At Kent Haruf‘s memorial service in Salida a few months ago, the Wyoming writer Mark Spragg told a story he had heard Kent tell that struck a chord with me. I recently found that story again in “The Making of a Writer,” a memoir-essay Kent wrote for the magazine Granta.
I want to share the story with you because it’s a powerful example of how the small things in life can teach us lessons so big that we may miss them if we’re not paying attention. And it’s so characteristic Kent, quiet, modest, deep and absolutely right.
Kent was, he writes, teaching in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (my undergraduate alma mater, though I was there a decade earlier), “living in a trailer court in a one-room trailer.”
Across the road from me in the trailer court was a family who were all mentally disabled. Darrell and Retta and their little boy, Kevin. I used to help them a little by driving them to the grocery store and to their appointments with Social Services. On one of these trips, Retta said to me: “Well, Keinnt”–she always called me Keinnt–“Well, Keinnt, what do you do for a living?”
And I said: “I try to help students learn how to write better.”
And she said: “Well, Keinnt, Darrell says I write too small.” She thought of course that I was teaching penmanship. Which, in truth, probably would be more useful than trying how to help anyone learn how to write convincing lies and literary fictions.
Kent goes on to say, “Now for the last thirteen years, Cathy and I have been back in Colorado [his home state], in Salida, and I wrote Eventide and … I wrote this new novel Benediction, working out in my writer’s shed in the mountains, heeding my hours, and I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life.”
And here’s the kicker that arrows right to my soul:
And I want to think, as Darrell warned Retta: over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.
So that’s my new resolve. In addition to living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand (a line I adapted from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song), I want to write and live “not too small.”
It’s an aim we could all adopt. The world can surely use more not-too-small minds and hearts.