Where I Once Belonged: A Tribute to Kent Haruf


I studied history in college, because it seemed somehow practical (don’t ask me why), and after three years of study I realized that I was a mediocre historian at best, that what I loved about researching the past were the stories, and so I took a creative writing class.

By sheer luck that class was taught by Kent Haruf. I had no idea of the tradition of great writers who had taught at Southern Illinois University (before Kent, Richard Russo and John Gardner held his faculty position), nor the already strong and growing writing program that was present in 1995 when I was there. I walked into the first day of class like any other, hiding my nervousness with aloofness. I never had the text for any class on the first day. Never a pencil or paper with me. Just a guy in jeans and a flannel who looked like he’d wandered into the place on accident and was waiting around to see what happened. Kent walked in wearing a denim shirt and blue jeans, his hair and mustache gray, wire-rimmed glasses, and he began right away speaking about how important writing was to him. You had to love it, more than sex or Heineken beer. And it was serious and hard work. “Writing is my religion,” he’d say, “so don’t shit on my altar.” And it was then I knew I’d found where I needed to be.

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The things I’d written up to that point were immature: bad historical gothic tales, or my idea of big city life taken from movies. But the first stories I wrote for Kent were about life in the small rural town where I’d grown up, and from the beginning, he encouraged me in this direction. I still have the manuscript with the first comments he ever gave me. The first line simply says, “The ending is wrong here.” But after explaining what was wrong (too melodramatic), he finished with: “What does work—and what is impressive about this story—is the evocative rendering of this time and place. You give us numerous precise details, making a clear lovely warm realistic picture of this little town and these ordinary people. That is good writing.”

From the beginning, Kent taught me that writing is wrapped up in knowing a place. He would reference what Faulkner had said about creating a little postage stamp of land and populating it with real people that were known to you in every way, even if those details never appeared in the story. Years later, when I was working on my graduate thesis and we were sitting in his office going over my manuscript, he asked me what type of weed eater my main character would use, and I quickly said, “an Echo.” Kent nodded his approval at my knowing this so readily.

The same year Kent encouraged me to apply to graduate school to study further with him, the graduate writing program at SIU, which had been an MA in Lit with an emphasis in creative writing, became an MFA, and I was granted the privilege of three years to study not only with Kent, but with Rodney Jones, Beth Lordan, Ricardo Cortez Cruz, Allison Joseph, and Jon Tribble. I also met people who continue to be my best friends to this day. We were so close-knit. All of us. Our days together on campus unfolded in teaching, sitting in workshops, and talking about writing, and in the evenings and on weekends we were doing the same in the bars, or at each others’ houses, or fishing in any of the numerous lakes and ponds and sloughs that dot the forests and farms that surround Carbondale. Our teachers were there with us. There weren’t divides as there are in other programs I’ve seen, barriers between students and teachers, between poets and prose writers. It was like family, and Kent Haruf was like our father, kind and strong, guiding us along with a firm and quiet hand.

The year I graduated was the year Kent published his third novel, Plainsong. Soon after, as its success continued to grow, he retired from teaching, but stayed in Carbondale for another year. I’d gone on to work as an assistant editor at Southern Illinois University Press, and each week, Kent would meet me at Mary Lou’s diner, a small greasy spoon known for its biscuits and gravy and working class clientele. Here we’d talk about what we were reading, about work and life, but mostly we swapped stories, mainly about growing up in small towns or working at odd jobs. Sometimes, he’d take out the little notepad he always carried with him and show me tidbits of dialogue he’d recently overheard.

The next year, Kent moved to Salida, Colorado, to write full time, and over the next 14 years, we wrote to each other. Only the last four years were carried out over email; the rest were all printed on the same simple letterhead. I still have all the letters. Most relate stories of everyday life, updates about his own work and how he felt about it, encouragement to me to keep writing. In one letter, he recounts speaking with a dumptruck driver about some issues with the driver’s inspector. Kent wrote, “I said, in my pointy-headed professor’s English, That gets exasperating doesn’t it. And he said, getting right to the point, That’ll piss you off. —So there’s one more old lesson. Straight talk. Frank talk. Never mind the polysyllablics. Just say it simple and true.”

In responding to my concerns and stresses over teaching, he said, “I know you know: but the only thing to do is to go on and do your own work and get what you can for your own good out of the job and ignore everything else…. Fuck the small stuff, most of what happens on campus is emphatically small. Of course you want to do a good job teaching, and you have to care some about what goes on around you, and it’s still the easiest way to make a living and still be able to write until the writing itself pays—so again take advantage of what it allows you to do, and go on and write your heart out.”

He also encouraged me to break out of the workshop mentality—writing to please everyone, writing in a box. “I think also your resolve to write for yourself, at your highest level, is the right way. Of course, how do you do that. Taking chances, as you say, is part of it. It seems to me too that somehow someway you have to trust that if you will write at your deepest most personal level, most idiosyncratic level (I don’t mean autobiography), at your most engaged level, writing what you yourself truly feel without regard to what anyone else says or has written before, believing in the truth and value of your own experience and feelings, then you have a chance—a chance—of writing something lasting.”

His words were always such a great comfort to me. He responded to what was going on in my world with wisdom and kindness and humility. Never judgment. More recently, when I was going through a divorce, he gave me the most sound advice regarding my children out of any I’d been given: remain steady and calm and never give up on them even when they reject you. He said, if all they can say to you is, “I hate you,” then let them say it to you, because giving in and not being present will only validate their fears. I would return to his words almost daily to center my thinking.

Earlier this year, he wrote me to say he had interstitial lung disease. “So I’m living one day at a time, trying to find joy and something of value in each day. I check on the progress of the tulips alongside the house, lift my face to the sun, talk for hours with my dear Cathy.… Still, I know I’ll die from lack of breath.” I had one more note after that congratulating me on a piece I published here with The Common, and then last month the news came that he was gone. In corresponding with old friends and teachers from the MFA days in Carbondale, everything seemed to be off kilter. None of us understood a world without Kent Haruf in it.

Just a few weeks before his passing, I had decided to revisit his first novel, The Tie That Binds, which was the first book of his that I’d read. When I was in his undergraduate class, I’d checked it out of the library and had been astounded to find writing that captured small town life with such precision and lyricism. Literature had always seemed to me something that took place somewhere far away. Kent’s writing taught me that literature can be made from the places that I knew. So now, at the end of the novel, I can only hear Kent’s voice in the words of Sanders Roscoe, the story’s narrator: “I’m done talking now. I’ve told all I know.”

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James Alan Gill is the Dispatches editor for The Common.

Photos by author.

Where I Once Belonged: A Tribute to Kent Haruf

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