Thursday, June 10, 2004


I got home about 1:00 a.m. last night after a three and a half hour drive home from Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, at the far tip of Door County. Norb Blei had invited me to speak to the writing students in the sessions he is delivering at The Clearing. The Clearing is a marvelous place; if landscape can be magical, The Clearing is.

When I arrived, I had a glass of wine with a few folks gathered in Norb's room; we had supper in the common dining room - soup and a pita bread sandwich, home-made chips, bread pudding to die for, with cherry "raisins" baked on top.

Then more than thirty of us adjourned to "the Schoolhouse" where I talked longer than I was supposed to about "writing's rituals," those habits we need to get our work done. I suppose it sounded more like preaching than I wanted it to. I talked to them about:

o Understanding and harnessing one's obsessions. It is out of our obsessions, I think, that our best, most passionate writing will come.

o Having no expectations. As soon as we think we know what we'll find, invariably we exclude other wonderful and serendipitous possibilities.

o Writing
without purpose as well as writing with purpose. Unless one has a wonderful editor, it has been my experience, he or she seldom finds the breakthrough astonishments when writing "on assignment."

o Likewise, keeping journals in addition to working on projects. When it comes to journals, I am a true believer. Much of my published worked was orignally drafted in journal form. I think we can be our freest, truest, most authentic selves in our journals; we can write in them without pressure. There's no blank-page-writer's-block when writing in a journal; the journal is already underway, sailing of its own momementum. I told them to keep daybooks and project journals, dream journals, nature journals, walk journals, "wake up in the middle of the night" journals - however many they need of whatever kinds they wish. I told them to take their notesbooks with them always and everywhere - often we don't get a second chance. Admittedly, when I spoke about the "Morning Drive Journal" I kept for nearly five years each day on my way to work, one of the women quoted me the relevant Wisconsin traffic statute; I said I thought I could honestly testify that "I didn't drive while I was writing." Heh, heh, heh.

o Blogging. Putting up a blog, I said, is a kind of promise you make to your readers that you will stay at your work; that everyday you will show some of it to the world. Making that promise really can energize one to get work done. Writing is a loneliness task; keeping a blog also offers the possibility of community. But I warned, too, that we must stay focused on what our real work is; you already know, don't you, that you could spend way too much time blogging and reading other people's blogs, at the expense of your real work. Well, you could....

o Putting oneself in the situation where work is necessarily
squeezed out. "Do what the airlines do," I advised. "Overbook. Set yourself up so it's always end of the semester and you have to get your work done to graduate." I know that if I don't write while I'm out making Vagabond visits to my focus communities, I will come away empty, I will come back with nothing, and eventually - unless I record them at once - all the communities I visit, all the people I talk to, all the experiences I have will become a grey, undifferentiated mass. I know I have to come back with seventy-five or a hundred pages of journal entry. If I'm to have anything in the end, I know that my writing hand must be cramped and swollen from the task of keeping up with my notes.

There were some wonderful writers among the students, some of them already better writers than I am, some of them working at getting better than I am. They had wonderful questions; I'm still thinking about some of the questions, still revising some of the answers I gave. And, folks, they bought books! One woman alone wrote out a check for $58 worth of my books. A fellow joked afterwards that I should have writer's cramp what with all the books I had to sign. It hurts so good when you have to sign that many books.

It hurt so good all the way home, in the dark, in the rain. It hurts so good, even this morning, remembering the reading and the wonderful treatment. Thanks, folks, I want to tell them. You know how to treat a writer. Thanks, Norb.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the fifth part of my report of the trip. Here I am in the middle of South Dakota, having just entered Faulk County from the north.

These are such great long stretches. Your mind drifts. You could be headed into outer space. You'd have just the same isolation to occupy your mind.

Then: Seneca. "Watch your children," the sign instructs us. The grain elevator in Seneca is adding a building. There's not much else happening in town.

I turn east on Highway 212 to get back to Highway 47 headed south. Following Highway 212 to the east, eventually I'd come to Redfield, some fifty-three miles distant.

Headed south on Highway 47, I find soybeans on my left, range-land on my right. I am running the edge of the middle west.

Another farmstead gone to ruin; and with it, every piece of farm equipment and every vehicle the family ever owned. "Back at it, Tom," the wind says.

Round bales have been stacked into tidy pyramids in the fields. A line of windbreak. A decrepit grove where another farmstead is gone, only the barn remains, painted red. The color of hope or of the setting sun?

The land could smirk at me if it wanted: it rolls so far, it is so large; I am so small.

A deer dead along the road. The great wheel turns.

I wonder what a semi would be doing out on this lonely road, then I recognize it as a stock truck. It is here to haul some cattle.

Hyde County. Rocky exposures in the hillsides again, a hump of gravel, the occasional rock pile. Fields with grazing Angus.

What looks like a tree nursery in the middle of nowhere runs alongside the road. Three young hen pheasants on the roadway make me brake suddenly and almost come to a full stop.

The edge defines the center, I think. Rugby is everywhere middle western. Redfield is. This strip I'm seeing along the western edge of the middle west, this is what we all are.

Looking out across this land, I wonder how anyone can believe the earth is round - it's flat; it is quite obviously flat. I've been traveling all day and have not yet rolled over the curve of it.

Another dead deer.

Another dry slough.

Another farmstead gone. The empty house stares at nothing and nothing stares back.

The great wheel turns.

Corn and soybeans and grass and corn.

And here's a cop coming down the road at me - State Patrol, I think. He winks a finger in greeting. The fellow behind him doesn't dare pass. It's 3:20 p.m.

I don't know why: the sky is spitting rain at me again.

There is a Minnesota license plate on a van I meet. This isn't Minnesota, it isn't Iowa. And yet in a strange way, it is every middle western state, every middle western state of mind.

Just north of Highmore, South Dakota, I meet a school bus, its brightness an exclamation. Old threshing machines along the fence-line, three of them, for contrast.

Highmore is surviving; maybe it is doing better than surviving. You can't make a U-turn on Highway 47 as you pass through town. That's something. And the businesses seem to be thriving. There is no empty space where a vowel might have fallen out of the sign for VCLEK SUPERMARKET.

A few miles to the south of Highmore: rows of dead windbreak, dry sloughs. The land has gotten rougher. A big line of power-generating wind-mills to harvest that South Dakota wind. None of the wind-mills is spinning, not one of the twenty-five. Okay, one of them is moving, barely.

Another empty farmhouse and the abandoned barn - they look blindly to the past, not to any possible future.

A tower of rainfall ahead of me again. The sun shines on it brightly; the sheen of it is almost like a rainbow. From this distance, the tower of rain is about the width of my thumb held up at arm's length; it is but a small smudge on the wide sweep of the southern horizon; I suppose I will end up driving under it nonetheless.

Sign: "Crow Creek Reservation High School -->."

A farmer is chopping corn into a silage wagon. The corn looks too brown and dry to be any good for silage, but perhaps he has no choice.

A mess of transmission lines now; they all want to point in different directions. We are not far from the Missouri River. I am entering Buffalo County.

The spreads are calling themselves "ranches" along here now. I haven't seen much besides hayfields and pasture and several horses for some miles.

Here, a power substation. I suppose I'm looking across the Missouri ahead of me, I just can't see the water; I see the ridge on the other side.

A lonesome farm house on a hilltop sheds its tarred siding. Wind blows through its windows. Where would you go from here?

Fort Thompson. The Lewis and Clark Trail. Welcome to the Lode Star Casino. Fort Thompson is almost exactly due west of Fairwater, Wisconsin.

I pass Lake Sharp and cross the Missouri. There is no sign that says "Missouri River," but what else would it be?

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