Steve Charles—Several years ago, my friend and boss Jim Amidon ’87 took a tour through several of Montgomery County’s manufacturing plants. Pace Dairy and Crown Cork and Seal Company were among them, I think, but it was watching steel being poured and rolled out at Nucor that left him breathless. He came back lit up like that glow we see over the Nucor plant at night when they open the roof and steel is being poured.
“It was like being dropped into the center of a volcano,” he said.
Jim he wondered aloud if such a place—and interesting locations and people throughout Montgomery County—might inspire our creative writing students on campus. It might get them to look beyond themselves and catapult them into wonder, using writing as a way to learn and begin to understand the world around them up-close and personal, all the while honing their writing skills. Give them some of that life experience so often lacking in many young writers’ work.
Jim also hoped it could acquaint them with the county in which they were living and the people with whom they share this part of the state.
I tried the idea out on a friend on the faculty back then, and nothing came of it.
But Jim was right. And last week author and Butler University professor of creative writing Susan Neville’s reading Thursday in Center 216 proved it. (See a photo album here.) She created an entire book out of such tours, and, like Jim, she had visited the Nucor plant.
Here’s a sample of what she wrote in her book Fabrications: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning:
“The part of the mill that houses the casters that turn pure molten metal into red-hot slabs of steel is as large as the inside of the largest cathedral… Now and then these giant hooks move from one end of the building to the other carrying big kettles of melted iron ore and carbon… You imagine it falling from the ceiling with you standing underneath it. You’d ignite. You’d be ash. Not even your bones would remain.”
“Think of how it feels to run along subway cars and look down at the tracks, and then imagine those cars filled with tons of sun—not sunlight, but sun plasma itself. Imagine how tightly you’d hold onto your child’s hand or, metaphorically, your own.
“And then we enter another room.
“It’s beautiful. This is where the steel in fact looks like a river. Because it’s slightly cooler, you can see some gray in the orange, a very fluid stare-at-it-for-the-rest-of-your-life mix of colors, but still glowing liquid lava.”
I asked the author after this amazing reading if she ever took her students with her on these factory tours. She said she had them visit various professionals, especially those with unusual trades. A taxidermist, etc. But she hadn’t taken a student with her while researching the Nucor article. She seemed to like the idea.
This from the writer of what the Indiana Center for the Book named the Best Book of Indiana for 2008—Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and the Land.“
Neville was the second of three authors brought to campus as part of the Indiana Writers Series, a collaboration between Wabash Professor of Modern Languages Greg Redding ’88 and textile artist and former Wabash Theater costumer Laura Conners, now facilitator of the Quality of Life in Indiana Grant that funded the writers’ visits. (See photo albums from their visits here and here.)
Michael Martone opened the series, arriving on campus the day of Chapel Sing, a fitting convergence for one of our most unconventional authors. Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf wrapped things up last Monday. All three are “regional” writers with plenty of national audiences. Krapf—who grew up in Jasper, IN, moved to New York but found himself writing about his home ground and moved back to the state in 2004—writes, “I have always believed that any story set deeply in one time and place, if told well, speaks for other times, places, and people. A sense of time and place travels and settles well. A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics.”
But we begin by paying attention to those specifics. The details of life and the place in which we live. All three of these writers do that so well in their own way. But to hear Susan Neville read aloud what she saw in Montgomery County about was a revelation. I was reminded of the author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’ visit to Wabash a few years ago, when Mike Bachner ’70 and his wife, Pat Galloway, led her through Shades State Park.
“An inverted mountain,” was the way Mike described the topography there to Williams, who wrote about this hike with Mike and Pat and read the piece to the Wabash community during her formal presentation here in Salter Hall.
“I will never think of Indiana as only a domesticated landscape of cornfields,” Williams wrote. “Wildness resides in the heart of America, here, now. An inverted sense of wonder.”
Mike stopped by my office after that reading, as boyishly excited as I’d ever seen him, insisting that Williams’ writing had given him a news lens through which to see this land and water he’d loved for almost 40 years.
“This is an awakening for all of us, two natives and a newcomer,” Williams wrote of her afternoon with Mike and Pat. Mike wasn’t really surprised that such a writer had seen beauty where he lived. After all, Mike had come to Wabash and stayed here, “beguiled,” as he freely admitted, by the creek and the land. He wasn’t surprised. But he was, with all of his being, grateful.
He hadn’t expected to have such a large “role” in Terry’s essay. But how could she write about that place without him and Pat? “A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics,” Norbert Krapf read to us this week. Mike was life lived deeply. Deeply here. He would have been as excited as I was at these readings by Indiana writers.
This world feels off-kilter. We lose our center, pave over our souls. I sometimes feel as though I’ve tapped into the Matrix, twitching like Pavlov’s dog at email prompts and the latest national economic or political news, caught in the Web. Writers who stand still long enough in the places where we live to notice the things we’re missing can save us. Can help us, as Mike said in his only Chapel speech, “to revel in this moment of our lives. Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”
Perhaps that’s why I left these three readings so invigorated, why I’m so grateful for Laura and Greg bringing these Indiana writers here for us. They gave me a new lens to see those things that bring me joy. I imagine they’ve planted such seeds in the minds of our students.
I remember walking home after Neville’s reading, the railroad bed’s gravel crunching underfoot and my signed copy of Sailing the Inland Sea in my pack. The wind had kicked up some dust and smelled like fallen leaves, a semi growled and clattered over the railroad crossing, and I’d just dropped off at Jim’s house a book in which Neville describes her journey through the Nucor steel plant. I wanted him to read how right he’d been. Two preschoolers were chasing a brown scraggly dog across the parking lot of the pet store that burned down earlier this year, an old man and two women chattered in Spanish in raised tones from a porch where a couch and easy chair were pushing out the railing. Fresh from Neville’s reading, all these things were fascinating. I stopped and watched (until the old man on the porch wondered why I was staring at him—“lo siento” is my best practiced bit of Spanish). When I got home, my neighbor invited me in to drink a toast on the day he had given his wife her wedding ring. “To Nancy,” we said, and emptied our glasses
I could hear Mike as I walked across my yard in this one season many people wish they were back in Indiana: “Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”
And Susan Neville—“Know this. Every place on earth is filled with stories.”
In photo: author Susan Neville during her reading at Wabash.