From the Desk of Steven Wingate: Writing to Reconcile Place

Steven Wingate is an associate professor of English at South Dakota State University and the author of several books, including Of Fathers and Fire (Nebraska, 2019), the award-winning Wifeshopping, and Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations. His forthcoming book, The Leave-Takers will be available March 1. For more information about the author, visit stevenwingate.com/about.

In the fall of 2017, I got an email from the University of Nebraska Press accepting my first novel, Of Fathers and Fire, for publication in the Flyover Fiction Series in April 2019. Since the series focuses on the Great Plains, where almost all my work is set, it’s a perfect home for me. After a round of family celebration, I had to face the pesky question that blocks our paths after every milestone: What next?

I needed to get outside and take a long walk to think clearly, so I headed to the Dakota Nature Park in Brookings, South Dakota, where I teach and live with my family. This park—grateful as I am for it—is an oxymoron because it was built on a former landfill only seven years ago. But in eastern South Dakota, where nearly all land is agricultural and privately owned, it’s a place of refuge.

Walking past the artificial ponds with no creeks flowing in or out of them, I asked What next? The question applied not just to my writing, but to my whole future. Colorado is my true home, but I wasn’t there anymore. I had tenure at South Dakota State University, a wife in grad school, and two sons who wanted to finish high school with their friends. My future was in South Dakota, a place I hadn’t quite reconciled myself with because we have a complicated relationship. From the time I showed up, I knew it would become a part of me because my family’s life would unfold there. But I had big reservations about South Dakota, particularly its cultural isolationism; there are plenty of people here who have no need for the outside world, and I don’t understand that sentiment at all.

In my first seven years here, I didn’t set a single line of prose in the state—my surest sign that I still had to reconcile myself to the place. I needed to write my way through the roadblock, but didn’t yet have any novel ideas that were born in South Dakota. My walk in the park didn’t give me one, but it suggested a candidate to be transplanted from Colorado like I was.

The Leave-Takers is about two thirty-ish artists, Jacob and Laynie, who came within a miscarriage of getting married four years before and reconnect by chance, now diminished by multiple family deaths and low-level but persistent pharmaceutical addictions. It’s a love story, but a tough-love story too. As I imaged them walking through the Dakota Nature Park ahead of me, I began to see how transitioning their story to South Dakota could intertwine with my effort to transition myself there. 

I knew I couldn’t move The Leave-Takers to its new locale through a simple word processing search-and-replace. I had to re-envision my characters from the ground up because their relationship with their setting—geographical, cultural, and emotional—determines how they experience life. Robust fictional characters can’t be static; they must continuously respond to things and circumstances in their world. Without setting-specific connections they remain abstract, bloodless ideas.

So I started envisioning my characters in South Dakota, which changed them wholly. Their environment in Colorado had been highly social, with parties and friends wherever they turned and a robust art gallery scene. In their new home on the prairie, an hour’s drive from any town of twenty thousand, they had one artist friend. The Colorado things they did to distract themselves—like hiking in parks that weren’t built on landfill—disappeared from their South Dakota repertoire. Their new home lacked their prior distractions, which made them more isolated and prone to the grief and addiction that haunted them.

The change in geography forced me to change the way I rendered them. They’d blended into the sociocultural landscape in Colorado, but in South Dakota they stuck out; this affected how they moved through the world and thought of themselves. Because the opportunities Jacob and Laynie had to connect with their world were so different in their new setting, I had to re-create every tendril of attachment from scratch. To create emotionally true characters, I had to re-imagine what their personalities would look like if they grew in a different kind of soil.

In the final version of The Leave-Takers there are a few chapters—mostly traveling ones that take place outside of South Dakota—where few things changed. But even in those, Jacob and Laynie’s thought patterns have altered to reflect how they fit into their new world. All the pathways through their minds, as well as their daily rounds through their home and community, had to be be etched anew.

It took a year and a half of revision to transition The Leave-Takers from Colorado to South Dakota, and though it was vastly harder than a mere search-and-replace, it proved simpler than reconciling myself to my own new home. Reconfiguring characters I can endlessly revise on the page is simpler than changing a self in constant motion. I can’t pretend that I’ve brought my psyche in line with prevailing mindset of South Dakota, and in fact re-setting The Leave-Takers made me realize I probably never will. After a decade in the region, I don’t yet understand how the upper midwest’s soil shapes the lives of the people who grow up here. It doesn’t feel right to tell stories from the perspective of a seventh-generation South Dakotan, since I don’t have that mirco-cultural knowledge, so I restrict myself to writing about transplants like myself.

This the right role for me in the literary ecosystem of the northern prairie, and finding it has been the best thing about transitioning The Leave-Takers to South Dakota. I’ll never know how it feels to be from here, but by imagining in fine detail the lives of characters who have come here to live, I’ll know the place better. My role is as a chronicler of those who’ve migrated here from other corners of America, and knowing this fact helps me grow my own tendrils that will tie me to the place over time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s