Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Plainsong

[gary daily col. 4 Feb. 17, 2002]

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." -- Mark Twain


Part of the lore surrounding J. K. Rowling’s mammoth success with the Harry Potter books includes the circumstances she was in when she wrote the first volume in the series. It wasn’t quite something out of Dickens, but it comes close for the late twentieth century. A single mum on the dole (remember, we’re in Great Britain), Rowling would keep regular hours writing in the back booth of a chilly teashop. You imagine a day-old half-price scone quickly consumed and a pot of tea nursed until it grows tepid. From this unlikely launching pad, Rowling was beamed up into the publishing equivalent of the outer stratosphere. Many an author would like to know just what they put in her tea when she was asked, “One lump, or two?”

It turns out that Rowling was well prepared to take advantage of her teashop time. She was educated and well read, two desirable though only rarely linked qualities. For many writers today, the education--degrees, workshops, and retreats--is a given; as for just what fledgling writers are reading, or what they have read, let’s not go there. And this is probably why so many wannabe novelists have a tendency to lock in on the tools and techniques of writers they admire. Tools and techniques are tangible and, to a degree, reproducible. Reading is judged time consuming and seems to offer so little, in the business jargon of the day, in the way of time/product return.

Jane Hamilton, twice an Oprah author and a great writer by anyone’s fair accounting, spoke at Indiana State University last year as a part of that school’s Summer Reading Program and University Speaker’s Series. In her funny and brilliant address, she mentioned that each summer she re-reads George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or as her neighbor referred to it, “that big fat book.” I don’t remember Hamilton being asked any questions related to this bit of information. The questions you are certain to hear at author events follow these lines: fountain versus ballpoint pen; Word versus WordPerfect software; morning versus night schedules; bourbon versus gin.

In all fairness, this focus on paraphernalia and habits is understandable. Think about how devilishly hard it is to write quality fiction. Or try it. Does it sound interesting and alive to anyone other than your mother, your lover, or yourself? Imagine extending that effort over 200 to 500 manuscript pages. Little wonder that writing hopefuls and awed readers start wondering just what kind of magic amulets successful writers bedeck themselves with before facing the Antarctica of the blank page.

Kent Haruf, the author of Plainsong, one of The Big Three books everyone in Vigo County is reading and voting on, wrote a short piece for the New York Times a year back that provides a nice guide to what he calls his “totemics.” While writing “Plainsong” his workspace was a converted coal bin in the basement of a southern Illinois bungalow. A survey of his desk top would turn up, among other things: a bird’s nest, blue bandana, red sand in a plastic bag from the stage of the new Globe theater in London and some dirt from Rowan Oaks, William Faulkner’s home at Oxford, Mississippi. And the key tools of the trade turn out to be a wide-carriage manual Royal typewriter and a sheaf of office salvaged paper, yellow in color and “pulpy” in texture.

But Kent Haruf is not ready to report for work until he adds one last touch. When he sits down at the center of this scene to write a first draft, he proceeds to pull on a stocking cap. He pulls it way on--it covers his eyes. Can’t see a thing and that’s the way he wants it. “I write,” Haruf says, “ first drafts blindly. . . .It’s the old notion of blinding yourself so you can see.” The pedigree supporting this approach ranges from Tiresias in ancient Greece to “The Boss” of Asbury Park--seers, saints and artists have all been blinded by the light.

In a sense, when you read a wonderful novel such as Haruf’s Plainsong, you may also be struck “blind.” Entering into Haruf’s imagined world of Holt County, Colorado, readers may see with a depth and acuity often missing in the scramble of half-perceived and experienced lives. It’s not so much the author lifting scales from eyes as it is readers fully opening their mind’s eye to nuanced meanings and feelings. So deep and centered is this gaze that we speak of becoming “lost” in the pages of a book—in a commercial free blink, one or more hours dissolve.

And that’s only one of the reasons we praise artists of the written word like Kent Haruf. And why we are so curious about his “totemics.” Great writers blind us with sight and we yearn to know how they did it.

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