Thursday, April 18, 2013

Old Roots Run Deep

In the last day or so as I stitched together this post, I found similar ones by Sarah Black (wouldn't you know, I can't find it now) and Rick Reed. Looks like the hive mind is at work again. We've all apparently been contemplating how our pasts continue to insinuate themselves into our work.
Back in the Paleozoic era of my writing career -- when I actually had no writing career, only a dream of one, and my estimation of my talent far exceeded my actual talent, and my ambition exceeded both -- I scoffed at a certain hackneyed bit of advice: “Write what you know.”
How absurd, I thought. This is tantamount to being one of those deluded souls who thinks his or her personal history should be recorded for posterity, because it’s just so . . . damned . . . fascinating!  I can't count the number of times someone has proposed that I ghostwrite a biography. My reaction has always been the same, although usually unspoken: Buddy, wise up. Unless you’re a celebrity, nobody other than your relatives -- and most of them probably don’t give a shit either -- wants to read about you. Just settle for immortalizing yourself through your progeny.

Anyway, back in those clueless early years when I hungered to be a better-than-average novelist, I thought writing about familiar stuff would be just as silly as Joe Schobedink's love affair with his own unremarkable existence.
What storyteller ever achieved greatness by limiting himself to what he knew?

Um… Chaucer? Melville? Isaac Bashevis Singer? Hundreds more?

It took me a while to realize that nearly all great authors, with the possible exception of certain masters of sci fi and fantasy (and if you delve beneath the surface of their work, they might not be exceptions at all), did indeed write about what they knew. Their greatness lay in transforming the personal into the universal.

When I finally took a good, long look at what I’d been producing, I realized I’d been trying to exercise the same alchemy. My attempts were paltry and severely limited, of course, but the fact remains I was indeed writing about what I knew. I was just embellishing it so other people found it relatable. Or at least interesting.

I’m still doing exactly that.

Sometimes I chide myself for continually setting my stories in Wisconsin. It isn’t a glamorous or exciting place full of glamorous or exciting people. There are no cowboys or rock stars or billionaires here. There isn’t even a single high-octane city that's a-hummin' round the clock (except maybe Green Bay when the Packers win the Super Bowl, but that's a very occasional and transitory hum).

courtesy of

However, the U.S. upper Midwest is what I know – the look of its landscapes, the smell of its seasons, the temper of its towns. My psyche was shaped by Milwaukee’s blue collar workers and eastern European immigrants, by Madison’s academics and Door County’s artsy types, even by poorer counties’ on-the-dole barflies. I’ve hobnobbed with Twin Cities yuppies and Upper Michigan Yoopers and displaced Chicago bartenders who fled north for reasons of their own.
I’ve camped along the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, ice skated and ice fished (hell, learned how to fish) on Green Bay, walked the beaches of Lake Michigan (once found a trilobite there), and gazed in awe over Lake Superior. Even though Prism Falls (in The Prayer Waltz) and Cold Harbor (in Visible Friend and The Zero Knot) don’t exist on any map, I’ve been to those places as surely and as often as I’ve been to Summerfest. Those sailors Ned likes to ogle in Electric Melty Tingles? I've ogled them too. 
 Jackson Spey and Adin Swift reside in the neighborhood where my mother grew up. For about six down-and-out months, I lived in the same drafty house that Carny Jessup (in Carny’s Magic) shared with his aunt. After that I moved to the county where Xylophone is set. As for “Bouncin’ Bob” Lempke and the Polka Doodles, I’ve known them, and danced to their music, since childhood. I currently live in the county where A Hole in God’s Pocket takes place, although I changed some names in the story. 
Everywhere in this humble stretch of flyover country, I’ve met people for whom I’ve cared deeply -- people who enriched or educated or at least entertained me, people whose skin color, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, upbringing, and interests often didn’t match mine. Were they boring? I guess that depends on one’s definition of the word. To me, everybody everywhere can be a source of inspiration. “Colorful” is a matter of perception.

Yep, the upper Midwest is what I know, who I am. How could I possibly avoid writing about it? And why would I want to?   

photograph by Wisconsin Historical Images via Flickr


Tam said...

I'd rather writers use a location they know that is "unglamorous" than write about a city and get it wrong. Although with Google maps now you can see everything and what the names of the stores are. I used that for my UK Meet story last year. It was fun to say there was a funeral parlour right on a specific corner and work that in. No excuse to get it wrong, but when I read stories about my city I'm always on the look-out for screw-ups. LOL So nasty that way.

K. Z. Snow said...

I know what you mean about authors getting it wrong. One guy wrote a rather highly regarded historical located in our county seat. I groaned and huffed all the way through the book, 'cause it was obvious the dude had done minimal research, if any. Same was true of a gay fic novel that took place in our state capital. I wouldn't have recognized the city if the author hadn't named it.

I've really come to appreciate the authentic ring of place-familiarity!