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Kent Haruf: the most unusual writing method in America?

The late Kent Haruf blinded himself while composing his novels. But the result – his last work, 'Out Souls at Night' included – was anything but erratic.

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    'Our Souls at Night,' the novel Kent Haruf completed shortly before his death, was recently published by Knopf.
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Although bestselling author Kent Haruf died last December, his presence endures in this summer’s publishing season, with Alfred A. Knopf recently releasing “Our Souls at Night,” the novel he completed shortly before his death. It’s the poignant story of a neighboring widow and widower, both aged, who fight against loneliness by staying with each other each night – an arrangement inspired not by romance, but the simple need for companionship.

Haruf is best known for “Plainsong,” his novel about the connected lives of two aging brothers and the pregnant girl they agree to take in. The arrival of “Our Souls at Night” also brings to mind Haruf’s writing technique, perhaps the most unusual method in American – or even global – literature.

As William Yardley noted in his New York Times obituary of Haruf last year, the novelist would pull a wool cap over his eyes as he wrote his fiction, a way of shutting himself off from the world while he dwelled within the invented landscapes of his stories.

The practice had an obvious complication: in rendering himself temporarily blind, Haruf couldn’t see the keyboard of the manual typewriter where he created his work. “Punctuation, capitalization, paragraphs – they waited for the second draft,” Yardley told readers. “The first draft usually came quickly, a stream of imagery and dialogue that ran to the margins, single-spaced.”

“He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,” his widow, Cathy Haruf, told The Times. “That’s not bad for all those years.”

If Haruf’s scheme of composition sounds erratic, the end result isn’t. In “Our Souls at Night,” as in his other novels, the sentences are clear and spare, as direct as the small-town Colorado culture that informed his stories.

Chances are, you’re reading these words from a device that has a keyboard. Try closing your eyes and typing a few words, and you’ll get some idea of the challenges in Haruf’s technical approach.

Although it might not work for most of us, typing blind seemed to work well enough for Haruf. “Our Souls at Night,” a fitting conclusion to his literary career, is proof enough of that.

– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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