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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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The Glamorous Life of the Author

Novel in progress

It’s been a while since I’ve joined you over in These Here Hills. I’ve missed this terrain. However, like most writers I know, time for doing our primary work, if in fact book writing is just that, becomes rare. I re-booted my priorities this summer and will probably do so into the winter, as I try to finish the novel I’m working on and lead my writing workshops and retreats. I’ll send notes from that terrain as I go.

In the mean time, just in case anyone thinks that the writing life is glamorous…here’s the current state of my novel:

On my office floor
Warped and wrinkled from bath-tub editing
And now wet and dirty from a naughty black lab
I figured I’d leave it blurry too, since that’s what it looks like to me without my reading glasses these days
And since I like to edit in the bath-tub, it’s a bit of a foggy mess. Any advice on that one?

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A Look Into Self-publishing

People have asked me over and over why I’ve written so many books and never considered self-publishing.  I think the answer was really just this:  I was chicken.  Sure, I said I was attached to the idea of traditional publishing.  I wanted that status.  That support.  That level of editing and publicity.  That “institutional” backing and affiliation.  Eventually, I got all that in spades.  It was an embarassment of riches, really and I am so grateful to the great Amy Einhorn at Putnam and the wonderful publicity and marketing team at Penguin.   I love my agent and I treat her better than I do most of my best friends.  I like the feeling of people being For me and these people were just that.  They believed in my book and my message.  But every-so-often I wonder what would happen if I slapped one of my novels on Amazon and flew solo.  I admire people who take that tack.  But I admit to still being a chicken.

I have a friend who is NOT a chicken and we have had some interesting conversations about self-publishing.  I’d like to share our question and answer with you.  Feel free to ask her about her experience.  She has written a beautiful book, and I’m happy to introduce you to my friend, Brigetta Schwaiger.

Book Description:

Anna Broxton’s marriage to the top Tommy John surgeon in the West and their idyllic ranch life in the Flathead Valley of Montana makes most women envy her. That is, until one simple moment changes her family forever.

Unable to bear the presence of her once adored husband, she abandons her life and finds “her nowhere” a small organic farm on the Southern tip of Sweden. There, she tills the soil, plants seeds, learns to pickle cucumbers, and fights her attraction to a younger man.

Her unlikely friendships with two unique women awaken her to suffering other than her own and help her face her part in the tragedy. She returns home to find her husband has found his own nowhere and must fight for whatever love remains in the gaps of their shattered family.

“Her Nowhere” is a tearjerker about relationships and what they can survive—if we let them. It is appropriate for book club discussion about our own unique tragedies, how we respond to them, how they shape us, humanitarianism, organic farming, and the imperfection of motherhood.

Why did you decide to self publish?

I always wanted to write a novel, but there was some fear in me associated with that dream. So, for many years I just didn’t do it. I thought it would be too hard to get it published so I just didn’t invest the time. For me, it was freeing to choose to write regardless if there would be any recognition or possiblility of publication or any monetary compensation. I wanted to write it because life is just a vapor so why not choose your dreams while you can.

When I finished and let a couple of family members and friends read it, they were very responsive and loved the story. I began the process of researching agents, contructing perfect query letters, sending them, waiting for responses and it became a full time job. I have four children and honestly, it seemed like a waste of my time. Like I was parading myself when perhaps nobody was even watching.

So, I tucked my novel away in the corner of my desktop and left it alone for a few years. One day, I was inspired to come back to it and re-read and edit once again. I found that I loved the story and knew it should be shared. I started researching ebook publishing. I realized it was something I could control and I’d been hearing that even when a big house picked up your work, you ended up doing most of the promotion anyway.  It was a way to get my book off of my desktop and offer it to whoever might want to read it. Simple as that.

 

How did your move to Montana from California inspire your writing?

That’s such a good question because it had everything to do with my writing. I always say Montana gave me the space I needed to write and create. In California (and I love my home state and my peeps there) it was just crowded, squished, noisy. And I never realized how it adds unknown stress until I moved to Montana. It also helped that I didn’t know a soul here when we first moved. My characters in Her Nowhere were my first companions in Montana.

What was the process like logistically?

I won’t lie. It’s a lot of work and you have to be committed to editing, finding good readers to edit, researching best ways to create covers, learning how to format your text, then checking and double checking. Mostly its a lot of researching online and learning from others who have done it. There is help out there, but you have to take the time to find it, read it, and apply.

What has the response been so far?

It has been incredible. My sister’s friend read it and said- “It’s my favorite book of all time. I want a signed hard copy. If it was in print, I would give it to everyone I know. It is so healing with all the loss I’ve had in my life.”  And I thought- That’s my hope. So if it’s just for her, just for one, then that’s enough.

An Amazon review from Sue Keating said, “Anyone who was lost and found will relate to this novel. Well written and plot driven, Anna is lost, found and redeemed. A global book that affirms that giving is the best way to receive.”

Another reader stayed up until three in the morning reading it on the cracked screen of her  iPhone. Love that! People are telling me that once they start it, they can’t put it down. But, I also get some complaints about puffy eyes the next day. Or readers looking like they’ve been beat up. It’s a real tear jerker. Within the first two days it was in the top fifteen in the Paid Kindle Drama Category and at one point was number one on the Hot New Releases in Dramas.

What have you learned so far?  What advice would you give a writer who is at the beginning of the self-publishing process.

If a writer knows self-publishing is for them, they should read through Kindle Direct Publishing’s information first. Become familiar with formatting on .doc, which converts easily to the Kindle. If you format it right the first time, it can save you a lot time. I’d also tell them to look through the covers on Amazon and pay attention to the images that catch their eye. A good cover is very important.  I’m a photographer and have enough experience on Photoshop that I was able to create my own, but you may want to hire someone if you don’t have those skills.  And make sure you edit, edit, edit, then upload it and read it through on your ebook device to search for weird formatting issues and typos. Also, have a few close friends read it on their ebook device too. Then, you can make any corrections needed before you start publicizing. There are many self-published books with a ton of grammatical errors and typos. You don’t want to be one of those.

How much time do you find yourself doing promotion—Facebook, Twitter, website, mailings, blogging, etc.?

It is time consuming, but I haven’t kept track because I practically live on Facebook and Twitter and on the blogs already. I am co-owner of a New Media Company called FlyGirls Media (www.FlyGirlsMedia.com) and we run social media campaigns and workshops for clients. So, this part comes naturally to me. I started in social media with a mom blog I’ve written for over three years now. I recently took a six month break, but I missed it so I’m back at it. You can find me at www.TransparentMama.Blogspot.com.

Have you been able to land any media on your own?  Have you (or are you considering) hiring a publicist?

I won’t hire a publicist. I will focus on promoting through social media, Facebook Ads, and my good friends who will introduce me to the readers of their blogs. I am also taking advantage of the KDP Select program. It is a program through Kindle Direct Publishing that allows you five free promotional days over a 90 day period. The catch is that you have to be exclusively with them for 90 days and you become part of their lending library. My first promotional day on Amazon is this Saturday (5.18.12). My book will be offered for free that entire day and hopefully gain some valuable exposure.

Talk to me about this oft dreaded word “Platform” that the publishing world now basically requires before they’ll take a risk on an unknown writer.  Do you think you need that platform with self-publishing?

That remains to be seen. I don’t know. It’s such a hard thing because fiction writers are often holed up writing alone so it’s difficult to develop a platform before anyone has seen their work. I’m hoping this first book will show its worth and THAT will give me a platform.

Thank you, Brigetta!  See you on the baseball fields and best of luck to you!

Bio:

Brigetta is a writer, photographer, blogger, and co-owner of FlyGirls Media, LLC. She has four baseball loving energetic sons and somewhere in a paper pile there is documentation showing she graduated with a degree in English from UCLA.

She studied in Sweden and Europe and after living in Los Angeles most of her life, packed a U-haul with her husband and carted her family off to the amazing town of Whitefish, Montana.

 

 

 

 

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Impersonation. Empathy.

After writing a memoir and spending a year promoting it, I’m taking the chill of autumn and getting back to the craft I’ve been working on for 20 years and that’s fiction writing. I love fiction. Some people say, “I don’t read fiction. It’s not real.” To me fiction is realer than real. It’s distilled reality. The characters are not beholden to what actually happened in a room. Their words and feelings and actions tap into the collective We. And the act of climbing into that collective We as a writer and as a reader, requires the most important character trait I know: empathy. Without empathy, how can we love? Without empathy, how can we learn? How else am I to know what it is like to be a man, or a soldier, or a quadriplegic, or a Queen four hundred years ago?

People ask me often why I broke out of fiction to be the main character in a book. Well I think that sometimes people need to know that the main character exists in the world, to know that they are not alone. And as a writer, I needed to be the main character because I needed to create that kind of objectivity for myself during a challenging time in my marriage. I needed to write subjectively as an act of pure creation and catharsis, and then I needed to hold up the mirror to myself in reading it and wearing my editor’s cap. But memoir is limited. Though it’s still crafted and architectural, while you are still out on scaffoldings building your book, you are limited to reality. Back in the realm of fiction, I am free. I can climb into the mind and heart and actions of a 19 year old farrier from Montana and see the world through his eyes. In my comings and goings, I am back in that place of watching people move and talk and learning about that collective We. Maybe a certain turn of phrase might make it into my work. Or a gesture. Or a smell. Writers mine their lives. Hopefully we do it responsibly and hopefully we do it with compassion. It begins, however, by being empathetic. To a fault sometimes, tis true.

Here is a brilliant display of empathy. There is no way that Kevin Spacey became this good at these pitch-perfect impersonations, without studying these people he’s impersonating with a sharp dedication to the collective We, and years of developing his Empathy muscle. Enjoy this stunning performance.

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