Sunday, April 16, 2017

"TALKING UP A STORM" Montana Writers

My house is all torn up at the moment.  It looks like someone moving away — or moving in.  Hard to tell in the chaos.  Winter made the cats misbehave.  I misbehaved, too.  Mostly by shirking.  But now I need to bite down so I can use the summer properly — that is, by writing in a renewed way.

I tried to sell my sofa a couple of days ago, not for the money but to make space.  The second-hand store refused it.  Too junky.  Now it’s up on one end out in the garage with all the filing cabinets that were making the floor in the house sink.  I’m packing up some books to leave with the Sallie Ann in Great Falls — they’ve got a national network for recycling.  One box goes to Blackfeet Community College.  Lynda Hasselstrom and I are in contact at the moment and she runs a retreat center for women who wish to write — beginners or old hands — on her ranch in South Dakota.  So I’m sending her a couple of boxes of books about writing, many targeted at women.

Of course, culling books is slow work because one must read a bit of each to make decisions.  I’ve just picked up “Talking Up a Storm: Voices of the New West,” by Gregory L. Morris, which is a  book of interviews with writers mostly in Montana.  Here’s the list: 

Ralph Beer
Mary Clearman Blew
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
James Crowley
Ivan Doig
Gretel Ehrlich
Richard Ford
Molly Gloss
Ron Hansen
John Keeble
William Kittredge
David Long
Thomas McGuane
Amy Tan
Douglas Unger

This is my author cohort, about my age and more or less my speed and subject category, as it used to be.  I’ve met most of them, heard them speak, read all their books, and so on.  (I don’t know how James Welch or Jim Harrison escaped the list.)  I also slightly knew several of the just previous cohort, Guthrie, Maclean, et al.  You'll notice this is mostly a list of fiction writers.  

Neither they nor you have read my books, unless you’re a cowboy art fan who read “Bronze Inside and Out, a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver.”  There are a few others at but they aren’t “proper” — no publisher.  The main reason you’ve never read my books is that I never really write any.  I write a blog, a long-form daily essay called “”.  I don’t think any of the people on this list have ever read it nor do they write blogs themselves.  I sometimes review their books, but most of them are publishing infrequently now.  I probably have more readers of my blog than they have of their books.

There are probably five books on my prairiemary blog if they were teased out into subject threads.  One stalwart I know of, Carl Clapp — a key leader of the South Park Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which meets across the river from Oregon City — reads the blog every day, usually mid-morning.  I watch for him to pop up on the “hit” location report.  That particular fellowship was a place more alive and attuned to ideas than any other group I’ve served.

But that corrupted me.  Why write if you can talk directly to people and then hear what they make of it, on the spot, as we go?  Why read from your book when you can read your developing manuscript to their faces, watching them grasp or reject it.  Congregations never realize how much they shape their ministers in the Sunday morning encounter.  And yet here I am writing almost secretly in my back bedroom every day. a hermit with hair on fire, not speaking at all except to the cats.

I don’t know whether anyone has given a name to the Lakoff-led revolution in thinking based on metaphor and neurological study.  One can barely cope with the storm of trace interpretation in geology, the genome, satellite studies on this planet and fly-by observations of others, linguistics, and what is called Deep Time that studies hominins, the 200 or so versions of humans who have left their bones alongside the history before them, before creatures, before life of any kind.  I get so excited I have to walk around a bit.  This is all new, a voyage of discovery.

It’s not just a familiar literary "New West" anymore.  Copyright of this antho is 1994 — that’s three decades ago.  The trendy thing to do now is move to Portland (where I grew up) and write about dislocated, semi-psychotic, transgressive youngsters.  (Ignoring the Montana Gothic writers who were so good at it.)  So much for creating enduring categories.  

This New West group, as Gregory Morris suggests, was much defined by Richard Hugo, a Seattle poet, deeply but belovedly alcoholic, who found a niche if not redemption in Missoula, which to some people is not really Montana at all but a suburb of the NW.  Morris didn't put him on his list.

The publisher, the U of Nebraska Press, doesn’t list Morris or his book now, but the Amazon squib says,  “In interviews with fifteen contemporary writers of the American West, Gregory L. Morris demonstrates what these widely divergent talents have in common: they all redefine what it is to be a western writer. No longer enthralled (though sometimes inspired) by the literary traditions of openness, place, and rugged individualism, each of the writers has remained true to the demand for clarity, strength, and honesty, virtues sustained in their conversations. “  It strikes me as rather vague.

So what about Morris himself?  “Between 1988 and 1992 Morris, associate professor of American literature at Pennsylvania State University, conducted interviews in person or by mail with 15 contemporary western writers of fiction.”  He has two other books on Amazon, one about Frank Bergon (?) and one about John Gardner, both lit crit, academic, tenure fodder.  Eastern. 

He does mention Loren Eiseley in passing and Eiseley is perhaps one of the key writers for a new sweeping vision of the North American inland, extending up into Canada but maybe not so much into Mexico.  Eiseley gave me a way to think about the West that totally escaped the arguments about what is authentic, what is narcissistic, and who the proper audience might be.

There’s another factor here which is social revolution.  It’s not just a matter of including minorities, which might be why Amy Tan is on this list.  (There are still no blacks, gays, or old ladies as central characters.)  An enormous cultural upwelling came with the "discovery" of gays in the West, gender-role assignments of great cruelty to women and children, and the barely-below-the-surface nature of sex outside of marriage.  We’ve rethought animals.  These newer forces in writing have not been much defined nor described in any anthology I’ve seen, but then Montana is still busy censoring Sherman Alexie for writing about adolescent masturbation.

The set of authors interviewed by Morris stays on safe ground.  Not much sex and not much magic realism, if any.  Quite a bit of denial when it comes to politics, money and the keys to success.  Few of the writers on the list have published recently and a few have died.  So — were they a success?  Did it matter to their lives that they published books that people loved?

I'm keeping this book so I'll remember these writers and the impact they had on me when we were all young in the West.

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