T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, Fall 2009
ABOUT: Chris Jones, writer-at-large for Esquire magazine, has won two National Magazine Awards--one for "The Things That Carried Him," a story about the return of a soldier's body from Iraq, and the other for "Home," which became the basis for his nonfiction book "Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home." He led a seminar on narrative nonfiction writing during the fall of 2009. His Pollner lecture was titled, "Accidents."
"My Pollner Experience" by Chris Jones
It was a year ago this week, in the days before Christmas, when I left Missoula and drove east, back toward the place that no longer felt like home.
I’d spent nearly five months as the Pollner professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. Now my semester was finished. My time was up. My wife and kids had flown out ahead of me. I piled our things into the car and drove up and over the first few passes out of town, and I couldn’t believe that the mountains were already in my rearview.
Only in August, they had been in front of me. I had passed the miles through Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota with nervous, excited thoughts; I had made big plans, talking to the cornfields and overpasses.
I think probably like most of the other Pollner professors, I thought a lot about the class I was going to teach. Narrative Non-Fiction, I was calling it. I hoped it would be good. I thought about what I would tell the students working at the Kaimin—I wondered what the hell a Kaimin was, while I was at it—and hoped I might pass along some wisdom that was worth their while. I thought about the town, what it would be like, and about the house my wife and I had rented, and whether my kids would adjust to their new, temporary lives.
Mostly, though, as the odometer continued to count its way up, I fought grandiose visions that I would come to Missoula, and I would change lives. Maybe there would be a single, hardheaded kid sitting in my classroom I could reach, and I would be played later by Robin Williams in the tearjerker we were sure to inspire, BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
Of course, kids only climb up on their desks, they only start their slow-building ovations, in movies.
I know that. But during that long drive out west, I still imagined those things happening. It was pretty to think about the good I might do.
I had no idea then that all the good would be done to me.
My time in Montana was among the happiest in my life, in my family’s lives. My fellow professors were warm and welcoming; early on, we all sat outside on a patio at one of Missoula’s many fine bars and laughed into the night. The students were bright and eager and talented, and I became close to many of them. Their victories became my victories. My office had a view of the mountains, and I would spend entire happy days in there doing two of my favorite things: writing and talking about writing. We took weekend trips to see glaciers and horses standing in snowy fields. We went to the market to buy bread and watched kids float down the river. It was a perfect, beautiful time.
And suddenly, it was over. I said my goodbyes through tears and began my long drive away. I didn’t know just then, a year ago this week, that everything had changed for me. But I knew my former life wasn’t nearly as good as my life had been in Missoula. North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan… I made up my mind that we had to make changes. My wife had been equally unsettled. We had seen a better place.
In the year since, we’ve sold our house and moved to a small town. I’ve become a more attentive husband and father. I’ve simplified things. I’ve thought more about the work I’m doing. I’ve read stories differently. I’ve told them differently, too.
I drove west thinking that I would change someone’s life, and I drove east with mine having been changed forever instead.