Montana writer Rick Bass learned his craft from a couple of unlikely sources: rejection letters and his career as a petroleum geologist.
In the genial, self-deprecating, and yet perhaps subliminally cocky way of deflecting praise that is peculiar to artists, musicians, and writers, Rick Bass cops to having “a stubbornness and bullheadedness that’s not particularly flattering or attractive.”
He explains via Skype from Ireland, where he is enjoying a teaching residency through the University of Southern Maine, how he got his start as a writer decades ago while working as a petroleum geologist in Mississippi. He took a couple of night classes and attended a couple of writers conferences, he says, but it turns out he really learned from an unlikely teaching tool, one most writers consider to be a discouraging if not career-inhibiting blow to the ego.
“I think how I learned to write most was by submitting stories to magazines, and editors would send back either form rejections or, as I began to become a little more competent, they would send one-sentence rejection notes, and then two-sentence rejection notes, and then entire paragraphs, and then entire pages saying where they thought the story could be improved and how,” Bass says. (Form rejections are prewritten thanks-but-no-thanks letters that a publisher can simply sign and send to blow off a would-be writer with minimal effort.) “And so it was a very slow process for me. I think that was the best way for me. I don’t think I would have prospered under the faster pace of a traditional semester education. It was more hand-to-mouth, hunter-gatherer, mentor-mentee, artist-artisan type of learning.”
Once he started submitting stories to “blood and matted fur” magazines, he took note of how they stood out against others of their kind. Rather than end with killing a mammoth boar or reeling in Old Mossy Jaw, he says, an essay might end with him sitting under a tree or reading — something quiet. Perhaps the difference comes from another unexpected learning method for his writing: working as a petroleum geologist. Bass finds parallels between the two seemingly disparate pursuits.
“I think that’s really how I learned to write,” he says of his early career. “I didn’t study writing in college. ... Once I started working in the South as an oil and gas geologist, I began training my brain to look for the treasure, the buried secret thing beneath the structure. In so doing, I think I wired my brain to be receptive to all of the fundamentals and tenets of good writing. That’s how a story is written. You have a few clues, and you go down into the structure and explore. You look for the unseen.”
Building a map as a geologist, he says, puts one into a dream world. “It’s eerie how similar the two experiences are.”
The notion that Bass enters a sort of dream world when writing likely won’t surprise readers familiar with his work. Many of his stories mix familiar, grounded, tangible depictions of the West with surreal or just slightly off-kilter characters or events. This collection, For A Little While (which Bass says, without hesitation, is the best of his career), includes 18 previously published and seven new stories and puts these interesting juxtapositions on full display. A pair of brothers witness an impossibly strong stranger dancing with a cow draped across his shoulders and invite him into their home in hopes of training him as a discus hurler. A dog trainer and her client discover an insulated world beneath a sheath of ice that once covered a lake. Three teenagers discover a derelict mechanical crane and use it to build a junk heap and dunk each other into a poisoned river.
“To me, every story is a dream,” he says. “It’s a shining, luminous dream that you enter. You enter a world, you look around at what you see, you make notes on the people who are there and how they act with each other, and you put it into a shape that facilitates its flow, and you come out the other end.”
Bass looks at the strange elements of otherwise natural or normal settings as catalysts.
“If there is some irritant, some flaw in the snow globe of the story, that is what precipitates change and movement, which is what we call narrative momentum,” he says. “And the story is often moving. You need that asymmetry. You need that off-kilteredness, that imbalance, in order that the world that you are creating can seek to correct that imbalance.”
For A Little While by Rick Bass is available at Amazon.com.
From the April 2016 issue.