Monday, February 22, 2021

The #Midwessay: Charlotte Kupsh, The Pastoral on a Pedestal

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]                                                          

The Pastoral on a Pedestal

I keep wondering, with some snark, “Why the Midwest essay in particular?” To some extent, I want to reject the idea of “the Midwest essay” because I am generally opposed to the romanticization of the Midwest. We never seem to ask about “the West Coast essay” or “the Seattle essay” or essays from some other place, and something about this focus on the Midwest feels a lot like how journalists have become obsessed with telling the stories of the rural white Trump voter. And yet, I know that I, too, have often walked with magnet-like attraction toward the “Midwest literature” section in used bookstores. It is as if I am searching for more evidence that this is a place worth writing about, as if looking for reassurance that what happens here Matters.

Every place is obsessed with itself at least a little bit, but in the Midwest, I think there’s a kind of urgency, a defensiveness. A couple of years ago, I was the prose editor for a Midwestern literary magazine based in Wisconsin. We weren’t trying to publish only pieces about the Midwest, just pieces from Midwest writers, but we got a lot of submissions that met the stereotype: lyric essays about nature, stories about hard working farmers, pieces about long drives on icy roads with the car heater blasting directly in your face (which somehow feels distinctly midwestern to me even though it snows in lots of places where, I assume, they use their car heaters). To be clear, I love these essays—but sometimes, it felt like the writer was trying too hard to telegraph their Midwestern origins. I think sometimes, in our quest for Midwestern authenticity, the urge leads us to put the pastoral on a pedestal. But even as I write that, I also remember how many of my own essays have started with an explanation of the geologic history of the Driftless zone in my home state of Wisconsin, or a panoramic description of the vastness of the Great Plains where I live now.

Personally, I think I’m drawn to essays that feel “Midwestern” because every time I read pieces that put the places I love into words, it is a kind of validation. Having grown up in the Midwest, I sometimes have an inferiority complex about it. I see the way we’re written about in the news. I hear the way friends from other places characterize us in a single hue. Maybe I drift over to the “local literature” section of the bookstore because I want to be reassured by the weight of witnessing these places in print. I want the reminder that they’re worth writing about, the promise that we, too, still have so much to say. And maybe that’s one of the functions of the Midwest essay—maybe some of us are writing to prove that we’re still here.


From Richland Center, WI, Charlotte Kupsh is currently a writer, teacher, and PhD student in composition and rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has recently appeared in Writing on the Edge, Reflections, and Pleiades. You can find her on Twitter @CharlotteKupsh.

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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