As an adolescent, I couldn’t wait to get off the farm. When I finally did, for college, I found that living in the city was as good as I had imagined it would be. I had access to people, unique ideas and things to do. In fact, city living was maybe even better than what I’d seen on TV or while traveling because my college campus was its own little residential community. There was some shelter in the secure life of a student living on a quiet campus, and the city that I moved to was easy to get around and relatively small, maybe 100,000 people at that time. It was a good first step toward city life and a definite first step toward being the writer I wanted to be, as I was studying journalism. It also gave me things to write about, first for the school newspaper and then the city daily.
Three years later, when I moved to Washington, D.C., the jump in size meant a jump in congestion and disorientation. But there too, I got some of the things I’d grown up longing for while watching MTV: access to bookstores, live music any night of the week (not something I had in Sioux Falls), late night dinners and more access to people and things to do. That time period didn’t exactly shape my writing, but it did give me a few things to write about later on, and it showed me that I preferred print to broadcast journalism. I also saw that the political game was really just a game, not a lifestyle I wanted to actually be part of.
I’ve been thinking of that time in D. C. lately, as the election nears, as I move further and further away from journalism, and as I settle into what it means to be a writer on a farm, rather than in a city (it means I don’t get out and see other writers much, for one). I’m teaching college students now, and in one of my classes we explore the literature of revolution. This means we look at war and politics, yes. But also we look at what makes writing revolutionary. We discuss whether or not one has to be an activist to be a revolutionary figure, or if one can do something as simple as write a poem, or a song, or paint a picture. Does a writer have to write about conflict to write revolutionary things, or can love be revolutionary? Work?
Can the change of colors in the sky or horizon lead to revolution?
In my other classes, creative writing classes, not lit classes, I help novice writers think about craft and their writing process. I ask them if they really understand their characters’ motivations and if they can tie the to the plot or the setting more closely. I ask them to consider the figurative language they use and why they use it. I ask them, “If you never make it as a writer, what will you do?”
As this semester moves toward its own falling action, I think back to the week before the election when I lived in D.C. The city was awash with potential, and my friends, Republicans and Democrats, or some variation of each, were on edge for their respective candidates. My room mates and I threw a watch party that night to see the votes come in, and my guy lost. But my biggest conflict was whether or not I wanted to stay in the city when my internship was over. There was so much to like about it, but nothing that would keep me writing, or put me into a position where writing became my work.
We’re approaching another election now, sixteen years later (what?!), and as I look out my farmhouse window onto a scene of blinding snow speckled red and gold with fallen maple leaves, I feel a sense of the cyclical nature of time. It’s something my students and I talk about as we read Marquez, but it’s not just my work life that prompts it. I’m back on a farm, after all, back in the same sort of existence where my dreams of being a big shot writer began. I don’t really dream those dreams any more, at least not in the same way. And I’ve found that contrary to the idea of space and quiet = lots of writing, I don’t write much anymore, either.
My most prolific time as a writer was in another city, in Chicago, a decade ago. But as I sit in my dining room, surrounded by squash and the final harvests of our fall, I see that if I am to be a writer now, it means writing about what surrounds me. Nothing revolutionary there– I’ve always drawn on my surroundings for fodder. Writers do that. But I’ve resisted writing about this life, the farm life, here in my blog. My blog has always been a place where I could write about the exciting cities I lived in and the exciting things I did. But that’s no longer where I’m at, or what I do. I don’t want to write about the Midwest, or farm culture, or what I’m doing back where I began. But I guess if I am to be a writer, then maybe it’s time to just settle in and find inspiration in the quiet and color around me.