PULITZER PRIZE–WINNING author Richard Ford was, in many ways, a novel choice for the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture at Montana State University. Established in 1997, the Stegner Chair in Western American Studies was created to honor Wallace Stegner’s legacy as the “Dean of Western Writers,” and it features an annual keynote lecture by a prominent thinker who has contributed to the society and culture of the West. Like Stegner, Ford has spent his life crafting stories that take place in the West, but in his lecture, “Appropriating the West (And Other Petty Larcenies),” Ford argued that the West is just a place. In contrast to Stegner’s conviction that the West has a certain inspirational and transformative power inherent in the contours of its geography, Ford argued that these notions are products of our understanding of our own history derived “for our own purposes”: “For me as a novelist actual places don’t have essences, or spirits, or inheritances, except that I give to them. They’re just rocks and streams and sky inertly waiting to be employed, not stolen for my purposes.”
Ford’s use of his own lived experiences to create narratives underscored the heart of his talk and our subsequent conversation with him. He argued that the West is a cultural construct we inherit, and his lecture was in dialogue with current theories that show sensitivity to concepts of cultural appropriation and accurate representation. In response to these perspectives, Ford posited that literature is art and the author an artist, and that the notion of place we often ascribe to the West can get in the way of “pure sensation,” something he strives for by choosing “better words […] that explore the graininess of everyday experiences.” As such, Ford argued that an author’s only true responsibility is to stimulate emotion and prompt readers to see others as themselves within the poetry of his prose.
Ford first established an understanding of the West during childhood, when he saw imagery of Roy Rogers living an “idealized life” in a mythologized Old West marred by anachronisms on The Roy Rogers Show. Ford recalls,
Roy could be catching guys who were robbing banks out in the boondocks. Where people were wearing six shooters. Yet somebody had a Jeep. I thought to myself, What is that? How does that work? And it still puzzles me to this day. […] And what it made me understand was that the whole conception of the West, as I only encountered it on TV, was all artifice, and once I understood it was artifice, that there was no there there, in a way, I just thought, Do what you want.
When he and his wife, Kristina, first moved to Montana in the early 1980s, Ford discovered and embraced what he saw as the specialized language of the West, appropriating its place-names, geographical features, and cultures for his narratives. During his Stegner lecture, Ford described pulling out a map of Montana in search of a location for a short story. The town of Great Falls leapt into his imagination:
I loved the sound of Great Falls. […] You could pronounce Great Falls either as an iamb or as a troche. Those two words had their own music […] and displayed a sensation of descending. The actual town of Great Falls had no knowns for me. I had no emotional investment in the place. I had never been there. […] I was not trying to engage the West [or] betray Great Falls.
Eventually, Ford used Great Falls as the setting for two of the stories in his 1987 collection, Rock Springs, because it “could create a plausible backdrop for the human actions” of his characters. “My Great Falls was a figment,” he said, “not a real place.”
Ford drew on names and cultures of the West to pepper his prose with geographical authenticity. He described how his explorations of real-life Great Falls led to the discovery of a “treasure trove” of specialized language that included the topography of the Missouri River region, Hill 57, and Native American tribe names. Ford noted, “[Great Falls] had Indians in it, which in my limited intellectual sphere was exciting, but which also gave me such words as Assiniboine and Gros Ventre to put in my sentences.”
He did not know exactly who the Assiniboine were as a people or how the Gros Ventre may have been represented in the past; that was not the point of his stories. To Ford, the vocabulary of the West was the toolkit of an artist:
[It held] great words to furnish my sentences […] I thought if I could just write books that had these words in them, then I would write better. As far as Montana was concerned, as far as the West, I didn’t think much about it […] I didn’t want to be a Western writer, any more than I wanted to be a Mississippi writer or a Southern writer, or a New Jersey writer or a New England writer. I wanted to be a great writer.
Much of Ford’s lecture focused on analyzing concepts of representation and cultural appropriation of the American West — the “larceny” in his talk’s title. Do writers of fictional stories set in the American West have a responsibility to portray its geography and its people accurately? Ford seemed to argue that in the pursuit of art — in striving to evoke pure sensation and emotion — fiction writers are, by definition, free from this responsibility.
Engaging with ideas from Edward W. Said’s groundbreaking 1978 critique, Orientalism, Ford posited that many of the same literary, artistic, and social forces that created a mythologized Orient were also responsible for creating and nurturing the myth of the West in America. Borrowing from Said’s language, Ford said, “[T]he West is not a given, it is a notion that men and women make for their own purposes, that over time, becomes just convention, a cliché that we inherit […] [The West is] not a fact of nature, is not really there, but rather men make their own history.”
The Orientalism metaphor may be apt, but some critics would argue that Ford’s statements about a fiction writer’s artistic freedom are in conflict with other ideas Said espoused. By seeing himself as merely a producer of art and literature and nothing more, Ford neatly sidesteps any responsibility for fidelity to factual reality. But Said emphasized that the accumulation of literature and art made by outsiders was precisely what helped to create and perpetuate the dangerously inaccurate Orientalist paradigm in the first place.
Ford questioned how we decide who gets to write about the West. “My wide experience tells me that I don’t know what an authentic American tone of voice sounds like,” he said, arguing that writers need to engage actively in oppositional thinking: “[W]hen you assume you believe something, stop and ask yourself if the opposite of what you’re assuming or believing could be true.”
Does America need diverse voices and more oppositional thinking when telling stories of the West? Ford thinks so, and he argues that his literary voice should be allowed into the conversation about what it means to be a writer of the West in 2019. He believes that all people have something to say and that no one gets to decide who has an “authentic American voice.” “The life I’m experiencing at ground level is authentic and worth my attention,” Ford said in his Stegner lecture. No one should be disqualified from writing about anything in the West, and the oppositional thinking available to an outsider, Ford notes, can in fact be more effective and true.
To illustrate this, Ford invoked a Buddhist proverb: “The foreign monk communes more easily with the Buddha.” Which Ford interpreted to mean, “I really might know something important, even if I’m not from here.” Essentially, he proposes that the outside observer may be able to glean more about a subject because he is removed from it, and that people immersed in a place or a culture may be blind to the unique characteristics of their situation because of familiarity. He continued this line of thinking in a History master class at Montana State University when he explained, “an insider may have [his] imagination confined.”
We read stories to transcend our ideas of what the world is like, to understand more about others. By reading about people who are not like us, we are adopting oppositional thinking. Ford challenges himself to partake in this process as he writes by asking himself provocative questions: “Why would you say that? Why would you do that? That has to be some place close to your heart. What? I don’t get that. Make America great again? […] Well, let’s see, I grew up in Mississippi, it wasn’t so great then.”
For Ford, oppositional thinking is something that “frees you from fences and clichés.” He uses this approach with the students he teaches at Columbia to frame his writing and characters and in his everyday life. It helps him to understand characters that he may have nothing in common with. It’s a way to challenge the status quo and to ask questions rather than spin stories without understanding why a character makes choices that seem misguided or confusing. As an example, he presents a father and his crying newborn: “The natural instinct for the father is to say, ‘Oh, don’t cry.’ Then what the writer should say is, ‘Or cry.’ Conventional is ‘Don’t cry.’ The interesting line is ‘Let him cry.’”
Ford also employs oppositional thinking to make sense of the polarized political situation and to break beyond the standard “us versus them” trope of the news:
I’m a novelist. I try to push all that conventional CNN-Fox News stuff out of my brain and just say, “What can I make happen?” Because if I can make something happen on the page in which I posit a good person on the “bad” side, then I’ve shown something that couldn’t be shown another way.
Oppositional thinking seems a bit like Ford’s personal religion or manifesto — it’s a way for him to make sense of the world. When asked about faith, Ford says, “I think that’s the difference between writing a novel and practicing a religion; they are kind of alternative ways to face the uncertainty of the future. […] At the end you don’t end up with faith, you end up with a novel to put in the place of not knowing.”
By always questioning and challenging in his writing, Ford manifests a mode of inquiry that examines the “irresistible, wordless truth of life.” But how can someone whose artistic craft is based on the use of words and artfully constructed sentences get at a “wordless” truth? For Ford, this challenge seems to hinge in part on bringing out the natural dichotomies of experience:
Two masks of drama — one leery and smiling, the other grimacing and unhappy — are joined at the back. […] By bringing these joined but opposing experiences — bliss and bale, humor and unhappiness — to the page in sentences and great word choices and subject matter and premises, I’ve done something good.
The quest to do “something good” that informs Ford’s work seeps into how he hopes readers of his fiction will interact with the world. Rather than embrace the assumptions and beliefs we come to believe are true, Ford wants us to stop and challenge these ideas. His writing often includes what he describes as “flips of instinct” and “flips in small details” to start a conversation with the reader. In this fashion, Ford actively works to push away notions of what is authentic and expected so he can get closer to “pure sensation.” His work teaching in the School of the Arts at Columbia has provided an opportunity for him to reflect on ways to mentor the next generation of artists and writers in this pursuit. “When you talk to your students,” he notes, “don’t talk bullshit to them. Don’t tell them things that you don’t absolutely, experientially, principally believe. Tell the truth, as close to the grain of what your heart tells you is the truth.”
Ford has relied on journaling to get at these wordless truths since he began using journals as an integral part of his writing process in the early 1980s: “I realized I wasn’t getting parts of myself into the books — both my intellectual side, which I felt was undercooked, and my sense of humor.”
His current journal is a durable, pocket-sized, mandarin-orange notebook made by Rhodia, a French brand that claims to be the favorite of many writers around the world. With a black Sharpie, Ford has inscribed and underlined the year, “2019,” on the cover. As he thumbs through, scribbles etched with colorful pens and graphite pencils jump out from the pages. This transcribed fodder — what Ford describes as his “collection of life: seen, feared, read, and dreamed” — provides inspiration for future stories and helps him translate his thoughts and experiences to narrative form. As Ford notes that he now writes down 90 percent of what goes through his head as a way of processing the interesting aspects of his day, his eyes twinkle. “I’m going to do this until I die!” he says.
Journaling has also helped Ford, whose father died in his arms, to grapple with loss and the uncertainty of what happens after death:
My father was alive one minute, and he was dead the next, no doubt about that. […] I could have described the effects that it had on me in any number of ways […] because I think life is completely disorganized. Life is completely chaotic. Life has no goals and no meanings, it has nothing. Just ants on a fucking cupcake.
Life may be just ants on a cupcake, but the words Ford has carefully chosen over nearly half a century to capture the pure sensation of living have been something under his control. He considers it his primary responsibility to use nuanced language to describe the chaos and truths of life. More than that, in today’s increasingly polarized society, Ford’s oppositional approach to writing and his journaling process move beyond mere devices that free him from convention and become critical ways of enabling us as a society to respond more effectively to people and ideas that challenge our core ways of living and being.
In his fifth decade of writing, Ford, who will receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction at the National Book Festival in August, continues to probe the contours of American life. In December, he finished his 12th manuscript, a collection of nine short stories and a novella. And he is currently working on his sixth novel that features The Sportswriter and Independence Day protagonist, Frank Bascombe. Titled Be Mine, the story centers on the challenges that arise when Frank’s son, Paul, is diagnosed with ALS. In this, as in all his writing pursuits, Ford is still striving to get close enough to his words to reveal the irresistible, wordless truths behind them: “All I can do is reach out there beyond where convention is […] grab onto something that I don’t know is there, and bring it in.”
Debby Greene, Evan Kelly, and Jaime Jacobsen are graduate students in, respectively, English, History, and American Studies at Montana State University.
Featured image by Rodrigo Fernández. Image has been altered from the original.