Proofing the Typeset Proof

Things are now moving along quickly with my forthcoming book, Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life. Two weeks ago I received the “typeset proof.” It was simultaneously exciting and bizarre to see my name on the title page, on the copyright page. I shared those pages with some of classes, and as I told my Creative Writing students, “this could be you some day.” They brightened at the possibility.

The book is a time capsule, a record of my years spent working on the poems. All of my pieces of writing (published or unpublished) are time capsules. When I reread those capsules, I see myself at a different point in time, even if the work is fiction. The oldest poem in the book, “Calcutta to Canon Beach,” is an artifact from my first PhD workshop in October 2007.

These forty poems are a record of my attempts to bring together the spiritual with the pastoral, place-based elements typical of my poetry. I strove to mesh my two poetic impulses. These forty poems are also a record of my spiritual discipline from Lent 2014 when I drafted a poem a day. In fact, over half of the poems in the book were drafted in that time.

This week I’ll be reviewing the proof–checking for formatting, rereading the poems for pleasure’s sake. I’ll send back my finalized version well before the deadline of December 19, excited to see the next stages of the book development (especially the cover). And in the coming weeks and months leading up to the release, I’ll be sharing more about the book.

 

Title Page

 

Visiting Red Cloud

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the childhood hometown of Willa Cather. As I wrote about in an earlier post, she is one of my favorite writers. I had been dreaming about this day ever since we made plans to travel through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on our vacation to visit family in Minnesota.

The afternoon was full of the blue sky and puffy clouds that I associate with her novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia. While my wife and kids played at a nearby park, I toured the inside of her childhood home and visited the newly opened Willa Cather center. This was my first literary pilgrimage, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

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Exterior of house

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Official dedicatory plaque

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Dining room and Willa Cather’s highchair

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Her bedroom (with original wallpaper)

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One of Willa Cather’s writing desks

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The Importance of Staring

At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.

Raymond Carver

Over the last weekend in April, I was presenting at a conference in New York, a place I had never visited. Because I flew into JFK and my hotel was located on West 71st, I rode over an hour in a taxi. The afternoon was overcast, with the temperature in the low 60s. I sat in the backseat, a small sliding window open to the spring air.

I stared out the window, gaping, taking in the details of the city: the branches beginning to bud, the beautiful lavender of a tree that looked familiar but I couldn’t name (Eastern Rosebud), the proximity of the houses to one another.

It struck me that I, for many years, did the same thing growing up whenever my parents were driving, whether it was around town, to a nearby town, or to the Minneapolis suburbs.

I love to drive (and that love manifests itself in much of what I write), but I was always happy to ride anywhere, and when I’m the passenger, I don’t have to consider traffic around me. I can let me mind wander, take in the sights.

In school, I occasionally was corrected by the teacher for staring out the window. I can still hear my junior-high English teacher telling me, “Nate, stop staring out the window.” To be clear, I liked English, a lot. But there were trees outside, birds flying by. Maybe a passing car. All of those things interested me, too.

Even my friends would make fun of me as I stared, open mouthed at somebody, at something—studying, wondering, questioning. “Catchin’ flies?” they would ask, and then laugh. It didn’t bother me that much—I’m sure I looked foolish.

Staring—the ability to actively take in my surroundings, to be curious about them, to study them—has been fundamental training for me as a writer. It is a disposition that is probably partly innate and a habit of mind that I have developed. I am often content to watch and ponder my surroundings, whatever is taking place.

Perhaps there’s a building I’ve seen a hundred times before, but this time I notice the way some of the letters in the sign are more faded than others. Perhaps it’s a road I’ve driven many times before, but this time I’m struck by a stand of pines, and notice how they extend further back from the road than what I recall. And when I visit someplace new, as I did NYC last month, my senses are overloaded with details, and I am reminded of how I have never struggled with boredom.

 

State Parks & Summer

Growing up in Minnesota, I lived less than 15 miles from two state parks. As a child I visited those places to hike, to picnic, to camp, to swim, to take a school field trip. There was something special about those places. To be clear, I wasn’t much of a science kid (with the exception of astronomy and meteorology–those two branches of science that most excite me), but certain elements of the natural world drew me in: trees, lakes, birds. And I loved hiking on the trails in the enclosed spaces of the woods.

One of the marks of the shift from the Spring to Summer–besides the changing weather–was the ritual of purchasing the new annual park pass. My family would pull up to the ranger’s station, the bell would ding from the pneumatic hose, and out would step a ranger.  He or she would reach inside the passenger side window, pull out a razor blade and begin scraping off the previous year’s pass. Once that old pass was removed, and we paid our $20, there was the mystery over the new year’s featured park and image.

When I eventually began using a family car later in college, I too then participated in the ritual on my own, and by this time, the stickers had been redesigned so they were not as difficult to remove. It was in this period that I began visiting more state parks, starting to mark them off on my Minnesota map. Into my dating and married life, I continued the process of checking off more state parks.

Each year, for instance, Amy and I would camp at a state park at least once, the outing an inexpensive way to spend together away from home, complete with campfire, hot dogs, and marshmallows. When we helped friends move to Oregon, we camped at a state park in Montana on the return trip. When we later lived in Oregon for three years, we camped at various state parks, with one summer trip finding us making our way down the Oregon coast and then working our way toward Crater Lake. When we lived in South Dakota during my doctoral studies, we visited various state parks, taking advantage of the newly installed camping cabins.

Here in Texas now, we have visited a handful of state parks, and I’ve taken my son on a few overnight outings. But here, instead of that decal in the corner of the windshield, I have a plastic card in my wallet. Not quite as interesting, to be sure. I haven’t yet initiated the “formal” process of checking off the parks we’ve visited, but it is nearly April, and soon enough, my schedule will be more open, and I anticipate the fullness of that big gap between spring and fall semesters, with ample time to venture out, family in tow.

Writer Appreciation: Willa Cather

My first encounter with Willa Cather’s writing was in a dual-credit English class my senior year of high school. Our assignment was to read O Pioneers! and write a literary analysis paper, a type of writing with which I was mostly unfamiliar. I remember that I wrote about some religious symbolism, something that seemed very prominent to me at the time. I remember that it was a Dover Thrift Edition of the book, a book that I still have in my office at my university, to the right of My Antonia.

Much time passed, I completed my undergraduate studies (majoring in Literature/Creative Writing & Vocal Music Performance), and I continued to my MFA in Creative Writing program. During that ten-year span, I read only one other work by Cather: the short story “Paul’s Case.” However, during that period, I become much more interested in literature connected with place, and more specifically, literature set in the Midwest and the Great Plains.

Fast-forward to 2008 while I was enrolled in “Twentieth-Century American Novel” (my second semester in a PhD program), and I was assigned my second Cather novel: My Antonia. By this time, my creative writing (poetry and fiction) was set in my own fictional realms in the Upper Midwest, and when I read Cather this time, something was different. I was ready for it. (It probably helped that I was living in South Dakota as well.)

Of the novels we read that semester, all of which I enjoyed immensely, none left quite a powerful impression as did My Antonia. In her prose, I found an attention to rhythms of language, a lyricism that I was striving to develop in my own writing. What imagery. What mastery of the sentence. And the story, how it captivated me.

The book itself, and so much about her skill as a writer, amazed me such that I wrote my mid-term paper about the book. And when the opportunity came to teach two sections of a freshman-level Introduction to Literature, and I learned I was required to assign one novel in addition to the provided anthology, well, it was a quick (and easy) decision.

My students, overall, really enjoyed the book. I had been concerned that, due to its publication in 1917, my students would find My Antonia “too boring” or “too old-fashioned.” On the contrary, they took to it with an enthusiasm I could only have dreamed of.

Fast-forward to 2014 and I began reading The Professor’s House, an appropriate text for me. I moved through it quickly over a vacation back to Minnesota. Next was Death Comes for the Archbishop. On my Minnesota vacation in 2015, I read The Song of the Lark. And in the time since then, I read more of her novels, bringing me up to her 12th (and final) novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

Even as I am only a few chapters into the novel, there is a sadness in the background. I am reading the book with the knowledge that there are no more Cather novels to read. I will move on (after this book) to her short fiction, essays, and poetry. Then, perhaps, I will return to the novels.

But helping me deal with this sadness is the awareness that later this summer, on my way to Minnesota, my family and I will be making a detour to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather lived there several years as a child and teenager, and various historic sites are preserved, including her childhood home. In addition, there is a newly opened museum dedicated to her life and work.

It is the first such literary pilgrimage I will have made, and I am trying to avoid counting the days until I arrive. In the meantime, though, I will continue to savor her words, grateful for this writer who has taught me so much and given me so many hours of reading pleasure.

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“Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.” –Willa Cather–