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.
Sometimes, instead of borders, I prefer to think of this landscape in terms of growing zones—those color-coded spaces on the back of a seed packet. What grows where and when to sow it. If I could plant it in April where I now live in Missouri, I could plant it in May behind my family’s farmhouse on the Michigan-Ohio border. When I lived north in the Upper Peninsula, where people plow their yards or spread out snow to hasten the melt, I might need to wait until June. I discover places by their wildlife, by the kind of soil and trees and the shapes of bodies of water. When do the hummingbirds come? What kind of insects live here? If I overturn this rock, what will I see?
I come from a family of salers—people who set forth on sunny summer days with pockets full of quarters to shop in other peoples’ yards, garages, and barns. Once, we went all the way to Alabama from Michigan down US 127 for the annual World’s Longest Yard Sale. I marked the transition to the south by a combination of regional accents, heat, and the unavailability of unsweetened iced tea. I also noticed a change in the signs—yard sales became rummage sales and flea markets and barns gave way to thick vines. What I noticed most, however, was how everything was preserved. The bodies of cars refused to decay to rust, old buildings succumbed to green growth rather than to the weight of snow. Red-faced men pointed to collectables on tables to tell me their histories—this here was, this here. I felt the urge to catalogue these things, to incorporate lists into my writing like the names of birds I write next to dates in my journals to track the progress of spring.
Many of my favorite Midwestern essayists also write in brief or employ lists, mirroring the twin vastness and remote smallness that defines these places. Maybe to live in a place of rust and road salt is to always miss something you know will soon be gone. Maybe to write something down is to refuse to say goodbye, and we all know Midwesterners aren’t very good at that.
Hayli May Cox is a PhD student of English/Creative Writing and Women's and Gender Studies at The University of Missouri-Columbia, though she's really a Michigander. She primarily writes speculative fiction, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction essays. Her work has found homes in Hippocampus Magazine, Paper Darts, DIAGRAM, Crab Fat Magazine, Sundog Lit, and others. In her free time Hayli paints, builds with Lego, critter watches, and seeks out bodies of water.