from the film "Kicking the Loose Gravel Home"
In Montana every fall there is a state-wide in-service education event for teachers. Each center for these events is in a town with a university. When I taught English in Heart Butte, the superintendent forbade me to attend the workshop in Missoula. Totally illegal and indefensible. But understandable. He was a former football coach and considered any attempt at literary achievement to be defiant revolution. I was a known writer. Sort of. Not to Missoula, but Missoula was considered a hotbed of writing.
Too bad that his attempt to build a football team in Heart Butte came to naught. (The boys sensibly thought hurting each other was dumb so they much preferred basketball, a game of skill.) He might not have been pleased by the Jon Krakauer book called “Missoula” which refocuses the town as a hotbed of rape with at least one spiked boot in football and another in hatred and contempt of women.
Here’s the latest addition to the dossier. Bear in mind that the U of M was meant to be the humanities capital of the state. (The “Cow College” is in Bozeman.) If you’re still trying to decide which coast Montana is on, the excellent but surface-depth linked article may help you get some focus.)
H.G. Merriam, the early humanities scout, was a very nice guy and he was mostly left alone with his literary projects. It was Richard Hugo who came on like Hemingway, pub-crawling and drunk-driving through the back-country of Montana. Then Kittredge was supposed to be the next red-blooded male, but he threw in with a woman. From there, to some people, writing looked like women all the way down. In other words, dispensable.
When I first came to Montana in 1961, I hoped to take classes in writing in Missoula, which has an ecology like New England where the “real” writers live. I was already writing, but the only known female writer state-wide was Mary Clearman Blue, who did not make it into this article. Even in 1990 when I taught in Heart Butte, the Missoula writers made it a point to do outreach to small town Montana. Judy Blunt was part of that, but also Mary Clearman Blue and Jimmy Welch. They came in a group to Choteau to celebrate A.B. Guthrie Jr, when he was too old and ill to attend himself, and by this time someone had enlightened my superintendent, because I took half-a-dozen of my best Blackfeet student writers to meet Welch who was very kind to them but still scared them half to death with his success.
The high point of that time was attending a workshop led by Peter Matthiessen and sponsored by Missoula though it was held in the Bitterroot Valley. It was quite wonderful, but never really counterbalanced the quiet bourgeois predictability of the ladies who taught writing. Instead my allegiance went to the edgiest, most challenging, darkest, most powerful writing on the continent, mostly indigenous tribal people, gays, and environmental warriors. Missoula never reached that level of savagery and elemental truth in spite of the Gothics and those who claimed descent from relentless frontiersmen. Nor have those mostly male people join the fight to prevent the rape of writing.
I can only be as fierce as I want to be because I don’t make money. I’m not beholden to any football-sucking management types who pretend that destroying brains through collision is perfectly respectable. I’m retired. Accusing me of being bitter — which is evidently considered bad — has no impact. Blogging means I can escape everyone except techies who regularly interfere by mucking up code with complexity and glitches.
Money is the steroid that inflated athletics and undercut thinking. Money doesn’t like humanities unless it is a certificate that guarantees more income in the future — except that it doesn’t. Humanities is meant to be truth-focused, no barriers. To some the only use of writing is porn and propaganda, which are sort of the same thing.
Journalism is not mentioned. I hope it escaped the ax in spite of being sympathetic to indigenous people and writing about sin subjects. Reporters seem to be defined as people who expose bad stuff, which is presumably admirable. Neither are the programs specifically for indigenous people mentioned, but I think they’d better look out.
Rarely do I read what comes out of the Missoula writing program. When I have, it’s mostly about malaise and thwarted desire. I know this is typical of the age group, but one wishes for a sense of adventure and tales of survival — those used to be core content. These days no one is gay, no one is murdered, no one has hallucinations, no one starves — all sharp realities in that town. I hope I’m wrong and I just didn’t have access to the proper publications. Judging by this link to Missoula blogs, writers there spend a lot of time cooking. http://www.makeitmissoula.com/blogs/
But then, I don’t have much respect for MFA programs in general. The main way to learn to write IMHO is to do it. Not to ask other people to critique your punctuation and metaphors. A brain is composed of connections created by experience, not by tic lists of Ten Paths to Success. The main way to save literary programs is not by finding a cheaper way to buy paper and pencils.
Sitting around tables bemoaning courses is creating a chicken house. Most poultry of a species all say the same thing. Tigers need jungles. Where’s the outrageous Leslie Fiedler of our time whose ideas tear up the pea patch? I’ll tell you where: they went off with Gary J. Cook, too outrageous to be invited to the annual Festival of Books where the ladylike find out which books to buy. None of them want to hear Vietnam horror stories.
By the time #metoo came around, it was old news in Montana to the wives whose lives bought the ranch for hard-working but emotionally calloused men. Ask Judy Blunt. For many of these female writers, books were their equivalent to rodeo bull-riding for guys — a way out of a life of entrapment. And then it all changed. Even bull-riding is all smoke, mirrors, and fireworks, a celebration of glamour. More money steroids, empty, violent, sometimes murderous. One gets old and tired.
That ignorant old coach/superintendent who feared Missoula is dead. I’m not. Yet. And I write what I want to every day.