How I Write: Peter M. Leschak
Published: March 3, 2003
|If his writing is any clue, you would want Peter M. Leschak as your leader if you ever became courageous--or crazy--enough to fight forest fires for a living. The latest of his nine books, Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter, shows a writing style notable for its coherence, tautness and precision--just the kind of mind to get you out of a tight spot. It is, in fact, the kind of writing that has gotten Leschak's thoughtful personal essays (which now number 270) into Harper's, The New York Times Magazine and Outdoor Life. Leschak, 51, leads an unusual hybrid existence: He writes in the winters and then, as a seasonal employee of Minnesota's Division of Forestry, fights fires in the summers (both locally and nationally). A former ministerial candidate, he lives with his wife, Pam, in a log cabin they built in Side Lake, Minn.|
Credits: Other books include The Snow Lotus: Exploring the Eternal Moment (1996); Seeing the Raven: A Narrative of Renewal (1994); and Letters from Side Lake: A Chronicle of Life in the North Woods (1992).
Why: At the root of it, I'm a storyteller, and that's the main reason I write.
When and where: I have an office in our house. My schedule, when I'm in the writing mode, is to be at the desk at 8 a.m., and you treat it as much as possible like a regular job. I usually write from 8 a.m. until noon, and sometimes in the afternoons or evenings, if things are going well.
With the latest book, for the first time I wrote all day. From Nov. 15, 2000, until April 1, 2001, I wrote and researched this book. I took out a calendar and put down an expected word count for every day. Between those dates I gave myself four days off. This was partially a self-imposed deadline: I generally do fire[fighting] six or seven months out of a year, and April 1 is when I generally go back to my fire job. I realized that if I didn't get this thing done by fire season, I wouldn't get it done for a year, and that wasn't acceptable to a publisher. In that span of time I wrote 120,000 words (and ended up with 85,000 after cuts).
How: I do my first draft in a notebook with a ballpoint pen, then I take that to the computer and type up a first draft. The one reason I stick with this, though it is slow and painstaking, is that when you're making that transformation to computer, it's an automatic edit. Things jump out at you.
Trimming: The hardest part of any project is knowing what to leave out. In telling a story, the thing I try to keep in mind is that whatever adds to the de-velopment of the story is good; whatever does not add to the development of the story is bad, and it has to go away. That doesn't mean you don't have some little details here and there--sometimes the little detail will make the whole thing come alive for the reader.
Keeping track: I started keeping a journal on Jan. 1, 1967, and have never missed a day since.
Influences: I think the greatest compliment I ever got as a writer was when a librarian said an essay I had written reminded him of Loren Eiseley. I wish I could say Ray Bradbury, but I don't think I could ever be as great as a Ray Bradbury. I think the single biggest influence on how I write is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Advice: Writing, because it's a creative process, has taken on this mysterious aura, and I don't think it's mysterious at all. We all learn how to write in the first grade, or should have. To my mind, what separates an adequate from a good from a great writer is how much they write. Yes, some people have greater facility for words. But nevertheless, the only way to get good is to write and write and write.
To get into the top tier [of freelancing], you have to write well, obviously. Second, the only thing you can do is keep on trying--just market, market, market. If you send something to any magazine, the chances are very good they won't publish it. However, if you don't send it in at all, the chances are 100 percent they won't use it. So my goal was submit, submit, submit.
Photograph by Pam Leschak