Kent Haruf walked into my life at Southern Illinois University, sitting down at the end of a long conference table, a chalkboard behind him. It was fall. I can still see him: bushy mustache, glasses, the lines on his face. Inside his shirt pocket was a small notebook and pencil. He was the first writer I had ever seen.
It was 1993, six years before he would rise from writerly obscurity with “Plainsong,” his best-selling novel of intersecting lives on Colorado’s eastern plains. I had grown up in a home with more phone books than novels, but I had taken to journalism and wanted to write more creatively. Kent taught Beginning Fiction that fall, and I signed up.
Storytelling, I’d learn, is about what happens next, and this story, about what happened after I met Kent, proves that what he taught me about stories is true: They have the power to exalt and transform. In this story, a little-known writer — gentle, fatherly, good — shapes a young man’s life, becomes renowned and never changes.
When he died in November , I thought back to that first class. Another student had apparently done some sleuthing about him. Was it true, the student asked, that he’d worked a series of odd jobs as he struggled to write? Cleaning up blood in hospitals? Working in an orphanage?
“I don’t want to talk about all that,” Kent said. “I want to talk about you all, about what you want to accomplish.”
This was vintage Kent, deflecting attention from himself, just like his spare prose, which keeps the light on his characters. His classes, like his novels, were tender. No matter how awful our short stories were, Kent found something positive to say during discussions and in his pencil-written comments. If he wrote “well done” — underlined — you knew he really liked the piece.
I began stopping by his office — at first, once a week, but later, almost every day. I asked him what to read. He pulled down a collection of Raymond Carver stories from his bookshelf. He revered Carver’s pared-down sentences, the characters at the end of their ropes. I was a suburban middle-class kid. These people were utterly foreign to me. I devoured the book in two days.
The semesters went by. I enrolled in nearly every class he taught. We read Faulkner, his hero. I remember “Winter in the Blood,” James Welch’s searing novel about life on an Indian reservation. We read more Carver. Kent said things like, “Let’s look at how he gets out of this story.” One time, irritated that we weren’t working hard enough, he read us Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech — “a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit” — then dismissed us to go think about it.
Eventually, we started meeting up at football games, just talking. He showed me his notebook, how he jotted crisp lines of dialogue he heard around him, especially at the counter at Mary Lou’s, a local diner. We talked about small towns, the wonder of ordinary life. It wasn’t long before I started carrying a notebook around.
One day we got to talking about how he set his novels in a fictional Colorado town called Holt. He got the idea from Faulkner’s made-up place, Yoknapatawpha County. Kent knew everyone in Holt, where the train tracks were and who was on the wrong side. He encouraged me to find a place like that in my head, write down a map and mine it for stories.
But I was never very good at making things up. I had an idea: What if I used the tools of fiction — scenes, dialogue, narrative — but told true stories? I raced to Kent’s office to share the idea with him, convinced I would be famous. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t say, “Well, actually, you’re not exactly the first person to think of that.” He just suggested I go to the library and read Esquire magazine and the New Yorker.
As my senior year approached, Kent encouraged me to find a graduate program in nonfiction writing, and I did, in Pittsburgh. On graduation day, my family met him for breakfast at Mary Lou’s. He was the first writer they had ever seen, too.
After the success of “Plainsong,” Kent moved back to Colorado to write full time. I’d call him now and then. We began e-mailing, teasing each other about football, sharing news of what we’d read lately. And I began to see him more and more in my life. He was in the stories I pursued about ordinary people, in the strands of dialogue I’d hear and jot down, in the kindness I’d extend to students asking for advice. “Find your Kent,” I’d tell them.
He got sick a few years ago. After that, whenever we connected, I made a point of telling him that he, more than anyone else, had shaped my life as an adult. Of course, he’d put it back on me, that he was proud of how hard I’d worked to make a life for myself.
We spoke a few months before he died. He had just finished “Our Souls at Night,” his final novel, and he was excited. But he didn’t sound well, a lung disease making it difficult for him to talk. It occurred to me that this might be the last time we would chat.
“My spirits are good,” he said. “I don’t feel morose or maudlin.”
“As long as you’ve got your mind,” I said, “you’ve got a lot.”
When we were about to hang up, he said, “Mike, I want you to know something — I love you so much.”
I was startled.
“I love you, too,” I said. “I love you like you’re my father. I always have, and I always will.”
Rosenwald, a Washington Post staff writer, will be in conversation with Gary Fisketjon, Haruf’s editor, Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Michael Dirda will return next week.