Though I wrote a book about another person (“Bronze Inside and Out”) and though I write bits here and there about other persons, I do much more thinking about the dilemmas of actually producing something more than doing it. Some subjects are alive and likely to not agree with my ideas, much less what the content might be. Yet, in our world, one’s reputation as presented in a book is a route to being at least “known” in one sense and they want that. Except right now our standards are journalistic — maybe “yellow” journalism — rather than literary, which strives for something a little more “true” or at least useful rather than sensational.
We are in a state of shock at the huge gap between the persona we thought we elected and the degenerate who is in the office. Why weren’t the incredibly corrupt and self-serving acts of this man presented by the journalists BEFORE the election? And why do Trump admirers persist? Why do they attribute heinous crimes to Obama and Clinton, the most impossibly deviant things they can think of? I’m talking about intelligent responsible local people. But then, they elected a faintly Trumpish person to be our sheriff, a role in charge of our bodies and properties. I don’t get it.
There are precedents and explanations, things like the belief that voting doesn’t matter, that it’s all pre-ordained, that politics will eat your life, that everyone is rotten to the core — except oneself, of course. It has convinced me that the only way to write honestly about people I once thought I could truly “explain” and thus wipe away false accusations is to do it as fiction. That is, tell the truth slantwise, disguised. Publishers won’t mind so long as it sells, which is where the false accusations came from in the first place.
I’ll talk rather openly about my own experience with a man now dead to whom I was married. Born in 1914, produced by a white Quebecquois family on the reservation of a once powerful tribe, he was confused about his identity. His focus was music, locally admired by everyone in the form of “band” music, the “Music Man” kind, a bourgeois frontier focus with lots of brass, a strong beat, suitable for marching, close to military but also the circus, the rodeo, stirring stuff that brought people together.
Strangely, he also appreciated and could sing Blackfeet songs, falsetto with a heartbeat rhythm sustaining a strict form of repetition and pattern. He knew animals, the main focus, and he knew the People because he grew up with them as his caretakers, his familiar neighborhood characters, and his classmates.
When he went away to a fine music school, Vandercook School of Music in Chicago, he discovered the “North Side” where the big name jazz bands, mostly black, created a world of freeform music. When he came back, he ran a little dance ensemble in clubs along the HighLine. Late at night, unwinding at the piano, he used a “cheat book” that illicitly contained the theme and chording of pop music.
The difference in our ages meant that I couldn’t appreciate his music. It was a language I couldn’t speak. But also I didn’t see the local people the way he did — I didn’t assume, I was always analyzing and reflecting, willing to look at new ideas. I had come directly from the humanities at that big university in Chicago. Our overlap was in the Field Museum where we both loved Malvina Hoffman, the sculptor, and all the animals.
I joined him just as he was pulling away from taxidermy he had come to through the fabulous dioramas of the museum, the ones with real but re-created animals. I made him my center and measurement, which forced me to do major physical exploits like hunting horseback in the Rockies, building a bronze casting foundry, and entertaining fancy people who might be customers. All the time I was meaning to eventually leave, reflecting on what happened, counting on him to save me.
This was the Sixties. We acquired a commission from a rich lady near San Francisco and drove through the hippie community, which Bob mocked and I wanted to join. We came back up the coast to please me and were nearly killed by logging trucks on the foggy narrow roads through wilderness. The rich lady asked him to come back to do something new, but instructed him to leave me behind. She was married but enjoyed controlling artists.
How can I write about such intricate and foreign situations, which I didn’t share or quite understand, in a way that is worthwhile and that people want to read? I collected stories, funny ones and scary ones. So did the locals and some of theirs were lies. Others were true and terrifying but they didn’t tell me until after the book came out and they wanted to make me see that they knew better. “Why is so much of your books about YOU?” they asked. Some wanted the story to be more damning and others wanted to make him into a big hero so it would impress their friends when they bragged about knowing him. A novelist made him into a character, fantasized from memories as a small boy.
I left. I read literary theory which was fascinating but didn’t teach me much about writing. I attended carefully to the Portland, Oregon, community of writers based on in-person bookstore readings and gradually realized they were the same people as the Montana "book" community in Missoula with the same circular ideas. But members of the Native American writing Renaissance came to read. I talked to some of them — they were all quite different from each other. I told them that my former partner grew up with James Welch’s father (also named James Welch) as a playmate but they were not impressed. I didn’t write anything.
Then there was seminary and the University of Chicago at a time when the big French post-modern thinkers were just beginning to be understood in the US, though some worthy people thought they could NOT be understood. The practical ministry stuff turned out to be quite different than what I thought I understood. Once the curtain was drawn aside, the stage was almost empty — to my eyes. God was doing opera somewhere else.
So I sat in the orchestra pit, side-by-side with tribal people, distinguished professors, wacky former students, maybe a grizzly bear, and . . . how did my mother get in here? How can I make them into beautiful and terrifying writing? It will have to be fantasy in order to be real. And I have a feeling they’ll all fight me to make them look better.