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—Courtesy of Jeff Nelson

The Writing Life

A letter from the editor of our June 2015 issue.

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Here was this man Kent Haruf in Salida who would get up each morning and walk out to the shed in his yard and sit down in front of his typewriter and put words on paper. This is what Haruf did until he died this past November. He wrote stories. And when he had something on paper, he would remove the paper from the typewriter and he’d mark up his drafts. It is not difficult to imagine Haruf as a character in one of his own books, an honest man working hard at his craft every day—typing and then revising, honing sentences and paragraphs and dialogue, putting the puzzle pieces of narrative structure into place, breathing life into the residents of the fictional town of Holt on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

The people of Holt are not unlike you and me, even though they existed only in Haruf’s mind and now live on in the pages of his remarkable novels. These men and women live ordinary lives, and ordinary things happen to them, sometimes good and sometimes bad. A reader of Haruf’s books would never forget just how difficult life is but also would never be overtaken by Woody Allen–esque existential anguish. Instead, Haruf’s novels constantly remind us of the generosity and love people can, and do, show one another.

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Years ago I read Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong and was taken immediately by his sentences and his characters and his descriptions of everyday life (“There were fine dust motes swimming in the dimly lighted air like tiny creatures underwater…”). I felt a kinship to Haruf, in the way an apprentice feels connected to a master. Even though I never spoke with Haruf, I thought a lot about his writing and about how he created scenes and about the rhythm and pacing of his prose and about how, amazingly, every line of dialogue I read in his books seemed to ring true. His novels are works of art, and through those works I felt as though I knew something of the artist.

Now here was this young man Chris Outcalt, an associate editor at this magazine and a writer himself. About a year ago he read Plainsong, and as he puts it in this month’s “The Precious Ordinary” (page 56), “I felt compelled to reach out to the man behind the novel. I wanted to talk with him—and to listen.” Haruf invited Outcalt to his house in Salida, and thus began a friendship between these two men, separated by more than 40 years in age but brought together by a love of storytelling. We at the magazine knew Outcalt had been meeting with Haruf, and after Haruf died at the age of 71, Outcalt suggested that he write about their time together. There are a lot of stories I’ve been proud to see in the pages of this magazine, but Outcalt’s piece is truly special. It is the story of one of America’s finest novelists as he approaches the end of his life, and, subtly, it’s a story about the profound effect Haruf had on Outcalt during the time they spent together. I can’t encourage you to read it enough—to see and feel and hear Haruf memorialized in a similar fashion to the way he so deftly brought to life the inhabitants of Holt County.

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