If you get stuck just write like Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry

Author Wendell Berry may not be a household name to many of you, a situation you should remedy at your earliest opportunity.

I first learned of Berry when I watched Jimmy Carter’s interview with him on PBS several years ago.  The main topic of discussion, although not the exclusive one, was American farm policy. For you see, in addition to his remarkable body of work as a writer, Wendell Berry works a small farm near the Ohio River not far from Louisville, Kentucky.

He is a man whose roots run deep.

Berry has the soul of a poet, the pen of a novelist, the barbed insight of an essayist.

His literary output features the construction of a community and all its inhabitants, Port William.  Over the course of his long career he has fleshed out that fictional world, creating of whole cloth a microcosm of the human condition.

About the same time I watched his interview with President Carter, I saw his name appear in the Dallas Morning News book section.  There on the list of ten must-read books was his latest novel at the time, a beautiful volume with the wonderful title, Jayber Crow.

Jayber Crow is the fictional autobiography of Port William’s barber of the same name.

The purpose of these posts is to provide readers and writers with snippets of great writing, in hopes that those selections will spur readers to find and devour the works of the authors featured  and to motivate authors to admire, and perhaps emulate, the stylistic elements contained in the writing.

Port WilliamI love the notion of a fictional autobiography, but I was hard-pressed to know which section of the book to choose as an example of Berry’s writing.  One could open the book at random to any page and find a passage worthy of study.

So, I took the chicken’s way out and decided to begin at the obvious location, i.e., the beginning.

Here is the opening paragraph of Jayber Crow.

I never put up a barber pole or a sign or even gave my shop a name. I didn’t have to.  The building was already called “the barbershop.”  That was its name because that had been its name for  nobody knew how long. Port William had little written history.  Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a  moving beam of light.  It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not know.  It seemed to have been there forever.  After I had been there a while, the shop began to be called Jayber Crow’s, or just Jayber’s. “Well, I’m going down to Jayber’s,” people would say, as if it had been clearly marked on some map, though it was only so in their  minds.  I never had a telephone, so I was not even in the book.

With this straight-forward, delicate introduction, Berry takes us on a journey with Jayber Crow through a career of love and loss, laughter and learning.

Jayber CrowRead and enjoy.

(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of six novels.)

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  • Wendell Berry is one of those really fine writers whose work has escaped me. I’m glad you tracked him down. He is definitely one of the fine wordsmiths of the past fifty years.

    • He writes stripped down poetic prose, and that’s quite a feat.

  • Wendell Berry has been a favorite of mine for years. We met, so to speak, through our love of farming and his poems and essays about that. But my introduction to him was his classic, The Unsettling of America-Culture and Agriculture, a touching and telling expose of what the loss of a farming society means. Glad you blogged about him, Stephen, for he is a voice more people should hear.

    • I agree. His is a voice more people need to hear. I have several books of essays by him. His essays would provide a good intro to him for people who have yet to meet him.

  • I love Wendell and have since Christina introduced us a long, long, time ago. I think my friends at Taylor’s Barber Shop would do well to change their name to Jaber’s. I think I’ll suggest that.

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