If I Had a Heart I'd Die In It: Writing the Writing the Midwest
(Talk originally given at the Associated Writing Programs Conference 2009.)
I write this Midwest from memory on my laptop on the eighth floor of the optics building overlooking the University of Arizona in Tucson, a landscape pretty much the opposite of snow, the opposite of the winter flatness, listening to an soon-to-be-released eponymous album by a Swedish band slash musician called Fever Ray which is dark, strange, eerie, cold, afloat in icepacked lakes. It is my memory or invention of the Midwest. It is whiteness. Whiteout everywhere and flurry and overwhelming fill of snow in every inch of air. The sound is one of winter, one of spaciousness, one of receding horizon, one of horizon disappearing just past the double-pane window that keeps us sheltered, keeps us inside, keeps us safe.
I write this Midwest from the lonely lobby of a new hotel that towers over Grand Rapids, Michigan’s downtown lights and water. I write it from the car wandering the city of Grand Rapids, knowing I am soon to leave it. Each street I drive through opens up another set of questions. Was the Stickley mansion really built by furniture designer Gustav Stickley’s brother? Why does it look like a frat house? What do all the lawyers do downtown during the day? What is the business of Advanced Fulfillment? Why does Curve Street contain no curves? Does the Macinerny Wire Company still operate as the sign suggests? What are those two guys in Jeeps doing in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse at 38 Front Street. And why do they look at me from the fifth floor while they eat their Jimmy Johns? I speculate.
I write this Midwest from a Panera Bread Company in a northern suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with my ear buds in, watching the girls at the table in front of me become suspicious of the man in front of them who glances at them surreptitiously, or so he thinks. In Panera I have to summon up a sense of world, of snow, of space, of grid of field, and shore collapsing. In Panera it is fair to think that the world is all Panera, all half-salad, half-sandwich lunches and Cinnamon Crunch concoctions that barely qualify as bagels.
I write this Midwest from the parking lot outside of the Inventure Company, manufacturer of Burger-King-branded and -flavored potato chips in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona where it is 110 degrees.
I write this Midwest from an chivalry-themed Best Western in Iowa City, Iowa, with moats and flagons and wenches.
I write it from a chronicle of snow, a pseudonymous, co-written blog that doesn’t exist anywhere at all.
I write it from an overpass over US-30 just southwest of Ames, Iowa, after dark, a hundred thousand fireflies blooming all around me.
I write it from the Crowne Plaza hotel, still a working train station in Indianapolis, in a traincar outfitted in portraits of terrifying clowns as trains criss-cross through the world underneath this one, and make themselves heard in each sentence.
I write it from another borrowed space, the Hyatt overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago in summer, US-41 in the guise of Lakeshore Drive afoot below me thinking of morning traffic.
I write it from the oncoming edge of sleep, another borrowed space, nightlife approaching like a storm from Canada, as Benadryl or something else dissolves me.
I write it from a Best Western in eastern Columbus in February with temperatures in the fifties and above as snow prepares an unlikely visit to the lowlands of my new homeland in Tucson. The severe weather alert pops up on my tracker. On my machine I have weather updates set for Ames, Tuscaloosa, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, Galesburg, Riyadh, Houghton, and Tucson. I inhabit all these spaces and none of them. I imagine all of them every night. I don’t know if they imagine me.
I write this Midwest from absence, from abscess, from lack of access to it. I write it from memory. I pound it flat with my mother’s memory, my father’s father’s memory, with a thousand others’ memories, with my own interventions against the past. I dismantle it, reproduce it, repopulate it with memory.
One of the Amazon reviews of my novel Other Electricities, set in a version of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one of those relatively blank spaces on the map that has too few blank spaces remaining, is titled "Poor portryal [sic] of a great town." The reviewer proceeds: "Although I have not yet finished this book, I would like to state, as a resident of the small community in which the novel takes place (as well as a graduate of the same high school as the author) that it is not [as] depressing of an area as portrayed in the book. Yes, we do have a ton of snow, and yes the winters are long and dark, but it is a beautiful area with a million great things to do. Don't judge the area as one of cold, dark despair, for it is not."
In my mind (and nothing is not in my mind, not Michigan, not the Midwest, not the long meandering webspace of Amazon.com that culminates in its own dark heart) the book doesn’t resolve into a representation of an actual place so much as a mythologization, a dramatization, a recreation of what was once a place. It is not about a place. It is a place. While the book includes a location like "Misery Bay" (there is in fact a real place by this name), and while there is plenty of autobiographical detail in the book, and while the remembered weather becomes a character in the book, and that character is pretty accurately drawn from long study spent in that place. And, okay, I barely changed the name of a high school geometry teacher on whose windshield I threw a half-empty can of Mountain Dew from the back of a moving school bus. And while I think about it only in the last draft did I change a character’s name from the name of my cousin to the name of my brother. And so what if my brother really doesn’t have any arms? And cannot speak in whole sentences? And that my mother died? And my love was murdered long ago? And all my friends went through the ice on snowmobiles or in cars and left me there, vandal, delinquent, phone phreak, completely alone and abandoned with a ham radio and a bunch of gasoline as everybody died off and each successive alcoholic winter battered me, martyred me a little bit more? I don’t know what Midwest you’re talking about, what Upper Peninsula you’re talking about, Amazon reviewer, but it is a dreadful, lovely place.
That is, unless you like cold and outdoor activities of any sort. Then it’s probably really great and undiscovered, especially hammered on the back of a snowmobile, bound for doom and songs from the underworld in perpetuity. Unless you’re one of those many killed in the Italian Mining Hall Disaster in 1908. Or if you’re one of the miners exploited in the many mine accidents in the history of the mining of copper and iron ore in that landscape. Or if you’re one of the Ojibwa cordoned onto the reservation selling fireworks, depression, and cheaper gas. Or one of the women caught out in one of the really big blizzards, like that one in the winter of 1979 that collapsed our barn, one of those women freezing their way into confusion, becoming seemingly too hot, then stripping off your clothes to die of exposure in the phenomenon known as paradoxical undressing? Or if you’re one of the kids going through the ice on the lake every year. Or if your happiness will peak your senior year of high school when you finally got that Trans Am and the job at the greenhouse and got correspondingly, catastrophically laid. Or if you’re just an asshole like all the rest of us assholes in high school trying to figure anything, anything out, trying to figure how to rescue any moment from the sinkhole yawn of memory before it disappears. Or if you just pickle yourself with alcohol or other vice in the six plus months of yearly winter.
Who is going to speak for them? Who can even conceive of speaking for them? Not me. It’s not my place. It’s not my job. It’s not my calling, my sign from God or dog or doom or wholehearted cosmic moan. I can’t write about your place. I don’t write about your place. There isn’t any such place. There is no Upper Michigan. There is no Midwest. It is dissolving even as we try to portion it out, to figure out what is and is not Midwest. There is Michigan, a vacationland of beaches, snow, and pines, and fudge, a vacationland only available in your mind, and there is Michigan, home of poisoned, carcinogenic lakes, and there is Michigan, sometimes resurgent wreck of auto manufacture and white flight from Detroit, and there is Michigan, burial place of Gerald Ford who stands in for some national dream of honesty and honor and restraint, morality, family values, and what is between the coasts, and hence what is finally inside of all of us. These are each a dream. These are stories. When you get up close to them your hand goes right through as if through water and then you’re wet and cold and getting colder.
To claim to write about Upper Michigan, to write about Michigan, the Midwest, to talk about it even, is to assume a pose, to be poised to break into any one of your hundred thousand memories featuring bait or ice or snowmobiles, fireworks and injured family members, long hikes into the woods ending with a fall into an abandoned mine, a long-abandoned mind.
The difference is between writing about a place and writing a place. When I write about the Midwest I am making a claim on truth, veracity, verisimilitude, I start with the world and select, reduce. When I write the Midwest I start from a blank and build my own. That is all I know how to do in fiction. In nonfiction it is another matter.
To write my Midwest I need to be away from it, in borrowed spaces, transitional spaces, unreal spaces, spaces imagined by faceless corporate architects that induce free coffee refills forever and wireless access, a connection through the air, like radio, to everywhere, then they induce vomiting, hallucinations, perversions, and that finally set the brain to simulations.
Writing my Midwest is writing anger and loneliness into being. It begins with nothing, not with the everything that the world (and nonfiction) requires. If it evolves into a simulacrum of the place you know it is because you dream about it too, because you too populate it with sentiment.
If it is possible at all for me to write about a place, a small community that we are both members of, that place, that community, is the content of our shared dreams (if it’s not too much to claim a we in this) and their edges as they begin to resolve into something recognizable, as the brain whirs to reduce ambiguities to perception and individual experience, and this is the problem with Amazon anyhow, that half the reviewers don’t even finish your book before giving it one scar, one star, one blip on the monitor and ruining your love affair with your love affair with internet acclaim and the edges of your own brain, and that send you out into the blizzard, stripping down to die there. I can’t say I recommend it.