Wooddell Through time-1971

Where we end up as writers does not always have any correlation to where we began. It is all too easy to imagine, when one is young, the career path. All too easy to believe that one’s work will inevitably be celebrated, awards will flow, and wealth will result from that million dollar sale.

Wooddell Through time-1978

But I would hazard a guess that most don’t imagine the years of sitting solitary, in front of a keyboard and computer screen, doing the writing itself. Or of sitting with a pad of paper, or a notebook and pen, or pencil, and cramping one’s hand while writing word after word, endlessly, then revising them, and then, at last, sitting down to put it all into a computer’s word processor. That part of the dream is boring, and will be glossed over by the unimaginative.

Wooddell Through time-1-2


But what if that dream of great success and riches doesn’t happen right away? Does that mean one’s writing has no validity? When I was at university, I knew a young man who was my own age. He was determined to write novels in such a way that his genius would be recognized by the time he was 21 years old. Because his hero had done so. And when that didn’t happen? He was shattered. He declared he would never write again. I lost touch with him soon afterward, and don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he learned that stuff runs downhill and became a plumber. He probably made more in his career than most wanna-be writers ever will. He might own a vacation home, and a boat, and maybe even can afford to send his kids to college. I don’t know.

Another friend from the same period was a serious pianist. He’d been groomed from age 3 to be a concert pianist. His mother poured money and hopes into private lessons, piano camps, tutors, and a first rate piano in their home. He was astonishingly good when he performed. He went off to college, studying piano, and he became much better. But his goal was to be world famous by the time he was 21, because his hero did that. And his mom said to do that. And when he didn’t succeed in reaching that level of fame?

Wooddell Through time-2004

I lost track of him for many years, but through the wonders of the internet some few years ago, was able to briefly connect. He’d gone on to get a master’s degree in conducting, and then a doctoral degree. He as teaching college symphony band, conducting, and playing piano, and was still pretty good. They always asked him to play at parties. He knew all the songs. He married, had children, bought a comfortable home, and made a very good life for himself. Was that not worth the doing, simply because he didn’t live up to the dream he’d had when he was young?

I seem to meet a lot of young writers these days, and I try to be reserved in giving advice. I’m not Gandalf: I don’t have magic dust up my sleeve. If I did, I’d be famous and rich, instead of relatively obscure and on the poorer side of middle class. The only solid advice I can give is to keep writing. Write more. Then write it again. And then again. Write more than one story. Write many stories. And then more stories.

Wooddell Through time-2014-2

How do you learn and know what you don’t know? Ask a lot of questions. Write down the answers, and find your stories in the answers from others. Ask: What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it? What do you think about when you garden? How did you meet your spouse? Why did you want children? In the answers from those people you meet, to whom you ask question about their lives, you will find answers for your writing. No one is born with answers within them. But good writers are born with lots of questions. Writing is answering the questions you ask. Ask good questions.

You might want to read this essay from a speech given by a writer, Andrew Solomon, in which he discuses Advice for Young Writers by Rilke. It is more brilliant than anything I could say.

I mostly did other things in my career than write. I worked with photographers, and artists, and eventually became a photographer. I learned to be a careful researcher, and writer of reports read mostly by senior editors. To get there, perhaps the most important part was learning about the world. In my youth, I worked construction, in a steel mill, in stores, in factories, in restaurants, in libraries, and occasionally for my grandfather, learning to take care of a historic 19th century farm on a mountain. All of that was grist for my word mill, for my word farm; learning to ask questions, and find answers.

  • David W. Wooddell

On Assignment for National Geographic: Normandy Invasion and D-Day

As a magazine research editor, I was occasionally fortunate enough to have a special assignment for National Geographic magazine. I had developed military stories as one of my specialties, along with marine archaeology. Sometimes, I helped pre-visualize artwork, and turned up locations for the magazine photographers to include in their coverage.  Tom Allen’s story, “Untold Stories of D-Day” sent me to Normandy, France to look for the wrecks of the sunken craft that went down during the invasion. The magazine was kind enough to give the readers a glimpse of my work in the On Assignment section.

A D-Day Mosaic; France; (Brief Article), National Geographic, June 1, 2002, Copyright 2002 National Geographic Society, SECTION: No. 6, Vol. 201; Pg. 142; ISSN: 0027-9358

Peering out of an old German bunker, now part of a museum on Normandy’s Utah Beach, senior researcher David W. Wooddell scouts out the sites where ships sank and men died. “You know people have paid a terrible price for something that was vastly worthwhile,” he recalls thinking.

David began his research for our D-Day article by reading every book he could find on the subject, surfing the Internet, “looking for the best documentary sources available.” Then he spent the equivalent of two weeks in the National Archives looking for maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs. “I was a photographer before I came to the magazine, so I shoot my own copies of historical photographs,” he says. Finally, he went to France for a week, visiting museums devoted to the invasion, seeking artifacts and other visual material.

David at St. Vaast
On assignment with underwater mapper, Bertrand Sciboz and his crew.    Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Normandy, France

While in France, David worked with Bertrand Sciboz, a French diver who owns a company in Normandy that maps wrecks of all ages off the coast. “At NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC we have the resource of time to develop information in detail, a luxury few other magazines have,” David says.

David’s research greatly aided our photographers, as well as author Tom Allen… Tom, who has written several articles and books about World War II and the people who fought in it, set out with the goal of covering the part of the invasion that has received minimal attention over the decades, the delivery of men and materiel to Normandy’s beaches.

“I’ve had the privilege of talking to people who helped win the war,” reflects Tom, 73. “You find a survivor and you find one little piece of the mosaic of that day, of the memory we’re all supposed to have of D-Day. I put my story together from their remembrances.”


Touching the Plastic Jesus

Touching the plastic Jesus


Bonampak Show

We flew into the jungle in a single engine Cessna, the pilot and me up front. A couple of others, two of the scientists were in the backseat. Most of our gear, and the rest of the team rode in the two other aircraft. No decent road ran to our destination, and we had too much gear to carry on our backs — generators, gasoline, fresh water, food enough for a half dozen people for two weeks, cases of cameras, film, lights, strobes, extension cords, step ladders, reference books. Clothing, boots, raincoats, hammocks, mosquito nets, and sleeping bags. Lots of coffee. Big first aid kits with epinephrine pens in case of poisonous snakebite – to keep you comfortable until you die, I think – and special dressings for gunshot wounds. Just in case of gunshot wounds. The nearest hospital was hundreds of miles away, but there was no telephone to the outside, no cell phone reception, and one short-wave radio that worked sometimes. I enjoy a nice, isolated camping trip now and then, but this one had some real possibilities.

Bonampak Show

This was the edge of the rainy season, when one major storm every afternoon fills the sky with lightning and hard rain. Thunderheads build over the mountains with deep purple and puffy white clouds, and the pilots skirt them out of caution. Few places offer somewhere to set down in a hurry in the southern Chiapas jungle. Next to me, the pilot, Jose, an older man with a bushy mustache and a tan ball cap ran his hands nervously over the worn dash of the old plane. He was touching the plastic Jesus, and feeling the temperature of the windshield; touching the dials on the dashboard, none of which appeared to work too well. Wind-speed indicator was broken. Altitude indicator said we were on the ground. The fuel gauge looked uncertain.

Bonampak Show

The Cessna skimmed the ridges of mountains and dodged big clouds and suddenly the wings waggled with a gust of rain. Jose the pilot let the air out of his cheeks and said “Madre Dios.” I didn’t need a translation. The plane was flying crab-wise, pushed by strong gusts. Don’t worry, the pilot seemed to smile in my direction, then went back to muttering and touching things, always touching. He must’ve touched that plastic Jesus a hundred times for reassurance. Sometimes, on expedition, life is like that. We look for something to keep us equitable and calm, even when there seems a bit of danger. The butterflies in one’s stomach could be from a case of nerves back at the office, the uncertainty of how a boss might review one’s work; or they could be from an adventure such as this. I know which one I prefer.


The aircraft came around the airfield once from a good altitude, checking it out. A slash in the jungle, it was just a light-colored line to show where we were planning to land. The aircraft spiraled down and gave the field another buzz. Down below I saw some horses kick and run off the field. The horses, surrounded by clouds of fleas, were wild, and were used as inexpensive lawnmowers to keep the grass trimmed to a manageable length on the single airstrip. The trick was to look for water splashing from hooves when the horses run. Too much water on tall grass can be a fatal mistake for a bush pilot. And the horses keep poisonous snakes off the field, or so the locals believe.

Bonampak Show

Landing was a blur of trees whizzing past on either side of the wings. Looking like we would scrape at any moment, the wings had about fifty feet of clearance on either side. We cheered the pilot as he taxied to the aircraft parking area just barely off the strip. From there we watched the two following aircraft land with our luggage and supplies. I made some pictures of the other aircraft, so we could prove how narrow the airstrip was. I’ve heard it called “the most dangerous airstrip in the world.” I don’t know if that is true, but the remains of airplanes surround the runway, where they’ve been pulled into the jungle. To inspire the other pilots, perhaps.

Bonampak Show

Pascal, the INAH guardian, stepped out from behind a tree that was twenty feet wide at the base. He was a Lacandone, one of the modern Maya. Perhaps forty years old with a black moustache, wearing a blue cap with the INAH logo on the front, he carried a big machete. He was expecting us.


I’d been there before, and had done a good turn for Pascal and the villagers at this location. Before flying out after my previous expedition, I turned over to Pascal the generator I’d brought to power the photographic lights. To go with it, I’d drawn up a document on my organization’s letterhead that gave the INAH guardian custody of the generator, and the right to use it for the convenience of the people in his village. To Pascal, and some other local people, I am Senior Electrico. Pascal laughed when he saw the new generator I brought on this second journey to his part of the rainforest. Wouldn’t take long for the village to start making plans for putting the second generator to work.


It was all part of going to the job. Weeks of planning, arranging, logistics, supplies, team building – I’d contributed as I was able, and depended on others to finesse the permits. The art historian from Connecticut, and the archaeologists from Utah and California gained the approval of INAH. The imaging specialists from Utah arranged funding from their parent organization. And of course we’d faced the questions from the Mexican Army at the small airport in Palenque. They asked to see the permits and papers, and searched through our massive pile of equipment. For some, it was a test of patience.

Bonampak Show

What would we find on this expedition, that we didn’t already know? That was always the question when setting out on such excursions. The questions one asks at the beginning are not the same as those one broods about when departing some days or weeks later. Is there more to be learned? Yes, there is always more to be learned, especially about oneself. Finding the ability to laugh at a critical and difficult moment; discovering again how to walk away, stiff-legged from anger and conflict; it becomes a time of basic truths. Those are as important to me as what was found in the archaeology, or in the paintings on the walls.


We dance and bleed, one wall of the murals tells us: we who come there to study also dance and bleed, in our own ways. Some prey on others; some just pray and touch the plastic Jesus.


– David W. Wooddell