All Things Laura and Other Things

08/07 From Ohio to Bayou: A Moving Story Part One

Monday I leave the Midwest, the place of my preoccupation for the past five years, and return South. A week later I begin teaching at Southern Louisiana Community College, three times a week in Lafayette and twice in New Iberia—Dave Robicheaux country for James Lee Burke fans.

I have noticed how with each move I become more ruthless. The situation is akin to cropped work in my writing, I never miss the edits once they are gone. I suppose I do feel the occasional ping of resentment over the hand-woven rug that a garage sale picker eroded down from an absurdly low price to theft. Then there’s the woman who haggled over my piano only to drive off in her Mercedes Jeep, which she had parked down the street.

But this is the price of starting anew. And with every trip to the Goodwill where I close my eyes and dump, I am lighter. The house is airier. I am relieved.

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Another side benefit: I get more done in a day than I did in the past five years. Usually one call to the Athens Water and Sewer Department would have me down for the afternoon. Today, by ten in the morning, I had made a multitude of such soul-crushing calls (four). This weekend, with the help of friends (well, actually they did the job and I helped), my attic bedroom floor was finally renovated, a project that’s been on tap since I moved in.

Attic Construct

Midway through the project.

Attic Finished

Fabulous, right?

My life continues to follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder path in that leaving this beautiful room reminds me of when the Ingalls family left Kansas. “A whole year gone, Charles,” Ma sighs. Pa, Laura, and the mustangs, of course, are all about the next adventure. They know that the fun in Little House on the Prairie (the book) is all in the building of the house—the chimney, the walls, the floor, etc. A book about a family sitting around a nice attic bedroom wouldn’t be very interesting.

I do move secure in the knowledge that I’ll be living on a Mardi Gras parade route. Although I am moving in, for the first time, to an apartment I’ve never checked out in person. I feel good about the place (Mardi Gras! Sun room!), and my landlady totally got me by dropping in French words, but I suppose we’ll get to find out together what the apartment is really like.

What worries me most is this sunflower:

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What if it doesn’t bloom in time? It’s been months now! All the other sunflowers are blooming already!

 

 

 

06/26 The Writing Life: A Brief Dispatch From the Desk of Dr. Ferguson

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When developing my website, I purposefully left off an “events” page for fear it would be depressing. What if I had no events? A blank events page is like a party with no guests.

In the past year I’ve discovered a second problem, which is that when I am busy with events, the last thing I want is to blog. After a long day all I want is to shut the door, plop on the hotel bed, and watch the Die Hard marathon on cable.

So this was an eventful year:

I completed my comprehensive exams; wrote a dissertation; applied for a gazillion teaching jobs; Skyped for interviews in Iowa, Idaho, and Topeka (among others); traveled for interviews to Chicago, Seattle, Cullowhee, Chattanooga, and Little Rock; contemplated living everywhere from Muncie, Indiana, to El Paso, Texas; didn’t get offered any of these jobs; defended my dissertation; and in the final hour offered a job (more on this maybe later). I ate raw Puget Sound oysters and steamed Baltimore crabs. I feel as though I’ve been on an endless Gravitron ride and just got spit out, the carnies all laughing as I wobble around trying not to hurl.

This morning I had a chance to let my middle ear settle out. I lay on the floor with my cats in front of the fan, soothed by the whir of the blades and the slow blinking eyes of Theodore and Sniglet. As I let reflections wash over, I had to admit that for these months I have, even if I am exhausted, been living the writing life I imagined when all young and dreamy.

The Writing Life:

1. Be poor.

2. Sip Bourbon in a glass with two cubes of ice.

3. Sit at a wooden desk and type moodily.

4. Go to bars with my other writer friends and wittily debate matters of the arts.

5. Read from my work to applause.

6. Travel.

7. Walk brick pathways on campus where students chirp, “Hey, Professor Ferguson!”

I also dreamed I’d live in a one room apartment in Italy furnished with only a cot and a typewriter that has one window with one white linen curtain blowing in the breeze overlooking the Mediterranean. I didn’t dream of Ohio. But so long as there’s wine, conversation, and dark chocolate, maybe the exact location isn’t as important.

 

 

 

 

03/25 Helping Us Be Brave: Laura Ingalls and Tris

During a job interview recently, I was asked,”The title of your book says you found yourself. Well, what did you find?” My Life as Laura isn’t exactly a spoiler alert kind of book, so I think it’s fine to say that what I discover, is that like Laura, I can be brave. I can move and start over and make this new life work. Bravery isn’t necessarily inborn, it’s a skill developed by taking risks. Throughout the series, Laura gulps and moves on. Laura’s bravery has always helped me be brave.

In the wake of my dissertation defense, a time during which student Kelly is passing on and Dr. Kelly is being born, my requirement for books right now is that they don’t require a highlighter pen. If I read Nabokov, for example, I can’t not mark lyrical passages, or want to crawl inside that big  brain. Thus, at an airport this week, I put aside my Important Work of Literary Significance and bought Divergent at the newsstand. I’ve realized that one requirement of the airplane read is that you can follow the sentences as you are being throttled around inside a metal tube. I love David Foster Wallace, but Consider the Lobster and Other Essays was one of my worst choices for an airplane read—ever.

Divergent did the trick. I was engaged and overall my response fits with most my friends—way better than Twilight (NO, thank you), but not as good as The Hunger Games. Or in my mind, nowhere near as good as A Wrinkle in Time or The Earthsea Trilogy. If you haven’t read those classics, get on it. I wasn’t surprised to see that L’Engle was on Veronica Roth’s list of most admired authors.

*Note: While I have been living under this giant, grad school rock for five years, even I am aware that this huge, giant, mega blockbuster also called Divergent came out this week but, as always, I am talking about the book. The Book.

What works for me in Divergent (even if the romance plotline is absurdly predictable), is that while I might not be a teenager, I am navigating my next huge life transition. I am graduating with a terminal degree. I have to move wherever a job takes me. I have to make hard choices. The train tracks are running out and I’d rather jump that just fall off the edge.

 

 

 

03/07 Wilder Weather Tips for Coping with The Polar Vortex

At Laurapalooza 2012. Bonnetheads taking over.

My favorite climatologist, Barbara Mayes Boustead, helps us process the cold through this interview with Michigan Public Radio. Laurati might know Barb from her blog Wilder Weather, which explores weather as told through the Little House books, or maybe they’ve seen her rockin’ karaoke at Laurapalooza.

Maybe today’s research shows that the weather wasn’t “forty below” in South Dakota as often as Laura claimed, but it was really, really cold back then, and the Ingalls family needed serious survival tips. Barb shares the wisdom, and I’m going to go check on the livestock (okay, cats) right now.

11/13 Before and After LIW

Six years have passed since I retraced the journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can forget how much has changed. How I went from the server who worked for seven years at a restaurant falling apart around her (as in chunks of the ceiling), to the woman who just put out job applications all over the country.

Recently, these maps documenting one’s U.S. travels have been circulating the Facebook rounds. I filled out two.

Pink means never been.

Orange means visited for at least a few days.

Blue means passed a considerable amount of time.

Green means lived there.

Here’s the map of my life before Laura:

vsmap-2 And the one of my life after:

vsmap

 

08/25 From the Desk of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Creating of Nellie Oleson

I have to give the costume designer who made Alison Arngram's wig for the television show total props. Agreed?

In my last post I shared some edited-out sections from my book in which I wrote from Laura in first person. Maybe this post would work better if I simply rewrote the info in my voice, but—school starts Monday.

So here “Laura” explains her creating of one of the best villainesses of all time:

From the Desk of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Creating of Nellie Oleson

Nelliw Oleson is a composite character of three girls I knew. There can be only one nemesis in a story—three “Nellies” would have only muddled the works. Nellie Owens was my first foe in Walnut Grove. The Owens family did run the local mercantile and their children were indeed horrid. Nellie had wonderful toys, tops, jumping jacks, and beautiful picture books. She would invite me over and then not allow me to touch any of them, expecting me to just sit there and watch her play. Naturally I grew bored and so would get up to leave. but then she’d start to cry.

When I went to Ma for advice she suggested that next time I gently decline Nellie’s invitation, saying I needed to get home, and so that’s exactly what I did.

Willie Oleson—by the way—did make horrible faces and years later blinded himself with a firecracker, surprising no one with his ignorant behavior. He always was reckless. The way he terrorized us on that velocipede!

Nellie was annoying but then I met Genevieve Masters. She had the golden girls and the willowy figure that made me feel all dumpy. She was the one who lorded over her New York State heritage, droning on in this simpering lisp. True to the Books all this made me feel terribly insecure until Pa reminded me that he was from New York State himself. Turns out that hailing from New York in 1870 was hardly a rarefied claim—the state ranked only behind Pennsylvania as the top American birth state.

Genevieve and Nellie then began a turf war, vying for leadership. Irritated by both of them and all their crying I began ignoring them both. After that, they both began to woo me but I held fast to my independence. To my surprise, I found myself leader of them all!

Well, not all that surprised.

I was naughty at one point, pretending to like a boy only because Genevieve did. And don’t tell Manly, but I accepted my first proposal in Walnut Grove to a boy named Howard Ensign but he soon grew moony and jealous so I broke it off. The clingy type was never for me.

It was Genevieve who then resurrected in De Smet, to my dismay. The silver lining here is that it made for a great plot twist years later.

The third Nellie was a girl named Stella Gilbert. She was the one who lived out on the claim and made her play for Manly with the buggy rides. “Utterly too-too!” Please. She was poor and out on a claim, but there’s a limit, and I wasn’t sharing Manly.

I don’t know why, but it seems in every situation there will always be a Nellie. One leaves and another takes her place. I suspect that’s why the character has resonated so. And I like to think the Laura of my books gives some practical advice. Because while we do all strive to take the high road, there is a time when you have to stand your ground—and if your nemesis just so happens to wander in the leech infested water—well, it wasn’t as if her ignorance is your fault.

08/07 From the Desk of Laura Ingalls Wilder: Part One

While I was writing My Life as Laura, one problem I faced was how much biography to include and how to include it. I didn’t want long passages stuck in, dragging the narrative. At the same time, I was obsessed with all I was learning about Laura the real person. One day I was goofing around, or maybe high on Cheetos, when I came up with this idea that I would have these chapters written from the point of view of Laura where she herself would explain the differences between the Books and her life.

Yep, that’s right. First person LIW.

Eventually my advisor, Dinty W. Moore, helped me see that this idea was really not working—really, really not working—and I cut the chapters. I mean, I knew they weren’t working, so when I got that sideways look the visual feedback felt right. I also had to admit that all I was doing was rewriting Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill, which if you haven’t read I recommend. And thus a decision was made that I was not writing a biography of Laura, that was for other people, but a travelogue/immersion memoir.

I cut those chapters.

But I did save them! And hey, maybe they make for a few semi-entertaining blog posts.

So here goes. Here’s the first where I-as-Laura explain the transition between Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek, as well as why the actual town name of Walnut Grove wasn’t used. As Laurafans know, only the television show actually referred to the town by name.

From the Desk of Laura Ingalls Wilder — Walnut Grove, Minnesota

It was my seventh birthday when we crossed the frozen Mississippi. I had heard tales of cracking ice and families drowning in the cold, dark water. I trembled under the quit, cringing at every wagon wheel creak and snuggled up to Mary for comfort. Land was a great relief. Once we were safe in Lake City, Minnesota, Pa went out and back with a book of birthday poems, Flowret.

Although I wrote that we left Pepin once, we in fact left twice. Once for Kansas and once for Minnesota. In between the family regrouped for awhile in Pepin. When I described our journey to Kansas in Little House, I drew upon the story of the lake crossing to Minnesota for dramatic effect. At any rate, when it came time to begin Plum Creek, there was no need to repeat the story, so I began with our arrival at the dugout. This decision also covered up the family backtrail to Pepin, which went against the spirit of my family always venturing west.

In Plum Creek, I never mention Walnut Grove by name. I simply call it “town.” Later folks’ feelings were hurt so I apologized. I claimed the omission was unintentional and that “I didn’t know I was writing history.”

Neither these statements are true.

Of course I knew I was writing history. That was the point. What did come as a shock was the success of my written history. Because of the success everyone then grew very particular, and I had to smooth things over. I claimed ignorance since Ma showed me how a modest approach always works best. These days everyone inflates their importance, a strategy that only leads to disappointment. I find it’s wiser to play a close hand and then pleasantly surprise.

As for calling Walnut Grove “town,” I admit that was a deliberate choice. “Town” and “country” as words have a better ring, a better sense of opposites. The wording made the lines drawn between town girl (Nellie) and country girl (me) more finely drawn in the sand. And yes, reducing Walnut Grove to merely “town” leveled the playing field. Why should “town” get to be Walnut Grove and “country” merely be “country?”

Later, when I became a town girl myself, then “town” could become De Smet. But not before.

 

07/31 My Life as Laura Outtake

When I was writing early drafts of My Life as Laura, I included many quotes from the Books, which I then used as a springboard onto other topics.

Then, as it came time to actually publish, I learned about a little organization called the The Little House Heritage Trust that owns the rights to the Books. Since the series had been published so long ago, I had not considered that copyright laws would be in effect. Trying to get permission turned out to be a small nightmare. Finally, (via lawyers, HarperCollins, etc.) I reached a person (or the lawyer of a person) who is not even an actual relative of a Laura, but a descendent of a child (Robert Lea McBride) Rose Wilder Lane adopted. This Abigail McBride Allen wanted $200 per book, $1400 total for the 7 books used.

I received this email and sobbed on my front steps.

Now. My book was published with a small press. While technically a for profit business, the operation has much more to do with a love of books than actual money. I had no advance or budget. I was and am a grad student scraping by on a $15,000 a year stipend. And my book is basically a 200 page sales pitch for Laura Ingalls Wilder! I did mention that this woman isn’t even an actual relative of the Ingalls family, right? Because if she were, I have to believe Caroline Ingalls would rise from the grave and give Abigail McBride Allen such a look that she would crumple from shame.

To avoid this cash drop I had to do go back, rewrite, and paraphrase. A bunch. In the end I still coughed up $800 for the quotes that I simply couldn’t bring myself to remove, which is roughly my monthly budget for food and rent. Anyway, when I get criticism for not enough discussion about actual quotes from the Books, it hurts. Because I had those parts and I had to cut them.

One point of this post is I want to call out Abigail McBride Allen (I’ll keep typing the name so she Googles) in the hopes that maybe she can find some of the spirit of the Books, instead of milking them for cash. I’m willing to bet she’s made plenty.

The other point is that I’d like to post one section from my book that I was sad to cut, where I point out how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prose holds up as an adult read and explicate what for me, is Laura’s greatest turning point.

Plum Creek was in a pastoral mood the day I visited.

Plum Creek was in a more pastoral mood the day I visited.

This section was originally in the chapter where I visit the actual Plum Creek in Walnut Grove:

“Laura encounters many dangers in By the Banks of Plum Creek: prairie fire, grasshoppers, blizzards, but to me, the most terrifying moment is when she slips in the flooded creek. The rushing water almost sweeps her away. She finds herself struggling to survive, one arm desperately hooked around wooden plank that spans the creek.

No one knew where she was. No one could hear her if she screamed for help. The water roared loud and tugged at her, stronger and stronger. Laura kicked, but the water was stronger than her legs. She got both arms across the plank and pulled, but the water pulled harder. It pulled the back of her head down and it jerked as if it would jerk her in two. It was cold. The coldness soaked into her.

This was not like wolves or cattle. The creek was not alive. It was only strong and terrible and never stopping. It would pull her down and whirl her away, rolling and tossing her like a willow branch. It would not care.

This was the Laura who inspired me to bravery. There is a Hemingway code hero quality to the prose, a similar deliberate repetition of words and cool delivery that creates an unbearable tension. While Laura comes of age many times in the series, this to me is one of the key moments, the time she discovers her true mettle. She eventually manages to make her way to shore.

Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the creek had not got her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry.”

07/23 Interview on the 1000th Voice

Thanks, Brittany Rhinanek, for the chance to chat Laura. I also recommend the interview with Sarah Utoff, who I've had the pleasure of meeting at Laurapalooza.

Thanks, Brittany Rhinanek, for the chance to chat Laura. I also recommend the interview with Sarah Utoff, who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing from Laurapalooza.

 

07/16 Pretty on the Inside

“You do look nice,” Ma says in These Happy Golden Years when Laura dons her new brown poplin, “but remember that pretty is as pretty does.” While Ma worried more about Victorian modesty than the modern day perspective of encouraging self-esteem, I still find her caution refreshing. If we need to stare at something just for being pretty, maybe we should try a flower, instead of a person.

You can stare at this flower and admire it all you like without affecting its feelings of self-worth or vanity.

This past week I worked the Athens Rock Camp for Girls, which “builds self-esteem through music creation and performance.” The basic concept is that 24 girls, ages 12-18, learn to play an instrument, form a band, write songs, and play a final concert. I taught drums and coached the Soul Takers, which would take much more than a blog post and most probably a team of literary experts to do the experience justice. I’ll narrow the subject down for now.

One goal of the camp is to focus on what women DO versus what we LOOK LIKE. Surely, I don’t have to argue the point how women (more so than men) are valued for their appearance. If you need help feeling convinced, you could try watching Dustin Hoffman (in reference to Tootsie) discuss what it was like to walk around as an unattractive women. The dude cries.

In the spirit of the goal, we were encouraged as counselors to give positive feedback on actions versus appearance. For instance “I love the way you thwack that snare” instead of “awesome shoes.”

Now, I really love awesome shoes. I love costumes, and dress-up, and theme parties. I love Mad Men for the outfits. I love silver glitter pants and platform shoes for men and women. I loved living in New Orleans where people look for any excuse to wear a hot pink wig. I went to Italy this summer and dammit if I didn’t really enjoy how Europeans step it up—real shoes and sharp shirts—no saggy t-shirts and white sneakers.

I am the woman who put on a bright turquoise prairie dress and drove across America. Blue jeans just wouldn’t have been the same.

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But for one week, I had to admit that it could be a powerful experience to turn the focus completely away from looks, especially for teenage girls.

This seemingly easy request turned out to be harder than I thought. I mean, really hard. I felt like A.J. Jacobs working on one of his immersion pieces where he tells the exact truth for a week or lives the Bible literally. I had no idea how getting and receiving compliments based on clothes or looks was such a part of how I interact with women. Especially women I’m trying to get to know. A compliment is the go-to icebreaker move. When I saw a camper or a fellow counselor wearing something cool, I had to choke back and really think of something else to say. And when I put on something cool, I found myself pouty when no one said anything.

One side effect of being around teenage girls, is that it takes you back to all the insecurities you had at that age. I try to be a progressive woman of self-esteem, but when love goes wrong, my first thought since age ten has always been to wish I were prettier. Right now I hate my knees. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at a woman with these horrible knees. I know how silly this is. But knowing and feeling are not the same.

Over the week I began to reflect on the difference between an easy observation, versus a more satisfying one. A fellow counselor got excited about how I detected that a camper was left handed (as am I) so I was able to work with the unique problems of lefty-drumming. Thanks! And when my fellow band coach and I fist-bumped at the end of a challenging week and told one another how we admired one another’s work? Much better than someone liking my knees. And, of course, we were all thrilled when our campers took the stage and were applauded for their accomplishments.

Which isn’t to say that when I applied rockstar makeup for the final show, that I didn’t appreciate it when a fellow counselor noticed, and told me I looked nice.

“You do, too.” I said. “It’s the last day, we can say that now.”

We laughed and high-fived, but I’d say this was a knowing high-five. A knowing that first and foremost, we admired what the other person had done this past week, so it was okay to have a little fun with costuming this last night.

I think Ma would’ve have felt a little uptight about the red lipstick, but basically okay with it.