by Jessie Veeder
“I look at the geese flying overhead and I can relate to them, the way they fly with their necks out.”
This is Jennifer Strange and this is her way of taking cues from her world to inspire her work.
“I’m a Dakotan at heart,” declares this storyteller, Sioux Falls, South Dakota Native, fifth generation “Missouri River Rat” and self- proclaimed creative spirit as she goes on to detail how she found her way to Killdeer, North Dakota, to work to inspire residents to tell their own stories.
“It seems to be a pattern in my life to end up in small, remote communities,” says Strange. “I identify a niche I can fill and do what I can to fill it.”
The story of Strange’s soul-searching and arms-open life experience seems to set the stage for the work she’s doing in western North Dakota as a writer, self-employed publicist, event planner, and founder/executive director of the literary nonprofit Dunn County Writers (DCW).
And what she can provide to this small community begins with her own story of leaving Sioux Falls after high school in 1985 to head south to live with a friend in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she washed dishes in a Pizza Hut.
“I knew since first grade that I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know what that meant,” explained Strange. “But I felt I needed life experience, so I went out and got it.”
Strange’s search for life experience found her in Sydney, Australia before moving back to the states in 1990, ready to pursue and complete a double major in Liberal Arts and Journalism from The University of Kansas in 1994.
Creating a Career Path
While Strange was finishing her education she worked at a community mercantile and was sent to Washington D.C. with the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides. There she learned first hand about the moral conflict associated with producing needs for a nation, a lesson and awareness she would bring with her years later in her move to western North Dakota’s oil country.
“We all rely on natural resources to survive,” said Strange, who took the question “How do we find a functional balance on this planet?” to her new career in Alaska. There she worked as the managing editor of The Cordova Times, a newspaper on the Prince William Sound. Her work on resource development issues won several Alaska Press Coverage awards and her reporting of the 10th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was published throughout the Pacific Northwest.
But Strange’s career path and journey of self-discovery didn’t stop there. Strange took a four month break in 1999 where she re-centered and got in touch with nature, living with her dog in a tent in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. Then she moved to southern Oregon where she published an alternative newspaper and was self-employed for 15 years as a writer, editor, and marketing consultant specializing in sustainable lifestyles, food, and travel. Strange’s love for literature and stories inspired her to found a poetry group and serve as marketing director of the literary nonprofit, An Association of Writers, for four years, helping grow their membership, produce events, and lead the group through the publication of their first book.
And as Strange finally found her footing in a world of telling stories, in 2006, a friend set her up on a date with Terry Moore and she fell in love. The pair was married in 2009, and, at 41, Strange started a new chapter in her life.
Building a life in oil country
Starting new in oil country is a common theme that runs along roads lined with tankers and dusty pickups. And so Strange and her new husband found themselves looking east after Moore, who retired from Hewlett Packard in 2007, lost a huge portion of his retirement as the economy struggled.
“It was a moment to reinvent ourselves,” said Strange about researching western North Dakota opportunities and finding the small cowboy town of Killdeer to be a natural fit, full of character and opportunity.
Moore, who went on to earn his commercial drivers license, was offered a job driving truck for Rud Transportation, a locally owned and operated business out of Center, ND, and the couple made their move in 2013.
“Working for a family-operated business fit our values,” said Strange about her husband’s new career choice and her realization that she was an environmentalist about to rely on an income from the oil industry. But her open mind and investigative journalist background found her seeing and understanding both sides of the story, stories that she realized needed the opportunity to be told, a niche Strange knew she could help fill.
And so the Dunn County Writers group was formed with the mission to capture and chronicle the voice of a population in transition. The group is dedicated to building community around the cultural and literary arts by holding monthly writing sessions, publishing projects, and events that invite and encourage writing across a broad and inclusive base of background, topic and life experience.
“If we don’t capture our stories, then who will?” asked Strange as she goes on to explain that the DCW is comprised of 13 individuals from all ages and backgrounds, about half locals and half new residents. The group, managed by a board of three, with Strange acting as the executive director, meets at the Dunn County Museum building each month. They participate in writing exercises and share their work. In April of this year the organization was officially incorporated as a literary non-profit.
But what has been most exciting about the work that the DCW has been able to do is to provide the community with an opportunity to engage with nationally renowned writers. Since its inception, Strange has produced and publicized four cultural and literary arts events at Killdeer’s newly built High Plains Cultural Center, and co-produced one at the Dunn County Historical Society, including programs with renowned and award winning authors Debra Marquart and Pam Houston.
In addition, Strange’s prior experience inspired her to help the DCW through three group submissions in western North Dakota publications and they are scheduled to release their second annual booklet of original writing this winter.
“We came to North Dakota so Terry could earn back his retirement and to embed ourselves in this culture and see what good we could do,” said Strange, who will graduate with a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Pacific University in January.
And as she helps others tell their stories, her story continues. Strange has plans in the works for a book about being an investigative journalist embedded in the Bakken. She will also continue her work as a self-employed writer, serving on the Dunn County Historical Society and Museum committee, and standing firm in her mission of using her passions and experience to help enrich a community.
“I’m so proud and humbled by the people involved in the DCW mission,” said Strange “People here are hungry for cultural and literary arts and their work is helping me understand this region. My goal is to capture and chronicle the voice of this generation—to make something happen with what we write.”
And so, like the geese she sees flying with their necks out, Jennifer Strange has found herself in a new home, with wings outstretched and the best view for the story.