Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wordcraft with Leif Enger

By Jaclyn Martini
English Lit & Creative Writing Major '16, 
Library Student Worker
One of the most interesting things for any literature-lover, be they creator or consumer, is to hear a published author speak.  Readers love to hear about why this might have been included, or why some other thing wasn’t there; those who write are hoping to hear tips, perhaps even encouragement, simultaneously praying that today is not the day they put their foot so far into their mouth that their toes start digesting.  When Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, blessed Concordia with a visit on Friday, the events were attended by students, professors, and community members.  Enger visited two classrooms during the day and gave a lecture later that night, each event different, but all centered on the all-important craft of words.  From writing to story development to reading, Enger had a lot to say.

When Enger’s class period started, he took the front of the room; the audience became utterly his.  Mostly attended by students interested in writing – and their professors – the talk was easy and enlightening. Enger seemed to have answers for everything we asked.  He addressed work ethic – “Just keep pushing through!” – and nerves – “Take the risk!  If it doesn’t work out you can always re-imagine it.” 

All around the room, shoulders relaxed.  Of course it was that easy.  Why shouldn’t it be?  “Write what you love,” he said.  “Not just what you know.”  He told interesting anecdotes from his early co-authorship with his brother, he gave insight to how he wrote Peace Like a River, and it was easy to wonder how many of the books sitting on shelves just out the door had been written similarly.  Authors changed from distant, frightening people to human beings sitting up at three in the morning, muscling through something that just didn’t want to flow, hoping that for every word that was thrown away a better one would take its place.  Many of us looked at each other when he started talking about that.  Was he talking about himself, or us?

Enger’s second talk focused more on his book, more on plot and characters and the actual story.  When asked about some of his characters, he revealed Roxanna was intended to be a character who was seen only once, in passing; Swede appeared unexpectedly inside a car one day.  “Swede was sitting there, and . . . that’s kinda the first I knew about Swede,” he said.  “You’ve gotta allow for some freedom.  You’ve gotta write an outline and not be married to it.” 

The third talk, held in the evening, was attended by several community members in addition to the group of Concordia people.  Here Enger spoke about reading, especially about reading for pleasure. “It is worth our time and worth defending,” he said.  “The stuff I read for education is gone.  The stuff I read for understanding is mostly gone.  The things I loved are still there.”  There was time for questions, and several were asked with the same core worry – how can we make sure that the next generation keeps reading?  What is it that we should be doing? 

Enger’s answer was in two parts.  “You become a reader,” he said, “the first time a book just - just grabs you.”  Heads around the auditorium nodded, each person thinking of their own introduction to the world of words.  “Never elevate a book beyond the possibility of enjoyment,” Enger added firmly, listing some of the books assigned to him in school he didn’t touch until much later in life.  “I was reading [Moby Dick] and I thought, hang on,” he said.  “If I had known about the shrunken heads, I would have read it when I was twelve!”  It was nice, refreshing, to hear someone express the idea was that if reading was seen as enjoyable, readers would enjoy it.  “Sometimes you fall into a book like you fall out of a rowboat.  You thrash around and you’re just . . . in it.”  His words made me want to head to the library and check out as many books as I could carry.  How long since I – since anyone in the auditorium who wasn’t retired – had just read for fun?

As the event came to a close, Enger thanked us for having him, for our questions, for our time.  However, it is the university who should be thanking him. Who knows which student might write the next great American novel, perhaps inspired or bolstered by his words?  Perhaps in ten or twenty years, several books on the library shelf will be Concordia alumni publications – any of them, when asked, might say in an interview that one time, Leif Enger had come to their university and answered some questions, and that they had been taking the risk ever since.