Flying into Oblivion: How to Keep Your Writing Spirits Up

Proulx books

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.”

Proulx book brokeback-mountainThe 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.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

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 . . .”

Sensory Impressions
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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From Book to Big Screen

Recently a writer asked what she should do about an offer to make a TV program or a movie from a book she has written.

First, my experience here is limited. In the 1970s, I wrote a movie script for Tom Laughlin, who created the Billy Jack movies after observing the racism in his wife Delores Taylor’s hometown of Winner, S.D. (Tom was a man of great accomplishments in education and psychology; his story on Wikipedia gives considerable information about his life.) At that time, Tom wanted to make a movie about the life of Crazy Horse, whom he viewed as a hero in the Billy Jack mode. Perhaps because he had attended the University of South Dakota, where he met his wife, Tom asked me to write the script. Tom knew that I had attended USD and that I was running a small press publishing regional authors, so these facts might have influenced his decision.

Tom Laughlin Billy Jack
Tom Laughlin (in his Billy Jack persona).

I had not written a book about Crazy Horse, so I did considerable research, including interviews with various Lakota people to create the script. Laughlin flew me to Minneapolis to discuss the project and he and Delores Taylor hosted me at another meeting in Arizona (where a highlight was my seeing the tracks of a sidewinder rattlesnake in the sand). Negotiations were exciting; we discussed my being a consultant for the film at length, through many telephone calls and letters. One individual who said he was a priest called me late one night. He had been told that I knew the secret site where the great Lakota leader is buried, and promised me riches if I told him. I was not tempted.

I was paid for my writing, and I discovered a lot of information about Crazy Horse that is not general knowledge, but the movie was never made. I met some intriguing people, including both Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor. Both were brilliant and fascinating, and interested in so many things that they had trouble focusing on a particular project— a trait I came to believe may be typical of folks who are creative, and particularly those who get involved with movie-making. I came away from the project with no desire for further involvement in TV or movies. The whole process was just too exhausting, with too much time spent talking about creativity, or planning to be creative, or discussing what creativity means, leaving far too little time to create.

Movie Streep and Elliot
Linda (as played by Meryl Streep) and George (as played by Sam Elliot). What a movie!

Consequently, when there was talk of doing something dramatic with my book Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, I couldn’t muster up very much enthusiasm, though my husband George and I joked about who would play us in the movie. I think we settled on Meryl Streep and Sam Elliott.

Several painters have created art works inspired by my stories, as has at least one weaver and several poets and I welcomed their efforts. One painter sent me her vision of my cows and a dog that hangs in my retreat house.

So, with that background, here’s my view. Remember, though, that this opinion has never been seriously tested, say by someone handing me a contract promising large amounts of money for something I’ve written.

I believe the books I’ve written are accomplishments of which I can be proud, though in each book and every poem I can usually find something I might change if I had the opportunity. I know that some of my writing has inspired the writing of others, and I felt no proprietary interest in their work. If someone takes my story and turns it into a dramatic performance, the new creation is a separate achievement, inspired by mine. (When Parris Afton Bonds copied more than 75 passages from my book Windbreak into her romance novel, she was not being creative but committing copyright infringement. I sued to stop her publication and won the right to discuss her actions, but that’s a story for another time.)

In thinking of how another artist might make a TV program or movie from your book, consider what happens when you buy a new car and sell the old one. In my case, I could recall some of the challenging or delightful travels I had, and I wished the new owner well. Then I turned my attention to learning which buttons to push on the new car to get the best performance from it.  Though I might still remember some of the things I liked or disliked about the old car, fixing its problems is no longer my job.

Ideally, if someone buys your work for TV or a movie, you can assure yourself that you have achieved the best of which you are capable in that particular work. All you are selling is an idea, an inspiration that someone else will use to create their own artistry. As I fasten the seat belt in my new car, someone may be driving away in the old one, smiling and planning a trip, thinking, There’s so much room in the back I can sleep there and my German shepherd dog can even sleep beside me.

Realistically, anyone might read your book in print and create their own interpretation of it without consulting you. You might never know. So if someone offers you cash for the idea, give serious thought to accepting. Consider what improvements you might make in your writing room with a little extra cash. Or go on a writing retreat.

Finally, understand that when someone else creates art in a different medium, inspired by you, your ideas may reach a new audience, spreading your achievement even further. After all, our goal as writers is to communicate with people, and perhaps the story you have told will grow beyond the boundaries you have set.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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