Thirteen years. I left North Dakota thirteen years ago, bound for the east coast, and except for holidays and few stretches of summer, I haven’t been back.
But for eighteen years, North Dakota was almost all I knew. My tiny hometown–actually quite respectably sized by Midwestern standards, with over 2000 residents–and its characters and its Craftsmans and its single stop light was my world. My parents graduated from the town’s high school; so did their parents.
For eighteen years, that town was my stage. I drove its Main Street in cars, singing to the music on the radio, and marched it in parades; I worked my minimum-wage job at its Pizza Ranch; I sacked its library on a weekly basis.
As the truism goes–”write what you know,” right? So I ought to have been writing Little Epics on the Prairie, I suppose.
Yet it took North Dakota a long time to find its way into my writing. In the same way that an anthropologist can struggle to analyze her own culture in any meaningful way, because it is natural for her and thereby invisible, for years I struggled to evoke the Midwest with words.
Finally, this past summer, a writing prompt from Midwestern Gothic shook something loose, and I wrote “All That’s Left of Cuba,” a flash-length story about a narrator driving out to find a town named Cuba. This drive is grounded in reality–I went out looking for Cuba as a teenager, curiosity piqued by a sign next to the highway.
The story poured out only hours before the submission deadline, and in the writing I found myself finally able to write about the place that had been my home for so long. I think it mattered that the prompt took the form of a picture, and that the picture showed a place abandoned. The prairie is a visual place; you can see forever, and the sky is enormous, and it feels, sometimes, like a strong wind could tear you off the earth. It is a landscape characterized in many ways by absence–devoid of hills, empty of people. Writing “Cuba,” I finally remembered how when I first came out east I felt so squeezed by the oppression of the trees that line many of Maryland and DC’s highways, how I hated having the horizon line obscured and how I lost my ability to predict the weather, how much I missed stars thick enough to serve as a backdrop against which columns of smoke could be detected.
All of it went into the story.
I remembered also how we seemed epic, there. Some people claim small-town living is limiting, but I don’t agree. When there are only a few people bound together tightly, everyone becomes a part of a story that is being written together. Lives take on the qualities of myth. The sisters I wrote of, like the drive to find Cuba–they have their counterparts in the history of my hometown. In our earthbound constellations, their stars still shine.
Since “Cuba,” I’ve begun circling back time and again to the plains, writing things that are true, and things that are fiction but could be true, and things that could never happen but feel true nonetheless. Writing what I know, at last. It’s only that it took me thirteen years to know it.
Jacquelyn Bengfort was born in North Dakota, educated at the U.S. Naval Academy and Oxford University, and now resides in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Storm Cellar, District Lines, and the anthologies Magical and Dear Robot, among other places. Find her online at www.JaciB.com.
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.