Wyoming has influenced dozens of well-known authors, including Ernest Hemingway, who spent time at ranches across northern Wyoming and the Sheridan Inn, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society.
His short story, “Wine of Wyoming” is set in Sheridan. Finishing the first draft of “A Farewell to Arms,” Hemingway wrote about 600 pages of the classic piece in Wyoming during the summer of 1928.
Each author who writes in Wyoming digests the wildlife, cowboy culture and striking landscape in a different way, bringing his or her own goals, history and perspective to a largely undeveloped space.
Author Craig Johnson first came to northern Wyoming as a young man to deliver horses from Montana in the 1980s.
“I loved it the first time I met it,” he said.
He lived in other places around the country, but something about the town of Ucross kept calling him back. He kept himself apprised of available property and changes to the town over the years.
When Johnson raised enough money to return, buy a ranch and build his own 24- by 32-foot log cabin, the space and privacy of Wyoming turned out to be everything he hoped for.
When people ask in awe, “The closest town to your ranch only has 25 people?” He replies there are really only 19 people. They just haven’t changed the sign in a while.
Johnson is the author of the Walt Longmire crime fiction series, now a popular Netflix drama. The series is based on the environment, law enforcement and culture of northern Wyoming.
While his books are set in a fictional county, Johnson said that readers from Wyoming can identify real landmarks in his novels. Certain icons and trails are recognizable.
Johnson used his familiarity with Wyoming culture to create something different from the high-tech crime novels that turn pages by raising the body count. He chose to focus on character development and writing from a sense of place, which he said produces the best writing.
Johnson said the culture in this region is complex and difficult to portray, but he aims to offer readers all over the world a touch of honesty about the West through his novels. He said Wyoming is a geographic and emotional frontier.
“It’s not just cowboys and Indians,” Johnson added.
Some readers pick up a Western crime fiction book with certain preconceived notions, but like Walt Longmire, Johnson likes to challenge expectations about cowboys with the real-world experiences that compose his literary world.
Understanding Western culture happens in layers, but Wyoming can have an impact on people who simply see the landscape from a plane, he said. From people who stay for a brief visit to those to plant their roots in the Powder River Basin, the incomparable landscape makes a mark on each person.
Johnson said he is wary of allowing mountains and geography to become commonplace, losing their majesty and magic.
“I always remind myself: Look at those mountains, get up in those mountains,” he said.
Johnson enjoys finding an honest balance in his writing, without demonizing a culture or being too simplistic and idealistic.
Making ghosts, shifting perspective
When Juan Alvarado Valdivia returned from a late-night visit to the bathroom and closed the door to his room, he imagined the shadow of two legs standing outside his door.
A thin strip of light oozed under the doorway from the hall of the Kocur Writing Studio at the Ucross Foundation, where Alvarado Valdivia worked during a two-week residency in late August after receiving support from an Amazon Literary Partnership Grant that Ucross was awarded in 2019.
A resident of Hayward, California, Alvarado Valdivia said sleeping alone at Ucross could be frightening. As he looked out across spaces where Native Americans used to live, heard stories from other residents at dinner and recalled the film “Poltergeist,” Alvarado Valdivia was inspired to write a ghost story.
“It’s startling to come out to a place where it’s extremely dark,” he said.
Sophie He, the other recipient of the Literary Partnership Grant, said that as she rode her bike along the highway in complete darkness and silence, her flashlight was the only light.
“The only thing I could do was pedal forward and hope for the best,” she said.
He was born in Shanghai. She spent most of her life in Los Angeles, California, and is currently finishing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Rather than the “creep-factor,” He felt more uneasy about being a person of color in a place where she could count the people of color she encountered on one hand.
While it didn’t hinder her creative focus at Ucross because she’s accustomed to feeling different, He said she was acutely aware of her difference when she visited Sheridan and Buffalo, which made her reluctant to explore.
He said it’s important for emerging writers of color to visit the American West and contribute to the ideas and myths that shape Wyoming. Ucross is mindful of including a variety of voices and identities with artist residencies, she added.
The best way to avoid tokenizing a particular identity group is to keep including more voices, she said. Working with people of color at Ucross made her feel more comfortable than in town.
He applied to Ucross because she hoped being surrounded by unfamiliar terrain would unlock something new in her writing -— which it did. The weather, mosquitos and landscape were starkly different from anything she’d experienced before.
Most of her work focuses on finding new ways of seeing, including a story she finished at Ucross about L.A.’s Chinatown, 1930s film and LASIK eye surgery.
She said it was helpful to be far away from the place about which she was writing. Being away from familiar things removed the commonality of day-to-day life and conjured new ways of thinking about spaces and ideas.
Stepping outside one’s comfort zone and enjoying real, “visceral” freedom is beneficial to the writing process, she said.
Valdivia said quiet and solitude are especially conducive to being productive and brainstorming new ideas but can also be eerie and unnerving.
“Wyoming is just absolutely beautiful,” he said. “It’s obscenely beautiful.”
The short story Alvaredo Valdivia worked on at Ucross is also set in California, in the Bay area. His time at Ucross led the story to come together in an unexpected way.
He said she wasn’t raised surrounded by Americana like many people in Wyoming, but identity and place are themes in her recent work. She was struck by the iconography in images and artifacts from Wyoming’s history.
Exposure to the geography of Wyoming caused her to notice more details about landscapes and spaces in other places around the country.
Rabbits, birds, wildlife, undeveloped land, panoramas, plains and a big, open sky were especially prominent to Alvarado Valdivia during his time at Ucross.
While he can write anywhere, the devoted time and captivating environment lent themselves to focus and creativity.
Spending time working in a Wyoming summer was particularly special. One night, when the clouds parted while the residents warmed themselves around a fire, Alvarado Valdivia said he’d never seen so many stars.
“There’s this unique synergy, and sometimes if the group works out well, there’s this great alchemy and energy and inspiration that I can get from just being around them,” he said. “Many of them are just really good human beings…that’s also good for my spirit.”
From 1928 to 2019, artists and writers have found themselves in the wide open corners of Wyoming; uncovering history and making their own. Some plant permanent roots, and others visit for a breath of fresh air and the space to do their work.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
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