Last night, I started a Facebook group for folks who grew up in my hometown, Sumner, Illinois. As some of you already know, I lived on a farm ten miles from Sumner until I started the third grade, at which time my mother took a teaching position in Oak Forest, Illinois, a southwestern suburb of Chicago. We moved back downstate when I was ready to start high school, and we bought a house on West Locust Street in Sumner, just a block from the high school in this town of a thousand people. Some of you may have read my memoir, From Our House, for which Sumner provides much of the setting.
I started the Facebook Group so folks could have a place to exchange their memories of growing up in this small town in southeastern Illinois. By the end of the evening, nearly a hundred people had joined. Today, that number has gone up to 164. It might not seem like much to those of you who grew up in larger cities and went to larger schools, but I can tell you the action has been fast and furious as people who now live in Amarillo, Texas; Owensboro, Kentucky; Collinsville, Alabama; Sarasota, Florida; Fort Worth, Texas; Sun Valley, Nevada; and places closer to Sumner, have converged “to remember this and remember that.”
Which leads me to some thoughts about nostalgia. We’ve all heard how dangerous such remembering only for the sake of remembering can be for the writer. We’re too tempted in the midst of all that recollecting to romanticize our history, whether we’re talking about novels or stories or poems or works of nonfiction, to portray our hometowns with the elevated homage that Garrison Keillor, tongue-in-cheek, pays to his fictional hometown of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, in his Prairie Home Companion radio broadcasts. Lake Woebegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Well, the truth of course, is that no matter where we grew up not all of the women were strong, nor all of the men good looking, and most certainly there were children who were below average. Such are the facts of human flaws and weaknesses. The good novel or story or poem or essay recognizes those facts and uses whatever personal history the writer carries to the page to help him or her (and, by extension, us) to see human existence with more clarity, taking in not only the strong, good looking, and above average, but all the opposites as well as they often exist within the same person. To portray, in other words, people and their actions just the way they are, composed of contradictions and complexities. In my own work, I’m always trying to figure out the source of people’s behaviors, not so I can condone nor condemn, but so I can understand, and by understanding, feel closer to the tribe of human beings, all of us precious because sometimes we’re less than perfect.
In the midst of all the reminiscing on this Facebook group last night, what struck me most was the vibrant textures of people’s lives. From the story of being sent, as a five-year-old, to the grocery store to buy over-the-counter medication for a flu-stricken family, the five-year-old deciding to haul her cat along in her red wagon, to the amazing home movie footage of a 1968 tornado that hit Sumner, the voices and images of people’s histories, and of the town’s history, rang out with great resonance. The story of the actor Burt Lancaster coming to town, unannounced, to attend a funeral. The elderly woman who got her shopping cart stuck trying to push it across the train tracks and then didn’t get out of the way of an oncoming locomotive. The British woman who worked at the bank. The Vietnam veteran who came home minus a leg. The young man who died working a drilling rig in the oil fields. The night watchman, rattling doors on the shops uptown to make sure they were secure. The attempted robbery of the bank and the dent a bullet left in one of the bars that the tellers sat behind. The list goes on, and what strikes me is the humanity contained in all those memories.
The lesson for the writer? Don’t shy away from the history of your hometown. There’s great material in all those memories if you can manage to tame the honorific impulse of nostalgia and to see the facts for what they are–evidence of the lived life in all its many layers and mysteries. You can’t be afraid to see the ugly, the maimed, the tragic, the less than perfect, along with the glorious, the vibrant, the triumphant, the ideal. See it all. Remember it all. Let it amuse you, sadden you, mystify you, but above all, let it move you. Then put the words on the page so they can do the same for your readers.