When mentally fragile, I like to drive to a far city, say at least a few hundred miles from any of the three modest places my family lives, check in to a somewhat pathetic brand-name motel with the pleasant feeling that I won’t know a single soul in the local phone book. And that my own phone won’t ring except in the case of a dire event, because my wife is well aware of my motives for staying in the anonymous room. Here I have shorn myself of my support systems, and there is a fairly good chance that in a day or two I’ll discover the etiology of what ails me, keeping in mind that the overexamined life is also not worth living.
Most often, nothing in particular ails me, or nothing that is immediately correctable, other than a need to step aside from my life for a day or two and walk in unknown country. Close after dawn and armed with a local map, I take a stroll in empty fields, canyons, woods, but preferably near a creek or river because since childhood I’ve loved the sound they make. Moving water is forever in the present tense, a condition we rather achingly avoid. I’ve always favored undistinguished places, for reasons of privacy. And the fact that you’re in new country, however modest, raises the level of attention for perhaps genetic reasons. Who goes here? Not many.
It is in this manner that I’ve always come up with the ideas and images that engender my poetry, novellas, and novels. I would add road trips that aren’t particularly directional and have lasted for weeks. On solo road trips, you see with clarity pieces of your life unroll against the unconditioned and nonhabitual backdrop. You refuse to think about anything you’ve thought about before, a tactic that seems to freshen the neurons and synapses because new images arise from the past, also new images from the unlived life before you. It is a somewhat mortal game.
Of course, your own life is your truest story, and it blinds you unless it’s heavily edited. You can immediately dismiss all the routines, which, though comforting, own the banality of a greeting card. This shrinkage alone will get rid of nine-tenths of your life. I recall that in his book The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder notes the relative sameness of our biographies, but that our dreams and visions can be quite unique. The dream that I could write a good poem, a good novel, or even a good movie for that matter, has devoured my life.
I’m not sure I’m particularly well equipped to tell the truth. What our parents and teachers taught us as truth usually dealt with moral abstractions or the illusory notion of coming to grips with what they loosely termed as reality. Certain things happened and certain things didn’t happen, and then the not-very-agile jump to certain things are true and others false. The wild humor of ten-year-olds comes from the first reading between the lines of this paralyzing bullshit that is destined to suffocate most of them.
I have noticed that everyone speaks a slightly different language. I suspect this is one way a writer can draw us together, in that there is an effortless reverence among the intelligent for language mastery. I have also become aware that people’s speech is less vivid than earlier in my life in terms of rural life—plants, animals both farm and wild, trees, weather, land and water shapes, the sun, moon, and stars. But then this is altogether natural in that during my own lifetime, the 30 percent urban and semiurban and 70 percent rural population has been reversed, thus the drift away from earthbound metaphor and images.
Maybe the idea of our unique dreams and visions is a little antique, if not pretentious. “Obsession” is more contemporary, though the young man who felt his brain transfigured by Keats and Whitman at sixteen, felt called to these professions as surely as he would have felt if a voice had boomed out on a spring night from the marsh behind the house. We are drenched in cynicism, psychologisms, explanations, but life is still there, its essence quite beyond spin, its cycle as surely set as it always has been. And just recently there is the delightful reminder that in our trillion or so cells, within each one, in fact, are thirty thousand indicators of what we are genetically. That’s just the beginning of the story, which despite a lifetime of reading and hearing answers, remains a mystery.
There is the additional corrective that on any given day for any number of reasons, you are bound to look at your past a little differently. There is a very old Zen saying that is especially poignant on this matter: “If you wish to balance your past, you are painting it with a turtle hair paintbrush.” I can imagine a mortally wounded caveman sitting on a rock precipice and admitting to himself with puzzlement, “The life I’ve already lived is my life,” not the less true being so naked.
From Off to the Side: A Memoir, © 2002 by Jim Harrison. Reprinted with permission of Atlantic Monthly Press