How does where we live define who we are as writers? Writelivining seeks to answer that question with a new feature called Misplaced Persons. We’ll focus on writers’ thoughts on being displaced/misplaced—in the contemporary literary world, in pursuit of academic jobs, fellowships, and educational advancement, we writers lead a peripatetic existence. I’ve start interviewing a few writers to see what they’ll say. In the meantime, here’s my own story.
I was born and raised in the suburban doldrums of New Jersey. Highway 18, strung between two shopping malls, was our main artery. Along that highway, we had the most pizzerias and bagel stores, per capita, in the nation. The original pizza bagel was invented by accident, peanut butter cup style, when one harried father rushing out of Brunswick Bagels collided with a frenzied soccer mom exiting Sal’s, next door, carrying an extra large.
Okay, I made that up. But it could have happened there.
Manhattan was twenty-five miles or so to the northeast—I could see the Twin Towers (nobody said World Trade Center) from the Exit 9 ramp—and the city was a beacon, a promise I made to myself in my room at night after a day of junior-high humiliations. Although I moved to Philadelphia to attend art school, and then finally to New York (where I found the coalescence of eighties fantasy and nineties NYC reality somewhat dissatisfying), in some ways I will forever be trapped in East Brunswick, New Jersey, the way a part of me is still the exposed nerve I was at fourteen, when, as my father used to put it, “You break out in tears if someone looks at you cockeyed.”
When I started writing fiction, I turned, naturally, to New Jersey. I had a dim awareness of the suburbs, particularly the northeastern suburbs, as well-traversed fictional territory, but I naively imagined that no writer had really done for Central New Jersey what Carver had done for the gray, misty towns of the northwest, especially through the lens of “coming-of-age.” I had not read (though would soon read) Frederick Reiken’s excellent Lost Legends of New Jersey and Junot Diaz’s revelatory Drown was still a few years from publication (yes, more of an urban take, though in NJ the relationship between its sooty, blighted cities and strip mall studded suburbs creates a whole—it is nearly impossible to consider, and Diaz does consider, one without the other). As I moved into an MFA, a Route 130 story under my belt, I considered myself a New Jersey writer, and thought my home state a subject worthy of much fictional consideration.
My MFA program, though, was in St. Louis, a place I didn’t know at all and never would have imagined living. And two things happened there that changed my idea about the kind of stories I wanted to write.
The first was when the fiction editor of a prestigious literary journal spoke at a publishing forum the program sponsored. She was a commanding presence, this editor, herself a short-story writer of some renown. Standing at the podium in a snappy suit, she was, to us eager beavers in the audience, a gateway, someone through which we had to pass in order to fulfill our chosen destiny…okay, it was St. Louis—there’s a 630-foot tall monument to such metaphors right downtown.
“What don’t you want?” some intrepid questioner asked, cutting to the chase. The editor’s answer left me cold, blinking like a bird that’s hit a window.
“No more stories about growing up in New Jersey,” she said. She didn’t smile. She meant it. I could sense my fellow students’ eyes on me, even heard a few muffled snickers. I had, only a few days ago, presented yet another growing up in New Jersey story to be workshopped. Some suburban kids take a trip to the Pine Barrens and run in with some yokels…blah, blah, blah.
After a day or so, I shrugged it off, but a fizzy, titillating residue remained. Of course there were plenty of New Jersey stories out there—it’s like the most densely populated state. So fine, I’ll write about other places! Isn’t that what I’m supposed do, imagine stuff? I was freed from the ball and chain of Jersey forever! Thank you, prestigious editor!
Secondly, right there in front of me was an entirely new landscape—with its rumble of four am freight trains, its tornado sirens, its strange processed cheese—one I hadn’t grown up with but could try to write my way into, creating a hybrid of the real and the imagined in a way I could never do with New Jersey, a place that ran in my very blood, that had poisoned me. And St. Louis, because of my limited outsider access, was a much more manageable place to write about. I didn’t really know what was underneath its shabby surface so I was free to make it up. St. Louis was a city that even a modestly empowered superhero could handle—no sprawling Gotham or Metropolis was this. And I could make it mine by not proclaiming it, by remaining an outsider. It was my fictional city, my Beck, Nebraska (like in Dan Chaon’s “Big Me”). This idea of place changed the way I think about my work and opened up possibilities for me I never would have had if I’d stayed in where I was.
I do still write NJ stories, sometimes.
I do not submit them to a certain prestigious magazine.