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.