David James Duncan .com

david james duncan . com

David James Duncan

is a father, a renowned fly fisher, a practitioner of what he calls “direct, small-scale compassion-activism,” and the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, the story collection River Teeth, and the nonfiction collections My Story as Told by Water and God Laughs & Plays. He is also co-author of two fast-response activist books, The Heart of the Monster (2011, co-written with Rick Bass) and Citizen’s Dissent (2003, co-written with Wendell Berry).


© Rachel Cudsworth

David’s work has won three Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, three Pushcart Prizes, a Lannan Fellowship, the Western States Book Award for nonfiction, a National Book Award nomination, an honorary doctorate from University of Portland, the American Library Association’s 2003 Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom (with co-author Wendell Berry), and inclusion in more than forty national anthologies including Best American Essays, Best American Sports Writing, Best American Catholic Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing (six times).


© Rachel Cudsworth

David’s essay, stories, memoirs and interviews have appeared in scores of magazines and quarterlies. He has spoken all over the U.S. on rivers and wilderness, imaginative and spiritual freedom, the tragicomedy of the writing life, the nonreligious literature of faith, the workable charm of the contemplative life, and the dire importance of the Interior West’s fast-vanishing wild salmon. David is a contributing editor to Orion Magazine and an appointee to the Trust for Public Land’s Wallace Stegner Circle. His book, River Teeth, helped inspire an award-winning journal of literary nonfiction, also called River Teeth. He scripted and narrated a documentary on bamboo flyrods titled “Trout Grass.”

Some interviews available on line include By Hook And By Book @Grist, Seeking Solace: An Interview @the Whitman Pioneer, On Water, Salmon and the Policies That Are Killing Them @1859 Magazine and the world’s longest interview @Smokebox.

David lives with his family in western Montana, where he is working on a novel that combines his loves for Asian wisdom traditions and the land and people of the American West.


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God Laughs & Plays - Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right

Funny, deft, ingenious, and most of all passionate. Duncan is a scandal both to the institutional church and to secular snobs: a truly dangerous man. - Resurgence

This book could be thought of as the short-subject version of how to live fearlessly in scary times... In God Laughs & Plays, Duncan inspires readers to look at all the shades of dark and light, depth and surface, beauty and ugliness, thus entering a broader consciousness and renegotiating the limited contract that is mortal life. - The Bloomsbury Review

Duncan brings water to the desert of self-righteous ‘Christianity,’ and in so doing restores our faith in faith itself. These churchless homilies are the gift of innocence, wrapped in wisdom, crafted by a superb writer. - Paul Hawken

This is the book for everyone who is allergic to what often passes for Christianity but attracted to Jesus... Beautifully written... and wonderfully, humorously, deeply felt. - Bill McKibben

Buy God Laughs & Plays at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham

The Brothers K

A stunning work: a complex tapestry of family tensions, baseball, politics and religion, by turns hilariously funny and agonizingly sad. - Publishers Weekly

Laugh-out-loud funny throughout, and yet ... The Brothers K does what a novel should do, what one almost despairs of contemporary fiction ever doing: it teaches you something, makes you think, breaks your heart, and mends it again. - Booklist

At 645 pages this is a remarkably short book. Half the time I was reading I was laughing—once so hard I fell off my chair—and almost as often I was gripped with rage or on the verge of tears... No work of fiction has entertained me so richly in a decade—no movie, no play, no other contemporary novel. And I don't even like baseball much. - The San Jose Mercury News

Buy The Brothers K at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham

The River Why

A hymn to the waters of the earth and the wholeness of life. It is also funny. - Miami Herald

This is a modern—repeat, modern —tale of maturity and redemption. - Christian Science Monitor

A whirlwind, madcap, humorous and sensitive novel. - New York Times

A veritable epic of flyfishing... done in a high-velocity, exuberant style, sprawling in scale, heedless of form... The feeling for and evocation of the imperiled natural world is rhapsodic in its intensity; the writing energetic, literary in a distinctly American way... So amiable is the prevailing tone that the flowing narrative is able to absorb Koranic and Eastern mysticisms, Tao, Sufism, Zen—the religions of oneness and gospel of love—without turning into the kind of maudlin choral chanting that so often disfigures treatments of fusion of self and the world. - Publisher's Weekly

Buy The River Why at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham

River Teeth - Stories and Writings

These vignettes are first-person, succinct, and uniformly powerful... Marvelous nuggets mined from a complex, absurd and magical life. - Publishers Weekly

Simultaneously lyrical and vernacular prose, vivid description, hilarious action, spirited movement and poignant observation... Duncan deftly characterizes modern life and American culture—our fears, desires and drives—revealing in these exquisite vignettes and tales all that shapes a life. - Booklist

The mingling of fiction and nonfiction raises interesting questions about the line between autobiography and fiction, what is "true" and what is made up in a writer's work, and how the writer gives shape to both his life and his art by using the same core material. Duncan's core material is... the almost miraculous capacity of his family feeling to absorb, endure and make sense of any grotesquery, any challenge, the torrent of life's hidden currents... This is a moving, powerful book, filled with Duncan's great virtues as a writer—his warmth and wild humor, his sparkling prose style, his deep humanity. - The Oregonian

Buy River Teeth at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham

My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark

Duncan’s reflections on rivers, salmon, the lands of the West and the earth itself spill off the page with wit, wisdom, and occasional fury. My Story as Told by Water is an education. Like fast water, the lively, trenchant prose pushes and spins, engages and agitates in the tradition of America’s finest essayists. - Judges' citation, 2001 National Book Awards

Jeremiah ranted, so too Amos, and neither of those boys had a speck of Duncan’s humor. - Commonweal

This isn’t a book for anyone but deep readers and thinkers. Also, there’s some profanities. - Deseret Utah News

The prime virtue of Duncan’s new work isn’t his razor-tongued skill for journalism; it’s his eloquence and passion as an essayist of the natural world, of spiritual truth to be found outdoors, of the grace and courage of all animals and human beings. For all its focused fury, My Story as told by Water is ultimately about the many forms and faces of love. - The Oregonian

Buy My Story as Told by Water at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham

The Heart of the Monster: Why the Pacific Northwest & Northern Rockies Must Not Become an ExxonMobil Conduit to the Alberta Tar Sands ~ with Rick Bass

What David Duncan, Rick Bass, and their colleagues have done with The Heart of the Monster knocked me across the room. They have breathed fire into a worldwide effort to make Big Oil, Big Ore, and Big Government accountable, to bring them to bay. And they have set a standard here—for citizenship, integrity, and courage. — Barry Lopez

It is the Gulf of Mexico. It is the sagebrush flats of Wyoming. It is the hollers of Appalachia. It is now the last best place of Montana. David Duncan and Rick Bass have raised their pens as swords and taken on the megalords with their megaloads associated with the tar sands fantasy, a nightmare too close, too real for comfort. May we not only sit still and read this landmark book but rise up in outrage and indignation. This act of writing is an act of civil resistance through brilliant storytelling. May we lay our bodies down accordingly. It is time. — Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World

The Heart of the Monster gives off luminous smoke. Written in five weeks, it is as alive and as dynamic as the rivers Big Oil seeks to befoul. Here, we see two of America’s most powerful writers at their most impassioned, articulate, and raw. These are men fighting for their homeland, and theirs is the literature of rebellion. May it become the literature of victory. — John Larison, Flyfish Journal

This might be one of the greatest pieces of "crazy fast writing" ever published. This collaboration by novelists David James Duncan and Rick Bass, two of the West's finest writers, opens with Duncan's chilling memoir of ExxonMobil's promise to turn our last best wild state into a horror of haul-ways and pipelines for oil from Alberta's tar sands, often called the "world's dirtiest oil." Duncan's angry feast of words is capped with Rick Bass's novella, "A Short History of Montana," a dark tragic portrait of a western governor whose lust for power is chewing away at his once great heart. This novella casts a unsettling shroud, poised at the edge of judgement, over a formerly sympathetic soul, capable of redemption, but now in sharp decline. This disturbing character could have stepped straight out of Dostoevsky. - Doug Peacock, Emigrant, Montana

It would be difficult to find a work of reportage, commentary and advocacy that serves as a better example of what the First Amendment is intended to protect. - Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual

There are half-assed opinions about foolish ideas, there are idiot rants, there are sneering flurries of insult and demonification. And then, blessedly, there are cool hard inarguable facts. The Heart of the Monster is crammed with facts about some incredibly bad ideas that might actually happen. I read the whole thing this morning and cried. The photos alone are horrifying. There are so many forms of rape and living things that get raped. The only way this can be stopped is if enough people digest the facts and then roar like epic bears. Here are the facts. Cue the roaring. - Brian Doyle, Portland Magazine

Buy Heart of the Monster at Powell's Books - Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. - Seattle or Village Books - Bellingham or amazon.com


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~ From an interview with “Wallfly," a literary magazine that went broke before a single issue was ever published

Wallfly: We are interviewing several people on the theme of obsession. In My Story as Told by Water you write about “giving way to full obsession” and fishing a creek fifty or sixty times a year as a kid in Oregon. How is the same obsession playing itself out in your adult life in Montana?

DJD: I don’t mean to mess with your magazine’s theme, but to be honest, I don’t consider my fishing “an obsession.” I consider it a love, and the difference between the two is crucial. The word “obsession,” to me, connotes such things as stinky Calvin Klein perfumes and so-called “love affairs.” But affairs, to my mind, aren’t so much about love as about finding a sexual co-athlete and using each other as a dildo in order to avoid the hard work of love. Hence the need for stinky perfume. It disguises the emptyheartedness of the whole procedure.

My relationship to fishing is wildly quieter and steadier than that. I’m not a “rec head”, not a “weekender,” this is not an Outside Magazine-style Ten Coolest Ways To Jerk Off Your Psyche dalliance, this fisherman thing of mine. I’ve fished for fifty-four years and fly fished for fifty. I have lived on the banks of streams and rivers, or within easy walking distance of them, for all but ten of those years. Think about that span of time. In fifty years a river completely devours a massive fallen tree and turns it into nutrients, soil, other life forms, and nothingness. In fifty years a river turns good-sized rocks into sand. I haven’t escaped the same forces. Rivers have transformed me into something I wouldn’t have become without them and I didn’t create this something. Rivers did. That’s why one of my books claims to be told by water. It was. The trade has entered my bones, the carcinomas of harsh riparian sunlight have entered my skin, the elements flow through my bloodstream, and the mythology and poetry and reality of both pristine and dying waters have flowed right through my house so many times, broken my heart so many times, and mended my heart so many times, that I feel as though my heart has stopped opening and closing like an anemone and now is pretty much stuck open, with a lot of wind, water, and sunlight moving through.

~ From a memoir called “A Prayer Closet in Utah,” in an untitled but forthcoming book of “best spiritual writing”

Where is the “closet” that Christ tells us to enter, and where the door He tells us to close, before we can properly address the Father who sees in secret, and openly rewards what transpires in secret? My experience has been, almost never where I think it’s going to be. My experience has been that the divine Father or Mother (I refuse to limit God to Guyness!), with Perfect Unpredictability, once in a while elects to answer some puny inner effort on my part, or ease some heartache I’m suffering—always unexpectedly. When that moment comes, ABRACADABRA!, a secret prayer closet is instantly created out of anything or nothing, then WOOOSH!, I’m swallowed by it and thrown into the unseen presence of Her or Him and Om Shanti WOW! stun-stun-stunned by invisible but palpable beauty, oceanic love, oceanic mystery. Then—REVERSE WHOOOSH!—the closet vanishes, the divine FatherMother moves back into the usual nowhere inside the here, and I’m left standing bliss-drenched and reeling with awe on the mean but somehow glorious streets of wherever I happen to be, unfit for any kind of rational public discourse; hopelessly unfit for a career in American Consumerism; unfit for a career in American literature, too, when I try to speak of such unspeakables as I’m doing now; yet unspeakably glad to have been born. My experience is that the King or Queen of the Interior Wild has a Home-Repair-Gal-like love for erecting instant closets out of zilch, throwing unsuspecting fools into them, steeping us fools in intergalactic love, then dissolving the whole deal and leaving the survivor stupefied by gratitude, pole-axed by grace, or “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis rather overpolitely puts it. But, as Mary Oliver adds, “Joy is not made to be a crumb.” These veritable bushwhackings by secret closets then become absolute icons in my faith life.

~ From an unpublished novella called "The Blind Iconographer"

Though the word “emptiness” continues to consist of no nameable substance, the unnameable nothing the word designates strikes me as perhaps the most underrated enigma in heaven and earth. The word “emptiness” is synonymous with “nothingness” and “voidness.” But none of these words mean “irrelevant” or “meaningless.” Emptiness, like a zero, may represent nothing, but it doesn’t do nothing. If I’m wrong about this, let’s trade your $100 bill for my $1. Consider a few subtle powers of the zero known as emptiness:

• Remove the emptiness between your eyes and this page and you’ll be too close to the paper to read a single word.

• Remove the emptiness holding the roof above you and the walls to the sides of you and you’ll be squashed.

• Without the leavening in the biscuit we break our teeth against wheaten concrete, yet what does leavening actually bring to the biscuit? A little warm emptiness between flour molecules into which butter can delectably melt. Nothing more.

• Emptiness—think about this!—is everywhere, and it works perfectly, in all the places it exists, at all times. You’ll never catch Emptiness taking unscheduled coffee breaks like some dang federal employee. In every sort of Space/Time continuum, every political and economic climate, every kind of weather, Emptiness performs its duties to perfection. Need a universe full of empty space to prevent every celestial object from being balled up into a hideously compacted Glob? Need a little emptiness between your pants and the urinal to keep from splashing your pants? Need 93-nada-filled-million miles between Earth and Sun to keep from becoming toast? Need an intricate series of tiny emptinesses between notes to bequeath music both the magic known as “harmony” and the power to be played synchronously between rigorously-timed silences? Need a grandeur-filled null-and-voidness to make the Grand Canyon grand? Can do! says Emptiness. And it does. No job too menial. No job too huge.

~ Gus Orviston in Middle Age?

As any Montana fishing book or DVD will tell you, Montana fly-fishing guides don’t live in Fort Benton or Glasgow and they don’t float prairie rivers. Guides work out of towns like Ennis, Twin Bridges, Livingston, and Missoula, and float you down mountain streams. That’s why I don’t. Been there, done that. For close to three decades I was your standard issue “blue ribbon” fly fishing guide, doing the driftboat clusterfuck on the Madison, Gallatin, Beaverhead, Gelatin, Big Hole, Flathead, Dickhead, Butt Hole. When I started out in the seventies, every aspect of guiding thrilled me. By 1990 the same work left me feeling as though I was bilking one sap after another on Montana Disney’s River Runs Through It ride. On blue ribbon streams, no matter how good the fishing, the crowds made me feel more and more hemmed in and on edge, till tension sucked the pleasure right out of river work. The elegant woman client who, on the Madison, sat down to enjoy the gourmet lunch I’d made for her and her husband, only to place her hand squarely upon a previous fisher’s fresh sand-covered turd: that was a turning point. The two guides on the Big Hole—longtime friends both to me and each other—who got into such a terrible tiff over a piece of water they each wanted for their client that one whipped the other across the face his a fly rod, causing the first to rupture his old friend’s spleen with a savagely swung oar: another turning point.

- from “What the Prairie Has to Say About Fly Fishing”in the book I’m Wandering But Not Really: Novellas & Birds (forthcoming in 2014, God willing)

~ Tribunal - a nightmare

a nightmare I had shortly before speaking at the Festival for Faith & Literature at Calvin College....

...I walked onto a stage to the applause of an audience of literature lovers, stepped up to the lectern, and suddenly fell through a trap door, flew down a chute, landed in a stone room lit by torches, and was strapped in a chair by two massive men wearing black executioner’s hoods.

“Holy shit!” I said—then immediately regretted it. Before me sat three elderly Calvinist patriarchs dressed about as colorfully as a pissed-off chess set. Each of them was holding one of my published books. A fourth man, smiling warmly and dressed in the welcomely rumpled garb of the average literature professor, was Dale Gutenmensch—my host at Calvin College and the man who’d invited me there. “Dale!” I cried. “Thank God you’re here!” Then I noticed the fresh lobotomy scar on his forehead.

“Welcome to the Calvin College Tribunal on Faith & Writing!” he said cheerfully. “The fellas here have a few questions about the theology expressed in your books. It’s just a formality, like getting your social security number and your permission to make a video of your talk. The only difference is, this formality could end in your agonizing death. Understood?”

While I gaped at Dale, he nodded to an apoplectic-looking ol’ buzzard holding my story collection, River Teeth.

“What precisely do you mean, theologically speaking,” the elder asked, “by this:

The devout wing of my family believed in resurrection of the body, provided a preacher had at some point immersed the whole sinful thing, so my brothers and I were baptized en masse, in the winter of ‘62, in a frigid outdoor swimming pool. But the only revelatory moment for John and me occurred in the shower-room afterward, when we simultaneously noticed---then noticed each other noticing---that the icy immersion had caused the privates of our NFL-tackle-sized pastor to shrivel into an object a hungry rodent could have mistaken for a peanut, shelled no less, and clearly in no kind of shape for sin.”

Dale Gutenmensch chuckled amiably. The rest of the Tribunal rumbled like a subway in hell. A second elder flipped open The River Why. He read:

From somewhere---no one knew where---when Bill Bob was three he got hold of this pocket-sized Holy Bible. He carried it around all the time and called it his Good Book, but he couldn’t talk too straight yet so it came out, BoodGooky. Between his baggy little trousers, crewcut, white shirt, bowtie and Bible, he had Ma worried he was getting religious on us. I wasn’t worried. I saw the healthy way he carried the Bood Gooky about: in his back trouser pocket. Like a wallet. Anyhow, he couldn’t read a lick.

“Well uh! Wait, hey! I don’t approve of that character’s behavior!” I cried. “Some of these unbaptized youngsters can be downright evil. My novel was trying to show that!”

“Then why is it that all baptism did for you,” the elder growled, “was make you more aware of your pastor’s ‘peanut’?”

I gulped. He read on:

One day I happened to come home from the grocery with a pack of candy cigarettes. Bill Bob spotted me, and wanted some, but I told him to forget it unless he forked out some money. So what did he do? Like a dwarf executive he hauled out his wallet-Bible, snatched the multicolor pen from his pocket, switched it on red, straightened his bow-tie, opened the Bible sideways, scribbled across a page of Deuteronomy, tore out the page, and handed it to me. I understood exactly what had transpired: he’d just written me a check! I was so impressed I gave him two candy cigarettes, and only one was broken.

Gutenmensch and his lobotomy scar both smiled happily. The rest of the Tribunal sounded like a volcano about to blow.

As a third elder picked up The Brothers K, I felt so doomed I blurted, “I’d prefer beheading to burning.”

“Good to know,” the head elder growled. “Prepare the brushpile!” he called to the executioners. From The Brothers K, he then read:

Mama doesn’t make Papa go to church because she can’t figure out how to, and she doesn’t make Irwin go because he loves church and would go no matter what. But Everett, Peter, the twins and me she makes go every Sabbath unless we’re sick. And today is Sabbath. And I’m not sick. And the sun is already so hot outside that everything’s all bleached and wobbly-looking, as if the whole world was just an overexposed home movie God was showing Jesus up on Their livingroom wall. And whenever it’s really hot Elder Babcock’s sermon---even if it starts out being about some nice quiet thing like the poor or meak or weak---will sooner or later twist like a snake with its head run over to the unquiet subject of heaven and hell, and who all is going to which, and how long you’ll have to stay, and what all will happen to you when you get there. And he goes on so long and loud and the air gets so used up and awful that bit by bit you lose track of any difference between his heaven and his hell and would gladly pick either over church. Then the sermon ends, and the long prayer after it, and it comes time to belt out the big hosannah that means it’s almost time to go home. Except that last hymn always has about fourteen verses. And when you stand up to sing it you discover your blood has got stuck down in your feet. And all through the sermon every grownup in the place has had their mouth clamped shut trying not to yawn, so when the glad voices get suddenly upraised this tidal wave of pent-up halitosis comes swashing out of them and up your nose and all through the parts of your head where the blood that’s in your feet should have been, so that your brain feels like it’s going to barf.”

The brushpile was huge, the stake at which I was to burn, stout and inescapable. The executioners poured on lots of oil.

Dale and his lobotomy grinned happily and the Calvinist tribunal grinnned lethally.

The executioners started toward me.

I woke up.

~ From "Eastern Western," a novel forthcoming in 2012 (God willing)

From the vantage point of Pipestone, Colorado (pop. 4554, elev. 5445), Two Medicine Peak was no peak at all. It looked more as if some Arapaho-cursed landform out of an Annie Proulx story had been guillotined in the night, then had staggered, headless, bloody-shouldered and blind as an axed chicken, to Southern CO, where it fell on its faceless face and sent dying, foothill fingers groping outward, searching for a last few yuppies to clutch, munch, and drag into the underworld with it. A few piker hikers, birders, and orgasm-bound teenagers used the lower slopes to advantage. But, Colorado being Colorado, there were three gorgeous ranges filled with designated wilderness, pristine lakes and lofty summits within forty miles, so nobody ever climbed Two Medicine to the top. Too close to town, folks said. Too hot all summer. Too snowy all winter. Butt-ugly year round...

But as her marriage unraveled, as her work grew desperately necessary and boring, and as fate, botched love and karma continued to trap Lorrie Shay in a shit job in Pipestone, CO, the beloved old Gary Synder line, “The mountains are your mind” morphed on her, and she began with slightly horrified honesty to ask herself:

What if certain specific mountains are our minds? And what if Two Medicine Peak is mine?

Then she’d stare at it, out the back window of her half-converted double garage apartment, and gulp.

If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, she thought, then the one and only trailhead leading into my thoughts is a dead end turn-around paved with broken bottles, used condoms, dumped appliances, immortal Coors cans, and the rotting hides and heads of jacklighted deer. If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, the sign marking the trailhead into me was made in the Jimmy Carter Era, and bans motorized vehicles, mountains bikes, horses, campfires and overnight camping, and has pissed so many people off for so long that it has got to be the most bullet-riddled, illegible piece of public prose in the state of Colorado. If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, Lorrie thought, the trail past that sign has avalanched over and flashflooded out in twenty places since Republicans decided, back in the ‘80s, that the only state thoroughfares worth maintaining are mining and logging and fracking roads. So the only actual way up into me are a few meandering deer paths no human ever uses. If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, she thought, my utmost summit, at a mere 8,700 feet, is sub-alpine, hence as embarrassing to my alpinist husband as a single digit IQ, plus it was logged of its Ponderosas a century ago and in 1988 half of my junipers and lodgepole burned and no one has replanted and where there's no shade there's no trees so even my wildflowers and grasses radiation-therapy-thin. If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, my only body of water, Crane Lake, is a migratory bird paradise in April and May but an algae-choked mosquito factory by July and my one creek, Pipestone Creek, though beautiful in the high springs and meanders of its birth-meadow, doesn’t make it two miles downslope before it’s dammed and ditched to irrigate a corporate wheat farm, turning what should be a purling stream a stone bed as dry and full of reptiles as this marriage. If Two Medicine Peak is my mind, the stars from my summit, even adding the five feet seven inches of my body to my mind’s 8,700 feet, are obliterated to the south by light pollution from this inescapable goddamn hometown of mine. But if Two Medicine Peak is my mind—and God help me I’m feeling some powerful damn resemblances here—I have lived my whole life between its toes ond once upon a time loved its summit meadows more than anyplace I’d seen and fell harder and deeper in love there than I’ve right up to now ever fallen. And however disappointing that summit may now be to my ex-husband-to-be, if Two Medicine Peak is my mind, that little summit is my summit.

So. Isn’t it time I hiked up and took a fresh look at what may be the highest part of me?

Isn’t it about time I even tried to love me a little—sub-alpine though I may be?

~ Ten Writing Commandments

note: “Ten Writing Commandments” is a set of talks I use to teach creative writing workshops—and it’s important to know that there are thirteen, not ten, such commandments, and that the eleventh is “Break the Commandments!” “Love Paper” is the first of those thirteen teaching talks.

Love Paper.

A tree gave its life for what you are about to attempt. Don’t let the silicon chip or computer monitor cause you to forget this. That ex-tree material stacked in your printer is so dead as you begin to write that its bark-skinned, earth-eating, oxygen-producing, bird-supporting, squirrel-housing body has been reduced to an inert blank expanse of white. To find the life of language and lay that life down on the paper is to redeem the sacrificed life of the tree.

In order to do this, we must see paper as clearly as Inuits see snow. Our language is the second greatest living proof (actions being the greatest) of what we do and do not see. Listen to how Inuit people see: apun (snow); apingaut (first snowfall); aput (spread-out snow); ayak (snow on clothes); kannik (snowflake); nutagak (powder snow); aniu (flat, hard-packed snow); aniuvak (packed snowbank); natigvik (snowdrift); kimaugruk (snowdrift that blocks something); perksertok (drifting snow); akelrorak (newly drifted snow); mavsa (snowdrift overhead, about to fall); kaiyuglak (the rippled surface of snow); pukak (sugar-like snow); pokaktok (salt-like snow); misulik (sleet); massak (snow mixed with water); auksalak (melting snow); aniuk (snow for melting into water); akillukkak (soft snow); milik (very soft snow); mitailak (soft snow that covers an opening in an ice flow); sillik (old hard crusty snow); kiksrukak (glazed snow in a thaw); mauya (snow that can be broken through); katiksunik (light snow); katiksugnik (light snow that is deep for walking).

Love paper. Paper is writer’s snow (apun).

Paper is the blank white element we live upon: element that receives and records our every step. The receptacle of our lives and nuances deserves an Inuit depth of respect. I lack names for the many kinds of pages I see here in my study, but looking through drawers, shelves, wastebasket, manuscript boxes, I find:

virgin paper, still in the ream. (Apingaut—first snowfall.)

I find paper at which I stare long, unable to write a word. (aniuvak—packed snowbank.)

I find a scrap of paper upon which, in the middle of the night, I write down an urgent message from the heart, but leave the light off so as not to wake my wife, only to find in the morning that after the words, “And when a prayer fails to...” my pen ran out of ink. (auksalak—melting snow.)

I find paper at which I am staring when, between the words, a door opens, and inside is an imaginary Room, and inside the Room are People; I find paper on which I write what the People are doing in the Room, and paper in which the People lure me clear into the Room, addressing me now as one of their own. (mauya-- snow that can be broken through.)

I find paper upon which, in the midst of an intimate disclosure from an elegant Room Woman, a phone rings (my phone, not hers), and then a neighbor stops by (my neighbor, not hers), and I am so long distracted that when I return to the paper and Room Woman I begin to spill my own thoughts, not hers, failing to notice that for hours I have not only cut her off in mid-disclosure, stood her up, treated her terribly, I have lost the way back to her wonderful Room. (kimaugruk—snowdrift that blocks something.)

I find paper on which I write so stupidly, aimlessly, roomlessly and unimaginatively that at the end of the day I wad it up and throw it across my study, then wad and throw a few blank sheets for good measure. (mitailak—soft snow that covers an opening in an ice flow.)

I find blank sheets unwadded in shame, and spoken to rather than written upon, paper I audibly promise that—during the hours and in the place foresworn to the People of the Imaginary Room—I will spill only their thoughts, not my own. (aniuk—snow for melting into water.)

I find paper at which I stare long and stupidly, unable to write a word—paper that at day’s end leaves me filled with shame even though, by not writing upon it, I have kept my solemn promise to the Room People. (aniu—flat, hard-packed snow.)

I find the dismayingly small stack of computer-printed pages on which I earlier wrote with self-effacing skill of the Room People, pages I begin to idly edit, after the People once again refuse to appear. (sillik—old hard crusty snow.)

I find, on these same computer-printed pages, a space between two words—a space no wider than the head of an ant—yet as I trying to smooth an awkward phrase in that space (kannik—snowflake), two tiny hands rise up out of the paper, a new Room Person climbs into sight, and this Person begins singing—to the glorious ruin of my earlier draft—the true and living story hidden behind everything I had written and not written so far.

I find paper on which I have so faithfully written not what I want but what is there to be told (be it ayak, nutagak, or akillukkak) that when I read it again days later its doors still open, the People in its Rooms still laugh/struggle/shout/hate/love/die, and a silent voice hidden in the next sheet of white tells me as I touch it whether it is kiksrukak or auksulak we must watch for now.


A straight line in the right place can bring you to tears. - Frederick Sommer (as overheard by Emmet Gowin)

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. - Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step

Troutgrass ~ A film by Ed George and Andy Royer

“A fly rod extends a fly fisher’s being as surely as do imagination, empathy or prayer.”

Coursing from the verdant hills of Southern China to the sparkling streams of Montana, Trout Grass is a story of passion, international partnership and the discovery of place in our natural world. This unique documentary captures the 10,000-mile journey of bamboo’s transformation from a hardy species of grass to a super-conductive split-cane fly rod.


Glenn Brackett - © Volcano Motion Pictues

The film tracks Hoagy Carmichael on his first visit to China where he experiences the country’s mystical bamboo forests. As a legendary split-cane fly rod craftsman and author of the art’s seminal study, these far-off lands have fueled Hoagy’s dreams for 40 years. Next, we meet master-builder Glenn Brackett, who taps into “the power of unseen hands” in his Montana shop while converting this hardy piece of grass into a stunning and responsive river wand.

Out on Rocky Mountain waterways, narrator David James Duncan and fly fishing legend Thomas McGuane reveal the magic of fishing with a fly rod made of grass and connecting with the order of rivers and flowing things.

Go to the official film site – Trout Grass – for more information and trailers and to Netflix to rent Trout Grass on DVD.


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Whitefish Review Hosts Duncan for “The Wild Issue”

May 23rd, 2012

Whitefish Review Hosts Author David James Duncan for Release of “The Wild Issue” on June 2, 2012

Duncan is joined by author Brooke Williams, poets Lois Neal Brown, Max Hjortsberg, Ron McFarland, and Meliss Clark, plus 13-year-old first time author, Sarah Ward

Author David James Duncan will headline a reading for the launch of Whitefish Review issue #11–“The Wild Issue”–on June 2, 2012 at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, outside under the waterfront tent pavilion. Live music, a silent auction, appetizers and drinks will complement the readings. There is a $10 suggested entry donation, but all are welcome. More info at Whitefish Review : Mountain Culture Literary Journal : Whitefish, Montana

Yosemite National Park Talks

May 6th, 2012

David is giving two presentations this July in the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer 2012 Series in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park.

Saturday, July 28
The Wild Without and the Wild Within: The Border between Wild Lands and the Contemplative Life
2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Talk and discussion with David James Duncan

Sunday, July 29
Birds We Gauge Our Lives By
2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Readings by poet Tom Crawford and David James Duncan

Get the full pdf schedule here and see the complete Yosemite Summer Series site here.

Fishtrap 2012

March 10th, 2012

David is the keynote at Fishtrap 2012. Grab the pdf postcard here here. You can register for Summer Fishtrap online or by calling Fishtrap at 541-426-3623. Read workshop descriptions here: Fishtrap – Summer Fishtrap Workshops and Gathering 2011.

From Fishtrap.org: “This year, our theme is Catch and Release: what we hold on to, what we let go and the one that got away. Fishing is core to the past, present and future of this area, and we will talk explicitly about the politics and future of fishing and the West. Our keynote speaker, David James Duncan, author of The River Why, will address the metaphoric significance of catch and release in writing and in life; our workshops will help you cultivate your own practice; and our panelists will discuss what we want to hold on to and what we might let go both as artists and as residents of the West in a time of transition. On Saturday night we will celebrate 25 years of writing and the West, with a gala “Fishtrap Live” hosted by Hal Cannon and Teresa Jordan.”

Two New Tracks

October 11th, 2011

Two new music tracks to listen to on the Music page (use the link above): “Gretel,” a poem from Lauds by Tom Crawford (published by Cedar House Books), performed by David James Duncan; and I Gave My Love A Story, a sketch of a soundtrack for a screenplay of David’s novella “The Garbage Man’s Daughter.”

Website Launch

May 31st, 2011

Welcome to davidjamesduncan.com, the new home on the web of David James Duncan. We’ll be posting news approx. monthly on new work and activism, excerpts from upcoming work and links to articles available on the web. At the menus above, check out some music tracks and info on films and books.

You can follow davidjamesd on Twitter, use the links in the right sidebar to Tweet and Share on Facebook, subscribe to the RSS feed and send email about the site to people you know.

KUFM Montana Public Radio Interview

April 20th, 2011

Here’s a ten minute interview that originally broadcast on KUFM Montana Public Radio on April, 19th, 2011. David talks with KUFM news director Sally Mauk about salmon, the Columbia River dams and the Kearl Modules hauling through Idaho and Montana.

KUFM-Montana Public Radio Interview

Used with permission of KUFM and MTPR.org

Article @OutsideOnline.com

February 3rd, 2011

There’s an article in Outside Magazine this month by David James Duncan which is an adaptation from The Heart of the Monster. Read the full piece at The High and Wide Industrial Corridor | OutsideOnline.com, and here’s an excerpt:

The single largest petroleum project in the world, the Alberta Tar Sands, sits some 700 miles north of my home in Western Montana, and until recently seemed a foreign and abstract threat. I’m a very busy man, happily employed on a novel-writing project. The crises of the world fade into white noise once I’ve given myself to my work. Sure, I’d heard that the Tar Sands are the single largest energy-consuming project in the world. Sure, Tar Sands carbon-dioxide emissions could quadruple in the next ten years, and have been likened by leading climatologists to an act of war by Canada against itself and every other nation in the world. Sure, forty million acres of pine forests in the North American West have died and turned to tinder thanks to those same CO2 emissions, and yours and mine. But my church consists of trout streams, and trout rise to a fly even among dead trees, so I could still conduct my kind of worship. As I say, I was a busy man.

Then, two years ago, ExxonMobil decided to convert 1,100 miles of beautiful American rivers and roads—including my home rivers and road—into a so-called “High and Wide industrial corridor” connecting the industrialized nations of the Pacific Rim to the Tar Sands.

View a collection of photographs by Frederic Ohringer of the proposed corridor -Montana and Idaho Scenic Byways | OutsideOnline.com – and go to his website to see more of his work.

The Heart of the Monster Published

December 17th, 2010

David and Rick

The Heart of the Monster has been published. Co-written by David James Duncan and Rick Bass, it is a half fiction/half non-fiction advocacy book whose proceeds go to All Against The Haul. Bass and Duncan have joined All Against the Haul in protesting the construction of a permanent industrial corridor along rural roads in the Northwest and Northern Rockies that will allow oil companies access to the Alberta Tar Sands.

a review at amazon.com: Yesterday my copy of the new book by Rick Bass and David James Duncan arrived. Simply put = = it is beautifully done. It has many excellent color and black and white photos which give wonderful visual perspectives. The authors dropped everything in their personal lives to achieve this important product in record time. These guys can really, REALLY write! If you are working on this critically important issue you have to have the book as a reference source for advocacy. If you are new to the issue and will please help this book will launch you forward like a rocket. My firm personal belief is that this is hands-down the most important social/ economic/ environmental issue on the table in the Pacific Northwest. It is also of course now a National and international issue. I am diving into the book today. –Scott Phillips

Gus and Cosmo - Photo: Bret Simmons

Read the coverage at December 22, 2010: Those of Heart and Will: The Story Behind the New Rick Bass and David James Duncan Collaboration « NorthWest Book Lovers and buy the book at Powell’s Books – Portland or Elliott Bay Book Co. – Seattle or Village Books – Bellingham or amazon.com.

Ahhhhhhh.... - Photo: Bret Simmons

David writes: My dog Gus, as I set down these words, is sitting on a stump just outside our horses’ fenced paddock, literally grinning while our big Andalusian geldings, Cosmo and Tino, lean down over the fence and groom him with their tongues. They do this most every day. Some days twice. When the grooming is over, it is Gus’s turn to lightly nibble the swivel their huge heads this way and that, then hold steady, not quite audibly sighing, Ahhhhhhhhhhh….

Slurp.... - Photo: Bret Simmons

“These acts of empathy and compassion extend interspecies,” writes Jane Hirshfield “and underlie our faith in the possibility of a life not ruled by chaos, force, and fear.” “At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy to the tomb,” adds Simone Weil, “something goes on indomitably expecting—despite every crime committed, suffered, or witnessed—that good, and not evil, will be done to us. It is this expectation, above all, that is sacred in every human being.”