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.
I’m making chicken chili in the slow cooker and looking out onto the small section of the Missouri landscape I can see: two sets of railroad tracks, a box company, a semi-truck barreling through the stop sign at the corner of our street. Snow is coating the dead grass. My journal rests on the couch where I left it. My open laptop displays a blinking Word Document. The house I share with my wife smells like cumin and garlic.
I never thought I would have the patience to cook. As a young girl in Michigan, I punched through the tops of cereal boxes and tore through bags of Jet Puffed marshmallows. Both my parents starved themselves to stay thin. They exercised obsessively and as a result, we were always in motion, always speeding, never lingering, never savoring. Part of that mentality is why people thought I would thrive in New York, where I studied art for a semester in college.
I did thrive in New York, though I ate very little. I picked at cheap Chinese in Styrofoam containers. I plucked grapes out of my grocery bag on the subway home from work. Kristin, the artist I interned for, taught me how to slice a pineapple. The lunches she provided were sometimes my only full meals of the day.
“How can you bear living in a place that’s not the center of culture?” she once asked me over pad thai.
“Space,” I said. “I write better when I have space.” At nineteen, I didn’t know much about myself, but I knew this. Space, like the distance I often put between myself and difficult material, is as essential for my writer’s body as nutrition. It caters to the spinning cogs in my brain that put sentences together right on the cusp of sleep.
As a child, my diaries consisted of bullet points listing everything I had eaten that day. It was the only thing I knew to write about; the only thing I thought worthy of documentation. In New York, I strived for blocks of prose, but distracted easily by street performers and drag queens and blinking lights. St. Louis, where my debut memoir is set, is where my writing changed, and with it my habits around food. Something about my new embrace of the Midwest resisted purging, the quick convenience of fast food, all the lessons I had learned from my parents about how essential it is to take up as little space as possible. The landscape allowed for my writing to swell, from flash essays to hefty chapters to a three-hundred-page memoir.
Looking out onto the Midwest landscape, I think of myself as a character in a scene over which I have complete control. There are snowflakes falling outside. A train passes by on the tracks. My chili and my writing, soon to be devoured.
Gabe Montesanti is a queer, Midwestern roller derby player. She earned her BA in mathematics and studio art from Kalamazoo College and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis. She serves as a mentor for the PEN Prison Writing Program and teaches creative writing at St. Louis Community College and The Loft Literary Center. Her piece, "The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention" was recognized as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2020. She skates for Arch Rival Roller Derby in St. Louis under the name Joan of Spark. Her roller derby memoir, BRACE FOR IMPACT, is forthcoming from The Dial Press in 2022.