I’m thrilled to welcome Lise Saffran here today. In her beautiful guest post, Lise talks about writing, with your hands in one place and your heart in another.
Her essay brings to mind my favorite bookmark, a bumper sticker that describes me in two words: Misplaced Texan. At twenty-two years old, I fell in love, uprooted myself, and moved north. While I’ve lived in Wisconsin long enough to have earned my stripes (surviving frigid temperatures and eating cheese curds, a strange phenomenon), in my heart, I am still from Texas. That fact often shows up in my speech and occasionally in my stories, and it has made me the writer I am today.
Lise’s essay shows us how strong sense of place is integral in a story, as well as in a writer’s life.
Writing Yourself Home:
A Mid-Western Novelist Yearns for the West Coast
by Lise Saffran
The cicadas were everywhere in Mid-Missouri this summer. Crawling up from the ground, rattling the branches of the trees, dive-bombing bicyclists and looking for love in all the wrong places (the office where I write, for one). Our local ice cream parlor whipped up a batch of nationally famous cicada ice-cream.
At one point I realized I had even begun to measure my life by cicada hatchings. Thirteen years ago, when the parents of the current crop were abandoning their husks in several-inch deep piles under the trees, I had an infant of my own and a brand new MFA from a Mid-western university. While the baby slept I wrote stories about a former drug addict living in a converted school bus in Humboldt county who manicured pot for a living, a San Francisco girl preparing to leave the Bay Area for Sri Lanka and a home for troubled and homeless youth in wealthy Marin County. The first of those stories to be published, Men and Fish, was about a woman who wrote a fishing column for a local paper. And by local, I mean the San Francisco Bay Area.
This year, Cicada Brood XIX emerged to find me with two children and a first novel, Juno’s Daughters, on the shelves. The novel concerns a single mother and her teenage daughters who participate in a summer production of The Tempest and it is set on San Juan Island, off the coast of Seattle in the Puget Sound. The cast of characters–both onstage and off—features a collection of potters, weavers and musicians that would be instantly recognizable to the individuals who roamed through my earlier stories or indeed to most people who had found themselves hiking over Mt. Tamalpais in California or soaking in Oregon’s Cougar Hot Springs.
Driving my elder son to camp this weekend on interstate 70 we passed endless flat fields, many filled with the gold lamé of tassled corn. A barn sported a painted advertisement for Meramec Caverns and multiple billboards urged us to visit Lake of the Ozarks. My son was born in Missouri and this is his countryside but to me, even after all these years, it feels exotic. No matter how long I have been away, when I step off the plane in San Francisco, Portland or Seattle I feel that I’m home. The air smells different when it is laced with pine and salt. Shadows cast by mountains are distinct from the shade of a broad tree on a wide field. If writers are often accused—rightly so—of writing the same story over and over again, that story, for me, has unfolded primarily in a western landscape.
It is partly separation from the region in which I was raised that makes it such an attractive subject. Beginning writers often fail to include sensory details in their fiction because they figure that such shared experience is sure to be boring to their readers. Why describe an orange, they wonder, if everyone already knows what an orange is like? Well, everyone knows what love is like and what loss is like and what it is like to want something desperately, too. It is the writer’s job to make that longing—and when important to the story, the orange, too—present on the page.
Imagining yourself deeply into a story is an act of conjuring that relies on an unpredictable combination of memory and invention. Longing can often work like a switch. Describing the orange on your desk is one thing. Describing the taste of an orange when you’re dying for one and haven’t had one in years is quite another.
Elements of landscape and the sensations they produce also work like trapdoors into wider memories that enrich my fiction. The way that eucalyptus trees drop their pods like little missiles on the ground reminds me of camping out at Grateful Dead shows when I was a teenager reminds me of the feeling of freedom and possibility and danger of being a late adolescent. I have now lived most of my adult life away from eucalyptus trees (not to mention the Grateful Dead) and that, in itself, works to underscore the passage of time, another fertile topic for stories.
My current work-in-progress is a second novel set on the San Juan Islands, but lately I have begun taking some tentative steps to write about Missouri, as well. In a recent story, Water Witch, the body of water that figures prominently in the action is an Ozark stream rather than the Pacific Ocean. I am eager to explore this new setting and there may even come a day when I will describe myself as a writer from the West Coast rather than of the West Coast. However, I can no more picture a time when my fiction will be unbuckled from my geographic origins than imagine it free from lessons learned in childhood about family, betrayal, adventure and loss.
In thirteen years, when the sleeping children of Brood XIX emerge from the ground again and my own children are off living their lives, where will I be? Chances are pretty good that I will still be in Columbia, MO where my husband is a philosophy professor and where we have dear friends and deep roots. Chances are better than good that at least some of the time I will be sitting at my desk in Mid-Missouri surrounded by coastal fog and dry yellow hills, the sound of the waves crashing in my ears.
Lise Saffran is the author of the novel JUNO’S DAUGHTERS, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and Hedgebrook. Her work has appeared in literary journals, Poets and Writers and the Granta Anthology FAMILY WANTED. Not only does she live full-time in Missouri, she is part-owner of 60 acres in an Ozark county where there are rumored to be more copperheads than people.