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It Tasted Like Dishwater: Lessons From James Welch


"I was reminded of my wife telling me to make white chicken chili.  'How do I do that?' I said.  'All the ingredients are on the counter.  Do this, this and this.  I’ll be home at 6:00.'  Ok, simple enough. When it was done it tasted like dishwater.  After doing the dishes.  Writing is the same way."  -- Erik Armitage

The following is a blog post by Erik Armitage in response to James Welch's "The Death of Jim Loney." Erik is a student in Robert Stubblefield's Montana Writers Live! course.

The first time I read any of Montana author James Welch’s work was during a class at the University of Montana called Montana Writers Live with professor Robert Stubblefield.  I had heard of Mr. Welch and had intended to read some of his work.  The more I read, the more I was upset with myself for not reading his work sooner and I was reminded of “good intentions” and where they lead.

Taking a writing class at UM seemed like a good idea for someone who likes to read, especially someone who likes to read about Montana history.  Maybe I’d even learn how to write something meaningful.  Lord knows I’ve tried.  I wasn’t attempting to write a best seller, just trying to chronicle some of my own family history on paper.  “How hard can it be to just tell a story the way it happened?” I told myself after reading my own drivel.  I was reminded of my wife telling me to make white chicken chili.  “How do I do that?” I said.  “All the ingredients are on the counter.  Do this, this and this.  I’ll be home at 6:00”.  Ok, simple enough.  When it was done it tasted like dishwater.  After doing the dishes.  Writing is the same way.  I have all the ingredients; Pen, paper, an ability to read.  I’ve read dozens and dozens of non-fiction books so I should have some grasp of at least being able to form a sentence, right?  Dirty dishwater.

In our third week of class, some of our assigned reading was by James Welch. After reading only one short story I knew that I had to see more by Mr. Welch and couldn’t wait to read the rest of the selections from our assignment.  Mr. Welch put words together in a way that stuck with me to this day and I’m sure for years to come.  Buy why?  Why his writing?

My favorite selection that week was The Death of Jim Loney, which I have read several times now like a kid trying to take apart a Rubik’s Cube™ and put it back together so that he can understand how it works.   The story is of sadness heaped on sadness.  Having spent time on Montana Indian Reservations and living on the Crow Reservation outside of Hardin, Montana for a couple years I can relate to some of the stories of Native Americans in Mr. Welch’s writing.  He tells of Jim Loney having to chip his dead dog out of frozen mud.  Anyone who has lived on a farm or had a beloved pet die suddenly can relate to the sadness of finding one of your animals’ dead.

He also tells of a Jim going to the airport and while waiting sees a young soldier coming home to his family.  I have come home from a war and hugged my grandmother and felt the same detachment that Mr. Welch describes.  “Later, when he told her stories of where he’d been and what he’d seen, she knew she had lost him" . . . "for she knew that what he had gained would never make up for what he had lost.”  I didn’t think the detachment I felt was as profound as what Mr. Welch describes.  But dread and sadness fills me to think, what if it was?

It is an incredible thing to form words together to elicit emotion and draw out passion.  To make you laugh or cry, to make you smell gun smoke.  To make you want to talk to your dead grandmother just one more time.

Erik Armitage

 About the Author:

Erik Armitage was born in Jerome, Idaho and moved to Missoula in 1976. He currently lives in Huson and is pursuing a degree in secondary education.