The Story Catcher

Author: Michael N. McGregor

It is difficult to convey the plentitude of a writer like Brian Doyle ’78, who came late to fiction yet wrote six increasingly beloved novels about wise animals and refreshingly human humans before his death at age 60 on May 27. Who wasn’t the greatest poet per se but was a master at what he called “proems,” short prose pieces with the beauty and brevity of poetry. Who flooded the world with gloriously playful, achingly human and slyly spiritual essays, publishing them in magazines both spiritual and secular, from The Christian Century to The Atlantic, Sojourners to The Sun, Guideposts to The American Scholar — sometimes, it seemed, in every issue.


It is difficult to convey the magnitude of his output, the consistent quality of his insights, the way he gave seemingly ordinary moments and people and creatures importance and grace, and the nonstop verve of his voice as he moved in a headlong rush from topic to topic, eschewing commas and even periods in pursuit of the joyous, dangerous, effusive beat at the heart of life.


It is difficult to convey how fervently his admirers love his work or even to recount the many awards he received, from Pushcart Prizes to a Catholic Press Association Book Award to the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature to regular appearances in pretty much every Best American series (Spiritual Writing, Science and Nature Writing and just plain Essays). And let’s not forget the national medals for excellence for his work as an editor, for turning the University of Portland’s alumni magazine into a beautifully designed and illustrated showcase for writers from Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A. to Cynthia Ozick to Pico Iyer, prompting Annie Dillard to call it “the best spiritual magazine in the country.”


It is difficult to convey even a sizable portion of all that he did as a literary figure, and harder still to conjure his spirit as it was known to people like me — his colleagues, community and friends. Not the talent alone but the wit, generosity and ebullience that brimmed, as poet Kim Stafford said, like the blossoming spill from a bountiful well.


I could tell you that he was embraced by Northwest writers as a particularly astute evoker of Northwest life, although he was raised on Long Island and didn’t move to Oregon until he was 35. That he was considered the moral center of the Holy Cross school where he worked, where he could be seen shuffling in thought, a practice some called “Doyle-ing.” That if you admired something he had — an illustration, let’s say, of a hummingbird in his magazine, as one writer did — you might find it on your porch the next morning.


I could tell you that he gave writing assignments to freelancers who needed money or talented younger writers hoping to break in, that he wrote references and recommendations and blurbs for seemingly everybody (including me), or that he invited all who came by his office to sit and chat, no matter how much he had to do.


I could tell you that he responded to even the silliest emails with both alacrity and humor, or that he looked for overlooked people to write about in his magazine, or that he wore a headband with “loser” written on it after his eighth Oregon Book Award nomination without a win. I could tell you that he once started an essay on his son’s neck when he didn’t have a notebook at hand, or that he accepted every book club invitation as long as the payment was a bottle of fine Oregon wine.


But maybe I should do what he always did, what someone who called himself a “story catcher” would: just tell stories, which he insisted were also prayers.


His writer friend Robin Cody once told him he couldn’t have it both ways — either stories were caught or they were prayers — but both were true for him, I think: He caught other people’s stories (simply by asking for them) and then, in his graceful re-rendering, turned them into prayers. Priest and writer Pat Hannon, CSC, ’88M.Div., who often stopped by his office, thought he was always in joyful prayer, his seemingly endless and headlong sentences a vain attempt to “catch up to the joy that was outpacing him.” Every conversation with him, Hannon says, “was a holy encounter.”


After years of research for my book on Robert Lax (a man he admired), I told him one day that I was nervous about starting the actual writing. “That’s the easy part,” he said. “You just tell stories.” I remembered his words every day.


“He had a way,” writer Joanne Mulcahy says, “of making people feel they were part of this bigger world of stories, and that stories really are the connective tissue.”


“We’re here for a little window,” he once said. “And to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”

And so it’s not surprising to find more kids and good-hearted animals in his writing than anything else. For him, they were truth-tellers and truth-livers who show us what innocence and natural living are.


Catching and sharing stories was as natural to Brian as laughing, which he loved to do and inspire in others (when dying of brain cancer in late 2016, among the few words he asked to be posted online were “Be tender and laugh”) or crying at life’s harder parts, like when his son Liam was born with a deformed heart, the pain of which he turned into his first extended work, The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart, a book a social worker I know gives to parents suffering from miscarriage or stillbirth or infant abnormalities.


And yes, the previous sentence is more than a hundred words long, but that’s nothing compared to what Brian would write, often without commas. People complained, he joked, that his sentences started on Tuesday and didn’t end until Friday. And one time someone sent him a page full of commas and periods, suggesting he use them.


Oh, but how Brian loved the thrill of a run-on sentence, the joy of stacking up adjectives without requiring them to keep to themselves, the “sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language.” Consider this sentence from Children and Other Wild Animals, which won him a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award in 2016:


“Our children were the best things that ever happened to me, and I have known wild passionate romantic love and still astoundingly do, and I have been blessed a thousandfold by generous friends, and I have been granted work I loved and which mattered in the world, and no man ever loved the liquid sinuous quicksilver verb of basketball more than me, and I had the happiest funniest childhood ever, and I am American which is to be graced and rich beyond measure, and while I am bruised I am not yet broken, aged but not yet dead, and my shaggy brain still works, and I can type fast and try to make sentences sing and roar and snarl and sob and insist that everything that ever happened is still happening and will happen again no matter what anyone says to the contrary.”


As Brian would say, that’s some sentence there!


Although he published six novels in the last eight years of his life (including Martin Marten, which won him the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing and his first Oregon Book Award on his ninth nomination), and his novels may be what he’ll be best remembered for, the genre he loved the most was the essay — because, he said, it felt like talking, which he loved to do. (“Banter,” says librarian friend Jim Carmin, “was one of his greatest skills.” He was a master of the quip that reminded you why you liked him.) The essay, he told an interviewer once, “is the closest form to the human voice, to the way we think and speak.” To me, he once wrote, “The brief pointed tart essay is a glorious letter from one heart to another. I love the form.”


When I hired him to teach three evening sessions of a master class for Portland State University’s MFA program, he accepted the gig — despite never having taught and telling himself he should stick to what he knows and worrying about being away from his three young children even one night a week and fearing that he would waste the students’ time and energy — because, as he told me, “talking about essays and storyshaping” was one of his favorite things to do and “on the third night we can hold class in a pub.”


After the classes — performances, really, with him reciting his essays and waxing rhapsodic over those of others and giving the students prompt after prompt, “sourdough starts” as he called them — the students asked him, through me, how he started his essays.


“I start with an idea, a line, a question,” he wrote, “and then aim to tell a story that matters. My experience is that you discover the theme or point or thesis after you finish a piece. My advice is to avoid thinking about theme and style and voice and shape and form and thesis and just try to tell a story, and don’t worry about how tiny or insignificant or silly a story seems to be.”


What about the feeling of spontaneity in his work? “My pieces seem to start hurriedly, with a sort of headlong dash, and then I work ’em maniacally for shape and taut. I really want to have a conversational talking tone in my pieces, because I think that’s how we talk and that’s fun to read.”


When telling other people’s stories, he noted: “I try not to muck them up and exaggerate and steal them — I try to borrow them respectfully — I worry about me being man enough to catch and serve the grace and dignity of other people’s stories more than I worry about being naked emotionally myself.”


And to a question about how he found spirituality in the minute details of life, he responded: “The beginning of all prayer is attentiveness, says Mary Oliver, who knows what she’s talking about. So to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is Where It’s At. We mostly fail but by god we ought to try like crazy. Kids are good for that — they wake you up quick and steady.”


Children and animals, he felt, live in the moment and remind us that we once did, too, and that we can again, as implied in his proem “The Tender Next Minute”:


You were there, too, remember, in your childhood cave,

The moist soil, the laboring beetles, the unwritten poem

Of the lost leaves, the duff, the thin spidery bones of old

Twigs. Once in a while we all stopped sprinting and just

Stared at what was there all around us, the wealth of dirt,

The sudden green feather about to adorn its second wild

Animal, the tender next minute waiting for us to emerge.


And so it’s not surprising to find more kids and good-hearted animals in his writing than anything else. For him, they were truth-tellers and truth-livers who show us what innocence and natural living are. Mink River, The Plover and Martin Marten all feature animals that think and act more sensibly than most humans do, and in a later novel, Chicago, based on his post-college years as an editor for a Catholic magazine, the wisest figure is a dog. The first two sections of his book Epiphanies and Elegies are titled “Poems in Praise of Wild Holy Animals” and “Poems in Praise of Wild Holy Children.”


It is Brian’s respect for the natural world and his willingness to let animals have their say, as Native Americans did in their tales of Coyote and Raven, that has earned him praise as a Northwest writer despite having moved to the west, he said, only because his wife, Mary Miller Doyle, took him to her native Oregon solely in August or September, when the rain had stopped and the sun shone brightly on all of that green. Once he was there, however, he came to like even the dreary damp of deep winter.


“There’s a shaggy grace in Oregon that I adore,” he told a local interviewer not long before he died. In another interview, he said, “With Mink River in particular I wanted to try to write down Oregon-ness itself, the verve and song and brave of the place, its moist grace, its brawny gentle creativity and prickly community vibe. . . . This is not a place where class and money and status and power matter much; it’s a place where creativity and innovation are really savored.”


Jeff Baker, who was the Oregonian newspaper’s books editor for many years, felt that Brian had national talent but not a national reputation to match because, until he published a handful of novels with St. Martin’s Press, he was always publishing with smaller houses, some of them Christian and some secular. Although he published two dozen books, he never had an agent or a presence on social media. He was less concerned with being a writer than just writing, telling the stories he came across in dozens of moments and memories each day.


The essence of how he viewed the world is contained in these lines from a proem that appeared in one of his last books, The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be:


There are no little things or events;

None. I am beginning to suspect that this is the theme of everything

I ever wrote or ever will write.


For Brian, there were no little people or creatures either — he wrote essays or poems or prayers for a child who died from her parents’ neglect; two women who tried to save children’s lives at Sandy Hook Elementary; a 3-year-old neighbor boy who needed help wiping himself; a sparrow inside an airport terminal; a pine squirrel hit by a car; a parrot that wouldn’t talk after its owner died; and, of course, his own children and animals, including the dog that was so much a person to him, his family brought it to his funeral Mass.


At the University of Portland, he always spoke at the student newspaper’s September “boot camp,” telling the budding reporters never to let what they wrote “just be news,” and when one reporter asked if she could interview him about ghost stories around campus, he was waiting for her with stories about every building. “If you want facts,” he told her, “I don’t have any. But if you want stories, I have lots of stories.”


A few days after the killings at Sandy Hook, he was scheduled to read at a hotel event in Portland where a painting of him and one of his closest writer friends, David James Duncan, would be unveiled. In the painting, to be hung in the hotel stairway, he and the writer he nicknamed “Scottish” (to honor their common Gaelic roots, it seemed, and, with a smile, the differences between them) are arguing the relative merits of single malt and Irish whiskey. The painting — and the evening — were meant to be humorous and literary, but instead of reading his work as he had been asked to do, Brian spoke spontaneously, telling stories about the importance of children and the valuing of life and leading the audience in singing “Amazing Grace,” somehow managing to make a hundred people cry and laugh and feel grace in the wake of a tragic day. All of his readings, even in ordinary times, went something like that.


His reverence for life and his faith in grace came, at heart, from a deep belief in the tradition and thought and truth of Catholicism, learned from his mother, a teacher, and his greatest hero, his father, a Catholic journalist who co-authored his first book, Two Voices: A Father and Son Discuss Family and Faith. (His first publication, Brian says in that book, was a letter he wrote to his mother on Mother’s Day, ostensibly from Hell, refusing her admission. When his father sent it to a small publication, they bought it for 10 dollars.) At Brian’s funeral Mass — held in a Portland cathedral with people spilling out the nave — his closest friend, Pete Boland, said that when dinner was over at the Doyle house, instead of watching television or chitchatting, everyone picked up a book.


“My parents still live there among their books and memories and the papery voices of the children who are gone,” Brian writes in an essay in Two Voices. He doesn’t lament moving on himself, however, or the “fleeting” nature of wherever he calls home, for anywhere he goes — anywhere anyone does — there are stories.


“If home is in the knowing of stories,” the essay concludes, “I am home.”


Michael N. McGregor is the author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, recipient of an Association of Catholic Publishers Excellence in Publishing Award and finalist for several other awards. His essays, articles, short stories and poems have appeared in a wide variety of publications. He is a professor of English and creative writing at Portland State University.