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October 29, 2007
Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson is a celebrated author, social commentator and one of the nation's leading interpreters of Thomas Jefferson.
His appearances as Jefferson, third president of the United States, and other historical figures are popular in the Chautauqua movement.
Yet, Jenkinson may have delivered his most touching and memorable reflections when he accepted the honor of the 2007 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer on Oct. 24 on the University campus.
"I thought the world of Robert Laxalt and I cannot think of a writer who was more gracious, kind and warm than he. I don't regard myself worthy of the right to receive an award with the name Robert Laxalt in it," Jenkinson said. "But now, I aspire to earn it."
Jenkinson, the fifth Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer, met Laxalt for the first time at the White House during the term of former president George Bush. The encounter made an indelible impression.
Laxalt, considered one of Nevada's finest writers, founded the University of Nevada Press; wrote l7 books, three of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; wrote under contract for National Geographic Magazine; and, for l8 years, was a professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism.
"'Place' mattered to him. I think it is fair to say that his fiction could not have happened without place," Jenkinson said. "It is equally important to me. Returning to my birthplace of North Dakota has blossomed something in my writing that could not have occurred otherwise."
"The Reynolds School gathers in the name of Robert Laxalt to honor his memory and to appreciate the fine art and craft of writing," said Rosemary McCarthy, interim dean of the journalism school. "We do it by bringing a fine writer to campus each year."
"When you write journalism, you are writing against the clock," Jenkinson said. "If you are churning out language, then you have no room to waste it."
Jenkinson was introduced to the news business at age 15 when he began working for the Dickenson (N.D.) Press. At that tender age, he served as assistant sports editor and ran the darkroom, developing between 10 and 30 rolls of film every day. He would leave high school to take photos of North Dakota's buttes and bluffs and badlands.
"It was the perfect laboratory for a young person with lots of energy and no other place to use it," Jenkinson said. The experience also kindled a love for language, which he honed on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter - a birthday gift from his parents.
"I have written millions of words in my lifetime. Until 1986, every word I had ever written went through it," said Jenkinson lamenting that such writing required significant finger strength.
Jenkinson shared with the audience a final piece of advice which he attributed to Warren Lerude, a long-time friend of Laxalt and Journalism School professor.
"The finest tip on writing that I ever received was to park on a hill," Jenkinson said as he tipped his hand into a down-sloping position. "When you finish writing for the day, end in the middle of a sentence that you can easily finish the next day. When you return to your writing and begin to complete that sentence, your fingers and your mind will get into a rhythm that will carry you forward."
Jenkinson believed the tip to be important because writers - throughout their careers - need support through the process. "The muse is an infrequent visitor," he said. "If you're waiting for the muse, you won't write much."
Jenkinson pledged to keep writing. He is currently working on a novel that explores the relationship between white settlers and Indians in North Dakota in the 1800s.