I don’t believe I’ve ever truly had writer’s block. Sure, there have been many, many times when I’d rather do anything other than the hard work of writing. But, once I finally convince myself to sit down at the computer, once I have some inkling of a topic or a scene in mind, I can usually put words on the page with ease.
I suppose that makes me lucky. Or perhaps just a blowhard. My good fortune comes, I imagine, from the fact that I worked as a writer for many years under various sorts of deadlines. When your paycheck depends on it—or at least your professional reputation—you tend to find a way to deliver. For me, sitting down at the computer is a sign to get busy. The sooner I complete whatever ugly task is staring me in the face, the sooner I can get outside with the dog or tune back in to college basketball (at least this time of year).
Of course, I also know that getting the words on the page is just a start. The fun part, for me, comes after that. I enjoy playing with words, upending sentences, moving the parts of the puzzle around to see what happens. I like to get my writing so “tight,” as some editors call it, that my fiction writing mentor used to call it “airless.” That might be a good thing for a press release or a technical manual, but that’s evidently not a good thing for a novel.
So as I work on this book, I’ve had to learn to give the words room to breathe. I’ve had to give the characters time to fumble around with an idea or a thought. Their communication might not always be the most direct or the most efficient. It may well use more words—sometimes more colorful words—than the expression or the thought actually requires. That at times makes me very nervous. “Cut those unnecessary words!” I hear my invisible editor exclaim. “Make every word pull its weight. Murder your darlings!”
But I’m learning that that approach can make for rather dull reading if you’re trying to create an interesting character. It’s been a tough lesson for me. I’ll discover soon whether I’ve figured it out.
Meanwhile, I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. That means my brain has been turned to “writing mode” nearly 24 hours a day. Last night, for example, as I lay in bed, I mapped out chapters and wrote snippets of text from 1:30 until 5 a.m. I got up a couple of times and made a few notes. Now, after a couple of hours sleep, we’ll see how much I can capture and actually use.
That’s the disadvantage of finding writing a fairly easy endeavor. Once you turn on the spigot, it’s hard to turn it off. At the moment, though, I need my muse to keep working overtime. I have a deadline looming that I’m determined to make. That should keep me seated, focused, for a few more weeks to come.
By the time I was 14, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I don’t think I was particularly precocious or drawn to novels about war. These books just happened to be in my family’s library, and something I can’t possibly recall prompted me to pull them from the shelf. I’m certain I was a little young to fully appreciate the books, and I need to reread them all.
But I can tell you that these fictional representations of two world wars both fascinated and repelled me. I was horrified by the realities and the inanities of war, and reading these books made me militantly anti-war at a very young age.
As I prepared to write my own novel, I had to dig into each of these wars in a little more depth. The primary character, based somewhere between loosely and explicitly on the grandfather I never knew, served in France during World War I and accepted a job as a civilian at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II.
I had already spent some time digging into WWII while David Hoefer and I were compiling The Last Resort. But, for the novel, I needed to know particulars, especially about the first few months of America’s involvement and how civilians responded to having the country engaged in yet another war.
WWI was much fuzzier for me, so I’ve done some reading over the past couple of years to catch up. I also had the good fortune of multiple visits to an expansive exhibit about the war, curated by Margaret Spratt, at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Ky., in 2017. And today I attended a screening of the cinematic wizardry that is the film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s montage of original film footage transformed by vast teams of immensely talented technicians and then overlaid with excerpts from BBC interviews with soldiers who served during the war. The result is a powerful immersion in the trench warfare experienced by tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them absurdly young. I came away wondering what I always do when I gain a clearer understanding of the brutality of war: how anyone survives intact.
I am by no means a scholar of these two wars. I do not have the depth or breadth of understanding of a curious high school student. But I have tried to grasp some kernel of truth about the sacrifices these men made and the moral lassitude that threatened their souls while fighting in a foreign land for reasons that weren’t always clear against men who in so many ways were just like them. If I have any hope of understanding my grandfather’s story, or my father’s story, I have to peer into that ugly maw, if only from the shelter of my comfortable armchair.
In mid-January, my husband, Rick, slipped on a muddy hillside while walking our dog and fell and broke his arm. It was a simple, clean break, only requiring a basic cast. But it radically—and immediately—altered the ebb and flow of his days.
Rather than spending eight to ten hours a day at work moving heavy boxes of auto parts, he has found himself rattling around the house getting reacquainted with the TV, the washer and dryer, and his computer. He can stay up until midnight, if he chooses, and wake up when he wants. He can ponder home projects we’ve delayed for years, even if we both know we’ll never get around to tackling them.
Some things haven’t changed. He and Lucy continue to take long walks, whether the temperature is 4 or 64. Tuesday nights he still joins the West Sixth Run Club, even if he’s walking rather than running. And, for those of you most concerned about whether he can still churn out hundreds of bourbon balls a week, fear not: he quickly adapted to one-arm candy-making.
He also hasn’t been homebound. Despite the fact that both of our cars have a manual transmission—requiring two hands or, in Rick’s case, one very busy right hand—Rick hasn’t let his temporary disability keep him from his usual gallivanting. One evening he may head to Lexington for a music or cultural event. The next evening he’ll see what’s shaking in Frankfort. If it’s a day ending in “y,” there’s a bourbon celebration somewhere in central Kentucky. And Rick will most likely be there.
As usual, he has taken this unexpected turn of events in stride. He prefers to think of it as “practicing retirement.”
Meanwhile, I have also been navigating a shift in perspective. At the end of 2018, I decided to dedicate the first few months of 2019 to the novel I’ve been working on, with various levels of commitment, for years. I’m close—really close—to finishing it. I’m newly enthusiastic about the work. And I’m trying my best to ignore as many distractions as possible and devote my time to that singular task.
To that end, I recently spent 10 days on a writing retreat in Minnesota under the hawkish eye of my newly minted writing coach, Tim Cooper. Together we scoured every word, every nuance, every historical fact in the first 20 chapters. He offered helpful criticism and much-needed encouragement. As a result, I have renewed confidence that I can get this thing done, and I have a clear plan to get there.
Transitioning from writing nonfiction—in this blog, in op-eds provoked by national events, in materials related to The Last Resort—to fiction has not been easy for me. I’m comfortable writing about factual events and people’s individual and collective responses to them. I feel much more inept at imagining characters and scenes and conflicts and, most importantly, effectively rendering the emotions inherent in each. It has taken some time, and a lot of classroom instruction and mentoring, to help me understand how to capture the human condition, essentially, in words on a page, with the goal of evoking an authentic response from the reader.
Rick may be comfortable behind the wheel of a car right now—reaching across the steering wheel for the turn signal, taking corners by alternately turning the wheel and shifting gears with the same hand—even if I’m not comfortable watching him do it. But I’m paying attention to him, trying to adopt his sanguine approach to an unexpected challenge. I think I can persevere. I hope the result will be a story worth reading.
I come from a family of readers. Serious readers. People who read all the time. I am by far the slacker in the group. If my parents were alive today, I’m sure they would continue to read books despite all the electronic distractions available to them.
My family members also distinguished themselves with skillful writing, although—aside from the two journals by father kept that are included in whole or in part in The Last Resort—I’m not aware that any of them ever wrote for pleasure or just for themselves. I have no recollection of anyone in my immediate family, say, writing poetry or short stories. It’s possible they did, but I’m not aware of it.
And until this past summer, I wasn’t aware of another family member who had, as I did for many years, made a living as a writer or editor. My checkered career had me writing everything from technical manuals to marketing froth for private companies, higher education, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I spent countless hours reviewing, editing, and verifying pieces written by other staff members. My work days were dedicated to selecting just the right words to persuade, instruct, enlighten, or cajole a particular audience.
But I now know about my Uncle Forrest.
My great-uncle Hamilton Forrest Moore (1881-1972)—oldest son of the Rev. William Dudley Moore, brother of my grandmother Martha Florence Moore Goodlett—had a long career, I believe, with The Anderson News, the newspaper of my family’s home town, Lawrenceburg, Ky. My cousin Sandy recalls that Uncle Forrest continued to edit each edition of the newspaper and send his markup to the news office long after he had officially left his post. It appears that writing precisely, and scanning the work of others for errors, had become a passion for him, or perhaps a curse.
I cannot read a newspaper or magazine or book without landing with a thud on every typo or missing word or poorly constructed sentence. For years I wanted to volunteer to copyedit my local newspaper the night before the rag was printed. It was an embarrassment. Now my husband has picked up the same habits. In fact, he sometimes catches outrageous errors that I miss. His keener mind makes him even better at it than I am.
But I’m happy to know that somewhere in my genetic material there may be a tiny marker that I inherited from my Moore ancestors, the same marker that Uncle Forrest had. Because I lived outside Kentucky the first years of my life, I only remember meeting him once. He was quite old by then and I don’t have any specific recollections of what he was like. But I’m proud now to think that, long before I knew anything about how he had spent his life, I ended up carrying on the work he had loved.
Pud’s mother died two months after he did, in June 1967 at age 81. Her health, both physical and mental, had been failing, so the family tried to keep from her the fact that her youngest son had died unexpectedly. Whether we were successful or not, we’ll never know.
Because I had lived in Baltimore until my father died, I never really knew my grandmother. I’m sure I was around her as a young child, but I have no recollection of having a conversation with her. I don’t remember her voice, her mannerisms, her interests.
I do recall how surprised I was not too long ago when my cousin Mac described sitting with our grandmother and listening to baseball games on the radio. Evidently she was an avid fan. I had no idea. I don’t think I had ever really thought of her as a person with hobbies or passions or opinions. She was simply my grandmother, an abstract that I had shown little curiosity about fleshing out.
Last week another cousin, Vince, sent us a copy of a note our grandmother had written to him in 1953. With just a few phrases, she came alive for me for the first time.
It starts out, “Dear Vincy, Awfully sorry you didn’t get to come down Sunday. You must take your medicine real good and hustle yourself down before it gets too cold to play out.”
She continues, “Mac has gone nuts over baseball and football. As cold as it was Sunday, he had his daddy out back playing ball with him. The little black pig has a room in the barn now right next door to the big pig. Kenneth’s big white rabbit is living in a coop nailed to the wall in the coal house. All fixed up for winter.
“Mac had a jaw tooth filled yesterday. Didn’t whoop and holler nary a bit. Love, Mamoo”
In that brief note, I learned how she spoke, what and whom she cared about, and what events preoccupied her thoughts, as well as a bit about the world she inhabited.
As I hunker down to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather—a man who remained a mystery to everyone in my family until recent research unearthed the outlines of his remarkable life—I recognize even more urgently the importance of perfecting each character’s voice. A few words, an idiomatic usage, a turn-of-phrase paints a better portrait of the individual than countless overdone descriptions. What a character chooses to say, and how he mutters it, reveals his values, his circumstances, his background, and how he views himself and others in his world.
Trying to bring my long-gone ancestors to life is a daunting undertaking. I make decisions daily about their language and their actions that may in no way reflect the reality of who they were. That is why I am writing fiction.
But, this week, I learned a great deal from reading one brief note casually penned by another ancestor. Not only did I learn about her, but I learned how to be a better writer.
Here in Kentucky we have a sometimes shocking ability to rub elbows with the literary lions who live among us: Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Crystal Wilkinson, Ada Límon, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Ed McClanahan, bell hooks, C. E. Morgan, Robert Gipe, Frank X Walker, Kim Edwards, Gurney Norman, and, of course, Wendell Berry. It was at a Kentucky Arts & Letters event sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, Ky.—in Wendell Berry’s beloved Henry County northeast of Louisville—that I was recently approached by award-winning poet Maurice Manning.
I had interacted with Manning intermittently when I worked at Transylvania University, where he is a professor of English and the Writer in Residence. At last year’s Kentucky Book Fair, writer (and Lawrenceburg resident) Bobbie Ann Mason had alerted me that Manning had read The Last Resort and was enamored by it. But I didn’t really think he knew who I was or would recognize me in a large crowd of admirers.
His first words stunned me: “Your dad’s journal is one of my favorite books of all time.” I’m fairly certain I stared at him stupidly, my mouth agape, as I tried to formulate a gracious response that didn’t fully betray my giddiness. We ended up talking for a while, and he relayed to me that my dad’s writing reminded him of the journals kept by William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.
Now I was an English major many decades ago, and I paid my respects to the English Romantic poets once upon a time, but I was not familiar with Dorothy Wordsworth. So I did what every 21st-century faux-researcher would do: I googled her and read a little of her work.
And Manning was right. I was stunned at the similarity between her reporting of the day-to-day events of her life with her brother, William, and my dad’s reporting of the day-to-day activities at the Salt River camp with Bobby. Here is an excerpt from her Grasmere journal, which she began keeping in 1800:
The rhythm of her days during that summer feel very much like the days spent at The Last Resort in the 1940s. Like Pud, Dorothy meticulously captures the details of the weather as well as the practical results of the fishing outing. The daily menu plays an important role in her notes. In another entry, she writes: “I went & sat with W & walked backwards & forwards in the Orchard till dinner time - he read me his poem. I broiled Beefsteaks.”
Like Pud, and like most poets and artists of her era, she also paid close attention to her natural surroundings. William Wordsworth had said of his sister, “she gave me eyes, she gave me ears,” and the descriptions in her journals were sometimes the inspiration for his poems. The following extract from her Grasmere journal seems strikingly similar to entries in The Last Resort:
I occasionally find poetry in the simple journal my father kept at the camp along Salt River. But I had not considered how similar his inclinations and his observations were to the aesthetics of the great Romantic poets. In a later email, Manning wrote to me, “your father's journal reminds me very much of the Romantic poets from the late 1790s, namely Wordsworth and Coleridge when they were both living near Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire.”
Imagine that. Pud Goodlett, scientist, naturalist, ecologist, Romantic.
Crystal Wilkinson, left, prepares for a conversation with Wendell Berry, right, at The Berry Center's Kentucky Arts and Letters event Nov. 10, 2018, in New Castle, Ky. The two authors talked about their rural upbringings that evoked the strong sense of place in their writing and how the family members who loomed large in their early years play significant roles in their work. Photo by Rick Showalter.
Just a reminder: More than 150 authors—including Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, and Richard Taylor--will be armed with a stack of books and ready to talk with you at the 37th Kentucky Book Fair Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington, Ky. If you love books and the people who write them, you don’t want to miss this event.
I never intended to stumble into a career as a writer and editor. I chose my college major based on which professors appeared to be the most entertaining or, perhaps I should say, the most inspiring. Although both my parents had been scientists, I loathed the idea of spending beautiful fall afternoons in dark, windowless labs. I decided, however, that I could spend those afternoons sitting under a tree reading a book. And so I did.
I went to graduate school largely because someone—or rather some institution—offered to pay my way. And probably because I still had no idea whatsoever what to do with myself. So I spent two and a half more years studying literature and—much to my chagrin—philosophy and literary criticism.
But, as I discovered only recently, it appears all I would have needed to do to become a clear, effective, and even amusing writer would have been to read the words my father left behind. I could have avoided all of that formal education if I had just pored over his publications.
Reading academic papers about fragipans, tree throws, and surficial geology, however, wasn’t really my cup of tea. I knew that my dad’s colleagues had regularly praised the clarity of his writing, and he had demanded the same standard from his students. And I had seen glimpses of those practices, as well as his innate poetry and cleverness, in the two journals and the letters I had studied at some length to publish The Last Resort.
But the other day I read three short book reviews my father had written in the early 1960s, which David Hoefer had unearthed in a search for all of my father’s publications. And I finally understood just what everyone had been talking about.
In my favorite, my father references a Lewis Carroll poem to make a point about the author’s conclusions. David has now educated me about the seriousness of the book’s thesis in academic circles, but most of that flies blithely over my head. I have insufficient understanding of the content of the books my dad reviewed to embrace or reject the accuracy of his arguments. But I can evaluate his writing.
In his review of the book The Upland Pine Forests of Nicaragua: A Study in Cultural Plant Geography by William M. Denevan, my dad remained unconvinced that Nicaraguan natives had used fire to manage the original forests despite Denevan’s repeated assertions, assertions that my dad felt lacked documented evidence. In wrapping up the review, he writes:
"The aboriginal pyromaniac may indeed have produced the pine forests of Nicaragua, but Mr. Denevan does not convince me. I am reminded of Lewis Carroll's Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark: 'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.'"
I was not familiar with this particular Lewis Carroll poem, although I now realize that his Jabberwocky is one of the few I have even partially memorized, thanks to Carroll’s books being omnipresent during my childhood. And his exposure of the inanity of repeating phrases of questionable veracity feels especially relevant today. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
--The Poetry Foundation
The book review my father penned appeared in Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 1962) and was indeed a serious academic critique of a work that remains relevant today. David Hoefer tells me that my dad’s skepticism, though perhaps a valid criticism at the time, has since been largely addressed as more evidence has been presented. But it was my dad’s introduction of a totally disparate text, a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, to drive home a point that caught my attention—and made me chuckle.
And that is the writer I want to be.
When David Hoefer and I started working on The Last Resort, we realized that the book could appeal to a variety of readers. Most obviously, I expected the people who had known Pud would have a sentimental attachment to the stories of his youth. From there, it occurred to me that others of his generation or perhaps folks who had grown up in similar rural communities would enjoy reminiscing about a time long gone.
As the project evolved, we began to think that other audiences might find something of interest in the book. Folklorists might find the boys’ customs or food ways a window into cultural norms of the time. Historians might appreciate the journals and the World War II letters as primary source materials that paint a specific tale of how one man navigated the journey to adulthood during a tumultuous period in our nation’s history. Botanists and biologists might be interested in the flora and fauna that Pud noted were prevalent in central Kentucky 70 years ago. Or they might find the awakenings of a young scientist a compelling story.
I also felt it was, at its simplest, a good story. People who enjoyed reading biographies or short stories would find it an enjoyable glimpse into a bygone era.
A year later, I believe we have in some small way tapped into all of these audiences. The book has helped me reconnect with family members of my father’s professional colleagues and childhood friends. I have heard from historians who have used the book in their classes. A handful of my father’s students have shared the book with their fellow scientists, in places as far-flung as New Zealand.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll have a chance to connect personally with some of these readers. I am grateful for all of them. I am happy that David convinced me to see this project through. And I’m looking forward to finding out what about the book piques the interest of each individual.
On Tuesday, Oct. 9, I’ll have the privilege of talking to members of the Lawrenceburg community, the now bustling central Kentucky town where Pud and Bobby and Rinky and Lin Morgan grew up. At the regular monthly meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society, I expect to see friends and family members of the boys who spent time at The Last Resort camp along Salt River. I expect they will share more stories of what life was like in that rural community in the 1940s. For them, it will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
On Wednesday, Nov. 7, I have been invited to participate in the Kentucky Authors and Poets event in nearby Frankfort, Ky., sponsored by the Kentucky Conservation Committee. I expect the audience there will include conservationists and environmentalists who work every day to preserve Kentucky’s waterways and woodlands. That audience may be more interested in John C. Goodlett the pioneering ecologist and plant geographer, or perhaps in the field notes of 19-year-old Pud Goodlett the University of Kentucky biology student. I share with them an interest in preserving the natural areas along Salt River and Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River so future generations can have experiences akin to those of the young boys at The Last Resort
And on Saturday, Nov. 17, I will be surrounded by more than 150 authors at the 37th annual Kentucky Book Fair sponsored by Kentucky Humanities. Some of the authors gathered there will present formal programs, and we will all be available to talk to curious readers and sign books. I will be humbled by the presence of Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, and Sarah Smarsh, among others. On that day, my likely audience may be avid readers of Kentucky history or readers looking for Christmas gifts for aging parents or grandparents.
Publishing this book has been a sometimes surprising journey. I am thankful for all the people who’ve expressed a genuine interest in the project. I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride.
For more details about any of these events, visit the Murky Press home page.
After reading last week's post Seductive Silence, Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., has been thinking about how a liberal arts education could encourage the empathy and resilience we so desperately need. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Like many Americans, I was riveted to the television during the services for the late Sen. John McCain. It was a brief, and it appears now ephemeral, moment when we were reminded of the heroes among us who have been willing to put country above party or personal interests. My favorite McCain story related how a prisoner in the cell next to McCain’s at the Hanoi Hilton used a surreptitious tapping code to teach McCain the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” McCain’s daughter Meghan shared how he later recited the somewhat grisly poem to his future wife on their first date.
That was my first glimpse into the Renaissance man who was John McCain. I learned that his favorite author was Hemingway and his favorite novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I learned that McCain regularly read novels and enjoyed writing.
While in the U.S. Navy, I attended classes at the Naval War College. The highlight for me was a lecture by Admiral James Stockdale, a man who had endured eight years as a prisoner of war, also in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. During the lecture, Stockdale revealed the key to his survival: His study of moral philosophy—particularly the Roman Stoics—while a student at Stanford had provided food for his mind during those endless days of tedium and fear. He was able to draw from his own intellectual reserves to provide the discipline and resilience he so desperately needed and avoid succumbing to the darkness. As president of the Naval War College, Stockdale later instituted classes in philosophy, literature, and history. For him, study of the liberal arts was not just a path to enlightenment; it could well be the key for another young serviceman’s survival.
It struck me that these two national heroes, either by their own habits or by their professional influence, were evangelists for the value of education in the humanities. We all face times when we need to draw from our knowledge or understanding of the human condition to survive a struggle that seems poised to drop us to our knees.
Sadly, a quick perusal of recent news articles reveals that the classic liberal arts curriculum is being relegated to history. Colleges in the University of Wisconsin system have eliminated English, sociology, political science, and history majors from their campuses. In their stead, these universities offer business, science, engineering, and computer technology centers.
In Lexington, Bryan Station High School has restructured its curriculum as the Academies of Lexington, an initiative dedicated to preparing students in grades 10 through 12 for future careers, careers that range from electrician to chef to computer programmer to paramedic. As I understand this new initiative, all curricular content is filtered through the lens of the student’s career aspiration.
Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky University has made its marching band a peripheral “activity” separate from the school of music, eliminating its academic affiliation. My father, a man who abandoned hopes of a pro baseball career to become a professor in the music department at EKU (until his premature death in 1988), always promoted the marching band’s democratic pull, its ability to connect students from a variety of majors and interests and expand their experience with the arts.
These insidious changes also reached the parochial school where I taught for two decades before retiring in June. Students entering this institution are now encouraged to declare in middle school whether they would like to work toward a “business certification” that would be attached to their high school diploma. The goal is that, by taking business classes, students will attain what Bryan Station identifies as the ability to see real world applications in what they learn in the classroom.
But what have these students lost? At my former school, signing up for the business classes extinguishes the option of taking band, chorus, art, or photography. By devolving the marching band into a student activity, EKU has lessened the connection non-music majors had to an acclaimed music school. And by emphasizing the utilitarian nature of learning, Bryan Station’s program has obviated the concept of learning for learning’s sake.
My best friend during my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota was a young man from rural Wisconsin who was interested in literature, theater, classical music, blues, jazz, and pop-culture. Kurt was also a business major. During his last two quarters at the “U,” Kurt contacted numerous companies about employment. Caterpillar Corporation called Kurt to arrange an all-day interview at their corporate headquarters in Peoria, Ill. Kurt asked me to drive down with him. After his very long day, I asked Kurt how the interviews had gone. He shook his head and responded, “It’s the craziest thing. They never once asked me about business. Instead, they asked about what I read, what I think about, what plays I had recently seen, whether I volunteer and why, and so on.”
A week later, when a representative from Caterpillar called to offer him the job, Kurt asked about the peculiar nature of the interviews. The representative responded simply and directly: “We can train anybody about our business, but we cannot teach people to be well-rounded.”
Readers of The Last Resort will recall that Pud Goodlett read Walden and Ridpath’s history, but also works by humorist James Thurber and contemporary popular fiction. They were all outside his academic interests in plant geography and ecology.
In The Last Resort, are we seeing the last of an era that encouraged Renaissance men? Have we relegated all that Pud and my dad were to myth, and have we replaced their world view with one regulated by market considerations? Have Senator McCain, Admiral Stockdale, and my friend Kurt become quaint examples of an ethic that no longer holds sway?
I am distressed that not only have colleges and universities become training grounds for careers, but so, too, have high schools. I am distressed that many future business leaders, politicians, and academics have not been exposed to a liberal arts education and have, instead, become technocrats in their own professions. And I am most especially distressed that the understanding, empathy, and, dare I say it, behavioral standards acquired from embracing moral philosophy, literature, and the creative arts seem to have been lost to the dictates of economic empowerment.
Reading The Last Resort has inspired Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., to reflect on what it means to put words on paper and how meeting an esteemed poet in a neighborhood bar at age six awakened his poetic sensibilities.
I have been thinking about essays.
The etymology of essay—from the French verb essayer, meaning “to try”—incorporates the idea of experimenting with something, or attempting something new. Most essays delve into new ways of thinking about a subject, sometimes playing with a new narrative technique or voice. In the end, an essay is a thought experiment, an attempt to gain a greater understanding of oneself and one’s position in the world.
Dedicated readers of “Clearing the Fog” are well aware of the disparate voices that cascade through this blog. David Hoefer applies his analytical bent to subjects as diverse as Steinbeck, fishing, and Pud’s cars. Bob McWilliams, Roi-Ann Bettez, Joe Ford, and others lead us to consider “a portion of unexamined existence,” as James Agee described his subject in the preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I suspect they would all tell us that their responses to Pud’s writing, their observations, are simply personal mental calibrations elicited by the descriptions of life at The Last Resort.
Agee goes on to say that his compilation of his stories and Walker Evans’ photos depicting the lives of several families in rural Alabama during the Great Depression “is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.” Likewise, Goodlett incorporated maps and drawings and lists of flora and fauna in his camp journal for his own reference, but perhaps also to draw any future reader into the experience of life at the camp. In its published form, The Last Resort, too, “is a book only by necessity.”
I am currently rereading Charles D’Ambrosio’s phenomenal collection of essays, Loitering. One of D’Ambrosio’s essays—indeed, my favorite—is entitled “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.” It is a marvelous explication of Richard Hugo’s poem by the same name, and much like The Last Resort, it incorporates photography, notes, and the entire poem within its frame. It is Agee’s “effort in human actuality” in the best sense of that phrase, and it prompts me to relate a personal story.
I must have been six or seven years old. My father was a visiting professor at the University of Montana, and we lived in Missoula. I love to recall that I had a mountain as a backyard. In those days, there wasn’t much protest when an adult brought a child into a bar. My father, and many others at the university, was pulled into the orbit of a rural, working class bar just outside Missoula. After teaching and giving private music lessons all day, my father would round me up and head to the Milltown Union Bar for a beer and conversation.
There, late one afternoon, my father engaged a rather portly, balding man in intense conversation. I have no idea what they talked about. But after finishing his beer and getting us in the car, I apparently burst into tears. My father asked me what was the matter, and I could only respond that he had just spoken to the saddest looking man I had ever seen.
Years later, when he reminded me of that story, my father also let me know that the man to whom he was speaking was Richard Hugo, poet-in-residence at the university, and now one of the most highly regarded poets our country has produced. His poems “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg” and “The Milltown Union Bar” remind me of the portion of my youth spent in that region of graying, abandoned towns.
If I could tell this story correctly, if I could write this essay properly, you would see an empty glass of beer in front of you, and you would choke on the acrid cigarette smoke. A poet would be sitting next to you, spinning lines. And the actuality of that world would prompt you to reconsider your own.