The Making of a Writer
Kent and grandson, Henry, 2011
I was born in the steel mill town of Pueblo, Colorado, in the war year of 1943, and I was born with a cleft lip. It was sewed up, and more than that, my parents didn’t know what to do, how I should be taken care of, what should be done with me. There was no money – my father was a Methodist preacher – and after a day or two it was decided to send me to Children’s Hospital in Denver where I stayed for about a month. Money was collected from churches in Colorado to help pay for the expenses. During the war, gasoline was rationed, even if my parents could have afforded to buy gas, so my mother came to see me by train, the two times she could come. At the hospital I was fed out of a paper cup since I couldn’t drink from a bottle, and that’s how I was fed when I was taken home. Sometime later the surgeon was supposed to do more work on my lip and nose, but he died in a plane crash and my parents took that as a sign of God’s will, and so nothing more was done.
In the summer of 1943, my family moved out onto the high plains of eastern Colorado and that was where I grew up. For twelve years we lived in three little towns out there. And of course it was those towns and that landscape and the culture of that specific place which has had so much influence on me and my writing. During that period of my life out on the high plains, I was more or less a happy kid, I think, and I survived childhood with only a few hard lessons that I still remember. One was: don’t you be a show-off, and I have tried to abide by that injunction ever since, with all its contradictions and complications.
So: I was more or less a happy kid – until about the age of twelve. Then the scar on my lip and my flattened nose became matters of embarrassment and humiliation for me, and matters that set me apart from people around me – I can still remember certain moments that make me want to cringe and squirm even now – and from that time on until I was almost thirty my impulse was to hide my face behind my hand whenever I was out in public. I learned to live completely inwardly in those years. I wouldn’t show anyone anything of myself. I never told anyone anything. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. If you had told me when I was fourteen or when I was twenty-two that some day I would come to regard my cleft lip as a gift, I would have said you were a fool and completely and utterly crazy. But, the truth is, I have come to think so now, to think that perhaps those years of unhappiness and isolation and living inwardly to myself have helped me to be more aware of others and to pay closer attention to what others around me are feeling. Which are good things if you are trying to learn how to write fiction about characters you care about and love. When I was about twenty-nine I had a little surgery done on my face, which really didn’t fix much physically, but the surgery turned out to be a kind of mental and spiritual internal corrective, and I’ve rarely given my face any thought since then. Of course for these last forty years, I’ve covered up my lip with a moustache.
After I finished high school I went off to college, and I went away from home gladly, but really knowing nothing. I was as ignorant and green as any eighteen-year-old kid can be. But during my college years things began to change for the better. I entered college thinking I wanted to be a biology teacher, but once I took American literature classes, and once I began to read Faulkner and Hemingway, my life and my intentions were changed forever – I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading great writing and thinking about it. I was just shocked by what Faulkner and Hemingway could do on the page – it was as if the words they wrote were raised up off the page, as if there were a kind of shimmering aura about them, as if the stories were holy, and sacred, the most important matters in the world to know about – and I’ve never gotten over that feeling, and I don’t want to. In college I was lucky to have the kind of English teachers that I needed. They were not really scholars, but men and women who were passionate about literature, and what they insisted on was the passionate appreciation of the story or the poem itself, and not some theory about it. All this was a great discovery for me – just what I needed and it came at a time when I was ready for such a discovery. You have to be available and open to such moments, I think, and I was. And of course the story or poem is what I still need today, every day.
After college I lived in a village in Turkey for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and taught English to middle-school kids who didn’t need it and would probably never meet another English speaker in their lives. But the Turks were very kind to me and in many ways were like the religious and conservative people I’d grown up with out on the high plains of Colorado. It was in this time while I was living alone in a foreign country that I began to try to write stories myself. The stories were awful little things: imitative and reductive and sentimental. But that was my beginning. Toward the end of my time in Turkey, I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But I wasn’t accepted.
When I came home I enrolled in graduate school in English at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and I got married. But I found that the way professors and students talked about literature in graduate school was not what I wanted and I quit in the middle of the second semester. This was in the spring of 1968. The war in Vietnam was raging, and once I no longer had a student deferment I got caught up by the draft. I hated what my country was doing in the war, and I certainly didn’t want to kill anyone and didn’t want to be killed myself. I applied to my draft board back in Colorado as a conscientious objector, but didn’t expect my application to be accepted because I had applied so late, and I told myself that I would go to prison instead of allowing myself to be inducted into the army. I never had to find out whether or not I would actually do that. The draft board in my small home town decided it was legal, what I was applying for, and decided I meant what I said (my father had been a preacher in that town, a fact which didn’t hurt), and they granted me the classification.
Then, in lieu of military service, I spent the next two years as an orderly in hospitals (for a while in Denver at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital) and as a house parent in an orphanage in Helena, Montana. My first daughter was born in Helena, and during all that time I still was trying to write stories – and I sent the stories off to the big slick magazines and they all came back. But once in a great while, a rejection slip had a line or two from the editor, and I took each of these lines as encouragement and kept them in a special folder.
After those two years were over, I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a second time and before I ever heard anything from the workshop I moved myself and my wife and daughter out to Iowa into an old farmhouse in the middle of winter and got a job as a janitor in a nursing home, and after a few weeks I went up to the workshop office and told them I was there. I kept writing and kept sending them new stories to be added to my application, and in May I got a letter saying that they had accepted me into the programme. In retrospect I think I was accepted sort of on probation and out of astonishment – to think that someone would move to Iowa with his wife and baby daughter in the middle of winter with no money and with no job, that person must be desperate. And I was. I was desperate to learn how to write fiction.
I think it’s fair to say that I made some progress that first year because I was given a fellowship for the second year. I took workshops with various writers, including one with John Irving, and the way they all taught writing then was different from what teaching tends to be now: they didn’t mess around with your manuscript; what they did was more descriptive than it was prescriptive. They told you what they thought worked in a story and what didn’t and left it up to you to figure out how to fix it. There were good students there, too, people like Denis Johnson and Stuart Dybek and Tracy Kidder and Jane Smiley and Ron Hansen and T.C. Boyle and Joe Somoza, and you learned as much from them as you did from the teachers. I came out of the workshop encouraged to think that maybe I could write a little bit – that kind of encouragement was very important to me – and I started a novel while I was there. One chapter of that beginning novel was set in what I for the first time called Holt County, and it was in that chapter that I discovered where I wanted to set all my stories from then on.
Then I spent the next eleven years trying to learn how to write well enough that someone would actually pay me to publish what I’d written. Of course I was also working to make a living for my growing family – my other two daughters were born when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin – and all that time I was trying to write as often as I could. I finished the novel I had begun in the workshop, and Harper & Row looked as if they would publish it – they paid me a little money when it was about half finished – but they decided in the end not to publish it, and I was very disappointed and discouraged about that. But now I am grateful that that book was never published. I would be embarrassed to have it out in public; it was a bitter autobiographical story and I don’t feel that way any more, and besides it wasn’t very good. So: I kept working to make a living, mostly as a teacher – I taught for seven years in a country school in Colorado, again out on the high plains – and gradually started another novel, and wrote it down in the coal room of our house, over three summers between school years. I had learned how precious time was, so that in those summers I became very disciplined and very religious about writing and wouldn’t do anything else in the morning except write. And I still feel that way about the hours when I’m writing. When I’m working on a novel I will work seven days a week and won’t let anything interfere with my routine.
When I finished that novel I wrote John Irving to ask if he would connect me with his agent, and he said he would. He said he had sent fifty writers to his agent and he hadn’t taken any of them, but maybe he’d take me. And he did: I got a telegram from the agent (there were still telegrams back then) and he said he was impressed by the book and wanted to represent it. That was a great day for me. The book was The Tie That Binds, and after a few months I got a call from an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston and he said they wanted to publish the book. That was another great day. The book came out in the fall of 1984. Except for one very tiny story, that was the first thing I ever had published. By that time I was forty-one years old and had been writing as hard as I could for almost twenty years. If I had learned anything over those years of work and persistence, it was that you had to believe in yourself even when no one else did. And later I often said something like that to my graduate students. You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence. I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out.
After that first book was published I could then find teaching jobs in colleges and universities and it became easier to find time to write while still making a living. Meanwhile, my first marriage ended and Cathy and I found each other, and my three girls were making their own grown-up lives, and moving on, going to various colleges, and travelling all over the world.
In the 1990s I taught in the MFA programme at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where John Gardner and Richard Russo had both taught before, and I wrote Plainsong over about a six-year period while I was there. But earlier in that decade, before Cathy joined me in Illinois, I was living in a trailer court in a one-room trailer; I was very poor, still trying to support my family even though we weren’t living together any more, but I was happy nevertheless. Across the road from me in the trailer court was a family who were all mentally disabled. Darrell and Retta and their little boy, Kevin. I used to help them a little by driving them to the grocery store and to their appointments with Social Services. On one of those trips, Retta said to me: ‘Well, Keinnt’ – she always called me Keinnt – ‘Well, Keinnt, what do you do for a living?’
And I said: ‘I try to help students learn how to write better.’
And she said: ‘Well, Keinnt, Darrell says I write too small.’ She thought of course that I was teaching penmanship. Which, in truth, probably would be more useful than trying to help anyone learn how to write convincing lies and literary fictions.
Now for the last thirteen years Cathy and I have been back in Colorado, in Salida, and I wrote Eventide and the prose parts of the photography book Peter Brown and I did together called West of Last Chance, and I wrote this new novel Benediction, working out in my writer’s shed in the mountains, heeding my hours, and I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life.
And I want to think, as Darrell warned Retta: over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.
Image courtesy of the author