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Author Jim Harrison: Books & Poems

Instructor: Megan Thompson

Megan has taught college English and has a master's degree in creative writing.

American author Jim Harrison has been writing poems, stories, and essays about the unmistakable grace of the outdoor world for 60 years. Take a look at what inspires him to write every single day.

A Force of Nature

Jim Harrison, like his characters, stories, and poems, relies on movement. Movement and the river as a metaphor appear often in Harrison's work, since he focuses so intimately on the outdoors and rural landscapes. Called 'a force of nature,' Harrison has written more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. According to him, if we want to live well, we must move and flow like a river, touching the things in our life both lightly and deeply.

Flow of Images

One of Harrison's most recognizable characters, Brown Dog, a wild and reckless drinker from upper Michigan, came to him through an image. Harrison had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum where an exhibit featured photos of a cook in the galley of a ship that sunk in the 1890s. Harrison noticed that the cook didn't have eyes.

Harrison himself is blind in one eye due to a childhood accident. He has said that it is likely this has caused him to look at things differently. Brown Dog has appeared in Harrison's books for more than 20 years. He made his first appearance in 1990's The Woman Lit By Fireflies.

Harrison notes that his writing process often begins with images. He thinks about his stories and his characters for a year, sometimes more, before he writes anything. Once he starts, he rarely changes the direction of the plot, preferring to be guided by natural rhythms, just like currents in the river, instead of plot.

The first novel Harrison wrote, Wolf: A False Memoir (1971), begins with a single sentence that flows for two full pages. The book is about a man roaming the Michigan wilderness, looking for signs of a wild wolf. Harrison's characters are often searching for an identity. One of Harrison's best-known novels, Dalva (1988), centers on a woman's search for the boy she gave up for adoption and also the child's father, who is her half-brother.

Legends of the Fall

Harrison often uses the events of his childhood in his work. When asked if he thought a good memory was necessary for a writer to have, he said he wished he was able to forget more things because memories have the tendency to take over and limit our thinking. This is why Harrison often gets in his car and goes on long, winding drives before he starts writing, giving himself space and time in order to think about his book.

Another one of Harrison's best-known works is the 1979 novella Legends of the Fall. It was later made into a successful film staring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. Harrison wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days, relying on his trusted process of listening for natural rhythms as he wrote. When he finished and read it over, his only revision was changing one word.

A novella differs from a novel in that it is far shorter. In a little more than 80 pages, Legends of the Fall works as an intensely focused and driven story. The book opens in 1914 with three brothers on their way to enlist in the war. The story spans 50 years, through violence, tragedy, affairs, Irish mobsters, revenge, whiskey running, and psychological despair.

Poetry Outsider

Though made famous by his fiction, Harrison identifies first as a poet. He first started writing poetry as a teenager. Harrison only started writing fiction when he fell off a cliff while hunting and had to stay in a bed for a month to heal.

His first book of poetry, Plain Song, was published in 1965. In Harrison's poetry we see the same deep desire to depict the beauty of the natural world that we see in his fiction. In poetry, though, the music of the language is heightened. We see the moon coming up and down, birds calling to each other, the season of spring emerging, a deer dying.

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