In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen tells a story that was told to her when she was a child.
The story goes like this:
A farmer hears a loud noise in the middle of the night and goes outside to investigate. In the darkness, searching for the sound, the farmer falls into a ditch, climbs out of it, stumbles over a stone, rights himself, falls into another ditch, climbs out.
The farmer goes to the north and the south, to the east and the west, through the muck and the mud; and finally, exhausted, he goes back to bed without ever having discovered the source of the noise.
In the morning, the farmer looks down from his bedroom window and sees his footprints from the night before. The marks that he left as he stumbled and ran, lost, through the dark, have formed a pattern; they have traced the beautiful shape of a stork.
Dinesen ends her retelling of this story with these words: “The tight place, the dark pit in which I am now lying, of what bird is it the talon? When the design of my life is completed, shall I, shall other people see a stork?”
Nineteen years ago, I was in a tight place, a dark pit.
The tight place was entirely of my own devising.
The dark pit was born of fear and laziness.
Basically, the problem was this: I was thirty years old and I had known for the past ten years that I wanted to be a writer.
But I did not write.
I purchased books on writing.
I read some of them.
I told people that I was a writer, and I wore black turtlenecks.
But I did not write.
I dreamed big dreams. I pontificated. I gnashed my teeth.
I made everyone around me want to gnash their teeth.
But I did not write.
It was a very tight place, a ridiculously dark pit.
And then, when I was thirty years old, something happened. I guess you could say that I, like Isak Dinesen’s farmer, heard a noise in the night.
I woke up a little, just enough to go stumbling outside to investigate.
My stumbling led me from Florida to Minnesota.
And in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, I got a job working in a warehouse for a book distributor called the Bookmen.
The Bookmen warehouse looked like something out of a Dickens novel. It was an old, redbrick building with the words BETTER HEALTH THROUGH BETTER PLUMBING emblazoned in faded, peeling letters on its west side.
The warehouse was filled with books, and with people who loved to read books. It was cold in the wintertime and stifling in the summertime.
The floors were cement.
There were tall, wide windows.
On winter afternoons, sunlight streamed into the warehouse and lit it up like a cathedral.
In The Magician’s Elephant, the elephant that the magician conjures (entirely by mistake and also very much on purpose) smells like dried apples and moldy paper and dung; and this was the way that the Bookmen smelled to me. It was the odor of possibility and impossibility, the smell of the dusty, broken world, mingled with the scent of paper, stories.
In the lobby of the Bookmen, there was a coffee vending machine. For ten cents, you could get a cup of coffee (a squirt of powder, followed by a stream of hot water), delivered to you in a paper cup that featured a poker hand imprinted on its side.
I didn’t know how to play poker.
But still, I studied the cards on my coffee cup. They promised me something. Here they were, the cards I had been dealt.
How would I play them?
The coffee itself was uniformly, undeniably terrible.
There is a Peanuts cartoon strip in which Linus makes a cup of hot chocolate for Lucy by melting a brown crayon in hot water. He asks Lucy how it tastes and she says, “It tastes like some warm water that has had a brown crayon dipped in it.”
That’s the way the ten-cent, poker-handed coffee at the Bookmen tasted.
I loved it.
I arrived at work at seven in the morning. I would clock in and go out to the lobby and put a dime in the coffee vending machine. And then I climbed the stairs to the third floor, where I stood at one of the windows and drank my truly lousy coffee and watched the sky lighten.
The sky in Minnesota was different from the sky in Florida, and I could not stop marveling over it. It seemed almost otherworldly to me.
Once, I saw a Christmas card that featured a painting of a snowy field and a split-rail fence and some birds and a tree and a blue sky—ordinary things, a quotidian winter world. But hanging in the blue sky, just above the tree, was planet Earth.
On the back of the card, was the title of the painting. It was called “A Different Place Entirely.”
And that is the way I felt, standing at the Bookmen windows in the early mornings, looking out at the indigo sky and watching the stars fade. I had the strange notion that where I had always thought myself to be was not where I truly was. I experienced the dizzying sense of the known world pushing itself up against the unknown one.
It was an odd sensation; there was freedom in it.
Where was I?
I was in a different place entirely.
There is a Buddhist precept that goes something like this: the only thing that you deserve is the chance to do the work.
That is all.
Just the chance.
Somehow--the coffee machine and the poker-hand cups, the tall windows and the strange and wonderful sky, the books all around me, with their smell of dust and possibility--somehow these things conspired to make me understand something that I had not understood before: I saw clearly that I had been given a chance.
I started to do the work.
I started to write.
At the Bookmen, I was assigned to the third floor; my job title was “picker.” This meant that I went around the warehouse floor with a shopping cart and a pick-list—a computerized printout that detailed the title of the book, its location in the warehouse and the quantity I should pick.
I took the books off the shelf, put them in the cart, took the cart downstairs to the packing department via a huge and extremely temperamental freight elevator, and then came back upstairs, picked up another order, and another shopping cart and began again.
I liked picking.
And I guess that it was inevitable, that I would start reading the books I was picking.
The third floor of the Bookmen, my floor, was where the children’s books were.
I began by reading picture books, and then I moved on to novels.
The first children’s novel that I read was Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963.
I remember standing on the cement floor, holding the paperback of The Watsons open in my left hand and balancing a stack of books on my right arm. I remember the light streaming in the windows behind me. I remember my feet hurting, my heart unfurling.
This, I thought.
This is what I want to do.
This is the kind of book I want to try and write, a book that tells the truth and makes the truth bearable somehow.
The Watsons go to Birmingham was followed by Bridge to Terabithia. And then came Abel’s Island, Wringer, The Slave Dancer, Skellig, Letters from Rifka, Maniac Magee, Walk Two Moons, The Giver, The Door in the Wall, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Catherine Called Birdy, Holes.
I read and read and read. And with each book, my heart unfurled more, further. Something inside of me opened.
I got up very early in the morning in those days. The alarm was set for 4:30. I wrote two pages as soon as I got out of bed. And then I went off to work at the Bookmen.
I wrote. I picked books. I read books.
I got up and did it all over again.
I was happy in a way that I had never been happy before.
I had been given a chance to do the work.
And I was doing it.
I was working.
I was becoming myself.
My second winter in Minnesota was a particularly brutal one. There were several days in a row where the high (the high!) was 32 degrees below zero. I stood at the windows of the Bookmen in those early mornings and stared out at the strange sky and thought, with longing, of Florida.
In particular, I thought about the greenhouse. And Bernice.
When I was twenty years old and had just graduated from college, and was certain that what I wanted to do was to become a writer, I got a job in a greenhouse that grew variegated philodendrons.
The work in the greenhouse consisted mostly of cutting eyes (a leaf and a stem of a mature plant) and sticking the eyes into pots so that they could take root and start a new plant.
It was not hard work.
But it was relentless, hot, oddly exhausting work. And even though there was a clear progression, a pattern of things growing, changing, becoming—stem, leaf, dirt, small pot, stem takes root, plant grows large and then larger still—the work itself seemed absolutely pointless to me.
I worked with several other ladies, all of them were older than I was. And one of them, Bernice, was in her seventies.
Every morning, Bernice greeted me with the same words, “Sister Kate, what you gonna do with that college degree?”
Every morning, I answered her the same way. I said, “I am going to be a writer.”
And Bernice said, “Uh huh. When you gonna start writing?”
“Soon,” I said.
“Uh huh,” she said again.
I wasn’t fooling Bernice.
But I was doing a pretty good job of fooling myself. I told myself that I was waiting. I told myself that surely some sign would appear, some inspiration would strike, some divine intervention would occur, and then, then, I would write.
In the meantime, I was stuck, lost, drifting in a hot and becalmed sea.
On the west side of the greenhouse, there was a pecan tree.
One hot afternoon, during our lunch break, I watched as Bernice collected pecans from the base of the tree.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“What’s it look like I am doing?”
“Picking up nuts.”
“Why? Why you think? I am going to make a pecan pie.”
The sun was hot and the sky was blue and we were on our lunch breaks and here was Bernice, bending and standing and bending and standing, collecting pecans.
It seemed crazy to me.
I went down to the lake and jumped in and cooled off and by the time I made it back to the greenhouse, I was hot again. Bernice was still outside under the pecan tree gathering nuts.
Something about this annoyed me.
“Why don’t you just go and buy a pecan pie?” I said to her.
“Don’t want somebody else’s pecan pie,” she said, without looking up at me. “I want my pecan pie.”
I would stand at the window of the Bookmen on winter mornings and look out at the frozen world and imagine the warmth of the greenhouse; I would hear Bernice’s voice saying, “Don’t want someone else’s pecan pie. I want my pecan pie.”
Bernice had been telling me to do my work.
I couldn’t hear her then.
But I could hear her now.
And there was another voice that winter.
It was the voice of a girl with a Southern accent. One night, right before I fell asleep, I heard the girl say a single sentence, “I have a dog named Winn-Dixie.”
The next morning, when I got up to write, that girl, that voice was waiting for me.
I listened to her. I followed her.
I did my work. I bent and straightened and bent again. I wrote two pages. And then two more.
Winter slowly gave way to spring.
Earlier this year, I visited the Kerlan along with students in Julie Schumacher’s undergraduate children literature’s class.
I sat with them and listened to Lisa Von Drasek talk about the Kerlan, its mission, its holdings, the archives, the manuscripts, the art. And then, suddenly, there it was on a screen in front of all of us, the first page of the first draft of Because of Winn-Dixie, those words that I had typed years ago in a dark room on a dark winter morning when I was homesick and cold.
There it was. The beginning.
And it was an absolute, pure-d mess.
The students laughed, looking at it.
The manuscript is full of misspellings, digressions, wanderings, typos, missteps, wrong turns.
But somehow, all this wandering, stumbling lostness, had assumed a shape, a meaning.
It had become a book.
Impossible as it seems, it happened.
By bending and standing, and bending again.
And by that I mean: work.
But also, it happened this way: by faith.
And by that I mean the willingness to be lost, the trust involved in following a voice, a noise in the night.
“Artmaking,” say Bayles and Orland in their book Art and Fear, “involves skills that can be learned. The conventional wisdom here is that while ‘craft’ can be taught, ‘art’ remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and hard work.”
Sitting with those students, looking up at that rough draft, I couldn’t help but think of the novel that I am working on now.
It’s a mess.
And I am lost.
Looking at that page reminded me of the power of work, and of the courage and hope, the faith, involved in allowing yourself to be lost.
The Bookmen has gone out of business.
The warehouse has been turned into condos. The old, tall windows have been replaced. The freight elevators no longer exist. There was a day, I suppose, when they came to collect the coffee vending machine, unplugged it, removed it, wheeled it away. All those poker-hand cups, someone else’s hope, went elsewhere.
The books are gone.
Of course, the books are gone.
The books would have been the first things to go.
And the words that were painted on the side of the building, BETTER HEALTH THROUGH BETTER PLUMBING, those words are gone, too.
“If you bring forth what is within you,” say the Gnostic gospels, “what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Maureen Vance, one of Julie’s students who visited the Kerlan that day, wrote an essay using The Tale of Despereaux manuscripts. She focused on the development of the scene in which Despereaux forgives his father for banishing him to the dungeon. In the final paragraph of her essay, Vance says, “progress sometimes requires regress. The character and author must undergo hardship, revision and reassessment before they learn what is most important . . .There is no guarantee that the process will be easy, but merely every hope that the outcome will be worth it.”
That is what the Kerlan is about.
It is about believing that the outcome will be worth it.
It is about believing that if we work and if we hope and if we listen, we will, in the end, see the shape of something beautiful, something that we have longed for and not at all anticipated . . . forgiveness, love, a stork.
To the Kerlan committee, and to readers and writers everywhere, I thank you for this recognition, for giving me the chance to do the work.
I accept the Kerlan award today in honor of my teacher, friend and fellow writer, Jane Resh Thomas.