Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The #Midwessay: Melissa Matthewson, An Essay to the Broken Heart

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.

An Essay to the Broken Heart

Melissa Matthewson


I think my Midwest essay is nostalgic at its crux, spinning out into lyric captures of my childhood, sky, and woods. I don’t think I can call myself a Midwestern essayist. Or a Midwesterner. I was only born there, in a town called Creve Coeur, translated broken heart, just outside of St. Louis, said Saint Louie, as in “See you there!” As in a meeting of two hearts. Of the Midwest, it’s Little House and Laura Ingalls, and diaries given to me of family settlements in the rough scratch of Nebraska. I’m a hybrid you could say. A split pair. A jack and an ace. A zipper. A ring on each middle finger. Maybe that’s the Midwestern essay: an amalgam to fill crevices. I know the woods behind our Missouri home are probably gone now—I was born in 1977—and maybe so, any notion that I could be part of a Midwestern lit tradition. This is glum. I’ve thought about returning to the suburb where I spent the first few years of my life to see what’s left, but the owls, I’m certain, have been replaced by homes. And more people. Less creatures and lizards. Plastic maybe. I could get an essay out of that visit. A Midwestern essay. Recently, I received a phone call from Creve Coeur. I was driving and didn’t pick up, but looked to see who was calling, and it said Creve Coeur, Missouri. I was drinking a Kombucha I had just purchased at the store with my daughter in the passenger seat chatting about Charlie D'Amelio's Tik Tok being hacked, and I said, out loud to her, “That’s odd, I’ve been thinking about the Midwestern essay,” about being born in Missouri, about goddamned Creve Coeur. How strange. I called the number back. For this essay. No one answered. It just kept ringing. And ringing. Proper or less desirable? I Googled the number, but then got bored. Maybe this is wrong, but in my mind, the Midwestern essay is buried deep in a myth of hardship, and I feel like a fraud even claiming any sort of knowledge about that, but here is this: In the basement of my childhood Missouri home, I first saw porn in the Playboy magazines my father kept in the extra basement bedroom, next to where I played with boxes and magic wands. Fake prairie dresses. I think they might have been velvet. My friend said, “That’s a real Midwestern thing: porn.” Is it? What I carry with me now, along with that memory of flipping through naked bodies on glossy paper, is also, the very fact of the dark woods with the owls and a community of people that gathered in my neighborhood, in the middling grassy open space, the houses clustered around this wide green woodsy opportunity, where we ate corn together and spat mosquitos off our tongues. Something about trees, and this scene, a kind of intimate communion and association, and suggestive landscapes you might call an essay. 


Melissa Matthewson's essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Guernica, American Literary Review, River Teeth, The Rumpus, and Longreads among others. She is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line, from Split Lip Press (2019). You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram

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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