October 4th, 2012

That I get to participate in The Big Read with Willa Cather, Judy Blunt, and Laura Ingalls Wilder is like if a drag queen won a night out with Cher, Barbara Streisand, and Madonna.

Six years ago, I was a first year student beginning the University of Montana MFA program in creative writing. I had moved across the county on this bet that I could be a writer. When I brought my first draft of My Life as Laura to my first workshop, I was terrified. Here I was writing about the West for Judy Blunt—best-selling author of Breaking Clean. I was a middle class Southerner from the burbs swooning over farm life. Anything I knew about horses came from reading The Black Stallion series.

I still have that first draft of chapter one. I shan’t dwell, but I did have a scene where a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese sends me back in time to 1867, to the setting of Little House in the Big Woods.  Judy got my humor and—most importantly to me—didn’t dismiss Wilder as an author (which often happens with Young Adult books). She even said that her prose had been compared to Wilder and Cather. From there Judy and my class, many of whom were also native Montanans, suffered some weird drafts—including sections where I pretended to channel Laura Ingalls Wilder as if a medium.

May I take this opportunity to thank you all for your patience.

I learned in Montana that landscape is a character. The further I got into the writing of My Life as Laura, the more I relied on the classics for help. It was a challenge describing how prairies change through Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana. I knew that to say “I don’t know, it’s just different,” wouldn’t be good enough. On my Laura trip I had taken many pictures and even video, but I often couldn’t find the words. I studied passages from Cather, Blunt, and Wilder for inspiration.

“Perhaps the glide of the long railway ride was still with me, for more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh easy-blowing wind and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…” Willa Cather, My Antonia.

“The farther they went into the west, the smaller they seemed, and they less they seemed to be going anywhere…Laura thought they might go on forever, yet always be in this same changeless place, that they would not even know they were there,” Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake

From Breaking Clean I even kept tally of prairie words: gumbo, culvert, chaff, coulee, silversage, wooly plantain, gunnysack, bunchgrass, hardpan, sagebrush, chokecherry, greasewood, the breaks.

I’d loved these authors before I ever attempted to write the west. So it seems fitting that when I hit the writer’s block wall, those times I stared at that blinking cursor hoping it might send me to the Land of Oz, it was my writing heroines who helped me unmire. 

As part of The Big Read, this is our first guest post by Kelly Ferguson, author of My Life as Laura, about her travels retracing the pioneer journey of her favorite literary heroine. We hope you like her as much as we do, Tumblr, and that you’ll make her feel right at home.

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