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for people who care about the West

The Terrain of This Ambition

Claiming a place on the literary map of Utah


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.

Sometimes I stand on a mountain slope over Cache Valley, watching virga catch a late-spring rainbow. I think about writing. About knowing just where to stand and when to see something passing fetch color from what, just before, had been clear light, what had been, in a way, invisible. I suppose if I pursue this metaphor and further risk cliché, then I have to admit that neither virga nor rainbows reach the ground. And the sky gives them up. Good ambition: to make something as well as you can, aiming for duration as best you can, but only in that order and always knowing it doesn't last. This is one of my obsessions.
Ambition can be less than beautiful, certainly. I was nearly livid when William Least-Heat Moon came over from Missouri and wrote his mammoth book on the Flint Hills of Kansas -- the very landscape where I lived before coming to Utah. Territoriality matters.

One day a few years ago, I was riding my bike in Blacksmith Fork Canyon and passed an old-fashioned canvas tent, the kind used for mountain men gatherings. Had I been brooding on a failed paragraph? Had I been reading Blue Highways? I came home and blurted out to my partner, Kathe, "That better not be William Least-Heat Moon!"  She laughed in disbelief. "You're kidding, right?"

But I meant it. I was in a state. He'd written about the Flint Hills of Kansas, my hills, so naturally he'd camp within a few miles of our house and do it again. He'd follow the routes of the fur traders to Bear Lake. He was right by my river, and he would steal that, too! It was, without a doubt, one of the dumbest things I've ever said.

I'm calmer now, but still yearn for my next book. This past year, while on leave from teaching, I imagined that I'd drive all over Utah, summoning essays about badgers, the predatory nature of Fremont's geranium, and the old duck hospital at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. They'd come as easily as postcards. But they mostly haven't. This disappoints me. So far, my Utah book ideas have been box canyons, leading to a wall I can't climb.

I've nothing in me like Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, which looms over Utah authors like a nimbus above the Great Salt Lake -- or Stephen Trimble's Bargaining for Eden, with its sense of community in Ogden Canyon -- or Amy Irvine's Trespass, rooted deep in red-rock country. These are books of Utah that have captured readers in our state and resonated with readers beyond. To write such a book -- I'd like to think that's part of a right or good ambition. But the land will drive such creation for me, and the land won't be rushed.

The terrain of this ambition is, like the land, made of many things. It's belonging to a community of writers -- friends and colleagues in Logan, Salt Lake City, Provo. It's knowing the ruins of the Mormon sawmill up Temple Fork and the ibis of Cutler Marsh, and it's wanting to know places with names like Curlew Valley and Great Sage Plain. It's acknowledging the scree of dislikes, disappointments, cravings for awards and film options -- how such scree can cut the hands if you don't watch where and how you clamber. It's the joy of a good review or a letter from a reader.

Best of all, it's writing a sentence with the music of clear words. Once a week, when I drive back from meditation, I pass that house Ed Abbey lived in, the legacy of which used to stir much literary envy. More and more, seeing the house simply stirs the urge to write something sharp, whether it's an essay that's set in Utah or just one sentence so unexpected I don't know where it came from or where it might lead. As Abbey's former address recedes in the mirror, I tell myself to never forget this Taoist caution: "The vanity of success invites its own failure."

Tomorrow, I tell myself, write a sentence as good as that.