We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.
On the Avoidance of Conflict
Like any good Midwesterner, I’d do nearly anything to avoid conflict. I mean this somewhat literally: I got a massage last month as part of some ongoing physical therapy, and I overpaid for it by a not-insignificant amount. I was aware of this as it was happening, but I am currently living in the Czech Republic and this woman spoke very little English and the idea of complaining or arguing the point via Google Translate was, at the time, more than I could bear. Like any good Midwesterner, the inner debate in the moment—not to mention the 30 minutes home on public transit—were more than enough to negate any meaningful effect of the massage itself. The hour I had just spent with light new age music, salt lamps, and essential oils had somehow left me feeling more tense, more dejected, more ready to go somewhere I can better speak the language.
This is the story of the Midwestern essay, encapsulated here in my own immaturity and conflict avoidance. I am representing the Michigan contingent here, but I’ve also lived nearly a decade in nearby Minnesota: my entire life (my time in Prague withstanding) has been shaped in Midwestern-ness, in “Minnesota Nice.”
Minnesota Nice is the way I think of the essay, which is to say, it’s not nice exactly, but complicated in the author’s own telling, where deeper understanding only comes from lived experience: the white space between what is said and what is meant. Minnesota Nice is how what is said is more often about the speaker than the audience: a way of expressing oneself without making anyone angry, or perhaps maintaining some plausible deniability in the obfuscation or misdirection, or a smooth polished surface with true meaning only showing through the cracks in the ice.
When I talk to my parents, we talk about the squirrels: my parents live in an extremely rural part of Michigan already, but the pandemic has magnified their focus on the wooded world around them. I get regular updates in the form of video and text. An albino squirrel has recently appeared and has brought fresh excitement to our Sunday conversations. Most of them have names.
It is in the midst of feeding the squirrels over video chat that I hear about my mother’s worry for my grandmother’s declining health, the worries for how to help her in the midst of social isolation. It takes 30 minutes of squirrel feeding to get to anything of meaning, but then again, I could point to more or less any essay I’ve written in the past five years and see familiar patterns: I’m about 200 pages into a draft of a book about board games that could probably be summed up by saying I feel isolated living in a country where I cannot speak the language. I could save a lot of time with being direct, but there’s no pleasure in that. Why communicate when I can pontificate?
Or maybe the Midwestern essay is rooted in an inferiority complex, in talk of “flyover country” and cultural irrelevance. Nonfiction as a word suggests that it’s more about what it’s not, and I’d argue the Midwest is seen this way as well. For both, I’d argue this is to their benefit: the lack of definition allows for more experimentation, more weirdness. The publishing world and the big five are framed in terms of their New Yorkiness, and what they are publishing reflects that. No surprise that the most exciting collections of essays are not getting published there, but in the independent and university presses, my personal favorites all in the Midwest, where weirdness seems more celebrated.
Or maybe the Midwestern essay feels right because I am Midwestern, well versed in the insecurity and indirectness mentioned above. To be in my mid-30s and still not have a real job, no prospects, or (as I’ve just learned) no place to call home as my time in the Czech Republic comes to an end. And what comes next? As of now, no clue. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty coming forth without considering pandemics and historically bad economies, but even in that fear, there is a comfort in a likely return to the Midwest, to a place where I can take comfort in the squirrels, in everyone telling me it’s okay. Even when it isn’t.
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