Friday, November 5, 2010

The Midwest Enthusiast Speaks (About Writing the Ordinary)

Hello, residents of lands far and wide. I am a Midwesterner.

I was born in Mount Kisco, New York, but I don't remember it. I have also lived in Hong Kong and Germany, and I do remember that, but that's neither here nor there. Because regardless of where I've been, the Midwest is where I'm from.

Sometimes I feel like we get the reputation of being dull and small-minded people, and our surroundings get the reputation of being cold, ugly, and miserable. Certainly there were moments in my youth that I longed for mountains and warmth in the midst of Chicagoland's flat, winter frigidity, but ugly this place is not. It just depends on what you think is beautiful.

(All taken within fifty feet of my home, with my old, crappy camera.)

The Midwest, at least from my understanding, is practically synonymous with "ordinary." And I didn't want to write about ordinary, so I used to write about places I wasn't in. Places that didn't exist, maybe, or mountainous places with lush forests and gentle winters. But I started to get frustrated, because I knew that I had only a vague knowledge of what it was like to live in those places, so whatever descriptions I generated felt false to me. Too easy, too convenient to feel new. And it is the writer's job to make everything feel new.

I am not arguing for writing exclusively what you know, because if I believed that, all my stories would be about young white girls from comfortable backgrounds from the suburbs, and that would be a shame, both for the literary world at large and for me as a human being. It is important to stretch yourself. But don't forget yourself.

I started to write about the Midwest for the writing program at my school. I took my characters to Macomb, Illinois, where I spent a week each summer for a few years, at a music festival. I wrote about the long drive through miles of empty land, and how the sky hit the fields at a straight line. I had never realized before I wrote about it that there was something stunning about that emptiness, and how much of the sky you could see, how huge the clouds looked.

And when I finished Divergent (which was not related to school at all), I realized that the whole time, I'd been picturing Tris's city as a dystopian Chicago. In the months that followed, as I worked more and more of Chicago into the manuscript, I got a chance to explore the city I've lived adjacent to for most of my life. I acted like a tourist. I went on boat tours. I rediscovered my home.

And speaking of home-- for the past two years, I've noticed a little part of me is always waiting for winter. Winter is something we're famous for around here. It gets cold, and it stays cold for far longer than you'd expect. I'm not immune to occasional bouts of seasonal depression, and I get stir crazy by the time April comes around and it's still painfully cold outside, but I'm learning to love the winters here. Everything starts to look stripped of life, and it turns the same color-- gray skies, gray trees, gray roads. I think that's the ugliness some people see, and sometimes I see it too, but not lately.

Last year I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which is this intensely poetic literary novel that takes place in a tiny town called Fingerbone. First of all: Fingerbone is supposed to be in the West, not the Midwest. But the way Robinson describes the cold reminded me of home anyway:

"The room was dark. When Sylvie put the light on, it still seemed sullen and full of sleep. There were cries of birds, sharp and rudimentary, that stung like sparks or hail. And even in the house I could smell how raw the wind was. That sort of wind brought out a musk in the fir trees and spread the cold breath of the lake everywhere." (Pgs 143-144)

"I sat down on the grass, which was stiff with the cold, and I put my hands over my face, adn I let my skin tighten, and let the chills run in ripples, like breezy water, between my shoulder blades and up my neck. I let the numbing grass touch my ankles. I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart." (Pg. 159)

Sure it gets cold here, and it gets empty here, but I used to think that there was nothing new to find out about coldness and emptiness, and that's not true. The ordinary-- as opposed to the exotic, as it's traditionally seen-- is worth examining simply because so many of us stop looking at it after awhile, like a painting in your house you forget is there because you see it every day. And the interesting thing is, the closer I look at all the regular, average, and normal in my surroundings, the more I appreciate it. And I start to lose the itching longing to go somewhere else, and do something else, that I had when I was younger. I start to feel deeply satisfied with where I am and what I am doing.

A few weeks ago when I was boiling water for tea, my stepfather was in the living room reading, and my mother was rushing around getting ready for her art class, and the dog was curled up on the rug, and I thought, I'm moving soon, and I'm going to live alone for a few months, and I won't see this anymore. Other people waking up. I won't get asked how I slept. I've been having the same morning conversation for over a decade and only now do I realize how nice it is.

Anyway, what I'm saying is, don't forget where you are. And when your hands are performing their usual routine, in the morning, or right before bed, think about what they're doing. Reinvent the gestures in your mind. See what's right outside like it's for the first time. Even the cold and the empty are worth examining.


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