New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg on writing and rural life


Verlyn Klinkenborg, a columnist for The New York Times, a member of that newspaper’s editorial board and a teacher of the writer’s craft, will speak and sign copies of his new book, More Scenes from the Rural Life, at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 25 at the Point Reyes Presbyterian Church. The event is sponsored by Point Reyes Books. 

Inverness writer Jenna d’Anna recently spoke with Mr. Klinkenborg for the Point Reyes Light. They touched on life in a “post-urban rural America,” sustainable communities, the parallels between the Hudson Valley and West Marin, village journalism, teaching writing, the creative process and more. 


Point Reyes Light: In your first book, The Rural Life, you write about the moon landing. You ask, “Who were we then that such a thing was possible?” I am wondering, who are we now, and what’s possible for us now? 

Verlyn Klinkenborg: I think everybody is trying to solve that or trying to answer that question. One of the reasons we have trouble figuring out who it’s possible to be is we do such a good job of forgetting who we used to be. For every new technology we gain, we lose an old one; the world is littered with skills, abilities and perceptions that were once absolutely essential to us and may one day be essential to us again. 

In my own effort to raise animals, for example, the most useful advice I’ve found has come from old farming manuals written at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, back when people raised animals on a small scale, not on a massive industrial scale. As we rescale the world in order to live better environmentally and to live more intimately with the land, we are going to have to go back to what a lot of people used to know, what we’ve purposely set aside or unintentionally forgotten. 

I’m not saying let’s go back to the past, but that there are patterns in the past that it would be good if we found ourselves replicating. What we need to imagine now is a post-urban rural America, where some of the people who are farming and living in nature come from the land already, but most of them are part of an exodus from the cities. That’s a very different population, a very different way of relating to the land. That idea of a post-urban rural life, I think, is going to be a critical one for us. 

PRL: That reminds me of some of Bill McKibben’s work.

VK: Yeah, absolutely. Bill’s emphasis is always on strong local communities, sustainable in size but also with sustainable skills and a sustainable sense of democracy. The fact so many of us have been raised in the cities and the suburbs means that however we come back to the country, we are going to be bringing different values with us, and that’s going to be interesting in its own right. 

One of the things we get to look forward to is what it is like to have a rural landscape like the one in Marin, or like the one in the Hudson Valley, where a lot of the people are young, with college educations, who come back and want to make a living in a place that matters to them, but in a place where it happens to be difficult to make an ordinary living. I see a lot of people trying to solve that problem here, and I’m sure that’s true in West Marin, too.

PRL: You were in West Marin for the Geography of Hope conference in 2009 and now you have both a reading and a writing workshop here this month. What draws you to this area? 

VK: I went to college in Sacramento, so it’s not like West Marin was 3,000 miles away all the time. We actually got to know it as a family, in Stinson Beach and up in Bodega Bay. And I’ve made some good friends in Point Reyes Station and Bolinas.

PRL: When Marin Media Institute purchased the Light, there was a lot of talk about the idea of village journalism. We’re in a natural setting, and many of us even have some element of farm life going on, yet we are a highly educated population that’s often making a living another way. It’s a lot like you: Here you are writing the Rural Life column for perhaps the most cosmopolitan publication there is. What does rural life mean, and what is its place in journalism?

VK: Even in Manhattan, even in the most urbane audiences that I get in front of, people have a lot of connection with the countryside. It may be somebody they grew up with, somebody they were related to, a farm that was in the family, or a new concern about farmers’ markets and how to feed themselves better. 

One of the things I often say to people is yes, it’s great to shop at farmers’ markets and it’s great to support your local farmer, but you have to look at all of that against the balance of acreage that’s being planted in conventional crops. And that acreage is immense, absolutely immense. What gets done sustainably and organically is just a drop in the bucket. 

PRL: In your book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, you said, “Experienced writers know that every good sentence is retrieved by will from the forces of chaos.” 

VK: When I work with my undergraduates, we start out trying to figure out how to write. And I mean how to make simple prose that’s very clear, very direct, that’s not academic. The class quickly becomes about how to think and what the nature of perception is. 

The culture we live in places no value on our ability to perceive the world around us. It basically says you’re better off not noticing too much, there’s no point in noticing, who cares what you notice. I am working hard to instill in my students the belief that anything they notice is important, and it is important that they notice it. That belief shouldn’t be a radical belief, but it is. 

PRL: Reading that book, I was reminded of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Cosmopolitan Greetings,” which is written in a similar format to your book, in terms of its sentence structure and theme. 

VK: I actually don’t know that poem. I’ll look it up though, the moment we’re done. A lot of readers have responded as if I’d intended to write this book in a kind of free verse, but actually I needed to find a way to break up the lines so that I could put the emphasis where I needed it without having, for example, to use italics or capital letters. 

For me it’s not written neatly enough to be poetry; it doesn’t even come close to poetry. But discovering this form is actually what I needed in order to write the book. It’s also a way of giving me a chance to keep the emphasis exactly where I want it by breaking a line whenever I need to. I think for most readers it’s pretty effective, because it does really pay close attention to where the focus is. 

PRL: Could I read you some lines from Ginsberg’s poem? 

VK: Sure!

PRL: “Stay irresponsible./ Say only what we know & imagine… /Notice what you notice./ Catch yourself thinking./ Vividness is self-selecting./ If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything./ First thought, best thought./ Mind is shapely, Art is shapely./ Maximum information, minimum number of syllables./ Syntax condensed, sound is solid./ Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best./ Move with rhythm, roll with vowels./ Consonants around vowels make sense./ Savour vowels, appreciate consonants./ Subject is known by what she sees./ Others can measure their vision by what we see.”

VK: Those sound like Ginsberg’s notes to himself about how to make his own poetry, because it’s very descriptive of his poetry. I also notice the “First thought, best thought.” It’s one of those things that I very much disagree with because it’s part of this complex of ideas that basically says that inspiration is what makes you a writer. I think the idea that there are more thoughts to discover under that first thought is really important. But almost everything else there sounds right on the money.

PRL: Being conditioned creatures, perhaps our first thought is a conditioned one.

VK: Yes, exactly. You know you’ve just performed a very important critical exercise, the sort of thing I learned in graduate school, which is that you can go about identifying what you believe are a writer’s sources and the writer maybe has no awareness of them at all, but what you’re really doing is drawing analogies that make a great deal of sense. I was certainly steeped in free verse from Ginsberg’s era, so who knows, maybe the movement of those lines, those broken lines, is part of it. 

PRL: I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

VK: You’re welcome, Jenna. 


Jenna d’Anna is a writer, artist and counselor who has lived in many faraway places and now happily resides in Inverness with her husband and young son.