Annie Proulx (that’s pronounced PROO according to my conversation with her some years ago) has been named winner of the 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The honor recognizes a knowledgeable writer whose body of work has told the readers “something new about the American experience.”
Proulx is a wise woman who said, in a May 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, “I feel sorrow and urgency about the state of the natural world. So many extinctions loom, so much plastic chokes the waters, so many stars are blotted out by light pollution, so many birds have flown into oblivion.”
She asked friends who are passionate about the natural world how they manage to stave off grief at the “visible decline of the world we took for granted only a few decades ago.” Their response? “The consensus is to keep working in personal ways to protect what we still have, through citizen science or private behavior.”
I absolutely agree. I don’t own a television, so it’s easier for me to avoid the news of devastation and idiocy that blares from its shiny and deceptive face. I can’t imagine how folks who stare at it all day long save their sanity or equilibrium. Still, some people do despair, and believe that all hope is lost. I suggest that people who are saddened by the state of the world turn off the noisy box and get out into their community. Look at the parks littered with trash, the pet shelters. Does the local library have enough volunteers to help children find books? Does the Meals on Wheels group need more volunteers to deliver food to the elderly or homebound? Can your elderly neighbor shovel her walk after a snowstorm? Somewhere you will find a way to help.
At age 83, Proulx has won numerous awards, but she’s especially delighted by the library award, which was formally presented September 1st at the National Book Festival in Washington. She says that the American experience that has “charged most of what I write has been place—the geography of North America and how different locales affected the way the inhabitants made a living, how they spoke, dressed, ate, thought.”
The West is my place, and Proulx is only one—but surely the most famous—of the writers who have focused on it. Always curious about regional differences, Proulx began writing about rural places in her late 50s, focusing on the way people worked. She’s bounced from topic to topic, writing about forestry, shipping, and finally about cowboys—notoriously the short story “Brokeback Mountain” which drove western readers into frenzies of hatred or admiration. Her view of the West has become one of the best-known while many fine writers with a deeper understanding of the West continue to be ignored.
In 2017 she received and richly deserved the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, said at the time, “Proulx has given us monumental sagas and keen-eyed, skillfully-wrought stories” that capture the “wild, woolly heart of America from its screwball wit to its every last detail.” Hayden’s nomination was based on recommendations from previous winners, literary critics, and other writers.
I admire Proulx’s determination to begin a new life in late middle age, and her honest attempt to write what she sees, and she has seen a great deal. Because one of her topics resulted in the making of a successful movie, her view of the West has been widely accepted as the only view. This is not her fault, but it’s unfortunate.
Like all writers of an advanced age, Proulx is looking toward the end of her life, at flying into oblivion. We live in an era that seems to demand that everyone who accomplishes something deserving of attention immediately go “on the road”—or on talk shows—to engage in promotion. An inventor may have created a pill that saves lives, but unless she has discussed it with some late-night television personality whose primary claim to fame is white teeth, that achievement may be forgotten tomorrow.
Writers are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of quick fame. Even many college professors these days pride themselves on teaching work from the hottest writing sensation rather than work that has been read for generations because it’s good. Perhaps, though, these awards will help Proulx achieve a more lasting recognition.
Most writers already know that the way to achieve instant stardom is to be chosen by a moviemaker. Few of us can make that happen, and the authors I have known whose work has been brought to the silver screen were universally horrified at the results.
We writers don’t get to choose what the public decides, but the alternatives are available to all of us: do you want fame? Or do you want to write what you believe as well as you can?
If you want to be famous, you need to pay attention to trends, be constantly alert to what interests the public—not necessarily the reading community—and make your work splashy enough to attract that fleeting and fickle attention.
I’ve had some amazing and startling experience with people who are Lakota, or gay, for example. Since I’m neither gay nor Lakota, I believe writing about them would be exploitive, or would smack of trying to create sensation. I stick to subjects I know more thoroughly, and encourage others to create their truths, whatever they are.
I believe that if you want to write well, you must just keep writing. You may never achieve fame, but if you create the best writing of which you are capable, you are a success. As Proulx advises about the environment, “keep working in personal ways.”
Keep writing your own truth. Don’t look at extinctions; look for births. When writing seems especially difficult, don’t read about awards. Don’t subscribe to all the writing magazines. Instead, read your own old drafts and commend yourself for your improvement.
Or, in that journal you carry everywhere because you are a serious writer, try one of these suggestions:
The Daily Story
Try starting a story in a different style every day; set a mood of mystery, of horror, of humor; try to begin a romance novel like those in the supermarkets, whether that’s what you want to write or not. Test your limits and abilities as a writer; can you sound like Hemingway? Faulkner? All of this will be useful practice for writing, and any of those stories might turn into something you want to pursue further.
Field Notes on Your Culture
What cultures do you belong to? White? Hispanic? Single mother? Adults wearing braces? Women obsessed with their hair? Women who don’t give a darn about their hair? Middle-aged brides? People with 20-year-old cars? Sticklers for commas? List at least 20 cultures that you belong to. Get wild. Choose one from the list and begin writing, “I belong to the culture of . . .”
Write as many sensory impressions as you can of one day, one year, one place; a room, a river; a neighborhood. Be sure to use all the senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch.
Inventory your check book stubs and credit card receipts; list what seem to be your priorities, based on this evidence. If these are not the priorities you believed you had, write about how they differ from what you are actually doing.
The primary point is this: if you want to be an 83-year-old writer someday, famous or not, looking back on your years of writing with a smile as you fly into oblivion or whatever follows this life, then keep writing.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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