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Ode to Jim Harrison

At The Wagon Wheel in Patagonia, AZ

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Ode to Jim 

(1937-2016)
I have started nearly every day of my writing life by reading some sort of Jim Harrison. A line of poetry, a poem, five poems, a few words in a novel, an essay. I try to keep it short. I have to pull myself away before I lose hours. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and a 19 year boy gave me Dalva. He also gave me e. e. cummings and “Letters to a Young Poet.” So I was set for awhile. But it was Harrison that I was addicted to. You never forget your first Harrison. Or you don’t get him at all. I got him.

He was from the Midwest. I was too. He sorted things out by walking in the woods. I did my best, in the suburbs of Chicago and every summer in the woods of northern Wisconsin, not far from his Upper Peninsula. He was a sensualist. I was too. He gravitated toward edges and defied the middle ground. I did too, but only few told me that was okay– and all of them on the page, namely Jim.

I longed to meet him in person, but perhaps it was better because he did and wrote and felt things that made me blush as a teenaged young woman.  But I read on, because knowing that he went so far out to the edge and got cut there and stayed there bleeding, helped me to take my place behind him, on safer ground.  Still to peer over his shoulder….and wonder about what life could be like if I really lived the wilderness that was in me.  If I was willing to be that honest.  Jim Harrison was honest.  I wanted to be that kind of honest.

I read him all of my 18th summer and knew that I was moving in a totally different direction than the one I had been raised to embrace. I studied how he could make a bird holy in just a few words of poetry. And how he could do the same with the word Fuck. And when I moved to Montana almost ten years later, and found out that he had left the Midwest behind for big sky country as well, I learned how to let Montana be my muse. I walked alone in places that scared me because of him. I went to snow goose migrations because of him. I sat on rocks and logs and stumps and river beds because of him. I paid attention to birds because of him. I went into sketchy small town roadside bars because of him. And I wrote it all down in my own way with voracity that I learned from him.28HARRISON-OBIT-articleLarge

Jim taught me that saints are everywhere. Now he is a saint. Now he’s free of the edge. Now he is all big sky. But damn…I am on-my-knees sad. I will miss you. Thank you for writing so many books. And for the kindness you showed me when we finally connected person to person, and not just heart to word to heart.

I have over 30 letters to Jim Harrison that I never had the courage to send. They were all weepy and whiny and I’m glad I spared him of that. When I finally did send him a letter, it was because I was going camping with my family in southern Arizona and had read that he had a home down there when he wasn’t in Montana. It was a famous bird watching area and I wrote him for advice about where to camp. And then at the end I hazarded these words: “We’d love to meet you for a drink if you’re around.”

I got an email back in a matter of hours. He told us where to go (which turned into a major adventure including wide open sun-caked tundra, more raptors in one place than I’ve ever seen, and helicopters lifting Mexicans out of the fields around our camper at 5:00 am). And he wrote these words that were better than “this one we’re going to publish” from the New York TimesModern Love’ column that launched my whole career. They were, “Usually I can be found around 4:00 at the Wagon Wheel, trying to hydrate.”

I met him there. And that is a story which deserves its own personal essay. For now, in honor of writers who help writers by writing, by bleeding, and by meeting them for a drink, I’d like to share a letter I sent to Jim after my book came out, in addition to my other two mentors (although they wouldn’t ever want to be called such a thing, so I’ll leave out their last names.)

Thank you, Jim, for helping me learn how to think, how to breathe, and how to walk in the woods. And thusly, how to write. Rest in peace. I will never stop being honored by the help you gave me along the way in so many forms.  I’m so sad I haven’t gotten the novel published that you promised to blurb…but you can bet that when I do…there will be a bottle of Domaine Tempier involved, and a big-sky-sized toast to you.

Yrs. (my sign off, which I lifted from you. I’m not sure if it means Years or Yours, but I’ll take both.)

Laura

Here is a  letter on the myth of success and the importance of helping people who are kindreds…

January 29, 2011Harrisonobit1-blog427

Dear Terry, David, and Jim,

I’m writing to you from a sky-dripping grey day in Whitefish, MT where I’ve been holed up all winter trying to remember how to breathe and write novels after the fog of getting a book published, going on tour, national television, and countless radio interviews. It’s felt like all I can do to not get “spiritually scummed,” as David once put it. He was talking about hospital ICUs, not authorly success…but I have found the two to be quite similar in more ways than one, the largest being the need for oxygen and IV fluids. Getting up and speaking about something that you wrote is a little sick. You already gave it to the reader the best way you could in the book. Feels like it’s between the two of them now. But I happened to write a book about a season of my life and people have questions and a lot of times they ask them with tears in their eyes and quivering lips…and like you all have helped me, I want to help them. Especially if they’re writers.

I have used your personally famous line a few times, Terry, when my gut tells me to: “Oh sister in words, what can I do, how can I help?” I just got back from a week in Arizona doing readings and catching up on some much needed vitamin D and thought you of you, Jim, down there in Patagonia with the Elegant Trogons and the Wagon Wheel, thinking that writers need to move around with the birds every so often. Writing with one raven against an ashen sky for four months means things can get a little bleak on the page. I feel renewed, and in honor of that, I’m writing you all this letter, which is one of thanks and also musing. I hope it finds you all very well and your muse plump and ready for more.

Well, you were right, David: “The only difference between being published and not being published is being published.” And you, Jim: “Somebody’s got to get published, any why can’t it be you.” And you, Terry: “Stop trying to get published and write your story.” Three sagacious lines that have held me through the years in the palms of their/your hands and kept me nested when I needed it most. I truly feel that no one in the world quite understands why I live this life the way I do more than you three. I’m sure there are more, but it’s you three in whom I rest.

This year I fledged.

So I thought you might relate with what my current book is about:  The myth of “success.” It’s one I worshiped for too many years and that you all warned me about in your own way. It’s the Green Flash I’ve been waiting for at every beach sunset I’ve watched since 1988, begging “Please let me get published to wide acclaim.” That’s the pathetic prayer I prayed, I’m embarrassed to admit. I ruined a lot of perfectly good sunsets over the years, crying. Probably missed a lot of green flashes too, though I’d like to chalk them up to myth because when we’re waiting, we’re not creating. We’re victims. I got really sick of that. I’d much rather answer the questions: what can I create? 

A person who hasn’t prayed that prayer can’t really understand the destructive nature of this myth. I’m out to bust it. Now, on the other side of that flung beg (I’m not going to call it a prayer—it’s a beg), I can see that all “success” is– the way society spins it, anyhow, is getting paid for something you created, and having people assign it power. But all that’s really there is the waking up and creating something else and sending it out to the powers that be who might pay a bit more attention to you, because of the way that people assigned you power. Or not. It’s all in the creating. It’s all in doing the work. I’ve never had a problem with that, so I think I’ll be able to handle this “cherry popping” (that was for you, Jim) that is becoming a published writer.

I can see that it is possible to go entirely insane running around the country speaking in front of crowds of people who ask the same questions over and over, only to detox from it in a lonely hotel room or a lonely airplane cabin, even though I try to call them womblike to trick my brain. Truth be told, they both smell sickly and inspire a fierce claustrophobia that I have to work hard to quell…and in each, I can’t help thinking about humanity boiled down to basic needs. It happens every time: standing in the airport security line, I can’t stop thinking, wow—all these people have had sex. All these people have lost someone they love. All these people are afraid of dying today—falling from the sky. Or have managed to click into auto mode and are so much the walking dead that I start to feel like if I make eye contact with any of them, they’ll rub off all my edges. In hotel rooms, it’s more the lack of those people, and even more their ghosts.

Hemingway said he could never write anything in the cabin of an airplane and I’m with him. I usually just sit there and tell myself that I’m lucky that a metal mechanized bird can swoop me across the country and deposit me safely to a new adventure. If I do write anything, it’s all about this, so my journals are almost entirely made up of fright, panic, and phobia. (Jim, thank you for our conversation about this.  It helped).  I never seem to write in my journal these days unless I’m travelling, in fact, so if anyone ever reads these journals from this manic “successful” period of my life, I’m sure I’ll be considered a total freak. And maybe I am.

But if there’s anyone who I know won’t judge me for it, it’s you three. And that’s another reason why I feel so grateful that you landed in my life, on the page and in person. Thank you for being fellow “freaks,” Terry you being more like a saint, but there must be something in you which knows exactly what I’m talking about. David and Jim, you are both legitimate freak/saints and you know how I feel about you.

I’ll sign off now. I don’t know if I’ll write another book of non-fiction. You’ve all done it too and you know that treacherous terrain of exposure. I wrote my book because I needed to process a brutal time of rejection in my life and knew that it would help people know that they’re not alone and that they have options.  Dealing with rejection is familiar terrain for writers, and it was an interesting act of prestidigitation (learned that word from you, David), to apply that to a marital crisis.  I’ve heard from people all over the world and it’s been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, so I guess it was worth it. Heart language is heart language and it has its ripples.

Thank you three for speaking this language on the page, and to me. And Jim, thank you for letting me use your poems as bookends in my memoir. Every time I feel ashamed that I have exposed myself too much on the page, I feel held in their warm embrace.

Whenever I hear the jack-hammering of the pileated woodpecker, I think of the sound of the delete key through a long sentence that you had to write, but that serves no one in the end. Part of me wants to do that with this letter and leave you all alone. The other part knows that writers need to be thanked. And that the legacy of that fact never dies as long as there are printed words…

Yrs. 

Laura

Lastly…because I could devote an entire blog to Jim Harrison.  One post just isn’t enough…

One of my favorite Harrison poems is called “Counting Birds” in which he confesses that he has been counting birds since he was a child. It ends:

“On my death bed I’ll write this secret
Number on a slip of paper and pass
It to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in late June
And they might be glancing out the window
At the thunderstorm’s approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
On the window screen I’ll wonder
If there’s a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I’ll sing to myself, you’ve carried
Me along on this bloody voyage,
Carry me now into that cloud,
Into the marvel of this final night.”
–From The Theory and Practice of Rivers (Clark City Press)

May you be carried…Jim Harrison. Peace.

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Lee and Me– Those We Love Most!

Lee Woodruff and me in NYC

I have found that writers are generous with one another.  We have to be.  Generally speaking, our families and friends think we’re half-a- bubble-off-level for devoting our lives to the written word, and our editors and agents and publicity people (if we have them) are so overworked and underpaid that we feel sort of guilty bugging them at all.  That leaves us with our characters, and sometimes they’re not so kind.  They tend to sneer when we’ve neglected them.  For instance, I’ve had a pair of lovers standing in a labyrinth in Tulum, Mexico for over a year, and by now they’re really really sunburned and dehydrated and they’re begging for a margharita…but oh no…their author is holding them to the small task of self-actualization, never mind finding the meaning of life.  Problem is, she can’t seem to find the time to breathe life into them these days.  And to add insult to injury, they live in a stack of dissheveled coffee-stained papers, topped off by bills and mouse turds, not to mention a layer of dust.  No, it’s writers who buoy writers.  We get each other.  We cut each other slack.  We connect each other.  We forgive each other.  We cut to the chase and we bleed easily with each other.  That is who Lee Woodruff has been to me.   Sister in words and heart.  Fairy god-mother of my muse.

I met Lee because she interviewed me for a Redbook piece when my memoir came out in 2009.  It was my first magazine interview and I answered the phone with my “business” voice, which was one cleared throat away from the way I talk to my golden retriever.  In other words, unimpressive.  A husky voice came through the phone:  ”Girlfriend!’  And I knew in that moment, we would become just that.  Friends.

I love Lee.  I love her honesty, her depth, her style, her self-deprecation, her wisdom, her willingness to connect kindred spirits, her drive, her compassion, her humility, her example as wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, community member, charity maven.  But most of all, I love that she talks about her dirty underwear.  Literally.  Any writer on tour knows what a precious commodity clean underwear is, and because you are living out of a tiny roller bag for weeks on end, it’s quite likely that you have, yes, some pretty skanky drawers.  Lee likes to open with that fact when she is the MC at womens’ conventions in front of thousands of nattily dressed professionals.  You’d never expect it, as this lovely, angelic, petite blonde in a twin set takes the stage.  I love her for this.  And so much more.  She’s one hell of a writer and one hell of a gal.

The first time I actually met her in person was at the end of my first book tour.  I was in New York, and the limo dropped me off at her house where we’d planned an afternoon together.   I had read in her book “Perfectly Imperfect” that after a tour, she gets out of the car, flings her rollerbag to the side (by the way, it’s red with pink hearts on it), drops to her knees, and kisses the ground.  Well, I did exactly that.  I was so happy to be at the front stoop of a writer sister who GETS IT.  Who would allow me to be puny and complaining and a miserable wreck for at least the time it takes to have a cup of coffee and get over my self.

She said, “Oh, my dear.  Come on in.   I’ll take care of you.”  No one does that on book tour.  You are the one delivering.  You are the one who supposedly knows something.  And somewhere in the sea of fans, old boyfriends, relatives, and scrutinizing potential readers…you hope you will find at least a teaspoon of grace in your time-zone-challenged, sleep-deprived, airplane-ozoned, out-of-shape poor excuse of a body.

I looked at her, in her T-shirt and shorts and bare feet, and just burst into tears, fell into her arms.

She knew it was triage time and she ushered me to an outside deck where we sat in Adirondack chairs and looked at Long Island Sound, cormorants diving, two authors being as raw and real as it gets.  No hair and make up.  Nothing eloquent to say or feel or share.  No audience member to comfort.  No message to get across or nasty question to field.  Just a gushing of understanding from someone who knows that the very thing that got you to this place, that keeps you balanced in your daily life…your sacred writing life…is in the crapper. You haven’t been that girl for weeks, or if you’ve gotten a book published recently, likely months.  You don’t recognize yourself.  You don’t really even like yourself.  You feel like a social media whore.  And you just plain miss your precious practice.

I’ll put it this way and hopefully it will help you understand:  The writing life ain’t for sissies.  It requires intense vulnerability and empathy almost to a fault.  Plus, it’s totally solitary.  Until it’s not.   And sometimes it’s weirdly full-frontal public.  Writers are ridiculously driven, nay obsessed with our craft.  Our writing is our lifeline and that means it can be blood sport.  No one asked us to do it, so we feel lead like Joan of Arc, but also sort of ashamed of the whole thing too.  Like, who do we think we are, anyway.  Writing books.  Thinking we have something that the world needs to hear.  Add to that pesky personality disorder, the fact that most of us are some sort of cross-section between being total wall-flowers, and the one wearing the lamp-shade, sometimes all in one fell swoop.  Think Hunter Thompson.  Think Fitzgerald.  Think Steven King.  In short, we’re whack jobs.  Our friends and families, and yes agents and editors too…all know this.  I had one publicist say, “I’m glad you said it, not us,” winking at her marketing buddy.

I like to think of writers like Lee and me as being only minor offenders in this regard.  We dress up nice.  We know our way around firm handshakes and eye contact.  We know not to chew gum.  And we’re not mean chicks.  Sure we both like to throw around the F bomb from time to time and who cares.  You would too if you spent most of your time channeling the human condition.

All this to say that I am starting a Lee Woodruff fan club and I’m the president.  So there.  If you have not read her three very different (this woman has range!) books, RUN to your local bookstore.  Get all three.  Put them on your bedside table.  Savor them with cups of tea and many pillows propping you up on back-to-back Sunday mornings.  She is an immediate friend on the page whether or not you are lucky enough to call her friend in real life.  Frankly, I think the page IS real life.  Realer than real.  So that means…we’re all in luck.

Now out in paperback!

Here’s a bit of what Lee has to say about the writing life and life in general.  Enjoy!

Click here to buy her fabulous novel, now out in paperback!

LM:  You’ve written a memoir, a book of essays, many interviews and featured articles, and now a novel. Which is your favorite genre and why? 

LW:  By far my fave is fiction.  It’s what I always thought I would do.  If you’d told me that my first two books would be best-selling memoirs, I would have chortled in your face. Notice a chortle and not a laugh-riot because chortle is such a cool thing to execute and type.  In memory you have to color in between the lines– you are playing with material that is real so you can’t stray too far from the facts– but with fiction– you make these characters out of clay and you can have them do anything really, so the artifice is to make it authentic, interesting and believable.

LM:  Which came most easily to you and why do you think that was so? 

LW:  Memoir came easily.  I think it’s from years of being a freelance writer and doing articles and essay pieces on family life.  I learned to know “where the line is” when writing about other people– namely my kids– who didn’t ask to have me as a mother, let alone a memoir-writing mom.  I have always enjoyed mining my own life and life as a parent to draw the parallels to other folks who have collectively experienced the same over-arching themes.

LM:  What did you learn from each about the written word? 

LW:  I learned that less is more.  Each book has taught me to be a more demanding editor of my own work and forced me to end up with a more minimalistic paragraph than the first draft would have suggested.  Memoir writing taught me that we don’t have to  go through life in a particular sequence nor should we feel compelled to include the every day, the mundane, or life in a linear world.

Perfectly Imperfect taught me to hone my funny bone a little and refine my every day sarcastic wit on the paper.  It helped me focus on how to make things funny- which is a big challenge when you are armed with only words to create a mental picture as well as dialogue.

Fiction taught me the balance between character development and dialogue– it also taught me that you may not have to like every character you write but you have to root for at least one.  The reader always wants to root for someone.

LM:  What did you learn from each about yourself? 

LW:  In an Instant— that I could write a book– a feat I’d always thought was only possible when the kids were out of the house and I had giant stretches of time

Perfectly Imperfect — that I love the essay genre and always will and that I have a good knack for knowing where to end things.

Those We Love Most — that I loved getting inside the character’s head and describing things far more than I like writing dialouge.  But real dialogue is tricky– it’s not easy to write the way people actually talk.

LM:  Do you think it’s important to consider your reader in constructing your writing? 

LW:  I do think so.  But I don’t write with the reader in mind. I think I EDIT with the reader in mind but when I first write the story I want to get it out of my head and onto the paper.  I want to see where the characters will take me and what will happen– I don’t start out with a firm outline and a precise idea of every little twist and turn– but at some point you need to consider how it will all hang together for the reader – and that was probably on my second or third pass through.

LM:  How was the editing process different from one genre to the next?

LW:  Memoir writing was so much more straight forward.  Editing the novel was much more like taking a serious scalpel to real plot and character parts, whereas editing the first two books was just about letting material go so the book would be tighter and move along.

LM:  What’s your next project?

LW:  Working on another (very rough) novel and I know it needs tons of work.  But I love/hate having a project.  Love it because it inspires me and makes me feel like I have a secret love– hate it because it’s alway sitting on my shoulder and I never have a regular period of time in which to write.  Someday — oh someday, I’ll put that empty nest to good use, but I’m not about to wish these years away!

THANK YOU, LEE!  oxoxoxoxoxoxoxox  Here’s the link to buy Lee’s books!

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