On first moving to Maine and seeing a line of tall ledges from a nearby road, I was enchanted, surprised. I’d never seen anything like them before: Mountains like waves of rock waiting to crash over the land. Not long ago, on snowshoes, we broke trail in a field below. In three feet of snow, exhausting ourselves, driven by winds laden with chill factors below zero. Oh that cup of coffee on our return!
Home territory is well known to the author which makes the story… a little easier to tackle. At least something looks familiar. It’s a little like traveling to some faraway place where they turn out to speak English after all. It’s still an exotic journey, but you feel comfortable nonetheless.
So wrote Maine writer Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys and Ernie’s Ark , via e-mail. She kindly responded to my request for this essay. I was interested to see what others had to say about writing local fiction.
One of the rewards of reading and writing local fiction is to see the place you live anew. Freshness is regained, a new perception of your place‘s geographic, cultural and spiritual reality. You can enter again the vibrant scope of local life, which, before touching the keyboard or turning the page, you had forgotten in your mundane travels and interactions in this strange place where you live. G. K. Chesterton called this effect “Mooreeffoc”—after Dickens’s glimpsing the reverse reflection of the word coffeeroom, against a dark sky. This seeing refreshed the way he saw both word and place.
I was so refreshed one early morning, bicycling along a pond to the village diner for coffee. It was not yet spring, a point jutted out over faintly ruffling water, and along its shoreline colorful camps, red and blue, were reflected—quietly rippling in the pond.
Both reality and its reflection were framed in the dark, strong, resigned arms of great white pine above and below. At the very tip of the point, two smaller white pines leaned out with their reflections mirroring one another, feathery, dark green, pointed. Here I had the image necessary to furnish thoughts on writing about local fiction. I studied the silent, speaking beauty of the scene and was struck by a row of camp windows, both above and below shoreline, each framed in white with their dark interiors looking out toward me.
There are three aspects to this reciprocity between daily living and seeing our place anew: absence, surprise, and recognition. Nearly every morning I would walk to the diner or ride my bike on this road. I’d been taking its beauties and realities for granted; so much so that sometimes I failed to see them at all.
One morning, I turned back on my bicycle briefly, thinking I’d missed something. It was that dear piece of place already mentioned, and I was startled on seeing it to recognize again its beauty; to see again that it was there at all. Had it not been for this lovely and curious doubling reflecting image, I don’t think the road forward would have awakened me as it did. In my re-recognition I was taken (by surprise) out of my chronic absence. It can be like that when we pick up some story or book in which the local is leveled at us again. When we are willing to suspend our literal interpretations we are refreshed, as we read, by the reformed or rippled vision presented; because, as Wood points out, it is both familiar and strange to us.
Seeing what we know turned upside-down (even without its double standing in reality above) will surprise and refresh our thoughts of it. However, Monica Wood says there are drawbacks:
The author perceives his own region in his own unique way; it may not square very well with his neighbor’s perception of the same place. The author risks being accused of either romanticizing or criticizing the place. A reader once took great issue with me for placing a fictional bakery on a real-life street, for example.
The literalness-of-place interpretation by a reader is one of the hazards of writing local fiction. It’s good to see readers familiar with the region inspired by a re-imagined view of the place. Instead, readers may choose a trivial take, seeing if they can ferret out the actual on which settings or characters may—to their minds—have been based. Because a writer has taken a mere swatch of life and placed it in a story, they may mistakenly think they see a personal likeness based upon what was an incident from life.
But, in the true spirit of creativity, events and incidents have been transmuted into something new, unattached to whomever it may have happened to in real life. It’s not my business as a creative writer of fiction to try to recreate an actual person on the page. There is no creative challenge in this but an attempt at a sort of sterile photography, or even a deep lack of creativity. Actual people aren’t sterile but God’s own living, breathing, creativity. Who is competent to recreate those images of God? I’d also rather know the real person safe in his or her personhood than arrogantly display a botched image for the malign gossip of others.
So, instead of real people, I use types. The whole work, from my side of the desk, is to evoke a sort of green time, dreamtime-place; upside-down inside-out, real- but unreal-land; for readers’ ultimate reawakening and release. Returning through this escape, a reader is refreshed, renewed, seeing old things anew, not trying to cut and dry new things into the shape of the old. This is the hope of my craft.
The other day, while snowshoeing we “got turned around” in the woods, as we say here. Too, this happened to me when alone last year. It is a strange experience. We thought we knew where we were, things looked as expected—until they didn’t. On snowshoes one needs no marked trail in the woods if there’s the willingness to go back on one’s trail. The webbed shoe prints behind you will bring you safely home.
Sometimes, however, you feel adventurous, or confident of your position, and want to strike out for a different way home. We moved ahead through trees on unmarked snow, but slowly things began to feel different in some indefinite way. We were in tall trees and thickets but the familiar hills were in place above and beyond the boles—or so I thought. Presently I saw a mysterious broad band of snow ribboning through the trees. Where had that come from? It did not relate at all to the hillside I’d been using for landmark, one I had thought stood above our house.
Coming out onto the strip we found it a snowy lane. One I had never seen before.
Or? —I saw landmark structures, a dark blue house through trees over that way, a snowy camp up there … and suddenly it was like looking in Alice’s glass. How could these familiar things look so out of place?
But it was oddly grand. Everything new again! And R. was for going toward the camp—wrong direction to get to the road! A road we must cross to get home. For, without knowing, we had circled back just to the east of our turning for home … about an hour before.
When I asked various writers about writing local fiction, Carolyn Chute, author of Merry Men and The Beans of Egypt Maine, wrote me a note:
Writing fiction is a bit of an altered state, a dream state. You create life from your own DNA, your own humanity. As novelists, our characters are ourselves. So it’s tinier than state or county or neighborhood. Tinier and larger. To let go, to just let the characters live, a world is created which might be a mirror of certain cultural details, but the fictional events take on a life of their own.
But I’d add that, here again, it is not the writer’s self but a sort of transmuted and non-literal display. Evoked in part by the imagination and the subconscious, in part by the Unconscious with its attic and cellar full of archetypal bits and pieces.
Perhaps “local fiction” grew out of the local color movement, begun in New England in the 19th century by New England writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins. Later, in the 20th century, people like Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis with his Main Street, began writing about their local communities in unsentimental ways, merging naturalism and realism into the sphere of what they knew.
When we look at stories rich in a particular localized culture, with its peculiar mixture of atmosphere, landscape, architecture, and people/ character, we enter a whole world, imaginatively authentic, and telling. We bring ourselves, with the author’s help, into a strange condition, preoccupy ourselves with ways perhaps not our own; but true ways, as true as the writer can make them. Thus, if we are reading The Dollmaker, by Harriet Arnow, we find ourselves walking the hill country roads of the Cumberland in Kentucky, digging up hills of potato, walking to the spring for water, gazing up at stars in their glistening profusion. If we’re listening to an unabridged audiotape of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, we may be in conversation with a daughter of slaves who continued serving on the same plantation where her mother served; eat the Cajun food she served her friends and foster son, be on our knees for an hour in a schoolroom, waiting for word of an execution.
We may read Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, and know something in our imaginations about what it is to be an orphan on the Ohio River, a barber in a dying town, a secret lover of books in an upstairs room, a watcher of floods and of people and of what happens to the land. We can read The Walk Down Main Street, or The Spoonhandle, by Ruth Moore, and know a little of what it is to live in small-town coastal Maine where land development threatens the integrity of the locals, and bigotry inspires children to forsake a greater cultural development in favor of school sports. From Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings we are gifted with an exchange of labor, eking out a living through lake and creek fishing, vicariously experiencing what it is to turn green and listless as a habitation for hookworms. All of these places, rich in the authentic feel and thought-life of the culture, which is here in variety in rural America, is ours to experience if we will open a book and devote our imaginations.
Out of this authenticity of a distinct place we emerge with a new sense of our universal experience. This seeing anew can also happen when people of a particular place are displaced. Isn’t this what Harriette Arnow gives us in her lovingly crafted The Dollmaker? She gives us Gertie Nevels in the Cumberland and the Cumberland in Gertie Nevels—separable in time and space; but not spiritually. And then Arnow takes this deeply place-loving whittling hillbilly, yanks her loose, and drives her to Detroit, with her young ones, through the troubling emotionally tortuous train ride of our early emergent civilization. This is the pain of migration and displacement. The confounding and loss of confidence Gertie experiences in mid-20th century industrialized Detroit is our own when we are imaginatively yanked from our place and driven elsewhere. We readers see the new, metropolitan place, even if it is our own place in real life, as though Mooreeffoc. And we are awakened to its outlandishness and cruelty.
Or it may be that we are awakened to it in a locale where the protagonist is longing to escape out of his place, as in A Lesson Before Dying. In post-World War II plantation culture the Christmas play, put on by the school children, is dedicated to Jefferson who is to be electrocuted for his role as an unwitting participant in a robbery turned murderous. Here we are given an opportunity to “see again” the familiar Christmas of our culture, by seeing it in a peculiar microcosm of the culture. The gathering was large, for people had nowhere else to go, the program clichéd with carols and Jingle Bells, etc.. But we hear the plantation grammar of the children (which they slip into owing to nervousness); witness also the nativity’s different interpretation with peculiar touches, as when the wise men and shepherds meet and talk about the mystery before them.
The terse wording of the Christmas script, the small effects going awry (as when the flashlight “star” will not hold still), and the bitterness of the teacher, Grant Wiggins, over the eternal program in which nothing ever changes. But. The Christmas story is entirely refreshed for readers in all of this. And the universality of our predicament is felt here in Grant Wiggins’s longing to be done with the place, done with his professional and familial commitments, the sameness of his duties, and the apparently eternal bigotry of humankind. All this we recognize—but freshly.
Returning to The Dollmaker, witnessing Gertie’s dreams of restoration and cultivation of the Tipton Place, we are turned inside out, seeing anew the road we’ve taken as an escaping society, in Arnow’s contrasting of the two local cultures and environments—the beautiful hidden Cumberland and its counterpart, a brutal monstrous claustrophobic Detroit. The whole recollection of our past, its turning points, the present by which we know our future is in this contrast.
In Berry’s Jayber Crow we get a glimpse of this devastating comparison in the destruction of a microcosm of “The Nest Egg,” an old-growth forest on the edge of Port William which is liquidated to cover the debt of a farm expanded beyond its means and burdened with machinery. This is the story of the man Jayber who, as an orphaned child, lost his place and then returned to resume life anew. We are refreshed by his view of the dying town he left behind those many years before. Here it is displacement and return, followed by displacement once again: the displacement of aging, dying, and corporate industrial invasion. We marvel at the pathos of the vision he shares with us, which, because we are reading it, becomes our vision.
Lastly there is the newcoming stranger. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her memoir, Cross Creek, reveals sources of her stories of the watery Floridian land of her adoption. Here the communal reflection is reversed. The narrator is the stranger who willingly forsakes what place she knows, to come to a new place and assume it as her own. We cannot say if her job is the easy one—to show us with fresh eyes a place originally unstained (for her) with weariness and troubles. But it is a land of her choosing, and chosen for love of its look, the appeal of its people, and challenges she hopes to find there. She is a writer, she has chosen to awaken us with these tales of the inhabitants she finds kinship with by reason of her presence here. In this she is a very little like the Lord coming down from heaven both to enquire, and to take his place among us. He came and told us the marvels and truths of our life on Earth, through stories. Rawlings has chosen the pattern after her own flawed manner. She recreates for us the living of her new fellows, and we enter in, knowing them a little, and are now known a little more to ourselves.
In his famous essay on the fairy story, J.R.R. Tolkien has written about Mooreeffoc being a fantastic word, yet seen everywhere; and that it was used of Chesterton to show the actual queerness of what had become clichéd. Such queerness would never run out of material, but, according to Tolkien, its power of recovering freshness was its sole virtue.
Do you need anything more than this bare bones recovery if you are working in “local fiction”? Perhaps not but, with regard to vision, I do. I want something that will “open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds” (Tolkien). Please don’t mistake what follows for any sort of claim to this. I’m saying solely that this is the hardly reachable goal. Tolkien said this in reference to fairy tales and myth-making—a large deep and magnificent undertaking. Mythopoeia, working with archetypes, is where my creative interest sprouts. I do not think I can keep this out of my work, whether it be in local fiction, creative nonfiction, or children’s stories. I am prone to it even in academic papers where a scholar must bring together and synthesize thoughts from all over. The sub-creative act is, to me, a merry magic act; I quit it amazed. Everything is and always will be far and away more quick than we can think, and I want a little of that high merry quickness in my essays and stories.
If you are sub-creating characters from archetypes instead of using actual people as though raw material, you have ahold of something deep and telling to help make your characters. I want gods to abide with us, and if they will allow us some use, it is generous and glad. For archetypes themselves are made of God. Familial and community roles are one place to extrapolate archetypes, the pantheon of mythic gods another, the various components of image-bearing personality a third. There are also animal natures and spiritual conditions to work from. Yet are not all these, perhaps metaphorically, one? Too close an inquiry here would be deadening. We do not want to cut and dry our stories. Hold an archetype in your hand and then release it. Explicitness, so useful to science, is of little value to writerly magic.
In The God’s Cycle I have tried to set the cage-birds of local fiction free by calling to the old ways, the old gods. In this series you will not find the wholeness or completeness of a Tolkien myth, but fragments of history, both the recent and the ancient past, brought to life again (I hope) in the almost contemporary rural Town of Gottheim, Maine. It’s a place where mountains speak, trees impart life, Balder lives again, and the mythic Abenaki hero, Culuscap, takes up his place once more.
You might (almost) find here two castoffs on their way to a gingerbread house—but I did try to keep my cookie cutter in its drawer. So, instead, bicycle back with me to the doubled image of camps along the shore for morning’s mysterious ride. “I was struck most of all by the row of camp windows, above and below shoreline, each framed in white with their dark interiors looking out toward me.” It is the mystery of those windows I can’t forget. They are like the dark London night, or perhaps it was as dusk had fallen, backdrop to the mysterious word MOOREEFFOC. Dark were those camp windows, looking out at me.
But what if?
What if inside the dark camps there’s more of light than I can apprehend?
What if it’s really me who’s in the dark? What if the interior of those camps is the true outside, and all this world, and myself, are—looking through dim windows upon the dark mystery? A mighty cloud of witness would be that light within, and we’d be out here with Dickens, drinking coffee in a 19th century London shop. Or at the local diner just two miles down the road.