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Jim Harrison and Admitting Ignorance

In the October issue of Outside, Tom Bissell recounts his conversation with Jim Harrison in “The Last Lion.” Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, and The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. But what gives him a unique perspective for this article is that his father is a longtime friend of Jim Harrison and the iconic author visited Bissell’s home during his childhood. “Harrison came by our house for dinner, seeming less like a man to me than a force of nature with a Pancho Villa mustache,” Bissell writes.

Peppered throughout the engaging article are useful allusions and asides that aspiring authors will certainly enjoy. But a reference to authorial authority is what most caught my eye. As writers, we feel a pressure to create a world and be the ultimate overlord of that domain. We obsesses over minutiae and research the smallest details. Our voice must be the one with all the answers.

But, according to Bissell in this passage, one of the hallmarks of Jim Harrison’s work is his refusal to pretend he knows something he doesn’t.

The assumption of false authority is a useful writing trick, one I have used again and again, but maybe it’s also insidious. After all, it actually means something to know what things are called. You cannot share anything worth knowing unless you make it clear what you do not know. Harrison refuses to hide his research. If he reads a book to learn about something, the characters in his novels will invariably read the same book. It makes the stuff Harrison does know that much more striking.

It’s an interesting concept. Next time you’re headed to the computer to research the mating habits of Marabou storks or the melting point of aluminum, try being honest on the page and explain where you got that data. See how it works for you.

And definitely check out “The Last Lion.” Bissell writes movingly and admirably of Harrison’s work, providing strong sentences and passages that are perfectly at home in a discussion of the great writer.

(Photo Credit: Wyatt McSpadden)