Nearly 300 people tuned into the inaugural Honest Dog author chat featuring Blair Braverman, author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, a columnist for Outside magazine (Tough Love), and a 2019 Iditarod finisher. And they were in for a treat. One attendee said it was the most socialization they had had in months; for another, it was their first-ever Zoom. For more than an hour, Blair, with Flame by her side (and in front of the camera), provided candid responses to a long list of questions that ranged from updates on certain dogs—she has 23—to living through this time. She interrupted herself at one moment to walk to the porch to share the sound of the nightly howl of her dogs that turned out to be a duet of coyotes and huskies. “Wait, wait, wait. we got the howl. Just listen to them. That was coyotes! That’s coyotes right now! They’re on three sides of us. And the coyotes started again. They’re going back and forth,” she laughed, and then talked with participants about moose, coyotes, wolves, and bears (she’ll take wolves and bears over moose any day.) “I had to catch that moment because it’s gone for us tonight.”
This is a condensed version of our chat.
Julie: In re-reading your book I’m reminded about the different levels of fear–you easily deal with cold and dogsledding and even polar bears, stuff that makes you afraid but it’s an easier kind of fear than the one you experienced as an exchange student. The first is tangible; the second less easily defined (or at least your inexperience made it less defined). I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about these levels of fear as we move through this pandemic, an invisible virus that many doubt–as well as our immediate reckoning with climate change. What does bravery look like in these moments?
Blair: The thing is, we don’t really have enough words in the English language for fear. There are so many different kinds of fear—fear of the unknown, fear of the known, fear of how you’ll get through something, fear that you might not get through something (or fear of what you might look like when you come out the other side). I’ve embraced a certain kind of fear in my life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to face other kinds of danger of uncertainty.
If anything, mushing has taught me that I can’t predict what’s going to happen. With mushing, there are so many variables and they all clash in different ways. It’s like rolling a hundred dice at once. You head out onto the trail, and you don’t know what you’ll encounter—whether that’s a storm, wild animals, broken equipment, and so on, plus all the dogs’ different preferences and personalities.
I used to be so scared every time I got onto a dogsled; I’d jump on the sled, and I’d feel my eyelashes sticking together, and that’s how I’d realize that I was literally crying from fear. That’s how much I loved mushing—it terrified me, but the joy was still worth it. The trick was that after I’d done everything I could to prepare for a particular run or expedition, I had to stop worrying about all the hypothetical challenges we might meet, and instead focus on trusting my future self. I’d tell myself, look, whatever happens, future Blair will handle it. Future Blair is smart and resourceful and she’ll figure it out.
I think that’s how I’m handling the national uncertainty now, too. I do what I can; I call my reps twice a week. I support causes that I believe in, people who are fighting for justice. Beyond that, I try to just get through the days without making too many predictions about what might happen. I trust Future Blair to figure it out.
Erin: This is a question from your friend, journalist Jeff Sharlet: Blair, I remember when you and Quince took me on a surprise trip camping with just a backpack of odd equipment as an exercise in confronting fear. That’s the fear out there. What about fear on the page? How do you confront it as a writer? Or maybe–and don’t be modest, because I think this matters to a lot of aspiring writers, and me, too–what makes you feel brave when you’re writing?
Blair: This is a great question. I’d love to hear Jeff’s answer, because he’s the bravest writer I know.
The thing is, confronting fear on the page is really about confronting fear off the page. It’s not the page that’s scary; it’s who’s going to read it, and what’s going to happen when they do.
When I’m working on something, I pretend no one will ever read it. I try to make it as true and daring as I can for myself. It’s only at the end of the process, once the writing is almost done, that I start editing with readers in mind. Usually, at that point, the work is stronger because it is vulnerable, and I have too much pride in my work to knowingly make it weaker, so that’s how I trick myself into publishing things that feel vulnerable.
I used to teach undergraduate creative writing, and I’d always give my students this assignment. I’d have them start a journal entry with the words “I’ll never admit that…” and then, of course, finish the sentence. Obviously they didn’t have to turn in the essay or share it with the class—I’m not a monster! But it was always an interesting exercise. Because once you’ve said the scariest thing you can think of, the most vulnerable thing, it loses some of its power. It’s not as terrifying as you thought. A surprising number of students ended up wanting to share their essays. And they were always incredibly powerful works that got at deeper truths. I think their classmates, and certainly I, admired them more for having shared those vulnerabilities, not less.
I’d encourage everyone to try that writing exercise. Give yourself permission to write down the things about yourself that you’re most frightened to name. You can burn the paper afterwards; you never have to show it with anyone. But you’ll know, and you might be less afraid of yourself.
Julie: You start Ice Cube with a quote from Charles Bowden, “We are on a set, and the set makes us all actors.” Why that quote? How do you keep the acting out of your writing.
Blair: I had that quote before I even started writing the book. It gave me a question to hold while I was writing: What are the human interactions, the relationships, that can take place in very specific environments and nowhere else in the world?
I haven’t actually read the scene that includes that quote since before I wrote Ice Cube, which was 8 years ago now. So my memory of it probably isn’t accurate. But in my memory, Bowden walks into a ghost town with some other guys, and he finds himself… well, they all start acting a bit like the people he imagines once lived there. In subtle ways. Language and swagger. We are on a set, and the set makes us all actors. It reminds me of when I first moved to the Arctic. You put on a parka, you stand on a dogsled for the first time, and suddenly you’re a different person than you were before. It’s not a lie or a performance; it’s just what happens. You change, and the people around you change, too.
Julie: How do you feel about the book four years later?
Blair: I’m a different person now than I was when I wrote it, but in part, I’m different because I wrote it. It was a tremendously difficult book to write. I’m very proud of it. If I wrote it now, would it be different? Sure. But I also wouldn’t change a thing.
Welcome to the Goddamn Book Club will be held Monday, September 28 at 7 p.m. CST, where we will discuss Blair’s first book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.