If you’ve read my Stonecoast MFA graduation speech, you noticed that I took a couple of jabs at the writer and teacher, Rick Bass. If you were in attendance at the graduation ceremony, then maybe you were lucky enough to see Rick flash me the bird as he sat with other faculty members a few rows from the stage.
Quick recap of my history with Rick. My first workshop at the Stonecoast MFA program was with the Rick Bass. On the last day of the workshop, we got to my story, at which point, Rick tore into its foundation, resulting in the Great Story Arch Collapse of 2011. In Stonecoast terms, I got my Bass kicked, or I got Rick Bassed. The story I like to tell about that experience is that at the end of the hour of destroying my story (and confidence), Rick suggested that the best thing I might do with my manuscript was to weave it into a rope and hang myself with it. Of course, that’s hyperbole created to get a rise out of my listener.
That first Bass kicking quickly became legend, and it wasn’t uncommon for a fellow Stonecoast student to approach me after a Rick Bass workshop and say, “I just got Rick Bassed.” We’d share a moment, forever bonded through our experience. The Rick Bass workshop stories have taken on a life of their own, and like most things fiction writers say, only a small percentage of it can be believed. Like a fisherman stretching out both arms saying, “No, seriously, this big.”
I feel partially to blame for the Rick Bass lore that now haunts the Stonehouse where the Stonecoast MFA program meets twice a year. I mean, I was in Rick’s first workshop at Stonecoast — he was still jet lagged and uncertain about his duties in the program. I also got a great rise out of telling the story of getting Rick Bassed, always embellishing until I hit my final note about Rick telling me to hang myself with my manuscript.
Maybe I feel badly. No, I don’t feel that badly. But, I do think Rick deserves an homage after I publicly recounted that story, while he sat trapped in an auditorium chair.
Here’s a little praise for Rick Bass, the true American short story, environmental essay, novel gangster.
Back in my Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford devouring days, I stumbled upon “The Fireman” in the 2001 Best American Short Stories. The story sizzled and crackled off the page as the author wormed into the emotional embers of Kirby, the volunteer firefighter whose life has been numbed by a divorce, an unfulfilling day job, and a second marriage. Facing the danger and beauty of fires at night allows Kirby to be resuscitated and present in his daily life. The story itself might be flat in the hands of a lesser writer, but Rick breathes humanity and complexity into it. It’s a beautiful story about an average guy who wants to deeply feel the world he exists in. At the story’s heart is Kirby’s desire to be close to his daughter from his first marriage. Some nights after fighting fires, he sits outside her window as she sleeps, leaving when the sun rises recharged, for the moment, from the closeness to fire and his daughter. Brilliant story. Read it and The Lives of Rocks and…forget it, read any of his fiction — short or long — you can get your hands on.
From “The Fireman,” I read any story that happened into my life with Rick’s name at the top. But here’s a twist in this literary bromance I felt with Rick: at Bread Loaf, I discovered Rick’s environmental literature. Reading his essay recounting a visit to a professional tracker in the North East Kingdom of Vermont, I was awed by his ability to write non-fiction prose. It wasn’t like I was reading a fiction writer dabbling with environmental writing. For me, he stands on the same pedestal with the best American environmental writers of our time: Bill McKibben, John Elder, William Cronan, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry. All of whom are direct descendants of Thoreau, Muir, and Ed Abbey. His name belongs with all of the writers above. Rick Bass is one of the preeminent voices on the Yaak Valley, in large part to the strength of his non-fiction prose. Care about the natural world? (Hopefully that answer’s yes since you are part of that world.) Read Rick Bass.
Here’s a picture of Rick and me after the graduation ceremony. When I first met him, I was expecting more of a thick-shouldered, Paul Bunyan figure. As you can see, he’s not an imposing figure. Now let’s take a moment to discuss Rick Bass the teacher.
Slight in stature though he may be, he’s no milksop in the classroom. Throw a weak plot twist at him, and he’ll tear it apart with surgical precision. Have flat dialogue? He’ll let you know with a pithy comment. And don’t you dare test him with sloppy dialect. Son, he ain’t having none of that.
As a teacher, though, Rick’s more than a biting workshop leader. In the four days I spent workshopping with Rick, I wrote down pages of wisdom on writing fiction. It took me a few months before I could return to those pages, like a wounded man who can’t return to the scene of the accident for fear of nightmares. But I’m healed. So here are some the greatest hits from that workshop.
- There’s really only one type of story. Someone wants something and they go after it: win, lose, or draw.
- Stories should move with barn-burning intensity.
- The goal of writing is to inhabit the deep subconscious—a dreamlike place.
- Dialogue needs to move stories along and reveal something about character.
- The last line of a story should be the best line; the second best line should be the first line.
- There has to be a change to be a story—an understanding of something not formerly understood. Even if the reader is the only one who recognizes it.
- Never plan out the end of a story before you start writing. Your ending should surprise you as much as it surprises your reader.
- Each story has its own logic which you must be aware of and obey.
- You want the dogs barking at the heels of your character—you want that desperation.
- Revision is where the writing gets good—all that ripping and shredding.
- Always ask, “What am I not seeing in my story?”
- Trust your reader to be just as smart as you are.
There you have it. My writing is stronger both from reading Rick’s work and in having him as a teacher. I do believe that every writer should get his Bass kicked at some point. You might not expect it from the seemingly mild man, but inside him lives a literary powerhouse with a careful eye and sharp tongue. Proceed with caution.