October 11, 2010

Rick Bass ~ Landscape and Imagination

What I’m Reading Today: Laura Pritchett’s Hell’s Bottom, Colorado. Laura did such a great job as emcee at the Literary Connection event. I was intrigued to find out that she, like me, was raised on a ranch, so I immediately bought her two novels, Hell’s Bottom and Sky Bridge. (She’s also written nonfiction) I’m just loving Hell’s Bottom ~ it’s about a lot of the wonderful/horrible things about being raised in the West that I explore in my fiction. I urge you to go out and buy one or two of hers.

On Friday and Saturday, I went to the Literary Connection, an annual event put on by LCCC in Cheyenne, and got to hear three wonderful writers read and talk about their work. The writers were the fiction writer Rick Bass, the playwright Robert Caisley, and the poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon. I tell you what ~ whereas before I felt sort of in despair about my work, now I feel like I’ve been translated to that wonderful writer dimension once more! I thought I’d spend the next three days talking about what these writers said, and I’ll start with Rick.

In person, Rick is both small in stature and larger than life. He’s short and slender with that muscled grace of someone who is very physically active. When he’s not speaking, he curls a little forward and draws into himself, but when he’s speaking he stands straight and looks at people’s faces. By his own admission, he’s a bit misanthropic and a little bit of public contact goes a long way ~ that’s why I feel like I struck the lottery being able to attend this event! He’s very honest and down-to-earth when he speaks, and he makes strong statements, yet he’s quick to say it’s his opinion and to acknowledge both sides.

His writing is so amazing. My favorite of his stories that I’ve read is “The Hermit’s Story,” about a woman, a man, and some dogs who, during a snow storm, take refuge under the ice of a lake. It is so amazing! The more of his I read, the more I realize that his main character is the landscape and that people are often incidental ~ which sounds like it could feel like a trick or be boring or feel contrived, but I’m here to tell you it is not. The landscapes he writes are some of the most riveting characters you’ll read.

The title of his talk on the first day was "Landscape and Imagination." He began by saying that landscape is much bigger in our lives than we realize. It may not be a pine-forested wilderness, but the landscape around us permeates and affects our lives.

He talked about finding the Yaak Valley of northern Montana and thinking “what heaven is this into which I’ve fallen?”

We talk about how the artist shapes his or her subject, but we don’t often talk about how the subject shapes the artist. Landscape has shaped him immeasurably. He said that he has become a part of his subject and is no longer an alien observer, which is beneficial and a hindrance. Also, there is the artist, and then the subject, but there is also this third thing in between, which he said we might even call spirit. He said, “The more civilized we become, the more we need the backdrop of wilderness.”

He used the metaphor of hunting extensively to describe his experience of writing. When you write, you’re seeking after something elusive that’s running before you. You follow small clues and everything is in motion. We think of the hunter chasing ~ affecting ~ the hunted, but really the hunted shapes the hunter. It is the hunted that chooses the route and leads the chase. When he starts a story, he often finds himself delineating its borders at the beginning and then inhabiting the body of his characters to take him forward. He also said he often senses a third spirit around him ~ sometimes between him and the subject and sometimes behind him, looking over him and his subject.

He said that people today often confuse anticipation with imagination. We want things ~ a burger, clothes, a new car ~ and anticipate getting them, and some people think of that as imagination, but imagination takes time and effort and living with a thing. “Imagination is hard work,” he said. He wondered whether it’s a part of us that is atrophying.

Then he read a few paragraphs from the beginnings of some of his stories and talked about how landscape and the imagination showed themselves in the stories. He made these amazing connections about the metaphors in the stories and made the point that if he just inhabits the characters those metaphors show up, rather than him forcing them. He said that often when he starts stories it’s “me sliding along the line of scrimmage looking for a crack” ~ which became sort of a motif throughout the conference. What he meant was that something will spark when he starts a story and propel it forward.

On the second day, Rick talked a lot more about how he became a writer and about his beloved Yaak Valley. He told some great stories about going to college in Utah and working as a geologist in Mississippi and Alabama. He told about a couple of hippies who turned him on to Jim Harrison, whom he had thought would write nothing but “tales of blood and matted fur,” and his first story that was accepted at The Paris Review was very closely modeled on the novella Legends of the Fall. He slyly suggested plagiarizing as a great way to improve your craft. He talked about how elusive writing confidence is and about the “inflated delusion you have to have.” He loved Barry Hannah and Eudora Welty (and even tried to mow her lawn when he was in Jackson, Mississippi), and he recommended reading Doug Peacock, Terry Tempest Williams, and Joy Williams. He highlighted a bunch of moments that were important to his becoming a writer, including finding some wild black-and-tan coonhound pups.

I could go on and on, but, in summary, Rick Bass rocks!

Questions of the Day: Have you read Rick Bass? What do you think of his writing? Who else uses landscape in such an amazing way?

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