The Terrain of This Ambition

Claiming a place on the literary map of Utah

  • Arches National Park, Utah

  • Utah writers living and dead (from left): Edward Abbey, Stephen Trimble, Terry Tempest Williams, Pam Houston, Wallace Stegner, Ron Carlson, Ellen Meloy.


I moved into a new office recently at Utah State University, one with corner windows and mountain views. On a bookcase I propped a poster of "Literary Utah." It's a map of the state adorned with the names and images of writers who have created work inspired by this place. Mounted on foamcore, dinged around the edges, "Literary Utah" had been left by an anonymous occupant of an earlier office. I first looked at the poster years ago, disquieted.

Jules Verne wrote in his novel Paris in the 20th Century that there are four conditions for happiness: breathing open air, finding love, creating new beauty and having no ambition. That last is hard to take. Because, from the moment I saw it, I wanted to be on the map.

The poster had been a project of the Utah Council of Teachers of English back in the 1990s, when it was led by my colleague, Joyce Kinkead. Along the margins appear the names of about 100 writers, some famous and others obscure, including some who've since become acclaimed -- Terry Tempest Williams, Pam Houston, Ron Carlson. At the time I first saw the poster, I'd published one nonfiction book, which had garnered praise and attention but also fueled the insecurities that anyone who completes a creative project tends to feel: Is this the last? Is it good enough? Am I through? Now I was in Utah, a state teeming with writerly accomplishments.

Since then, I've published a second nonfiction book, and my insecurity has evolved. I've breathed the open air of Utah for more than eight years, but unlike the authors on the literary map, I have no sustained work arising from this place. I've not written my way from, into, or out of the Utah landscape, and that feels like a failure. The feeling grows keener because I have only so many years left for so many books, and I'm old enough to know that places, as well as time, can slip away.

Portraits of 12 writers overlay the land on the map. A drawing of poet May Swenson, with her short-cropped hair, covers northeastern Utah. Wallace Stegner, craggy face resting on his hands as if in prayer, hovers above the West Desert. There's Edward Abbey, his beard as wild as his rhetoric, keeping watch over Arches.

In her essay "Putting Utah Writers on the Map," which was part of the poster project, Utah State's Helen Cannon wrote that some critics believe the state to be "literarily and botanically sparse." And Tom Lyon, then-editor of Western American Literature, wrote that "it might surprise people to know how many significant writers this state has produced or touched. We've taken a back seat to other, better known literary regions."

Yet this is a state so intimidating, so rich in its literal and literary topography that even now I feel a strange commingling of anticipation, love, fear, envy and yearning when I consider Utah's literary history. After all, I live in the town where Swenson was born, educated and buried. At the University of Utah library, I can stare at Stegner's typewriter. I often drive by the plain white house in Logan where, for a time, Abbey lived with a lover while he commuted to teach in Salt Lake City.

Whenever I look at the map of "Literary Utah," I want to measure up to the writers I most admire, to their words, to their places. To Ken Brewer's poems about the Logan River. To Rick Bass' words about Logan Canyon. To Ellen Meloy's thoughts on the desert. My connection to the land may be as strong as theirs -- I'd like to think so -- but it has not become as sustained on the page as it is in life. I can't quite figure out why, although I've often wondered.

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