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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What I’ve Read This Summer

In the two months since I’ve turned in spring grades, I have written a lot, but I’ve also been reading a lot. Here’s what I’ve read so far:

H. Porter Abbott: Real Mysteries

This is the one “scholarly” book on the list, a work in the branch of literary criticism known as narratology. Abbott explores how the idea of the “unknown” works in narratives, creating drama and developing characters, among other effects.

Saint Augustine: The Confessions

When I finished rereading this, I thought, why read another “Christian” book? There’s so much insight and depth of thought. It’s exquisitely written. There’s so much for the reader to chew on. You read a paragraph, and you’re pondering the big questions along with Augustine.

T.C. Boyle: Stories II

This 900-page tome has close to 60 of his short stories, and I found them to be just as good as those in Stories, which I read several summers ago. Few contemporary short-fiction writers are as good as he is. Each story is its own world.

Willa Cather: Collected Stories

This was the next step after I finished her twelve novels. Just as in the novels, her prose is a pleasure to read, and she has a fine eye for details. In a month’s time I will be visiting   Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent much of her childhood.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

This book, along with the last book (the only other novel on the list), was difficult to put down. The lack of chapters certainly helped compel me forward, but more than that was the scenario that Eggers imagines that is eerily prescient, which is especially surprising because the book was published in 2013.

Jim Gaffigan: Dad is Fat

I’ve watched (and listened to) his comedy specials many times, and this book was a great listen because it was read by Gaffigan. His delivery is as good as in the specials. So funny.

Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir

While reading this book, I underlined so many sentences. I was already a fan of her work (having read her first two memoirs), and I found the book to be immensely helpful as I continue with my own book-length memoir.

Sylvia Plath: Ariel

Before I read this influential poetry collection, I’d only read a handful of Plath’s poems (and taught some as well). This volume shows such skill, and it wasn’t as dark as I expected it would be.

Richard Ford: Between Them

Every time a new Ford book is released I feel much anticipation. This book, however, is his first extended work of memoir, with the book divided into two sections, each half about one of his parents. Ford is an only child, as I am, and so it was interesting to read about his relationship with each of his parents.

Suzanne M. Wolfe: The Confessions of X

I’m not a particular fan of historical fiction, not that I hold anything against it. I just rarely read any. But this book–wow! Reading this book while also rereading The Confessions was a wonderful experience. I found the depiction of Augustine’s concubine (who is the main character and narrator) to be very authentic and moving. Highly recommended.

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–

The Rhythms of Reading and Writing

I’ve commented here before about how I tend to write in the genres I am currently teaching. Although I’ve written for a long time, I’m still discovering things about my writing process, as well as about my writing and reading rhythms. Over the last weeks, I’ve been thinking and analyzing. What trends and tendencies are there? How might I make better use of my time, to write smarter, to read smarter?

One conclusion, after doing some close study, is that when I’m tired, fatigued, or experiencing difficulty concentrating, it’s much easier to write prose. Trying to write poetry, whether drafting or revising, is near impossible and most often futile at these times. I believe part of this is because I’m thinking less precisely on each word, as I tend to do in poetry. (Of course at the later stages of a prose piece, I am scrutinizing each word, but not so much in earlier drafts.)

For instance, a few autumn’s ago, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. each weekday morning to write, more specifically to write short fiction. With the music of Hammock in my ears, with the large mug of hot black coffee, I was ready to enter those fictional worlds. I could pick up where I left off the day before as I gradually awoke to the real and the made-up worlds.

With reading prose–whether novels, short stories, or creative nonfiction–I am also able to enter into the worlds without much difficulty. There’s no warm-up necessary. I resume the novel, the memoir, or start the next short story with relative ease.  Again, this characteristic is a likely result of the way I read poetry, with such close attention.

I suppose it sounds as though I am a “sloppy” prose reader, and when I’m tired, perhaps that’s true. With prose, however, I do focus on the individual sentence, reading just as much for how the writer uses language.

These conclusions are already helping me as both a reader and writer. Poetry is best when I most alert, most awake, which generally means the mornings. I want and need to interact with the poem in as coherent a state as possible. Prose is for any time.

When I have the desire to write but the flesh is weak, I know I can stumble my way through the sentences, wandering through the rooms of paragraphs, not concerned about the hallways, knowing that I can (and will) return when I am alert to renovate the house of prose into a coherent design.