The Story Catcher

In his essays, novels, and life, Brian Doyle traveled to the very edges of reality, spirit, nature, and mystery.

| Spring 2018

  • University of Portland - new faculty & staff photos
    Photo by Jerome Hart
  • University of Portland - new faculty & staff photos
    Photo by Jerome Hart

It is difficult to convey the plenitude 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 AtlanticSojourners to The SunGuideposts 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 WritingScience 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, ’68 M.A. to Cynthia Ozick to PicoIyer, 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.

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