smyrna Beach Writers’ Retreat (Florida): Jan. 26 – 29. A few spaces left!
*Frederick Beuchner Writer’s Workshop at Fuller Seminary, Sept. 12 – 15
*Breathe Writer’s Conference (keynoting) Grand Rapids, MI, Oct. 6,7
*The Northern Pen Young Writer’s Conference, Sutton Alaska (high school juniors and seniors) Oct. 11 – 14
Do you have any insights into books or writing that you’d like to leave us with?
I meet a lot of people who say, “I’ve always wanted to write.” Stop saying that. Write. Maybe your life is really busy, but you don’t need to empty your life to write. Write from whatever kind of life you have right now, even if means you get only 20 minutes a day.
But also realize that writing happens 24/7. It’s not just about putting words on a page—it’s about living a certain way. Being curious, being empathetic, taking interest in the world and in other people. Paying attention, prying beneath pat answers. Making trouble. Reading the best work you can find. Chasing truth fearlessly. This is how you live like a writer. And you can start that right now.
Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your daily life outside of writing?
Ah, but there IS no “outside of writing!” We write from who we are. If you want to write beautiful, honest, profound stories, then become that. Whatever you want your writing to do in this world, be it first. Then people will want to know you. And they will read your work.
Thank you, Leslie, for sharing your thoughts and life! Your words have so often touched my life. From our very first meeting in “Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America” to our writing retreat, to this post. Maybe someday we will meet up in Alaska! I’d be game for that!
For more information visit Leslie at her great blog: Leslie Leyland Fields.