Montana’s Ivan Doig: The Writer’s Heart

Writer Ivan Doig describes "the ocean of language"
in which he writes. (photo KM)
Ivan Doig, a prolific novelist and National Book Award finalist in contemporary thought, writes about his little bit of earth under the Big Sky—the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.

Doig is often pegged as a regional writer by the East Coast literary establishment. Yet this former ranch hand with a Ph.D. in history has claimed thirteen literary awards and holds honorary degrees from Montana State University and Lewis and Clark College.

Speaking Wednesday, February 10, in Laxson Auditorium, he began by saying it's part of his job as a writer to keep literary watch on how things he grew up with endure and change and to pay homage to his native place.

What does a writer see, hear, think, and cherish so much that he must set it down? From the places in the heart to the heart of Montana history, Doig listed three ingredients that go into his work: words, landscape, and literary quality. "Hunger is a good sauce," Doig once heard an Irish woman say, and if a writer gets afflicted with hunger for the sauce of language, he said, it never loses its spice.

"Art comes from craft," Doig explained about his search for just such words to convey character and mood. These he siphons from "the ocean of language" that is English, "its surf-drawn music, its patterns of sound." He calls himself a rewriter, more than a writer.

He admits that sometimes the words do tumble out perfectly formed, even "orchestral," as he calls it, and reads a tender piece which begins "In memory, the neighbor of dream."

It's a narrative that opens to Doig Montana past. Here is an old cowboy named Walter who described bread so dry, "When we bite, it shatters and crashes in our mouths."

As the piece ends, scattered images coalesce under "a single great house of sky," and he has his famous book title, House of Sky.

Doig dedicated one of his books, Bucking the Sun, to several contemporary writers he feels "deliver the eloquence of the edge of the world." This is perhaps a key to the man himself, his deep love of history, character, and event.

Doig was first introduced to the drama of Montana that would later infuse his books when he was, as he put it, "About as tall as my father's elbow" and tagged along with this "freelance haymaker" into the saloons while his father conducted business.

"I got to see a lot of the American West," Doig recalled, "in these "hiring malls." And it is the way a writer "sees with his ears, hears with his eyes," that breathe life into the words. Writer's eyes "hear" the way a rancher cocks his hat, and that says something about the man. Their ears "see" the glow of an ember on a cook stove, and that brings them to that place.

Stories began on cave walls, said Doig, and now, "Faced with the universal dark all around us," we come to the true test of illumination, the final ingredient, literary quality. Here we "face a cave of our own," the mind. To conquer this beast, writers must use "pathological diligence." Doig tries to write 1,000 words a day. "It's a matter of pushing yourself beyond yourself," he says. Show up, pay attention, and the story will claim you.


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