Shards

Concrete walls with long shards of glass embedded along the top, brutal points glinting in the hazy yellow light of the Sahel, surrounded the American embassy compound. Similar defenses protected private homes in the few neighborhoods that boasted living trees and roads with some tarmac still intact. Those with any means walled themselves behind concrete and cut glass, the only entrance a metal gate guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles and chained dogs kept on the cruel side of hunger.

 

Once, two Marines in a LandCruiser drove us to the home of an American defense attaché to spend the night. It was meant to be a treat. Air conditioning. Eating with utensils instead of scooping with our right hands. A bath. A bed not tented by mosquito netting sprinkled with termites. No snakes, frogs, cockroaches. No feral dogs seeking shelter, watching us from across our one-room mud hut with eyes glinting in the moonlight. A toilet.

 

As a Chadian man cleared the dinner table with white-gloved hands, the attaché’s wife said–she actually said–“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

I have tried to write about Chad for years, since an aborted attempt as Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 left us emotionally and physically compromised, and full of shame at not having endured the full length of our assignment. Leaving was an ethical decision: Chadian teachers were caught in a cycle of not being paid, striking until a bit of money and empty promises of reform were tossed at them like crumbs. Peace Corps volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in local schools and suddenly, who needs the Chadians any longer? Where’s the impetus to effect real change when outsiders will save the day? We were sick, morally, at the arrogance and illogicality of our presence.

 

We left. Alone. Months later the program collapsed behind us.

 

After Chad, we lived with friends in western Colorado, a place of intense and majestic beauty. We shared their tipi on a patch of high mesa. No concrete walls, no shards of glass embedded to keep out those intent on harm, or perhaps just justice. Only thick canvas walls. We came to rest and heal. To rebuild. Yet we were wounded all the same by invisible, razor-sharp shards of expectations and assumptions. A proposition made and rejected. A rejection that resulted in retaliation and betrayal. I have tried to write this story of Colorado for years, as well.

 

Because these stories, this particular time, are as locked together in my mind as Chad is by desert and Colorado by mountains and plain, I feel them as inextricably linked. A husband and wife lost, bereft, betrayed by expectations, by those they assumed would give them shelter: the U.S. Government; two close friends. Even now, twenty-three years later, I know I have not forgiven.

 

At last, the story is written, Chad and Colorado woven together, a needle pulling thread.

 

It’s rare to receive feedback from literary journals. They reject your work with a form e-mail that offers no insights, just “Hey, this isn’t for us. Good luck!” But this particular story garnered editorial feedback from two literary journals in which I’d be thrilled to be included. I am proud of these Nos, for they came accompanied with high praise. But the story was ultimately rejected by both for the same reason: the events just seemed unbelievable. What the young married couple had experienced strained credulity to the point of exasperation. Of course, everything that happens was ripped from the headlines of my life, as true as my memory and my journals of twenty-four/three years ago recall.

 

So I brought my story to a multi-day writing workshop recently, requesting insights on how to pull myself, the author, out of my own narrative and write in service to the story. How could I craft a better story, regardless of what really happened? If I intended to write a piece of non-fiction to honor my personal truth, I could go the essay route. But what I really want is tell a good story.

 

Critique is also meant to be in service to the story. How can we, as writer-readers, offer feedback that will help the writer take the best parts of her narrative and improve upon those?

 

At the start of the workshop, our instructor outlined the conditions whereby feedback was to be given: Our critique should determine how the work has affected us emotionally and intellectually, without criticism, without judgment, without using phrases such as I don’t like or this doesn’t work, which blame instead of exploring a story’s nature and its possibilities. We were promised safety.

 

Yet, the very first writer to offer up her story crumbled as parameter after parameter was crossed, the understanding between writers crumpled and tossed out the window. She finished the day and never returned, impaled on shards of poorly executed critique. Expectations shattered by reality; trust, betrayed. She and I shared a 3:00 p.m. bottle of wine later in the week, lamenting the irony that only the instructor could be heard using the verboten phrase, this doesn’t work . . .

 

“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

And what of my own work? A dozen copies of this story, with a dozen sets of interpretations and suggestions, sit in a folder. I am left with the shards of my narrative, my truth, shining and cruelly sharp at my feet, ready to be melted down and reshaped into something new.

Not To Live Too Small: Thank You, Kent Haruf

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I can tell you the moment I decided to be a writer when I grew up: I was six and I’d just read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I wrote a bunch of stuff for years—stories, mostly—oh where did they all go? But I can’t tell you when I stopped writing. I just sort of drifted away.

 

Junior year of high school, there was Mr. Compton, who turned around the life of a kid determined to fail of her own accord before the world could catch on how worthless she really was. He reminded me how much I loved to write and pushed me to keep at it. There was Professor Martin from English 301 in college, who handed back a paper with a long note at the end that basically said, “You’re an outstanding writer. I wish you hadn’t switched your major.” (Yeah, Doc Martin, me too. Psychology was worthless, but someone convinced me along the way that I’d never get a job as an English major. Not that I got one with Psychology, either. I sure as hell would have learned more had I stuck with English.) Yet somehow by thirty, the only writing I’d done for years was in my journal.

 

I’d never stopped reading, of course, but I hadn’t sought out literature in any meaningful fashion—I read whatever came my way: highbrow, lowbrow, and all sorts of stuff in between.

 

But then, late in the 1990s and early 2000s, as I was zooming up the slope of a career I clung to until we chucked it all and moved to New Zealand in 2006, a handful of contemporary literary fiction nudged me toward a different path. In 2003, it was Wallace Stegner’s classic deconstruction of marriage, Crossing to Safety (1987); 2001 introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri and her transcendent short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999); a bout with the flu late 2000 put David Guterson’s atmospheric slow burn Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) into my hands.

 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which I read the year it was published (1999), was the first of these transformative reads. Its prose is so powerful, its narrative profound; I was astonished that anything so quiet could pack such a solar plexus punch.

 

These works knocked something loose inside of me. They changed the way I read and changed the way I thought about writing. These novels and stories continued the preparation and education of my heart and mind, which had started decades earlier with Harriet the Spy, for the time when I would finally decide that every other ambition had to go.

 

Kent Haruf visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—where I worked—to read from and discuss his new novel. He signed my copy of Plainsong. I wish I had a clever anecdote, something that I learned about writing just from being in the presence of so gifted and hard-working a man, but I recall only that the author was gracious, gentle, soft-spoken, and full of quiet dignity, just like his books.

 

From my own review of his novel, Benediction:

‘Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But you must look beyond what you see to discover what is really there . . . Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time is played out.’

 

Last week, Kent Haruf’s time played its last notes. But the quiet strength of his gracious prose will continue. Our Souls at Night, the novel he was editing when he died, will be published in 2015.

 

Earlier this fall, Granta published an essay by Kent Haruf as part of its series The Making of a Writer. Read it, please, it’s lovely. Ironically, I captured the link in an obituary in The Guardian: Kent Haruf, ‘a great writer and a great man,’ dies at age 71 I’m thrilled a British paper memorialized this American treasure; he wasn’t well enough known in the United States, which perhaps suited him just fine.

 

Thank you, Kent Haruf. Rest in peace.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holt, Colorado – a blunt-edged town on the eastern edge of Colorado’s high and dry plains – where time ticks like the cooling engine of car. Storms build in billowing clouds on the horizon, summers grind through with breathless heat, winters drive ice and snow from across the flat middle of the country. It is as it has always been. It seems so little changes in this quiet, gently ticking community, but one moment it’s the 1960’s, the next it’s the new millennium, and you find yourself at the edges of your life.

So it must seem to Dad Lewis, on octogenarian who has just been told his future is measured in weeks. When he wipes a shirtsleeve across the Holt’s dusty surface and peers in, he sees a world so very different from the one he shaped when he was a young husband, growing a new business, a daughter and a son. The new preacher, banished from Denver for speaking out for a gay colleague, is hardly the model for atonement he expected as he waits to be ushered into the next life; the daughter of his neighbor, once a fresh and bright teacher, has returned a retired spinster; “the War” refers not to sandy beaches on France’s Atlantic coast or even jungles in Southeast Asia, but to barren mountains in Afghanistan and vast deserts in the Middle East. His children moved on long ago. His wife is an old woman.

But in this brief interlude between learning his long life is ending and taking his last breath, Dad Lewis has an opportunity to make one last impression before he returns as he came: from nothing into nothing. What will his Benediction be?

This is less a story than a series of vignettes about regret and compassion. Kent Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time plays out.

Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But as Lyle, the preacher-turned-pariah, learns during his midnight rambles down silent streets, what is really there is rarely what you see.

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