Annie Proulx was 53 when her first short story collection was published.
She started writing after her kids were raised and out of the house, because that’s just how you did it back then, Proulx told the audience at a Literary Arts lecture in Portland recently.
Even though she waited until a relatively advanced age to start writing, Proulx, 76, was always a reader. When she was young, she choose which books to read based on the color of their covers. She read constantly, as did the rest of the her family. At dinner they’d all have books, she told the audience.
Being a reader helped when Proulx went back to school later in life and went on to become a prize-winning author of Shipping News, short stories including “Brokeback Mountain,” and her latest, an autobiography about her Wyoming home called Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place. That’s just one of the things I learned during her lecture – to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
Here are some other lessons on the art and craft of writing I picked up from listening to and reading Proulx:
1. It doesn’t matter where you start. Proulx didn’t launch her writing career with fiction. Like a lot of other writers, she started small and worked her way up. Some of her first pieces were articles for horticulture magazines, then books on rural living. Her inspiration for writing fiction came from feelings of “looking for some unspecified place, something out there,” she says. “I think everyone has those feelings, but it’s difficult to know how to get them on the page.”
2. Let the place drive the story. Proulx is the first to say that place informs her writing more than character, more than plot, more than anything. That’s apparent in her 2008 collection of Wyoming short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. If there’s a protagonist in her tales, is the land, which remains a steady force – at times beautiful or malevolent – as people come and go. By her own admission, Proulx tends to fall in love with places, and then write about them. She liked Newfoundland so much after a vacation there she bought a cabin and spent seven or eight summers there before making it the setting of The Shipping News. She had similar experiences with Texas Panhandle and Wyoming before writing stories set there. “It’s a dangerous habit,” she says.
3. Interviews are optional. When asked at the Literary Arts lecture whether she does background interviews for her books, Proulx said simply: “No.” With one exception. For Accordian Crimes, a collection of related short stories set in Texas, Proulx did interviews to understand how accordians were made and repaired.
4. Learn to love research. Proulx is researching her next book, which has to do with trees and forests, a project that so far has taken her to Canada, Indonesia and New Zealand. Proulx loves research, and says if you write, you better like it too.
5. Take your time. Proulx’s not one to rush a book. She’s a quarter of the way into writing the forest book, and doesn’t expect to finish until 2014, or after. “It’s going to take a while,” she says. But when she’s done, she’s done and editors don’t have to do much to her manuscripts. “There aren’t many changes,” she says. Not everyone has the sort of time of a prize-winning and highly compensated novelist does when it comes to finishing projects. My takeaway from this: whatever you’re working on and whatever your timeline, give yourself leeway to get it right.
6. Don’t look back. Proulx doesn’t spending a lot of time reflecting on past accomplishment. “I’m not a person who looks back or analyzing my writing,” she says. Instead, she prefers to concentrate on what she’s working on now.
7. To do good writing read, a lot. Her love affair with books didn’t stop when Proulx started writing. When she built Bird Cloud, her home in Wyoming, she says she finally got a house with enough room for all her books. How many does she have? At any given time, she’s got eight or 10 stacked on her nightstand. “It’s like oxygen and the air to me,” she says.
8. Follow that editor. When Proulx had worked with at Esquire left for Scribners, she followed him, a move that eventually that led to the publication of her first short-story collection. My takeaway: editors are your friends. When you have a good working relationship with one, especially one who appreciates and champions your work, it pays to go where they go.
9. It’s OK to have favorites. Asked which of her stories she likes best, Proulx mentioned “Tits Up in a Ditch,” a contemporary story from Fine Just the Way It Is about a Wyoming girl who joins the Army to get away from the series of setbacks that’s shaped her life only to encounter more of the same, a tale as tersely told and tragic as “Brokeback Mountain,” and bleakly beautiful for it.
10. Inspiration takes many forms. Proulx doesn’t mold characters after any real-life people, and when pressed, says only that it’s possible she draws inspiration from what’s happening around her. For example, the characters of Ennis and Jack in “Brokeback Mountain” may have sprung from some unconscious desire to counteract the “John Wayne, right-wing” mindset where she lives in Wyoming that cowboys can only be and act a certain way, she says. “I realize stories I’ve written are contrary to the culture and have a touch of the corrective about them,” she says. “I’m not saying that’s how it is, I’m saying, perhaps.”