They say, “you can never go home again”, but what if you could, just not in the physical sense? Award winning author Debra Marquart left her North Dakota farm town when she was seventeen and visited only sporadically, but she could never quite let go of it or escape the hold it seemed to have over her. So she wrote about it, first in her poetry, and later in her memoir The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. Here she talks to Mason’s Road about going home again, and how it has continued to inspire her writing life.
Your memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere is an account of your childhood on a farm in North Dakota and your desire to escape it. When did the idea to write about your childhood experiences come about? Did you always want to tell your story, or did you realize it would be an interesting story to tell only after you spent time away from the farm? Why was it an important story for you to tell?
The first blip on my radar about this material for The Horizontal World came in the 1980s. I had already been writing poems about home and my childhood in this immigrant ethnic enclave in the middle of North Dakota. All of my great-grandparents and my two grandfathers emigrated from Russia between 1885 and 1911. My grandmothers were born shortly after their families arrived in the United States. They were part of this ethnic minority in Russia called Germans-from-Russia—people who had first immigrated to Russia from the Rhine region of central Europe in the early 1800s to take up land claims in Russia along the Black Sea. Only three generations later, they fled Russia in the 1880s when things started to fall apart for them. All of my ancestors were part of this migration, and so my childhood had a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the TV and on the radio and in magazines, I could see and hear the America of the 1960s unfolding (music, history, fashion, political events, etc.) but at home I was surrounded mostly by the routines and objects of agriculture.
A number of these early poems about home ended up in my first poetry collection, Everything’s a Verb. For example, I’d write a poem about my grandpa making homemade sausage in the basement, or the way my grandmother would tell jokes in English, but then tell the punchlines in German, or the way my grandfather pulled out a rotten molar with a pliers rather than going to the dentist. I think most beginning writers start with their early lives because the material is accessible. These stories all seemed very ordinary to me. But when I’d take these poems to my writing group, people would talk about them like they were exotic specimens from some bygone world. I think that was an important revelation for me—to discover that the place where I grew up, the people I grew up around, were not like everyone (or anyone) else. I think this is something all writers should realize—they need to start at the beginning, they should assume the reader knows nothing about where they are from or the story they are telling.
So probably the first prose scrap I got that eventually made it into The Horizontal World was a short sensory freewrite about alfalfa. I had been driving around the edge of Fargo, North Dakota probably headed to the airport, which is on the northwest side of the city with farm fields stretching out from it. It was late summer, and I smelled alfalfa being cut. There’s something distinctive about the smell of alfalfa, and smelling it transported me straight back to my childhood. All at once, I had this intense body memory of working in the fields, picking rocks, hauling alfalfa bales with my family. It was maybe a bit like what Proust described experiencing when he nibbled on the little cookie, the petite Madeleine, and all those palpable memories from childhood rushed back at him. I only got 200 words and Proust got seven volumes, but it was enough for me to nail down something very vivid from my childhood that I’d forgotten about entirely—that feeling of sweating and working so hard in the summer heat.
I could feel that there was something important in that sense memory, but I wouldn’t know what that was until many years later when I began to research and write about agriculture, and I discovered that alfalfa has the seventh longest root system in the world, with roots that go to depths of forty meters in search of water. The whole development of the alfalfa section, which comes late in the memoir, was a working metaphor for me as I wrote the book. I began to realize that alfalfa provided me with a survival strategy. As I write in the memoir, “If you want to survive in a dry place, if you want to go shamelessly green in the middle of nowhere, you must emulate alfalfa. If you want to bloom vividly, you must learn to put down a taproot that plunges to phenomenal depths in search of sustenance.”
You’re obviously a very creative person, how did you cultivate that creativity and allow it to flourish while growing up on an isolated farm and far from cultural influences? You mention in the book that you watched television shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show which made you want to explore the outside world. Did television also help shape you creatively?
There were no real “arts” programs in the school system of my hometown. But we did have a very good writing teacher, Mr. Olig, who was the librarian and who also taught senior English. No one got out of high school without passing by Mr. Olig, and I think many people from my hometown credit him for making them good writers—not necessarily creative writers, but solid writers. Beyond that, we did have music programming (choir/band) in our school. I always maintain that I was a musician first in my life as a practicing artist, because music was all around me growing up—in church, at teen dances on weekends, on the radio, or on the stereo in the living room (my father’s country music). My ethnic group has these wedding dances, called hochzeits, that always had really good accordion dance bands—polkas and waltzes. My brother was in a rock band in high school, The Mystic Eyes. Everyone in my family sang. When we went on a car trip, we would sing four-part harmony in the car. So music just seemed to pour out from everywhere.
I studied lyrics of songs that I liked, wrote them down in a little notebook so that I could memorize them and understand them better. Although I was surrounded by many good singers in my family, there seemed to be some agreement that I, too, was a good singer. When I turned thirteen, my mom and dad gave me a big acoustic guitar (a Kay), and I spent countless hours in my bedroom learning chords, singing songs. I was lucky that we had a very talented band/choir teacher who came to teach in my hometown, Mr. Mosbrucker. In choir, he hammered away on teaching us classical singing techniques. He chose me to sing in state competitions, and he allowed me to sing solos in choir concerts. I can only imagine how grim my childhood might have been if Mr. Mosbrucker hadn’t arrived to show me how to make music not just something to be listened to, but also studied, mastered, and performed.
Regarding the second part of your question—the effect of television. Yes, I think that was a major influence. As I said, we were growing up in an ethnic enclave, so when the television images arrived showing us how other people lived, it was kind of shocking. In my memoir, I write about watching shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (the powerful effect of that image of her spinning in a circle among tall building in Minneapolis and throwing her hat in the air) and The Bob Newhart Show (that high rise apartment in Chicago that I so coveted) and thinking, “I want to go there.” So, I suppose what television did was create a yearning to leave, and it also set up some expectations about what life would be like out there in the larger world. Mostly, though, I think it helped create a sense of difference and contrast—to show me how different we were living in our small rural village compared to the way most people were living in larger cities around the country. In my memoir, I also write about how books gave me the same thing, an inkling about all the grand people, places, and things out there in the outside world.
You write about the difficulties of daily life on a farm which made you yearn for the day when you could finally leave, but were there moments of joy in your childhood? Are there any particularly fond memories you have with your family on the farm? Did you feel that you experienced more joy once you left, or was there a part of you that missed it?
That’s a complex question that I’m not sure I can quite answer, even after writing an entire memoir about the subject. First, I began to write about home in response to a kind of intense homesickness. It’s true, I could not wait to leave home when I was young, but as soon as I left home—went to college, worked, traveled—the place where I grew up would not let me go. I wrote about this in the memoir, the idea of a place imprinting itself on you. Scott Russell Sanders wrote, “It’s the place you knew before you retreated into the illusion of your own skin.” This feeling of homesickness and regret became more acute after time passed and I began to lose members of my family—my grandparents, and especially after my father died. I began to realize how much of my life I had spent without my family, and I realized how much of my parents’ and siblings’ lives I had missed. I left home at seventeen immediately after graduating from high school, and I only went back a few days here and there each year, plus a few phone calls. That’s not really sharing a life; it’s a life of exile.
I can’t say that writing the memoir was something that I consciously planned. As with most writers, I became obsessed with a subject, and I just kept writing about home. Whenever I finished a piece, I’d tell myself, “no one will want to read this stuff.” Then I would send out the essay to a journal or to a competition, and it would get selected and published. As this happened over and over, and the work was taken by journals not just from the Midwest but from very different parts of the country—the south, the east coast, the northwest, etc.—I became more emboldened and convinced that I was telling a story that was interesting to many readers.
I do have these incredible memories from home of being happy and tucked tight inside my family. Many golden hours just looking at the sun move across the landscape. My father was a younger child in a big Catholic family, so my paternal grandparents were mostly gone by the time I was growing up. But my maternal grandparents had no other grandchildren—my mother was the only surviving child in her family—so they doted on us. On holidays or Sundays, they were always with us. As you get older, you collect more people—spouses, in-laws, children—and you have other obligations. But for a time in my family, we were together on these special days and there was nowhere else to go, no one else waiting for us. It seemed as if there was no one else in the world but us.
I would say my best memories from childhood center around my maternal grandparents. In my memoir, I wrote about running away from my babysitter to my grandparents’ house when my mother went to work in town before I was old enough to go to school. It was only a few blocks, but I knew the way through the alley and I could tell where to turn into their yard because of the lilacs and raspberry bushes. So, after I did this a few mornings, everyone just relented and allowed me to spend the days with my grandparents. This was probably the single biggest gift I received in childhood, having those long days with them during which we did nothing special. They didn’t try to entertain me. There weren’t any toys at my grandma’s house that I remember. Grandma would garden or wash clothes or can pickles. Grandpa would tinker in the garage or make sausage or go fishing. I just followed them around. I suppose I was a terrible pest, but it was wonderful.
So where was all this ambivalence coming from? When writing the memoir, I wanted to understand why I had harbored this low grade feud against home. As I wrote the memoir, I began to explore those palpable physical memories of working on the land, and I realized that the hard farm work had much to do with why I felt the place was such a trap that I needed to escape. I could probably argue now, as I do in the memoir at one point, that the field work we were being made to do was too hard for young children, and that we had no business being out there in the fields—small children working around and operating large farm equipment. I think that’s still true.
On the other hand, I also came to the conclusion in the memoir that we were working toward an important goal—to save the farm and keep the land from going out of the family. And I value the accomplishment of that goal now. I also know that my strength and discipline as an adult comes from the fact that I worked that hard as a child. I’m small, but I’m strong and sturdy. When I was a road musician, I was always able to lift the heaviest things. I’m still able to work longer and harder than most of my friends. As a writer, I’ve always been able to tolerate working long periods without a break. Frankly, nothing (except for maybe being at war or going through childbirth) is as hard as picking rocks or hauling alfalfa bales.
And when I go home now, I see how incredibly beautiful the place is. I still feel grief that I can’t find a way to live there and that I missed so much of my father’s life. And I feel grief that he missed so much of my life. He never knew the person I became in adulthood. My mother is still alive, and I try to visit her when I can and stay in better touch. But even now, when I’m Iowa, where I live and work, and I see a woman my age with an older women, probably her mother, out shopping for groceries together, I start to tear up. I think about my own mother going to Bismarck, going to doctor’s appointment or shopping on her own, and I feel as if I’ve missed so much of her life. The memoir, and writing in general, become ways to highlight these things, acknowledge them, and work out the grief.
You write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and you are also a singer/songwriter. Do these creative outlets fulfill you in different ways? You often weave poetry and storytelling into your live musical performances; do you feel these forms of self-expression are intrinsically connected? Is there one in particular that makes you feel most creatively satisfied?
Earlier, I mentioned how integral music had been to my early creative life. I’d say music is my first and most abiding love affair, and it’s still my heart’s closest art form, even though writing has brought me more success, as well as a sense of accomplishment. What I discovered when I was a full-time road musician is how ephemeral music is—it’s a tragic art form, and you have to be able to do it and just let it go. (There is a way to solidify music, of course, through recording. But, even then, you don’t really have music on a recording. It’s a facsimile of music, a reduction, and a fixed and static artifact.)
What I loved about writing when I segued from a life in music to a life primarily in writing, was the way that writing would stay put. My god, you wrote something down and it didn’t move, disappear, or decay acoustically. Of course, that’s the maddening thing about writing, too. You write something down and it doesn’t move. You have to keep going back and moving it, shaping it, adding, changing, until someone is willing to take it off your hands by publishing it. What I also loved about writing was how individual the work was. In music, so much of what you do is collaborative—you are dependent on so many other people to join in, share your vision, bring their own energy to the music. But, with writing, you could just do it on your own. Of course, when I started publishing and working with agents and editors, I could see how collaborative writing actually was.
I’m writing about many of these ideas in a new memoir, Schizophonia: Notes on a Life in Music. “Schizophonia,” is a term coined by R. Murray Schafer in The Tuning of the World, to describe what happens to music when it gets separated from the environment of its own making. In other words, most of us experience music in a schizophonic state now. We mostly listen to music in a recorded form, rather than experiencing it live in the environment of its making. I’m interested in what that means culturally, as well as in my own life as a lover of music.
About the fusion (and perhaps confusion) of genres in my body of work—yes, that’s something I’ve consciously worked on. I’m interested in trying to create an unbroken continuum in which storytelling becomes narrative poem becomes lyrically poetic becomes flash fiction becomes essayistic and novelistic becomes epic becomes the story of the day. And the only underlying aesthetic condition for me is that it should all sing. I’ve grown impatient with sentences and their inner logic. All I really want to do these days is have everything I write sing.
What advice do you give to your students or anyone who is thinking of writing a memoir? Is there a piece of advice you wish you had been given before you began writing The Horizontal World?
That’s such a hard question, because you can see from the above answers that writing is such an idiosyncratic path. For example, that little sense memory of alfalfa in the 1980s—how could I have predicted that it would actually be an opening, eventually, to an entire book, an entire meditation on family and place. There’s no way to predict what will be important, so I think the best advice for a writer is to develop a sense of attentiveness and then establish a method for capturing those kinds of sense memories in a place where you can collect them and store them for later use, later meditation, later revelation.
Because they don’t shine with significance when you first capture them. There’s just a feeling that I get when it happens that I’ve just seen or heard or smelled or tasted or touched something that’s important. So, developing an attentiveness and a capture mechanism are important. Also, I’d say you have to cultivate a patient tenacity that will allow these things to sit as long as they need to and unfold and show their significance over time. Patient tenacity might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s exactly the kind of challenging and awkward position (a bit like one of those impossible yoga poses) that creative people need to get comfortable assuming as a stance toward living.
Also, I always tell my students to read widely and deeply. In other words, if you are writing a novel, don’t just read novels. Read poems, read philosophy, history, geology, botany, physics. When I was working on The Hunger Bone, my collection of short stories about road musicians, I had a whole pile of anecdotal knowledge about being a road musician that I wanted to put into the content of the stories I was writing, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them stories. It wasn’t until I struck upon Noise: The Political Economy of Music, a book by the French economist Jacques Attali, that I began to feel the shape of stories inside all my anecdotal data.
I can’t remember who told me about the book, and I was never a big fan of economics while in college, but Noise helped me understand the economic system underlying the making of music—how noise first became organized into music, who patronized it, how certain sounds were approved and codified by patronage, how certain composers were supported, how other composers were silenced by lack of financial support, how music was a force that could war with the status quo or reinforce the status quo, or sometimes, in rare situations, do both at the same time through a kind of acoustic subterfuge. It was a mind-blowing book for me, and I had spent my entire life thinking about and performing music. I’m re-reading Noise now as I work on the new memoir, Schizophonia.
When people recommend books, I always make a note of it. If I get a recommendation for a book more than once, I know that’s a book I need to look at. In this way, when I was working on The Horizontal World, I struck upon a book entitled The Myth of the Eternal Return, by Mircea Eliade, a philosopher and historian of religion. Again, I had all this anecdotal knowledge about growing up a rebellious farmer’s daughter on a North Dakota wheat farm, but I couldn’t understand why the stories haunted me, why they felt like something that needed to be written about. I could feel the pull of my ancestors in that place, and I had experienced my homeground as a luminous and sometimes sacred place, but I couldn’t understand why.
When I read The Myth of the Eternal Return, I came to understand how the sacred breaks into our consciousness in the midst of the mundane (or, in Eliade’s words, “the profane”) moments of daily existence. Reading Eliade helped me to understand how the unending patterns, repetitions, and gestures of my childhood made me believe I was living in a mundane (or profane) world. Yet, I could feel something ancient and resonant around me. Eliade helped me understand how those daily and yearly rituals—sowing seeds, singing, dancing, harvesting, making love—connected me to my ancestors. This is what Eliade calls a “ceaseless repetition of gestures,” and it’s what connects us to the greater chain of being—all of the hands and bodies of our ancestors doing the same things, making the same motions back through time. This feeling might be part of what haunted me about home. I would have had none of these revelations if I hadn’t maintained this practice of reading widely and deeply.
My life now is more academic, less physical, and, in many ways, less real and luminous than when I lived and worked on the land among my family. Obviously, I haven’t done the ideas contained in Eliade’s book real justice here, but I tried to work it out many of these ideas in the memoir, and doing that work helped me make some sense of my life as a daughter of agriculture. It was a powerful act of reconciliation, not only to make sense of why I felt compelled to flee, but also to understand why I am irrevocably tied and bonded to the place of my upbringing for the duration of my life, no matter how far and wide I roam.
Debra Marquart is a professor of English in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and the senior editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. She also teaches in the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Marquart is the author of five books, including three poetry collections—Small Buried Things, Everything’s a Verb, and From Sweetness—and a short story collection, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories, which draws on her experiences as a female road musician. Narrative Magazine selected Marquart’s poem, “Door-to-Door,” as one of the top five poems to appear in Narrative in 2013.
Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, received the “Elle Lettres” award from Elle Magazine, a New York Times Editors’ Choice commendation, and the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award.
Her work has been featured on three NPR programs: “All Things Considered,” “The Writer’s Almanac,” and “Tom Ashbrook’s On Point.” She has received numerous awards including the John Guyon Nonfiction Award, the Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay from the Faulkner Society, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Prose Fellowship among others. More recently, Marquart has been awarded the 2013 Wachtmeister Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Normal Poetry Prize from The Normal School, and the 2014 Paumanok Poetry Award from Farmingdale State College in New York. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including The North American Review, Three Penny Review, New Letters, River City, Crab Orchard Review, Narrative Magazine, The Sun, The Normal School, River Styx, Orion, and Witness.
Marquart is currently at work on a nonfiction book, “Schizophonia: Notes on a Life in Music,” which is an acoustic ecology on the art of listening, an autobiography of dreaming and catastrophe, and a meditation on the pleasures of making and performing music.