June 25, 2010

Everything Matters

Recently I went to a reading and discussion at Magers and Quinn. The guest writer was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Hailed as the "literary granddaughter" of Chinua Achebe, she is by most accounts pretty hot stuff in the writing community. You can read more about her here:  http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/06/14/100614fi_fiction_20under40_qa_chimamanda-ngozi-adichie 

I'd read her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck before attending the event, so I already knew her subject was—among other things—Nigeria. This was what interested me most: how a place rooted her writing, how everything came back to her original home. During the discussion time, she talked about being haunted, yes, by the effects of colonialism and by Nigeria's violent past, but her strongest display of emotion came when she described her frustration with outsiders who felt that—because they'd visited or studied some corner of Africa—they already knew her story.  

"Oh, yeah—Fargo, right? Good movie. It's weird, though: you don't sound like a Minnesotan..." 

It's a pretty big leap to compare the Midwest with Africa, but I guess what I'm saying is that it feels to me like I'm writing for some of the same reasons Adichie is: to get the word out, to set the record straight. And I wonder what percentage of writers put fingers to keys for the same reason? Isn't one of our main desires as humans to be seen as we see ourselves?

Minnesota doesn't have Nigeria's tumultuous political history, doesn't have the exoticism of another language and far-away borders. But that doesn't mean we don't matter. That doesn't mean there aren't stories here of worlds dramatically clashing, livelihoods being stolen, grief and triumph walking down the same grocery aisle. Everything matters. There is so much that needs to be said if simply for the sake of speaking it.

June 23, 2010


You want to see magic? Forget Chris Angel, forget Houdini, forget even Josef Kavalier's amazing adventures in Kavalier and Clay. 

Instead, come to my neighborhood on a sultry June evening—thunder brewing and bubbling in the distance—and walk with me along trails through the heady scents of honeysuckle and lavender and clover, through the dark woods rustling with rabbits and sleepy toads, down to where the air cools, a stream emerges, and a long thick marsh is lit up, friends, LIT UP by not only the moon, not only the stars, but by thousands and thousands and thousands of fireflies.

It was the night sky reversed. The sky tipped over. The stars become these small bits of illuminated bodies that I could follow with the palm of my hand, scoop up with my other, bring to my eyes, and ever-so-gently hold, marvel at. Release. They flew away with so much nonchalance. What is it to be so at ease with what touches us, with what our movements reveal? 

I cannot stop seeing this scene. As the thunder rolled through last night, I thought about these small spirits of a Minnesota June and imagined them as beacons, showing the rain the clearest path home. 

June 15, 2010


Numbers have never been my passion, but I'm about to throw some at you like slick boomerangs with the hope that they'll fling back and sting me between the eyes, seep into my skull, and do that one thing I'm doing all this for: inspire.

In Minnesota...
-- there are over 15,000 lakes and ponds
-- there exist three of North America's major drainage systems (meaning, lots of rivers and streams)
-- there are four ecological biomes: prairie parklands, eastern broadleaf forests (sugar maple, basswood, and elm), and Laurentian mixed forest (white pine, red pine, spruce, fir, aspen, and birch), and tallgrass aspen parklands
-- the area of greatest relief is the Arrowhead region, with the lowest elevation at 602 feet above sea level (Lake Superior's shore) and the highest at 2,301 feet (Eagle Mountain)
-- the greatest twenty-four-hour rainstorm of record was 10.8 inches on July 21-22, 1972, in Morrison Country
-- the lowest annual precipitation was 7.8 inches in Polk County in 1936
-- approximately 65% to 75% of the annual precipitation falls from May through September
-- the ground is covered with at least one inch of snow on an average of about 110 days in the northeast to eighty-five days in the southwest
-- the lowest temperature recorded was -59' F at Leech Lake on February 9, 1899
-- the highest temperature recorded was 114' F at Beardsley on July 29, 1917
-- temperatures at a given location frequently vary by more than 30' F in twenty-four hours on spring and fall days

Oh, and all this exists within the state's 84,068 square miles—quite a bit more than, say, Maryland.
-- Information taken from John R. Tester's 
Minnesota's Natural Heritage

June 6, 2010

My Flyover Country

Between my junior and senior years of college, I packed up a suitcase and worked as a camp counselor along the Maryland shores of the Chesapeake Bay. It was one of the best summers of my life, surrounded as I was with newness and adventure—two things I’ve always valued. So it's interesting to me that, when I look back on all the conversations I had that summer with the other counselors who came from mostly eastern seaboard states or European countries, one of the comments I remember most was from a native Marylander.

“Where’s Minnesota, again? I just know it’s really cold.”

I laughed genially—of course I did—immediately excusing her ignorance. It wasn’t like my homeplace held New York City, the weekend destination we were then exploring; it wasn’t like it held Paris or Tokyo or Acapulco, places people actually vacationed. It was the Midwest, for goodness’ sake. There were so many states between the coasts; I couldn’t fault her for forgetting mine.

Or could I? I spent other moments that summer embarking on what I now can recognize as a kind of missionary work for Minnesota. Whenever we were in cars, I opened atlases, pointed out all the green, all the blue, talked about the theater and the music and the locations of my childhood. Sometimes my fellow counselors would get excited; a friend they knew had raved about the Boundary Waters or another had grandparents with a big Northwoods cabin. But most of the time—they forgot. Later they’d repeat their simple questions. They would always speak about snow.

All of this is to say that when I found myself within my third MFA semester writing story after story about Minnesota and its people and wanting so desperately to get it right, I felt an important click, a sliding into place. I don’t know if this will be my material forever, but it’s my material for now, and I won’t stop until I’ve formed a collection of stories that serve as some visage of what I wanted that Maryland girl to not just see but understand. 

I graduate in a month, and as the dependability of deadlines pass from my life, I will use this blog as both my exacting professor and my unschooled friend. The homework? To show up and walk around in this greenredgoldwhitebrownblueandgreenagain classroom. To report what I discover. The purpose? To find the details that will help Miss Maryland remember. To explore how I might create stories that render my corner of the world as not flyover country, but as a place to land. A place that can be called believably home.

Hope you’ll join me—especially if Minnesota isn’t on your map.