Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.
Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.
* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.
Water Table Line
I need to stress that this is not about the expansion of the universe. The Midwest was not made by natural forces, it was imposed at gunpoint. If settlers can manifest an ever-further West, always making new goals for conquest, then by rule of empire there always has to be a middle. The Midwestern essay is about what it’s like to be strapped to Zeno’s arrow as it flies toward its never-there destination.
That’s why there’s so many of us here. Essayists. What more fruitful place for our art than a region built on questions and scaffolded by the empty answers of state borders? The Midwestern essay is the mind yearning for a real answer, a non-paradoxical ending, trying to stabilize all the pieces in place to get there. Because while the Midwest is in large part a settler colonial proof-of-concept there are stabilities here. Quite a few of them: micro-stabilities, whole communities & movements. The stable-making collective actions of feeding each other, sharing resources, building dual power. These stabilities made by immigrant communities, by Black communities, by queer communities, by indigenous communities, by the multiplicity of community members interweaving through category, are largely unrecognized by the white settler imaginary because they spring from hope, not entitlement. The hope of food on every table is the same as the hope of the blaze consuming the third precinct building, and if you don’t see that yet I believe you’ll get there. I truly believe that the Midwestern essay is not just thinking on the page but actively hoping on the page. Our attempts to figure this place out are attempts at connecting us not to destiny but to each other. I wrote a book of lil essays about the Midwest, called Hall of Waters, and in it I kept returning to the one nourishing center I could find: the fact that every human is mostly water. And like water we will make sense of this place together, expressing hope through thought and action, until we find each other fluvial.
Berry Grass was born and raised in rural Missouri. They are the author of Hall of Waters (The Operating System, 2019). They currently live in Philadelphia, where they teach creative nonfiction at Rosemont College.