If you should ever be mad enough (as in, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”) to try and make your living as a writer, the best advice anyone can give you is to read. Read a lot. Read constantly. Read the best stuff you can lay your hands on. Great writers are the best teachers, far better than any university workshop. Think about it: who taught Homer how to write? Who taught Shakespeare? Who taught Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Faulkner… You get the picture. You can even learn a lot about what not to do by reading garbage.
In addition to the raft of technical things you can learn to do or not do by reading, great writing can also be a source of inspiration to your own efforts. A felicitous phrase can inspire you to go back and continue banging your head against the keyboard. A specific plot can spark an idea you might not otherwise have thought of. And sometimes a memory will be jarred loose from the storage file.
Steve Bodio, who is a very fine writer indeed (his book Querencia is simply breathtaking) recently sent me some material, some of his, some the work of other writers, and memories began to rise to the surface like trout slurping mayflies, three hunting memories in particular, memories that represent the essence of hunting and the essence of the hunter’s world.
Deer are the embodiment of grace and elegance. They are, on this continent, the ballroom dancers of the animal kingdom. I was deer hunting in Colorado, and I had spent the morning glassing a likely slope. Very likely, but unproductive, and now in the middle of the day, when deer normally take a break from the rigors of eating, I was forgoing my own siesta to get to another likely spot. I was walking quietly down an old logging road when I saw movement among the trees about fifty yards ahead of me. I froze. The movement evolved gradually into gray, and the gray gradually into a deer. A young buck stepped out of the trees and onto the edge of the bank on the uphill side of the road. He was walking slowly and casually, no urgency, no rushing to or from anything. He glanced down at the bank below him, took a step, and fell flat on his face before rolling ass over teakettle down the slope and ending up in an undignified tangled heap on the road. It was one of the most spectacular pratfalls I have ever seen. Jerry Lewis would have been envious. Chevy Chase could have taken his correspondence course. Laurel and Hardy would have been proud.
I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize. I know arrogant and cold-blooded scientists tell us animals are incapable of the range of emotions we glorious and unique humans can feel, but I have seen dogs and horses show clearly affection and rage, sorrow and joy, curiosity and terror, selfishness and selflessness, and this deer now showed embarrassment as plain and obvious as the antlers on his head. He scrambled to his feet and shook himself. He looked left and he looked right. He glanced over his shoulder and then peered down the slope on the other side of the road. He shook himself again, hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and strolled down the road whistling casually in one of the most nauseatingly phony displays of nonchalance I have ever seen.
Also in Colorado, on one of those typical fall days when the air is crackling cold but the sun is so warm you find yourself dozing off, I was sitting among some boulders at the top of a slope of scree. I had been watching a small herd of elk, one big bull, one immature spike, four cows, but they had ambled off to parts unknown and I was letting the sun work its magic on me when I heard a squeak. I opened my eyes and saw a chipmunk making his way toward me through the rocks. He darted about in the erratic starts and stops typical of chipmunks until he got to my boot. Then he stopped and stood up on his hind legs. He examined the sole of my boot closely. He moved to one side and looked long and hard at that. Then he moved to the other side and checked that out. Then he climbed up onto the toe of the boot and gazed at the surface beneath his feet. He seemed to sense all was not as it should be in his world. Then he saw my face.
Of all the reactions in the world I might have expected from a chipmunk, the last one was anger. That chipmunk was furious. He put his hands on his hips and began to ream me out thoroughly. He cursed me up one side and down the other. He shook his fist. He anathematized my character, my morals, my ancestors, my face, and my presence in his zip code. He flipped me the bird. He said things about my mother I wouldn’t have tolerated from a man. He practically danced in rage. How long he might have kept it up I don’t know, but I began to laugh and he remembered he had better things to do in other places.
The final memory is of a painfully cold late season hunt in Montana, the kind of cold where you shamelessly steal other people’s clothes and consider murdering your fellow hunters for even more clothing. I had put on everything I could lay my hands on and I would have worn the bathmat, only it was damp. I had climbed up through the snow on a mountainside dotted with pines, and paused to catch my breath where a pine grew crookedly up out of a jumble of boulders. The air had the crystalline clarity you get in the West on winter days and I was enjoying the view and wondering if I would ever feel my feet again, when I realized I was not alone. Angling up the trail below me were a snowshoe hare with the kind of weasel sometimes called an ermine in pursuit, both white animals barely visible in the snow. They were only about three feet apart and that distance remained constant as they got closer and closer, but it was clear—or at least it seemed so to me—the hare was going to lose. Why did I think that? Was it something to do with the hare’s quality of desperation in its flight? Was there something so resolute, so formidable and indefatigable about the ermine?
I like rabbits. They move into the hay room in my barn during the winter and get so used to my presence that unless I actually go over to tear off a flake of oat hay they act as if I weren’t any more of a threat than the horses or the wheelbarrow. They practically laugh at my poor dog’s earnest efforts to catch them. And here was an incomparably beautiful one running for its life. They kept coming, the hunter and the hunted along the trail at my feet, so close that I could have reached out my hand and caught the hare, or simply lifted my foot and blocked the ermine and altered whatever the pre-ordained outcome might have been.
I did neither. I watched them as they passed. I could see tiny puffs of breath from both mouths. I could see both of them at the last instant register my presence and continue on. I imagined I could hear their hearts pounding. I did nothing to change the course of nature.