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Duncan has plenty of gems to share at program Wednesday

April 15, 2006



d heard at church that the kingdom of heaven is within us and thought, Yeah, sure. But the first time I walked up a trout stream, fly in hand, I didn&

t feel I was &


at all: I was traveling further and further in.&

So says David James Duncan, author of the novel &

The River Why.&

Perhaps you&

re reading it right now, having accepted the invitation of our county to be part of our &

Jackson County Reads&

program. I hope so. Duncan&

s prose is worth the effort. &

I was struck by the suspicion that rivers and mountains are myself turned inside out,&

he wrote. Bingo.

Duncan, as anyone knows who has read the novel (or anything else by him), is a very spiritual man. Now, he doesn&

t wear his spirituality as an ornament by any means, nor is it in any way orthodox. But it&

s palpable, and runs as crisp and cold as the streams he lives to fish.

As a child, he lost his 17-year-old brother (complications due to several heart surgeries). How tragic. Duncan says that as a result, he fished his way out of heartbreak. But that was only his first heartbreak. The heartbreak of his adulthood has been watching a &

political/corporate juggernaut steal the most beautiful temperate forests on earth from their 260 million rightful owners and convert them, at a huge financial loss, into muddy-rivered corporate welfare tree farms.&

Duncan has spent his working life attempting to write his way out of that insanity. But note this, there isn&

t a smidgeon of banal moral earnestness in his writing on the subject (or any subject). His prose is not after making cases for causes as much as celebrating what is or once was. He is not like some self-help guru giving us four ways to solve or save anything. Instead, he urges us to immerse ourselves in what we find we love. Saturation is his mantra.

In his essay, &

In Praise of No Guide&

he warns the wannabe fly-fisherperson against hiring a guide. &

Ignorance is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment any fly fisher will ever own. A guide is like a hired farmer who, for a price, drives his tractor into your interior and plants your field for you. When the two of you are finished he may know what&

s growing inside you, but you sure as hell won&


Better a fisherman imprisoned in the tangle of his own lines who falls in love with a mess of his own making, than one who has everything difficult done for him, and is thus insulated against the wild heart of a river.

Interestingly, he says the same kind of thing to writer wannabes. For Duncan, workshops and books by Writer&

s Digest will only trip you up, or steer you off your own true course. Quoting Rilke, he says, &

To write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythms of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral. There, one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help, on scaffoldings, alone with one&

s consciousness,&

which, of course, is what a writer&

s life is about at its best.

He does, however, have one piece of advice to give the aspiring word-mongers among us &


have fun on paper.&

I like that. He takes his own advice. Here, in his inimitable way, is Duncan on the writing life.


My rickety game-plan, at any rate, is working so far as I can tell. This quiet life, with its weird dependency on paper, keeps bequeathing me the syllable &


I don&

t know much else about writing, really. My self-advice, from the start, was: Screw Hollywood, screw TV, screw distraction, stage-fright, career strategy, artistic paranoia, awards, fame and politics; screw writer&

s block, praise, criticism and anyone&

s expectations including first and foremost my own &

and have fun on paper. That&

s my whole Craft Ball of Wax, really, excepting the spiritual, about which I rarely speak, because if the spirit could be spoken, why flesh and blood? Why mortal bodies? Why write?&

Here we are, back where we started, with the spiritual. But then, that&

s the way these things always circle &

always. His creed is simple. &


ve said it before: I must say it once more: there is a fire in water. There is a flame, hidden in water, that gives not heat but life.&

And I&

m sure Duncan might say the same thing about fresh white paper. For the writer the promise of paper is nothing short of life.


ve quoted David James Duncan pretty massively here. Perhaps you&

ve seen through my ruse &


m hoping these remarkable lines of his might whet your appetite for more. He&

ll be speaking at Southern Oregon University&

s Stevenson Union on Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. I hope you&

ll come out.

is pastor of Ashland&


First Presbyterian Church.