The dictionary reader

Read first, write later.

  • Photo and photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson, silhouette of biker (C) Istock, illustrious

The first time I saw him, he was wobbling along on a too-small bicycle, listing to one side. He stood on the pedals as he approached a hill, swerved, then righted himself as we, the trail crew, putted behind him in an F-250 waiting for a safe place to pass. The guy was about my age, clean-shaven with a shock of black hair and a white button-down shirt worn -- get this! -- over a white undershirt. Rumor had it that he was also, by his own admission, a writer.

It'd be hard to overstate how out of place he looked. The rest of us, the under-35 crowd in the valley, were outdoorsy, in shorts and sandals, often unshaven, and always outdoing each other in feats of athleticism in the mountains. Thirty miles in two days! Thirty miles in one! We spent every free minute outside: scrambling up scree, glissading down snow, swigging beer around a campfire.

The writer, meanwhile, was reading the dictionary.

Or so I heard. I never asked him. I never even approached him though we had mutual friends, not to mention mutual interests. Back then, I rarely mentioned writing to anyone, and I never, ever, called myself a writer. Instead, I clung to my trail crew persona, all grubby attitude and cynical toughness. I had a chip on my shoulder the size of, well, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Chad didn't. Or he was, at least, less threatened by the writer. He worked trails with me and nurtured his own persona. A West Point grad, he now sported a furry beard and wild sun-bleached fro and honed his native Texas drawl to mask his keen intellect.

"He's reading the dictionary," Chad said.

"What do you mean?"

"He started with A. Now he's on G."

I was stunned.

"So he comes to this gorgeous place at the height of summer so he can sit in a dark cabin reading the dictionary?"

Chad shrugged.

"I bet he learns a lot of cool words," he said.

By that summer, I'd taught English composition for a couple of years. I didn't talk about it much, but when I did, I always told the same fable. You gotta watch out for students who love to write, I'd say. They'll wax poetic. They'll resist revision. On the other hand, students who claim they can't write almost always can. Often quite well.

It was true, to a point. Wannabe writers could take banal topics and strangle them with words while the I-can't-write crowd could sometimes bring real experience alive on the page. But the wannabe writers could also turn a phrase neatly or catch an idea mid-flight in ways the non-writers couldn't. So why did I keep telling the story?  What was my take-away message?

In a nutshell: Live first, write later. Like a lot of Westerners, I admired writers who lived large. Jack London in the Yukon, Jack Kerouac on the road. Abbey with the rattler, Peacock with the griz. And the women, too. Pam Houston and Ellen Meloy -- sun-baked and sinewy, gutsy and game -- ran the rapids and skied the chutes. They wrote about it only as an afterthought. Didn't they?

They didn't, of course. Sure, Kerouac composed On the Road on a 120-foot-long scroll of paper, but then he revised it, over and over, for seven years. Pam Houston lived in Park City and skied plenty, but she also commuted to the University of Utah to pursue a master's degree in, yep, creative writing. They lived to write and wrote to live. They struggled and sometimes failed, something that the wannabe writer in me was apparently deathly afraid of.

Now the dictionary reader had called my bluff.

I wondered what he did during those long sequestered hours. Did he memorize the words? Take notes? It didn't matter much, I thought. The definitions would seep in like osmosis, and someday he'd be jotting down a story when a word would appear on the page, and in that moment all that tedious time would pay off the same way spending hours with a hand tool did. In time you'd know without thinking how to flick your wrist to toss away a shovelful of duff or when to extract the chainsaw for the undercut. Or, it turned out, which word to use when and where.

I met him only once at a potluck. Chad introduced us as exuberant hacky-sack players leapt across the lawn.

"This is Ana Maria," he said. "She's a writer."

I didn't argue. For the first time in my life, I didn't even flinch. I reached out to shake his hand and looked him in the eye.

"I hear you're reading the dictionary," I said.

He nodded.

"I bet you learn a lot of cool words."

Ana Maria Spagna's next book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter's Civil Rights Journey, comes out in March. 

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