Make Room, Make Room!: Landscape, Character, the Writer’s Heart
Last Thursday, I did a reading at Indiana University-East in Richmond, Indiana. The reading was in the library on campus, and the podium was in front of a wall of glass that looked out onto a grassy area at the edge of woodlands. Just as my excellent host, TJ Rivard, called me to the podium, two does came out of the woods and ran across the grass. I’ve never been upstaged by deer, but it was a wonderful upstaging, the grace and sudden appearance of those does at a time when those of us inside had nary a thought that my reading would feature wildlife. How could I even hope to complete with the grace and wonder and beauty of that sudden and breathtaking appearance?
After my reading, a woman came from the audience to say, “I’m glad you’re writing about the Midwest.” The woman then went on to tell me about a well-known writer, whom she didn’t name, from “back East,” who, at a writers’ colony, asked her where she was from. “Indiana,” said the woman. The response from the well-known writer? “I hate Indiana.”
That’s the sort of story that makes me bristle because it smacks of the disparaging eye folks often cast on the Midwest, particularly the rural parts of it, the parts that have always seemed like home to me. What is it about people that makes them want to think that nothing noteworthy goes on in those small towns and in those farming communities? What is it that makes it difficult to recognize the beauty of the terrain? To me, even the subtle distinctions between shades of brown in the freshly worked fields this time of year is wonderful. Not to mention the redbud and dogwood in bloom in the woodlands, or the brilliant green of spring wheat, or the skeins of tender soybean plants just now breaking through the soil. Even the winter landscape charms me: a dusting of snow in the furrows of a corn field; the bent stubble; an iced-over pond; the steamy breath from cattle in a feedlot. Something severe and glorious at the same time. Something stark and beautiful. Like the people themselves.
The people are never separate from the landscape, no matter the locale. “Place is fiction,” Eudora Welty said, and it’s true no matter if we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. People are inextricable from their surroundings. Where they live helps determine what they might and might not do.
Yesterday in my fiction workshop we were talking about a student story set in Ohio. But what part of Ohio, we wanted to know. How does the region come to bear on the characters? Not only is Ohio distinct from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, it’s also distinct in its own regions. Athens is not Columbus is not Cleveland, etc. No matter whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, we’re smart to pay close attention to the settings and to understand that someone’s life takes certain directions in part because of the place where those lives begin and unfold. Landscapes are as unique as individuals. Why would we ever disparage a place because of its difference? Why wouldn’t we celebrate its idiosyncrasies, knowing that it’s the ability to appreciate and respect difference that makes us more fully human? Why would we dismiss any particular part of our planet, knowing, as we surely must, that the same things are going on there as they are anywhere: people are living with whatever it is that pushes and pulls at their hearts and lying down each night, alone in the dark with their various aches and joys. Although different landscapes may influence us, we’re all part of the same striving. What would make one so vain, so insular, that he or she wouldn’t be able to make room for that fact? I suppose it’s the natural inclination toward prejudice, something else that makes us human and something else that requires our understanding.
I know this: nothing is more dangerous for a writer than to be dismissive. To dismiss means to judge, and nothing kills a piece of writing faster than that. Make room, make room! Let the world in all its shades and tones and terrains take you more fully into the human heart.
West Virginia can keep “Wild and Wonderful,” but I’m guessing I’ll have to fight others from the Midwest over commandeering “Stark and Beautiful” or “Severe and Glorious.”
I struggle with these issues, too, sometimes. Thanks for putting your perspective out there!
Thanks for the comment, Bill. I had a great visit to your home state and then went on to my native Illinois for a few days.
I’m often frustrated by people who are dismissive of the Midwest, as though nothing happens here that could possibly be of interest or value to anyone. Also, I can’t believe how rude a person would have to be to ask someone where he or she was from and then immediately respond by saying, “I hate that place.”
Of course, to be dismissive allows the person doing the dismissing to feel superior to those who are being dismissed, another pretty natural human inclination.
Thanks for this post, Lee!
Thanks for your comment, Ashley! I’m so happy that there is now an annual anthology, Best Stories from the Midwest, that showcases the excellent short fiction being written either about the region or by writers from the Heartland. We have a long history of excellent literature, and it’s high time that we put on our bossy pants and let the rest of the country know it.
Some years ago, I traveled to New York, where I spend some time with an actor/writer/director who, at the time, while not as well-known as he is today, had been garnering some notice for those projects of his nascent career. His mother-in-law taught at my school, and she and her family lived down the street from me, and it was she who arranged (demanded, actually, that I go) the meeting.
I took some screenwriting projects on which I’d been working at the time to show my new friend. His response was most appreciated; his approbation of my writing still, these years later, inspires me to keep going.
At some point during our conversation, the question came up of whether or not I should relocate from Ohio to California, the idea being that one would have a greater chance of success if living in a milieu professionally exclusive to his work.
“Don’t do it,” he told me. “Los Angeles is not the place you want to be.”
This struck me as odd advice, for isn’t L.A. the place to which an artist whose vocation lies in cinema should want to live?
His adroit response: “No.”
He then went on to tell me that his own agent wanted him to relocated from New York to California, but that he had no intention of doing so. “It’s too synthetic there,” he told me. “Everywhere you go, it’s ‘the business, the business, the business.'” It was, in his estimation, no place for an artist.
“Plus,” he went on to tell me, “you’re a writer. You don’t have to be there. You’d be much better off staying in the place you call home and writing stories that deal with the roots of your environment.”
Having far more interest in being successful at doing good, honest work rather than seeking the adulatory attention and monetary benefits of fame, his words connected synchronously with what I had been feeling. What it came down to (I saw it even then) was realizing that I was to be a person who created “art” rather than “product” (the latter of which is a form of creative prostitution).
So, I’m of the Midwest, and it is this landscape in which my stories are grounded. The people; the small towns; the variegated connections of both — that is what fuels my imagination, not fast cars and crime capers, or rockets and asteroids. I love stories driven by people; by hearts, not souped-up engines. Therefore, it should be of little surprise that my favorite writers (those whom I respect the most) are those who are connected with their roots to such a degree that they must write about them. Horton Foote comes immediately to mind, as do Ms. Welty and the writer of the above article, Mr. Martin.
There are some things that must be felt and known innately in order to be written about honestly. I, for one, would have it no other way.
John, I love your story, and I love the fact that so many people are faithful to the Midwest.
For years I felt like I was supposed to be embarrassed of the Midwest, like it was a shameful thing to be from Ohio. Sadly, that feeling didn’t go away until I came to OSU and was given examples of writers who love their Midwest homes. They showed me what I had to be proud of – things that had been right in front of my face for eighteen years.
Thanks for your words and for having a more open mind towards that unnamed writer’s attitude than I do.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kacie! The saving grace in any story of someone who disparages another person’s place and identity (the two are inextricable) is that the person being disparaged has the comfort of knowing that he or she knows something that the one doing the disparaging doesn’t–the intimate truth about said place.
Thank you so much for posting this. I’m the woman who related the “I hate Indiana” anecdote, and was just delighted to see this. I’ve lived in the Midwest for something like 30 years now, coming here from New England. What I’ve realized is that understanding the Midwest takes time and patience and attention. If you just drive through or fly over or drop in, you won’t get it. In my little town where I live now, there is no coffee shop with hip barristas (is that even a real word?), there is no book store, no jazz club, no martini bar, no restaurant or store (save Gas America) that stays open past 8 p.m. on weeknights. I remember someone at that fancy writers colony shaking their head when they learned this. “How do you stand it?”
Because there is this: I can hear the lowing of new calves as I sit at my desk and write. There are hitching posts for Amish buggies at the local grocery store, the bank, the bakery just down the block. There is a farmer’s market once a week, and soon it will begin and there will be new potatoes and local honey and then midsummer beans and peas and red raspberries and tomatoes the size of kittens. A church down the street from my house has a carillon that plays for ten minutes (ten whole minutes) every hour on the hour, and the tunes are ones that I know I once knew. The playlist never repeats. I don’t know how they do it. A few miles from here there are fields of corn and soy and alfalfa, gorgeous acres, not flat, not at all. And the sycamores. How could anyone stand to live without being surrounded by sycamores? And there are stories here. Some quietly lovely, some desperate and dark, some so strange you tell them over and over again just to believe them.
How do I stand it here? I can’t, now, imagine being anywhere else.
So, yes. Anyone who summarily disparages and dismisses this place, this Midwest, all our parts of it, only tells me this: they haven’t been paying attention. Not at all.
Thanks for writing this, Lee Martin!
Oh, Jean, thank you so much for this comment. Even though I live in the Midwest, I do so in Columbus, Ohio, the fifteenth largest city in America (and, yes, people are always surprised to hear that!), and it can sometimes be a tad too urban for my taste. On this morning, when I’m homesick for the rural part of my native southeastern Illinois, your description of your home area has truly left me teary-eyed. Such a longing rises up in me when I read about the lowing of new calves, the farmer’s market, the fields of corn and soy and alfalfa. I remember once on a visit to my home township in Illinois, I stood on the rise of an old country graveyard and watched the timothy grass of an adjacent field ripple in the wind. Not a man-made sound anywhere to be heard. Just that wind, and the waves moving through that timothy, and a squirrel chattering overhead. Such a remarkable feeling of peace in that place where I’d just found the headstone for my great-great-grandmother, a stone tipped over, sunk into the ground, and so worn from the weather that I had to identify it by tracing my fingers over the engraved letters, feeling my great-great-grandmother’s name. You’re so right, Jean, about the multitude of stories attached to the people in those little out-of-the-way places in the Midwest. . . and in other spots around this country that sometimes go unnoticed Jean, thank you from the bottom of my heart for speaking so elegantly on this subject.