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Department of English

Garrison Keillor

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Where I Come From

The humorist returns to the U to inspire another generation of writers

When English alumnus Garrison Keillor (BA 1966) showed up as a guest speaker for the Department of English course “Introduction to Creative Writing” on Wednesday, October 21, 2009, he delivered a few jokes, some generous advice—and enough copies of his novel Pontoon for over 200 undergraduates. The students had been assigned to read the first chapter of the novel. The long-time host and writer of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion gave a brief talk based on Pontoon, and then opened the floor for questions, to the students’ clear delight.

According to Keillor, Pontoon’s particular challenge was “to kill off the main character at the very beginning of a novel, and see where it went.” As for the “message” of the book: “As we say back where I’m from: ‘It could have been worse.’ That’s the moral of comedy.”

That place where he was raised provides his basic inspiration to write, noted the author of the Lake Wobegon fictional series: “I want to tell stories about the people I come from; I want to defend them. As much as I once wanted to escape from them when I was younger, and to outrage them, I still believe in them. I want to understand them.”

Such a motivation should be distinguished from the common advice to “write what you know”: “I think you should write what you don’t know—but what you want to know, stressed Keillor, “even if you will never succeed.” A student asked about Keillor’s oft-expressed dissatisfaction with his own writing. “You write with a continuous sense of failure,” he responded. “Failure is your motivation.”

Keillor has twice taught the semester-long course “The Composition of Comedy” to undergraduates at the University of Minnesota through the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, both times at no cost to the U. He cites the generosity of his own teachers at the U—James Wright, Robert Lindsay, George Hage—in explaining his encouragement and support of students here. He supplied plenty of each to these students. “The world is waiting to hear from you,” he promised. “We’re bored with our own generation.

“I’m interested in storytellers who give me a moral I don’t know about yet, and I’m interested in stories about a world I don’t yet know.”

In turn, the students weren’t shy about expressing appreciation for their guest. “Your birthright as a Minnesotan is a powerful inferiority complex, which is good for a writer,” Keillor concluded to widespread laughter and applause. “You’re always trying to work your way out of a hole.”

 

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