Tuesday, June 09, 2009

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).


At 11:40 AM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

Gorgeous essay John.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'll settle for gorgeous. Thanks, MO. Enjoy your Philly sojourn.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

One thing this last roadtrip, to Maine and back, became for me, was a pilgrimage to several of those home-places of writers and artists whose work I love and admire. I visited the home-places of Robert Frost, May Sarton, Andrew Wyeth, Walt Whitman, among others. Most importantly I visited the homeplace of Frederick Franck, which was the apex of such visits.

I completely agree that writers are rooted in, or reject and are rejected by, their home-place. It's something many of them struggle with their entire careers. The Roth comment is telling.

In terms of the gravitational pull, one of my favorite Austin Lounge Lizards songs—my favorite bluegrass and country satire and parody band—is titled "That Godforsaken Hellhole I Call Home." The lament in this truly hilarious song is that the narrator always gets pulled back there; so there's some poignancy, too.

But what I really think of is how writers like myself, who grew up without a firm home-place either to embrace or reject, also experience the home-place feeling—but more lightly. There are a few places that I quite like, including where I live now, but none of them are "Home." The closest to that for me would be Ann Arbor, but I only spent half of my childhood there; so while it's full of memories, they're not so deeply-rooted. And I'm semi-nomadic now, still gathering new places into my experience and memory. I suppose my home-place, the closest equivalent in my feelings to what you're describing, is being on the road, and discovering new places, and driving. I do some of my best thinking on those long drives.

(As for Roth, I long since found his obsessive circling around the same themes, including Newark, to be tiresome. One feels that way about a lot of New York-centrist fiction, as well, to be honest.)

At 12:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I certainly agree about Roth. The Newark thing has overstayed its welcome. You're certainly not alone in feeling no one place is really home--that's an utterly American thing. I wonder, Art, how you would react to the folk wisdom about that situation: the saying that for those who have moved around a lot as young people, the closest they have to a hometown is the place they were when they graduated from high school. Does that ring even a little true in your case?

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yes and no; it does to an extent, and that would be Ann Arbor. But it's not very close to the sense of Home that I see many writers talk about. It's not a deep attachment; it's not like high school graduation even meant much to me, as a rite of passage, as I was already taking college courses by then; furthermore, I was an outcast, a geek, one of the smartest kids in my class who was bullied all through school till the 10th grade when it finally stopped, and I didn't have a lot of attachments to my classmates. I can honestly say, that within two or three years, I never saw any of them again, ever. There are strong memories associated with Ann Arbor as a locale, of course, and many of them remain important to me. But there's no strong gravitational force pulling me back there as "home." Nothing of that at all. Nothing like what many writers talk about in terms of their own home-places. Nothing that strong. And I'm not by nature a sentimental or nostalgic person, anyway; romantic, perhaps, but not very sentimental. What pulls me to a place is a sense of genius loci, the power of that place, the energy I feel there. I frankly feel more strongly attached to certain state and national parks than I do to Ann Arbor per se.

Honestly, the experiences I remember most vividly from Ann Arbor, that I have thought about and written about more often than others, was my teenage sexual awakening; I suppose high school was part of that, but I was too shy to have had much of that sort of fun in high school, so I don't strongly associate those sets of memories. I lived on the edge of town, right next to nature and agriculture, so even going to school was "going in to town." The sexual awakening stuff was all out in the wild unknown, far more rural in nature than school or city; almost all of it was outdoors in summer. Okay, that's all probably TMI. LOL I only mention it to contrast with the relative lack of high school associative memories.

When I left Ann Arbor, after college, I only went back once in 20 years. Until the roadtrip my Dad and I went on, just weeks before he died, I hadn't been back to Michigan at all in 17 years. That was a good roadtrip, though, as Dad showed me the cemeteries were some of my ancestors are buried, and the place where he and Mom would eventually be laid to rest, in Muskegon. Since then, I've been back to Michigan a half-dozen times, and each time I'm felt a sense of familiarity and Home, but as if the entire state was Home, not just Ann Arbor. I certainly recognize in myself—I've written about this a couple of times on my blog—that I'm a "Michigan writer" or a "Great Lakes native" at heart, carrying around a lot of ideas and feelings about life, art, and nature, that I recognize as native to those places. And that I see in the writings of other Michigan writers, not least Jim Harrison, or Hemingway in his Michigan stories. I can see some parallels.

I think I've written a whole essay here, sorry. :) You got me going, and triggered some thinking.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

P.S. I should have mentioned before that I did very much like this essay of yours. The analogy of sedimentary layers, and civic archaeology is a very true one. I feel the same way digging into my family's archives, at times, as when my sister and I were closing down our late parents' house a year ago. "Sedimentary" is exactly the right sense of it.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great stuff, Art. I'll post some additional reactions later, when I'm not limited to 2 thumbs. But this site exists to trigger thinking, so I'm pleased to be part of that process.

At 8:50 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've affirmed that folk wisdom about the high school years being primary in memory formation. It's not so much that high school per se was a good experience--it's actually a fairly universal dynamic that the smartest, most sensitive kids had awful experiences in high school, only to bloom later--but that those are the most impressionable years of life. Naturally, sexual awakening is generally a big part of that, at least for those of us who awakened in that way at all.

I'm glad you mention Great Lakes native, because I think Clevelanders often feel that we're wrongly classified as Midwesterners. We are, only in the most technical sense. But we're far more a part of the Great Lakes region, in a physical as well as psychic sense. All of us in the Great Lakes basin, including those in Canada, have much more in common with one another than not.

Finally, a word about Ann Arbor. Simply put, it's one of the coolest towns I've ever visited. There's so much smarts and learning in the air that you can almost cut it with a knife.

At 2:35 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm glad you agree about the Great Lakes as a native zone. I haven't heard a lot of writers talk about it in this way. I don't claim it's an idea original to me, but it is something I have thought about a lot in recent travels, and really think is true: there is something unique about the Great Lakes culture. And I agree that it includes Ontario, too.

I usually think of Ohio as an Eastern state, not really a Midwestern one. I've always thought that way. I think in part it's that Ohio looks to the east coast for cultural connection; to Pennsylvania and New York, mostly, I think. In Wisconsin, we tend to look towards Chicago. And the Twin Cities in Minnesota also look towards Chicago a lot more than to New York City.

I was always aware that Ann Arbor looked to NYC or Philadelphia for a lot of cultural input; rather than to Chicago. Of course Detroit is so close by, there, it's like you can't avoid it. But when I left A2 was when I first realized how eastern it is, as a Michigan town, in some ways. You go up to the UP and they're more like Canada than NYC, by far. You definitely get a sense of Great Lakes native culture up there, in its rural smalltown phase; just as Cleveland and Sandusky and the towns north of Detroit as also definitely Lake culture, in its urban phase. One thing my friends in the Southwest and California really don't understand is that we are water people here; immersed in a water climate, not a rain forest, but a climate that vividly demonstrates the dynamics of the ecological water cycle.

About A2 I should add, I don't want anyone to think I didn't or don't like the town. In my last couple of visits back there, I was traveling on my own, with no agenda, no hurry, and no plan. So I wandered around a bit.

I drove by and took photos of the house where we used to live—no longer on the edge of town, BTW, but inland quite a bit now. The corridor between A2 and the western Detroit suburbs has been accelerated via new and better roads, and A2 has grown outwards in compensation. I drove by the Music School on North Campus, which triggered a lot of memories of doing my college degree there. I drove through the downtown, noting what had changed, and what hadn't. And I stopped in at Kerrytown, and you must never stop in A2 without a visit to Zingerman's Deli, truly a great destination.

My point is that I could now visit A2 and really enjoy the place. I guess I needed the distance that time provides between my past life there and my present life, to be able to see the place more objectively, without so many overlays of vivid memory. I felt like now I can see A2 and discover it as it currently exists, in its current state, rather than I might have it from memory. And it is a very cool town, still. (Madison, WI, likes to think it's the Berkeley of the Midwest—but sorry folks, Ann Arbor is the real cool thing, and Madison isn't. I've lived in both towns, so I know.)

I recently heard writer Nevada Barr discussing the sense of returning home in terms of the National Parks. She said something along the lines of, I can go back to my old birthplace and the places I used to play with my friends are gone, or replaced, but I can still go back to the National Parks, and it's still the same, just as beautiful, dependably welcoming and familiar and beautiful.

That's EXACTLY how I feel about it. Earlier in the day, thinking about all this, I thought to myself, where IS the place that feels most like "home" for me? Some of my favorite spots in my favorite National Parks and state parks were what first came to mind.

BTW, if you liked Ann Arbor for its smarts and learning vibe, you'd also like Ithaca, NY, and Cornell. Very similar in many ways.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's an interesting notion--national parks as hometowns. And I've never been to either Ithaca or Cornell, so thanks for the tip. My standards for cool college towns, in addition to Ann Arbor, is Chapel Hill, NC. And you're right--while Madison has its charms, it's definitely not quite in that league.


Post a Comment

<< Home