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.
They show me their writing: today the “objective correlative” and they show me a gun, a cup, a candle, a sticker, a car, a locket even though I said careful about lockets. They show me their towns: Mansfield, Marshfield, Humansville, Jeff City, St. Louis, they show me the Finley, the Current, the pond in the back field, the Trail of Tears is marked with a sign, the cave, my daddy’s daddy’s land, there used to be cows, the duplex on Main, carry the water and warm it up on the stove when Mom forgets to pay utilities. I should have said careful about a gun. They show me their writing: today “scenes,” get in late, get out early, they get out early because jobs, because children, because no money and can they please turn in this writing late, they’ve switched meds, the baby is sick again, and they show me slips from the doctor I don’t need them to show me. Careful about mothers, I should have said. Careful about rivers. Setting as character and they show me tornadoes sucking their friends out of car windows, they show me the butterfly people, guardian angels come down to protect children from high winds. They show me their writing: about the hundred-year flood we escaped together during a writing retreat, I should have said careful of writing retreats, careful of writing, they show me the empty cup where the whiskey used to be, the river has covered the roof where we sat two hours ago. They show me their writing: they are queer and how does God feel about that, how do their parents feel about that, they want to be a girl, a boy, they want to be, they show me drawings of dark clouds to represent depression, I say careful of dark clouds to represent depression, should have said careful of parents and God and the preacher around the corner who says careful of everything they want to be, shows them hell, shows them the door, shows them the gutter, end that pregnancy across state lines, young lady. I show them Naomi Shihab Nye’s writing, here, I say, look at the mint snowball, show me your own mint snowball, but they show me, as I said above, the gun. They show me the buckeye for luck, the spooklight down the dirt road, the sinkhole, a mother’s house so full of boxes with only a little path to the bathroom, show me the aunt who won the lottery and lost all the money with only a carport to show, show me about being Black in Southwest Missouri or walking down the street queer or with a lover or with a body, show me that confederate flag like the boyfriend who shows my student his gun when she emerges from the bedroom having floated the idea of a break. Show me where I can rub that buckeye for luck and where I can hold it out as my students walk by. Show me three jobs and first gen and recruitment, retention, show me the place two blocks from class where the white crowd hanged and burned the Black men in the square where the homeless gather and are then dispersed, show me how you didn’t know, we didn’t know, they didn’t know the place where those bodies rose up into the air like paper lanterns. They show me their writing: before class, they show me their new tattoo of the dogwood bloom, in workshop they love this ending, they didn’t know an essay could be a video could be a series of photos could be a monologue to their lost boyfriend, they’ve been working on these D&D characters since they were twelve, can they show me? Show me. I say careful of passive voice, tense shifting, cliché, careful of generalizations. They show me their cats and dogs and new names, they want to write for Hallmark, they want to write a YA novel, they want to make comics, they want to be writers, they want to make art, they want to live free by the river but up high enough, away from that hundred-year flood shown up twice this decade, cicadas every summer of their lives. They show me the pet bearded dragon climbing my shirt like a fantasy story with sweet claws like history alive, show me the cookies they made for our final class, family recipe, lots of real butter, did you know dandelions are edible, but not when they’ve turned into wishes to be blown away. I should have said careful about the town square, careful of how the flood can come in the quiet dark, careful of land so full of forest it’s hard to see, so full of sinkholes it’s hard to walk, so full of caves but nowhere to hide. They show me their writing: I should have said careful of careful.
Dear students: how sure, how sure are we about the butterfly people.
Jennifer Murvin's essays, stories, and graphic narrative have appeared in The Southampton Review, DIAGRAM, The Sun, Indiana Review, The Pinch, The Florida Review, American Short Fiction (Winner of the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, judged by Stuart Dybek), Phoebe, CutBank, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and other literary journals. Jen is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches creative writing. Jen holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and is the owner of the independent bookstore Pagination Bookshop in Springfield, MO. Find more at https://www.jennifermurvin.com/.