A Writer's Writer Remembers

What I Think I Didby Larry WoiwodeBasic Books. 312p. $25

Seven years ago in Acts: A Writer’s Reflections on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life, novelist Larry Woiwode interleaved his idiosyncratic meditations on Luke’s narrative of the first Apostles with his own story of giving up an English professor’s job in upstate New York to try his hand at subsistence farming on 160 acres in the hard, dry, Western terrain of his home state of North Dakota. There, chores dominated each morning and evening, his wife home-schooled their four children, many heat and electrical comforts were simply done without, and yet the wonderfully disciplined Mr. Woiwode (pronounced Y-woodie) still managed to go to his office in their old granary and write six hours day, six days a week.

One product of those persistent labors is this wise, intimate, charming memoir, the initial volume of a planned autobiographical trilogy. Act One he calls Snow with Tints of Then, an account of the cruel winter months of 1996, the worst in North Dakota’s history, when he installed an outdoor wood-burning furnace to heat the house and out-buildings, gradually threw into the dragon all the dead cottonwood limbs and lumber he could find, and ended up feeding it the novels of Charles Dickens. Conditions got so straitened that the sheep chewed off the tails of the horses in the barn just for the protein in them.

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No one writes of such weather better: Snow to the eaves of buildings, which is bad enough, but the worst is the wind and the way it magnifies every aspect of the cold. It wears at my wife, pouring in streaming weight over the north of the house, the wall where our six-foot headboard stands, with a force I feel will bear us off in the night. Then strikes in wallops that jerk shrieks from the nails as the bedsprings tremble under us in our suspended sleeplessness.

Each storm and shift in fortune seems to conjure up a memoryof the German-Russian village where he grew up, of his mother’s sudden death when he was nine, of an ornery Robert Frost threatening to hunt him down if Woiwode ever sells his autographuntil he moves into Act Two, Then with Tints of Snow, and its more straightforward account of his industrious 20’s.

At the University of Illinois, the callow Woiwode was an esteemed short story writer and poet who discovered a gift for Shakespearean acting and in his senior year wrote theater reviews for The Daily Illini, where his editor was a freshman named Roger Ebert. Heading to New York City after graduation, he and a 19-year-old named Bobby DeNiro got parts in an avant-garde play titled Three Blind Men. But while his good friend continued to pursue an acting career, Woiwode took a job at a P.R. mailing firm in order to concentrate on fiction writing. Cadging lessons in the craft from a stunningly generous William Maxwell, fiction editor at The NewYorker, Woiwode blazed through reams of what he calls internal bleeding until he finally got it right and his stories began appearing regularly alongside those of John Updike and Eudora Welty in that high-paying magazine. Enabled by that income to marry his college sweetheart, Carole, Woiwode gave up his job; and on their honeymoon in a motel room in rural Ontario, he writes, we use the Magic Fingers, the one luxury, and while the pay radio purrs and she sleeps near my arm I jot down ideas that arose during the drive, and then the novel comes tumbling out and I write as fast as I can to pin with a sentence the scenes like a movie going pasta few words to open or conclude each one or give me a view into it, and when the sun rises I have a pile of notes on every piece of paper on me or in the room. The novel.

What I’m Going to Do, I Think was to become the winner of the William Faulk-ner Foundation Award for the best first novel of 1969. Woiwode was then 28 years old and the father of a newborn daughter. He was, as he puts it, launched.

Larry Woiwode is now 58 and the author of 10 books, including two collections of stories and five acclaimed novels, one of them the masterful family saga Beyond the Bedroom Wall, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has long been a writer’s writer, going his own way, neglecting, like Cormac McCarthy, the vanities and self-promotion of a publishing career. There’s a quiet heroism to his life that can have its basis only in his faith.

What I Think I Did is many good things: a gracious homage to old friends and mentors who guided and challenged him, a slyly humorous reminiscence of the naïve excitements and exertions of youth, a lyrical portrait of the hardships and pleasures of family and farm life on the Great Plains. But what is most intriguing about this autobiography is the great gulf between the hard-drinking, clothes-loving tyro of St. Mark’s Place and the stoic farmer of deep religious convictions who is the author of these graceful pages. Book two may be even better than this remarkable beginning.

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