Alone in the West?

THEY SAY WRITING IS A SOLITARY THING—as if we are all lone wolves howling into the wind with only the moon as our companion.  Yet from the first writer’s conference I attended as a freshman at the University of Colorado in 1970, where Reader’s Digest managing editor John Allen befriended and encouraged me, to a 1996 reading at The Writer’s Voice in Billings, Montana, where Kim Barnes and I read from our memoirs, to the upcoming reading and panel discussion at The Tattered Cover for the new anthology West of 98: Living and Writing the American West, I have found writing to be about community. 

Writers support other writers.  Especially western writers.  If author Laura Pritchett had not suggested my name to the editors of West of 98, my essay might not have found its way into the collection.  Thank you, Laura!  And had John Allen not tucked me under his wing when I was only 18, I might never have held onto this dream.  But he did.  And she did.  And they did.  And we all do.

Opening my contributor’s copy of West of 98, I see Kim Barnes’ name in the list of contributors, not far from mine.  I read her essay and discover that we both have Oklahoma roots. She shares that she misses the backwoodsness of her upbringing—the stories of forest fires and widow-maker snags.  At the end, she declares that she is bored by her "nice black pants and Italian leather boots and the sameness of every interview she has ever been drug through." It is a charming confession.

I turn to page 193 and read Laura’s essay. "I do not like to gut fish," she tells the reader.  Then she confesses in a few lines that “I’m a ranch kid who now owns a Suburu, criss-cross suntan patterns are visible on my feet when I’m not wearing cowboy boots, and I am apt to fall in love with thoroughly western men, most particularly my husband.”

Does any other profession create the space for this kind of dialogue?  Those of us who write personal narratives about the West don’t always have to gut fish, we’re often too busy spilling our own guts.  But isn’t there something wonderfully vulnerable and trusting about that?  About writing about the people and places that we love and hate, then casting these stories out into the world? 

“Writing personal stories about the landscapes we love is a radical act,” I write in West of 98“A protective act.  A celebratory act.  Even an act of desperation.  It is also an intimate and sensual act.  Sometimes I crave the western earth like food, or breath, or sex, or water…”  I crave storytelling and storytellers in this same way too.  They are my people--my tribe.  Their community is my community.  Our language is the language of lore and truth and connectedness.  And even when it gets messy, I'll never toss this profession back.

NOTES:  West of 98, edited by Russell Rowland and Lynn Stegner, is published by University of Texas Press. Please attend the reading and panel discussion at The Tattered Cover in Denver on November 5, 2011, at 7:30 pm.  Contributors include Rick Bass, Ron Carlson, Gretel Ehrlich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Barry Lopez, Larry McMurtry, and more!  Read more about Kim's first memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country.  Read Page's entire essay "A Shape-Shifting Land."


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