“When I went to college I fell in love with film, and I knew early on I wanted to make a senior film thesis,” Berns says. “At the time, they were still shot on 16 mm film – which is expensive.”
To finance and produce her film (a character drama), Berns searched for jobs that paid the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time. Wildland firefighting popped up. Berns had to work up the courage to explain her plan to her mentor, Jeanine Basinger, chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University.
“She said, ‘I think that’s great. When you’re done fighting fire, you’ll actually have something to write about,’” Berns recalls.And so she did. After years of writing around the experience, and being written about, Berns’ searing first-person tale “Finding Home in the West – by Smokejumping” was published last month in Outside Online.
In the early days of her adventure, Berns had planned to spend a few years as a seasonal smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service, then return to a career in film. But by the time she met her future husband on a fire, she had already fallen in love with the West. Berns stayed, and now manages a family ranch in a small valley town in Washington’s North Cascades. She continued writing screenplays, sorting out storylines and building characters in her mind while her hands were busy cutting firewood, driving a tractor or washing dishes.
Berns has been a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab three times, but the “Finding Home” essay was her first time writing narrative nonfiction. After working on it, on and off, for two years, she wasn’t satisfied. “It skimmed big questions, and there was no catharsis,” Berns says. “Every time I finished reading the essay, I was left with more questions, rather than satisfying answers.”
There were few resources in her remote mountain town: No master classes, no organized writing community. So Berns reached out to a friend-of-a-friend, Nieman fellow (and Storyboard contributor) Jennifer McDonald, seeking editorial guidance. Through a long-distance email exchange, McDonald coached Berns through some tough questions; they went back and forth for months, probing for emotion, rearranging scenes and polishing.
“She said the smokejumping firefighting parts were alive with energy and drew her in,” Berns says. “But the reflective parts were timid. I was not diving deep – just skimming the top. She had an excellent way of receiving what I did and pushing for more.”
By the time Berns submitted the story to Outside, it was solid. “I worked with her to whittle it down a bit, but it was in excellent shape when it got to me,” says Erin Berger, a senior editor at Outside. “So my role was mainly chopping stuff and asking some clarifying questions.”
Ultimately, though, the success of this piece hinges on Berns’ ability to translate her screenwriting skills to narrative nonfiction. Look closely at the architecture of the piece: like movies and plays, it has a three-act structure.
“Screenwriting is incredibly structured, which is one of the reasons a lot of writers don’t like it,” says Berns, who recommends Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat as a good primer for anyone interested in learning about screenplay structure. “It was a road map,” she says. “And the only map that I had.”
Storyboard spoke to Berns about the multi-year process of writing this piece, and how she drew on her study of screenplays to write her first nonfiction narrartive. We start with a few set-up questions, then dive into an annotation of the full piece.
You hook us immediately with the cinematic scene of your first jump. Then the story turns away from being about smokejumping to being about the search for acceptance. When and how was the decision made about the central theme of the story?
Over the last decade, I’ve been learning the craft of screenwriting. I spend every free moment reading scripts, studying films, or writing screenplays. I tried to use what I’ve learned about writing movies in this essay. The opening scene is an invitation to the reader. It’s my way of extending a hand and asking, “Would you like to come along on this ride with me?”
The spine of the story always centered around being a girl in a guy’s world. Then, during the revision process the piece took a hard turn and became an essay about something more.
My years working in fire were transformative. While my peers were in graduate school or climbing corporate and creative ladders, I was covered in dirt. Year after year, I opted back in for another season, another crew, another challenge. And yet it wasn’t until I was out of fire that I had enough perspective to dig back in and examine what I had experienced and why I craved those experiences. Looking back, I’m grateful that I was pushed to my physical and emotional limits – but I continued to wonder why I chose that path.
You braided cinematic scenes with backstory/summary in a way that deftly controlled the pacing of the narrative. What was your strategy for structuring the piece?
Confession: I love outlining.
I made a map of the entire essay before I started because I wanted to know where each scene turned before I wrote a single word. For my first draft, I laid out the 15 beats of a film on a piece of paper and tried to massage my Forest Service years into the beats. Half of that flew out the window during editing and revision, but I needed those anchor points to begin. I wanted the opening scene of the essay to grab the reader’s attention, set the tone, and establish the stakes. I aimed to invite the reader on an action-packed ride and hoped that the dangling questions throughout would serve as a breadcrumb trail to keep the reader engaged.
I tried to make the reader care enough about my character to wonder if I jumped (part of the reason I broke that opening scene up) and to be curious about the question I originally pose: Is it possible to be one of the guys, when I’m a girl?
The pacing choices were also made in an attempt to keep the reader in suspense about the lead while also providing some quiet, tender moments. I deliberately slowed down the scene where my grandmother takes me to the train station to leave for my first summer working in fire. I know from screenwriting that the audience needs moments to breathe. The only real movement in that scene is when I kiss her on the cheek. It’s subtle and gentle, but it also stays on the spine of a story about an individual searching for acceptance, for a place she feels at home.
You reveal yourself in the piece as someone who is both bold and naïve. How did you make decisions about how you were cast and might be perceived?
Interesting protagonists must be flawed and I have no shortage of weaknesses. It was important to show that I struggled and to describe myself as an outlier in this new world. There has to be change, metamorphosis, an arc – whatever you want to call it – for a story to be dramatic. I’m not saying it was easy to describe myself as frail and weak, but it was honest and raw.
I think the more a writer can reveal about their own character flaws, the more the reader trusts them. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who read my story and saw themselves. They’ll start by saying something like, “Well, I wasn’t a smokejumper but I did … (this thing that scared them.)” It’s always the thing that pushed them out of their comfort zones that ultimately defined who they are now.
The through line in the essay is about my experience working for the Forest Service and smokejumping. But on a deeper level, the reader understands that I’m trying to figure out my own ideas about femininity and figure out my motivations for wanting to be a smokejumper. I’m examining the cultural expectations I pushed against. I’m trying to figure out why proving myself to others and to myself is important. I believe that those themes are universal.
What kind of response have you received to the story?
There’s something in this story that readers connect to emotionally. I didn’t necessarily anticipate that. I loved getting a positive email from a smokejumper who worked in the ‘60s who admitted he had a lot of respect for female jumpers. Another favorite response came from a military vet who told me he felt like he was back “in the door” during his read.
But I also got a teary-toned text from a father who explained that all he wants for his daughters is for them to find a place in this world where they feel like they truly belong. Both women and men have reached out to tell me about their own journeys to find new homes for themselves.
Reckoning with the idea that home isn’t always where you’re born – that it’s often a place you need to discover – resonates with lots of people.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Berns’ responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
By Sarah Berns
Outside Online, November 2018First, the smell: Inside the jump plane, it’s Jet-A fuel mingled with stale sweat and fresh chewing tobacco. The piece starts with a scene in medias res, written in the present tense. You then switch to past tense for all other scenes, including the ending, in which your present-day self is reflecting back upon the journey. However, when you return to this scene in the middle of the story, you return to present tense. It’s an unexpected arrangement, but it works. Can you talk about why you chose to do it this way? The opening jump scene becomes a frame for the deeper investigation. The jump was always in the present tense in order to give the reader a visceral, first-person experience. I wanted the audience to come along on my ride – to feel as if they were standing in the door with me. In a movie, you need the audience to buy into the story, to invest and care about the lead as quickly as possible. It only seemed natural to write the opener as if I were shooting it from my own perspective. The details I share are what I see with my own eyes (the jumper crossing himself, the view out the door, the things I smelled, the way my body felt) but I didn’t describe the way I looked in the plane. The reader isn’t seeing me as part of the scene; they’re seeing the scene through my point-of-view. Sometimes I think about story structure in colors. In this essay, I always saw the jump scene in color while the body of the essay shifted from black-and-white to various shades of blue or green depending on what was happening (action or reflection). The jump isn’t a bookend to the essay because what happens at the end of the sequence is complicated. I do the thing I’m afraid to do (goal: jump), gain the thing I’m desperately seeking (stakes: acceptance) but I don’t feel whole. The opening jump naturally felt like the perfect way to show the irony of my situation in an entertaining and engaging way.
Then, the fire: 1,500 feet above the forest floor, cramped between Kevlar and parachutes, we jostle for a view of our wildfire. I lean toward the smokejumper on my right. “Are we really gonna jump this?”
“Looks like the spot I broke my back last summer,” he says. The smokejumper to my left eyes the ground below and crosses himself. His lips move silently.
“Can you pray for me, too?” I whisper.
“Are you baptized?”
“I’m Jewish.”You allude throughout the piece to your Jewish faith. Why was it important for the reader to know this about you? Was it one more thing that set you apart from your colleagues? I was raised in a reform Jewish family in suburban Massachusetts. I went to Hebrew School and became a bat mitzvah. This concise conversation tells a lot of information. I think it’s a nutrient-dense moment which shows the stakes of the jump while simultaneously establishing where I came from and how different I was from the jumpers around me.
He nods. “Good enough for today.”
I look down at the jump spot, a slender ridge filled with chiseled boulders and dead, brittle standing trees. Sweat gathers beneath my breasts, in the bends of my arms. Panicked questions pulse in my head: Will I miss the ridge? Crash through snags? Break my back? Or just a leg?
The only thing I do know is that if I refuse to jump, I won’t get another chance. Smokejumpers don’t turn down fires because the jump scares them—it always scares them, and they jump anyway.
I’ve fought wildfires for years but completed smokejumper rookie training only months ago. I’ve never spoken the words aloud: I am a smokejumper. Because when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a smokejumper staring back. I see me, wondering if it’s possible to be one of the guys when I’m a girl.Brad Pitt introduced me to smokejumping. When he starred in A River Runs Through It, about fly-fishing brothers Paul and Norman Maclean growing up in early 20th-century Montana, I was a Wayland High School sophomore living in the Boston suburbs. Initially, I was drawn to the film by the prospect of seeing Brad – the soft light reflecting off his high cheekbones, river water beading above his rakish grin. But after the movie, it was Robert Redford’s narration that echoed in my head. The way he said “Montana” felt more spiritual than the way our rabbi chanted the blessing “Shalom Rav.”
I left the movie theater on Route 9 in Framingham, Massachusetts, no longer smitten with Brad but with the permanent golden hour of the West. I didn’t want to dance with a handsome Maclean brother. I wanted to be a brother, to run through conifer forests and float down the deadly river myself.Was this a subtle way of addressing a reader who might be wondering if you’re gay or straight? Or was it more about romanticizing the West? I wasn’t really interested in how the reader perceived my sexual orientation. Clearly I’m interested in gender and gender non-conforming roles. But the description of going to see A River Runs Through It was a candid, honest tale of being (literally) turned on … to the West by crushing on Mr. Pitt.
I wanted to go to university out West, but my parents extinguished that dream, insisting that their only daughter stay closer to them. I relented and was proud to be admitted to a college back east with an essay that began, “Sometimes I wish I were a boy.”
My freshman year, researching summer jobs that paid the most over the shortest period of time, I found myself drawn back to the West.
I was going to fight fires in a seasonal job with the U.S. Forest Service. When my parents asked about my summer plans, I lied and told them that I’d gotten a job cleaning campgrounds in Washington.
“Doesn’t sound very appealing to me,” my father said, without looking away from a Red Sox game on the television. My mother said she couldn’t take me to the train station—her way of showing she disapproved.
My grandmother ended up taking me to Boston’s South Station. When we hugged goodbye, I clung to her cashmere sweater, inhaled her Chanel perfume.
“This is a ridiculous notion,” she said. “Go get this wild scheme out of your system so you can…” Her commanding voice faltered. I kissed her on the cheek and finished her sentence in my head: So that you can come back east and marry a nice Jewish (doctor, financier, choose your own respectable profession).
My first day as a USFS firefighter, I picked up a tool I didn’t recognize that looked like an ax-hoe hybrid. “That’s your Pulaski,” said Steve, the crew boss. “Sharpen it. Oil it. Don’t lose it.”
I nodded, trying to convince myself: I can do this. That summer, I hiked through the Okanogan National Forest clutching my Pulaski in one hand, spilling fire out of my drip torch with the other, for a prescribed burn. While the aluminum canister full of mixed fuel dropped fire on the ground, I chuckled to myself: I’m lighting the forest on fire and getting paid more than everyone I know who’s temping in Manhattan!
It became clear that I was the lowliest grunt on my 20-person crew. The work required a virtual dictionary full of terms I’d never heard before: direct line, hose line, face cut, Jesus clip, pack test, red pack, yellow pine, serotinous pine. I struggled to become fluent in this new language. I fought fire for 21-day stretches, sharpened my Pulaski, and ate MREs with an ash-stained smile.Such a telling image in seven hard-working words. What informs your curation of details? What’s your litmus test for what to put in, and what to leave out? It’s interesting– the phrase you highlighted – ate MREs with an ash-stained smile – has been in the essay for years. Screenwriting is all about being concise. You have 110 pages to tell your story, so every word takes up precious real estate. When I look at a singular sentence I am always looking at it with an eye to make it leaner. My goal is always to try and figure out how much can I convey in the shortest amount of space. If I can relay pertinent information in only a few words and it still sounds good to my ears, then it can stay. I grew up in a home with a lot of books and was raised by a mother who cared about words, rhythm and sentences. In a draft of this essay I had a line that went like this: I took advantage of my mother’s most liberal rule: If you can procure it, then you may read it. My mom has a Ph.D in comparative literature and dozens of memorized poems that she sifts through when she describes a certain feeling or mood. I’ve never formally studied poetry or writing, but I like to think that my ear has been trained through osmosis.
Driving up Washington’s Methow Valley after a three-week tour on large fires in Oregon, I watched the topography outside the government truck wind and turn along the river. The terrain felt familiar by now. My cheeks flushed, and I smiled to see it. The only other time I’d felt this way about a place was upon returning to my childhood home. For a moment, the feeling embarrassed me, as if I were betraying a first love, falling fast and hard for this beauty I’d just met.
By the end of fire season, I had a bank account in the West full of fire money and was hell-bent on buying my first vehicle to drive back to school. Not just any vehicle: a truck. Owning a truck was like a badge of honor that said “behind this wheel sits a westerner.”
On our day off, Steve, my crew boss, offered to take me to the Colville Indian Reservation to buy a truck from his friend. I nodded my head and mumbled aloud, “Really?” Why would my crew boss, who typically spoke to me only in orders, give up his sacred day off to help?
On the drive over Loup Loup Pass, he stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel at ten and two. Finally, he said, “You don’t want to be broke down. By yourself and all.” Then he pulled his baseball cap low over his eyes, and we continued on in silence.
In a 1984 burgundy Chevy pickup, I drove back east with Washington state plates. When I reached the Connecticut River, I began to cry. I downshifted, hoping that if I drove more slowly, I wouldn’t ever make it back to school. That summer, for the first time in my life, I had felt what it was like to be part of a crew that chose to look out for one another.This was a really interesting moment in the story, because you could interpret his comment in two very different ways. Was this a nod of acceptance, his own gruff way of showing you that he cared? Or was he being slightly paternalistic, intimating that a woman might need a man’s protection. You leave it up to the reader to decide, at least for a few beats…then you answer the question. What made you set it up and play it out this way? This moment mimics a lot of what I felt during my fire-fighting years. Countless times someone would say something or do something and I wasn’t really sure where they were coming from – was this person being helpful or hurtful, constructive or condescending? I like that the reader gets a taste of my own POV in this moment. But for me, while the drive was happening, I knew that Steve cared about my well-being and that it was a struggle for him to articulate that emotion. I had spent the season running chainsaws with him and firefighting by his side, so I never thought he perceived me as incapable. If anything, this moment was chosen to show another version of brotherly love. I adore my own brothers, but neither of them would have ever taken me to buy a car. For the next six fire seasons, I tried to keep up and fit in. Can’t hike as fast? Fine, I’ll work longer. Someone offered me a pinch of chew? Sure, I’ll take it. The harder the goal – helicopter rappeller to crew boss to smokejumper – the better. My first season rappelling out of helicopters, I was the only female crew member. Sometimes I was the only woman for 100 square miles. We hopscotched from Washington to Oregon to Nevada, flew over open pit mines, slept in the dirt, dug hot fire line, and drank for free in dark casino lobbies. When my crew invited me to a whorehouse, I didn’t hesitate. Hell, yeah. You’re very specific about some locations in the piece, but vague about the location of the brothel. Is there a reason you chose to be vague here? I like place names and use them frequently enough so that the reader knows roughly where we are. But this piece is also my version of a love letter to the West. And in order to address the West as a whole I didn’t want to get too bogged down in geography. The choice to only highlight some specific locations is also consistent with the life of a wildland firefighter. We move around frequently – especially aerial delivered firefighters. In a day, you can bounce from forest to forest and cross state lines without ever realizing it. Here, the reader knows we’re in Nevada (We hopscotched from Washington to Oregon to Nevada, flew over open pit mines, slept in the dirt, dug hot fire line, and drank for free in dark casino lobbies.) I didn’t think that telling exactly where was pertinent.
A woman in her late fifties opened the door, wearing a practiced smile. She was thin, without makeup or style, a nearly invisible woman. She ushered my crew into the brothel. Behind her, women lined up in transparent nightgowns. “Come in. Don’t be shy,” the madam repeated. Then she saw me. “Not. You.”
“No women allowed. House rules.”
A set of keys flew through the air and smacked my open palm. “There’s a six-pack in the truck,” our helicopter pilot told me. The madam escorted me out. The sun was setting, amber light washed over the cul de sac of brothels, but Brad Pitt was nowhere to be seen.This is so cinematic! What else have you learned from screenwriting that’s useful in narrative nonfiction? Screenwriting has given me the tools to write a line of action that clearly directs the reader to see a movement exactly the way I want them to see it. You are literally designing where the camera goes while simultaneously telling a story. In this sentence, the camera tracks the keys as they move through the air – it’s a moving close-up as opposed to a stagnant establishing shot. Using this style in narrative non-fiction seemed like an interesting way to direct the reader and to inform their vision.
Soon, men who arrived at the parking lot started to ask me, “Are you working?” I had never thought until this moment that to the outside world, perhaps to everyone but me, I was female first. Being just one of the guys – being a brother –seemed impossible.This is a major defining moment. Nothing has changed except your perception of the world – that is, how the world perceives you. It’s an echo of what your grandmother said to you at the train station. What were your thoughts on point of view as you saw yourself through the eyes of others? Part of the challenge writing this piece was that while I struggled on many levels during my USFS career, I also had fantastic experiences. I’m great friends with many of my fire-fighting colleagues. I married a smokejumper. These people are part of what makes me feel at home in the West. It took me some time to embrace the complexities of a multi-dimensional experience and believe that the reader would trust a character who was straddling two different perspectives. So here I circle back to the ideas that my grandmother left me with –that I will always be (just) a woman in a man’s world. To her this means belong to a man. To me, it means blazing my own way. Both points of view somehow coexist in this single moment. Days later, we rappelled a fire in Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, four of us versus a wind-driven wildfire that grew from one acre to ten in half an hour. We dug direct line and called for retardant. An air tanker dropped a full load of red slurry. We tied our line into the anchor point, cheered, and slapped one another’s shoulders. That’s when I slipped on retardant and my Pulaski came to a stop—in my leg.
I looked down at my now-red leather boot and wondered: retardant or blood? I yanked the ax from my leather boot and felt an enormous volume of liquid rushing out: definitely blood.
I hobbled off the fire and hiked to the nearest road (which wasn’t near) to catch a ride into the town of John Day and argue with a nurse.
“No, you cannot cut off my boot.”
I explained that it would take weeks to break in another boot. But what I was really thinking was: I’m not going to let this accident take me out of my own competition.
The nurse and I had reached a stalemate when the rappel base manager arrived. I was mortified to see him. I am not that weak, clumsy girl. Not me, not today. I turned to him.
“Will you pull off my boot?”Throughout the story you use internal and external dialogue, often contrasting the two to great effect. It creates tension and reflects the internal conflict within you. Any tips for when to use this narrative device? And when to avoid it? Can it be overdone? Yes, it can be overdone. Erin Berger, my editor at Outside, did a great job of calling me out on using this device too frequently. I am constantly rehashing events and conversation in my own head, so writing this way feels totally natural to me. The internal dialogue is my true voice – it’s the way I talk, negotiate and process with myself. My inner voice is often at odds with what I’m doing physically or saying aloud. This is the way I navigate the world.
He looked to the nurse, who clutched her scissors. The nurse shrugged. He placed his hands on my boot and counted to three. Then he gave a swift, violent tug.
The three of us stared through the slice in my blood-soaked tube socks, into the gaping ravine in my flesh. Blood splattered onto the white linoleum floor. “I’ll go get some folks to stitch you up,” the nurse said. What pain I felt was numbed by the relief that I hadn’t passed out. Or, god forbid, cried.Back in the plane during my first jump season, we orbit our wildfire and eye that slender ridge. The spotter yells my last name over the prop wash. Switching back to the present tense here effectively brings us back to the opening scene. Was this a choice you made from the start, or later, during the editing and revision? I always wanted to use the present tense for the opening and again when I circle back inside the jump plane. It was tricky to make the tense shift fluid, without jarring the reader, while simultaneously making it clear enough that the reader recognized the shift. I wanted readers back with me in the plane, seeing and hearing with me. And of course, I wanted to take them OUT the door with me. Standing in the open door of an airplane 1,500 feet above mountainous terrain, knowing that you must fly yourself to a tiny opening in the forest canopy – it’s a very specific feeling. I wagered that if the reader came with me, then perhaps they’d feel more invested in my journey.
It’s my seventh season in fire, but most days, I’m still the slowest runner and hiker. I wear the labels: frailest and weakest. In my head, I keep a list of the people who doubt me. When my legs burn and my blisters bleed, I hear each one of them taunting me: I knew you’d wash out.
In the jump plane, I move carefully under the oppressive weight of my gear. When I stand in front of the open airplane door, I know the spotter sees the fraud in me. He barks, “Do you see the spot?”
I don’t dare glance down at the parachutes of the previous jumpers, now tangled in the snags. I look at the horizon. “Yes.”
“Do you have any questions?”
I scream to myself: What the fuck are you doing?
“No.” I answer confidently.
“Get in the door,” he commands. Then he slaps my shoulder.
I throw my entire being into the void. The noise of the plane fades. Ground and sky blur. My static line tightens, the chute opens. Free of the plane, the world is absolutely quiet. My senses rack to focus. I toggle the parachute, making adjustments as the earth, and every hazard on it, rushes toward me.
I touch down in the middle of the jump spot, miss every rock, clear all the trees. I hear cheers before I unclip my parachute. Jumpers who have never looked me in the eye approach with arms in the air, palms open. High-fives all around. The sound of acceptance.Was this moment of acceptance a full-on illusion? Or was it more of a false summit, a brief and fleeting milestone on a much longer journey? Back to screenwriting: This is my midpoint. It was roughly halfway through the essay (when I started) and it’s where we see the “hero” or lowly me as I truly am. In this essay, it’s a beat that cements the idea that no matter how I act or how well I fit in, I may always feel like an outsider. It’s a false victory because I get everything I THINK I want. I’m seen by my peer group. I momentarily try on a new identity (could I look in the mirror and call myself a jumper now?) For me the stakes are raised at this point since I don’t back down and accept that I’ll never really be one of the guys. I keep going. And then the obstacles keep escalating, they keep mounting up in my way. First, I cut my leg, then I break my pelvis. There are moments in between where it appears that I’ve found what I’m looking for, but they’re fleeting.
Then, as quick as it came, the moment’s gone. The jumpers fade into the dark timber, searching for our wildfire. I’m alone in the jump spot, apart from my crew. Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be the grand finale? But I can’t hear the music swell.I double down, commit to another season, jump more fires. I’m so desperate to prove I belong that when a parachute oscillation slams me into a clearcut and forces my femur into my pelvis, I don’t say a word. I lie still, eyes closed, until another jumper kicks my boot and says, “You dyin’?”
I laugh, trying to make light of my inaction. He’s not amused. “Let’s head on up to the fire.” It’s not an invitation.
I manage, “I’m not sure. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“For fuck’s sake, Berns. If you’re the last one in the spot, carry all the parachute gear.”
“Sure thing.” Anything for a few seconds on the ground, unmoving.
After carrying everyone’s parachute gear through acres of logging slash, I pace up and down a game trail, hoping the pain in my hip will cease. I walk because I’m terrified that if I stop moving, everything I’ve sweated for, everything I’ve yearned for, will also end. A broken pelvis proves that I’m fragile. Feminine.
Then it hits me—right there on a burning mountainside in Montana. Maybe acceptance by the crew isn’t the thing I’m after. Acceptance is a finicky friend: One day, it’s here (hey, have a chew, I’ll help you buy a truck, high-fives, come rafting with us). The next, it’s gone (you don’t deserve to be here, this is always going to hurt, deal with the pain and shut the fuck up). What I’ve been searching for, I now see, is something bigger than acceptance, bigger than smokejumping, bigger than proving I can be one of the guys.This is the defining moment of the story, an a-ha moment of clarity. It might seem almost too “pat” if it weren’t for the surprising twist that follows… Was this the original structure of the story, or did you end up moving things around? From the end of the jump sequence up to my broken pelvis is like a running cave scene. It’s an “all is lost” moment, where I’m as far away from my goal as possible. I’ve hit rock bottom. In an early draft this was the end of the essay, and my final line was: I go to a doctor a few days later and he confirms what I already knew: that I was broken and being a smokejumper would never heal me. A bit darker than the way the essay now ends. I realized I hadn’t found satisfying resolution in the piece. I needed a third act in order to complete the journey. That night at the brothel, after I’d been abandoned, I didn’t stay in the parking lot. I wandered around to the back of a different brothel and rang the doorbell on the gate. A woman with dark, soft curls appeared, cradling the day’s mail in her arm. The night at the brothels might have been one scene, but you chose to split it into two scenes – separated by a brief diversion (a scene from the following day) – to great effect. The story really pivots here and delivers a delightful surprise scene, but also some poignant realizations. Talk about why you chose this structure. The brothel scene is a perfect example of Jen McDonald’s expertise. Originally the scene ended with me in the parking lot, bathed in amber light looking for Brad Pitt. Jen asked hard questions: Why was I there? What did I need to prove? She wanted to know what happened after the parking lot. I added the rest of my evening in the brothel kitchen to the essay because of her prompting. Jen then suggested breaking this scene up. She was right. We circled back to the sequence when it takes an unexpected turn and used that to elevate the narrative.
“What can I do you for?” she asked, without judgment or care.
I asked if she had any openings. Not a serious inquiry, of course. But I’d say anything to get away from the leering men outside. Her doe eyes traveled expertly down my body, over my sweat-stained T-shirt and crumpled Levi’s. I slipped my hands into my pockets, afraid she’d see the ash etched into each crease of my skin, the dirt under my fingernails. She unlocked the gate, and I followed her into the kitchen. Around a huge wooden table sat a half-dozen women.
Doe Eyes placed her mail on the counter and introduced me by saying, “She wants a job.”
Immediately, a chair was pulled out. The women shouted out their names. I smiled and introduced myself. The room was kinetic, women entering and leaving constantly. Some wore bathrobes; others were in jogging gear. Someone tossed an oven mitt into the air. “Your turn!” A woman tightened her ponytail and used the mitt to open the stove. Inside, baked potatoes cooked in orderly rows.There had to be so many interesting details you observed in the brothel. Why did you choose these? I described the scene in the kitchen as I remembered it – friendly, full of warmth, nearly exchangeable with many of the times I’ve sat around various tables sharing meals with dear friends. Outside wanted total clarification on this scene. They wanted the reader to understand that I wasn’t really looking to change careers. It was equally important to me to show that I was grateful for what these women gave me – safety, protection, friendship. I truly appreciated these women and hope that the general tone of the essay communicates that feeling.
“My sister’s name is Sarah,” said a woman with a brown crew cut. “Do you have an H at the end?”
I laughed, nodded that I did. Crew Cut asked if I wanted a potato, and my mouth immediately filled with saliva. A steaming-hot baker appeared in front of me, a full spread of fixings right behind. I piled on slabs of butter, fresh chives, and bacon (don’t tell my rabbi). I took a deep breath and inhaled the aroma of the warm, welcoming kitchen.
The sex workers and I settled down to the table. Together, we ate and chatted. My formal interview consisted of a sideways question about my first trick. I finished chewing and pulled from every prostitute scene I’d read and watched—told them a fictitious five-minute story about giving a blow job in Central Park. Perhaps it was the details I tossed around (green paisley tie, creased leather shoes, Old Spice, and instant coffee) or the foreign locale, or maybe they believed me because—well, why wouldn’t they? These women welcomed me without pretense—something for which I’m eternally grateful—and I told them a simple story they’d heard a thousand times.Did you struggle over whether to admit this? Did you worry that readers would judge you for telling them a fictitious story, or that one of the women would read this and find out the truth? I struggled up until the last moment with this line. I wrote and deleted emails to Erin Berger, my editor at Outside, about taking this line out. And with good reason. My own mother told me that reading the essay was horribly painful – and it took her three weeks to say that. Ultimately, I felt like I told a white lie in order to stay with these women – which felt a whole lot safer than out in the parking lot. The way the scene reads it seems like I had a brief snack with them, but in reality I spent the entire night in the house. We talked at great length and they invited me on a private tour of the house. There was only mutual respect and kindness between us. There was no malice in what I told them. Readers seem to appreciate the fact that I admit I made mistakes and questionable decisions in my 20s. We’ve all made bad choices at some point, and the decision to air my own were not made lightly. But I also feel like this experience was uniquely mine. The turns that took me inside this brothel were my own, and they not only show who I was at that time, but also shaped who I am today. All of life’s tiny, gorgeous and grueling moments make us individuals, and if we only share the beautiful beats, then we’re not being honest. We’re not being human.
In return, they told me about their “real” jobs (paralegal, mom), their dreams (a PhD, home ownership), their relationships (boyfriends, husbands). I talked with the women until my friend burst into the room. The ladies shouted at him to leave, but he searched the gathered faces, panicked, until he saw me.
“Berns! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
I stammered, “This is my…brother.”
He backed me up. “Yup, she’s my sister.”I missed this on the first read, but on the second it stood out as a subtle but profound moment: in the midst of the awkwardness and confusion, you call him “brother” and he responds in kind. How does this moment of acceptance compare on the spectrum of authenticity to the moment you just had with the women? My buddy who came looking for me that night is a dear friend. We rookied together on our helicopter rappel crew. I’ve stayed with his parents. I went to his wedding. I know his wife and his children. Of all the guys I worked with he feels the most like a brother to me, a true friend. This beat where I introduce him was so spontaneous that it wasn’t until writing the essay that I became fully aware of the beautiful irony of our exchange. I sent him a draft of this essay and openly asked for his feedback. It was very important to me that he was onboard with being a character in the story.
My buddy, for the record, is Latino. I’m not. And I don’t know anyone who calls their sibling by their last name. (If you want a moment of humor I could add that the only edit my buddy suggested was that instead of being labeled Latino, he wanted to be described as a “barrel chested Chilean God of Thunder.)
We ran out of the brothel kitchen laughing, fought fire together the next day, and never again talked about that night. But I think about it sometimes. In the company of those women, I’d had my own adventure—a much more interesting one than any of my crewmates had that night and one I never would have had on the East Coast, where I supposedly belonged.My life has been forever changed by the friendships I made fighting fire for more than a decade. I drove through a deadly ice storm to attend a jumper’s wedding. I won a saloon arm-wrestling match, shot my first deer, preg-checked cows, hitchhiked, and swathed hay. I tore open a newborn’s amniotic sac in the front seat of my fire friends’ truck along a western highway.
I sold my own truck to buy land and bought a chainsaw to heat my cabin. I met my husband on a wildfire and babysat children who have cared, in turn, for my own daughters. Today, my family and I all live out West, in the same valley where I first picked up a Pulaski.
I understand now that taking nearly a decade to achieve my supposed goal—becoming a smokejumper—was a gift. Because in the end, being a smokejumper—one of the guys—wasn’t the real achievement. It was becoming a part of something grand: the West. It was belonging to this wild land—building a life, a home, in the one place in the world where I feel whole.When and how did you know how to end the story? What made you choose a declaration rather than a scene? This was a tricky essay to conclude. I’m spanning years of my life and highlighting incongruous details (Hello, chainsaws and amniotic sac!) in a scene-heavy piece. I knew I had to wrap up all of these experiences with a clear realization. Searching for a single scene that showed me in my “new world,” I made a simple list of possible scene stories, and when I saw the list as a whole I wondered if instead I could touch down into each scene for a second instead of launching into another tale. My hope was that this new-world montage followed by a succinct and heartfelt insight would be a satisfying way to conclude the third act.