Here are questions and subjects to mull over that I hope will be equally helpful for students, teachers of this book and other life and place writing, and book club readers. You can be sure the resources here will expand as time goes on, because I am constantly finding stuff that enriches this conversation: How do we talk about ourselves in print? As a culture, as part of a place, and as ourselves, individuals, a little voice piping up their experiences from their position in the huge reeling universe?
Three threads of conversation seem to rise from this (and any) book:
- Issues of craft. I.E., the mode of the author writing the actual book. What do you think of the voice? How is that voice deliberately constructed? Is it distancing or intimate, active or musing, knowing or questioning? Or all of these, to a various degree and in what places, on what subjects? How does the sectioning work, the chapter titles, the length of each?
- Issues of “the larger conversation,” I.E., what’s going on in the genre in which this book places itself? For instance, is this specific book very like or very different from others in its category? In what ways, specifically, is it the same or different? Are those ways deliberately shaped by the author or has she or he made a choice accidentally which positions them? Does this book push any envelopes and if not, why not? Does the book, in the end, do what you want and expect from memoir or creative nonfiction or regional writing or life studies, whatever lens you are looking at it through?
- Issues revolving around this actual text’s content. I.E., Utah. Rural culture. Mormon culture. Urban culture. What do you think about the ways in which this author positions herself, and how specifically is it done? (In other words, where in the writing are the markers of what you are trying to say?) If you know the area, or another like it, does this author approach its description successfully? Are new ways of looking at your familiar subject pleasing or successful or challenging?
Links for further reading
These can enlarge your conversations on these ideas.
Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir is an extremely readable study on the construction of voice and temporality/mindset in memoir.
The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life is a valuable look at what the people who don’t study history and culture think of historical moments in their lifetimes, and how they mark their own lives against public historical moments.
Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West is a must-read if you are interested in the marketing of a place for its imaginative meaning, for its examination of how making your home place a tourist attraction changes your own relationship to it, as well as the meaning of that place to everyone else.
Other works, both short and long, this book could be productively read with:
Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean. Written by a true insider, trying to have an outsider experience.
Mary Clearman Blew’s All But the Waltz. Family history well-considered, using occasionally similar materials to those I look at (letters, county maps, etc.) but by a woman born and bred in the place of which she writes.
Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction. Because it’s manly, and my book is irreducibly written by a female. Spragg also looks at animals’ lives within the context of human’s use, and if you read closely, you’ll find at least two times I’ve used his work in mine.
Gretel Erhlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. Mine has been compared to hers, because we were both outsiders to the local experience we convey. Erhlich approaches her reading of the local culture in an entirely different way than I do. Not in a better or worse, more authentic or deeper or shallower way, but different. See if you can figure out what I mean, and email me if you can’t.
Scott Russell Sanders’ Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. One of the most moving books I’ve ever read, adamantly un-epic in its scope, determined to love the place he’s landed, and succeeding in making any reader see why. Makes me feel like I’m cheating again any time I move instead of stay or look up instead of down. Zen-like in its concentration.
Annie Dillard’s Living Like Weasels. If you need or want a shorter work, this essay explodes the notion of finding your home neighborhood unremarkable, as well as completely dismantling any idea you might have that nature awaits you only far away in national parks.
Michael Perry’s Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. Easy read, short-ish work, non-elitist, and breathtakingly plain writing. And I always mean that as a compliment. I’d have hassled him for a blurb but his website expressly asked me not to. He writes about moving back to the town he grew up in after college, and digging in and earning his stripes.
Lisa Knopp’s The Nature of Home. Essays which all examine in disparate ways one subject, circling herself in her place, making an arc from dissatisfaction to a tenuous peace. Structurally fascinating, and also about finding home and then not letting it off the hook.
These works have in common, often, the move in one’s life from living from the gut, to going to college, or somewhere you’ve really planned on and about and around, and then back to the gut. Getting out of your own way. I see now that another thing these works all have in common is that they are not per se about growing up. They are all about figuring out being grown-up already. That seems about right.