Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) has, in recent years, become one of my favorite authors. His books are populated by lovable misfits and loners, and generally focus on man’s relationship with nature. This is never done in a preachy way, but in bold tales of drinking, sex, and love-gone-wrong. He’s been compared to Hemingway—but whereas both have a bare-boned style of writing, Harrison’s work exudes much more warmth. Indeed, Harrison himself once summarized Hemingway’s work as a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.” His output includes an amazing number of novels, novella collections, and volumes of poetry. This is good news for me; although I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, I have plenty more to go.
Earlier this year, in a piece for The Atlantic, he described his approach to writing prose and poetry. You can read the article here in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted my favorite part:
I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving. I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette.
That’s how the story “Brown Dog” came to me—from an image. I had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie. They had photos of the cook in the galley of a sunken ship that went down in the 1890s. The lakes up there are so cold that the cook looked perfectly preserved, floating around in the galley—except he didn’t have any eyes. That’s how the story started.
Once I start, I very rarely change my mind about the nature of the story. And when I begin writing, it’s sound that guides me—language, not plot. Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm. When you have the rhythm of a character, the novel becomes almost like a musical composition. It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.
You can’t go to it. It has to come to you. You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character.
When you’re not writing in the first person as the speaking character, the danger is there’s too much temptation to show off. And many writers do. They hit what they think is a high note, then keeping shooting for that. I like what Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker says: She has to have a story, she can’t just have effect. There must be more than writerly effect. And it’s true. Nobody likes a showoff.