Here’s my story
I worked for 20+ years in higher education as a professor, or in some capacity leading up to becoming a professor, teaching in the field of professional writing. As the years went on, I enjoyed what I was doing less and less, and felt more and more that what I was doing seemed like a kind of charade, what the photographer Robert Adams (who also had a prior life as an English professor) called “phony theatre.” I have heard all the comments from all sorts of people about how teaching students to read and write is such noble and important work. Truthfully, after doing so for as long as I did, I came to believe that, like a lot of other things, learning to read and write and to do both well resulted not from instruction, exercises or anything I could say, but from the students’ effort and attention.
Moreover, when I started teaching, which I did back in the 1980s as an instructor for Outward Bound, I felt like I was doing something of real value. That feeling does a lot for keeping a person charged about the work he or she does. I hadn’t felt that in the classroom for many years; not, I believe, since the 1990s when I was working with students coming to college from off of the Navaho and Hopi reservations. I don’t know how much real good I did working with those students, but at least I felt that I could bring something to the whole enterprise that affirmed for me something good about myself. That too I hadn’t felt for a long time.
So in the fall of 2015, I decided to give up my tenured position. I submitted my resignation from the college where I worked, and started out on a new path that seems to at least allow me to live a little more in tune with a sense of who I am and what makes me really tick. It’s not a decision I made lightly. Definitely not. I began to get a sense that something (or rather some things) in my life needed to change back in 2002, when I had my first bout with leukemia. Probably the most surprising thing about that episode was that there was, oddly enough, something about dealing with being sick and treatments and all of that nonsense that felt preferable to going to work everyday.
That was an odd experience that I felt pretty guilty about for a long time. But it wasn’t until I relapsed nine years later and had to go through the whole mess of being sick again that I started to figure out what was up with that. It’s an odd thing to say, but when you have cancer no-one expects anything out of you; you can just take care of your self, which was something that I hadn’t done for quite a long time. I am not talking about physically taking care of my self; I have always done well along those lines. I am talking about taking care to ensure that the things I do work to affirm and nourish my sense of what is important in life and in the world. That is what I am trying to do now.
The website and the blog
I started up my website and blog again for a couple of reasons. The first that everyone will notice is that they’re here to help promote my work, to help sell books and photographs and to get some support and hopefully some work. I won’t deny that. I’m also getting it up and running, though, because it feels to me like a way that I and my work can do things that are of some value. The subjects that I write about and photograph the most are 1) the outdoors and outdoor activities and 2) places of which I have become enamored but which tend to remain off of most people’s radar—these include the northwest coast of Iceland, the southern tip of South America, the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, for examples.
About the first: I’ve written two guidebooks to the Pennsylvania outdoors, both of which will be coming out in second editions this year. I am also finishing up a guidebook to day trips on the mid-Atlantic Appalachian Trail. These books are not great literature; however, I am constantly running into people on the trails or in campgrounds who have my books and tell me how much they enjoy them and how helpful they have been for finding places to get away to. I love hearing that. It makes me feel that the work I enjoy doing actually does some good. I’m not solving major social problems writing these books, but not everyone is meant to do that kind of work. If I can help some people figure out how and where to spend a nice afternoon or weekend and feel good afterwards, especially outdoors, I’ve done my job happily. So as I develop this website and blog it is in part with the intention of helping people find some nice places to spend a little time.
About the second: Geez, I find myself traveling to the most peculiar places sometimes, typically because their appearance on a map excites my imagination. They tend to be places that many people would never think of going to, and then I fall in love with the places and the people who live in them. Places like the Westfjords and rural Canada and the Hopi reservation in Arizona have been so important to teaching me how to live, especially how to live with less than what I had come to believe is necessary. I am interested in sharing stories about the places I go that intrigue me, and the people who live there, and what I do when I go there. And perhaps in doing that I can convey a little bit about what those places teach me (and can teach others) about how to live without a lot of unnecessary nonsense and distractions.
So the website has a news section, which will tell of things that happen when I am out on the road doing my work, whether that be researching trails or campgrounds, or doing excursions and expeditions to wherever. It will have a section about my books, though I will wait to get that section up and going until the new editions come out. I’ll have a section on my photography, with slideshows and some way of selling prints or cards. And a section about talks and presentations that I give related to my work and projects.
So if you’ve read this far, sign up for my blog, check out my site, tell your friends, spread the word. Willen’s on the road.