The Art of Jim

 

Jim Harrison, photographed by Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson Photography

The great loss of Jim Harrison this past Saturday has had me rooting for words. I dug through his old interviews and pored over passages from The Raw and the Cooked and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, whetting my appetite to write often and write well.

But more than that, reading Jim aroused in me what lately feels like my most primal need — to find fulfillment in a good day’s labor. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a manager, producer, coordinator for the corporate machine, some days it seems impossible to find meaning.

Not for Jim. He wrote every word, performed every task with pure purpose. You can’t mistake the career goals of a fisherman, a well-digger or a slow-cooked goose cassoulet, is all I’m saying.

This interview from The Paris Review in 1986 had me transfixed. Captured over five intoxicating days at Jim’s lush farm in Leelanau County, Michigan, the lengthy exchange touches playfully yet purposefully on Jim’s technique, philosophy and history.

It’s a long but worthwhile read. If you can’t sit down to the whole thing, here are a few choice bits that spoke to me.


 

On the hidden power of the low-down places we come from:

HARRISON

My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that?

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t that give you more incentive to break out?

HARRISON

And I think more power. I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the physical endurance you developed in those years somehow translates onto the written page?

HARRISON

I’ve never thought about that. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition. When you look at my wife’s garden you understand that; the beauty of the garden—the flowers and the vegetables—that’s how an artist is in his work. And I think the background that at first nonplussed me—that rural, almost white-trash element—stood me in good stead as an artist, in the great variety of life it forced me into, the hunger to do things. Joseph in Farmer wanting to see the ocean—that’s a reflection of my background. I can’t tell you the thrill I had when I hitchhiked to California to look at the Pacific. And then the same way with New York City. Our family had no money—there were five children—and I accumulated ninety dollars and my dad gave me a ride out to the highway. I had my favorite books and the typewriter he’d given me for my seventeenth birthday—one of those twenty-buck used typewriters—and my clothes, all in a cardboard box tied with a rope, and I was going off to live in “Green-witch” Village. I was going to be a bohemian! I think I’d seen pictures of bohemians in Life magazine, and that’s what I wanted to be. Also the girls looked really pretty. They had straight black hair and they wore turtlenecks. And my dad thought it was all fine. He wasn’t insistent about me finishing college at the time. He knew that Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t go to college.

On staying alive:

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that so many artists, perhaps poets in particular, commit suicide because they’ve painted themselves into a corner?

HARRISON

Sure, and they don’t have any resources left to get out. A metaphor isn’t a free lunch, and you get the kind of metaphor that keeps you alive not that often. Sometimes you have to stay alive merely because you are alive. Of course, people commit suicide in a state of derangement where they don’t realize that this is the last chance—they’re not quite aware of it at the time. It seems a temporary measure.

On his machismo:

HARRISON

… This is where I grew up. How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness. You don’t write—an artist doesn’t create, or very rarely creates—good art in support of different causes. And critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer. You have to explain to them: I am not all the men in my novels. How could I be? I’m little Jimmy back here on the farm with my wife and two daughters, and, at one time, three female horses, three female cats, and three female dogs, and I’m quite a nice person. So how can I be all these lunatics?

On discipline:

HARRISON

After you’ve been in it this long there’s no such thing as discipline. You write it when it’s ready to be written. And I’ve tried several times to start novels when they weren’t there and that’s tremendously discouraging and anguishing. It’s dog paddling, and fraught with the stupidest kinds of anxieties.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do when you can’t write?

HARRISON

I wonder, when a writer’s blocked and doesn’t have any resources to pull himself out of it, why doesn’t he jump in his car and drive around the U.S.A.? I went last winter for seven thousand miles and it was lovely. Inexpensive, too. A lot of places—even good motels—are only twenty-five dollars in the winter, and food isn’t much because there aren’t any good restaurants. You pack along a bunch of stomach remedies and a bottle of whiskey.

On becoming a writer:

HARRISON

Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don’t neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn’t give up until it’s plainly and totally impossible. Like the Dostoyevskian image—when you see the wall you’re suppose to put your hands at your sides and run your head into it over and over again. And finally I would warn them that democracy doesn’t apply to the arts. Such a small percentage of people get everything and all the rest get virtually nothing.

On Hemingway:

HARRISON

He was a marvelous writer but a bully, and bullies tend to become lonely souls. You’re only as lonely as you want to be. 

On becoming a werewolf:

INTERVIEWER

You have a ritualistic way of going about things, don’t you?

HARRISON

It’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? One night in my cabin I saw a flash of light and thought somebody was entering my driveway. I was so angry that I jumped out of bed and hit my head on the iron chandelier. I heard this horrible howling and yowling and I smashed through the back door to look for the car, but it was just a lightning storm. I was covered with sweat and my nose was distended, and I had long teeth and there was hair all over me. Obviously a little attack of lycanthropy, see? My dog wouldn’t speak to me for two days. Perhaps it was all the anger finally coming out of me because I’d heard a wolf down in the delta, and three days later I saw the wolf right on my two track. Two days later, I dreamed I found the wolf on the road and her back was broken, and I hugged her and she went all the way into me, and I remember thinking humorously in the dream: God, I’ve been trying to lose weight all summer and now I have to carry this she-wolf around in my body. How can I ever hope to lose weight? But she didn’t seem too heavy.

Photo credit: Andy Anderson Photography

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