The Splendor of the Exotic

We are enjoying the peak of the fall season here in Minneapolis, amid flaming red and rich gold maple trees, bronze oaks, and hues of rust and wine. Last Thursday Bob Herbert, formerly an op-ed writer with the New York Times and now affiliated with Demos, came to speak to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. He started out by lauding the beautiful day. It reminded him of learning about autumn in grammar school, he said, because the pictures in the books looked just like our trees. Now Herbert was born in Brooklyn, so he probably knew autumn first hand. Yet he made me think of the many children in warmer climates for whom trees turning red and gold are otherworldly. I remembered, too, how I used to puzzle over books that dated the coming of spring to March.

Recently I heard about an acquaintance who had gone to Maine earlier this year and, he said, “fulfilled a lifelong dream.” What might that be? He had walked on a frozen lake! When I tell this story to Minnesotans, they double over laughing. A couple I used to know moved to Minnesota from Maryland for graduate school and decided to use their sojourn here to try out winter wilderness camping. They pored over the map and chose a big lake north of the Twin Cities that would be just the place. When they pulled up with their camping gear, they found it covered with ice fishing houses. Cars and pickups drove back and forth on plowed, named streets. Yes, it was Mille Lacs.

Where this all leads me is to another memory that has greatly benefited my writing and teaching. An essay I was working on about cornfields had gotten a strangely befuddled and negative response from a New York City critic. In need of a second opinion, I turned to Paul Gruchow, the late Minnesota writer. He gave me a piece of advice I have lived by ever since: “Remember that you live in an exotic landscape. You need to interpret it to readers who haven’t been there.” It’s sound advice for all writers, wherever they live–even New York City.


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