Writing Lessons from David Rhodes

One piece of advice new writers should follow is read a lot and write a lot. I try to do both often. My reading tastes are eclectic. Sometimes I read for pleasure, sometimes as a teacher, sometimes as a writer, but always as a consumer of wonderful words. What determines the books I choose is as varied as the books themselves. Sometimes a cover inspires me, sometimes a title. Sometimes word-of-mouth recommendations lead me to pick a book I might not have considered before. That is what happened when I bought David Rhodes’ Driftless a few weeks ago. I knew nothing about this author’s work, but several of my friends who also were Waupaca BookFest board members recommended his work.

I read Driftless in a matter of a few days. It took days only because I didn’t want to rush it. It was a fine meal meant to be savored, allowing each word or phrase or sentence, even at times entire chapters to move through my imagination and leave their footprints on my consciousness. The book consumed me as I consumed it. I can’t tell you how often I stopped to consider a description or a simile, its beauty or aptness, or often both, hitting me right between the eyes. I didn’t use a highlighter or a pen handy while I read because I really just wanted to read for pleasure, so I dogeared the page where the passage was so I could go back to read it again and again.

Driftless tells the story of Words, Wisconsin, and the people who live there, but the Midwestern landscape is as much a character of this book as the people themselves. If you’re not from Wisconsin, you may not understand the title, so David Rhodes begins the book with a prologue explaining that the area where Words is located is in the Driftless Region, an area unaffected by the last ice age which “endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.” The isolation and unchanged nature of the region serves as a metaphor for Words and the people there. It provides a a fascinating look at rural America–something I’ve become a bit obsessed with– in modern times.

I could write volumes on this book, but I mainly want to share some of the passages that arrested me and made me appreciate the poetry of Rhodes writing. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.

1. This first passage tells of the moment two of the main characters met and fell in love. They have since lost that connection that Rhodes depicts so vividly here as something quite beyond their control:
“I’m Cora,” she said.
“I’m Grahm Shotwell,” he said, and his voice expanded like summer.
“Pleased to know you,”said Cora. She offered her hand. Grahm took it, entangling them in a mutually inquisitive texture of fingers and palms. The most primitive parts of themselves immediately began speaking to each to her, without permission. Their imaginations entered caves deep in unexplored forests, and joined painted bodies dancing around orange fires. The thin membrane of keeping the watery world of dreams from diluting the hard substance of reality stretched to breaking. Through a quick organization of bodily fluids, Grahm’s face turned bright red, and Cora tried to pull her hand away but found she couldn’t move it.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“Let’s find a place to sit down,” said Grahm.

If that doesn’t communicate the irresistible attraction between two people at the moment they recognize it, I don’t know what does.

2. In this next section, Jacob Helm, who has lost his wife and cannot stop grieving, arrives at Gail Shotwell’s house to work on a lawnmower. He hears music and goes to investigate. She is naked and playing a guitar; she’s a musician who lives alone. He is quite unprepared for seeing this beautiful naked woman and feels “accosted” by her beauty:

“This woman communicated an exuberant compact burgeoning that had years ago departed from Angela, whose bodily form had been consumed in a losing battle against disease. But even in her best days, Jacob feared, before illness had begun to exact its limping toll, Angela had never possessed this creature’s combination of raw visual appeal and unrehearsed grace. She glowed with health. Her neck, stretching out of the extraordinary suppleness of her shoulders, mimicked in every detail the curving stem of a lily rising to its flower. and the problems posed for him by the rondure of her hips were addressed in his imagination, one after another, before they blossomed into conscious questions, only to be posed anew.”

3. Later Jacob is alone looking at pictures of his wife in a photo album. He misses her and still grieves her and the closeness they shared. These lines break my heart.

“He looked away from the album and closed his eyes, as though protecting them from the unbearable glare of memory.

Her illness had driven a wedge between them, interrupting their sacred dialogue, the source of his joy. How he missed that vital center–talking, touching, and living one life in two parts. The disease persisted until what she most longed for she could not share with him at all, and their citadel against the outside world was finally breached.”

4. Throughout passages describe the landscape. These two resonated with me because even after 20 years here winter is such an enigma to me. I still am baffled and assaulted by the cold. Sometimes though, a mild day or two provide a respite from the harsh winter days. These two passages capture each kind of weather in winter.

First one:“It began to snow–not heavily, but persistently. Driven like powdered fog from the north, a dry, weightless snow arrived in Thistlewaite County with a nearly audible sigh, an empty, barren whisper that Upper Midwestern farmers recognized in the marrow of their bones and meteorologists detected through their digital instruments as the kind of snow that could get bad.

A stationary cold air mass perched above Wisconsin. It lingered there for several days, until, like the Owl of Minerva, it stepped off its frigid crag, opened its monstrous shadow wings, and came south, squeezing water out of the air.”

Second one: “Sometimes in the theater of winter, a day will appear with such spectacular mildness that it seems the season can almost be forgiven for all its inappropriate hostility, inconveniences, and even physical assaults. With a balmy sky overhead, melting snow underfoot, and the sounds of creeks running, the bargain made with contrasts doesn’t look so bad: to feel warm, one must remember cold; to experience joy, one must have known sorrow.”

5. In the chapter Finding July, the reader is privy to Jacob Helm’s thoughts in finding his friend, July Montgomery, who has died in a farm accident. If you’ve ever experienced the shock of something that altered your world, you will recognize Jacob’s emotions.

“There are some things, he later reflected, that change everything else. Their breaking makes no sound yet fractures the world. Afterwards, nothing can be restored to its original order. It’s Gone. But at the time, at the moment of domestic impression, Big Events don’t appear to have any power at all, a single leaf falling. They don’t seem as if they will be important. Their terrible reckoning is hidden from view.”

6. Toward the end of the book, we see Grahm Shotwell again. He is at July’s house walking through the outbuildings of July’s farm. He is lonely for July and grieving in his own way. Rhodes manages to express the ineffable feeling of absence just after someone passes away.

“Everywhere, things that couldn’t move waited for July to touch them again. The Mason jar of arrowheads that July had picked from his fields sat on his tool bench, longing to be reseeded into the ground. Wrenches wanted to be picked up  and fitted around a nut. It wouldn’t be long, he knew, before they would be auctioned to someone else, along with the cows and everything else.”

As I wrote this post and read again David Rhodes’ words and sentences, I realized I don’t want to parse them. I can’t take apart what he put together to understand how I might do what he did. I will soon, but I am still too awed by the images he evokes to examine them too closely. I want to savor them a while more. What I can say is that  if we want to be writers who can do this sort of thing with our words, we must read books like Driftless to  absorb through osmosis, through touch and sight and sound, how he makes us feel. Read. A lot. Immerse yourself in glorious words, my friends, and write.

 

 

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