The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 1

Why I Write, or Not

by Jim Harrison

Standing outside the Metropolitan Museum in New York several years ago, feeling sodden and perplexed over the Goya show, I ran into an old friend, the poet Charles Simic, whom I hadn't seen in twenty years. Among other things that we talked about, he said, "I thought I'd understand everything by now but I don't," and I think I replied, "We know a great deal but not very much."
      I'm not saying that we throw in the towel on our rational mind, one that we only had two fingers on in the first place, but that with age the processes of my own art seem a great deal more immutable and inexplicable to me. For instance, even without my eyes closed specific ideas usually carry an equally specific visual image. The act of writing is like a boy hoeing a field of corn on a hot day, from which he can see either a woodlot or, more often, an immense forest where he'd rather be. This is uncomplicated, almost banal. He had to hoe the corn in order to be allowed to reach his beloved forest. This can be easily extrapolated into a writer as a small god who has forty acres as a birthright on which to reinvent the world. He cultivates this world, but then there is always something vast and unreachable beyond his grasp, whether it's the forest, the ocean, or the implausible ten million citizens of New York or Paris. While he hoes or writes, he whirls toward the future at a rate that with age becomes quite incomprehensible. He leaves a trail of books, but he really marks the passage of time by the series of hunting dogs he's left behind. His negative capability has made the world grow larger rather than shrink, and not a single easy answer has survived the passing of years.
      It is more comic than melancholy because the presumptions are so immense. No matter how much you've read, something has been left out that you aim to fill in yourself. This takes a great deal of hubris and frequently a measure of stupidity. Our large family read widely, if indiscriminately, the movie theater in our small town in northern Michigan changing features only once a week. I began with the usual Horatio Alger, Zane Grey, Hardy Boys flotsam, graduating to my father's passion for literate historical novels, especially those of Kenneth Roberts, Hervey Allen, and Walter Edmonds, and then also to his taste for (he was an agriculturist) Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, and Erskine Caldwell, continuing on my own, so that by nineteen my obsessive favorites included Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Yeats, Kierkegaard, Joyce, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Henry Miller, and Faulkner. Such a list might very well lead an intelligent soul to keep his own mouth shut, but then a curious arrogance has always been the breastplate of a young writer's armor. At this stage humility is a hobble one can scarcely afford. The only fuel the ego receives is interior. You might wander around in a thunderstorm, hiding out and repeating non serviam, but then no one has asked you to do anything and no one is looking for you, least of all those whom you have tormented with your postures.
      Despite early forays to New York, Boston, and San Francisco, my work is preoccupied with rural life and the natural world. I must say that I don't see any special virtue to this. You are pretty much stuck with what you know, and Peter Matthiessen, with his obsessive preoccupation with the natural world balances nicely with a taste for the more urbane James Salter or Don DeLillo. It is the artfulness of the prose and construct I'm looking for, not someone's fungoid wisdom. Good writers seem to know that they are permanently inconsolable.
      It is the mystery of personality that seizes me, the infinite variety of human behavior that thumbs its nose at popular psychologisms. Even our dreams seem to wish to create new characters as surely as we do in our fictions, and our creation of our own personalities is most often a fictive event. In creating an environment for certain of my characters I often find myself trying to create an environment for my own soul. The perception of reality grows until it is an accretion of the perceptions of all creatures. It is a daily struggle against the habituation and conditioning that binds us and suffocates us, destroying the fascinating perceptions that characterize the best writing. You continue under the willful illusion that the world is undescribed or else you need not exist, and you never quite tire of the bittersweet mayhem of human behavior.
      Except, of course, the fatigue brought on by our collective behavior, both political and economic, the moral hysteria we are currently sunken in. Last May without an inkling I found myself saying in a French interview that we are becoming a fascist Disneyland. This is seeping into our fiction and poetry in the form of a new Victorianism, wherein a mawkish sincerity is the highest value. At one point I thought it was simply the way academia had subsumed serious fiction and poetry, but now it seems that academia and small presses are the only barriers against totally market-driven work, despite the other obvious shortcomings of the M.F.A. pyramid schema, a sad breeder of middling expectations and large disappointments.
      The national mood that affects our work is naturally more complicated. An English anthropologist, Mary Douglas, said that "the more that society is vested with power, the more it despises the organic processes on which it rests." Each year we become more like Europe, with cultural rigidity that is typical of an increasing population that has doubled in my lifetime. Otherness, the primal core of our lives, the unmediated aspects of our existence, our lives and loves and deaths, the rituals we have used to frame our existence for thousands of years can't hold up and haven't under the sodden blanket of the collective media, whether television or the Internet. There is the darkly comic vision of this media-fueled cultural blender, increasing in size and power until that is all there is. A blender as big as Ohio, which spews the trash, chatter, and clutter we're all familiar with. Art is confused and smothered by the art market, literature is seen as an arm of publishing rather than vice versa. Animals are what you see in the zoos, within the zoo of our lives. Certain eco-nazis appear to think that all animals still surviving in the wild, especially grizzlies and wolves, all require telemetric devices. Like politics, the rodentia will thrive. The majority of our population that eats beef, pork, and chicken has never known an actual cow, pig, or hen. Times change, as our parents told us, not the less fascinating for the colors of the grotesque.
      We paint our lives as we write our work, and I'm reminded of Whitman's statement that a poet must "move wild laughter in the throat of death." I've always had a somewhat childish obsession with thickets and I suspect this shows in my work. I like a specific density in fiction and poetry, feeling that the easily perceived is almost always valueless. I often have wondered if this somewhat Pleistocene obsession with thickets, niches, and lairs may have had its origin in the childhood trauma of being blinded in one eye, but then so what? The explanation is flotsam. It is all so wonderfully random, accidental, just as since my youth hundreds have thought my appearance to be Native American though those genes seem unlikely in my family. We have chosen to be outcasts and they haven't, so the identification is inappropriate. There is also the suspicion that the craving for identity is the cause of the literary disease of xenophobia. Since nearly everyone is dislocated, including writers within our current critical diaspora, the staking, lauding, and defense of territories, an otiose form of regionalism, is even more absurd. Of course literary rages, fads, events, and quarrels don't age any better than Beaujolais or the "skinless, boneless chicken breasts" that are evidently the prime meat of our time. Metaphorically, writers are better off eating the elephant's asshole, stewed thirty-three hours with hot chilies, that I partook of in Tanzania in 1973.
      I used to think I was becoming quadra-schizoid by writing poetry, fiction, essays, and screenplays, but then since I don't teach I've always had a hand in all of those forms to make a living. We would be nothing without the good teachers in our lives, but I never had any temperament for it, since universities are invariably in locales where I couldn't survive due to my lifelong claustrophobia.
      Poetry comes when it will and I've never had any idea how to cause it. Way back during the T'ang dynasty, Wang Wei, a phenomenal poet, said "Who knows what causes the opening or closing of the door?" There has always been a tendency among poets in slack periods to imitate their own best efforts, but this is embarrassingly obvious to their readers. It's a bit like trying to invent a convincing sexual fantasy only to have the phone ring and it's your mother wondering why you're still a "bohemian" at age fifty-nine. The actual muse is the least civil woman in the history of earth. She prefers to sleep with you when you're a river rather than when you're a mud puddle.
      I wrote my first sequence of novellas in the late seventies and had some difficulty getting them published as "no one" was writing them in those days. My own models in my search for an immediate form were Isak Dinesen and Katherine Anne Porter. I've never been able to write a short story, which used to make me a bit nervous since magazines kept prattling that this was "the age of the short story." I became less nervous when it occurred to me that these selfsame magazines couldn't very well publish novels or novellas, though The New Yorker did publish my "The Woman Lit by Fireflies" and Esquire printed the novella "Legends of the Fall" in its entirety. A publisher who turned the latter down suggested that I increase its mere hundred pages to five hundred and then we'd have a bestseller; no matter that it has sold quite well for twenty years. Publishers naturally have the same yearning for instant gratification as dope addicts, congressmen, and car dealers. Now under corporate and chain-store dominance they appear to be paddleless up a terribly real shit creek.
      Novels seem to take care of themselves, if you offer up an appropriate amount of time. I've never written one without first thinking about it for years. This is probably a peculiar method but I can't function otherwise. Recently I did a year's research for the second section of a novel and ended up using very little. This is what the film business aptly calls "back story" without the knowledge of which it is difficult to proceed. If the woman is thirty-seven you still have to figure out the nature of her character when she was a child, even if you have no intention of using it.
      I've also written more screenplays than I should have, but then I've been fascinated by movies since I was a child. Admittedly this fascination has never been very mainstream, which has caused problems when looking for work. I doubt if proportionately there are any more first-rate novels than good movies in a given year, but given the intelligentsia's scorn for Hollywood this is not an acceptable idea. I admit there is a cynicism and perfidy in Hollywood that almost approaches that of Capitol Hill and is probably equal to that of book publishing. I have also noted, with evidence, that some of the loathing for Hollywood is a veiled form of anti-Semitism. Being a mixture of Swedish, Irish, and English I can say this without paranoia.
      I suppose the main problem in screenwriting is that you're separated from the possible director until later in the series of drafts. This is a waste of time and money, especially since you have a good idea of a suitable director from the inception of the story. Another pronounced difficulty is that film-school graduates are definitely short on the varieties of human experience in favor of cinematic technology. Despite the fact that very bright movies tend to do well, there is a relentless and collective effort to "dumb down" the story. There is always the fear-maddened search on the part of film executives for a reliable formula story line with inevitably sad results. On the plus side, no matter the whining, there always has been more oxygen in the West. Even Bill Gates wouldn't have done very well in Connecticut or Gotham. To be even as peripherally involved in the film business as I am, you have to have a taste for insanity, vulgarity, insecurity, hideous disappointments, spates of beauty, being fired over and over, and very good pay. It is usually a shuddering elevator far above the ground, but I prefer it to intense domesticity. Yeats used to say that the hearth killed more poets than alcohol.
      I've recently had the uncomfortable feeling that, despite my rather harsh Calvinist will, I've had less control over the trajectory of my life than I had presumed. I suppose it's because of the semi-religious nature of the original period of the calling. Without going into the anthropological aspects, the beginning of the calling when I was in my early teens was similar to a seizure. I had abruptly given up on organized religion and I suspect that all of that somewhat hormonal fervor merely transferred itself to what I still think of as Art, whether painting, music, poetry, sculpture, or fiction. Keats and Modigliani seemed excellent models for a life! The fact that neither of them lasted very long is a nominal consideration for a teenager. If you spend hours and hours listening to Stravinsky while reading Rimbaud and Joyce, you are fueling a trajectory that is inevitably out of immediate control. If you reread all of Dostoyevsky on Grove Street in New York City in a seven-dollar-a-week room with only an air vent for a window, you are at age nineteen permanently changing the nature of your mind. In your self-drama you are building an intractably wild mind that you'll have to live with.
      Of course, in geological terms we all have the same measure of immortality. The heartbeat that is your own, which you occasionally hear while turning over in bed in a cramped position doesn't last very long. The immediate noise your book might make is woefully impermanent, and self-importance is invariably an anchor. In immediate literary history, say the last fifty years, by reading lists of prizes and remembering vaunted reputations, you see how the grandest fame is usually written on water. News magazines for years liked to refer to Faulkner as "old mister cornpone." When I was a teenager he was far less favored than James Gould Cozzens. What finally happens to your work is not your concern. Thinking about it gives your soul cramps that resemble amoebic dysentery.
      The mail over the years has brought thousands of manuscripts and galleys and letters from young writers. It is possible to drown in paper but even more dangerous is the nasty mood brought about by feeling put upon. Other than recommending quantities of red wine and garlic, I am without advice. The closest I can come is: don't do it unless you're willing to give up your entire life. Despite the human potential movement there isn't room for much else. And Einstein was on the money when he said that he had no admiration for scientists who select thin pieces of board and drive countless holes in them. You should always want your work to be better than your capabilities, since settling for less is a form of artistic AIDS.
      I'd also rather err on the side of creating humans as more than they are rather than less. There is a whining penchant for lifting the bandage and forgetting that a body is much more than its collective wounds. In any culture, art and literature seem terribly fragile, but we should remember that they always outlive the culture. In an age of extraordinary venality such as our own, when the government is only a facilitator of commerce, artists come under a great deal of general contempt, as if every single soul must become bung fodder for greed. But then we are nature, too, and historically art and literature are as natural as the migration of birds or the inevitable collision of love and death.