Thursday, January 8, 2009
KNOWING YOUR PLACE
My childhood home, which you can't even see for the trees.
I am not a great driver. I just don't like it much. I had a two-car accident in 1995, exploding airbags and all, that has forever made me conscious every time I get behind the wheel that I am steering a multi-ton metal death machine. I have no fear of flying, but every time I sneeze on the freeway I'm convinced that single shut-eyed second is the one where I'll crash into my death. I keep my hands at ten and two on the wheel.
Yet there is one area in which I am a better driver than most people I now know: on snowy and icy roads. This is no innate talent, but a necessary skill, like swimming and knowledge of hypothermia, that you need to survive in northern Minnesota. I realized it as I came to the end of my three-day drive homeward a couple of weeks ago, turning off the highway for the final mile of road that leads to my childhood home. Though it's twisting, hilly, and uniformly white with thick-packed snow, a road that visitors tend to creep along hunched over the wheel, I sail right down it like a rollercoaster, confident and steady.
I simply know it so well.
There have been times when I ached with envy at the opportunities my friends and college classmates who went to posh suburban high schools or private academies enjoyed. (AP classes? A black-box little theater? A glass-blowing wing? Cutting class to lounge in a coffeehouse or go shopping?) There were times when Park Rapids felt like the smallest, most boring, most disconnected place in the world. No music venue, no coffeshop (then), no bookstore (then, except in the corner of the Radio Shack), no gays, no underground culture, not even a mall for sixty miles, and of course no internet back then, just a three-block Main Street lined with pickup trucks and keggers at remote gravel pits and long drives through the country to get to each other's houses. My friends and I spent a lot of time hanging out in each other's basements and garages and the parking lot of Subway. Some of the boys formed cover bands that would play at the bowling alley or the building that housed the hockey rink when it was thawed for the summer. Sometimes for fun we would just go to one of the 24-hour grocery stores late at night, make up a list of weird things to find, and roam the aisles, pushing each other in shopping carts.
But now I feel lucky that I grew up in a place that that is so much itself. Fewer and fewer Americans live in rural places, only 21 percent now, and I am glad that chance and parental choice landed me among that shrinking number. In fact I think my upbringing outside the city limits plants me in the 16.4% who the census says lived "not in place." No place at all. Yet nearly every story I write emerges from a setting in northern Minnesota. The place is as much a part of the story as the characters.
The problem with the suburbs as story settings is that although they provide ample social commentary fodder, there is a certain uniformity to all of them, no matter where they are. I know some suburbs have become increasingly diverse in recent years, but though their human contents have changed, their layouts and physical presence largely have not. I generalize a bit here, but so do suburbs, so let's call it even. Unlike the cities they face and the countryside at their backs, which tend to have distinct personalities and eclectic structures and the possibility of surprise, most suburbs are designed for homogeneity and comfort, built on proven patterns and templates and plans. This placelessness tends to translate into fiction, too. I feel like when I read a suburban story, I am likely to encounter similar themes of ennui and tedium and social sniping and class aspirations and anxious parenting and stifled marriages. But it doesn't matter a whole lot if it's suburban New Jersey or suburban Minneapolis or suburban Phoenix. The foliage may be different but the suburb's character is pretty similar.
Of course there is infinite mystery in the human mind and heart no matter where you are or where you live. And being from a small town or from a big city does not automatically make you more interesting or a better artist. As Wallace Stegner said, Anyone who has lived through childhood has more than ample writing material to work with. I just feel more deeply connected to writing that has a strong sense of place, more wildness and uncertainty in the surroundings, where you can turn a corner and come upon something never expected.
Related reading: the fantastic article "No Place Like Home" by David Guterson in Harper's Magazine, originally published in 1992. The then-brand-new gated community he describes is so stunningly controlled and rigid that it swings far enough to qualify as great fodder for fiction--something fabulist and terrifying.
at 1:33 PM