April 20, 2012

April 9, 2012

Writing About Place

 I'm going to put on my teacher hat here for a moment.

It was during my third semester in grad school that much of what I thought about and everything I wrote began to revolve around the notion of place. My classmates and I crafted critical theses that term, and mine focused on Minnesota writers and how these men and women rendered my state so convincingly. That paper was a labor of love, time, and too many notecards, so I'm grateful that a revised (and much shorter!) version of it is being shared with other writers and teachers of writing in the most recent issue of Minnesota English Journal. If you're into that kind of thing, then by all means give it a read.

Here are the first few paragraphs:
"Landing: Writing About Place in our Flyover State"
When I went off to college, I knew about Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee. I loved literature, so much that I wanted to both teach it and write it for the rest of my life. But it wasn’t until I took a regionally focused Ethnic American lit course two years later that I realized I’d never heard of Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich, Patricia Hampl and Joyce Sutphen, Sinclair Lewis and Paul Gruchow and Bill Holm—writers, every one, some more established, all talented and passionate, who wrote about the place I came from: Minnesota. 
It was later still that I understood why: the Midwest was considered “flyover country,” a producer of literature too localized to be of much interest to those on the coasts, the locations where, I realized, the makers of literary canons and national textbooks most often reside.
When I consider my high school students now, I feel a deep need for them to not only know of these writers and be familiar with their work, but to understand the importance of place—their place, in particular. One of the best ways to stress this lesson is by studying the work of these writers, certainly. But we should also lead students to pay attention to their own backyards and then render them with their words. As writing teachers, we are consistently asking students to be more specific. So what a perfect, accessible, and potentially challenging thing it is then for us to insist, “Here. Right here. Tell me why this place matters.” 
For more about Bly, Gruchow, and a few of my classroom practices, read on, friends. If not, hope you get outside today and enjoy where ever home is for you!