Always Be a Beginner

Black ants crawl up my arch and march over the top of my foot like Roman legions hellbent for the Holy Lands. Sweat meanders between my shoulder blades; what doesn’t soak into my bra trickles down my spine into the waistband of my skirt. Inside the classroom, hot, moist air creates an atmospheric event in which tropical plants could grow into monstrosities and tornadoes could collide in green-black funnels of fury. Outside the classroom door, fifty boys and girls in white shirts, black pants or skirts, and flip-flops queue in two jostling, giggling, good-natured lines. A tall boy, the designated classroom leader, claps once and everyone falls into line. They enter the room, stealing sideways glances where I stand on a low platform at the front, a broken blackboard behind me. They have no textbooks, just identical blank copy books with a silhouette of the African continent set against an orange background on the cover. I have no teacher’s manual, just a handful of lessons I practiced in front of my fellow Volunteers, and hope.

 

Whatever difference teaching English to middle-school students in Chad may have made was lost to a teacher’s strike, a civil war, our decision to leave before our program was discontinued. A story for some future time. But mitigating the heartbreaks was discovery I made as I stood there that first day, twenty-two years ago, ants clinging to my toes, sweat running like tiny fingers down my legs: I loved teaching.

 

That isn’t what I went on to do, however. I’d married a teacher, of course, and worked in higher education for many years, sending American students abroad to experience the same magical, lonely, stumbling, rare freedom I’d dipped into as a university student in France—a career that put me in front of a classroom to deliver workshops to colleagues or pre-departure orientations to students. This introvert who suffered through years of weekly staff meetings and networking events came into her confident, joyful own when the setting was a conversation between mentor-guide-teacher and learner.

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A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

There are so many ways the writing life can bring you down and the sense of isolation—even for hardcore introverts like me—can be acute. If I go for too long without talking to, learning from, working with other writers, I look into the well and I can see bottom. We need one another, to be challenged by others’ voices, to experience our words in different ways, to see the business of writing for what it is, what it can be, to be advocates for one another, to celebrate, to commiserate.

 

What grace to live in a community that embraces artists, where there is a world-renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press; an annual writer’s conference at Centrum that brings some of the finest prose and poetry artists to our village each July; and a bookstore, The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books, where the book displays in the glowing front window invite in readers, and the posters that fill one glass panel announce upcoming classes, workshops, readings—so many opportunities for writers to learn and hone their art and craft, through workshops and classes. And as of this summer, offering this writer a chance to teach.

 

When I made the choice to pursue writing as a career, I saw three paths that would run parallel, so closely they are hardly discernible, one from the other: writing, learning, and outreach to my writing communities, which includes giving back and sharing what I learn along the way. Where I feel most at home, where it all the loose bones snap into place, is in that conversation between learners—for I feel that even if I am the one standing at the front of the room, leading the conversation, the class or workshop is a collaboration, and I have as much to learn as anyone.

 

“’In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Always be a beginner.” Sherman Alexie, quoting Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, Opening Plenary, Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 2012.

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

 

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

 

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

 

The Small Backs of ChildrenThe Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

 

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

 

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

 

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

 

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

 

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

 

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

 

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

 

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The Waves, The Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

 

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

 

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

 

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

 

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

 

Before arriving at this poetry workshop in southwest Ireland, I give myself permission not to write a poem. I’m not a poet and have read poetry in a haphazard way, picking up recommendations here and there, from names dropped in books or by friends, looking through slim volumes in a bookstore, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

 

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

 

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

 

I am searching for a way in.

 

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

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Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

“What is your way into your poem?”

 

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

 

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

 

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

 

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

 

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative LifeStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro

 

A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third, and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.

 

It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.

 

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of Creative Life is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we writers gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. I nodded in breathless agreement at each entry, exclaiming, “Yes! This!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to return, open any page, and find comfort within.

 

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. The notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, is lovely and romantic, but in reality—if one hopes to make a living writing—the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. You refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.

“Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?”

For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this every.single.day. Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.

“Donald Hall writes, ‘If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.” There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.”

At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it’s hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue pouring out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor’s visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. I taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. Yesterday, I started the class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:

“That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I’ll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.”

I have returned to Shimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.

“Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.”

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book, touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, to turn you around and push you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?” and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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Layer Cake

Cake baking has never been my thing. Too fussy. The ingredients make it look deceptively easy—butter, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, milk, eggs and Bob’s your uncle. But the ingredients must be at a just-so temperature. The flour must be aerated, light. And if we’re talking layers and frosting, know that my inner klutz is cringing. Candy thermometers. Cake plates. Offset spatulas. Crumb coating. Pastry bags. Cakes that bubble on top or sink in the middle. Cakes that cling to the bottom of the pan, peeling away like a thick layer of epidermis. Frosting that is too thick, tearing at the fragile skin, or too thin, running down the sides like desultory rain, pooling on the plate, soaking your cake’s feet.

 

But when it comes to writing, I’m Martha Stewart. I’m a Six-Layer Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd filling.

 

I’m revising my second novel, The Crows of Beara, following my agent’s suggestions, questions, and cautions as a guide. I’m in a bit of a rush, emotionally. Agent wants to get this out “on sub” by mid-spring, before the summer doldrums sweep everyone out of their offices. On sub is writer jargon for ‘agent sending manuscript to editors, looking for novel’s publishing home.’

 

Practically speaking, the story is hitting its stride. When I finished the first draft a year ago, it had 105,000 words. After three revisions last fall, I submitted a 99,000 word second draft as my entry for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction. The Crows of Beara was one of two finalists for the prize, which gave me confidence that publication was worth pursuing.

 

Now into my second revision of a third draft, I’m working with 88,700* words. Over fifteen percent of a novel, gone. *Um. Since first publishing this post on Monday, I’ve lost a few more words. 87,500 now. 

 

My first drafts aren’t brain dumps, per se, but I do try to silence the inner editor. I do resist returning to earlier scenes or chapters, for fear of falling into a doubt trap, or miring myself in the revision process. I’m simpatico with Cheryl Strayed, who so succinctly gets it, “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.” (From The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2015

 

Once I begin revising, it’s a meticulous excising of excess detail and repetitive language and meandering thoughts and conversations to get at the heart of the story.

 

I may delete. But I never throw anything away.

 

During the first round of writer-editor revisions of In Another Life, I encountered notes from my editor requesting more detail here, more exposition or background there, clarification of background. In some cases, she was asking for layers—character motivation, a shoring up of sub-plot; in other instances, she was looking for frosting—a rounding out or plumping up of detail, filling in the crevices of the story’s foundation. Fortunately, I had nearly all of what she wanted from earlier drafts. It was a matter of copying, pasting, refining to fit the story as it had evolved.

 

The notes off to the side of The Crows of Beara read a bit differently. My agent has been unsparing and insightful at pointing out where I’ve gone too far, given away too much, overdone it, rambled on. These revisions have been like restoring a piece of furniture, stripping away the layers of thick paint to reveal the clean bare bones beneath.

 

In careful revision, I see the layers of story for what they are. I’m able to shift sentences and phrases around, picking up something I discarded on page 113 and adding it to a paragraph on page 87. I see where the second scene in Chapter 12 really should be the first scene and a thoughtful transition shows something about a character not yet revealed or a clean end to a chapter leads the reader naturally to the next. All these minute layers building to a stronger whole.

 

I’m a bread baker. I have a predilection for yeast over sugar. The sheer physicality of bread making is a release and marvel to me. I’ve learned over the years that it all comes down to the knead. You can knock most mistakes out of a lump of yeast dough if you’re willing to put time and energy into kneading (bread machines and Kitchen Aid bread hooks need not apply. That’s not bread baking, that’s an assembly line). Forget what the recipe says; most underestimate the time it takes to knead dough into submission by at least half. Probably because they know you wouldn’t start the process if you knew the truth.

 

Kind of like writing a novel.

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Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did.

 

 

Getting the Words Right

Friday morning. Café. Rain. Quad shot Americano. It’s early afternoon in Chicago. Here on the island, I check my inbox like a lab rat presses the sugar water lever. This craving for the e-mail from my editor. The e-mail with her responses to my five weeks’ worth of edits on IN ANOTHER LIFE. The e-mail that signals the beginning of another five weeks of editing. Craving, yet dreading it, too.

 

I’m tired, feeling fragile. Sleep was elusive last night, although my restlessness allowed me to finish Tess of the d’Ubervilles and I surely could not have spared a moment’s thought for my characters while Tess was wandering forlorn and forsaken in pages yet unread. I’m debating the wisdom of opening that e-mail when it does come. Tomorrow morning, after a solid night’s rest and a peaceful hour of yoga, would be the smarter bet for my soul.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t look at my e-mail for the rest of the day.

 

The past two weeks of freedom from the manuscript have been devoted to tying up loose ends before I dive back into the Slough of Revision: assembling 2014 forms and receipts for the tax preparer (can you believe it, I found someone who works with writers!); preparing two writing residency applications; making dentist, optometrist, and doctor appointments that I’ve pushed down the to-do list to the next week or the one after that; emerging from my cocoon to see friends, send thank you notes, connect with family, bake bread, go the movies.

 

I’ve also been working on TUI, my third novel. I think longingly to a year ago, when THE CROWS OF BEARA poured out of me, unfettered by other obligations, free from competing distractions. The story flew from my fingertips with such certainty: 105,000 words in ten weeks.

 

What a different writing experience this time, in part because I had to set TUI aside for so long and I’m about to set it aside again. In part because the storytelling itself is different—deeper, more personal. There’s something I’m reaching for and I won’t get there in a first draft. I won’t know the layers I need to uncover until I see the whole of it spread out before me.

 

This is something new, this switching of writing gears from revision mode into first draft creativity, this distraction caused by the business of writing—all the thinking about websites and blog tours and blurbs and head shots and author platforms.

 

If I’m fortunate and THE CROWS OF BEARA sells, I will be in a cycle of writing-revising-promoting for the foreseeable future. What a gift that cycle will be in sustaining a viable career, but it’s something I will need to learn to manage: making the intellectual and emotional leap from one work to another, from one type of writing to another, scraping together the free moments—whether for a day or a few weeks—to clear my brain and allow new material to enter unabated.

 

It’s late afternoon in Chicago now. Cold and clear. Maybe my editor is watching the clock, hoping to be on her way home before dark to a quiet night in with her husband, or dinner out with girlfriends. Maybe she’s nearing the ending that I decided I wanted to change after I’d sent her my edits.

 

It’s not too late to make that change. But by April it will be. And I will be ready for too late. I will be ready to move on.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015
Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

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.