|Kris Adams Wendt|
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with words. One childhood treasure is a tiny construction paper book the size of a cassette tape. Titled “The Kite,” it’s illustrated in crayon with stick people and broccoli stalk trees. The text carefully printed in my late father’s hand was written down at my dictation because I was too young to even copy my name.
By age nine I had decided to become a cowgirl librarian who wrote books and delivered them door-to-door on horseback. My grade school poems and stories were filled with bits of myths and legends, space creatures and improbable heroines.
“Write what you know.”
To my adolescent ears the junior high teacher’s instruction sounded like a prison sentence of hard time without benefit of imagination. What did I know that was useful, important or deep? I’d barely been across the Upper Michigan border, much less done anything heroic. How could ‘writing what I know’ possibly be interesting?”
Then my mother the English teacher suggested I might spend two weeks of my sixteenth summer attending Rhinelander School of the Arts (SOA). We struck a deal; she would pay the fees and provide two weeks taxi service from our Conover cottage if I accepted her auditing my beginning writing class without complaint.
The class was taught by Tere Rios whose novel The Fifteenth Pelican had been the genesis for Sally Field’s hit TV show “The Flying Nun.” She was very kind, but didn’t quite know what to do with me. I was youngest person enrolled at SOA that summer, a mere baby in a room full of serious adult writers.
The 1967 SOA Writers in Residence were Wisconsin’s own August Derleth and Kentucky essayist Jesse Stuart. While Derleth remained a Formidable Presence, Stuart was a great bear hug of a man who made me feel like a favorite niece from our first moment of eye contact.
A gifted teacher, poet and prodigious author of short stories, Stuart’s informal noon hour discussions of the writing process were not so much lectures as fine storytelling. He possessed a gift for weaving the threads of daily existence into the fabric of life’s lessons. His tenacity, his accomplishments and the warmth of his hill country accent were enthralling.
Jesse Stuart said, “Write what you ARE.”
By changing one word, he transformed hackneyed advice into an invitation to use writing as an affirmation of who we were as individuals, a bountiful buffet to share with readers as friends. The gift of those four words, as well as actually being noticed and validated by a writer I admired, has remained with me for a lifetime.
I became a (horseless) librarian patiently acquiring, organizing and sharing the published works of others. The first twenty-seven years as Rhinelander District Library children’s librarian and associate director gave way to eighteen months as adult department head and finally the director’s chair before my (first) retirement in 2008.
When the opportunity to write a weekly newspaper column presented itself over three decades ago, I remembered Jesse Stuart’s advice and approached each essay as a storyteller might. In the process I wove my own threads into a tapestry of words – a pattern of life and literature, family, friends, humor, history, and occasional rants against naked emperors when nobody else seemed willing to holler and point.
“Life develops into a long chain of connected events,” Jesse Stuart wrote. “One link in the chain ties onto something else.”
He died in 1984, just about the time personal computers were capturing attention by transforming scribbles on a lined notepad into ‘word processing’ – a term that always inexplicably reminds me of canning homemade applesauce.
It’s a distinct pleasure to return to librarianship as a Wisconsin Valley Library Service consultant. I am excited at the prospect of adding a new group of readers as a link in my writing chain and hearing what you have to offer in return!
Jesse Stuart Foundation
2010 biography of Jesse Stuart offers insight into author