Monday, March 01, 2010

Can you go home again?


By David Heinzmann


There’s a two-lane road that runs north out of Peoria, cutting through miles of black dirt that was wide-open cropland when I was a teenager growing up in the area.

I think I drove it just once back then, plodding along warily in the darkness behind the wheel of my little Plymouth, looking for the turnoff to a pasture where some kid I barely knew had spread the word of a party—a keg of beer, a sleeve of plastic cups and a bunch of kids stumbling around in the weeds getting drunk, separated by miles of emptiness from the nearest parent or patrol car.

Today, that road is a main thoroughfare through the heart of Peoria’s subdivision sprawl. It’s not far from my in-laws’ home and I drove it over the weekend while I was in town for a book signing. Thousands of new homes have blanketed the rolling landscape over the last decade, and new schools have sprouted while the old downtown schools decay or close. This new growth is the winning end of that fine old riverfront town’s hollowing out into a bifurcated mess of haves and have-nots.

My idea of Peoria has changed a lot over the years, and some of it not for the better. My shabby old Catholic high school—which brought together kids from all walks of life in a broken down campus of historic buildings—is gone. The motorboat that I used to steer up and down the wide, muddy channel of the Illinois River has long since been donated to charity. But mostly, I have changed and am not the kid I was back then. If the old me doesn’t exist, neither does the place in which I was young.

The first book I wrote, which I began in college, was a lousily autobiographical story about a young man losing his hold on the idea of home. Midwestern boy goes east to college. Boy comes home after college. Boy realizes he’s changed and home isn’t really home anymore.

I thought I was Fitzgerald. But I was really just lost. I didn’t know how to write that story then (its dusty pages reside right here in a drawer), and I don’t think I would know how to write it now.

Years ago I asked a writer friend in Chicago, who happens to also be from Peoria, whether he ever wrote about our hometown. He said, goodness, no. He set all of his stories in the cities of his adulthood.

I haven’t done it, either. I write about Chicago and crime—the experiences of my adulthood. I notice that most of us in the Outfit are writing about an adopted place, as well. And most of the crime novelists whose work I admire also write about places far from where they were raised. There’s something about being an observer looking in. And exploring a new place and discovering what makes it tick.

This has been a fairly long way around to a question--and I apologize for my self-indulgence--but I’d be interested in other writers’ thoughts about the differences in writing about the places that we come from versus writing about the places we’ve come to.

21 comments:

Bill Cameron said...

I'm struggling with this right now. My first two books were set entirely in Portland, my home the last twenty years. For my third, I expanded my range, including southern Oregon. Now I'm deep in the weeds on book four, and I decided to go further afield. I start in Portland, then head down to San Francisco—another town I've known only as an adult. And then, for some crazy reason, I decided to set a large section in on the home towns of my youth back in Ohio.

That's when everything went haywire.

I thought I was being clever. The scenes are actually set back not too far from when I lived there, so family photos and memories seem right on target. I also have a friend who lives in the area who agreed to help with how things have changed for contemporary scenes. It should be easy, right? My old haunts, blah blah blah.

No, not so much.

I can't say as I've managed to get a handle on why it's been such a challenge. Thus far, I've viewed it as typical writing muck. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. When it does, I keep chipping away until I work through it.

But this post does raise the question. Is there something more fundamental going on here? That said, in the end I think I will just keep chipping away.

Dana King said...

My WIP takes place in a fictionalized version of the town where I grew up, after placing everything else where I lived as an adult. I still go back to visit my parents, and I'm sometimes struck by how little the atmosphere of the place has changed, though businesses and other institutions come and go, and wanted to use it as a backdrop for this story, and, I hope, several more.

So far it seems to be working out well, but, as I said, it's not specifics I'm looking for; it's the feel of the place.

libbyfh said...

I think you nailed it, Dave. I couldn't write anything that's set in Washington... there's something about it that feels vaguely incestuous. I did, however, set a story in DC that takes place in the '50s -- the time when I was a little girl. That was fairly easy. Still not sure why, except that I was dealing with issues of race and the South, which DC still was a part of at that time.

Chicago, on the other hand, still calls to me even tho I've lived here over 30 years. While I approach it with that third eye, the eye of the outsider, I love discovering places, people, and sub-cultures in the city. I've always said Chicago is a REAL city, as opposed to DC which is kind of a manufactured by politicians town.

Rex Ray said...

A person makes a choice of where they reside as an adult. Your home as a child was a place that was chosen for you by your parents, and quite often happenstance. When you choose a place to reside and make a life, it has an effect on you and it begins to reside in your soul. It is more real to you than that place that was real when you were growing up. It's no surprise that we choose to write about that which is current and real. If you choose to write about the place where you grew up, it becomes a historical project and should be treated as such, or you have to go there and do extensive research on what it is like currently.

Mike Dennis said...

What a post! Talk about something I've never really thought of before--writing of the place where you've come from versus those places you have come to.

I'm definitely in the "come to" category. I can't write about the very small town where I was raised because when I was growing up, I had no awareness of anything, much less the subtleties of life required for the building blocks of a novel.

However, I eventually became dimly aware of a wider world outside of my hometown, and after having left in search of it, I slowly grew into the man I am today. And it's THAT journey, through all those other towns of my adulthood, that inhabits a lot of my writing.

Mike Dennis said...

And not only that, David, but I was inspired to post a blog on my own site just now, http://mikedennisnoir.com, referencing you and your very eloquent post.

David Heinzmann said...

Thanks a lot, Mike. I grew up in a very small town too (pop 2000) but spent my adolescence mostly in Peoria, which was 15 miles away and felt like the big city. I always felt in between those places.

Thanks for all these comments

Mike Dennis said...

Thanks for setting me straight, David. I've changed my post to read that you were born and raised "around" Peoria rather than "in" it.

teguh priyanto said...

T
B
B
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

teguh priyanto said...

T
B
B
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

teguh priyanto said...

A
B
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C

C
C
C
C
C
C

teguh priyanto said...

C
C
C
C
C
C
C
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Namaku Keren said...

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE