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Writing From Your Roots

[This is a post adapted from a session co-presented by Chris Yokel and Jonathan Rogers at Hutchmoot 2015. The post comes from Chris’s portion of the talk]

Scott Russell Sanders says in the preface of his book, Writing From The Center:

How can one live a meaningful life in a world that seems broken and scattered? That question has haunted me for as long as I can remember. Insofar as I have found an answer, it has to do with understanding my place in marriage, family, and community—my place on earth, and ultimately in Creation. To be centered, as I understand it, means to have a home territory, to be attached in a web of relationships with other people, to value common experience, and to recognize that one’s life rises constantly from inward depths.

I want to build upon this idea, mainly by sharing a bit from my own journey toward being centered, my own wrestling with where I come from and how that has shaped and is shaping me as a person and creator. And finally I hope to share some perspective and lessons on what it means to write (or create) from your roots.

These days, our culture appears more and more defined by a sense of rootlessness. More than ever, people are packing up and moving away from the places they’ve grown up in, and staying away. They are also moving from place to place within their own lifetimes, like American nomads. Some people, like New York Times reporter Michael Powell, would observe that this sense of wanderlust has always been part of the American character and spirit. Still, it can be observed that American character notwithstanding, we are much more mobile than our ancestors were.

My life has been the exact opposite of this trend. I have lived in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, for my entire life. I spent thirty years in the same house I was born in, which is also the house my father was born in and grew up in, and where his father grew up and died. The house has now passed on to the ownership of my brother, four generations after my great-grandparents bought it in the early 1900s. During my childhood the biggest move I ever made was from the third floor of our house to the first floor. My official biggest move was several blocks down the road, where my wife and I now live. In contrast, I have some friends who have moved up to twenty times in their lives.

I can’t say that I’ve always appreciated this fixity in one place. Now, I had a great childhood in a good neighborhood. But in my late teens and early twenties, I was possessed with the desire to get away and live somewhere else for awhile. I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, stuck in a crummy little town, bursting to get out and see the world. I pursued several opportunities to move away and live in another part of the country for a period. None of those opportunities ever came to fruition. So for a while I felt trapped, stuck in my own version of Bedford Falls.

Within the past five or six years however, I have come to feel differently about my hometown. Perhaps it’s because I’m a little older. Perhaps some of my youthful ambition and energy has already started to fade. With that has come a reassessment of values. Things like family and community and church have risen in my own sense of priorities. For example, after I finished grad school, I was faced with the opportunity to pursue a PhD. Many people would jump at the chance to go to a school somewhere else in the country, or in the world, to absorb the experience of a new place. In the past I probably would have felt the same way, but when it came time to decide, I focused on finding a school within the region that would allow me to stay close to the people I cared about and the places I loved. Was my vision stunted? Was my perspective of the world too small? Was I just turning into some sort of hick? I don’t really think so. It’s not like I don’t want to see other parts of the world and even the country. I’d love to travel to Europe, and I’d love to see other parts of America. But after such adventures I’d want to come back home.

I guess perhaps I’ve become affected by what some people call “a sense of place.” This means more than, “I know where I am geographically.” As Wallace Stegner puts it, it’s “the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe . . . the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.”  Having lived in the same place for thirty-two years, I can appreciate Stenger’s assessment. And yet I feel that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of my own sense of place.

Partners Village Store is a combination gift shop, bookstore, and cafe that sits in a remodeled farmhouse in Westport, Massachusetts, a town just next door to Fall River. Partners contains a section of local books, and among these I found several booklets about the history of Fall River. One of these was about the “Granite Block,” a building that existed in downtown Fall River from the 1930s-50s, and served as the central hub for a bustling city center. As I started to read this history, I learned about the great fire of the winter of 1928, which decimated the center of the city, destroying many businesses and important buildings. I learned how with determination and resolve the city rose from these ashes in just a year or two to rebuild this entire section even better than it was before. I read about the Granite Block, and how it housed many local businesses that were pillars of the downtown community, where people who knew each other by name would hang out regularly, places like the Granite Block Spa, where high school kids would spend their holidays and weekends, where politicians would haggle over city issues, and where taxi drivers and mill workers would eat.

As I was reading, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of missing something that I had never been a part of. See, I grew up in the sad aftermath of my city’s glory days. The days of Fall River the bustling mill city and textile powerhouse gave way to decades of economic depression and underdevelopment. I grew up knowing I lived in a disreputable place. But reading those booklets, I wanted to go back to those roaring ’40s, the golden age of downtown Fall River, where the streets and shops bustled with activity. I wanted to see those Durfee High School football boys hanging out at the Spa with their girls after a Friday night movie. I wanted to be on the streets with those eager young men hanging out in the front of the Granite Block, waiting to see what pretty girls might hop off the bus from the Fall River line. I wanted to watch those city politicians wheeling and dealing in the haze of cigar smoke in the corner of the Spa. I suddenly realized that the streets I walked on had layers upon layers of history, and if they could talk, might tell me so many unfamiliar stories of the places that I thought I knew so well. I realized, and have been coming to the realization, that the place where I am, this city, this region, has so much depth to it that I am not even aware of. And yet this place, these generations, these stories, have brought me onto the world’s scene, and have shaped who I am.

So I slowly started to practice rediscovering the place in which I live, and that led to an interesting writing project that I would have never imagined. See, I’ve been writing poetry since my early twenties. It’s the artistic expression I’m mostly naturally inclined to. And unbeknownst to me, during some of those years where I was wallowing in the sense of being trapped, I was also writing about where I was. It was as if my artistic instinct knew what it should be doing before my head came to the same realization. Because here’s the thing about poetry. There’s this pervading myth that exists when it comes to poetry. The idea is that poets are people who sit in cafes with their latte and their Moleskine notebook, and decide, “I’m going to write about the idea of love,” and then come up with a bunch of abstract rhymey crap about love. This is patently absurd and false. Poetry is birthed out of an intense awareness of your surroundings. Poetry requires looking beyond the seeming mundanity of your existence to the wonder behind it. This is the kind of poetry I try to write, and the kind of poetry I admire.

It makes sense that part of my rediscovery of my sense of place, of my roots, came through writing poetry. It happened this way. I had been teaching as an adjunct professor at several schools in my area for a few years, and at the beginning of a new academic year I was assigned five writing classes—a recipe for insanity to be sure. Meanwhile, I had been exploring the area around where I live, taking drives out in the country, and had several times passed a nature preserve called Pardon Gray Reserve and Weetamoo Woods, which is in Tiverton, Rhode Island, about ten minutes or so from home (ah the joys of living in Southern New England). The same fall as my crazy schedule began, I decided to explore this place, and became so captivated by it that I kept going back. It was a retreat from my busy schedule, a place to breathe and think and let my mind wander.

As I was beginning to explore Weetamoo Woods, I was simultaneously beginning to ponder what new poetry writing project I might embark on. And I truly meant a project, something that would engage my creative efforts in a disciplined way over a span of time. Well, you can probably see where this is going. It didn’t take long before the light went on, and I realized that I had already found my project. I’d already begun to write poems as a response to my time in the woods. What had begun as a natural creative response to my environment evolved into a deliberate exercise. I resolved to come to the woods weekly over the next year, writing about what I observed, tracking the course of the seasons in one place. As I showed up, week after week, I began to learn a few important lessons.

There are two pervading myths in regard to writing and creative output. One is that writing is a romantic endeavor, which I pointed out before in regard to poetry. Writing is hard work.

I want to share one of my favorite quotes from Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please: “Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their ‘morning ritual’ and how they ‘dress for writing’ and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to ‘be alone’–blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

I learned this while walking in Weetamoo. The romantic notion of walking in the woods and writing poems faded after a few weeks. Now, I’m not saying that there weren’t profound, beautiful moments, or that nature has no peace or solitude to offer us. There were and it does. But most of the time not, and still have to show up when you don’t feel like it, something I wrote about in this poem, “The Price of Art”:

As the blood red sun sets on the forest, I walk the trail back to my car, tired and empty. I have flung myself over tree and trail, rock and stone, in payment for what I have come to take, but in my weariness I return with a poem in my pocket.

The second myth is that writing is best done in isolation. If that’s the way you think about writing, you need to take that idea, drag it out to the backyard of your mind, and shoot it like the varmint it is. But it persists. Thoreau sitting beside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, musing on the beauties of nature. Annie Dillard walking beside Tinker Creek. These are myths. Thoreau was within easy walking distance of civilization and often returned there, and Annie Dillard lived in suburbia when she wrote about the wild.

Isolation is a fantasy because, even for those mythical adventurers and writers who truly plunged into the wilderness, they were never alone. They were surrounded by mountains and forests, rivers and lakes, birds and beasts. They were immersed in the natural world and attentive to the life there.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t seasons in life or in the process of creativity where you need to step away and just engage with your material. But we must dispense with the idea that we could exercise our creativity better if we could only remove ourselves out of “daily life.” For most of us, we can’t abandon our obligations and just disappear into the wild, and we shouldn’t, because daily life is life, it’s part of who we are and what we should be writing and engaging with.

When I was exploring Weetamoo Woods, it’s not like I was pitching a tent out there. I was spending a few hours out of a busy work week there. And I’m sure my art was informed by that. In fact, my way of seeing things back in the “real world” was shaped by my experiences in the woods. I began to pay attention to my surroundings, even just looking out a classroom window while my students were working away. Seeing the beauty not just in trees and hills, but in cities and classrooms and neighborhoods. In an interesting, and literally physical way, I was walking the same path through life at home and work, and life in the woods. You see, there was this one main trail that threaded through Weetamoo, and all the other trails branched off it. That trail is called Eight Rod Way, the remains of an old colonial thoroughfare. Sometime during my project, I came to a strange realization. See, I live off of Brayton Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts. What I discovered is that part of Brayton Avenue, right in my neighborhood, used to also be Eight Rod Way. I was walking the same path, in the woods and in the city, and each was informing the other.

I believe that all of us are called to walk the path that God has placed us on, wherever that is. Maybe it’s a place where you don’t want to be, like I didn’t want to be growing up. But I think until God calls you to another path your job is to be faithful where you are, to open your eyes to what’s around you, to make beauty, to write, or create from where your roots are right now.


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