Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

13. Mary Clearman Blew, 1939–

Mary Clearman Blew grew up in Montana's eastern center, far from town on the farm her grandparents claimed as homestead. As children do in many small communities, she found among the few books on her library shelves the stories set nearby—in her case the books of Mildred Walker and Will James. She also heard the family stories. Blew lived in Montana for nearly fifty years, teaching and administering in the state's schools and colleges, before she moved to Lewiston, Idaho to teach writing and then to the University of Idaho to join its writing faculty.

In the classroom, Mary Clearman Blew may begin a lecture with a writing assignment. "Start writing and don't stop until you've filled the page," she might say. "Choose a location that has special significance to you and contemplate its history because when you think of explaining a place you love, its history can help." She characteristically may say, "Remember, the very things that draw us to a place sometimes feel as though they shouldn't be said. So, thinking of a place that's powerful can lead to this challenge—what I absolutely must not write about is…? And when you find out what is behind that closed door, you find out where the excitement of writing can be" (Lamberton 2001a).

Next, Blew might say, "find a small, portable object that has meaning to you, and write 500 words about it." Recall John Updike's essay, "My Grandmother's Thimble." "As a writer you're after that moment of recognition when the significance of a thing is revealed." Here, Blew may bring from her purse a piece of cement the size of an apricot and ask her pupils to speculate on what its significance might be. The cement turns out to be part of an internationally famous deconstruction. "So," says Blew again, "I may now have the beginning of a personal essay." She gives another assignment. "Describe your family's catch-all kitchen drawer. What was in it? What is in the catch-all drawer in your home now and how have the contents changed from your parents' or grandparents' drawer?"

Blew says that a young writer's natural mistake is to try to be profound. In her first book to have a New York publisher, Blew forgot to talk about herself and her editor reminded her to write the personal and trivial details. Blew wondered who would want to read the family stuff, but she learned, as the editor advised, to "write it first and then decide what to show" (Lamberton 2001a). Often, while writing the intimate or small detail, the debate between family secrets and a writer's privilege raged and, Blew says, the writer in her won out. "I wrote about it, even though I had no special insight into it." There are, she says, people in her family who won't talk to her anymore, but that's the chance the writer takes. The others can write their own books, or continue to believe in silence.

Mary Clearman Blew has published criticism, novels, memoirs, and books of essays. She has also edited essay and story collections. Often her writing speaks of what families keep silent—about family stories that may be only the writer's to tell, stories about the ill-will parents can feel toward their children, about the way a writer heard her family's story, even if other family members don't see things her way. In her essay "The Art of Memoir," Blew says, "Often events that beckoned to me most urgently were the ones that had been preserved in 'secret stories,' elliptical and pointless and mystifying, that my grandmothers and my great-aunts told around their Sunday tables after the dishes had been washed, in hushed voices that dropped or stopped altogether at the approach of one of the men or an unwise question from an eavesdropping child." After this consideration, Blew proceeds to tell such a story, about a grandmother's hallucination. Then Blew stops to think about what she's done. "I don't understand the significance of that story for my grandmother" (Blew 1999:5). Thus the pattern of her prose unfolds, from set-up to story to contemplation, again and again.

Reading secrets such as Blew reveals, overhearing the private on the page, is where the reader finds much of a book's power, not because the reader is a snoop, but because the reader often finds in the book details to defer isolation and stories to say, "You are not alone." And for the writer, the telling of any powerful story also "fixes" the story. But this fixing can mean not only the therapeutic worth of getting something out in the open, but also the hardening that sets in once a story is told and the telling presses the story in place the way a flower is pressed in a heavy book. In a story, writer and reader see an instance fixed in time, if not in complete truth. The story has, after all, been stopped, and has been told from the perspective of only one teller. The writer and reader co-operate here as the writer commits to a version of something and the reader accepts the writer's version and imposes that version onto the mental images the reader supplies. For example, when Blew writes that her aunt taught mathematics in Port Angeles, Washington, the reader places the aunt in the Port Angeles the reader has seen or else imagines. When the aunt writes of her hard choices between fulfillment and convention, privately in her diary, and when Blew reads and reports on that diary in her book Balsamroot, the reader projects upon Blew's stories what the reader knows of heartbreak and what the reader knows of courage and betrayal. These projections and revelations, by the reader and the author, change the future, as both reader and writer learn from the aunt's life. "[My aunt's] example has left me with an enormous determination to resist those pressures and to try a new direction: having written my past, I will write the present and transform myself…" (Blew 1999: 8).

Blew's books reveal the way even the most isolated lives cross regions; the way it's always inaccurate to think one lives solely in one place when even the air is traveling and when what one breathes comes from far away. The rain that falls on central Montana comes from the ocean; local wheat and cattle show up on tables whole continents away. So while Blew's books like All But the Waltz (1991), Balsamroot (1994), or Bone Deep in Landscape (1999) inspect locales and territories almost microscopically, her books show how, when necessity demanded, Blew's Aunt Imogene, a Montana schoolteacher, crossed climates and economies to teach beside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When she retired and her health failed, she moved to Idaho, where Mary Clearman Blew, her niece, had arrived from a northern Montana husband whose brain had gone bad. The excerpt linked here, from Balsamroot, reflects on a time during her aunt's stay with Blew's family. In her books, Blew shows how all locales are interconnected, even as stories, intimate and particular, are universal.


Mary Clearman Blew, Balsamroot: A Memoir. New York: Viking, 1994.

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