Writing through Familiarity Blindness

Oak leaves are falling and a few yellow sweet gum stars as well. But the temperature was in the low 90’s (32°C) over the weekend, and it seemed silly to hang my autumn wreath and put out pumpkins on the front porch. The Weather Channel tells me cooler air will arrive next week. I hope they make good on their promise.

I developed a fresh appreciation for the asphalt-melting heat here in Georgia when my family and I vacationed in Seattle a few years ago. It was August, but we shivered as we piled into the rental car and set the heat on High. We drove to Mt. Rainier and marveled at the patches of snow. Even in winter, it hardly ever snows in middle Georgia.

Turns out, other places are different.

They don’t serve grits in Maine. And I didn’t see a shred of Spanish Moss in Arizona. For all its glorious wildlife, alligators don’t live in Yellowstone. And when the thermometer reaches 45°F here in the South, and I shiver and complain because I’m freezing, I realize I don’t know what cold is.

I’ve written before about Writing What You Don’t Know. But writing what you know is not always easy.

lovebugs
lovebugs, photo by Daniel McLendon

How do you describe a place that is so familiar, you take its idiosyncrasies for granted? Sometimes, I’m blind to the details which make my region unique. Peculiarities such as fried okra, syrupy-sweet tea, and lovebugs.

So here are a few tricks that help me write about my home. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Travel: Visit other places and note the differences.
  2. Take photographs: If you’re having difficulty seeing anything remarkable about your setting, a photo may help. It places distance between you and the real thing. Sometimes you’ll see things you hadn’t noticed before.
  3. Interview people who live outside your region: Ask them what is odd or unique to your home. What is amusing? Annoying? What do they like best? Least?
  4. Interview people who live inside your region: What do they love about their home? What do they like least? What makes them proud? Ashamed?
  5. People-watch: Go to a park or restaurant and eavesdrop (politely). What colloquialisms do you hear? What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they interact? Here in the South, it’s polite to smile and say “hey” to strangers, but folks in the north eye me suspiciously when I do that.
  6. Research: Read about your town or region. Someone else’s outlook can help you view the familiar through different eyes. One of my favorite authors is Rick Bragg who writes about the South with humor, beauty, and true love.

Bragg’s time in New York gave him a fresh perspective, and my trip to Seattle did the same for me.

When our vacation ended that August, we left the cool, invigorating air of Washington and felt the full force of the Georgia summer upon our return. We landed in Atlanta in the middle of a heat wave, which is saying something. The temperature was over 90°F — at midnight. The sliding doors opened to the Hartsfield-Jackson parking deck, and I can still remember how we groaned when we stepped outside. It was as if we’d hit an almost-solid wall of heat and humidity.

But I’ll take the heat. Like your well-meaning Aunt Martha, who makes the best banana pudding in the world but also makes a habit of buttin’ into everybody’s business, you take the good with the bad. Love, for a person or a place, covers a multitude of sins.

Thanks for reading, y’all.

 

 

 

 

 

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