A VIEW FROM THE LOFT
At one weekend Loft festival, I sat with a few new acquaintances over lunch.
“Where are you from?” a woman asked me.
“Just outside of Mankato,” I said.
She drew a sharp breath in and leaned back. “Wow,” she said, eyes widening, as if I had flown in from the moon.
This isn’t the first time my “long drive” has solicited this reaction. A writer I met a couple of years ago asked me, “Can I make it to Mankato and back in one day? Or do I have to stay overnight?” To make matters worse, she had lived in Minnesota her whole life.
It takes me one hour and 20 minutes to get from my house in Madison Lake to The Loft. What some may see as a burden, I see as a gift. I think others outstate would say the same.
Writers crave, demand, and seek quiet time for contemplation. My drive gives me much needed time to think about writing. In the car I don’t have to pay bills, do the dishes, or wash clothes. I don’t have to walk the dog or shovel the driveway.
I compose essays in my head as I pass gentle hills that are vivid green in the summer and retain their beauty in winter’s simplicity. The sun spatters the sky with colors impossible to duplicate on paper or canvas. The moon has emerged big and full over my shoulder on many drives home. No fewer than four lakes glisten just off the highway on the 30-mile stretch between Faribault and my home in Madison Lake.
I often turn off the radio. In the quiet, I think about my memoir in progress, which focuses heavily on family. When I pass the small Catholic cemetery in which my great-grandparents are buried, I can feel them looking out at me. On this very road, long before it was blacktop, my grandpa guided a wagon and team of horses as he moved his family and possessions to a new farm. I pass through time as I drive, and ghosts of the past pass through me. This constant reminder of connections keeps my family close to my heart and close to my writing.
I find many reasons to live 80 miles outside the city: the quality of small-town life, seeing the stars bright and shiny on a clear night, the smell of damp fields in the spring, biking on little-traveled trails and country roads.
The writing community in the Cities is fantastic, in my opinion without par for its size and location. But all around Minnesota’s outstate smaller writing communities thrive. In Mankato, for instance, the university is one of four in the state that offers an MFA in creative writing. Nationally known writers routinely stop in for the Good Thunder Reading Series. I’ve been in writing groups here that consist of journalists, university writing instructors, published authors, agented authors, Speakeasy prose winners and Minnesota Book Award finalists.
I’ve been driving to the Cities for more than half my life. The woman at the license bureau in Waseca handed me my driver’s license in November 1990, and two minutes later Mom and I left for a Minneapolis shopping excursion. By now the drive is quick and routine.
When I can, I carpool to the Loft to save gas and money. In the first Loft class I took in 2004, I met a woman from Faribault. Lisa and I carpooled to that class and subsequent classes at the Loft. Lisa and I are now good friends, and many a new thought for our books was hashed out in her minivan and my Mustang.
After the Loft festival in which the woman commented about my drive, I pulled into my garage with this essay already formed in my head, along with a second one for a different publication. This drive is anything but a waste of time, and I’m happy to do it. When you see me at The Loft, I’ll have had three hours to myself that day to think about writing. Can you say the same?
Rachael Hanel is a freelance writer and adjunct college instructor. She’s a member of the 2007-08 Loft Mentorship series. This article originally appeared in the July-August edition (PDF) of A View from the Loft, a publication of The Loft Literary Center.