A hard truth I’ve learned is that you have to leave the places you love in order to write about them.
Not until I’d grown up and left northern Minnesota could I make any sense of the place. My tiny hometown was all I’d ever known, and just like how you don’t really understand how your own family functions until you spend time with someone else’s, living in a far-flung college town and then coastal cities brought my origins into true focus. One evening when I was 24 and living in Brooklyn, I turned on the radio and Prairie Home Companion
drifted out. Prairie Home Companion
! Bane of my youth, loathsome folksy soundtrack of many a Saturday evening drive down a snowy rural highway while my brothers and I drowned Garrison Keillor’s baritone drone in our complaints! And yet now, at the sound of it, my chest swelled with baffling, embarrassing longing. In a move made possible only because I lived alone, I turned the radio up
. I couldn’t help it. I felt the pull of home.
. I realized how I loved that piney, remote, lake-strewn landscape with its deep cold winters and short brilliant summers and bad roads and clean water. And like many a rural kid who figures out they’re queer, I suffered a double-edged homesickness of both loving and fearing the place I’d come from. The relief of my liberation from it intertwined with the melancholy of never being able to live there again. That unresolvable friction took hold of me. Like that, northern Minnesota was all I could write about.
When I landed in Portland in 2002, the only way I can describe the feeling is home at first sight
. Falling in love with a city is a lot like falling in love with a person. A city can look good on paper, fill the checklist of all the qualities you think you want, and yet have no spark; you can get by there for a while, but if you commit for life, you’ll be miserable. Other places, you’re just hooked — even if they’re troubled and weird and beautiful, and even if you realize, This one might be tough on me
, you can’t help it, you’ll gamble everything and do anything to make it work. For me, that was Portland. In the years I lived there, I was permanently broke and occasionally heartbroken, but never had I been happier to answer the question of where I lived, to write my return address on an envelope, or to board a flight home.
When I landed in Portland in 2002, the only way I can describe the feeling is home at first sight.
But as long as I lived there, I couldn’t write about Portland. My circumstances weren’t to blame. Sure, I had no money, but even with my patchwork of minor jobs that paid hardly anything, I had time. My detached garage provided me a cozy office, with raw dark wood walls strung with wiring, makeshift shelves, and a window in the back that overlooked a pear tree. My dog dozed on a plump, cushy Goodwill couch while I worked at my desk. Yet all I could do was write about Minnesota, or fictionalized nowhere-cities. Though I’d been drawn into this vibrant culture unlike any I’d ever read about in books, a literary void I wanted desperately to fill, I could not get Portland on the page. When I was invited to contribute to an anthology called Portland Queer
— the two words that most concisely described my current existence — I came up blank. Could not write a word.
Texts and calls would always come through to pull me away from the desk: Let’s take the dogs to the river. U up for Catan? Gaycation tonight!
I’d close the laptop and pull on my jacket. Later I could write into the night. Or tomorrow morning, first thing. Right? I told myself I had to go and live. I’d get material.
And it turned out I was getting material, but it would take me a few thousand miles’ distance and some time to realize what I had. I took what I thought was a temporary college teaching gig across the country, where I would advise my students to let intense experiences rest before they wrote about them. “It’s still too close for you to see it,” I'd say, holding an invisible object up to my face. Then I’d move the object away to arm’s length. “You need a little distance to focus, to be able to see it for what it really is.”
One year turned into another, and that good job turned into a better one, and from three time zones away, all I wanted to write about was Portland. The farther away I moved from the place and life I had loved, the more urgently I needed to write about it. That’s how Stray City
came to be. Late at night, at my desk in Ohio, and then Virginia, I could return to that feeling I had in my garage studio in Portland: the room dark, with just the spotlight of the lamp and the screen turning the desk into a stage where I could play out fictionalized versions of the life I’d left behind. Surrounded by years of my notebooks, my writing music playing, I immersed myself in the most familiar place in the world to me, this small lovely space in the dark. More than anything else I know, this felt — and still feels — like home.
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received an MFA from Iowa and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her work has appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, Ninth Letter,
and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from MacDowell, the Viriginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire, she currently teaches at the College of William and Mary. Stray City
is her first novel.