Pam Houston has had some questionable writing teachers. There was the professor who dictated his bizarre rules for the stories that students were not allowed to submit to a fiction workshop: “No trees, no snow, no mountains, no skiing, no eyes, no tears, and no female bodily excretions.” And then there was the other teacher, the one who told her flippantly, “Well, you can’t swing a dead cat anymore without hitting a sexual abuse story.”
She has defied both of them. The first one’s restrictions went out the window with the 1992 publication of Cowboys Are My Weakness, the collection of semi-autobiographical short stories that came out of her doctoral dissertation in creative writing at the University of Utah. With plenty of those verboten trees, tears, and excretions, Cowboys found rapid success with readers. Its tales of tough heroines negotiating relationships with ruggedly attractive yet faithless men resonated with women who sought to conduct their affairs more like, well, men did. And as the book shot up bestseller lists, Houston walked out on the final quarter of her Ph.D. and all its naysaying instructors, plunging headlong into an international book tour.
She reads from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country (W.W. Norton), at Collected Works Bookstore on Monday, Jan. 28, in advance of its official release the following day. Deep Creek is her first memoir. In it, she chronicles her 25-year relationship with the 120-acre ranch she bought high in the Rocky Mountains of Creede, Colorado, using the advance she earned from Cowboys as a down payment. She also, for the first time, tells the story of the severe physical and sexual abuse she suffered throughout her childhood.
She recently reflected on how long it took her to write about her trauma. Although she was encouraged by her agent to do so in the thick of the #MeToo movement, she tackled the subject only after publishing four more books of fiction, most of them loosely autobiographical. “It just shows you the power that writing teachers have,” she said. “It is the biggest formative thing from my young self — my dad breaking my femur and me being afraid he was going to kill me every day and the ongoing sexual abuse — that’s my big formative wound. And pretty much everything I am and do is related to that.”
In Deep Creek, she writes of the profound healing her ranch and the surrounding natural beauty has brought her. “I had been born to two humans who wanted me not at all, but maybe that didn’t matter so much. I was a child of the wilderness.” As she grew into her thirties, still chasing cowboys and poets while learning the intricacies of caring for a now century-old homestead, she experienced an epiphany. She writes, “I realized I could make my own life. … I finally realized I could be the cowboy.”
With its quirky brigade of horses, Irish wolfhounds, miniature donkeys, chickens, and Icelandic sheep, the ranch provides a sense of constancy that Houston’s occupation as a nomadic writing teacher does not. In addition to teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing, she is also a professor at the University of California, Davis, and frequently travels to instruct writing workshops all over the world.
Each of the book’s essayistic chapters is anchored by a few pages of what she calls “Ranch Almanacs.” In these pastoral vignettes, she dotes on the minute details of daily life on the ranch, which is dictated by the rhythms of the seasons. There’s the annual stockpiling of hay and firewood; the fierce, if comical, skirmishes between the wolfhounds and the mini-donkeys; and the sweet surprise appearance of not one but two little black and white rams born to Jordan the ewe. She rhapsodizes about the hard-won glory of the first truly warm “bluebird day” after a winter of temperatures that can dip as far down as 35 degrees below zero. But she makes no bones about who the real caregiver is.
“All that time I thought I was busy taking care of the ranch,” she writes, “the ranch was busy taking care of me.”
In between musings on her home on the range, Houston tells the story of her traumatic childhood, which seems to have taught her to perennially seek the silver lining. She reflects generously on her alcoholic parents, who gave her the gift of entrusting her to a kind, principled babysitter named Martha Washington when she was two days old. Her 20-year relationship with that caregiver taught her to trust in both the unknown and the kindness of strangers. “Buying this ranch for 5 percent down with no job was clear evidence of something: either an urge toward self-annihilation or a deep-seated belief in myself,” she writes. “If it was the latter — and I’d like to believe it was the latter — it was Martha Washington who made me a believer.”
In other Deep Creek narratives, Houston meditates on the ravages of climate change and environmental destruction. She said writing a passage about having witnessed the slow death of a humpback whale, caught in a fishing net in the Sea of Cortés, gave her more angst than the act of recounting her abuse. Her decision to address the increasing devastation of the natural world changed the course of the memoir.
“That was kind of a big moment of change in the book,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, I’m up here at 9,000 feet, I’m going to be the last valley that goes underwater.’ So I can’t really sit here and talk about my beautiful piece of pristine land without acknowledging all the damage that’s being done everywhere.”
One lengthy essay details the 110,000-acre West Fork Complex wildfire that menaced the ranch during the summer of 2013. Throughout Houston’s heart-racing descriptions of the fire’s encroachment, she peppers the account with a glossary of fire terminology, outlining terms like “alligatoring,” or the char and blister pattern that forms on burned wood remains. “It’s funny, people from back East read it and they go, ‘You know, you should take all those fire definitions out, they’re boring,’ ” she said. “And people who have been through it, which is now basically all of California and all of the Rocky Mountain West, they’re like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t put it down.’ So it depends on your life experience and how present fire is to you.”
Despite the wide variety of Houston’s adventures — which have included working as a Dall sheep hunting guide in Alaska, weathering a hurricane on a mail boat in the Gulf Stream, breaking a tib/fib alone in the Utah backcountry, and serving as a river rafting guide for much of her adult life — Deep Creek nestles the reader in the familiar comfort of the universal human experience. Houston’s ability to process her life’s events and relate them to nature’s unpredictable violence and beauty provides both clarity and pathos.
Asked what advice she would give aspiring homesteaders, her words communicate the same simple wisdom that links the stories in Deep Creek. “Make friends with your neighbors,” she said. “Accept help. Listen to what they say.”
She admitted that after listening, you could feel free to throw certain pieces of advice into the wind. ◀
▼ Pam Houston reads from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
▼ 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28
▼ Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226