Sunday, March 14, 2004


See Dave's Via Negativa essay of March 11, 2004, "In the Evening News."



Okay, I'm convinced. Blogging has the potential to alter fundamentally the way we see the world.

Yes, the blog is an "on-line journal." Yes, sometimes it might seem like too much navel-gazing. Yes, it creates a sense of community among those souls who connect.

It also allows us to communicate in ways that simply haven't been possible in the past. If you read the letters that a pioneer to Wisconsin in the 1850s sent back to his sweetheart in Vermont, you recognize that a full exchange of letters required about a month, even if you wrote out a response right at the post office and got it in the mail at once.

How long would it take a conventional magazine to put together a series entitled "The Archeology of Childhood: Injury," how long to put it together and to publish it, from conception to printed page? Go over to commonbeauty and see what is being done there: the project was conceived this past week, the "letters" started appearing the next day, we are in Day 5 of the seven days the experiment will take, and the writing is fully as good as or better than that in most of the magazines I read. What is remarkable is not only how quickly the series was created, but the interplay between the pieces, the conversation among writers that is taking place, something that would be more difficult to do in conventional publishing. Go also to my "Recommended Post of the Week" and see that we can get a report on the migration of the tundra swans the very moment they pass overhead, we get a report on their appearance and, more, what their appearance means to the human heart.

Do I sound like a farm boy on his first elevator ride to the top of the Sears Tower? So be it.

For twenty-four years I worked for a printer. In the last years of my service to the company we spent time in managers' meetings discussing "what impact the Internet will have on printing." We didn't see the blogging phenomenon, and we didn't see its possibilities. We didn't see that a really good idea for a series of essays, for that is what the "letters" at commonbeauty are, little essays around a theme, could be conceived and executed in a single week this way. Magazines simply can't execute with that speed and impact. The only thing the magazines have over blogging, I think, is a bunch of really good editors. Oh, and perhaps a wider circulation.

What does this all mean? I guess it means I'm standing here with my mouth open, amazed, trying to figure out what it all means.

Which, admittedly, is not an uncommon pose for me.



by Mari Sandoz
University of Nebraska Press (1970)

It is always a joy to find a book you didn't know about by an author you love. Such was the case when I pulled Sandhill Sundays and Other Recollections off the shelf in a used book store in Alexandria, MN, last spring. More Mari Sandoz, only $8, hardcover.

I have admired Mari Sandoz so much, but hadn't ever enumerated for myself what I appreciate about her work. Now Sandhill Sundays is an opportunity for me to think such thoughts. What do I admire?

Mari Sandoz can tell a story. It might be a big one, such as her father's, told in Old Jules. It might be the smaller stories in Sandhill Sundays, true stories of real lives. Sandoz has not tried to disguise life as fiction, as so many writers want to. Do they do this out of fear that real life isn't as interesting as imagination? I ap-preciate that Sandoz makes real blood pulse and sing.

What does Sandoz do that the rest of us can learn from? She allows the facts of those Sandhill lives to take the shape of story. In her telling, something changes; it is not a static picture she draws. With but a few bold strokes, she can re-create the people she knew. We can see them in front of us, we can tell how the lack of rain in those hills has strained them. She has a good ear recalling their conversations; we are in the corner with her, eavesdropping. She lays in the judicious details of setting and situation and we always know where we are. She is selective about what she includes, still it's hard to detect what might be left out.

Of course Sandoz was writing history: very consciously in some cases; not so consciously in others. With Cheyenne Autumn, she clearly set out to do history, didn't she? By contrast, the recollections in Sandhill Sundays come out of that cusp between personal experience and historical event; and I like that Mari Sandoz helps me to recognize again and again: writers have a place in that strange margin. Every day we get up; history unfolds around us: someone ought to be paying attention to the small details of it.

I like that Sandoz locates herself somewhere between the grassy rootedness the native feels and the surface shine the tourist takes away. She was born to the Sandhills, she belongs to them; yet she was able to step back and lay out what she saw – the beauty of it, and the warts. That's a challenge - to belong, so that you know the place, yet to let go so you can write of it. I face that challenge every day and Sandoz shows me how to handle it.

I like to say: I want to write so that a thousand years from now any visitor from another planet can read me and know who we were. That's how Mari Sandoz wrote.

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