By Nan McKenzie
In 1946, I started to teach myself to type on Dad’s old black Underwood upright. Took me a long time, but I began to get an idea of how things worked.
In 1953, when I was eleven, I decided that being a writer was the best thing that could happen in my life. Problem was, I didn’t know how to write, hadn’t had any big adventures to report, and was lost as to what to do.
By that point in my life, I’d read probably two thousand or more books, but didn’t have the discerning talent to tell what was good and what was drivel.
I tried, really, but couldn’t make any of my stories come out and make sense, not to mention that my grammar skills were pretty shaky.
Fast forward about thirty-five years, to when I was attending FVCC, while it was still located in downtown Kalispell. I wrote for class assignments, and for fun, but still wasn’t polished enough, or had enough knowledge to get myself published. I had set out to have adventures, and boy howdy, I had Adventures! Now I had something to write about, but still no way to publish.
After I quit going to classes and was living alone in Whitefish, a phone call came one day. One of my advisors was calling from FVCC. She asked if I would be willing to teach a writing class for the college, maybe to older people. I started to cry and said, “I have taught real estate on a college level, but don’t think you folks could use me, since I don’t have a degree.” I wanted to do this more than anything at that point in my life.
She assured me that I didn’t need a degree, that they weren’t giving credits for my classes. I leaped at the chance because I’d always enjoyed teaching. So was born “Writing Your Memories”, a class I taught in Kalispell and Bigfork for a couple years. Through this class, I met wonderful, interesting older people who had amazing stories to tell. A man named Pat had walked from Woods Bay south of Bigfork into Kalispell every day for work, rain or shine, 25 miles each way. And, if lucky, made two dollars a day. Can you imagine?
A woman named Fran had lived all over the world, following her husband who had worked for the National Cartographers, making maps of hidden pockets. Her stories were fascinating, especially the ones about wild elephants in must. My aunt Elizabeth, a former teacher, wrote of how she had started and taught two Montessori schools, still being taught today by my cousin in Oregon.
When people would arrive to see what my class was about, they’d tell me that they didn’t know how to spell, didn’t know how to structure a story. I asked them if they could drive a car, and they all had said yes. So I said, “You don’t have to know how to work on the engine to make the car go—I’m the word mechanic and will do the heavy lifting. Just write your memories and together we’ll clean up the prose.”
I came to care for those folks, and I think they liked me, too. Our twice-weekly meeting became a fun time, eagerly looked forward to by all, me especially. My writing skills were honed in that class while I edited and suggested and encouraged my pupils.
When the time came to write Twin Peril, then Bigfoot, I was polished enough to make a go of it, and now the second book in that series, Bigfoot Returns, may be a bit better than the first. I always learn by doing, and bless my computer that helps me with spelling, punctuation and making sense of the story. It’s a far cry from whacking one key at a time on an old Underwood.
March 6, 2017