Jessica Bryant Klagmann

explorations of simplicity, wildness, imagination. and other writerly things.

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joyful sandwich

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written something here, saving most words for hidden pages that may (or may not) evolve into something more suitable for public reads. Internal. But, I feel lucky, and sandwiched between joyful things.

This last weekend, I went for a long run on the most beautiful road on Earth. Really. I could have just gone on and on. Utter solitude, a rushing muddy river, an overwhelming amount of green. And sun, and deliciously simple food, and blissful memories of the thirteen other times I’d been in those woods.

East Fork Run

Yesterday I was reminded again of an abundance of blessings. A friend who has been through much lately sent a photo of his two coyote-mix dogs at a lake nearby Glacier. The three were preparing to cross the border and begin a journey north to the Arctic Circle. Having driven the Alaska Highway twice, I’m overflowing with the opposite of jealousy. Only excitement that the experience is being had by three beings who very much deserve it. The dogs are old, health failing, this possibly their last big adventure. But, what lucky things they are, right now. And what lucky things we all are right in this moment, that we have so much land still to explore, the companionship of creatures with unwavering devotion, and time.

Life is good, I told him. Soak it all up. Then remembered that I too rarely take my own advice. And not frequently enough do I pay attention to the most obvious of lessons my own pup teaches me daily.



In a few days, I’ll have a story in a journal that happens to be one of my favorites. A story of mine, alongside stories and essays by damn fine writers that I admire. It’ll be another grateful-worthy thing indeed. I’ve a two-month smile.

There, sandwich.


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Digging into memory, findings can be tinged with many things: humor, longing, embarrassment, messiness, clarity. This time it was tinged with wonder. Like my very first thoughts here, the act of writing “Ester” (a lyric essay, as I am reluctant yet drawn to call it) was pure discovery, an attempt at best. The editors of Burrow Press Review were kind enough to publish it. And, my lovely husband, sweet enough to offer a perfectly-fitting image for the occasion. The moment was brief. The essay is brief. And yet, the place it came from worth every bit of stirring up and dwelling on much longer: how and when do we decide to take a particular place or person or moment in time and uncover, assign, interpret meaning?

Here is “Ester.”

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of consequence.


I spent fifteen minutes in the mud a few evenings ago. It had thundered, rained, hailed. I crouched behind a pear tree trying to capture the precise moment before a drop of water slid from the tip of a leaf, all with the blurry background of a ditched Plymouth Barracuda.

The lighting was off. My focus shifted unfailingly just before that sought-after moment and I scolded myself for lack of patience—disconnect—with the world.

There is a wonderful story by Anthony Doerr, “Mkondo”: a woman begins photographing the sky as reflected in various objects. In this, she comes out of a darkness and into a new passion for life because she is able to contain, so others understand, beauty the way only she sees it.

Someone, the other day, sent me a video of Malala Yousafzai addressing the UN. Immediately I felt like I’d failed at something. Why, I’m not sure. The most selfish response one could have, probably.

I wondered, when there are circumstances like this in the world, what good does it do for me to be thinking about the details of a character’s garden: iris or peony, iris or peony?

Then, what color peony?

I thought, I need to write bigger stories. More meaningful stories. More important, powerful, emotion-inducing stories. It’s not good enough to ponder, at my convenience, what might happen if I put two characters in room, in an interesting situation.

I believe, though, I was wrong. I’d examined this under the wrong light, from the wrong angle. The composition was not this thing here, that thing there. Rearrange the pieces. Travel to the other side of the room. Ask, what can writing—what can any art—do for the noble and the brave?

It teaches, one small moment at a time. It translates experience and gives universal access to what it means to be human, beautiful and cruel and mundane. The very things people like this young woman are willing to fight for—education, imagination, the freedom to explore that humanity—require that artists create.

It isn’t pretentious or self-aggrandizing. Truthfully, it’s humbling and it’s a lot of pressure. It means that, if done right, the color of the peony is infinitely important.


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at the end.

So there was this road in Fairbanks, Alaska. About a mile long, dirt, bursting with fireweed in the summer and sealed within a hard shell of ice in the winter. I may very well have walked up and down this road five hundred times.year three (22)

year two (6)

At the end, a cabin I rented sat tucked between a bend in the road and Goldstream Valley. There was also a mysterious little community of cabins, abandoned in the 70s. Rusting trucks, molding mattresses, and pile upon pile of miscellaneous junk-that-once-wasn’t-junk.

A disorderly ghost village, yet in hidden corners, reminders of intention had been preserved. A Joy Division poster tacked to the inside wall of a van. Two snowshoes nailed, crisscrossed, on the outside wall of a cabin that no one had entered in thirty years. A moose antler tied to a birch, the rope no longer needed, antler and tree embracing one another.

hippie ghost commune (20)bw

This road told me many a story. It was, by its own right, a story and many stories.

I recently entered a writing contest voted entirely by the writers who entered. I thought it was a neat idea (and it is) but I hadn’t anticipated the kind of writerly self-awareness that would come from having to put into words my own interpretation of what makes a story a good one. I certainly don’t have the definition in a neatly packed box, and I like it that way — amorphous — but the exercise was a much-needed one I hadn’t done in a long time.

And, I was lucky enough to take second. Have a look at the neat project that is Sixfold, Summer 2013 and read some great short stories.

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still life with jellyfish.


A late sun. The smell of wildfires. Orange skies. All too easy a time to be thinking about Alaska.

Hiraeth Press is a small publisher that puts out Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics each year on the solstices. I like the word ‘hireath’ as it has no perfect English equivalent. It’s complicated. A tangle of homesickness and nostalgia, with bits of sadness for something (or maybe someone) lost.

Wrapped up in all of it is the strangeness of longing for a home that doesn’t exist anymore, or has become, as James Baldwin puts it, “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” At some point in life, perhaps home is no longer home. Perhaps we have many homes. Perhaps we are foreigners in the place we call home.

So it’s a strangely appropriate word for my feelings about Alaska and the things I write on in the essay Written River has just published. Because more than just a place, it was also a time and a network of individuals that can’t be recovered. And likely there was a certain angle of light and a particular direction of wind and the sound of the right birds. The place may still exist, but the rest is brief and rightly so. These are fleeting gifts we’re given.

machine OP

My sense of home is complicated because for me, each of the things I’ve learned about myself, the ingredients I attribute to a sense of belonging, they all have their own homes. There are parts of me that live on the top of a mountain in New Hampshire, others beneath a maloca roof in Curacao, and still others buried under ashes in a Fairbanks, Alaska fire pit. This, I think, is a wonderful thing, and yet an aching one, because we can only ever be in one place at one time.

I have a fondness for things French and the great filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said, “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” I find this a little hilarious and the sentiment a lot true, and while I’m unconvinced on the appeal of cats, I do like to think about the singular things that give a place its essence, visible or otherwise.

As I stray from the subject, which actually does have something to do with jellyfish… The essay, “Driving Through a Mountain,” can be read here in the Summer Solstice 2013 Issue of Written River, and thanks again to the editors for doing something as important as bringing nature and words to a meeting place.

Happy Solstice.

kayak 5

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doing good, somewhere.


Small moments yield big insights. I started a story because of two photographs that weren’t mine, that ultimately had nothing to do with one another. It was an experiment in the expansive moments of simple lives.

I guess I advocate, as a writer, for the experiment. For venturing blindly, then speculating. Because it puts the right kind of energy into the world, and if things don’t go as hoped, then at least that energy still probably went and did some good elsewhere. And because there’s likely someone out there—like the kind editors of the journal Pithead Chapel—who values your attempt.

They published the story this month, and I’m truly thankful. “If a Tree Grew as Tall” can be read HERE.

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on essaying.

Whittier Wettier (109)

The wonderful thing about the word ‘essay’–besides that it’s French–is that it’s a verb. It means to try, to experiment, to endeavor. This is something I keep forgetting, how active it is. How an essay is something we pursue — both writers and readers. A feat akin to scrambling over rocks. And it’s also something that changes shape, needing to be defined every time we begin and redefined continually as we move through it.

The essay escapes mastery. It is, merely, an attempt.