Feeding the literary lake
One of my most meaningful evenings as a writer had nothing to do with me and everything to with my friend, workshop partner and fellow writer Jane Kirkpatick.
It was 2005 and Willamette Writers, our state’s largest literary organization, presented Kirkpatrick with its Distinguished Northwest Writer Award. Among recipients of the past: Ken Kesey and Ursula Le Guin.
In accepting the award, Kirkpatrick, then 59, quoted author Jean Rhys to 400 people: “All of life is like a lake made up of many stories, fed by many streams. Some of the streams are long and mighty, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and some are small, like me. The size of the stream doesn’t matter. All that matters is the lake. Feed the lake.”
Kirkpatrick, who then lived on the John Day River in north-central Oregon, told how, at age 36, she first tested the literary waters. Head of a social service agency, she took a writing class through a community college adult education program. “I was terrified,” she told me. “I thought: I don’t belong here.”
The teacher, she later learned, felt the same way about himself. But, neophyte that he was, he still recognized good writing, once choosing a piece by Kirkpatrick to read aloud.
“My heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear the reading,” she said. When he handed back her paper, it said at the bottom: “You have a gift.”
At the time, she and husband Jerry were still reeling from the loss of Jerry’s son, murdered at 21. She was suffering from a serious gluten intolerance. They needed a change.
The two decided to sell everything, leave secure jobs and homestead on the John Day River, where Jane would write.
At a place called Starvation Point, the home would be known as their “Rural 7-Eleven” — seven miles from their mailbox, eleven miles from pavement. They built it. Dug a well. Battled rattlesnakes. And ran seven miles of underground phone wire.
Once semi-settled, Jane began writing and sending stories to magazines. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Then it happened: One sold. Sports Afield, for $75, bought a piece she wrote on repairing fishing poles with pine tar. Then Northwest magazine bought the story her teacher had read aloud in the class.
She began wondering: Could I?
Jane began working as a mental health counselor at Warm Springs Indian Reservation. On Tuesdays, she would make the nearly three-hour drive — longer during snow and ice — and on Thursdays, return.
Then she would start writing, disciplining herself to get up at 4 a.m. Her first book,Homestead (1991), was about her experience on the John Day. More than two dozen have followed — fictional stories of the human heart, based on real events, and often involving women, pioneers, and Native Americans.
At least some of her empathy for those overcoming odds comes from her own experiences. She and Jerry were badly hurt when their small airplane crashed. They took in a granddaughter whose drug-hampered parents weren’t able to raise her. She lost a sister to disease in 1997. In the last year Jerry, 82, has battled numerous physical challenges.
“It’s the obstacles in life that carve out our character,” says Kirkpatrick. “Character comes from the Greek word `to chisel.’ It’s what’s left after you’ve been `gouged out.’ ”
What some of her colleagues were applauding on the night she won the award — none perhaps more enthusiastically than I — was the never-quit spirit that she writes of. And lives.
While working on a book of my own, for instance, I will often hear the “get-up-and-write” alarm at 5 a.m. and think: no, no, no. But then I rise, remembering that my ex-student Jane has already been up for an hour, feeding the lake.