FARMINGTON — For 33 years, William Gray made his living doing what many writers and photographers dream of — examining volcanoes, rafting through canyons, backpacking for months and following the path of a great explorer.
He's had a long career of writing, photographing, publishing and being on the forefront of projects that are still giant successes for the National Geographic Society. Now, Gray lives in Durango, Colo., and imparts the lessons he's learned by teaching English and creative writing classes at San Juan College.
"I always thought that we almost earned a master's degree in every kind of assignment that we had, whether it was archeology or anthropology or some kind of science like geology, because you really want to become a master of the subject," Gray said of his career with the National Geographic Society. "You want to understand it so that you can write about it comprehensively and clearly for your readers."
Gray knew what he wanted to do with his life when he was a youth. Even as a child, he recalled writing fictionalized stories of historical events or chronicling a camping trip he went on with his father.
"It's something I've always loved, particularly the outdoors, mountain climbing, backpacking, canoeing, rafting," he said.
His connection to nature and travel writing led him to study English at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. In 1967, the summer before his senior year, Gray completed a writing internship with National Geographic. After graduating, he was immediately offered a job.
During his time there, he held several positions, in one way or another bringing the unknown cultures and histories of the world into the living rooms of National Geographic readers.
William Gray traveled the world as a writer for the National Geographic Society s Special Publications Division. Below are some of the books he worked on.
The Alps Documents the different civilizations of the European mountains
The Pacific Crest Trail Gray hiked the trail from Mexico to Canada to document this trail.
Powers of Nature Volcanoes and other powerful natural occurrences from all over the world
America s Majestic Canyons
Alaska: High Roads to Adventure
Nature s World of Wonders A look at the natural wonders of the world
Voyages to Paradise: Exploring in the Wake of Captain Cook Gray followed a great explorer s path to see what he saw 200 years later.
National Geographic Society is responsible for more than the yellow-bordered magazine. Information about their many books, television channel, children s magazine and Traveler magazine can be found at nationalgeographic.com
TAKE A CLASS
William Gray s classes are available to everyone, not just English or Creative Writing students. Editing and Style and Creative Nonfiction are online classes. More information on those classes and the Creative Writing Program can be found at sanjuancollege.edu
Now, since taking an early retirement from National Geographic, he brings these experiences to students taking his English Composition, Editing and Style, and Creative Nonfiction courses at San Juan College.
Gray admits to his Editing and Style students that it pains him when he adds errors to his writing that they must find as part of their editing assignments. Through these excerpts, his students vicariously travel around the world.
One project that especially affected Gray — and that he now uses as a source for several assignments — is "Powers of Nature." For that project, he traveled to Iceland, Italy, New Zealand and Hawaii to study volcanoes.
He described his experience of Kilauea in Hawaii as it started its current series of eruptions:
Be involved in your subject
Gray uses his experience with National Geographic to teach English. He tells his students to get involved in what they're writing about. "That means going out and doing it," he said.
Empathy for your subject
Gray, who teaches a creative nonfiction class at San Juan College in Farmington, tells writers to develop sensitivity for their subjects. "Have a feeling for it, a compassion for it," he advised.
Become a keen observer
Take it all in at first. Then, Gray says, "winnow through everything that you've seen and noted from a sensory perception as to what makes the person or the place truly unique."
Write with elegance
In his creative nonfiction class, Gray tells students to develop a style when they write. He explained, "It's creative writing, so you want to write with a great sense of literary voice."
Finding the best words
"You want to use not just a good word, but the best word. You want to use good sentence variety. Bring your subject to life. The use of sensory language is really important, especially to nature writing."
Do your homework
Gray instructs his students to have a strong command of their subjects. He says, "Know the subject thoroughly, so that you can communicate it clearly to your readers."
Take a few risks
"Get out of your comfort zone. Do things you wouldn't normally do. Often, that will be the most interesting and important thing that you write about. You might just surprise yourself," Gray said.
"Along with a geologist, I actually hiked up the live lava flow towards the vent," Gray said. "The lava was billowing up 400 feet in the air, with an intense, incandescent red-orange kind of light, and we walked up on these cooling plates of lava with cracks around them where you could see the 2000-degree lava right underneath. We went up as close as we could, and the heat was very intense. The smell of sulfur was incredible. I noticed when we got back the soles of my hiking boots had melted. That was a spellbinding experience."
So what brought a man who spent most of his life traveling to Durango?
Gray said the western United States has always attracted him, and when it came time to settle down, he and his wife decided Durango truly captured the essence of the American West.
The 40 acres of land where they now live not only provide a view of the LaPlata Mountains, but also of the Shiprock pinnacle, 65 or 70 miles away. That's significant, Gray said, because the unique volcanic formation was one of the first subjects he photographed for National Geographic.
Today, in his Creative Nonfiction course, Gray asks students not only to write about a place, but go to a place they have never been before and explore it. Using what they have learned, students acquire information by interviewing people to complete the assignment.
"The experiences I had — and the fact that I've written as much as I have — I am able to communicate that to my students," Gray said. "Since it has been such a strong part of my life, I think, just in how I present the material, they understand the importance of good writing right away. Even in my regular English courses here, I emphasize the quality of writing, not just to write, but to write beautifully, not just to fulfill an assignment but to write it as well as you can."
Chris Strouthopulos has taught English alongside Gray at San Juan College for six years. Through peer reviews, he said he has always noticed that Gray's students were able to write about nature evocatively.
"His goals as a teacher translate into quality, descriptive writing from the students. ... The college is lucky to have him. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience with him, and he is humble about it," Strouthopulos said.