Monday, June 17, 2013

My First Time: Scott Elliott

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Scott Elliott, author of the novel Temple Grove, which was released earlier this year by the University of Washington Press.  Set in Washington's Olympic Peninsula among the majestic stands of Douglas fir, Temple Grove has earned praise from the likes of Kim Barnes, who said, "Like Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy, Scott Elliott writes from that place where the old myths and the new stories collide.  In Temple Grove, he reminds us of what it means to be lost to everyone and everything we have ever loved...and to be found again.  It is a story of longing, cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption, shot through with intimate descriptions of a land on the cusp of ruin that will break your heart with their beauty."  Elliott was educated at Vanderbilt University, Columbia University, and the University of Houston.  His stories and essays have been published in the Antioch Review, Forklift Ohio, the New York Times, Juked, The Writers Chronicle, Mayday, and elsewhere. His first novel, Coiled in the Heart (Putnam 2003) was a Booksense 76 and a Library of Congress One Community-One Book selection.  He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where he lives with his wife Jenna Terry and their two sons August and Harper.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Calling

In 1980 my family moved across the country from Louisville, Kentucky to Port Angeles, Washington to be closer to my mother’s side of the family way out on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  We moved into a beach cabin about a hundred yards (one vacant lot and a house) from the mouth of a little creek called Morse Creek that emptied into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Steelhead, salmon, and sea-run cutthroat trout came up this river in their seasons to spawn.  Albino deer, sacred to the local tribes, were sometimes seen in the thickets.  When I wasn’t trying to make new friends by playing pick-up tackle football on that vacant lot or basketball at neighboring kids’ houses, I was balancing on the smooth logs, the husks of the great conifers endemic to the region, that lined the stony beach or I was putting in some serious time as a creek urchin—fishing, noting how the creek’s course shifted with the tides and after big rains, inner-tubing in the summer, and looking for golf balls (the creek bordered a course) and lures stuck on snags.

In some ways the creek was an upgrade from the beloved little creek (Owl Creek) we’d left behind in Kentucky, a creek that was the source for my first novel Coiled in the Heart.  Morse Creek had its source in the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains, eight-thousand-foot sentinels rising up from the Strait to keep watch over all below.  I sometimes caught sea-run cutthroat trout, one time a foul-hooked chum salmon, and I tried and tried but never did catch a winter steelhead, a species that had men lining the bank when they made their winter run.  My father did catch two—a bright hen and a buck, our first winter there.  I spent countless hours on the creek and came to know all the holes and riffles, from the mouth up to a railroad trestle about a mile upstream.

And on some summer days, when most men were working and I was haunting the creek by myself as usual, a quiet man with a contemplative air, not quite old enough for retirement, also alone, would join me.  He’d stand across the mouth of Morse Creek in a fisherman’s cap, and he’d sometimes give me a wave when he or I first arrived to cast into the first pools near the mouth.  We’d fish in this manner for long stretches, across the mouth from one another in an easy camaraderie, neither of us ever trying to converse over the waves coming in from the Strait and the gentle sussing of the creek.

About eight or so years later, after we’d moved back to Kentucky following that one year on the Olympic Peninsula and after I’d picked up with old friends who hadn’t yet forgotten me--who were ready, in fact, to anoint me with the aura of mystery from my travels afar--and after eight more years and many more firsts, I was fired from a job (the first and only time this has happened to me) when I couldn’t find a replacement to take my shift waiting tables at a Romano’s Macaroni Grill so I could attend the Indiana University Writers Conference.  I was a junior in college by this time, and my mother had encouraged me to register for the conference, supporting me in my burgeoning but in no way fully formed interest in writing the same way she had encouraged me when I was younger by signing me and my brothers up for basketball camps.  At the conference I was the youngest person by many years in Robert Boswell’s workshop.  The other participants, graduate students and adults taking time off from complicated lives, were indulgent of my stories to a point, but drew the line at some of my facile criticisms of mainstream middle-class life, which at that time I was convinced I would somehow avoid for something more interesting.

In my individual meeting with Robert Boswell and at a few other times during the conference Raymond Carver kept coming up.  This was the early nineties and Raymond Carver was all the rage.  Under the influence of these direct recommendations and multiple references, I bought a copy of Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories at the IU Bookstore and settled into my bed in the dorm room the same night thinking I’d have just a little taste.  I didn’t sleep much that night.  The stories were familiar, set in the same world I lived in and seemingly so simple, yet they were also strange, delving down through surface-ordinary kitchens and living rooms into the downright archetypal.  They seemed to tap into mysterious undercurrents, what Flannery O’Connor calls the mystery beneath the manners.

The story that really punched me in the gut that night was the first one in the collection, “Nobody Said Anything” in which two Eastern Washington creek urchins collaborate to corner and catch a miserably thin steelhead in a drainage ditch.  Stalled by the conundrum of who gets to take the fish home, the boys decide to cut it in half.  The narrator of the story comes home late with the head and partial body (for which he’s bargained) of a badly sawed-in-half steelhead to find his parents arguing in the kitchen.  His mother’s reaction to his catch is to scream, “Oh, oh, my God!  What is it?  A snake?  Please, please take it out before I throw up.”  His father says, “Take the goddam thing out of here!...Take it the hell out of kitchen and put it in the goddamn garbage!”  Once the narrator is standing outside, he says of his catch, “What was there looked silver under the porch light.  What was there filled the creel.  I lifted him out.  I held him.  I held that half of him.”  These are the last lines of the story, and in that dorm room in Bloomington this line put me in touch, before I was aware of it, with Emily Dickinson’s definition for poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry….”  The top of my head was off, and I was also somehow floating in the room.  Somewhere in the midst of this disembodied, top-of-head-off feeling--certainly not by a long shot the first pleasure I’d taken in reading, but somehow the first so deep and all-encompassing—gradually winkled up to surface the conviction that I wanted to devote my life to the attempt to put words, even very simple words, on the page in such a way that they might devastate someone, lay them low, the way that story had devastated me.

That was the moment, the first commitment to putting the pursuit of writing above other paths I might have chosen, a commitment that would be, and still is, tested and re-confirmed over and over.

After that night I put the top of my head back on and sought out and devoured everything Carver had written, something I continue to do with certain writers (most recently Lydia Davis and David Mitchell), binge-reading authors whose work I find I love.  That summer I read other collections of Carver’s stories and his poems and essays.  In his collection of poems Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, I found a poem titled “Morse Creek.”  And of course, I also came to find out that Carver had lived in Port Angeles with his wife Tess Gallagher in a house above the community where we lived during our year in Port Angeles.  These two facts brought to mind the quiet, contemplative man who came to fish across from me at the mouth of Morse Creek.  I can’t say for certain whether or not I fished across the creek from Raymond Carver on those summer days when I was eleven years old.  At this point, the fact of it doesn’t matter so much as the belief.  I have chosen to believe that I did.

Is it possible that the universe winks at us, tells us where we’re going, offers us first flashes of the road ahead, whether or not we’re prepared to see them, whether or not we recognize what we’ve been shown, sometimes long before we’ve begun to set out to find what we’re looking for?

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