Robert Kroetsch (Peter Midgley/University of Alberta Press)
I first encountered Robert Kroetsch through an excerpt from his novel, The Studhorse Man, in The Tamarack Review in the early 1970s. Then I found the novel itself in Coles bookstore in Polo Park. The novel was wild and crazy and thoroughly Canadian prairie.
I read a few more of his novels and then had the fortune of learning that Kroetsch was going to be teaching an Advanced Creative Writing course at the University of Manitoba in1978. I applied and was thrilled to be accepted.
The evening I first met him in the halls of Fletcher Argue outside his office, he remembered my writing samples and said, "Good stuff." A real live published novelist said that about my clumsy writing.
A few weeks later when the story I had brought to class encountered some hostility, Kroetsch pointed out the light imagery that flowed through the story, giving my deflating ego a boost.
Kroetsch took us seriously as writers--if we showed that we were serious. And as a class I believe we were serious; with classmates such as Sandra Birdsell, Jake Macdonald, Victor Enns, Brian Mackinnon, Margaret Shaw and guests such as Rudy Wiebe, David Arnason, Patrick Lane, and Lorna Crozier one had to take imaginative writing seriously.
This was the year that Kroetsch's novel What the Crow Said came out and for me that novel that turned prairie cliches into myth illustrated what was behind much of Kroetsch's teaching: it is good to write about the place you know, and that the familiar does not have to be mundane, boring, or provincial.
His anecdote about having to explain to his "eastern" editor that on the prairies a "bluff" is a clump of trees rather than a hill, brought home the notion that not only is our place a valid subject to write about, the "local" words we use are valid as those used in London.
Without Kroetsch's influence I might never have dared to write with the language of The Salvation of Yasch Siemens or The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz.
When that 1978-79 Advanced Creative Writing class ended we were asking if we could sign up again the next year. Kroetsch laughed and then revealed that he was moving to Lethbridge so we functioned without him for a year, though I did have the audacity to mail him the novel I began in his class after I completed it. He actually read it and sent it back to me.
After a year of missing the nourishment of Kroetsch's class, Victor Enns invited members of the class to meet at his apartment, and so we met every three weeks to share our writing and give each other feedback.
Robert Kroetsch had returned to Winnipeg by then and in August of 1981 was there with us at the riverside farm near Aubigny and gave a talk on post-modern writing at the meeting that established the Manitoba Writers' Guild.
The last time I saw Robert Kroetsch was in November, 2008, when I was writer-in-residence at the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture. He was in the audience for my reading, still supportive, still encouraging.
Armin Wiebe, Winnipeg author and playwright
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