"They say plan it. I say do it." Tom Peters
Garrison Keillor, host and creator of public radio's A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer's Almanac, has recently celebrated his 40th year in radio. He's also the author of nearly 2 dozen books including Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance, 77 Love Sonnets, Life Among The Lutherans, and A Christmas Blizzard. He was born in Anoka MN in 1942 and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and daughter. He has two grandsons. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the Episcopal church.
tompeters.com asks ...
I hear you'll be performing on the Cambridge Forum soon.
GK: Yes. I have to imagine what Harvard kids want to hear about. It will be December the 14th, when they're finishing up their semester. They'll be tired of being talked to, I would think. I should probably go up and sing to them.
That would be nice. You have a sonnet for graduates, don't you?
GK: Yes. Just to be interesting, I advised failure. I advised that they seek out a great failure early in their career, just to get that out of the way. It's not the worst advice, I think. Of course, the college students I know are over-caffeinated, highly motivated, and stuffed with information. The Internet and Google have their usefulness, God knows. I mean, how would we live without them? But you know, for young people with tremendously retentive minds, there's too much upstairs. There's too much data going in. If they didn't have ADD before, they've got it now.
They're just bounced around like dragonflies on a pond. I don't mean to sound like an old codger, but I remember when I started out writing for the New Yorker I was living in a farmhouse in central Minnesota, because it was so cheap. It really removed a lot of the pressure of having to sell-sell-sell. I loved it there. I was desperately lonely, but that's not a bad thing.
I was sitting in a room upstairs at a desk that was a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood across two used file cabinets, looking at an Underwood typewriter, and typing on yellow paper. It was a contemplative life that had great, deep pleasure. I wouldn't know how to recover it today.
This, for me, is how the world has changed, that a man sits at a desk in utter silence, and the phone line is simply the phone line. Somebody calls, and you don't have to answer it. You sit in silence, and hours pass and you tap-tap-tap-tap at a typewriter. I will never, ever recover that life. It's gone forever. And the college students I know will never know that life.
Well, maybe a couple. [Laughter]
GK: Unless they go up to Nepal. But even in Nepal, there would still be Internet cafés.
Well, that's true. I walk my dog in the park. People are there, checking their BlackBerries while they're walking their dogs. I think, "Okay, it's only a dog. But still, can't you just give your dog some of your personal attention?"
People are basically addicted to connectivity. I think the next wave of information is going to be about how to disconnect. Apparently Mac computers have a program that you can download that will block you from getting on the Internet.
GK: Yeah, it's called freedom.
But all you have to do is restart your computer.
GK: Even that is a little help. Well, we got ourselves into this, and so we'll just have to get ourselves out.
We all got fascinated. I think for people who grew up with Britannica encyclopedias as their main source of information, to be able to go onto the computer and get much more information was liberating initially. And now, it has snared us in this terrible web.
GK: Well, anyway, that sounds like an addiction.
In one of your books, you write a sonnet about film director Bob Altman that includes the line, "To give up authority and simply try to see." Can you talk a little bit about that? I think it has great application for the managers in our audience as it comes from the perspective of someone who frequently leads a large number of people.
GK: Altman, in my experience, was very unlike other directors, or unlike one stereotype of a director. According to the actors I met shooting the picture [A Prairie Home Companion], he's entirely unlike other directors in that he's fascinated by actors. He loves actors.
As he was setting up to shoot a scene, he would tell them where the camera would be and how much of the scene we were going to shoot, to put them at ease so that they weren't surprised. He didn't want to put them at any greater risk than they had to be.
He gave them their own head, to an extraordinary degree. He wasn't there instructing them in the finer points of characterization. And after he saw them run through the scene once for the cameras, and he watched it on his monitor, he would tell them what he liked. But he wouldn't discourage them. He would say, "Show me something more. Do more with that." He was not an authoritative director. He was happy to be surprised. So they really loved working with him.
Altman had the courage to remove himself a little bit, distance himself from the people in the scene, and to be a sort of reassuring, paternal presence. He gave them that freedom. You knew that all of those performers had an internal critic. He didn't need to add his own critical persona to it.
Right. He would only elaborate on the positive. That's nice.
GK: So they really extended themselves for him and they didn't have little strings attached to their arms and feet.
You say they, but you were also one of those actors, right?
GK: Well, I was trying very hard not to be an actor. When you're on the screen with Meryl Streep, you are furniture and you might as well just accept that fact.
That must have been daunting.
GK: It was. But I was undaunted. I had a really good time making the movie. I made it behind my stoical Midwestern face.
One last note on Bob Altman. I believe you once said in reference to him that, "By the time you're 80 years old, you learn a lot of tricks." I suspect that you could say that about yourself and your own storytelling and writing career. What tricks have you learned along the way?
GK: I wouldn't describe them as tricks. You do develop very quick reflexes of rejection and editing of your own stuff. When you're young, you're so fond of what you have created, because it takes a lot of effort to extrude this onto the page or onto the screen. You're very fond of it, even if it's wounded and you're barely alive, you still have affection for it.
But as you get older, you learn how to throw it out without much thought, without much pity. You look at a piece that you've written, and you take those first three paragraphs, and you dump them. You just rip them out. Usually, that's the part that needs to be thrown out, the big windup, the big introduction. The first page almost always can go. You learn to do that without regret. I edit myself much more quickly and mercilessly now than I ever could have 20, 30 years ago.
You've gone through so many more words. Maybe the words that come out have become less precious, just due to the sheer number of words you've used.
GK: You get tired of your own pretensions. You recognize them immediately and all of your attempts to be clever.
Perhaps part of the success of storytelling is getting to that point. Obviously, many people don't get beyond that or they are still enthralled with everything they have to say. Those are the big bores, right?
GK: For some reason, they aren't able to hear themselves, or they're not able to see their audience. They've become disconnected somehow. I think anybody in the business knows that the first sentence out of your mouth, the first minute you have in front of an audience is crucial, absolutely crucial. The audience is going to give you the benefit of the doubt for at least a minute or two. So don't waste that.
I once was campaigning for a guy running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, whom I admired a lot. I gave him this huge buildup, which was sincere, and mostly truthful. When he got up there, to a standing ovation, he proceeded to kill off his audience by thanking all of the people who were there who meant anything to him in his years in the Senate. You could just see this audience slowly deflate.
He needed a coach.
GK: He was a U.S. Senator. You cannot tell these people what to do. They all see themselves as the future President of the United States.
Nick Morgan, a communications coach, says you shouldn't ever get up to speak unless you plan on changing the world. Do you ever think about changing the status quo of the people who are listening to your radio show?
GK: No, I never think about that. When I'm talking on the radio, I think that I am talking to a lot of people who have worked Monday through Friday to try to change the world. Some of them I wish well, others not. But, you know, they're trying to change the world. My job is to make them forget about it and let them relax. The last thing they need from me is a sermon on Saturday evening, or even on Sunday morning. I want to let them be silly, and I want to do a silly show if I possibly can. It's not that easy when you're 67 to be silly. But if it's possible for me to do that, I want to.
We have these ten-year-old boys who are big fans of the show. I meet them every so often when they come to a reading, or to one of these so-called lectures. They're in it for silliness. I want to please them and so there's always going to be some reference to flatulence. I don't ever want to do a show in which flatulence would be out of the question.
And we applaud that, even us grownup boys.
GK: Oh, thank you. It's a beautiful moment, I think, when you're in a room, and everybody can hear and smell what has just happened. And the perpetrator edges away with this marvelous, dignified look on his face. It's never women, of course. It's always men.
Yes. In a way, that's you speaking to your younger self. You were a huge fan of radio as a young boy, right?
GK: Yes, I was. I'm still trying to be a fan of radio, but, you know, it gets harder.
I'm sitting here thinking, "God, I'm talking to the voice on the radio." It's still mysterious, despite having seen pictures of you. There's a mystery to radio and maybe that's the harder thing to hang onto. Maybe Google is making mystery less interesting.
GK: Well, there's a thought. I don't know. I don't know how we can live without it at this point. We're not about to go back to looking up things in the World Almanac, you know.
Yes. Speaking of your younger life, on the back of 77 Love Sonnets, you point out that an English teacher in high school assigned you to memorize Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state." You also say that, in the course of time, just about everything else you learned—algebra, geometry, biology—all disappeared, but not that sonnet.
In fact, you say the sonnet is a durable good, which I find very interesting. When I hear durable goods, I think of a washing machine or a refrigerator. How does that make you think about education? In the old days, it was fine to be trained to learn how to put together washing machines. But you're saying a sonnet, this created thing, is its equivalent. It's that solid or that physical. Do you have thoughts about what young people should be learning now in school?
GK: I have an 11-year-old daughter. She adores school, thanks to some beautiful Montessori teachers in her early years. My daughter, I think, is in perpetual love with the classroom, the desks, the tables, the whole drill. This will stand her in good stead. It doesn't necessarily mean that she's learning a lot at all times and in all places. I try not to be terribly ambitious for my child. I want her to enjoy school, and I want her to have a good time. And I, of course, hope that she comes out of it with definite spelling skills. I'm a writer. I want her to be able to spell, and she can.
Oh good, because the world is lacking that immensely now.
GK: I know. I want her to be able to write sentences because it's very important. She loves math. I don't particularly care how well she does in math. I had a composition teacher who was unlike any other composition teacher I've ever heard of. He was a former marine captain, Bob Lindsay. He was a bullet-headed guy with a big crevice up on the top of his bare cranium. We were too afraid to ever to ask where he got that. It looked like he had been creased with a mortar shell.
He had a very simple rule in his composition class. If you misspelled a word, you got an F for that assignment, no matter how good it was. There's no reason to misspell a word. "You can look it up," he said. You know, once you'd gotten a couple of Fs for some brilliant piece of writing, you started to pay attention.
What he gave us was something durable. He made you into a copy reader. He gave you the ability—which you never lose—to read your own stuff and to see spelling mistakes in it before there was spell check, and to be able to read your own work, word-by-word-by-word-by-word, which is a durable skill.
You carry this to the end of your born days, until you start to lose your mind. It's useful, and it's good. You hope that kids, in the course of their education, pick up something like this, and not just a whole lot of sensibility. I'm afraid that's what teachers of my generation have been giving too much of to the kids under their umbrella.
What do you mean by sensibility?
GK: A sort of wonderful, warm sense of yourself. Kids don't need that. They need useful things. The sonnet is a durable good. It's there, in your head, as well as all these other poems, which tend to be rhymed, metrical poems, not, you know, big splatches of language, such as poets crank out these days. Any time you want to pull it out, either audibly or silently, you can. It has a cadence to it; it has some of the DNA of the English language.
This is a good thing, and it's something that a teacher gave to me back in 1956. I don't have any refrigerators from 1956 that are still working. My 1956 Ford two-door sedan is long gone. I miss it, but that sonnet is still up there, and a lot of other poems as well. This is not bad to have all of these things.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
Subtract from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs this little room,
Along the woodland I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Here is this little poem [by A.E. Housman] about mortality, that you learned when you were a teenager, when 20 was still some distance away. And now here you are, approaching 70. It's a very poignant thing. As you recite it, you can remember how you felt about this poem when you were 16. You've got this poignance back, and now you feel it even more.
It's sort of a touchstone for your memory. Clearly, your memory is very important in your storytelling.
GK: Yes. And once you've had a minor stroke, and you consider the possibilities of having a major stroke, your memory becomes even more important. You want to hang onto that as long as possible.
I'm not sure how familiar you are with Tom Peters. He's the father of this notion of Brand You. You really are a quintessential Brand You. You are sort of a one-man multinational corporation, right? Your show is broadcast around the world. I'm wondering if you think about the world at work. Is the future a million different Garrison Keillors? Or do you still see people plodding off to GM and making cars?
GK: I hope that people will still go off and make cars. I think that the decline within manufacturing in this country is a terrible loss, and a cultural loss. I don't want us to become a nation of authors, humorists, and writers of sonnets. For one thing, I don't encourage the competition. But I just think that it's a terrible cultural loss for the country, as well as an economic loss, to lose the ethics of physical work.
My father was a carpenter. He worked with his hands. He was gifted with his hands. This was a life for him that had great dignity and meaning. This should be fostered. I hope that people don't follow my lead. I am a man who, in many ways, leads the life of a ten-year-old child. It's a very immature life. You have adults around you who are steering the ship.
They're holding things together for you?
GK: Right. They are managing money, maintaining your domicile, and fixing your car. My father fixed his own car. I wouldn't have any idea where to begin. I have all these adults around me who are doing the crucial things. And here I am, sitting in a room, looking at a blank screen, and writing a story.
This week it's a story about a Lutheran pastor who is called by an ex-parishioner to come meet him in a notorious bar in a neighboring town to Lake Wobegon. It's a horrific dive and the man is looped at two in the afternoon, sitting there, drinking some dreadful concoction. So this is my life. I'm trying to fish something up out of memory and just sitting and pondering this. I don't think this is a grownup life, in a way. I'm very sheepish about it.
Then I'll stand up on a stage in New York on Saturday, and I will tell this story. If I can't figure out what the pastor and this ex-parishioner work out together, then I'll do something else. I'll talk about snow, or I'll talk about something else. And there'll be a private eye in there somewhere, and cowboys, and flatulence, and, you know—
You have the regular cast of characters.
GK: Yes, indeed.
In A Christmas Blizzard, your most recent book, there is this ghost-like character who says of James Sparrow—he's the main character, a rich, unhappy businessman who hates Christmas—"You are a man of stunning ineptitude. Your daddy knew about engines, plumbing, hydraulics, and arc welding and pouring concrete, gutting a deer, cleaning a walleye, digging a fish hook out of your thumb, not to get rich, but just to get by, and here you are and you feel superior to him, and you can't pour piss out of a boot when the instructions are printed on the sole." So, is this the plight of contemporary man? Are you talking to yourself here?
GK: I'm talking to myself. I'm not sure it's a plight. But it certainly is a plight if this becomes prevalent in the country. I worry for the country, if this becomes the cool thing, and if we don't have a countermovement. I assume that we will have a countermovement of competence. I don't put artists on a pedestal. I'm afraid that other people do.
I really liked what John Updike said. I can't quote him word-for-word. In essence, he turned down the agonies of creation. He denied the arrogance of a great many writers in complaining about the difficulty, the pain of creation, bleeding onto the page, and all this sort of thing.
Updike said something like, "It's a lot more like dentistry than it is like sailing a ship. It's a matter of getting up in the morning and going to work." And so, I think artists are supposed to be useful. I think that they are supposed to provide a service to people. It's not about self-expression. That's ridiculous. You can express yourself by punching a wall. It's about providing something useful. And if you can't do that, then there's nothing cool about it at all.
What prompted you to write A Christmas Blizzard now?
GK: My publisher asked me to write a Christmas book. They never had asked me that before. I always had done things on my own. So that was very interesting to me. I was off in Edinburgh and London this summer, and traveling around. I sat down and wrote it in hotel rooms, with Dickens in mind.
You know, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol because he was short on cash, and he'd written a book that didn't do so well. He had all these kids and a fancy way of life. He had a mistress and so forth. So I just sat down and did it. I didn't create a durable classic, but it was a lot of fun.
Did anything surprise you in the writing of it? Did you reveal something to yourself that caught you off guard?
GK: I was surprised at some of the big looping turns that the story took. It was set out to be a fairly simple tale: a man who's on the move, and who can have anything he wants, finds himself in a blizzard, snowbound, unable to do what he wants to do and thereby comes wisdom. But it took some surprising turns. And I don't believe I've ever had a talking animal in one of my books before.
Really? Well, that's interesting.
GK: How does a wolf make its lips move to form words? I don't know. I can't tell you.
The animators can do it.
GK: I have the ghost of his old boyhood friend who died there in the lake. Then he opens the door of the fishing shack and finds himself in an airport, in a huge terminal. I think this was the day after I went through the Dublin Airport and had a really bad day. [Laughter]
It was a memorable day in the Dublin Airport. I found myself unable to jump a line, even though it would have been easy to do, and even though I knew, at the time, that jumping the line was the only way I was going to catch the plane I was supposed to be on. I could not make myself do it. I could not overcome my Midwestern manners. I found this so distressing, so extremely distressing, especially as then I suffered this terrible penalty for missing a plane, which, boy, you know, sometimes can be high.
It would have been the voice of my Norwegian mother in my head saying, "No, you can't. You can't cut in front of other people, no matter what."
GK: But you should be able to make yourself do this. None of the people ahead of me in line would have been permanently injured by this in the great scheme of things and it was an innocent offense. But I just couldn't do it. I'm going to try and reform.
Well, I'm sure you have more flights ahead of you. One last thing: I wanted to say thank you for writing a Sonnet to Julie Christie on her birthday.
GK: Oh, she sent me a note about that. I was so thrilled. I recited the poem on the show, and she somehow heard about it over there, wherever she is. So, I got a little handwritten note from her. How gracious.
Yes. That's very sweet.
GK: I'll sell it to you if you want to buy it. [Laughter]
You know, it's enough for me just to know that it exists. Thank you very much for your time. It's been a pleasure and an honor.
GK: Thanks very much.
Links: A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio.org
A Christmas Blizzard, the book page
10 Questions for Garrison Keillor on Time.com
Video of 10 Questions
Cambridge Forum, 14 December 2009, 7:00 p.m. (get tickets)