Recently I had the honor of addressing a roomful of people interested in writing. As part of the address, I talked about the novelist Frederick Manfred, an excerpt of which follows.

It’s been several years since Frederick Manfred died, and I for one still mourn his passing. Author of the classic Lord Grizzly and 31 other novels, Manfred was a Minnesota legend.

Frederick ManfredIn his youth he moved to New York City with dreams of literary fame and fortune. The wisdom of the time said you had to live in the Big Apple in order to succeed. But Manfred didn’t feel comfortable there, so he moved back to Minnesota and forged a literary career on his own homegrown terms. He wrote a brusque, muscular prose that celebrated life in his corner of the world–the place he called Siouxland, where the borders of Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska bump together.

Over the years, his storytelling earned him a somewhat fitful living–and nominations for both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize. World War II was raging when his first novel, The Golden Bowl, was published. For the next 50 years, right up to the time of his death, Manfred continued to write. Through all those decades he never swerved from his goal, which was to depict life as truthfully as he was able. It might have been better for his career had he been willing to write in a slicker, more popular vein–but I doubt he would have been happy doing so.

It was my good fortune to meet him years ago at a writer’s conference, and the impression he made was that of a man incapable of self–deceit. When I later wrote him for advice about my own writing, he wrote back and said, “Play your own tune.”

Deceptively simple, those four words. Over the years I’ve pondered them, and have come to see how uncommonly wise they are.

For starters, the verb is “play,” not “work.” If you really want your writing–or your life–to sing, you’ve got to play at it. You’ve got to come at the world like a little child; curious, enthusiastic, full of marvel.

Then you have to find your own tune, not someone else’s. In an age of  unceasing distraction, most of us have a hard time remembering just who we really are. Our brains are constantly blitzed with images of things to consume or popular styles to emulate. We are not encouraged to sit quietly and become familiar with our deepest parts. 

Finally you have to remember that life (including fictional life) is a song. It has harmony as well as melody, bass along with soprano, sharps together with flats, an ongoing rhythm, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Frederick Manfred lived according to his own advice. He played his own tune, and he played it long and well. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, and while some of his work might have benefited from harsher editing, the best of it stands foursquare and leads the reader to experience insights and feelings not available elsewhere.  

Manfred’s unique and truthful stories reverberate in memory like the parts of a triumphal symphony. He is gone, but the beauty of his music will echo on and on.

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