A Creative Process, Illustrated

Every writer develops his or her own process for creation. Some writers make copious notes, doodles, and drafts to flesh out their ideas. Others allow an idea to germinate and grow internally before committing the nearly-complete story or poem to paper. In Conversations with Jim Harrison, edited by Robert DeMott, Harrison describes his own process thusly: “I write my original drafts by hand – The Road Home was in pen on yellow, lined legal paper. Then Joyce Bahle types my manuscript and gives it to me and then I check it against the manuscript, go through it again and give it to her. I don’t revise substantively” (204).

Jim Harrison signed logo

Within the Jim Harrison papers, this process is documented again and again. The collection, donated to Grand Valley State University in 2005, comprises over 360 boxes of drafts, correspondence, publications, photographs, and other material by and about the Michigan-born writer, and spans his life from 1938 to the present day.

Though possibly most famous for his fiction and as the author of Legends of the Fall, the novella which inspired a 1994 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt, Harrison identifies himself first and foremost as a poet. The “yellow, lined legal paper” Harrison describes in the quote above can be found throughout the many boxes of his own writings, which include poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays.

In the image below, a section of Harrison’s poem “Geo-Beastiary” is shown in its three development phases: first as a handwritten draft, then as a computer typescript (this one is dated April 1998), and finally as a printed broadside. The 34-part poem was initially published in full in The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems (1998).

from "Geo-Beastiary"
Jim Harrison’s creative process demonstrated with a section of “Geo-Beastiary.” (click the image to enlarge)

Later in the same conversation with DeMott, Jim elaborates on his creative journey:

“This outpouring is a cumulative process, and when it ends, as with The Road Home, and then with “Geo-Bestiary,” you just don’t always have any idea how it happened. You think maybe it was more like a seizure, a long seizure” (208).

What is particularly striking about Harrison’s creative process is his sheer prolificacy coupled with the near-completeness of his first drafts. He is the author of 20 major works of fiction, 5 non-fiction books, 18 books of poetry, a children’s book, and either scripted or co-wrote three screenplays.

Works cited:

DeMott, Robert, ed. Conversations with Jim Harrison, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.

Harrison, Jim. “Geo-Beastiary,” The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1998.