Monday, April 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Becky Carman, It's Not That, Either

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator


It’s Not That, Either

Becky Carman


The colloquial Midwest is a huge swath that none of us can accurately draw borders around, so forgive me, Chicagoans, for focusing on the prairie, where our whole thing is talking about leaving or not talking about staying. Re: us, everyone else’s thing is fixating on our most apparent qualities. The bad ones. Thanks a lot, John Steinbeck (who was from California).
     From the inside out, it’s a chip on our shoulder—a conjoined pride and shame about our theoretically idyllic, if flyover, way of life, with our ample parking and slow summer nights and giant grocery carts. From the outside in, it’s the Dust Bowl and then corn fields and also complicated family dynamics centered around religion. 
     Even the prompt for this essay—”What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest?“—emphasizes the writerly burden of geographical and cultural exposition, whether to readers or to ourselves. We’re in the netherworld, called western but really central, with a coastless, varied landscape most people couldn’t describe if asked. Flat, kind of? But hills, sometimes. Cities! Small ones. Low cost of living and driving to food trucks, for some reason. Good veterinary schools. Nobody needs to ask Joan Didion what New York City is like to understand what she’s talking about.
     Being Midwestern is about recognizing one’s roots if not one’s home. As essayists, it’s apparently to write despite one’s circumstances instead of because. We cling to the idea of expatriates having done us proud instead of, more truthfully, abandoning us, trying to prove our worth. Anyway, humorist Will Rogers was born in Oologah, Oklahoma, left as soon as he could to make his name as a globetrotting Hollywood film star, and died in a plane crash in Alaska. We named Oklahoma City’s international airport after him.

Becky Carman is a writer, editor, and producer living in Oklahoma. She’s written for McSweeney’s, the Dallas Observer, New West Records, and nearly every Oklahoma publication, living or dead. You can find her published work at and her dumber stuff on Twitter @beckycarman.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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