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The Kents

March 29, 2002

If you didn’t go to it, you know by now that you missed it, and of course you’re full of regret. I wonder if anyone ever gets through life without regrets.

In any case, the library was honored to co-sponsor with the Salida Cafe an evening evocatively titled “The Kents.” Our valley is blessed with many talented people, and two of them happen to be authors named Kent. They read last week to a full and appreciative house at the Salida Cafe.

Kent Nelson and Kent Haruf, two accomplished and reknowned authors, make their homes here, and they graciously agreed to make an evening of reading, taking questions, and signing books.

Both authors have been writing for over three decades and have published novels and short stories. Kent Nelson has published over 100 stories in fine literary journals, which is a remarkable accomplishment on its own, not counting his seven books. Kent Haruf has had stories published in the “The best American short stories” and has published three award-winning novels.

Both are good readers. The most common sentiment I heard afterwards was, “Oh, that was just wonderful!”

Kent Nelson read a very powerful short story about a husband, wife, daughter, and unborn son, which surprised and impressed all of the audience that didn’t already know him. Kent Haruf read an engaging chapter from his novel “Plainsong” in which Maggie first approaches the two bachelor brothers. You know the part I’m talking about, of course, because why would you not have read this book?

After the readings, both authors were very generous in fielding questions about their writing and how they work. I think it was instructive to hear how different they could be in certain aspects of their work: for example, Kent Haruf always knows the end of his story when he begins, whereas Kent Nelson never knows for sure where his characters will lead him.

However, both writers were adamant about one point: Writing is not the product of inspiration; it is the product of hard, steadfast work. It is their full-time job. They work at it everyday, no matter what. They do not wait for fleeting moments of inspiration. They’d never get anything done that way.

Kent Haruf, when answering a question about dialogue, pointed out that dialogue slows down the story … and I thought, yes!, it’s exactly like that in real life, too.

Dialogue, or conversation, slows things down. I think this a good thing. It is corrective, and I imagine it is good for stories, too.

If you’re in a hurry, pressed for time because your plate is too full and your laundry list is too long and you’ve used up the margin in your life, then you might feel impatient when someone stops to talk. Make a bigger margin.

Also, dialogue should add something to the story, they said, and this would be nice for conversation, too. Each of us has a particular tolerance for chit-chat, idle talk, and cliches. But some of that is ritual, not mere filler.

Would you prefer this conversation:

“Hi.”
“Hello.”
“Lovely day.”
“Indeed.”
“How’s it going?”
“Can’t complain.”
“I hear you’re going to be a grandfather.”
“Ah, yes …”

Or this one:

“Hi.”
“Hello.”
“Heard your unwed daughter’s pregnant.”

One makes me think of Robertson Davies, the other Ernest Hemingway. I like them both.

But I digress. Although you may have missed this particular reading, make time for the next one … and conversation after.

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