Letters to a Young Writer

We asked our longtime friend author and environmental activist Rick Bass to pen a few words of advice to young writers as we confront the increasingly apparent and devastating effects of our world’s changing climate. In particular, this letter addresses high school students crafting their own stories, letters, and poems for our Ninth Annual High School Writing Contest, for which we have chosen the theme “My Note to the World.” As always, Bass’s words and example prove invaluable to writers of all ages.

Tell me a story, the editors of Narrative remind us. We’re heading into the fire, and your generation will, unbelievably, one day be in the position mine finds itself in now, wondering, Did I do all I could?

I’ve spent nearly forty-five years as an activist, the bulk of it on the frontlines of the timber wars, in an amazing place, the Yaak Valley, in the extreme northwest corner of Montana. It’s a strange land, paradoxical, constructed of both fire and ice. The woods here are inland rainforests, storing vast tonnages of carbon to long-term safekeeping: the Fort Knox of carbon storage.

Each day here brings an exult, activating the five senses—touch taste scent sight sound. In such a battlefield, righteous fury has its time and place but is not sustainable. What is our fit, as a species? All things find a fit, or vanish quickly. What are humans’ singular qualities? We tell stories and write poetry. We build fires. All the other stuff—pretty much other animals do too.

If we are here for a reason—if the world will have us, or if, as I imagine, we are still auditioning—it is for art. We may not know why this matters, or even if it does—but we are here, and nothing is here for no reason. This is not the observation of a religious scholar but a naturalist and biologist.

It’s easy, as an environmental activist—too easy—to diss the Man. Yes, Exxon sucks. Pretty much everybody sucks. No one is pure, but one of the merciful things about getting older, with time at a premium—as it is for all of us now—is realizing that if you’re truly serious about this gig (life), you don’t want to burn any more hours stating the easy-obvious about who sucks the most but instead going long, going big. The real talent lies in forging new paths and leading.

It’s okay to have anger, or even sacred rage. Like, about an eighth of a teaspoon’s worth a day: like a pinch of cayenne, it goes a long way. But what’s really needed is happiness—not altered-state or denial-saccharine fake-pretend happiness but, somehow, the real deal. Love something. This is the power, and it is of course embedded deep in the nucleic signature of art.

I look forward to reading you. Your hopes and dreams. And I don’t mean to say it can’t be sad. Sad is good too, sad is healthy. But show us a way out. Show us you won’t give up. Make me believe it. Show me. Tell me the story not just of where you’ve been and what’s happened but of what lies ahead. Be courageous. Tell me what you want. Dare to want it. Dare to love it: the idea of it, even if it doesn’t exist yet.

Read on . . .

More by Rick Bass