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Ode to Jim Harrison

At The Wagon Wheel in Patagonia, AZ

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Ode to Jim 

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.)


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…



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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No Guts No Glory (or: write the letter you’re scared to write)

As usual, I have a tall stack of books on my bedside table.  And as usual, I daily attempt a few paragraphs in pursuit of discovering a new favorite writer or subject, or a character of some astonishment, or a fresh angle into the human heart…and yet, all-too-often, I find myself sneaking to the top left shelf of my book case where the Jim Harrison lives and pulling down a dog-eared, underlined, bath-bloated, roughed-up old friend.   

I know of only one writer who can compose a novel (that the New Yorker, New York Times, and a future Pulitzer Prize winning author laud, hail, and honor), in which for the first hundred pages he mostly discusses his protagonist’s penis.  And then…woven into the elegance of words like pecker, noodle, wanker, worm he threads NPR, bluebirds, a beloved dead dog, cherry farming, and describes a cell phone’s worth thusly:  “It’s a prime weapon against our essential loneliness.”  To me Jim Harrison is that one writer, and I love him for it.

Here’s the kind of thing he writes about when he’s not writing about penises. 

“I’m sort of neutral in terms of religion, but ever since I was a kid I’ve thought moving water to be the best thing God made.  Back in grade school when I started trout fishing with my dad, he told me that gods and spirits lived in creeks and rivers, information he got from his own father’s Chippewa buddy.  I never doubted this one bit.  Where else would they live?”

Oftentimes at my book signings people ask me what I like to read.  Since I wrote a memoir, they expect to hear a list of memoirs.  But I don’t really read memoirs.  My heart belongs to fiction, and namely to one fiction writer.  And that’s Jimmy H.  I try to read all the usual suspects—to pack that stack with literary gems new and old.  I try to widen my literary garden path, but I can’t see for all the Russell Chatham bedecked blossoms lining my top left bookshelf. 

Harrison’s written over twenty-five books:  fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  I own pretty much all of them.  One of his poems hangs in a framed lithograph over my bed.  I have a file on my computer called Jimmy that has as many unsent letters as he’s published books.  He has a ranch in a town I frequent in Montana and as locals like to talk, I’ve had to take my hand out of that candy jar more times than one.  It would be torture knowing where he lives.  I don’t trust myself one bit with that piece of knowledge.  He does NOT need me camping out at the end of his road with twenty-five books to sign and twenty-five letters to deliver and twenty-five bottles of Domaine Tempier Bandol or Barolo or even one ’49 Latour, ’61 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, or ’47 Meursault– not that I know what his favorite wine is or anything or make enough money to indulge in this, okay, yes:  fantasy.  Or what kind of cigarettes he smokes.  Or what D.H. Lawrence quote is taped on his writing desk.  It’s not like I’ve been paying attention to the fine-tuned details of Jim Harrison’s existence.  Or anything.

But a few years ago, I finally had the guts to write and send a letter via his publisher, thanking him for profoundly impacting my life as a writer.  And I heard back from him.  Which lead to a beer at a bar in a small town in Arizona where he spends winters.  Which lead to one of the greatest honors of my life:  my first published book is held in the palms of two of his poems.

I’m not really sure what it is about his writing that I so love.  Maybe it’s that I discovered it when I was seventeen and was the first time I so related with something on the page that I thought I quite possibly had novels in me.  Maybe it’s that there’s so much walking in the woods at night and so much about the Midwest and Montana, the two places that I have most prominently called home.  Or that there’s usually delicious gout-giving food being cooked in a cabin somewhere and stellar French wine being consumed by people who use words that I’ve never heard of and then in the next breath swear, so that I’m simultaneously chuckling naughtily and grabbing the dictionary.  There’s no one who can have me, in the course of a paragraph, craving a steak and jotting down dropped names like John Dos Passos and Hart Crane with a note:  Look up.  And heck, maybe I would know these literary heroes of his if he’d stop banging out book after book.  But then again, I’ve read his novel Dalva eight times, so maybe it’s a hopeless cause.

How does he get away with this sort of thing, for instance:  “I sat on numerous beaches and stared at oceans until it was an ocean inside my head” right up alongside:  “She could fuck the balls off a cast iron monkey.”   ???

Here are a few of his accolades for playing the hand of cards he does on every page (aces, jokers, and everything in-between):  National Academy of Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Spirit of the West Award from the Mountain & Plains Booksellers Association, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He’s been compared to Hemingway and Faulkner.  Let’s be honest:  Harrison is a living legend.  And I got to have a beer with him.  All because of a letter and some guts.

When I met Harrison at his local watering hole in Arizona (will remain nameless lest it turn into the next Harry’s Bar) he walked in and said in a voice only he could pull off, the most magical words I’ve heard outside of ten fingers ten toes and book deal:  “Where’s the writer from Montana?”  My heart almost fell out of my mouth and into the bar ice.  “Here I am…Jim.”  I have never been more nervous and excited in my life, forget national television.  

I was with my husband and children on a camping trip and I’d given them a speech beforehand that went a little something like this:  “Introduce yourselves to him and then leave us the hell alone.”  A lot of people take their kids to Miley Cyrus concerts.  I took them to a bar on the Mexican border to meet Jim Harrison.  (They just can’t read much of his work for another six to ten years…unless they’re in the market for new ways to refer to the male genital member or can handle the tragic beauty of this sort of thing:  “Probably because of childhood books, I’ve always thought of other creatures as brothers and sisters.  When Lola (his protagonist’s dog) died, the sobs that emerged from behind my sternum expelled themselves properly as a bark.”

Of course the three photos I have of us (which are on my writing desk) display me with either my eyes closed or Jim mostly in the shade.  I find that this is often the result when you want something too much.  And truth be told, I can’t even remember much of what we talked about.  I think he said that Fellini, Orson Wells, and John Houston used to fake heart attacks at restaurants to get out of paying the bill.  I think we talked about claustrophobia in airplanes.  I know we talked about bird watching, namely the Elegant Trogon. 

When we were done with our beers, I asked where to go for dinner knowing what a foodie he is, and he recommended a tiny restaurant across the border in Nogales, an hour away, called Las Vigas.  He drew out directions on the back of a book of checks I dug up out of my purse, after he made a comment about me being a writer and not having a pad of paper on me.  (Not that he had one on him!)  I had been picking my cuticles and I passed him the bloodied paper, which I still have, on my desk, in a frame—directions I devotedly followed like a treasure map, even though we had to drive the camper a long ways in the dark and into Mexico all to eat the dried beef dish Harrison raved about,  Machaca Sonorenses.  (which was stunningly deelish, por supuesto.)  My husband and kids knew not to complain.  They knew I was on a pilgrimage.  They knew that it’s important to reward guts in the people you love.  And that it must have been one heck of a letter (which it was). 

This is perhaps all to say, that you might just write and even send that letter to the writer (person) who has inspired you most.  You just never know.  You might end up having one of the best dinners of your life, with a tear in your eye.


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