Thursday, May 24, 2012
Guest Blogger Lynne Barrett: Angles of Belonging
I love when two strings of my writing world suddenly knit together. A while back, I read an article online which so clearly laid out the landscape of submitting to lit journals, I printed out the 10 pages, and passed the link to students and writing friends. Last month, my friend, novelist Christina Baker Kline mentioned that her writing friend, Lynne Barrett, was coming to our local bookstore in late May. The name seemed vaguely familiar and when Christina told me Lynne had written that fantastic article about submissions, I knew I had to have her on the blog.
Please welcome Lynne Barrett.
I’m from New Jersey. Born in Newark, I grew up in Verona, and my parents’ families lived in Essex County long before that. But now I find myself a “Florida writer,” and since my third book of short stories won a Florida Book Award, interviewers ask me to comment on why Florida is a great state for writing and how it inspires me.
It is and it does, yet I know that I am also, somehow, always, a New Jersey writer.
Most of the stories in this book take place in Florida, but the opening one is set in West Orange, NJ, and across the Hudson in Manhattan (not far in miles, but to the characters, different worlds). Though I put this story first for other reasons, it is also a bit of a claim: this is my original territory.
I could also make a case for being a North Carolina writer by training, or, if summers of scribbling count, lay claim to Maine. We could ask why states are used to label authors at all. (Or regions— Southern, Midwestern—though it seems nobody is called a Mid-Atlantic writer.) But what I’ve been thinking about lately is how origin and residence, place and displacement, have informed my work. I’ve made this list of at least some of the angles:
In my deepest memories, I’m not “in” New Jersey but of it: sliding down a mass of honeysuckle on the slope in front of our house till I was sticky and fragrant, when I was four, or tumbled in a broth of salt water and sand at Lavallette. Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I learned the secret back ways into Verona Park, as I gradually expanded the map of my known world. When I write from this state of belonging, setting and character intermingle in a way that feels both exhilarating and endangered. I’m always conscious that a character’s movements out into the world promise both adventure and loss.
Growing up where I did meant that cresting a street, looking out a high window, or gazing through binoculars from the Eagle Rock Reservation viewpoint, I could glimpse New York City’s skyline. On mornings when I walked with my mother to post a letter at the mailbox there’d be people dressed in their going-to–the-city clothes waiting for the bus. This presence just offstage always had magnetism. And when I began to go to Manhattan myself, I was conscious of the double perspective: I’m here, but I know what it looks like from afar. Sometimes I juxtapose a character’s experience being in a place and then seeing it from some height or distance. I think this helps to create a sense of its reality and significance, whether the city is Los Angeles or Oz.
I went away to college, and I was eager to go. But only then did I become from New Jersey and see the distance between how I knew home and how others saw it, or spoke of it without knowing it at all. I had to explain and defend it. Even a week ago, when somebody said, “Oh, you’re from Joisey,” I snapped, saying I’ve never heard anyone from New Jersey speak like that. If anything we hit our R's extra hard. I’ve since known many people who are “from” a place that is not well understood, whose prickliness I recognized as like my own. If characters are “from” Argentina, or Alabama, I think about how they seek to define themselves rather than be defined. I remember that they’ve lost the comfort of belonging without thinking about it, that to be from is also to be away from.
Coming to a place, being new, not knowing the rules and manners of those who are “of” it, means you notice things its denizens don’t. Being an outsider is great writer training, and writing outsider characters is an opportunity to explore trouble, as they make mistakes, get lost, misunderstand and are misunderstood. I like to plunge characters into some new territory, which could be a strange town or simply a new workplace, and let them study its language and codes. Will the character learn what’s really going on in time, or figure it out just too late?
I rarely visit a new place without feeling an urge to research it, I think because my drive to be oriented is so strong, though I tell myself it’s so I can use it as a setting. I’ll retrace my steps till I don’t need a map (though I pick up lots of maps). I think it’s better to learn a few square blocks well than just see tourist highlights. I try to find people who like to talk and set a stranger straight. It’s not hard: people love a listener. Once, in Mississippi, I was at dinner, working on my notes from that day’s research (I’d gone with an archaeologist to an Indian mound he was excavating), and the restaurant owner stopped to ask what I was doing. Learning I was a writer, he got his wife and her friends to move to my table to share stories and, soon, wine. Next day, as I was leaving my motel, a couple also checking out said to me, wistfully, “Oh, we saw you at that restaurant last night, with all your friends.” I felt triumphant: I had seemed, for the moment, of the place. Somehow this made me sure I could write my Mississippi story.
Once, when I was in my twenties and home for a visit, I needed to pick up a friend at Newark Airport. My grandfather wrote out directions for me, and I drove off. His road numbers were the little, last ones you see on signs, the old roads that have been overlaid by highways. One of his instructions read: “Turn where Dugan’s Bakery used to be.” I had to guess, and managed to guess right, and didn’t tell him how poignant I found it that he steered by landmarks no longer there. A person who continues in a place watches it change out from under him. And one who comes back can’t help but measure what’s altered, can’t help but feel that there was some alternative life that would have been continuous, instead of ruptured. The place revisited is always haunted.
In stories, I like to combine characters who represent different relationships to the setting. I’ll have a first-time visitor meet someone deeply embedded in a locale, or bring together people who have arrived from different places, for different reasons, yet are now sharing and attempting to define a new “home.” I pay a lot of attention to who’s on whose territory. In the end, I think the setting should act on characters and characters should affect the state of things in that place, so that we feel that nothing will ever be quite the same.
Notes from Lisa:
>>Lynne will be back in New Jersey on May 31, reading at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair at 7 PM, with a reception starting at 6:30.
>>Magpies, winner of the Gold Medal for General Fiction in the Florida Book Awards, is Lynne’s third collection of short stories. She co-edited the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, and has won the Edgar Award for best mystery story. She teaches in the M.F.A. program at Florida International University in Miami.
>>Everyone who submits to literary magazines should read “What Editors Want,” from The Review Review (also cited in the L.A. Times and New Yorker book blogs).