Growing up in Davenport, Ben Miller had a hard childhood, but it also made him the successful writer he is today.
A 55-year-old Davenport Central alumnus, he graduated from Cornell College (Mount Vernon, Iowa) and attended the New York University writing program, studying under E.L. Doctorow. An essayist and fiction writer, Miller is the author of the acclaimed 2013 nonfiction “River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa” (Lookout Books).
The 458-page memoir will be discussed from noon to 1:30 p.m. today (June 13) at the Midwest Writing Center, on the ground floor of the Rock Island Public Library, 401 19th St. The discussion is free, and you don't need to have read the book to participate.
The panel discussion — including local writers and MWC board members — is in advance of Miller’s appearance at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference, where he will be the keynote speaker at a free public event Thursday, June 27, at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.
The Rock Island discussion will focus on the book and the history of Q-C literary history that's featured. Miller grew up around the Quad-Cities, and he worked with many well-known local authors and attended Writer’s Studio meetings (which still continue at MWC on the first and third Saturdays of each month).
“The core of who I am as a writer, to this day, was created in the Quad-Cities, the encouraging influence of the writing community,” Miller said in a recent phone interview from South Dakota, where he's working on his latest project. “There was an enormously rich tableau of events. They were free ... It just had this profound impact on me as a kid.”
Forty years ago, at 15, he volunteered for and attended his first Mississippi Valley Writers' Conference at Augustana College. That year, Miller won the eighth-annual Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest, chosen among 750 entries, later published in the monthly Rock Island Arts Council magazine. It was about World War II Pvt. Eddie Slovik (1920-1945), the only American soldier court-martialed and executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Miller credits David R. Collins (1940-2001), a former Moliner who was a teacher and prolific children's book author, for helping turn his life around.
“The things he taught me about writing — first, writing can add value to anyone's life at any age,” he said. “Writing was a challenge not to approach just with seriousness, but humor.
“He really wanted writers to support each other — to mitigate its innately solitary aspect,” Miller said of Collins. “He wanted writers to submit to appropriate markets, and finally, that writers should read, and reading of all types.”
“There's not a week that goes by that I don't think about those club meetings, those lessons,” he said. “Writing is really a marathon; you have to have the emotional, mental, psychic tools to deal with it. He was the perfect person to get that across.”
“They made it clear you're going to get rejected most of the time. That happens to every single person. Saul Bellow was rejected by The New Yorker after he won the Nobel Prize. The most important lesson — I heard it spoken that day — is to please yourself. Have your own set of standards. Don't compare yourself to other people. Given the personalness of the whole thing, it's not productive.”
“What comes back and what's so amazing about Dave, was absolutely fantastic in how generous he was,” Miller said of his teaching and working with young writers.
Miller's prose has been published in many literary journals, including Kenyon Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s, Southern Review, Yale Review, Antioch Review and Harvard Review. His awards include creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Of “River Bend Chronicle,” Publishers Weekly called it “Funny and beautifully crafted ... Miller’s affecting chronicle reveals the often messy ways that families fall apart and the way that writing acts both as remembrance and redemption.”
“I had an unfortunate household situation,” he said in the interview, of being the oldest of six siblings. “It was the sort of house full of wonderful literature, but nothing else that was wonderful. It had novels of Fielding, Dickens, Melville, New Yorkers, 15 to 20 cats, roaches, a lot of clutter,” he recalled. “It was a really unhealthy situation.”
His memoir attempts to make sense of his childhood and how he could emerge unscathed and wiser from it.
“You're left with fragments to piece together, to find coherence,” Miller said. “That struggle, the contradictions of America. I consider it book about America, its incredible possibilities, but incredible pitfalls, full of all sorts of struggles for everybody.”
“Writing is profoundly humanizing — the struggles and humbling challenges,” he said. “I wanted to be a human being, organize the chaos. It was the same place that almost killed me, being forced out of the home, to replace what I wasn't getting there. I found a different kind of family, different vision of what life could be.”
Miller came back to Davenport in 2007 to do some research, but after the book was published in 2013, he didn't do any Q-C signings, instead choosing Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Madison. To learn more, visit riverbendchronicle.com.
MWC will have copies of the book available for $12 — a 33% discount off the cover price. Miller will give his free talk at 6 p.m. June 27. To learn more about the conference, at St. Ambrose University, visit mwcqc.org/events-opportunities/david-r-collins-writers-conference.