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Walter Benjamin, that is. Benjamin was on author Larry McMurtry’s mind a lot during afternoons at the Archer City Dairy Queen when writing what he considers his best book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. McMurtry watched townspeople’s lives unfold at a meeting spot he found quite agreeable to writing books set in his hometown.
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As McMurtry looked to Benjamin and a great setting for inspiration and meaning, writers look to McMurtry and his hometown. Every summer the Archer City Writers Workshop brings literary greats and students together to glean a sense of place from the settings of McMurtry’s novels, like Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show.
Any way you approach it, Walt was talking about Archer City.
Beneath the apparent emptiness of Archer City, stories abound. by Erik Calonius
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Rising above Archer City is a wildcat, all fangs and fur and a snarly attitude, emblazoned on the water tower in the middle of town. “That’s the one thing that’s bound this town together over the years,” one Archer City resident remarks. “That wildcat.”
Read more of Calonius’ Stories Abound>
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George Getschow: Try imagining me trekking up the side of a gigantic, snow-covered mountain in Tibet. Finally, after 12-hours of climbing, I reach the top of the summit. And there’s Bill Marvel, sitting cross-legged on a bed of pine needles, reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. I say, “Bill, I trekked up to your mountain perch to ask you—our Tribe’s master storyteller—one question: ‘What do you need to teach writing?'”
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Bill began stroking his long white beard, and gazed for a few moments across his mountain expanse. Then Bill turned his eyes toward me, and began speaking with words that I felt should be carved on a stone tablet and hung above the entrance to Booked Up.
Bill Marvel: “First of all you need writers: one or more writers to teach and one or more writers to learn. At any given moment, the two groups may interchange, the teachers becoming learners and the learners becoming teachers. Or more likely, all may be teaching and learning at the same time.
It goes almost without saying that both groups must be eager to learn, even a little bit desperate. A writer who is not hungry to learn more about his or her craft is—as a character in one of Mr. McMurtry’s novels might put it—not worth a boot full of warm spit.
Which gets us to Larry McMurtry and Archer City.
You also need a place to teach, and here you have to be picky. A classroom is not a place, or at least a place to teach writing. People say, ‘You can’t teach writing.’ What they really mean is, ‘You can’t teach writing in rows of desks or around a table.’ Classrooms are for teaching facts and knowledge. Writing is a craft, a skill. These are things that can only be practiced in studios, workshops. Like painters learn painting or musicians learn playing, working around others who are working at the same craft. Where there are exemplars around to imitate, at first, eventually to master.
So, a place with writers and with books.
There is a one other thing writers need to practice their craft: The World. Or an interesting corner of it. Painting and music are partly or wholly abstract arts. A room with good light and a little bit of visual stimulation or good acoustics and a decent sound system will do. But the writer needs subjects, interesting people with their problems and possibilities, who interact with one another in a setting that itself presents them with problems and possibilities.
A setting with a variety of people — an aging writer at the end of his career, a strange woman with a seeming gift of prophecy, an eccentric or two the town has learned to tolerate (or not), working people, people not working — a setting with many problems and few possibilities is best. With a rich past, a vivid present, and an uncertain future.
And in this setting, writers need each other, to bounce ideas, to give and get feedback, even to compete with. They need every now and then the shock of encountering something that is so damn good—How did she build that up that profile, layer by layer? How did he wrap that entire essay around the flashing of a street light?—that they wish they had written it, think they could never do it as well. Then set out to do it themselves.
In such a setting, everybody becomes a learner and a teacher of writing, even the non-writers. Because they—we—learn lessons not just about writing, but about ourselves and the world. Which is our subject after all.”