'It Has to Come to You': Why Jim Harrison Writes Patiently

The veteran author says Theodore Roethke's poetry is a reminder that sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.

Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters.  This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one.

When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.

Jim Harrison spoke to me from his winter home in Patagonia, Arizona where he waits out the cold before returning, in the spring, to Montana.

Jim Harrison: I read Theodore Roethke very early on because he was, like me, from Michigan. He lived in a big greenhouse that was owned by his father. He was a great big fellow—sort of a tosspot, if you know what I mean. Probably should have lasted longer than he did. But he was a marvelous poet.

To me, his work demonstrates the ineffable power of language, especially through his mastery of rhythm. You can see his gift on display in a great favorite of mine, “I Knew a Woman”:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;   
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:   
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

Why do these lines stay with me like they do? I don’t know. I don’t intentionally memorize lines. It’s not a question of memorizing the way one does at school, where they make you learn Kipling’s “If.” Or that other piece of doggerel, “The Song of Hiawatha,” by Longfellow. You know:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

A poem’s rhythm shouldn’t read like the ticking of a box. But people thought Longfellow would be good for teaching children English, so people push that piece of shit on their kids even now.

Good poetry’s appeal is more mysterious. I can remember whole lines of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, just because of the beauty of Joyce’s use of language. Roethke’s the same way. These lines stick with you for aesthetic reasons. It’s like you remember songs. You recreate their music in your mind.

All this occurs in a realm beyond the intellect. Why is Mozart better than anybody else? There’s no logical reason. The same thing’s true in writing. Some people just have the gift. I can recognize that quality when I see it on the page. You know when you’ve brought it off. It’s a bit like Matthew Arnold’s saying that “A good poet can make the skin of your neck prickle.” But there’s no logical response to it.

How do I know when my own writing has the music? I’m afraid that does remain mysterious. The logic of the aesthetic sense doesn’t define itself. I never thought of myself as a mathematician. I go by the credo “Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not.” This is something I can feel but not explain. I never know with a novel until page 50 if it’s going to work. With a novella, it takes about until page 20 to see if I’m really in motion.

My first novel, Wolf, starts with a two-page sentence. It was a vain decision. I wanted to show it could be done. I was a young writer, and hungry. But I was hot that day and knew it. Of course, it dwindled a bit after that once I rode it out. Still, the heat is never that far away, you know?

I approach poetry and prose very differently. It’s complicated because I’m doing both all the time. I often start the day by working on a poem. Then I attack whatever prose I’m making at the time. I’ve never separated them in my attention. I just have a radically different way of going about them.

Poetry is this fantastic invocation, while prose is all about character. Poetry calls for a lot of focusing and revision where prose doesn’t. I wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days and when I re-read it, I only had to change one word. There was no revision process. None. I had thought so much about the character that writing the book was like taking diction. I felt overwhelmed when I finished, I needed to take a vacation, but the book was done.

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.

So, you learn to think like the character, to speak with them. Wolf’s structure grew out of that rhythm more than any conventional sense of plot. In the case of my novel Dalva, I felt I could dream the character. It’s like you have an extra voice in your brain while you’re writing. And it’s a wonderful feeling, though it doesn’t happen often.