Soren Johnson, 6, and his brother Killian, 8, in Jackknife Creek in Freedom, Wyoming.

Soren Johnson, 6, and his older brother Killian, 8, swim in Jackknife Creek on Sunday, August 8, 2021, at the family's home in Freedom, Wyoming.

With the summer of 2021 drawing to an end, Mike Wilson, the deputy sports editor in charge of enterprise and investigations at The New York Times, wanted to celebrate the season (it seemed COVID might be on the decline back then) by focusing on freedom. He set seven accomplished sportswriters loose, equipped only with that abstract theme and a caveat: the stories could not be over 900 words.

One returned with the tale of Black baseball star Curt Flood, who sacrificed his career to win the right of ballplayers to be free agents. Otherwise, the series focused on untold stories that display the panoply of sporting life: a young swimmer burned out by the competitive grind who left the pool to find liberation in rock climbing; a 13-year-old boxer facing his first big bout. One writer recounted his 2-½ year old grandson’s mastery of the playground’s big slide, while another recalled coaching a Saudi Arabian soccer team in the deep South who dreamed of the chance to flee the field.

Wilson dispatched author and award-winning writer Kim Cross to Freedom, Idaho, a town that straddles the border with Wyoming, and is home to maybe 200 souls. Also, as Cross writes, “a post office, a church, zero stoplights and a postcard-perfect fly fishing river with Snake River cutthroat trout.” It also presented a challenge: She had to find a subject worthy of the theme that would justify a 10-hour round trip drive from her Boise, Idaho, home.

Her initial web search came up dry. “Freedom has no town hall, no diner, no pub, not even a single stoplight,” she told me. “It has a post office, a Mormon church and Freedom Arms, a manufacturer of one of the biggest caliber handguns on the market, a pistol that can fell a water buffalo. It has beef-cattle ranches and dairy farms. But isn’t the kind of place you want to go knocking on farmhouse doors as an out-of-towner. See: Freedom Arms.”

There was little there that spoke of sports, other than a tractor show at a baseball field. Desperate but undaunted, she switched to Instagram and discovered a cake-artist, @ladyinthewildwest, whose feed is filled with images of elegant wedding cakes “as beautiful as watercolor paintings.”

Author and freelance writer Kim H. Cross

Kim Cross

Cross still didn’t have a sports tale, but if she could just talk to Lady in the Wild West, aka Lindsey Johnson, she figured she’d know “some local kid learning how to play catch, or building bike ramps in his backyard out of plywood and cinder blocks,” she said. “Or something.”

In a tribute to serendipity that is the payoff for a tenacious reporter, Cross learned that Johnson and her husband, home builder Jeremiah, had three “wild Wyoming boys” growing up on the family’s 20-acre Jackknife Creek Ranch. It’s an idyllic setting, which Cross describes with the sensitivities of a naturalist. The boys don’t lose their ball in a tree; it’s an Aspen. The creek the boys swim in “is blessed with oxbows, beavers, wild trout and a swimming hole sacred to free-range kids.”

“Swimming. That’s a sport. I could work with that,” Cross said.

She headed to Freedom. She had also learned that when the people of Freedom, Idaho, petitioned for a Post Office, the Postal Service informed them there was already a town named Freedom in Idaho, and there couldn’t be two Freedoms. So they put the P.O. in Wyoming. The dateline had to change.

At the ranch, Cross discovered that the couple’s youngest boy, 6-year old Soren, was wild with desire to follow his brother into the creek but a recent wound, suffered when he bumped his knee against a rusty nail in a 101-year-old barn, kept him out of the water.

“Bad for Soren,” Cross said. “Good for me.”

Cross now had a character and a conflict, the heart of the classic formula that underlies fiction and narrative nonfiction at its finest.

Moving from theme to story

How Kim Cross used an abstract idea (freedom) to build a narrative

My instinct (and years of creek-swimming experience) told me that “wild Wyoming boys” + trout-filled creek + free-range chickens and goats + ranch in Star Valley = characters and a setting Hemingway would love. At the very least, I knew I’d have a great scene, or a day-in-the-life sketch of those last summer days before school. 

There also was an element of luck when 6-year-old Soren fell on a rusty nail in his barn. Bad luck for Soren. Good luck for me. That turned a scene into a story. 

To me, a story has to have the following elements: 

  1. A character. Preferably one the reader can relate to in some fundamental way.
  2. A desire. The character wants something. Bad.
  3. An obstacle. Something is standing in the way of the character getting whatever it is they want. This creates tension.
  4. A resolution. They either get what they want. Or they don’t.  
  5. Meaning. Nos. 1 through 4 speak to something more expansive.

This story had all of those things (and more). 

  1. Character: Soren. A 6-year-old boy enjoying the last days of summer before his first day of school. In a place where summer is short and precious. Bonus: Dramatic irony. The reader knows something the protagonist does not: Just how short and precious summer (and childhood) truly  is. 
  2. Desire: Soren wants to swim in the creek. Creek swimming = freedom!
  3. Obstacle: His puncture wound might get infected if he swims in the creek. He’s had a tetanus shot, but still… mom is worried.
  4. Resolution: Before the sun has time to set, he’s up to his curls in the creek. 
  5. Meaning: That’s for the reader to decide. 

Cross and photographer Ryan Dorgan spent exactly “15 hours and 17 minutes on the ranch.” They arrived at 5 p.m. and followed the boys around until supper, but also wanted to witness them doing morning farm chores. There’s no hotel in Freedom, so Dorgan spent the night in his truck. Cross slept on the family trampoline.

The reporting was largely observational: Cross and Dorgan trailed the boys as they went about their business. Cross demonstrates a special knack for connecting with children, who can be notoriously laconic sources. Her method: “I act like a kid.” At one point, she interviewed the boys while doing flips on the trampoline together.

From the foreshadowing lead, Soren’s passion to swim drives the narrative, even as Cross digresses to profile the Johnsons, and the town of Freedom, which becomes a character in its own right, and the majestic western landscape that envelopes it. Cross delights in word play, metaphor and simile as she wields the tools of poetry to enliven her story.

The result is “Freedom, Wyoming,” which she produced “more or less in one clean draft.” In a departure for a writer whose stories often go through seven drafts, the piece took “very little” revision. It’s a remarkable short narrative that brings to mind the short stories of the Russian master Anton Chekhov with its emphasis on an ordinary event and diction that creates vivid imagery and emotion.

​​Nieman Storyboard asked Cross about the challenges of finding an elusive subject, applying creative writing to nonfiction reporting, and strategies for interviewing children. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity and is followed by an annotation of the text.

How did you come to get this assignment?
I was about to give up on my dream of writing for The New York Times. Then, one day out of the blue, they called… Actually, my phone said it was Mike Wilson, my good friend, longtime mentor, and long-ago editor. I was his intern 100 years ago, back when the Tampa Bay Times was called the St. Petersburg Times. I latched onto him as a mentor; he’s the one I call when I have a big career decision to make or a big story that needs one last high-level read for blind spots and nuance.


A team in The New Times sports department brainstormed a summer theme

What are the origins of the idea for the “freedom” package?
The idea came out of a brainstorming session with the whole NYT Sports staff — writers, editors, visual journalists, everybody. I wanted to do some kind of creative project that would run between the end of the Olympics and the start of football. The idea was simply to publish some short, writerly pieces for readers to enjoy. The only rule was that they had to have a plausible connection to sports. I thought it might be fun to focus on a theme. When I was an editor at the Tampa Bay Times, we did a project on the theme “Escape” and had a lot of fun with it. The freedom theme came up during the NYT staff conversation; Elena Bergeron, one of our editors, was the first to mention the word, I think. It felt like an appropriate choice because COVID restrictions were loosening and summer was beginning. But we didn’t harp on those things in the pieces.

How did you pick Freedom, Wyoming, for Kim Cross’ essay?
My colleague Oskar Garcia, also a deputy sports editor, had the idea to send someone to a place called Freedom and ask that person to find a story there. He gave me a list of 12-15 such towns across America. There was a Freedom straddling the Idaho-Wyoming state line, so I called Kim, who lives in Boise and is a good friend. The assignment I gave her was: Go to Freedom and find a story.

What was your role as editor?
I put out the call for ideas, vetted them (we had a couple of pitches that weren’t right for the series and a couple of stories that fell through), and then edited the pieces when they came in. The most important work was done by the writers, photographers, photo editors, designers, social media experts and homepage editors.

Was it a challenge keeping the pieces to 900 words or less?
No. When I sent out the call for pitches, I said I would not run a piece that was 901 words long, and everybody believed me.

What was your reaction when Kim sent her draft?
I work in my living room, and my wife, Alisa, who is also a friend of Kim, works just across the room. When Kim’s story came in, I read it, turned to Alisa and said, “Oh my god, Kim’s piece is perfect.”

Anyway. Mike called and said, “I see you live five hours and twenty minutes from Freedom, Idaho. I want you to go there and write 900 words about whatever ‘freedom’ means there.”

“Okay…” I said. “I’m pretty busy, but when do you need it?”

“Next Friday,” he said.

It was Thursday. I had seven days to rearrange my schedule, get to Freedom and back (squealing into town on my wedding anniversary), and write 900 words worthy of the Temple of Journalism. I had big weekend plans to learn how to river-surf in the mountains — there’s a wave on a river in McCall, Idaho where you can actually ride a surfboard — but I dropped everything to drive to Freedom.

Throughout, you paint sense of place in the story, making Freedom its own character. How, and with what sources, did you become so familiar with the location of your story?
Yes, I wanted Freedom to be its own character. I did a lot of reporting before I hit the ground. I oriented myself with the landscape and topography (which is really important to me in all stories) via Google Earth. On it, I followed Jackknife Creek upstream to its source in the mountains. I used the sun tool to see what parts of the ranch and the valley fall into shadows with the rising and setting of the sun.

I also made a lot of calls to sources who weren’t mentioned in the story. My first call was to Rocky Barker, a good friend of mine and an award-winning environmental reporter who has covered the west for decades. He told me about Freedom Arms gun shop.

“Freedom, Wyoming” reads like a short story. Were you consciously using literary techniques that are usually the province of  fiction writers?
Yes. That’s always my goal. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but my most ambitious desire is to write nonfiction that reads like fiction but stands up to the most fastidious fact-checker. I yearn to cultivate the narrative voice that comes through in the works of a writer like Pat Conroy or Annie Proulx. One can only strive.

Were there any literary or journalistic models you drew on for inspiration?
I immediately thought of “What a Day!” — Ken Fuson’s one-sentence, one-paragraph, 400-word story that shows how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March. I figured that even if I went to the farm and there was no conflict, no pivotal moment, I could still capture a similarly active glimpse of the last days of a Wyoming summer. When Soren’s puncture wound presented itself (Obstacle!), I abandoned that plan.

It’s almost cliche to live in the West and talk about Hemingway. And honestly, for decades of my writing life, I didn’t love Hemingway. I found a lot of his prose rather terse and choppy.

Then, at some point, I got Hemingway. In my mind, what makes his writing great is the elegant act of omission — the things he doesn’t say outright, that linger between the lines. And the way he stirs emotion without even a hint of purple prose. Instead of describing emotion, he conjures “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.”

Sequence and motion are everything when it comes to cinematic prose. I think that’s why I obsess over structure and structuralists like John McPhee. To me, structure is a very deliberate sequence of revelation — what you let the reader know, and when.

Could you describe your writing process?
With long-form narrative stories, I almost always start with a story map —an outline of sorts, but not the Roman Numerals kind you were taught in grade school. But for this, I knew where I wanted to begin, knew where I wanted to end, and then omitted all the wonderful things that couldn’t fit in the 900-word limit. Usually, I revise at least seven times. But this one came out more or less in one clean draft. I think the time and word count limitations were liberating.

How long did it take to write?
Not quite a day? I juggle a lot of stories at once, so I can’t really remember. It wasn’t nearly as agonizing as other stories though. It was actually fun to write. It reminded me of the way writing feels when you’re journaling or free-writing for yourself and not for an editor or an audience. Which is ironic, since I expected to feel tremendous pressure in my first piece for The New York Times.

How much revision was involved?
Very little. Mike made a few minor edits -— a word or phrase here or there —and the copy editor raised some good questions. They improved the clarity in some muddy spots. But they found a way to do it without damaging the cadence and flow of each sentence, which is something I obsess about.

What role did your editor play in the process?
He was wonderfully accessible for conversations and decisions that had to happen BEFORE I drove to Wyoming. Once I got there, I let it unfold naturally. But I wanted to make sure the choices were right before I committed. Was it okay that this family hadn’t lived in Star Valley for generations? What if the boys didn’t choose to swim that day? Given the strict NYT policies prohibiting favors from sources, could we camp in their yard? Most pressingly: What should I do if Lindsey, a cake artist, offers me a cupcake? Mike: “You should eat the cupcake!” (Full disclosure: I was offered Nutella Banana Bread. I ate it.)

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Cross’s 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 the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device.

Jeremiah Johnson and his sons, Killian, 8, Hadden, 16, and Soren, 6, had for the river on an August afternoon.

Killian Johnson, 8, chases his brothers Hatton, 16, and Soren, 6, as their father Jeremiah walks the family to the Salt River Sunday, August 8, 2021, at the family's home in Freedom, Wyoming.

For a summer project, we gave sportswriters 900 words and a theme: freedom.

Freedom, Wyoming by Kim Cross

FREEDOM, Wyo. — Two weeks before the first day of school in Star Valley, summer feels like it could last forever. But in a place where the rivers begin as snow, the season of swimming is short. Even in August, the creeks run cold. Too soon, they will freeze. Swimming will play the central role in your story. Did you want the opening to serve as a thematic foreshadow? Yep. I almost always start with a scene, but for this story, I chose to lead with a statement that does the job of the nut graf. I wanted readers to immediately feel the tension of passing time: the changing of seasons, the sand falling through the hourglass. And I wanted to emphasize how fleeting summer is here. Snow, water, ice: These are tactile states, and they convey imagery, emotion, sensation, and change in very few words.

Six-year-old Soren Johnson stands on a pebbled beach where Jackknife Creek pours into the Salt River.This creek, this river and two dirt roads mark the boundaries of his kingdom: Jackknife Creek Ranch, 20 acres of pasture, willows and aspen groves once part of a working dairy farm. The ranch kisses the western edge of Wyoming. Across the street is Idaho. With active verbs, specific details and sentences that vary in length from just 8 words to 32, you establish the main character and setting in a single paragraph. Would you unpack how you created it? I’m very deliberate about the first image that appears in a reader’s mind. It’s like the first sequence of a movie, before the opening credits run. It needs to establish the setting, the main character, and hint at the desire or conflict to come. The confluence of rivers and streams is powerful, physically, kinetically, and metaphorically. Here is a mixing of waters, a place where a stream ends and merges into something bigger. I didn’t want for it to be an obvious metaphor, but it just felt like a powerful place to begin the story. I also liked how waters and dirt roads quite literally defined the physical boundaries of the boys’ world. I loved that one of the dirt roads, State Line Road, marked the boundary of Wyoming and Idaho. When you’re a kid, you’re very cognizant of these boundaries, and I think most people can think of a street or a landmark that marked the edge of where they were allowed to play alone without getting in trouble with mom.

Jackknife Creek begins around 20 miles west, on Idaho’s Caribou Mountain, and meanders into Wyoming’s Star Valley, a mile-high rural basin roughly an hour’s drive south of Jackson. Soren and his brothers, 8-year-old Killian and 16-year-old Hatton, have no access to a swimming pool. They have a creek blessed with oxbows, beavers, wild trout and swimming holes sacred to free-range kids. The story is dotted with vivid, action verbs: “pours,” “kisses,” blessed,” “meanders?” How do you select them? See: Ken Fuson’s verbs in “What a Day!” Verbs animate, and they’re almost always more evocative than adjectives — except when an adjective makes a noun more visual or specific, therefore making it a better telling detail. I also love verbs that transform a landscape from a passive “stage” into something dynamic, something that can be a character in its own right. You also bring a naturalist’s eye to the story. How did you learn which creatures inhabit the creek and all the details about the physical landscape? I called a fish biologist who grew up hunting and fishing with his dad in the area. I called the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to ask what kind of trout could be found in Salt River and Jackknife Creek, and whether they were wild or hatchery fish. (This sort of detail is lost on most readers, but significant to readers out west.) At the urging of another fish-biologist friend, I called Rulon Gardner, an Olympic wrestler who grew up in Star Valley, and who was the subject of this wonderful GQ profile, Rulon Gardner: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die. I think the creatures and critters who inhabit the creek are, to a boy, much like the fauns and beavers and lions that inhabit C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” They’re part of a kid’s world, a world that seems to grow increasingly invisible to adults. That said, here’s a detail that I absolutely loved that didn’t make it into the story: Lindsey (the mother) told me that a number of beavers were building a dam on Jackknife Creek. Jeremiah (the father) took a wooden chair out to the creek one day to sit and watch them. He left the chair overnight, and when he came back the next day, it was built into the dam! And then there’s the reference to“free-range kids.” What a great play on words! I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this. “Free-range kids” is a thing now. Sort of the child-rearing antithesis to “helicopter parenting.” It’s usually used as a metaphor, but here it also happens to be literal. Fun fact (another one that didn’t make it in the story): Wyoming is a “fence-out state.” Which means that cattle are allowed to roam free, and if you don’t want someone’s cattle grazing on your land, it’s your responsibility to build a fence to keep them out. Not the other way around. It thaws in late spring and swells until May, too fast and high and filled with sticks to be safe for swimming before late June or July. Why do you lavish so much attention on the weather and the landscape? When you’re a child, you’re attuned to the weather, because that (and parents) are often the biggest inhibitors of your freedom!

The only thing keeping Soren out of this creek is a puncture wound below his left knee. He fell on a rusty nail while playing in a 101-year-old barn. It wasn’t bad enough for a 40-minute drive to the hospital, but the skin is a little red and hot. How do you know it was hot? I touched it! When I arrived, Lindsey asked me, as a fellow mom, to have a look at it. I  have a Wilderness First Aid certification, so I got out my wound-care kit, dressed the puncture with triple antibiotic, and put on a waterproof bandage. I agreed with Lindsey that he should not get in the creek, because even clear mountain streams have bacteria that can cause or worsen infection. But, as the mother of a boy myself, I knew there was a high probability that he would end up in the creek by day’s end.  He’s been limping around theatrically and insisted on a piggyback ride to the creek. How much time did you spend with the boys? We got there around 5 p.m. on Sunday, followed them around until dinner, ate with the family, and camped in the yard. On Monday we woke up to shadow them through farm chores and had to hit the road around 10 a.m. We stopped by the post office, and on the way out of Star Valley we stopped for lunch at Yankee Doodle Cafe, where they serve Freedom Fries, an American Dip (a French dip), offer free meals for anyone on active duty, and have a sign that says guns are welcome.

But now, squishing around in wet sneakers, Soren jealously eyes brother Killian, who is up to his chin in the creek. How did you decide to make Soren’s quest to swim in the creek the through line for the story? Desire + obstacle = tension. I should mention here that I originally wrote “up to his chin in the knee-deep creek.” I wanted a nod to this near-universal law of childhood physics — give a little kid a parking-lot puddle to swim in, and he’ll figure out how to fully immerse himself. Killian was wallowing on his belly in this knee-keep stretch of creek. But the phrase tripped up Mike and the copy editor and ultimately it was cut for clarity. The air is 81  degrees, but Killian’s teeth are chattering. Soren’s eyes grow wild with longing Why did you describe his eyes this way? You can just see and feel how bad he wants to swim. I remember feeling that way as a kid around any body of water, no matter how cold or dirty. To a child, the call of the water is as strong as the tide.  and he bounces from foot to foot, his gimpy leg now pain free.

“Mom, can I please try swimming?” he says. Why did you use present tense? It just felt right. It can be cloying, but it can also make a scene feel like a moment suspended in time. “Look, I can walk normal now!” When did you discover that Soren was desperate to swim Jacknife Creek, which was the central conflict of the story? As soon as I saw the puncture wound and his mom said he wasn’t allowed to swim. The mother in me agreed. The writer in me loved the tension. The kid in me knew that by the end of the day, this boy would be in that creek. As journalists, we’re not supposed to influence our sources, to encourage them to do something they wouldn’t normally do. But, you know, the Hawthorne Effect. I tried very hard to avoid giving Soren any verbal or non-verbal cues when he was dancing around the creek. That was totally up to his mom. I did notice, with chagrin, that my old waterproof bandage didn’t hold. Interestingly, when he got out of the creek, the redness and swelling and heat were gone.

Freedom, Wyo., has a post office, a church, zero stoplights and a postcard-perfect fly fishing river with Snake River cutthroat trout. Why do you digress here to describe the town? A zoom-out moment for context. I also knew that Mike was really interested in this place called Freedom. Obviously, there’s a lot more to a place than what you can fit in a 900-word story. What seemed telling is all the things you don’t find there. It is home to cattle ranches, dairy farms and Freedom Arms, maker of one of the largest-caliber handguns on the market, used for hunting trophy game, even bigger than the .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson, the gun Clint Eastwood used to make his day. Another nice play on words. Why are you drawn to this literary fun? “The gun Clint Eastwood used to make his day” came out of the mouth of my frriend Rocky Barker when we spoke on the phone. I couldn’t find a way to attribute this quote without clunkily inserting a random outsider, which would have broken the magic. So I give him full credit here.

Jeremiah and Lindsey Johnson, the boys’ parents, were living in Jackson when they fell in love with this land and the life it promised. Jeremiah builds high-end homes in Wyoming’s wealthiest ZIP code. Lindsey, a former interior designer, bakes cakes for luxury weddings. They wanted to raise “wild Wyoming boys” in a place with creeks to explore, snakes to catch, and meadows to roam in the company of chickens, goats, and horses.

 The boys feed kitchen scraps to the hens and gather warm eggs with yolks so bright they can make a white cake blush. Such a great  metaphor! I think this is my favorite line in the story. Lindsey bakes wedding cakes, and she told me that her free-range chickens lay eggs with yolks so orange that they make a white cake not-white. I actually agonized over whether to call the yolks “bright” or “dark” or “bold.” Technically, they’re dark orange. I liked the double-entendre of “bold” paired with “blush,” but in food writing, “bold” can imply flavor. “Dark” didn’t sound right unless it was paired with “orange” but I wanted a one-syllable word to keep the cadence of the sentence. I went with “bright” for lack of a better option. After chores, they scatter to catch tadpoles, poke at bugs with sticks and hide in the willows that shade the creek. They’re chaperoned by a rescued yellow lab named Jackson. Always get the name of the dog, writing coach Roy Peter Clark preaches. Why does it matter? The name of the dog says something about the dog and also the owners. And it makes the dog a character instead of just part of the setting. Even Jackson knows the dinner bell means it’s time to run home for supper. The story is told with such economy. How difficult was it to stay within the 900- word length? It was actually a wonderful constraint that kept the first draft from spaghetti-ing. I had this list of things I wanted to weave in, but as I wrote, I watched the word count, and that made it easier to decide what to leave out. For example, Jeremiah, the dad, was sweating in long pants on a day when he should have been wearing shorts. He explained that he had to cover up his legs, because he’d let the boys draw all over them with a Sharpie. “We’d had too much TV that day,” he said. “I had to think of something.” Naturally, I asked, “What did they draw?” He showed me a picture on his phone: They drew soccer shin guards, colored his toenails black, signed their names, sketched mountains, and wrote, “It’s the end of the world. Beware!” “They play so far away I got tired of yelling,” Lindsey says. How much time did you spend interviewing the boys’ parents? Did you use a notepad or audio recorder for your assignment? That first call to Lindsey, before I decided it was worth driving to Freedom, was the only formal interview. After that, we were just chatting, but I always carry a notebook and jot down dialogue and telling details. I typically record interviews for books and long narratives, and I always take notes as well, just in case the recorder fails. My recorder failed as soon as we got to the farm, so it was all notebook. But for a deadline story, that’s actually not a bad thing. Transcribing takes time, and I find I almost always see more and listen better when I only have a notebook.

They play at least five sports with a soccer ball: baseball, volleyball, golf, soccer and Keep It Off the Ground. Sometimes a foul ball gets stuck in an Aspen tree. They have a skateboard — but no pavement — so they ride it down a grassy slope, a summertime version of sledding. There’s a bike to pedal through freshly mowed fields, but the front wheel is missing an axle. You don’t miss a detail. How do you accomplish that feat? For this detail, it helps that I’m a certified mountain-bike instructor and I’m very familiar with bikes. But I try to look not just for details, but telling details, from which the reader can infer some meaning. Telling details do a lot of work in very few words. I try to stay low on the ladder of abstraction most of the time. The more concrete the details, the more cinematic the image in the reader’s mind.

That doesn’t stop them. But Dad does. They didn’t watch the Olympics. “I don’t even know what that is,” Killian says. Interviewing children can be a challenge, yet you get the boys to reveal their lives in specific ways? What’s your approach to talking with kids for a story? I act like a kid. Which is my natural state. (My Japanese middle name literally means “eternal child.”) The boys asked me to play with them, so I did. We were doing flips on the trampoline when I thought about the Olympic trampoline event and asked them if they were watching the Olympics. Killian shrugged and made that remark. It speaks to a child’s world, which is small and rich and unfettered by world events.

Summer days promise 15 hours of daylight. But the season is fleeting. Snow comes in October, and by November it’s starting to pile up higher than a boy is tall. It doesn’t melt off until May. When the snowless season is less than five months, you learn to play hard and soak up summer like a camel stores water. You wield metaphors and similes like a poet. Does poetry inform your prose? I’m actually pretty intimidated by most poetry. But I do admire poetic prose. Pat Conroy comes to mind, and Ron Rash. They blend rich imagery with meaningful abstractions and deliver it all in language that has a certain musicality. I obsess about the cadence and flow of every sentence, but I can only dream of having their mastery of metaphor and their ability to turn a phrase. Punishment is having to stay inside. Here you depart from clause-rich sentences with a single sentence paragraph, just six words long? Why? Pacing is important. If you read something aloud, it shouldn’t sound plodding. There should be a rhythm to it, and the rhythm should feel varied but also natural, like a storyteller speaking.

In two short weeks, a bus will collect the younger boys from their driveway on State Line Road and haul them off to first and third grade. School isn’t bad. Last year, Killian’s school had a five-star view of the Tetons and a warning bell that rang when herds of wild bison wandered too near. Mom took them school shopping in Idaho Falls, nearly two hours away. The mall was an adventure. “Brevity is achieved by selection not compression” said the late writing coach Donald M. Murray. How did you decide what to leave in and take out from such a richly woven narrative? Again, it’s about well-curated telling details. Not too many. A good telling detail should stand out in a story like the center stone in an engagement ring.

“They think Idaho Falls is downtown Manhattan,” Jeremiah says.

“You should see them on an escalator,” Lindsey adds. “It’s like the movie ‘Elf.’” I notice that you digress from Soren to describe the family, the town, landscape, and especially the boy’s lives. Was it a challenge to stay on track, hewing to the main theme of Soren’s desperate desire to swim in the creek. How did you plot the story? I knew I wanted to end with him in the creek. That’s the resolution of the story, the answer to the question, the release of the tension. The protagonist gets what he wants! But I also wanted a big zoom-out moment for context.

The sun is sinking through gauzy curtains of light, a cherry orb that glows in the smoky haze from fires burning to the west. Each sunset comes a minute or two sooner than the last. Summer is slipping away. Jackknife Creek, with all its glory and bacteria, beckons irresistibly. Why do you use the natural world, with a nod to the newsy western fires to bring your story to a close? It adds a sense of foreboding, a nod to the heavy realities that encroach upon childhood as you grow up. It echoes the theme that seasons change, childhood is fleeting, and we’d better enjoy this moment, because it, too, shall pass.

“Please, Mom?” Soren pleads. “Please?”

His mother smiles.

Now he’s up to his curls in the creek. You skip ahead just a tad in your ending. How did you decide where to cut off the action? The accompanying photo of Soren swimming with a gleeful smile on his face is stunning. I’m very deliberate about the first and last image that appears in a reader’s mind. I didn’t want to waste words on the act of getting into the creek. And also, moments like that often happen in the turn of a head. As I recall, his mother smiled and didn’t say no, and then we turned our heads for the briefest of moments and  he was in the creek. What was  your collaboration with the assignment’s photojournalist, Ryan Dorgan, like? Ryan and I met on the farm but chatted before on the phone, and I shared my pre-reporting and notion of where I thought the story would go. We agreed we wouldn’t direct the boys, but just follow them around the farm. If they didn’t go swimming, the story would have been different. I wrote that last line before I saw Ryan’s photos. I think I wrote “up to his chin,” which is how I described his brother Killian earlier. But when I saw Ryan’s image, I changed it to “curls.” It’s rare to have such a perfect marriage of words and image.


Chip Scanlan is an award-winning reporter who taught at the Poynter Institute for for 15 years. He now writers and coaches other writers from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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