In July, I was part of a panel presentation for Augsburg low-residency MFA students. I sat on the panel with my good writer friends from the Mankato area, Nicole Helget and Becky Fjelland Davis. As we were discussing our works, it struck me that although we write in different genres (YA, middle grade, fiction, nonfiction), we all embrace dark themes. My memoir and Nicole’s memoir uncover the darker side of rural life. One of Becky’s books opens with teenagers finding a body in the woods. I certainly categorize Nicole’s fiction as dark. We all are pleasant, warm people, I swear! But this dark (I prefer to call it realistic) side comes out in our writing.
Why might this be? I think it has to do with our place. Nicole and I are native Minnesotans, while Becky hails from northern Iowa. I probably spend more time than necessary thinking about the influence of place on a person’s writing. But I love where I live, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and in my writing I like to show people why that is.
If you live in this rural Midwest area, or if you’ve ever visited, you will see a pleasant surface. The landscape of lakes, rivers, and trees is pleasing. The people are nice — “Minnesota nice” has to come from something, right? But it’s also a place with a seamier undercurrent. People of this place are not comfortable expressing challenging emotions, at least not to others. But the anger, the lust, the envy, the bitterness, the frustration, has to emerge somewhere, and it usually does in private.
As writers, I think we like to uncover the reality. It doesn’t seem very honest to live a life where everything appears to be perfect. Writers are all about digging for the deeper themes. It just seems to be in our natures to want to reveal the truth. After all, secrets are fascinating. Why wouldn’t they make for good reading?