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The Scarlet & Black

Klinkenborg tells writers to be unafraid

By Fabiola Barral,

This week’s Writers@Grinnell teamed up with the Center for Prairie studies to feature someone hailing from pretty close to home. Veryln Klinkenborg is a native Iowan who made a name for himself as a professor at colleges such as Fordham University, St. Olaf College, Bennington College and Harvard University. Since 1997, Klinkenborg’s farm life editorials have also often been featured in the New York Times.  He is the author of a number of non-fiction books and is also a Guggenheim Fellow. Klinkenborg currently resides on a farm in New York state.
At his event, Klinkenborg read selections from his book The Rural Life, an anthology of his editorial features in the New York Times from 2003 to the present.  Klinkenborg focuses his pieces on agricultural life, something that not many individuals in New York frequently consider. His essays bring to light the everyday beauty of farm life, often framed in terms of both life and death. Although Klinkenborg jokingly described his role at the New York Times as “that guy writing about pigs,” his humorous description only scratches the surface of his pieces. Through his writings about farm life, audiences cease to feel distant from the lifestyle and instead connect through the prose.

Photo by Mary Zheng

“I really appreciate his emphasis on highlighting the smaller details about one’s personal experiences. His content isn’t usually something that particularly interests me, but his style of writing definitely drew me in,” said Sivan Philo ’13.
“Klinkenborg’s prose is definitely very strong and it lent itself well to the sort of semi non-fictional prose he read to us from his book,” said Varun Nayar ’15.
Klinkenborg’s reflection as a Creative Writing teacher was one of the most touching moments of the evening. Klinkenborg discussed the common perception of writing as performative: a means to get by in classes, but not as something to do directly with one’s self. He continued to explain his teaching technique, one in which the focus is on making students believe that they are the experts in their own lives. Klinkenborg argued that it is crucial to believe that, despite being only 20 years old, students’ lives are full of promise and worthy of analysis. If this can be accomplished, “language becomes about testimonial,” Klinkenborg said.
Klinkenborg finds that his students save their best writings and techniques for the end of their pieces because they are afraid of draining their talent. This habit, however, instills a fear of writing that is detrimental to being a writer.
These tidbits of advice can be found in his other novel, Several Short Sentences About Writing, a work that focused on his 30-plus years experiences as a creative writing teacher. The book description for Several Short Sentences About Writing details that: “There is no gospel, no orthodoxy, no dogma in this book. What you’ll find here isn’t the way to write. Instead, you’ll find a way to clear your mind of illusions about writing and discover how you write.” This very same book description can be found by simply hearing Klinkenborg passionately elaborate on his experiences with students.
“Most of the arguments he made about clear and concise sentences made a lot of sense,” Nayar said. “He gave a very new take to argumentative thinking that didn’t necessarily focus on academic writing as a means to an end—it does not need to be a series of logical paragraphs leading to a predictable conclusion.”
Klinkenborg described his style best when he said: “It’s not so much that I love to write; I’m not afraid to write.”

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