The Rural Life, the Writing Life: The Long and Short Of It
Author and New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg reads from his book More Scenes From the Rural Life in Norwich on Wednesday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Klinkenborg talks with his partner, author Alex Enders, outside the Norwich Bookstore before his reading. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
One year after the owners of the Norwich Bookstore first tried to get Verlyn Klinkenborg to read at their store, the writer made it. Copies of his most recent books, More Scenes from the Rural Life and Several Short Sentences About Writing, rested beside him on Wednesday night. A shelf of fiction was his backdrop.
The 16-year New York Times contributor said he’d considered reading a “sobering” essay on population expansion, but decided “it’s too depressing for a night like this.”
“Last night I saw the first fireflies at my place,” he said instead, reading a passage from Rural Life, a book culled from 10 years of columns about life on his farm in upstate New York. It came out last month.
The presentation of both books in one night provided a contrast that Klinkenborg noted early. Where readers “listen in” on the author’s experiences in Rural Life , they get a direct conversation with him in S everal Short Sentences , released a year ago. One book has ruminations on the simplicities of farm life; the other microscopic conversations about language. It’s dragonflies and clauses, Saxony ducks and short sentences.
But the melding of the two books worked for a rapt Norwich Bookstore audience of about 40, a group of readers and writers living in the sort of rural area Klinkenborg often describes.
“It’s so wonderful to be this close to a writer, and get their thoughts, and have an almost spontaneous conversation going,” said Richard Neugass of Norwich, after the 75-minute event wrapped up.
The conversation began with a straightforward reading from Rural Life, a collection of farmland dispatches, nearly all of which first appeared in the Times. Going through a decade of columns, all moments in time, was like going through old photographs, Klinkenborg said.
He wrote Jan. 6 in the Times: “On bitter, clear nights, the stars look like minute ice crystals lighted by some source that requires no heat.” And in the paper’s April 12 edition, this first sentence: “This week, a sheep arrived in a box.”
“It’s so easy to let them become too sentimental or too cute,” Klinkenborg said of his essays. “I try to keep them as real as I can.”
In the essays, which appear on the Times ’ editorial page every few weeks, Klinkenborg said he tries to keep a level of “philosophical seriousness” in concert with the rest of the page, even if his topics are lighter than other commentaries and editorials.
Halfway through the evening, one audience member implored the author to read from Several Short Sentences. He moved through sections of the book, reading some of its directives.
Craft short sentences, so ambiguity is less likely, he said. Pay attention to what the words say, beyond what you mean them to. Avoid a word such as “with,” because it needlessly pastes clauses together. The end of an overlong sentence will forget its beginning, as the train of thought quickly derails. (And avoid “as.”)
Klinkenborg recalled his 1991 book The Last Fine Time, about changes over time in Buffalo, N.Y., as seen through the eyes of a popular neighborhood bar. When he sent the manuscript to The New Yorker, an editor told him the book was too tightly woven to excerpt. Instead, he asked Klinkenborg to knock down the 90,000-word book to 20,000. And, while he was at it, to “de-tumesce” the prose.
A few in the audience chuckled at the oddly prefixed word. “So you actually did it?” someone asked.
He said he did manage to reduce the language’s swelling, in the process learning to give up the attachment he had for his own work, and figuring out how to use his critical and creative eyes simultaneously.
“It changed my ability as a teacher dramatically,” said Klinkenborg, who has taught writing at institutions including Fordham University and Bennington College in Vermont.
Also, back then the magazine happened to pay $1 per word — cue the gasps — so the cut was done.
Other nuggets, according to Klinkenborg: Writer’s block exists because of the author’s notion that writing should flow, but flow is something the reader experiences. The reader has the power in the relationship, because the reader can put down the book at any point. So the writer’s job isn’t to flow. It’s to create, fix, arrange and kill sentences, with the reader holding veto power. The writer’s job, also, is to stop using “with,” he said.
After the reading, a line of people formed to purchase Klinkenborg’s books. Judy Kasper, who had been sitting on the bookstore’s stairs because all the chairs were taken, said she hadn’t read any of the author’s work before attending the event.
To the Norwich resident, it was “like attending a creative writing course.”
By Klinkenborg’s own admission, Several Short Sentences About Writing is the distillation of three decades of teaching college-level creative writing. The book isn’t separated by chapter, or even by conventional paragraph and line breaks.
Instead, it’s written in a sort of verse — though not quite blank verse — in a style that Klinkenborg said was better for speaking directly to the reader. For instance:
You don’t have to write short sentences forever.
Only until you find a compelling reason for a long
That’s as clear and direct as a short sentence.
“Something about the way he writes,” said Norwich Bookstore co-owner Penny McConnel in her introduction. “I just love it.”
After most attendees had filed out, Corlan Johnson of Norwich likened Klinkenborg’s writing to ballet, an art form that only looks easy after much work.
“It may look effortless,” said Johnson of quality writing. “It may flow for the reader. But you, the writer, have to work at it.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.