Progress on the Prairie

Alicia Bones and Stephen Anunson

Despite our love of the classics – i.e., dead white European dudes – taught in these illustrious halls, plenty of noteworthy artists operate outside of the Lawrence bubble today. In this column, we’ll cover those Midwestern artists – writers, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, actors, etc. – and discuss how they’re changing the modern creative landscape.
You can tell that Madison writer Dwight Allen ’74 was once a Lawrentian. If it’s not his self-effacing attitude – he wrote for The New Yorker for 10 years, but only for the Night Life section – or his self-conscious success – he attended the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but was uncomfortable the whole time – it’s evident in his footwear.
One April afternoon, Allen visited a creative writing class wearing thick socks under Birkenstock sandals, the footwear of choice of many the aspiring Lawrence artist. But unlike the hipsters on the Main Hall green, Allen has the credentials to back up the shoes.
Allen was born in Louisville, Ky. and transferred to Lawrence after a year at DePauw University in Indiana. Here, he read constantly and studied English with Professor Bert Goldgar and creative writing with Professor Mark Dintenfass. “I loved Lawrence,” said Allen. “I was mostly quite happy here.” Following graduation, he studied in Iowa City and worked in New York.
Allen began writing fiction in earnest while at Lawrence but was plagued by self-doubt. “I was beleaguered by self-consciousness,” Allen said. “I couldn’t bring myself to write a bad sentence because I thought I knew what a good sentence looked like, so as a result I hardly wrote anything.”
His shaky forays into fiction writing continued throughout his stint at The New Yorker. Eventually, he decided that he would invest himself completely in writing fiction. At the time, Allen said he thought, “I’m almost 40 years old – I better do what I want to do.”
His commitment paid off. In 2000, at 49, Allen’s first short story collection, “The Green Suit,” was published. He has since published two novels, “Judge” in 2003, and “The Typewriter Satyr” this year.
In terms of his process, Allen tries to adhere to Dintenfass’ mantra “Writers write.” A self-admitted slow writer, Allen works on his computer in the mornings until about 1 p.m. “I had to learn to sit at my desk every day and grind it out.” His decision not to outline his pieces often takes him on a meandering path through the story, but he’s learned to take pleasure in the journey.
“The Green Suit” is a collection of connected short stories spanning the life of Peter Sackrider, a Southerner who grows older and arguably wiser in the landscapes of Kentucky, New York and Wisconsin. Tackling topics like Sackrider’s discomfort with his bisexuality and his tense relationship with a vaguely menacing neighbor, Allen, with his lyrically understated writing style, creates a bravely uncommon collection.
Just as in his novels, Wisconsin plays a role in “The Green Suit.” During a class debate about whether the bar in a Wisconsin-based short story is the Bar on the Avenue or Cleo’s, Allen reminded us that it’s often hard for writers to calculate where fact stops and fiction begins. He said writers “always use raw material from life.”
To aspiring writers and artists, Allen said one’s inspiration and drive must come from within. “Polonius was a windbag, but I don’t think he was wrong when he said, however dull and tattered it might sound now, ‘to thine ownself be true,'” said Allen. “Take the risk of being an individual. Work hard at what you know.”
Allen is currently working on a short story collection tentatively titled “Among the Animals.” He resides in Madison.

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