Monday, June 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jesse Lee Kercheval, Midwesternlyness

It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation. 

To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say. 

Craig Reinbold

We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]     


Jesse Lee Kercheval


When I first moved to Wisconsin, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of metaphors, of the purposeful exaggeration I was used to hearing in the South. I remember being at the zoo, looking at an elephant, and each person who stopped beside me would say, Boy, he’s big. If another person was with them, they would affirm that, nodding and saying, Big. 
Not big as a house, a barn, a sixteen wheeler, Gramma Posey’s backside. Just—big.
     I also remember coming out of a department store alongside two women and hearing one of them say, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a . . . “ I trembled, mentally filling in the next line, “horse,” not daring to hope for a leap like “eat a horse and chase the jockey.” She finished, “I could eat . . . a lot.” Her friend nodded and repeated, “A lot.”
     It drove me crazy. And even crazier to see the same minimalism in my students’ writing, natural Carvers rather than Faulkners. But after 34 years in Wisconsin, my ears have become fine tuned to the weight behind both the restraint and the repetition. When a neighbor’s husband abandoned her with three small children, we all agreed what he had done was . . . not good. Not. Good. That was worse than damning him to hell in a hand basket three times over. Now I place each word carefully in my own writing—or I try to—instead of slathering it with adjectives. In other words, I write “midwesternly.” I live midwesternly.
     Just this morning, when my husband and I went for a walk across the frozen lake behind our house, he stopped, looked across the white, empty expanse and said, “It’s big.” 
     I took a deep breath, nodded reverently, and echoed, “Yep, big.


Jesse Lee Kercheval is a poet, writer, and translator. Her recent books include the poetry collection America that island off the coast of France, winner of the Dorset Prize and the story collection Underground Women. Her essays about the pandemic have appeared in Guernica, The Sewanee Review, Entropy, Blackbird, and Brevity. 

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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