Garrison Keillor: Start With the Observable World

One doesn’t become the voice of America without a lot of hard work. Garrison Keillor has been hosting A Prairie Home Companion, a variety show on Public Radio, for over 35 years. Along the way, he’s extended his storytelling talents into the realms of film, literature, and journalism – penning the Robert Altman-directed Prairie Home film, as well as authoring numerous novels; short stories, poetry, and essay collections; and audio CDs.

We chatted with Keillor at the annual Moth Ball in New York, an event dedicated to reviving the lost art of storytelling. At previous outings, we heard Keillor talk about being shamed back to Minnesota after coming to New York with aspirations of writing for the New Yorker. This time around, he spoke of patiently waiting in line at the ER, as polite Midwesterners are want to do, all the while suffering from a stroke. As always, Keillor’s tales made artful use of revealing details balanced against a genuine human empathy.We probed Keillor about his facility for shifting between mediums, the challenges of churning out good material for three+ decades, and how even he – like any man of flesh and blood – is susceptible to the mighty distractions of the Internet.

When you first came to the Big Apple as a young writer, how did you come to shift the subject of your writing to stories about back home?
Oh, I just realized when I came to New York that what I had to write about was where I’m from and the people that I grew up with. And I think that’s true with most people. But it’s a difficult step to take, because, we become writers because we want to escape from that of course. And we want to get away from those benighted people. But in the end, I think the first and strongest stories you have to tell are stories that happened to you before you were 12 years old, and then you go on from there.

You’ve done radio, books, movies. Is it difficult to shift between so many mediums?

No. It’s just all writing. And I think that writers should be able to move easily between one thing and another. I never understood people who were completely devoted to poetry, completely devoted to fiction. I’ve never written a nonfiction book, but I’d love to. I’ve written some nonfiction for magazines. But one thing that I haven’t done that I’m really lusting to do, is to write a play. And I don’t know why it’s so frightening to me, but I’m still working on it.
I think the first and strongest stories you have to tell are stories that happened to you before you were 12 years old.

Your show has been on for 35 years. Is it hard to keep coming up with new material?

No, no, it’s not. But of course if one looks back, which I don’t like to do, you certainly find that you, without meaning to, have operated within certain boundaries. And coming up with something new each week is a relative term.  And one always looks back and regrets these boundaries. One always wishes and hopes to be more and more free than one has the power to be.

The amount of material you’re able to produce is enviable. Do you have a new source of inspiration each week?

The urgency of doing a live show, I think, is all the inspiration you need. And I think what people envy is having a platform from which you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. I operate within sort of traditional radio bounds of propriety and language and so on, because I sort of covet the variety of our audience, which includes small children and includes devout religious people as well as non.
But I think it’s the freedom to do it, and also it’s earning a good living doing it, which is becoming more and more difficult for young people. I see young people of tremendous gifts who are working for practically nothing, and this is one of the effects of the Internet on media. It really has spread out and become miles wide and inches thick.

What motivates people if there’s no promise of a comfortable lifestyle at the end of the road?

I think what motivates young people your age is much more a sort of a comradeship, this wonderful feeling between people engaged in the same sort of work. And it’s a kind of a loyalty to other people in your field. That wasn’t true back in the day. And I think people of my generation were very, very, very interested in money. And motivated by that. To us, having a chance at a windfall profit on a project was sort of a guarantee of freedom. I don’t know that it always was. But that’s how we felt. And that’s what we were interested in, was to be free of people in suits, like I’m wearing right now.

Do you have a specific work process?

I do. Those hours when you wake up are really precious. And if I lose them, if I waste them, if I get engrossed in the Internet and I drift off down that stream, I really feel guilty and bad afterward. There’s a new software program I’m wanting to try called Freedom. You probably know about it, but you install it, and it makes it more difficult to go online.
Those hours when you wake up are really precious. And if I lose them, I really feel guilty and bad afterward.
Do you have any tips to avoid wasting time on the Internet?
Well, not to use a computer. To sit and write on a legal pad with a rollerball pen is the way you get away from that. And that’s a perfectly good way to work. I wish that I did more of it.

What do you do to overcome that first hurdle, getting that first idea onto the page?

I don’t think that one should sit and look at a blank page. The way around it is to walk around with scrap paper and to take notes, and simply to take notes on the observable world around you. If you walk into this room and see these great columns and think this was once a savings bank, you could put those two things together, and make some notes here – that would be the start of something.
I think everything – everything – starts with the observable world, and even though you may cut that out of your final go, nonetheless I think this is where it always starts, and with overheard conversations. There are a lot of conversations here that could be overheard, and you’re probably more likely to get them in the back of the room.

Photo courtesy of Flash Rosenberg.

More insights on: Disconnecting, Interviews, Motivation

Ariston Anderson

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For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.
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