Creative idling 

Killing time with Outside contributer Bill Vaughn

I don’t know how anyone can be a creative writing teacher. It was bad enough being a creative writing student, trying hard not to slip and fall in all those other people’s innards splattered around the place. It made me want to scrub myself with lye and a stiff brush after every workshop.

Not that my own contributions to the unique group torture of the creative writing seminar were any better than most, but at least I figured out fairly quickly that I wasn’t going anywhere. Some writing students never realize this, but the cocoon of student life keeps them wandering from one seminar to the next, groping in the twilight of their own desire like Tithonus in the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Pity the guides to whom these hopeful, pallid ghosts look for benediction, for affirmations of their promise as writers, during the four years of higher education when it’s easiest to delude oneself. Maybe this is why so many creative writing teachers have faces creased with laugh lines. You have to have a sense of humor to keep telling the aspiring Bukowski cases to “go with it,” the stream-of-consciousness droolers to “take it further,” and the aspiring outdoor writers to keep polishing the same hopeless fly-fishing turds they’ve been hauling around for three semesters.

Of all the stereotypical characters I remember from undergraduate creative writing courses, the fly-fishing philosophers and manly-adventure-recounting modern-day Hemingway types were the ones that always annoyed me most—probably because they had the brightest futures regardless of how unoriginal they were. Those were the guys who most obviously aspired to some day get a piece in Outside magazine and had already begun the training for the Montana-writer mythos with a distinct sense of entitlement, simply for living here.

It makes sense to aspire to Outside, especially considering Missoula’s track record in that publication. That so many established local writers are also regular contributors must make the dream that much more tantalizing and seemingly within reach for those still in their larval stages at the University. An in at Outside seems like a ticket to exactly the kind of lifestyle many writers dream about: traveling the world, having adventures and getting paid for it, and then having this quaint little place called Missoula to come home to.

Or not going anywhere or having any adventures, but merely having Missoula to come home to—or, rather, to be home at. And don’t we all know it. Lording one’s Montananess over the reader with a mix of pride and self-deprecation is one of the rules of being a Montana writer. Living in Missoula is the trump card for the Outside and Men’s Journal contributing elite. People who don’t live here seem tirelessly fascinated by it as a kind of real-life Northern Exposure scene, and there’s no shortage of local writers willing to feed their imaginations.

I like reading local writers in national publications, dammit, and comparing the ways they interpret the Missoula/Montana mystique for people who may or may not live here. At the same time, I’m frequently amazed by what Missoula writers can get away with once they become known Outside quantities. Roughly a fifth of the pieces collected in Bill Vaughn’s First, a little Chee-Chee spring immediately to mind.

The name of the book, Vaughn explains in his preface, is the punchline of a joke he heard while he was playing on a local softball team, the Montana Review of Books, back in the ’80s. It’s a tossed-off title meant to order the subsequent essays under the general category of screwing around, and it imparts a sense of defiant idleness to these eleven essays about finding unusual and/or pointless ways to pass the time—and collecting checks for it.

Vaughn’s most frequent (and most successful) strategy is to make himself the bait and see who bites. Hence “The Hunger Artistes,” about Vaughn and his best friend modeling their custom Tyvek “Food Suits” at sporting events. “Survive This,” in which Vaughn describes himself right up front as a “vindictive and self-indulgent man,” takes the usual writer’s need for validation to the Malaysian island set of the Survivor series, which the author tries to gate-crash after unsuccessfully applying for a part on the show. It’s funny, in Vaughn’s admittedly self-absorbed way, as is most of First, a little Chee-Chee.

There are the intentionally less funny pieces, like “Down on All Fours,” one in an ongoing series of articles about Vaughn’s rehabilitation of a junk-filled slough in his backyard. When Vaughn tries to be cynically funny and falls short, it’s generally because not enough happens to him to fulfill the promise of an audacious idea, and he ends up rather dejectedly having to amuse himself. That’s what happens in “Playing Through,” Vaughn’s account of a “20,000 par” Montana-to-Missouri golf game that turns into a rather dull catalogue of the places he tees off with a touch of local color. It must have been a fun diversion for Vaughn, but the reader doesn’t really get much out of tagging along.

The real odd-one-out in First, a little Chee-Chee, though, is “Batter Up,” a tedious exercise in couching the “nine hitters” (read: nine actresses Vaughn would hypothetically like to sleep with) in baseball terms. It includes references to “suicide squeezes” and “pop from my cleanup spot” (but stops short, at least, of “rounding the bags” and “heat from the mound”), and Meg Ryan figures prominently. Sitting around watching Meg Ryan movies and speculating about the size of her feet tops the list this time around of things I’m surprised some writers can get away with—not for Outside, in this case, but for salon.com. But hey, eight or nine hits out of eleven ain’t bad for sports.

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