Tuesday, May 11, 2004


On Sunday I taught my "Keeping a Writer's Journal" workshop for the third time, this time a three-hour session at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee.

All six participants were women. Three of the six were left-handed. When was the last time you were one of seven people in a room, four of whom were left-handed? (Well, actually, I write left-handed, shoot basketball left-handed, high-jump left-handed; I bat right-handed, throw a baseball right-handed, throw a football right-handed. I eat with both hands.) I suppose we can explain the left-handers by noting that creativity is usually a right-brain function, and left-handers are right-brained.

I don't know how to explain the fact that all the students were women. It is not the only time I've seen this phenomenon. Participants at the Creative Nonfiction Conference I attended in 1999, in Baltimore, were mostly women. I've delivered other seminars over the past couple years, to groups mostly of women. My sense is that there are more women than men in MFA writing programs around the country. And usually, in my experience, more women than men show up at poetry readings.

Either we are bringing up our sons to stay the hell away from writing as a vocation; or we are instilling in them the notion that they don't have to take instruction, they can learn what they want to know pretty much on their own.

In either case, I'm sad about the state of things: I'd like to see more men take up writing; and I'd liked to think that men are more tractable, more teachable than it appears we are.

Part of the reason the world's such a mess is that we so often won't let anybody tell us anything, we won't let them teach us very much. The result is oftentimes disastrous: consider the current administration's testosterone poisoning and the mess they've made of things. Does the world need any more people like Paul Wolfowitz? I don't think so: one is more than enough. Besides the immensity of its scale, how is the Bush Doctrine different than other kinds of bullying?



Well. I've done a hundred-thirty-two interviews without a single person saying they didn't want to be interviewed. Now I've called a fellow who was our dentist half a century ago, and he has declined, pleasantly.

"No, thank you, I don't think so," he said.

I asked again, another pitch, thrown-side arm.

"No, thank you, I don't think so."

So - that's one who has declined. The record is: 132 to 1. I'm saddened by the refusal, even though it didn't sound the least bit personal. My mission is not his mission. Not everyone wants to tell the family story, and not everyone will. The nagging thought that I might be missing something, that disheartens me a little.


I drove to Spencer, some twenty-five miles west of Emmetsburg, to Tuesdays Coffee and Books where I'll be signing books on Saturday. One of my books there is out of stock, they told me by e-mail last week, and that just won't do, to be out of stock.

When I walked in, Jessica, the manager, was on the telephone with a reporter at the Spencer paper, telling about me and my book signing. She'd just read into the telephone the number where I could be reached for an interview when I said: "or they could talk to me standing right here." Jessica looked up, a little surprised. "He's standing right here," she said into the phone.

What else do you do in a bookstore? I bought myself two books and a cup of coffee. As if I need two more books. I met Jeff, the owner and the fellow I had been in contact with via e-mail. I took my coffee and books, told them I'd see them on Saturday; they went on trying to deal with the internet connection problems they'd been encountering. Jeff was taking up the chase. Jessica said to him, "Tell them that the last time this happened their techie told me a line was out, even though that's not what the problem was. That didn't make me very happy."

This makes me think how often people tell a truth that is convenient rather than accurate; makes me think, in other words, of the current Republican administration in Washington. Watch Condelizza Rice's eyes when she's talking: every time her eyelids flutter, she's telling another lie; they flutter all the time. Bush's eyes don't flutter because he actually believes what he is saying, as unfortunate as that is - I mean, he thinks Rumsfield is doing a "superb job," for chrissakes. Cheney's eyes don't flutter much, because he is such a predatory reptile; there is no such thing as truth in the reptile's world, only the straight-ahead urgency to go after the fly on your nose, with no thought of consequences. Watch the rest of them, though; their eyes will show you their lies.


In the afternoon I stopped back at the Emmetsburg Welcome Center and Chamber of Commerce office. I had stopped in this morning, and bless her heart, Kathy Fank, the Chamber Director, has set up the tours I requested. Tomorrow morning I'll be at Horizons Unlimited/Creative Stitches, a sheltered workshop. Tomorrow afternoon I'll tour Sky Jack, a manufacturer who has been through hard times and is now starting to come back; they make high lifts. Sally Jordan's husband, Tom, was plant manager there until his untimely death. On Thursday I'll visit SNC, which makes transitors, and IEI, which makes countertops, some of them for Winnebago mobile homes.

Kathy also extended an invitation for me to attend the Chamber's annual banquet at the Emmetsburg Country Club tomorrow evening. I'll be a fish out of water there, I'm sure, but it will be a view of the community I have not had yet.

Later I stopped in to say "Hello" to Myram Tunnicliff and her husband. I had interviewed them on my visit to Emmetsburg last November, and had borrowed some historical materials I wanted to return.

What I got was I got myself invited to a meeting of the Emmetsburg Writers Club at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Members share their work with each other, Myram said, and perhaps I could share some of my work with them. It was asked as a tentative question because the Writers' Club doesn't have money to pay visiting writers, of course. I said I'd be happy to stop in and share my work. I'll need to be sure and finish my visit to IEI by 4:00 p.m.

I have also managed to get myself invited to the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Voyagers ethanol plant that is coming to Emmetsburg. The shindig will start up at the college with coffee and some talks, and then will proceed to the site of the plant, for turning the first shovel of dirt. Again, this is a view of the community I have not had before.



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, April 30, and May 10, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor argues that "the only recourse we have against the horror of mortality is art. Like the mediator of myth, the art text, in modeling wholeness, effects a reconciliation between the self and its most-feared other."

The middle westerner might argue that the only recourse we have against the horror of mortality is the church. Church steeples aspired skyward in every community almost as soon as the community was founded. In interviews with residents of my twelve middle western focus communities, I sense that we think of ourselves as a godly people. I'll venture that we believe religion is an effective recourse against mortality. Further, we think that art will not protect us. We don't have time for it. Indeed, art is the province of women and children, you might hear us say, and not a proper activity for a manly pioneer already busy enough in the hard-scrabble effort to get crops from the land. One must do something that moves us towards harvest, we think, and art doesn't do anything in that regard; it is only an ornament and a filigree in an otherwise hard life. Even today the farmers come into town wanting to cut the school budget to keep their property taxes down, and the first part of the curriculum they want to eliminate is art and music and such; the horror of our mortality, some might suggest, can be faced without any such nonsense.

The mimesis in Cynthia Scott's 1990 film, The Company of Strangers, says McGregor, "is not about inwardness (as it would be in the American version) but about between-ness.... One might, in fact, say that what Scott has created here is a tangible facsimile of the classical Green speech category known as the middle voice..., in which the action envelopes the agent and the agent remains immersed in the action." McGregor thinks Canadians "share with the Greeks a vision of the individual as, at least potentially, a pawn and sometimes casualty of a possibly inimical, at least impervious Fate.... The middle voice spoke not only for but also to the Greek sense of self. The same could be said about Strangers." McGregor suggests the Greek tragedies and the Canadian images alike "affirm the value of the social over the personal" and "reproduce the reconciliation of human and inhuman."

The modern, generic, white-bread American version might be about "inwardness," but I doubt that was the case when the middle west was being settled. Those pioneers had a confidence, yes, directed outward against the elements they struggled with continuously. I won't deny the individualism of those settlers, their self-reliance that bordered almost on psychotic, their immense stoicism. But they were not looking inward.

I think of the Hargrave farm journals I've read, from the early twentieth century, Ripon, Wisconsin. One day's entry was "Pat died." Pat was the work horse that had been mentioned often in the journals with obvious but unstated affection. The entry the next day was: "Skinned Pat." You don't go burying a hide like that, even if the horse was your friend. How this differs from "the action envelopes the agent and the agent remains immersed in the action" I don't know. In life's Great Grind, the middle western pioneer was, I think, as much of a pawn of Fate as any Canadian ever was.

It is not only Greek tragedy and Canadian images that "affirm the value of the social over the personal," it is also the middle western pioneer reality. I'll stand by my notion that - despite the rugged individualism of middle western settlers - the wilderness here was tamed by communities, not by individuals acting alone.

Perhaps the question is: are you going to relish the new and the strange and the wild, or are you going to barricade yourself from it. The middle western pioneers embraced the world they settled, they embraced it with an affectionate fatalism.



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Whoa - hold the phone - come to a screechin' halt," writes Ivan. "We got some thank-you-in' to be a do-in'. That tremendously talented but taciturn trio, Lyle Morgan, Tim Albert, and Jack Yenne have been working their buns bone-ward in getting the train that will be on display at Wagner Park in Smith Center ready for the dedication day. They have worked long and late after they have completed their day job to have the train ready. The trio needs no introduction. Lyle Morgan is the guy everybody asks when they really want to know something when the early morning group assembles at Paul's Cafe. Tim Albert has taken shade tree mechanic friendliness into 21st century high tech ability. Jack Yenne quietly, without flamboyance, can take you into the inner workings of John Deere products. Smith Center is thrice blessed to have this trio of local products who operate at the near genius level."

"Ludene the dancing machine and waitress at Paul's Cafe has a new hair-do," Ivan reports. "She said, and I quote, 'it stood up to an 85-mile-an-hour motorcycle ride.' I asked her if she shellacked it. She said, no just hair-spray. That must have been industrial strength hair spray."

"As of last Sunday night 1100 people had attended the movie The Passion of Christ," Ivan says. "Ticket-taker Mike Hughes reported that one family said it had been 35 years since they had been to a movie."

"It's funny how some things stick in your mind," Ivan writes. "Bette Lambert, who will be moving into the Mildred Gibson house in the near future, when she was a junior in high school gave a book report on Gone With the Wind. I remember that the book report was so interesting and she had done such a good job that I just had to read the book. I had one advantage over Bette. She read the entire Gone With the Wind by kerosene lamp in her upstairs bedroom. We had electricity at our house - one bulb that hung from the middle of the room."

"Ol Linton Lull showed up at the As the Bladder Fills Club on Friday morning," Ivan says. "Linton looked good after a winter spent in the Valley of the Sun. There was a lot of things happened in Smith Center while Linton was gone. So many things that it took us a better part of ten minutes to bring Linton up to speed on all that he had missed, all that had happened in Smith Center while he was enjoying the winter."

"We have had about three RV people here this spring getting some work done on their RVs," Ivan indicates. "I have noticed this about RV people - they are pleasant people to visit with. In all cases either the husband or the wife or in most cases both are enjoyable to drink coffee with. Now you don't get that kind of average among the permanent residents."

"There was a guy here from the Chicago Tribune one day a week or so ago," Ivan writes. "He asked me who I thought the people would vote for in the upcoming election. I told him that we don't vote for somebody here - we vote against people. All the voting ever done in Smith Center is a vote against somebody that you don't like. Don't make any difference about his/her qualifications - If you don't like him/her, you vote against him/her. Smith County is predominantly Republican. Back in 1932 Roosevelt carried every place but Maine, Vermont, and Smith County, Kansas."


MAY 4, 1998

I drove to Iowa over the weekend via backroads, passing through small farming communities in both Wisconsin and Iowa. They called out to me, they said "Tell my stories...." There would be a lot of stories to tell, I'm sure; they would be stories of family, of hardship, of endurance.

Looking at Iowa, I get the sense the land is reclaiming itself. A lot of farm houses abandoned already, or near abandonment. A lot of fences have been torn down. A ragged roll to the land as if it is healing itself, as if it is coiling to expel these European invaders, these white men. Well - actually - I'm sure it's too late for that.

Dew sparkles in the morning light. A pair of sparrows mate in the street. A bright sun. The village enjoys its quiet morning.

White siding is going up on that house on Highway 44 downtown. In places, the original clapboard has been revealed and shows itself still. It will soon disappear.

The hawk is in its tree; all is right with the world.

Farmers have been busy over the weekend. More fields have been tilled. Some fields have been planted. Good black dirt.

Yellow-headed dandelions in the ditches, in a couple of fields. They are shouting orders. You put them under a girl's chin - if the skin of her throat reflects the yellow, she will marry a farmer.

Oh, if life were so simple. If we could be sure they'd stay married.


MAY 5, 1998
Man is a territorial animal. Is that because he is greedy, or is it for legitimate reasons of survival. We in the United States have taken line and section and town to a high art. Surveying is a quintessential human skill, to mark what's mine from what's yours.

What's yours this morning is a wet, grey day, wet streets. I would have sunshine.

Yesterday I failed to note that the tulip had opened. I had not noticed it. Even when you say you shall watch the world around you, you don't. Tom, you sometimes go off half ready, lacking the mindfulness you'd require of others. Pay attention or shut up.

Stillness. Perhaps that is what I love about village life. The quiet pond. Real birds. An empty street. Lazy days. We live, we love, we die. Life goes on - no one gets very excited. Peace is found in accepting the cycle of things. Stress comes when we try to hi-jack or short-circuit things out of the normal order of life. The happy man is the patient man.

It is something of a dark day in the country. The hawk is in its tree. The small orchard at the farmstead just north of Carter Road is in blossom. An explosion of white. White on the trees like snow on pines in a Christmas card.

The large, wet area along Highway E where we'd seen the gulls is now nearly devoid of water, despite last night's rain. It is not yet ready to farm, but soon. Soon.

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