I’m reading Jean Thompson’s novel, The Year We Left Home, and today I came upon this passage:

“But back home, I can look up and down just about any street and there’s people I’m either related to or I’ve known them all my life and my parents have known them and my grandparents knew their grandparents and there’s a comfort in that. I miss it. That’s all I’m saying. Here, it’s like we’re not from anywhere.”

It’s a passage that means something to me, a displaced small-town boy living now in the big city. It’s particularly meaningful to me now after returning from my native southeastern Illinois where I did two events, one at the public library in Lawrenceville and one at Olney Central College, the school where I studied for two years before transferring to Eastern Illinois University. At both the library and the college, I saw old friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. I made new friends, and I saw family members. At every turn, I felt like I’d come home, to the places where, as Jean Thompson makes clear in her novel, folks can take comfort from familiarity.

Sometimes in fiction and nonfiction that doesn’t pay close attention to place, it can seem like the people aren’t from anywhere specific. They occupy generic places: the stereotypical small-town, the cliched big city, the nondescript suburbs. It’s the particulars that make a place and by extension the people who live in those places. The fact that people in my part of southeastern Illinois, for example, have certain customs when it comes to food, matters. When I was growing up, we always ate dinner at noon and supper in the evening. We never ate lunch.  We had what I’d call our “native dishes,” food that belonged to us and came from our ancestors, eaten over the generations. Want some pink stuff? Some corn bread broken up in a glass of milk? Some fried mush? Some sour dock or wild mustard greens cooked down and served with soup beans? Some milk gravy over white bread? I guess I’d call that food for the working class. Food that stuck to your ribs. Food, that by its very particulars says something about the place and its culture and its agrarian roots.

Miller Williams has a poem, “Let Me Tell You.” Those of you who know me have perhaps indulged my quoting from it in class. The poem begins like this:

Let Me Tell You

How to do it from the beginning,
First notice everything:
The stain on the wallpaper
of the vacant house,
the mothball smell of a
Greyhound toilet,
Miss nothing. Memorize it.
You cannot twist the fact you do not know.

What do we know about the worlds that began to shape us? What do we know about the places that were our early homes and remain in our spirits to this day? As I told my audiences in southeastern Illinois, it took me a while to trust my material, to understand that if I couldn’t make something significant out of the pink stuff, and the fried mush, and the countless other details from my rural upbringing, then I sure as heck wouldn’t be able to make something out of places that were larger, more flashy, more noticeable. I had to understand that what mattered most were people’s inner lives–their fears, secrets, lonely nights, private joys, to name a few possibilities–held up against the communities of which they’re a part. I had to embrace my part of southeastern Illinois, to understand that it’s the place I know most intimately.

I was reminded of my membership in that community on my recent trip back home. Not that I’ve ever forgotten it. I live with it in most everything I write. Still, it was good to be back in those little towns, to hear my cousin say, after my reading at the college, that he and his wife needed “to do some trading.” That’s the way my parents always described their need to go to town to buy groceries and whatever else they needed. Exchange money for merchandise. Do some trading. The details we use in our fiction and nonfiction are similar merchandise, purchased with the experience of our living and the closeness of our observation. We stockpile those details so they’re there to tap into when we need them in order to make a world convincing on the page. My advice to young writers is, don’t trade them away. Remember the Sunday evening dinners when your mother fried up corn cakes, or potato cakes, or opened a can of tomato soup and made grilled cheese sandwiches to go with it. Remember the way your father said, “Mister, you’re breeding a scab on your nose,” whenever you misbehaved. Remember the sound of a crow calling in the still autumn air, the hickory nuts dropping to the ground, the bellow of a cow in a barn lot, the rim of ice on a pond in winter, a dusting of snow atop a headstone in a country cemetery,  a shooting star on a summer night and your father saying, “That means someone just died.”  Remember everything about home, even if you’ve left it.

13 Comments

  1. Karen Moore on October 10, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Lee– This is wonderful advice. I grew up with the smell of farm life in my nose. Singing to the cows is a fond memory as they starred back at me, a captive audience of members who occasionally mooed or snorted as a form of polite response!

    • Lee Martin on October 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      Karen, cows are a very discerning audience 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope all is well with you.

  2. Bren McClain on October 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Lee, as always, thank you so much for this instruction. My favorite part is this: “I had to understand that what mattered most were people’s inner lives–their fears, secrets, lonely nights, private joys, to name a few possibilities–held up against the communities of which they’re a part.” That’s IT, isn’t it?

  3. Lee Martin on October 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Bren, I was just commenting in class today about how so much of fiction is dependent on how a character’s inner life is created by the connection or disconnection from one’s place and culture.

  4. Byron Edgington on October 11, 2011 at 8:50 am

    And a great class it was (is), but I have to wonder, having left my own sense of place behind at fourteen, if to truly appreciate a place we must leave it and return? Call it the Winesburg Ohio, or perhaps the Olney Illinois syndrome. With the exception of Steinbeck and his beloved Salinas Valley, how many authors have stayed in a place and been able to scribble its heart?

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2011 at 11:17 am

      Byron, I think there’s indeed something to be said for having to leave a place before you can really know it. Leaving makes you a simultaneous resident and non-resident, a participant and a spectator, one who lives the life and one who interprets it.

      • Lee Martin on October 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm

        Byron, it just so happens that I ran across this passage today from Jean Thompson’s novel, THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME: “The only people who have enough of a soul to MAKE something with s soul are the ones on the outside looking in. You can’t be at home in the world and see what you need to see about it.”

  5. Bren McClain on October 11, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Yes! Both the culture and community from which they came as well as the one they live in now. You’re making my wheels turn. And what if the culture/community is unlike their family culture? That’s still another layer of connection or disconnection. See you in Nashville at the Book Festival!

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2011 at 11:18 am

      Yes, Bren, the point of tension that arises from not quite fitting in with a culture, or resisting that culture, is another area of fruitful exploration for the writer. Looking forward to Nashville!

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