This Common Ground special Sculpting in Wood and Words: The Art of Kent Nerburn is made possible by the Minnesota Arts
and Cultural Heritage Fund. I’m Kent Nerburn I’m a Bemidji writer.
Most of my work has been in the field of general
spirituality or Native American
subject the bridge between American and non native American communities. I’ve been doing it now since the mid 80’s. I was
originally trained as a
sculptor. That was really my passion.
But it did lead me into writing. Years ago I got
my PhD in religion and art.
It allowed me to practice as a sculptor
as well as deal with the
theories of creation. I spent probably 20 years working as a sculptor. trying to inhabit natural forms. I worked in wood trying to inhabit natural forms with spiritual values. I tried to base in the
human figure but tried to find a balance point
where things weren’t simply the imposition
of ideas onto the material but finding the form in the material.
Letting the material speak. And in the course of that the one tradition, that really believed in the power of the material and the material having a life that animated the forms
that it created was the Native American tradition.
There were northwest coast indians on in the Queen Charlottes
who would carve faces in trees. The trees are still there.
They would grow up and have the life of the tree change
and inhabit the forms that they created. This idea that there was
the power of nature as well as the power of the
application of idea. Fascinated me.
I’ve always believed. that the human being is a believing
creature not a thinking
creature. What we believe may be
religious. It may be psychological it may just be a way
we interpret the world. But
essentially were driven by what we believe.
That was my interest in working in the arts.
I wanted to see and experience and to the extent
that I was able create works that expressed the
deepest belief that I had, the deepest beliefs
of the people I studied. I fell into sculpture
when I was in Germany. I use to wander the streets.
I had a girlfriend back in the states. I was dully
heartbroken as someone in his 20’s would be and
was just wandering kind of a lost soul on the streets.
I started going into this
little bowerkounst museums
the farmer museum. In there I came across some
of these crucifixes that had been carved by
the old farmers. And they had so much more life in them
than any of the abstractions then I was studying in graduate school.
Where we would do such things as discuss theories of
salvation across the comparative dimension
or the comparative aspect of
theory of salvation in different
religious traditions. Well that was a far cry from seeing
these works that had been
labored out by these farmers
from the pure essence of their own belief and their own desire
to communicate something of the spirit. And I said
that’s real that’s more real
to me. I set to work that afternoon and I started. I didn’t know what I was going
to do. I’d always sketched
like most people do in notebooks and so forth.
But I’d never really pursued
it. At about 2 in the morning
I couldn’t stop I was still at
it And I said this something different
in my life from anything I’d
done before. I stayed with it.
I produced a piece that my sister still has that
was a wedding piece for them within the early 70’s. It was
a kind of a it was a crucifixion and it was pretty good.
And I said this touches my heart. This is
something that is important to me. And I went back to Stanford
and I told them that I wanted
to become a wood carver
and they said we think you probably need
a little time off. We won’t say you’ve had a nervous breakdown
but let’s just say that your professional route
does not seem coincide with what we expected
from you here at Stanford. So I left I took a year off
and I never went back. And I committed
myself to studying sculpture. I said I wanted to become
a sculptor and a teacher and I wanted to deal with the embodiment
of belief in physical forms. So anyway I ended up back in
graduate school in a joint
program at Graduate Theological Union
and University of California Berkley PhD program
in religion/theology and art. Where I told them I wanted to train
to be a sculptor. I wanted teach from the bench.
I didn’t want to be a
theoretician who also sculpted on the side.
They were amenable to this I went and studied in Italy,
studied with stone carvers. Did as much classical training
as I could get and continued to work
as a sculptor. Whatever it was that allowed a
person to be a natural, I didn’t have. Sometimes I would
struggle my way through to something that was very
brilliant. But it was always the image that
was stronger to me than the
sculpture. I could inhabit the emotion.
I could find the emotion of
something and find a way to fit into a material. I didn’t have strong strong sculptural sense. Anyway,
I continued struggling to make a living as a sculptor.
And I’ve often said that a
sculptor is a notch up on the food chain
from a poet or a composer. None of which are likely to move you into the
upper echelons of economic society. But I worked
as a sculptor for about oh gees must of
been about 15 years. And then my wife to be and I moved up here
to Bemidji. She had a job working for
the Red LakeTimes. She eventually ended up at Bemidji State.
I continued to sculpt. But she had her kids
and we needed the economic basis of
sculpting was absolutely, It was absolutely hopeless
so I needed to find a way to make some kind of a living.
The opportunity came to go to work in Red Lake.
They had a position opening for someone
to do to teach history. It was
a grant program. I applied for the job.
They interviewed me and I said what I would like to do
is try to collect the stories of the elders. My wife and I when
we had lived in the Twin Cities, had run a newspaper in
North Minneapolis. I knew how to collect materials, I knew how to put it together
and how to listen to people. I knew how to get their voices. The people on the school board
at Red Lake liked the idea. They said this sounds good. I was really working off the model of the Foxfire books, which were done in Georgia
a number of years ago. Where a
teacher took students out and interviewed,
interviewed the folks in the hills about everything from making
cane chairs to moonshine. I said I would just like to
take the students out into the reservation and
interview the elders. So we did and we ended
up over the course of the years producing two books.
One was called Walk the Red Road: Memories for the
Red Lake Ojibwe People. And
what we did is we went and got photographs
from Red Lake archives, from
individual family members. We went down to St John’s
we went to the Beltrami County Historical Society.
And then interviewed people on the reservation.
Some of the interviews were
profound and significant interviewing
Tommy J, Tommy Stillday the spiritual leader Ponemah was
a very deep and meaningful
interview. Then there were others we were interviewing
someone and they would talk
about when they used to slide down the hill into the lake, in old turtle shells. So the stories were just wonderful they poured out. We
produced these books. They
became pretty significant books. No one had really done
anything like this. The
students and I got to go to the Minnesota Indian Education
Association. I went up to
Alaska to British Columbia and talked
and traveled with some of the coastal tribes. It was a wonderful experience
for me. It was a wonderful
experience for the students.
And I realized in the course of this work that the Native
people had something that
I’d been seeking. It wasn’t something that I could appropriate and take in to myself but what it was an equanimity about
life and an ability to embrace life and death in sort of a
continuous fashion. They embraced a larger
sense of family, then I was used to.
They had a quiet joy that ran very, very, deep.
They were a people at peace and of course there were all the sociological
issues that we all know about
over the top. But at the core of their being
was this fundamental belief that spirit lives in everything. It wasn’t the we have this residual Judo Christian belief, where the human being
is at the top and everything is created, everything else
is created is for our use to somehow use to the glory of God.
That’s fairly theological but
that’s basically the idea. That the
human being is created in the image of the creator and everything
else is lesser. Not in the
native way of thinking in any of
the traditions. It’s much more that everything, everything
that’s on earth has spirit within it. And the spirit
that it has within it is meant to teach. And that
you learn from the animals, you learn
from the cycles of nature. You learn from the winds.
You learn from the skies. You live with humble
awareness that everything is a teacher and that you
are part of a whole. This was kind of what
I’d been looking for in life. The idea that the tree was alive,
which I’ve run into as a sculptor. The idea that the tree
was alive was simply part and
parcel of their understanding of the world. The tree was
a teacher. So when I worked as
a sculptor and I would work on a
particular tree. And that tree had hard a difficult life,
I could feel it’s sadness. If it had a kind of nobility;
I remember working on pieces of
oak that had a real nobility to them.
They stood up to the world like an oak does.
Their character was in the wood. Their character was in
the action of working on it. Walnut which I love very much, was a very recessive tree. It was a feminine tree it produced It produced fruit
for the world. All of this that had been
theoretical to me was suddenly actual in the native way of looking at the world.
I found that I had met traditions that spoke to me in a very fundamental
and very essential fashion. So I found myself absolutely in love with the work I had done with the native people.
Getting to know the elders getting to teach the students.
I felt like I had found a place where I was
doing something that was not
only important, it was essential.
And I decided at that point that I would
turn a lot of my work to the issue of giving
voice to the native way of understanding the world.
It’s a fine line you have to
walk, because there is absolutely
nothing in my mind more odious than a white person who dabbles in indian themes for
fun and profit. And there also is the danger of being a
dilettante, an exploiter. But that
wasn’t what I was about. What I wanted to do was
give voice to the voiceless. Because I had the audience. as a white writer as a person
with a PhD, as a person with a bona fides.
I could start to bring these stories up. Bring up
something of the character of the native experience and
really at heart what life is
about. As a sculptor, as a writer
as anything else remain about is trying to find an authentic American
spirituality. When it grows out of the land,
one that has to do with an embrace of the moment and a consecration of the ordinary and not one that has to do
with ideology and imposition of theological belief.
The native people do not proselytize they do not try
to push their religion on other people. I remember Chief Joseph, when
I was studying Chief Joseph
said, “We do not fight about religion
we’ve seen the white people
fight about religion we don’t want to learn that.”
Well I don’t want to teach that I don’t want to share that. But my work as
a writer, my work as a sculptor has always been at
heart the work of a teacher. I want
to teach. Of course I want to entertain, but to me
the most important thing is that I somehow put
forth something of value. and significance that
when people read it their made slightly better than they were before they read it. Chief Joseph one of my heroes said
“Come let us put our minds
together to see what kind of lives we can create for our
children.” I take this very
seriously I think that the education of the young and
speaking to the young is one
of the most important things that you can do as a writer.
Earlier this fall I went to
Trek North charter school in Bemidji. I spoke to one of the classes that had been reading my book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog.
You never know when the touch you make is the touch that’s going to
change a young person life. I
love the chance to go talk to young people in
schools. You read one, two or three maybe
more books by Kent Nerburn. Let’s be a good audience today and
thank you Kent Nerburn for
coming. applause Hello everybody. Well just so you know that I’m not some alien being walking in. My son went to school here
in it’s first couple years. And I was involved in starting
Schoolcraft. When this spun off as an idea. I was one of the people that
was originally involved just the seed of the idea of Trek North.
I want to talk to you about two things. I want to talk to you
about Neither Wolf Nor Dog and I want to talk to you a little bit about writing. Neither Wolf Nor Dog because you’re reading it.
Just seeing the author of a book is always kind of
interesting to people. How many of you have read it or are in the process of reading it? Okay. I wanted the book to weave the sacred and the profane, the ordinary
and the elevated. The tragic and the comic altogether.
So it had an integrated feel to it.
But almost invariably when people first come to one of the
things they spot is the humor. And they like the humor and I’m glad
for that because I like the
humor too. Now why does the book work? Well it worked, I didn’t
know this at the time. But why it worked
is because of the fact that I was a white author. I could take the
non native reader and say come on with me.
Let’s go out and walk into the
indian country and I will depict it
as absolutely accurately as I possible can.
And I will hand you over to the indian people and they will
talk back to you, In the person and voice of Dan and some extent Grover
and Winnoa. All the things non native people white people I’ll use white as the example
mostly white people are bothered by I put
in my mouth. Like, “Dan and I are driving through the reservation
we bounce our way back down the hill. Then turned unto a gravel road that skirted a dusty amber wash. Houses were set back
from the road about half a
mile apart. They all had the look of pre-fab post
war bungalows gone to seed. Doors hung by one hinge, windows
without screens were covered by blankets. The front yards were nothing more than spotty patches of dirt with kids bicycles and old appliances pplying randomly on the ground. Everything seemed to have been left just where
it was dropped. There was no
sense of order or indication of effort
to keep things clean. One house had an old school table sitting in front of it with a pile of oily car parts on it. Another had a large frame made out of telephone
poles with an engine block
hanging from it by a heavy logging chain.
Beneath the engine a rusty beige Cheverolet with no front wheels,
sat on heavy timbers it’s hood
open as if the engine had just been extracted like a tooth.
It was a world of half effort nothing had been brought to a conclusion.
The only sign of
industriousness was the inevitable line of laundry flapping behind each house in the ceaseless prairie wind. The white sheets seemed like
of defiance in the landscape of despair. I’d always been mystified by the willingness people who live in squalor. When only the simplest effort would have been required to make things clean. Eventually I’d come to shrug it off
to the old sociological canard that reflected a lack of self esteem
and a sense of hopelessness
about life. But in my heart I knew that this
was too facile too middle class in its presumptions. But it was certainly preferable to earlier explanations that people who live like this were
simply lazy and shiftless. I
wanted to ask Dan I was sure he’d have a point of view. But I hesitated the question seemed to run the heart of the contemporary Indian life. I’d needn’t worried though the old man saw me glancing around
and came right to the point
himself. Bothers you doesn’t it, he said We passed
a house with a burnt out
station wagon lying on it’s side in the front yard. Yeah,
I guess so I answered I just
don’t understand it. I’ve been waiting for you to ask
but I guess I got you figure I
got forever. He gave me a mock
pull on the shoulder. I’m damn near 80 you got to work faster.
I grinned at his humor. Sorry
Dan I’m on white man’s time. He chuckled several times and pointed at another of the passing houses. The top of an old Plymouth protruded from a batch of weeds. What to you see when you look out there he said. Do you really want to know? I asked didn’t I. I see a lack
of concern for the land you
claim to revere. You mean you
see a bunch of right, his candor was liberating.
Yes, that’s what I’ll all white people see. You drive through our reservation and say look at all the junk cars and the trash. What do you think we
say when we drive through one
of your cities. I really don’t know. We say the same thing just
cause you have everything
scrubbed down and in order. doesn’t meaning anything. What’s bigger trash a junk car or a parking ramp. We can tow the junk car away. The parking
ramp had to be torn down with
bulldozers and wrecking cranes. The only reason you don’t see it as trash is that you still use it. When you don’t need a building anymore
that’s too expensive to fix
than it’s trash. To us it looks like
trash all the time.” Well in there you see no native person could come out and make that same
statement that I made about looks kind of like trash to me. You wouldn’t because you would want to defend it if you were native. You want to defend
your culture and your life. But all the white people driving
through reservations always
whisper and so I can take that
point of view. And I could do that, and
I could be the voice of the white inquisitor
and seeker and that the native person could
respond to me and say this is how it really is and
here’s what you’re not really
seeing. You know I like music a whole
lot more than I like reading and writing. I write for a living
but music is what matters to me. But that doesn’t mean that
music isn’t in the writing. Listen to this.
Tapping on chair Tapping on chair, Snapping What is that it’s a beat. Poetry. Boy you are on
over there. Okay tapping on chair My cat Sid is a very fat cat his belly
hangs almost to the ground. There’s that sentence beat out. If you’re really really paying
attention to your writing. You listen for the music
inside of your writing. and you make it fit the needs
of what it is you’re trying to say. If you are doing something
that is frantic and moving
quickly. You write with a lot faster music.
The key though you don’t do this consciously
you’ve got get real good and you really got to get your chops
and then when you get it this
happens naturally. If you sit down and
say now I’m going to do staccato musical sounds. Maybe it’s
good exercise it’s like
playing a scale and you have to learn it. But better
to just be aware of these scales this when your writing and try to find
the music inside of the
sentences. that you write. I’m sure you are all well aware
of that astonishing thing that
the human brain does. If I play you the
first four notes of a piece of
music you are going to know what that piece of music is if you know it. How can that be? What is that in our brain
that allows to just grab a piece
of music instantly? And that’s a power.
As a writer one of the things
I do to grab you I’m constantly aware of the inside
of the music in the in what I write.
I care about the music of my writing. It is
not insignificant to say that I was trained
in religious studies. I studied religious texts.
Prayer in any tradition has a rhythm about it. The two things
that matter time are music and pictures.
I want people to see what it is that I’m
writing about. My dirty secret as a writer and a reader is that
I’m a self vocalizer. I read very slowly.
Things go into my ear and come out of my mouth
at about the same speed. I don’t read
conceptually. I use to look at this as a great deficiency. That I couldn’t read
a whole paragraph, I couldn’t
shoot through pages and take in ideas.
Things have to come at the speed at which you hear them.
And consequently when I sit down to write, things come out
to be heard as opposed to being thought. And because
I was trained as a sculptor I’m constantly looking
for ways to give you. pictures. I want
pictures musically described. I had an
amazing experience as a writer in one of my pieces went viral
on the internet and had over 3 million hits, 3 million viewers.
As a result a group of film
makers from the UK came to visit here
in my home in northern
Minnesota. Background chatter One of the key elements I believe
and this gets me in trouble
with literary types. Is that to me anything that goes through memory becomes fiction. Filmmaker: Well someone
is capturing something. in some video. Kent: I really believe
in the power of story. But I believe that
the stories are always a distortion from reality.
Unless you are transcribing
something with a microphone and you
put down exactly as
transcribed. Choices are being
made at every point you interpret. It was good for me.
I could live there on a long
term basis. I enjoyed it
because it was If someone walks into a room and
they meet 3 people and one of
whom is a dentist and one of whom
is a hairdresser and one of
whom is a linguist. Each of those
3 people is going to see the person who walks into the room in different ways. And if asked to describe them will describe them in different ways.
We bring to our perception our
own historical experience and
our own personal experience. And this is always a very
complex matrix of meaning to assume that what
somewhat tells you is fact is not the case it is always an interpretation.
I’m trying to interpret the world for you when I sit down
to write and tell a story. I
want to give it to you in a way that you see
real dialogue. The dialogue has
to sound real. It has to follow
logically It has to have a musicality to it.
I want to give you sensory description. I want you to see it. I want you
to smell it. I want you to
hear it. I want you to taste it.
And I’ll try to embed ideas. I’ll never put an idea out
in front say here’s an idea now watch me extrapolate
from this idea. Or somehow reveal it to you. I want to
embed my ideas in story. An old native man
once told me; always tell stories. People learn best
by stories because stories lodge deep in the heart.
Story telling is the oldest of the literary craft.
It seems absolutely to essential to me to acknowledge
this and to be humble before it. Tell stories, make stories
that embody the truth that you want to contain.
This is a very different thing then trying to give factual information.
So I get in trouble very often because my stories are I wouldn’t say they are parables. But I
attempt to give you want is
important in the story to make it come
alive to you. The cab driver
story :that story is as
accurately rendered as I could remember.
Was it distorted? Probably
because it was 20 years before.
What’s happened in my mind in that time. Like one of the things
that came up in the course of the discussion about it one time. People always say to me why would a women come ask to be picked up at 2
in the morning to go to a
hospice. Well I can’t give you an answer to that.
I have no idea why that was the
case. But someone else said to me, actually I think it was one of my stepdaughters said. Well did they
even hospices then? And I said well gees I don’t know
was that the term. I don’t know that the term was every in existence then.
Maybe she said a convalescent
home. Memory is a lens. I think
that purpose of memory is to winnow experience
and to bring it back to you. Neil: We’re looking to have
you reconstruct that story. You tell that story in your own words
in such a way that we can reconstruct. Kent: I can take it down a few
different streets and see
where it goes. Neil: Absolutely. Kent: I’ll retell it as I remember it. Not exactly Neil: Yeah Yeah Kent: Not exactly as it’s
in the book but version you saw. Let me just start talking and
see what comes out of it and go
from there. If you have to sit me on while I find my way into the story that’s just fine. Filmmaker: Shall we start like at the time at that time in your life when you were actually a cab driver. Kent: I decided I would do something different. So I took a job driving a cab. This is in Minneapolis. Minneapolis
is part of a metropolitan area with over a million people.
Urban situation a place where
every permutation and combination
of humanity exists. And every permutation and combination
of humanity gets in a cab at one time or another.
I decided to drive at night partly because it seemed romantic.
Partly because it allowed me to sculpt during the day.
And I took what was called the dog shift. The dog shift is when you drive overnight. You drive all night. You watch
the rhythm of the city. It’s really quite exciting depending on when you start. You get the rush hour traffic the people going home.
Then you get the diners who are going out. Then you get the people who are coming back late at night Then you get the drunks
coming out of the bars and that’s the time
of interest and danger. And then it’s fairly true
that nothing good happens as I tell my son.
Nothing good happens between
the 2 and 4 in the morning.
And nothing good does happen between 2 and 4 in the morning.
So that was pretty much a lull
time. I look upon my writing as an archeology of memory. I don’t like to write from direct a rehension
of things. I wouldn’t like to
look out. this window at this beautiful
winter scene and try to
describe it. What I would rather do is look out this window
at this beautiful winter scene take in as much of it as I can,
the color, the textures, the slight movement of the wind.
Everything that I am and that I’ve learned in the course of my life,
living in the north country
with the experiences that I’ve had. Take it into me
and then come back to it. A day, a week, a month, a year later
because what I remember is what is significant. That way I don’t get confused
by a plethora or an excess of detail. It’s the sculptor in me.
What I’m doing is picking the salient object, the salient
moment, the salient elements. and giving them to you to create
a picture that will allow you
to enter into the experience.
So I like to work from memory. I find it be a very valuable tool
and a tool of truth telling. because what you remember
is what is significant. Really the act of writing, the act
of preparing to write becomes a spiritual exercise.
It’s preparing yourself to look out at a scene and knowing
what it is you need to be open to in order
to understand and express it. To communicate it in the most meaningful way
possible. Different people will
see different things. If you drop me in
the middle of New York City or if you drop me in the subways. The first
thing I’m going to do is cover
my ears because I can’t stand the noise. Does that mean
that is the most important
significant things about the subway.
Someone else may see Joshua Bell playing his violin. for pennies in the subway as actually took place one time. Whereas if I go
in there, Joshua Bell can be
playing and I’m going to be covering
my ears because what I hear is noise. I’m not prepared,
I’m not trained if that’s what I wanted to see, if that’s what I wanted to communicate fine. But every writer has certain skills.
Every writer has certain capacities to apprehend.
One of the things where this has become
an asset to me is in telling native american stories. Because what I bring to looking at life on a reservation; what I bring to engagement
with native cultures is my background as a
non native white suburban kid who grew up.
So when I go in and look at the native world.
What I’m bringing to bear on it is the
experience of an outsider. Who tries to become an insider
and be as sympathetic as I
possibly can. But I’m an outsider looking with the eyes of an outsider
and thus when I get a reader who is also an outsider they
can come with me. They walk in and they trust me because
I am them. And the non native reader walks in with me
and says yes I trust you because you come
from my world and you see the things I see and
you ask the questions I ask. If I hand the reader
over to the native voice and authentically present the native person and the
native point of view much like in the oral history books.
Then the native readers say yes this man is letting
us tell our story. So it becomes a dialogue
between two points of view. Each accurately rendered. Martin’s one of my favorite young people. You can’t imagine how tough it is to be living with a foot
in two different cultures. Martin: No, I’m flying to Fairbanks, then I got to fly from Fairbanks to Anchorage and then from Anchorage to Cordova and
then Cordova to Yakutat. I had
a great travel agent so you know.
Kent: Martin lives a
traditional life as a Tlingit man
from Yakutat, Alaska at the same time he lives in contemporary
society does work in
Hollywood. He keeps a strong spirit about
everything he does. Martin: You
know don’t like dogs, and you don’t coffee, and he likes cats. Kent: He likes girls though. Martin came to visit me here
in Minnesota and we sat sat down together and batted ideas back
and forth for a while and it
was a wonderful afternoon. Martin: Both books,
The Wolf at Twilight and
Neither Wolf Nor Dog are very well done.
Often times it’s like you see non native authors or non native
people making films about
indians It’s always an outside perspective
so a lot of the time the people that are doing those types of films, the people that are writing those types of books; they put in there what they want to put in there and they put in there what’s going to sell or what’s appealing. What I like about Neither Wolf
Nor Dog is well obviously you
were traveling with Grover and Dan, some Lakota elders.
So really the book is in a lot of ways is Dan’s book. You just
put the words in the book. You know so his
message comes across and it’s an inside perspective of
native people being put on a
paper by Kent who is a great writer. It’s not just one perspective. It’s a lot of different perspectives. because you explain how you understand their perception of reality
through your own perspective
and how you view the world and
truth and how people can learn from that.
I think that’s perfect because there is a big gap in
communication between native and non natives. It’s always been like that. I think we are moving in the right direction. in a lot of ways. And I think in a lot of ways we
are not moving in the right
direction. But for somebody like,
when I read that book it was a good feeling.
And I feel like it was a step
in the right direction for bridging
that gap in communication. And helping people
evolve their understanding of the differences in culture. My current project and when I say current
I mean really current because the deadline for it was
11:30 this morning. Did I meet my deadline?
Don’t ask. Here is what it is.
This is going to be a third
book in a trilogy. First is
Neither Wolf Nor Dog Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder. The second was The Wolf at Twilight :An Indian Elder’s Journey Through a Land of
Ghosts and Shadows. And the
third one is called The Girl Who
Sang to the Buffalo: A Child An Elder and A Sky To Big To Dream.
This book has been a real
struggle. Sometimes they come easily, well
they never come very easily for
me. But sometimes they come hard,
sometimes they come really
hard. This one man I’ve had to
arm wrestle this one into
existence. But this is it’s current state.
This is the manuscript. When people ask about oh
it must be fun to be a writer.
Well it’s fun to have written these books, but does
this look like fun. It’s like
having God’s punishment of a term paper.
How many pages What are at here? 326
Okay that’s 326 of probably 3,000 pages
that I wrote in the course of trying to get things right. And now I’m at the stage of having printed out the manuscript
and I need to work from a hardcopy. Writers have different ways that they work. I do relatively well with a pen and pencil. But I don’t trust what
I write on a screen cause it
doesn’t read in the same way as it does
when I put it into the hard
copy. I love the computer. I love writing
on the computer but I need to
print it off. And then when I print it off like this, then I can go back and read it. It looks more like a book. It feels like a book
but things that felt wonderful in the course of writing them,
turn out to not read very well when you see them on a page. Here for example
is a couple of pages of my own
editing What I had originally written was:
though I felt alone and
vulnerable I had no choice but to face Winona and hear what she had to say. Upon rereading that I didn’t like
alone and vulnerable. You have to know the whole context but
I decide instead what I wanted
to say was Though I was nervous and uncertain. Why?
I don’t know but in the flow of
the entire manuscript that was a better phrasing at least it appeared to me at this point to have been a better phrasing. So there is a simple change I made. I had two versions. I’ll do that very often. I’ll make a little slash and then I’ll write one ending to a sentence and then I’ll write another ending to the sentence. And then I know that I have to pick one or the other because I’ve got that little slash between the two of them. They are
the only two editings on this
page. Here are some really nasty pages. I mean I’m not even sure I’ll be able to interrupt everything that I did here.
Telling me to take this section
out with just a little editor’s mark
of removal. Changing sentences writing in new sentences
xing this spot completely writing in new sentences,
adding little phrases. Clearly I’m involved in wanting to
really change what it is that I
was up to in this particular section. A new
version actually on the back. And I get through this with all these changes
and it’s like we’ve just gone
down a stretch of bad road come out and all of
a sudden things are better
again. Obviously what was going
on in these pages wasn’t adequate to my
understanding to move me into these further pages. Here is a
good example of two separate possible titles to a chapter.
So if I decide I don’t like one out it goes. And I got the
one that I’m going to use. Life goes on. Page after page. This is what
I go through with my own work. This work unedited read just fine
on the computer screen but when I printed it out and I looked at it everything needed to be moved around. Dialogue didn’t go into
the right place. I had repeated myself. There were phrases
that I wanted to put in. It becomes a task of rewriting. Every writer I know has a
different relationship to the
process of rewriting. I try to write so I don’t have to
do a lot of rewriting. It’s not always the case. But I would like to
think that my work is close to
complete when I’m done. I think that
it is a skill that I have in that I’m not wedded
to my own words entirely. I’ve got a lot of ego about them if
I think someone is messing
with them in a way that is inappropriate
I’ll squawk and kick and refuse to be edited. But if someone
can improve something it’s a
joy to me. When I think about editing, it’s again like
I’m talking to children or
young people I’ll say take a look at the back of your neck. And they’ll say what I can’t look at the back of my neck.
I’ll say well I can look at the back of your neck easily. Well that’s
what a good editor does they
look at the back of you neck. And you can’t see it
but they can. And a good editor is an absolute joy. Someone who
doesn’t try to write your book but tries to bring out your
voice and can say to you this doesn’t quite connect with me
or you can say this better or expand here. Someone
who comes to your work with an excitement for what
you’re doing and says this is good but I can show
you how to make it better. And a good editor is worth
his or her weight in gold. I’m a pretty good editor
for myself just because I’ve been a sculptor and
the sculptor as a remover. Subtractive sculpture is
the art of taking things away until the less becomes
the more. So I’m a good editor, I’m willing
to take away things. One of the rules said that I remember
hearing many many years ago. If your jammed up, if there is something you absolutely refuse to give up that’s what you have to throw away.
It’s a balance point between cleaning up and clarifying
and overworking something. There is always something to be said
for the first moment of
creation. It has a brightness and an excitement about it that you never really achieve again. But at the same time
if it doesn’t communicate it needs to be adjusted and
nuances have to be put in. But like a sculpture form
if you sand it too much take the edges off it. And you end
up with something that doesn’t have it’s innate character.
Now this piece really is odd foreshadow of a
lot of things. It was a
meditation on the land that I was
living on in this little hidden valley in California.
And it was the first time I’d
ever lived on land that hadn’t
been heavily trodden on by the concrete of western civilization.
It was really a study in the spirit of the land and the spirit
of the native presence. And I
felt there. I was young.
It was in the early ’70’s. I had just come back
from Germany. And this was my attempt
without any serious training to enter into the
world of sculptural form and images.
And what I discovered was I look at this now 30 some years later
is how strong the image is. That it is essentially
emotion embodied. And that is what I did well
as a sculptor. I wasn’t strong in the sculptural form. And ultimately at some point sculptural form becomes essential because
it’s the grammar of the craft. But what mattered to me was
the quality of the image and
the quality of the emotional experience
that I could put into the
work. When I went into, why don’t you
take a shot of this. This is just something that struck me that
I find delightful and
fascinating. I talk about art as
the expression of spirit. I brought out the sculpture that
I did and set it down and
realize that the little eskimo sculpture that I have
there has exactly the same
emotional aspect. That was
a piece that I purchased in a museum shop in Churchill Manitoba. I walked in
and there were these wooden
shelves and this little cold wooden museum.
I looked across all the shelves and there were
probably 200-300 little
sculptures there, little carvings that the
Innuit people had done for
sale to such tourists as came up to
Churchill at that time. And I
walked through those shelves in that
wonderful that happens when you are either going
through a museum or looking for
a rug or whatever it is and
you often say that one. I looked at that little piece and
it had some wonderful
sculptural value the capacity to stand
on it’s own, the gesture. But now that I set the two of them next
to each I realize what
attracted me was that it has the same emotion as the sculpture
that I had done 20 years previously.
The two of them sit together
probably a fair reflection of my own minor key
understanding of and experience of life.
It fascinates me when I look at them. They have
the same angle of repose and expression.
They have the same tension between
the sadness in the eyes. and the attempted peace
and resolution in the mouth. They’re kindred.
Kindred across time, across space.
One made by someone in Baker Lake
north of Hudson Bay. Probably created you can tell by
the way that it sits in the
hand, that the person who worked on it held it in their hand while they worked. A completely different way
than a piece who lay the wood on it’s
back and work with chisels. And yet they are brother and
sister piece across time and
space. Only art does something
like that. I never get tired of the magic of
looking at art forms. And these are two that I happen to be
fortunate enough to have in my
life that I can look at any time. And you don’t even have to open them like a book or put them on like a piece of music. They are right there for me all the time. I love sculpture. I love wood.
I love the power of wood. And I love in this case the power of walnut.
In many ways I wish I would have stayed with it. My son has always
asked if I was going to go back
to it. I don’t think the time will
come for a number of reasons. But it was essentially just a different modality from
writing. In terms of giving expression
to human experience and human feeling. It’s always
fascinating when you mix art forms when you cross art forms. To see what you can learn from one and what you can transfer to the other.
In this piece I was still very concerned with detail.
Sculpture is an art form of choices.
How do you depict sadness in an eye? How do you
balance a look of resolution and peace? I’m going back to when
I did this sculpture many many
years ago and I remember
trying to balance a look of benign resignation
in the mouth and deep and affable
sadness in the eyes. How do you do this?
How do you take that notion, that emotional notion and
put it into a physical form? Sculpture is one, was
one modality by which I would try to do that. I might deal with exactly
the same issue as a writer How do I get a feeling of
resignation and a resigned peace into a story that also has inevitable sadness in it?
These are the kind of issues that transform and go across the borders of an art form.
A musician, let’s say a guitarist playing Concierto de Aranjuez could try
to get that same feeling of sadness and peace into the
music. This is what I love about the arts,
is that they can do several
things at once. They can go directly
to emotional reality and they bring it forth
to people to see and to take into themselves. Sculpture is an interesting art form because it occupies our space.
It transcends our time. I always tried to work in roughly human scale. It would be the size of a human presence. And yet it does transcend
our time. It sits there it can be if not eternal
at least a long standing presence in your life.
I’ve had this piece around for 30 years. Writing doesn’t do the same thing. Writing is only present when you read it and then it takes root in the imagination. And it
grows inside the imagination and you interact with it. A very different
affect than the affect of
living with a sculpture constantly. Music it disappears. That was one of the
fascinations of doing the book
on St Francis, make me
an instrument of your peace. What was an instrument in his time?
It was something that made
music and the music was gone.
You couldn’t capture it you had no technology to capture it.
It only existed in the making. These are the kind of magical elements
of art forms that just
fascinate me. I happen to
in my life have landed on the art form of writing.
But ultimately it’s only because that’s one at which I had
skills and which I could pursue. Sometimes
you’ll produce a book and you don’t know what you got. Now one of
my books is a little book
called Small Graces. I used to say I set the bar low
and I cleared it admirably. People tell me that they love the book. And I go back and say what’s this thing that they love about this book?
Well it has a domesticity about
it that I didn’t notice, while I was writing.
It’s about home. It’s about
family and a lot of my books
are about travel and isolation. Individuals, myself
as an auditor or a looker seeing the world through
the isolated vision of a
lonely traveler. I don’t analyze these things,
but you find out after the fact. Someone will come and tell you that
this book meant something
because of some particular aspect in
it. And they give you
your book back. And it’s a great gift when they do that
because they’re bringing the
book alive. And they’re increasing your
knowledge of yourself and your own capacity as a writer.
I don’t know what I have at the end of any book. The only
measure that I ever have is when I go back after 3 years, 6 years 10 years and look at a book and if I say I could never
write that book again. In this way I’ve done something good.
If I say oh I wish I could redo this one then maybe
it wasn’t so good. But it is a great pleasure, like I’ve got a book
that is coming up on it’s 20th
year right now. called Letters To My Son. It was written
when my son was just a toddler. and I wanted to write a book about what I believed in life if I were to die before he reached adulthood. They want me to add
a little bit to this book and
put out a 20th anniversary edition.
I go back and read it oh I had such clarity and confidence
at that time. I wasn’t as compromised as I am now.
I love that book it’s a snapshot of
my best self in time. And this is kind of the joy
of being a writer. You create artifacts. They’re done,
they will outlive you. You grow you watch your own growth.
You watch the growth of the book in the world and they are like your children.
They grow up. Some of them
surprise you, one you think is going to become the
President of the United States
and he ends up diving in dumpsters. And another
you think is going to be working as an assistant manager
in a strip mall for his entire
life and he ends up being the head
of an international
corporation. You just don’t know how they
are going to come into life. And you love them all. People will say what’s
your favorite book? And my
answer is always, do you have children? Yes. Well who is your favorite kid? You love them all. They are all different. They are all characters. They all quirky.
They all have their great
moments. They all have their weak moments,
just like all of us. That to me
is the real excitement of producing a book.
The actual process of writing
a book it isn’t always fun. It’s hard to keep your focus.
If you work on something like
this book this one I’m working on now.
It was 2009 that I started it. LIke I said it’s been a hard labor.
Imagine something that you started.
Imagine yourself in 2009 and now imagine yourself now
and this is being filmed in
2013. How much have
you changed in that time? The first paragraph I wrote in 2009
was written by a completely different man than the one
who is writing the last
paragraph in 2013.
How do you keep a continuous thread? How do you allow
the book to grow and yet
retain continuity and an
authentic and consistent voice? These are real challenges
it’s hard to sit down and find that self. It’s the book that
is suppose to be the third in a
trilogy. This book was written in 1995.
Do you think that my voice is
the same as it was in 1995?
No, I see the world differently. The details that I see running
through memory is a different
experience. It’s a real challenge.
It’s an emotionally fragile occupation. You have to be
very very careful not to let
your self get knocked off
center by life events, by outside emotions that don’t fit
into the book you’re doing. You have to have
a kind of clarity and at it’s best writing is
like walking into a garden. You turn one way and you see
blooms teaming and richness of
flowers and you see life you
never thought was there. You just continue through this garden and
it’s a great and wonderful
experience. On the bad days, writing is like
dragging a rock up a hill. It’s like that endless term paper
and you don’t know. For me the challenge is to set
myself up emotionally and physically so when
I sit down to write something begins to happen
and it begins to come alive. And I’m in the garden and I’m
not pulling the rock up the
hill. ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? Sculpting in Wood and Words was
made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage