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Larry Woiwode has enjoyed a long and successful career as a writer. While still in his early 20s, he began publishing short stories in the New Yorker, and he has since gone on to write novels, poetry, and nonfiction of distinction. His first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award. His second, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. But, as his new memoir, What I Think I Did, makes clear, Woiwode’s life, involving as it does close friendships with people such as William Maxwell and Robert De Niro, has been at least as fascinating as his novels.
What I Think I Did is actually two stories entwined. One details how Woiwode and his family survived the worst recorded winter in North Dakota’s history; the other, told in flashback, describes Woiwode’s youth, his college years, and his start as a writer in New York City. His early life was full of high times, hunger, and hard living, but the tale of his battle with subzero temperatures in later life is just as compelling, especially because he has to make do with a failing furnace that had to be stoked every few hours. At one point, Woiwode burns books to save his skin. While checking on the horses and sheep, he notices that their
tails are hardly a foot long, frozen and snapped off in the cold, all equally smitten, awful.
How can they live with this, I start to think, and realize the convolutions of brain below my forehead must be freezing, too, because what I thought I meant to think was, How can I live like this?
The very real threat of death close at hand is the means by which Woiwode introduces his memoirs; he begins to reflect on his life and the choices he has made. We learn that during college he was known more for his acting than his writing, and though he enjoyed both and pursued both with diligence, when he moved to New York, he decided to hold off acting for a year in order to further himself as a writer. This didn’t last, largely because he was broke, and it was easier to get work as an actor than as a writer. His first play was called Three Blind Men, and one of the three blind men turned out to be 19-year-old De Niro, who was enrolled at the Delahanty Institute, “a police academy that leads to the NYPD” until he landed the role. The two quickly became friends and creative partners.
Some nights we sit in Jimmy’s until closing. We are at the fringe, the edge, and that’s our attractionso obsessed with inner concerns we would be called, if caught in a mental ward, mad….He makes a statement about Dostoyevsky and I sit in silence and consider it, then I mention a scene from a Bergman moviea kind of conversational chess. Some nights we use only facial expressions, a gesture, to indicate what we intend to say but don’t, although the enactments become so intricate they’re a form of conversation, until one or the other cracks up.
But by far the most important influence of Woiwode’s New York days was William Maxwell, who, as de facto fiction editor at the New Yorker, guided the precocious young writer through to publication during the heady days when the magazine was helmed by William Shawn. Woiwode wanted badly to writeand was nearly starving because of it. The courtly Maxwell gave him books and money, as well as fatherly advice. “I’ve come to believe young men in New York tend to employ women for sanitary reasons,” Maxwell announced one day. When he saw that Woiwode wasn’t getting the message, he made himself clearer: “To keep from dirtying their own linen.”
Maxwell was a rarity, a great writer and a great editor, an old-school gentleman who successfully worked with writers such as Welty, Updike, and Nabokov. It is delightful to read of his extraordinary kindness, of his patient work with a gangly prodigy. His most frequent recommendation to the would-be writer? Write. Write. Write. And that is exactly what Woiwode has done:
I keep at it on and off until the day I hear the auditory echo exerting pressure on my eardrums from the inside as camshafts of phrases turn within the whole of a sentence revolving along its length to a point where no iron can so pierce the heart (to paraphrase Babel) as a period put in the right place. I want to see this on every page, in every paragraph, in sentences, at least in their balancing acts against themselves. The gait of thought, the pace of pondering, all the recreational rest of real writing.
That sort of knowledge is hard-won, as is the ability to express it as movingly as Woiwode does. In fact, one of the very best things about What I Think I Did is that it is full of commentary on the writer’s craft, much like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Commenting on the time a fact-checker at the New Yorker informed him that a suburb he had mentioned did not exist where he thought it did, Woiwode explains:
An awful urge for accuracy animates fiction…a trait that can send a storyteller into a tailspin for a day to confirm a single fact before moving to the next paragraph, rather than plowing ahead and straightening things out later, as a biographer (a factual writer, I assume) told me was his mode.
While in New York, Woiwode married; shortly after finding a publisher for his first novel, he and his wife, Carole Woiwode, made the decision to leave the city. They wanted to have a family, and they wanted to rear their children in the country, according to old-fashioned principals. (They farmed and home-schooled.) Having decided to return to North Dakota, where both had spent time growing up, they picked a town that had a Presbyterian church of their particular denominational stripe.
These facts speak volumes about the direction Woiwode’s life was heading. He and Carole wanted to place themselves back into the tapestry of family history, to partake of the rhythms of nature, and to honor their faith above all things. On a countryside walk, Woiwode describes sensing God’s presence “in the trees and sky, and in the earth that held me as I turned. The presence had put all this in place to instruct me about myself and the complications of the love I felt for Him.” And Woiwode has proved a careful listener.
Several times during the storm, while Woiwode is trying again to fix the furnace, he becomes so cold he almost gives in and surrenders to a last fatal nap, but the vision of his wife and children, of his home, keep him going. “[T]hen I’m in bed, arranged along your heated contours with our wrap of thirty years, hardly able to steer myself in the direction of a prayer….”
Ultimately, such descriptions of faith and family life emerge as the most powerful portion of the book, and the most lasting. After the wonderful bits about Maxwell and De Niro and New York have faded, one is left with an abiding respect for the course Woiwode has chosen. His report of it seems durable in a trendy, perishable age.
Reflecting on Yeats and Brodsky, Woiwode tells us, “Time is the lesser compatriot to language and so time, whom most of us revere, bows to language. It is helpless before language…. With language people arrange adornments that endure, while time merely passes away.”
So What I Think I Did is Woiwode’s attempt to account for himself, but it is more than thatit is his attempt to create something that will not pass away and so will prove time’s master. Most readers will agree that he has accomplished that goal. CP