Plains Folk

A Working Writer


Larry Woiwode is the stimulus package for North Dakota. Since the regional economy is going gangbusters, we don’t really need any economic help. Nor is the problem one of territorial disadvantage, climate and dependency and all that, as our historians traditionally have told us. No, our sickness comes from within, a softness born of lax living, or perhaps even that thing we so often refuse to name, evil.


There is hard teaching in Woiwode’s most recent book, published by Crossway and entitled, Words for Readers and Writers. I don’t even like the subtitle, Spirit-Pooled Dialogues, which seems to me labored. At times the confrontational Woiwode surfaces, as when he presents the US Department of Education, indeed the whole educational establishment, as a goose-stepping, oppressive agent of enforced conformity.


Just when you think Woiwode is going too far, comes the misdirection, and instead of striking, he invokes the Gospels and challenges us to overcome bad with not blood, but good. And then you think, I was reading away here with conventional expectations, and I got sucker-punched by Christian charity, so maybe conformity is a problem.


I’ve just broached another subject people don’t know how to handle, which is that this sublime literary artist is a professing Christian, and his faith, overt and implicit, gets into his work. He can be a little defensive about this.


“Fiction containing provincial or primitive Christianity, as judged by perfectionist elites, is often passed over or dismissed, no matter its literary quality or aesthetic level,” Woiwode writes. Sounds a little defensive, doesn’t it? And yet, can you really tell me it’s not true?


All right then, let me tell you about the lovable Woiwode—not a cuddly Woiwode, but a lovable one. First off, he loves Willa Cather. And here’s the thing about Cather—although some misguided critics have tried to portray her as alienated from her prairie home of Red Cloud, Nebraska, she was not. She kept her pew there in Grace Episcopal Church. Notably, then, Woiwode lives and works in Mott, North Dakota.


Woiwode, too, credits and loves his formative mentor, William Maxwell, of the New Yorker. I’m not ashamed to say I teared up a little while reading about Maxwell’s wise kindnesses, and I’ll bet Woiwode did, too, when he was writing about them. This really is a book for readers and writers.


And speaking of readers, Woiwode is one. His essays invoke the masters of American and Russian fiction in their full humanity. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in the teaching of creative writing, but I’m pretty sure one issue these days is that prospective writers simply haven’t read enough. That’s something Maxwell taught Woiwode.


Finally, Woiwode works, he knows about work, and he talks about work. He writes that “no joy surpasses the joy a writer feels as the work moves ahead and strives for the form that was present in a writer’s mind before even beginning to set down words.” He describes himself as a worker with words.


That description, and the labor that backs it up, puts Woiwode in the middle of the producerist tradition centers the values of North Dakota, on a good day. In recent years Woiwode has written a lot, but the product has been various. I believe there will come a time when the law-giving Woiwode will give way to the Gospel-gving Woiwode, and what will emerge will be a producerist literature that will define our generation on the prairies. God speed that work.


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