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.
—Michaella A. Thornton
* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.
We know how to take up space. Midwestern essayists can detail vast expanses heavy with dense, river-valley air; recreate the contrasts between time-worn folks in little towns with abandoned main streets and the hubs of Missouri’s flanking cities where downtowns cling to re-birth. But we also occupy space with the absence of words; we know how to fill a page with spareness, to make the emphasis not what we’re saying but what we aren’t. We’re stubborn that way; sometimes we don’t want to go there, spell it all out for you. The “show-me” attitude could also be defined as “make-me.”
Much of my writing life has been spent exploring the contrast between the need for language to describe every inch of our external and internal lives and a simultaneous desire to strip things down, be bare and sparse. There is value sometimes in just letting things be. But I’ve come to question my motives for saying less.
Sometimes, scarcity allows us to shrug off our cloak of responsibility. And I must admit my own propensity to be a voyeur; to watch, but not acknowledge connection. To shake my head from the East Coast at my home state’s political gaffs, environmental heartbreaks, at a cop murdering a black person miles from where my best friend grew up. Distance allows me not to feel responsible. But it’s also taken me away from what I know.
Avoidance hasn’t allowed me to go far enough. It doesn’t ask the questions that require answers from the reader or the essayist. It won’t explain why my experience at a private elementary school that was evenly split, black and white, is still not normal in St. Louis. Why my childhood friend died of opiate addiction, or why another friend clings tightly to her Catholic faith yet voted for a president who contradicted her beliefs. Or why, no matter how far away I run, I still feel a pull to a part of the world where it smells of honeysuckle in the evening, where the Arch looms large over the muddy Mississippi, where I learned to write what was inside of me.
Gabriella Souza: I live and work as a writer and editor in Baltimore. I won the 2020 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest and placed second in New South’s 2020 Prose Contest. I recently completed the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where I received an Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, New South, BULL, Cosmonauts Avenue, Lunch Ticket, and Litro, among others. I am at work on a novel.
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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