Kehler identifies as an outdoorsman. In one essay he wrote in Hollowtop Smoke Signals, he described trout in the river that used to run for cover at the sound of his name. Now, he says, they ignore him. PHOTO COURTESY OF ART KEHLER

The voice

Art Kehler’s journey with writing

Bestowing small town folks unofficial awards for daily occurrences is an unspoken tradition, according to Art Kehler.

For example, the contest may be regarding the coldest temperature inside on any given winter day. Some real shysters might go around in the early hours of the morning with a flashlight to check the thermometer during the coldest part of the day, and report that to the crowd at the local diner a few hours later.

Those people are hooligans. But, whomever wins the unofficial award gets the unofficial title and proceeds to be unbearable about it, Kehler described.

Arthur Kehler has been writing for about half of his life and contributing to The Madisonian since the early 2000s. After being laid off from a mining job, he decided to go to college for an English teaching degree at age 47. English Composition 101 was his first class and he was required to write prose.

“I found out pretty quick that I loved doing it,” he remembered. It allowed him to write about things he had not thought of in years. Younger adults in his class loved his pieces, which surprised him given the age difference.

Anyone who has read any of Kehler’s pieces knows how distinct and identifiable his writer’s voice is. He attributes this to growing up in a family that ‘was a little nuts.’ He got his wit from his dad and his mom was the only ‘sane human’ that tried to keep the family under control.

“It forces me to sit down and concentrate,” Kehler said about writing. “They say writers are observers and even at an early age I’d be happy observing things. While my brother was running around me like a maniac, I was listening to the older folks, watching what was going on around me.”

The combination of being still and growing up with humor shows in Kehler’s soft voice that is prickled with one-liners that knock you off-guard due to their subtlety and drollness.

The outdoors and locals of the tri-cities—Harrison, Norris and Pony—feed Kehler’s inspiration. “We have some pretty unique characters here, like most the small towns in Montana,” he said, and put the humor of those individuals on paper.

Occasionally, locals would recognize themselves in Kehler’s writing, which just adds a whole extra element of comedy to the situation.

Areas like the tri-cities make everyone a part of the community at some point. The traditions, like the unofficial award for the coldest house temperature, become traditions because the close-knit nature of the people does not let them die. Kehler described Harrison as the outback of Madison County—not a lot of news cycles out of the town, but the feedback loop of telling stories within the community keeps tradition alive and humor abundant.

“It takes a lifetime of writing,” Kehler said, to find a voice. To be a writer, he said, one has to sit at the bed of the dying or watch a sunset on a bitter cold day. Life experiences add up to inform an excerpt both in terms of the content and the creativity.

He advises young writers to be themselves. The voice will come eventually. And, to keep a journal.

“When you’re journaling, you’ll write down an initial gem of a thought that turns into a piece,” he said.

Journaling, writing and being outdoors have kept Kehler’s mind fresh. The body tends to have a different plan.

“It takes me so long to do anything anymore,” Kehler said.

After a neck surgery in 2018, his hands stiffened. Kehler was unable to type as effectively and even with the assistance of voice recognition software, the mouse needed proved to be too much for his hands. For now, journaling and writing new things are off the table.

Kehler reads more as a result, currently in The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel. He plans to branch out to other publications and see if he can submit articles he has already written.

“It strikes me as quite a privilege to write for the first newspaper in Montana,” Kehler said of his thoughts on submitting to The Madisonian. If you want to experience his voice for yourself, find Kehler’s contributions in The Madisonian e-editions, or his book, Hollowtop Smoke Signals on Amazon.

Kehler said his dad always told him not to get old. He never gave him any advice on how to stop the process.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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