Getting There From Here:
2008 Iowa Letters About Literature Award Ceremony Address
Thank you, Robin Martin, for that introduction. Invited guests, family, friends, teachers, please join me in congratulating today’s honorees—the 2008 Iowa Letters About Literature Winners!
I never feel so comfortable, happy, and at home, as when I am in the presence of great readers! So thank you all for being here and thank you, to the LAL winners, for your phenomenal efforts to make connections with the emotions, observations, and thought-provoking ideas that all writers try to work into the fabric of their books. Sometimes we succeed beautifully; sometimes we walk away scratching our heads—how could the reader not have understood what we meant to say? But the more sensitive and nuanced the readers of our books become, the more our books are able to find their way into the hearts and minds of those who hold them in their hands late into the night, turning pages, perhaps reading surreptitiously under the sheets with a flashlight, or during study hall, or maybe on the bus during a long ride home after school.
So this year, we have amazing insightful letters written to authors as diverse and divergent as J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, and about books as wide-ranging and different as Eragon and The Five People you Meet in Heaven, as well as from The Freedom Writers’ Diary, and William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden to The Secret Garden, and Holes all the way over to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. I can’t name them all here, but please be assured that the letters were read carefully and discussed at great length. For the previous three years, I was on the selection panel for one of the categories, and I can tell you that we had some thought-provoking discussions about the entries. As each letter expressed the impressions of the reader to us, we were allowed into that space of contemplation—and that’s where the real connection begins—in that mulling over the text, in that rumination over what we as readers see contained in and under the words and how, perhaps, it illuminates events in our own lives.
As a writer, I have always thought it ironic that writing happens, most often, in extreme solitude. In writing circles, we call this “the talent of the room.” In other words, one of the writer’s most valuable skills is simply being able to stay put, in the chair, in front of the computer for long periods of time when the rest of the world is outside calling, calling, calling us to dinner parties, important meetings, or Cyclone and Hawkeye football games. The best writer is the one who finds a way to be in the world, but also stay in the chair writing those impressions down.
The way things go, this writing usually happens in the early morning, before the rest of the world wakes up, or very late at night, after all the other work is done and you can steal a few minutes to write. What I’m trying to say is, it’s often lonely work done at the shortest end of an exhausted day. So why do we do it? That’s a question, I think, that all writers ask themselves at some point. The world is not clambering for our words. Yet, we press on, because there is some intangible reward in the process.
The first reward, is that a poem, or a story, or an essay, when it comes to the writer, comes as a kind of gift. It’s an amazing feeling—to bring a piece of writing into the world—a feeling of creation. And you fuss over it, and try to present it to the world in its best light. And in this process, there’s a feeling of intimacy—that you’ve made contact with something very essential and important to human survival. In this process of creation, you yourself have a feeling of being nourished. So that’s the first gift.
The author, Lewis Hyde, wrote about this process in his book, The Gift. He says that after that initial gifting of the book (whether it’s poems or stories or essays) the book itself is a gift first given to the author who writes it. Then the author sends the writing into the world hoping that someone will feel the same sense of wonder and nourishment from reading the book. So the next moment the book gives its gift is when it makes its way into the attention of the reader—that’s where you all come in. And your presence here today as Letters About Literature Award winners testifies to the fact that you have taken the gift from the books you’ve read and allowed it to nourish your minds, hearts, and imaginations. Thank you!
In my memoir, The Horizontal World, about growing up a rebellious farmer’s daughter on a North Dakota wheat farm, I mentioned that I grew up in an almost bookless house—aside from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the town centennial book, and the gold-embossed row of World Book encyclopedias which were only good for filling out the details of school reports. Great mysteries lurked out there in the larger outside world, I suspected, about which the World Book could only hint.
I read voraciously as a child, everything from Doctor Seuss to Nancy Drew. But in the Catholic school I attended, the only books in the library, it seemed to me, were The Lives of the Saints and the Baltimore Catechism. Interesting reading certainly, but eventually one yearns for larger varieties of books. In that way, the bookmobile saved me.
I didn’t realize how important the bookmobile was to me, until several years ago when I got a copy of my hometown newspaper, the Napoleon Homestead. (I continued to subscribe to the newspaper for many years after I left my small hometown. It was nice to read the “town tales” columns that chronicled who had visited whom that week, and who had pie at whose house.) Then one day there was just this little 200-word article about the woman who drove the bookmobile—how she was retiring about 35 years of service. And I realized that she would have been the same woman who had driven the bookmobile to my school, St. Philip Neri, every Friday. And I realized what an important role she had played in the development of my imaginative and creative life. I wrote a poem about this, which I’ll read for you now.
To be saved by books, to be allowed to file
in twos away from Sister Paula’s math class,
to climb those three small steps off the curb,
and be met by the smell of old paper, glue
and leather bindings. To lay my hands on
thin volumes with titles other than The Lives
of the Saints. A miracle, and that woman
a saint, who steered the big wheel and roared
the loaded van to our school each Friday.
I do not recall the plots or the people
in those books, though I read them all—
every word in every book in each tall stack
I hauled with my small arms down the steps,
making the final blind hop to the curb,
then back to the rigors of six times eight
equals. After school, I’d crawl into bed
with those books, the weight of them
spread all around me. Mother washed
the bedding each Friday, and the combination
was unbearable—heaven—pages turned
by unknown hands and the fresh air
smell of clean sheets. The rows of black words
on heavy paper, concrete proof of things
calling me from beyond the parochial.
Here at the end of the poem, I use the word “parochial,” which some of you may know refers to private catholic schools—also known as parochial schools. In this sense, the word “parochial” shares its root with the word “parish.” But parochial also has another layer of meaning—as so many words do. And that second meaning I’m alluding to in the poem is “of limited or narrow scope” or “provincialism,” which is just the natural state of childhood, as we begin to map first our small home terrain, then begin to branch our map out to the larger world. In this way, reading is the best cure for parochialism because it widens our scope, increases our knowledge and empathy, and it allows us to travel great distances and see into other worlds, ages, lives.
Also, as you can see from the poem, we were allowed to leave our regular classes in twos and threes and go to the bookmobile. And I would sit anxiously in math class where we were memorizing the times tables (which I was never very good at), and I would jump up when it was my turn. I was very small for my age, and I always remember that I had a pile of books in my arms, almost taller than my head. It’s amazing that I was able to make it down the steps of the bookmobile without tripping, but I always made it back to the classroom, then to the bus home. Then back at home, I would just spread them all out on the bed, and read late into the night. These were, and still are, some of the best memories of my now-long life.
I should say that my parents were always a bit suspicious of my constant reading. My mother always thought I should go outside, into the fresh air. And, of course, she was right. I needed exercise and sunlight. But I also knew that what was contained in those books was equally as necessary to my development.
On the farm, there was always another chore to do—hauling bales, picking rocks, milking cows. One of my early chores on the farm was running the De Laval cream separator. Many of you won’t know what a cream separator is, so I’ll tell you that it was a machine with a large stainless steel bowl on the top, into which you would pour milk. The machine would proceed with lots of spinning and whirring and gyrations, and then somehow magically, white liquid would appear in two separate spigots at the bottom of the machine—from the first spigot poured what appeared to be ordinary skimmed milk; from the second spigot appeared the cream, gold and thick, now separated from the ordinary milk, which I was to collect in pint and quart jars as it commenced from the spigot. My mother took this cream to town and sold it to families who had ordered fresh cream. In this way, she made a little extra money for the farm.
Of all the chores I had to do on the farm, I liked running the cream separator best. The milk room was warmer than the rest of the barn, and the machine did all the work. My primary job was to keep the cats away from the cream. I could take a book and read as the noisy machine churned and shook the life from the milk. Around me, containers were filled and emptied; cream poured from spouts, jars were whisked away and replaced with more empty jars to be filled, and I was left to read my book, hunched over in the dim light.
At my feet, tabbies and tomcats, tuxedo cats and calicos milled and meowed. They craned their necks and howled with tortured voices. They tried to scale my pant legs, their claws out, just to get a quick paw, a stretched tongue, anything, into that golden stream. I would shoo and bat them away, absorbed in thought, clutching my book and reading all the while about all the strange places and marvelous people in the outside world.
Sometimes when I would speak too enthusiastically about how someday, when I grew up, I was going to take the first opportunity to get on the nearest road and investigate, in person, all those marvelous places in the outside world—New York, Paris, Athens—my father would say “You can’t get there from here.” In other words, where we lived was so out of the way, so far from the mainstream of American life, that the journey there was almost impossible.
He was teasing me of course. It is possible to get there from here, especially with the help of books. So I followed the trail of books, to college, then later to my life as a college professor. But finally, and perhaps most ironically, when I became a writer, one of the first things I began writing about was home. So, it seems, that with reading and writing, you are not only to get there from here, you can also get back to home from all the “there’s” that you might roam to. With current gas prices, this seems like a very efficient way to travel. I’m happy to be here today with you, to celebrate all of you in your many journeys and adventures in reading—those you’ve already been on and the many more that you are certain to undertake in the future. Happy travels, and I look forward to seeing you on the road.