The story never leaves us but becomes part of who we are and what we do and why we do it.
How Doors Open
My dad had a theory that was only partially accurate. It’s best described with a memory like this: One day he left for Savannah, some two hours away, on business, and he wasn’t on the road long before rain began to fall. Suddenly, with a jerk and a flapping, a tire went flat. My dad got out of his car with a towel over his head, changed the tire, turned around, and drove home.
“Why?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t the day,” he said.
“But you needed to go to Savannah.”
“I needed to go.” He loved crypticism.
“I’m not understanding.”
“I received two signs,” he said, as if talking to a moron. “Two was all I needed.”
“So you turned around because you got two signs not to go to Savannah.”
I interpreted the parable to mean: If life throws roadblocks in your path, consider you may be on the wrong path. Or: Allow yourself a couple of obstacles before you quit. Or even: Nothing is worth struggling for. The larger idea was that there is a path and our job is to see it and get to the trailhead. If doors open, we’re on the right path. If they don’t, well then….
The theory worked for me when I set out for Montana.
The University of Montana was among the first creative writing programs in the country to offer a nature-writing degree and, once there, I enrolled in a workshop with the iconic writer William Kittredge. I had not read Kittredge’s work, not yet, but he taught creative nonfiction, what I wanted to learn.
Kittredge was a short, bearlike man with a large cranium, therefore a large brain, who had been raised a cowboy in the ranchlands of the Warner Valley of Oregon. Although he left the ranch, he remained devoted to Warner and its stories, as well as to stories of the West writ large. Here I am reminded of a prosaic line by Albert Camus, in the preface to his rewritten book of essays: “A man’s life is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
Bill’s relationship with the West was more complicated. Bill’s heart opened on the ranch, yes, but from that very ranch sprang the essential tensions that would haunt his work.
Bill sharply criticized the popular narrative of the American West. In his 1987 book of essays Owning It All, Bill called that story a “racist, sexist, imperialistic mythology of conquest.’” He wrote, “We are struggling to revise our dominant mythology and find a new story to inhabit.”
The writer Scott Russell Sanders said of him, “Bill Kittredge had the courage to renounce the Western myths he’d learned while growing up, and the decency not to scorn the people from whom he’d learned them.”
Bill had arrived in Missoula in 1969, entering a thicket of writers that would cause Missoula to be named the “Paris of the West,” including Richard Hugo, James Welch, Annick Smith, and Rick DeMarinis. By fall of 1995 Bill was in his 60s, beginning the transition away from 30 years of teaching.
I squeezed through that door.
Bill lived and breathed writing, especially nature writing. All he wanted to do was talk stories, think stories, write stories. Oh, and he liked to drink. Nothing was better in those days than finding Bill at a bar downtown, drinking and talking. That was the place to be.
By then Bill had published Owning It All, Hole in the Sky: A Memoir (1992), and dozens of single essays. He was at work on the collection Who Owns the West?Bill’s companion was the Western nature writer, filmmaker, and activist Annick Smith, a woman similarly aged and exceedingly gorgeous, even glamorous, with glorious hair she wore long, down her back.
Bill’s workshop met one evening a week. The first night Bill told our class that we’d have to write two essays and workshop them, Iowa style. That meant the writer prints everybody a copy of her essay, and the next week the entire class critiques it while she stays quiet.
I took notes that semester in a two-by-three-inch “pocket memo” notebook. The very first note says, “Have to be careful not to fall into the syndrome that only things that explode are interesting.” The next is “We have so many voices—you have to grow up enough to find which one is yours.” (Said while Bill looked out at 15 sorta-scared students.)
From the start Bill recommended books to read. Reading stories as a ranch kid had changed him. I listed, from that first class, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Graham Greene’s overseas stories and Annie Dillard’s essay on the Book of Luke and James Galvin’s The Meadow.
None of this was telling me exactly what to do to get an “essay” on paper. I’d heard the word “essay” since junior high but didn’t really know what one was or how to write one, except that it needed an intro, a body, and a conclusion. (Turns out, it didn’t.)
“How long should an essay be?” someone asked.
Bill looked apologetic or maybe dismayed. He flicked his eyes toward a bank of windows, then back to us, then to the door. “Fifteen to 18 pages.” He paused and revised himself. “Ten pages or longer. Over 20 is pushing it.” He winced when he said it. I could see that we’d have to prove ourselves.
The way Bill taught, I would come to understand, was with a great deal of what appeared to be uncertainty. He spoke in short clipped sentences, trying, like Faulkner, to say things that were difficult to say. His sentences had a lot of starts and stops. This came across as shyness, as if he really didn’t want to be sitting in a chair facing 15 young writers, trying to hook up battery cables for a jump-start. He said “You know?” a lot, as if we might already know the stuff he was saying, or maybe we couldn’t understand and he felt ridiculous even attempting to illuminate us, or maybe there were no good words for what needed to be said.
Somebody asked how an essay should be done. Bill proceeded to lay down a path, a way forward. Call it a schema. He had learned from the editor Terry McDonnell, he told us, to work in scenes, stringing them together, the same way you’d write fiction. That formula, if you want to call it that, flat-out changed my life. Boom. I’m not sure I would have become a writer were it not for the treasure chest I was not smart enough to unlock on my own, although it had been right in front of my eyes, in everything I’d ever read. I was then still under the impression that writing was a gift, not an apprenticeship, that it fell outside the bounds of deconstruction because it happened magically. I actually thought that.
Years later, in 2017, the Montana Book Festival chose to celebrate Bill’s oeuvre. Karin Schalm, then creative writing coordinator in the University of Montana’s English Department, said, “Bill would like to be remembered most for his teaching. He taught so many successful writers at UM over the years.” William Kittredge, more than any other professor in this country, taught students to become published writers.
Jon Jackson, Pete Fromm, David Gilbert, Rick DeMarinis, Kim Barnes, Amanda Eyre Ward, Judy Blunt, Andrew Sean Greer, Kim Todd, Glendon Brunk, Sharman Apt Russell, Woody Kipp, Phil Condon.
What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark, and rework our stories, and we do it again the next morning, and all day long, through the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing our purposes. Without storytelling it’s hard to recognize ultimate reasons why one action is more essential than another.
Bill said that then the job of the writer is to find the right story, a compelling story of compassion and caretaking. “That story, when found, will be a gift, passing from one person to another. And then our institutions will change, almost at once.”
Every person is a story. Stories are maps. They are pipelines to our hearts; they are the leaves that build the soil of our culture; they are medicine, boats, spider webs, mycelium; they are permanently a part of our evolution; they are the route to empathy. The job of the writer, then, starts looking very important. Writers begin to look like change-makers, cultural creatives, medicine-makers, curanderos, holy people.
Journal, Nov. 15, 1996
I was late to Dan Flores’s class because I talked to Bill. He liked the book. He said it has two lines—one, wanting to return to the place I’m from, and two, saving the ecosystem. “It’s 99 percent done,” he said. “It needs one overriding line that will make it not a regional book but a worldwide one. That will make the difference in where it publishes and how far it’s read.” We were standing in the stairwell of the English Department. I was memorizing everything Bill was telling me, although I didn’t really understand it. “Read poetry,” he said. “Your book has something to do with honor. Gifts. What do we owe our history?”
In 2018, years after I left Montana, I spent a semester in residence at Hollins University. I brought a number of writing projects and journals with me. In the process of looking though the material, I found notes from the literary nonfiction workshop I took with Kittredge in fall 1995, beginning a week after I arrived in Missoula. I immediately began a letter to Bill:
If I have never adequately expressed my admiration for and abiding gratitude to you, I would like to attempt. I am acutely aware that much of who I have become as a writer is due to your guiding influence when I was most eager and ready to learn. I’ve done some teaching over the years, but I’ve never been able to approach the material that you brought to class—affiliation with other writers, a great love of story, working knowledge of the process of writing, a lifetime spent reading.
I will always believe that forces of spirit landed me in Missoula, under your tutelage, and put me in your sphere. What I learned from you was transformative and would forever change the narrative arc of my life, a life that I have enjoyed and am enjoying; a life where dreams have come true; a life where I have been able to pursue my deepest longings and to watch at least some of them materialize.
I am forever grateful that you read my feeble attempt at a book and handed it back to me, staggeringly crippled as it was, with hope in your voice. You found something to praise in ragged first attempts. That made all the difference in the world. My friendship with you and with Annick, who has inspired me in layers upon layers of ways, has been a blessing. I say this with all sincerity.
You’ve been on my mind, and I want you to know, again and again, that you made all the difference in my life. Thank you.
Bill wrote back to tell me he received the letter and signed off with typical encouragement: “Stay smart and tough.”
Until Bill died, I didn’t know how many other writers had the same experience. In social media posts they lauded him. Bestselling novelist Amanda Eyre Ward, whose latest is The Jetsetters, wrote about meeting with Bill in his office after she gave him a copy of her first novel: “He grabbed a yellow pad and drew how the book could be beautiful. With his red pen, he sketched circles, a three-act structure, action and grace. ‘You see it?’ he said.” She didn’t, but that sheet is framed above her writing desk. Andrew Sean Greer, who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for his novel Less, wrote about how Bill sent one of his stories to Richard Ford, who was editing Ploughshares, who accepted it. Greer got the call one cold day on his answering machine. “It is hard to describe what those words meant to me,” Greer wrote.
After the pandemic hit, I took yoga via Zoom. My teacher, Mary Brown, talks for a few minutes at the start of each class. One Saturday morning the theme of class was “Between Effort and Effortlessness.” Mary said that effort leads to effortlessness. Effort makes a statement. But too much effort and you can get as stuck as if there’s no effort. The harder you try, the farther behind you fall. So there has to be a sweet spot.
I thought about this a lot—how we put in effort and then, if we are lucky, other (sometimes inexplicable) forces rise up to help us. That is the effortlessness. In the garden, for example, I do the planting and weeding, but then rising to help me are the forces of photosynthesis and microbial life and pollinators and so much more. The mystery of life itself—that indomitable urge to live and grow—begins to work on my behalf.
The force that sent me to Montana, the one that opened a spot in Bill’s workshop, that gave me a chance to learn from him—that is the piece that wasn’t in my dad’s theory. You need both effort and effortlessness.
The last time I saw Bill was in 2014, when I returned to Montana to teach for a semester as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer in Environmental Studies. Annick and Bill wanted to take a winter trip, and as I’d done many times over the years, I planned to house-sit for Annick at her homestead up the Blackfoot River, where she and Bill lived. He also kept an apartment back in town, in Missoula, which is where I found him before they left.
On this particular day my family stopped by the apartment. It was a quick stop, maybe to return a key or pick up a key, I can’t remember. The place was full of books, walled with books, stacked with books, and Bill was sitting among them. He was still reading, still working. He and I had a too-short conversation that could have gone for hours, except there was work to do.
According to Annick, even this past fall, when Bill’s health was declining, he continued to read and to work on a manuscript about writing. She promised him that she’d finish the editing.
So that’s it. Find your path. There will be obstacles. There will be struggle. And if you listen closely enough and stick to the trail, you can create a three-part narrative arc, with rising action, plenty of epiphanies, falling action, and then of course the end. When we come to the end of a good story, we are filled with this electrified sense that something subversive and providential has just happened to us, and even as we don’t understand it, we are filled with euphoria or nostalgia or grief or any of the many emotions that attend transformation. We hate to turn the last page. The story never leaves us but becomes part of who we are and what we do and why we do it.
Bill’s life was a story that has ended but that of course is not the end at all.
Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject is often nature. She earned an MFA from the University of Montana and has published five books of nonfiction and a volume of eco-poetry. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is a memoir about growing up on a junkyard in the severely diminished longleaf pine ecosystem. It was named a New York Times Notable Book. Ray has won a Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, and a Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, among others. She lives on an organic farm in Georgia.
Header image, You Can Leave Your Hat On (16″ x 20″ oil on canvas), by Raven Waters. Photo of Janisse Ray by Nancy Marshall.