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Taking Care

William Kittredge speaks about writing, the West and the secrets of storytelling



William Kittredge grew up on the MC Ranch in the remote Warner Valley of southeastern Oregon. After receiving an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in l969 he came to the University of Montana where he taught writing classes for many years. His books include The Van Gogh Field And Other Stories, We Are Not in This Together, Owning it All, Hole in the Sky and Who Owns the West? He has three books coming out in the next several months, including Taking Care: Thoughts on Storytelling and Belief, to be published this fall by Milkweed Editions and Reimagining Desire, due out later this year from Knopf. Kittredge’s film credits include A River Runs Through It and Heartland.

Recently the Independent asked him some questions about his work.

Independent: When do you write?

Kittredge: Generally in the mornings. I have one of those metabolisms that click out when the sun goes down and clicks on in the morning, so in the middle of the winter, particularly, I get more work done than in the sunny months. Sometimes I’ll get four or five hours and it’s still dark. By 10 o’clock I feel morally OK—I’ve done whatever I can do for the day and I can go out and play golf with a completely clear conscience.

Also—who said it? Samuel Johnson or someone—money focuses the mind. If there’s a deadline, I can work anytime. I didn’t used to think I could. But I learned a lesson working on Heartland, a number of years ago. There was a scene in the middle of the movie, a kind of emotional transaction that had to take place. Beth [Ferris] wasn’t around, and they said, “You gotta write this scene.” It was only a page and a half, or two pages—I knew what had to take place and I knew who was in it, but it could be anything, it could happen anywhere. ...

I came downstairs and showed it to Dick Pierce, who was the director, and he said “No, that won’t do.” So I did another one. “No, that won’t do.” I did another one. Altogether, I did seven of these things, and they were completely different. Finally I came downstairs with the seventh one and he said “We decided to use the second.”

Independent: What happened to all the others—in the trash?

Kittredge: Trashed, somewhere, I don’t know. They don’t exist anymore. But it was my best contribution to that film and it was a great contribution to myself—to realize that I could go up there, get it together, completely rethink the whole thing, and do another one. You know, without pouting. ...

It sounds almost like playing an instrument, getting the lick right. Do you think of your writing more as a history of gigs or a collection of things that you’ve made—say, teacups?

Kittredge: A collection of what?

Independent: Teacups.

Kittredge: Uhh—both. But they’re only teacups after you’re done. Really, personally, I think of it as a history of gigs. I have a little book coming out this fall from Milkweed which is kind of a Greatest Hits thing—stuff I’ve stolen from myself, from this book, from that book. ... What I’ve learned, in the last little while, is that all these books are the same book. You keep rethinking it, and getting a little farther, and reinventing what you thought last time, and pieces fold together. It’s almost as if you chop off a section and publish that as a book; then you chop off another section, publish that. ... And there are little riffs that come to you, ideas, mostly stolen from somebody else. ... You’re never done, you’re never completed, at least I’m not. I’m just continually thinking my way through the same things

And you get better at it. You ought to. I used to always tell students that writing was like push-ups—the more you do, the better you get. Also, if you’ve already made a lot of false steps, you can say to yourself, don’t do that again.

Independent: Do you write on a computer?

Kittredge: Yeah, and I like it a lot. I’ve been doing it since about ’81, ’82, when I got one of those primitive old computers. The thing I like about it is it works like the mind, you can move things around, change things without all that typing. You’d be reluctant to make changes before, because the whole thing would have to be retyped, and on and on. ...

With a computer I feel completely at ease. It was like getting out of jail for me.

Independent: What are some of your writing rituals? How do you get yourself going?

Kittredge: Oh, I don’t know. Get up. Read. I read a lot, buy a lot of books. Some of them are useless. There’s a whole pile over there. ...

Independent: You read right before you write?

Kittredge: Sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. I try to get out of bed, wash my face, make a pot of coffee, and go in there while I’m still almost in a dream state. And then go to it.

I refuse to worry about insomnia. I just get up. I’m wide awake, I’m probably smarter than I’m going to be for the rest of the day, I might as well do something. I was just reading in one of these science magazines—I like to subscribe to science magazines, like Science News and so forth, they tell you all this stuff—that that’s a perfectly normal thing that humans have always done, that historically we’re an animal that’s had to always have somebody be awake, tending the fire, looking out for beasts. ...

Independent: When you’re working on something, do you work incrementally—building things up—or do you frame them out and fill them in?

Kittredge: I build things up I suppose, and then try to figure out what in the world’s going on. At some point you have to structure things, [but] I’ve never been very structurally acute. I remember coming back from Sundance years ago, having talked to a film director who told me about a kind of structural framework for a long narrative which he said works for anything. I was flabbergasted; it does work. I’ve taught it a lot, I’ve used it a lot. And I remember telling Max Crawford, who used to live in town here, about this and he said, “If you had taken Drama l0l you would have known about that a long time ago.”

It’s just the standard stuff. But structure is very difficult for me—I have to rediscover the structure every damn time.

Independent: What’s the difference in your mind between fiction and nonfiction?

Kittredge: As I go on, there’s less and less. In both, you’re trying to create a thing in the reader’s mind. I like to quote E.M. Forster—the medium you work in is the reader’s imagination. You’re inciting readers to make something up for themselves, to make up a story for themselves. Most of the nonfiction I’ve done is pretty much narrative, just like fiction. The problem I always had with fiction is that I always went way over the top with it. Most of the fiction I’ve written has never been published. I want to go back to it now, start doing it again.

David Duncan turned me on to this little book by Milan Kundera about the art of fiction, the art of the novel, in which he talks about these conjunctions between nonfiction and fiction. He says that fiction probably should be full of nonfiction, that there should be this whole grounding in the world.

Independent: Do you think artists—or writers—should try to be regional?

Kittredge: I don’t think you can help but be regional. I really don’t think we should try to be regional, but we shouldn’t resist being regional either. Nobody can be more regional than Proust; nobody can be more regional than Tolstoy; nobody can be more regional than Virginia Woolf. They’re specifically set in a whole emotional, physical setting of one kind or another—but at the same time I think that you want to reach out to the universal things too, the things that really apply to everybody.

Independent: Would you make a distinction between Western writers and writers who are “going Western?” Put another way, how can Western writers avoid becoming—in Leslie Fiedler’s words—pimps of their particularity? Kittredge: I think the way you do it is by reaching out and trying to draw everything from the great world back into you and using it. In other words, your concerns in Great Falls are the same concerns, the fundamental human concerns, that Chekhov had. Or whoever. I think that one of the nice things that’s happened in the West is that we’ve gotten over being regional, we don’t have to be regional. There was a whole generation, Guthrie, Stegner ... who were really anti-mythological. Since about l970, it hasn’t really been much of a concern for anybody, I don’t think. There are so many really wonderful writers ... Sandra Alcosser, David Long ... who are just dealing with it, one way or another. Sandra is a good example. She could just as easily be writing from Kentucky.

Independent: You write a lot about failure, loss, guilt—and then redemption. It almost seems biblical. There’s revelation in—or through—the wilderness and then redemption through letting go. It’s like Job. I love this sentence from Taking Care: Thoughts on Storytelling and Belief: “For weeks after recognizing my uselessness I lived in intimacy with no one but my new companion, my ceaseless regret that I was, irrevocably it seems, what I was.”

Kittredge: [hearty chuckle]

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