The “Me” Within “We”: Soliciting Stories

Last June, my editor’s response to Draft #2 arrived on our doorstep just as we were prepar­ing to head north. If there can be a good time or place to face the fact that your book needs major revi­sions, I found mine in the Nerka’s pilot seat, alone on my wheel watches while Joel slept, the promise of Alaska ahead. My man­u­script was heavy in my lap as, removed from the world within this pocket of sus­pended time, I read it from begin­ning to end. All 323 pages, many of the mar­gins dark with pen­ciled edits. Then I read it again. Com­ments that stung the first time through mer­ited con­tem­pla­tion on the sec­ond. By the third read, I agreed with most of them.

When we arrived in Sitka, I reunited with my friend Mary. She, like too many peo­ple in my tran­sient life, is some­one I’d like to share more time with. I sus­pect we’d uncover much com­mon ground, given the oppor­tu­nity, but abbre­vi­ated shore leave has lim­ited us to Face­book exchanges and park­ing lot hud­dles. And to this moment, two women step­ping out of a clus­ter of male cap­tains to nur­ture a sea­sonal con­nec­tion on a bustling dock.

She asked how my book was going. I told her what I’d just real­ized, see­ing through my editor’s eyes: I’d lost my hold on the story.

I wan­dered over here,” I flapped my right hand toward the break­wa­ter, “into issues of sex and monogamy and fidelity. But that wasn’t the core narrative.

It’s here,” palms together, heart-center, “in the ten­sion of being together and sep­a­rate. The strug­gle to main­tain your iden­tity as a strong, inde­pen­dent per­son, while in part­ner­ship with some­one else. Being depen­dent on each other while stay­ing true to the per­son you want to be, all within the con­fines of a boat. What that looks like.”

Bob­bing her head, Mary’s eyes grew shiny. “Yes, yes – oh my god, yes!”

That affir­ma­tive response was a gift. She was the first per­son I shared this renewed direc­tion with, and her enthu­si­asm helped me trust I was on the right track. That I could wres­tle the nar­ra­tive back to where it needed to be, and that this ten­sion between self and cou­ple was the point of con­nec­tion between author and reader. It was the place where my story could become big­ger than myself.




I don’t write on the boat. I’m on deck work­ing eigh­teen, sev­en­teen, fif­teen hours a day, for weeks at a time. In the cabin, Joel and I are always within six feet of each other. Our town time is chore-focused, rush­ing through tasks to get back out as soon as pos­si­ble. If bad weather grants us an unex­pected day off, I just want to sleep. (I am so, so for­tu­nate that River­head gets this. In gra­cious dead­lines and tol­er­ance for an author who’s incom­mu­ni­cado for months, my edi­tor has demon­strated her value of my fish­ing life and this book.)

I don’t write on the boat, but I do think about writ­ing. My friend Andrea says this counts. She calls this mulling over char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, metaphor, and just-right sen­tences “com­post­ing,” and says it’s an essen­tial part of the writ­ing process. I agree. I spent a lot of time com­post­ing this sum­mer, think­ing about that dock­side con­ver­sa­tion. Surely Mary and I couldn’t be alone in our expe­ri­ence of doing work we loved, with the per­son we loved, know­ing the won­drous for­tune of our lives – and still nurs­ing a quiet fear that we sac­ri­ficed some essen­tial part of our self along the way.

Were there more of us?

I put a card in the mail to a woman I love and respect, some­one who was once in the same boat as my friend and me, hav­ing gone to sea with her male part­ner many years ear­lier. Joni began fish­ing in the 1960s. I asked how it had been for her, what she recalled of that expe­ri­ence, what it meant to her now.

When her response arrived a month later, I didn’t read it. I wanted to wait for a quiet, soli­tary space, a time when I could give her words my full atten­tion. Space and time: the two things that don’t exist on the boat. It was only within the past few days that I finally opened her email. I’m still try­ing to pick myself up off the floor, so moved by the gen­eros­ity with which she gave her story.

Joni’s story is not mine to share – and yet, her story is mine. You know how the cliché goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Together, we span six decades in fish­ing. I think about how the har­bors have changed – more female deck­hands, more cou­ples run­ning boats together, more women run­ning their own boats – and then I hear a voice in my head, whis­per­ing ques­tions of iden­tity, belong­ing, invis­i­bil­ity. And I can’t tell whether it’s Joni’s voice speak­ing, or my own.


Sunset Through Hawsehole


This is why I read and write mem­oir: because I want to light these places we don’t often reveal to each other. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties we mask, doubts we’re not sup­posed to acknowl­edge. In plac­ing a higher virtue on silence than on trust, we com­mit to our own alien­ation. We build our walls higher, fail­ing to see that the expe­ri­ences that leave us feel­ing iso­lated are the very ones with the power to bring us together. I tell my story because I want to know yours.

My hunch is that this issue isn’t only a women-on-boats strug­gle. For many of us, the chal­lenge to pre­serve some sense of “me” amongst a “we” is sim­ply an effect of grow­ing up as a girl-child in Amer­ica, social­ized from Day One to put our­selves sec­ond. So I won­der if this speaks to you, and if it does, how you’ve nav­i­gated the ten­sion between self-identity and part­ner­ship. What the rewards and sac­ri­fices have been. If your def­i­n­i­tions of “reward” and “sac­ri­fice” have changed over time.

And I won­der, too, what these ques­tions bring up for Hooked’s male-identified read­ers. Many of you orig­i­nally started fol­low­ing this blog for the fish sto­ries; that you’ve stayed through med­i­ta­tions on gen­der and self-identity means a lot to me. You’re infused with cul­tural expec­ta­tions dif­fer­ent from those I grew up with  – dif­fer­ent; no less pow­er­ful. I won­der what you iden­tify as the lead­ing mes­sages of your life, how you inter­nal­ized them, and how those mes­sages have impacted your life and relationships.

While I searched for the right thought to close this post, yet another inspir­ing woman from the fleet pro­vided the words I was look­ing for. Thank you, Erin, for shar­ing this quote right when I needed to hear it.

What we hunger for per­haps more than any­thing else is to be known in our full human­ness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than any­thing else. It is impor­tant to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are … because oth­er­wise we run the risk of los­ing track of who we truly and fully are and lit­tle by lit­tle come to accept instead the highly edited ver­sion which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more accept­able than the real thing. It is impor­tant to tell our secrets too because it makes it eas­ier … for other peo­ple to tell us a secret or two of their own … ”

— Fred­er­ick Buech­ner (Telling Secrets)


I’m ask­ing big ques­tions at a busy time, friends. Hooked’s FINAL final man­u­script is due this Decem­ber. Between revi­sions and man­ag­ing all our own fish mar­ket­ing for the first time, I’m out-of-my-head swamped. For­give my belated response to the con­ver­sa­tion. Trust that I’m read­ing — I hear you — and I’m grate­ful to know you. Love and appre­ci­a­tion to all. 

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On Missing the Boat, Speaking for Salmon

Joel and I went to a movie the other night. We finally saw The Breach, an award-winning film I’ve been anx­ious to see since its 2014 release. Described as a love story for wild salmon, it’s a love story in all the truest ways – risk, betrayal, loss, resolve, hope. It took my breath away.


(You can watch The Breach your­self here. Please do. Please.)


After the lights came up, direc­tor Mark Titus joined com­mer­cial fish­er­men Melanie Brown and Marsh Skeele, Anchor­age chef Rob Kin­neen, and Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell for a dis­cus­sion hosted by Sitka Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety. They spoke of new threats: Cana­dian mines cleared to start work in the Trans­bound­ary head­wa­ters of South­east Alaska’s biggest salmon-producing rivers. Joel and I left the the­ater feel­ing equal parts ter­ri­fied for the species we love and inspired to work for their pro­tec­tion. “We have to get more involved,” we vowed.


Which is why I’m dis­ap­pointed today, upon the pub­li­ca­tion of an inter­view I did with Grist on what it means to be at home on the ocean. Friends shared the link with warm reviews. Jour­nal­ist Eve Andrews has my full respect and appre­ci­a­tion. My dis­ap­point­ment is with myself. Given an oppor­tu­nity to speak directly to the very audi­ence whose help we need to pro­tect Alaska’s wild salmon, peo­ple pre­dis­posed to care and act for envi­ron­men­tal issues, I missed the boat.


Hear­ing this, Joel jumps to my defense. “Of course you feel that way now, since we just saw that movie. You weren’t think­ing like that then; we were just try­ing to get out of town, go back out fishing.”


Go back. Go back to July 14th, the final half-hour in town, when I charged down a slip­pery dock, evad­ing piles of dog shit while jock­ey­ing a cart piled high with two weeks’ worth of gro­ceries packed in card­board boxes quickly los­ing their integrity in a tor­ren­tial side­ways rain. My gait was off, my sil­hou­ette oddly mis­shapen, as I pitched the dis­in­te­grat­ing boxes onto the Nerka’s deck, scram­bled to return the bor­rowed truck, and rushed back to the boat, all with phone pinned between ear and shoul­der. Joel had already fired up the engine and unplugged the shore power. I rifled dis­com­bob­u­lated thoughts for a semi-articulate clos­ing while yank­ing dock lines free, thank­ing Eve for our con­ver­sa­tion as rain ran down the cabin roof, straight down the back of my neck.


(In ret­ro­spect, it’s remark­able that Eve was able to get any­thing use­ful from our inter­view. That the result­ing arti­cle reads so smoothly is entirely thanks to her, not me.)


At the time the chaos struck me as funny. A ludi­crous illus­tra­tion of the bar­ri­ers to thought­ful con­ver­sa­tion, to any­thing requir­ing exter­nal con­scious­ness, when the strug­gle to make a year’s liveli­hood in a mat­ter of months con­sumes us. Now, real­iz­ing too late the oppor­tu­nity I squan­dered, I’m regret­ful. They give us so much, salmon. I wish I had given them my voice.


But you can’t do any­thing about what’s done, Joel reminds me. “What can you do, mov­ing forward?”


Which brings me here: another wet day in Sitka, this time tucked within the Nerka’s warmth, cup of lemon gin­ger tea at my side. The engines are off; no pres­sure to leave for another two days. Rain plip-plaps against the roof, a reas­sur­ing lul­laby, and for the first time all sum­mer, it’s just me and the page. Free to focus, free to gather my thoughts. Free to try again.


This time I intro­duce the fish­er­folks I know, deeply con­sci­en­tious women and men who embody val­ues con­fus­ing for many out­side our world, where killing isn’t cav­a­lier and there’s no cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in feel­ing love for the lives we take.


I cau­tion that sav­ing wild salmon requires more than respon­si­ble fish­eries man­age­ment. Lack­ing equally focused efforts to guard their fresh­wa­ter habi­tat, “sus­tain­abil­ity” is super­fi­cial. An illusion.


I cel­e­brate the work of Salmon Beyond Bor­ders, unit­ing sports and com­mer­cial fish­er­men, tribal and First Nations mem­bers, busi­ness own­ers, com­mu­nity lead­ers – every­one invested in defend­ing the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers from some of the largest mines the world has ever seen.


I push words around the lump in my throat, think­ing of Peters­burg writer Chelsea Tremblay’s essay, Sur­vival is Insuf­fi­cient. “Love is what makes a com­mu­nity more than just a group of peo­ple liv­ing in the same space. It’s the col­lec­tive cob­web, invis­i­ble until you run into it.” Gath­er­ing strength from her words, I pause.


This time, asked what it’s like to be at home on the ocean, I look beyond my walls, beyond the win­dows of my own har­ried mid-season expe­ri­ence, and con­sider the sil­ver bod­ies finning past. Home is know­ing your neigh­bors. Look­ing out for them. Salmon begin their lives not on the ocean at all, but deep inland. Land-locked. In this way, being at home on the ocean is no dif­fer­ent from being at home on land. Look care­fully enough, far enough, salmon are our shared neigh­bors. They need all of us.



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Live from the FisherPoets Gathering!

It’s a mag­i­cal day in Asto­ria, Ore­gon: sun on the side­walks, fes­tive chop on the Colum­bia. I’m tucked in the Blue Scorcher Bak­ery (try the car­damom rolls), an intro­vert on glo­ri­ous over­load, try­ing to steal an hour of quiet time to recharge. Red lapel pins reveal the kin­dred spir­its sur­round­ing me — the $15 but­tons our entry into all seven venues — and we exchange know­ing smiles and eager reviews of last night’s favorite per­for­mances, rec­om­men­da­tions of who we’ll catch tonight. We’re two days in the 18th Annual Fish­er­Po­ets Gath­er­ing, and I’m in love with every­one and everything.

Join us tonight from the com­fort of your home, thanks to KMUN Coast Com­mu­nity Radio’s live-stream from the Asto­ria Events Cen­ter. The show runs 5:00 to 10:00 PST. (Review the full sched­ule below; you can catch Joel and me in the 7:00 hour.) Click on “Lis­ten to KMUN/KTCB.” You’ll have a good time, I think.


Sat­ur­day, Feb­ru­ary 28 at the Asto­ria Event Cen­ter
(with trans­la­tion by ASL inter­preters)
MC  Dave Densmore

5  p.m.
Dave Dens­more, Asto­ria OR
Sean Tal­bot, Port­land OR
Wayne Chi­menti, Port Townsend WA

6  p.m.
Hobe Kytr, Asto­ria OR
Will Hornyak, Port­land OR
Lor­rie Haight, Long Beach WA

7  p.m.
Brian Robert­son, Pow­ell River BC
Tele Aad­sen, Belling­ham WA
Joel Brady-Power, Belling­ham WA

8  p.m.
Paul Holm­berg, Palmer AK
Don Pep­per, Alert Bay BC
Jen Pick­ett, Jyväskylä, Suomi

9  p.m.
Bil­lie Delaney, Port Townsend WA
Steve Schoon­maker, Kasilof AK
Lou Beaudry, McCall ID

10  p.m.
Dave Dens­more, Asto­ria OR
On-site Poem Con­test fol­lows at 10:30
(2015 rules announced by MCs at venues)



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