Monday, August 30, 2004


On Thursday of last week I spent a fair part of the day visiting with Karl Elder, Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and Poet in Residence at Lakeland College, getting a tour of the campus, meeting the school's president and the vice-president of academic affairs, seeing the room I'll be teaching in this fall, Room 26 in Old Main. Karl is the fellow who put my name out as the one to teach Writing Creative Nonfiction this fall for Lakeland's writing department. Karl and I had corresponded twenty-five or thirty years ago when I was publishing Margins: A Review of Little Magazines & Small Press Books, and sporadically since then - most recently when I accepted a poem of his this summer for this past Saturday's "Saturday's Poem" feature. Karl took me out to lunch as part of my visit, too - thanks, Karl! We had twenty five or thirty years of news to catch up on, so neither of us was in any particular hurry to move along.

At every turn on campus I felt warmly welcomed, whether I was at the Library finding out how to put materials on reserve for my students or was in one office getting the roster of fourteen students I'll be teaching or in another office getting the Faculty/Staff Parking Permit I'll need. Without fail the people I met said "glad to have you aboard." They said it warmly, they meant it, and I felt welcomed.

I have to tell you, too, it takes an Iowa farm boy's breath away to see his name on the ol' course list: Montag, T. WRT 304 Writing Creative Nonfiction. M-W-F 1:25 p.m. 3 cr.

As you might imagine, for the past several weeks I have been hard at work preparing my lessons for the course. At the moment I'm ready with seventeen of them, out of forty. I have divided the semester into four main areas of study: (1) Writing about self/Memoir; (2) Writing about others/Profile; (3) Writing about place; and (4) Writing about process, event, or day-in-the-life. In addition, I will be discussing a range of topics, tools, and techniques that support the writing of good creative nonfiction: keeping a writer's journal; "learning to see;" story shapes/frame; central metaphor or image or theme or arc; endings; beginnings; people/places/scenes; interviewing; dialogue; overheard conversation; characterization; place as setting; telling in scenes; imagery; time; transitions; description; point of view; voice; language; mood; memory; imaginative research; humor; and revision. I wake up every morning wondering what I have left out. If you see anything that's missing from my list, let me know. We'll shoe-horn it in somehow. As I say, I've got seventeen lessons prepared, but already I feel like I have six weeks more material than I have time available.

I'll be teaching a course in how "to write" creative nonfiction, yes; but more than that I hope to teach the students how "to read" creative nonfiction, so they can see exactly how it has been constructed, which tools and techniques have been employed, how the seams have been soldered. If I can succeed in teaching them to read in this way, I think I will have taught them how to teach themselves. And that's always what the best teachers teach, isn't it - don't they teach you how to teach yourself?

As I told Karl on Thursday, the students will have to work hard in the course - very hard, I expect.

Yet I envy them, the fourteen students who will be circling around me at that first class on Wednesday, September 8. They will have an enthusiastic and supportive teacher, one who wishes that, when he was in college many long years ago, someone would have shown him exactly what I'll be showing them. That wouldn't have made me a "writer," necessarily; but the guidance sure would have made learning to write a lot easier in the long run.


June 16, 2004 - continued

I have been visiting LTM Manufacturing, four miles south of Smith Center; LTM makes components for the RV (Recreational Vehicle) market. I have been speaking with Todd Haven who manages Operations at the company. LTM was founded and developed by Mike Nebel, formerly president of Excel/Peterson Industries, but it has since been sold to Lippert Industries.

Even with the Lippert affiliation, Todd indicates, each plant is still responsible for its own sales. "Corporate takes care of mass advertising, but we're in charge of our own area. When they bought us, we already had a large customer-base in Indiana, which we kept."

Todd projects that "we're going to be more of an assembly place." The parent company "talks numbers," and things don't feel as "personal" as they used to. "We started out catering to the small guys," Todd says, "and Lippert is interested in the big orders. We still try to take care of the small customer. If you cater just to the big ones, you allow someone else to get started taking care of the small customers."

LTM's founder, Mike Nebel, is the company's salesman. Nebel is also in charge of research and development and new products. Part of what Lippert bought when they bought LTM was some of Nebel's patents.

"The people out in the shop have been here four or five years," Todd says of the workforce. "They know what has to be done. They don't have to be governed a lot. When we write up the order, we write up the invoice for pricing, the packing slip for shipping the finished product, and the workorder showing what needs to be done. Employees know what parts need to be made, what needs to be assembled. They shear it, punch it, bend it, paint it, assemble it, send it to shipping."

A typical workload in the plant?

"This week twelve orders are due on Friday," Todd says. "Thursday and Friday are our busiest days. Monday has three orders. We'll usually have ten to twenty orders shipping each day Tuesday through Thursday."

We have one woman who does our billing and backorders," Todd says. "She works three days a week. And we have one woman who does payroll, material purchase orders, and secretarial work. Everybody else is manufacturing."

Todd's main responsibility is plant operations but he also helps with plant management and handles purchasing, pricing, bill of materials, and "I take care of problems. It all kind of runs together. I even take calls for parts orders and warranty problems in the field."

Todd spent most of his childhood at Cedar, Kansas, about ten miles southwest of Smith Center. "I moved away from there when I went to college," he says, "and worked for UPS sorting packages after midnight while I was in school, and later worked as a driver for them. Mike convinced me to come to Smith Center when he was president of Peterson Industries [Excel]. When he sold his interested in Peterson, we moved out here and gave it our own shot."

"We're about as big as we're going to get," Todd thinks. The 24,000 square foot facility is bounded on all sides - by the golf course, the highway, the creek, so there is "no room to grow."

"We had forty-eight employees at one point, when we built everything from scratch," Todd says, compared to the thirty-eight employees currently. "Lippert wants to see more outsourcing. We reduced our workforce by attrition, not by pushing anybody out. Mike likes to see jobs created."

Todd describes the company's founder as "a very giving person. He gave production bonuses. We still have them, but not like they used to be. And when he sold the company, for Christmas he gave all the employees a bonus from himself personally, not from Lippert, as a thank-you for helping him build the company."

To be continued....


AUGUST 28, 1998

Rainy last evening. A cool, gray morning - late light and sluggish birds.

Sometimes, when I'm passing through some town while traveling, I almost think they create the particular experience for me - the slap of water against the boats tied up at the pier, the discussion by two locals in the ice cream shop about Mrs. Mahler's trip to the hospital, the unbearable politeness of the youngsters in the grocery store. Then I realize that this is no "experience" for them, this is their life.

At that, I wonder what people see as they come through this village. What sense of us do they take away with them? Did they have a tourist experience of us?

Sometimes I think I'm having a tourist's experience of life. I stand back a lot, and watch from a distance, don't I? I look at everything I do and everything done to me as a potential sentence, line, paragraph. It is the physicist's quandary - how do you watch without changing what you watch, record it without shaping it to something else? How do you watch it without being changed by it and changing it accordingly?

A kind of musk in the morning air that would make pioneers say this area is not healthy and we should be moving on - heavy, moist, vegetable, end-of-summer decay. That kind of air, this morning.

Some villager somewhere is out working in front of his garage, tinkering with something as he usually is. You should not wish to tell another's secret, but you believe he is outside to get away from a nagging wife. He is an old man and has no intention of divorcing the woman. His accommodation is to get away whenever possible. He tinkers and does odd jobs.

As I head north on Highway E, there is moisture spattering the windshield - that's how thick the air is. The farmsteads in the distance disappear into a gray roll of sky. It's not fog exactly, it is air so thick it obscures the vision.

There are fields of corn - they must be field corn - starting to turn. Another field of sweet corn has been taken; rough litter is all that's left.

North of Five Corners, sitting on a telephone wire, a pair of mourning doves look wet and unhappy, quiet as the hidden sun.

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