Three Guesses Why This Essay of Mine Keeps
Coming Back to My Mind in Wake Of Cavs Loss
Hometown’s Gravitational Pull
By John Ettorre
Hometowns are tricky things.
They begin as warm, nurturing environments, familiar places you proudly call home. Eventually, that very familiarity can feel stifling, driving you away at a certain stage of life, in search of some mythical better place where you’re certain you’ll be happier. And yet, for most people, one’s hometown exercises a kind of silent gravitational pull whose force one can’t always resist. Like quicksand, it tugs on you harder the harder you resist.
What’s true for civilians is doubly true for writers.
If we’re any good, our writing—poetry or prose—is steeped in a sense of place. The more tied you are to an area’s history, people and landscape (both physical and psychic), the easier it becomes to weave that place through the fabric of your language. Not long ago, novelist Phillip Roth observed that his native Newark, New Jersey has been one of the chief recurring characters in his fiction.
On the other hand, there’s a long tradition of writers noisily dissing their places of origin. In his thinly veiled Winesburg, Ohio, the novelist Sherwood Anderson mocked his native Clyde, Ohio as a provincial backwater. Harper’s editor Willie Morris, like many Southern writers, was similarly embarrassed by the gothic backwardness of his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi, and thus headed to Manhattan, where he wrote a memorable coming-of-age novel, North Toward Home.
Perhaps most famously of all, James Joyce hated what he called the “center of paralysis,” his native Dublin. “How sick, sick, sick I am of Dublin!” he once exclaimed in a letter. “It is the city of failure, of rancor and of unhappiness. I long to be out of it.” He was good to his word: he never set foot in the city after 1912, living in self-imposed exile until his death in 1941. And yet, the city never left his imagination. His masterpiece, Ulysses, lovingly recreates Dublin in all its early 20th century sights, sounds, smells and texture. Some fans of the book think he renders it more precisely than an actual visit ever could. The late Willie Morris, meanwhile, spent his later years back in Yazoo City, happier the second time around.
Like many writers, I tried to escape my hometown, moving away from Cleveland in my 20s for larger, flashier places, cities which I thought would be far better venues in which to practice my craft. For a time, they were.
But then the steady drone of that gravitational pull set in, and I found myself back where I started. I was ambivalent about it for years, feeling as Joyce did that I was in a geography marked by failure, and worried that it might somehow rub off on me. Eventually, with maturity, you come to understand that what you sought to escape is not so much an actual place, but the straightjacket of earlier expectations you’ve come to associate with that place. Grasping that, you can change those expectations. All it takes is some revisions.
Now, I see this place with writerly eyes, as a place gorgeously haunted by its once-sequined past, bent over from the accumulated weight of its might-have-beens and almost-wases. But it also has great sedimentary layers of depth and beauty, the kind that can come only from epic pain and loss. It’s a place that rewards emotional and civic archaeology.
And so I keep digging.
--(published last year in Muse magazine, which is not online).