For a new book manuscript I’m working on, I’m trying to capture the world I grew up in, the world where my parents worked with their hands to pay the mortgage, we grew and hunted food because we had to, and dinner out usually meant a potluck meal at a relative’s house or maybe an occasional trip to Burger Chef. The only adults I knew who had gone to a four-year college were my teachers and doctors. And high school band concerts were the closest thing to a symphony I ever encountered.
I could easily create a stereotype of my growing up life by mentioning the guns in the closet or the deer antlers on the wall or the cigarette butts in the ashtray next to my dad’s, then step-dad’s, recliner. I showed cows in the county 4-H fair, and learned how to drive in a pickup truck in the back pasture. With just a few details like this, I could paint a picture for you that would seem earthy and simple and rural. And by contrasting it to my life today—a college-educated, vegetarian, writer with a 401k and a penchant for NPR—the story would be familiar indeed. The contrast would be easy, and it would be wrong.
“It is tempting for working class writers to write only about the hard times and to describe the world of their childhood—parents, siblings, hometowns—with the broad brush of saintly, static wisdom,” writes Daniel Nester in his essay “Straddling the Working Class Memoir.” “This happens even in the best working class memoirs, and Elizabeth Bidinger, in The Ethics of Working Class Autobiography, describes this problem as ‘not just a literary one but a human one, the challenge of characterizing a way of life that is different from the author’s present, without presenting the people who live it as monolithic, ossified, and “other”’ (32).”
That’s what my old life feels like to me at times, as if I grew out of it. But the reality is much more complex. Because even though I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was a teenager and never traveled outside the country until my late 20s, my childhood as a “hick” was anything but a stereotype. My parents read to me and gave me opportunities to travel and always made sure that college was part of my future plans. And in my “enlightened” adulthood, I still watch too much television and love a good elephant ear at the county fair.
Besides that, as a writer, I want more than “easy.”
“Straddler memoirists write elegies, not tragedies,” Nester said. “They know they’ve crossed over, that where they’re from no longer exists. It’s like the South Jersey accent I once had and can’t get back: no one speaks that way anymore. The accent has evolved. Straddler memoirists must a find ways to tell an old story in a new voice.”
Writers who grew up in places different from where we now live—and there are a lot of us who fall into that category I suspect—don’t belong in the old country anymore. Nor do we represent those who live there now. As Nester says, we can’t, because the places where we grew up doesn’t exist anymore. But neither should we hide where we’re from or take the easy road to explain it, because it’s never as simple as we’d like it to be.
In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick says, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstances, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” For “straddler memoirists,” as Nester calls us, our working class past is both.
Photo by Jonathan Bean via Unsplash.