When you talk to author Peg Guilfoyle about her new collection of essays, Singing All the Verses, she immediately turns to the back cover. There, she points out, is a quote by Pulitzer Prize winning author Willa Cather from 1915. It reads, “What was any art but a mould to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.”
“That’s what this book is about,” Guilfoyle said. “It’s just as though Willa is whispering in my ear.”
Guilfoyle is the author of such regional histories as The Guthrie Theater: Images, History and Inside Stories, for which she won a Midwest Book Award, and The Basilica of Saint Mary: Voices From a Landmark.
“The history books I’ve written are all introduced by essays,” said Guilfoyle, who lives in downtown Saint Paul. “They used to be called think pieces. What I did with this latest book is, I let my essay voice out to run. I’ve always loved reading essays, because for me it’s like riding along with an interesting mind. It’s a complex form, but it’s all about inquiry and thinking and following the complicated pathways your thinking can take.
“Essays are wide-ranging,” Guilfoyle said. “They can be on any topic that happens to catch your ear on any particular day. They offer great freedom for a writer.”
“Any moment in a life can be resonate and magical and joyful. I hope my book will inspire people to honor their stories…and to write them down. Stories disappear if they’re not deliberately saved.”
Guilfoyle began writing as a child. She also had an interest in theater. “And the theater, when you do it seriously, takes no prisoners,” she said. Guilfoyle balanced the two interests for a time. She would write a magazine article in between summer stock shows in Colorado. Eventually, she said, “I gave up the seeking the print part of it and just kept up the writing. It’s an impulse that has lasted right through, even during my Guthrie Theater years when I was working an easy 60-hour week.
“There’s always something to write about,” she said. “I’m a writer who loves history. I love the best parts of human behavior. I love wit and humor and words that are strung together well. I’m curious about the world. And I think those things are worth lifting up and looking at.”
Guilfoyle said it was the Guthrie that drew her to the Twin Cities. “As a young women I spent 10 years, intense years, backstage as a stage manager and production manager. I loved that work, but it’s a real immersion. When I started having children, I couldn’t be immersed in that way anymore. But I was writing all the way through.”
Guilfoyle said her interest in essays is best explained by a quote from her favorite essayist, E.B. White: “I’ve always felt charged with the safe keeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.”
“That’s what Singing All the Verses is about, too,” Guilfoyle said, “not losing these items. I believe everyone has these moments of enchantment, and I think it’s really important to notice them, to honor them and save them.”
Another favorite quote of Guilfoyle’s, posted in the room at home where she writes, is from Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith. He said, “Writing is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”
Some of the essays Guilfoyle includes in her new book were published before. “I thought they still had life for the reader,” she said. “But many are new for the book, including one about getting through quarantine.” That piece, titled “Quarantine Music: Andante But Not Agitato,” reads, “And that is how I, in the time of coronavirus, have come to sit every day at my vintage upright piano, picking out simplified arrangements of the great arias and filling in around them with a grand and complete orchestra in my head…. Andante has something to do with heartbeat and strength and communion, rather like the feeling of stepping into a choir and joining your voice to that of others…. In this time of social isolation, in a time of confinement and consideration, and of fear, I take my pleasures where I can, and join others in looking around ourselves for who we are.”
Guilfoyle’s book has six sections, or verses. “Quarantine Music” is found in Verse I: Looking at the Arts. That section also contains “Inside the Old Guthrie Theatre” and an essay titled “Meeting Harriet.” The latter piece is “about a surprise encounter with the historical dead,” Guilfoyle said. “It’s about accidental discovery and curiosity and how people who love history get completely lost in their research. And how the historical dead can reach out of the past and tap you on the shoulder.”
Singing All the Verses “is a book about how any moment in a life can be resonate and magical and joyful,” Guilfoyle said. “I hope it will inspire other people to honor their stories and to remember and save their stories and to write them down. Stories disappear if they’re not deliberately saved. The texture of life is in stories, which reflect both the people they’re about and the people who tell them, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Regarding future writing projects, Guilfoyle said, “At this moment I have 11 large Post-It notes on my work board, each with a live idea. Some are outward-facing, some inward-facing, all interesting to me and, I hope, eventually to readers.”
— Anne Murphy
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