Giving thanks amid a whirlwind

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

If ever there were a year to give thanks, this is it. In case you hadn’t heard or forgot, we won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing this year. Since the announcement in April it has been a whirlwind — to speak to the National Press Club on World Press Freedom Day in Washington, DC, to accept the award at Columbia University in New York, and to deliver lectures hither and yon from Buena Vista to the University of Iowa. Despite hating travel you gotta be thankful to have survived so far.

The prize led to a book deal with Viking, an imprint of Penguin-Random House, one of the Big Five in literary publishing. Of course I’m thankful for that, the cash advance and for a brilliant non-fiction editor, Wendy Wolf, who tells me it is good but not good enough. My deadline is next week. There are many frames of mind through which you can think about deadlines: mortifying, stressful and the relief of knowing it might come to an end one of these days when that one clarifying turn of phrase comes down like tongues of flame. No heat at the temples yet.

The book is scheduled for release in the fall of 2018. Its working title is, in all its creative genius, “Storm Lake.”

We’re waiting for the tongues of flame on a subtitle: “Lust, politics and climate change with a happy ending.”

The book is about Storm Lake — about the founding of this newspaper; about the huge stories before us in agriculture, the environment and immigration; and about how we fit into this place we call home.

I am most thankful that Brother John has taken over most of my editing chores, specifically laying out pages on deadline on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, so I can meet my book deadline, which was supposed to be next August. I love and hate nothing more than editing on deadline. I have been allowed to hole up and concentrate on spinning 85,000 words that make sense about this place we love.

In the early going I describe how I wanted to fly the coop and never return, but took a U-turn on the way to success and joined John in launching the newspaper in 1990. In conjuring the story I am reminded about how lucky I was to be born in Storm Lake and to be returned here by some vague force against my perceived wishes. Even though we haven’t made much money we have been able to speak mostly what is on our minds. In my America, that’s about all anyone can ask for.

Writing the book reminds me how fortunate I am to work with my brother, my wife and my son. Fortunate most days, that is. And to have redneck, queer, conservative, liberal, religious, agnostic, brown and black friends — some I have known my whole life and others who fortunately have been thrust onto my path since. You don’t find that just anywhere in the rural Midwest. In fact, barely anywhere.

I was grateful to host Katie Couric as she toured Storm Lake last summer to find out what makes it special. She was blown away by the embrace that The City Beautiful gives to refugees from around the world. She plans to talk about it in a spring documentary on National Geographic Channel. You have to be thankful to be in the midst of that.

She saw a community that is growing and adapting to everything thrown at it. That is precisely what the book is about. Rural Iowa is blowing away, physically with its soil and psychically with its community soul, but Storm Lake is thriving against that maelstrom. That’s what the story is about. We would not have been able to tell it were it not for you, for reading and supporting us. Thank you.

I will be thankful when the whirlwind subsides one of these days, because 15 minutes of fame is plenty. I will be almost thankful, at least not resentful, to relieve John from layout sooner rather than later. I thankfully return to the hole and our story.