Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption

Wendell Berry & Winn

Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.

Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.

Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:

You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.

Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.

30 Replies to “Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. That is how it is on a farm. I am still trying to find a rhythm that allows me to write even with the interruptions and responsibilities of living on a very small farm with two horses, two dogs, some chickens and a feral cat. This was an encouraging quote.

    Great picture.

    What books of his would you most recommend?

    1. Jayber Crow is his most beloved novel, and I wouldn’t argue with that. A Place on Earth would also be a good place to begin, his 2nd novel (1967), but it truly has the place of Port William as its main character, and it sets the stage in many ways for all his stories to follow.

  2. Thanks! I needed to read this today. We live on a very active farm, I have two children still at home, and yet I try to find the regular time to write. Wendell’s words are always pitch perfect and he indeed walks the walk. Thank you! And glad to find your blog, too.

    1. I meant to add that a few years ago my book table was right between David Domine’s (who is now a friend) and Wendell Berry’s at the KY Book Fair. I had him sign some of his books and told him that he was one reason we had bought a farm in Kentucky. In his characteristic humble and dry wit, and without missing a beat, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

      1. that’s a great story, Catherine. I shared it with my wife Miska. Hope the active farm is feeding your soul, even as you feed others’.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. It is such a confirmation of what I know is meant to be part of my life (as a writer, yes, but as a parent and friend) – your way of stating the beauty of being interrupted, though, made it feel more like an honour. I’m thankful to you for that.

  4. Thanks for sharing that, Winn. I’ve been writing a book for three years…with so many interruptions that it discourages me to even reflect on it. I keep looking for a week to lock myself away to finish. It’s encouraging to hear others’ struggles on the same issues. A friend has encouraged me to try to think differently about the writing process and lower my expectations from the “hours and weeks away from everyone” to “write as if you are writing a blog” and be content with the one and two hours blocks of solitude. Ahhhh…the beauty of interruptions….maybe

    1. Christian Wiman wrote My Bright Abyss, in snatches, 45 minutes or so each morning in his car in the parking garage before work. I don’t know if I could do that, but I guess I could if that’s what the sentences demanded. Keep at it, Mikki. It will be worth the struggle.

  5. This is a struggle for me as well. Some days, I think I haven’t completed a single thought without being interrupted, much less being able to set those thoughts down in words. 🙂

words have a way of making friends. drop a few here.