I have to say, being a writer from the prairie, it ain’t always so easy.
Okay okay, I don’t really talk like that. In fact, I don’t even say, “Yah, sure, you betcha.” Well, not unless I’m mocking the movie Fargo. Even so, I’ve been forced at times to grapple with this question of whether it’s a curse or blessing to write from the prairie; something writers from the coasts will never have to confront.
I’m reading a book by an author who has articulated many of my related feelings quite nicely. Larry Woiwode first found his writing legs, you could say, while living in New York City. Or perhaps it would be better to say his writing legs got noticed there. But from what he reveals in his new book Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature & Culture, it wasn’t until he moved back to North Dakota, the place of his roots, that he rediscovered his soul.
That said, in Chapter 2, “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell: On the Order of Existence,” he challenges those he calls “the canonmeisters,” who, when labeling a writer as regional, “suggest that the writer isn’t in quite the same league as the big boys, equating regionalism with parochialism — an attitude that honors certain areas of the United States (or the world for that matter) as right and proper, preferable to others — while the rest is regional.”
How true it is, or so it seems through what I’ve experienced in many moments as a writer living in the middle part of this big ol’ country.
My thoughts on being a writer with a regional lean run the gamut. At times the isolation I’ve experienced living somewhere many from Other Places see as The Middle of Nowhere has felt wide; an annoying stumbling block to achieving what I’m meant to do. This has been especially hard-hitting when dealing with the bi-coastal publishing world. At a time when marketing and niche-placing are of supreme importance, it’s been disenchanting to discover the lumping of the Dakotas into one, or the regarding of either and both as just a long stretch of lonely land one must pass through to get to Somewhere Significant.
How does a writer, then, find what she needs to persevere knowing the likelihood of being wrongly perceived and even passed by, perhaps, because of mere misunderstanding or limited vision?
Even while I struggle through this conundrum, I see a happy side to all of this as well. I loved writing about North Dakota through my children’s book, P is for Peace Garden: A North Dakota Alphabet. The experience of bringing our state’s treasures to light brought me great joy. My roots run deep here and it was a thrill to honor them and all the residents of our state in this way.
Likewise, I’ve enjoyed my work as a columnist for North Dakota’s largest daily newspaper. Though I don’t consider my columns necessarily regional in tone, the paper itself is, and so in some ways reflect my prairie living.
Just as place can be seen as a curse, so too can the reverse be true. As often as I’ve felt I must push a little harder in order for my work to find air, I’ve also experienced the privilege of writing from a place not as deeply known or appreciated. Rich soil begs to be unearthed, and I’m one in a smaller pool in position to do it. I don’t take that responsibility and privilege lightly.
Woiwode, bestselling author and poet laureate of North Dakota, adds to his earlier thought: “Let me say, then, that the properties of a particular place are important, yes, but that human beings are more important than locale. And the inner state of a character is of far greater importance than any external estate containing him or her, no matter how extraordinary its geophysical distinctions. Of even great import is the character’s need to relate events that have had an emotional effect on his or her character to a friend or neighbor, the auditor of fiction.”
Amen! I’m so with him there.
And so it is that as writer who writers from the prairie, I recognize in tandem both my limitations and limitlessness. And I’m continually reminded that though uncontrollable factors might come into play and determine, to some degree, the exposure of my words, I cannot not write, and there’s where the bottom line must stand.
So I will, and as I do I’ll continue to hope that my words find their intended audience, have their hoped-for effect, and change the world somehow, however slight. I might never know just how much, and to large degree I can’t worry over such variables. What I can do is call up the scenes that are alive to me, do what I can to translate thoughts to paper and hope that others will be moved, wherever they as readers find themselves.
Q4U: Have you ever felt limited by location? If so, how have you overcome these restrictions?